Author Archives: Dave Walker

The contents of the box

In the comments section after a recent post, loyal reader Marcia Howard asked what do we keep in the famous cedar wood box? Well this week I’ll tell you.

First, the box, quite a nice object in itself.

 

 

The metal plate which is now detached from the lid of the box, attests to its origin.

 

 

It reads: 1846 Made from a portion of one of the Two Cedar Trees, designated “The Brothers” planted by Sir Hans Sloane in the Botanic Garden, Chelsea AD 1683

There is also a handwritten note:

 

Conveniently transcribed:

 

 

The trees themselves, looking north.

 

 

You can just about make out the statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the distance. Here is a 1903 photograph of the last of the trees.

 

The one from which the box was made it seems.

Within the box are several small objects which were kept there so they didn’t go astray:

A pass to the King’s Road. This was given, as Chelsea aficionados would expect, by Reginald Blunt, historian and founder of the Chelsea Society.

 

 

Which King?

 

 

George. The second, as it happens.

A pass to Ranelagh House,1745

 

 

The same George. The pass is not as impressive as some of the printed invitations we have seen, like this one to the Regatta Ball, of 1775.

 

 

 

Or this one:

 

 

Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited“, if I’m remembering the quotation correctly.

I have added a few other items to the box over the years:

Reginald Blunt’s pass to the Chelsea Physic Garden (stamped “one visit only”) and printed with the instruction “Ring the Bell at the Gate in Swan Walk and present this order” ,which sounds like it comes from a mystery story.

 

 

A small coin, or medal, a souvenir of the Gigantic Wheel at Earls Court

 

 

A pair of tickets to the Chelsea Historical Pageant of 1908,

 

 

and a useful map of the grounds.

 

 

We’ve been to the Pageant before of course. And no doubt we will go there again.

Another coin/medal which seems to commemorate the Great Exhibition.

 

 

 

With a monarch and her consort on the back.

 

 

You don’t need me to tell you who they are.

 

And of course, a blue elephant. No inventory of the contents of an old wooden box is complete without one of those.

 

 

Postscript

Even the short posts have dried up recently. And I can’t guarantee that this post represents a return to normal service. I’ve had a lot on this summer/autumn: a bit of illness, recruitment issues and other actual work problems which have detracted from the frivolous activity of blogging. And now I’m in the middle of the London History Festival, which is going pretty well, but does consume my time. I’m sure you know however that blogging is my first love, and that I’m trying to get back to it.


Halloween story – the traveller

My friend Dave and I were in another obscure pub in South Kensington and he was telling me again that he had a doppelganger who sold newspapers and magazines at Baron’s Court Station. Actually, he said, the double had probably retired by now. He himself would have done if he had to do that job for years. It was the second time I had heard the story so we didn’t get far with it. Instead we turned to anomalous and unexpected places, and Dave’s theory of urban mazes. Dave had quite a thing about mazes, and ornamental gardens, something he had in common with one of his colleagues, a woman named Dee. Or who called herself Dee as he put it. She was Japanese he said, and Dee is not a Japanese name. She seemed Japanese in other ways he thought, but just as I was loosing interest in her he told me that the other staff sometimes called her the Time Traveller. Why was that? Well, sometimes she didn’t seem to understand fairly basic things about the world and the way it is. Or she would suddenly express an interest in something that she had discovered as if it wasn’t already well known to most people. He called it the “oh those Beatles” syndrome. And he added as if this was the clincher, she always wore long dresses or skirts.

 

 

Well. not uncommon surely, especially these days. But this was not good enough for him. I tell you she dresses like she just stepped out of a time machine. Well, that proves it I said. Missing Dr Who companion, vampire, some other kind of immortal. But time travel is a bit unlikely. We’ve all seen those pictures which look like someone using a mobile phone in an old photograph. It’s amusing, might even be worth a mention in Fortean Times. You should meet her. She sounds a bit young for me I said. It’s always a bit distasteful. an older man with some young woman. Then I digressed with a story about how I had seen from the upper deck of a bus a pretty young woman bidding a found farewell to her boyfriend, some big nosed older guy who clearly couldn’t believe his luck at this girl fawning on him. No, I’ll make sure she knows I’m not trying to set you up. I’ll tell her you’re an expert on history, and not a dirty old man at all. Fifty three isn’t old I said, recalling Kingsley Amis in the Green Man citing it as the age when things started to go down hill for a while. We veered off for a while and then he produced his punch line, an photograph of an actual maze. This is the small maze at Arcover House – the place where the Cyanogrphers used to meet. It’s gone now, ripped up in the war. Dee talks as if she’s actually seen it.

 

 

Okay then, worth a look. We arranged to meet in the same pub. I brought along my tablet, loaded with views of old Kensington, to establish my bona fides or to fill in any lulls in the conversation. At the last minute I got a text from Dave  saying he couldn’t come, and that Dee had changed her look (what did that mean?). I remembered the pre-mobile era when if you made an arrangement, you had to stick with it, or just stand the other person up. You couldn’t make a vague arrangement and then text the fine details, or phone the person up and find them waving to you from down the street. On the other hand, staring at a phone or a laptop is a good way of looking like you’re doing something when you’re sitting alone somewhere. I was doing that when I noticed a woman was standing in front of me. She was wearing a big raincoat but I could see her lower legs and a pair of blue fur-trimmed ankle boots.

I went to get her a drink and when I got back the raincoat was draped over a seat and I could see she was wearing a mild Loilita outfit, a blue dress with a print featuring whales and ships, and looked very Japanese indeed.

Dave says you’ve changed your look?

She smiled at me . I heard about that time traveler thing, so I thought it was time for a change. Something a little more 21st century.

How’s it working for you?

Well, it’s a lot of layers. A bit warm actually. But that’s just like my younger days. The time traveler thing? Well that’s true. I’ve given myself away a few times recently, so I thought it was time to try actually telling someone to see how it goes.

And I’m a good security risk?  Or someone known to be given to flights of fancy?

Well, why not. Dave said you know 19th Century Kensington like the back of your hand. Do you know the Victoria Road / Victoria Grove area?

I flicked through some pictures on the tablet.

 

 

She took it off me and stared closely, expanding the view with her finger and thumb. She pointed at a house, and said it was hers. That’s where I grew up. My Mum and I lived with an English couple who took us in when we had to leave home. I think. I grew up speaking English. I used to walk up this road.

There was a second view.

 

 

She expanded that  one.

 

 

I remember those boys. Harry and Jim.That woman, the one in a hurry, she looks like one of my teachers. The school was just around the corner.

 

 

It looks a bit grim in black and white, but it was okay.

 

 

We did art

 

 

and science

 

 

and gym.

 

 

I never liked the climbing ropes.

On Sundays we went to the park. I’ve always liked gardens.

 

 

I had friends. I was happy.

 

 

So what happened?

In my last year I was sent for by the head mistress. She told me my life would change one day. I would be needed for an important task. She gave me a small leather wallet, which I was to carry with me at all times. She never told me how she had chosen me for this task. perhaps because I was already an outsider.

 

 

One day, late in the summer term she called me in and told me I should go home and get changed, into my “adult” clothes, with a long skirt, a white blouse, a wide belt and elegant shoes which I borrowed from my mother’s collection. You won’t see your mother again, or the Smiths. Can you bear that? I thought I could, although really I didn’t think about it at all. At the house I selected a nice wide hat too, my own, recently bought for me so I could pose for a photograph by that old man in Stafford Terrace.

As I had been instructed I left the house and walked south, going through the church gate, beside which two younger girls sat on a wooden bench. One of them  raised her hand as if in greeting and smiled at me.

 

 

I walked through the overgrown garden and down a short set of steps into a mews.

 

 

I had never been this way before. I walked along the mews under an arch and found myself in a wide street.

 

 

There were vehicles moving rapidly in front of me, and there was noise. Automobiles I supposed, though nothing like the ones I had seen before..

And people, many different kinds of people walking along paying no attention to me. Men, women, old, young dressed in such a variety of clothing I felt bewildered .In particular, the women who wore anything from all concealing robes to what looked like nothing more than underwear. And hardly any of them wore a hat.

The packet contained directions to a firm of solicitors in Kensington Church Street. I knew the way but I was terrified by the vehicles passing by, and the variety of people, all walking quickly towards me. A few of them stared at me. After a while I got to the park and went in, looking for a familiar setting.

I sat at a bench. I removed my hat and let my hair loose, shaking it out as though I was preparing for bed. I felt a little more comfortable after that. I walked past a huge building which was set in the place of the new hotel by the park. It was also a hotel it seemed, so some things had not changed. I carried my hat. I felt better now walking down the road, apart from the vehicles. I was used to heavy traffic on the High Street  and knew how to dash between carriages to get across it, but the size of those vehicles, especially a huge thing which I realised was an omnibus. I saw a number 9. How was that possible?

 

I found the solicitor’s office. I had to wait some time in a comfortable, beautifully padded chair before I was seen by an old man, who asked a few questions and looked at me. He put me under the supervision of a young woman barely older than me who took me in a taxi to a house, where a suite of rooms had been prepared for me. She visited me several times, brought me clothes, and showed me how to use the many devices in the flat.

And what was the task, after all that?

Oh, that! I thought you’d ask. I had to make a phone call. I had to deliver a warning. I was given information to prove that I was a reliable source. It wasn’t that easy but I eventually got to speak to the right person. I can’t say much. It was about a date, when something would happen, and I had to tell whoever it was enough to stop it happening. So that date wouldn’t be important.

And I suppose things would be different, but we would never know.

I guess so.

We sat quietly for a while. I had believed every word. I saw no reason not to do so. Over Dee’s shoulder the TV was showing Bowie, back in the UK for a farewell tour. The programme was interrupted by a news bulletin. President Clinton’s peace talks in Tehran had been successful. Iran, Syria and Turkey had agreed on a peace plan which included the creation of a new country, Kurdistan. Nice going. The World Environment Council had appointed a 16-year old girl as its new General Secretary. The new Prime Minister’s name was Johnson. He used to be a postman.

The world was okay, it seemed, and had survived Dee’s mysterious phone call. I asked her if she had made any more phone calls. I imagined that one person could do many of them.

I looked across at the elaborately made up face of the young Japanese woman. I made a prediction in my mind that she would wink. And she did.

 

 

Postscript

Someone told me the other day that I looked like Mike Mills, of REM. I don’t think it quite rises to the level of a doppelganger situation though. Perhaps old men come to resemble each other. In this world I’m a bit older than 53, but I like the Green Man, and Amis’s comment about middle age is true.

 


Short posts – leisure

From time to time I have to scan pictures for enquiries and requests and inevitably you see other images you like in the picture chests and think “I should scan that as well”. So I often do, on the assumption that we’ll need to scan them all eventually so why not now. So another batch of pictures get done which are only connected by the fact that they have caught my interest. And this is what we have today.

 

 

The embankment. Two girls wearing some kind of harness are pulling a third, in the riverside gardens on Cheyne Walk, in 1927, but the driver isn’t sitting in a carriage, she’s running with them. It doesn’t look like that much fun to me, but in the 1920s you had to find your fun where you could. At least they’re getting some exercise.

The picture below is from a slightly later period.

 

 

A picturesque view down Old Church Street, showing a dog being walked (he is showing some interest in another dog, which has been picked up by a girl in school uniform, while a young couple look on with interest), a pair of men delivering milk or groceries (the one in the distance has the benefit of a horse drawn wagon, the nearest one has to pull his own wagon), while a couple of boys are lingering at the edge of the picture (it looks to me as though one of them is having his ear examined by his mother, but that could be me reading too much into it.

The image below is a photograph of a painting by Philip Norman, who was also a London historian.


 

“The back of old houses in Cheyne Walk”. With rather a large garden for the use of young children and small animals. I’m not sure precisely where these houses were but my impression is that they were near Beaufort Street.

Chelsea, of course has one or two celebrated gardens, like this one.

 

 

This shows “the last of the old cedars” in the Apothecaries Garden. The cedars were famous  from Fuge’s print. (He did one image from each direction. This is north, I think. The version I had was in colour but it didn’t seem quite right to me so I put a filter on this to tone down the red. Not enough?

 

 

(Archive trivia: In addition to images of the Physic Garden, the Local Studies also possesses a wooden box, reportedly made from the wood of one of these trees.)

The picture below also features the trees, along with a group of botanists engaged in detailed study.

 

 

The next picture also comes from the 18th century, where as you can see, a number of people are entertaining themselves or being entertained in a small but ornate walled garden. Drinking, dancing, listening to a musician (playing what, exactly?) or taking a turn round the fountain. This according to the caption is Spring Gardens, a small establishment which was located on a site where Lowndes Square was subsequently built.

 

 

I naturally turned to Warwick Wroth’s “London Pleasure Gardens of the 18th Century” (1896, reprinted 1979), a pleasantly exhaustive survey of gardens large and small to learn a little more. It turns out to be more complicated than I thought.  It seems there was a Chelsea Spring Gardens and a Knightsbridge Spring Gardens. Both were “places of public entertainment” featuring displays of “fireworks and horsemanship” with other devices employing fire and water. One of them was connected with a couple of taverns, the Star and Garter and the Dwarf’s Tavern. The co-proprietor of the latter was the celebrated John Coan (“the unparalleled Norfolk Dwarf”) who laid on for his guests “a most excellent ham, some collared eel, potted beef etc, with plenty of sound old bright wine and punch like nectar”. The quotation is from a notice reprinted in Faulkner’s History of Chelsea. On this occasion Mr Coan was available to guest, but for another shilling they could see “The bird of knowledge”. I would have looked in on that.

In the picture though, it seems to be a quiet day. I can’t leave John Coan without showing you this picture by Marianne Rush entitled “The house at the Five Fields where Coan the Norfolk Dwarf exhibited himself”. How much of this is the artist’s imagination I can’t say. But there is plenty of interesting (though out of scale?) detail. Rush is one of my favourite artists in our collection.

 

 

Finally a picture of a private garden, which is definitely quiet. In Kensington, this is a view from Bullingham House which was off Kensington Church Street. (There is a photo of the house from the garden showing these same steps in this post. )

 

 

This is a pretty and well composed picture (it has been used on a greetings card) showing the typical large garden of a house of the 1860s, when much of Kensington was suburban. The crinoline dress is well suited to a sunny afternoon in a quiet corner of London with a privileged young woman enjoying some hours of leisure. Compare it to a the pictures in this post , taken a decade or so later, particularly the first image which shows another lady walking down steps into a garden. (The last photo in the post shows her doing some serious relaxing.)

In the end a theme did emerge from this near random collection of images: leisure, hence the title. I should do a whole post on people relaxing in gardens. One day.


Short posts – Bignell in the Park

I’ve been continuing my trawl through photographs from the Planning department connected to Kensington High Street. The ones dealing with The former Commonwealth Institute have been especially interesting. Today’s pictures are notable because they are the work of a photographer well knows to regular readers of the blog, John Bignell, who has been featured  here many times.

 

 

On this occasion he concerned himself with trees, as you can see from the writing on some of the pictures. Bignell was just doing the work of a jobbing photographer, recording the existence or non-existence of the trees

 

 

The question that always arises with me is that given Bignell’s undoubted talents as a photographer, is there something special about this set of pictures? Has he seen more, done a better composition than a more workaday practitioner or an amateur might?

 

 

Or is the view enough in itself? A sunny day, a couple of people in deckchairs at the centre of the image, and a feeling of relaxation, with the iconic and still photogenic building in the background?

 


 

Why not? The offending tree is gone. We see a couple of guys sunbathing, and looking back at Bignell. In this picture you probably can’t see the woman in a  bikini sitting behind them, also sitting up and asking why is that guy taking a picture of me?

 

 

The admin block behind the wall is also gone now but the streamlined building with the sweeping roof is still there and you can still enjoy a view rather like this one. On a sunny day like this you can probably also sunbathe free from photography.


Short posts: looking back at the Commonwealth Institute part one

As part of my continuing trawl through photographs from our Planning collection I’ve been looking at the section preceding and following Earls Court Road. This of course includes the Commonwealth Institute. I have an odd selection of images which wouldn’t hang together for one big post but make sense in small batches. Hence, a few more short posts.

 

Who he?

Well, some sort of stylised ape, maybe a baboon. West African I would think although I can’t pin it down any further. In this picture he is sitting peaceably on a stone floor. But that’s not why Planning had a picture of him.

 

Can you see the place marked out for him on the right of the picture?

Here it is slightly clearer:

An orange shape next to the stairs and the path which takes you to the walkway entrance. It’s as though he was about to be beamed in, to materialize on a rainy day in Kensington.

Did it ever happen? Does anyone know?

Today of course the walkway is gone and one of the two Holland Green buildings stands in front of the former Institute. You still walk in that direction to get into the Design Museum, as my son and I did recently to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibition. ( Which finishes on September 15th so if you’re at all interested get down there quick. It’s well worth it. And it contains one image supplied by this department. Any guesses?)

More on the former Institute soon.

 


Short posts – the back of the card

The first time I wrote about the May Queens of Whitelands College was in 2011 in a jokey post called “Games for May” (a reference to the Pink Floyd song See Emily Play). I didn’t know that the Local Studies collection had a lot more material both on the May Queen Festival and the Chelsea Pageant, and that I would eventually find even more pictures and ephemera. In that post I just said I had found pictures in a dusty old box in a basement room. This was actually true. The old Print Room at Chelsea had a great deal of abandoned stuff which hadn’t made it into scrapbooks or filing cabinets. This particular selection of pictures were pasted to some loose sheets of scrapbook paper. On both sides of the paper, which is always irritating. (We have rescued many items which have been stuck to unsuitable backings and are now preserved in polyester sheets in picture/document chests). I expressed irritation about the both side of the paper thing and a friend gave me the solution. Take them home, put some cold water in the bath, put the pages in and float the photos and postcards off. You can dry them with tissue paper and flatten them again. It’s a recognised technique for separating photos which have stuck together. (Don’t try it on water colours though.).

This technique, as well as giving you a nice new set of photos and postcards also reveals what’s on the back.

 

 

[This is a photo taken in the Common Room (Coronation Room) of all the Queens. The new Queen, Agnes, is on her throne, & is being crowned by the oldest Queen.]

This is the reverse of a picture we’ve seen before from the 1909 May Queen Festival.

 

 

(Left to right: Mildred I, Florence, Elizabeth II, Ellen I, Agnes II, Dorothy, Elsie II, Evelyn, Elizabeth I, Ellen II, Annie II, Gertrude.)

Below, Agnes is enthroned in front of a painting of the 1903 ceremonies.

 

 

On the back is this caption.

 

 

[The Present Queen “Agnes” (seated) and the Dowager Queen “Dorothy” with the two train bearers “Girlie” and “Chappie” niece and nephew of Miss Smith ( the lecturer who arranges all Chapel functions.) ]

I don’t know why Girlie and Chappie have chosen to conceal their actual identities behind a couple of bland nicknames. Girlie’s in the next picture too , actually bearing the train.

 

 

As the caption says.

 

 

All the hand writing on the postcards is the same person. The last picture has some crosses inked onto it.

 

 

[May Travers is the middle maiden of the three with pitchers. Immediately below her is Millie Ford, “Persephone” and the second one from the right on the back row is “the daughter of King Kateos” alias, Yours v.sincerely E. Imogen Rust]

 

 

And here she is, the writer of the postcards, standing on a box. Nice shoes, my wife said. And they are.

 

 

It’s not often you can get to zero in on a name and a face from one hundred and ten years ago.

 

Postscript

I know I’ve done a May Queen post this year but this post has actually been sitting around for some time in a half-written state so I thought it was worth finishing off. If you’ve never read about this subject before try this one or this one.


Short posts: a plan for the High Street

With my relatively new fortnightly schedule, and my annual fortnight off in August, plus a few other events, there hasn’t been much blog action lately. So I’m easing myself back into things with a few short posts. I’m working on a proper full length post at the same time but I’m taking my time with that, so the next few posts, which will appear at irregular intervals are like out takes from a film or TV series. Today’s pictures could have been part of the Kensington High Street series but they insisted on a post of their own.  This is Kensington High Street as it might have been.

 

 

On the left is St Mary Abbot’s Church, just to orient you, and on the right a version  of the Royal Garden Hotel next to some trees in Kensington Gardens. It’s a model which must have once sat on a table in the offices of Richard Seifert, architect.

As you can see the plan called for the demolition of everything between the two buildings and most interestingly, a tower as high as the church spire on the corner of Kensington Church Street. This would have been typical of work from the Seifert practice, which produced 500 or 600 buildings in London according to different sources including Centre Point, the famous landmark on Tottenham Court Road which remained empty for 15 years, and the Penta/Forum/Holiday inn in Cromwell Road.

Here’s a view from the rear.

 

 

The model implies the clearance of a big area near where Lancer Square was built, but presumably that wasn’t  real – it only includes the actual buildings which might have been built, with the Church included so you know where you are.

 

 

I found the pictures in our Planning collection, folded up, and I had to flatten them out for a few weeks to make them fit for scanning – you can still see the folds.

The initial reaction is perhaps horror, but it’s only a model after all, and it never happened. Imagine it though – the great big tower, the space behind it and whatever was inside the lower section which fronted onto the High Street. The expanse of glass. Would the project have opened up the High Street or hemmed in the buildings around it? And what difference would it have made to the High Street as time went on and the project had an influence further down the street?

I enjoy the ephemera created by building plans and planning applications. Like the shiny worlds in artists’ impressions, they show us alternate universes, some of which we would like and some we would be happy to avoid.


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