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.
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
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.
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.