Archive for the ‘Nostalgia’ Category

The scary automatic door, the alarming burglar alarm, the spooky coal mine, the thump of the iron weights, the disappearing golden ball. Does anyone remember the Children’s Gallery at the Science Museum in London?

exhibition road, london underground, the science museum, south kensington

On the left, the Science Museum in Exhibition Road, South Kensington, which opened in 1928 replacing buildings from the 1860s. On the right, an Underground poster from 1928.

From 1931 when the gallery was first opened up until 1993 when it closed, children visiting the museum in South Kensington would turn left in the main entrance hall and go down the stairs to the Children’s Gallery in the basement.

Families would usually have got to the museum by going along the pedestrian subway – first opened in 1885 – from the Tube station in ‘South Ken’.

In the basement, there was a long thin rectangular room, which I recall from the 1950s was fairly dimly-lit, where children were free to play with working models that had buttons to press, handles to turn, and levers to pull. There were also historical dioramas and models showing the development of science and technology throughout history. I thought some of these were dull compared with what we would now call ‘hands-on’ exhibits.

 children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

Going by this photo of the Children’s Gallery taken when it opened in December 1931, there doesn’t seem to be much by way of ‘hands on’ exhibits, but it was innovatory at the time. A printed guide to the gallery from 1935 states ‘if there is anything you want to know about the exhibits ask one of the Attendants in uniform’ © Science Museum/SSPL

Whilst the aim of the gallery was to ‘inform and instruct’ children on the social, material, and even moral impact of science and technology on society, surveys carried out in the 1950s revealed that this approach was more or less lost on the children. There was a lot of curiosity and fascination about the many exhibits, but the kids were also having fun.

Consequently, when the Children’s Gallery was revamped in 1969, the historical perspective was to some extent abandoned in favour of combining instruction with pleasure in order to make the children feel that ‘science is a wonderful thing’.

The Children’s Gallery was replaced in 1986 by Launchpad, an ambitious interactive gallery for young people, which moved to the top floor of the museum in 2007. Launchpad itself was replaced in 2016 by Wonderlab, an interactive science gallery with 50 exhibits in seven zones that was 60 percent larger than Launchpad, though an admission fee was also introduced reflecting the £6m cost (school groups are free).

A Selection of the Exhibits

Here are some of the exhibits from the Children’s Gallery that I remember from the 1950s through to the 1980s. I would have liked to include others but photographs of the gallery are thin on the ground. At the end of this post are some memorable exhibits from elsewhere in the Science Museum.

children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The noisiest area of the gallery was the one devoted to Lifting. Ropes that went around pullies could be pulled to lift heavy iron weights. The fewer pullies, the more difficult it was to lift the weights, and there was at least one that I couldn’t lift. There were also jacks where weights were lifted by turning a handle. These photos seem to be from the 1940s or 50s © Science Museum/SSPL

chappe semaphore, children’s gallery, diorama, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

There were many dioramas (three-dimensional models in glass showcases) on the development of transport (photo left), communications (photo centre), and lighting through the ages. Some of these had buttons and levers such as the model of the Chappe Semaphore (the first practical telecommunications system of the industrial age invented in 1792) the top of which can be seen in the middle of the centre photo. On the right, is a display behind glass panels of vacuum experiments. Again, these photos seem to be from the 1940s or 50s © Science Museum/SSPL

automatic door, children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The information stand on the left says ‘Automatic Door 1933. This automatic door has been in almost constant use since it was installed in 1933. At the time most people had never seen an automatic door, and the exhibit became a star attraction in the Museum’s old Children’s Gallery. The door’s 13 ½ millionth opening in 1967 was celebrated when the photograph below was taken’ © Science Museum

There were two exhibits that could be a little scary to a young child. The automatically opening door and the burglar alarm.

With the door, you queued up, and when it was your turn you walked towards the closed red door. You’d break a beam of light shining on a photoelectric cell and the door would swing open abruptly. If you were very young, you didn’t know about the beam, and it was a bit spooky. I wanted to be trapped by the door or something. It was very popular with kids who queued up again and again to go through the door.

The door is still on display, as in the photo on the right, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery in the basement of the museum.

Nearby, there was mock safe in the wall. The idea was to creep as close as you could towards the safe from a line on the floor of the gallery. You would break an infra-red beam, and the word Burglar, in red lighting, which was fixed to the wall near to the safe, would light up with a buzzing sound. Well that’s how I remember it, and I haven’t a photo of the burglar alarm to confirm this.

Other working exhibits that I can remember – though there are no photographs – was the eclipse of the sun by the moon, a diorama of an Archimedean screw being used for irrigation, a Watt engine and hammer, a model of an electric passenger lift, a submarine periscope (the sight poked out somewhere in the ground floor above, so that’s what you saw), and an automatic telephone number selector.

Two smaller working exhibits attracted quite a bit of attention. A Van de Graaf generator from 1929, used to accumulate an electric charge, and a Wimshurt machine from the 1880s, used to generate high voltages. I can’t recall what happened when these machines were demonstrated, but there were machines like this in the X-rated Frankenstein films of the 50s.

children’s gallery, disappearing golden ball, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The disappearing golden ball, which was introduced in 1958, was intended to demonstrate the capacity effect, though I can’t find out what this is. © Science Museum

Another popular exhibit was the ‘disappearing golden ball’. The ball was in the middle of a raised circular table 5′ or so wide at the bottom of the stairs down to the Children’s Gallery. When you leant out to grab the golden ball, it would disappear with a click or clunk into a small socket. No matter how quick you were, you couldn’t get hold of it. I think the ball’s movement may have been activated by a motion sensor in the ceiling above the table.

The ball is still on display in the Secret Life of the Home gallery.

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It’s been a while since my last post but something I’ve been working on has turned out to be a much bigger task than expected. In the meantime, a walking trip to the Eden Valley in the north of England last June with outdoors mate Patrick had many highlights.

drybeck hallThe fertile Eden Valley lies between the Lake District in the west and the northern Pennines in the east. We stayed at Drybeck Hall in the middle of farming country west of Appleby-in-Westmorland. It’s a Grade 2* farmhouse built in 1679 when Charles II was monarch and fighting with Parliament. Drybeck Hall lies in the eastern half of now defunct Westmorland, a sparsely inhabited historic county that has its origins in the 12th century, and which was absorbed into Cumbria in 1974.

We did three circular walks. There’s no detailed instructions but a small map of each walk (click on it to zoom) is included to give you a rough idea of the route.

Day One – Great Rundale Tarn & High Cup Nick

great rundale tarn & high cup nick walk map

The starting point of this clockwise walk was the village of Dufton nestling below the western edge of the Pennines, three miles north of Appleby. The 268-mile long Pennine Way passes through this attractive village which dates from the 14th century. With a youth hostel and several campsites, it’s a popular stopping off point for walkers. From here the Pennine Way goes north to Cross Fell and Alston, and east in a dog-leg to Teesdale. Dufton was a centre for lead mining, and the Quaker-owned London Lead Company which mined here between 1821 and 1873, provided housing, a school, a library and installed piped water. Before setting out we had tea at the Post Box Pantry in the village.

barytes, lead drift mine, dufton fell, dufton pike, rundale beck, threlkeld side

It’s a slow climb up the track towards Dufton Fell, past cone-like Dufton Pike, alongside Rundale Beck, and through the steep limestone walls of Threlkeld Side. All around were the remains of the lead miner’s drift mines, their smelting kilns, spillways, and spoil hummocks. Barytes (barium sulphate, a source of the metal barium) was also mined here in the late 1800s, and the dumps were worked for minerals in the 1980s.

great rundale tarn, tarn sike

Once onto the moors, there was a weather-beaten stone-built ‘shooting box’ at 2,224 feet, the highest point on our walk. It offers little relief from the wind for our short tea break, though the sun is out. Heading east along a stream bed we skirt Great Rundale Tarn, and follow its outlet, Tarn Sike, for several miles.

maize beck, maizebeck scar, tarn sike,

Many tributaries join the stream from the north. The path is hard to find and the stream has to be criss-crossed repeatedly. In wet weather the moor around Tarn Sike would be a soggy peaty mess. I don’t think we saw anybody, it was a remote spot. Tarn Sike turns south-east and eventually joins Maize Beck which becomes an unexpected trench-like gorge, Maizebeck Scar.

After a short distance Maize Beck turns again and flows north-east for four miles before joining the River Tees, which eventually flows into the North Sea, near to Cauldron Snout. The source of the Tees is to the north on Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines. But less than 500 yards away on High Cup Plain, a stream flows in the opposite direction over High Cup Nick and down to the River Eden, which flows into the Solway Firth on the west coast. High Cup Plain is a watershed between the east and west of England.

A sturdy all-weather bridge spans the scar, and an indistinct path crosses High Cup Plain towards High Cup Nick to the south-west. The map indicates there are ‘areas of shake holes’ on the plain. These are steep-sided, often conical, depressions in the ground formed through the collapse of the soil into rain-eroded cavities in the underlying limestone. The smaller ones are overgrown and hard to spot so we take care.

hadrian’s wall, great whin sill, high cup nick, high cup gill, u-shaped valley

High Cup Nick is a notch at the apex of the spectacular U-shaped glaciated valley of High Cup Gill. The horseshoe-shaped rim around the top end of the valley is formed of erosion resistant grey-blue crags of dolerite that are part of the Great Whin Sill. The sill was a tabular intrusion of igneous rock up to 70 metres thick that occurred across much of northern England some 295 million years ago. Hadrian’s Wall was built on exposures of the Great Whin Sill. At High Cup Nick the sill is exposed to dramatic effect, the dolerite having formed columns as the molten rock cooled and shrank.

The way back to Dufton is along the northern escarpment of the steeply sided valley of High Cup Gill. The track, called Narrow Gate, is on the Pennine Way, and it was indeed quite narrow in parts so again care was needed. Lower down, the well-worn and wide path passes through endless fields, but it is hard going. The Stag Inn in Dufton, which overlooks the village green and which was built in 1703, is a welcome sight.

Our walk was 9.7 miles long, the total ascent was 2,210 feet, and it took us the best part of six hours. The walk was taken from the Cicerone Guide Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley.

Day Two – Smardale Gillcrosby garrett

Five miles south-east cross-country from Drybeck Hall is the village of Crosby Garrett, the starting point of this anti-clockwise walk. An imposing railway viaduct passes over the southern edges of the village. I later discover that this is the renowned Settle to Carlisle railway, that the viaduct is 55 feet high, and that the village’s railway station closed in 1952.

smardale gill walk map

It’s raining as we leave the village under the viaduct on a short no-through-road heading south. After five minutes we leave the track and start a gradual climb across Crosby Garrett Fell. The directions for the walk quotes paths becoming fainter, gullies disappearing, and the need to keep going in the same direction over tussocky ground.

Unfortunately a mist descended and we lost whatever path we were supposed to be on. When the mist eventually lifted there was a great view of the Howgill Fells to the south, but it took some guesswork to locate where we were on the southern flanks of the fell. We unexpectedly cross over Wainwright’s 190-mile Coast to Coast Walk on a part of the fell called Begin Hill.

We found a path that took us off the fells and down to a new wooden gate at Severalls Gill. Crossing the footpath east-west was the cutting of a dismantled railway (photo below left). The rain eased a little and we had a damp but welcome tea break. Old railways make for easy and usually interesting walking so we set off eastwards full of expectation.

ravenstonedale, scandal beck, smardale bridge, wainwright coast to coast

The valley formed by Scandal Beck comes in from the south, and down below from the railway track, a packhorse bridge, Smardale Bridge (photo right) crossed the stream. What was striking was that this 18th century bridge (or 15th century depending on your source) just carried a bridleway; the nearest road is a mile away in Ravenstonedale. It was as if nothing had changed in a few hundred years. Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk also crosses over this bridge and heads up east away from the valley to Kirkby Stephen.

A county road once crossed this bridge and there was once an inn close-by, the Scotch Ale House, for drovers bringing their livestock south from Scotland to markets in England. It is reputed that at the time of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, plotters supporting the Stuarts against the Hanoverians met at the ale house. On the surrounding hillsides are the remains of Romano-British settlements, medieval strip lynchets, man-made rabbit warrens called pillow mounds (known locally as Giant’s Graves), as well as disused quarries.

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festival of britain, abram games, festival emblem, festival star

A Festival of Britain poster designed by Abram Games, who also designed the festival emblem in the centre, the Festival Star.

On 3 May 1951, the Festival of Britain was opened by King George VI. It was conceived by the Labour Government, led by Clement Attlee, as ‘a tonic for the nation’, a cheerful, forward-looking event and a break from rationing, austerity and the brown landscape of a still bomb-scarred country. The heart of the Festival was constructed on a 27 acre area on the South Bank of the Thames in London between County Hall and Waterloo Bridge, that had remained untouched since being bombed in the war. But some not did see it in that light. Winston Churchill, Leader of the Opposition, was opposed to the Festival. He said it was all just ‘three-dimensional, socialist propaganda’ that squandered American financial aid. Churchill was to get his own back later.

The plan first mooted in 1947 was to celebrate the centennial of the Great Exhibition of 1851, but it was not to be another world fair. The festival was to focus entirely on Britain and its achievements. The Festival was to be funded chiefly by the government with a budget of £12 million. But there was a political dimension.

festival of britain, south bank, dome of discovery, royal festival hall, skylon, dan dare

On the South Bank site, there was to be a Dome of Discovery, the Royal Festival Concert Hall, numerous pavilions, and the iconic Skylon, a 296ft high Dan Dare-like needle that apparently floated above the ground.

Although the aim of the Festival was to promote British science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts, the Labour government, after five years in office following its landslide victory in 1945, was losing support. It was hoped that the Festival would give people a feeling of successful recovery from the war’s devastation. But again, many thought there were better ways of spending taxpayers’ money. There was still meat rationing and petrol shortages, and millions of homes needed re-building. Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor and impresario, described it as ‘a monumental piece of imbecility’.

However when the Festival  closed five months later on 30 September, eight and a half million paying visitors had come to the South Bank site, far more than predicted.

festival of britain, ronald searle, woolly smothers, herbert morrison

A pen and ink cartoon by Ronald Searle. Woolly Smothers MP says to the person in the ticket kiosk, who is obviously meant to be Herbert Morrison, the Labour minister responsible for the Festival of Britain.
‘And what’s more Sir – I still think it would be a waste of money if it weren’t such a success!’

The public enthusiasm and the support of the King and Queen for the festival resulted in the newspapers, which had been so hostile before the opening of the festival, now being supportive. King George could not attend as he was recovering from an operation. He died just over four months later, and his eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, became queen. The final net cost of the Festival of £8m (about £227m today) was less than budgeted. The Festival was acclaimed as a ‘triumphant success’.

However in a general election just weeks after the closing of the Festival, Winston Churchill was returned to power as leader of a Conservative government. Churchill, who saw the Festival as a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party and their vision for a new socialist Britain, promptly ordered the dismantling of the landmark Festival buildings on the South Bank, with the exception of the Festival Hall (now a Grade I listed building). Here is a British Pathé newsreel about the demolition in 1952. Watch out at the end when the commentator says all the latest equipment is being used and then shows a chap wielding a sledgehammer, and then for the man who appears to survive a potentially fatal fall when the girder he is cutting smashes to the ground. There was no sense of irony and the commentator treats the incident surprisingly light-heartedly.

skylon, vertical feature, festival of britain, dome of discovery

The futuristic-looking Skylon was the ‘Vertical Feature’ that was an abiding symbol of the Festival of Britain. It consisted of a steel latticework frame, pointed at both ends, clad in aluminium louvres, and supported on cables slung between three steel beams.

The film also shows the supporting girders of the Skylon being cut. It is said that once the cables were severed, the Skylon toppled over into the Thames. Although the metal was sold as scrap, there are unsubstantiated stories that remains of the Skylon still lie on the bed of the Thames or in the River Lea (like the Euston Arch).

The Festival site was cleared completely and remained so for ten years. Today the site is occupied by a park, Jubilee Gardens, which was created in 1977. You can read here more about the Festival, as well as the events held across the country. A short film Brief City about the South Bank Festival buildings was made by the Observer newspaper. Here are part one and part two. The commentary is very much of its time, and to me, fascinating. Watch out for the milkman in Downing Street in part one, around 7.30 minutes.

But two miles upstream from the South Bank in Battersea Park, on the opposite side of the Thames from Chelsea, a more frivolous exhibition had also been opened in 1951, the Festival Pleasure Gardens. This exhibition harked back to the English pleasure gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries elsewhere in London at Vauxhall, Ranelagh and Cremorne.

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The Christmas tradition of putting a plastic net bag of gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins in children’s Xmas stockings along with a satsuma or clementine took a bit of knock in 2014. Cadbury’s announced in October that year that it had stopped making its chocolate coins. The chocolate-maker said shoppers had switched to cheaper, own-brand versions sold at supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl and Poundland, leaving its own sales in decline.

cadburys chocolate coins

As well as declining sales, Cadbury’s said that wrapping the foil around the coin-shaped chocolate was ‘quite fiddly’. Wasn’t fiddling with the foil and trying to remove it intact, part of the attraction of the coins at Christmas. Apparently the last remaining box of 24 bags of coins were snapped up on eBay for £100, well before their sell-by date.

A spokesperson explained that the coins, which were made by a ‘separate contractor’, had proved difficult to sell and that the process of wrapping the foil around the coins was not easy, adding ‘we are sorry to see the coins go, but that’s business’. Making chocolates has always been a business where continuous reinvention seeks to repeat the success of earlier forever popular chocolate bars.

The first company to make a moulded chocolate bar as we know it today was J S Fry & Sons in 1847 at their factory in Bristol, England. Joseph Fry found a way to mix cocoa powder and sugar plus a little melted cocoa butter extracted from the beans, to produce a paste that could be moulded into a chocolate bar suitable for large-scale production. It was coarse and bitter by today’s standards, but it was still a revolution. The paste could also be poured over fillings and in 1866, Fry’s Chocolate Cream was launched (image below).

frys chocolate creamDuring the late 1800s, and early 1900s, the manufacture of cocoa and confectionery in Britain was largely dominated by Cadbury’s in Birmingham, Fry’s in Bristol, and Rowntree’s and Terry’s both in York, all of whom were Quaker families. This wasn’t just a coincidence. The Quakers were social reformers, and extracting cocoa from cocoa beans to make drinks was a reaction against the perceived misery and deprivation caused by alcohol. Then the companies turned to the making of chocolate. But today these names exist only as brands owned by international companies. Cadbury (the ‘s’ was dropped in 2003) and Terry’s are now owned by US-based Mondelēz International, the second-largest confectionery manufacturer in the world after Mars (though Mondelēz is looking to sell the Terry’s brand). Fry’s was taken over by Cadbury’s in 1919, and Rowntree’s is owned by a Finnish company, Raisio Group.

Confectioners Are Swallowed Up 

sharp's super-kreem toffee, sir kreemy knut

Sharp’s introduced Sir Kreemy Knut in 1919 to promote their Super-Kreem Toffee, a dapper aristocratic character with cane and bowler hat. After WWII, Knut was resurrected as a live diminutive sales rep Nobby Clarke, a regular visitor at shows and seaside resorts during the 1950s, who arrived in a Rolls Royce. Sadly none of the brands made by Sharp’s survived for long after its sale to Trebor in 1961.

Though Fry’s was swallowed up in 1919 it wasn’t until the 1960s that other major confectioners went the way of Fry’s, or merged, often a euphemism for a take-over.

Trebor bought Sharp’s in 1961, and Clarnico in 1969. Bassett’s bought Pascall in 1965, and Barratt’s in 1966. Bassett’s then merged with Maynards and Trebor in 1990, and were then bought by Cadbury Schweppes in 1998, and finally by Tangerine Confectionery in 2008 (now the largest independent confectionery company in Britain).

Mackintosh’s bought Wilkinson’s in 1964, Fox’s in 1969, and then merged with Rowntree’s in the same year. In 1988, Rowntree-Macintosh was bought by Nestle, and Paynes was bought by Northern Foods. Fox’s (still owned by Nestle) was bought by Northern Foods in 2001, then Fox’s and Payne’s were bought by Big Bear Confectionery in 2003, which was then bought by Raisio in 2011.

Cadbury’s and Terry’s came to be owned by Mondelēz as a result of Kraft Foods buying Terry’s Suchard in 1993, and Cadbury’s in 2010. A year later, Kraft Foods split in two with the confectionery arm, which included Cadbury and Terry’s, becoming part of Mondelēz.

Some Sweets Still Live on

Though the original confectioners have long gone, their names live on as brands as do some of their most popular lines. Each sweet and each company has its own story, but here are a few snippets.

tangerine confectionery, barratts sherbet fountain

When Tangerine Confectionery, owners of Barratt’s Sherbet Fountain, updated the sweet’s packaging in 2009, they faced a predictable backlash from customers. The new, hermetically sealed fountain may have protected the product from moisture and avoided spillage on newsagents’ shelves, but generations of kids delighted in its original, eccentric, sherbet sucking and tongue tingling form. Tucked in the back pocket, the yellow paper tube looked pleasingly like a stick of dynamite.

Barratt’s Sherbet Fountains was first sold in 1925, the sherbet contained in a paper wrapped cardboard tube with a liquorice ‘straw’ stuck in the top. The tip of the straw was bitten off so as to suck up the sherbet, though it could get clogged up and the stick was then used a dip. The traditional packing was replaced in 2009 by a plastic tube and a solid liquorice stick which caused a media outcry. The Barratt’s factory was in Wood Green, London. By the early 1900s it had become the firm’s custom to give every worker a Christmas present. In December 1913, this took the form of an alarm clock, and it is said that Mr G W Barratt, son of the founder, personally presented about 2,000 of them.

When sales representative for Bassett’s, Charlie Thompson, in 1899 spilt a tray of liquorice and cream paste samples of chips, rocks, buttons, cubes and twists samples in front of a shopkeeper in Leicester, Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts was born. The resulting colourful mix impressed the chap who placed the first order for ‘allsorts’. Bertie Bassett, Bassett’s promotional mascot was introduced in 1929. Bertie has remained a popular figure ever since and to celebrate his 80th birthday, Cadbury arranged in 2009 for Bertie to marry his sweetheart Betty Bassett in the Sheffield factory where Allsorts were then produced.

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In John Le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963, Liz Gold, asks Alec Leamus, the spy of the title:

‘Alec, what do you believe in? Don’t laugh – tell me.’ She waited and at last he said:

‘I believe an eleven bus will take me to Hammersmith. I don’t believe it’s driven by Father Christmas.’

In 1963, the number 11 bus ran from Shepherds Bush, through Hammersmith, both in west London, and across central London to Liverpool Street Station in the City. The conversation between Gold and Leamus takes place in Gold’s flat which is somewhere in west London. Leamus could just as well have used the number 9, 27, 73 or 91 bus as all travel through west London from Hammersmith. So was Le Carré’s choice of the number 11 bus arbitrary?

london bus route 11, london transport, bank of england, fulham broadway

A number 11 RT London Bus passing the Bank of England on its way to Fulham Broadway. This was same type of bus as ‘driven’ by Cliff Richard in the 1963 film Summer Holiday. This photo might have been taken in the 1970s judging by the cars following behind. © London Bus Museum

I have long had a memory of the number 11 bus. I took the bus many times in the mid-1950s to get to and from my primary school in Fulham, again in west London. My recollection was of waiting for the bus at Lillie Road Recreation Ground, frequently for quite a while, to get back to school after lunch, getting off at the Salisbury Pub stop in Dawes Road. All of a sudden, one, two, three, four, five, six or more number 11 buses would tear around the corner of Fulham Palace Road and Lillie Road on their way from Hammersmith across central London to Liverpool Street Station. It happened so often.

Which bus in the convoy would stop at my bus stop was unpredictable. Most of them of course were quite empty, and the first buses would be those that had previously overtaken other number 11 buses that had stopped at earlier stops, and they didn’t want to stop. Fortunately, one bus would stop, and it would then roar away from the stop so as to keep up with the others, or so it seemed to me. I also thought that there was some sort of arrangement or understanding amongst the drivers as to which bus would stop and where.

Why so many number 11 buses came together I had no idea. But though my memory may have exaggerated the number of buses that regularly travelled in conveys, I do remember a joke made by someone ‘Bananas are like the number 11 bus, they come along in bunches’. This joke can of course be applied to many situations. So was the bunching of the number 11 bus legendary?

Some twenty of so years later, I don’t have a date, I came across a letter in the ‘correspondence’ pages of a national newspaper, again I don’t know which paper, but it was so intriguing that I cut out the letter and I still have a copy of the cutting. The letter read:

Sir – I see they are still trying to explain the peculiar way some London buses have of travelling in ‘”convoy” (the official view seems to be that it is all an optical illusion). It all brings back to me a host of twanging memories, grave and gay.

The No.11 bus, travelling between Hammersmith (I believe) and Liverpool Street Station (I think) has long been notorious for this practice. I well remember the “Old No.11,” as we used to call it affectionately, behaving in just the same way in (I think) 1908, just after the change from horse-drawn buses to (as I recall) steam.

I used to travel quite often from my home in (I believe) Fulham to Liverpool Street Station, which was then, of course, a music hall (shades of Jim Intrator, “The Demon Juggler”, Dee Wells, the popular lady ventriloquist and one-string fiddle player, and many other old time “stars,” now, alas, departed!)

I well recall (I am told) waiting at a No.11 omnibus halt for over five hours in (I remember) about 1910 and then seeing no fewer than 150 No.11 buses arrive in “convoy,” with a cheery “Hullo there!” from the leading driver! The comments of some of my would-be fellow passengers had to be seen to be heard!

Incidentally, my grandfather, now dead, once told me that even as far back as the 1860’s when Hammersmith and Liverpool Street Station were still no more than tiny villages, he could well remember the old No.11 horse-omnibuses already plying between them – in convoy, of course!
Yours etc.,
“OLD TIMER.”
Simferopol Road,
S.W.56.

Despite the correspondent’s own doubts, scattered throughout the letter, as to the reliability of his or her memory, I thought it plausible until I got to the arrival of 150 No.11 omnibuses! There is no Simferopol Road in London, nor a SW56 postal area. Simferopol is the capital of the Crimea in the Ukraine, though incidentally London does have a Balaclava Road, an Inkerman Road, and a Sebastopol Road, all named after battles of the Crimean War in 1854. But it’s a funny letter.

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school dinners, fulham, central kitchsnslondon county council

In my primary school in Fulham, London, unappetising potatoes and vegetables were served from heavy insulated metal containers brought from central kitchens run by London County Council.

Prior to 1954, when I was at primary school, food was still rationed following the Second World War which meant that butter, milk, eggs, meat, cheese and sugar was in short supply. School dinners were memorable only for being pretty dreadful. After that things began to improve. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is the school puddings that I remember the most. At my boy’s secondary school in west London, I particularly liked the chocolate pudding and chocolate sauce, though I don’t think that much chocolate was used as both the pudding and the sauce were pale in colour. I would stay back on the ‘extra helpings’ table at the end of the school dining room for seconds, or even thirds. Another favourite was baked jam roll, iced sponge cake with hundreds and thousands on top, bread and butter pudding, and treacle sponge pudding, all served with custard. I didn’t like the semolina with rose hip syrup so much, or the pink blancmange – it was always pink – or the rice pudding which always had a thick skin on it. Even if you asked to have it without the skin, the kitchen staff would often say that you couldn’t.

Most of the kitchen staff were fairly cheerful as far as I can recall, in contrast to most of the teachers. All the food was cooked on the premises in the kitchen, though I don’t think that in all the five years I was at the school, I ever ventured into the kitchen. It just wasn’t done. I don’t recall that many boys were fat. There were lots of carbohydrates and fat in the puddings, what nutritionists would call stodge, but then you didn’t have snacks. And we drank water, not squash. The water was supplied in metal jugs, and I think we drank from plastic cups.

At home, it was shepherd’s pie, corned beef hash, macaroni cheese, or spam fritters for tea, At the weekend it could be a Fray Bentos tinned steak and kidney pie, smoked haddock, a lamb or pork chop from the local butchers, or boiled or sliced ham from David Greig, a chain of grocery shops, who were rivals to Sainsburys. I can’t recall what we had for Sunday lunch but we did sometimes have a small chicken. Rice, noodles and pasta (apart from the macaroni, and tinned spaghetti) were simply not part of the British diet, and spices and herbs were used rarely. The only take-away was fish and chips. I think we ate quite well compared to many.

In the 1960s frozen food arrived and it was seen as a great innovation. Smedley’s fish fingers and Birds Eye peas, though I can’t remember frozen chips. For dessert it was often Del Monte or Libby’s tinned fruit with Carnation evaporated milk. Bird’s instant whip in five flavours was an improvement on jelly, and Walls neapolitan ice cream brick with its three flavours, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla – sometimes replaced by a pale green pistachio – was a real treat. But my Nan would come to our house regularly and she would make proper puddings. The highlight for me was coming home to see a basin, in a pan of steaming water, covered by a piece of linen held on with string. That usually meant we were having spotted dick, with custard of course. Alternatively the pastry in the steaming saucepan was a sausage shape rolled up in linen and tied at each end. Spotted Dick was made from a flat sheet of suet pastry dough sprinkled with currants and raisins. If the pastry had been spread with jam, rather than with added dried fruit, then that would have been jam roly-poly (known in the 19th century as rowley-powley), and also called ‘dead man’s arm’ because some families apparently steamed it in an old shirt sleeve. I must have had roly-poly as a pudding at home, whether baked or steamed, but I can’t remember it. But why spotted dick?

spotted dick, custard, pudding

Spotted Dick once cooked, could, unintentionally or not, be quite dry and spongy, or stodgy and chewy. Some people like their custard thin and watery, others thick and creamy, but hopefully without any lumps or skin.

The pudding was first described in an 1849 cookbook The Modern Housewife or Ménagère by a socially progressive French chef Alexis Benoist Soyer, who became a celebrated cook in Victorian England. The book included a recipe for ‘Plum Bolster, or Spotted Dick-Rolle’ made from paste (pastry) and raisins, ‘tie in a cloth and boil for an hour’. Suet puddings had became popular by the 17th century thanks to the invention of the pudding cloth. The Pall Mall Gazette reported in 1892 that ‘the Kilburn Sisters … daily satisfied hundreds of dockers with soup and Spotted Dick’. ‘Spotted’ is a clear reference to the dried fruit that ‘spot’ the pudding. Though ‘dick’ was widely used as a term for pudding in the 19th century, its source is more obscure. It could be a corruption of the word pudding, evolving through puddink, then puddick, then finally dick.

In 2009, Flintshire County Council reversed a decision by its catering staff to change the name of the pudding on school menus to ‘Spotted Richard’ following a complaint from a person about the use of ‘Spotted Dick’, which has long been a source of amusement and double entendres. It is difficult to believe that this is a true story, but here is the report on the BBC website.

The joy associated with a steam pudding goes back a long way. In 1843, Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, wrote:

Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding.

What was your favourite pudding at school?

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mind the gap, district line platform, victoria station, london underground

A ‘mind the gap’ tile mosaic on a District line platform at Victoria Underground station in London

‘Please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ is a recorded announcement familiar to travellers on the London Underground. The ‘tube’ is the oldest underground railway in the world and when it was built in the 19th century the tunnels often followed the line of the streets above so as to avoid the costs of obtaining permission from owners to tunnel under their properties. The result was that on the oldest deep-level or ‘tube’ lines, the Bakerloo, Central, Northern, and Piccadilly, the tracks in the tunnels inevitably curve quite a bit, which means that when a train comes to rest at a platform that is on a curve, there is a gap between the carriage and the platform. The gap can either be in the middle of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘outside’ of the curve, or at each end of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘inside’ of a curve. There were likely other reasons for the winding tracks underground such as pipes, sewers, and deep foundations that would have been too costly for the construction companies, who were privately-financed, to divert or reconstruct.

This wasn’t so much of a problem when the tunnels were first built as train carriages were much shorter, so the gaps weren’t so great. But as trains were modernised and the carriages made longer to increase their capacity, the gap between the train and the platform was quite a hazard in many stations. Although drivers and station attendants had been warning passengers of the gap since at least the early 1920s, this was proving increasingly impractical, and in 1968 London Underground started introducing recorded announcements to warn passengers to ‘mind the gap’.

oswald laurence, actor, rada, three men in a boat, mind the gap, london underground

Oswald Laurence joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1938 at the age of 17. The dashing actor appeared in a number of minor roles in films including Three Men In A Boat, a 1956 comedy starring Laurence Harvey, Jimmy Edwards, and a young Kenneth Williams playing a bit-part, as well as appearances in the TV series The Saint, starring Roger Moore.

One of the early announcers was Oswald Laurence whose clear compelling voice was heard by millions of people at many stations on the Northern Line. In the early 2000s however, the minimalist message to ‘mind the gap’ was deemed an insufficient warning. What was the gap? Where was it? Whilst there are no records of anyone misunderstanding what the announcement was referring to, only of people not taking notice of it, or being in a state of intoxication such that they were incapable of acting on it. Nevertheless the announcement was re-recorded and the location of the gap clearly identified: ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’.

Mr Laurence, who as an actor had made the recording in the 1970s, died in 2001 at the age of 80, and his place in history might have been forgotten. Except that when his announcement at Embankment Station, the last station to play the recording, was replaced in November 2012 by a new one, his widow, Dr Margaret McCollum, wrote to London Underground. Dr McCollum asked if they had a recording of the announcement that her husband had made some forty years before, and explained that she would go to the station if she was travelling that way, to hear her husband’s voice. ‘Knowing that I could go and listen to his voice was simply wonderful. It was a great comfort. I would go and sit on the platform, and sometimes miss a couple of trains just so I could hear it’. Here is a video of an interview by the BBC with Dr McCollum.

margaret mccollum, oswald laurence, mind the gap, london underground

Dr Margaret McCollum met Oswald Laurence in 1992 when she went on guided tour holiday with Mr Laurence as tour guide. She heard ‘the most gorgeous voice’ behind her and the pair were instantly attracted.

Somewhat unexpectedly, given that London Underground has a lot on its plate, carrying over four million passengers every day and rising, tracked down the recording, and not only did they send Dr McCollum a copy of the recording on a CD, they also decided to reinstate his announcement at Embankment station. So now if you stand on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at the station, where MIND THE GAP is painted at intervals on the platforms edge, it is an eerie experience hearing Mr Laurence remind people in his precise authoritative voice, not once but three times, as trains rush into the platform and come to a rest, to ‘mind the gap’. You can hear him here.

There are two other locations where ‘mind the gap’ warnings are most notably played: the Central line platforms at Bank, where there can be a 1-foot (30cm) gap, and the Bakerloo line platforms at Piccadilly Circus.

the queen, baker street station, 150th anniversary, london underground, mind the gap

The Queen inspected a new train at Baker Street station during the 150th anniversary of the London Underground in March 2013. Baker Street is one of the oldest and ornate stations on the Underground. Here the Queen alights carefully from a carriage, though the gap at this particular platform is not that wide.

The ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ warning is also used where there is a difference in height between the platform and the floor of the train carriage. This occurs where a platform is used by both deep-level ‘tube’ trains and larger ‘sub-surface’ trains, and in these situations the height of the platform is a compromise between the different floor heights of the train carriages (a difference of 8 inches). That’s why you will hear the warning at a number of stations in west London, which although having straight platforms, serve both the larger District line trains and the deep-level Piccadilly line trains.

If you are really interested, you can read a lot more about London Underground platform gaps on Mike Horne’s website here. Amongst many fascinating facts, Mike Horne has identified that the largest gap between the train and the platform at any of London’s deep-level ‘tube’ stations is at the west end of the eastbound platform of the Central Line at Bank station, a scary 375mm or 14.76 inches!

Going back to Oswald Laurence, in February this year, a short film Mind the Gap was shown at the London Short Film Festival which tells Dr McCollum’s story. The poignant film was written, directed and produced by Luke Flanagan with Eileen Nicholas played the lead role, and you can see it here. The main location for the tube shots was Barbican station which is in the open, and as the tracks are straight at the station, there is no gap, and hence no announcement is needed, but filming in the deep-level tube stations such as at Embankment would have proved difficult.

And here is the voice of Oswald Laurence again.

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