Friday, 31 January 2014

Mrs Rylands Library

This sign, with its fabulous golden lettering, is on a wonderful Victorian Gothic building in Manchester, founded by Enriqueta Rylands as a tribute to her husband, John. The library that bears her husband’s name was a labour of love for Enriqueta. Now part of Manchester University, it took 10 years to build and was opened to the public in 1900. Born in Cuba in 1843, Enriqueta came to Manchester to be a companion to John Rylands’s wife, Martha. When Martha died in 1875, Enriqueta and John married. Enriqueta began the work of building and collecting for the people of Manchester after John’s death in 1888, sharing her love of books, art and architecture. She died in 1908 in Torquay.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

At the sign of the golden tooth

This venerable sign is in a Georgian gem area of Southampton. It advertises a dental practice and, despite appearances, it is modern. Historically-aware dentist Clive Marks wanted a sign that was in keeping with the 1820s Grade II listed building that housed the practice. After three years of research he commissioned the sign, based on a similar one in France. Carved from solid elm, and weighing a hefty five stone, the gilded tooth hangs proudly above the select shops of Bedford Place.

But there’s more. And, being a communications professional as well as a sign fanatic, it’s a story that pleases me greatly. 

One night about 11 years ago, the tooth was stolen; three young men were seen staggering up the street with it. Instead of adding it to the local crime statistics, the dentist, suspecting it was a student prank, enlisted the student newspaper to track down the perpetrators. That done, they had some great fun, checking dental records for anyone with an unusually large tooth missing and issuing ransom notes from the militant wing of the tooth fairies. The police entered into the fun as Nasher of the Yard. Not only did this create some great publicity, the venture raised £200 for comic relief in the form of ransom money. The dentist was generous enough to let the student newspaper run it as an exclusive, and it gained international coverage. I can’t vouch for his dentistry skills, but Clive Marks’s ability to extract good PR from a misfortune has to be admired. You can read the full story here

Please note how restrained I’ve been. I could have talked about giving my eye teeth for this story, pontificated on the molar of the tale and mentioned gaps in the coverage. I could have drilled down into the detail and filled in for padding, and I could have speculated on incisor dealing. Just be grateful I didn’t.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Mine's a pint and a wife

Sadly now closed up and in disrepair, this handsome Grade II listed building was built in 1904. The site has been the home of an inn for centuries, as the White Lion was on Stockport’s main coaching route. The pub also provided the location for a wife sale, Mayor of Casterbridge style, in 1831. It’s a shame that a site with so much history is now so unloved. I’m sorry to see the hostelry tradition disappear, but, frankly, the habit of wife sales can go unmourned. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Grotto Passage

Grotto Passage, Marylebone, London, was named after John Castles’ successful 18th century grotto-making business. As Marylebone Pleasure Gardens were situated nearby, just on the other side of the High Street, this area was an ideal location for John Castles to exhibit his glittering works to a paying public. A shell grotto opened in the 1730s and remained on display until 1759.

The grotto business may have closed, but the name remained associated with the area, and the Grotto Ragged and Industrial School was established in 1846. Ragged schools had been established in 1818 by John Pounds, a disabled cobbler from Portsmouth, to give free education to working class children. By the 1840s they were booming, with the number of schools in London swelling from 20 in 1845 to 62 in 1848.

In 1865, Octavia Hill, the champion of housing reform, started her first social housing project nearby in Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place). Octavia went on to found the National Trust, 119 years ago today, on 12 January 1895.

Today Marylebone is glittering again, with money rather than shells in a grotto. Those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, think posh, in an independent bookshop and organic farmers market kind of way. It’s a highly desirable central London “village”, and if you visit it’s worth nipping down those small back alleys to discover its ragged past.

Bonus ghost sign

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The footman and the kitchen maid

Holland Park, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is now one of the most expensive residential areas of London. This mews is a pretty cobbled street sandwiched between two roads (both called Holland Park) lined with grand detached double-fronted Victorian villas. Construction started in the 1860s and finished in 1879.

When the 1871 census took place, around 35 houses were already occupied, with more still in construction. Half of the people living in those houses were servants, and there were more servants, such as coachmen and grooms, living in the mews buildings.

One of those servants was Louisa Atkinson, a kitchen maid aged about 19, from the wonderfully named Follifoot in Yorkshire. She was one of 13 servants listed at 18 Holland Park, the home of a metal merchant and his large family.

Not far away, in Pimlico, footman David Waller and nine others served the Wyvill family at 22 Warwick Square. David was 24 and he came from Norfolk

Somehow, the two of them met. In 1872, Louisa and David married. They settled in Cambridgeshire, where David became a fireman with the Great Eastern railway, and they went on to have a family.

I know this because they are my husband’s great great grandparents, and we have been researching our family tree. It’s taken us to some interesting places, and it’s always exciting if the buildings our ancestors lived in are still there. I wonder what modern day servants are living in those beautiful homes of the excessively rich today?