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Notes and news — April 2000

In this issue:

Visit to Plumstead White Hart Road Depot

White Hart Road Depot was the site of the Woolwich municipal electrical generating station fuelled by domestic rubbish. This ended in the 1920s when the main power station in Woolwich was opened but incineration of rubbish continued into the 1970s. There have been many other activities at the depot until last August when everything except the laundry closed.

Mary Mills arranged this visit by GLIAS and the Greenwich Industrial History Society. At the depot Ian Hornsby, who has worked there for some 28 years, was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.

The visit started at the main building, which is a typical example of end-19th century municipal pride. Its status is uncertain but it seems English Heritage is considering it for listing. It has been mutilated with partitions, the filling in of doors and electric cables around the walls but enough remains to be able to appreciate what it must have been like in its prime. At the back we were able to peer into the generating hall and appreciate its immense size and the coloured glazed brick walls from which it is referred to as the 'tiled hall'. Later when some problems with keys had been solved we were able to get inside.

We went on to a storage building where the useful materials such as copper and aluminium, which had been removed from the rubbish by women known as scratchers, were stored before being sold to dealers. Round to the front again we went up the ramp up which the dust carts were driven into the unloading area. The rubbish was fed on to moving belts which went past the scratchers and was then tipped for loading into the boilers.

On the way to the tiled hall we stopped at the one functioning activity at the depot — the laundry. Here laundry from the elderly in the borough and others unable to do it themselves is washed and dried in massive machines.

We were now able to get into the tiled hall and were able to really see its extent and the attractive coloured glazed walls. The whole complex has had many uses since closure and has been a storage, or should one say dumping, site. In the hall we had a discussion about its future. If it is listed it is a good example of a structure for which it will be found difficult to find reuse.

We went outside again to view the full extent of the whole depot. This seems to be a candidate for the brownfield housing which Mr Prescott seems keen to promote.

Lastly Ian wanted to show us the weighing mechanism of the weighbridge but we found it had all been boarded in.

This was a fascinating visit to a site which has long since lost its original purpose but one could still visualise what it had been. Thanks are due to Mary and Ian for an interesting afternoon. Bill Firth

The February Lecture: Great Exhibitions

Unfortunately Jon Wallsgrove was unable to give the programmed lecture on London's 'unknown' historic bridges as his wife had just gone into hospital. This was particularly unfortunate as we had invited the Institution of Plant Engineers to join us in default of their own lecture. At very short notice our chairman Denis Smith stepped into the breach with a fascinating review of the 'Great Exhibitions', starting in 1851 and ending in 2000.

Denis outlined his subject in seven points — why hold an exhibition, what to exhibit, who should design it, how to pay for it, how long should it be open, what infrastructure may be required and what to do with the buildings afterwards.

Starting with the Great Exhibition of 1851 we were taken through the 1862 Exhibition, on the site of which the Natural History Museum now stands, the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition at White City, the 1924/25 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, the 1951 Festival of Britain on the South Bank and the Millennium Dome.

The similarities in each case are striking. To list just a few; each exhibition was organised by a body of commissioners, there were doubts about completion on time — how Paxton's glasshouse saved the 1851 exhibition is well known — each case had a particular engineering input, domes figure prominently, the leading organisers were knighted. Each exhibition has left some mark. The whole South Kensington museum complex is a result of the profits of the Great Exhibition. The Crystal Palace has gone but a similar iron and glass structure existed at the London & North Western station at Oxford until recently and has now been dismantled for preservation. There is a stadium at White City and some remains of entrance gates still stand. Some of the buildings at Wembley still remain in industrial or storage use. There is still a stadium there too, the future of which is in doubt. The Festival of Britain led to the Festival Hall and ultimately the arts and entertainment complex on the South Bank was developed. What the Millennium Dome will lead to remains to be seen.

Altogether this was a tour de force and we must be thankful to Denis for giving us such a splendid account at such short notice. It remains to express the hope that Jon's wife will make a rapid and complete recovery and to add that Jon has said he will give his lecture at the beginning of the next session. Bill Firth

Blue plaque for pioneer of the London Tube

Tower Subway, 30.5.08. © Robert MasonJames Henry Greathead (1844-1896), the engineer who built the world's first electric underground tube railway and was hailed as 'the practical author of the great London tubes', has been honoured by an English Heritage blue plaque outside 3 St Mary's Grove, Barnes, his home between 1885 and 1889.

Greathead was the inventor of the Greathead Shield which enabled tunnels to be driven deeper underground. Greathead's method allowed tunnels to be bored deep through the earth, causing less surface disruption. The method is still in use today.

At the age of only 24 Greathead won the contract to cut a second tunnel under the Thames called the Tower Subway (pictured). No other engineer was prepared to undertake the project due to the technical and financial difficulties experienced by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel in tunneling under the river. Tunneling began in April 1869 and was completed by December. The Tower Subway opened in August 1870 and was the first underground tube railway in the world.

Greathead's greatest success came in 1884 when he became chief engineer on the City and South London Railway, the forerunner of today's Northern Line. He went on to work as joint engineer on the Liverpool Overhead Railway, the Waterloo and City Line, and the Central Line Railway. He was a consulting engineer on the Blackwall Tunnel Project, designing a new shield that was the largest ever to have been used at that time.

Bankside Power Station

Bankside Power Station © Robert Mason 2014

The transformed Bankside Power Station will reopen as the Tate Modern on 12 May.

The former turbine hall of the power station is still equipped with its Glasgow-built overhead travelling crane. Of riveted construction the crane was made by Sir William Arrol & Co Ltd and has a safe working load of 20 tons on the main hook. There is also an auxiliary hook of 5 tons capacity. Its new use will be to manoeuvre and position large works of art. Removal of all the other machinery from the power station interior was completed by the end of 1996. Along the south side of the turbine hall the transformers are still in use.

Architects Herzog & de Meuron's design respects the integrity of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's original building and its soaring central chimney. The most visible change is a glass structure running the length of the roof.

Visitors will enter by a new entrance at the west end of the building and descend down a ramp into the vast former turbine hall. Bob Carr

Battersea Power Station

While Bankside is reborn as the Tate Modern, the fate of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's other power station, Battersea, which was shut down 17 years ago and has been without a roof for a decade, has not been so happy.

But now there's new hope for the Grade II listed structure. In February, developer Parkview International, which owns the site, finally clinched two land deals that, it claims, will now free it up to submit detailed plans to the local authority, Wandsworth. And a new architect has been appointed, Sir Philip Dowson, the recently retired president of the Royal Academy.

Parkview originally bought the site from the Official Receiver in 1993, and in 1997 announced it proposal for a £500 million entertainment centre with rides, 32 cinemas, theatres, shops and hotels.

Delays have been put down to difficulties in negotiating the purchase of a 1.4-acre adjoining site owned by the National Grid. But now the sale, which gives Parkview the use of the river jetty, has finally gone through, and a 0.6-acre site, essential for creating a rail link with Victoria to allow 80 per cent of visitors to arrive by public transport, has also been bought from the British Rail Property Board. Wandsworth has agreed to extend Parkview's May 2000 deadline for submitting detailed plans to the end of the year. But the developer promises progress this April.

The Kensington Steam Hammer

Now that the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens has been cleaned and refurbished the marble steam hammer can be clearly seen. It is to the back of the group of stone figures representing Engineering at the north west corner of the monument. The engineering figures are situated immediately below Prince Albert at the angle of the pedestal. The hammer depicted is quite similar to a real one of 1888 made in Glasgow by R Harvey which was placed on display in the Royal Victoria Gardens, North Woolwich. Bob Carr

Loss of ships at sea

As regular readers of the daily shipping newspaper Lloyd's List will know a seafaring life is still a precarious one. One hundred and eighty bulk carriers have vanished at sea since 1980 with the loss of 1,465 lives. Thirteen sank in 1998 alone.

In the infamous case of the MV Derbyshire which disappeared in the South China Sea in September 1980 during a violent storm it is thought that structural failure was so rapid that there was insufficient time to make a distress call or escape. Bulk carriers are large, compared with the Canary Wharf Tower cut down and placed horizontally on the ground the Derbyshire would have been wider and longer. Bob Carr

Patrimoine de L'Industrie

This is a new international journal (two issues a year) aiming to go beyond the national frontiers. It appears to be in French. If anyone would like details please contact the GLIAS secretary.

Greenwich Telecommunications booklet

Enderby Wharf in Greenwich has a long and distinguished history in the production of submarine cables. The site is currently occupied by the French firm, Alcatel, which is successfully making repeaters there. The company recently participated in a series on Greenwich industry at the National Maritime Museum — and as a result has brought out a booklet, 'Greenwich: Centre for global telecommunications from 1850'. This traces the history of telecommunications manufacture on site from the 1840s, listing developments pioneered at Greenwich — and is well illustrated. Mary Mills
Anyone interested should contact the Publicity Department at Alcatel Submarine Networks, Christchurch Way, Greenwich, SE10 0AG

Boord & Sons

English Heritage (Jonathan Clarke) has produced an architectural survey report on the Boord & Sons Distillery Offices at 115-121 Tooley Street, SE1. This detailed report concerns Boord's dramatic and well known building, of c1900 to designs by Aston Webb, on a site which once stretched to the riverside.

The report describes the building's exterior 'lively architectural dress' and then goes on to the interior. This consisted of two basements and four offices around a large rear atrium. The ground floor consisted of an entrance hall, an open plan general office and some side offices. The first floor, reached by a grand central staircase going to a number of offices and a boardroom. The second floor consisted of a large sample room and one other. The basement housed a flat for the caretaker, and storage areas and a second basement area contains bins, possibly once used for cheese.

The report goes on to describe some of the buildings of the now demolished distillery which once stood to the rear, together with the wharf and bonded warehouse. A separate chapter describes the internal steel structure of the basement in the existing building and there are a number of drawings.

The report follows hard on that on Mumford's Mill in Greenwich and is seen as being part of Webb's work of the same period. Mary Mills
Anyone who would like to see the report should either contact English Heritage direct or borrow the GLIAS copy from Mary Mills. Tel: 020 8858 9482

Message from new GLIAS publicity officer

I retired in October 1999 after 34 years with the Corporation of London Library Service. During those years I spent a lot of time mounting displays and advertising not just the bookstock, but many external organisations — including GLIAS — so I hope I shall be able to bring some experience to the publicity officer position.

I work regularly with other friends at the Kirkaldy Testing Museum in Southwark which provides most of my IA knowledge. Having come late to this interest after being involved with motorcycles and dirt archaeology, I still feel I have much to learn.

To publicise GLIAS effectively I will need to be kept informed of any IA activities where GLIAS handouts would be appropriate — local studies exhibitions, evening classes, etc — so that I can pass on our details. I should therefore be grateful if members coming across such events would let me know the details.
Ruth Verrall, Rivendell, Knockholt Road, Halstead, Sevenoaks, Kent TN14 7ET. Tel: 01959 533201

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© GLIAS, 2000