Monday, February 14, 2022

Petersfield, Hampshire

Reading matters

Even though I no longer use them very much (having more than enough books of my own to read) I am very much in favour of public libraries. It’s partly that I’m thankful for the way my local library helped me when I was a boy hungry for knowledge growing up in a household with few books. There all the books were. There seemed to be books about everything, and all the classics of English literature (and other literatures). And it was all free. Paradise.

Today, arguably, it’s different. Everything’s online, isn’t it? Well, no. And anyway not everyone has access to a computer. And not everyone knows how to find information. And for all kinds of good reasons many people still prefer to read a novel in a real volume with paper pages. One of my nieces worked for a while in a small branch library here in the Cotswolds and was amazed how many people needed her help to find things out – everything from the biographical details of an English poet to how to apply for a council tax rebate. ‘I’m a social worker, too, apparently,’ she told me. Libraries are still essential.

But what did people do before 1850, when the British Parliament passed an act enabling local authorities to levy a rate to pay for public libraries? Here’s one answer. They went to privately run libraries, which were owned by local businesses (or, less commonly, by private organisations such as the still wonderful London Library, where you pay to be a member, as I did when I lived in London).

Most towns did not have a vast bibliographical treasure house like the London Library but they often had a private library run perhaps by a local stationer, where they could pay to borrow books. Boots the chemist had libraries in their large shops, too. And many of these privately run libraries survived well into the. last century because people liked them and they might have different books form those at the local public library. Here’s a ghost sign in Petersfield, advertising a local stationery business owned by one Llewelyn Bradley. Alongside the writing materials and newspapers there were also reading materials that you could borrow. Bradley was born in 1877 and probably sold up in the 1930s, after which the business – still with its library – was known as Austin’s.* An online source refers to a picture of c. 1955 but after that the trail goes cold, so I don’t know how long it survived. But there it was, another bit of history for which we have to thank a ghost sign, which, on the building at least, is the only bit of reading matter now offered hereabouts. No doubt the people of Petersfield were thankful for it, while it lasted.

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* Austin’s, with its books, toys and ‘fancy goods’, is said to have been the inspiration for the children’s book The Little Wooden Horse, by Ursula Moray Williams.

Thursday, February 10, 2022



Not too distant

‘Decay is a kind of progress’, says Dorothy in Alan Bennett’s hilarious and thoughtful play People. It’s a play with an old building in it, and it’s one I often think about. That particular line comes into my mind mind sometimes when I look at ghost signs, those now-redundant bits of advertising that hang on, flaking but evocative, to walls in our cities. They’re bits of the past in the form of hand-painted lettering and they evoke past businesses and past times. As the paint grows less distinct and wears at the edges, they’re more evocative somehow, and oddly attractive – ‘pleasing decay’ as John Piper called it.

Something happens, though when, like Dorothy in the play, one reaches a certain age. You realise that the signs were advertising companies, brands, and products that are part of your own history. Here’s a personal example. I can remember Boselli’s ice cream van visiting streets in Cheltenham in the 1970s, when I was a teenager. No doubt the van was even more familiar in nearby Gloucester, where Boselli’s were based. The company vanished from my view at some point in the 1980s, by which time in any case, I’d moved away, first to university, then to London.

But there Boselli’s were, for a while, in my past. Better than nationally known brands like Wall’s (also made in Gloucester, as it happened). And now here’s their sign, now a familiar landmark for me as I drive past on a route near the city centre. And the sign is starting to decay, the background going, the lettering a bit frayed around the edges. And I’m its contemporary. It’s something that makes me pause, that’s all.

Meanwhile, I’m pleased to be reminded of Boselli’s, and pleased that ghost signs are not all for the great universal brands that we all know – Bovril, Hovis bread, Bass beer, Boot’s the chemist – but also for those small local businesses that can come back to life in the minds of locals who pass them. They’re messages from the past, and we should notice them while we can.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire

Past times

Here in the UK as the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne is being marked, I thought perhaps, as I do like a public clock, it was time to post this timepiece commemorating a past jubilee. Nowadays public clocks are almost superfluous – we all carry time around with us, displayed on watches,* mobile phones, and so on, and rarely have to look up to find out what time it is when we’re walking along the street. But such features as Victorian or early-20th century clocks, if of little practical use to most people, can be something that makes an old building special, and they can be highly informative about past times and values.

So here’s a clock of 1897, on the Tolsey, a former market building, in the Gloucestershire town of Wotton-under-Edge. The clock was installed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Its clear faces with Roman numerals are looking good after a restoration in 2015, and the gilded scrolls, fleurs de lys, and dates, not to mention the portrait of the queen herself and the flags with which the clock is surmounted, are still standing proud and catching the eye.

In its symbols, traditional face, and use of gilding, this clock is as typical of its era as an angular, monochrome timepiece would be of the Art Deco period, or a smart watch is today. It’s unlikely that a rash of clocks will appear on our streets to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. But I hope those who are keen to mark such events can think of something as beautiful, useful and well made as this clock was when it was bolted on to the brick upper wall of the Tolsey in 1897.

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* Men’s pocket watches were first mass produced in the second quarter of the 19th century; wrist watches, at first worn almost exclusively by women, were produced in quantity at around the same time or slightly later. Widespread wrist watch-wearing by men began in the military and became generally common after World War I.