I seem to be spending the golden years of my life trying to save toppled columns.
But, like Gladstone’s attempts to rescue fallen women, my work has largely been in vain.
Yet Baiamonte’s Column of Infamy is one of the oldest pieces of inscribed stone in Venice. It is not fragile. And it’s only four feet high. I obtained the support of Venice in Peril to restore it. I sourced sponsorship for the work. Nelli-Elena organised a book and two conferences. I shared a platform at the Ateneo Veneto with the director of Musei Civici, delivering a lecture on the evocative power of the column and the nature of villainy. But I suspect this only strengthened the director’s resolve that no chit of a foreign novelist would ever bring forth a precious item of Venetian history.
And so, Reader, I failed. The column still languishes in the Doges Palace dungeons, and I doubt if the ducal tweeny maid has even given it a dusting in the last hundred years.
And now, in London, I find myself on the trail of a tier gate that has gone missing from the charming little warehouse complex known as Blows Yard, now overshadowed by a modern development in Stoney Street, by the historic Borough Market in Southwark.
The two pillars were sturdily built of tough blue engineering bricks, with bull nosed bricks on the corners for most of their height. Each was then topped by a ziggurat of white stone. They defined the northern western edge of the site.
Blows Yard is part of the Borough High Street Conservation Area. The statutory definition of a Conservation Area is an “area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.”
Note ‘desirable to preserve or enhance’.
Blows Yard stands on land that was once part of the Bishop of Winchester’s domain. Early maps show its site within the kitchen gardens of Winchester Palace. Below is a drawing showing the palace and its gardens in 1660 after Wenceslas Hollar (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).
Eight hundred years ago, the palace was the most important building on the south bank of the Thames. But after the Civil War the site expropriated by the state. Stoney Street was built through the old palace grounds. A row of little houses was added on the eastern side of the new street – these can be seen on Horwood’s plan of 1799. Otherwise the new buildings were devoted to river-based trades. Warehouses grew where the Bishop’s vegetables once flourished. Winchester Palace was razed by two fires in the early 1800s, (as was my own home).
English Heritage now manages what is left of Winchester Palace, which is classed as Scheduled Ancient Monument. The area is also an Archaeological Priority Zone.
In June 2006 Southwark Council’s appraisal of the Borough High Street Conservation Area explained how the area changed from palatial demesne to small industrial development: In time, much of the area was redeveloped with purpose-built warehouses and, although limited in area, the small quarter of riverside warehousing around Clink Street retains characteristics of 19th century London dockland streets that are so typical of areas east of Borough. The urban form is characterised by very narrow streets hemmed in by tall building elevations and is a response to the practical and economic need to maximise building areas for the business of storing goods coming in off the ships. The streets themselves are reduced to minimal widths and warehouses were linked to one another with catwalks and bridges overhead.
It further observes of Blows Yard: the buildings have a pleasant consistency of detail using parapet gables and arched warehouse windows in a two and three storey composition, and they contain Stoney Street tightly, facing the railway arches … Blows Yard is particularly important as a corner group onto Stoney Street, and is neatly and consistently detailed.
Note the “neatly and consistently detailed”.
Blows Yard has also been in danger over the last decades. But, after various attempts to demolish it, the building was subject to a sensitive and respectful interior reworking and is now our beloved local Pain Quotidien.
The redevelopment of Blows Yard was undertaken in conjunction with the Museum of London Archaeological Survey (MoLAS), and left all the archaeology beneath untouched and safe. The remains of Roman buildings were revealed in addition to medieval structural elements of the scheduled Winchester Palace.
So, a case of good planning, good architecture and good practice.
But even this good practice has not stopped the northernmost of the Blows Yard pillars from disappearing.
Both pillars were still there in May 2011, when SE1 magazine photographed the street to report on a confrontation between local residents and developers who wanted to place a 300 cover restaurant adjacent to Blows Yard. Photograph courtesy of the SE1 website, with thanks.
A compromise of sorts was reached. Thereafter the site was swaddled in layers of boarding and scaffolding for several years. And now that the boarding and scaffolding are gradually coming down – one of the pier pillars has disappeared. I poked a trespassing head around the gates last week, and found … absolutely no northern pillar, as this picture by David Stephens shows.
I even looked under the yellow hoarding and all I found was this: just some rubble and roots.
My distress at the missing pier pillar was channelled, as all good History Girls channel their woes, into research.
My first call was The London Archaeologist Annual London Fieldwork and Publication Round-up of 2009, which recorded that the two extant buildings that now comprise Blows Yard were constructed by as a horse hospital, the works probably taking place between 1872 and 1877.
Now I was more than curious – I was also charmed. A Horse Hospital in Stoney Street! It made perfect sense. Horse transport was still predominant in Victorian London, with at least 300,000 working horses in the city. There were around 90 veterinary surgeries, no doubt principally devoted to their care. Many, like Blows Yard, would have incorporated smithies or farriers. London Bridge was the transit hub of centuries past, as testified by old coaching inns like The George. I could imagine exhausted horses arriving from Dover or Folkestone, being led between the two pillars into the hospital for a bit of R & R and two nice new pairs of shoes.
Perhaps it was rather like this jolly illustration from George Cruikshank’s My Sketchbook, courtesy of Wellcome Images.
At the Museum of London’s Archaeology department, I spoke to Karen Thomas, who was kind enough to send me the full text of their 2009 study of Blows Yard.
The archaeologists had found the Horse Hospital listed in the Goad insurance plans of 1877. (My theory would be that the word ‘Blows’ referred to the striking of the anvil by the smithy – or it could be an elision of ‘Bellows’, an essential tool of the blacksmith’s works.)
In 1882 Kelly’s Post Office Directory (a kind of Victorian Yellow Pages) recorded the premises as horse hospital run by Mr William Roots, veterinary surgeon. His other address was elegant Trinity Square, so this must have been his professional headquarters. I found him again in The Commercial Gazette of 1890. His complex consisted of a stables with hayloft on the upper floor. There were also two small dwellings, possibly inhabited by stable boys or junior surgeons who tended to the sick horses at night. The archaeologists found traces of tiling, drainage ventilation suitable for the housing of horses, which would also have had space to lie down.
They found few traces, however, of the ‘Smithy and stable’ due to various demolitions. There is now just a blank gable fronting on to Stoney Street and part of the roof, plus two gate piers or posts. The archaeologists noted, ‘These piers are of solid brick, with pyramidal moulded capstones, possibly of white limestone or artificial stone, partly built into the adjoining buildings’.
So in 2009, when the archaeologists finished this work, both piers were still in place.
The archaeologists theorized that Blows Yard operated as a horse hospital until just before or during the First World War, when the current owners, J.O. Sims, took it over for the fruit and vegetable business, probably using the existing stables for the dray horses who transported their goods.
At some point in the twentieth century, Sims stopped using the building for their business. They rented it to a recording studio for a period. And eventually it became Pain Quotidien.
PQ occupies the stable and the hayloft, with its kitchen in the cottages, I believe. The smithy would have been located in a part of the site that is now being pushed for yet more development
The missing pillar would have marked its northernmost point.
It would be nice to think that the pillar was temporarily removed for its own safety, and that perhaps the pieces of the pillar are stored carefully in a warehouse somewhere, awaiting reconstruction. Indeed, I suggested as much to the developer, but received no answer at all.
No answer at all is an answer, I feel.
Nevertheless, I nurture a slender hope that the pillar still exists.
Why do I care? This pillar was no more than 150 years old, a callow youth of a pillar compared to Baiamonte's 700 year old column. It has no historic inscription. It was made of engineering bricks and stone. It was not even particularly beautiful. It had a stolid, comforting presence, redolent of a confident industrial past.
And it was a part of the historic fabric of Stoney Street, part of the Borough High Street Conservation Area, in the grounds of Winchester Palace and adjacent to a scheduled Ancient Monument, part of an Archaeological Priority Zone.
And it represents just one more way in which the history of this area is being treated with disrespect. In another recent development a tourist gift shop has inflicted lurid neon lighting on the street.
The residents here are active in their support of the area. We warmly welcome responsible local businesses. We try to stop developments that seem cynical or damaging to our architectural heritage. David Stephens, our local architect, together with English Heritage and residents, conceived a beautiful historic garden in the ruins of the old Winchester Palace, formerly the home of tumbleweeds and cigarette butts. Bankside Open Spaces Trust and Southwark Council agreed to realize the scheme. And now it is in place.
Yet there seems to remain a practically feudal state of affairs here in the Clink, where the rich landowners can, with apparent impunity, exercise droit de seigneur over the vulnerable historic fabric of the area.
This blog represents, therefore, a small ladylike blast of the trumpet against the anonymous wall of non-caring. Should we not celebrate our industrial past here? Mr Roots’s Horse Hospital is but one piece of our history. Also gone – the walkways that used to join the warehouses to the other streets – those went in the late seventies; local lurks like Naked Boy Yard and the Whores Nest – all demolished to make way for profitable high-rise developments.
Pillar by pillar is the way that the fabric of our environment was built.
And pillar by pillar it will be lost – unless someone with authority can be found to care about it enough.
Michelle Lovric’s website
Her most recent novel is The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, published by Bloomsbury.
She rarely writes about horses as she is rather afraid of them since being attacked by a wild Australian one in her childhood.