Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Chichester, Sussex

Spread generously

‘What is home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?’ reads Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, ‘Incomplete. With it an abode of bliss.’ It’s a fictional slogan, apparently, this jingle that he spots in his newspaper, although the product itself was a real one. Companies like Plumtree’s, Prince’s, and Shippam’s made large amounts of money making preserved and potted meat and fish products – everything from Galantine of Wild Boar’s Head with Pistachio Kernels to humble fish and meat pastes. Shippam’s was started by Charles Shippam, a grocer who set up shop in Chichester and added pastes and spreads to the usual grocer’s range of butter, cheese, eggs and bacon. Shippam’s began in the 18th century in West Gate, Chichester, but by 1851 they were in new premises in East Street (their factory was behind this building), which is the very site where the sign in my photograph still hangs.*

The sign is in a tradition of shop signs that lasted through much of the 20th century, consisting of the business name combined with a clock. It was a canny advertising move – if you looked up to check the time, you were reminded of Shippam’s brand and you might even pop in a pick up a jar of your favourite meat paste. A number of familiar UK companies have used clocks as signs – Marks and Spencer were particularly fond of them. The fact that clocks like this also protrude from the wall helps customers pick out the shop from a distance too. And what’s that hanging down from the base of the clock? Yes, it’s a chicken’s wishbone, or a sculpture one of one, hugely magnified. Shippam’s processed thousands of chickens and kept the wishbones, prized as a symbol of good luck, for any customer or passer-by to collect. A little bit of fun along with your meat-paste sandwiches. And well, you never know…

When I was growing up in the 1960s, Shippam’s meat pastes were a familiar feature of the table. British people liked to spread them on their sandwiches and in those days many people took sandwiches to work to eat at lunchtime – there were far fewer of those handy sandwich bars that became a feature of working life for so many in the 1970s and 1980s. Meat pastes were inexpensive, easy to spread, and kept well in their air-tight jars. The latter quality also made them especially appealing in the age before every home had a refrigerator. But changing fashions brought changes to Shippam’s fortunes: a succession of takeovers led eventually to a move of production to different premises. The brand at least remains, even if not everyone feels that it brings the domestic bliss attributed by Joyce to its rival Plumtree’s.

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* For more on the company’s history, see Chichester’s Novium Museum website, here.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Chesterfield, Derbyshire

The way to do it

The Punch Bowl in Chesterfield is a pub, like the White Horse, Chichester in my last post, that uses coloured glass in its decoration. It was built by Chesterfield Brewery in 1931, in a period when street alterations led to a number of new buildings in the town centre. Quite a few of these are half-timbered and the Punch Bowl has a large timber-framed window and gable above its stone ground floor.

But the coloured glazing in a couple of the windows was what really caught my eye. My favourite is this pub sign in glass, a depiction of the traditional glove puppet Mr Punch lying inside a shallow bowl, a personification of the pub name that I’ve seen on the painted signs of other pubs called the Punch Bowl, although I’ve not seen the image done in glass elsewhere. In this window, Punch’s protruding nose and chin, his pointed hat, and his legs and feet are all discernible. Legs and feet are unusual in a glove puppet – the ‘glove’ that conceals the puppeteer’s hand usually renders them irrelevant or inconvenient. Punch always has legs, however, and they hang in front of the glove and if the puppeteer is skilful, he or she can make Punch wave them around in suggestive or amusing ways. Colour and the varying textures of variopus kinds of glass distinguish the different parts of the image. It would be even more striking if there was a strong light behind it – perhaps this was the intended effect when the building was lit up at night.

As more and more pubs close, or modernise away their old decor and character, pub glass gradually disappears. But there are still numerous examples of both coloured and engraved glass in the windows of pubs and former pubs. I hope building owners don’t trash it all – what’s left enlivens our streetscapes, enhances pub interiors, and reminds us of a time when pubs were brasher and often more colourful than they are today. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Chichester, Sussex


Don’t look up!

I’m always telling people to look up in towns – look at old facades above shopfronts, look at windows, look at old signs, look at roof lines, and so on. But what I should really say is ‘Look everywhere.’ In other words, one is liable to make a mistake if one becomes too preoccupied with looking in a single direction alone. I was reminded of this when walking along South Street in Chichester and admiring the White Horse, once a pub, now a Prezzo. Of course, I’d noticed that the brick frontage of the upper storeys looked Georgian (the building turns out to be much earlier, having been refronted in the 18th century). As I was taking this in, the Resident Wise Woman prompted me: ‘Have you noticed the glass?’. I had not, because I was looking up. From yet another era come the late-19th or early-20th century windows, with coloured glass used to delineate white horses.

This use of glass to decorate or advertise the name of licensed premises was quite common in the late-Victorian period and just after.* Coloured glass was also used to advertise the drinks available – sometimes you can find ‘Beers’ or ‘Wines and Spirits’ picked out in coloured glass lettering. Here it’s just white horses, in various depictions – here, on the move (trotting perhaps) in the fanlight; elsewhere at full gallop, or stationary. There are also white horses with flared legs, to indicate they’re shire or ‘heavy’ horses; there are even horses’ heads in some of the windows. They’re all in a white, almost opaque glass, but are mostly surrounded by patterns and scrolls in a mix of colours including amber, dark red and deep blue: the windows must lookl very appealing when the interior is lit up at night.

So when you’re walking along an urban street, by all means look up, but also look sideways, straight ahead, and down. And try not to do this while on the move – it can lead to pedestrian collisions, and worse! And if you start colliding, people might think you’ve had one or more too many at the White Horse…

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* Pub architects also specified elaborate engraved glass. For an example of this, see a post I did a few years ago, here.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Othery, Somerset


If I’d been a member of what was called in my youth the Boy Scouts, perhaps I’d be more mindful of their once much quoted motto: ‘Be prepared’. As it is, I am quite capable of being unprepared to the extent of not putting the relevant volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England series in the car when I set off on a trip. I made this very omission when going to Somerset the other day. The trip was not concerned primarily with observing or exploring buildings, but wherever I go, architectural observation is inclined to take over, and so it was when, with time on my hands, I stopped to look at the church in the village of Othery, set on the Somerset levels. The building, at least, didn’t seen difficult to grasp: a cruciform church with a tall central tower, not as flashy as many in Somerset but with attractive openings in the upper stage where the bells are and below that some statues in niches – Christ enthrones and Saint Mary, Saint John, and Saint Michael, to whom the church is dedicated.

But when I got inside, the furnishing got me baffled. Other church contains a striking collection of wooden benches with carved ends. Carved bench ends are speciality in Somerset. Some churches have outstanding ones, dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries, carved with depictions of symbols, animals, plants, saints, even satirical depictions. Anyone who likes church woodwork should visit Somerset.* Othery has some excellent bench ends, but they struck me as varying somewhat in style. Some looked medieval, some exhibited a certain formality or treatment of details that made me wonder if they were Victorian reproductions. Some were carved with vigour and had slight and not disagreeable roughnesses of surface, some were much smoother. In the end I abandoned speculation and enjoyed the carving for the visual feast it offered – multiple portrayals of foliage, tracery, curious beasts, King David playing his harp, grapes on the vine, a saint or two. The latter include more than one depiction of St Michael the Archangel dispatching the devil, who takes the shape of a dragon.

Back home, with the Pevsner Somerset: South and West volume in front of me, I read: ‘BENCHES. A confusing collection because of the interventions of the antiquary William Stradling of Cholton Polden in 1848–50. Some are C15–C16…Many are Victorian…by William Halliday, Stradling’s carpenter. Stradling copied originals, including some with small figures (St. Margaret, St Michael) that seem of separate provenance.’ In other words the church contains original medieval carvings by at least two differing and distinguishable hands, as well as Victorian ones by Stradling. An article in the useful essay collection, Pews, Benches & Chairs† agrees, and points to the image of St Michael in my photograph above as one of the medieval originals (there’s a contrasting Victorian one, below, with a much more detailed, scalier dragon). There’s just enough detail in the medieval one: the saint’s angelic form standing astride the creature’s back, the dragon’s neck curving upwards to suggest that it still has life in it, but not much strength, the canopy with its crocketed finials topping the image and filling the available space above. It’s a slightly naïve bit of work, but there’s still much to like about it. What I take to be the later version is much more artful.The devil is part dragon (with a tail that curves beautifully) and part human (with torso, head, and arms). The saint’s sword is poised; his wings fill the space above artfully; much work has been put into capturing the drapery of his clothes. There’s a lot of action in this carving. I wouldn’t want to express a preference for one over the other. It’s good that the church has them both.

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* See, for example, an earlier post, here, about bench ends at Brent Knoll.

† Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown (eds), Pews, Benches & Chairs (Ecclesiological Society, 2011)

Monday, March 14, 2022

Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex

Drying not dying

A building like this has a very special effect on me. It’s large, but in a way it’s insubstantial because there are no walls: just oak posts and a roof of tiles. It provides a lot of shelter from the rain – but for what, or whom? The answer takes us back to 1733, when it was built in Petersfield, Hampshire. It’s a shelter for stacking newly moulded bricks, so that the clay could dry and harden before the bricks were taken to the kiln for firing. Bricks in this raw state are known in the trade as ‘green bricks’, although their colour at that stage would be the hue of the clay of which they’re made. And the story of this building’s use takes us back to the 18th century, not just because of the date of this particular example, but also because by the 19th century, hand-made bricks were starting to die out, to be replaced by mechanically made bricks, which could be produced in vast numbers and at speed.

This brick-drying shed at the Weald and Downland Museum was reconstructed on this site in 1988. Hand-made bricks did not completely die out in the 19th century. The one in Petersfield carried on until World War II, there still being demand for good quality hand-made bricks in contexts where the locality or building requires something with the look and texture of traditional local brickwork. Petersfield itself has many Georgian and later buildings that it would be sacrilege to repair or add to using hard-edged, standard-issue mass-produced bricks from somewhere outside the region; so the demand continues. But some traditional brickworks could not compete with the cheap prices of the big producers, while others closed during the war because the blackout demanded their open-topped kilns, burning through the night, showed no light. That was the case with the one at Petersfield.

About 80 feet long, the drying shelter is big enough for the brick-maker to set up his bench at one end, so he could shape the bricks, one by one, before an assistant (often a family member in the old days) could stack them nearby. Today, the museum uses the bulk of the space for an exhibition about brickwork, surely a good use for this modest but large-scale structure that stands among the other working buildings, from the carpenter’s ’shop to the pug mill, on the site at West Dean, which for my money is one of the best collections of vernacular buildings anywhere.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex

Wooden buildings for woodworkers

The UK is fortunate to have several open-air museums that preserve old buildings, usually structures that have been dismantled and re-erected on the museum site, that would otherwise have been demolished. Some of these museums have large collections of dozens of buildings, gradually amassed and preserved over decades, and one of the best, in my opinion, is the Weald and Downland Living Museum, a few miles from Chichester in West Sussex, which preserves many buildings form Southeast England – mainly Sussex, Kent, and Surrey. They do an excellent job, and should be supported and visited now they are open again after the various lockdowns and restrictions that we’ve been living through.

Following on from my previous post about a plumber’s workshop, here are two more small working buildings from the Weald and Downland. The larger of the two is a joiner’s workshop originally from Witley, Surrey and the smaller structure is a carpenter’s ’shop, from Windlesham in the same county. Both have the generous glazing typical of such working buildings and they’re both made mainly of wood and built more for practicality than looks.

The carpenter’s ’shop belonged to a Mr Dale, who like many in his time traded as both a carpenter and an undertaker. It was reconstructed on the museum site in 1980, but I don’t know how old it is – the museum’s website doesn’t give a date, so perhaps its age is unknown. It’s very simple, with a wood-framed structure covered with boards and tarred to protect it from the weather. Mostly the carpenter’s materials and finished work came in and out of the door although there’s a small opening above the central window, through which he could insert and remove his ladders.

Inside, the tools left in the ‘shop when it was finally vacated are preserved. Saws and large drill bits hang from the roof beams; chisels, bradawls, and other smaller tools stand in racks; planes wait on the bench. There are pots and bottles of liquid, perhaps preservative oils. When it was still a workspace, there might have been a pot of glue on the go too. You could move in here and start working with wood, with only a few additions if you were able to work with traditional hand tools alone.

It’s very atmospheric and reminds me how accurate some of the 20th-century depictions are of such carpenters’ ’shops. I’m thinking particularly of the one by Edward Bawden in the King Penguin book Life in an English Village, which I blogged about here, mentioning my father’s boyhood memories of another carpenter’s workshop in rural Lincolnshire. Even the humble buildings need celebrating, something I try to do on this blog, and something open-air museums like the Weald and Downland do brilliantly.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex


Call in the plumbers

These days when something goes wrong with a tap, or there’s a leaky pipe, or a ballcock, we call in the plumber. Plumbing is one of those trades that has been with us since ancient times and form the Romans to the early-20th century, water was carried in lead pipes. So plumbers were skilled in the working of lead – they could make lead pipes, mend them, install them. And they also got involved in trades in which lead was used – in glazing, for example, when panes of glass were set within strips of lead, as in the ‘leaded lights’ we still talk about when discussing windows in some churches or old houses. That’s what ‘plumber’ means (coming from the Latin plumbum, lead), a person who works with lead.

So here’s the plumber’s workshop at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. It’s a wooden building with large windows to provide plenty of natural light, and fitted with generous work benches. It was probably built in the late 1880s and was originally sited in Newick, East Sussex. It belonged to the long-established firm of W. R. Fuller, who were plumbers and decorators, another two trades often combined, and came to the Weald and Downland Museum after it was dismantled in 1985. It’s just the kind of building that’s at home in an open-air museum, and like some of the best working buildings that end up preserved, it came with a large selection of tools – for cutting lead, measuring it, and for forming and bending pipe. The museum has a large collection of artefacts used in various building-related trades. Many of these are in storage, but it’s good that some of them can be displayed, to give visitors an idea of how tradesmen worked.

And we need such an idea, because plumbing changed radically in the 20th century. When scientists realised that lead pipes could be harmful to human health, there was a changeover to pipes made of other materials, from copper to plastic. The trade changed, and workshops like this became a thing of the past. There must have been thousands of such workshops; now leadworking is a specialist craft, restricted to areas like the decorative leadwork sometimes seen on rainwater goods, and the repair of windows that have leadwork, so plumders’ workshops of this kind must be rare as hen’s teeth. Thanks to the Weald and Downland Museum, one at least has been preserved to throw light on a bit of a much-changed building trade.