Monthly Archives: November 2015

Terracotta city: Bloomsbury Library, Nechells

Bloomsbury Library, Nechells, Birmingham

Bloomsbury Library, Nechells, Birmingham

One of the smallest and most magical of Birmingham’s terracotta municipal libraries is Bloomsbury Library at Nechells, designed by Jethro Anstice Cossins and Barry Peacock and opened in 1892.

Its wedge-shaped footprint shows that Bloomsbury Library once dominated a road-junction;  now the ring-road intersection dominates it.

The attached police and fire station has been demolished.

The largest of the exterior relief panels by the Birmingham artist Benjamin Creswick shows a female figure representing Birmingham receiving the gifts of the city’s Arts, Crafts and Industries.  The others reflect the life of the community that the building was built to serve – agriculture and industry, sport and home life from childhood to old age.

The Library was restored in 1993, and when I last visited in 2013 it was fully functioning, though the entrance was shored up and planned renovations were on hold.  Since then its condition has gone from bad to worse and is now dire.

The heating system is beyond repair and the theft of lead from the roof has caused sufficient water ingress to close the place.

The Birmingham Mail has revealed that the library staff have been quietly told that the game is up [] and this has been tacitly confirmed by a local councillor:  [].

Library services to the local community are being maintained by a mobile library [] and the library was offered for lease at a peppercorn rent with a guide-price, £100,000, that reflected the amount that would be needed to make the Grade II listed building useable again:  According to the Victorian Society, it was sold at the end of October 2014.

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

Terracotta city: Spring Hill Library

Spring Hill Library, Ladywood, Birmingham

Spring Hill Library, Ladywood, Birmingham

Spinning round the roundabout on Icknield Street, Ladywood, on the outskirts of central Birmingham, you could be forgiven for thinking that Spring Hill Library was a church, because of its imposing 65-foot clock tower.

In fact, William Martin’s 1893 design in a fortissimo version of Martin & Chamberlain’s characteristic Gothic dominates what was once a street-corner site and is now an island on the Middle Ring Road.

The original layout placed a double-height public reading-room on the ground-floor with a closed-access lending library in the gallery upstairs.  This formation was reversed in 1926, to give easier access to lending-library users by extending the gallery as a reading room and cluttering the ground-floor space with shelves.

The library was an immediate success, breaking Birmingham city branch libraries’ record for issuing books in its first year of operation.  There was an incident in 1895 when a youth was sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour for “throwing books around the library and resisting arrest”.

The exterior bears the scars of a much later drama, when a number 8 bus was in collision with a fire engine and overturned, killing one and injuring over thirty more.

When Ladywood was redeveloped in the early 1970s, the intended path of the ring road was realigned in response to loud objections to the demolition of the library.

More recently, the surrounding redevelopment has itself been redeveloped by the construction of a splendid Tesco supermarket which opened in 2010 and provided the Victorian library with a practical entrance and a lift.

Four years later, this functioning branch library was threatened by closure because of the financial constraints on the city council:

Public libraries are an endangered species, Grade II* building less so.  But it would be a pity if Spring Hill Library ceased to be the home of books.

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

Graceland Cemetery: Carrie Eliza Getty

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago:  Clara Eliza Getty mausoluem

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago: Clara Eliza Getty mausoluem

If you have the money and you want a mausoleum you might as well go to the best designer in town.

Henry Harrison Getty (1838-1919), the Chicago lumber baron (not related to the more famous oil-rich Getty family), commissioned Louis Henry Sullivan to design a family mausoleum after the death of his wife Carrie Eliza Getty (1843-1890).

Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) is one of the three greatest architects who worked in the city in the aftermath of the catastrophic fire of 1871.  With his business partner Dankmar Adler (1844-1900), his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright and the distinctive Romanesque-revival architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1866), Sullivan rose to the challenge of building quickly and building big to rebuild the devastated centre that we now call The Loop.

Sullivan and Adler were particularly adept at using the new steel-frame construction to contrive new stylistic rules to make sense of the changing proportions of the high buildings that became known as “skyscrapers”, such as their Auditorium Building (1889).

But Sullivan could work exquisitely on a small scale, and his Getty Tomb in Graceland Cemetery is a gem.

Sullivan is the modern originator of the expression “form follows function”, which he himself drew from the Roman author Vitruvius – “firmitas, utilitas, venustas” – “solid, useful, beautiful”.

So Carrie Eliza Getty’s tomb combines immaculately plain ashlar with a delicate pattern of octagons in which is set a fine Romanesque doorway of plain stonework finely decorated, that frames delicate bronze doors by Yale & Towne.

The sides of the mausoleum echo the doorway with semi-circular bronze windows.

Henry Harrison Getty was laid to rest with his wife, and in due course their only daughter Alice (1865-1946) joined them.

Frank Lloyd Wright said of the Getty Tomb, “Outside the realm of music, what finer requiem?”

Cameron’s cars

Manx Electric Railway "Tunnel" car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

Manx Electric Railway “Tunnel” car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire:  Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire: Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

John Cameron was a Victorian engineer whose career deserves to be better known.

He began his career as a ganger on the Settle & Carlisle Railway in the early 1870s, and was a subcontractor for the Manx Northern Railway in 1878.  He stayed on to serve as secretary and manager of the Manx Northern from 1879, making it the cheapest operational railway in the British Isles, and he built the Foxdale Railway in 1886.

He was appointed consultant engineer for the Douglas-Laxey electric railway and the Snaefell Mountain Railway, but left the island before the electric railway was extended from Laxey to Ramsey and renamed the Manx Electric Railway.

In 1898 he became secretary and manager of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad.

Both the MER and the Tramroad were promoted by property speculators.  The Manx line started out as a pretext for property development north of Douglas, and became involved in a bubble of enterprise that spread to electricity supply, quarrying and hotels and burst spectacularly in 1900.

The sponsors of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, Benjamin Sykes and his business partner Thomas Lumb, between them owned or had significant control over virtually all the undeveloped land along the tramroad route.  They proceeded cautiously, and eventually sold their line to Blackpool Corporation in 1920.

For both these electric railways John Cameron provided very similar rolling stock, flat-fronted box-shaped single-deckers with corner entrances.  The Manx Electric Railway was laid to three-foot gauge track, but the Snaefell Mountain Railway, fitted with a central Fell rail to aid adhesion and braking, is 3ft 6in gauge.  The Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, running along the spacious, gently graded Fylde coast, was built to standard 4ft 8½in gauge.  The obvious similarity of the rolling stock on the two lines is clearly Cameron’s signature.

All three lines remain in operation.  The Manx Electric Railway, though unobtrusively modernised for practical reasons, provides an authentic Victorian travel experience as it grinds its way over the cliffs between Douglas and Ramsey, powered predominantly by John Cameron’s fleet of “Tunnel” cars (1894) and “Winter Saloons” (1899).  (There is no satisfactory explanation of why the narrow “Tunnel” cars are so called.  There are no tunnels on the MER.)

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes visitors from the MER at Laxey to the top of the island’s highest mountain.

The Blackpool to Fleetwood tramway has been upgraded to modern light-rail standards, and is operated by uncompromisingly modern Bombardier Flexity 2 vehicles.   There remains one survivor of John Cameron’s Blackpool fleet, no 40, built in 1914, now part of the National Tramway Museum fleet at Crich, Derbyshire.

By courtesy of YouTube, it’s possible to enjoy a cab-ride from Starr Gate to Fleetwood in six minutes:

The Isle of Man moves at a slower pace, and YouTube offers the real-time experience, complete with rain on the window-glass, of a back seat from Ramsey to Douglas in just over an hour:

(There was another railway engineer called John Cameron, who learned his trade in the south of England and became the locomotive superintendent of the Taff Vale Railway 1911-1922.  He died in 1938.)

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Good spirits at the Abbeydale


Photos:  Scott Hukins []

I’ve never seen the point of dressing up for Hallowe’en – just as I’ve never understood the point of punk, or tattoos.  If you’re beautiful, why make yourself look ugly?  And if you’re ugly, why make matters worse?

At the Abbeydale Picture House Hallowe’en film night there were lots of people who had taken a great deal of trouble to make themselves look as if they’d just been dug up.

Even though I’ve never had a taste for horror films, Nosferatu (1922) came to life, so to speak, in the Abbeydale’s faded auditorium with the piano improvisations of Jonathan Best:

There is something magical about watching a silent movie in a packed silent-movie picture-house with a resonant piano that fills the acoustic.

Effects that would seem primitive through the prism of modern media, such as colour-tints for mood, work when seen as they were meant to be seen.

Though a modern audience inevitably reacts to Nosferatu with the irony born of two generations of horror movies, I found myself wondering just how frightening all this was in 1922.  Though it’s now PG-rated, it must have seemed pretty scary to the original audience.

For those of us who seek to bring Sheffield’s finest suburban cinema back to practical use there’s magic in seeing hundreds of people turn up for an exceptional cultural experience within its walls.

For me, there was extra magic on the way home when the taxi-driver, who came to Sheffield fifty years ago to work in the steelworks, asked me where I’d been and reminisced about the cinemas he knew – including the Abbeydale – in the 1970s.

Sunday afternoon, he told me, was when the Asian community gathered at the Adelphi and the Pavilion to watch Bollywood.

And he’s glad to see such places survive and come back to life.

Cinema is magic – before, during and after the film.

For coming events at the Abbeydale Picture House, where the auditorium is under repair, go to The Abbeydale Picture House – Sheffield’s Historic Cinema & Venue.