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The Blackwall Tunnel – The Twenty First Wonder of the World

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The Northern Entrance and Dock Entrance were demolished in 1958

Like many other Londoners I am fascinated by the River Thames which winds itself through the great city.  I also have to admit I am also fascinated by the underwater crossings under the river, to this end I have walked through the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels and even braved the car fumes by walking through the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Today we may view these tunnels as a pleasant novelty, however when these tunnels were built they represented cutting edge technology and were a testament to Victorian engineering.

This was certainly the case with the Blackwall Tunnel whose completion in 1897 was heralded as a wonderful example of British innovation and according to one newspaper was ‘The Twenty First Wonder of the World.’

It was not the first tunnel built under the Thames, that honour went to the nearby Thames Tunnel built between Rotherhithe and Wapping built by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel between 1825 and 1843.That tunnel was built to be used by horse drawn carriages but was only ever used by pedestrians until it was used as a railway tunnel.The Blackwall tunnel was designed on a much grander scale to offer access to pedestrians, cycles, horse drawn carriages and other vehicles,

A Pall Mall Gazette  report of the time regarded the tunnel as a source of national pride.

 A Twenty-first Wonder of the World.

The Thames Tunnel at Blackwall.

For some eight years Londoners have been ignorant of the fact that they themselves were carrying out one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of the world.. The Blackwall Tunnel, undertaken and paid for by the County Council as representing the people of London, Is now as good as finished, and perhaps London will wake up and realise what it has accomplished.

A large number of engineering experts, of County Council and other local rate expending bodies, as well as the Mayor of Colchester and other authorities of Sir Wheatman Pearson’s parliamentary borough, went down to Poplar at the invitation of Messrs. S. Pearson and Son. the contractors for the big job. and walked through the tunnel. It is a huge affair. The river from Blackwall to Greenwich Marshes opposite is 300 yards wide. To make an easy gradient on either side, so as to get the roadway down to the depth of the river, it has been necessary to carry out the work to the total length of nearly 2700 yards.

The height of the tunnel from the roadway to the centre of the arch is 17ft. 6in., so that even tall men on seventeen-hands horses will be able to ride through it without stooping. But the outside- diameter of the tunnel that is, measuring from the outside of the great cast-iron plates which form the tube — is no less than seven yards.A subaqueous luncheon such as has probably never been prepared before in the whole history of the world was the feature of yesterday’s function. Nearly 2000 people, among whom were many ladies, sat down at little elegantly-appointed tables in a luncheon-room a-quarter of a mile long under the very middle of the River Thames, and while ships were sailing and the celebrated County-Councll-purified fish were carrying on their pranks overhead they sat in comfort and toasted the persons responsible for the great achievement in the driest of champagne.

When it was officially open in 1897 by the Prince of Wales, it was the longest tunnel under a river in the world, much was made of the cost (estimated at one million pounds) and the fact it had taken 600 men to build it.

Other than financial costs the building of the tunnel caused widespread disruption in Blackwall and Greenwich with many old buildings being demolished, most notable being the Walter Raleigh House in Blackwall.

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Plaque marking the opening of East India Docks

Later work on the tunnel destroyed the old East India Dock entrance  and the large plaque from it was removed and placed at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel.

At first the tunnel was well used by pedestrians  and horse driven vehicles but eventually they were banned because over time  motor vehicles became the main users.

Because the tunnel was not specifically built with motor vehicles in mind, when there was a build up of vehicles, fumes  began to cause problems. In 1928 , 43 people had to be treated in one incident when the fumes caused dizziness and fainting.

Other less likely problems arrived when a  lorry carrying bags of soot  lost its load in the tunnel in 1950, the black fog coated everyone and everything with soot, the tunnel was closed  and it eventually had to be cleaned out with water.

Even as early as the 1930s it became clear that the Tunnel could not cope with the scale of traffic and another tunnel would be needed but due to the war and lack of investment  it was not until 1967 that another tunnel was finally opened, the new tunnel handling southbound traffic while the earlier 19th century tunnel handled northbound.

The Blackwall Tunnel today is often seen as a source of frustration with frequent closures but the next time you go through it, think about the time that 2000 people had their lunch in the middle of it and when it was proudly acclaimed as the Twenty First Wonder of the World.

Cockney Heritage Festival – Chrisp Street Market

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For the last week or so the East End has had a large number of events to celebrate the Cockney Heritage Festival.

One of the events was a photo exhibition  at Chrisp Street Market by Tom Hurley celebrating a local landmark Ivy’s Café.

For all the events in the festival taking place it seemed that having an exhibition in the market was great way to illustrate the connection between Markets and Cockney heritage.

There is no doubt that the history of the Cockney and the Costermongers are intertwined . Costermongers (street traders) in London have existed since at least the 16th Century  but it was in the reign of Victoria that they became common in many London street markets.

The Costers developed their own culture  which included their own rhyming slang, a distrust of the police and the election of pearly kings and queens. Much of what we think of as Cockney culture originated from the Costers.

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Chrisp Street Market gained a certain popularity  in the 1860s when many traders and costermongers migrated from Poplar High Street. It quickly gained a reputation as a genuine street market attracting customers from Poplar and especially the Isle of Dogs which  for years lacked its own shopping centre.

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Chrisp Market 1900s

In an area devastated by bombing in the war and suffering the closure of the local railway station, Chrisp Street Market struggled post war and it was decided in the early 1950s to relocate the market in a purpose-built shopping precinct. This shopping precinct was built as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951,  it was one of the first purpose-built shopping areas in Britain bringing together shops, café, market stalls and flats  and was widely praised leading to the design being copied all over Britain.

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Festival of Britain 1951

However by  the 1970s part of the market was showing signs of age and needed refurbishment which were carried out in the 1980s.

Tom Hurley used local people for his subject matter in  his exhibition of portraits taken in Ivy’s Cafe, a Chrisp Street market institution  for over 50 years run by the same family for over three generations.

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The portraits illustrate that Chrisp Street Market is a bit of a rarity in London, that is a quite large market frequented mostly by local people. Walking around the market it still has lots of places for people to eat and drink or just sit around and talk to other people.

In a rapidly changing retail world, Chrisp Street Market is a reminder of the importance markets played in  the local community. Much of the importance was the social interaction with your friends and neighbours. It was this interaction that was at the centre of Cockney Life.

So although London is ever-changing whilst we have places like Chrisp Street Market a bit of the Cockney spirit lives on.

 

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John Betjeman visits the Isle of Dogs 1956

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Castalia Square 1960s (photo Island History)

It is always a great pleasure to come across an article by a writer or journalist visiting the Isle of Dogs. It is often written from the viewpoint of someone going to somewhere remote and uncharted rather than a part of a major city.

The following article written by poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman for the Spectator in 1956 follows this long tradition. It is worth remembering that although John Betjeman was a popular poet who became Poet Laureate in 1972, he also was a supporter of many campaigns to protect historic buildings most famously St Pancras station.

It is his love of architecture  that brought  him to the Isle of Dogs in 1956 where he made an unexpected discovery.

In the evening sunlight on Monday, I went to that least visited part of London, the Isle of Dogs. It’s more than a square mile of docks, houses: shattered Victorian churches, no train service, no cinema, a bus service, and only approachable by swing bridges. The people on the Island are proud of it and don’t like living anywhere else. Poplar people on the mainland don’t like coming to live on the Island. It is a cut-off kingdom, the remotest thing you can find in London, and was very badly bombed in the war. Among the ruins three sights well worth the journey are to be seen. (1) Coldharbour, near Blackwall Basin, where some fine Georgian merchants’ houses have the water washing up to their walls and where a public house looks over Blackwall Reach. (2) Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Island, which commands the best view of Greenwich Hospital there is. Reflected in the water one sees the doomed Union Wharf beside the Hospital, with its weather-boarded houses, Queen’s House, and in the background the trees of Greenwich Park and the outline of the Observatory. (3) One of the best new housing estates I have seen since the war, comparable with Lansbury, intimately proportioned, cheerful and airy and yet London-like. It is called Castalia Square and makes one realise. when one compares it with the gloomy blocks of ‘artisans’ dwellings’ of the mid-war and pre-1914 periods, how good modern architecture can be. In all the destruction I record in this column, it is a pleasure to be able to write about something newly built which makes one’s heart rejoice.

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Castalia Square in 2013

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There was a refurbishment of the Square in 1992 which was opened by Bruno Brookes Radio 1 DJ

Cubitt Town Carnegie Library and the Story of Rose Marie

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Cubitt Town Library

As many people would know the ‘Island’ suffered greatly from bombing in the Second World War, one of the consequences of this was that many fine old buildings were damaged or destroyed.

One of the buildings that escaped that fate was the Cubitt Town Library on Strattondale Street. It is a pleasant surprise to come across the fine classical styled building amongst the post war houses  and modern developments.

The Cubitt Town library was part of the movement at the start of the 20th Century in which local authorities began to build public libraries often with joint funding provided by the Scottish American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Andrew Carnegie had humble beginnings in Dunfermline before emigrating to the United States in 1848. Carnegie over the next two decades through hard work and clever investments became a very wealthy man. Carnegie never forgot his background and looked at ways to use his wealth to help people from a poor background. With his love of books and reading, Carnegie believed that establishing public libraries was a way to encourage people to aspire to move beyond their poor backgrounds. To get local support he provided the funding to build and equip the Library and the local authority provided the land and money to maintain its operation.

Cubitt Town Library was built after the Mayor of Poplar heard Carnegie speak in 1902 and soon afterwards made the application and set about raising funds. It was officially opened by well known local politician Will Crooks in 1905.

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In our modern world of instant communications we sometimes forget that the important role the libraries such as Cubitt Town played in a local community.

Kay Everson who grew up on the Island in the 1930s remembers her visits to the library:

I loved the library and spent a lot of time there as I have always been a voracious reader and books  were a form of escapism whilst growing up. I lived in Strattondale Street so the journey to the library was easy. My one ambition at that time was to get in to the adult section to find more exciting books. My mother and my Aunt who lived upstairs in our house used to send me to get them any romance, particularly anything by Ethel M. Dell or Ruby M. Ayres.

Walking around the Library I came across a book Rose Marie in a glass frame and next to it a short history, it is within this history that  Kay’s childhood friend Iris Chadwick plays a leading part.

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Iris and Kay in the 1930s

Just after the start of the second world war, Iris was 13 and a pupil of Millwall Central school , she had developed an interest in the piano and went into Cubitt Town Library to get the musical score of the popular musical Rose Marie.

However within days, steps were undertaken to begin evacuation of many of the Islands children.  Iris was evacuated to Slough with her mother,sister and brother whilst her father a London Fireman stayed at their home on  Stebondale  Street.

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Iris with her brother, sister and cousin in 1939

Whilst she was evacuated her home was damaged by a bomb and declared unfit to live in, fortunately her father was uninjured and  managed to salvage a few items which included the Rose Marie book.

Within the next few months Iris’s father was able to be relocated to Catford and soon after the family was reunited.

For Iris her childhood was over, for whilst she was evacuated she had started work  and when she moved to Catford joined the W.J.A.C. (Womens Junior Air Corps).

After the war in 1946 Iris got married then moved to Surrey Docks, Hampshire and Dorset, all through this time she was unaware if the Library had survived the Blitz. Therefore she looked after the book until 2009 when she thought it was time to try to return the book to its original home.

The story of the returned library book after 70 years was picked up by the media and Rose Marie became a bit of a celebrity,and the Cubitt Town Library entered in the spirit of the story by not demanding the estimated £2,500 overdue fees and putting Rose Marie in place of honour within a glass case.

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Rose Marie at Cubitt Town Library

In the destruction of large amounts of housing on the Island during the war there was simply not enough housing for people who wished to return. Therefore many former Islanders were scattered around London and the rest of the Country.

The Island pre war had been a close knit community with many generations of the same family living on the same street. The disruption of the war had a profound effect on these communities in which people lost touch with family and friends.

Iris’s childhood friend Kay Everson was only 11 when she was evacuated to Eynsham in Oxfordshire before eventually moving to Hornchurch, it was only in the last few years that the childhood friends were reunited.

Iris’s story and Rose Marie are a timely reminder that for many people and certainly many children, the war had long term consequences which often meant they would never return to their childhood home. For many children brought up on the Island but then sent away for their own safety often without their parents, there was no doubt that those war years changed their lives forever.

Many thanks to Iris Chadwick and Kay Everson for their contribution to this post.

Guardians of the River – Thames Police Museum in Wapping

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Wapping Police station (the old carpenters shop is behind the green door)

Last Saturday I had the good fortune to attend the Wapping  ‘Shindig’ a day of community entertainments.

One of the highlights was a visit to the Thames Police  Museum which is located in the Wapping Police Station itself. Due to the fact it is located in a working  police station visits are usually by appointment only or on one of the rare Open Days.

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Whistler etching of the Police Station 1859

The museum charts the creation of the Marine Police in 1798 and the various developments up to the present day.

The original Marine Police Establishment  was formed by a magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and Master Mariner John Harriott  in an attempt to combat the widespread theft from ships entering and leaving London’s Docks and Wharves.

The initial expense of setting up the force  was quickly repaid many times over when in its first year of operation the force recovered over a £100,000 worth of cargo and saved many lives.

However this success came at a price , a riot outside of Wapping Police Station led to one of Marine Police officers  being shot dead. It is widely believed that this officer whose name was Gabriel Franks was the first police officer  to be killed in the line of duty.

It is also argued that the Marine Police Establishment was the first established modern police force in the world.

It was the success of the Marine Police Establishment that led to calls to set up a Metropolitan Police force which eventually was formed in 1829, however the Marine Police remained separate to this new force until it was incorporated  into the Metropolitan Police force in 1839.

The Marine Police  then became known as the Thames Division with responsibility for policing long stretches of the Thames.

There has been a police station on the Wapping site from 1798,  however the present police station dates from 1907 and it is within  the old carpenters workshop that the Thames Police collection has been built up  by Police Officers  over the years.

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Inside the Museum is a large numbers of exhibits with collections of police ‘Hardware’ such as handcuffs, pistols, swords and  cutlasses.

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You can read excerpts from the Thames Division Punishment book (1839-1865) and other police reports.

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There is also a number of Model Ships, paintings, drawings , uniforms and other Thames Police ephemera.

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However the highlight of the collection is the The Company ensign recovered from the ill fated Princess Alice in 1878.

It was the sinking of the pleasure steamer near Woolwich with the loss of over 600 lives that would have a major effect on the way the Thames was policed.

At the Princess Alice enquiry it was recommended that the Thames Division should have steam launches to enable them to respond quicker to emergencies rather than the rowing boats that had been previously used.

It is impossible to estimate the countless lives that have been saved by the Marine Police service since it’s inception or the large number of crimes solved, but the Marine Police Station and the Museum at Wapping is a timely reminder of the courage and bravery of Police Officers who have policed the Thames for over 200 years.

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View from the Museum

Passion and Fashion – The Photography of Nunzio Prenna

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It is my pleasure to introduce my readers to the work of Nunzio Prenna a local photographer who is quickly making a reputation for himself with his striking images of London and on the Fashion pages.

Recently I caught up with Nunzio to find more about his background and his photography.

Can you tell me a little about your background ?

I was born in a very small town in the south of Italy called Castellaneta. Perhaps some people into old movies know it because of Rudolph Valentino. He was from my hometown and did silent movies in Hollywood. I prefer to explain like this: “you know the shape of Italy? I’m from the heel!”

I came to the UK 8 years ago for my summer holiday. It was my last year at university in Milan so I just got the first cheap plane ticket I could find and it was a ticket to London. I spent 3 months working in a restaurant (as a sou chef even if I didn’t know much of cooking!).

When summer was over I went back to university and promised myself to come back to London. I did. Just a few days after my graduation I moved to London planning to work and live there. I was in love with this city.

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What kind of work was you looking for ?

I studied 3D and so i wanted to work for movies or advertisement. it was very difficult to find a job and I ended up doing other type of jobs to support myself. I never got into the movie industry but instead ended up working in architectures firms as a 3D Visualiser. The job is nice but I was missing something. Photography!

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How did you develop your interest in Photography ?

I always was into photography even if just for fun and nothing serious. I remember taking nice photos when I was really young going out for school trips. Funny enough some of my best photos are from a school trip I did to London when I was 16. I still have those photos back in my hometown.

I bought myself a more serious camera 4 years ago and started taking lots of photos. Since then I’ve upgraded my equipment a few times and got into photography more and more. I still work as a 3D Visualiser but photography is now part of my business (and fun).

My goal is to be a full time photographer and have my own studio.

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Who has influenced or inspired your photography ?

My inspiration and influences are many. I look at photos on internet every day. I buy photography magazines and fashion magazines constantly. It is hard for me to name just one photographer that gives me inspiration. David Lachapelle has always been one of my favorites if i really have to name one. I also love the work of many “non full time” photographers like me,  for example I could name a few (Athena Carey, Elia Locardi).

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How long have you lived on the Isle of Dogs?

I’ve been living on the Isle of Dogs for the last 4 years. I love it. It has everything I need and more. I hardly go in central London anymore. You can always find me walking around Canary Wharf and Greenwich where I always bring my camera.

As I said I work for architects and perhaps Canary Wharf inspires me in doing building photography.

I’d love to be able to combine fashion and buildings in my photos and this is something that I’m trying hard to achieve.

I find old buildings very photogenic and putting a model in them just makes the whole thing alive. On the same note I love futuristic buildings.

In an ideal world I would not mind to be a travel photographer and visit many different countries and cultures but I think I will stick to pursuing a career in fashion photography.

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If you would like to see more of Nunzio’s work or contact him.

Website: press here

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Lighting up the River – Thames Barge Driving Race 2013

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It is always a pleasure to see the river full of traffic, and today we saw the Thames Barge Driving Race passing past the Isle of Dogs.

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The race consists of about 12 teams of between 4 and 8 members who drive (steer and row) 30 ton barges over a seven mile course for about 90 minutes from Greenwich to Westminster Bridge.

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As well as the barges there is a flotilla of other boats that follow the action.

It is  38th running of this annual event. Set up in 1975 by a charity called The Transport On Water Association (TOW) with the backing of Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords.

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​The event celebrates the skill of lighterman who moved large amounts of cargo in unpowered barges.

It takes a great deal of river craft navigating a 30 tonne barge in the Thames river currents and the race was created to encourage young people to consider working on the river.

The teams are usually made up by employees of Thames lighterage companies, Port of London Authority  and other Thames organisations.

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Interested spectator