Radioactive Limehouse – The Strange Story of the British Radium Corporation
Regular readers will know that the Isle of Dogs and nearby Limehouse has been the site of a wide variety of industries over the last few hundred year, However I have recently came across some newspaper articles that illustrate that Limehouse played a major part in the processing of Radium, this largely forgotten story has it origins in the early years of the twentieth century.
The turn of the 20th century was the time of remarkable advances in science, One of the most significant discoveries was Radium which was discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie in 1898. Due to the difficulties of obtaining radium, its scarcity led to it being considered very valuable and governments and companies began develop mines that would extract the uranium ore needed for the process.
In Britain, it was Nobel laureate Sir William Ramsay who was the main driving force behind the establishment of the Radium Institute that carried out and supervised research on radium and was responsible for the supply of radioactive materials to British hospitals. Since its discovery, radium had been used in the treatment of cancers and the race was on to produce other radium treatments that would ‘cure’ a variety of ailments.
To secure future supplies Ramsay became involved in the founding of the British Radium Corporation and created the first radium factory in the UK in Limehouse. A newspaper report from 1909 takes up the story.
The East- End is to be the repository of untold wealth.
Tomorrow in Thomas Street, Limehouse, the foundation stone of a radium factory will be laid. It will be the first factory of its kind established, in this country; and, as marking the inauguration of a new British industry whose possibilities cannot be foreseen, the occasion will be of peculiar interest.
The stone-laying ceremony will be performed at noon by Lady Ramsay, wife of Sir William Ramsay who will accompany her and deliver an address on radium and its production and commercial form. Indeed,the distinguished scientist is to be the consulting chemist to the new concern.
The factory was built within six weeks and production began, by 1910, Sir William Ramsay was able to announce that in the Limehouse factory, for the first time radium had been produced in Great Britain from British ore. In the following report, the distinguished scientist explained the process.
Sir W. Ramsay’s Process.
Sir William Ramsay, the eminent scientist, gave a demonstration of the various processes in connection with the extraction of radium at the British Radium Corporation factory at Limehouse, on the 19th October, and announced that the Trenwith mine, in Cornwall, has produced to date some 5,000 milligrammes of radium containing 10 per cent, of pure radium bromide.
The event was, in a sense, an historic one, for the radium exhibited by Sir William Ramsay was the first that had ever been extracted in Great Britain from British ore. As most people are aware, radium is obtained from pitchblende — a mineral which is a very rare occurrence, the only two deposits of serious magnitude so far located being in Austria and in Cornwall.
Without going into much detail it may be stated briefly that the ore after concentration at the mines is taken to the factory where it is dissolved and a solution is obtained containing uranium, radium, polonium and actinium. At the present time the polonium and actinium contents are not recovered, all efforts being concentrated on securing primarily the radium.
If the thought of all this radioactive material in Limehouse is making you nervous, do not worry because the pure radium was put into a specially built safe. The safe was specially made by Chubb and Sons, for the British Radium Corporation to allow the storage and protection of radium. Although only three feet in height, the safe weighed a ton and a half and had a steel and lead casing with asbestos padding with movements controlled by mercury rods. This would be a modern day health and safety nightmare but the main concern in 1910 was to stop burglars taking the radium that was worth £600,000 for half an ounce.
Although there was a great shortage of radium, a whole industry developed around the ‘miracle’ element, items such as toothpaste, cosmetics, radioactive waters and many such items were sold which often contained minute traces of radium.
The main commercial use of radium was in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. A tragic aspect of this industry was that the painting was done by hand mostly by young woman who licked their brushes to give them a fine point, therefore ingesting radium. Gradually the girls developed serious health problems which included bone cancer.
For all the excitement of the launch of the Limehouse factory, it was to be a short lived success. The British Radium Corporation factory on Thomas Street near Baltic Wharf, which was situated between a biscuit factory and a refining works for gold and silver and became the first commercial radium factory in Britain went into receivership in 1918 and was finally dissolved in 1921.
Bagpuss and the Clangers at the Museum of Childhood
Occasionally, I make the journey to Bethnal Green to the Museum of Childhood which is one of the best museums in East London. It is always quite nostalgic with lots of toys and games from different eras, however my visit coincided with the opening of a new exhibition about Smallfilms, the production company that made Bagpuss and the Clangers.
The exhibition is entitled The Clangers, Bagpuss & Co and is the first major retrospective of Smallfilms, the company created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. The small exhibition looks like it is in a barn and that is intentional because Smallfilms was based in rural Kent and all the filming took place in a barn and an adapted pigsty.
The remarkable aspect of Smallfilms was that Oliver Postgate (writer, animator and narrator) and Peter Firmin (modelmaker and illustrator) did almost all of the work themselves without much outside interference.
This allowed Postgate and Firmin to create imaginary worlds that would captivate children for the next 50 years. The exhibition illustrates the sheer ingenuity of Smallfilms, one of the highlights is Oliver Postgate’s stop-motion film camera, adapted using a small motor and bits of Meccano. However, for all the mechanical ingenuity, it was the quirky and inventive programmes like Bagpuss, The Clangers, Pogles Wood, Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine that captivated millions of children all around the world.
My first memories of Smallfilms was with Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog which became my particular favourites. When you watch the shows now, it is fascinating to notice that how the stories and the sets blend together to create self contained small worlds. It is this attention to detail that is illustrated by the original puppets, archive footage, sets and storyboards, photos, scripts and filming equipment.
For all their early success, it was in the late 60s and early 70s when Smallfilms achieved their greatest hits with The Clangers and Bagpuss. The strange whistling aliens and the old cloth cat became firm favourites with generations of children and the exhibition has plenty of the original puppets from the two shows.
Bagpuss and his entertaining friends have pride of place in the exhibition with even the dress worn by Emily who owned Bagpuss in the programme. Emily was played by Emily Firmin, the daughter of illustrator Peter Firmin.
If you want to look at animation before computer graphics then take a trip to the wonderful V&A Museum of Childhood and enjoy this small but fascinating free exhibition.
The Clangers, Bagpuss and Co at the Museum of Childhood – 19th March to 9th October 2016
The Story of the River Thames Postmen
Regular readers will know that Eric Pemberton often supplies interesting pieces of ephemera which provides the basis for some research and an article. Last week Eric sent some photographs that was a reminder of an unusual occupation on the river which allowed people on board ships to send and receive mail.
In the 19th century, postmen did not just deliver the mail on land. One of the most unusual jobs in London was the post of River Postman which covered the stretch of the River Thames from London Bridge to Limehouse reach. The post of River Postman was established in 1800 and included a special scarlet uniform which allowed the postman to be noticed on the busy river. Accidents were not unknown and at least two postman died in the early years of the 19th century.
A newspaper report of 1912 gives some details about Frederic Winder who was one of the early River postmen.
Postman to Crimean Transports carried Mails across the Frozen Thames.
The funeral took place at Lewisham Cemetery recently of Mr. Frederic William Winder, who has terminated a remarkable career, at the age of 95 years. He was an old Thames postman, and he handled the Crimean mails. In the terrible winter of 1855 which stands out as one of the most awful memories of the Crimean campaign, he carried the bags of letters over the Thames ice to the troopship lying opposite the old Deptford Victualling Yard.
‘It was in 1840 — the year the penny post came in — that I first became a Thames postman. My predecessor was on the river for 42 years. ‘For about 30 years I used to deliver the letters to the ships lying between Limehouse and East Greenwich. They were all, timber-built ships in those days, and it was a wonderful sight to see them all on the water. I have counted as many as 300 ‘sail of ships’ between Deptford Creek and Deadman’s Dock. When the Crimean War was on the Thames used to look like a forest with all the transport vessels and their big masts. So hard was the winter of 1855 that I was often able to do away with my river boat and walk across the ice to the transports, carrying the letters and mail bags.’
It was quite common for the job of River Postman to be handed down from father to son, Eric’s photographs show two generations of the Evans family who were the best known postmen on the river, the postman in the boater is George Henry Evans taken around 1910, many of the other photo’s feature his son Herbert Lionel Evans.
A newspaper report of 1924 discusses some of the problems of delivering to Limehouse and gives some details of River Postman, Mr H L Evans.
Little comedies and adventures in the life of a postman as described in “The Post Annual,’ which is produced by the Union of Post Office Workers.
” It tells of some queer places of delivery-ranging from a letter box under the doorstep of a house to vessels lying in mid Thames, to which the river postman row every morning,” say the London Daily Chronicle.”
“There is one house in Chinatown,” says the writer, “the front of which opens on to the backyard of another house in front of it, it is necessary to go through two of the rooms to get access. Another curiosity of this character which, is found in Chinatown is provided by two small cottages, absolutely hidden. The only way to get access is through a passage which runs a double fronted house standing in front of them. There are many letter boxes in strange places in London, “One occasionally can notice them tucked away in the corner of a window instead of being in the door. One, at least, is to be found under the doorstep of a house-not the place where a new postman would be likely to look.
The river postman is Mr. H. L. Evans, who, in the Alice Maud, rows out to vessels in mid-river every morning to deliver letters. His delivery extends from London Bridge to Duke Shore, Limehouse. He takes in the space of river between the Customs House and London Bridge, and then proceeds down stream, crossing and recrossing the river as he comes upon the vessels for which he has correspondence.
It is a picturesque occupation, and looks attractive, during the Summer weather. Heavy rains, fogs and frosts, however, play a big part in the river postman’s life. He cannot shelter himself from the rain as can his shoregoing colleagues; fog means groping about the river, sometimes only to discover that a wrong direction been taken, when the wrong shore is encountered, and with the necessity for avoiding tugs which may bear down out of the darkness at any moment.
Mr Evans is a licensed waterman. The duty as, from soon after its institution, always been performed by members of his family, and he represents the fifth generation to take it up.
Remarkably, there is a short Pathe film of 1933 which shows Mr Evans delivering to various ships and houseboats. Herbert Lionel Evans carried on in the position of River Postman until 1952 when the post was discontinued due to increased traffic in the Thames.
Although the job was mainly done by men, during the First World War, Doris Beaumont was a river post girl on the Thames. She delivered letters to the houseboats along a seven mile stretch of river at Staines.
By 1919 it was said that she had rowed 2,500 miles. She became a bit of celebrity gaining publicity from around the world. She was recently honoured in a series of special edition Royal Mail stamps.
A Walk around Trinity Buoy Wharf
Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by the Trinity Buoy Wharf area which is one of the most unusual places in London. The bright sunshine on Sunday was just the encouragement I needed to take a walk up to the wharf to check up on the latest developments. With plenty of street art and sculptures around the site, there is always something new to discover.
For the those who do not know the area, here is a short potted history. The Corporation of Trinity House is a company responsible for buoys, lighthouses and lightships and in the early 19th century established Trinity Buoy Wharf as its Thames-side workshop where wooden buoys and sea marks were made and stored. Eventually new buildings were constructed during the Victorian period including the Electrician’s Building and an Experimental Lighthouse whose roof space housed a workshop for the famous scientist Michael Faraday.
By 1910 Trinity Buoy Wharf was a major local employer, with over 150 workers on the site and carried on until 1988 when it finally closed. In 1998, Trinity Buoy Wharf which was then an empty, derelict site was taken over by The Trinity Buoy Wharf Trust which began to develop the area as a centre for the arts and creative industries and the location is now home to a working community of over 350 people.
The first indication that this is a slightly surreal location is the Black London taxi with a tree sprouting out of the top mounted on a roundabout. A number of large buoys and some street art entertain you as you walk along the pathway up to wharf. One of the most striking pieces of work is the Electric Soup mural by New Zealand Artist Bruce Mahalski on a former shop front on Orchard Place.
A new piece is a 3D painting of the word paint which is quite striking as you wander down the road.
Sculptor Andrew Baldwin has a number of sculptures at the wharf including his latest installation which is a very original staircase has been installed on the Main Stores building.
If the sculpture was a surprise, the fact that the Fat Boy’s Diner has been moved next to the Lighthouse was more of a shock. Fatboy’s Diner is a genuine 1940s American Diner from New Jersey that was bought over from the States then had a few short stays in different parts of London before finding its present site. The Diner itself is a bit of a celebrity featuring in the film Sliding Doors, music videos and magazines.
The growth of the Container City seems to be ongoing with new studio and gallery space being developed. It was encouraging to see more people than normal coming to the wharf on a Sunday with a steady stream of people enjoying the area and the food and drink at the Cafe and the diner.
The Little Brown Bus by William Pett Ridge
The ship Milverton in Stewart’s Dry Dock, Manchester Road, Isle of Dogs, ca. 1919 Photo (c) William Whiffin
Regular readers will know that I am always on the look out for stories related to the Isle of Dogs and recently came across a humorous short piece by W. Pett Ridge. William Pett Ridge was born at Chartham in Kent 1859, in the 1890s, he began to write humorous sketches for newspapers and magazines and became well known for his ability to write entertaining portraits of working class life. He went on to write a number of novels with Mord Em’ly published in 1898, the most successful. Pett Ridge’s great popularity as a novelist and writer was in the early part of the 20th century and it was at this time that he wrote The Little Brown Bus which involves a character that is familiar to all of us, namely the person who travels on public transport who will not shut up, in this case it is a sailor who meets a variety of characters on the little brown bus.
The Little Brown Bus by W. Pett Ridge (The Sailor’s Voyage to the Isle of Dogs)
East India Dock road is half inclined to put up its shutters, but reluctant to do this-albeit the hour is late-because foreign sailors, much more at sea here than when on the ocean, are still loafing on the edge of the pavement. The shops have everything a sea-going man may desire, from bars of hard yellow soap and fur caps and scarlet pocket handkerchiefs to chromos of smiling young women in hats of the early eighties; the job lots of literature tied up with a boot lace are calculated to satisfy nearly eve’ry taste. Outside the long red Asiatic Home and on its broad steps a few melancholy Chinamen stand, with queues carefully twisted up and pinned under their blue linen caps; this because the Limehouse boy has a weakness for pulling a pig-tail when he sees one, crying, “Shawp!” and running away. Chinamen up Millwall way are carrying round baskets of vegetables yoked over their shoulders. By the side of the tram terminus, and near the red eyed fire station stands the ‘bus. A little brown ‘bus, with yellow wheels, there for the convenience of those whom circumstances compel to go the Isle of Dogs.
Strangers’ Home in the West India Dock Road was also known as the Home for Asiatics, Africans, South Sea Islanders and Others. Date c.1901 ( National Maritime Museum)
THE ‘BUS FOR SINGAPORE
“Right for Singapore, cap’en?” “Jump in,” says the driver from the pavement, making one more attempt to light his pipe. “Change anywheres, cap’en?” “Yes,” replies the driver, curtly; “you’ll have to change a lot ‘fore you get on board your ship.”
“Not ,cross, are you, cap’en?”
“Look here, my lad,” says the driver goaded by this inquiry. “You get into that bloomin’ bus and take your seat and shut your head. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
“I’ve seen your face somewhere before,” says the peak-capped sailor.
“Any relation to old Frank Macey that used to live at Devonport ?”
Sulky reply in the negative. “Then ‘ave a cigar,” says the sailor genially. ” Put your pipe in your hat and have something to smoke. Lor’ bless my soul, I am glad to meet you. How’s the missus?”
Driver, accepting two pale brown cigars from the envelope offered, says that he never had a missus, and expresses a pious hope that, with the help of Providence and his own acuteness, he never may.
A BREEZY ‘BUS FARE
A piano organ starts one of Sousa’s marches, and the sailor, encouraged by the comparative friendliness of the driver, solicits the favor of his hand for a waltz; but the driver draws the line, and with the assistance of a strap cranes himself up into his seat, giving the sailor renewed advice to secure a place inside; which the sailor does, hailing the passengers with a seafaring salutation and lurching into the one vacant seat more by accident than design. The little brown ‘bus turns and goes across the tram lines.
“Well.” says the friendly sailor, “how are we all getting on this voy’ge?” Some of the passengers are sleepy and some are thoughtful; the sailor, closing one eye, selects a quiet, puss-headed Japanese. I’m very’ glad to hear,” he says, laying one hand on the other’s knee, “that me and old Solsbury managed that little affair all right. ‘We’re chums, ain’t we?”
The short Japanese sailor, with N.Y.K. on his collar, smiles and nods. Very well, then!” says the sailor with an injured air, “why not shake hands? Has anybody been telling you anything about me? Because if so–” The Japanese accepts the large hand. “That’s better!” remarks the sailor, restored to good temper. “Now, having gone so fur,
I should like to go a bit further and shake ‘ands with everybody – just to show there’s no ill-feeling.”
A SAILOR’S SONG.
The little ‘bus swerves round between the high walls that border the commencement of West Ferry road.
“There!” Now you can all say you’ve shook hands with a honest seafaring man.”
“I shan’t brag about it,” remarks a stout woman opposite.
“Oh mother! protests the sailor, tearfully. “Don’t be so harsh with your blue-eyed boy.”
‘Blue-eyed nuisance,” amends the stout woman.
“There’s a nice parent for you ! Bring up a mother in the way she should go, and when she grows old.
Anybody got any objection to my singing a song?”
“Yes,” says the other passengers with unanimity, “we have.”
“You ain’t so fond of me as you used to be,” remarks the sailor, regretfully: “Ever since that affair out at Valp’raiso you all seem different somehow. ‘Oh, thou ‘ast changed, my darling,’ ” sings the sailor; ” Thou smilst no more at me, Thou ‘ast no word of fond farewell, As I put out to-Way–ho!’ ”
The little ‘bus rattles across a wooden bridge separating the docks from the river; the passengers find coppers and hand up their pennies through a hole in the roof to the driver.
THE THIN LADY’S MOTTO
Some want change and this makes for conversation. One spare, melancholy woman who has been marketing with a shining black bag, the lock of which has long since refused to perform any of the duties of a lock, deplores the price of bread, and says with determination that she has really made up her mind if it goes much higher ,well (despairingly), she does not know what she shall do.
From which the conversation goes by a rapid stage to the difficulty that the thin lady has with her youngest boy, who has lately been going to theatres; the other beats this with a deplorable story of her Uncle John, who went in for religion.
“It all goes to show,” says this lady, as she pulls the strap and prepares to alight at Glengall road, “that it’s a mistake to go to either extreme; the ‘appy mejum’s my motto. Good night, all! Don’t be late in the morning.”
The Japanese also descends here to disappear in the meagrely-lighted streets, and on the talkative sailor who has been asleep, discovering this, he weeps, and declares that he has not a friend left in the world; that he is forsaken and alone; for two pins he would –
WANTED A WIFE
If only he had some one to love him! if only some, tidy, respectable woman, with a bit put by in the savings bank, would come to him and say, “Jim Allwright, give up seafaring life and settle down on shore and keep an eye on the shop and entertain your friends with a glass now and then,” why, then he would say, “Done with youz” and give the old ship the chuck without the least hesitation.
“I’m the most reasonable, good tempered man alive,” remarks the sailor contentedly. “Nothing ever upset me. I take everything as it comes. What you all getting out for?”
“Because,” explains one of the descending passengers politely, “because we can’t go any further. That’s why!”
“And a dashed good reason, too,” cries the sailor agreeably. “Goo’ ni’ everybody. Goblessye.”
The spare, thin old woman stands on the edge of the pavement watching him as he goes. The driver of the little brown ‘bus announces his intention of utilising the minutes of waiting before the return journey by going into the tavern in order to get the right time; the bystanders ignore the hint, and he goes alone.
“I used to have a son that was that way inclined,” says the thin woman, rather wistfully, “only, he was never funny with it.
Memories of Working on the River Thames by Tony Down – Part Five
Young Tony on the Billdora in the Royal Docks
In the last part of Tony Down’s memories of working on the River Thames, Tony recalls in the 1970s that the closing of the docks led a scarcity of jobs on the river. With most of the lighterage firms closing down, the prospects were looking bleak. With a young family and a mortgage, Tony made the hard decision to take voluntary redundancy and look for work on shore. Tony makes a successful new career in property and estate agency but the lure of the river leads to a few trips around Britain on a number of vessels.
During 1970s, a vacancy for a mates job came up, I applied and started on Touchstone as mate so I had come full circle from greaser boy to mate on the same tugs that I had been involved with for years, Swiftstone, Recruit, ending up on the Lingo now called Merit. Eventually, I made the hardest decision of my life in 1978 and took voluntary redundancy of £999 for 22yrs service on Old Father Thames.
There was never a day that I didn’t want to go to work in all that time but work on the river was getting scarce firms were closing down. I had a young family and a mortgage, so had to think about the future for all of us, working ashore for me was never the same, in fact I hated it.
I put some of my redundancy money in with my wife’s brother and we bought a grotty little mid terrace house in Plumstead for £1,500. We then renovated it and sold it £3,500. This was in 1980, the same house in Plumstead in 2014 was sold for £325,000.
Dealing with Bank Managers, Estate Agents, Solicitors, Planners and Councils was completely different from working with a crew of mates where we all look out for one another. I stayed in property and estate agency and helped my wife restore old furniture around our village in Suffolk.
I sailed round Britain in 1988 in a 40ft yacht that I fitted out over 2 yrs and I used to sail from Suffolk up to London every couple of years, Although on my last trip, I went from Ipswich to Tower Pier on the ”Waverley” the last paddle steamer, boring my friends who came with me with the history of my Thames. On my trips, the riverfront seemed to change so quickly, they call it progress, but I do wonder! Or is it my age?
I now potter around in my N/B Dreamcatcher on the canals of England I’ve been down the Kennet & Avon to Bristol, Wales, The Thames, the Potteries and the Grand Union. In the last couple of years, I have made nostalgic trips up the River Lea until the nostalgia ran out when I got to Enfield.
I returned to Limehouse Basin, then Regents Canal, Camden Lock, Paddington Basin, Slough Bulls Bridge, Grand Union, Northampton Arm, River Nene and my mooring at the bottom of my daughters garden in Benwick, Cambs in the middle levels. I had five weeks away going through 267 locks at 4mph. The trip helped me to slow life down nicely and working the locks keeps you pretty fit as well !
One of the highlights of the trip was when I went aboard my old tug Swiftstone moored on Trinity Wharf at the entrance of Bow Creek. Swiftstone is now a historic little ship owned by the Swiftstone Trust. The Swiftstone Trust is looking after her now she is 63yrs old, one of the few historic tugs left to remember our times of old on the Thames. It would have been nice, if Cory had kept one of their steam tugs as well as they were lovely vessels to work on, although the guys and girls that look after Swiftstone are doing a great job keeping her running.
A number of the old tugs are still going strong, Recruit is still working on the Thames she is also 63yrs old and still looking good in her new livery, Touchstone is in the Medway and privately owned, looking very smart last time I saw her in Ipswich. Relay has sadly been scrapped and Merit, I believe is up for sale. The Woodwood – Fishers tug, Billdora is still afloat at Eel Pie Island.
Many thanks to Tony for his memories and the photographs which are an important record of when the Thames was a working river with thousands of people working up and down the river. When the docks closed in the 1960s and 1970s it not only put those people out of work but was the end of a way of life that had carried on for centuries. Working on the river was generally hard work and frequently dangerous with a number of workers injured or losing their lives, however many workers loved working on the river and like Tony, they look back on their working life on the river with some pride and nostalgia.