Monday 28 December 2009

A Riveting Update On The Wimbledon Common Benchmark

 You might recall a posting in the spring regarding an intriguing white stone near the windmill on Wimbledon Common. I was lucky enough to be able to identify it as being a benchmark used in
surveying as I had spotted something similar the previous week on a kerb in Brentford. Although I was feeling quite pleased with myself at this bit of sleuthery there are, of course, always those out there who know an awful lot more about the subject. Cheltonia left a comment suggested that it was actually a special type of benchmark called a rivet  so I thought some extra checking might be in order.

It didn't take much work before I was reading a site  called The Bench-Mark Database and my eyes were opened to a whole new world of benchmarks and their variants all being meticulously researched and catalogued by a group of dedicated enthusiasts. You might not think this would be much of a problem but it seems that through the history of the Ordnance Survey almost every survey has varied the benchmarks used so there are layers of benchmarks of different vintage and importance.

The database allows you to locate benchmarks in your area so it might be worth having a look to see if there are any unusual examples in your area, and although by no means complete, new ones are always being added. As I couldn't find my Wimbledon one on the database I wrote to the site explaining my query and asking if they could provide any background information on what it might be.  Ian, the site owner, responded with a very full and informative answer which he kindly allowed me to repeat verbatim. The main question then, was what type of benchmark was it?
It's a Ordnance Survey rivet bench mark. The stone wasn't put there by the OS - it's a boundary stone which was already there and the OS used it as a handy location on which to place their bench mark. You quite often find rivets on boundary stones, milestones, and even large boulders. As long is it is not likely to move the OS might have put a bench mark on it.

My database has all the UK fundamental bench marks (about 200), and almost all the flush bracket bench marks (about 21,000). There are about 500,000 lower order bench marks in Britain, such as this rivet, but I don't have anything like full coverage for them. They are just added to the database by users of the site as and when they log them.

Using the windmill in the background of your photograph, I was able to guess at the location of this stone as somewhere in OS grid square TQ2372. I looked at this square in the Ordnance Survey's own database and found the following:

TQ 2303 7250 RIVET TOP BS 20.0M E PUBLIC CAR PARK 52.0321 3 N 1972 - 0.6

Translating this to English: TQ 2303 7250 is the grid reference of the bench mark. The description is "Rivet on top of boundary stone, 20 metres east of the public car park". The rivet was measured at 52.0321 metres above sea level. It's a 3rd-order bench mark. The height above sea-level is relative to the sea level at Newlyn in Cornwall. It was last checked by the OS in 1972. The rivet is about 0.6 metres above ground level.

Looking again at the map near the windmill, I can see both a car park and parish boundary line, and a nearby 50m contour line, which ties up nicely with the description given.

Rivets like this were part of the OS levelling network. Levelling was the process of measuring the hight above sea level of a given point. The surveyors started at Newlyn and moved out across the country measuring from point to point. From this they built a series of very precise bench marks called fundamental bench marks (FBM), such as this one at Croydon with levelling lines running between the FBMs marked every mile or so with a flush bracket (FB) bench mark. The points between the FBs were filled in with lower order bench marks, such as rivets, bolts, and stone cuts.

These days levelling is done using satellites and GPS measurements. Apart from the FBMs, the old levelling network is no longer used or maintained by the OS and the old survey marks are slowly being lost as roads are widened, buildings are demolished etc.
So it looks as though our Wimbledon rivet was one of the lowest order of benchmarks and sited for convenience on top of a pre-existing parish boundary stone and for all intents and purposes became obsolete in about 1972. Not the most earth-shattering of revelations but I have to say that one of the bonuses of noticing it in the first place has been the subsequent discovery of the world of the Ordnance Survey benchmark!

Monday 21 December 2009

Carshalton And The Mother of All Drain Pressure Relase Pipes

I was taking a short walk between the two 'villages' of Sutton and Carshalton the other week  (and in the process coming across enough bits and pieces to make a future decent posting) and was just going over the railway bridge on Carshalton Road when I caught sight of a most intriguing Drain Pressure Release Pipe in the far distance.

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These pressure release pipes are often referred to as 'Stink Pipes', which seems quite an inappropriate name for something as elegant.  They serve a couple of purposes - firstly as a way of preventing any build up of pressure in underground sewers in the event of a blockage or any other build up of gas, and secondly to make sure that any corrosive hydrogen sulphide gas was vented off. There's a very interesting article on the subject in the Northern Echo with the following explanation from a sewer engineer
"The gas is mainly hydrogen sulphide and it gives that rotten eggs smell, " said Gary Paley, of Darlington, who has been a sewerage engineer for 18 years in Yorkshire. "It usually occurs when sewage is being pumped long distances. It can become septic as it does not travel from A to B quick enough. It can also occur in flat areas where the speed of flow is slower.
"The gas will eat concrete if not dealt with. I remember that the sewer near the racecourse in Thirsk had been almost totally eaten by the gas and just the reinforcing bars from inside the concrete pipes were left. "
Useful utilitarian things then stink pipes, but not an obvious candidate for decorative trappings. I'd seen the same design when a passenger in a car near the Purley Way in Croydon, but this was the first opportunity I'd had of taking a few pictures and having a closer look and it was well worth the effort - even if it was a bit tricky to capture all the details.

There are a couple of things about this pipe that really stand out. The first is the height . Most of the pipes I've documented before have been considerably shorter but this one rises above the street like a needle, possibly up to twice the height of some others. The second eye-catcher is the extraordinarily ornate top fixture comprising a large arrow, a globe with four 'trumpet' funnels and a spiked spire piercing what looks like a crown.

 Of course having had the opportunity to have a look at this one and marvel at its complexities, I then spotted another one down a side road on the journey back to Sutton! As it was a only a few streets away it's tempting to assume it's part of the same pipe run but as it's on the other side of the railway line that would suggest that either the drain is very deep or it's on a parallel, but separate, spur. The second pipe on Weihurst Gardens is, however, also close to the railway line which might suggest the drain and the railway followed the same course.
Then yesterday I was going through Carshalton - on Park Hill Road this time - and spotted a couple more of these pipes along the roadside, One yet again by a (different) railway line with a second pipe (lacking both spike and crown)  just down Park Hill.

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There is very little distance between all four of them which again suggests they were bought and erected at about the same time on the same main drain (or two). If they are venting off of a main drain it might also be the case that it is fairly deep and potentially 'lively', possibly releasing considerable amounts of rather smelly gas. It might therefore require particularly tall pipes in order to disperse it with minimum inconvenience to the locals. Sound reasoning?

One of the big questions I then had was with regard to the purpose of the arrow. Arrows are usually directional in nature, telling people where to go, but the height of these pipes make them impractical if they were for use by the public and there's certainly no indication as to what they might be pointing to. The only logical possibility I can come up with is that they actually point in the direction of the underground main and indicate the flow. When I've nothing better to do I might go back and plot their positions on a map and show the direction that each arrow points in. If they pretty much line up I'll feel vindicated. If they point all over the place I'll have to come up with a new theory

I can't really come up with much to explain the other features though. I assume the ball with four funnels must act as a baffle in some way, allowing the gas to disperse efficiently. Could having an open pipe cause a problem if the wind was from a certain direction? The significance of the crown and spike eludes me completely though, unless the manufacturers had a royal warrant or something equivalent. It seems quite a lot of ornate ironwork for purely decorative purposes but who knows?

This seems to be an explainable addition though, a sleeve with what look like ceramic insulators for either electrical cables or telephone lines, I'm not sure which. Obviously defunct these days, it looks as though they've been given a coat or two of rust resistant paint as well.

Who made these wonderful pipes is the next question. I didn't see anything on the first drainpipe, but the second one I spotted on the corner of Weihurst Gardens has a makers mark on the pipe

W. Macfarlane & Co. Glasgow
 It doesn't take much searching before you realise that these pipes are the produce of one of the greatest of all Victorian iron works, the Saracen Foundry,  the construction of which create the new Glasgow suburb of Possil Park. 

 Walter Macfarlane

Named by Walter himself after a pub by the businesses' original site (The Saracen's Head this foundry produced huge amounts of decorative and ornate iron work. Their catalogues were mighty, bound tomes and contained thousands of items of all description relating to ironwork and as they employed the most imaginative designers it's no surprise now that the finished ventilation pipe should be so ornate...Macfarlane's didn't do plain! There's a wealth of information on the company on the Scottish Ironworks site, including a gallery of some marvellous examples of surviving works. The foundry was a huge and inviting target for the Luftwaffe in the second world war and at the same time many examples of their work were lost in the drive to melt iron down for the war effort, but they produced so much and spread it so far around the globe that examples like the Carshalton stink-pipes ensure that the company may be gone, but are unlikely to be forgotten.

Thursday 10 December 2009

When The Full Monty Goes for a Burton*

"Montague Burton - The Tailor of Taste"  ... what an excellent strap-line! I think it's hard these days for many of us to realise just how big a company Burton's were in the 20th century. One of the FTSE 100 company's Burtons were, for a long time, the biggest range of tailors in the world. 

The crest pictured above is from a store at Croydon, and on it is the claim that the company was founded in 1900 but Montague seems to be stretching the truth a little on that one. It's more like the day he landed in Britain from Lithuania with £100 in his pocket to seek his fortune, but I guess from his point of view it's a pretty valid claim and he soon set about making the dream of a fortune a reality. Of course Montague Burton wasn't his real name either - he started out as Meshe David Osinsky, tried Maurice Burton for a while but then finally settled on the slightly grander Montague Maurice Burton. He married Sophia Marks in 1909 and they later went on to have four children, Barbara, Stanley, Arnold and Raymond.There is a fascinating account of his story on the Working Lives Archive in a section dealing with the lives of immigrant workers to the country. It is also well illustrated with photos such as the one below.

Arnold, Barbara, Stanley & Raymond - 1919

And it's really his wife and children that are the reason for this particular entry, rather than the much celebrated Montague. By 1929 the Burton website claims he had over 400 shops and premises and by the time of Montague's death in 1952 there were many more. It seems that many of these stores were ceremonially opened by a member of the family - if not Montague himself, then his wife or one of his children, and the stores were often graced with an inscription to commemorate the occasion. I am sure many of these inscriptions still exist - pound to a penny there's one underneath the Croydon store pictured above - but I have recently stumbled across three examples and expect (now that I'm looking out for them ) to find a few more.

The stone is quite easy to spot, partly through its uniformity from site to site and apparently Scottish granite, according to the author J. Foster Fraser

Every Montague Burton shop has the same outward appearance, both in its window dressing and in the name of the firm uniformly presented in bronze lettering on the marble. The exterior stonework is always of emerald pearl granite with shafts of Scotch grey granite. The interior fittings of oak and gun-metal quiet and dignified are the same at every branch.

First up is this example from Richmond that follows what is obviously a house style for such an inscription. It's also the oldest of the three being inscribed in 1928 and apparently unveiled by his son Stanley. Stanley had been born in 1914 which made him 14 when he cut the ribbon on this particular store,  so not the middle-aged captain of retail you might expect to be wheeled out for such an event! Stanley eventually served in the RAF during the war and later, along with his brothers, became a director of Burtons in 1945. He died in 1991, but not before following another family tradition and setting up a charitable trust. The Independent newspaper made this brief mention of his will in 1992.
Mr Stanley Howard Burton, of Harrogate, North Yorkshire, left estate valued at pounds 4,040,016 net.
You can also make an appointment at the Leeds museum to have the pleasure in examining Stanley's travelling case or you could have a look at the Audrey and Stanley Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds.

Oh dear. Seems a little disrespectful to Arnold but his inscription has obviously become a well-regarded stopping point for the dogs of Rosehill near Sutton. Ten years after Stanley's inscription, Burton's must have been one of the original shops in the area to help service the new and mighty St. Helier Estate, one of the largest housing estate in Europe at the time.

Arnold and his twin Raymond were born in 1917 so he was a more respectable 21 years of age at the time of the dedication. Arnold, like his brothers, also went into the family business and was able to indulge his passion for fast cars as Mel Reuben of Leeds recalled on a Leeds website
Arnold Burton who loved fast sports cars, purchased a top of the range French sports car. The car was being cleaned and valeted for his collection in the washing bay,in my wisdom I decided to take a short cut on the shop bike. Unfortunately I skidded on the wet floor and crashed the bike into the car and badly scratched the car. This was just a hour before Arnold Burton was collecting it.Subsequently I was suspended for the day and sacked the next day
Arnold also went into the motor business with racing driver John Woolfe. This love of fast cars never left Arnold with tragic consequences as he was recently involved in a crash that left two people dead.  Arnold has also set up his own charitable trust with a focus on Jewish and Yorkshire-related works .

And finally, the 'never to be referred to by her own name' inscription of Lady Montague Burton nee Sophia Marks and daughter of a furniture dealer(rather than the Marks of Marks and Spencer). This example of her presence is on the now-pedestrianised Sutton High Street getting toward Sutton Station. She died in 1957 and was buried with her husband in Leeds. However they were both eventually removed and re-interred in a new Jewish cemetery in Harrowgate in 1964.

I hope to find some inscriptions from Barbara and Raymond as well as from Montague himself in order to complete the set and with over 600 potential sites I'm sure it won't take too long.

*When The Full Monty Goes for a Burton are two sayings linked to the company. A 'Full Monty' was a cut-price all in one set of clothing suitable for de-mobbed servicemen  and Gone for a Burton - a euphemism for being killed - is allegedly based on the same premise, 
 "It is a reference in some way to the suits made by Montague Burton. Military personnel were given a Burton's suit on demobilization, so anyone who was absent, either by being killed or after demobilization, could have been said to have 'gone for a burton'"

Friday 4 December 2009

"Just another brick in the wall" (Fire-brick that is...)

You wouldn't  think there was much mileage in a garden wall really. Not a great deal to get the old grey matter working, pique the curiosity or get the juices flowing. It's interesting though how even the most unlikely of sources can pose a conundrum. I suppose landscape detectives can read a certain amount into rural walls - the materials used for example would reflect the cheapest and most easily available resource, whether it be flint, granite, slate or limestone. You can also tell about regional variations in building techniques or dry stone walling which might be instructive. In cities though most garden walls are made of the ubiquitous brick that could have been shipped in from almost anywhere. But what if the wall is made of a completely unexpected and unusual material? Presumably one available locally and cheaper than the cheapest brick. Can that still provide a window on the past like its country cousins?

Take this wall in Abbey Road, South Wimbledon for instance. I've walked past it many times and always thought it to be a not particularly attractive but utilitarian bit of walling. A bit on the grim and foreboding side but doing its job. It runs the length of about ten houses for the end of a whole block, so is obviously not the work of a single house-owner doing a spot of DIY.  
I'd have to be honest and say it's not the sort of wall you'd linger over or think particularly worthy of closer inspection....until that is (cue the dramatic music) you went and had a closer look! Straight away the first thing you'd notice was the materials that were being used were all very irregular and not the most obvious choice when building a wall.

 The second thing that stands out is that a large number of these irregularly shaped items seem to be man-made and obviously broken pieces of something larger, such as the central slab in the section above.

In fact the more I looked at it the more obvious it was that the rough and irregular dressing of the stones was due to the fact that most of them were covered in a thick layer of slag and not the usual sort of garden walling found at B&Q!

Mixed in amongst the slag covered pots were some bricks, masonry, clinker and seemingly random 'lumps' of indeterminate origin. Definitely not the sort of industrial mix you'd expect to find on a (relatively) quite Merton back street.

The obvious question then is where it came from and how it came to be used in such a manner? As you can see from the buildings their design doesn't suggest that the wall was built at the same time and it actually seems to be a much later addition. 
My first thought was that there might be a railway connection as the side of Abbey Road leads into Station Road - a name that seems a little odd at first when you think that South Wimbledon tube is about half a mile away. However I knew that there was a much more direct railway link that was still around up until the early 80s.  This was a short branch line - mainly devoted to freight - that ran along what is now Merantun Way.
You can see the route on the google satellite map. The old station was about where the roundabout is now situated and Station Road was originally about twice as long as it is now.

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Could they have come from the steam engines furnaces?  The fact that they were encrusted onto clay suggested that was unlikely and I don't believe that steam engines generated that sort of heat, so that was one initial (not so) bright idea out of the window.

Then I had a bit of luck. Working my way along the wall I found a couple of bits of clay that had a manufacturers mark on them.  


I had no idea whether this was significant or not but it was the only lead I had so I made a note of the name and went off for a bit of investigating.                                                           It was soon apparent that the Gibbons family seem to have been significant players in the mining and metalworking businesses during the Industrial Revolution. I found records of leases going back to the1830's which describe Benjamin Gibbons and his brother John as being mine-owners and iron-masters.
However, they really seem to have hit the jackpot with their mining of fire clay which initially almost seems to have been regarded as a by-product of the coal industry itself. Its real worth was soon realised and this extract from Black Country Industries by Bev Parker shows how well regarded the Gibbons fire clay was
In this, the Stourbridge and Brierley Hill district, a very extensive business is carried on in the manufacture of fire-bricks of all kinds, used in the construction and relining of blast furnaces, puddling furnaces, cupolas, and air furnaces. The fire-clay deposits here are reputed the best in England, being fashioned into melting pots and gas-making retorts, which fetch high prices; these bricks are exported largely, and are highly prized in all parts of the world, particularly the foreign settlements of the British Empire, the general opinion being that they resist the highest temperatures in smelting furnaces of any others which have yet been produced. Perhaps Ruffords, Mrs. Emily Gibbons, and Pearson and Harrisons, make the best quality. Mrs. Gibbons, relict of the late Benjamin Gibbons, Esq., the well-known ironmaster of the Millfields furnaces, we are informed by Mr. Jones, of the Commercial Gas Works, here stands unrivalled for the manufacture of these Gas Retorts.
Emily had taken over the fire brick side of the company with great gusto after the death of her husband Benjamin and she seems to have been a rare case at the time of highly successful woman running an industrial company. On her retirement in 1880 she was eventually handed it over to her two sons who kept the name going into the 20th century.

I was also very fortunate to come across a newspaper article that not only went into the history of the company, but that also gave some background to fireclay itself. The article was grandly entitled When Gibbons fireclay works of Gornal led the world in gas retorts   and it points out that
...from the earliest times the fireclay extracted from the bowels of the Black Country was considered to be of the highest quality. Usually lying beneath the coal seam, the extraction of fireclay occurred within a relatively small area, centred on Lye, Cradley, Amblecote, Brierley Hill, Pensnett and Gornal. It was shaped into articles known as refractories, of which the most familiar kind is the firebrick, and it was noted that Black Country refractories could withstand the very highest temperatures without cracking. When the Industrial Revolution dawned, the Black Country fireclay fields really came into their own, and by the late nineteenth century there was barely a blast furnace, glass cone, pottery kiln, steel works, iron foundry, coal mine, or chemical plant that did not use refractories of one type or another made in the Black Country. Almost every industry in the Empire depended on our brickyard chaps and wenches, who by 1864 were making 30 million firebricks alone every year.
So assuming that our slag encrusted pottery was actually firebrick it suggest it might well have come from a blast furnace, iron foundry, glass cone, pottery kiln or chemical plant, which narrows it down fractionally (I'm ruling out the coal mine and  steel works as I'm pretty sure they would have been noticed in South Wimbledon)

But what are these gas retorts that everyone praises so highly? Not being a chemist or an engineer I had to dig around a bit further to find out and they seem in essence to have been used in the manufacture of gas from coal (I believe this was the basis of the old 'Town Gas' before we all went over to the North Sea variety). Retorts were large pottery tubes (described as looking like torpedoes) in which coal was heated at very high temperatures and which eventually produced coal tar, gas and various other by-products. Could these bits of pottery be the remains of broken retorts then?

The possible presence of retorts had me thinking that there might have been a small gas works on the site, using the coal coming in from the railway to make gas for local consumption. As it turned out there was indeed a power station on the line for whom the coal was intended. Sadly for me it turned out to be a large power station in Croydon, not a little gas-house in  South Wimbledon!  Things were looking a bit grim on the detective side when I found myself straying off the path somewhat. In my researching I had discovered that on the other side of our lost railway line was the site of an equally lost factory - the Line Bothers 'Tri-Ang' Toy Factory complex (There were three Lines brothers, and as everyone knows three lines joined together make a tri-angle!). Not only that, in the thirties it was regarded as the largest toy factory in the world and during the second world war had been the worlds largest manufacturer of the Mk III Sten submachine-gun! This is a fascinating company with a fascinating history of its own but what grabbed my attention was the fact that a commentator noted it was one of only a couple of manufacturing sites large enough to have its own private siding. You can get an idea of the size of the site in the picture below. The railway is to the left of the factory, converging at the top left of the. site with the Abbey Railway station.
(Addendum: This Pathe newsreel shows toy testing in Morden in 1951 and by the type of toys being tested I would be pretty sure that it was filmed at the Tri-Ang factory itself)


Fascinating as this was, what really caught my attention was one of the other site important enough to have its own siding was The Eyre Smelting Co. Ltd.  Well if I was looking for a local site that might be interested in using fireclay, this was surely it!

Grace's Guides have an interesting illustration of  an Eyre Smelting Works catalogue which give some indication of the range of metallurgical products they were involved with.

Some further searching led to a railway site with photos of the old line, including picture number S03 a 1968 photograph of a derelict Merton Abbey station with the chimneys of the Eyre Smelting works in the background.  I haven't as yet found a potted history of the company - and for all I know it may still exist in some shape or form somewhere - but there are occasional references to the works on the internet, including the odd publication, advertisements in aviation trade magazines, notice of the production of a commemorative calender for the Festival of Britain and, most intriguing of all - its role in role in the scrap business.  For those who are nostalgic for the golden age of flight the Eyre Smelting Works seems to have been the last resting place for a huge number of decommissioned aircraft, including Spitfires, Spitefuls, Meteors, Vampires and all manner of other post war planes whose eventual destinations have been logged by enthusiasts. But it wasn't only British and American planes that succumbed to the Eyre Eorks furnaces.  Immediately after the war a large number of German aircraft were flown to Britain for testing and evaluation before suffering in the harsh winter of 1949
Many of the aircraft were overturned in the gales, and others suffered from falling trees, and shortly after this, the wholesale scrapping began... After all useful pieces and large metal areas had been removed, the mortal remains were buried in twenty feet deep holes where they remain to this day. This burial process was quite common with another pit being sited out beyond Brize Norton village in farmland, to accommodate the remains of aircraft that had been stored in dispersed sites.
The last recorded "movement" of a German aircraft took place on the 16th of December 1948, when Siebel Si 204D AM 46 was sold to the Eyre Smelting Co.
I haven't found exactly when the Eyre Smelting works closed down but the railways stopped in the mid-70s and Merantun Way was built in the early 90s. My guess would be that the smelting works had melted down its last jet-fighter within a few years of  the 1968 picture and had then been demolished itself. Its furnaces and fireclay had then been smashed and broken up, revealing its lining of petrified slag and clinker.  Quite who the enterprising builder was who spotted a convenient use for the waste I doubt I'll ever find out but you have to admire their parsimony and I wonder if any of the occupants of the houses realise that part of their garden wall may once have been flying above them during the Battle of Britain?

All this is conjecture and guesswork of course and quite possibly totally inaccurate, so I'm looking forward to hearing from anyone who can provide a bit more information about the Eyre Smelting Works and the unlikely South Wimbledon garden wall. I hadn't realised what a historical journey I was setting out on when I first thought to have a closer look at it but it's amazing where a bit of old clinker can take you!