Blog Archives

Mail Rail review: Travel under London on the Royal Mail’s underground railway

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The Mail Rail is a ride on the Royal Mail’s former underground railway

We all know about the Victorian origins of the London Underground, which has been transporting commuters since 1863. However, did you know it’s not the capital’s only underground railway in existence? For eight decades, the Post Office ran their own subterranean train system to transport letters and parcels under the city’s streets. Affectionately known as the ‘Mail Rail’, it closed for good in 2003. However, in September 2017, the railway was brought back to life and adapted for human passengers as part of a new experience at the Postal Museum.

Road traffic has been a problem in London for centuries, stemming back to the days of horses and carts. For owners of the Post Office, the impact on their deliveries arriving late was not good for business so something had to be done. In 1909, a committee was set up to devise a traffic-proof delivery system, and by 1911 had settled on the idea of driverless electric trains. Construction began in 1914 with a trial tunnel in Plumstead Marshes, south-east London, with the main 6 1/2 miles of tunnels completed by 1917. By this time, World War I was in full swing so lack of labour and materials meant the project was put on hold. However, the tunnels did find some use during WWI as the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate stored some of their artworks in them for safe-keeping. Following the end of the Great War, costs of materials had risen so much, it wasn’t until 1923 that work could finally resume. Finally, on 5 December 1927, parcels were transported underground between Mount Pleasant and Paddington for the first time.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

One of the former stations, where busy Royal Mail workers would be hauling carts of post to and from trains

The trains run in a single 9ft tunnel featuring a double 2ft gauge track. Approaching each station, the tunnel would split into two 7ft tunnels with a single track each. The railway’s deepest point was 70ft, although the stations tended to be slightly closer to street level. By 1930, the original rolling stock were knackered so they were replaced with new trains. These new ones featured a 27ft single car train with each container having a capacity for 15 bags of letters or six bags of parcels. These were used until they were replaced in 1980 by a new fleet. Over the decades, some of the stations came and went, including the Western Parcels Office and Western District Office, with the latter name being reused at a new station at Rathbone Place, which opened in 1965. In 1987, the train system was renamed ‘Mail Rail’ to mark its 60th anniversary. In 1993, the whole system was computerised so the trains could be controlled from a single point. By the end of the 1990s, only the stations at Paddington, Western Delivery Office, Mount Pleasant, and the East District Office were being used, carrying over 6 million bags of mail annually. However, as the system aged, Royal Mail decided it was becoming too costly to run the railway, claiming road transport was cheaper and its death warrant was signed. On 31 May 2003, the Mail Rail was closed for good.  Read the rest of this entry

Advertisements

Is this London’s skinniest house? The story behind 5 Thurloe Square

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The ‘Thin House’ in Thurloe Square

Standing in a quiet square sandwiched between South Kensington tube station and the Victoria & Albert Museum is a rather unusual block of flats. No.5 Thurloe Square, nicknamed ‘the Thin House’, is thought to be one of the narrowest homes in the capital. Looking at the block from the south-west corner of the square, the house looks ridiculously narrow. However, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion as the building is actually triangular, which widens as you move further east.

Thurloe Square was built in 1840-1846 on land belonging to the Alexander Estate. The square was named after the Thurloe family – from which brothers John and James Alexander inherited the land following the death of their great-grandmother Anna Maria Harris’ son from her second marriage. Anna Maria, who inherited the estate in the early 18th century, was left widowed from her first marriage to John Browne (the Alexanders’ great-grandfather), and remarried John Thurloe Brace – grandson of the Puritan statesman John Thurloe (1616-1668). Their son Harris Thurloe Brace died without an heir in 1799, so the estate passed on to his mother’s family from her first marriage.

Thurloe Square © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

No.5 was designed as artists’ studios in the 1880s

Most of the houses in Thurloe Square were designed by London-born architect George Basevi (1794-1845), a student of Sir John Soane and a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The terraces were designed in his signature neo-classical style with Doric columned porches at the front doors. This entrance feature is now a signature design of mid-Victorian terraces in the area. However, just two decades later, 23 houses in Thurloe Square were designated to be handed over to the Metropolitan District Railway, who were working on a new transport advancement, now known affectionately as ‘the tube’. Landowner at the time, H.B. Alexander was thoroughly unimpressed and fought against the plans, but the Government overruled him. Mr Alexander could only be grateful that the Government banned the railways from erecting an entrance to South Kensington station in Thurloe Square as it would have ruined the amenities and character. The railways bought Nos. 1-11 Thurloe Square for £3,000, but in the end, only five houses (Nos. 1-5) on Thurloe Square were demolished in 1867. The company had bought a total of 42 houses from the Alexander Estate over various roads, but only destroyed 19. Some of the surviving buildings had their back gardens dramatically reduced. In 1868, South Kensington station opened, providing services on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District Railway lines.

By the late 19th century, Kensington and Chelsea were world-renowned as a hub for art. Flocks of artists built studios in the area, many of which still exist today. Two Victorian artists’ homes Leighton House Museum and 18 Stafford Terrace are currently open as museums. With the railway lines just a few feet away from the south side of Thurloe Square, the triangular site of former Nos.1-5, remained vacant for many years. However, prolific local builder William Douglas saw its potential for seven artists’ studios. The wedge-shaped red brick block was built between 1885-1887. The large north-facing windows are perfect for letting in lots of light for the artists to work in. Building plans were submitted to the Metropolitan Board of Works by surveyor C.W. Stephenson on behalf of Douglas, suggesting he may have been the architect. At its narrowest point, the building is said to be 6ft wide, spanning to 34ft at its largest.

In 1899, Thurloe Square was surveyed by Charles Booth for his poverty map. Notably, the houses on the south of the Square overlooking the railway were labelled ‘middle class’, while the remaining residences were ‘upper middle and upper class, wealthy’. Today, Kensington remains an area with some of the most expensive houses in the country. Most of the original Basevi terraces are Grade II listed, as is South Kensington station. While not listed, the artists’ studios are an impressive piece of real estate today. In 2016, a top floor artist studio apartment covering just 600 square foot in 5 Thurloe Square went up for sale for £895.000.

  • ‘The Thin House’, 5 Thurloe Square, Kensington, SW7. Nearest station: South Kensington. NB: This building contains private residences and are not open to the public.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Holland House: A pioneering office block in the City of London

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Holland House was designed by Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage and opened in 1916

Down a side street in the City of London lies an unusual piece of architecture. Located on Bury Street in the shadow of the Gherkin is Holland House. Today, most of the City’s architectural landmarks tend to be 17th century (St Paul’s and other churches) or late 20th century/early 21st century (Barbican, Lloyd’s Building, Heron Tower, Walkie Talkie). However, Holland House is notable for kicking off a new era of modern design in the Square Mile, decades before it was dominated by skyscrapers.

In the early 20th century, shipping was big business for both transportation of goods and people. A host of big companies had offices in London, including Cunard, the White Star Line and Wm. H. Müller & Co. The latter was a Dutch company which specialised in shipping and trading, particularly transporting ore mined in Spain and North Africa. Wm. H. Müller & Co, which was founded by German-born Wilhelm Müller in 1876, already had offices in The Hague and Rotterdam and were keen to set up a London base. In April 1913, the company’s co-owner Helene Kröller-Müller (1869-1939) bought a site on Bury Street in the City. Bury Street dates back to at least the 16th century and is believed to have been named after the Abbot of Bury, who owned nearby Bevis Marks. The firm purchased land facing the north-west and south-east sides of Bury Street (which bends around to the left), but could not buy the whole block as the owners of No.33-34 on the south-west corner refused to sell up. As a result, Holland House has two entrances on both sides of Bury Street.

Holland House © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The granite relief of a steaming ship by Joseph Mendes da Costa

The Müllers commissioned prominent Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934) to design an office block for their London base. Berlage is known as the ‘father of Modern architecture’ in his native Holland and is responsible for the Beurs van Berlage (Amsterdam Commodities Exchange) and the Swissôtel Amsterdam. By the time construction started in 1914, World War I had begun, however building wasn’t affected as the Netherlands were neutral. When designing Holland House, it is believed Berlage took inspiration from the works of pioneering American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), following a trip to the US in 1911.

Following completion in 1916, Holland House was aesthetically very different to the buildings surrounding it. Said to be the first steel framed building in Europe, it features a black marble plinth base with green-grey glazed terracotta bricks rising up and projecting outwards. The bricks were made in Delft and shipped to London on Müller vessels. When Berlage designed Holland House, Bury Street was very narrow, with the old Baltic Exchange (partially destroyed in a fatal 1992 IRA bombing) standing a few metres across the road, instead of the current open courtyard at the base of the Gherkin. Due to the projecting tiled columns, you wouldn’t have been able to see the windows as you approached the building walking down Bury Street, giving an illusion of privacy. On the south-east corner of the building is a granite relief of a steaming ship by Dutch artist Joseph Mendes da Costa (1863–1939), who was a favourite of Helene Kröller-Müller. Ahead of its time, in the centre of the building was a large air well, rising up from the ground to the sixth floor. Former chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Peter Palumbo has claimed this may have been the first atrium in Britain.  Read the rest of this entry

The ceramic bakers of Spitalfields on Widegate Street

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The façade of 12-14 Widegate Street features four ornamental bakers

Spitalfields is full of fascinating buildings, with Georgian, Victorian and early 20th century well represented. Many businesses are moving into the area, with some redeveloping or demolishing older buildings. While some historic architecture has been restored and changed for the better, there are others which meet a sorry fate (see my post on a crime against architecture in Artillery Lane). One of the things I love about the Spitalfields area is its many old lanes and alleys. Although many were destroyed during the Blitz, some still remain despite the encroaching modernity and skyscrapers of the City. As businesses come and go from the area, it’s interesting to see which ones embrace the history and heritage of the buildings they occupy… or completely annihilate any original features.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Widegate Street is named after the former ‘white gate’ entrance into the Old Artillery Ground

This post focuses on one particular street and one of its buildings. Widegate Street is just 200ft long and connects Middlesex Street and Sandy’s Row. The name Widegate comes from the former ‘white gate’ entrance into the Old Artillery Ground, which was established in the 16th century. Areas of the ground were sold off for housing and shops in subsequent centuries, with its legacy living on today in names such as Fort Street, Gun Street, Artillery Passage and Artillery Lane. Widegate Street used to be longer than what you see today, but some of it was absorbed by Middlesex Street in the 1890s. Today, Widegate Street features a mix of narrow historic buildings, including two listed houses at No.24 and 25 dating back to 1720.

No.12-13 is currently home to Honest Burgers, who have branches across London in a variety of historic premises. However, long before burger buns were being served, more traditional buns were being baked on site. The building was designed in the 1920s by architect George Val Myer as a bakery, in a neo-Georgian style to complement neighbouring buildings. The ground floor features glazed white bricks, giving a clean, clinical look. The two upper stories are made of red brick, Crittal windows and a strong cornice projecting above. The most striking part of the building are four ceramic panels, giving a permanent reminder of its origins as bakery. ‘Bakers Relief’ were created by Brixton-born sculptor Philip Lindsey Clark (1899-1977) in 1926 and were fired by Carters of Poole. The white and blue glazes are 1.2metres by 50 centimetres and depict the baking process. The panels start with a man carrying a sack of flour; a baker kneading the dough, baking the loaf in the oven and a baker carrying a tray of loaves. The original business itself was called the Nordheim Model Bakery and was opened by Charles Naphtali Nordheim (1864-1941). Although the bakery has long moved out, today customers their getting their carb fix in buns with their beef burgers.

  • 12-13 Widegate Street, Spitalfields, E1 7HP. Nearest station: Liverpool Street.
Spitalfields Widegate Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Sculptor Philip Lindsey Clark created the ceramic panels depicting the baking process

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Discovering the origins of Somerset House on the Historical Highlights Tour

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The Historical Highlights Tour explores the history and secrets of Somerset House

Somerset House is one of my favourite London buildings. It’s so versatile, full of history, is beautiful to look at and has a wealth of entertainment and art options. The current building we see today dates back to the 18th and 19th century, but its history goes way back to the 16th century. With over 450 years of history on the site, there’s a lot to take in. However, the Historical Highlights Tour, which takes place every week is a good place to start.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Gravestones from the former Catholic chapel are now hidden under the courtyard

The first large house on the site was a two-storey property, which started to be built in 1547. It was a home for the Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset (1500-1552), who was given the land by his brother-in-law King Henry VIII. He served as Lord Protector of England for the first two years of his nephew King Edward VI’s (1537-1553) reign from 1547-1549, who was only nine when he came to the Throne. However, Somerset was overthrown in October 1549 and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552. His house, known as Somerset Place, was taken into the crown’s possession, with the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) living there during her half-sister Queen Mary’s (1516-1558) reign. However, the house hadn’t been completed decades later, with 16th century historian John Stow (1524/25-1605) referring to Somerset Place as still ‘yet unfinished’ in 1598 – over 50 years after building work started.

By 1603, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort to King James I of England (or James VI of Scotland) was given Somerset Place for her London residence, with it renamed Denmark House in her honour. Anne enrolled architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), among others, to make some improvements and additions to the long neglected house. Following Anne’s death, Jones designed a chapel in 1636 where her daughter-in-law, Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), wife of King Charles I, could quietly worship as a Roman Catholic, when Protestant was the dominant religion of the time. A small cemetery was established outside the chapel, with some of the 17th century gravestones being shown during the tour.  Read the rest of this entry

Party back in time at Home Front: Immersive Time Travel experience

© Partygeek

If you’re a fan of vintage or would love to time-travel, this new immersive experience could be right up your street. This December, revellers will have the chance to journey back to World War II with live music, adventures, cocktails and more.

‘Home Front: Immersive Time Travel’ will explore the untold stories from the 1940s, from the often ignored perspective of women, homosexuals and colonial soldiers. Upon arrival, guests will be asked a question and their answer can bring them in nine different directions. Follow your own story as you fight to get out of escape rooms, enjoy intimate performances and are forced to make a decision about your character’s future. Once your journey is completed, you’ll find out who your character was and their decision. The characters are based on real-life people, including a famous fighter pilot who lived openly as a homosexual, an Indian princess-turned-spy and other less well known London figures.

Time travellers will also be entertained with a live swing band and drinks from five separately themed bars. Guests’ entrance time will be staggered, with a range of ticket packages on sale.

  • Home Front: Immersive Time Travel takes place on 2 December 2017 at a secret east London location. 5.15pm-10.30pm. Tickets start from £25. For booking, visit DesignMyNight.

For the latest what’s on in London guide, click here.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Pickering Place: Step inside London’s smallest square

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Pickering Place is the smallest square in London

Walking down St James’s Street to the Tudor landmark St James’s Palace, it’s likely you may not have even noticed Pickering Place. Located next to the 17th century wine shop Berry Bros. & Rudd is an unassuming courtyard leading east. Pickering Place is thought to be the smallest public square in London. Entering the square, it’s like stepping back in time. The small space includes Georgian terraces, original gas lamps and wrought iron railings. The only obvious bit of modernity is the alfresco tables and seating spilling out from the Boulestin French restaurant (No.5 St James’s Street) on the north side.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The passage leads off St James Street to Pickering Place

Prior to the establishment of Pickering Place in the Georgian era, there was a court roughly on the same site, called Stroud’s Court. This Court, featuring four small tenements, was built in the back garden of No.3 St James’s Street in around 1690. In 1698, Widow Bourne established a grocery shop and coffee mill at No.3 St James’s Street. The family business appeared to be going so well by the 1730s, her son-in-law William Pickering did a deal with the landlords and agreed to demolish the existing buildings of Stroud Court and rebuild. Pickering obtained a new lease and by 1734 it was renamed Pickering Court and contained the five current dwellings, with his family living at No.5. Pickering’s son William Jnr continued to run the grocers with a relative John Clarke in the 1750s, with the latter’s grandson George Berry joining the business in the early 19th century. The shop has focused on selling wine for over 200 years and continues to trade under the name Berry Bros & Rudd, as you see today. While the Pickering name was lost from the business frontage, the name continued with the square being renamed Pickering Place in 1810.

Meanwhile, on the floor above Berry Bros at No.4 St James’s Street was the Embassy for the Republic of Texas. The Southern state was briefly an independent country from 1836-1845 before it joined the United States. Today, a plaque in the passage entrance commemorates the embassy: “Texas Legation in this building was the legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St. James 1842 – 1845.” When Texas joined the USA, it abandoned its London embassy and left an unpaid rent bill of £160 to its landlords at Berry Bros. However, over 100 years later, a group of Texans travelled to London to repay the debt of their forefathers in 1986.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Pickering Place was once known for gambling, dualling and brothels

Wine shops and embassies aside, Pickering Place is also said to be the last place in London where a duel was fought. In the 18th and 19th century, the area hosted some rather dodgy goings on, including gambling, bear-baiting and brothels… we can all assume that those activities could frequently create a duelling situation! Regency dandy and friend to King George IV, Beau Brummell (1778-1840) – who is commemorated with a sculpture outside the Piccadilly Arcade – is among those reported to have fought here. Brummell appears as a character in Georgette Heyer’s 1935 novel Regency Buck, which describes No.5 Pickering Place as a ‘gambling hell’ in Regency London.

Today No.1-5 Pickering Place are all Grade II listed buildings, while the courtyard is used by Boulestin restaurant. Meanwhile, Berry Bros continues to sell hundreds of different wines, as well as hosting special events, wine school and tastings.

  • Pickering Place, off St James Street, St James, SW1A. Nearest station: Green Park.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

The old pillars of the former Blackfriars railway bridge

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The remains of the old Blackfriars Railway Bridge stands next to the current Blackfriars station

If you walk along the Thames Path, or perhaps cross the River Thames via foot or train on the two Blackfriars Bridges, you may have noticed these pieces of unusual river furniture. Running from north to south are pairs of red pillars, which used to support the original railway bridge before it was dismantled in the 1980s. Rather confusingly for Londoners, there were two Blackfriars railway bridges and various name changes between the current Blackfriars station and another station south of the Thames which no longer exists.

Blackfriars Railway Bridge By James Dredge, via Wikimedia Commons

The Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge in 1897
By James Dredge, via Wikimedia Commons

The red pillars we see today are what remains of Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge, which was built in 1864 by engineer Joseph Cubitt (1811-1872) for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR). The bridge brought trains across the Thames between the original Blackfriars Bridge station (south of the Thames) and Ludgate Hill station (closed in 1929). The original bridge was four tracks wide and supported ornate abutments featuring the LC&DR’s insignia. The original Blackfriars Bridge station was located near the junction of Southwark Street and Blackfriars Road.

It wasn’t long before Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was joined by its sister bridge, the St Paul’s Railway Bridge, which led into the newer St Paul’s train station on the north bank of the Thames, aka the current Blackfriars station. St Paul’s station and the new bridge opened in 1886, the latter designed by civil engineers Sir John Wolfe Barry (1836-1918) and Henry Marc Brunel (1842-1903). Wolfe Barry was the engineer of Tower Bridge and the son of architect Charles Barry, who famously redesigned the Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile, Brunel was the son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, famous for the Thames Tunnel and Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, amongst many other landmarks.

Old Blackfriars rail bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The red pillars used to stand in rows of three, but only pairs are visible

Old Blackfriars rail bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The southern abutment and LC&DR insignia have been restored

When the new St Paul’s station opened, LC&DR decided to close Blackfriars Bridge to passengers, but kept the station open as a goods’ yard. It continued in that guise until 3 February 1964, before it was demolished four years later. The only sign of the station today is the cobbled entrance driveway behind an office block.

Meanwhile, St Paul’s station was thriving and continued to serve trains heading through the City. In 1937, the station was renamed Blackfriars to avoid confusion with the tube station St Paul’s, which had been named Post Office since its opening in 1900 due to its proximity to the HQ of the General Post Office. The same year, Post Office tube station was renamed St Paul’s, as it remains today as a stop on the Central Line.

In 1985, it was decided the old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was too weak to support modern trains and it was dismantled. However, the red pillars and the southern abutment remained in situ. Originally the pillars were in rows of three, but the eastern columns were absorbed into the rebuilding of Blackfriars station on the younger bridge in 2011, so only pairs are visible to the public now. During the works, the LC&DR’s insignia was restored as a lasting reminder of a bridge and train company of yesteryear.

  • The original Blackfriars Railway Bridge abutments can be viewed from the Thames Path (south side) and the embankment running alongside Blackfriars Underpass (north side). Nearest station: Blackfriars.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

The façade of the Cock and Hoop Tavern: A crime against architecture

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The old façade of the Cock A Hoop tavern in Spitalfields

When developers buy old buildings, there is often fear of what will become of them. Depending on what protections have been put in place by local councils, some can be changed beyond all recognition or even demolished. However, some buildings can be mostly destroyed with only the façade remaining. Sometimes this can be done with great sensitivity and the modern building can complement the older. However, there are some pretty horrendous examples of ‘façadism’, one of which I’m going to look at in this post.

Gun St facade © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The windows of the façade don’t line up with the modern windows of Lilian Knowles House

Spitalfields is one of my favourite areas of London – I love the architecture, the history and the atmosphere. Admittedly there has been a lot of development in the past 10 years especially, both good and bad. However, when wandering around the back streets of the area, I often sigh when passing by this shocking example of façadism.

On the corner of Gun Street and Artillery Lane stands what remains of the Cock A Hoop tavern. Today, only the 19th century façade remains, with the modern Lilian Knowles House student housing behind. What is so bizarre, is the windows of Lilian Knowles House don’t even line up with the façade’s windows so residents would have limited lighting and views of brick walls… a very strange design decision.

When I attempted to research the history of the building, there wasn’t much around. The Cock A Hoop tavern was established in 1810 and was first run by publican Joseph Hammond. I’m presuming (although please comment if I’m wrong!), that name referred to an earlier building on the site and the current façade we see today is the second building. The pub belonged to Meux’s Brewery, owned by brewer Henry Meux (1770-1841) and subsequently his son, MP Sir Henry Meux (1817-1883). Although the brewery no longer exists, its name became infamous due to the London Beer Flood of 1814. At the time, the company was named Meux And Company and its brewery was based on Tottenham Court Road – around the current site of the Dominion Theatre. Surrounding the brewery was the incredibly impoverished slums of St Giles. On 17 October, one of huge vats ruptured, spilling 323,000 imperial gallons of beer onto the surrounding streets. The beer flooded basement homes and destroyed several buildings, resulting in the deaths of eight people, half of which were children. Meux and Co were taken to court, but amazingly managed to escape prosecution, with the judge and jury claiming the spill was an ‘Act of God’. The brewery was later demolished in 1922, with the Dominion Theatre going up on the site in 1928-29.  Read the rest of this entry

Fitzrovia Chapel: A beautiful hidden gem