Tuesday 10 March 2015

Pillar of the Community or,The Strange Case of the Disappearing Gate Pier at Mr Roots’s Horse Hospital – Michelle Lovric

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.

For several years, I struggled to rescue a remarkable Column of Infamy from a dusty sepulchre in the Doges Palace in Venice. To this quest, I applied my best efforts and those of Venice’s most vigorous social historian Nelli Elena Vanzan Marchini. We tried to have the column brought out of darkness for the 700th anniversary of the 1310 conspiracy of Baiamonte Tiepolo, who planned to murder the Doge and seize the state. After his failure, Baiamonte’s own palace was razed to the ground. The Column of Infamy erected in its place. The column thereafter suffered a series of adventures, being damaged by a paid vandal, sold, moved, spending some time as a garden ornament by a lake, sitting unloved in a courtyard of the Correr Museum, and finally being ignominiously consigned to the darkness by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.

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 tier gate or pillar in question is brother to this one, pictured at right.

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”.

London County Council published an excellent series of books in the 1950s in conjunction with the London Survey Committee. The Survey of London Volume XXII deals with Bankside, the parishes of St Saviour and Christchurch, Southwark, and was my bible when writing The Remedy, my novel in which a Venetian aristocrat on the run from a murderous state agent hides out in seedy Bankside, as a quack doctor’s assistant. It also helped me through The Mourning Emporium, a story in which Venetian children sail to London in order to deal with a murderous pretender to the British throne. The London section of the book is set around Clink Street, Stoney Street and nearby haunts. Various maps in Volume XXII show Blows Yard surrounded by long-gone streets with picturesque names like Naked Boy Yard, the Whore’s Nest, and Bandy Leg Walk.

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.


Sue Purkiss said...

I hope you get the pillar back! Lovely to see the garden among the ruins - it's such an atmospheric part of London.

Lydia Syson said...

Loved reading this - I will now see Mr Root and his stable boys in my mind whenever I pass the PQ - and I share your frustration. (I have my own gripes with Southwark Council who have a habit of letting the little things go…such as the very last trees of Dr John Coakley Lettsom's once famous arboretum in SE5.) I fear there's not much chance of seeing that pillar again. Has the council made any comment? Why can't they take the developers to task? Keep up the good work, Michelle!

Katherine Langrish said...

What a terrible shame to lose that pillar. Without it, the gateway looks unbalanced and incomplete, and what on earth have they left in its place? It looks like a tatty piece of yellow plasterboard. Things like that gateway, properly preserved,give London its historical charm. Such a shame to see it eroded.

Joan Lennon said...

The expectation was that nothing would be said or noticed - you're proving them wrong! Good on yer!

Emma Barnes said...

As your photographs show, the removal of the pillar makes an enormous difference to the overall appearance...and as you say, it is small changes like these that ultimately erode the character of a neighbourhood. If the pillar has been damaged or destroyed, then maybe at the very least a replica should be constructed by the developers?

michelle lovric said...

posting for Dr Celia Palmer ...

As a payer of Council Tax, I am seriously disappointed in Southwark Council's dismal track record in and attitude to maintaining the integrity of the historic areas of this borough, for which they are custodians for generations to come.

Do they not care about developers who profit from tearing down the historic built environment and replacing it with concrete, metal and glass, causing desecration?

The Blows Yard pillar and its history uncovered by Michelle and brilliantly described, is but another example of this vandalism. Nothing less than the reconstitution of the second pillar is acceptable.

Southwark should enforce this on our behalf: if we have to shame them into doing so, so be it.

Why also are Southwark apparently allowing the ugly glass excrescence attached to the Golden Hind to remain? Why do they apparently condone the horrid yellow signs in front of the Golden Hind shop? Why have they so far allowed a new tourist gift shop to evade Listed Building Regulations and to pollute the river frontage of an 1814 wharf with neon lights?

Why can such things be apparently condoned by the Council while others have worked tirelessly to create such a lovely initiative as the garden on the site of the old Winchester Palace and the Borough Market Trustees have strived to create a beautiful and thriving market on their historic site, maintaining the style and spirit of the historic market whilst bringing it up to modern food hygiene and operating standards?

Together, we must make Southwark understand that just as we fund their activities, so we require them to address our concerns and act responsibly on our behalf and fulfilled their obligations to the future workers, residents and visitors to this wonderful part of London.

michelle lovric said...

Thank you so much for all the comments. I am pleased to report that as of this pm, Clink Street is no longer Times Square ... the neon lighting has gone after strenuous protests from residents. However, sadly, the tier pillar is still also gone. Thinking of designing a 'MISSING' poster for it.

michelle lovric said...

posting for Sylvia Williams

Terrific research and a most interesting read, Michelle. If only our Southwark planners were as concerned for the area they are supposed to help preserve. I think we should exert some pressure concerning the pillar - at least someone (the developer and builder) should be accountable and a replica made to replace the hideous yellow support - which is now of the wrong proportion as they have obviously encroached on the gate area.

Who polices this sort of behaviour - is any permission sought or granted? We need wardens with our interests at heart or some body other than the Council to intercede. We should not have to be constantly at war and on our guard.

The garden, by the way, is a great triumph and will look splendid by the summer.

Let's fight the good fight for the sake of preserving what's left of a great and fascinating heritage.


michelle lovric said...

By the way, those of you who are frustrated about not being able to post comments ... due to lots of spamming, you need to be a follower to post directly. Or you can email comments to me to post for you, via my website.

michelle lovric said...

posting for Irene Lemos

So much undeservedly goes un-noticed, like these 'little columns'' whose meanings are written into them. Research can reveal so much of interest, even in a homely pillar orphaned in an ordinary street. As with so much of the historic fabric of this area, the attempts to rewrite, redescribe, discard and destroy mean that we need more guardians to stand over these 'little columns' and recognise their importance.


Unknown said...

As a professional researcher, I tip my hat to you Michelle. Outstanding research uncovering pearls of history and charm! I am disappointed in Southwark Council. Disappointed and surprised. Borough Market, Stoney Street and all the surrounding area are attractive to tourists, not all of whom are there for the lurid neon tourist shop. Yuck, by the way.

It can't have taken much effort to destroy or remove the pillar, but you are so right that piece by piece all that history will be lost unless we put a stop to it.

I harbor a tiny gem-like hope that the pillar is safe and sound in a warehouse and will be restored. And I will come immediately to admire and love it.


michelle lovric said...

posting for Roy Palmer
Thank you, M, for your work and historical work on this. It is a great shame that developers can demolish with impunity and that government bodies, whether local or national, seem unable or unwilling to take action and insist on restoration. I hope that your 'blog' will spur into activity those who are in a position to take appropriate action and have the second pillar restored to Stoney Street.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I also tip my hat to you, Michelle and I agree with others above. The replacement for that pillar is a shoddy nothing. Naked Boy Yard, what a marvellous name. I wonder what the history of that name is? Good on you, Michelle. Keep fighting!

michelle lovric said...

posting for Jill Sanders

I 'saw' the missing pillar today. It is such a small thing, but its removal is symptomatic of what developers feel free to do. It is a matter of principle, and the authorities should recognise the importance of a principle and get the pillar rebuilt, restored or recovered.
Jill Sanders
Hampton on Thames