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Notes and news — August 2000

In this issue:

Threatened historic buildings in Limehouse Conservation Area

The Peabody Trust owns 773-785 Commercial Road and plans to demolish the existing buildings for a modern block of flats opposite St Anne's Church. The buildings are in St Anne's Church Conservation Area and were mostly built for and occupied in stages from 1889 by Caird & Rayner. They were engineers and coppersmiths who specialised in the design and manufacturer of sea water distilling plant for supplying boilers and drinking water on Royal Navy vessels, Cunard liners, cargo ships and oil tankers.

In 1964, Caird & Rayner Ltd was described as 'one of the two big names in British marine distillation'. The company left Limehouse in about 1972 and was dissolved in 1995.

Included among the many Royal Navy vessels fitted with Caird & Rayner plant were torpedo boats built by Yarrow and Company in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs; First World War battleships and battlecruisers; HMS Belfast (1938) now moored on the River Thames; HMS Albion (1954) and HMS Hermes (1959) when they were converted from aircraft carriers to commando carriers.

Starting with the Mauretania in 1906, Caird & Rayner's plant was installed on most of Cunard's great passenger liners, including Queen Mary (now at Long Beach, California) and Queen Elizabeth. For the QE2, Caird & Rayner's Limehouse works made treatment plant for domestic water and her four swimming pools.

Caird & Rayner were the sole manufacturers of several related products, mostly patented by Thomas Rayner who was born in Stepney in 1852. His patent automatic evaporator has been on display at the Science Museum since 1902. Although he left the partnership in 1907, the firm continued to design new types of desalination plant, especially during and after the Second World War.

All the designs were produced in the drawing office on the first floor of the 1896-97 office building next door to the 1893-94 office building which housed the managers' offices and general office. Both red-brick office buildings were architect designed in a Queen Anne style to respect the church and churchyard. The engaged octagonal buttresses on the 1896-97 building articulate its angled front around the curved site boundary on the outer bend in the road opposite the church. Both office buildings and the adjoining 785 Commercial Road (occupied by Caird & Rayner in 1902-03) were built by J H Johnson of Limehouse who also built Limehouse Town Hall (1879-81).

All three buildings overlook the church and churchyard and occupy an important position at the apex of the triangular eastern end of Commercial Road. This part of Limehouse is richly endowed with several buildings which signify its Sailortown past and it is entirely appropriate that it retains at least two red-brick office buildings and the two workshops at the back which overlook the Limehouse Cut and make a significant contribution to its historic canalscape.

The workshop at 777 Commercial Road was built in 1869 by William Cubitt & Company as a sail-makers-and-ship-chandlers warehouse. Although it was occupied by Caird & Rayner from 1889 to about 1972 it was not altered: timber posts with angled struts under long timber crossheads support the former sail loft floor; increasingly rare queenrod roof trusses support the hipped slate roof and the building retains its original cast-iron window frames and two double loading doors on the Limehouse Cut. It is the only original sail-makers-and-ship-chandlers warehouse surviving in Tower Hamlets; the listed building at 11 West India Dock Road only retains its original front and east wall. A rare former sail makers warehouse which was subsequently used for making specialised equipment for steamship merits serious consideration for statutory protection.

The workshop at 779-783 Commercial Road was built by J H Johnson in 1896. It is an early and nationally rare example of a steel-framed galleried engineering workshop with skylights over the side galleries and a large lantern light over the central bay. It is also an excellent modern example of the mid 19th-century timber prototype of which the grade II* Garrett's Long Shop at Leiston Suffolk is possibly the original and probably the sole surviving example.

Tower Hamlets has several listed and/or refurbished buildings and structures associated with 19th-century shipbuilding and 19th/20th-century ship repairing; for example, the much altered Plate House at Burrells Wharf, Westferry Road built 1853-54 by William Cubitt & Company. Caird & Rayner's buildings must also be preserved as they are now the sole surviving representatives of the hundreds of factories and workshops in East London which produced a whole range of products for the shipbuilders and ship repairers.

Of the eight Caird & Rayner buildings at 777-785 Commercial Road, the four at 777-783 Commercial Road are of special architectural and historic interest and an application for listing was made in March 2000. Regardless of the outcome, the Peabody Trust must be persuaded to convert the four buildings. Tower Hamlets Council must also be persuaded, as it has previously granted planning permission for a new development which just retained the façade of the three office buildings on Commercial Road.

The two red-brick buildings are in reasonable condition and could easily be converted to at least four flats. The former sail-makers-and-ship-chandlers warehouse needs repair; the sail loft could be converted to about four flats with balconies and access on the western gallery of the adjacent 1896 workshop and the ground floor space made into four flats with patios and access under the gallery. The entire 1896 workshop is suitable for conversion to an atrium with a communal garden in the central bay. Intermediate galleries could be inserted in the eastern bay to create three balconies and a patio area on the ground floor for a new four-storey block of flats at 785 Commercial Road

The vacant site at 773-775 Commercial Road could also be occupied by a new four-storey block of flats with a new narrow atrium alongside the west wall of the converted warehouse and a new atrium between the converted warehouse and the converted office building at 777 Commercial Road. All three atria could be linked or separated by glazing with openings for ventilation. Tom Ridge

Clearance at Camden Town

Redevelopment work is taking place alongside the railway which runs northwards from Euston station, on the west side of the line just to the north of the Regent's Canal bridge.

Here until very recently there was what looked like a hydraulic accumulator tower and the truncated remains of a footbridge which once crossed the main line. The 'hydraulic tower' has been roofless for some time. It is situated just east of Gloucester Avenue.

Just to the north of the 'tower' the site has been almost completely cleared as far as a small building which is believed to have been part of the London and North Western Railway Signal and Telegraph Department. The 'small building', a single storey shed parallel to the line, once had what looked like a kiln protruding from the top of it about half way along. Professor David Perrett drew the attention of GLIAS members to the small 'kiln' in this newsletter but the 'kiln' was subsequently demolished. Might the kiln have been used in the manufacture of ceramic insulators, perhaps the insulating pots used on the telegraph poles which once ran alongside almost all railway lines? Being small however, no more than 20 feet high, the 'kiln' was probably only of use for research and development purposes. Its demolition might have been prompted by the risk of listing. In any case the small building from which it protruded would then have been of much more use. It now has a corrugated roof.

Current demolition to the south of the 'kiln' building has so far left the 'hydraulic tower' standing. Is this perhaps listed? Immediately to the east is the chamber beneath the railway which used to house the great winding engines which before 1844 hauled trains without their locomotives up Camden Bank from Euston station in London and Birmingham Railway days. There was talk of converting this winding-engine void into a wine bar but nothing has been heard of this scheme for some time. The winding engines were sold to Russia. Bob Carr

Powers Machines

I spent a very enjoyable evening at the Newcomen Society's Technology on Film presentation. My main interest was the Powers punched card film, having been in the early 1960s a service engineer maintaining and servicing those machines.

I was amused to read the heading to the vufoil preceding the film which stated 'Powers machines cannot make mistakes'. I wonder what it was that kept me working sometimes until 2 o'clock in the morning putting them right. One then had to return to the customer's office at start of work to hand the correctly functioning machine back to them.

Also some of the titles shown during the film gave the impression that machines were built to customer requirements. This was not true, particularly regarding the card punch and sorting machines. The method of working did not lend itself to customisation which, if requested, would have cost a significant amount of money. The print section of tabulators may have been customised for large users such as Post Office Telephones and the Inland Revenue, but the only things that were customised were the connection box used in the tabulator and the layout of the punched card.

Looking back now, the connection box was a stored program and of course setting up the machines to perform their various tasks was programming.

The connection box, a mixture of up to 900 1/8th of an inch diameter wire capable of moving up and down possibly 1/8th of an inch and crisscrossing in several directions within the box was a definitely no go area for the service engineer. If you attempted to take one apart to repair it, you ended up with a heap of wires requiring innumerable hands to put them back in the correct order. Repair was definitely a factory job.

Much amusement was created by the closing scene in the EMI film which purported to show the next big step for EMI — colour television, only that the camera shown was a black and white one. The state of the art at that time meant that a colour television camera was at least twice as large as a black-and-white one.

Also the film showed a woman supposedly inspecting a part, but she was 'marking it out' with a scribed line. It also showed gauges (spelt 'guages') which could measure to '5 millionths of an inch' but showed ordinary workshop Vernier equipment. And such accuracy would be prohibitively costly in mass produced components such as used in these machines.

There was amusement on two occasions. Once during the Powers film we were treated to an 'Interlude' of the works fire brigade in action complete with brass helmets, but no fire engine. Also in the pseudo colour television sequence a young woman started to play a 45rpm vinyl disc record and the music that supposedly came out of the gramophone loudspeaker was classical. Highly improbable that she would find that type of music attractive.

This gave me two thoughts. Firstly there are young people alive today who will never play a vinyl disc recording. Secondly the evening, which some 50 people enjoyed, might not take place in say ten years time because in this country we do not appear to have any sort of industry which young people working today would like to remember when they are older. We industrial archaeologists are a dying breed because there doesn't appear to be any present day industry worth recording.

All in all it was a pleasant evening and I was even able while speaking to another 'attendee' afterwards to unravel to him the mysteries of how computers didn't work in decimal numbers but required the use of binary arithmetic. That blew a few of the old cobwebs away and hopefully gave someone a better understanding of how computers work.

Looking back over my working life, I find that I was involved in early computing without knowing it. This goes back to my time in the early 1950s while serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in Gibraltar. 3.7" anti-aircraft guns used a 'predictor' to ensure that the shell when fired and the targetted aircraft, hopefully managed to arrive at a predetermined spot. The predictor (in the UK, normally operated by females), was linked to the gun by electrical cable and used electrical and gear-driven devices to indicate to the gunlayers where to aim the gun. The system can be seen at work in one of the Carry On films and they do eventually shoot an aircraft down. I was in charge of a workshop that repaired and maintained these predictors and we were also required at one time to calibrate an analogue computer consisting of torque converter mechanisms. This machine ensured that the two large guns located peaks of the 'Rock' could track and shell enemy shipping in the West Mediterranean. I don't know if they were ever used in danger but both guns have now been disposed of as scrap and I wonder if the analogue machine suffered the same fate.

If anybody can provide me with information on the working of predictors and the Gibraltar tracking machine, I would be most grateful. Colin Long

Wetland Centre

The former Barn Elms reservoirs and waterworks in south-west London, redundant since the opening of the Thames Water Ring Main, have taken on a new lease of life as wetland habitat.

Now called the Wetland Centre, the 105-acre site, which is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, opened to the public at the end of May. It is unique in being the first created wetland habitat on such a huge scale to have been developed in any capital city throughout the world.

Over the past five years the site has been transformed from 40 hectares of concrete reservoirs, through the recycling of over 500,000 cubic metres soil, into an impressively diverse wetland reserve.

GLIAS walks 2000

The 2000 series of walks has started well, except for the fact that I have only managed to be on two of the first four. Charles Norrie's 'Tale of Three Rivers' (Ravensbourne, Quaggy & Thames) was well attended and enjoyed better weather than those in 'high summer'; David Perrett's walk from the Temple to Euston became 'From Brunel to Stephenson' which was a much better sub-title than my original; Bill Firth's evening walk through the 'Devil's Acre' (see notes) attracted a 35 hardy souls who braved a windy summer evening; and Stephen Hine's 'Western, Water, Works, Walk' around Brentford attracted a mixture of sunshine and showers for the group.

The programme continues with Saturday and Wednesday evening walks as advertised, including our first swapped walk with the Friends of Ironbridge Gorge when Chris Grabham takes GLIAS to the East India Docks. In return I have volunteered to take the Friends to the riverside at Battersea and upstream. Another innovation has been the leaders' T-shirt, with the Table Engine and GLIAS Walks 2000 on the front. This took some working out to get a computer to print backwards and was rightly thought inappropriate for the cold conditions on a Wednesday evening!

This year's walks have been well supported in spite of publicity being confined to the newsletter and membership. The days of 70-100 people arriving via Melody Radio, Time Out and the Big Issue have been left to experience (and a certain amount of worry for the leaders!).

However it's never to early to start planning GLIAS Walks 2001 and I already have one suggestion to be followed up for next year. Danny Hayton
Any member or society with ideas for a walk should contact Danny Hayton. Tel: 01689 852186. Email:

Croydon Trams

On Tuesday 30 May the new Croydon tram system became fully operational. Arriving by train at East Croydon station passengers are now greeted with trams displaying five destinations and in a number of liveries. When using a travelcard the service onwards to the town centre by tram is free and members will find this facility very useful. Croydon may also be reached by tram from Wimbledon, Elmers End, Beckenham Junction and New Addington. The tram depot is on the Wimbledon branch to the west of Therapia Lane, near the site of the now demolished Croydon B power station, Waddon Marsh. Bob Carr

Wapping Hydraulic Pumping Station

The Women's Playhouse Trust have now moved into the former London Hydraulic Power Company's Wapping pumping station.

The turbine house has been gutted and a new floor inserted. The mess room has been completely rebuilt with an upper floor and the filter house has a restored roof. A heating system has been installed with ducts running above the hydraulic mains in the engine house basement. In the engine house itself five of the electrically driven three-throw ram pumps, installed in 1956, are being kept. Tim Smith

Crystal Palace Station facelift

Railtrack and Connex are spending £5million on the historic Crystal Palace station to revamp the grade II listed Victorian booking hall. The building, which once formed part of Queen Victoria's overnight quarters, will then be let to a business tenant.

Other changes include replacing and eventually removing long-standing scaffolding on platforms 3 and 4, renewing the canopy on platform 1, tackling the station's roof and putting up netting to combat the pigeon problem.

Swindon Steam Museum opens

Nowhere can the social impact of railways have been more strongly felt than at Swindon where seven generations toiled in the workshops of the Great Western Railway until 1986 when British Rail closed them down.

Swindon is slowly coming to terms with the loss of an industry which at its height employed one in every five of the 65,000 population. Now, 14 years on, a part of the vast workshops complex is home to STEAM, a museum that celebrates the town's railway heritage.

6000 King George V. © Robert Mason 4073 Caerphilly Castle. © Robert Mason

Unlike many railway museums, which are primarily shrines to locomotives, STEAM refreshingly focuses on the effect of the railway on Swindon and its population. From the moment you enter the introductory hall, video screens mix nostalgic black-and-white film with reminiscences of former workers speaking of the great camaraderie of the works. Similar screens are scattered throughout the 70,000-square-foot exhibition space, introducing various aspects of railway life. But unlike many modern displays which can rely too much on audiovisual gadgetry, STEAM strikes a healthy balance between short looping tapes and a multitude of real objects.

Interactives, too, are well chosen. Visitors can pull signal levers, feel how hard it was for a fireman to shovel coal, or shunt goods trucks around a marshalling yard. Smaller children in particular will enjoy the 'Wacky Loco' activity cart.

The £11 million project, largely funded by the lottery, uses space thoughtfully and, with extensive use of glass and steel, looks very stylish. The museum is split into different sections. First up is a look at the works and the men and women who earnt their living in the many offices, stores and workshops. This leads into an examination of the Great Western Railway network and the many aspects of its operation.

At one end of the museum is a workshop which later this year will start renovating locomotives and carriages in full view of visitors — a poignant echo of the works' original function. Here the museum is raising money to finance its educational role through a 'Wall of Names' where ex-employees or their relatives can pay to have a brass plaque fixed to the wall bearing their name and the dates of their employment.

The displays finish with the more glamorous passenger travel and a nostalgic look at railway holidays which enjoyed their heyday in the 1930s.

STEAM gives the impression that Swindon had a strong sense of the pride in the railway. Although the loss of this industry must have dealt a real blow to the community, the museum consciously tries to restore that pride. Its claim to be 'the best railway museum ever built' sounds just like a boast of the old Great Western Railway — and it might just be true.
The museum is open Monday to Sunday 10am — 6pm (November to February 10am — 4.30pm), with late opening on Thursdays until 8pm during the busy summer season. Website:

Museum in Docklands

© Museum in Docklands Work has begun on the long-awaited Museum in Docklands, which is now expected to open in September next year. HBG Construction, who have worked on such heritage sites as Windsor Castle and the National Gallery, are converting Warehouse No 1, London's oldest surviving dock building, at West India Quay. Built in 1802 the warehouse stored rum, molasses, sugar, coffee and cotton and has been described by English Heritage, who have listed it Grade 1, as 'one of the great monuments of European economic power'.

The museum, which has been planned for various Docklands sites since the 1980s, will explore the story of the Thames, London's port and its people from, Roman times to the present. It will cost £16.5 million and has a Heritage Lottery Fund grant as well as support from the Department of the Environment, the Isle of Dogs Community Foundation, the Corporation of London and its parent the Museum of London.


The Swiftstone Trust is currently being formed as a charity to own, preserve and operate the Thames Tug 'The Swiftstone' as a symbol of the heritage and aims of the organisation.

The Swiftstone Trust will look to the future by promoting greater use of the Thames for passenger and commercial traffic and other means of safeguarding the environment through sustainable technologies.

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© GLIAS, 2000