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Notes and news — December 1998

The arts and industrial archaeology

Further to the letter by Mary Mills (GLIAS Newsletter August 1998) the piece on Enclosed Gasholders had been held back for further consideration and perhaps rewriting as a number of readers might have thought its contents somewhat unsuitable for this publication. It was also being considered for submission elsewhere and its appearance in the GLIAS Newsletter was a little unintentional.

Installation and site specific art are not particularly avant-garde or obscure as a trawl back through the arts sections of the major British newspapers over the past 10-15 years will readily establish. Such work receives almost as much coverage in these papers as, say, rock music, and note that we are referring to papers with a mass circulation and not specialist arts periodicals.

At the time of writing site-specific art in the form of posters is on display in London underground stations and is of a nature to catch the eye of GLIAS members (Yinka Shonibare, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, an opulent period library interior presently displayed at 55 sites). The idea of a ready-made or found object goes back as far as Marcel Duchamp circa 1915, before most of us were even born.

It might help readers to describe a fictitious but typical example of conceptual art of the kind which has been put before the public in recent years. Consider an abandoned Victorian factory with almost all the machinery removed. The artist might make a few subtle alterations to the interior before throwing it open as an exhibition. Some of the cobwebs might be sprayed silver using a paint aerosol, a pair of well-worn old boots and a bench might be placed in a corner and perhaps a few other items suggestive of people who might have worked there in the past judiciously positioned. In opening such an interior to the public as a work of art the artist is presenting the whole factory interior as a ready-made or found object. Fancifully it might be said that this is an activity in a 'parallel universe' which sometimes impinges on our own field of industrial archaeology. Our vice-president Kenneth Hudson conjured up some 'ghosts' for us when he addressed GLIAS following our AGM in April 1996 and feelings similar to his doubtless inspire the work of a number of artists.

The point being made in this note is that what quite a few artists are doing or did do has a resonance with our own particular interest, industrial archaeology and we should all be sympathetic to this activity. Many of the pioneer ready mades, pre-Second World War, were of an industrial nature, for instance Picasso with his gas ring (gas again), an 'icon of a scientific age'. Over the past century artists in general have had a fascination with mechanical technology and this extends to architecture. The late 1980s Tidal Basin pumping station in the Royal Docks by the Richard Rogers Partnership was inspired by 19th-century Russian circular battleships designed for use in the Baltic and High Tech flourishes still despite this being a Post Modern age. Bob Carr

Greater London news

In the centre of Greenwich a number of buildings have been demolished to make way for the extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Lewisham. A tunnel under the river is being made and a station is to be opened near the Cutty Sark. Considerable civil engineering work has been taking place at Greenwich station, Greenwich High Road.

Trains are now running directly from Paddington to the Heathrow Airport terminals. Near the site of Heathrow Junction station some remains of Pocock's Dock may still be found beneath undergrowth. A previous report (GLIAS Newsletter June 1998) might be taken to imply that destruction was total.

In Croydon, south west of the West station, work on a substantial concrete flyover to take the new trams across the railway is now well advanced. In Croydon itself we are beginning to see actual tramlines laid in the street. As a foretaste of things to come a Tramlink bus TL1 is now operating a limited stop service from Croydon to Wimbledon during the daytime.

What was reputedly London's last Second World War bombsite has recently disappeared beneath new buildings in the vicinity of St Paul's City Thameslink railway station. In 1945 after the Blitz bombsites accounted for one third of the area of the City. On the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 the Germans dropped 120 tons of bombs and 22,000 incendiaries in just three hours, almost creating what was later to become known as a 'fire storm', with great loss of life. It was during this catastrophe that the Blue Last public house just to the south east of Ludgate Circus met its end and its site is the bomb site mentioned above. One reason for its late re-use was that the owners, the brewers Bass, seemed unaware they owned it. The Blue Last pub was once a gathering place for shoemakers associated with the practice of 'talking cobblers'.

Sadly the technique of creating a fire storm became almost routine later in the war for RAF Bomber Command. When it is realised that the Lancaster bomber carried a bomb load of up to 20 tons and that raids using in excess of one thousand planes could take place, some idea of the damage inflicted on German cities can be appreciated. In a full-scale fire storm the combustion creates very high winds which do immense structural damage. The step from this form of destruction to the use of the small atomic bombs of 1945 is smaller than is popularly realised. An atomic bomb is only a more compact way of creating a fire storm of a different kind. The systematic quantitative study of such things is part of a discipline known as operations research which started during the Second World War and now has wide peaceful applications in industry and commerce.

Turning to more pleasant topics a fragment of HMS Warrior has been returned to Newham, where the ship was built. At Canning Town interchange station a memorial incorporating part of the warship by sculptor Richard Kindersley was unveiled in February by Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The station is close to the Thames Ironworks site where construction of the Warrior took place, she was laid down there in June 1859 and launched in December 1860. To the southeast at the Royal Victoria Dock an elegant new bridge has been built across the Dock to improve communication between new housing to the south and the Custom House area. Further south at Lyle Park iron gates from the now demolished Harland and Wolff works in Woolwich Manor Way are to be seen by the riverside.

Just to the north of the St Pancras railway station on the east side of the tracks is a redbrick former locomotive watering facility originally for the use of locomotives working in and out of the Midland Railway London terminus. It is listed Grade II but is in the way of the intended redevelopment of the area to accommodate Eurostar trains from the Continent. There was a proposal to dismantle the structure brick by brick and rebuild it to the northwest in St Pancras Gardens, near the Old St Pancras church. The style of the small building is vaguely Gothic but there were local protests. It was claimed the building would be unsuitable on the proposed site and as an alternative its components might be put in store instead, like the pieces of the famous gasholders which will also have to be moved to provide space for civil engineering enabling works when the Channel Tunnel line is finally brought to Sir George Gilbert Scott's hotel in the Euston Road next to the new British Library. At present all is quiet to the north of the great station while the problem of providing finance for a rapid rail link to St Pancras remains.

To the west at Mornington Crescent the underground station was officially opened in the spring after a closure of six years. A lift motor and switchgear c1920 from the old system went to the London Transport Museum. At one time the booking office was actually in the lift and the booking clerk rode up and down with the passengers, doubling as the lift operator. Camden Town underground station to the north is in need of refurbishment and if it has to be closed for renovation Mornington Crescent, five minutes walk away, will be very busy indeed. Bob Carr

Another Russian submarine — U359

Newsletter readers will be familiar with the Foxtrot class Russian submarine U475 which has been open to the public at Folkestone in Kent (GLIAS Newsletter June 1997). This is not the only example of such a vessel to be seen in the West, there is another, U359, in the harbour at Nakskov in Denmark. The latter submarine is smaller than the Folkestone example and is of the NATO class Whiskey V, about 76 metres in length, carrying a crew of 58 against the Foxtrot's 75. The patrol submarine U359 came to Denmark in 1994 following an initiative from a group of unemployed people who wrote to the Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev asking for one. Eventually their request was finally granted and it is now an exhibit run by unemployed people. U359 is displayed out of the water on a floating pontoon as part of a submarine centre, due for completion in 2001. The submarine is open to the public for some of this winter, closing in January, but for visitors from London a special opening can be arranged given notice. Bob Carr
For further information telephone 00 45 54 95 20 14

Titanic — bad wrought iron?

Recent metallurgical research in the United States suggests a new mechanism for the failure of the hull of the SS Titanic which sank fairly soon after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage in 1912. The vessel was claimed to be 'unsinkable' as the hull was subdivided by 15 transverse bulkheads into 16 watertight compartments and the watertight doors in the bulkheads normally open for communication were already starting to close just before the famous collision. Despite this seawater entered the hull at such a rate that the pumps could not stem the flow and the great ship went down in only about two hours.

It used to be conjectured that the ship sank so quickly because on striking the ice an underwater projection of the iceberg scraped along the starboard side of the ship and cut a fine horizontal gash about 300 feet long, letting water simultaneously into many of the watertight compartments. Apparently a French expedition visiting the wrecked Titanic in 1996, two-and-a-half miles underwater, saw no sign of a gash but noted vertical failures where the seams of the hull had partly opened on impact.

Metallurgical examination of wrought iron rivets recovered with debris from the wreck showed the samples contained two or three times as much slag as the best wrought iron. Excess slag would have made the rivets brittle and on impact such rivets would fail by losing their inner heads and fall out. The icy conditions would aggravate any tendency to brittle fracture. If the rivets tested were in any way typical of the whole a new explanation for the rapid sinking of the Titanic is at hand. Good wrought iron rivets might have held just that bit more. If just one more watertight compartment had held the Titanic would have stayed afloat long enough for the nearest ship, the Carpathia, to have reached the stricken liner in time and 1,500 lives would not have been lost. If three of the six ruptured watertight compartments had held the ship could probably have limped back into port and nowadays we would never have heard of the Titanic. However, this is no excuse for not carrying enough lifeboats. Bob Carr

Woolwich Arsenal relics in Devon

GLIAS members who took part in the AIA Conference in Devon this year may not have been aware that at Bicton Park, East Budleigh (SY 074 862), relics from the internal narrow gauge railway formerly in use at Woolwich Arsenal in south east London are still to be found on a preservation line.

The principal locomotive on the Bicton Woodland Railway is an outside cylinder 0-4-0 side tank from the Arsenal called 'Woolwich' which was built by the Avonside Engine Co Ltd, Bristol, in 1916.

The railway's gauge is one foot six inches and it runs through an attractive setting. In addition to motive power there is also rolling stock from the Arsenal railway at Bicton. Bob Carr

Postscript: Bicton Gardens sold 'Woolwich' in 1999 to the Royal Gunpowder Mills.

Locomotive specification:

Avonside, 18" gauge, 0-4-0, oil-fired steam locomotive.
Year of manufacture: 1916, Engine Number 1748.
Weight: 11 tons 5 cwts.
Length: 15' 5"
Width: 5' 4 "
Height: 8' 6".
Cylinders: 8½" 0/ by 12" stroke.

GLIAS Recording Group relaunched


John Hinshelwood

GLIAS/SIHG meeting: the Upper Wandle Valley


Bill Firth

CP remembered

(GLIAS Newsletter October 1998)


Ted Brittin

Chimney/Trollope and Son


John Hinshelwood

Hydraulic power


Tim Smith

Pedestrian subways


Historic vehicle preservation


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© GLIAS, 1998