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Notes and news — June 1997

The loss of the mediocre and unexceptional

Buildings are generally listed because of their architectural merit. We see the effect of this for buildings roughly of the period 1860-1914. A fresh 'Queen Anne' approach to commercial and industrial architecture which started from the end of last century produced some fine facades which have often been retained and frequently are listed. This rash of commercial building at a time when Great Britain had considerable wealth was generally concentrated in areas of towns already built up and plainer generally 19th-century structures were demolished to make way for the often somewhat larger fine new developments. Even so a considerable number of unremarkable plain and ordinary houses, warehouses and factories from the pre-Queen-Anne period survived, at least until recently.

We are now in an age of post-modern redevelopment and it is becoming noticeable that in order to make way for prestigious contemporary architecture it is again the relatively plain and functional industrial type of Victorian house or warehouse that is being demolished to make way for the newer and grander. In the days of the early Pevsner surveys about 40 years ago architecturally unadorned buildings of the period 1860-1900 would have been dismissed as unworthy of mention. Then as such buildings were almost ubiquitous, from the point of view of conservation this did not matter much as there were large numbers of them to knock down but in many places we are now approaching a situation where plain and functional Victorian facades are about to disappear altogether. Surely it would be a great pity if a once common type of building style were to vanish completely. It is important that a few representative examples are retained even if the architectural profession cannot claim responsibility for their appearance. Often such buildings would have been put up by a local jobbing builder without the employment of an architect of at all.

In the Greater London area we are losing many of the ordinary late 19th-century railway station buildings while attention is concentrated on listing 1930s-style underground railway stations by well-known architectural names. The character of main streets in the majority of English towns has changed a great deal in the past 15 years with ordinary plain Victorian domestic or commercial facades becoming a rarity instead of the norm. Fortunately London is still so rich in 19th-century buildings that this effect is not so noticeable here and areas such as Southwark and South East London generally still retain much of the character they had 30 years ago.

If we look at museum collections rather than architecture a similar effect may often be observed. Here the exceptional or even outlandish can be preserved while typical every-day objects are overlooked because of their common occurrence — that is until (hopefully) it is noticed that a given item has become exceptionally rare. We have to be careful of not passing on hopelessly unrepresentative collections of artefacts to our descendants. They will learn little from these treasure troves except perhaps that it is great fun to amass hoards of splendid or bizarre objects. Most of us, even in GLIAS, know rather little of the ordinary possessions of a typical mid-Victorian Londoner. With our present immediately disposable attitude to most things (including even cameras) what survives us could give a very misleading picture to children in the future of the way we carry on now. For those interested in railways it should be painfully apparent that the numerous railway preservation schemes currently give younger people a totally misleading impression of what railways were like say 40-60 years ago. This is especially true in the collections of locomotives and freight rolling stock.

Archive collections tend to concentrate on legal and financial matters. Because of their importance here relevant facts and their consideration are written down and preserved. The resulting documents are essential to an understanding of the historical framework but so much is not recorded and what we have generally represents the opinion of a faction in a position of power. Fortunately personal diaries and letters give rare insights but these are often chance survivals and in any case are unlikely to mention the mundane or commonplace.

It is very difficult for the historian to find out about everyday common knowledge. If everyone knows something and takes it for granted no one ever writes it down. When this knowledge passes beyond living memory it can be all but impossible to retrieve. No wonder it is hard for us to understand why the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.

It seems it is only through photographs (and cinematic film) that we get an idea of how things really were. Such material does survive in reasonable quantity from the late 19th century onwards and say for street scenes and views a study of what is in the background nearly always reveals fascinating new information.

An additional viable role for GLIAS might well be the recording and preservation of material which ordinarily would be lost to posterity. Even if a subject now appears too mundane and well understood to be worthy of mention it is by no means certain that in say 50 years' time this will still be the case. Some of us may remember the judge who was ridiculed for asking in court 'and what exactly is a hula hoop' but information of this kind may be hard to come by in say a hundred years. Bob Carr

Russian submarine

Russian submarine on Medway. © Robert Mason Despite rumours to the contrary the Foxtrot class Russian submarine U475 (GLIAS Newsletter December 1996) is still at her same berth just downriver of the Thames Barrier on the south bank in Woolwich.

She has not been moved to Bristol and is now open to the public seven days a week from 10.00am until dusk with the last entry being permitted half an hour before dusk.

If you have not been on board it is an experience which can be thoroughly recommended, at least to anyone who is fairly slim and agile and does not suffer from claustrophobia. The overwhelming crowded interior packed with pipes and valves may be too much for some but the fact that 75 Russian sailors survived in here for weeks at a time takes some believing and needs to be seen.

The Foxtrot class built 1958-71 were a successful design with a good safety record. They could be almost silent when submerged and were difficult to detect causing NATO considerable headaches. From 1968 submarines of this class were supplied to foreign navies.

U475 spent her last years in the Russian navy as a training vessel. Following the end of the Cold War she was towed here from Riga in the summer of 1994 with her last captain Vitalij Burda on board. Bob Carr

Demolition in Islington

The south side of Moreland Street EC1 is being further demolished to reveal the new housing development to the south. Almost nothing now remains of the Finsbury Distillery which once made Stone's ginger wine and where we had a memorable GLIAS visit to see the edge runners which had been used to crush fresh ginger. Housing development near the City now seems to be particularly popular, probably due to worsening conditions for commuters. Moreland Street is in easy walking distance of the Bank.

Gordon's gin distillery, Moreland Street, EC1 © Robert Mason 2016

On the corner of Goswell Road and Moreland Street opposite City University the former massive Gordon's gin distillery (right) still awaits new users. This building dates from just after World War II and was built to replace the earlier premises close by destroyed by bombing. Here was gin distilling on a truly industrial scale. Further south in Goswell Road a fine Victorian office facade has recently been demolished. This is a surprise as it was in good condition and at least until recently appeared to be in full use by a flourishing modern company. The building which dated from about the 1860s was probably the offices of a former gas works. In the yard at the back British Gas vans used to be parked and there were a few minor outbuildings but now little remains of what would have been the works themselves. The site is on the east side of the road not far north of the junction with Old Street.

On the west side of Blackstock Road N4 at number 52 demolition is in progress at the Fairfield Factory. This works was occupied by Willmott, Son and Phillips Ltd and right up to the time of demolition a notice above the entry advertised for staff who were machinists, overlockers and pressers. The removal of the roof of the most substantial building at the back revealed that it had been supported by reinforced-concrete arches. The building date of this small factory is probably around 1900. Other former industrial premises to the west of Blackstock Road are also being demolished, probably to make way for housing developments.

Further north just to the south of Crouch Hill railway station on the west side of the road are the remains of an attractive dairy with picturesque illustrations of milkmaids at work and milk distribution through the ages. The building is roughly turn of the century in date and is something of a local landmark. It does not seem to have been used as a dairy for some time and recently has accommodated activities like motor car repair. The building is now covered with scaffolding and hopefully restoration work may be taking place. Bob Carr

SERIAC '97: Themes in Urban Industrial Archaeology


Crossness update


Gunpowder manufacture by the River Crane


Brick Lane Gasworks


GLIAS walks


AIA Ironbridge weekend 1997


Newcomen Society study tour of South Cumbria


The Crown Jewels of the River Wandle


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© GLIAS, 1997