Tuesday 25 August 2009

Woolwich Foot Tunnel tiles

a correspondent says:

I came across the following in papers for the Newellite Glass Tile Company formed in 1898 and based at 19 Shenton Street, Old Kent Road.October 1912 - "The loss shewn is almost entirely attributable to a contract undertaken by the Company for Tiling the Woolwich Tunnel under the engineers to the LCC."My grandfather held shares in the company and one of the owners, John Tyrrell Newell was a relative of his. The company eventually folded and was dissolved in 1921.I would be interested to know if any record of the contract would be in any archives or if you could point me in any direction to find out more.

Crossness Engines Steaming Day

As mentioned in an earlier post, Sunday August 23rd saw the last of the 2009 Steaming Days.

Crossness was extremely busy on a beautifully hot and sunny day. Helpers there were suggesting a possible record attendance. Apparently, a certain Mr. Gryff Rhys Jones had mentioned Crossness in his 'World's Greatest Cities' program on London the previous Sunday, so that must have helped.

Since I have yet to find any videos of these 'steaming' events posted on the Web, I thought members of the GIHS and others might be interested in seeing a video I took with a little Flip video camera. I have spent almost no time on this. They are raw clips, unedited, in the same sequence that I took them and with a piece of electronic music chosen totally random that seems to just work with the motions.

Prince Consort is certainly an impressive beast, and a huge credit to the team of volunteers that have restored her to working order. What surprised me more than anything was how quiet it was, with a whole load of weird creaks, groans, squeaks and whistles being the dominant sounds rather than any crashing and banging.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Elliott of Lewisham

I knew Elliotts as Elliott Automation - our local computer manufacturer. We have an enquiry from a reader about an Elliott engineers - is this the same firm? can anyone tell us more? the reader says:

"Messrs Elliotts, the well known engineers."Quote from newspaper report of the inquest on my great grandfather HenryPilbeam Cox of Bolden Street Deptford who worked here in 1904/5. He shot himself in 1906. Can you tell me what this firm was, please? He was an electrical instrument maker. My grandfather Thomas Cox may have been an apprentice there about the same time".

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Morris Walk

System Building on the Morris Walk Estate by Lorna Coventry on 23 June 2009

Lorna Coventry works for English Heritage, and is a colleague of Peter Guillery (who has featured previously in the Newsletter). They are currently working on the Survey of London, vol. 48, Woolwich.
She spoke about the Morris Walk Estate, the first to be ‘system’ built in London. The Estate is east of Maryon Park and runs down to Woolwich Church Street, the railway running through it. Morris Walk was the name of the road in the middle of the area, though that and all other previous features were obliterated. The redevelopment was done for slum clearance, though some good houses were included (for which market prices had to be paid) to make up the area for the development to be viable – just over 500 units were provided in 3 and 10-12 storey blocks.
The ‘system’ was Danish and had been used successfully for ten years in the Netherlands before it was taken up by the LCC. It comprised a set of interlocking load bearing wall and floor panels which could be arranged into housing units. These could be stacked to make multi-storey blocks. The LCC did not take the design as it was, but modified it to be able make taller blocks.
They were proud of its aesthetics. The outer faces of the panels were finished with stone chippings, and are still as good as when they were put up over forty years ago. However, the Estate had some serious drawbacks. There was a standard kitchen and bathroom design – fine for a two bedroom unit, but cramped for a four bedroom unit. Balconies were deemed too expensive and omitted – so there was nowhere suitable to put the washing - making condensation a problem; ventilators were provided to cope with it, but were drafty and often blocked up. Heating was by electric radiators, and was always inadequate even after an upgrade. Noise insulation between Units was very poor.
Various communal activities were planned, but not provided because money ran out… Open areas between the blocks, intended for family activities, have not been used very much, and many children are kept safely indoors, looking at TV.
Later buildings built with this system included the notorious Ronan Point where a domestic gas explosion caused the collapse of all floors at one corner, though Ms Coventry said the Morris Walk Estate did not have this design fault.
The Estate is now slated for redevelopment, though again money is tight. A forty year life is rather poor, many buildings around the Estate being much older, and still going strong – indeed, structurally, the Estate is still in good fettle, but no one wants it kept.

The embarrasing thing we must never mention

Colin Long mentions in IA Memories, in GLIAS News 243, an automatic Car Park that never worked. The following notes add some detail (though it may not be wholly accurate):

This was called an Autostacker, and was designed for 256 cars to be parked 16 on either side the building on eight floors. A car would be driven onto a pallet at the entrance, then taken by lift and conveyor to a free bay within; drivers would be saved the difficulty of manoeuvring and less space was needed as cars could be packed more tightly. (One would hope it would all still work on ones return.)

Automation was by Standard Telephones & Cables (STC), not from their nearby works at North Woolwich but at Footscray. This used relay circuitry and worked. However, the building suffered from settlement, preventing the conveyor system, by John Brown, from operating - they tried to get part of it going for the opening by Princess Margaret in 1962. But settlement continued and eventually the building was demolished.

Woolwich is one of those few places along the Thames where high ground reaches through the marshes that existed before the river was embanked. Woolwich has two pieces of high ground, the one to the west with St Mary's Church on it, overlooking the site of Woolwich Dockyard, and the easterly one where the Woolwich Power Station was. Archaeological investigations, when Power Station was built, and more recently when the adjacent area between Warren Lane & Beresford Road was cleared for development, showed that the Romans had a settlement on the eastern eminence, around which they dug an enormous ditch (about half the size of the moat at the Tower of London).
I think the Autostacker was built partially over the ditch.
Richard Buchanan

Saturday 8 August 2009

Bessemer in Greenwich

Steel production, together with Henry Bessemer and the Bessemer converter are usually associated with the north of England, and Sheffield in particular. It comes as a surprise to learn that Bessemer himself lived for many years in South London and that he built a steel works at Greenwich. Of course, Kent has a steel works today in Sheerness and, naturally, the arms industry at Woolwich Arsenal and elsewhere used steel in huge quantities. It is still however, remarkable that so little is known about Bessemer's Greenwich works which lay close to where the Millennium Dome is being built today. It has proved very difficult to find anything very much out about this works and there is some conflict about what really went on there.

Henry Bessemer came from a French background and an ingenious inventor who took out numerous patents on all sorts of devices and processes, from which he made a lot of money. One of the earliest was 'bronze powder', which he made in a factory in the St. Pancras area. He described some of the lengths he went to in order to keep the process secret and his, unfinished, autobiography sometimes seems much the same – it is often very difficult to disentangle from the narrative exactly what he said and did at any one time. Recently historians have suggested that his steel making process arose out of his interest in making guns, something that, of course, would draw him to Woolwich and the Arsenal.

Bessemer had been in France working, at the suggestion of Louis Napoleon, with the French military authorities when he came to the conclusion that a new sort of metal was needed. In due course he developed a process and a works was opened in Sheffield in the late 1850s. To cut a very long story very short indeed he eventually became involved with Col. Eardley Wilmot at the Royal Arsenal and plans began to be made to build a plant for the manufacture of Bessemer's steel in Woolwich. It soon became clear that Col. Willmot's support for Bessemer was not shared by the Minister of War and the plans were abandoned. At around the same time Bessemer steel was rejected for use in the Arsenal. Bessemer was very bitter 'it was quite clear that neither I, nor my steel, was wanted at Woolwich, and I made up my mind to leave the place severely alone in future.'

The position at Woolwich was further complicated by the appointment in 1859 of William Armstrong, the Newcastle based arms manufacturer, to the position of Director of Rifled Ordnance at Woolwich. In a previous article I described how Alexander Theophilus Blakeley, who built an abortive gun foundry on the Greenwich peninsula, had lost out to Armstrong and gone out of business. Bessemer had discovered Blakeley and his patented process for making guns at around the same time as he began to develop his steel making process. No doubt both of them had good cause to feel aggrieved at the appointment of Armstrong and their failure to sell arms to the British government.

Bessemer's biography is not a particular easy book to read. By the time he wrote it he was an old man, Blakeley was long dead and many of the differences with other people had been patched up or forgotten. He died before the biography was completed and a final chapter was added by his son. In a short paragraph, Henry Bessemer Jnr, mentions that a steel works was built at Greenwich in the mid-1860s. Very little is known about this works and my attempts to find out the views on it of historians with a knowledge of Bessemer it has found got very little in the way of a response.

There is no doubt that Bessemer had a works of some sort at Greenwich. It was on the site now known as Victoria Wharf (lately the Victoria Deep Water Wharf) and dated from around 1865. Victoria Wharf. is one of the few sites on the Greenwich riverside which is in not owned by Morden College. This means that detailed archives are not available nor has it proved possible to contact the site's new owners. The first reference in the public archives is an application to the Thames Conservators in June 1865 from 'Bessemer Brothers' for permission to build a jetty. He is also listed in the Greenwich Commission of Sewers rate books of 1865 which also note that the owners of the land are Clark and Terry from whom Bessemer held a lease - he later bought the freehold. In 1865 an advertisement in the Kentish Mercury mentions the closeness of the Bessemer works and its thirsty steel workers to the Star in the East pub – the pub's successor is now Ranburn's alongside the Blackwall Tunnel entrance.

Bessemer Jnr. says very little about this Greenwich works but he says it was very small and that his father intended it for his sons. "It had", says Bessemer Jnr., "two 2½ ton converters and all the plant necessary. Including one 2½-ton steam hammer and another the size of which is not given. The buildings were carefully designed, with the intention that the establishment should be in all respects be a model one". It was, he says never opened because of the down turn in Thames shipbuilding.

The Blakeley gun foundry at Ordnance Wharf was built at about the same time as the Bessemer Works and, since they knew each other and both had lost to Armstrong, maybe the two works had some connection with each other. Perhaps, when he came to write his biography, and some scores had been settled, Bessemer found it expedient not to mention this.

Some of the proprietors of neighbouring industries seem to have had connections with Bessemer. There were the cable works of Glass Elliott – and Bessemer had showed an interest in telegraph cables. Next door, to the south, was Horseshoe Breach which had recently been upgraded by the 'wooden nutmeg', Nathan Thompson, in his bid to build and sell 5,000 identical boats each year. Following his demise it had been taken over by Maudslay Son and Field. It was there that Bessemer's prototype anti-sea sickness boat was to be built. On Victoria Wharf itself was an artificial stone works owned by Frederick and Ernest Ransome, from the Ipswich family, who Bessemer knew. To the north was John Bethel's specialist tar distillery - Bessemer himself mentions 'Bethel's patent coke' in connection with steel making and I do not doubt that there were coke ovens at Bethel's Greenwich works.

What happened to the works? Bessemer Jnr. says that it was never used but that they kept the lease and later bought the freehold. Both works and plant were let to London Steel and Ordnance – 'London Steel and Iron Works' are shown on site on the Ordnance Survey dated 1869. What is quite clear from the archives is that the authorities thought that Bessemer had remained on site; London Steel and Ordnance are not mentioned. In 1872 there was a complaint from Morden College that the 'Bessemer Steel Co.' had encroached on their land and discussions later began for the company to lease 'a small field in the marshes adjoining this property for 21 years' and went on to say that Bessemer were offering more than the market value – hardly the action of company which does not want a site. As late as 1891 Morden College's surveyor was still dealing with Bessemer Brothers.

I would be very interested to know if anyone has found another reference to London Steel and Ordinance – a body about which I have been unable to discover anything at all about.

Bessemer Jnr. said that Steel and Ordnance 'did not achieve much success' and that the works was then let to Messrs. Appleby Bros. The tenancy can be confirmed from the Morden College records from about 1878. When they left, almost twenty years later, the site was let to a linoleum manufacturer, who later bought the freehold from the Bessemers.

Perhaps the most important thing is what the linoleum manufacturer had to say about the site. His name was Frederick Walton and it is perhaps possible that he knew Henry Bessemer – another of Bessemer's interests was linoleum. Walton said how pleased he was to get the site because it was 'where Bessemer proved his widely known steel process'. Did Walton know something about the site that Bessemer wanted kept quiet?

Bessemer himself, or his sons, had the site from about 1865 and they or, London Steel and Iron, or Steel and Ordnance' had it until it was let to Appleby thirteen years later. Probably initially the works was built to supply Blakeley with steel with perhaps the sub-text of upsetting the authorities at Woolwich. Bessemer himself had moved to South London – to a very very grand mansion in Denmark Hill – in the early 1860s. At that time a direct train service from Denmark Hill to Greenwich was being planned. Perhaps he also thought that a steel works near his home would be useful. It would be tucked away from the prying eyes of his licensees and those at his works in the north of England.

We may probably never know what Bessemer actually did at Greenwich but it is thought that had Blakeley been more lucky in his backers, and had stayed in business, that he and Henry Bessemer might have turned Greenwich into a great steel town – Sheffield on Thames.

Mary Mills