Friday 16 October 2009

Just arrived today - history of Siemens Engineering Society

First I should explain to any readers under 60 that Siemens was a large factory near where the barrier is today. Like so much of Greenwich and Woolwich industry it was a world leader in expertise and innovation in its field of electrical engineering - much of what we take for granted in telecommunications today was pioneered there. After the factory closed in the 1960s the group of young apprentices continued with a programme of lectures and technical visits - and now, all OAPs, have published a history of their Society.

The book is fascinating - but I am just going to quote some of the letter that comes with it from Secretary, Brian Middlemiss.

"The Engineering Society was founded in October 1897, its first President being Alexander Siemens. The Society flourished until 1968 when the Company was taken over by GEC and closed. The feelings of loyalty, memories and fellowship were such that reunion meetings began in 1969. The 40th Anniversary of this reformed Society has provided the spur to produce this history.
Ever since the Society embarked on this project our object has been to recored, as far as has been possible, the pioneering research, development, engineering and manufacture of Electrical Cables, Telegraph, Telephone, Signalling, and Measuring Apparatus, Wireless Equipment, Lamps, Lights and Batteries undertraken by Siemens Brothers and Co., Ltd for over 100 years.
The age profile of the members of the Society suggests we will not be undertaking any more major projects.
I hope you find reading our history informative and enjoyable."

The history is indeed amazing - and it is very very touching to find the devotion they have to the achievements of an employer which went out of business over forty years ago! The book will be on display at the GIHS meeting next week - and would be available to loan to anyone who promised to bring it back. And the Heritage Centre has a copy. I do not think copies are to go on general sale - but we are happy to pass contact details on if anyone asks for them.

Thursday 8 October 2009


People who venture north of the river may be aware of Valentine's House, north of Ilford. The house has recently been renovated with a lottery grant and was the subject of a talk at Walthamstow Local History Society on Thursday evening.

Why should Greenwich historians be interested in a house in Ilford? Well, Valentines House was the home of a Greenwich industrialist, Charles Holcome.

In 1841 Morden College granted a lease on a large site on the Peninsula - 'Further Pitts' - to Charles Holcombe. He acted as a developer, leasing part of the site to a network of other companies.

Holcombe was obviously at least middle aged by the time he invested in the Greenwich sites – it is likely that he had previously been the tenant of Hatcham Manor Farm at New Cross and had operated a chemical works there. By the time he came to Greenwich he had already taken occupation of Valentines Park and his family were local benefactors in the Ilford area. A road alongside Valentine's House is named after him 'Holcombe Road'. Strangely, the adjacent road is 'Bethell Avenue' - and this is unlikely to be a coincidence – does this reflect a connection with Bethell, the most famous of the coal tar distillers of his generation? .

The Greenwich site is shown on the 1843 Greenwich Tithe map as that of Charles Holcombe ‘ house, premises, tar factory, sheds and yard’. When he took over Great and Little Pits Morden College made it quite clear that he must spend at least £300 per acre on improvements.

Initially he applied to the Commissioner of Woods and Forests for an embankment to his wharf and Morden College comments that the permission was ‘accompanied by restrictions of a very unusual and prejudicial character’. What ever that means!

In Greenwich directories his Greenwich works is listed as a 'brass foundry, tar and Asfelt works'. He is also described as a 'refiner of coal tar, spirit, pitch and varnish'.

A footpath is shown from Blackwall Lane to the river – this was soon to be diverted and changed to become Morden Wharf Lane, or Sea Witch Lane, which for many years has been a private road through the glucose refinery. Holcombe then built Morden Wharf - the area which today juts out into the river downstream of the silos. It is not known why he named it this - perhaps he had a special relationship with Morden College, or wanted to curry favour with them. Morden Wharf Road led to a pub – the Sea Witch – also built by Holcombe. He obtained permission to build houses from Morden College who also provided designs and specifications – and riverside cottages by the pub and terraces of houses sprang up on the borders of the area he was leasing. The houses were, inevitably, designed by George Smith the Morden College surveyor.

He later asked Morden College for permission to lay asphalt on the river path. He also asked permission to build a draw dock and complained when permission had been given to someone else to deposit rubbish on the riverside. These activities gradually added to the local amenities and made the area more attractive to other incoming industrialists.

After his death Holcombe's leases on the sites at Morden Wharf and the sub-tenants who occupied them continued in the ownership of his widow and descendents. They were members of the Ingleby family - and it is them are best remembered at Valentine's House.

A web site for the Friends of Valentine's House can be found at where there is also a great deal of information about the house and its owners over the centuries. It is a place well worth a visit - a beautiful house in a sensational park.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Woolwich educated Nobel Prize winner - for research done on Greenwich Peninsula

Newspaper reports outline the Nobel prize won by Charles Kuen Kao's for his work on fibre optics - which had paved the way for the current broadband. The papers report on his education at Woolwich Polytechnic. We note that the Times includes a quote from Baroness Blackstone because they say 'the University of Greenwich includes the former Woolwich Polytechnic".
(of course the Times should note that the University of Greenwich IS Woolwich Polytechnic but stripped of those departments which educated Dr. Kao and made it so prestigious).

However, the newspaper report also points out that Dr.Kao's research was done at STC. Was therefore their work done in Greenwich at what is now the Alcatel works? We would be grateful for information. In 2000 Alcatel published a book - in an attempt to show that the technology driving the internet was developed only a short distance from the Dome, where it had been decided to ignore local industries. The booklet includes a photograph of Dr.Kao and makes a strong case for much of the optical fibre technology being developed here. They also say that in 1986 the Greenwich factory secured the first order for an international fibre optic cable.

So - anyone who has any information please add it here

Tuesday 6 October 2009

New Ashburnham Triangle book out

Diana Rimel has now published the update of her Ashburnham Triangle book - and this is a real tour de force. It lovingly charts the general history of the area and then lists street by street houses, pubs and other buildings. Of course, we are an industrial history society and would like to see a lot more about the industry of the area - but it has not been neglected. .

Even the name of 'Ashburnham' is industrial - it reflects the great Ashburnham furnace of the Wealden iron industry - and their later alliance with the Crowley ironmasters whose 18th century warehouses stood on Ballast Quay.

There is a chapter on the industrial buildings along this part of Deptford Creek - with a (much too short) section on Merryweathers and another on the LESC building, by Richard Cheffins (and first published by GIHS). Other information about Greenwich industry turns up in the description of many residential streets. For instance an item chosen at random is a note about Thomas Pottle's pottery in Blackheath Road under 'personalities'. However, I looked in vain for mention of the London and Greenwich Railway under both 'Blue Stile' and 'North Pole' - perhaps their first entry into Greenwich it is hidden somewhere else.

The book was launched at an event at Davy's Wine Bar by Cllr. Maureen O'Mara. In introducing it she said " Local history is one of my own great interests so I was very pleased and flattered to be asked by the Association to introduce Diana. As a Triangle resident now for over sixteen years I have always been fascinated by its history and I congratulate Diana on this new edition of her book"

In his introduction to the book Mick Delap, Chair of the Ashburnham Triangle Association, talks about the vanishing industrial landscape and points in particular to the demolition of the Merryweather buildings.

This is a an important book which records the past of this key area and at the same time allows us to see it at a time of great transition. And whether you know the Triangle or not the book is still a good read.

Copies and info available from Richard Cheffins, Cheques payable to the Ashburnham Triangle Association - £5 - not sure if that includes post and packing.