Thursday, October 10, 2019

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire


The Sentinel, or, odd things in churches (12)
In 1671, the justices of Oxford ordered all parishes in the county to keep a fire engine. This one is a survivor from that period – or at least from the 18th century – and is thought to have been made by Richard Newsom or Newsham of Cloth Fair, London.* Nowadays the church seems an odd place to keep a fire engine, but in the 17th ands 18th centuries it made a lot of sense. Everyone knew where the church was, it would probably have been left unlocked (or the key holder would be widely known), and churches were often, though by no means always, in the middle of the village. In any case there were few alternatives in most parishes: the church was the only public building. So fire engines, consisting basically of a handful-operated pump and tank on wheels, were often stored in churches, along with other equipment, such as metal hooks on long poles that were used to pull burning thatch off roofs.

Church records often show expenditure on maintaining a fire engine. At Hook Norton there’s also a record of money paid to buy a fire hook for the village. One wonders how effective these devices would have been. But in isolated rural parishes there was little alternative to whatever basic aid the locals could give. And in many places that no doubt involved a few men and a hand pump. This one at Hook Norton, known apparently as the Sentinel, was still in use in the 1890s. Now it seems to be used mainly as a stand for leaflets and hassocks. But at least it is still there, along with a fire hook and bucket, glowing resplendently red after a restoration a few years ago.

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* This engineer made a similar fire engine in Wiltshire that I’ve come across previously.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset


Domes and silk stockings

I make occasional trips to Somerset and sometimes, having left the house early, stop off for a coffee somewhere en route. Bridgwater is one of my occasional stopping places. To some, it’s an unassuming town with a rather nondescript High Street, but there are plenty of architectural discoveries to be made (one of the best early Georgian streets in Britain, a Victorian concrete house) for anyone prepared to look. This building, with its square dome, is a landmark at one end of the town and it quickly caught my eye. ‘An early-20th century theatre,’ I thought to myself, and I was partly right. What was originally the Empire Theatre opened in 1916 with a performance of a play called A Pair of Silk Stockings. But the venue showed movies as well, making it one of the first wave of cinemas in Britain, a wave that was turning into a steady stream by 1916, as more and more people began to want to see ‘moving pictures’.*

If some of the very first purpose-built cinemas were rather anonymous-looking buildings with little to identify them apart from large boards for posters advertising what was showing, some adopted a theatrical look, or were indeed converted theatres or dual-purpose buildings like the Palace. Already, some people were starting to realise that a showy or glamorous looking facade with features like the Palace’s tower and dome, and its round window, decorative swags, and classical pilasters, helped draw the eye and bring in the customers.† A good 700 people per screening were accommodated in the interwar period, followed by many members of the armed forces when it became an ENSA venue during World War II.¶ But afterwards it was less successful, as going out to a film was steadily replaced by staying in and watching television. After a long period unused in the 1980s and 1990s, the Palace became a night club, like many of its kind. It may look a little dishevelled, but it’s still an eye-catcher.

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* Britain’s first cinema opened in London’s Regent Street in 1896. By 1909 the wave was starting to break, with cinemas in places as diverse as Birmingham and Colwyn Bay.

† It was said originally to have been in the Moorish style; I wonder if that means the interior. The outside seems solidly Classical.

¶ ENSA: Entertainments National Service Association, set up to provide entertainment for members of the forces during the war.