Weird & Wonderful London 8


Wey-hey, music, laughter, booze and a glitter-covered boy in a big frock – it must be another party in London! Yes, except this one was in 1936, at the Chelsea Arts Club Ball. It could have been taken last weekend.

There used to be four pillars on Chelsea Bridge prior to its rebuilding in 1934, and they were lived in. This is Mrs May in her garden. She had been here for 30 years – I hope they moved her out somewhere nice.

Time for a quick troll around the West End, starting in Leicester Square. The year is 1910, and the Empire Theatre was a lot more elegant then that its building is now. It was decorated for the Coronation of George V. Key London buildings were always garlanded for royal occasions.

To the side of the Empire, before the sleek deco modernism of the Odeon arrived, stood the notorious Alhambra Theatre, with its Moorish minarets. There would probably be an outcry if you built it now. Never a particularly attractive building, it was originally known as the Royal Panopticon, then became a circus and music hall, always with a slightly dodgy reputation attached.

The popularity of the Alhambra was largely due to their lengthy performance intervals, when the showgirls met the swells and hi-jinks ensued. There was another entrance on Charing Cross Road for fast escapes. Leicester Square was always a rowdy-boy spot, but is more sedate these days – although it still has its moments.

Meanwhile, up on Oxford Street here was Selfridge’s department store, illuminated at night with an astonishingly elaborate frontage that’s long gone. This was in 1936. Oxford Street is much the same although it now reflects the new austerity, being largely full of mass-produced cheap clothes. Selfridge’s has changed dramatically, dumping its traditional housewares and filling the place with eye-wateringly expensive bling for our delightfully gauche Russian and Chinese visitors.

17 comments on “Weird & Wonderful London 8”

  1. snowy says:

    The old Chelsea Bridge, or the story of is a tiny history capsule all its own. Built as the Victoria Bridge, complete with lanterns on the towers, [not in picture], that would only be illuminated when Queen Victoria was in residence in London. But there was a concern that it was structurally flawed and might collapse, so to avoid potential embarassment to the Royal person its name was changed 3 years later.

    Mrs May appears to be living in one of the old Toll houses, [the bridge was originally built as a private concern, those wishing to cross had to pay a fee. 24 hour operation would have needed a staff of 4+ working in shifts.]

    The arrival of motorised transport rekindled concerns about safety and when architectural fashion turned violently against Victorian Gothic it was doomed.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    So is it responding to austerity with cheap clothing (helpful locally) or raising money by selling expensive bling to tourists that we approve of?
    One would hope that there was some concern about the safety of Mrs. May and anyone else living under the bridge. We have a magnificent bridge with elaborate flaming braziers on either end and busts of Vancouver in the middle.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    When you said busts of Vancouver Helen, it got me thinking. I hadn’t realised Vancouver was a person. Just read up on him, not a good press for the Pitts, who appear to be just that. Died so young and a colleague of Cook and Roberts who didn’t live too long either.

    I do like the Nootka Crisis, with the French Revolution having a say in what happened, which then had the knock on effect for California. It was small world even then. Splits across Europe causing problems, who’d have thought it?


  4. Helen Martin says:

    Chaos theory strikes again, Wayne.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    Is it time to strengthen the Royal Navy?

  6. snowy says:

    Mrs. May would probably have survived a direct hit from a bomb, the walls of her home are very chunky, [look at the depth of the recess on the door and first floor window].

    There are two reasons why it is so stout: As an anchor point for one of the suspension chains, [left of picture, wrought iron eye-bars linked with pins, more like a very stretched out bicycle chain, than a link chain]. And also Toll houses wherever they were sited were a) full of untraceable cash and b) generally despised by the population. This made them ready targets for repeated robbery/attack/civil unrest.

    [When they finally tore it down and replaced it with a new bridge, that was opened by the Head of ‘Britain’s Granary’ himself, William Lyon Mackenzie King. It was constructed with a lot of Canadian timber.]

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    Snowy, you did well to spot the chain connection. That may be the weakness of the design. Modern designs take the horizontal component of force from the chain back into the deck. This looks as though the load passes via the masonry behind Mrs May’s home into the soil.

  8. snowy says:

    There is an account from John Timbs, [Curiosities of London, 1867], that is tantalisingly close to a complete description, but not quite.

    “CHELSEA SUSPENSION-BRIDGE, opened in 1858, forms a communication between Pimlico, Belgravia, and Chelsea, on one side of the Thames, and Battersea Park, and the neighbourhood, on the other (the Middlesex roadway crossing the site of Ranelagh), and was built with funds granted by Parliament in 1846; Geo. Gordon Page, engineer. The length of the Bridge is 704 feet: it consists of a centre opening of 383 feet, with two side openings 166 feet 6 inches each. The piers terminate in curved cutwaters: the width of the Bridge is 47 feet; the roadway at the centre of the Bridge is 24 feet 6 inches above high-water, and has a curve of 18 inches rise, commencing at the abutments. The towers and ornamental portions are of cast-iron. The girders and flooring of the platform are of wrought iron: ironwork by Howard, Ravenhill, & Co. The piers are built upon caissons, below which the ironwork spreads out at the bottom, on bed-plates that rest upon York stone landings, laid on piles, and concrete supports; externally, the piers are cased with ornamental ironwork. The abutments and piers rest upon piles driven 20 feet beyond low-water mark. On each side of the carriage way is a tram for heavy traffic. A very large amount of additional strength is obtained over the ordinary suspension construction by two longitudinal lattice girders, of wrought iron, which separate the roadway from the footpaths. At each end of the bridge are rectangular lodges, with terra-cotta terminations. The four iron towers that rise from the caissons and piers have their upper portions of moulded copper, gilded and painted to resemble bronze, and crowned with globular lamps. The towers bear the royal arms and V. A. Yet, this public way across the Thames-although built ostensibly with the public money to afford the inhabitants of Middlesex access to Battersea free park-had a horse, carriage, and foot toll, an anomaly which was loudly reprehended.”

    My eye is caught by “A very large amount of additional strength is obtained over the ordinary suspension construction by two longitudinal lattice girders, of wrought iron…” which just doesn’t ‘feel’ right somehow.

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    Snowy, I’m not sure what John Timbs means with the ‘extra strength’. If they run into the towers, a Victorian engineer would have no idea as to how load was shared between the lattice girders and the suspension chains. If they don’t and are supported by the catenary, they constitute a lot of extra weight and may actually reduce the ultimate capacity.

  10. snowy says:

    There are apparently drawings of the bridge from the period held by the LMA, but they are not online.

    Photographs of the bridge seem to be very hard to find. There is one of what appears to be a road gang resurfacing the deck, [link above].

    [Mr Timb’s idea of a girder differs considerably from mine, the ‘drop rods’ seem to terminate into the deck.]

  11. snowy says:

    It gets no clearer when one reads other accounts.

    On the western side of the railway bridge is a handsome new bridge, which now connects this populous and increasing neighbourhood with Battersea and Vauxhall. The railway bridge somewhat mars the structural beauty of the one under notice; but when looked at from the embankment on either side, “above bridge,” or, better still, from a boat in the middle of the river, the bridge appears like a fairy structure, with its towers gilded and painted to resemble light-coloured bronze, and crowned with large globular lamps. The bridge, which is constructed on the suspension principle, is built of iron, and rests upon piers of English elm and concrete enclosed within iron casings. The two piers are each nearly ninety feet in length by twenty in width, with curved cutwaters. The roadway on the bridge is formed by two wrought-iron longitudinal girders, upwards of 1,400 feet, which extend the whole length of the bridge, and are suspended by rods from the chains. At either end of the bridge are picturesque lodgehouses, for the use of the toll-collectors. The bridge was built from the designs of Mr. Page, and finished in 1857, at a cost of £88,000.

    Edward Walford, ‘Pimlico’, in Old and New London: Volume 5 (London, 1878), pp. 39-49.

    But diligence yields rewards!

    How about this for a picture of the bridge before they added the extra chains!
    [You have to click the link under my screen name obviously.]

  12. snowy says:

    And since I appear to have gone completely… link-mad… and with an audience of one in mind, a short film [1 min.] of the Canadian PM opening the replacement bridge exists and can be viewed by clicking in the usual place.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Lovely little film, Snowy, and the man doesn’t give any indication that he was the grandson of a wild rebel (William Lyon Mackenzie – 1837).

  14. snowy says:

    Sigh… another link, and it’s really quite dense and likely to only be of interest to Civil Engineers, Rude Mechanicals and extreme ‘pontophiles’. But it does have some nice sectional drawings, [including how the load was tied into the riverbank!].

    George Gordon Page who had been in charge of the design and construction of the bridge at the ripe old age of 21, gave a lecture to the Society of Engineers some 5 years later to explain what he had been up to. [link above]

    [His talents as an engineer are perhaps questionable, his Daddy, Thomas had worked for Izzy Brunel and when George joined the family firm he was apparently given very considerable lattitude. The rest of George’s career seems to have been dominated by building non-suspension bridges and short piers.]

    [In my defence, it is a building, [in the sense it was ‘built’], and it does have a very considerable amount of ‘twiddley bits’.]

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    Enjoyed the film Snowy, nothing wrong with twiddley bits.

    Up the Republic of Canada. And then exiled to The US, still they let him back. Canada does have a history of forgiving some of it’s politicians.


  16. Peter Tromans says:

    This Rude Mechanical, sort of Civil Engineer and occasional pontophile appreciates all the information that you have found. Understanding how structures ‘work’, that is carry, distribute and transfer their load to the soil, is a very interesting topic – at least, it is for me and about five other people, including the late Fred Dibnah.

    Looking at all the pictures and drawings, there doesn’t seem to be anything obviously wrong. The girders are just doing their job of supporting the deck. Of course, that doesn’t exclude the possibility that something is undersized. It would have been nicer to attach the ends of the catenaries to the girders and avoid relying on uncertain soil strength to take out the tension. But I don’t know if that idea had been developed at the time.

    It is worth noting that in the 19th century the UK was at the forefront of bridge design. The relevant French grande école sent Cauchy here to learn the subject.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    “… and avoid relying on uncertain soil strength” No sort of engineer at all but I wondered about those sunken ends since I could imagine ongoing stress pulling them out of the earth. Of course my imagination increased the strength of the pull and saw the ends torn free and smashing into the girders, etc. with the resulting collapse of the whole structure.

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