No.2 Dear Bloody England. ‘Bridges’

© Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Betjeman was indifferent towards bridges. Whether cast iron or post-war concrete, or from the first Elizabethan age or the second, he was always happy to proffer an astute observation or informed opinion. One such remark opened his 1960 Daily Telegraph article ‘Bridges Elegant or Ugly’ when he wrote ‘It is difficult to make a bridge look ugly, though this rare feat has been achieved in the viaducts over the M1’.

Although principals of bridge construction have changed little over the past millennium, since the Industrial Revolution the aesthetics of connecting railways and roads across rivers and valleys has progressed enormously. Nowhere is the relationship between design and function more profound than in the bridge and nowhere is this better explored than in Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a sibling rivalry’ (Yale, 2007).

Public bridge building flourished in the 18th century, examples such as Westminster Bridge (Charles Lebelye, 1739) and Pulteney Bridge in Bath (Robert Adam, 1769) connected people with commerce and village with town. But Betjeman took a greater interest in private bridges, manmade structures that complimented nature and landscape, he wrote ‘What is more natural than that an English nobleman should want a round-arched bridge…over the river or lake in his park’. For grace and poise there is no better example of how architecture and civil engineering hit head-on than the nobleman’s Palladian bridge, for many the high water mark of English bridge building. Perhaps the finest is Blenheim’s ornamental parkland bridge (Vanburgh and Hawksmoor, 1708), an early-Enlightenment wonder that encased a dining room and water engines making its purpose far more functional than just a crossing point. And then there are examples at Wilton (Roger Morris, 1736) near Salisbury, Prior Park (built by Richard Jones, 1755) in Bath and at Hagley (Thomas Pitt, c.1764) near Birmingham.

With the exception of the original Westminster Bridge these structures can still be seen in their natural habitats. Hagley however has undergone a transformation. Lost, most likely in the 19th century, beneath a century or more of undergrowth − found by Joe Hawkins, Head of Landscape at Hagley Park, who subsequently excavated it, researched it and painstakingly rebuilt the lost timber pavilion on top of its original stone base. It is a remarkable example of what can be achieved when the enthusiasm of an individual is harnessed and supported by the owner.

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Hagley is not an isolated example of admirable conservation and restoration. The National Lottery has supported recent work at Llangollen, a chain bridge (1929) than spans the river Dee, and thanks to the local authority and grant funders Victoria Bridge (James Dredge, 1836) in Bath has now been removed from English Heritage’s risk register. Betjeman, a man who loved the work of John Rennie, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir James Fowler, would have applauded such restorations and no doubt would have been a great champion of the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards which are handed out annually by the Institute of Civil Engineers.

Six years after writing his Telegraph article the Severn Bridge (Freeman Fox and Partners, 1966) was opened. First proposed in 1824 by Thomas Telford (who had just built the Menai Bridge linking Wales with Anglesey) the M48 road bridge was effectively 142 years late, but was befitting a nation that had just won the football World Cup. Betjeman’s appears to have remained silent on its sleek aesthetic and technical excellence, perhaps in submission to, or recognition of, human advancement or, more likely, because the railway held more fascination that the road, the steam locomotive boiler more than the internal combustion engibridgene

Judging by his comments on the ugliness of the M1 bridges it is fair to say that modern bridges may well have incurred his wrath. But what, we wonder, would he have made of the Millennium Bridge crossing the Thames? This was a testament of true partnerships where the architects Norman Foster and Partners worked alongside the engineers Ove Arup and Partners and the sculptor Anthony Caro. However, this was no ordinary pedestrian bridge; this was a bridge that wobbled. In fact it wobbled so much that accusing fingers pointed each and every way after the bridge was first opened and subsequently closed for remedial works. Betjeman would have seen the funny side of this and perhaps would have put pen to paper reminding us of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s sentiment that there must be ‘No shuddering’ in bridge construction. However, beyond the humour he would have seen it as many do today, a masterpiece of minimalist design where all elements flow seamlessly into the next.

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‘Dear Bloody England’: Betjeman’s Britain Revisited.


What irked John Betjeman more than anything was a lack of respect for the mundane. Roads are a good example. In his ‘Men and Buildings’ feature that ran in the Telegraph between 1958 and 1964 he discussed topics as diverse as signage and quality of lighting to planners and their ineptitude in allowing new roadside buildings to be constructed that lacked sensitivity to their surroundings.

Signs and lighting perhaps, will always be a contentious issue. Indeed today there are so many signs that a scholarly journal on the subject is wanting. Meanwhile roadside lights are either being turned off to save energy or upgraded with hyper-efficient LED bulbs – both options seem to create annoyance amongst local residents. Another provocative topic is the ever increasing amount of infrastructure that supports the road network.  Fixed amongst rotting road-kill and widowed hub-caps are bollards, barriers, speed cameras, electronic signs, weather stations and a whole catalogue of painted markings. Where dominant power lines and telegraph poles used to incur the purists wrath, now its wind turbines, some still seeking retrospective planning permission, many towering over listed heritage assets, most spoiling England’s natural beauty.

To be fair all these intrusions require elements of skill in their design but few of us really connect with the fact during our daily commutes. Buildings however are different, they are more tangible objects that we can learn to love or hate −some have understandably become statutory listed assets.


The parasol canopies of Esso filling station (right) on the A6 at Birstall, Leicestershire, for example, by Eliot Noyes who worked alongside Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer no less, remains an inspirational futuristic piece of 1960s industrial design. Preston Bus Station, built in 1969 by Building Design Partnership to rival the glamour of less affordable air travel, has recently been listed thanks to a gargantuan effort from campaigners. Its listed status transforms our acceptance of this Brutalist structure from a useless concrete folly worthy of demolition to an aesthetic masterpiece whose vertical rows of sculptural fins rebound the light the like flames around a heat exchanger. Perhaps the most unthinkable listing is the former Forton Service Station on the M6 near Lancaster, built in 1964 by T.P Bennett and Son, with a novelty hexagonal tower that once housed a restaurant.

TricornYet, the survival of concrete buildings is a game of two halves. Gone are the striking, multi-levelled, angular Brutalist car park and shopping centre combo’s the Tricorn Centre (1966-2004) in Portsmouth and the Trinity Square (1967-2010), so-called Get Carter car park (below), in Gateshead.  The architect of both buildings, Owen Luder, once said that such structures gave ‘you a feeling from your balls to your throat’. That they do. At their best they are inspiring and engaging, shocking and threatening. At their worse they are a muggers and vandals delight, with copious hiding places emanating from the cold, dark, twisting, spittle and gum soiled unforgiving corridors.

get carter

There is no doubt that these iconic buildings were evocative of an age. They were the fruits of short, authoritative, black and white men in highly-coloured bow-ties; a Betjemanic class of gentleman architect and ruthless planner, lyrical advocates of backfilling dear old England with tons of concrete. Ironically their enduring legacy was to separate man from machine, thereby creating a safe-haven from traffic, a freedom to roam unfettered by congestion and pollution. Soon the car was banished from post-war reconstructed city centres like Southampton and Plymouth. At last the towns and cities were being liberated from traffic, drifting slowly towards a new era of pedal and pedestrian power.

Fortunately our national heritage list has not overlooked the mundane. The Abbey Road zebra crossing, a shrine for ‘mop tops’ of all shapes and sizes, is now listed, as are many post-boxes and classic K2 telephone boxes, a reminder, for our children at least, of low-tech, hard-wired, technology. What, I wonder, would the ashen faced, space suited, Ziggy Stardust think today if he ever found his way back into a K2 box? Rather than a vandalised analogue telephone covered in vomit he might have a use for a defibrillator or community library.

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‘The weakest Woman sometimes may, the wisest man deceive’: Mary Toft and the pleasures of humiliation

Paper given at Georgian Pleasures Conference, 12-13 September 2013

Bath Spa University, Centre for History & Culture Lecture Series

Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Queen’s Square, Bath.Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bath

Situated in Portugal Row, just to the south of Lincolns Inns Fields, once stood the Dukes Playhouse, later renamed the Theatre Royal, whose infamous neighbour John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, raised the bar for outrageous excesses soon after the restoration of the monarchy. It was from here on 9 December 1726 that the impresario Christopher Rich staged (and perhaps wrote and performed in) a sketch pantomime entitled The Surrey Wonder: an anatomical farce.

Lord Rochester would have delighted at such a performance ─ with all its rakish and libertine connotations, its bawdy wit, brutal malice, unwavering scepticism and frank sexuality The Surrey Wonder was, if nothing else, sensationalist. The pantomime recalled events of the ongoing affair of Mary Toft of Godalming who between October and December 1726 managed to cram live rabbits and bits of butchered dead rabbits into her vagina and forced them back out again at will. Her claim captured the attention of a raft of conversant, impulsive and misinformed individuals, all of whom travelled from far-and-wide to see her perform. The affair also gripped the imagination of a more pedestrian public whose insatiable appetite for lurid detail was catered for by the eager-to-please media journalists.

Yet, this case fiercely divided public and scholarly opinion because it pitted progressive notions of scientific logic against more established beliefs in religion, secular magic and superstition. This division was reported in Mists Weekly on the 19 November 1726, which read

‘People after all differ much in their opinion about this matter, some looking up on  them as great curiosities fit to be presented to the Royal Society. Others are angry of the account and say that if it be fact, a veil should be drawn over it as an imperfection  in human nature’.

Its fair to say that such confused rationality perpetuated from the top down ─the poet Alexander Pope wrote to John Caryll, 2nd Baron of Durford, saying ‘I want to know what faith you have in the miracle at Guildford … All London is upon this occasion … divided into factions about it’ while in a similar vein Lord Onslow of Clandon Park in Surrey expressed to the eminent scientist and collector Dr Hans Sloane, ‘[This affair has] almost alarmed England, and in a manner persuaded several people of sound judgment that it was true’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the pantomime never caught-on. Only two reviews have survived. The first, from Brice’s Weekly Journal simply reported on the comedy affected by newly delivered rabbits running wildly around the stage which, they wrote, raised ‘such a laughter as perhaps has not been heard upon any other Occasion’. The second, Mists Weekly, highlighted the more serious issue of reputational damage inflicted on those associated with the affair, who, after exposure of the fraud, it was reported, were ‘flinging their bitter pills at one another to convince the world that none of them understand anything of the matter’.

Before I look closer at the humiliation inflicted on the key witnesses to the rabbit births we need to understand the course of their individual actions.

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The London Letters of Samuel Molyneux (media)

Lecture given at the Society of Antiquaries of London

May 2014

Samuel Molyneux was born in Chester on 18 July 1689. He was the third and only surviving child of William Molyneux (1656-98) ─ the Dublin born astronomer, natural philosopher, constitutional writer and Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1683 William Molyneux, along with Sir William Petty, founded the ‘Dublin Philosophical Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, Mathematics and Mechanics’ − a society that flourished for a short while but floundered during the so called Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the Molyneux family sought exile in England only returning to Dublin after the restoration of the protestant ascendancy.

Both of Samuel’s parents died prematurely –his mother in 1691 when he was only two and his father seven years later. From 1698 his greatest inspiration was his uncle (and now guardian) Thomas Molyneux (1661-1733) who, like his brother William, had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, travelled abroad and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. Thomas went onto pursue a successful career as a physician, being elected a Fellow of the Irish College of Physicians, of which he was elected President in 1713, and later served as Regius Professor of Physic in 1717. Thomas provided his nephew with a first-class education at Trinity College where he was tutored by, amongst others, George Berkeley who dedicated his 1707 book Miscellanea Mathematica to his aspiring pupil.

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‘Heaven Helps Those Who Help Themselves’; the realities of disaster planning

Lanhydrock House soon after the fire of 4 april 1881.

Lanhydrock House soon after the fire of 4 April 1881.

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The War Dead of Lanhydrock Parish in Cornwall

I would like to start with a passage written from the trenches

‘One finds it hard to realise [that] the Germans are only 75yds away until a machine gun or two opens fire. There was a lull in the fighting, and they lifted their heads above the parapets and called to each other in mockery. One said: ‘Come on over here,’ in the best German he could. He got a reply from a German trying an English accent, saying: ‘Not blooming likely!’ Then, after about half-an-hour, they started fighting again…if you raised your head, it would have been blown off. There are scores of men lying dead. These grenades are murderous things. Found watercress growing in a stream – went alright with bread and cheese’.

These straightforward, uncomplicated, words were not written by a celebrated poet or a prominent commentator; they are not part of any regimental diary or official war record nor are they the voice of authority or rank – indeed, far from it. These lines were written in the war diary of Sapper John French ─ a Redruth tin miner serving with the Royal Engineers in northern France who spent much of his time burrowing beneath enemy lines or franticly building structures to facilitate the advance of his comrades towards their adversaries.

Sapper French, like the men of this parish, were amongst the 9 million men from the British Empire who were recruited for the war effort. War, on the ground, was predominantly a working class occupation. His diary gives us a day-to-day portrayal of war, in the trenches and in the field. It tells us about emotions, comradeship, survival and sustenance in a poignant, often humorous commentary. Most war recruits from this parish were working class. From their work in agriculture or the service industry they travelled to various theatres of war safe in the knowledge that hostilities would be short-lived and that the foregone conclusion was a celebrated victory and a swift return to their families. The harsh reality was that they found themselves far from home, in some of the most inhospitable places on earth, living in squalid, disease-ridden, conditions, facing death on a daily basis and witnessing destruction on an unimaginable scale.

The men listed on our war memorial were amongst 3 million British casualties. Our purpose today is to remember these men; to acknowledge their sacrifice and to observe a silence that will evoke and embrace the spirit of continuity and memory. However, in order to remember we need to understand. My aim is to reveal their stories so that we can begin to understand. Yet, we can never fully appreciate − the hardships, the fear, the stress, the comradeship, the loss − all I can ever hope to achieve is to breathe some life back into the cold chiselled names on the plaque above the south door. I feel honoured to tell their stories but am well aware that I do so from the fortunate position that I have never witnessed, first-hand, conflict on any scale. Therefore their worlds are far from mine and their fears I shall never share ─ only gratitude and remembrance can I impart.

Here are their stories

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Managing Fire Risk at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall


In April 1881, Lanhydrock House near Bodmin in Cornwall, caught fire. As a consequence, the then owner Lord Robartes commissioned the architect Richard Coad to refurbish the house as an ‘unpretentious’ family residence incorporating the
latest in Victorian fire prevention solutions.

The most notable of these technologies were 300mm thick concrete ceilings supplied by Dennett and Ingles of London, designed to stop the spread of fire between floors; patent fireproof plaster; structural ironwork to hold these great loads in place; and an internal fire hydrant system drawing on 200,000 gallons of water stored in a reservoir in the High Gardens. Curiously, despite the use of these High Victorian technologies, Lord Robartes did not consider gas lighting or electrical power safe and so built a lamp
room from which paraffin lamps were wicked and primed.

In 2005, 150 years after these measures were installed; the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (FSO) was legislated through Parliament. The FSO places emphasis on a risk-based attitude towards fire assessment, most notably by reducing the possibility
of fire starting in the first place or, in the worst-case scenario of fire being confirmed, by safeguarding life through provision of a safe means of escape and then limiting damage by restricting the spread of fire.

This article shows how we overcame the challenges in implementing a FSO in a heritage setting

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