Category Archives: Victorian Architecture

Christmas in a T-shirt: Martinique

Cathedrale de Saint-Louis, Fort de France, Martinique

Cathedrale de Saint-Louis, Fort de France, Martinique

Cruises are a good way to explore the world superficially.  A few hours on dry land is only long enough to sniff the atmosphere.

When my friend Jenny and I took a Caribbean cruise in 2011 my priority at our first port of call, Fort de France on the French island of Martinique, was to buy a pair of jeans, having omitted to pack any informal trousers.

My French is limited.  I now know that you should ask for le jeanLes jeans is apparently permissible, but you may get more than you bargained for.

Once that mission was accomplished Jenny and I wandered around Fort de France and drank mojito at Le Foyaal (now apparently closed):  https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147328-d1567683-Reviews-Le_Foyaal-Fort_de_France_Arrondissement_of_Fort_de_France_Martinique.html.

I intended to follow the cruise spirit and simply idle away my days in tropical luxury, but my history antennae twitched when we passed the Cathedrale de Saint-Louis (1895), which looked for all the world like a British Commissioners’ Church but in Roman-Byzantine style, tricked out in tan and brown decoration with a tower and spire 186 feet high.

The building was being renovated, so we couldn’t go inside.  I simply photographed the exterior and looked it up later.

In fact, it’s an interesting and significant building, the seventh on the site since 1657.  The sixth church was destroyed in the great fire of Fort de France on June 22nd 1890, and a temporary repair-job was swept away by a cyclone the following year.

After this latest in a succession of natural disasters, the Archdiocese resolved to build an iron-framed structure that would resist hurricanes, storms and earthquakes.

The design of St Louis’ Cathedral is by Pierre-Henri Picq (1833-1911), who had worked alongside the ubiquitous Gustav Eiffel (1832-1923) in France.  Picq built the Palais du Chili [Chile Pavilion] for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle for which Eiffel’s great tower was the landmark.

Both men used their knowledge of iron construction to construct public buildings abroad.  Eiffel, for instance, is responsible for the General Post Office (1886-1891) in Saigon, Vietnam.

Judging by photographs, the interior of Picq’s St Louis’ Cathedral [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis_Cathedral,_Fort-de-France#/media/File:Cath%C3%A9drale_de_Fort_de_France_-_Int%C3%A9rieur.jpg], is glorious – light, colourful and unmistakably iron rather than masonry.

Despite its iron construction, an earthquake in 1953 destabilised the tower so that the spire had to be dismantled.  A replacement spire was installed in a restoration programme of 1976-9.

Since the cathedral was designated a historic monument in 1990, successive restoration programmes have taken place.

Picq also designed the Bibliothèque Schœlcher [Schœlcher Library] (1893), commemorating Victor Schœlcher (1804-1893), the French abolitionist writer and Martinique politician.  The Library is recognisably by the same hand, in an eclectic Byzantine style, making use of an iron frame, glass, tiles and mosaic.

Another of Picq’s buildings in Fort de France is the Magasin du Printemps (1901).

You don’t see much of a place when you arrive on a cruise ship.  The way to know anywhere is to stay there, and in most places there are interesting buildings to look out for.

If I ever find my way back to Martinique, I now know what else there is to see.

Take a pew

Bench-end, Holy Trinity Parish Church, Hull

Bench-end, Holy Trinity Parish Church, Hull

Years ago, when I was involved with what was then called the Main Committee of the Victorian Society, I recall overhearing a conversation in which someone was indignant that “…they want to punch a doorway through the east end of the church, and it’s a Grade II* listed building!”

Years later, preparing a Birmingham’s Heritage tour, I wandered into All Saints’ Church, Small Heath, and eventually realised that this was the church in question.  In fact, it’s a model conversion that retains most if not all of the original features, radically reordered to suit modern worship needs.

The Victorian Society lost that particular case, but the building still stands, recognisably intact, and continues its Christian mission in what is now a predominantly Muslim area.

I took my Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour-group to Saltaire, for lunch at what was then the Vicars Café Bistro (now the Saltaire Canteen).  One of our members was a retired Anglican canon, to whom I pointed out the Bradford Cathedral choir CDs on sale, and remarked that Vicars was run by vicars.  He replied that it’s possible to do a great deal to further the Gospel without preaching.

More recently, I’ve taken my Humber Heritage tour group to Holy Trinity Parish Church, Hull, shortly to be redesignated Hull Minster and the subject of a radical reordering scheme which aims to bring members of the public, whether or not they embrace the Christian faith, into the building for all sorts of purposes:  http://www.holytrinityhull.com/amazing-development.

In the process, the church authorities wish to clear the nave of pews, returning it, as they say, to its medieval emptiness and flexibility.

The Victorian Society objects to the scheme, and I can see their point.  The beautiful, highly individual pews, carved by George Peck in the 1840s, are a huge cultural asset and deserve to be kept, or at least kept together.

I haven’t the remotest clue how to resolve this conflict, because I support the conservationist principles of our major amenity societies at the same time that I’m concerned to see the Church of England find useful purposes for its stock of beautiful buildings and their contents.

And I hope Peck’s pews remain intact.

The cakes at Café Trinity in the south choir aisle are heavenly:  http://www.holytrinityhull.com/cafe.

Not one of Brunel’s best ideas

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

Atmospheric railway track, Didcot Railway Centre

Atmospheric railway track, Didcot Railway Centre

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

Starcross Pumping Station, Devon

To modern eyes the atmospheric railway, with its leather flaps and rats in the pipes, seems a Heath Robinson contraption, but when it was devised by a gas engineer, SamueI Clegg, and the brothers Jacob and Joseph Samuda and patented in 1839 it attracted the serious attention of the brightest brains in the engineering profession.

The idea was to evacuate the air from a tube between the rails, so that the vacuum in front of a piston underneath the train would cause air behind the vehicles to propel them forward at speed, without the weight of a heavy locomotive and the fuel it had to carry.  The slot that admitted the piston was sealed by leather flaps that maintained the vacuum before and after the train passed.

This worked quite well on a 1¾-mile extension of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway in Ireland.  This former horse tramway had an average gradient of 1 in 110, and opened in 1843.

Trains carrying up to two hundred passengers weighing 38 gross tons were propelled by the vacuum in a tube between the running rails at speeds of up to 40mph.

On one occasion the piston carriage set off without its train, and covered the entire line in 75 seconds at an average speed of 84mph.

The London & Croydon Railway ran trains using the atmospheric system between Dartmouth Arms (now Forest Hill) and Croydon from January 1846.

The interior of the pipe was sealed by a mixture of tallow fat and beeswax which melted in hot weather and attracted rats, whose corpses were regularly evacuated each morning.

In frosty weather the leather flaps froze stiff and broke away and snow, instead of rats, got into the tube.

The system was so unreliable that it soon gave way to steam locomotives and the tube was dismantled after May 1847.

Brunel was attracted to the apparent advantages of the atmospheric principle so that he could take the South Devon Railway around the south coast from Exeter to Newton Abbot, where the gradients and tight curves were challenging to contemporary locomotives.

He was unconcerned when questioned about the wisdom of adapting the workings of a 1¾-mile branch line to a fifty-mile main line.

Daniel Gooch, the young locomotive engineer of the Great Western Railway, remarked, “I could not understand how Mr Brunel could be so misled.  He had so much faith in his being able to improve it that he shut his eyes to the consequences of failure.”

The first atmospheric passenger trains between Exeter and Teignmouth ran on September 13th 1847 and to Newton Abbot on January 10th 1848.  The entire service was operated by atmospheric propulsion from February 23rd 1848.

The new system was much admired for the lack of noise, smuts and smoke, and in the first few months barely 1% of atmospheric trains were more than ten minutes late.  A 28-ton train could reach an average speed of 64mph over three miles.

On January 18th 1848, however, cold weather froze the leather and no trains ran until the afternoon.  Increasingly, the leather flaps tore away from their fixings, allowing air leakages to diminish the partial vacuum.  The underpowered steam pumping engines broke down repeatedly and coal consumption was excessive.

Everyone was aware that the London & Croydon Railway had given up on the atmospheric system in May 1847, and through the summer the directors and Brunel himself backpedalled.

The last atmospheric train ran on September 10th 1848.

The most visible reminder of the atmospheric railway is the pumping station alongside Starcross station which was used as a Methodist chapel from 1867 to 1958, while the boiler house became a coal store.

The entire building opened as a museum of the atmospheric railway in 1982 and is now the headquarters of the Starcross Fishing & Cruising Club.

Starcross Pumping Station is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.

Not-so-primitive Methodists

Former Primitive Methodist Chapel, Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire

Former Primitive Methodist Chapel, Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire

When I took my Humber Heritage (September 5th-9th 2016) group to the Wilderspin National School at Barton-on-Humber we were among the first to see the current restoration of the Primitive Methodist Chapel next door to the school.

The Primitive Methodists were a break-away group that followed a simpler, more frugal style of worship than the Wesleyans.  They have a reputation for plain, unostentatious buildings but the Barton-on-Humber example is relatively grand.

It was built, with its associated Sunday School, in eight months flat in 1867 in polychrome brick to the Romanesque designs of Joseph Wright (1818-1885).

Joseph Wright was a prolific architect of Primitive Methodist chapels and a pupil of Cuthbert Brodrick, the Hull-born architect of Leeds Town Hall and the Grand Hotel, Scarborough.  At the time Barton belonged within the Hull circuit of its denomination.

The existing house next door, No 2 Queen Street, was adapted for the chapel caretaker after it had been shortened to make way for the new chapel by removing the left-hand bay.

For their outlay of £1,500 the Barton Primitive Methodists got an imposing building with an impressive galleried interior, seating six hundred.

It was arguably as impressive as the Wesleyans’ Trinity Methodist Chapel of 1861 on Chapel Lane:  it dominates the National School next door and holds up alongside the surrounding public buildings on Queen Street, the Temperance Hall (1843) opposite, the Oddfellows’ Hall (1864) on the corner and the Police Station (1847) round the corner on High Street.

Twenty-two years after the opening, the congregation ordered an elaborate organ by the Hull manufacturer Forster & Andrews.  This was sold in the early 1960s to St Andrew’s Parish Church, Immingham;  it moved on in 1996 to All Saints’ parish church, Pickwell, Leicestershire.

Most of the disparate branches of Methodism united in 1932, and the Barton-on-Humber congregations joined together in the Trinity Methodist building in 1960.

The Primitive Methodist chapel closed after Easter Day 1961, and it was sold to the Salvation Army, which reopened it on May 22nd 1965.  They inserted a floor at gallery level and removed the ground-floor pews.  Most of the gallery pews, the fine plaster ceiling and the round arch that framed the organ case remained.

Latterly the Queen Street School Preservation Trust, owners of the Wilderspin National School, has taken over the chapel building as an extension of their premises.

Royal Station Hotel

Former Royal Station Hotel, Hull, now the Mercure Hull Royal Hotel

Former Royal Station Hotel, Hull, now the Mercure Hull Royal Hotel

My Humber Heritage (September 5th-9th 2016) tour has had to relocate from the Beverley Arms Hotel, which has ceased trading, to the Mercure Hull Royal Hotel, which has the advantage of being literally across the platform from the trains:  http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?page_id=4223.

This splendid traditional station hotel was completed in 1849, designed by George Townsend Andrews (1804-1855), house architect for the York & North Midland Railway, as part of the second terminal station into the centre of Hull, replacing an earlier station adjacent to the Humber Dock which then became a goods depot:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manor_House_Street_railway_station#/media/File:Railway_Street_Goods_shed_1905.jpg.

Andrews was also responsible for the original York railway station (1841) and other surviving stations including Whitby, Pickering and Beverley.

The new station was named Hull Paragon because it stood on Paragon Street, which was itself apparently named after a long-vanished pub.  Hull people thought it grossly over-ambitious and called it “Hudson’s Folly”:  the “Railway King” George Hudson was indeed guilty of more than folly, but his station and hotel remain in use, and both have been repeatedly extended.

Andrews’ career as a railway architect seems to have been eclipsed when George Hudson was disgraced for his unscrupulous financial dealings, and the Hull hotel was his final major commission.  At the time it opened it was the largest station hotel in the country, and Andrews’ largest building.

It became the Royal Station Hotel after Queen Victoria’s visit in October 1854, for which a throne room was contrived at the south-east corner of the first floor, along with a bedroom, drawing room and boudoir, and a bedroom and drawing room for the royal children.  The royal household lodged on the second floor.

The following morning she greeted an assembly of Sunday School pupils from the balcony, and then processed through the Old Town to the Corporation Pier, which was renamed the Victoria Pier, and boarded a launch to inspect the docks.

Additional wings to the hotel were designed by the North Eastern Railway’s company architect, the York-born William Bell (1844-1919) and constructed in 1903-5.  Both the station and the hotel were damaged in air raids in both the First and Second World Wars.

The Hull poet Philip Larkin, whose statue by Martin Jennings is on the concourse, found it a gloomy place in 1966 [http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/Philip_Larkin/4774] though he was apparently a regular customer.

The interior of the present-day hotel is mostly a tasteful pastiche by the Fisher Hollingsworth Partnership, following a fire which gutted the building in 1990:  http://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/remembering-drama-hull-royal-station-hotel-25/story-27933477-detail/story.html.  The hotel reopened in 1992 and has traded happily ever after.

Wallace Collection

Wallace Collection, London

Wallace Collection, London

My friend Eric and I, trapped by the rain in a Lebanese restaurant behind Selfridges, made a run for it to the Wallace Collection, which I’d never visited before.

This stunningly beautiful treasure house of art is the product of four generations, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marquesses of Hertford and the 5th Marquess’s illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace Bt (1818-1890), whose widow bequeathed it to the nation.

It’s located in Hertford House, Manchester Square, Sir Richard Wallace’s townhouse.  In the glazed-in courtyard there is a brasserie restaurant, the Café Bagatelle, named after Sir Richard’s French residence.

Like the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, the Wallace Collection is a static collection reflecting the taste of its period.  Nothing may be added or subtracted, and nothing from the Wallace Collection can leave the building, even on loan.

You could visit the Wallace Collection every day for a year and still find fresh treasures.

I had always regarded Franz Hals’ ‘Laughing Cavalier’ as somewhere between an icon and a cliché until I stood in front of the original and marvelled at the minute detail of the textiles, particularly the lace, and the realistic treatment of his beard and moustache.

The breadth of the collection and the sheer volume – twelve Reynolds, nineteen Canalettos, several hundred pieces of Sèvres porcelain, nearly two dozen pieces of Boule furntiure  – provides a plethora of enjoyment.

The Wallace Collection is open to all, free of charge, 362 days a year:  http://www.wallacecollection.org/visiting.

Apostolic cessation

Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury, London

Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury, London

The same walk across Bloomsbury that brought me to Mary Ward House also took me past Gordon Square, where stands the magnificent Church of Christ, Bloomsbury, built 1850-1854 by the sad, unsuccessful John Raphael Rodrigues Brandon (1817-1877) for the Catholic Apostolic Church, a nineteenth-century sect that pinned their faith on prophecy and the imminent expectation of the Second Coming.

Their beliefs were based on an interpretation of the Book of Revelation promoted by Edward Irving (1792-1834).  They were so convinced that the end of the world was nigh that their founding Apostles, appointed by prophecy from a range of existing Christian denominations, saw no need to plan a succession.

Consequently, when the last Apostle died in 1901 it became impossible to ordain further clergy, and after the last priest and deacon died, in 1971 and 1972 respectively, the Church’s elaborate liturgy ceased, and members of the church were encouraged to worship with other established congregations, while the Church itself entered a “Time of Silence”.

A schismatic group, the New Catholic Apostolic Church (established 1863), thrives with some eight million worshippers worldwide.

Brandon’s magnificent cruciform church, was designed as a miniature version of Westminster Abbey though lacking the westernmost two bays of the nave and the planned 300-foot spire.

Originally intended for a staff of sixty-four clergy to manage its elaborate ritual, the building remains in use.  It was a chaplaincy of the universities and colleges of the Anglican diocese of London from 1963 to 1994, and it now accommodates the Euston Church [http://eustonchurch.com] and a congregation of Forward in Faith [http://www.forwardinfaith.com/EnglishChapel.php].

Mary Ward House

Mary Ward House, Bloomsbury, London

Mary Ward House, Bloomsbury, London

It’s difficult to walk far in central London without spotting something remarkable.

One morning recently I walked from Russell Square to meet someone at the Churchill Hotel at the back of Selfridges, and came upon a quirky Arts-and-Crafts building that reminded me of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Two ladies who saw me stop to photograph it asked me what it was and I had to admit I hadn’t a clue.

It is in fact the Mary Ward House [http://www.marywardhouse.com], built in 1898 for the philanthropist Mary Augustus Ward (1851-1920), better known as the novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward.  Her writings are not much read now, but her breakthrough novel, Robert Elsmere (1888) secured her reputation in her lifetime.

She came from a distinguished family, the niece of the poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) and the granddaughter of Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), the celebrated headmaster of Rugby School;  she was the mother-in-law of the historian G M Trevelyan and the aunt of the biologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975) and the writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

She believed in bringing education and culture to people of limited means, though she was opposed to the idea of women’s suffrage.  She wanted to create an institution that would “stand perpetually between a man and a woman and the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

Her venture to provide “education, social intercourse, and debate of the wider sort, music, books, pictures, travel” derived from the vision described in Robert Elsmere and was financed by the prolific benefactor John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911).  The building on Tavistock Place, originally known as the Passmore Edwards Settlement, was designed by Arnold Dunbar Smith (1866-1933) and Cecil Claude Brewer (1871-1918).

Indeed, the Pevsner entry enumerates design influences from the major figures of the Arts and Crafts movement – W R Lethaby, Richard Norman Shaw and C F A Voysey, whose circle of friends contributed designs for the fireplaces.

It stands on the edge of the estate of Herbrand, 11th Duke of Bedford (1858-1940), who provided the land, and was intended to serve the deprived population of St Pancras.

Its provision included the Invalid Children’s School (1899) at 9 Tavistock Place, and a Vacation School (1902) to keep children out of mischief in school holidays, from which derived Evening Play Centres.  These developed into clubs for teenagers, and ultimately a School for Mothers complemented by a nursery.

The building originally functioned as a community centre and hostel, and the dramatically curved white stone surrounds to its doorways stand out from the plain brickwork.

The Settlement was renamed to commemorate Mary Wards’ life and work in 1921, the year after her death.  The work continues to the present day:  http://www.marywardcentre.ac.uk.

A club as well

National Liberal Club, London

National Liberal Club, London

Thanks to a Victorian Society visit to the National Liberal Club [http://www.nlc.org.uk], entertainingly led by Ronald Porter who is a member of both Club and Society, I now more fully understand the context of one of my favourite anecdotes about F E Smith, latterly Lord Birkenhead (1872-1930).

The Club was founded in 1882 “to provide a central meeting-place for Metropolitan and provincial Liberals, where all the comforts of life should be attainable at what are called ‘popular prices’” and opened in 1887.

It was located away from London’s traditional clubland on the corner of Northumberland Avenue and the Thames Embankment.  Nowadays its terrace looks across to the London Eye.

Its architect was Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), the great proponent of terra-cotta and faience whose style was derisively termed “slaughterhouse Gothic” by his architect contemporaries.

The National Liberal Club is a huge place even after the bulk of the building, including five floors of bedrooms, was sold in 1985 to become the Royal Horseguards Hotel [http://www.guoman.com/en/hotels/united_kingdom/london/the_royal_horseguards/index.html]. It remains one of the largest private club-houses in the world.

It’s a palatial shrine to comfort, conviviality and the principles of Liberalism.  There are, predictably, more pictures and statues of Mr Gladstone than you can shake a stick at, and portraits of every Liberal worthy, not least the Derby artist Ernest Townsend’s 1915 portrait of Winston Churchill, which for a couple of decades was not displayed after the former Tory-turned-Liberal turned Tory again in 1924.

The building is also a shrine to the extravagant but relatively inexpensive decorative possibilities of glazed brick.  Like Waterhouse’s Victoria Building at what is now Liverpool University, the interiors are predominantly brown and beige, warm and comfortable, and particularly suitable for the then new electric light.

The Tory MP F E Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) used to drop in, while walking between his chambers at the Temple and the Houses of Parliament, to use the gentlemen’s lavatory.  He was eventually approached by the club porter and asked if he was a member, to which he famously replied, “Good God! You mean it’s a club as well?”

When you see the lobby of the National Liberal Club, that story suddenly makes more sense.

Terracotta city: Green Lane Library & Baths

Green Lane Masjid and Community Centre, Small Heath, Birmingham

Green Lane Masjid and Community Centre, Small Heath, Birmingham

Of all the terracotta public buildings in Birmingham designed by William Martin of Martin & Chamberlain, one of the most dramatic compositions is the Green Lane Library & Baths, Small Heath, with a circular clock-tower at the apex of a sharply triangular site between Green Lane and Little Green Lane.

The library was opened 1894, and after the well was sunk in 1896 the first- and second-class swimming pools and public baths were begun in 1897 and opened 1901.

The swimming baths were bombed on October 18th 1940 and rebuilt in 1951.

The building closed in 1977 and was sold for £24,000 two years later for conversion to a mosque and community centre.  The community had previously worshipped in two terraced houses is Alum Rock;  the spacious facilities at Green Lane enabled them to expand to provide worship space with ablution facilities, a mortuary, a reference library and a community hall.

The Green Lane Masjid and Community Centre was completed in 2008, and the Green Lane Independent Boys School opened in 1911:  http://www.greenlanemasjid.org/about-us/history.aspx.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.