June Burkitt was Greenwich Council’s first Local History Librarian. She was appointed in 1961 and I had the privilege of working as her assistant. She encouraged me to become qualified and I was able to succeed her as Local History Librarian in 1969 when she left the council’s service. She remained a member of our society, serving as hon. secretary for ten years from 1963. She was a member of the society’s council and president for two years. ‘Greenwich at the End of the Seventeenth Century’ was one of her two fine presidential addresses. It is a thoroughly researched and well written account of Greenwich during a time of serious economic decline following the departure of the Stuarts from Greenwich Palace.
This fascinating article investigates parts of the ancient town centre of Greenwich which which were demolished or altered to provide an appropriate setting for the newly founded and splendid Royal Hospital for Seamen, now the Old Royal Naval College. Alec Holden, former president of our society, was Surveyor to Greenwich Hospital Estates, working in an office in Turnpin Lane. The estate archives were in his office and contained bundles of ancient deeds relating to the estate’s properties in Greenwich. Using the deeds and plans he was able to reconstruct the lost areas of Greenwich’s town centre and riverside to the east of Greenwich Church Street. The estate records are now in The National Archives at Kew. The excellent plan accompanying the article was drawn by another former president, Charles Alister. This is a key document for anyone interested in the old riverside town of Greenwich.
GREENWICH FESTIVAL 1977
GREENWICH TOWN CENTRE WALK By Barbara Ludlow
Introduction by Julian Watson
Barbara Ludlow (1929-2016), former President of our society, was a gifted social historian with a fascination for aspects and areas of Greenwich, like Greenwich Marsh (the Peninsula) and East Greenwich, which hadn’t attracted the interest of historians or visitors to the town. The town centre and its fringes including the West Greenwich marshes adjoining Deptford Creek, hadn’t featured in any Greenwich histories or guide books. The marshes remained undeveloped until the 19th century. This event during the Greenwich Festival of 1977, was and remains, unique. Barbara walked and researched the area then produced typed notes, which were photocopied for those who accompanied her on Friday 17th June. I was with her on that memorable walk. There have been changes to the town centre and its back streets since the walk, but Barbara’s notes are a ‘snapshot’ of the area as it was in 1977. Barbara’s typescript has been converted to an editable format, and a few notes in square brackets added for clarity. We have also added illustrations. We intend to publish and print a revised and updated version of this walk. Many thanks to Anthony Cross, John Bold and Rob Powell for their contributions and advice. Rob Powell has produced this blog for our website. We are most grateful to Peter Kent for the wonderful map, and to Museums Collections and Archives, Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust (RGHT) which holds the originals of many of the historic images that we have used.
Barbara Ludlow’s 1977 text begins here:
The district, which the walk covers, was once part of the town centre of Greenwich. Due to bombing, demolition for re-development and the removal of the seat of local government from West Greenwich to Woolwich, the majority of the streets we will tread are now ‘back-streets.’
Even the main roads are no longer the busy shopping and commercial areas they once were.
Greenwich is now known as a tourist centre rather than a bustling town.
However, a walk along the roads lying to the west of St Alfege’s Church is rewarding. The character of an old town can be savoured and happily many interesting buildings survive.
This is a route the tourist does not take. On leaving the vicinity of St. Alfege’s Church there are no grand buildings by Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh to be seen but many of the buildings we will pass are all part of the fabric, which still makes the ‘back-streets’ of Greenwich so interesting.
After a brief slide show in St. Alfege’s Parochial Hall (originally The National School of Education and Industry for Girls, 1814) the walk starts in St Alfege Passage, called ‘Church Passage’ until 1938.
St. Alfege’s Church. Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1711 and 1718. Tower added by John James 1730.
Entrance to St.Alfege’s Recreation Ground. This small park was laid out towards the end of the 19th century in Greenwich Churchyard, which had been closed by 1869.
Nos.6-11 St.Alfege Passage: A terrace built between 1844 & 1851.
At the end of the passage turn left into Greenwich Church Street. Look across to the East Side.
Entrance to Turnpin Lane (Inscription over entrance reads ‘Greenwich Market’).
This is a remnant of one of the older Greenwich streets, although rebuilt about 1830. Now mainly used by antique dealers, it once catered for household needs.
No. 10 [Greenwich Church St]. (Horatio’ s Restaurant). Frontage altered but one of the old shops of Greenwich. From about 1866 to about 1940 it was a pawnshop.
Nos. 12 and14 [Greenwich Church St]. Possibly mid-C18 fabric but with mid-C19 frontage.
No.16. Early C19. Nos.24-42. Built 1831 as part of Joseph Kay’s design for Greenwich Market.
In Greenwich Church Street to the north of College Approach (laid out in 1836 as Clarence Street) is the Gipsy Moth IV Public House. This was formerly the ‘Wheatsheaf’, described as ‘an old inn’ in 1925 as having ‘an antiquated rough-cast frontage, a swing signpost and old-fashioned outer lamp.’ Building much altered.
The Garden Stairs end of Greenwich Church Street has been completely changed this century. Old houses were demolished to make way for the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, 1902 and, on the site of the famous ‘Ship Hotel,’ is the dry-docked Cutty Sark, brought to Greenwich in 1954.
West side (Route of walk):
No.3 (Corner of St.Alfege Passage and Greenwich Church Street). Early C18. From about 1795 to 1920 this building was the Eight Bells Public House.
No.5 Early C19. Site of the Court of Requests (Removed to Stockwell Street at the beginning of the 19th century). This old court was used for the recovery of debts not exceeding £5.
Nos.7 and 9. Early C19. This was the site of the medieval house of Thomas Hack, the ‘rich’ Greenwich Miser who died in the Parish Workhouse in 1813.
Nos.11-21. The oldest buildings in Greenwich Church Street. Very early C18 but nos. 11 and 13 possibly second half of the 17th century.
The Empire Cinema stood on the corner of Greenwich Church Street and Creek Road (formerly Bridge Street) from 1914 to about 1940. The cinema was at first entered through no. 27 Church Street but later the entrance was removed to No. 33. The shape of the entrance and the outline of the cinema can still be seen.
Proceed left (same side) into Creek Road.
This road was made at the beginning of the 19th century to connect Greenwich to Lower Deptford. At the same time the first Creek Bridge was constructed.
St Peters School [now St Alfege with St Peter Primary School]. Built in 1867. Edgar Wallace started school here when he was known as Dick Freeman. (Still a school)
[Edgar Wallace has been described as ‘one of the most prolific thriller writers of [the 20th century’]
No. 302. Originally St Peters Infants School. Built 1867. (Now used commercially).
(These two buildings not on route of walk).
Turn in first left into Bardsley Lane (formerly Lamb Lane).
(Boundary of the old churchyard)
No. 22 built c.1900 as the Office of Weights and Measures. Built for the London County Council.
No. 2O. Built c.1902. Coroners Court. (Now Fuller Hills)
[Fuller Hills Ltd was a joinery works]
Back of No. 20. 1904. Mortuary. Architect Alfred Roberts of Greenwich (also Fuller Hills).
These three buildings are on land once occupied by the old St Alfege Vicarage and its garden.
The Old Mortuary. 1881. Entrance from churchyard. (Now Fuller Hills)
Towards the end of the lane was the Central Sunday School c.1852. (Also used by Fuller Hills).
This lane, not a pretty sight now, was once lined on the north side by small houses and cottages. It is named after the Rev. Martin Bardsley, Vicar of St.Alfege’s Church at the beginning of the 20th century.
Pause at the end of Bardsley Lane and look towards the River Thames and the Creek.
The modern Creek Bridge, 1954, can be seen. Deptford West Power Station: demolition taking place but almost complete. The famous Sebastian de Ferranti power station, built 1889, completely demolished. Deptford East Power Station left.
Factories such as The Phoenix Gas Works (later the South Metropolitan Gas Co.), The Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding Co. and the General Steam Navigation Co. were situated in this area.
Now turn left from Bardsley Lane into Haddo Street.
Keeping on the same side of the street continue past the Bell Public House (which marks the site of the entrance to Bell Street, now demolished) to Roan Street. On the corner is the Greycoat Boy Public House.
Turn left (same side):
No. 46. Grey Coat School and School House. 1808. (The Roan Charity).
‘Mr John Roan, in the year 1643,left an estate in houses near the church here, of £95 per annum…for teaching 20 boys reading, writing and arithmetic… these wear greycoats’.
One floor only. Plaque removed from centre to side of building.
The School House. Externally not much alteration. Altered inside. Now Saxonia Electrical Wire Co.)
N.B. This was the second Greycoat School. The first building stood on the site of the Seamen’s Hospital garden.
Nos.44-36 Complete terrace. 1846.
Proceeding in the same direction, cross to the other side of Roan Street where it joins Churchfields. This small street was part of Straightsmouth. Inscription on the wall reads ‘Brunswick Place, Straightsmouth.’
No.2 (Corner) Early C19 Once a Marine Store Dealers shop. (In Spurgeon photo of 1885)
Nos.4-18 Early C19.
Walk along Churchfields to the junction of Randall Place and Straightsmouth. Cross the road to Straightsmouth.
The majority of the houses in Straightsmouth are C19 and because of the care taken in recent years this is an attractive street to walk down. Notice the ‘New Iron Room’ Gospel Hall at the entrance to Straightsmouth (Plymouth Brethren).
Cross the road to the north side and walk into Glaisher Street, named after Henry and James Glaisher (Balloonist). Glaisher Street exists in name only now but it leads to a ‘temporary’ Greater London Council open space which allows for a pause on the walk and a chance to see the backs of houses in Straightsmouth, a view of Greenwich Station and the back of the Williamson Memorial Hall (1865) in Randall Place.
STRAIGHTSMOUTH THEN AND NOW
[The Glaisher Street sign has now gone, as has the temporary open space. It is no longer possible to see the backs of houses, the station or the 1865 Memorial Hall in Randall Place from here. The latter is a mission house built in 1865 by the London City Mission.]
From Straightsmouth we proceed under the railway and so to Greenwich High Road.
Immediately on the right are the buildings which were once part of Lovibonds Brewery. John Lovibond built his brewery in Greenwich High Road in 1865.
[The tunnel under the railway has been relocated so the Lovibond buildings are now on the left]
No.169 Greenwich High Road. Early c18 house, exterior re-modelled early C19. This area was once called ‘Blue Stile.’
No.141 Greenwich High Road. The original Greenwich Town Hall, built 1876 (for the Greenwich District Board of Works), now West Greenwich Community Centre. Not on route of walk.
Turn left into Greenwich High Road. Before walking to Greenwich Station look over the road to No. 136. Early C19 house. Now used by the Drapers Company.
Greenwich Station. First station built 1840. Architect George Smith of Blackheath.
The present station was built between 1876 and 1878 to replace the 1840 terminus. In the 1870s the line was extended to Maze Hill station so Greenwich station was moved back from Greenwich High Road, thus creating a forecourt. It is Italianate in style. In the forecourt is the Prince of Orange Public House. The building is C19 but there was a pub of this name on the site before the present building.
Opposite the station is Queen Elizabeths College, Founded by William Lambarde in 1576. The Tudor buildings were replaced by the present ones in 1817. The Chapel forms the centrepiece of the building.
Here Greenwich High Road has a junction with South Street, formerly Limekiln Lane. This junction is featured in Spurgeon’s photo entitled ‘Kentish Hay.’ The ornate lamp-post/drinking fountain has been replaced by a public lavatory.
No. 144. Burdett House, a 3 storey Georgian building.
West Greenwich Library.
The second and now former Greenwich Town Hall, opened 1939. Designed by Culpin and Son. The tower is 165 feet high.
‘Morton’s Theatre’ stood on the western end of the town hall site.
Nos.199-213. Called ‘Bexley Place’ after Lord Bexley. Early C19.
From here the appearance of Greenwich High Road has changed since 1939. The tramlines have gone and many of the buildings were bombed or demolished. Some new building (north side) has been completed but the south side of the road awaits development. This allows a view of Stockwell Street, the Greenwich Theatre (1969) and Burney Street. Amongst the many buildings demolished in this area were Greenwich Park Station, and The White Hart Public House, both on Stockwell Street.
The walk ends by crossing the road to the Mitre Public House, the last building in Greenwich High Road. In 1829 the old Mitre tavern was destroyed by fire and the present building was erected in 1831.
Published by The Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarian Society.
‘Greenwich Park or EASTER Monday’ is a print published by John Marshall & Co around about 1800 in which we see displayed all the fun of the fair at a time before the ‘chicks and chocs’ of the modern-day experience formed our vision of the occasion.
Here then is a picture of all and sundry, high and low, relaxing and recreating together. The rigours of winter were over, the denial of Lent and the solemnities of the Passion were done with, and it was time to roll away the stone.
Traditionally, two separate festivities were held in Greenwich each Spring, one at Easter, (whenever it fell), and the other at Whitsun. The Greenwich Fair depicted here and the one Dickens described in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ some thirty years later may seem the same, but are quintessentially different. By Dickens’ time a re-branding of the event had happened. The days of an archaic pre-industrial calendar festival were numbered.
In his essay, ‘Greenwich Fair’, (published in Transactions, Vol. VII, No4, 1970), Ronald Longhurst reminds us that, “the origin of [Greenwich] fair is rather obscure … and it seems unlikely that as a sizeable event it dated from earlier than the eighteenth century.” Greenwich Fair was never a chartered market for the buying and selling of produce, livestock and the hiring of labour. Its original intent was solely to provide amusements. The earliest reference dates from 1709.
Celebrations opened on Easter Monday. Visitors would arrive in Greenwich, either up from the country, or down from town; either way they were bent on pleasure and recreation. (Think of it as a bit like a few days at Glastonbury or Reading).
Those coming from the Metropolis would be best to have travelled by water as coming by land would have presented them with particular difficulties. They might have got into the town via Deptford Bridge and from thence along the London Road (nowadays Greenwich High Road). Until the early 1800s there was no bridge across the Ravensbourne on Creek Road (as we know it today) to carry them over. Those up from Kent would probably have come in over Blackheath or by Woolwich. Any road up, they would have been greeted by stalls offering an assortment of sweet-meats, trinkets, tricks and treats. They would make their way through town because as Greenwich Park was the ‘fairground’. Before 1830, the park was essentially a private space and only opened to the general public on special occasions like these. It beckoned them with fresh air and space and so offered – in good weather at least – the opportunities to sport, picnic and gambol and dance. In short, to turn the world upside down.
Much of what can be seen in the image is described in this cutting from The Star (London) of Tuesday 20 April 1802. Referring to the previous day, it reported that:
“GREENWICH HILL was … thronged with its annual visitants, and the delightful walks in the Park covered with gay fantastic groupes of Holiday-folks, resolved to be merry, displayed a scene pleasing, animated, and picturesque. Care, frightened by the voice of Cheerfulness, fled the spot, Pleasure sparkled in each eye, double reflection stood suspended, and nought was heard but playful repartee, roguish tittering from the cherry – cheeked damsels, and hearty peals of laughter from their hail admirers. The fineness of the weather tempted numbers of adventurous Fair to a tumble down the hill, persuaded no doubt that in the eyes of their Adonis, a ‘green gown’ would prove the most inviting attraction, and determined, from a principle of national pride, to afford convincing proof that British Females possess a perfection of shape and symmetry of limb rivalling, if not surpassing, the boasted beauties of Greece or Rome. Various sports succeeded, to the approach of evening forbidding the continuance of Rude Amusements, the jocund party separated to conclude their pleasurable day, as Fancy might dictate.”
‘Green gowns’? ‘Tumbling’? Shall we join the dance?
This is ‘Kiss-in-the-Ring’ – a game involving elaborate manoeuvres, but which eventually, after lots of ins and outs, twists and turns, had its own reward …
… over to the left, (though apparently of little interest to the courting couples in the foreground) is a boxing-ring where a bare-fist fight is taking place …
… This sailor-boy and his lass engage at close quarters of their own, whilst just to their right, a respectable couple saunter by rather aloof to it all: good luck to them! On 7 April 1763, The Derby Mercury reported that: “On Monday last a gentleman and his spouse walking in Greenwich Park, the rabble catched hold of her leg, dragged her down the hill, and tore almost all the cloathes off her back, during the transaction she lost her shoes and silver buckles, and continues so ill of the fright that her life is despaired of”…
Aha! There’s some refreshment to be had. Very likely, after the long trek visitors would be ready for a drink, (and no doubt the longer the day wore on, the stronger it got). Most sources mention a penchant for gin, and a nip of ‘ruin’ is probably what this lady is doling out here to the Greenwich Pensioner and his friend from Chelsea. Behind her a cheeky chap gets his by more nefarious means. And, oh, whose is that badly brought up little dog? For goodness sake. Decorum, please!
But it’s up on the Hill itself where the real action is at. The great ‘sport’ on these occasions was for the young blades to coax the girls up the hill and then to run, roll and tumble down together. ‘Tumble’ is a word to look up in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. There you will find its other definition, but perhaps you guessed its connotation already …
… the participants landed in a dishevelled heap at the bottom! And very likely it was a spectator sport too, what with the a glimpse of an ankle, perhaps an uncovered calf, even a bare bum.
Such pleasures and pastimes conjure up a golden age full of innocent fun. However, scratching and sniffing the image with the nose of a modern sensibility gives rise to suspicion and the rosy scent soon wears away. But don’t entirely let go of this lovely illusion. This picture still evokes a particular moment which may perhaps have marked the heyday of Greenwich Fair.
Shortly after this print was published something changed. And it was a visible shift. In 1814 the Hospital Commissioners granted the piece of land between the park wall and Romney Road for use by the fair . It was an attractive proposition to the travelling showmen Richardson, Wombwell, et al., who soon moved in and rapidly spread through the town as far as Deptford Creek, establishing what one Mission pamphlet in 1837 described as “the greatest Carnival this side of the bottomless pit”.
The steamboat companies, and after 1840, the new railway, multiplied the number of visitors, bringing in far more than the town could cope with. Nor were they quite the same folks who had frolicked about in Marshall’s quaint depiction. These were a new kind of working people, wage slaves working in factories, some of whom used the occasion, not just as a recreation, but as a release from the sordid conditions they endured. Their intent on enjoyment was fuelled by alcohol if the newspapers and other accounts are to be believed.
Complaints began almost immediately. Then, in 1825, St Mary’s was established as a ‘chapel of ease’ to St Alfege church just below the park gates at the top of King William Walk. Perhaps this acted as a catalyst to the groundswell of opinion: It was inappropriate to have these anarchic revelries going on to the detriment of the peace and morality of the town.
The gist of this opinion was expressed in this quotation from the petition delivered to the Justices of the Peace by the Vicar of St Alfege, his Churchwardens and Overseers, Governors and Directors of the Poor in April 1825:
“That of late years … the whole scene has been materially changed, that the profligate numbers of the lower orders have been increased, that the money heretofore spent in the Town, and to the benefit of the Tradesmen generally, is now almost entirely squandered in the numerous Booths and Shows … and that a very great addition is made to this evil by the increased – the open and powerful – incentives to licentiousness among the middle and lower orders of the community, that the hours kept by these booths are in direct violation of the laws of the land, and the scenes to which they lead are offending against the best feelings of Christian morality”.
The showmen were given notice to quit, but even then they were an a most unconscionable time packing up their tents and booths. It did not finally close until 1857.
Poor old Greenwich Fair: gone, but not forgotten – and as Punch quipped sardonically, “… Not a bit lamented, pickpockets and gents alone excepted”.
Happy Easter Monday!
The action of Pool of London, Ealing Studios’ great film noir released seventy years ago this week, takes place over a London weekend. “The Dunbar out of Rotterdam bound for the Pool” passes through Tower Bridge on a Friday afternoon and the events that follow revolve around merchant seaman Dan (Bonar Colleano) and his Jamaican shipmate Johnny (Earl Cameron), the genuine affection of the friendship between them is established from the outset. Petty smuggling swiftly escalates to a diamond robbery and is played out against a background of real locations that give the film its authenticity and subsequent importance as a record of a lost London. This continued the highly successful approach Ealing established with Hue and Cry (1947), the definitive cinematic representation of bombed London, and followed with It Always Rains On Sunday (1947), Passport To Pimlico (1949) and The Blue Lamp (1950).
As Johnny unwittingly becomes embroiled in Dan’s misadventure, he experiences racism along the way but in each case these encounters serve to illustrate the ignorance and ugliness of the perpetrators: the hostile theatre Commissionaire (Laurence Naismith); the parasitic denizens of an all-night drinking dive, and Dan’s fair-weather girlfriend Maisie, a highly polished performance of brassy self-centredness by Moira Lister. Maisie’s venomous relationship with her younger sister (Joan Dowling) transcends sibling rivalry into undiluted hostility. When Maisie trips over her sister’s discarded footwear her complaint “Why don’t you put your shoes away? I nearly fell.” is met with the lightning riposte “Won’t be the first time!” In direct contrast is Sally (Renée Asherson) the wistful secretary at the Steamship Office, unlucky in love, who provides the film with its moral compass.
The early scenes on shore depicting the stage act of Vernon the Gentleman Acrobat (the incomparable Max Adrian) were filmed at the Queen’s Theatre in Poplar High Street. Millicent Rose provides a vivid record of a real performance at this theatre in The East End of London (The Cresset Press, 1951) observing that the aisles were strewn with peanut shells for “it is a long-established custom to crack and eat peanuts throughout the performance, and coming to the second house on a Saturday night, one finds the circle already deep in husks.”
Johnny strikes up a friendship with Pat (Susan Shaw) the cashier at the theatre box office, two lonely people thrown together by chance. Pat appears to be the least complicated and happiest of the female characters and her role is pivotal to the film’s significance as theirs is the first inter-racial relationship to be depicted in a British film. She and Johnny are undoubtedly the most attractive people in the film, providing the focus of its warmth and humanity and offering a ray of hope in the humdrum drabness. After an evening at the dance hall they spend Sunday sightseeing. Initially at the Stone Gallery at St Paul’s Cathedral, placing them in the City at the time of the robbery: “Look! Isn’t that a man climbing on that roof?” Afterwards they take the boat to Greenwich and we see them in the cavernous wonder that was the National Maritime Museum’s lost, lamented Neptune Hall (demolished 1996) providing an exhilarating reminder of what a proper museum once looked like. This cabinet of nautical curiosities is crammed with glass cases, ship models and binnacles and the location is deliberate chosen to reveal Johnny as a romantic philosopher, steeped in the lore and traditions of the sea, emphasised by a close-up of the towering baroque magnificence of the figurehead Ajax (1809). Passing through the colonnades of The Queen’s House, with the Naval College behind them, they walk up to the Observatory. The domed onion roof of the Great Equatorial Building is seen as a bare iron skeleton as its papier maché covering was destroyed when a V1 flying bomb fell on Greenwich Park in 1944. Here, with General Wolfe behind them, they muse on the mysteries of longitude and latitude.
“The Greenwich Meridian, but what does it mean?” Pat asks.
“It means that everything starts from here, goes right round the world and comes back here.” Johnny replies, reflecting: “You know, when you’re at the wheel of a ship at night far out at sea and nothing else to do, you think about a lot of things you don’t understand. You wonder why one man is born white and another isn’t. And how about God himself? What colour is he? And the stars seem so close and the world so small in comparison with all the other worlds above you, it doesn’t seem to matter much how you are born.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does you know. Maybe one day it won’t any more, but it still does.”
These were powerful words in 1951 and Earl Cameron’s performance had a profound effect on the distinguished film critic C.A. Lejeune, whose review of the film appeared in The Observer on 26 February 1951: “One thing comes shining out of Pool of London and that is the performance of Earl Cameron… he makes full use of every glancing minute… I can say with truth that Mr Cameron’s touching performance remains for me the best memory of Pool of London, and left me with deeper thoughts about the colour problem than I have ever had before.”
The authenticity of Johnny’s character can be ascribed to the fact that Earl Cameron was once a merchant seaman himself. Born in Bermuda in 1917, he arrived in London in 1939 experiencing racism whilst attempting to find a job (doors were slammed in his face), until he was eventually engaged as a dishwasher at an hotel, before he found himself on stage, at an afternoon’s notice, in the musical comedy Chu Chin Chow in 1941. Although not a trained actor he worked in the theatre throughout the forties. During this time he was proud to have had the privilege of being taught diction and voice training by Amanda Ira Aldridge (1866-1956), the daughter of the celebrated pioneering African American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) who achieved great success on the nineteenth century London stage. Cameron joked “that some of the colour might have rubbed off a little bit on me”. Pool of London was his film debut and Cameron secured the part after telephoning Ealing Studios to enquire about the possibility of a role in their forthcoming feature Where No Vultures Fly. Instead he was immediately invited to an interview with the director Basil Dearden at which Cameron lied about his age, stating himself to be 26 when he was actually 32, suggesting his moustache made him look older. Dearden was impressed by what he saw, although it took Cameron three screen tests before he was able to tone down the loudness of his declamatory theatrical delivery to suit the more intimate medium of film. Once this was mastered, he proved himself to be a natural film actor and the performance he gives as Johnny is one of great sensitivity.
Pool of London was not Ealing’s first exploration into the issues of race in Britain: The Proud Valley (1940) made a decade earlier is an extraordinary film with a strong political message and a powerful performance by Paul Robeson as a sailor in a Welsh mining village who motivates his community in the wake of a pit disaster. Robeson regarded this as his favourite film and retained a strong bond with the Welsh miners for the rest of his life. Both films are notable as presenting un-stereotypical depictions of men of colour who are accepted within their communities. Cameron stated that generally speaking he had not experienced prejudice whilst working in theatre and film industry in Britain and although the environment at Ealing Studios was entirely white he was treated with courtesy and kindness. He eschewed a career in Hollywood, a place he believed to be far more overtly racist and which he thought would have destroyed him. Cameron received favourable notices for Pool of London, and his roles in subsequent films, including The Heart Within (1957), Sapphire (1959) and Flame in The Streets (1961), form a significant body of work as pioneering cinematic depictions of the experiences of black people in Britain and the problems they endured. Earl Cameron continued working well into his nineties and died in 2020 aged 102. The heartfelt and sincere tributes paid to him recognised his unique position and the importance of his role in the advancement of performers of colour.
The idea for Pool of London came from John Eldridge and the scriptwriter originally assigned to the film was Ealing stalwart T.E.B. Clarke. The film’s original premise concerned the theft of gold bullion from the Bank of England and Clarke hit upon the idea of turning the gold bars into Eiffel Tower paperweights to enable them to be smuggled out of London incognito. Clarke was amused by the comedic possibilities and worked the idea into a three-page outline that radically changed the nature of the film. When he revealed this unexpected development, asking whether the river aspect of the plot could be dropped, the head of Ealing Studios Sir Michael Balcon erupted in fury. He took Clarke off the project, replacing him with a different writer Jack Whittingham, but allowed him to develop his idea further with the director Charles Crichton. The result, of course, was The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) one of Ealing’s most celebrated comedies for which Clarke received an Oscar for the screenplay. Alfie Bass is the link between the two films, appearing as a member of the gang of criminals in both.
James Robertson Justice plays Chief Engine Room Officer Trotter, resolutely staying aboard the Dunbar by retreating to the safety and seclusion of his cabin in company with three bottles of brandy and The Oxford Book of English Verse. He proffers this damning critique of the Capital he avoids: “You wonder perhaps why I never set foot in this accursed city. Behold from afar it gleams like a jewel, but walk within the shadow of its walls and what do you find? Filth, squalor, misery.”
Despite his denouncement, and notwithstanding the desperation, loneliness and need for self-preservation of the characters represented, London is not as squalid as he supposes. In fact, what is striking is, despite the post war deprivations in the aftermath of the Blitz, just how clean the city is, and it certainly appears to be far better kept than it is today. The water cart dousing the pavements of Tower Bridge at midnight is a visible manifestation of metropolitan ablutions; elsewhere the play of light on the wet cobbles and the light catching the kerbstones give the streets the impression of having been varnished. The gleaming quality extends to the frontage of a pub, the glossy ceiling of the café when the job is planned and the sparkling white tiles in the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
Great credit for the stunning visual appearance of the film must go to its director of photography Gordon Dines who achieved a lustrous luminosity. The documentary technique is employed to great effect, exploiting the aesthetic qualities of cranes and derricks, sails and ropes, barges and lighters and the ever constant movement of the play of the water with its waves, wakes and washes, emphasising that the River itself is to be the true star of the film: the working river, flanked by wharves and warehouses, with Tower Bridge looming large overall. Many scenes are shot in near silhouette and the dramatic shadows cast by ropes and ironwork bear favourable comparison with the photographs of Bill Brandt.
Pool of London was made in 1950 and released in February 1951 yet there is no inkling of the impending Festival of Britain “improvements”. The architectural fabric shown here essentially remains a nineteenth century streetscape, the Victorian survival. For Ealing Studios appreciated (what most politicians and town planners have signally failed to grasp) that London was a vernacular city and authentically represented it as such on celluloid, realising that the shops, pubs, cafes, theatres and back streets of terraced houses, in addition to more set piece locations such as Shad Thames, Tooley Street, and Leadenhall and Borough Markets, were far more representative of its true character and recognisable to its audience who appreciated their familiarity.
For the rooms inside these buildings, the film’s art director Jim Morahan instinctively understood the vernacular interior and his settings are infused with an eye for detail and richness that add great interest and depth, whether ship’s cabin, theatre dressing room or public bar. Nowhere is his artistry more apparent than in Maisie’s kitchen, replete with cast iron range and gas stove, with its peeling wallpaper, washing drying on the airer, milk bottles standing on the dresser, gaudy vases on the mantelpiece and proliferation of crockery and domestic detritus. This is just as it should be, for after all, Ealing invented kitchen sink drama one rainy Sunday in Bethnal Green in 1947.
© Horatio Blood 2021
In September 2018, fifty-five years after the final intake of men completed their National Service, Greenwich Historical Society hosted a very special and memorable evening of shared reminiscences.
Some of Greenwich’s boys of the old brigade gathered together to tell us their experiences of conscription. A contrasting view was presented by a conscientious objector.
It was a powerful, amusing, poignant evening that was curated and introduced by GHS President Anthony Cross. We published the transcript in our subsequent journal but, with the permission of those present, we make available the audio from evening so you can listen again or anew to a very special event.
Please be aware that this audio file does contain some swearing.
10:00 David Drummond
19:30 John Cox
33:38 Peter Kent
48:20 Adam Pollock
1:01:19 Ian Gordon
In January 1806, the body of Lord Nelson arrived at Greenwich. Over three extraordinary days – the 5th, 6th and 7th – the body lay in state within the upper chamber of the Painted Hall. Here are the reports from The Times newspaper of those three days.
On Saturday the preparations having been completed at Greenwich Hospital, a few personages of high respectability and distinction were admitted, in the evening, to view the body of Lord NELSON lying in state; amongst whom were, her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and suite, who remained there several hours, in melancholy contemplation of this solemn and affecting scene: and yesterday morning, at eleven o’clock, the Great Hall was thrown open for the admission of the public.
Before eight in the morning, every avenue from the Metropolis to Greenwich was crowded with vehicles of every description till past eleven, exhibiting a scene of confusion beyond description; but the approach to Greenwich hospital Gate, a little before that hour, must baffle the conception of those who did not witness it. When the gate was thrown open, above ten thousand pressed forward for admittance.
After the passage of the outer gate, the entrance to the Great Hall was guarded by a party of the Greenwich and Deptford Volunteer Association, and parties of midshipmen and sailors armed with pikes. With such impetuosity did the crowd rush towards the entrance of the Great Hall, as to bear down all opposition, notwithstanding the guard used every means in their power to preserve order, and to prevent accidents.
The arrangements of the solemnity were as follows:-
In the funeral saloon, high above the corpse a canopy of black velvet was suspended, richly festooned with gold, and the festoons ornamented with the chelenk, or plume of triumph, presented to his Lordship by the GRAND SEIGNIOR, after the ever memorable victory of the Nile. It was also decorated with his Lordships coronet, and a view of the stern of the San Josef, the Spanish Admiral’s ship, already ‘quartered’ in his arms.
On the back field, beneath the canopy, was emblazoned an escutcheon of his Lordship’s arms; the helmet surmounted by a naval crown, and enriched with the trident and palm branch in saltier – motto; “Palman qui meruit ferat.” Also his Lordship’s shield, ornamented with silver stars appropriately interspersed; with the motto – “Tria juncta in uno;” and surmounting the whole upon a gold field, embraced by a golden wreath, was inscribed in sable characters, the word TRAFALGAR, commemorative of the proudest of his great achievements.
The Rev. Mr. SCOTT, the Chaplain of the Victory, and who in consequence of his Lordship’s last injunctions, attended his remains from the moment of his death, sat as chief mourner in an elbow chair at the head of the coffin.
At the foot of the coffin stood a pedestal, covered with black velvet, richly fringed with alternate black and yellow, and supporting a helmet surmounted by a naval crown, ornamented with the chelenk or triumphal plume, with models richly gilt, and his Lordship’s shield, gauntlet, and sword.
Ten mourners were placed three on each side of the chief, and one at each corner of the coffin, all in deep mourning, with black scarfs, their hair full powdered, in bags. These were appointed from the Office of the LORD CHAMBERLAIN, as usual on similar occasions.
Ten banners, elevated on staves, and emblazoned with various quarterings of his Lordship’s arms and heraldic dignities, each bearing it appropriate motto, were suspended towards the coffin, five on each side.
Parties of the Greenwich and Deptford Volunteers attended in the Great Hall, to preserve order and regulate the ingress and egress of the spectators.
A railing in form of a crescent, covered with black, inclosed the funereal saloon from the Great Hall, by the elipses of which, from right to left, the spectators approached and receded from this solemn spectacle, and from the foot of the stairs ascending from the Great Hall.
A partition of boards, six feet in height, covered with black cloth, extended to the entrance, and separated the two avenues. Both the Hall and Saloon were entirely surrounded at the top by rows of silver sconces, each with two wax lights, and between each two an escutcheon of his Lordship’s armorial dignities.
The immense numbers who pressed for admittance, and the earnestness of the officers in attendance to accommodate as many as possible, occasioned the successive parties, who were fortunate enough to obtain admission, to be pushed onward with such rapidity, as to afford none of them the opportunity of having more than a short and transient glance of the solemn object of their curiosity.
Perhaps, it is no exaggeration to add, that above twenty thousand persons were unable to gratify themselves. The doors were closed at four o’clock: they are to be opened again at eight this morning.
Notwithstanding the immense number of people who visited Greenwich on Sunday, to pay their tribute of melancholy respect at the temporary shrine of the departed Hero, thousands of who were gratified by admission to the solemn spectacle, and many other thousands of whom went away unsatisfied, as finding an entrance wholly impracticable; still the concourse there yesterday was even greater than on Sunday; and from the first time of opening the side wickets of the great Western Gate, at nine in the morning, through each subsequent opening, until their close, at four in the afternoon, the rushing torrent of the multitude was so impetuous, that numbers experienced disasters similar to those which on Sunday were so numerous, and in many instances so severely unfortunate: many were crushed in a dreadful manner, in the competition for entrance through passages so narrow; others were beaten down by the impetuosity of those who rushed forward from behind, and were severely trampled – in many cases, almost to death.
Shoes, pattens, muffs, tippets, coat-sleeves, skirts of pelise and gowns, without number, were despoiled from their owners, and trampled in the mud; and though the guards were more numerous, more vigilant and peremptory, than on Sunday, still it was scarcely possible to check the impetuosity of the multitude, or prevent the entrances to the Great Hall from being carried by force.Within however, all was conducted with order.The Volunteers posted in the area of the elevated saloon, round the farther end of which the spectators passed to view the coffin, continued to urge onward the multitude at a quick pace; so that none could indulge more than a short and sorrowful glance at that mournful casket which contained, perhaps, the most brilliant of all the gems that ever decorated the naval crown of England.
The distinctions of rank were forgotten in the general avidity to pay the last melancholy honours to the hero’s remains; and though curiosity be the ruling passion of John Bull, it was, on this occasion, marked by feelings that do honour to his heart. The votaries of Saint Monday evinced they were no strangers to “the luxury of exalted woe,” and that they could participate in the sorrow and veneration manifested by their country for the great and justly honoured subject of general regret.Amongst the visitants of yesterday were numbers of high rank and fashion: her Grace of DEVONSHIRE; and many of her noble friends were in the throng. A vast number of Military Officers also attended to pay their last tribute of respect to departed heroism, and to contemplate the noblest stimulus to gallant deeds.
Yesterday morning, at nine o’clock, the wickets of the great Western gate of Greenwich Hospital were thrown open, for the admission of spectators to the Great Hall and Funeral Saloon.The many serious accidents on Sunday and Monday, resulting from the want of better system and regulation outside the gates, suggested to the Governors the necessity of adopting some more effectual steps to prevent further mischief; they had, therefore, obtained from London a party of the Kings Life Guards, who were posted in different divisions at the west and South avenues, and rendered very essential service the whole day, in checking the eager impetuosity of the multitude in pressing for admission at the wickets, from which most of the former accidents had proceeded.
The wickets were, as before, opened at successive times, for the admission of fresh divisions of spectators, as the former had been gratified with a view of the solemnities; and though the pressure on those occasions was unavoidably rapid and violent, no serious accident, that we could learn, occurred.The steps leading up to the entrance of the Great Hall, was the principle scene of contest; and curiosity, the ruling passion of the fair sex, rising superior to all the suggestions of feminine timidity, many ladies pushed into the crowd, and were so severely squeezed, that several of them fainted away, and were carried off, apparently senseless, to the colonnade; we were, however, highly gratified to learn, that they were rather frightened than hurt, and that no injury occurred more serious than a degree of pressure not altogether so gentle as could be wished. In general, however, the result of better regulation was obvious; for, although the multitude was even more numerous than on the preceding days, and the attendance of fashionable personages much greater, order was much better kept, and tumultuous violence scarcely anywhere apparent.
Some trivial alterations had taken place in the solemn arrangements of the Funeral Saloon. The sable pall was cast from the coffin, which was fully exposed to view, and upon it was placed the cushion supporting the coronet, with two armorial shields, properly emblazoned. The six mourners, who before were seated at the head of the coffin to the right and left of the canopy, now took their places, three on each side of the coffin, outside the benches, whereon the tressels stood, and facing inwards; the effect was much more solemn and impressive.
This was the only thing novel in the interior arrangements; but a novelty, not without very considerable and forcible impression, occurred outside the Hall, which, as an appendage of the melancholy ceremonies, demands mention.A little before four o’clock, the brig Elizabeth and Mary, from off Chatham, hove in sight, from the Terrace, on the River, having on board a chosen band of Seamen and Marines from the brave crew of the Victory, who are intended to fall into the Funeral Procession.Of their old and gallant Commander. Lieutenant BROWN, their Commanding Officer came on shore, to take orders for their proceeding.
The St. George’s Jack. At the mast-head of the brig, was lowered half mast high, as a funeral salute, which was immediately returned by the colours of all the ships in sight from the Terrace.The Lieutenant Governor of Greenwich then proceeded to inform Lord Hood of the arrival of this brave band: when the gallant Admiral, accompanied by a party of the River Fencibles, armed with their pikes, proceeded to the North –gate, next the River; and ordered the Heroes of Trafalgar to be brought on shore. The brig then hauled up alongside the quay, and the brave tars jumped ashore amidst the warm greetings and grateful acclamations of the surrounding throng. Alas! How different the sensations of those gallant fellows from what they would have been, under the brave NELSON’S eye, in boarding the deck of an enemy.
They consisted of forty-six Seamen and fourteen Marines, each bearing his hammock; and if they were a fair specimen of their messmates in the Victory at Trafalgar, that triumph is the less wonderful; for each seemed a true bred cub of the British Lion, and most of them bore the honourable scars they received on the day their lamented Leader fell in the cause of the country.Upon their passing within the gates, they were ordered by Lord HOOD, who approached them, to stow their baggage in the Royal Charlotte Ward of the Hospital; after which they should be gratified with a view of their heroic Leader’s body lying in state, which, however, he was sure, would be to them no pleasant sight. The brave fellows bowed assent to this remark; they then proceeded to stow their hammocks in the ward appointed, and were afterwards escorted by a part of the military to the Great Hall, when they were conducted to the Saloon, where the remains of their beloved Commander lay; they eyed the coffin with melancholy admiration and respect, while the manly tears glistened in their eyes, and stole reluctant down their weather-beaten cheeks. Strangers were excluded during this affecting scene; and on the return of this brave band to the parade in front, they were again warmly greeted by the multitude; and even the eyes of beauty, everywhere glittering amidst the crowd, beamed on the rough and hardy crew, the radiant glances of approbation and sympathy.
At five o-clock the doors and gates were closed, and this morning the body will be carried to London on its way to final interment. It will be conveyed from the Saloon through the Great Hall, out the Eastern Portal, round the Royal Charlotte Ward, to the North gate, on the Thames, and placed on board the State Barge, which will be rowed by the detachment from the Victory, before- mentioned; and fifty picked men from the Greenwich pensioners, who attend as mourners, will also row in the procession.
Elaine Galloway and ORNC ‘Lives of Pensioners’ Research Volunteers
Local resident John Evelyn was born 400 years ago on 31st October, 1620. His diary is less celebrated, and very much less racy, than that of his good friend Samuel Pepys. However, Evelyn’s does have the advantage that it covers the whole of his long life. Towards the end of that life the scheme to provide a refuge for sailors, which became the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, finally got underway. Previously Evelyn had been a commissioner on the Navy’s Sick and Hurt Board, and he had been closely involved in the foundation of Chelsea Hospital. As a young man on his travels in Europe, and on subsequent jaunts to visit friends in England, he took a particular interest in hospitals and schools for orphans, as this diary entry from the Hague reveals.
19thAugust 1641. None did I so much admire as, an hospital, for their lame and decrepit soldiers and seamen, where the accommodations are very great, the building answerable; and, indeed, for the like public charities the provisions are admirable in this country, where, as no idle vagabonds are suffered (as in England they are), there is hardly a child of four or five years old, but they find some employment for it.2
In February 1695 Evelyn, at the age of 74, accepted the post of treasurer of Greenwich Hospital.
As the following (slightly abridged) excerpt from Evelyn’s diary shows, this was during a hard winter with a smallpox epidemic raging.
29thDecember, 1694. The smallpox increased exceedingly, and was very mortal. The Queen died of it on the 28th.
13thJanuary 1694-95. The Thames was frozen over. The deaths by smallpox increased to five hundred more than in the preceding week.
20thJanuary, 1695. The frost and continued snow have now lasted five weeks.
3rdFebruary, 1695. The long frost intermitted, but not gone.
17th February, 1695. Called to London by Lord Godolphin, one of the Lords of the Treasury, offering me the treasurership of the hospital designed to be built at Greenwich for worn-out seamen.
24th February, 1695. I saw the Queen lie in state.
5th March, 1695. I went to see the ceremony. Never was so universal a mourning; all the Parliament men had cloaks given them, and four hundred poor women; all the streets hung and the middle of the street boarded and covered with black cloth. There were all the nobility, mayor, aldermen, judges, etc.
March,1695. The latter end of the month sharp and severely cold, with much snow and hard frost; no appearance of spring.
Spring eventually came and Evelyn attended the first meeting of the Commissioners. His diary identifies some of those present.
5th May, 1695. I came to Deptford from Wotton, in order to the first meeting of the Commissioners for endowing an hospital for seamen at Greenwich; it was at the Guildhall, London. Present, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Keeper, Lord Privy Seal, Lord Godolphin, Duke of Shrewsbury, Duke of Leeds, Earls of Dorset and Monmouth, Commissioners of the Admiralty and Navy, Sir Robert Clayton, Sir Christopher Wren, and several more.
The names of the first five can be seen, in letters of gold, on the benefactors’ boards in the vestibule of the Painted Hall (Lord Keeper was Lord Somers and Lord Privy Seal was the Earl of Pembroke) and there were probably others. And of course John Evelyn Esq. himself is there, donating £1000, in a prominent position immediately below Queen Anne. At the bottom of that same board his name appears again, this time as Mr Evelyn, with a donation of £2000. Is this the same man? Or his grandson, who was also John Evelyn, described thus in 1696?
23rdApril, 1696. I went to Eton, and dined with Dr. Godolphin, the provost. The schoolmaster assured me there had not been for twenty years a more pregnant youth in that place than my grandson.
Evelyn continued to attend meetings during May 1695, although some achieved nothing for want of a quorum.The required quorum was just three commissioners.4 He was also part of the subcommittee who went to survey the ground.
14th May, 1695. Met at Guildhall, but could do nothing for want of a quorum.
17th May, 1695. Second meeting of the Commissioners, and a committee appointed to go to Greenwich to survey the place, I being one of them.
21st May, 1695. We went to survey Greenwich, Sir Robert Clayton, Sir Christopher Wren, Mr. Travers, the King’s Surveyor, Captain Sanders, and myself.
24th May, 1695. We made report of the state of Greenwich house, and how the standing part might be made serviceable at present for £6,000, and what ground would be requisite for the whole design. My Lord Keeper ordered me to prepare a book for subscriptions, and a preamble to it.
That subscription book, with its very faded list of amounts and signatures, “I subscribe £500. Pembroke” etc. can be consulted in the National Archives at Kew.5
The number of subscribers was impressively large, but in most cases the actual money was slow in appearing.
5th July, 1695. At Guildhall; account of subscriptions, about £7,000 or £8,000.
11th July, 1695. Met at Guildhall; not a full committee, so nothing done.
By the following year some progress had been made.
4th June, 1696. A committee met at Whitehall about Greenwich Hospital, at Sir Christopher Wren’s, his Majesty’s Surveyor-General. We made the first agreement with divers workmen and for materials; and gave the first order for proceeding on the foundation, and for weekly payments to the workmen, and a general account to be monthly.
30thJune, 1696. I went with a select committee of the Commissioners for Greenwich Hospital, and with Sir Christopher Wren, where with him I laid the first stone of the intended foundation, precisely at five o’ clock in the evening, after we had dined together. Mr. Flamstead, the King’s Astronomical Professor, observing the punctual time by instruments.
Did the foundation stone have an inscription? What a wonderful discovery that would be.
Money trickled in over the next few years.
4th July, 1696. Note that my Lord Godolphin was the first of the subscribers who paid any money to this noble fabric.
Evelyn continued to chase the subscribers but he complained in a letter to Godolphin on 3rd August that they “avoid me, as one Carrying the Pest about me”.6
Evelyn’s salary as treasurer was £200 a year (approximately £20,000 today) but he said it was a long time before he saw any of it. To add to his woes his beloved Sayes Court had been cruelly knocked about by Peter the Great, who took up residence to learn the art of shipbuilding in Deptford Royal Dockyard next door. Evelyn was particularly dismayed by the state of his 400 yard holly hedge, through which the Czar and his party had pushed each other on wheelbarrows.
9th June, 1698. To Deptford, to see how miserably the Czar had left my house, after three months making it his Court. I got Sir Christopher Wren, the King’s surveyor, and Mr. London, his gardener, to go and estimate the repairs, for which they allowed £150 in their report to the Lords of the Treasury. I then went to see the foundation of the Hall and Chapel at Greenwich Hospital.
As recorded in Admiralty records7Evelyn faithfully attended meetings of both the Grand and Fabric Committees of Greenwich Hospital over the following years although many were adjourned inquorate. “Only C. Wren and Mr Evelyn came”. When Queen Anne came to the throne in 1702 Evelyn and his fellow commissioners began to get the Hospital’s finances into a somewhat healthier state. In 1703 at the age of 82 Evelyn handed over the account books to his son-in-law William Draper.
12th August, 1703. The new Commission for Greenwich hospital was sealed and opened, at which my son-in-law, Draper, was present, to whom I resigned my office of Treasurer. From August 1696, there had been expended in building £89,364 14s. 8¼d. (More than £9.5 million today, give or take the odd farthing.)
Evelyn lived long enough to see the first pensioners admitted. By the summer of 1705 there were 81 inmates. June, 1705. I went to Greenwich hospital, where they now began to take in wounded and worn-out seamen, who are exceedingly well provided for. The buildings now going on are very magnificent.
John Evelyn died the following year on 27thFebruary at his ancestral country house in Wotton, Surrey, where he is buried.
2. This and all following excerpts from Evelyn’s diary are from Project Gutenberg’s The Diary of John Evelyn (Vols 1 and 2), by John Evelyn.
3. National Archives ADM 80/169
4. ADM 67/1 GH Minutes Grand Committee
5. ADM 80/172
6. British Library Add MS 78299
7. ADM 67/1 and 6
This essay by John Bold on the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College began as a book review but it grew. It is intended for publication in the Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society (Vol 65, 2021)
Lucas, Anya, Johns, Richard, Stewart, Sophie and Paine, Stephen, The Painted Hall, Sir James Thornhill’s Masterpiece at Greenwich, London and New York: Merrell (2019), 160 pp., c.150 ills. £40. ISBN 978-1-8589-4679-5.
This handsome publication, produced to mark and commemorate the completion of the comprehensive restoration of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich (originally the Royal Hospital for Seamen), is a credit to all involved, not least the now departed Conservation Director of the Greenwich Foundation, William Palin, who has successfully overseen the project amidst challenging circumstances. Project and publication have been part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Work began with a pilot project in 2012-13 on cleaning the west wall and Upper Hall ceiling; the remaining 40,000 square feet (3,700 sq.m) of the Upper and Lower Halls and Vestibule followed (September 2016 – March 2019). Public engagement was fundamental to the presentation of the project with almost 100,000 visitors taken within surprisingly disorientating, too-close-for-context, touching distance of the ceiling on a floor raised on a forest of scaffolding (Fig.1). The completion of this restoration along with that of the magnificent colonnaded dining hall undercroft represents the culmination of the first twenty years of stewardship of the buildings by the Greenwich Foundation, established in 1998 following the departure of the Royal Navy, ‘to preserve for the benefit of the nation the old Royal Naval College site, buildings and monuments, as being of historical, architectural and artistic importance, to allow the general public reasonable access to the site, and to educate the public thereon’. Access to the Painted Hall, which was restricted for the non-uniformed under the stewardship of the Royal Navy, became miraculously easy and free under the new management, but following the cleaning a charge of £12 per adult has been imposed – this ticket is valid for twelve months, which is perhaps acceptable for those enthusiasts who live nearby, but potentially disabling for casual or occasional visitors and perhaps not in the spirit of reasonable access and education about a great but relatively little known work of art (Fig.2).
This is after all the finest piece of baroque mural painting in this country, painted 1707-26 by the Dorset-born Sir James Thornhill during the great efflorescence of later 17th and early 18th-century mural painting, which followed the earlier examples by Rubens (Banqueting House) and Gentileschi (Queen’s House), but essentially was begun in earnest in the 1670s-1680s by Antonio Verrio and Louis Laguerre, continued by Sebastiano Ricci, Antonio Pellegrini and Jacopo Amigoni. Knowledge and understanding of these remarkable allegorical demonstrations is in inverse proportion to their scale. Popular histories of British painting tend to begin with Thornhill’s son-in-law William Hogarth and tend to lay their emphasis on the identifiable and recognisable – portraits, land- and sea-scapes, national triumphs and snatches, often moralising, of social life – rather than the teeming mass of gods and goddesses defying gravity as they alternately skim and stutter across the sky in celebration (in the case of Greenwich) of Peace, Prosperity and the Protestant Succession, the latter displacing the fanciful and symbolic with the recognisably corporeal William and Mary, Anne and George, George I and his family.
In recent years there has been an increase in scholarly attention to these English baroque works, though such attention lags way behind the significance which is accorded its Italian equivalents. There have been notable essays on Verrio and Hampton Court by Cécile Brett and Brett Dolman in the British Art Journal; Lydia Hamlett has a chapter on painted interiors in the Tate’s British Baroque – Power and Illusion, edited by Tabitha Barber (2020, accompanying the curtailed exhibition), and she has published her book on Mural Painting in Britain 1630-1730 (which priced at £120 surely will struggle to reach a wide market); at Greenwich Anya Matthews curated a notable exhibition and catalogue of drawings for the Painted Hall, ‘A Great and Noble Design’ (2016); and we continue to anticipate Richard Johns’ long-awaited monograph on Thornhill, the artist recognised as long ago as 1953 by Ellis Waterhouse as ‘the least studied in detail of the eminent names in British painting’ (Painting in Britain 1530-1790). This relative neglect of a major phase of British art and its main native-born exponent may be attributed in part to the phenomenon remarked by Colen Campbell in matters pertaining to building – ‘so many of the British Quality have so mean an Opinion of what is performed in our own Country; tho’, perhaps, in most we equal, and in some things we surpass, our Neighbours’ (Vitruvius Britannicus, I, 1715). We might also paradoxically attribute the under-estimation of mural painting to the efforts of its greatest chronicler, Edward Croft-Murray, whose ground-breaking, two-volume Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837 (1962-70), long out of print, not only rather understated Thornhill’s abilities – weak and uncertain in modelling, but pleasing in colour – also and more importantly chose ‘Decorative Painting’ for his title, rather than ‘Mural Painting’, as it is understood today to include the implied ceiling, or ‘History Painting’ as it was known at the time (William Aglionby in 1685, pre-Thornhill, quoted by Croft-Murray: ‘we never had, as yet, any of Note, that was an English Man, that pretended to History-Painting’). There is a terminological problem. ‘Decorative’ in English usage has connotations of the frivolous and light-hearted, the dilettante, the less than serious, quite often preceded by ‘merely’; for Dr Johnson (Dictionary, 1755) to decorate was to adorn, to embellish, all very far from the ‘Grand style’ praised by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses (from 1769), far also from the judgment of Hogarth on the Painted Hall (intended for inclusion in The Analysis of Beauty, 1753) which ‘remains fresh, strong and clear as if it had been finished but yesterday ……. France in all her palaces can hardly boast of a nobler, more judicious or richer performance of its kind’.
The high seriousness of Thornhill’s endeavours and his remarkable achievement on behalf of the governors of the Royal Hospital for Seamen is well and succinctly brought out in this book. This was a deeply considered, exceptionally well-judged work of art which maintains its coherence through three separate, related spaces – Vestibule, Lower and Upper Halls – most notably in the single field of the great Lower Hall ceiling where Thornhill created a fictive architectural framework to contain his complex allegory, to be read by the static viewer from prescribed points. This is not yet the vast, populated open sky of Tiepolo, revealing its meanings as the viewer walks through the space below, but it is considerably more expansively open, with more views and vanishing points than could be essayed by Rubens and Gentileschi, constrained as they were by Inigo Jones’s compartmentalised Venetian ceilings. Although the idea of painting the great dining room of the King William building was not foreseen at the start of its construction in 1698, it may nevertheless be interpreted as a further manifestation of the founder Queen Mary’s ‘fixt Intention for Magnificence’, recalled by the principal executant architect of the Hospital, Nicholas Hawksmoor, who began as assistant to the master-planner, Surveyor to the Hospital Christopher Wren before as official Clerk of Works (1698-1735) designing much of its detail and seeing three quarters of the building through to completion, in effect as unofficial Deputy Surveyor. His Remarks on the Buildings (1728) is an impassioned love letter and a setting to rights to counter those who might countenance a reduction in quality, cost and extent rather than completing this greatest of public buildings according to the original vision: ‘capacious and durable, as well as regular and beautiful’. He was writing in the spirit of his mentor, since Wren had himself expressed (in the 1670s) the sentiments which later informed the design and decoration of Greenwich Hospital from first to last: ‘Architecture has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Common-wealth’ (Tract I).
Thornhill first appears in the minutes of the Hospital governors in July 1707 – as soon as the scaffolding is ready, he should proceed to painting, priming it himself or employing his servants, ‘and that he make such Alterations in his design by inserting what more he can relating to maritime affaires till the same shall be approved by this board’. By this time Thornhill had been commissioned to paint the saloon and staircase for the 1st Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth and it may be surmised that this connection with the Whig grandee, a benefactor and director of the Hospital, did him no harm in securing the Greenwich job, with no evidence for any sort of competition. Anya Lucas (formerly Matthews) tells the story of the building of the Hospital, the construction and preparation (high quality plastering by Henry Doogood) of the Painted Hall and Thornhill’s engagement with admirable fluency, detailed research and authoritative judgment. This, over three short chapters, immediately takes its place as the best available summary introduction to the Hospital – its architecture and politics well interwoven – and its principal artist. There are places however where a less concise approach would enable better explanation. Hawksmoor was indeed dismissed during the surveyorship of Thomas Ripley, but ‘shabbily’ is arguable, since Ripley had latterly been paying him out of his own pocket. In discussing the unusual layout of the Hospital – two sides without a centrepiece because of the retention of the much smaller Queen’s House – reference might have been made to the identical problem faced by John Webb in his 1660s design for a palace on this site for Charles II. He too was thwarted by the Queen’s House so had recourse to designing a ‘grott and ascent’ on the hill to the south in order to close the view. In fact both Inigo Jones’ great iconic buildings, the Queen’s House and the Banqueting House, in their self contained harmony and restraint inhibited the more expansive baroque intentions of his successors who sought to incorporate them in later designs for both Greenwich and Whitehall Palace. It could perhaps also have been made clearer that although Wren in a ‘shrewd piece of masterplanning’ had caused all the foundations for the whole site to be laid out at the start, ensuring that failure to complete the full design would be a very visible embarrassment, nevertheless the detail of the design did evolve over the five decades of construction. Although they have domes in common, Ripley’s utilitarian Queen Mary building (including the Chapel) differs radically within and without from Hawksmoor’s magisterial King William building opposite (the two buildings originally conceived as identical pendants), which houses the Painted Hall. Lucas notes that the King’s House (John Webb’s pattern-setting, unfinished building from King Charles’s abortive palace project, which survived to serve as the first range of the Hospital) was given a linked base wing to the west in red brick. Visitors today may wonder where this has gone, so a note on the development of the design would surely have been helpful in explaining the architecture and demonstrating its complex evolution: in pursuit of ‘magnificence’, grand stone pavilions were added first at the river front of the red brick building in 1712-15 and then at the southern end in 1769-74, the red brick wing itself being replaced in 1812-15 by the colonnaded stone-faced range designed by John Yenn to present a grand front to the town and to departing sailors on the river, reminding them of the power of the Royal Navy and the beneficence of a state which provided such palatial surroundings for its veterans.
Further discussion might also have enabled the fuller exploration of the practicalities of the painting process, including the extent of the scaffolding. This clearly falls into the well-known historical category of ordinary, everyday things, so well known and understood at the time that they do not need to be described for the benefit of a posterity which finds itself with fragmentary information and imperfect understanding. Lucas does her best with the available evidence, but we still cannot be sure whether the whole of the hall ceiling had a fixed scaffold for the duration of the project or whether some parts were movable. We know from the well-known anecdote about Thornhill’s being prevented by the quick reactions of an assistant from falling off the scaffold when painting the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral that scaffolding did not necessarily cover the whole of the area to be painted all the time and one part at least had to be openable for access. At Greenwich there are two reasons for thinking that it might have been wholly covered – firstly that an opening had to be made in the scaffold so that the Duke of Ormond could view the painting and secondly in the same year (1713) Edward Strong the mason complained of the waste and consumption of the Hall scaffolding which had stood four years longer than first intended and he had been obliged to buy more. Both these suggest total coverage, but this then raises the question of how Thornhill did the job – how did he visualise it in order to paint it without being able to contextualise the component parts from distance? How did he physically see in order to paint? – as the restorers in the 1950s found, a fully scaffolded ceiling limits both light and ventilation. As noted, some visitors to the scaffolding during the recent restoration, certainly this reviewer, found the experience of viewing the ceiling from painting-cleaning distance remarkably disorientating: figures, well understood from floor level frequently appeared to be in an unexpected relationship at ceiling level. Although there are several preparatory sketches, previously catalogued by Matthews, they are not templates for the artist to transcribe onto the plaster. So did he draw directly, then paint, or were there drawings to follow, now lost? – there are no pounce marks to suggest the original laying out. Further investigation is needed on the practical question of how ceiling paintings at this time were carried out as well as the roles of assistants, who must for such a project have been numerous. Wider investigation of the context and the practice elsewhere by Verrio, Laguerre and others may yield more information.
Upon completion of the whole of the Painted Hall, Thornhill in 1726/7 published in English and French ‘by Order of the Directors … for the Benefit of the CHARITY-BOYS’ his detailed Explanation of the Painting in a sixpenny booklet to be sold by the porter to the many visitors to this tourist attraction. This invaluable guide to the iconography and the political and maritime messages of the painting could usefully have been included in this volume as an appendix – it would have complemented very well the helpful annotated photographs which identify the dramatis personae – instead it is available as a separate publication in facsimile. Richard Johns, in his contribution to this volume on ‘Image and Meaning’, uses extracts from Thornhll’s Explanation as a prompt for a discussion of aspects of the making and meaning of the painting. We begin with the paintings that were completed last in the long programme of works, in the entrance Vestibule beneath the dome where trompe l’oeil tablets recording the names of benefactors are supported by winged figures and Charity-Boys (not less than twenty sons of mariners to be maintained), painted to look as if they have been carved in marble. They gesture upwards towards the windows where larger-than-life figures of Charity in a niche (painted on canvas, now lost) once stood. In this section, as in the earlier chapters by Lucas, more explanation and description would have been helpful, and in the selective discussion of the painting, it is not always clear where we are on the ceiling. But Johns is aided by exceptionally detailed photographs, including a gatefold of the Lower Hall ceiling, and is eloquent in his description of the impression achieved by Thornhill of pictorial and political unity, with its ‘chorus of Virtues and other personifications that appear at each stage of the scheme’ so ‘the Painted Hall may be likened to an operatic production of the most ambitious kind’. This is a production with a very clear message as Johns shows in an analysis of the ceiling and the accompanying booklet which would resonate with political imagineers in any age: ‘But if the official Explanation gives visitors access to the vocabulary and grammar of grand-scale decorative painting, it also exercises a high degree of control over that experience, guiding us from one part of the Hall to another, giving cause to dwell on some parts of the painting while glossing over other details with a cursory ‘&c’. It encourages the viewer to read the scheme in a particular order … and therefore to understand the whole as a seamless celebration of the nation’s recent royal past, united by the common themes of national prosperity and miltary success’.
As Kerry Downes has shown, the baroque is a style in which ‘appearances take precedence over essences’ (Grove Art Online: Baroque), hence the characteristic blurring of the real and the fictive which we see in the Painted Hall: ‘Underneath [William and Mary] is a Figure of Architecture holding a DRAWING of Part of the Hospital, and pointing [with her left hand] up to the Royal Founders’ (Fig.3). Here is a double message which enables two interpretations which are not mutually exclusive: (i) the drawing shows Architecture with her right hand pointing to the King William building, indeed pointing towards the place in the building, the Painted Hall, where she herself is being depicted; (ii) through the presence of Time to the right of the drawing, ‘bringing Truth to Light’, providing as Johns points out ‘a subtle reminder to the Hall’s early visitors that another, equal part – the Queen Mary building – had still to be built’. As identical pendant designs, the same drawing serves for both.
In one of the two large Protestant Succession paintings on the side walls of the Upper Hall, Thornhill again depicts part of the Hospital, the river front of the King Charles building as backdrop to the arrival of King George I in 1714. Together with the painting opposite on the other side wall of the Upper Hall depicting William III welcomed by Britannia in Torbay in 1688, this is rendered in grisaille – stone colour recalling bas-reliefs – with the participants in classicising dress and poses. As Reynolds was later to observe, the grand style is informed by the ‘general and invariable ideas of nature’ rather than attending to ‘the minute accidental discriminations of particular and individual objects’: the artist ‘must sometimes deviate from vulgar and strict historical truth in pursuing the grandeur of his design’. He would have approved of the strategy employed here by Thornhill who recorded his thoughts on a preparatory drawing: George had arrived at night, no ships were visible, certain of those present at the time of the landing were by the time of painting no longer in political favour, the king’s dress was not enough worthy of him to be transmitted to posterity – so Thornhill went for appearances as they should have been rather than essences as they were: King George arrives in a horse-drawn chariot in Roman dress accompanied by St George on horseback, trampling a dragon, with Religion, Liberty, Truth and Justice in front, Eternity above, preceded by Fame who appears to be pointing her trumpet towards the Painted Hall where we also are anticipating the arrival of the new king whose dynasty is further celebrated on the great west wall as a golden age restored. Within a fictive architectural framework, a curtain is drawn back to reveal the king and his family, many of whom here play a dual role in symbolising the Virtues, accompanied by Justice and Time, enabling Peace and Plenty to bring forth a cornucopia of riches in this best of all possible worlds.
Notwithstanding the grandeur of the conception, the west wall is an uncertain climax to the great sequence of painted spaces. Work on the Lower Hall was completed by 1714, but work on the Upper Hall did not begin until 1718. An original window in the west wall had been blocked in 1713 to allow for a painting featuring Queen Anne, but by the time terms of payment and subject matter had been agreed between the artist and the governors, the Hanoverian dynasty had succeeded the Stuarts. The two side windows were blocked and the whole wall plastered on a wooden frame for painting (movement of the frame causing cracking of the plaster was detected in the 1950s). According to Hogarth ‘the upper end of the hall where the royal family is painted, was left chiefly to the pencil of Mr.Andrea a foreigner, after the payment originally agreed upon for the work was so much reduced, as made it not worth Sir James’s while to finish the whole with his own more masterly hand’. Thornhill was assisted here not only by the portrait painter Dietrich Ernst Andreae, but also by Robert Brown, renowned for his skill in painting drapery, who is presumed to have painted the theatrical curtain. The cleaning of the paintings has also enabled the identification of another hand in the painting of the Upper Hall ceiling, that of the highly accomplished French flower painter Antoine Monnoyer who was in London between 1714 and 1729. His flowers sit in vases at each of the four corners of the deep coving of the ceiling between the personifications of the four continents, all admiring the display of British maritime power expressed within the fictive architectural framework (Fig.4). Here in an adaptation from Virgil’s Aeneid, Juno instructs Aeolus to still his winds in order to calm the sea, enabling Neptune to hand dominion over the waters to Lord High Admiral Prince George of Denmark, consort of Queen Anne, both shown here in a double portrait in a roundel supported by appropriate Virtues.
Richard Johns sums up this whole glorious fantasy very well, this ‘grand illusion’ of a sort which continues in fact, 300 years on, to colour our political discourse: ‘Thornhill was keenly aware of the political function of decorative painting and of the propaganda value of the role that he performed. His job, simply put, was to make the accidental and temporary appear inevitable and permanent; to craft a vision of modern Britain as a plentiful, pious and victorious nation, well governed by the right people’. This as Johns points out was a grand illusion that Thornhill wilfully entered into, including himself on the west wall only three steps below the king who had appointed him History-Painter in Ordinary in 1718, Serjeant Painter in March 1720 and knighted him two months later: ‘he was, for a short time at least, the most celebrated British artist who had ever lived’. Although he later fell from favour and fashion with Lord Burlington’s promotion of William Kent, a good architect, but a terrible painter, his obituarist in 1734 acknowledged him as ‘the greatest History Painter this kingdom ever produced’, a judgment endorsed by Whinney and Millar in their standard history: ‘not only the greatest history-painter the country had produced , but the first of whom no court in Europe need be ashamed’ (English Art 1625-1714, 1957).
The paintings in the Painted Hall have been subject to frequent interventions from as early as 1733. As Sophie Stewart and Stephen Paine explain in the final chapter of this book, wall paintings are at constant risk through their innate relationship with the fabric of the building: moisture, light, accessibility, vulnerability to uncontrollable environmental conditions, a situation exacerbated in the Thornhill period by the painting techniques employed – multiple layers of fragile pigments with delicate glazes and areas of gilding. Cleaning and restoration have frequently been heavy handed, involving repainting and ‘haphazardly applied coatings of natural resin varnishes’. The efficacy of treatments has tended to be short-lived and the day-to-day use of the building has also speeded deterioration and prompted further interventions – smoke from heating and candle-lighting, humidity, pipe and cigarette smoking have all had an impact. In 1957-60 a team of conservators from the Ministry of Works identified more than fifteen individual layers of varnish and found twenty-two signatures from 1733 onwards (a further ten have been found since), one of them extraordinarily applied in 1777 to the décolletage of Queen Mary. This programme of cleaning, removing all non-original varnishes as far as possible, is here described in detail and acknowledged as a great achievement, thanks not least to the team’s leader, the pioneering paintings conservator Westby Percival-Prescott. Consideration was given in the cleaning programme completed in 2019 to removing the 1950s varnish, but it was decided that this was not merited and that surface cleaning ‘would lead to an impressive improvement in the brightness and definition of the whole scheme’. And so it has: the Painted Hall is now as close to its original appearance as it is possible to achieve. Much has been learned by the restorers about the process of painting – first the fictive architecture was completed and the figures followed – architectural framing is visible behind some figures as the result of some thinning of the paint over time; there is evidence of other hands, some identified; there are very few corrections or alterations so the painting must have been very precisely planned, although the painting of St Paul’s Cathedral, the architectural wonder of the age (with which Thornhill was also involved) floating in ambiguous space on the west wall behind the royal family is not discussed here. It looks like a rather uncertain afterthought, but the cleaning process in 2012-13 confirmed that its painting was coeval with the rest of the wall although it was changed in the execution – there were said to be signs that initially the dome was painted at a higher level, but had to be dropped to accommodate the lantern below the soffit of the fictive proscenium arch (Fig.5). Such alterations are rare in the Painted Hall, but despite all the close investigation, we still do not know how Thornhill and his team transferred the design from paper to wall and ceiling. This is an exceptionally well planned, clever work of art, carried out over nineteen years and necessarily adapting to changing political circumstances. As Anya Matthews observed in her catalogue of the drawings, this is both a visual and a political illusion – ‘This illusion of coherence, assisted by the use of recurring motifs and fictive architectural frameworks, is testament to the artist’s prodigious skills as a decorative history painter…. able to ….generate an appearance of wholeness when both the artwork – and the events it depicts – were in fact characterised by a high degree of contingency’.
In his Director’s Foreword to British Baroque, Alex Farquharson refers to this period of painting as ‘one of the least familiar areas of British art history, which, in general overviews, is usually hurried over on the journey from Van Dyck to Hogarth’. But perhaps this is because Thornhill represents an ending to a tradition, a triumphant culmination, whereas Hogarth is a beginning. The triumph is clear and is clearly brought out in the book under review. For Kerry Downes, this was ‘one of the greatest achievements of decorative painting in the whole period … all the artifices of Catholic or absolutist quadratura were employed to deliver a nearly republican message in praise of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and of the constitutional monarchy and the Protestant settlement that followed from it’. He later explains this idea of an ending: the baroque is ‘based on a long tradition of growing familiarity with canons and methods ….. [allowing] the visual language to be adapted as only a mother tongue can be, to metaphor, wit, punning … it is an art related more immediately to the beholder than to abstract principles. It has the richness and diversity of form and language that come at the end of a continuous period …. specifically that of the Renaissance, on whose forms and language it depends’. We do not know enough about Thornhill’s sources – clearly he was influenced by Verrio and Laguerre; also he was able to draw on John James’s translation (1707) of Rules of Perspective, by Andrea Pozzo, the Roman baroque quadratura painter of the ceiling of S.Ignazio, a publication endorsed by Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh. Thornhill made two journeys to continental Europe – to the Low Countries and to France where he would no doubt have studied the work of Le Brun. He was a collector – Matthews records his owning paintings by Annibale Carracci and Poussin – and he would have had access to a large number of Renaissance paintings through prints. He was a student of the greatest of Renaissance painters – he freely learned and borrowed from the gestures and postures of Raphael (see for example both Peace (Fig.6) and Europe (Fig.7) in the Lower Hall ceiling). He spent his later years in the absence of commissions in making at least three sets of copies of the Raphael tapestry cartoons in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court as pedagogical guides for others. He had come full circle.
The Painted Hall is a very welcome addition to the literature of British art. It fills a gap. Ann Robey has done a splendid job in bringing together the individual elements by the four authors to make a coherent, attractively presented and well written book. We may cavil at the treatment of the illustrations: not all are numbered and those which are numbered are in three separate groups according to author, as if these were journal essays (1-50, 1-35, 1-37), making referencing cumbersome; the locations of associated paintings and drawings are not given, but they could easily have been included in the captions – page number references in the picture credits tells us who owns the copyright in the image, not the location of the original. A chronology of the building and its painting and of Thornhill’s life and work would also have been useful in aiding our understanding of the period and the work. But notwithstanding these difficulties and the known unknowns discussed above (which future scholarship will surely address), this book deserves a wide audience. It will provide a lasting record of the original painting and the recent restoration of an often overlooked masterpiece.
Note: all photographs are by the author.