Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureFun PalacesLatest

Theatre Royal, Nottingham

The classical portico of Nottingham’s Theatre Royal has dominated the streetscape since it was built in 1865:

Originally designed by the prolific and prestigious Victorian theatre-architect Charles John Phipps (1835-1897), it was modernised in 1896-7 by the more famous Frank Matcham (1854-1920), who at the same time built the new Empire Palace Theatre for what shortly after became Moss Empires partly on what had been the site of the Theatre Royal dressing-rooms.

There are stories of artistes straying into the wrong backstage-area, particularly after Moss Empires took over the Theatre Royal in 1924.

The Empire was also the site of Ken Dodd’s stage debut, as Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, “Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter”, in 1954.

The Empire closed in 1958 and was demolished eleven years later for road-widening.  At a time when Nottingham City Council were planning and building the ultra-modern Playhouse as a repertory theatre, there was talk of demolishing the Theatre Royal also and building a replacement touring house elsewhere.

In fact, the Theatre Royal lingered on, becoming so decrepit that eventually the D’Oyly Carte company refused to appear because of the state of the backstage areas.

In 1977 the City Council purchased the County Hotel, on the opposite side of the Theatre Royal building to the former Empire, and commissioned Renton Howard Wood Levin to restore Matcham’s design, except for the proscenium arch and adjacent boxes, within Phipps’ auditorium envelope.

Subsequently, in 1980, Renton Howard Wood Levin built from scratch the magnificent Royal Concert Hall behind the Theatre Royal.  The two auditoria work in tandem [], with the Playhouse operating at the other side of the city centre:

Nottingham has a proud claim to have been at the forefront of the late twentieth-century revival of live performances in provincial towns and cities.

Posted by: mike on Apr 11, 2014

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal inscription

Just as the proprietors of the Kennet & Avon Canal named the Dundas Aqueduct at Limpley Stoke after the company chairman, Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury, so they named the tunnel at Savernake after the local landowner Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury (1729-1814).

Bruce Tunnel wasn’t in fact needed.  It was built solely because the Earl declined to have a deep cutting splitting his estate.

It's 502 yards long, with a wide bore to take Newbury barges, and has no towpath.

Above the west entrance portal is a stone panel carved with an elaborate dedication by Benjamin Lloyd, the canal company’s mason:

The Kennet and Avon Canal Company
Inscribe this TUNNEL with the Name of
In Testimony of the Gratitude
for the uniform and effectual Support of
through the whole Progress of this great National Work
by which a direct communication by Water was opened

The inscription is almost illegible, so a modern duplicate, smaller and in a different stone, stands to the side of the tunnel arch, with a pendant:

“This monument was erected by the Kennet & Avon Canal Partnership and John Lloyd, seventh generation mason of Bedwyn, as a replica of that erected by his ancestor, Benjamin Lloyd, mason of Bedwyn to the Kennet & Avon Canal Company, AD 2003.”

John Lloyd delivered the new inscriptions, appropriately, by boat.

Posted by: mike on Apr 7, 2014

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesLatest

John Lloyd's yard, Great Bedwyn

Participants in my 2012 Waterways & Railways between Thames & Severn tour were bemused when I insisted on stopping in the Wiltshire village of Great Bedwyn to look at the post office.

Ostensibly it had nothing to do with waterways or railways but the building is a delight because it’s the historic base of the stonemasonry business of John Lloyd [], a family firm dating back seven generations to the arrival of Benjamin Lloyd in 1790 in connection with the cutting of the Kennet & Avon Canal.

The post office itself and the yard beside it are encrusted with monumental panels, miscellaneous carvings, offcuts, uncollected orders, rejected pieces of all kinds.

A Daily Telegraph article [Hamish Scott, ‘Say it with stone’, September 21st 1996 [] about John Lloyd records his laconic advocacy of taking time and care to respect natural stone:  “You have to listen to its ring. If the note changes, then you're doing something wrong. The stone will tell you what you can get away with, so long as you respect it.”

John Lloyd no longer manufactures on the site.  One of the most spectacular lots sold at an auction in 2009 was a memorial to a First World War airman – a stone Sopwith Camel with an eleven-foot wingspan.

Still remaining are a selection of eccentricities, including the ‘Repairs to a monument’, an account in stone of the mason’s work and his charges.

Posted by: mike on Apr 2, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (2013):  balcony

Since Phil Robins took ownership of the former Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield, he’s tidied up the interior so that at last it’s possible to see the entire auditorium from the back of the stalls or the back of the balcony.  The stage remains a forest of scaffolding until the stage-tower roof is made weather-tight.

When the Sheffield Antiques Quarter Christmas Market took place at the Abbeydale I was asked to show people the auditorium, a privilege that gave me opportunity to learn more about the building.

Insurance restrictions meant that visitors were not allowed on the stage or in the circle, so I provided a PowerPoint sequence showing the angles that weren’t accessible.

Talking to people who visited the cinema regularly from the 1950s to the 1970s suggested that there were at least four colour schemes over the years:

* pale and deep cream and gold from the opening in 1920
* pale green and gold sometime up to the early 1950s when Cinemascope was introduced
* white or cream until at least the end of the 1960s
* the current blue, claret and cream by the beginning of the 1970s

There may have been other colour schemes that only a paint analysis will reveal:  planning documents indicate, for instance, that a major refurbishment took place in 1928 and Clifford Shaw, in Sheffield Cinemas (Sheffield Cinema Society/Tempus 2001) p 101, shows a monochrome image of a decorative scheme that dates from August 1949.

I’m told I was introduced on the PA system as the Abbeydale’s “resident historian”, which led a friend to enquire if I had a flat in the projection room.

He’d no reason to know that in the late 1970s there was a flat in the projection suite after A & F Drake Ltd took it over as an office-equipment showroom.  Later in the day I met a lady who had lived in the flat for a couple of years.

She said that her dad and his mate had spent a night in the auditorium seeking ghostly presences.  The only presence that appeared was her cat.

Oddly, even later in the afternoon a lady asked me about the psychic history of the Abbeydale.  I had to say I didn’t know there was one, but I was able to point her towards the only accredited haunted cinema, the Don on West Bar, which still exists:  [see and].

People were reassured to know that Phil’s plan to use the Abbeydale as a climbing centre won’t damage the listed interior:  all the climbing installations will be free-standing.  Indeed, one climber, a regular visitor to Phil’s existing centre, The Edge [], said he was looking forward to sitting in the circle with a cup of coffee watching other climbers.

The next opportunity to see the interior of the Abbeydale Picture House will be at the Sheffield Antiques Quarter Spring Fair on Sunday April 27th 2014, between 12.00 noon and 3.00 pm.

Posted by: mike on Mar 28, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (March 13th 2014)

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (March 13th 2014)

No sooner had I posted a blog-article complaining that St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield had stood a roofless ruin for six months than the demolition team moved in.

Within a week, March 10th-14th 2014, the building was flattened – an eyesore that need never have been an eyesore.

The earliest reference I’ve so far found to the possibility of closure is in 1993.  As late as 2004, Ruth Harman and John Minnis clearly thought it merited an illustration in their Pevsner Architectural Guide Sheffield (2004), p 188.

By the time I became aware it was threatened and my neighbours started a campaign to save it at the end of 2011 it was far too late to have any effect.

This is what I’ve learned from following the fate of St Hilda’s Church:

  • the Church of England’s procedure for disposing of redundant churches is ponderous, glacially slow and largely ignores the possibility that the secular community might resolve the problems of disposal
  • local politicians, hammered for a generation by central governments’ stripping away of their autonomy, think in terms of solving problems rather than exploring possibilities
  • the network of amenity organisations, particularly English Heritage and the national amenity societies, prioritises its concerns in terms of national perspectives, with a bias against twentieth-century architecture and buildings of purely local significance
  • just as the churches declined because people think they’re going to be there for ever and never set foot across the threshold, so local people will sign petitions but aren’t inclined to participate actively in seeking uses for derelict local buildings

It was always on the cards that St Hilda’s would go.

One less twentieth-century suburban church makes the others that remain marginally more valuable.

Posted by: mike on Mar 23, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  Lancaster Corner

One of the most poignant exhibits at the Newark Air Museum is the wingtip of a Lancaster bomber, R5726, which was fished out of Knipton Reservoir, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.

It broke up in the air in bad weather on the afternoon of April 4th 1944, killing the crew of seven, and was found by Newark Sub-Aqua Club in 1979.

Next to it is a short section of the fuselage of another Lancaster Mk I, W4964, which flew 106 missions, one of them part of Operation Catechism, the final attack on the German battleship, Tirpitz, on November 12th 1944.

When this aircraft was retired its fuselage was used for ground training, and eventually a sawn-off section became a garden shed in Gainsborough, from where it was rescued for preservation in 1974.

Its wartime paintwork remains intact.  The accompanying display shows a photograph of its crew returning from its first sortie to Stettin in 1943, with the plane’s insignia in the background.

Also on display is one of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bombs, properly an Upkeep Mine:  this one was a test version dropped in a practice run at Reculver, Kent.

It’s one thing to see a historic relic, whether a plane or a train or a building, fully restored as new, but it’s a far more resonant experience to see actual artefacts unchanged from the time of the story that they tell.

Posted by: mike on Mar 19, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  Taylor JT1 Monoplane G-APRT

Newark Air Museum:  Taylor JT1 Monoplane G-APRT

The most endearing aircraft in the Newark Air Museum is the prototype Taylor JT1 Monoplane, G-APRT, designed in 1956 and built in Ilford in 1958-9 by Mr John F Taylor.

He specified that it had be within the capabilities of a do-it-yourself constructor, fabricated entirely of wood, and originally cost less than £100.  Its wingspan was restricted to sixteen feet, because that was the size of the lounge in his apartment.  Even so, extricating the finished plane involved removing the bay-window and sliding it down ramps from first-floor to ground level.

At least 110 of these nippy little planes have been built, and you can buy one for slightly above £4,500:

It cruises at 90-100 mph, and has a range of 290 miles.

I imagine John Taylor’s family were glad to get it – and him – out of the house.

There’s an article about the Taylor JT1 Monoplane at

Posted by: mike on Mar 15, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  English Electric Lightning T5 XS417

Newark Air Museum:  English Electric Lightning T5 XS417

I know very little about aircraft.

I was brought up alert to steel wheels on steel rails.  I was taught to read, write and count by watching the trams go past the house in post-war Sheffield.  My dad took me trainspotting on Sunday mornings while my mum cooked lunch (which we called dinner).

I still think numbers look best in sans-serif, as they were on the front of most Sheffield trams and buses and on the cab-sides of British Railways locomotives.  And though roller-blind destination indicators are on their way out, if I see a driver scrolling to change his display I have to stand and watch the succession of place-names.

My mate Richard was brought up on rubber wheels – cars and motorbikes – and seems to have spent his childhood building model planes.

So when he suggested spending a couple of hours at the Newark Air Museum, just off the A1 in Nottinghamshire [], I didn’t expect to learn much.

In fact, it’s a rich, varied and highly professional museum, with excellent interpretation that’s informative for enthusiasts and at the same time intelligible to numpties like me.

We wandered through two vast display halls and a small-objects display hall, inspected a range of aircraft outside, and briefly looked at a collection of aero-engines (to appreciate which you presumably need an engineering degree).

I declined an offer to sit in the cockpit of a Jaguar, knowing that when Dick walked round the corner he’d jump at the chance.  He had at least a vague idea of what all the knobs and dials were for, whereas I’d be like the guy at Crich who asked how you steer a tram.

The Museum runs a rich series of events, ranging from an Aeroboot sales day to a Cockpit-Fest.  There is a comprehensive education programme, particularly for primary schoolchildren, Cubs and Scouts, and Air Training Corps squadrons.

There’s a shop, billed as “the best specialist aviation outlet in the Midlands”, and a small, warm and welcoming café, which for the moment only goes as far as “legendary” toasties and paninis but will in due course branch out in a new building, thanks to ‘Project Panini’ [].

The site, adjacent to the Newark and Nottinghamshire Agricultural Society showground, was formerly RAF Winthorpe, a Second World War base that operated from September 1940 until July 1959.

The aircrew who flew from there and didn’t come back are commemorated by a poignant memorial which incorporates part of a propeller hub of a MK III Short Stirling, EF186, which was based at RAF Winthorpe and crashed out of control at Breeder Hills near Grantham on December 4th 1944.

In essence, this rich collection of magnificent engineering commemorates the skill and the bravery of those who flew from airfields like this before, during and after the Second World War and their successors who continue to do so.

Posted by: mike on Mar 10, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Cecilia's Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield – nave & baptistery

After I’d taken part in the Church Commissioners’ meeting to discuss the redundancy and proposed demolition of St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield, I spent some time talking to people in the Parson Cross community about the building’s practical possibilities.

Apparently, there aren’t any.

Local community workers told me that there’s already full provision of community facilities on the Parson Cross and neighbouring Foxhill estates:  a further facility, if it could be financed, would threaten the viability of those already existing.

Public finance is, of course, an impossibility.

One City Councillor told me with understandable passion of the difficulties of maintaining social provision in the face of draconian financial cuts.  One particular priority at present, justifiably, is somehow to maintain a branch library within reach of local residents.

Yet the emotional pull of St Cecilia’s still remains.  A clergyman spoke movingly of how the building holds the prayers of seventy years of congregational worship, and is a monument to the revered Kelham Fathers who built up the parish from nothing.

The one positive insight I heard came from someone with enterprise experience:  “The only hope for that building,” he said, “is serendipity.”

That, after all, is what happened at Gorton Monastery in Manchester, the Abbeydale Cinema on the south side of Sheffield, and the former St Thomas’ Church, Brightside, which is now Greentop Circus.

The Gorton Monastery project was co-founded by Elaine Griffiths, MBE;  the Abbeydale Cinema turned a corner when Phil Robins spotted its possibilities as a climbing centre;  the founders of Greentop Circus had the wit to challenge Anneka Rice.

In other words, the only possibility of finding a use for the building is if someone comes along with a practical idea that no-one else has thought of.

The only way of saving St Cecilia’s is for someone who needs an attractive space on the north side of Sheffield to come up with a business plan that relieves the Church Commissioners of the need to spend nearly £200,000 knocking the place down brick by brick to the great inconvenience of the neighbours.

Posted by: mike on Mar 6, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (September 27th 2013)

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (September 27th 2013)

Last August the scaffolding went up around St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield, and it was apparent that it would be demolished.

I was told that the schedule was to have the site cleared by the end of September 2013.

A cheerful crew duly turned up and over a matter of two or three weeks removed the entire roof.

Then they went away, and nothing further has happened.

The place continues to stand a roofless ruin.

My diocesan source tells me that the delay results from “discussion between the Sheffield City Council Planning Department, Church Commissioners, Diocese and the Contractor”.

The Church authorities don’t seem to have much luck either with keeping redundant buildings standing or knocking them down.

St Hilda’s is now neither one thing nor the other.

It’s perhaps mischievous to point out that roofless churches have been preserved against all the odds, such as the Welsh Presbyterian Church, Toxteth, Liverpool [] and the Welsh Baptist Chapel, Upper Brook Street, Manchester  [].

Both these examples are listed, and are of undeniable historical and architectural merit.

But sometimes even the most unassuming derelict buildings gain a purpose that keeps them standing and restored to good order:

Update – March 11th 2014:  The interrupted demolition of St Hilda's has resumed, and it should be gone within a matter of days.

Posted by: mike on Mar 2, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Thomas' Church, Brightside, Sheffield

Because of the discussions about the future of the redundant St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield, I’m looking at examples of successful conversions of redundant religious buildings which have preserved the architecture while enabling the building to earn its keep.

I’ve already written about the former St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Seel Street, Liverpool (now a restaurant) and the Wesleyan Reform Chapel, Attercliffe, Sheffield (now a Muslim community centre) and the spectacular revival of the Monastery of St Francis, Gorton.

One of the best examples I’ve come across is the former St Thomas’ Church, Brightside, Sheffield, a modest Victorian parish church of 1854 by the local architects Flockton & Son, built to serve the first growth of artisan housing as the steelworks crept across the Lower Don Valley after the arrival of the railway in 1839.

It’s a more modest building than Flockton & Son’s contemporaneous work in Sheffield – the General Cemetery Church and Christ Church, Pitsmoor (both 1850), and St Matthew’s, Carver Street (1855) – but it is, as the cliché goes, small and perfectly formed, with a nave and chancel, a south aisle but no north aisle, a bell-tower and spire.  The architects’ plans are online at  and

It was listed Grade II in 1973 and made redundant in 1979.  At first it was converted as a gymnasium for the Sheffield School of Gymnastics but then fell into neglect.

It was rescued by Anneka Rice’s TV programme, Challenge Anneka, broadcast on August 27th 1995 [ and] as a circus school for Greentop Circus [].

Apart from a shortage of storage-space, the interior is ideal for its present purpose.  The trapeze rig sits comfortably on the load-bearing walls of the nave;  there is ample height and floor-area and cramped but well-organised office-space in the west gallery, accessible by an intriguing spiral staircase in the tower.

Greentop is an arts education charity which provides, alongside training facilities for professional performers, school workshops and team-building for adults as part of its mission “to use contemporary circus skills to enhance people’s lives and inspire positive change”.

When I met a committee of the Church Commissioners to discuss the proposal to demolish St Cecilia’s, I was asked if there weren’t already enough community facilities on the Parson Cross estate.  I replied that if the existing six buildings were sufficient, the area would not figure so high on indices of deprivation.

Greentop’s value to the local Firvale community is incalculable.  Some of the young people who have become involved are from the local Roma community, who have had a famously bad press recently:

And without Greentop, the consecrated churchyard of St Thomas would contain only graves and a wreck or an empty space.

Posted by: mike on Feb 25, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesLatest

The Towers, Scarborough

Castle-by-the-Sea, Scarborough

Scarborough has three castles – the genuine article which dates back to Roman times, and two Victorian shams which have their own unique appeal.

The Scarborough brewer Thomas Jarvis built The Towers, designed by William Baldwin Stewart in 1866, immediately below the gatehouse of the medieval castle on the promontory that divides Scarborough’s two bays.

He later added the Castle-by-the-Sea, which overlooks the North Bay, at the other end of the little street that became Mulgrave Place, and in 1876 leased it to the Leeds artist, Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893).

Atkinson Grimshaw was the son of a Leeds policeman, an ex-railway-clerk who without formal training executed canvases of dusk and moonlight scenes, mainly of coast and harbour settings, with considerable commercial success.

One of his first and finest Scarborough works is 'Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, the Burning of the Spa Saloon' (1876), which was probably commissioned by Jarvis and was painted in great haste for the sake of topicality but not publicly exhibited.  It is now in the Scarborough Art Gallery [], along with 'Scarborough Lights' (c1877), 'Burning off a Fishing Boat at Scarborough' (1877) and 'Lights in the Harbour, Scarborough' (1879).

Atkinson Grimshaw reputedly influenced Bram Stoker into setting Dracula in Whitby.

He’s also regarded as a possible influence on Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, the Whitby photographer.

He returned to Leeds in 1879 after getting into financial difficulties, and went on to paint numerous scenes in Hull, Liverpool, London and Glasgow Docks.

The Castle-by-the-Sea is a notably welcoming bed-and-breakfast hotel, one of the pleasantest places to stay in Scarborough:

The Towers is a private residence and not open to the public.

Posted by: mike on Feb 20, 2014

Category:LatestTransports of delight

Bure Valley Railway:  Wroxham

An unexpected sight on the rail journey between Norwich, Cromer and Sheringham is the busy little station of the Bure Valley Railway at Wroxham.

It’s literally little because the Bure Valley trains run to the tiny gauge of fifteen inches.  The line follows the trackbed of the former East Norfolk Railway standard-gauge line to Aylsham, which is now the terminus.  Originally it extended past what is now a Tesco car-park to a junction at County School.

The scale of the Bure Valley trains allows for the full paraphernalia of main-line steam and diesel operation.  The Aylsham station has four platforms and a complicated track layout, and both termini have turntables:  indeed, the turning of the locomotive at Wroxham is a highlight of the journey.

The full fleet of four steam and three diesel locos can be seen in operation on the Everything Goes Weekend, May 24th-26th 2014.

Miniature it may be, but this is no toy railway.

Indeed, it operates boat trains which offer a return journey from Aylsham to Wroxham with a ninety-minute Broads cruise:

Three adults can sit comfortably side by side in the passenger coaches, some of which have electric heating for winter operation.

It’s a seriously attractive attraction.

Posted by: mike on Feb 16, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Mid-Norfolk Railway:  Wymondham Abbey Station

At present, the Mid-Norfolk Railway [] preserves an 11½-mile-long, unremarkable stretch of the former Great Eastern Railway between Wymondham and Dereham.  Though there is a physical connection to Network Rail at Wymondham, public services stop short at Wymondham Abbey.

As well as providing the usual tourism services of a heritage railway, the enterprising Mid-Norfolk line provides freight services through its connection to the national network, serves military traffic and provides testing facilities for the rail industry and training opportunities for the emergency services.

Most of its operations are diesel hauled, and there are regular appearances of guest steam locomotives.

Reaching this stage of development has been a considerable struggle [] and future plans are ambitious and exciting.

The Mid-Norfolk Railway Trust owns a further six miles of track-bed northwards to County School Station (built for and named after a long-gone boarding school operated by Dr Barnardo’s from 1907 to 1953).

Linking this section to the existing line provides a springboard for a further lengthy extension to Fakenham.

And that’s not all.  The proposed Holt, Melton Constable & Fakenham Railway plans to reinstate continuous railway from Holt to Melton Constable, the core of the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway system, continuing on to the M&GNR main line to Fakenham, where it would ultimately connect with the extended Mid-Norfolk Railway on the former Great Eastern Railway.

This project involves several physical alterations to the historic route –

  • reinstating a rail link alongside the A148 by-pass into Holt
  • construction a new Melton Constable station on a different site to the vanished original
  • realigning the route through Melton Constable to avoid reversal
  • avoiding the Pensthorpe wildfowl park which occupies the original alignment on the entry to Fakenham

The completed project, the Norfolk Orbital Railway [], would reintroduce rail transport to north-west Norfolk, and provide an 84-mile continuous loop incorporating the current rail-services between Wymondham, Norwich, Cromer and Sheringham.

A further project, the Whitwell & Reepham Railway Preservation Society Limited, based at Whitwell & Reepham station on the M&GNR Fakenham-Norwich line, has long-term [] plans to reinstate seven miles of track and to link with either the North Norfolk Railway or the Mid-Norfolk Railway.

Posted by: mike on Feb 11, 2014

Category:Sacred placesExploring New YorkLatest

New York City:  Riverside Church

On Riverside Drive overlooking the River Hudson is a great twentieth-century Gothic church of surprising proportions, the Baptist Riverside Church, largely financed by John D Rockefeller Jnr, and opened in 1929 to the designs of Allen, Pelten & Collens.

Especially when seen from the river, the huge tower, 392 feet high, dominates the church, which is itself a hundred feet high and 215 feet long. 

The tower is in fact a 22-storey office building for the church administration, surmounted by a 72-bell carillon which visitors can inspect on their way to view the panorama from the top of the tower. 

From here the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan dot the horizon.

Riverside Church is proud of its stained glass and sculpture.  It has two Epsteins, the bronze ‘Madonna and Child’ (1927) and the gilded mould of the cast ‘Christ in Majesty’ at Llandaff Cathedral, Wales.

From the outset of its ministry, started by Rev Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), Riverside Church has been a springboard for all kinds of social intervention, and has provided a pulpit for a dazzling array of speakers, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson to Desmond Tutu, and Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 7, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring New YorkLatest

New York City:  Trinity Church

Perhaps the most famous image of Wall Street is the vista westwards along the canyon of tall twentieth-century buildings to the apparently modest-sized Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846.

This was itself once the tallest building on Manhattan, 281 feet high.

The original foundation dates from a royal charter of 1697, and the present building is the third on the site.

The great wealth of the trustees arose from Queen Anne’s 1705 grant of the land west of Broadway between Fulton and Christopher Streets, the rentals of which have supported widespread endowments, educational institutions and subsidiary chapels.

Upjohn’s church was a significant influence on the architecture of nineteenth-century New York, firstly because it effectively established the Gothic Revival here (though its suspended plaster vault would have offended contemporary English purists such as Pugin), and because it helped to popularise the use of the local brownstone, a material which became synonymous with New York housing in the half-century that followed.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 2, 2014

Category:Liverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Forum Cinema

At the north end of Lime Street, on the opposite side to the Futurist Cinema, is the much more imposing former Forum Cinema, designed for the ABC circuit by William R Glen and Ernest A Shennan and opened in 1931, “one of W R Glen’s finest”, according to the Theatres Trust website:

This splendid Portland stone building occupies a corner site corresponding to Lewis’s department store at the other end of Lime Street.

Its fine interior, described by some writers as “semi-Atmospheric”, was a celebration of the possibilities of indirect lighting using Holophane reflectors with a sunburst light-feature in the ceiling.  On each side of the proscenium are curious relief panels, supposedly Venetian though one includes a recognisable representation of the Chrysler Building.

The architects contrived to squeeze a big auditorium, originally 1,835 seats, into a constricted space 150 feet × 75 feet, by creating a huge balcony seating 750 and placing the projection ports high above the rear circle with a throw of 146 feet.

Such a narrow auditorium was less than ideal for wide-screen films, and when the Forum was tripled in 1982 a false ceiling was inserted from the balcony front so that the proportions of the proscenium were lost.

It finally closed in January 1998 with a showing of Casablanca at 50p per seat and has remained unused.  Although (or perhaps because) it’s listed Grade II, the various proposals for the building have so far come to nothing.

But at least it’s still intact.  This is how it looked in 2007 – – and, photographed by someone who can’t hold a camera still, in 2011:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 29, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Lime Street

As Liverpool city-centre regenerates, the remaining patches of neglect stand out more clearly.

The east side of Lime Street has been neglected for years, and yet the stretch between the Crown and the Vines pubs includes a spectacular landmark building that still, somehow, remains in one piece.

The Futurist Cinema, originally the Lime Street Picture House, was the first purpose-built cinema in Liverpool, opened in 1912.  It was the first to show sound movies, in 1926, three years before The Jazz Singer at the Olympia, West Derby Road.  It converted to Cinemascope in 1954 without interrupting performances, and at the end of its long history it was the only place in Liverpool fitted with Sensurround for the film Earthquake (1975):  [].

It closed in July 1982 and has remained empty and untended ever since.  Kim Ryan’s film of the Merseyside film-maker Alex Cox revisiting the Futurist shows the interior in 2008:  An April 2013 news article raises the question of whether the building is beyond saving:

The campaign to save at least the façade of the Futurist is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 23, 2014

Category:Fun PalacesLatest

Futurist Cinema, Scarborough

Reputedly the largest remaining single-screen cinema auditorium in Britain, with 2,150 seats, the Futurist Cinema, Scarborough closed its doors on Sunday January 5th 2014:

It was built in 1921 to designs by Frank Tugwell. The stage was first extended for live performances in 1957 and two years later the proscenium was widened.

In 1968, when the stage-area was further enlarged by the impresario Robert Luff to accommodate The Black and White Minstrel Show, the elaborate classical white faience façade was hidden behind plain cladding which has not worn well.

It would be optimistic to say the place has an uncertain future.  In fact, the chances of its survival don’t look favourable.

The chartered surveyor Mark Rothery described the building as “past the point of saving for refurbishment” in 2010, and English Heritage has twice declined to list it.

The Borough Council’s report by Kate Wafer and Jennifer Hadley (March 2013) identified these practical disadvantages to the building:

* small stage in relation to the size of the auditorium
* small box-office and bar-areas in relation to the size of the auditorium
* inadequate wing-space
* limited backstage get-in
* small orchestra pit

The lessee since 2002, Barrie Stead, has estimated that refurbishment would cost at least £5 million, and regeneration would need at least £250,000 pa revenue subsidy.

Its owners, Scarborough Borough Council, have promised to mothball the building for three months to allow the Save Our Futurist campaign [ and] to present a £3 million business plan to regenerate the existing auditorium:

Despite the submission of a 4,000-signature petition in November 2013, the fact remains that for the moment no-one has produced a practical plan for the site as an alternative to the Council’s plans for demolition and redevelopment.  An apparently separate e-petition shows 870 signatures:

Time is short.  It’s a tall order to persuade the local politicians to stall their plans and give the Futurist a further chance of survival.

Posted by: mike on Jan 18, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Vines Hotel

The Vines Hotel, next door to the Adelphi, is a sister pub to the splendid Philharmonic Hotel on Hope Street, designed by the architect Walter Thomas.  It’s a little later than the Phil, opened in 1907, so its mahogany, copper, glass and plaster interior has a distinctly Art Nouveau feel.

Alcohol has been served here since 1823, and the present building takes its name from its late-Victorian licensee, Albert B Vines, who came to the site in 1867.

Because of its location at the end of Lime Street the Vines has traditionally been noisier than the Phil.  Indeed, one reviewer [] comments,–

The Vines will usually give you a fairly rockin’ Friday, Saturday and indeed Sunday evening provided what rocks you are karaoke and somebody's grandmother pinching your arse.

Architectural-history enthusiasts may choose to visit for breakfast.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 14, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesCemeteries, Sewerage & SanitationLatest

Liverpool Philharmonic Hotel gentlemen's lavatory

One of the great Liverpool experiences is having a drink – or perhaps more than one drink – in the Philharmonic Hotel (1898-1900) on the opposite corner of Hope Street to the Philharmonic Hall from which it takes its name.

This palace of a pub is the result of a partnership of the architect Walter W Thomas and Robert Cain’s Brewery during the great boom in public-house building at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Thomas was well-funded and fortunately placed to call on the formidable design-skills of the Liverpool University School of Architecture and Applied Art and of the Liverpool craftsmen who executed the decorative schemes of the interiors of the great ocean-liners.

The exterior is an odd combination of Scottish Baronial and Art Nouveau, with elaborate iron gates by the German-American artist H Blomfield Bare, who also designed the repoussé copper panels inside.

The interior scheme was co-ordinated by George Hall Neale and Arthur Stratten, who employed Charles J Allen to produce the distinctive plaster caryatids and atlantes in the billiard room (the former modelled by his friend Mrs Ryan), the Irish plasterer Pat Honan and the stone-carver Frank Norbury.

The gentlemen’s lavatories at the Philharmonic Hotel are not to be missed.  Indeed, the protocol is that any respectable lady customer can request any respectable gentleman customer to check the coast is clear so she can admire the marble, the mosaic and the brass-work of this palatial pissoir.

John Lennon declared that one of the disadvantages of fame was “not going to The Phil any more”.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 10, 2014

Category:Liverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesLatest


Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

I once booked a Cinema Theatre Association Liverpool tour primarily on the strength of seeing On Golden Pond on the big screen at the Philharmonic Hall.

The Philharmonic Hall is a 1937-9 rebuild, replacing a predecessor of 1846-9 which had been burnt down in 1933.

It’s a very fine Art Deco auditorium, designed by Herbert J Rowse whose other distinguished Liverpool designs include India Buildings, Martin’s Bank and the ventilation shafts and other structures for the Mersey Tunnel.

The 1,700-seat auditorium has a continuous rake of stalls seats with horseshoe boxes and a balcony:  the suspended ceiling has troughs containing indirect lighting fittings.

It’s the home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir and Youth Orchestra, which together have an outstanding history of performance dating back to the foundation of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1840:

The CTA was attracted to this temple of serious music was to hear the three-manual Rushworth & Dreaper concert organ, which is fitted with tremulants, a feature commonly found in theatre-organ specifications.

Though lacking the drums, chimes and whistles of a conventional cinema-organ it was clearly intended for use in film presentations as well as taking its place in the classical repertoire.  Its console is mounted on a revolving lift, and can be played from below stage or in full view of the audience.

Even more unusual, and unmissable if you’re a serious cinema buff, is the seven-ton rising proscenium, now apparently the only example in working order anywhere in the world:

This cinema screen, complete with footlights and curtains and fitted with integral sound speakers, rises from the stage-floor in three minutes, uniquely transforming the concert hall into a movie palace before the eyes of the audience.

That’s an experience you can only have at the Philharmonic.

The very last 35mm performance at the Philharmonic takes place on April 30th 2014.  The choice of film is subject to an e-poll at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 5, 2014

Category:Exploring South AfricaLatest

Cape Town:  Robben Island

The single essential place to visit in Cape Town is Robben Island, the flat, parched patch in the bay where political prisoners have been incarcerated within sight of the city since the seventeenth century, and where three of the post-apartheid presidents of South Africa spent years of their lives – most famously Nelson Mandela (imprisoned on Robben Island 1962-1982, eventually released 1990), and also the third president Kgalema Motlanthe (imprisoned 1977-1987) and the present incumbent, Jacob Zuma (imprisoned 1963-1973).

When Robben Island wasn’t in use as a prison it served as a leper colony, one which the lepers were originally admitted voluntarily but eventually were brought there involuntarily.  It was also used as a medium-security prison for criminals.

It is a miserable place, yet unexpectedly uplifting.

When I visited Cape Town I made a point of booking a Robben Island tour [], and the white man who sold me my ticket was once Nelson Mandela’s jailer, the black man beside him behind the counter an ex-prisoner.

Over on the island, a thirty-minute catamaran trip away, we were bussed past the former leper colony, the lighthouse and the view of Table Mountain, before being introduced to the prison-guide, another ex-prisoner.

All tours are guided by ex-prisoners, so you get the message directly.

At one point the group simply sits in a meeting room to question the guide.  One tourist asked what was the greatest injustice done on the island, and the guide simply replied that the removal of freedom, the deprivation of life’s opportunities was the essential injustice.

I told him he’d taught me that much good occurred on the island, and he said, yes, the prisoners learned to depend on each other, to support and to develop their potentialities.

This isn’t merely a prison, like Alcatraz, but a crucible of political thinking and social revolution.  Kgalema Motlanthe wrote, of his time on Robben Island,–

We were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities. We shared basically everything. The years out there were the most productive years in one's life, we were able to read, we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world. To me those years gave meaning to life.

A clip about Robben Island featured in the BBC News coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela.  I've no way of knowing if Christo Brand, featured in the clip, was the man I spoke to when I visited in 2000:

Posted by: mike on Jan 1, 2014

Category:Exploring South AfricaLatest

Cape Town:  Bo-Kaap

Not far from District Six is an area of Cape Town called Bo-Kaap, formerly known as the Malay Quarter.

This is a Muslim area, occupied by a community that’s been there virtually as long as the Dutch, over three hundred years.  They’re known as the Cape Malays, from their patois not their origin.

The ancestors of the Cape Malays were slaves brought to Cape Town by the Dutch settlers from other parts of Africa, from Indonesia and other parts of south-east Asia as well as the Malay Kingdoms. 

Bo-Kaap's survival is an indicator of the crassness of the social system that blighted South Africa.

Because the area was racially homogenous the apartheid government simply ignored it, leaving its distinctive pale-painted architecture intact.

Stretching up the slopes of Signal Hill, the streets are spacious and attractive, and it’s ironic that in the post-apartheid era they’ve become highly desirable.

The Bo-Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street is an example of some of the earliest property-development in Cape Town, dating back to the end of the eighteenth century.  It’s now restored to show the lifestyle of the early-nineteenth-century Cape Malay Community.

The Museum is a fascinating introduction to a community that has survived remarkably intact from the earliest history of foreign settlement at the southernmost tip of Africa:

Posted by: mike on Dec 28, 2013

Category:Exploring South AfricaLatest

Cape Town:  District 6 Museum

I first learnt about the poet Tatamkhulu Afrika when his poem ‘Nothing’s changed’, about post-apartheid South Africa [], appeared in a GCSE English anthology that I taught to fifteen-/sixteen-year-olds around 1999-2002.

The video-clip that came with the anthology [] revealed that, despite his pen-name, given him by the ANC’s militant wing Umkhonto We Sizwe, he looked like a white man.

Tatamkhulu Afrika was actually of Egyptian and Turkish descent, adopted by White South African parents who concealed his ethnic origin in order to give him better opportunities under apartheid.  As an adult he rebelled against this, converted to Islam and lived in the cosmopolitan community of District Six in Cape Town.

The poem expresses his anger at the destruction of District Six after the government declared it a white-only area and razed the buildings, exiling the polyglot population to the bleak Cape Flats area, a fifteen-mile rail journey from the city centre.

During the time I was repeatedly working with ‘Nothing’s changed’ with classes of teenagers, I happened to take a trip to South Africa and spent time in Cape Town.

I made a point of persuading a tour-guide to take me to the District Six Museum

The Museum is in a Methodist chapel (one of the numerous places of Christian worship that were left standing) and the coloured guide was a veteran of the injustice.  Showing us a display of identity cards, alongside a whites-only park bench and a whites-only taxi-rank sign, he was able to point to his own picture.

It’s hard to comprehend the bitterness and anger that apartheid generated, and impossible not to admire the way that the new South Africa, for all its imperfections, has travelled so far in the twenty years since the abolition of apartheid.

Posted by: mike on Dec 24, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring South AfricaLatest

The Blue Train

The Blue Train (interior)

Everyone deserves to be treated at least once in their lives as well as passengers are treated on South Africa’s Blue Train [] which trundles the 990 miles between Pretoria and Cape Town at a leisurely pace in 27 hours.

From the moment passengers are ushered on to the platform and then the train by the train-captain, all they need to do is ask.

My butler was called Herbert.  He showed me the cabin, awash with armchairs and cushions, the marquetry panelling, the marble bathroom, the mobile phone to summon him at any time, the multiplicity of light-switches and lights, the TV zapper which also controlled the venetian blinds within the double-glazed window.  You can even tune the TV to the camera on the front of the locomotive, a quarter of a mile ahead, so you can see where you were going.

When you have a bath on a train, the water slops up to your head or down to your feet every time you go round a bend.

Everything you could possibly need was there, if sometimes not where you’d expect to find it, and every time I ventured into the corridor Herbert was invisibly in and out tidying the pencils and replacing the mineral water bottle.

Everything, including the postcards and the postage, is on the house.  In the lounge car I asked the barman, a young man called Wesley, if people sometimes got out of control and he said, yes, it sometimes happened.

In the dining car Irene, my waitress, kept me stocked up with appropriate wines, tuning into my preference for cheese before dessert and proffering dessert wine at the appropriate moment.  For lunch I had venison;  for dinner ostrich.  There was also afternoon tea, and pots of tea and coffee delivered to the cabin by Herbert.

Before dinner I sat on a bar-stool watching the sunset, and drinking white wine, and returned to the bar afterwards with an English couple I’d met in the observation car, and we mulled over brandies which Wesley had expertly warmed.  Very large double brandies.

When I eventually went back to my suite, transformed by Herbert into a bedroom, and opened the window-blinds, the sky was ablaze with stars as we crossed the Karoo desert.

For breakfast there was smoked-salmon omelette – and much, much else.

I was very fortunate to make the journey in 2000, when the Rand was falling through the floor.  In 2014 the single fare from Pretoria to Cape Town or vice versa is just short of £1,200.  Seriously, there are far worse ways of spending that sort of money on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Or perhaps twice in a lifetime.

Posted by: mike on Dec 19, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLatest

Wainhouse Tower

Wainhouse Tower

John Edward Wainhouse (1817-1883) was the owner of the Washer Lane Dyeworks on the side of the Calder valley below King Cross, on the southern outskirts of Halifax.

In 1870 he leased the works to Henry Mossman, and at the same time responded to complaints about atmospheric pollution, particularly from a neighbour, Sir Henry Edwards Bt (1812-1886) of Pye Nest, by commissioning an extremely tall chimney, 253 feet high, connected to the works below by an underground flue.

Construction began in 1871, the year after the passing of the Smoke Abatement Act which required that industrial smoke should be carried away at a height.

J E Wainhouse instructed his architect, Isaac Booth of Halifax, to encase the functional brick chimney in stone, with a spiral staircase of 403 steps to the top.

The purpose of installing a staircase at considerable expense to the top of a smoking chimney was never clear:  a regularly repeated legend is that J E Wainhouse wished to annoy Sir Henry Edwards, who was High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1872, by overlooking his residence.

In 1874 J E Wainhouse sold the dyeworks to Edward Mossman, who declined to take on the cost of the chimney, so instead Wainhouse took on the liability of what became a tower instead of a chimney, resolving to turn it into a “General Astronomical and Physical Observatory”.

He dismissed Isaac Booth, who in any case appears to have grown sick of being caught in the midst of the feud between Wainhouse and Edwards, and commissioned Booth’s assistant, Richard Swarbrick Dugdale, to finish the architectural treatment of the tower with an elaborate gothic cupola that is so densely embellished that it is practically useless as an observatory, except to look down on neighbouring properties and to admire the distant views.

By the time this second phase of construction was completed on September 9th 1875, the entire project had cost £14,000 or £15,000.

By 1893, ten years after J E Wainhouse’s death, it was open as a public attraction and in 1909 it was operating a radio transmitter.  Suggestions in 1912 that it should be adapted as a crematorium came to nothing, but in 1919, prompted by a campaign in the Halifax Courier, Halifax Corporation bought it;  the Corporation and its successor, Calderdale Borough Council, have maintained it ever since.  Its only practical function appears to have been as an observation post in World War II.

It was substantially repaired and restored in 2008 at a cost of £400,000, and reopened to the public on May 4th 2009.  It is open on bank holidays, and available for private openings at other times.

Posted by: mike on Dec 14, 2013

Category:Exploring New YorkLatest

New York City Citicorp Center

When they designed Citicorp Center, now renamed 601 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan in 1977, the architect Hugh Stubbins and the structural engineer William LeMessurier were faced with the uncompromising elders of St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, who were entirely happy to have their tired nineteenth-century Gothic building replaced but refused point-blank to give up its corner site.

Consequently, William LeMessurier supported the tower on four stilts planted firmly in the centre of each side so that it overhangs the corners of its footprint.  This odd-looking construction is stabilised by a series of stacked braces that transfer the load of the 59-storey structure to the nine-storey supporting columns.

The Citicorp Center was fitted with a 400-ton tuned mass damper to stabilise the effect of high winds.  Other tall towers of the period, while rolling safely with the wind, had made their inhabitants nauseous.

The wedge-shaped top was intended to carry solar panels which were never installed because the slope faces north.

The building is remarkable, not only for its engineering attributes, but for the fortuitous discovery and surreptitious repair of its structural weaknesses.

Within a year of the opening, LeMessurier received a phone-call from a trainee architectural engineer questioning the ability of the centre columns to support the building in extremely high winds.

Niggled, LeMessurier revised his calculations, and realised that in following the regulations by calculating wind-resistance square to the building he’d ignored the potential effects of quartering winds, hitting the tower cornerwise where there was no support to ground-level.

Casual discussions of the specification for a new project alerted LeMessurier for the first time to the fact that his office had sanctioned the use of bolted braces instead of welded ones in the Citicorp tower.  This made the building vulnerable to a once-in-55-year wind, but if the tuned mass damper was disabled by a power failure, the vulnerability increased to once in every sixteen years.

This came to light in June, just at the start of the hurricane season.

The building’s owners, Citibank, a team of construction-industry specialists and the City of New York – all of them anxious to avoid a public panic – arranged for the two-hundred-odd braces to be quietly patched with heavy steel plates, one by one, during evenings and weekends, without disturbing the building’s users.

The press were fed an innocuous explanation which remained unprobed because, as the work began, the entire New York newspaper industry was shut down by a strike.

And the city’s Office of Emergency Management created an emergency plan to evacuate the building and 156 blocks of the surrounding neighbourhood if high winds were forecast.

Part way through the process Hurricane Ella headed directly for New York City, only to turn eastwards and follow the coast northwards towards Canada.

This remarkable episode remained outside the public domain for twenty years until an article in the New Yorker [] was published in May 1995.

Le Messurier, whose entire career had been on the line eighteen years earlier, was hailed for his integrity in owning up to the problem and providing a solution.  601 Lexington Avenue is now rated as resistant to a once-in-700-year hurricane even without the damper.

A more critical view of Le Messurier’s ethics can be found at

Other accounts of the whole episode are at and

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 9, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Thames & Severn Canal Sapperton Tunnel Coates Portal

Thames & Severn Canal:  Sapperton Tunnel, Coates Portal

Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames & Severn Canal epitomises the canal-builder’s dilemma about crossing a watershed – whether to dig an expensive tunnel to save lockage, or to build locks that demand a constant and abundant source of water.

Sapperton Tunnel cost a great deal to build, and leaked like a sieve.

The engineer Josiah Clowes is thought to have worked on the 2,880-yard, nine-foot-wide Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal for James Brindley, and Sapperton Tunnel was longer, at 3,817 yards, and was built to broad-canal dimensions without a towpath.  At the time of construction it was the longest tunnel so far built.

Work began in the spring of 1784 and was completed in 1789:  the first boat went through on April 20th that year.  Defects in the structure led to a ten-week closure only a year after the opening.

The original surveyor of the Thames & Severn Canal, Robert Whitworth, had observed, on a frankly superficial inspection, that the summit level ran “over some bad Rocky Ground...worse than [he had] even seen any Canal cut thro’ for such a continued length”.

In fact, the line of the tunnel alternately passes through impermeable oolite and the unstable, permeable clay known as fuller’s earth:

The geologist John Phillips (1800-1874), in his biography of his geologist uncle Memoirs of William Smith (1844), wrote scathingly about the fundamental weakness of the line:

Such canals…are like the buckets of the Danaids, and with the water goes the profit.  In vain the Thames, raised from its source by a mighty engine, is poured into such a thirsty canal;  the flood passes into the gaping rocks below, in spite of renewed puddling and continual repairs.

The last boat went through Sapperton Tunnel on May 11th 1911 and almost the entire canal was abandoned in 1927.

The Cotswolds Canal Trust has been working since 1975 to restore the entire length of the Thames & Severn Canal, and the reopening of Sapperton Tunnel forms part of the third and final phase of their project:

It won’t be easy, as Ken Burgin’s inspection 2009 report indicates:

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Dec 4, 2013

Category:Sacred placesLatest

Panacea Museum, Bedford

Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance states that the brain cannot simultaneously hold two contradictory ideas.  It’s a useful device in empowerment training.  He developed it from research into a group of Canadian millenniarists who convinced themselves that the world would end on December 21st 1954, and when no such cataclysm took place declared that the light which spread from their group had saved the world.

Leon Festinger (1919-1989) would have dined out on the Panacea Society, founded in 1919 by Mabel Barltrop, the widow of an Anglican curate, who received a message that she was a new messiah.  This was the first of a succession of messages from God, delivered promptly at 5.30pm each day, which ultimately filled sixteen handwritten volumes.

The Panaceans became custodians of Joanna Southcott’s box, which that prophetess had prepared before her death in 1814 with strict instructions that it was only to be opened at a time of national crisis by an assembly of twenty-four Anglican bishops.

Mabel’s supporters renamed her ‘Octavia’ and bought houses near to hers in and around Albany Road in Bedford.  Here they lived in a community of genteel and elegant delusion.

Here also the Society duly prepared a residence for twenty of the requisite bishops (the other four would have to make do with a nearby hotel) to carry out the box-opening ceremonies in appropriate dignity and comfort.  Endless petitions and advertisements in the national media failed to persuade their lordships to take Joanna Southcott at all seriously.

Mabel herself would not step more than 77 paces away from her home for fear of being attacked by Satan.

She identified this Bedford colony as the original site of the Garden of Eden, and the location to which Jesus Christ would return at the Second Coming.  No 18 Albany Road, “The Ark”, was duly prepared for His reception.  There was agonised debate about whether He would need a shower, being “radiant”, but one was provided in case.

Mabel, who administered the Sacrament to her flock wearing a Liberty scarf, began a healing ministry, breathing over tap-water that was used to soak linen which was then cut into little squares for dispatch to something like 130,000 applicants between 1921 and the end of the century.

The Society received a considerable jolt in 1934 when Mabel was found dead in bed.  This extraordinary behaviour seemed inexplicable, and they waited four days for her to resurrect.  When she became increasingly off-colour they eventually called an undertaker.

Nevertheless, the last believing member of the Society survived until 2012, and the Society has now reinvented itself as a philanthropic charity to disburse its accumulated resources of at least £22 million.

One of these projects is the Panacea Museum [], an unusually fascinating place that needs a couple of hours to assimilate.

When I photographed it on a visit with the Ancient Monuments Society, one image of the garden included a glowing apple within the frame.  A trick of the light, surely?

Panacea Museum, Bedford:  garden

Posted by: mike on Nov 30, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesLatest

Bunyan Meeting, Bedford

The Bunyan Meeting is a Free Church congregation in Bedford which dates back to 1650 and was led by Rev John Bunyan (1628-1688) from the time of his release from his first imprisonment in 1672 until his death.

John Bunyan is regarded as a literary giant as the author of Pilgrim’s Progress (1678/84), which is at once a great devotional work and a precursor of the English novel.  One section of Part Two became the hymn of which the original first line is ‘Who would true valour see’.

His life was a remarkable journey from working as a tinker, through an agonising religious conversion to imprisonment for his Puritan beliefs in the Restoration period and a subsequent career as a powerful popular preacher.

The fine 1849 galleried chapel has stained-glass windows and elaborate bronze doors by Frederick Thrupp depicting scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress, and Bunyan’s life is commemorated in a compact, vividly displayed museum adjacent to the Meeting church:

The great prison reformer John Howard (1726-1790) is Bedford’s other figure of international importance.

He had an estate nearby at Cardington:  when he attended the Bunyan Meeting services he stayed at the adjacent house from Saturday night to Monday morning so that his coachman didn’t have to drive on the Sabbath.

As a result of the controversy over paedobaptism, John Howard founded a breakaway congregation which became the Howard Church (1775-6):

Posted by: mike on Nov 25, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (2013)

I reported in July 2012 that the Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield had been bought by Phil Robins, the owner of The Edge [], an indoor climbing centre near to Bramall Lane football ground.

Phil showed me round the Abbeydale last month and allowed me to photograph the improvements he’s so far made while making the building secure and weather-tight.

The two major changes he’s made are to lower the iron safety-curtain to its proper level, so that it can be seen in its entirety for the first time for many years, and to remove the partition that divided the balcony from the rest of the auditorium when the Abbeydale was used as an office-equipment showroom.

At present, therefore, it’s possible to see the entire auditorium space as it existed in the mid-1950s.  The only feature that is not original is the false proscenium that was inserted when Cinemascope was installed.  The sides of the narrower original 1920 classical-detailed proscenium are visible, but not the top which, according to the opening-night description in the Sheffield Independent, displayed “a chaste panel of Grecian figures on a background of pale blue”.

The original decorative scheme was pale and deep cream with gold;  the 1920s proscenium is now a faded pale green trimmed with gold, and the rest of the auditorium is a strident concoction of blue, claret and cream.  (The lighter colours now visible may, of course, be tempered with nicotine.)

Phil intends to restore the interior space as far as possible to its original state, and to install free-standing climbing equipment which will not affect the listed decorative features.

The Sheffield Antiques Quarter is running a Christmas Vintage Market in the Abbeydale Cinema car-park on Sunday December 8th between 11.00 am and 5.00 pm.

There will be an opportunity to see the interior of the Abbeydale Cinema from the stalls, though the rest of the building is inaccessible because of insurance restrictions.

Posted by: mike on Nov 20, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesBirmingham's HeritageLatest

All Saint's (formerly St Aidan's) Church, Small Heath, Birmingham

The Anglican parishes around the Birmingham Small Arms factory in Small Heath were carved out of the ancient parish of Aston between 1846 and the end of the nineteenth century, and became part of the Anglo-Catholic “biretta belt” of South Birmingham. 

One of the last of these was St Aidan's Church, begun in 1893, designed in red brick with buff terracotta by Thomas Frederick Proud (d 1901), with a clergy house, intended for a team of single curates, by the Birmingham metalworker and architect Arthur Stansfield Dixon (1856-1929).

The eastern end of the church – chancel, guild chapel and two bays of the nave – was completed in 1894 and consecrated two years later;  the western end including the baptistery and bellcote was finished by the end of 1898.

Once the shell of the church was complete, Arts & Crafts designers supplied much of the decoration:  Bertram Lamplugh of the Birmingham School of Art designed the Good Shepherd window in the Guild Chapel in 1907, and Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945) and W E Ellery Anderson (1888-1942) collaborated with the incumbent, Canon Newell Long, to begin an ambitious decorative scheme, some of which remained unexecuted because of the intervention of the Great War.  The last decorative addition during Canon Long’s incumbency was the free-standing reredos for the Sanctuary by Ellery Anderson, executed by Mowbray & Sons of Oxford and dedicated in 1921.

The grandiose celebrations of Anglo-Catholic worship created continuing problems within the politics of the Birmingham diocese.  Bishop Ernest W Barnes (1874-1953;  bishop 1924-1953) took against the figures on the Rood Screen, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and the use of incense, and at one stage refused to take confirmations within the parish.

St Aidan’s was valued highly by the early aficionados of Victorian and Edwardian art and architecture, such as John Betjeman – “[a] successful Perpendicular design in red brick and terra cotta”, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner – “a striking and successful example of the local red brick and terracotta school...with an atmosphere much encouraged by the splendid Rood and Screens”.  The Victorian Society identified it as “one of the six or seven finest Victorian churches in Birmingham”.

Housing clearance and the collapse of the BSA company in 1973 encouraged the flight of the local population.  By 1991, only nine of St Aidan’s communicants lived within the parish boundary.  Meanwhile an influx of Asian families meant that by 1997 at least 65% of the population within the parish was Muslim, and most of the local schools had at least 90% Muslim pupils on roll.

From 1994 the diocese of Birmingham closed and disposed of surplus buildings in the parishes of St Gregory and St Oswald, and concentrated activity on the St Aidan’s site, while renaming the parish All Saints to commemorate the dedication of the original early Victorian parish.

The St Aidan’s building was radically reordered, reversing the direction of worship to use the apsidal baptistery as a sanctuary, enlarging the Lady Chapel to provide an intimate worship space and forging an entrance directly on to the street with a meeting-hall above where the High Altar had formerly stood.

The Victorian Society vigorously opposed this attack on the historical integrity of the building, and in 1998 forced the issue to a Consistory Court where the Chancellor found against them, accusing the Society of acting “arrogantly, unreasonably and without common sense”.

This fine church, the “Cathedral of the Back Streets”, continues to serve its purpose under the oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet in an environment vastly different to that for which it was built.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2013

Category:Fun PalacesLatest

Funny Girls, Blackpool

In the summer of 1939 Blackpool ignored the possibility of war.

The huge new Art Deco, 2,920-seat Opera House auditorium opened in the Winter Gardens, starring George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned Out Nice Again.

A short distance down Dickson Road the Odeon Cinema, designed by W Calder Marshall for Harry Weedon, opened on May 6th 1939.  Its capacity of 3,088 made this the largest auditorium in the company’s chain, bigger even than the flagship cinema in London’s Leicester Square:  it cost £82,500.

This was one of the relatively few 1930s Odeons intended to have an organ, a magnificent five-manual Compton instrument, big enough to stand comparison with the Wurlitzers in the Tower and Winter Gardens.  Oscar Deutsch disapproved of theatre organs:  he thought they were a waste of money. 

As it happened, the Odeon organ was not delivered until after war broke out, and was apparently bombed in the railway sidings at Blackpool.  Eventually, in 1946, the Conacher organ from the Ritz, Southend, was installed.

The Blackpool Odeon was tripled in October 1975 and closed in 1998.

It stood derelict for some years, until Basil Newby recreated it magnificently as Funny Girls, refreshing the meaning of the expression “holiday camp”.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 14, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry HousesLatest

Sion Hill Hall

Sion Hill Hall has been described – convincingly but imprecisely – as “the last of the great country houses”.  It was built for Percy Stancliffe, the son of a wealthy brewer by one of Yorkshire’s foremost local architects, Walter H Brierley, in 1912-3. 

Walter Brierley (1862-1926) was a partner in the dominant York architectural practice which was begun in the eighteenth century by John Carr and had included in the intervening years such figures as J P Pritchett (1789-1868) and G T Andrews (1804-55, architect to the North Eastern Railway).

Like John Carr, Walter Brierley’s fame was limited because his work is concentrated in the North.  He built a rich collection of houses, churches and public buildings including a distinctive series of 1890s school buildings for the York School Board and the Principal's House at the King's Manor in York.  He restored Sledmere House after the major fire in 1911 and designed Welbeck Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, which was built (1930-1) after his death.

At Sion Hill Hall there were temperamental clashes between the rich but parsimonious Percy Stancliffe and his perfectionist architect, whose belief that “cheap work is always there to remind and annoy us” did not encourage a quiet relationship.

Nevertheless, the resulting building made Brierley’s reputation as “the Lutyens of the North”, and its expansive horizontal façades, enlivened by generous hipped roofs and tall chimneys, have a strong air of assurance, with an ambitious classical doorcase, dated 1913, as an entrance and on the south-facing garden front, roundels and painted shutters.

In fact, the house is only one room deep, with connecting corridors the length of the north front and all the principal rooms facing the sunny south.  At the western end the corners are stepped, so that Percy Stancliffe’s study and his wife’s boudoir share the advantage of south- and west-facing windows.

(The real Edwin Lutyens, on one of his rare Northern commissions, took no nonsense from his rich Yorkshire client, whom he despised.)

Percy Stancliffe lived at Sion Hill House until his death in 1949.  It was eventually purchased in 1962 by a remarkable collector, Herbert W Mawer (1903-1982), who rose from humble origins, trained as a chef at the Royal Station Hotel in Hull and started his own model bakery, “Our Herbert’s”, at Stokesley in 1926.  The family business prospered enough for Herbert to retire in his forties with sufficient wealth to support a passion for antiques which had begun with the purchase of two candlesticks for £1 5s in Hull when he was eighteen.

In the late 1930s he bought Ayton Hall near Guisborough, but by the 1950s that modest Georgian house was too small to house his accumulating possessions.

Herbert Mawer chose, in the absence of an heir, to establish the H W Mawer Trust to administer Sion Hill Hall and the Mawer Collection, which has since his death been increased to include the remarkable pot that contained the Breckenbrough Hoard (discovered in 1985) and paintings by the identical twins Dorothy and Elizabeth Alderson (respectively 1900-1992 and 1900-1987), who were Herbert Mawer’s aunts.

The house is open for group visits by prior arrangement:

Posted by: mike on Nov 11, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Midland Railway Butterley:  46203 Princess Margaret Rose

Midland Railway Butterley:  46203 Princess Margaret Rose

Billy Butlin (1899-1980) was as sharp as a tack.

South African-born, raised in Canada, he came to England with £5, of which he invested £4 in a stall at his uncle’s fair.  From this humble start as a showman he built his empire of holiday camps.

He was astute.  Fred Pontin once told him, “You’ve taught me everything I know about holiday camps.”  To which Butlin responded, “Maybe, but not everything I know.”

He had a pragmatic attitude to the finer things of life.  To furnish the chapels that he installed in each of his camps, he instructed his staff to source paintings – “religious, big, and not more than fifty quid”.

When British Railways were scrapping steam locomotives in the early 1960s, Billy Butlin bought eight as ornaments for his camps at Ayr, Minehead, Pwllheli and Skegness.

He saved four tank-engines (three LB&SCR Terriers and an L&SWR dock-tank) and four magnificent express locomotives from the LM&SR – all of which are now in serious preservation – purely so that kids could climb on them and be photographed in front of them.

Thanks to Billy Butlin we can still enjoy 6100 Royal Scot, 6203 Princess Margaret Rose and two of the huge ‘Princess Coronation’ class – 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, now in the National Railway Museum restored to its original streamlined shape, and 6233 Duchess of Sutherland, currently earning its keep pulling charter specials on the main lines.

6203 Princess Margaret Rose is one of the jewels in the crown of the Midland Railway Butterley [], where the Princess Royal Class Trust [] has its base.

Occasionally, when tour itineraries require it, Princess Margaret Rose is visited by its sister engine 6201 Princess Elizabeth, named after the present Queen.

Then it is possible for the Trust to wheel out its two 21-inch-guage replicas of the two locomotives, which were also built for Butlin’s Camps, alongside.

Two locomotives, in two sizes – all side by side.  Unique, as far as I know.  All thanks to Billy Butlin.

Posted by: mike on Nov 9, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

National Fork Truck Heritage Centre

Of all the topics I’ve come across in a lifetime of researching architectural and social history, the development of the fork-lift truck is singularly bereft of humour, entertainment or engaging personalities.

In the fork-lift world there’s nobody like Percy Shaw, who invented the retro-reflective road marker or “cat’s-eye” [].

Instead, there’s a simple story of complex machines that can shift and stack heavy loads without overbalancing – machines which we tend to take entirely for granted.

One of the few fork-lift history websites [] declares, “Everything we eat or wear, and everything in our home, including the materials to build the house itself, has at some stage been stored and handled by materials handling equipment.”

The National Forklift Truck Heritage Centre [] preserves the heritage and the archives of these clever pieces of kit.

The Centre’s collection spans from the oldest fork-lift truck in existence, a Yale model of 1926, to examples from the end of the twentieth century.

Who would cross the road to see a collection of eighty-odd fork-lift trucks?  Anybody who’s ever driven one, for sure.  Engineers, and those with an appreciation of engineering, certainly.

In fact, ordinary tourists, families out for the weekend and railway enthusiasts find their way to the Centre because it’s part of the Midland Railway Butterley museum in Derbyshire:

In addition, the rental that the Centre presumably pays to the Midland Railway Butterley helps to develop their hugely ambitious transport-museum campus.

It’s a win-win situation.  Uplifting, so to speak.

Posted by: mike on Nov 7, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Midland Railway Butterley, Swanwick Junction

Midland Railway Butterley, Swanwick Junction

First-time visitors to the Midland Railway Butterley, Derbyshire, the biggest and most comprehensive attempt to commemorate one of Britain’s finest pre-Grouping railway companies, might initially be underwhelmed by the presentation of the place.

Riding in a rag-tag collection of railway carriages with slow speeds, limited mileage and much standing in stations may not impress at first.

The full length of the line is 3½ miles, and you can’t get off at either end, but the main site at Swanwick Junction is extensive.

There are meticulously reconstructed station buildings in the classic Midland design at Butterley and Swanwick Junction, four Midland-pattern signal boxes and other structures including the tin church of St Saviour from Westhouses, Derbyshire.

There are actually several railways:  apart from the standard-gauge line there’s a narrow-gauge railway, a miniature railway and a garden railway.

In a succession of museum buildings there are locomotives, rolling stock, buses, stationary steam engines and the national collection of historic fork-lift trucks.

A notice in one of the museum buildings apologises for the dust – because “we are a working museum”.

That’s the key.

This is a hugely ambitious project, driven by a consortium of preservation groups, “dedicated to the glory of the Midland Railway”, according to the website strapline:

The scale of the task is measured by the contrast between the finished preservation projects, such as the Midland Railway royal saloon and the only surviving Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway coach, and the desperately decayed relics waiting for attention.

Butterley reminds me of the Sydney Tramway Museum in New South Wales – another grand scheme to recreate a vanished and much celebrated transport system.

The Midland Railway project has been at Butterley now for forty years, and it might take another forty to accomplish the vision.  No doubt an influx of volunteers and repeated injections of cash would help, but the place is busy.

I spoke to a seasoned enthusiast on the train back to Butterley.  “There’s a lot here,” he said.  He thought he’d be on his way home by 2.30 and it was coming up to half past four.

That’s the short-term measure of success – and the encouragement to return.

Posted by: mike on Nov 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesLatest

Reform Synagogue, Bowland Street, Bradford

Reform Synagogue, Bowland Street, Bradford

The Bradford Jewish communities were never numerically large, perhaps a hundred families in the late-nineteenth century, but they were extremely influential.

The German and Danish Jews whose warehouses are now called “Little Germany” were not refugees, but came in search of prosperity in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  They assimilated, and then coalesced into the city’s Reform Congregation.

From their ranks came four Bradford mayors, including Charles Joseph Semon (1814-1877;  Mayor 1864-5) and Jacob Moser (1839-1922;  Mayor 1910-11), as well as the merchant Sir Jacob Behrens (1806-1889) and Professor Friederich Wilhelm Eurich (1867–1945) who led the search for a cure for cutaneous anthrax or “wool-sorter’s disease”.  The composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and the painter Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) both came from Bradford German-Jewish families.

This Reform Congregation built the magnificent Moorish Grade II*-listed Reform Synagogue on Bowland Street, designed by T H & F Healey in 1881, a rare and fine survival of the Islamic Revival style.

In the 1880s, fleeing the pogroms that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, came Russian Jews who disliked the practices of the Reform Synagogue and founded their own Orthodox Synagogue in Spring Gardens in 1906.

The Orthodox community were sufficiently confident of their future to close the Spring Gardens synagogue in 1970 and move to a modern building at Springhurst Road, Shipley.  The Spring Gardens building, with the inscription above its doorway, “How goodly are your tents, O Israel”, is now the Al Mumin independent Muslim primary school, and the Orthodox Congregation had to close their Shipley synagogue in April 2013 because they no longer had sufficient numbers to hold services.

Meanwhile, the Reform Congregation of around thirty-five people somehow manages to maintain their building and hold monthly services:

Among the supporters who have helped this tiny community financially are the Bradford Council of Mosques and other members of the local Muslim community:

The local MP, George Galloway, tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons which congratulated “the members of the Bradford Muslim community for their extraordinary ecumenical gesture in raising a very large sum of money to repair the roof of Bradford’s last remaining synagogue, thereby enabling members of the Jewish community to continue to worship there;  and believes that this generous gesture shows the true spirit of Islam towards other People of the Book.”

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 1, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernLatest

Crofton Pumping Station

Crofton Pumping Station is a very precious and also a very pleasant place to be, if you can find it.

If you’re sailing on the Kennet & Avon Canal you can’t miss it, because it stands beside the locks as they climb to the canal summit approaching Bruce Tunnel.

If you’re driving it’s near the Wiltshire village of Great Bedwyn and well signposted – once you find Great Bedwyn.

All canals that cross a watershed represent an engineering compromise between climbing and tunnelling.  The Leeds & Liverpool Canal experienced recurrent maintenance problems because of the engineer Robert Whitworth’s recommendation to build Foulridge Tunnel.  The parallel Rochdale Canal suffered from water-supply difficulties following William Jessop’s suggestion of eliminating a 1½-mile tunnel by building more locks to a higher summit.

The Kennet & Avon Canal, like the Rochdale, was built with a very short, high summit pound which contained insufficient water to replace the two lockfuls that each passing boat took away with it.

Crofton Pumping Station was built in 1802 to back-pump water from the locks up to the canal summit.

The original engine was replaced in 1846, and the 1812 Boulton & Watt engine that remains is the oldest working steam-engine still in situ.

Under Great Western Railway ownership the pumping station was neglected, but both engines continued to pump until 1952, when pumping was transferred first to a diesel pump and then to an electric one.

The 1812 engine operated occasionally until 1958, when the top twenty feet of the chimney was dismantled leaving insufficient draught to run the boilers.  Though the steam engines were, in effect, retired the resident engineer, Mr Wilmot, continued to keep them in workable order.

The pumping station was purchased in 1968 by the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, and a volunteer team returned the 1812 engine to steam, with an electric fan to supplement the natural draught, in April 1970.  Initial teething troubles were resolved in time for Sir John Betjeman to perform the opening ceremony in August.

The second engine was subsequently restored by a team of Rolls Royce apprentices, and returned to steam in November 1971, and the chimney was restored to its original height in 1996-7.

So now you can experience the engines working within the original engine-house, or watch the boats working the locks as the trains pass by alongside the canal, or sit inside the Engineman's Rest Café eating home-made food and drinking real beer.

The place is a welcoming experience for boaters and gongoozlers alike:

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 29, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred places

St Cecilia's Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield (August 2013) – nave

I remarked in an earlier blog-article that I couldn’t understand how the Gloucestershire architect Kenneth B Mackenzie got the commission to build St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield in the late 1930s.

He certainly had no previous experience of designing churches, though he was apparently a sensitive restorer of existing church buildings in the Diocese of Gloucester.

St Cecilia’s is a fine essay in twentieth-century Gothic revival design.  Its stone exterior sits comfortably in its tight little close of council houses, now protected by trees that have matured over three-quarters of a century.  Its stubby little tower is in scale with its domestic surroundings, so that Chaucer Close has the feeling of a village green in the midst of the vast Parson Cross municipal housing estate.

Within, its concrete rendered walls, lit by the plain glass of the rectangular traceried windows, enclose a calm, expansive space, entered through a narthex into an aisled nave, with a sanctuary dominated not by an east window but by a reredos that was added in 1971.  Above the narthex is a west gallery filled with the magnificent case of the 1986 Cousans organ.

Kenneth Mackenzie was clearly fluent in the aesthetic language that the Anglo-Catholic congregation required, and left plenty of scope for additions and embellishments.

He was, like many architects of his generation, less adept at making his building easy to maintain.  He probably, in the late 1930s, assumed that future generations would give priority to preserving the building, in particular giving regular attention to the slate and asphalt roofs.

He couldn’t know that the electrical wiring installed in 1938 would still be in place seventy-five years later.

And he took it for granted that the stream that runs beneath the building would behave itself, which it hasn’t.  The presbytery, always known as the Priory, regularly flooded before it was demolished in 1994, and now that the church is disused the undercroft floor is heaving.

As a source close to the Church Commissioners remarked, the current difficulties with the building arise from defects of maintenance, not from its structural integrity.

It’s certainly untrue that St Cecilia’s Church has necessarily reached the end of its life.

But the unintended consequences of Kenneth Mackenzie’s decisions about structure and design have left a heavy legacy for anyone who contemplates bringing it back to any kind of use.

It seems that Kenneth Mackenzie was the nephew of Mr A R Heathcote, the then anonymous benefactor who paid for the building.

Posted by: mike on Oct 27, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred places

St Cecilia's Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield (August 2013) – sanctuary

Campaigning to save the church of St Hilda, Shiregreen, Sheffield (Leslie T Moore, 1938) was a frustrating experience because of the opacity of the Church Commissioners’ processes for the closure and disposal of redundant churches.

Earlier blog-articles record my interest in the subsequent closure of the nearby church of St Cecilia, Parson Cross (Kenneth B Mackenzie, 1939).  Because I formally objected to the proposed demolition I’ve been given far more information about the building than ever we saw about St Hilda’s, and I was invited to make direct representations to the Commissioners’ Pastoral and Church Buildings (Uses & Disposals) Committees.

The condition and location of St Cecilia’s Church presents an intractable dilemma for the parish and the Commissioners.

It’s practically unusable because of the state of the roof and the wiring, yet the parishioners are saddled with the considerable monthly expense of securing and insuring it while trying to maintain the more compact daughter-church of St Bernard of Clairvaux, in which they now worship, at the other end of the parish in Southey Green.

The diocesan authorities fear the expense and disruption of demolishing a building hemmed in by inhabited houses with restricted road access.

Sheffield City Council has made it clear that the only acceptable change of use would be residential, yet the existing building would not adapt well and a replacement apartment block would be uneconomic in an area where substantial three-bedroomed houses sell for £80,000.

For the moment, the Commissioners have referred back the Diocese’s proposals in an attempt to find an alternative use that avoids the punitive cost and disruption of demolition.

Meanwhile, the small combined congregation of St Cecilia’s and St Bernard’s pay an inordinate price because St Cecilia’s is not yet formally redundant – though almost everyone agrees it should be – and St Bernard’s is not yet consecrated as the parish church of the future.

I continue to argue that the secular community around St Cecilia’s has been given insufficient opportunity to work towards an alternative secular practical use for the building, yet the take-up at the two public meetings that were called was disappointing – fifteen people in 2011 and twenty in August this year.

The Church of England hasn’t been able to find a way to dispose of St Cecilia’s Church from within its own resources and procedures.

The building needs a use that takes advantage of its quiet setting and its light, airy interior space, and that can somehow be supported financially.

Posted by: mike on Oct 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, Bavaria

Hohenschwangau (foreground) and Neuschwanstein (background)

Among the tourist highlights of Bavaria are the fascinating castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, the former built by King Maximilian II of Bavaria (1811-1864) and both most vividly associated with his son, Ludwig II (1845-1886), who is a most interesting, sad figure.

Hohenschwangau reminded me a great deal of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, whereas the vast, unfinished Neuschwanstein has the dark, dreamy Gothic quality of Pugin’s Alton Towers and Alton Castle, and Burges’ Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch.

Both sit high above the valley – Hohenschwangau beside the lake Alpsee on a prominent hill which is no great problem to surmount by stairs or a circuitous driveway;  Neuschwanstein high up the valley side.

There’s no easy way to Neuschwanstein:  the shuttle bus only runs in the summer;  the horse-drawn carriages are in heavy demand;  the line of least resistance is, paradoxically, to walk.  It took me over half an hour, with regular stops on the way.  Even the wheeled transport gives out well below the castle gatehouse.

Both castles operate a strict timed-ticket admission system, to the nearest five minutes, and there are no compromises for latecomers.  My guide at Hohenschwangau was audible, precise and unhurried.  Neuschwanstein was a very different matter.  When I arrived at the gatehouse there appeared to be a species of riot going on, which turned out to be a large group of Italian teenagers who stood between me and the gents, though not for long.

When we got inside we were herded round in a group of over forty, with a determined lady guide who did surprisingly well in the circumstances.  The traipse through a series of astonishing interiors, intricately decorated like a mad version of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, is crowded with swans (hence Neuschwanstein – new-swan-stone) at every turn.

There’s little wonder that Ludwig, a seriously damaged personality, brought up by distant parents, conflicted about his sexuality and his Roman Catholicism, introverted and reclusive and addicted to building using his own rather than the state’s financial resources yet drowning in debt, was eventually dethroned by despairing practical politicians.

His mysterious death four days after his deposition secured his place as a national hero. 

Neuschwanstein was opened to the public six weeks after his death, and his castles, ironically, have become a significant source of prosperity to the surrounding district.

Posted by: mike on Oct 21, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Groudle Glen Railway:  Sea Lion Rocks

Many of the Manx glens remain open to the public, but one above all recaptures the atmosphere of its late-Victorian heyday because of the restoration by a team of ten volunteers of the Groudle Glen Railway.

Richard Maltby Broadbent, the owner of Bibaloe Farm, Onchan, built the Groudle Hotel, and opened Groudle Glen as a resort to coincide with the opening of the Manx Electric Railway in 1893.

He added to the glen’s amenities by opening a miniature railway in 1896 to carry visitors to see the imported Californian sea-lions at a zoo at Sea Lion Rocks.  The service became successful enough to justify supplementing the original locomotive, Sea Lion, with a companion, Polar Bear (1905).

After the First World War battery-electric locomotives were used for six years, but proved to be so unreliable that the original steam locomotives were overhauled and returned to service.

The Groudle Glen Railway reopened after the Second World War in 1950, but a landslip made the terminus inaccessible.  The line was abandoned in the late 1950s, briefly reopened in 1962, but was then closed and lifted.

In the 1980s it was rebuilt by the Isle of Man Steam Railway Supporters Association:  diesel-hauled trains as far as the Headland began running in May 1986, until Sea Lion, fully restored by BNFL Sellafield apprentices, was ready for service in October 1987.

The line was restored to Sea Lion Rocks in May 1992, and a tea-room with spectacular views now stands at the terminus.

The railway has gone from strength to strength in the past twenty years and is well worth seeking out:

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes an optional visit to the Groudle Glen Railway if the 2014 timetable permits.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 19, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Snaefell Mountain Railway:  Laxey

The Snaefell Mountain Railway really shouldn’t exist – a line to a bleak mountain top, using barely altered Victorian technology, built to a different gauge to the line it connects with.

While Alexander Bruce was engaged in constructing what became the Manx Electric Railway he was also driving an electric-powered mountain railway, the first in the British Isles, to the summit of Snaefell, the “snow mountain”, just over 2,000 feet above sea level.

For this he enlisted the engineer George Noble Fell, whose father, John Barraclough Fell, had developed an Incline Railway system, involving a central third rail to provide extra adhesion.  Because of this additional rail, the Snaefell Mountain Railway has a gauge of 3ft 6in.

The line was built with astonishing speed, beginning in January 1895:  despite the “Great Snow” and a navvies’ strike, the 4½-mile route, climbing at an average gradient of 1 in 12, was complete and ready to operate – with track and overhead in place and a coal-fired power station halfway up the mountain – in less than eight months.  The opening ceremony took place on August 20th 1895.

It turned out that the six 100hp electric cars, the most powerful in Britain at the time, could cope with the gradient without the Fell drive, but the centre rail was retained for braking.

In 1896 a hotel, which became known as the Bungalow, was built at the halfway passing loop and a further battlemented hotel was constructed at the summit in 1906.

Through all the political uncertainties that threatened the island’s railways as traffic declined from the 1950s onwards, the Snaefell cars have run up and down the mountain.

Car 5, destroyed by fire in August 1970, was rebuilt and returned to service within a year;  the entire Snaefell fleet was equipped with new bogies built by London Transport and electrical equipment from Aachen tramways in the mid-1970s.

The Summit hotel was burnt down in 1982 and rebuilt two years later, and new car sheds were built for the Snaefell fleet in 1995.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the Snaefell line has more purpose than ever – the Summit Sunday lunches, sunset dinners, astronomical suppers (branded “Pie in the Sky”) with telescopes provided.

Only in the Isle of Man…

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a trip to the Summit on the Snaefell Mountain Railway.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 17, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Manx Electric Railway: Groudle Glen

When the Manx Electric Railway was developed in the 1890s it brought the best and newest transport technology to the Isle of Man and opened up the east of the island to property development.

It was masterminded by energetic engineers and financed by smoke and mirrors.

In 1889 the manager of Dumbell’s Bank, Alexander Bruce, and a civil engineer called Frederick Saunderson bought land north of Douglas and sold it on to Douglas Bay Estate Company for housing development. 

They consulted leading experts in the new technology of electric traction, Dr Edward Hopkinson and Sir William Mather of Mather & Platt, Salford, over the construction of 2¼ miles of 3ft-gauge track from Douglas to Groudle, with gradients of 1 in 24 at each end of the route.  The initial service, using three electric cars, began on September 7th 1893, and carried over 20,000 passengers in the first three weeks.

The following year the original company was renamed the Douglas Bay Estate & Groudle Glen Company Ltd, and it promoted the Douglas & Laxey Coast Electric Tramway Company to extend the line to the harbour town of Laxey.

The company, having taken over the Douglas horse-trams and promoted the Upper Douglas Tramway, was renamed the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company Ltd.  It subsequently took over Bruce’s Snaefell Mountain Railway which ran from Laxey to the top of the island’s highest peak.

By the time the line reached Ramsey – 17½ miles from Douglas – in 1899, the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company had become an established and powerful force in the Island’s economy.  The company was carrying well over two million passengers by 1896, a quarter of them on the partly-completed electric railways, and 2,500 tons of goods, including quarry traffic.

However, expenditure up to early 1899 amounted to £518,000, which was covered by capital of only £336,000.  Half-yearly dividends of up to 8½% were paid, and the company secretary, quietly and understandably, resigned in January 1900.  When in February 1900 Parr’s Bank foreclosed on a loan of £150,000 to Dumbells’ Bank, the bank, and with it the tramways and the power company, were finished.

The electric railway, along with the Douglas horse and cable trams, continued to operate in liquidation, and the Douglas-Ramsey and Snaefell lines were purchased in 1902, first by a UK syndicate for £250,000, and then sold on to the London-registered Manx Electric Railway Company for £375,000.  This new owner put the electric railways back on their feet, repurchasing in addition the Dhoon quarry and the original company’s string of hotels.  It also opened the Snaefell Summit Hotel in 1906 and owned or operated the Laxey, Ballaglass, Garwick and Dhoon glens as resorts.

In 1906 the electric railways carried 535,021 passengers, generating £34,279 profit.  By 1913 over 700,000 passengers were carried, and the undertaking was solvent and paying dividends.

So the Isle of Man gained a superb late-Victorian transport facility which earned its keep well into the twentieth century and remains as a much-loved government-owned tourist attraction that has repeatedly escaped closure by the inimitable twists and turns of Manx politics.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop visit to the Manx Electric Railway depot at Derby Castle, and uses the railway repeatedly as a means of travel.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 14, 2013

Category:Sacred places

Wentworth Old Church

When the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam provided the village of Wentworth with a huge new parish church in 1877, he made sure its predecessor would not remain in use.

The final service in the old church was evensong on Sunday July 29th 1877, prior to the consecration of the new church by the Archbishop of York two days later on Tuesday July 31st.  Shortly afterwards, the old Holy Trinity parish church was stripped of its roof and some of its walls, leaving only the tower and the Wentworth Chapel containing monuments to the Earl’s distant ancestors from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The most distinguished of these is Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1593 -1641), executed in the run-up to the English Civil War.  No-one knows where his body is buried, though some in Wentworth say his grave is near the monument that his son erected in the old church.

Later members of the family were buried in a vault in the churchyard provided by the 4th Earl, but in the twentieth century the Fitzwilliams preferred more modest graves to the south of the new church.

The churchyard of the old church, however, contains some fascinating graves – the Marquis of Rockingham’s housekeeper, Miss Hannah Jennet, and endless other estate workers, Joshua Oxley (d 1803), Edward Carr (d 1859) and Job Winter (d 1873), all drowned in Elsecar Reservoir, and John Hague, “local preacher amongst the people who call themselves Methodists”.

Most poignant of all is Chow Kwang Tseay, who came to England in 1847 and was baptised John Dennis Blonde, taking his surname from the ship that brought him.

The Wentworth Chapel was restored, and the ruined parts of the old church consolidated, in 1925 by the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam.  It was declared redundant in 1976 and is now vested in the Churches Conservation Trust.

The Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014) tour, based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to the two parish churches in the estate village of Wentworth and several of the Wentworth Monuments, together with a Connoisseurs Tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 12, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred places

Wentworth New Church

The estate-church of Holy Trinity, Wentworth (1875-7), with its spire nearly two hundred feet high, was commissioned by the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam (1815-1902) and designed by John Loughborough Pearson in his scholarly, dignified Gothic Revival manner, in late thirteenth-century Geometrical style.

Holy Trinity is an imposing cruciform building with elegant rib-vaulting and a distinctly understated simplicity.  The east window (1888) is by Clayton & Bell and the west window (c1903) by Kempe.

Other windows with coloured glass are mostly given in memory of successive Agents, and in the south transept is a sequence of brasses commemorating members of the Fitzwilliam family from the generation that built the church onwards.

There is a story that the 6th Earl needed a bigger church to accommodate his large family:  certainly the pews on the north aisle are designed for children.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner [in The Buildings of England: Yorkshire West Riding (2nd edn, revised by Enid Radcliffe, Penguin 1967)] comments, “The Fitzwilliams of the day could not have spent their money more judiciously.”

The Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014) tour, based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to the two parish churches in the estate village of Wentworth and several of the Wentworth Monuments, together with a Connoisseurs Tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 9, 2013

Category:Sheffield's Heritage

Butcher Works, Sheffield

In October last year the South Yorkshire Art Fund provided me with an opportunity to see Butcher Works, an unusually austere example of Sheffield’s surviving cutlery factories, dating back to 1819-20 but mostly built c1855-60, led by Oliver Jessop, the archaeologist who investigated the site before and during its redevelopment.

Here, edge-tools, cutlery and files were made by the independent workmen who were known in Sheffield as the “Little Mesters”, contracting and sub-contracting their specialised trades and, often, hiring workshop facilities from factory-owners such as William and Samuel Butcher.

Up to the end of the eighteenth-century Sheffield’s cutlers worked in small water-powered forges.  Their workshops were often referred to as “wheels”, as in the preserved Shepherd Wheel in the Porter Valley.

The name persisted when steam-power arrived, and even though the Butcher brothers’ four-storey courtyard factory stands in the middle of town on Arundel Street, where the 9th Duke of Norfolk had unsuccessfully sought to develop a select residential development, it was always known as Butcher’s Wheel.

These bleak, grimy workshops, which produced some of the finest cutlery and silverware in the world, have become rarities, and there are some moribund examples still, such as Leah’s Yard within the footprint of the stalled Sevenstone shopping development.

The last working tenants left Butcher’s Wheel in 2004, and it’s now been redeveloped as apartments above the workshops of the Academy of Makers [], a gallery, the Fusion Café [] and the Ruskin Organic Bakery

The works is also home to Freeman College [], which caters for marginalised students and those with special educational needs, especially those on the autistic spectrum.

The activities of the other occupiers, the craftspeople and the café provide the students with work-experience as part of the process of equipping them for independent living.

All this modern activity pays for its restoration, yet buried within are unexpected remains of its industrial past, a grinding shop (called a “hull” in Sheffield), an intact hand-forge and a magnificent Bramah pan-closet relocated from its original site next to the directors’ board room.

The informative historical information panels about Butcher Works are accessible at and there’s an aerial view of the site before renovation in Nicola Wray, Bob Hawkins & Colum Giles, ‘One Great Workshop’:  the buildings of the Sheffield metal trades (English Heritage 2001), p 50.

Posted by: mike on Oct 6, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Peter's Anglican Cathedral, Armidale, New South Wales

St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Armidale, stands just round the corner from its Catholic neighbour.  Though both are Gothic in style, their differences are distinctive.

St Peter’s was designed by John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904), the Canadian-born original architect of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle (begun 1869) on the New South Wales coast and Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton (1881).

Hunt favoured brick, an unexpected material for a cathedral, because its relative cheapness ensured that as much as possible could be built with the limited amount of money available.

The first Bishop of Grafton & Armidale, James F Turner, commented, “Our architect has studied carefully to give the church a certain stateliness of character, and therein has succeeded admirably…it is real, honest, and true; and shows what may be done in a material often too little regarded, viz, common brick.”

Hunt used local blue brick sourced from clay on the Saumarez estate, with Uralla granite dressings and a scissor-truss roof.  Building began in 1873 and after two years the first phase was opened.  The vestries and chapter house were added in 1910, and the tower completed in 1938.

I visited Armidale to lecture to the local decorative and fine arts society on Chicago.  Illustrating skyscrapers in that city, I remarked the Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Tower ignores its surroundings while the earlier Wrigley Building is carefully shaped to fit into its geographical context on the bend of a river – very like, I said, the modern annexes to St Peter’s Cathedral, which blend in a neighbourly way with Hunt’s original design.

At the end the gentleman who gave the vote of thanks remarked how pleased he was that I’d mentioned the extensions to St Peter’s Cathedral because he was Tony Deakin, the architect who designed the Parish Hall:

When you address an audience, you never know who’s listening.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here. 

Posted by: mike on Oct 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

St Patrick's Orphanage, Armidale, New South Wales

St Patrick's Orphanage, Armidale, New South Wales

When I lectured to the Armidale Decorative & Fine Arts Society, I was invited to dinner by Les and Libby in their spacious Gothic Revival apartment, part of the former St Patrick’s Orphanage.

This surprisingly late example of Gothic design was built between 1919 and 1921 for the Sisters of Mercy by George Nott, who had previously built Armidale’s Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph.

By 1924 there were 120 children at the home, cared for and largely educated by the Sisters.  The regime at St Patrick’s Orphanage was not, it seems, a bed of roses:

The orphanage transferred to two cottages in 1976 and eventually closed in 1984.  The 1921 building stood derelict for some years, and has now found a happier fate as an opulent apartment-block.

There is an image of the building when it was new at

Posted by: mike on Oct 2, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Mary & St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral, Armidale, New South Wales

Sited in the midst of the Northern Tablelands above the Hunter Valley, Armidale is a strange city to British eyes:  it has two cathedrals, a university, and a population of less than twenty thousand.  Its oddity to most Australians is that because of its altitude, over 3,000 feet above sea-level, it has seasons, so they call the region “New England”.

Many of the early settlers were Irish, and Catholicism has remained a significant force in the community.

The fine Catholic Cathedral of St Mary & St Joseph was designed by Joseph Ignatius Sheerin (d 1915) & John Francis Hennessy (1853-1924) of Sydney, and built in polychrome brick and Pyrmont sandstone by the Armidale building contractor George Nott in 1911-12.

The Anglican George Nott (1865-1940) owned timber mills and brickworks in the area, and supplied the 1.1 million bricks for the cathedral, the largest project of his career.  Built in a little over twenty months, it cost A£32,000.  Its needle spire, 155 feet high, is a major landmark.

It was one of the last works of the Sheerin & Hennesssy partnership, designers of a series of prestigious Catholic buildings in and around Sydney – the Archbishop’s House (1885) and St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly (1885-1889), St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill (1884-94), St Vincent’s College, Potts Point (1886), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, Randwick (1888)and the Sacred Heart Monastery, West Kensington, Sydney (1895).

When St Mary & St Joseph’s Cathedral celebrated its centenary, a member of the congregation was George Nott’s daughter, 91-year-old Peggy Becke, wearing the gold chain from the watch that the parishioners presented to her father when the building was completed:

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 30, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales, looking towards Brisbane

I was intended to travel from my Newcastle DFAS lecture to the next booking at Scone by car, but my chauffeur was taken ill so I took the train to Muswellbrook (pronounced Mussel-brook), and after I’d lectured at Scone, another train from there up the length of the Hunter Valley.

I wasn’t aware at the time but later discovered that Sandgate station on the way out of Newcastle marks the location of the Sandgate Cemetery Branch, which operated from when the Cemetery opened in 1881 until at least 1933 – (the cemetery website [] – indicates services ran until 1985).

Stations with evocative Geordie names – Wallsend, Hexham – lead to Maitland, the junction where the North Coast Line, built on a shorter route closer to the coast between 1905 and 1932, leaves the older Main North Line.

Maitland is also the base for the elaborate Hunter Valley Steamfest [], which offers an astonishing range of steam-related entertainments, not all of them rail-based, every April.

Even from the road, especially on the New England Highway, the coal and the trains still dominate:  the inexorable coal-trains look a mile long, and at a level crossing you might as well switch off the car-engine and pour yourself a coffee.

Yet the countryside is open and pastoral:  here there is money to be made from horse-breeding and wine-growing.

The station-names become Scottish for a while – Lochinvar, Allandale – and then switch to Co Durham – Greta.  Eventually, after the vast Dartbrook Colliery, the landscape turns rural again and the towns more elegant, with Scots names – Aberdeen and Scone.

From Scone the route continues to climb and the ruling gradient of 1 in 80 becomes 1 in 40 at the approach to the single-track bottleneck Ardglen Tunnel, over a quarter of a mile long, at over 2,300 feet altitude.

The once-a-day CountryLink service to and from Sydney breaks at Werris Creek, still a significant railway junction with a fine station building by John Whitton (1820-1898), Engineer-in-Charge of New South Wales Railway and builder also of the border railway station at Albury.

One portion of the CountryLink train goes takes the Mungindi Line to Moree;  I followed the main route to the present-day end of the line at Armidale.  Past Tamworth the line tends to follow tight river-valleys, until at Uralla it emerges on to the open, empty tableland plain.

Passenger service ends where the line turns sharply north-west at Armidale, at the fine 1882-3 railway station designed by Edmund Lonsdale with cast-ironwork from the New England Foundry at Uralla. 

You can stand at the north end of Armidale Station gazing at the rusting tracks which stretch another 93 miles to the break-of-gauge at Wallangarra.

The line to the border with Queensland was abandoned beyond Tamworth in the late 1980s, though services were restored as far as Armidale in 1993.  The abandoned track and infrastructure remains in place, though it must be decrepit by now.

Queensland Railways’ 3ft-6in-guage services to Wallangarra ceased in 1997, though heritage steam services occasional operate:

Posted by: mike on Sep 27, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Liverpool St James's Cemetery (1979)

St James's Cemetery, Liverpool (1979) – Huskisson Monument in the foreground

A page of Liverpool City Council’s website [] presents the former quarry below the Anglican Cathedral as an “oasis of peace”, a bland description that matches the 1970s landscaping of one of the city’s most dramatic corners.

The stone for much of eighteenth-century Liverpool was quarried here.  As Mount Zion it was a place of resort, especially after the discovery in 1773 of a chalybeate spring which was thought good for “loss of appetite, nervous disorders, lowness of spirit, headache…proceeding from crudities of the stomach, rickets and weak eyes”.

Renamed St James’s Mount, after the newly-built adjacent parish church, around 1775, it became more genteel.  John Bridge opened “a coffee house of considerable repute…frequented principally by persons of a superior class”.  Visitors relished the contrast between the vast quarry face and the “subterraneous [entrance], supported by arches, [which] has a pleasing and romantic effect”.

When the quarry was practically exhausted in 1825 it became St James’s Cemetery, so immediately profitable that as soon as it opened in 1829 its first year of trading paid an 8% dividend.

The Liverpool architect John Foster Jnr designed a funerary chapel, the Oratory, and built a series of retaining walls, ramps and catacombs into the quarry face.  Mike Faulkner’s informative website [] provides details of the tunnels that gave access for mourners and hearses.

By the time St James’ Cemetery closed in July 1936, 57,774 burials had taken place.  From that time onwards maintenance became an increasingly severe problem.

The floor of the cemetery was almost entirely cleared by the City Council between 1969 and 1972, isolating John Foster Jnr’s magnificent 1833 mausoleum of the Liverpool MP and President of the Board of Trade, William Huskisson (1770-1830).  Huskisson’s statue by John Gibson has been removed for safety.

Other celebrated Liverpudlians buried here include the architect, John Foster Junior (1786-1846), Sir William Brown (1784-1864), donor of the William Brown Library, and the much-loved Catherine “Kitty” Wilkinson (1786-1860), an Irish-born washerwoman of Denison Street.  She is famous for making her water-boiler available to maintain cleanliness during the 1832 Cholera Epidemic, “indefatigable and self-denying, she was the widow’s friend, the support of the orphan, the fearless and unwearied nurse of the sick, the originator of baths and wash-houses for the poor”.

St James’s Gardens, as it’s now known, provides a green amenity in the midst of the city.

But I miss the Gothick atmosphere of the accumulated gravestones and monuments that filled the quarry floor until 1972.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Sep 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architecture

Sea Marge, Overstrand

Sea Marge, Overstrand, Norfolk

Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932), was an exceptionally rich and exceptionally cultured man.  He came from a German Jewish family that ran finance houses in Germany, Great Britain and the United States and he took British nationality in 1892.  As such, he organised much of the capital that enabled the Chicago transit tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes to establish the deep-level underground railways that became London’s Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly lines.  After Yerkes’ death in 1905 Edgar Speyer became chairman of Underground Electric Railways of London.

He used his wealth to further his enthusiasms, funding Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts from 1902 to 1914, the Whitechapel Art Gallery (1901) and Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1910-12 Antarctic Expedition.

He was one of the millionaires who populated the quiet village of Overstrand on the north Norfolk coast at the beginning of the twentieth century.

He commissioned the prestigious architect Sir Arthur Blomfield to design Sea Marge (meaning “on the margin of the sea”) and incorporated the neighbouring property, The Gables, after the death of its owner.

The year the house was completed, 1902, Edgar Speyer married the American violinist, Leonora von Stosch (1872-1956), for whom he provided Stradivarius and Guarneri violins.   Speyer became a baronet in 1906 and a Privy Councillor in 1909.

Sir Edgar and Lady Speyer became victims of intense anti-German prejudice during the First World War, such that Speyer offered to resign from the Privy Council and revoke his baronetcy, offers that were summarily rejected by King George V and the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.  Accusations ranged from serious charges of trading with the enemy to suggestions that he was using Sea Marge as a base from which to signal to German submarines.

Post-war in camera investigations into Speyer’s wartime conduct, however, concluded that through his international trading operations he had practically collaborated with the Germans.  Sir Edgar and Lady Speyer’s and their daughters’ British nationality was revoked:  he was removed from the Privy Council, though allowed to retain his hereditary baronetcy.  He sold up all his British business interests and his London house, and moved to New York.

There is a biography examining the case against Sir Edgar:  Antony Lentin, Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?:  the troublesome case of Sir Edgar Speyer (Haus 2013).

Sea Marge remained in the Speyers’ hands until Sir Edgar’s death in 1932.  The purchasers, Mr and Mrs Gibbons, moved into the Coach House, and sold the main house on.  It opened as a hotel in 1935:  after closing in 1955 the property was for long neglected, but has now been fully restored and once more operates as a hotel:

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Sep 21, 2013

Category:Fun PalacesCountry Houses

Stanford Hall Theatre, Nottinghamshire 3

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire, Theatre wing

The Stanford Hall estate on the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border has been in limbo ever since the Co-operative College moved out in 2001.  Two developers have successively raised schemes to finance the restoration of the hall and its grounds by constructing houses and apartments in the park, and both have come to nothing.

Its long history is both complex and sensitive – owned by two successive gentry families, a Burton brewer, the eccentric furniture millionaire Sir Julien Cahn and latterly the College.  In particular, Sir Julien’s external additions – various sporting facilities and a fully-equipped private theatre – have been greatly valued by the local community during the years that the College ran the place.

In 2011 the Duke of Westminster bought the Stanford Hall estate as a future base for the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre, which supports members of the armed services and civilians as they recover from traumatic injuries.

This work currently takes place at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Epsom, Surrey, but this facility is no longer capable of expansion, though the need continues to grow:  casualties now survive injuries which would have been beyond recovery even ten years ago.

Stanford Hall is considered ideal for this new purpose because of its Midlands location, its tranquil environment and the space for magnificent new facilities which need not overpower the historic landscape.

Members of the local community have expressed concern about the future of the Stanford Hall Theatre, which Sir Julien built in 1937 as a venue for his private conjuring shows.

There’s a potential conflict between the desire of local groups for access to the theatre such as they enjoyed in the days of the Co-operative College and the needs of the Defence and Rehabilitation Centre, which will make active use of the theatre and requires higher levels of security than were ever needed by the College.

The proposed physical alterations to the Theatre, primarily to provide level access for wheelchairs, seem relatively benign:  a wrap-around block will provide much better access to the auditorium, and Sir Julien’s top-floor bedroom suite for his private cricket team will be stripped out to reduce loading on the outer walls.  I can find no mention in the planning application of the bomb shelter beneath the auditorium rake.

The plans don’t appear to stretch to a full restoration of the theatre facilities and the Wurlitzer organ, and this has exercised a consortium of local amateur-dramatic societies:

Let’s hope that the heroes and the thespians can live amicably together.

Posted by: mike on Sep 18, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago River City

Clearly visible from the Sears/Willis Tower, River City (1986) – despite its incomplete form – is Bertrand Goldberg’s complement to Marina City, a free-standing residential complex.  Instead of the intended height of seventy-two storeys, the existing building is only seventeen storeys high, incorporating a boat-dock giving direct access to the Chicago River.

Its S-shape is reflected in the spinal ten-storey atrium, the River Road, which runs through the building, so that the wedge-shaped apartments alternatively face out to the river or inwards to the atrium.  Originally the building was intended to extend a further 400 metres towards Roosevelt Road.

Bertrand Goldberg was a Chicago-born Bauhaus student and graduate of the Armour Institute regarded Mies van der Rohe as his mentor, until he became repelled by the mechanical repetitiveness of modernist design.

Goldberg asserted a more humane design-language by his rejection of right-angles, spectacularly apparent in his Chicago housing-projects.

The fragment of River City that exists lacks the impact of the intended design.  Marina City is 65 storeys high;  the six clusters of “triad” towers at River City would have been 72 storeys, linked by bridges at intervals of eighteen floors.

Mies is regarded as an aesthetic hero by a whole generation.  The tall rectangular boxes that he and his followers erected in cities across the world look fine, but Goldberg’s towers feel like places to live in.

There’s an account of Goldberg and his life’s work at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 16, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago Marina City

The twin towers of Chicago’s Marina City (1959-64) – inevitably nicknamed the “corn cobs” – were a social as well as an urban landmark.  Their architect, Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997), insisted their floor-plans were derived from the sunflower, “where the core is the center of the flower and each of the bays emanating from the core are very much both in shape and organization - like the petal of the flower.”

These two concrete towers were an exciting practical departure from established development thinking:  their construction is transparent, with a spiral of car parks leading to cake-slice shaped apartments with open semi-circular balconies;  the intention – which proved highly successful from the start – was to provide downtown accommodation for single and childless city-centre workers who wished to live virtually, if not actually, within the Loop.

The first nineteen storeys form a ramped multi-storey car-park (staffed by valets, presumably to minimise misadventures).  The twentieth floor is given over to services, included a launderette, and the floors above consist of apartments with some of the most enviable views in Chicago.

Conceived as a “city within a city”, Marina City was equipped with shops, restaurant, entertainment facilities and hosted both radio and television studios, as well as a marina with direct access to the Chicago River.

To provide nine hundred apartments economically, Goldberg chose to build two sixty-storey towers, and rejected steel cladding as too expensive.  Consequently, they were for their time the tallest reinforced-concrete structures in the world.

At a time when “white flight” to the suburbs was a major problem for urban planners, Marina City helped to turn the tide, making inner-city living desirable and convenient – though its residents, driving in and out and sweeping home in high-speed elevators, need hardly set foot on the sidewalk for weeks on end.

A helpful description of Marina City is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 14, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago IBM Building

The towering figure of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) ensured that Chicago led the world in the development of the modernist International Style.  He arrived in Chicago, a refugee from Nazi Germany, in 1937 to head the school of architecture at Armour Institute, which subsequently became the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Having designed the IIT campus in the Black Belt area of Bronzeville, he took up full-time architectural practice on his retirement in 1958.

Rooted in the principles of the pre-war Bauhaus School,– that architecture is intended simply to define space, buildings should have absolute regularity unless variation is functionally necessary and there should be no applied decoration – the buildings of this style are instantly recognisable as rectilinear boxes floating above a ground-level podium.  They show no sign of their function, ignore their surroundings and could be positioned anywhere.  Mies van der Rohe’s principle was that “less is more”.

His last American commission was the 52-storey, 695-feet-high IBM Building at 330 North Wabash Avenue, built posthumously in 1969-71 (or 1971-3, depending on the source).  Its distinguishing feature is the use of dark aluminium instead of black structural members, and of bronze-tinted glass instead of clear.

It represents a landmark in building design because its owners, necessarily, specified features to accommodate what was then an unusual quantity of computers – an under-floor duct-system to permit cabling and reverse refrigeration to disperse the heat from the machines.

The building is a beautiful shape, but it could have been built anywhere.  Unlike the nearby Wrigley Building, which is carefully designed to fit with the bend in the Chicago River, the IBM Building is parked unceremoniously in a position that required the realignment of North Wabash Avenue.

It remains a practical building now that it’s to an extent outlived its original purpose.  As 330 North Wabash it is being refurbished to incorporate a five-star hotel on floors 2-16:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 11, 2013

Category:Manx Heritage

Great Laxey Wheel:  Lady Isabella

The Isle of Man’s most distinctive industrial structure is the decorative but entirely practical Great Laxey Wheel, which is properly named Lady Isabella after the wife of the Lieutenant Governor, the Hon Charles Hope, at the time of its construction, 1850-54.

On an island entirely devoid of coal, the spectacular 72½-foot diameter backshot wheel was the economical solution to the need to drain the Laxey mines to a depth of 1,200 feet.

The wheel is driven by the waters of the Glen Mooar river led by gravity from an upstream cistern to the top of the tower behind the wheel.

In turn it drives a crank connected to a rod-system, carried on a 200-yard viaduct of 34 arches to power the pumping gear.

Because of its prominence in the valley, it was given an elaborate architectural treatment, with a vertiginous spiral staircase leading to a viewing platform above the supply aqueduct. 

The Great Laxey Mining Company became hugely profitable.   Peak production was achieved in 1875 – 2,400 tons of lead, 107,420 ounces of silver (worth over £90,000) and 11,753 tons of zinc-blende. In 1876 £4 shares yielded a 50% dividend.

From then on production declined, until flooding bankrupted the company in 1901, and attempts to revive the mine finally gave out in 1929.

The Lady Isabella, on the other hand, has been a consistent success as a tourist attraction.  In 1877 16,445 visitors climbed to the top of the Wheel.   The miners’ wives did good business providing ham-and-egg teas for visitors, so that Dumbell’s Terrace became and remains known as Ham and Egg Row.

Admission charges (£200 in 1887) were donated to the Miners’ Poor Relief Fund until 1897, when they were diverted to the Mining Company’s own increasingly depleted funds.

The Lady Isabella continued to operate as a private tourist attraction until in 1965, when it was sold to the Manx Government.  After a thorough restoration it reopened in 1967, and the derelict mining remains of Glen Mooar were investigated and conserved to form the Mines Trail which opened in 1986.

There is a vivid if haphazardly shot video of the Wheel at, and tourist information about visiting is at

The Lady Isabella is a destination on the Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour.  For details please click here. 

Posted by: mike on Sep 8, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Former Big Wheel Café, St Michael-on-Wyre

Former Big Wheel Café, St Michael-on-Wyre, Lancashire

Regular clients on Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times tours are used to finding that the tour contains more than the outline promises.

This isn’t simply perverse marketing:  sometimes opportunities arise at the last minute, too late to advertise, and I like to have a reputation for providing more than it says on the tin.

The guests on the Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage (July 10th-15th 2013) tour were mystified to be taken to see Judith Hunter’s conservatory next to her caravan-site in St Michael’s-on-Wyre, a few miles inland from Blackpool.

I told them they would see perhaps the only surviving relic from the Blackpool Winter Gardens’ Big Wheel.

The Big Wheel, along with the Empress Ballroom, was the Winter Gardens manager Bill Holland’s response to the arrival of the Tower in 1894.

The Ballroom was a great success, and provoked the Tower Company to embellish their assembly room into the Tower Ballroom.

The 220ft-high Big Wheel of 1896 largely failed to compete with the higher, simpler Tower, except in one respect:  in quiet periods (there were many) young men escorting young ladies sometimes bribed the attendant to hold the Wheel for a time when their carriage was at the top.

When the Tower Company took over the Winter Gardens in 1928, almost their first act was to dismantle the Wheel.

The thirty carriages were auctioned off as garden sheds and summer houses, and Judith’s was bought by Miss Edith Swallow, the first matron of Blackpool Orphanage, to serve as a holiday home for the orphan girls.

For some years Judith used it as a café but now she keeps it for private use.

Other Big Wheel carriages have disintegrated in recent years – one in Poulton-le-Fylde, another in Cleveleys – and there’s a rumour of a remaining survivor in Garstang.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 5, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred places

St Cecilia's Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield (August 2013)

After the public meeting about the demolition of St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield Paul Beckett, the Assistant Diocesan Secretary (Property) of the Diocese of Sheffield, invited me to see the interior of the church to gain a better idea of its condition.

It would indeed need serious money to deal with the water ingress, the fallen plaster, the undulating floor in the undercroft and the shot-to-pieces wiring.

If someone could contrive a practical way of recouping an investment of up to a million pounds to save the Church Commissioners spending perhaps £200,000 demolishing the place, they’d have a very beautiful building for their money.

Kenneth McKenzie’s church looks much bigger inside than you’d expect.  It’s a broad, light, elegant space, picking up the elements of traditional churches in the stripped-back manner of inter-war architecture.

As it stands, it has a melancholy time-warp feel:  although disused for the past couple of years, the hymn-books are still on the shelf and the vestments hang in the vestry.

Because the parish was always at the high end of Anglo-Catholicism, it retains statues of saints, a Pietà and a highly ornate reredos of 1923 which is in fact a refugee from the demolished church of Holy Trinity, Preston via another demolished church, St Margaret’s, Burnley.  Presumably it will once more go on its travels.

St Cecilia’s also has an impressive-looking organ, built in 1986 by Cousans of Lincoln from the previous organ by Vincent’s of Durham (1972) with additional parts from two other organs by the Sheffield firm of Brindley & Foster.

Checking the organ in the National Pipe Organ Register [] alerted me to a revealing chronology:

1972:  new organ
1986:  another new organ
1999-2003:  renovation of undercroft (nearly £400,000 funded largely by the Single Regeneration Budget and the National Lottery)
2010:  roof, heating and electrical wiring beyond economic repair
2011:  church closed

It’s clear, with the luxury of hindsight, that it would have been better to prioritise maintaining the outer envelope of the building rather than embellishing the interior.

As it is, the cost of doing anything with it – knocking it down or reviving it – will be onerous.

I mentioned again the stern requirement in the Pastoral Scheme for St Cecilia’s that the church shall be demolished, and Paul assured me that if anyone were to come up with a practical scheme to save the building the process towards demolition could be stalled.

It’s a big ask to fill an empty envelope.

The empty envelope

Posted by: mike on Sep 3, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred places

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (August 31st 2013)

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (August 31st 2013)

At the belated start of the belated campaign to save St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield I knew a good deal less about the byzantine workings of the Church Commissioners than I now do.

As the scaffolding goes up to begin destroying St Hilda’s, I’ve learned that to develop the land on which an Anglican church has stood requires unusual tenacity.

The conditions of sale demand that a prospective purchaser has a practical business plan and planning permission for the proposed development.

Planning permission involves a significant amount of expensive professional support.

Then, I’ve discovered, the prospective purchaser has to demolish the church building before they can purchase it.

Clearly, this requires nerves of steel and a great deal of faith, because it can cost close on a six-figure sum even to create an empty site.

I hope whatever goes up in place of St Hilda’s looks at least as good.

Posted by: mike on Aug 31, 2013

Category:Transports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  London United Tramways 159

The National Tramway Museum, like all good tourist sites, needs novelties to encourage visitors to return repeatedly:

This year’s pride and joy is London United Tramways no 159, built in 1902 and now newly restored after twenty-one years of service in London and fifty-five years as part of a residence in Surrey.

It was originally used on the routes out to Twickenham, Hampton and Hampton Court, where expectations were understandably high, so this W-class tram was one of the LUT’s “Palace cars”, its palatial lower deck fully fitted with the inlaid walnut ceiling, plush carpet, velvet curtains and upholstery and silk tassels instead of leather hanging straps that were thought appropriate for its upper-class passengers.

It was not, as such, a first-class vehicle, simply what the residents expected.  (Liverpool tramways did have first-class trams in which workmen could not ride so that passengers could travel without fear of dirtying their clothes on their fellow passengers’ overalls.  Presumably the LUT didn’t expect workmen in Twickenham and Hampton:  they are, after all, a long way from the docks.)

The National Tramway Museum, in conjunction with the London County Council Tramways Trust and the Arts Council’s Prism Fund [Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material], has spent £400,000 on bringing 159 back to its glorious original condition.  The original cost in 1902 was £669.

It’s the biggest restoration project the Museum has tackled so far.

The London County Council Tramways Trust’s album of the restoration of 159 shows how much work is needed to turn a recovered tram body back into an operational vehicle:  A smaller but more comprehensive gallery is at

Posted by: mike on Aug 28, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Renishaw Hall, north front

Of all the eccentrics associated with Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire [see Chatterleys not at home], Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), whose legend was immortalised by his three famous children, Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sir Osbert (1892-1969) and Sir Sacheverell (1897-1988), is my favourite.

He appeared oddly myopic about the roots of his prosperity:  Evelyn Waugh describes him standing on the terrace at Renishaw gesticulating towards Barlborough across the “farms, cottages, villas, the railway, the colliery and the densely teeming streets” and remarking, “You see, there is no-one between us and the Locker Lampsons.”  His children, however, told of sitting in the quiet of a Renishaw evening, listening to a faint tapping below which came from the miners hewing the black wealth beneath their feet.

He had a toothbrush that played ‘Annie Laurie’, and a miniature revolver for shooting wasps.  He considered stencilling blue willow pattern on the white cows in the park, “to give distinction to the landscape”, but found it impractical.  His schemes for estate improvements were never ending.

He had a passion for gardening, and began altering the surroundings of Renishaw in 1887.  He also had a passion for local history, particularly when its minutiae illuminated the distant doings of his remote ancestors.  Sir Osbert said that his father was “adept at taking hold of the wrong end of a thousand sticks”;  John Pearson commented that “much of Sir George’s life was...spent correcting experts”.  He was particularly proud that he “captured a spirit at the headquarters of the Spiritualists, London, 1880”.

He passed on a considerable share of eccentricity to his children, some of it deliberately:  he advised Edith on one occasion that there was “nothing a young man likes so much as a girl who is good on the parallel bars”.  She it was who in her youth at Renishaw once disguised herself as an armchair, covered in a dustsheet, in order to be carried upstairs by her brothers to avoid an aunt.  Sir Osbert described himself as “educated during holidays from Eton”.

Sir George befriended the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and brought him to Renishaw repeatedly:  Sir Reresby Sitwell describes Lutyens’ effect on his grandfather’s plans as “restraint rather than...guidance”.  It was on the Sunday morning of one of these weekend visits that Lutyens asked the butler, “Is Lady Ida down?”

From 1909 onwards Sir George became increasingly preoccupied with the restoration of the castle he purchased at Montegufoni in Tuscany, until eventually in 1925 he moved out there permanently, and handed over Renishaw to his eldest son, Osbert, and his other English estate, Weston Hall, Northamptonshire, to Sacheverell.

His nephew, the late Sir Reresby Sitwell (1927-2009), carried on the tradition of celebrating eccentricity, particularly the manifest oddities of his grandfather.

A guided visit to Renishaw Hall features in the Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014) tour, which is based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 25, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesBirmingham's Heritage

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Town Hall was the centre of its musical life from its opening in 1834 until 1991, and the home base for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from its inauguration in 1920.

When Sir Simon Rattle became Principal Conductor & Artistic Adviser in 1980, and Music Director from 1990, he made it his business not only to develop the orchestra further but to provide it with a better home.

He had told Russell Johnson, head of the acoustic consultants Artec of New York, that “If I am ever involved in a new concert hall, you will design it...”

And they did.

Symphony Hall is primarily a concert hall which can be adapted for conference use, with 2,200 seats, 63m long, 31m wide and 22m high.  The seating is tiered, with 877 on the main floor, 347 on the first gallery-tier, 291 on the second and 485 on the third.  At the rear of the platform there is seating for a choir of up to two hundred.

The design combines traditional materials and sophisticated technology to provide flexible acoustics for every musical genre from chamber music to the most ambitious orchestral and choral works.  It has sliding acoustic control banners to reduce reverberance, an adjustable reverberation chamber above and behind the stage fitted with twenty concrete swing-doors each weighing approximately eight tons to vary the volume of the auditorium by up to 30% and a 42-tonne acoustic canopy.

Its reverse fan shape is based on traditional opera houses and concert halls, with the audience stacked in tiers in a narrow chamber.

Russell Johnson advocates using wood “...similar to that of a violin”.  The perimeter walls of the Hall are one foot thick, and much of the acoustic quality comes from this sheer weight of materials.

Ironically, this masterpiece of modern acoustic design stands only 35m from the busiest rail tunnel in Britain, running under Monument Lane to the southern approach to New Street Station.  In fact the Hall is located as far away as possible from the railway line.  (A proposal to create further space by moving the Crown public house across the canal was rejected.)  The railway tracks were relaid with rubber-lined sleepers, and the silence of the Hall is protected by noise-insulating piles and mountings designed by Ove Arup & Partners.

Like its predecessor, the Town Hall, it was incomplete when it was opened.  The front pipes and casework for the Klais organ were installed in time for the opening by HM Queen Elizabeth II on June 12th 1991;  the organ itself – the largest mechanical-action instrument in the United Kingdom – was inaugurated in 2001.

Now the two halls run in tandem, providing the city of Birmingham with an unrivalled diet of musical experiences.

Take a look at what’s on – the variety is astonishing:

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 22, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred places

St Cecilia's Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield

The huge Parson Cross municipal housing-estate on the north side of Sheffield dates only from the 1930s, though the place-name – written as “Parson’s Crosse Lane” – goes back at least to 1637.

There are, inevitably, lots of jokes about grumpy clergy.

Because the adjacent Shiregreen community missed out on opportunities to intervene in the plan to demolish the redundant church of St Hilda, I’ve since kept an eye on the disused church of St Cecilia, Parson Cross.

Not far off £400,000 was apparently spent on upgrading St Cecilia’s undercroft as a youth club as recently as the Millennium.  Yet demolition has been on the cards since at least 2010.

Early in August I responded to the Church Commissioners’ pianissimo advertisement of a drop-in meeting to discuss the proposed scheme to demolish.

The local residents who turned up vehemently opposed the destruction of St Cecilia’s, though none of them were members of the final congregation of ten that moved out in 2011.

People care deeply about their local parish church even if they don’t darken its doors from one year’s end to the next.  The place where their families were baptised, married and taken for their funerals means a great deal.

It’s strange that clergy and active church members have such difficulty attracting new members.

The process of disposing of redundant church buildings is convoluted.  The building is vested in the incumbent, and is the responsibility of the parishioners.  When the parish can no longer maintain the building, a divided responsibility between the diocese and the Church Commissioners triggers a byzantine legal process with little scope for the secular community to intervene.

It all looks underhand, and it makes local people impotently angry.

A diocesan document of 2010 which I’ve quoted in a previous blog-article about St Cecilia’s declared, “The Church building has reached the end of its life.”

Conversely, the Church of England Church Buildings Council in 2011 advised, “The problems are superficial, although investment would be required to rectify them.”

The Statutory Advisory Committee of the Church Buildings Council concluded a few months later that demolition was ill-advised because of the “low cost of essential repair and [the] potential for the cost of long-term repairs to be (part) absorbed into the cost of conversion”.

Yet a Scheme, as it’s called, for demolition is under way.

I wanted to know why demolition was presented as the only option, and I was told that demolition has to be written into Pastoral Schemes in case it may become necessary, but an acceptable scheme to retain the building, backed by planning permission and a credible business plan, would be preferred.

I’d love to see the people of Parson Cross put together a credible proposal for re-use, but to give them a fair chance, they should have been alerted at least three years ago.

Objections to the Scheme for demolition can be submitted, in writing or by e-mail, up to September 2nd 2013 to –

Ms Katie Lowe
The Church of England Church Commissioners
Church House
Great Smith Street

Posted by: mike on Aug 19, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Castell Coch:  Drawing Room overmantel

While William Burges was unhurriedly transforming Cardiff Castle for the 3rd Marquess of Bute, the question arose of what to do about the crumbling Castell Coch (the Red Castle), an outlying Bute property in Tongwynlais, north of the city centre.

Presenting William Burges with a medieval ruin inevitably led to a plan to rebuild it.  Presenting the Marquess of Bute with a project to rebuild a castle could have only one outcome.  He opened his cheque-book.

The result is a beguiling Victorian fantasy of medieval life and art, a wealthy magnate’s weekend retreat into a Gothic dream world.

Though the project was compromised by being brought to a conclusion after Burges’ death, it contains some of the finest examples of his design genius, such as Thomas Nicholls’ figures of the three Fates, Clotho spinning the thread of life, Lachesis measuring its length and Atropos with her shears.

Lord Bute’s bedroom is fairly spartan, but a spiral stair leads from it to Lady Bute’s bedroom, a huge vaulted space decorated with symbols of love.

And to ensure privacy, this High Victorian castle was fitted with a fully functioning drawbridge.

Castell Coch is administered by Cadw:

Posted by: mike on Aug 17, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Cardiff Castle:  Animal Wall

John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900), was born with every advantage.  His father, the second Marquess, had tapped the trading wealth of the South Wales coalfield by establishing Cardiff Docks on his ancestral lands from 1822 onwards.  John came into his vast patrimony when he was just over six months old.

Though he was a conscientious Victorian aristocrat and landowner and nurtured his great inheritance, he had time and energy to spare for his fascination with art, architectural and the medieval.

The architect William Burges (1827-1881) was also born with advantages.  His civil-engineer father, who outlived him, provided him with an ample private income, so he could travel extensively and, when he set up his practice, pick and choose his collaborators, and pick and choose his clients.

When the 3rd Marquess of Bute came of age, he called for Bruges to transform the Roman, medieval and eighteenth-century structures that made up Cardiff Castle, first into a bachelor residence which was then extended, after his marriage in 1872, into a palatial residence from which to dominate the port and city growing on the doorstep.

Burges’ capacity for solid, sculptural, dramatic skylines and mysterious, whimsical interiors makes Cardiff Castle a fascinating place.  Every surface is thronged with colour, relief and meaning.  The craftsmanship is of the highest quality.  And the humour is quirky and irreverent, like medieval manuscripts and misericords – a monkey bell-push, a crocodile sitting at the top of a bannister eyeing a baby beneath.

Such was Bruges’ creative power that his team of craftsmen – William Frame (1848-1906), Horatio Walter Lonsdale (1844-1919), the Carrarra-born sculptor Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna (1836-1884) – that after his unexpected death the work carried on for years.  The sculptor Thomas Nicholls (c1825-c1900) completed a typical piece of whimsy, the boundary wall of Cardiff Castle, bristling with escaping animals, designed in 1866 but only executed ten years after Burges’ death.

Cardiff Castle is open to the public:,57&parent_directory_id=1&id=159.

Posted by: mike on Aug 14, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines

Rochdale Canal:  Tuel Lane Lock, Sowerby Bridge

In the 1960s it made perfect sense to highway engineers to clear a bottleneck in the road through Sowerby Bridge by clearing away two locks of the Rochdale Canal.

After all, no boat had travelled along the canal since 1937, and it had been formally abandoned in 1952.  As a waterway, it couldn’t possibly be of any further practical use.

In fact, within a decade, after the safeguarding of the Ashton Canal which connects with the Rochdale, there were serious proposals to restore the Rochdale to link Lancashire and Yorkshire more directly than the remaining Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

Over nearly twenty years the Rochdale Canal Society invested energy, time and money – in practical and political terms – to bring back through navigation.

This involved circumventing road improvements, dealing with mining subsidence, demolishing a Co-op supermarket and – at Tuel Lane, Sowerby Bridge,– engineering the deepest canal lock in Britain, opened in 1996.

Tuel Lane Lock is numbered 3/4, because it replaces two in the sequence of ninety-two locks that end in Manchester’s Castlefield, and it’s 19 feet 8½ inches deep.  The major engineering challenge was to ensure that the lock could take the full-sized seventy foot barges that all the other locks on the canal were designed for.

The canal tunnels under the main A58 road, and boats are only allowed to lock through under the supervision of a professional lock-keeper.

It’s a major piece of canal engineering which demonstrates the thrust of the waterways preservation movement that first got underway in the 1960s.

The journey through the tunnel and lock at Tuel Lane is portrayed at

A different page of the same site leads to illustrations of other restoration achievements along the Rochdale Canal:

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 11, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Bayerische Zugspitzbahn

The Bavarian Zugspitze Railway [Bayerische Zugspitzbahn] is an outstanding travel experience – a 19-kilometre journey by metre-guage electric railcar from Garmisch [sic] station at 705 metres above sea-level to the Zugspitzplatt (2,588 metres) near the summit of the Zugspitze mountain, 2,962 metres (9,718 ft), the highest point in Germany.

The railway was originally driven in 1930 to a higher point, Schneefernerhaus (2,650 metres) where a hotel was constructed:  the hotel is now a scientific field-study centre, serviced by the railway.

The first part of the journey is a conventional, fairly speedy route along the valley floor, until at Grainau the rack-section begins and the train climbs precipitously up to a tunnel-mouth at Riffelriss (1640 metres above sea level).

From then on the entire journey is in tunnel, 4,466 metres (14,652 feet).  The smart advice is to travel at the front of the train so you don’t have to climb the last few feet along the sloping station platform.

The physical effects of being at high altitude are immediately noticeable:  walking up a short flight of stairs produces disconcerting breathlessness, and I found that when I came out of the cold fresh air into a warm interior my voice wouldn’t work for a few moments.

I was told that coming up to this height gradually by rail was a better idea than using the cablecar that covers the 6,398 feet from the lake to near the summit in ten minutes.

The little chapel above the tourist centre was consecrated in 1981 by the then Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.

The indoor facilities at the top are fairly spartan, understandably geared to skiers.

Outside on the plateau, making the most of the superb 360° view across the Alps on either side of the border between Germany and Austria, is a circular restaurant with a revolving roof to catch the sun and shade as required.  It’s the most congenial place on the Zugspitzplatt to shelter for refreshments, though the food-menu is necessarily restricted because of the location.

Posted by: mike on Aug 9, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Igls Bahnhof, Austria

Igls Bahnhof, Innsbruck, Austria

There’s much to attract the visitor in the Austrian city of Innsbruck.  One of the less likely enjoyments for a first-time visitor is an astonishing curiosity, the Igls tramway [Innsbrucker Mittelgebirgsbahn] – in English, the Innsbruck Central Mountain Railway.

It joins end-on to the Innsbruck city tram-system, which is now a state-of-the-art light rapid transit, with dignified claret-coloured Bombardier trams very similar to the new Blackpool fleet.

The Igls line, which runs as Route 6, climbs sharply away from the streets and disappears into deep forest, climbing steadily by means of cuttings, embankments and hairpin bends to an upland level of pastures, dotted with expensive residences.  It serves two intermediate villages, Aldrans and Lans, and passes a couple of recreational lakes, the Mühlsee [Mill Lake] and Lanser See.  The surviving original Igls Bahnhof building is a generous-sized branch-line station.

It could hardly be a serious tram-route:  its purpose could only be for pleasure, carving its way through the woods, and it has a strong resemblance to the Manx Electric Railway with the practical pointlessness of the Snaefell Mountain Railway.

Surely, I thought, it can’t have run by any other means than electricity.

But it did.  It was conceived as an adhesion steam railway in 1900, and only converted to electric traction in 1936. 8½ kilometres long, it was intended to connect the upland town of Igls with the centre of Innsbruck, yet has never penetrated more than three-quarters of a mile from the centre of Igls, which is now served by buses.

Nevertheless, the tram is more fun than the bus, and is within easy walking distance of coffee and cake.

There’s a detailed history of the line, eccentrically translated into English, at

Posted by: mike on Aug 6, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Needle's Eye

The most enigmatic of the Wentworth Monuments is the Needle’s Eye.

It is simply 45ft-high ashlar pyramid penetrated by an ogee arch sitting at the topmost point of a ride that runs in a direct line from the home-park gate to the distant Lion Gate at Rainborough, which was described on a 1778 map as “the coach road from Wentworth House to Pontefract”.

It’s a distinctive eye-catcher with no discernible purpose.

The story universally but vaguely told is that it enabled the second Marquis to win a wager that he could drive a horse and carriage through the eye of a needle, contradicting Matthew 19:23-26 (and also Mark 10:24-25 and Luke 18:24-25).

The date of the wager, 1780, would associate the design with John Carr, who also designed Keppel’s Column (1773-80) and the Rockingham Mausoleum (1784-1788), but it appears on a bird’s-eye view dated 1728, and there is evidence of an “obelisk” on the site as early as 1722-3.

The nearest approach to firm corroboration of this likeable story is an account of the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam driving a gun carriage through the Eye at the time of the Great War.

If he did so he was probably also good at reverse parking.

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 4, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Hoober Stand

Hoober Stand is an intriguing building, whichever way you look at it.

It’s triangular in plan, pyramidal in profile, with a cupola at the top which always looks off-centre, though in fact it isn’t.

It ostensibly celebrates the victory of King George II at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, while also marking the elevation of the Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Earl of Malton, to the superior title of 1st Marquis of Rockingham.

It was designed by Henry Flitcroft, “Burlington’s Harry”, the super-conventional Palladian designer of the east wing of Wentworth Woodhouse,– here allowed to go a little crazy at the crest of a hill to provide a grandstand view of the mansion and the park of Wentworth Woodhouse,

Like the later Rockingham Mausoleum, it is maintained the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust and opened to the public on Sunday afternoons in the summer:

98 feet high, it has 150 steps to the platform.  The view is spectacular.

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 2, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Rockingham Mausoleum

Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, who built Keppel’s Column, died unexpectedly in 1782, a few months after he became prime minister for the second time.

His nephew and heir, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, erected a great monument to him within sight of the front door of the mansion.

Designed, like Keppel’s Column and much else on the estate, by John Carr of York, the Rockingham Mausoleum isn't actually a mausoleum.

Rockingham is buried in York Minster, so this memorial to the prime minister is in fact a cenotaph.

The three-stage structure contains a fine statue of the Marquis in his Garter robes by Joseph Nollekens, surrounded by niches containing busts of his political allies – Edmund Burke, Lord John Cavendish, Charles James Fox, Admiral Keppel, John Lee, Frederick Montagu, the 3rd Duke of Portland and Sir George Saville.

After years encased in steel to protect it from post-war mining, the Rockingham Mausoleum is now maintained the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust and opened to the public on Sunday afternoons in the summer:

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 31, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Keppel's Column

The landscapes around the two great Strafford mansions of Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle are dotted with towers, columns, obelisks and other structures, making statements about status and politics.

When I take people to explore the Wentworth Woodhouse estate I like to begin at Keppel’s Column, the column on the horizon marking the southern boundary of the estate.  From there you can see the mansion and all the most significant monuments dotted around the miles of parkland.

It was erected by Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham to celebrate the acquittal of his friend, Admiral Viscount Keppel, who had been court-martialled for losing a naval engagement against the French.

Rockingham was at the time leader of the opposition between his two terms as prime minister, and made a point of celebrating Keppel’s political victory over the Tory court party of George III.

The column is not as the architect John Carr would have wished.  It was intended to be a 150ft rostral column (with ships’ prows projecting) surmounted by a 30ft-high statue of the admiral.

During construction the height was reduced to 115ft, which made the proportions unsatisfactory:  the entasis – the bulge which is necessary to make any classical column appear straight-sided – changes uncomfortably part way up.

There is a spiral staircase to the platform at the top of the Column, at present unsafe and inaccessible.  Keppel’s Column is now maintained by Rotherham Borough Council.

There are recent photographs of the view from the top – taken from a cherry-picker when the structure was last inspected.

None of these seem to have found their way on to the web, but Kenny Fox has a fine aerial view:

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 28, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St James' Church, Morpeth, New South Wales

St James' Church, Morpeth, New South Wales

The final church that Phil and Jane Pullin showed me when I stayed with them on my ADFAS tour is a contrast to Edmund Blacket’s other churches in the area.

Whereas St Mary’s, West Maitland and St Peter’s, East Maitland replaced earlier functional buildings, St James’ Church, Morpeth [] is Blacket’s 1860s adaptation of an existing building of 1837-40:  he added the sanctuary and sacristy and designed the font and pulpit.

It was rebuilt by John Horbury Hunt after a fire in 1874:  he raised the nave walls and devised the lightweight hammerbeam roof, but left the tower at its original height so that it now looks undersized.

The organ (1877) is a rarity, one of the few surviving instruments by the Sydney organ-builder William Davison.  St James’ has two fine statues, of St James and the Virgin Mary, by the sculptor Englebert Piccolrauz (b 1942).

All this I would have missed as a tourist.  It makes all the difference to spend time in a foreign country working and receiving the hospitality of people who’ve lived there all their lives.

And in the Hunter Valley coalfield of New South Wales, with its Tyneside place-names, there is a constant reminder to a Brit that Australia is, in many respects, remarkably like home.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 26, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Peter's Church, East Maitland, New South Wales (exterior)

St Peter's Church, East Maitland, New South Wales (interior)

St Peter’s Church, East Maitland (1875-85) was designed by Edmund Blacket in 1875 and built 1884-6 under the supervision of his son Cyril (1857-1937).  It is more ornate than St Mary’s, West Maitland, but lacks the intended 180-foot-high tower and spire, so that the west wall is blank apart from a clearly temporary doorway.  Another aisled church, built of local sandstone, it has an apsed east end has three traceried windows.  The interior columns are granite capped with Melbourne bluestone basalt.  St Peter’s has a fine Willis organ of 1876, installed in the church in 1886:

In the years after its completion St Peter’s was richly embellished by local benefactors.  The very fine alabaster and marble pulpit by Rhodes of Birmingham dates from 1893;  the reredos is made of Oamuru stone from New Zealand, with red Girotte marble shafts from the Pyrenees and Ashburton marble from England;  the lectern dates from 1897, and the floor was tiled in 1900-4.

Blacket’s tower will presumably never be built, yet St Peter’s is as fine and impressive a Victorian church as any you could find in Britain.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Mary's Church, West Maitland, New South Wales

 St Mary’s Church, West Maitland, New South Wales

Phil and Jane Pullin were my final Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Society hosts, when I lectured to the Pokolbin DFAS.  I warmed to them immediately because, when I texted to say I was stuck on a train with no buffet, they greeted me on the platform with a bottle of water and a chicken sandwich.

They were also enormously helpful in filling my free time with visits to a collection of Victorian Gothic churches in around the amalgamated towns of Maitland and Morpeth, which lie at the tidal limit of the River Hunter and became an important junction on the Great Northern Railway between Sydney and Brisbane.

The modern city of Maitland is a good place to see the work of the English-born, self-taught Australian architect Edmund Blacket (1817-1883), who is best known for his St Saviour’s Cathedral, Goulbourn, New South Wales (1884) [], St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney (1868), and the Great Hall and Quadrangle of the University of Sydney (1861) [].  He was the mentor of other major nineteenth-century Australian architects such as John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904).  Blacket is regarded as a safe, conformist architect, who seems to have been most comfortable designing small parish churches.  In fact, some of his parish churches are quite grand.

St Mary’s Church, West Maitland (1860-7) is a spacious, gracious, aisled church with twin porches and a tower added in 1880, two years after the church was consecrated.  Built of local Ravensfield stone, its oddity is the undersized west window, which lights the west gallery in which the 1881 Willis organ was placed in 1959:

The plainer, brick sister church, St Paul’s, West Maitland (1858) is also by Edmund Blacket.  Its detached bell tower of 1888 was part of an uncompleted enlargement plan.  It is now deconsecrated:

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 21, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

The Red Palace, Birmingham

Birmingham’s answer to New York’s Flatiron Building is commonly known as the Red Palace, standing at the sharp angle between Constitution Hill and Hampton Street.

Originally it was the factory-workshop of H B Sale, die-sinkers.

Designed by William Doubleday & James R Shaw in 1895-6, it demonstrates the value of terra-cotta as a material that was relative cheap to manufacture and produced rich architectural effects – in this case, according to Andy Foster’s Pevsner Architectural Guide, Birmingham (2005), “eclectic Gothic with Spanish touches”.

This adaptable material had obvious benefits for a commercial organisation that wished to make an impact without extravagant expense.

Its unusual layout was put to practical use.  Each floor was a triangular open-plan workshop with an office at the apex.

The modern fifth storey is unfortunate.

For years now its lower storeys have been occupied by a succession of restaurants.  The elaborate cupola is sprouting vegetation.

This fine ornament to Birmingham’s streetscape is clearly underused.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 18, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Lytham St Annes Lifeboat House

St Annes’ splendid modern £1.3 million lifeboat house, completed in 2003, offers members of the public a view of the boat, currently Her Majesty The Queen.

It is one of ten modern lifeboat stations by the Cornwall-based practice Poynton Bradbury Wynter Cole, who also designed the RNLI College, Poole (2004).

The historical display describes and commemorates the wreck of the Mexico, which resulted in the greatest loss of life in the history of the British lifeboat service on the night of December 9th 1886.

The entire thirteen-man crew of the St Annes lifeboat, Laura Janet, were drowned when it capsized on its way to assist.  Fourteen of the sixteen crew-members of the Southport lifeboat, Eliza Fernley, similarly perished when their boat capsized.

All the twelve crew-members of the German-registered Mexico were rescued by the fifteen-man crew of the Lytham lifeboat, Charles Biggs, on their maiden rescue.

The men who died were fishermen, most of them living in varying degrees of poverty.  They left sixteen widows and fifty orphans.

As a result, Charles Macara, a Manchester businessman who had taken up residence in St Annes, helped to initiate Lifeboat Saturdays, fundraising events which began in Manchester and Salford in 1891 and rapidly spread to other towns and cities.

The RNLI continues to rely entirely on voluntary donations and bequests to support the volunteer crews who continue to save lives at sea throughout Britain:

Posted by: mike on Jul 15, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Grimsthorpe Castle:  north front

It’s curious how the flat lands of Lincolnshire produce architectural surprises.  Tattershall Castle can be seen from miles away, but Grimsthorpe Castle, though it’s visible from the main road, is a sudden revelation.

The show front is unmistakably the work of Sir John Vanburgh, the architect of Castle Howard (1699-1726), Blenheim Palace (1705 onwards) and Seaton Delaval Hall (c1720-8).

Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus Volume III (1725) shows three elevations, dated 1722, respectively for the north, south and west or east sides of the house.  These façades were intended to mask rather than entirely replace the earlier fabric behind, as at Vanburgh’s Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire (1707-9).

Vanburgh was commissioned by the first Duke of Ancaster who died in August 1723, but Vanburgh was almost immediately summoned by his son, Peregrine, 2nd Duke, to begin construction which was under way before Vanburgh’s death in 1726.

Once the north front and forecourt were completed, possibly under the supervision of Nicholas Hawksmoor, around 1730 the project abruptly stopped.

Walking round the four sides of this huge courtyard house shows that it is in fact a palimpsest:  though the facades were tidied up in 1811, it’s obvious that the fabric grew over centuries:  the earliest identifiable fragment dates from the twelfth century.

It’s one of the English country houses that developed in interesting ways during the twentieth century.

When Gilbert, 2nd Earl of Ancaster, inherited Grimsthorpe Castle in 1910, he and his American wife, Eloise, brought in the architects Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey and the decorators Lenygon & Company to modernise the house and built a service wing in the courtyard.

After wartime military occupation, the estates and titles passed in 1951 to the 2nd Earl’s son, James, 3rd Earl of Ancaster and 27th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, who with his countess, Phyllis Astor, employed the architect R J Page and the decorator John Fowler to alter and improve the house, replacing the Edwardian service block with a single-storey kitchen range and turning the riding school into a garage.

Now Grimsthorpe Castle belongs to the third Earl’s daughter, Jane Marie Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby.

It’s one of the finest country-house experiences for miles around.  It deserves a whole day:  there’s plenty to see, do, eat and drink.

Of all the entertainments on offer at Grimsthorpe, the ranger-led Park Tour by minibus is particularly good value:

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 12, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiences

Todmorden Industrial & Co-operative Society

When I’m hungry in Todmorden, on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, I head for the old-fashioned Co-op.  It’s not a co-op any more, though it retains its splendid iron-and-glass two-storey shop front emblazoned with the title ‘Todmorden Industrial & Co-operative Society Limited’.  The building dates from the 1860s, and was refurbished when the Co-operative Society took it over as its haberdashery department in 1910. 

Now it’s the Bear Café [], a vehemently wholefood shop and café bringing the very finest local produce in conjunction with the food hub Incredible Edible Todmorden Unlimited

Sometimes you simply can’t get a seat at the Bear Café, so next door is Bramsche Bar [], a little more relaxed and slightly less purist, offering alcohol and meat for those who’re so inclined.  I had eggs Benedictine, which is a combination of the ham and spinach components of Benedict and Florentine.

There used to be a nice little café with interesting posters in the loo which has now been transformed into Hanuman Thai & 3 Wise Monkeys Pub [] which might be worth a look.

And that’s just for starters.

Posted by: mike on Jul 9, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Cannon Hall, South Yorkshire

Visiting Cannon Hall, at Cawthorne near Barnsley, is a game of two halves.

The extensive park, which includes a farm and a garden centre, is a magnet for visitors.  The house, which was the seat of the Spencer-Stanhope family until 1951, opened as Barnsley’s municipal museum six years later.

Barnsley Borough Council acquired a completely empty house:  the contents have been collected since 1957 and so the visitor sees an elegant eighteenth-century house, substantially as it was designed by John Carr of York, with a late-Victorian ballroom wing added, and elegant eighteenth-century furniture that doesn’t necessarily belong.

That needn’t detract from the enjoyment of the place.  It’s not a house-that-time-forgot, like nearby Brodsworth Hall, nor is it a fully displayed glass-case museum like the Doncaster museum at Cusworth Hall.

The best way to enjoy the country-house aspects of this particular country house is to join a guided tour, when curatorial staff can explain and explore the furniture and bring to life the lifestyle of the family of Walter Stanhope (1750-1821), who commissioned Carr, the plasterer James Henderson of York, and “the most eminent Cabinet Makers” whose original items have long since been scattered.

The other historical interest of Cannon Hall lies in the family associations with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The younger son of Walter Spencer-Stanhope’s heir John Spencer-Stanhope (1787-1873) was the artist John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope (1829-1908).  A dreamy video of his work can be seen at

Two of Roddam’s nieces were Gertrude Spencer-Stanhope (1857-1944) and Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919).  Three of Gertrude’s bronze sculptures belong to the Cannon Hall collection.

Many of Evelyn’s paintings belong to the De Morgan Foundation, a collection gathered by Evelyn’s sister Wilhelmina, the formidable Mrs A M W Stirling (1865-1965).  The De Morgan Centre is housed adjacent to Wandsworth Museum:

A guided tour of the domestic rooms at Cannon Hall is intended as one of the sites visited on the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, though the exact timing of the visit doesn't yet feature in the tour-outline.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 6, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesHumber HeritageFun Palaces

White Horse Inn, Beverley

When I was an undergraduate at Hull University in the late 1960s, what passed for debauchery was a trip on the train to Nellie’s at Beverley.

Once I’d ascertained that Nellie’s was in fact a pub – I was mindful of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), which tells of men who went to the Bear Flag Restaurant for a sandwich – it became, and remains, a favourite.

This famous and memorable hostelry has medieval timbering but has been radically altered in and since the eighteenth century.  It belonged to St Mary’s Church (which stands at the opposite end of the street) probably from 1585, and had become an inn by 1666.

It seems to have changed little since the tenancy was taken on by a sadler, Francis Collinson, in 1887.  Mr Collinson bought the inn in 1927, and after his death it was run by his son, William, and after his death by three of William's sisters, Nellie (after whom it is now popularly known), Ada and Dorothy, who maintained the ancient tradition of opening their private kitchen to drinkers during the evening, serving from a table beside the hand pumps and washing up with hot water from the coal-fired range.

After the three sisters died in rapid succession during 1975-6 the White Horse was sold to Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster:  under this new ownership the nineteenth-century fittings and gas lighting are lovingly preserved, but not the brick wall that served as the original gents’ lavatory.

There is a grandiose unofficial website at  It has a link to the masterly site of Beverley’s chimney-sweep,, which is classic example of internet style and enterprise.  Take a look, even if you don’t have a chimney, aren’t getting married and don’t live in Beverley.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureHumber HeritageBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

45 North Bar Without, Beverley

45 North Bar Without, Beverley (detail)

Just outside Beverley’s North Bar stands a riotously decorated black-and-white revival house 4-6 North Bar Without, loaded with dormers and turrets, statues, mottoes and coats of arms, and two endearing carved caricatures of Gladstone and Disraeli, dating c1890.

This is the work of the Beverley carver James Edward Elwell, whose fine carvings can be found in churches, public buildings and houses across the East Riding.

In Beverley he executed, among much else, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic organ screen in the Minster (1878-80) and John Oldrid Scott’s reredos at St Mary’s Parish Church (1880-1).

He also provided carvings at his own house at 43 North Bar Without (Oak House) (Smith & Brodrick 1880) and the house next door, 45 North Bar Without, which he designed himself (1894).

He died in 1926 aged  ninety:  his work, much of it for the architects Temple Moore and F S Brodrick, dates from the 1880s to around 1910.

His son was Frederick William Elwell (1870-1958), a painter with a national reputation who chose to live most of his life in Beverley with his artist wife Mary Dawson, née Bishop, (1874-1952).

His portrait-subjects included King George V, whose lying-in-state he also painted, and the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, and he painted numerous civic leaders in Hull and the East Riding.  He is now most celebrated for his genre-paintings of local life, including several of the kitchen-staff at the Beverley Arms Hotel, such as ‘Preparations’ and ‘Three Maids’ (both c1940-45), which are displayed on weather-proof panels around the streets of Beverley.

By this means Beverley is embellished by the talents of both father and son.

Posted by: mike on Jul 2, 2013

Category:Sacred placesHumber Heritage

St Mary's Church, Beverley

Though Beverley is famous first for its magnificent minster [see Room at the top in Beverley Minster] its parish church of St Mary is well worth visiting, not least for its carvings.

After the tower collapsed into the nave during Divine Service on April 29th 1520, killing many of the inhabitants, the generous donations that paid for its rebuilding were commemorated in the north arcade of the nave:  the merchant John Crossley and his wife gave “two pillars and a half” and the “good Wyffes of Beverley...gave two pillars – God reward them”.

Most enjoyable of all, the “Maynstrells” gave the easternmost pier, on which five of them, including their robed and badged president, appear.

Indeed, St Mary’s church and Beverley Minster between them contain a quite unparalleled collection of medieval carvings of musicians and their instruments – pipes and tabors, viols, rebecs, bombardes, shawms, citterns, hautboys, bagpipes, twin horns and nakers – no doubt because the town was the headquarters of the Northern Guild of Minstrels.

St Mary’s has other notable carvings including the Beverley Imp (arguably more frightening than the one at Lincoln) and a so-called Pilgrim Rabbit which is supposed to be the inspiration for the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Posted by: mike on Jun 30, 2013

Category:Humber Heritage

Beverley Old Friary

It’s a pity that the George and Dragon pub on Highgate in Beverley was renamed the “Monks’ Walk” because while medieval Beverley may have been black with vicars, crawling with canons and full of friars, the monks remained firmly in their monasteries.

The Dominican friars, who came to Beverley by 1210, were based at what is now called the Old Friary.  The site of its church was intersected by the railway line in 1846, but the surviving building contains religious wall-paintings which date from shortly before or soon after the Reformation.

When the factory buildings surrounding it were cleared in the 1980s, the Old Friary was converted into a Youth Hostel:

The result is a beautifully tactful extension, which is clearly modern and entirely appropriate.

Posted by: mike on Jun 27, 2013

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

Soho Foundry, Smethwick

Soho Foundry, Smethwick

At the very start of the partnership between Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819) in 1776 Boulton told James Boswell, “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER.”

Boulton and Watt made their fortunes but realised that when their patent expired in 1800 they must build complete engines, rather than fabricate engine-parts and draw royalties on the invention.

Boulton’s Soho Manufactory was unsuitable for full-scale engine construction, so they established the Soho Foundry, about a mile away alongside the Birmingham Canal in Smethwick in 1796.

Their eventual third partner, William Murdoch (1754-1839), developed the manufacture of gas-lighting equipment at the Foundry.

The original partners passed on the business, Boulton, Watt & Co, to their respective sons, Matthew Robinson Boulton (1770-1842) and James Watt Jnr (1769-1848).  After James Watt Jnr’s death the company became James Watt & Co and continued to build steam engines almost to the end of the nineteenth century.

The Soho Foundry built the screw engines for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern (1859), and the ornate pumping-engines that are preserved at the Papplewick Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire (1884).

In 1895 the site was taken over by the weighing-machine maker, W & T Avery, whose successor, Avery Weight-Tronix, continues to innovate and manufacture on the site.

Though actual casting ended in 1954, the site has remained a key location for the development of digital weighing equipment of many kinds.

The ground is rich in archaeology, much of which remains to be uncovered.  The gatehouse block houses the fascinating Avery Historical Museum.

And high on a gable in the surviving Forge buildings is the name ‘James Watt & Co’, linking back to the dour Scotsman whose genius transformed the world.

There can’t be many industrial sites in Britain that have worked continuously since the late eighteenth century.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 25, 2013

Category:Country HousesBirmingham's Heritage

Soho House, Birmingham

Soho House, Birmingham

The poet Robert Southey declared in 1807, “Probably in no other age or country was there ever such an astonishing display of human ingenuity as may be found in Birmingham.”

If any one location within the city epitomises this display of ingenuity it is three stops up the Metro tram-route from Snow Hill, where stood the Soho Manufactory, an integrated workshop, powered at first by water:

This was the work-base of a manufacturing genius, Matthew Boulton (1728-1908), initially a “toy” manufacturer, producing not playthings but miscellaneous small metal articles ranging from buttons and buckles to high-quality decorative products in steel, ormolu, Sheffield plate and precious metals.

Boulton is best remembered for his partnership with the Scottish inventor, James Watt, because between them they made possible the production and sale of stationary steam-engines for use in mines and mills.  As Boulton explained to James Boswell, “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER.”

The steam engines were eventually prefabricated at the Soho Foundry, opened in 1796, while Boulton developed the Soho Mint (1788) to manufacture coinage resistant to counterfeiting.

He was also primarily responsible for establishing the Birmingham Assay Office (1773), the New Street Theatre (1774) and the town's first hospital and dispensary.

He lived in elegant surroundings at Soho House (Samuel Wyatt 1766), a building full of surprises.

The exterior is not stone, but slate cladding covered with sand-dredged paint.  The glazing bars, some of which survive, were of “Eldorado”, an experimental metal supplied by James Keir, a Lunar Society member.

Boulton installed a practical steam-heated indoor bathroom and was supplied with a Bramah patent water closet in 1787. Evidence of the warm-air circulating central-heating system, installed c1810, can still be seen in the cellars, on the stairs and in one of the upstairs rooms.

Though the parkland surrounding Soho House has long since been built on, the main block of the house survives and is beautifully restored:

Its interpretation makes it easy to recreate the exciting, welcoming atmosphere of the eighteenth-century equivalent of Silicon Valley.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 22, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

Newcastle Cathedral, New South Wales

Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Newcastle, New South Wales

Every major Australian and New Zealand city possesses at least one, usually two, fine cathedrals, many of them started in the Gothic Revival style in the early years of settlement.  Some, such as St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Perth and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland, were completed to newer, cheaper, more practical designs;  others such as William Wilkinson Wardell’s magnificent St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, and St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, were eventually completed as the original architect intended.

The Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Newcastle, New South Wales, begun in 1869, is a superb essay in Gothic Revival style by the Canadian-born architect John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904), who designed (among much else) Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton (1881-4), St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Armidale (1871) and rebuilt the charming little church of St James, Morpeth after a fire (1874-7) – all three in New South Wales.

The original design by the architects Leonard Terry (1825–1884) and Robert Speechly (1840-1884) proved unworkable, and John Horbury Hunt provided a new design in 1882.  It has the signature of this talented, often controversial architect – an uncompromising choice of materials, in this case brick, and a forthright acceptance of asymmetry.  The building as it stands is not exactly as John Horbury Hunt intended:

Construction stalled in 1893 in a flurry of litigation over contracts and costs, and resumed in 1900 under the supervision of the Sydney architect John Hingeston Buckeridge (1857-1934), so that the nave and crossing could be brought into use in 1902.

Thereafter, a succession of architects progressively extended the building:  Frederick George & A C Castleden designed the Warrior’s Chapel (1924) at the east end, using Buckeridge’s plans, and the nave was completed with a roof unlike Hunt’s intention in 1928.

E C Sara of the practice Castleden & Sara added the Columbarium in 1955.  Eventually, in 1979, the transepts and tower were completed, largely according to Hunt’s intentions, by E C Sara’s son John.

The only omission from the spirit of Hunt’s design was the spire, which is almost certainly for the best, because the Cathedral was damaged in the 1989 earthquake, and the repairs that took place in 1995-1997 were only practicable because of the quality of the original structure:

The result is a magnificent, remarkably harmonious essay in Gothic architecture, completed in the 1970s and rescued in the 1990s.  At the time of its consecration in 1983 it had been in use for eighty years.

I was fortunate to be shown round by Bronwen Orrock, who has inventorised the cathedral’s many treasures, including sixty stained-glass windows by Kempe & Co and one, the Dies Domini window of 1907, by Edward Burne-Jones and Morris & Co.

The font and the bishop’s throne are by William Douglas Caroe (1857-1938);  the pulpit is by the German-born artist Frederick Burnhardt  Menkens (1855-1910);  in the Warriors’ Chapel are fourteen terracotta panels designed by the Doulton ceramicist George Tinworth (1843-1913).

The Cathedral is the parent church of Toc H in Australia and is rich in war memorials, from Gallipoli, Flanders, Singapore, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.

Newcastle is, perhaps, off the tourist beat, yet Christ Church Cathedral is one of the most memorable buildings I’ve so far seen in this vast and varied country.

The Cathedral website is at

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 20, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Ocean Baths, Newcastle, New South Wales

Newcastle, New South Wales is a Geordie home-from-home.

The deep-water estuary of the Hunter River was recognised as a source of coal as soon as it was first explored, in 1797.  After it ceased to be a penal settlement in 1822-3, it was colonised primarily by miners from Northumberland and Durham:  it’s slightly unnerving to anyone who knows the north-east England to find that the Australian city has satellites with names such as Gateshead, Hexham, Jesmond, Morpeth, Pelaw, Stockton and Wallsend.

Already exporting the greatest volume of coal of any harbour in the world, Newcastle expects to increase its annual tonnage from 97Mt in 2009-10 to 180Mt by 2013.

Yet the seashore has beaches as fine as any in Great Britain.  Indeed, it’s probably the only place in the world where miners can go surfing at the weekend, if not immediately after work.

As an alternative to surfing, the seashore offers the open-air Ocean Baths (1922) [] and the Merewether Baths (1935) [], where you can swim in a pool with a sea-view to the horizon.

Like its English counterpart, the Australian Newcastle suffered an economic downturn as the traditional manufacturing industries, particularly steel, went into decline at the end of the last century, but in the past decade the Australian port has been boosted by increases in the prices of coal and iron and easy access to Asian markets.

Newcastle has some of Australia’s finest surviving theatre-buildings, the disused Victoria Theatre (1891) [;search=place_name%3Dvictoria%2520theatre%3Bkeyword_PD%3Don%3Bkeyword_SS%3Don%3Bkeyword_PH%3Don%3Blatitude_1dir%3DS%3Blongitude_1dir%3DE%3Blongitude_2dir%3DE%3Blatitude_2dir%3DS%3Bin_region%3Dpart;place_id=100971], the Regent Cinema, Islington (1928) [], presently a hardware store, and the still-functioning Civic Theatre (1929) [].  Newcastle’s historic theatres and cinemas are listed at

Though Newcastle lost some historic buildings in the 1989 earthquake, its most prominent landmark, the Cathedral Church of Christ the King survived.  The Cathedral is such a magnificent building it deserves an article all to itself.

Posted by: mike on Jun 18, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Newcastle, New South Wales

View from Noah's on the Beach, Newcastle, New South Wales

One of the joys of working for the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, lecturing on one of their three circuits, was the opportunity to travel to ordinary parts of Australia, away from the tourist tracks, and whenever possible – as I did in New Zealand – I took the opportunity to travel surface so that I could see the landscape.

Accordingly, when I lectured to a succession of societies in New South Wales, I travelled twice by rail on the Main North Line from Sydney to Armidale.

This line was the original connection to Queensland, opened between Newcastle and Wallangarra between 1857 and 1888, and then completed south to Sydney in 1889.

The southern section out of Sydney was the most difficult to construct and is the most spectacular. 

Once out of the north Sydney suburbs it shares a route with the freeway, then plunges into the four Boronia Tunnels to Hawkesbury River Station.  From there it disappears into Long Island Tunnel, crosses the thousand-yard Hawkesbury River Bridge (1946, replacing the 1889 original) and immediately enters Mullet Creek Tunnel then skirts the waterside, after Wondabyne Station, into Woy Woy Tunnel, slightly over a mile long.  All the way to Gosford the train provides a constant panorama of the Brisbane Water, alive with boats.

Beyond Gosford the landscape becomes mundane as the line travels through something we no longer have in Britain – an active coalfield.  There are collieries, a power station, a station with the evocative name Sulphide Junction, and another which was originally Windy Creek but was later renamed, by a popular vote of its Welsh miner inhabitants, Cardiff.

Suburban trains from Sydney actually terminate in the city of Newcastle, but I was booked on the once-a-day, more comfortable CountryLink service and disembarked at Broadmeadow, the out-of-town station in the Newcastle suburbs, to meet my Newcastle DFAS hostess Gwen Hamilton.

The Society booked me into the excellent Noah’s-on-the-Beach [], to which one day I’ll return.  The only facility it didn’t offer was free wi-fi, for which I trekked to the Bakehouse, 87-89 Hunter Street.

Posted by: mike on Jun 15, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Morecambe Odeon Cinema

Two things intrigue me about the former Odeon Cinema, Morecambe.

Opened in 1937, it’s an absolutely typical product of Oscar Deutsch’s house-architects, the Harry Weedon partnership, featuring a Moderne fin-shaped tower and a quirky projecting exterior corridor, clad in brick and cream faience.  It seated 1,084 in the stalls and 476 in the circle:

I’m puzzled that it stands some distance from the seafront, so that it was never part of the sequence of promenade crowd-pullers, the Alhambra, the Winter Gardens and the two piers, in the days when Morecambe attracted crowds.

It stands on Euston Road, near to the less prominent of Morecambe’s two stations.

I’m also interested to know what state the interior is in.

It now earns its keep as a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom showroom for Homemakers 1st Stop:

As soon as you walk in, through what would have been a side exit, it’s clear that you’re standing in the stalls, with the curve of the balcony overhead, but a suspended ceiling hides the auditorium space.

The lady behind the counter told me she’s never actually been in the circle, which is blocked off, but she’s been told that the projection box remains intact.

Long may it remain so.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 13, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Morecambe Devonshire Hall

In the back streets of Morecambe’s West End, usefully employed as a specialist community centre, lies a long-forgotten music hall.

The Devonshire Hall was built in 1899, seating eight hundred people, two hundred of them in the balcony.

It consists of a ground-floor that must always have been shops, and at first-floor level a flat-floored auditorium.

Dangerfield’s General Entertainment Guide (1901) informs potential letting clients of “Has no dramatic license [sic];…  Platform permanent 14 by 12 deep with electric footlights;  Terms one night 40s, a reduction made for a longer period;  Extras electric light per meter;  Has dressing rooms”.

The building was divided in the 1930s, the upper floor used a snooker hall while the ground floor became a paint factory.

In 1996 it became a music centre and rehearsal space, The Hothouse, for More Music, a community music and education charity founded in 1993:

The first phase of renovation by seven architecture [sic] [] was completed in 2011.  The fine original timber and steel roof remains in situ but is invisible and inaccessible above a suspended ceiling.

The not-for-profit occupiers have put the building to excellent purpose – – and given it a better chance of survival than most of Morecambe’s entertainment heritage has had.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 11, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Alhambra Theatre, Morecambe

The Alhambra Theatre, Morecambe, the location of Laurence Olivier’s performances as Archie Rice in the 1960 film The Entertainer, still exists though its interior has gone.

A major fire in 1970 completely destroyed the auditorium, including its roof, though the stage-tower remains.

When the shell was rebuilt the Dutch gable of the façade was removed and the proscenium opening was bricked up.

According to Tony Parkinson [‘Morecambe’s early cinemas’, Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin Vol 46, No 5 (September/October 2012), p 5] the interior of the fly tower remains intact.

The Alhambra was designed by the local architect Herbert Howarth as a music hall and opened in 1901.
Because it replaced the former West End market (1889), its ground floor was given over to shops and market stalls, with the auditorium at first-floor level.

Built at a cost of £50,000, it was a financial liability from the start.  The leader of the consortium that built it, Alderman Gardner, filed for bankruptcy in 1911 with liabilities of £62,257 12s 6d.

A new company took it over in 1919 for £50,000 and invested a further £30,000 on replacing the market stalls with twenty lock-up shops, replacing 700 of the 2,000 chairs with tip-up seating and installing a £,3,000 organ.

In 1927 it became a cinema full-time, and when sound was installed in 1930 it was renamed the Astoria.

It remained closed throughout the Second World War, and reopened in 1946 as a theatre.

After the 1970 fire the auditorium-space became a night club.  At present it’s closed.

There’s a compilation of clips from The Entertainer, with an oddly inappropriate music track, at

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 8, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago Tribune Tower

The southern end of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is marked by two magnificent buildings, the grey limestone, Gothic Tribune Tower (1922-5) by the New York architects, John Mead Howells (1868-1959) and Raymond Mathewson Hood (1881-1934), opposite the white faience, Renaissance Wrigley Building.

The Tribune Tower was built for the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955) – a tall, authoritative, notably hard-working arch-conservative, described by an opponent as having “the greatest mind of the fourteenth century”.

His great-uncle was Cyrus Hall McCormick Snr (1809-1884), the developer of the mechanical reaper who brought its manufacture to Chicago.  His maternal grandfather was Joseph Medill (1823-1899), Mayor of Chicago and the founder of the Tribune.

The Tribune was never knowingly undersold:  it claimed to be the “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, and its radio- and television-stations each took the call-sign WGN.

McCormick turned the architectural competition to build “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world” into a long-running promotional campaign as part of a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst’s Herald-Examiner.

Howells & Hood’s design must have appealed to McCormick because of its essential conservatism:  it is the last of the line of Gothic skyscrapers that began with Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in Manhattan.  Its composition is a triumph of perpendicular lines, surmounted by a turret based on the Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral, 34 storeys and 463 feet high.

Images of some of the other competing designs can be seen at

McCormick encouraged his correspondents to obtain stone fragments from monuments around the world, 120 of which are now embedded in the lower storeys.

The entrance door is surmounted by a celebrated stone screen depicting Aesop’s Fables, and the architects are commemorated by a pair of rebuses, that is, heraldic puns – a howling dog and a figure of Robin Hood.

The Tribune Tower is a fine example of an honourable architectural tradition, yet it’s ironic that the more influential competition entry was second-placed:  the design by the Finn Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) was the basis for the Gulf Building (1929) in Houston, Texas.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 6, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago Wrigley Building

“Life is what happens…,” John Lennon wrote, “while you’re making other plans.”

William Wrigley Junior (1861-1932) arrived in Chicago at the age of twenty-nine believing he’d make his fortune selling Wrigley’s Scouring Soap.

As a marketing ploy he offered a tie-in with baking powder, and found the baking powder sold better than the soap.

So he took to selling baking powder, with an offer of chewing-gum.

The chewing-gum proved more popular than the baking powder and Wrigley’s fortune was made.

He launched his Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands in 1893 and at the end of the First World War, when the Michigan Avenue Bridge was under construction, he commissioned the Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to design the William Wrigley Junior Building (1919-24).

This much-loved structure heralded the opening up of North Michigan Avenue after the bridge opened in 1920.

The Wrigley Building’s odd geometry reconciles the curve of the river to the gridiron street-plan:  in fact, it divides into two buildings, of which the taller, 30-storey riverside tower has hardly more than half the floor-space of its 21-storey annex.

Its gleaming white surface, suggestive of the product that paid for it, consists of six gradations of faience, from a cream at ground-level to a blue-white at the turret.

Wrigley used part of his fortune to embellish Chicago in other ways.

As the majority owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team from 1921 he gave his name to their ballpark, Wrigley Field, in 1926, from which the surrounding area gained the name Wrigleyville.

In 1928 he paid for James Earle Fraser’s reliefs on the northern bridgehouses of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, literally outside the front door of his office building.

All this grew from a substance, chicle, that was originally imported from Mexico as a possible substitute for rubber, but proved marketable as a chewing product.

“Life is what happens…while you’re making other plans.”

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 4, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago River & Michigan Avenue Bridge

If any one structure can depict the entire history of Chicago it’s the Michigan Avenue Bridge, formally named since 2010 the DuSable Bridge after Chicago’s first non-Native inhabitant, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable (before 1750-1818)

Constructed between 1918 and 1920, it opened up the area north of the Chicago River and extended the city’s retail quarter into the area that is now known as the Magnificent Mile.

It was designed for the Chicago Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering, led by the engineer William A. Mulcahy in consultation with the planner Edward H Bennett (1874-1954), who had co-authored the Chicago Plan of 1909 with the better-known Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912).

There’s more to this bridge than meets the eye as you walk or drive across it.

It’s significant as the first bascule bridge across the Chicago River.  All previous bridges over this busy waterway were swing bridges, which were frequently closed to road traffic through the day.

It’s actually two parallel bridges which can be raised separately.  If either bascule needs repair it can be fixed in the raised position while traffic continues uninterrupted over the other.

And, though it’s not apparent from street level, it has two decks, the lower deck leading directly to the docks and riverside.

Furthermore, its northern abutment stands on the site of Du Sable’s original residence and the southern abutment occupies the location of Fort Dearborn (1803-4), the US Army base which encouraged the growth of the settlement that became the city of Chicago.

For these reasons the bridge is lavishly decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from the first discovery of the site by Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette in 1673 to the rebuilding after the Chicago Fire of 1871.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 1, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Cromford Canal Bull Bridge Aqueduct (1967)

Bull Bridge Aqueduct, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (1967)

My journeys to school in the early 1960s were punctuated by a pause on the road through Bull Bridge, near Ambergate in Derbyshire, for the traffic lights that controlled the tight gothic arch of Bull Bridge Aqueduct on the Cromford Canal.

The canal had not been used since before the Second World War and the arch was impossible for any vehicle larger than a single-deck bus.

The A610 road was already a significant link in the 1960s, and would become more important when the Ripley by-pass was opened in 1977.

It was inevitable, therefore, that Jessop and Outram’s tiny road-arch had to go.  It was demolished in 1968 – shortly followed by the adjacent iron-trough aqueduct that had been inserted into the canal when George Stephenson drove the North Midland Railway through in 1839.

Images of the canal at Bull Bridge can be found at

In the 1960s no-one in their wildest dreams would have expected the Cromford Canal to be restored, but the Friends of the Cromford Canal plan to return the whole canal to navigation, however long it takes, and so one day an elegant new aqueduct will span the road and the railway, rather like the New Semington Aqueduct (2004) on the Kennet and Avon Canal:

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Drury Hill caves, Nottingham

Nottingham’s City of Caves attraction shows what remains of the Drury Hill cave-system, named after a street that was swept away to make room for the Broadmarsh shopping centre which opened in 1972.

The complex includes the only underground tanneries in Britain, if not the world, dated, by pottery found in the cess-pit, to 1270-1300, and known to have been used as late as 1639.  The tanning process was so obnoxious, involving soaking hides from the slaughterhouses in vats of urine and ordure, that the caves were rat-free and the tanners, who had little else to be cheerful about, were notably immune to the plague.

Further tanneries at the Black’s Head, Drury Hill, behind 14 Low Pavement, were filled in for safety in 1992

The City of Caves website is at  It’s a good idea to switch your computer to mute.

Posted by: mike on May 27, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham

Tony Waltham begins his invaluable study of underground Nottingham, Sandstone Caves of Nottingham (East Midlands Geological Society, 2nd edn, 1996), by saying that there are no caves in Nottingham:  all the cavities which honeycomb the historic centre are man-made.

The Sherwood Sandstone strata on which the city stands is so soft that it’s possible to dig a well by hand faster than the aquifer can fill it.  Indeed, the cavities beneath Nottingham have been used as cellars, dwellings, wells and cisterns, access passages, malt kilns and in one possibly unique case a tannery.  Wealthy householders sometimes dug ornamental garden features out of the rock, and from the late eighteenth-century at least sand was mined as an industrial abrasive.

Some of the existing underground sites date as far back as the twelfth century, and centuries before that a Welsh chronicler refers to a locality called ‘Tiggua Cobaucc’ – the place of the caves.

I’m indebted to my friend Stewart for tipping me off about the Nottingham Caves Survey [], which seeks to map all the surviving underground spaces in and around central Nottingham.  The survey uses laser-scanner technology to produce accurate three-dimensional representations for record, and to create fascinating fly-through videos.

If you’re in Nottingham, of course, some of these fascinating spaces are physically accessible, in some cases for the price of a drink.

The most famous of all, perhaps is the Trip to Jerusalem, a pub which claims a history back to 1189AD, though the buildings are clearly seventeenth-century or later:  Its history is certainly much older than the buildings, because it stands at the foot of the Castle Rock, next to the castle’s Brewhouse Yard.

Drinkers have been calling at the Trip, so it seems, ever since the Crusaders set off to the Holy Land.

Posted by: mike on May 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham Town Hall

Birmingham’s Town Hall is the equivalent of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, designed solely as an assembly hall, and intended for the fund-raising concerts that supported the General Hospital.

Based on the Roman Temple of Castor and Pollux and designed in 1831-2 by Joseph Aloysius Hansom (whose name is indelibly linked to the cab he invented), this is the building that ruined Hanson, his partner Welch and the contractors Thomas & Kendall:  they were obliged to complete the contract for no more than £17,000, but the eventual final cost was around £25,000.  “Bankruptcy has been fixed as the price of my adventure,” Hansom declared.

The project took until 1861 to complete under the supervision of Charles Edge.

Hanson’s original design had a gallery round three sides of the interior, and was crowded by other buildings on the north and east sides.  As early as 1837 the decision was taken to rebuild northwards to accommodate the organ in its present position;  a further northward extension of 1849-51 brought the Town Hall to its present size, and only then was the north façade completed to match the south and the west podium refaced to match the east.

Subsequent alterations have not been kind to Hanson’s design.   Modifications to the lobby in 1890-1 reduced the size of the auditorium.  In 1926-7 two rear galleries were designed by Owen Williams to replace the original one and a redecoration scheme by White, Allom & Co completely obliterated Hanson’s ceiling.

The William Hill organ (built in 1834 and successively rebuilt in 1843, 1889-90, 1932-3 and 1984) was until 1922 owned by the Governors of the General Hospital, because it was primarily intended for use in their fund-raising Triennial Festivals which date back to the late eighteenth century.  It was the biggest of its time:   it had the first ever 32-foot pipe and the first part-pneumatic action;  it was the first four-manual pipe-organ (enlarged to five manuals in 1984) and it had the first full pedal-keyboard.

The Town Hall has always been the scene of prestigious musical events.  It was the venue for the premières of Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846), Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (October 3rd 1900 – “one of British music’s more famous disasters”), The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906).

The list of eminent conductors who have performed at the Town Hall runs from Mendelssohn, through Elgar, Sibelius, Dvorak, Bruno Walter, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Thomas Beecham to Sir Simon Rattle.  The inaugural performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted here by Sir Edward Elgar on November 10th 1920.

When the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra moved to Symphony Hall in 1991 the Town Hall was little used and it closed in 1996.  After a radical restoration, involving the reinstatement of the 1834 single balcony, it reopened as a partner to Symphony Hall in October 2007.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 21, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Woodhouse, west wing

Wentworth Woodhouse, west wing

I wrote about the rivalry between the descendants of the 2nd Earl of Strafford that littered eighteenth-century South Yorkshire with mansions, temples, obelisks and columns in an article about Wentworth Castle, 'Keeping up with the Wentworths'.

The race to amass the most and best titles and houses was ultimately won by Thomas Watson-Wentworth (1693-1750) who became Baron Malton (1726), 1st Earl of Malton (1734) and then 1st Marquis of Rockingham (1746), and built not one but two magnificent houses, consecutively, back-to-back.

He began what is now the west wing of Wentworth Woodhouse, a fine but not entirely symmetrical baroque house in brick, in 1726.

The gentleman-architect, Sir Thomas Robinson, disciple of the pioneer of the Palladian style, Lord Burlington, thought little of it:  “...partly patchwork of the old house...little can be said in its praise...”

Even before this brick house was finished in 1734, Lord Malton turned his back on it and began the vast east wing, designed by Henry Flitcroft, “Burlington’s Harry.”

A plan dated 1725 proves that an east wing was always intended, but Flitcroft’s beautifully proportioned design was a gigantic version of the long-gone Wanstead House in Essex, stretched to 606 feet.

By this means Wentworth Woodhouse became the largest and grandest semi-detached house in Britain.

After the Second World War this vast place became impossible to maintain, especially when the Minister of Power, Emmanuel Shimwell, insisted on bringing opencast coal mining to within sixteen feet of the west wing.  The 8th Earl Fitzwilliam’s aunt, the Labour councillor Lady Mabel Smith, arranged for the East Wing to be leased to West Riding County Council as a teacher-training college.

After the death of the tenth and last Earl in 1979 and the closure of the college some years later the two houses were reunited and now belong to Mr Clifford Newbold who is gradually restoring the buildings and grounds.

At last it’s possible to visit Wentworth Woodhouse, and to marvel at the way it’s being brought back from the brink.

And wherever you step from the East Wing to the West Wing and back again, there are always a couple of steps, because the two parts of the house are on different levels.

The Connoisseurs Tour of Wentworth Woodhouse will form the finale of the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 18, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's Heritage

Jessop Hospital for Women, Edwardian Wing, Sheffield

Jessop Hospital for Women, Edwardian Wing, (May 5th 2013)

Thomas Jessop (1804-1887) was a Sheffield steelmaker whose wealth took him from his birthplace on Blast Lane by the canal to the opulent Endcliffe Grange to the west of the town.  He served as both Mayor and Master Cutler, the two leading roles in the borough, in 1863.

His greatest benefaction to Sheffield was the Jessop Hospital for Women, a 57-bed facility, designed by the local architect John Dodsley Webster, which cost £26,000 when it opened in 1878.

An Edwardian extension, also by J D Webster, trebled the capacity in 1902, and an unremarkable new wing was added in 1939-40.

The whole hospital was replaced by a women’s wing in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in 2001:

Sheffield University took over the site in 2007, demolished most of the peripheral buildings [] and carefully restored Webster’s original wing as a base for the Department of Music, which opened in 2009:

The University then proposed to demolish the Grade-II listed Edwardian wing to replace it with an arrogantly modern £81-million New Engineering Building, and caused uproar.

The Director of Estates & Facilities Management, Mr Keith Lilley, told the Sheffield Telegraph (April 22nd 2013), “Having a new building across the whole site would allow us to provide around five per cent more space and cost 10% less per square metre.  A totally new building would create 19,600 square metres of space whereas incorporating the hospital wing would provide 17,300 square metres.”

Sheffield City Council chose to support demolition, ignoring the recommendations of their own planning team:  “The proposals have
serious implications and constitute poor design and should therefore be refused
in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework.”

Specifically, the principal planning officer supported the 1902 block for its “positive townscape value”, and described the New Engineering Building as an “ungainly big box with an overly-complex external envelope that has no relationship with its setting”.

In bean-counting terms the argument has weight, but RMJM Architects’ showy cube cannot compare with Webster’s elegant building.

Moreover, there is a vital legal issue at stake.  Conservationists are deeply angry that listed-building legislation is being disregarded.

The Ancient Monuments Society, the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and the Victorian Society [] each condemned the decision, and the Hallamshire Historic Buildings Society declared this was simply “the easy way out” and “a dangerous precedent”.

Private Eye (March 22nd-April 4th 2013) described the University’s plans as “gratuitously destructive and wasteful”.

A request to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, to review the planning application was turned down.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage is mounting a legal challenge, believing that the City Council “relies on an unsatisfactory interpretation” the new National Planning Policy Framework [] and the social media are buzzing:

It’s only one building, but the need to preserve it is hugely significant.  Why should a university, of all things, dump on the city a jazzed-up vanity building to gain 5% extra space in place of a polite, well-built, valuable piece of townscape?

Whose campus is it, anyway?

Posted by: mike on May 16, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's Heritage

Sheffield Main Post Office

Sheffield Head Post Office (1993)

Sheffield was a town that thought it was a village, until 1893, when it became a city that thought it was a town.

Indeed, the first impressive piece of civic planning in the centre of Sheffield was Fitzalan Square, which grew from street clearance in the 1880s and is dominated by the baroque bulk of the former Post Office, built in 1910 to the designs of the Office of Works architect, Walter Pott.

This imposing place in which to buy a stamp closed in 1999, and three successive developers have failed to find a way of financing a new use:

Meanwhile, the urban explorers have kept an eye on the place, and their posts show that while most of the interiors are functional, the public spaces and the main staircase deserve to be kept: and

The latest word is that this fine but mouldering building is to become a college for overseas students with 18-storey residential tower on the vacant plot behind:

If another high-rise building in the city-centre is the price of keeping Pott’s Edwardian splendour I think it’s worth paying.

Meanwhile, within a couple of minutes’ walk of Fitzalan Square, the Old Town Hall and the United Gas Light Company Offices, both listed, stand idle and neglected, and two fine post-war department stores, the former Walsh’s and the Co-op’s Castle House are in an uneasy state of transition.

And the City Planning Committee and the Secretary of State have waved through the demolition of the Edwardian wing of Jessop’s Hospital – which is another story…

Posted by: mike on May 13, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx Heritage

IMR 15 Caledonia

Photo:  John Binns

Isle of Man Railway no 15 (as Manx Northern Railway no 4):  Caledonia

The Isle of Man Railway has more locomotives than it really needs, and to the untutored eye they look very much similar.  In fact, there are three different varieties, and each of the survivors has its idiosyncrasies.

Only four of the eighteen original locos have completely disappeared:  of the remainder, a couple haven’t moved for decades and others are in private ownership.  One of the original 1873 fleet, No 3, Pender, is sectioned and exhibited at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.

Enthusiasts look forward to new events on this great little railway.  The 2013 star turn is the rebuilt No 15, Caledonia, one of two locomotives surviving from the Manx Northern Railway, which ran from St Johns to Ramsey and was originally independent of the Isle of Man Railway.

Since the Manx steam railway was nationalised in 1977, its locomotives have worn a variety of liveries in order, according to rumour, to prove that there are more than two locos in the fleet.

Caledonia is turned out in the attractive Manx Northern livery of “Metropolitan Carriage red”, a darker shade than the standard IMR red.

Built in 1885 to work the steeply graded Foxdale Railway, serving the zinc mines in the heart of the island, Caledonia was required to work a ruling gradient of 1 in 49, but proved capable of climbing at 1 in 12 when she visited the Snaefell Mountain Railway in 1995.

Over 125 years old, the second newest loco in the fleet – Caledonia proves that Victorian steam locomotives were built to last.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop tour of the Isle of Man Railway as well as journeys along the line to Castletown and Port Erin.  For details please click here. 

Posted by: mike on May 10, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Blackpool Winter Gardens Empress Ballroom

Empress Ballroom, Winter Gardens, Blackpool

The great rival of Thomas Sergenson, Blackpool’s late-Victorian theatre impresario, was William Holland (1837-1895), “the People’s Caterer”, who first made his name managing the Canterbury Music Hall, Lambeth [].

Bill Holland was employed by the Winter Gardens Company specifically to counter the competition from Sergenson.

Against the opposition of a number of Winter Gardens directors, including the chairman, Dr Cocker, Bill Holland proposed and carried through the construction of the huge Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham and built in nine months flat at a cost of £9,098.  It opened with a D’Oyly Carte production, The Yeomen of the Guard, on June 10th 1889.

As part of the same project, Frank Matcham redesigned the Winter Gardens Pavilion in the form of a proscenium-arched theatre.

Holland promoted an all-day admission charge of 6d which included operatic ballet spectaculars directed by John Tiller.  Fixed budget catering also appealed to thrifty Blackpool holidaymakers:  “One Shilling Dinner and One Shilling Tea.  Plenty of Everything.  Help Yourself!” 

Bill Holland apparently owned an old grey parrot, which he had trained to say “Going to see Bill Holland’s ballet?”  For the Winter Gardens, he initiated The Great Parrot Scheme:  he bought a hundred parrots, each in a cage marked “Blackpool Winter Gardens – Two Shows Daily”.

The birds were lined up in rows four deep and trained to repeat the grey parrot’s message and were allegedly placed all the leading hotels and restaurants of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The total investment in the Opera House and associated extensions cost the Winter Gardens Company approximately £14,000:  gross receipts trebled between 1887 and 1891 to £36,000 and the dividend reached 8%.

In response to the opening of the Tower in 1893, Bill Holland persuaded the directors to install electric lighting throughout the Winter Gardens at a cost of £3,307, and to pay an additional £975 to buy out Dr Cocker’s 1875 covenant against dancing, so that he could plan the Empress Ballroom, designed by Mangnall & Littlewood of Manchester (who shortly afterwards built Morecambe’s Victoria Pavilion), with a barrel-vault roof, a balcony promenade and a proscenium stage. 

The Empress Ballroom was at the time one of the largest in the world, 189ft × 110ft, with a dancing-area of 12,500 square feet.

The Art Nouveau decorative scheme included plasterwork by J M Boekbinder and twenty-eight Doulton tile panels of female figures symbolising jewels by William J Neatby.

It opened in 1896, the year after Bill Holland’s death.

The Tower Company paid him a posthumous compliment by refurbishing their somewhat functional Assembly Hall as the sumptuous Tower Ballroom.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 7, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Paul's Church, Cobbitty, New South Wales

When I lectured to the Camden Decorative & Fine Arts Society, on the south-western outskirts of Sydney, my hostess Nola Tegel insisted on taking me to one of the oldest intact churches in Australia, St Paul’s Church, Cobbitty.

Cobbitty was developed around the pioneer ranch of Rowland and Elizabeth Hassall, missionaries who arrived in Australia in 1798.  Their son, Rev Thomas Hassall (1794-1868), founded the first Sunday School in Australia when he was nineteen years old, was the first Australian-born Anglican priest and became the first rector of Cobbitty in 1827.

He built the Heber Chapel, a simple stone schoolroom dedicated in 1829 to the memory of the much-travelled Rt Rev Reginald Heber (1783-1826), who was Bishop of Calcutta at the time when the whole of Australia was one of its archdeaconries.

Known as the “galloping parson”, Thomas Hassall farmed sheep and acted as magistrate while serving a huge parish:

The later church, a simple Gothic building with a spire, was designed by John Verge (1782-1861), the English-born architect who is best-known for a series of fine villas in the Sydney suburbs, and was at least partly responsible for Elizabeth Bay House (1835-9).

St Paul's Church was completed in 1842.  In the churchyard is the grave of Edward Wise, aged 21, who was struck by lightning while building the steeple.

Recent renovations have revealed, so I’m told, that the unusual shape, with a vestigial sanctuary and broad transepts, results from a decision during construction to extend and reorientate the church.

The church has one of the very few surviving organs by William Davidson (1876):

Thomas Hassall is buried at Cobbitty, and his family are still linked to the parish:  the grandson of his great-great-nephew was christened there in 2011:

Brits used to be sniffy about the lack of history in the former outposts of Empire.  In fact, Cobbity has all the history you’d expect in a traditional English village – buildings going back to the roots of the settlement, fascinating characters, archaeology, and family links back to the Australian equivalent of the Norman Conquest:

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 4, 2013

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Kedleston Bath House

My Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & Hydros guests who didn't think much of Quarndon Spa didn't have the chance to see its upmarket neighbour, the Kedleston Bath House, because it's in the middle of a golf course.

For clients who might scorn the “wretched lodging and entertainment” in the village of Quarndon, Sir Nathaniel Curzon of Kedleston Hall built the New Inn, now the Kedleston Inn (1761), on the stretch of new turnpike road that enabled him to extend his parkland.

As part of this development Sir Nathaniel built the classical bath house, designed by Jason Harris (Matthew Brettingham’s assistant), over a sulphur spring in Kedleston Park, about half a mile from the Quarndon Spa, with segregated baths and changing rooms divided by a central hall and entered through a recessed portico.  The baths themselves were originally overlooked by a statue of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine.

The Kedleston spring had been recognised by 1730, when Thomas Cox described it as “singular in curing old ulcers and especially the leprosy”.  James Pilkington, in A View of the Present State of Derbyshire... (1789), remarked –

Persons of a weak and relaxed habit have been much benefited by the use of this water.  After drinking it a few days they have found their spirits and strength return in a surprising manner, and in the space of a month a cure has been entirely effected.

By visiting the two nearby springs, visitors had a choice of drinking chalybeate (iron-bearing) or sulphurous waters according to their perceived needs.  Neither sounds a lot of fun.

The bath house, reduced to half its original depth in a 1925 restoration, is particularly difficult to see.  Access to the actual building requires permission (and the key) from the National Trust office at Kedleston Hall.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 2, 2013

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Quarndon Spa

When I took the tour-group on the Derbyshire Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros programme on a whistle-stop tour of the lesser spas of the county, I’d no idea what their expectations might be when we reached Quarndon Spa.

One or two people were a little disappointed with what looks like a Gothic bus-shelter.

In fact, its inconsiderable size is what makes it interesting.  In the days before science gave us ample solutions to many maladies, those who could afford it (or gain charity) would travel long distances and put up with privations in the hope that the mineral qualities of a particular spring would bring relief.

The little chalybeate (iron-bearing) spa at Quarndon was recommended as early as 1663 as “good against vomiting, comforts ye stomach, cures ye ulcers of ye bladder, stopps all fluxes, helps conception, stays bleeding in ye breast and at ye srige”.  (I’ve no idea what “srige” is, but it’s not a typo.)

Daniel Defoe visited in 1727:  “We found the wells, as custom bids us call them, pretty full of company, the waters good, and very physical, but wretched lodging and entertainment.”

The adjacent pub, the Joiner’s Arms, is first recorded in 1702, and was run by one family for nearly three hundred years to 1928.  The last survivor of that family was Miss Helen Hampshire, who died on July 16th 1972, aged 102.

Quarndon lost out in the nineteenth century to nearby Matlock Bath, and to Buxton in the north of the county, because its waters were cold and no railway came near it.

The spring disappeared as a result of successive earthquakes in 1863, 1895, 1903 and 1956, but the pub survives [] and the little spa house is maintained by the parish council.

You could easily drive past it without even noticing, yet its history has much to say.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Apr 30, 2013

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydros

Stoney Middleton Bath Houses

When I put together the Derbyshire Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, I made a point of including some of the obscure, rarely noticed relics of the ancient custom of using natural springs for therapeutic purposes.

The village of Stoney Middleton has twin bath houses, hidden behind the parish church.

They were built by the local landowner, Thomas Denman, in 1815.  Before that, according to James Pilkington, in his A View of the Present State of Derbyshire (1789) the baths were open to the elements and “discouraging”.

Denman provided male and female baths and changing rooms, complete with fireplaces.

That must have counted as luxurious in the wilds of Derbyshire in the time of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Nowadays they are used for an associated purpose:  restored in 1985-92 by the parish council, they provide storage for the village’s well-dressing team.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Apr 27, 2013

Category:Manx HeritageFun Palaces

Falcon Lift, Douglas (2009)

The Isle of Man is an astonishing repository of archaic technology that has survived against the odds.

Only now, after fifty years of neglect, is the Cunningham’s Camp Escalator being dismantled as dangerous.  I trust that the admirable Manx Museum will rescue as much of its parts as possible to restore as a static exhibit sometime in the future.

Another relic lingers on Douglas seafront, high up on the cliffs.

The Falcon Lift was constructed in 1927 by William Wadsworth & Co of Bolton to connect a hotel and dance pavilion with the promenade:

It was the second lift on the site:  an earlier funicular on a different alignment, built in 1877, had been transported to Port Soderick at the far end of the Marine Drive in 1898.

The existing Falcon Lift isn’t a funicular with two balancing cars.  It’s simply a lift, and it’s been sitting at the top of its track since the hotel closed in 1990:

It’s simply not possible to preserve everything that might be interesting, but for the moment the Falcon Lift remains, like much else on the Isle of Man, because no-one has seen the need to get rid of it.

For details of the Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 24, 2013

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

Birmingham Back-to-Backs

Though the National Trust is strongly associated with preserving the lifestyles of grand houses, one of its finest restoration projects of recent years brings vividly to life the living conditions of very ordinary Birmingham workers and their families.

The Birmingham Back-to-Backs is a fortunate survival of early nineteenth-century terraced houses dating from 1802-31 on the edge of the city centre, south of New Street Station, on the fringes of Chinatown and the Gay Village.

Here in what was once Court 15 on the corner of Ince Street and Hurst Street, as many of sixty people lived in eleven cramped houses, almost all of them back-to-back or blind-back in layout, with the privies and wash-houses (which in Birmingham are called “brewhouses”) in the yard outside.

Four of the houses are recreated to illustrate specific periods – a watchmaker’s house of the 1840s, a glass-eye-maker’s house of the 1870s, a locksmith’s of the 1930s and (after the buildings had been declared unfit for human habitation) a tailor’s shop of the 1970s which eventually closed when its proprietor, George Saunders, retired in 2002.

There were 43,000 of these dwellings in Birmingham at the end of the First World War, housing 200,000 people.  By 1988, when Court 15 was listed Grade II, it was the only survivor.

After detailed archaeological and historical research and sensitive stabilisation and restoration by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, the Back-to-Backs were handed over to the National Trust.

The Trust has recreated the 1930s sweet shop on the corner, operates three of the houses as short-term rental properties, and opens most of the remaining buildings to the public on strictly timed-ticketed tours.

Here is a living memorial to the cramped, arduous but sociable lives of the millions of Britons and foreign immigrants who poured into the Victorian cities looking for work, and who are the ancestors of most of the current British population.

The Birmingham Back to Backs is not the easiest National Trust property to arrange to visit.  Details are at

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 21, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Alton Castle

Photo:  Maureen Mannion

When you drive down the hill from the entrance to Alton Towers, into the steep valley of the River Churnet, you see on the opposite cliff the gaunt outline of Alton Castle, built by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin for Charles, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.

Quite why Lord Shrewsbury wanted a Bavarian-style mock castle on top of the twelfth- and fifteenth-century remains of the original Alton Castle is unclear.

He might have wanted a more compact retreat from the extravagant splendours of Alton Towers.  He could have intended it as a dower house for his mother.

He was a major patron of the Catholic Church, a great deal more pious than his predecessor, and the unfinished castle includes a spectacularly tall, narrow, unexpectedly tiny private chapel.

Lord Shrewsbury also had Pugin design a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which became known as Alton Hospital (in the original sense of a home, rather than a medical facility).

Pugin took against the Earl’s suggestion that the hospital might look like a castle:

I implore and entreat your Lordship, if you do not wish to see me sink with misery, to withdraw that dreadful idea about the alteration to the hospital.  I would sooner jump off the rocks than build a castellated residence for priests.  I have been really ill since I read the letter...for heaven’s sake, my dear Lord Shrewsbury, abandon this suggestion which must be a device of the Devil to spoil so fair a design.

There wasn’t a lot of point in arguing with Pugin.  The Earl rarely constrained the great architect's genius with a budget, and the result – though not fully complete – is an exquisite complex of Victorian Gothic buildings by the greatest architect of the day, working for one of the most generous patrons.

Alton Castle was used by the Sisters of Mercy for a prep school from 1919 to 1989.  It stood empty until 1996 when the Archdiocese of Birmingham put it to good use as a retreat centre run for, and largely by, young people:

Posted by: mike on Apr 19, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Alton Towers ruins (1977)

Alton Towers ruins (1977)

Individual adult visitors to the Alton Towers theme-park currently pay £46.20 for a thrilling day out:

It’s a pity that there isn’t a way of enjoying the place for its own sake at any reasonable price.

Alton Towers was one of the greatest of all British country estates.  The gardens were developed on an unpromising valley site by Charles, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (1753-1827), who adapted a lodge into an increasingly grand residence which he spuriously named Alton Abbey.

The writer Christopher Hussey described it as “...the last achievement in England, and on the grand scale, of the Georgian passion for creating private elysiums, which produced Stowe, Stourhead and their derivative landscape parks in the eighteenth century.”

His nephew and heir, John, 16th Earl (1791-1852) carried on his work, and after a fire at his main house at Heythrop, Oxfordshire, he relocated to Alton after 1831.  He was a champion of the Catholic Revival, and the principal patron of the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who contributed, among much else, the Banqueting Hall and Chapel of the vast house.

His heir Bertram, 17th Earl (1832-1856) was his second cousin once removed.  After his early death the title was disputed between Bertram’s designated Catholic heir and a Protestant descendant of the Jacobean 7th Earl.

As a result the entire contents of the house were sold in a forty-day auction.  When the Protestant Henry, 18th Earl (1803-1868) took possession, a quarter-mile-long procession of tenants and yeomanry welcomed his train at Uttoxeter station.  The incident figures in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870).

The eighteenth Earl refurnished the house, but it was never as splendid again.  Henry’s grandson, Charles, 20th Earl (1860-1921), caused a great scandal by running off with Ellen Miller-Mundy, the wife of a Derbyshire coal-owner, in 1881.

They eventually separated, and she lived at Alton Towers, which he neglected in the hope of driving her away.

This, rather than wartime neglect, started the physical decline of the building, which was sold with the estate in 1924.

Between the wars it was a highly successful and entirely decorous entertainment centre.  The Coronation Street actor William Roache discovered that his enterprising grandmother, Zillah Waddicor, ran the catering operation there, providing lunches for up to a thousand covers at once:

From 1973 onwards John Broome, son-in-law of the majority shareholder Denis Bagshaw, began to develop the spare land away from the house and garden as an adventure theme park, which was taken over by the Tussauds Group in 1990.

As a business it’s clearly never looked back, and provides entertainment to millions.  But it’s a pity you can’t spend a day exploring the house-ruins and the gardens for less than a year’s subscription to the National Trust.

Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Blackpool Grand Theatre

Blackpool’s oldest theatre, the Theatre Royal, has now gone, destroyed by fire in 2009:

In the late nineteenth century its lessee was Thomas Sergenson, who ran a stage-production of Ellen Wood’s East Lynne – “Dead!  Dead!  And never called me mother!” – for twenty-five summers.

He was a smart businessman and made enough money to purchase a plot of land in 1887 to build a Grand Theatre.

He initially erected a row of shops with a temporary circus building behind, until it became apparent that he held a prime site between the Winter Gardens and its new rival the Tower, which was started in 1891.

Accordingly, he commissioned Frank Matcham to complete the Grand Theatre auditorium at a cost of £20,000 and opened it on July 23rd 1894, two months after the Tower opened, with Hamlet, starring Wilson Barrett.

By 1901 Sergenson had bought out his business partners, and he sold the theatre to the Tower Company on December 23rd 1909 for £47,500.

Like so many Victorian theatres, the Grand was threatened with demolition:  in 1972 it was planned to demolish it to make way for a department store.  It was restored, after vociferous public protest, first as a bingo house, and then sold for a quarter of a million pounds to its present owners, the Grand Theatre Trust.  It was reopened as a theatre by HRH the Prince of Wales on May 29th 1981.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 13, 2013

Category:Manchester's Heritage

Manchester Arndale Centre (2009)

It’s unusual to find archaeological interest in the urban redevelopment of the 1960s and early 1970s.  Indeed, the redevelopment of town- and city-centres in that period more often obliterated archaeology than created it.

And it’s even more surprising to read of an archaeological find associated with Manchester’s unloved Arndale Centre (Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley 1972-9).

Two Manchester academics, Martin Dodge and Richard Brook, have identified an otherwise inexplicable void beneath the Centre that appears to be the basis for a station – possibly to be named ‘Royal Exchange’ – for the aborted 1970s Picc-Vic rail-link that would have been Manchester’s equivalent of Liverpool’s Merseyrail loop.

Their discovery was reported in the Architects’ Journal, March 13th 2012:

The same article mentions the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange, “Manchester’s best-kept secret”:  for the low-down on that, see

For the equivalent “Birmingham’s best-kept secret”, the Anchor Telephone Exchange, see

Peter Laurie, in his seminal Beneath the City Streets (Allen Lane 1970), was right when he pointed out how easily British governments have excavated thousands of tons of spoil, pumped in vast quantities of concrete and established secret bunkers and command-bases, literally under the noses of the public.

Posted by: mike on Apr 10, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureHistoric ChesterBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Chester St Michael's Row & Arcade:  1912 façade

Chester St Michael's Row & Arcade:  1910 interior

St Michael's Row and Arcade, Chester:  (top) 1912 façade;  (bottom) 1910 interior

Much of the centre of Chester is a Victorian reconstruction in the black-and-white idiom of the medieval buildings of the famous Rows [see Quaint old Rows].

It’s odd that the developer, the second Duke of Westminster, and his architect, William Lockwood (1863-????), the rugby-playing son of Thomas Lockwood (1830-1900) who had built much in the city, should have so badly miscalculated public taste when they faced St Michael’s Row and Arcade (1910) with an elaborate Beaux Arts confection of white and gold Doulton tiles, right in the middle of Bridge Street.

There was immediate uproar – from the local press, the City Council and the Bishop.

Within a year, His Grace agreed to demolish the frontage and at his own expense, around £4,000, rebuild it from row-level upwards in black-and-white revival style to fit with the streetscape.

The original Doulton ware remains within, and it is indeed elegant, but not the right style for the centre of Chester.

The Duke’s successors dramatically ignored the lesson when they conceived the gross Grosvenor Precinct in the same block in 1963-5.  No amount of tinkering has tempered its ugliness.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Apr 7, 2013

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Cleethorpes Pier

Some time ago I wrote a Facebook entry about my local butcher’s disappointment when he visited Cleethorpes for the first time in decades.  The place wasn’t what it used to be, he said, fifty years ago.

Shortly afterwards, my friend Marion remarked how much the children at her grandson’s primary school had enjoyed a day in Cleethorpes.

Apparently the school is in a fairly deprived area, and some of the kids had never actually been to the seaside.  It proved impossible to get them off the beach:  the sand and the sea were all they wanted.

That’s the magic of the seaside, yet Cleethorpes is entirely a commercial creation, the unlikely joint enterprise of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, who had built the line out to Grimsby to exploit the fish docks, and the dons of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who owned 56% of the land enclosed by an Act of 1842 that specifically allocated to them 2½ acres of coastline.

The railway to Cleethorpes was opened in 1863:  in August that year 40,000 Primitive Methodists attended a tea meeting, three-quarters of them arriving by train.

By 1892 the railway company owned the entire foreshore between Grimsby and Cleethorpes.  George Dow, the railway historian, declared that Cleethorpes was one of the best investments the MS&L possessed.

Like most British seaside resorts, Cleethorpes is indeed a shadow of its former self, though you can by a quirk of railway geography get a train there direct from Manchester Airport.

Cleethorpes’ most successful sons are the actor, Patrick Wymark (1926-1970), and Rod Temperton (born 1947), member of the band Heatwave and writer of – among much else – the title track of Michael Jackson’s album, Thriller (1984).

Posted by: mike on Apr 4, 2013

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

 Birmingham Museum of the Jewellery Quarter

Museum of the Jewellery Quarter

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is where you can still see and feel the buzz of small metalworking trades making money.  It's the most complete remaining sector of the multitude of tiny multi-occupant workshops that once produced the bulk of Birmingham’s prosperity.

Historically, the district is Hockley.  The Jewellery Quarter name is a form of tourist branding that goes with brown signs and drawing in visitors.  Unlike other industrial cities that celebrate their industrial history as heritage when actually the trade is dead, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter still makes and sells quality jewellery.

It survived because the nature of its trades is such that they would not survive transplanting:  only a quarter of the businesses in the Quarter employ more than twenty-five people.

Some clearance took place in the sixties, and the eight-storey Hockley Centre (Peter Hing & Jones 1970-1), now largely occupied by service-enterprises rather than craftsmen, stands as a monument to the period.

In streets such as Vittoria Street, Hylton Street and Frederick Street, the houses, converted in the nineteenth century by adding “shopping” blocks stretching away to the rear, are interspersed with more architecturally ambitious purpose-built workshops and showrooms.

The jewel of the Jewellery Quarter is the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter [], which opened in March 1992 on the premises of the jewellery-manufacturers, Smith & Pepper, whose works, barely altered since the First World War, had been left virtually intact after final closure in 1980.

The place still feels very much as if the owners had locked the door and left it, though in fact it is meticulously conserved, and inevitable modifications have been made for visitor access.

The greatest attraction of all is to watch a live jewellery-manufacturing demonstration, showing that the old skills still survive and bring the place to life.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 1, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

Yackandandah Hotel, Victoria

Yackandandah Hotel, Victoria

Before I left Albury after my Murray River DFAS lecture, Sally and John took me to Yackandandah for lunch.

It’s a former gold-mining town that now seems to use tourists as a gold-mine.

Though there were settlers here from the 1840s, the discovery of gold in 1852 brought prospectors who based themselves in tiny camps with such names as Staghorn Flat, Allan’s Flat, Osborne’s Flat, Rowdy Flat, Whisky Flat, Bell’s Flat and Hillsborough.

The trading centre, which took the name Yackandandah from the creek that ran down the valley, was laid out in 1856-7 and by the 1860s had a population of 3,000.

The very first pupil on the roll of the state school in 1864 was Isaac Isaacs (1855-1948), who became the first Australian-born Governor General (1931-1936).  He was born in Melbourne:  his father was a tailor who brought his family to Yackandandah in 1859.

We had just enough time to visit the Yackandandah Historical Society & Museum [] which is housed in the Bank of Victoria building (1860) and the adjacent Manager’s House (1856), and to glance at Sam Cunningham’s store and carriage showroom (1850), the Post Office (1863), the Athenaeum (1878), the Yackandandah Hotel and the Yackandandah Motor Garage.

I didn’t have time to follow the Indigo Gold Trail [], or to take Greg Porter’s Karrs Reef Gold Mine Tour [], or to seek out the Cemetery (1859) [].

There’s so much history to be explored, not least in a boom-town that started up in the mid-nineteenth century, and lost its original raison d’être decades ago.

Posted by: mike on Mar 30, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring Australia

Hotel Culcairn, New South Wales

Culcairn Hotel, New South Wales

When Barb Ross showed me the Holbrook Submarine Museum I thought my day out was complete, but there was more to come:  I might have found the submarine – indeed, I could hardly have missed it if I’d been driving the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne – but I’d never have stumbled on the places Barb showed me.

There’s no substitute for exploring a district with someone who’s spent decades of their lives there.

Barb pointed me towards a couple of tall grain silos, which mark the vestigial remains of Holbrook’s railway station, which opened in 1902 and closed in 1975:  When Barb and her husband Malcolm first farmed here their grain was dispatched by rail;  now it goes by road.

We followed the valley westwards, repeatedly crossing the old railway line, on which the track remains intact.  It seems that in Australia abandoned railways are literally abandoned;  in Britain the track and infrastructure were most often ripped up for scrap.

We couldn’t find the little wooden church which had been repainted specially for Barb’s friend’s daughter’s wedding.  It seems someone has removed it.

The Round Hill Hotel [] was closed:  from the 1860s there was a Cobb & Co staging post – the Australian equivalent of Wells Fargo – but the origin of the pub is lost in mists of early New South Wales history.

This was the site of the first of a series of murders by the bushranger Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan (1830-1865):  the memorial to his victim, John McLean (d 1864), is beside the road some distance from the Round Hill homestead.

We followed the branch railway all the way to the junction, Culcairn, which proved to be a historical gem.  I’d travelled along the North East railway line twice and so passed through Culcairn, which was once a significant stopping-place.  It was the junction for Holbrook and for Corowa (opened 1892), another derelict but intact line which also closed in 1975:

Culcairn railway station (1880) retains a single platform and its wooden buildings, including the stationmaster’s house (c1883) which is restored as a museum:  Across the road is the former branch of the London Bank of Australia.  Later in my tour I met a lady who was the daughter of the branch manager and grew up in Culcairn:  she recalled being kept awake at night by the noise of shunting trains, and travelling by rail to boarding school in Sydney.

The Germanic origins of the local community are apparent on Railway Parade in the substantial brick terrace of shops, Scholz’s Buildings (1908), and the Culcairn Hotel (1891, extended 1910):  We looked inside the hotel, and I marvelled at the elegant leaded-light windows which looked something between Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

None of this I would ever have found but for the privilege of being hosted by somebody who knew the place like the back of her hand.

Posted by: mike on Mar 28, 2013

Category:Exploring Australia

Holbrook Submarine Museum, New South Wales

When I lectured to the Murray River Decorative & Fine Arts Society at Albury-Wodonga on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, I was told over dinner about a town with a submarine, up in the Riverina hills.

I was intrigued, and asked my host Barb Ross to take me to the place where she grew up, Holbrook, which was originally called Ten Mile Creek and then Germanton.

Many Australian-German place-names fell out of favour during the First World War, and the inhabitants of Germanton chose to rename their town in tribute to a naval hero, Lt (latterly Commander) Norman Douglas Holbrook, VC (1888-1976), who took an obsolete British submarine under a minefield to torpedo a Turkish battleship in the Dardanelles in 1915.  He was the first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross, and the first recipient of the medal in the First World War.

Commander Holbrook took a personal interest in the little town that had taken his name, and after his death his widow, Mrs Gundula Holbrook, presented the council with his Victoria Cross medal.

In tribute to Commander Holbrook the town council raised funds to purchase a decommissioned Oberon-class Australian submarine, HMAS Otway, in 1995.  Mrs Holbrook contributed A$100,000 to bring the outer shell of the vessel above the waterline, and to establish a small park and the Holbrook Submarine Museum [] alongside.

This spectacle has surprised at least one driver of a huge Australian road-train, hammering through the foggy night until his headlights picked out the unmistakable shape of a submarine’s bows, four hundred miles from the ocean.

Maybe this disconcerting moment saved him from jumping the only set of traffic lights on the 847km road between Sydney and Melbourne.

There is a further display about Norman Holbrook at the Woolpack Museum:

Posted by: mike on Mar 26, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring Australia

Albury Railway Station, New South Wales

There was a time when travelling between New South Wales and Victoria involved going through customs.

When the railway lines first reached the Murray River, from Melbourne to the Victoria border-town of Wodonga in 1873 and from Sydney to the New South Wales side at Albury in 1881, there was no rail bridge:  passengers had to transfer by coach.

Even when the rail bridge was completed in 1883, passengers still had to transfer across the platform because the two railways ran to different gauges:  the Victoria North Eastern Railway was built to the Irish broad gauge of 5ft 3in, while the New South Wales Great Southern Railway had the British standard gauge of 4ft 8½in.

The fine station at Albury, designed by the NSW Government Railways’ Chief Engineer, John Whitton (1820-1899), is distinguished by its 1,480-foot covered island platform which allowed inter-state passengers to transfer between the gauges – an experience which astonished Mark Twain:  “…a singular thing, the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the unaccountable marvel that Australia can show, namely the break of gauge at Albury. Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth.”

Though the Commonwealth of Australia was constituted in 1901, oversight of transport policy remained with the individual states, and it took until 1962 to complete a standard-gauge through connection between Melbourne and Sydney.

This produced the anomaly of a twin-track railway between Melbourne and Albury operating as two single lines, one of each gauge.

The remaining broad-gauge track on this route was converted to standard gauge between 2008 and 2011.

The state boundary at Albury-Wodonga is practical, yet appeared to me invisible:  the adjacent towns are, after all, both part of the Commonwealth of Australia.  A similar conjunction on the border between Canada and the US state of Vermont is more vexatious:

Posted by: mike on Mar 23, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

'Another Place', Crosby Beach

Why is it that local councils want to look a gift horse in the mouth when they’re presented with an opportunity to adopt a tourist attraction of international importance?

Bristol City Council was initially dubious about having the SS Great Britain sitting in the otherwise useless harbour in the 1970s.

Bradford failed to support Jonathan Silver’s attempt to bring the Victoria & Albert Museum’s South Asia collection to the derelict Lister Mill in Manningham.

Sefton Council in Merseyside wasn’t at all keen on Antony Gormley’s haunting collection of cast-iron figures, Another Place, staying very long on Crosby Beach.

Another Place originated in 1997, and Gormley’s figures had previously gazed out to sea in Germany, Norway and Belgium before they were brought to the Mersey estuary as a component of the 4th Liverpool Biennial (2006) and the European Capital of Culture event (2008).

They were intended, when the temporary planning permission for their installation ran out, to be taken to New York, but Sefton Council relented and they are now to remain.

They’re by no means universally popular.  They’re considered a hazard to watersports.  Wildlife authorities worry about the effect of visitors on feeding birds, though biologists study with interest the colonisation of the figures by barnacles.

Some people regard them as pornographic, because each has a “simplified” penis.  Whether the objection is to the penis or the simplification is unclear.

The plethora of brown tourist signs directing motorists to Another Place is stark evidence that this mysterious installation has put Sefton on the map.

When all’s said and done, why else would people traipse down to Burbo Bank, but to gaze on Gormley’s iron men?

Nicholas Wroe’s 2005 profile of Antony Gormley is at

Posted by: mike on Mar 20, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureManchester's Heritage

Manchester Watts' Warehouse

In the Manchester cotton trade, a warehouse was not so much a back-end storage facility as a front-end sales facility.

The Manchester merchants displayed their wares in extensive, prestigious premises, with floor after floor of merchandise available to view.

Orders were dispatched and packed through the basement and delivered by road cart, rail and canal.

One of the most endearing surviving examples is the great palazzo of Samuel & James Watts on Portland Street on Portland Street.

James Watts was the socially ambitious owner of Abney Hall, Cheshire, where he hosted Prince Albert for the opening of the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition.  His firm’s prosperity was founded on wholesale drapery, and it was said that at one time the Warehouse had £10,000-worth of ribbons in one room.

Designed by the architectural partnership of Travis & Magnall from 1851 and eventually opened on March 16th 1858, its successive storeys are in Egyptian, Italian Renaissance, sixteenth-century Dutch, Elizabethan, French Renaissance, Flemish and Gothic styles.

Construction dates are uncertain, but it is likely that work started early in 1855 and was largely complete by the end of 1856.  It was said to have cost £100,000.

Modern visitors take some convincing that this was in fact a warehouse.

After ten years under threat of demolition, the Grade II*-listed Watts Warehouse became the opulently decorated Britannia Hotel, opened in 1982 [].  Many of its internal spaces are divided and its ceilings lowered, but the building is intact and in use.

If you pass it, take a look at the magnificent staircase, original to the building and intended to impress the clients who came to do business.

For background information on Watts and other Manchester warehouses, see

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Manchester's Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester's Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 17, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Plaza Cinema, Handsworth, Sheffield

Plaza Cinema, Handsworth, Sheffield (1984)

Former cinemas are selling like hotcakes in Sheffield at the moment.  Recent articles have featured the Adelphi, Attercliffe and the Abbeydale.

The Plaza Cinema, Handsworth, which has for years now been Rileys ten-pin bowling and snooker hall, is up for auction with a guide-price of £95,000+:,%201%20Richmond%20Road,%20Handsworth,%20Sheffield%20-%7C-967#lot.

Designed by a local architect, Bernard Powell of Woodhouse, who was until 1921 the Handsworth Urban District Council surveyor, the Plaza shared characteristics with the recently demolished Ritz, Parson Cross – an unspectacular exterior hiding a thoroughly modern Art Deco interior.  Bernard Powell provided a squat tower which originally carried the name ‘Plaza’ in neon, visible across the neighbourhood.

The only time I’ve visited the Plaza, when it was a bingo club in the 1980s, the foyer was virtually intact, an imitation Odeon-style essay in fins and wavy plasterwork.

The auditorium had been divided at balcony level, and was difficult to visualise.  The Cinema Treasures website [] describes a colour-scheme that could have been awful but might have been elegant – orange merging to light buff with a royal-blue dado.

The Plaza isn’t listed, so it’s under the radar of conservation groups.  It’s likely that if the modern interior fittings were stripped back the original space would be revealed.  Whether that’s an asset for redevelopment depends on the vision and the intentions of the new owner.

It would be no surprise if the place was bulldozed.  But it might yet turn out to be a building worth keeping.

Posted by: mike on Mar 14, 2013

Category:Exploring New York

New York City:  Ellis Island (1981)

New York City:  Ellis Island ferry-boat (1981)

When I first visited New York City in 1981 my host, my school contemporary Malcolm, insisted there were two places I must visit – the Cloisters and Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was the major immigration reception station for the United States, handling 90% of arrivals from the Old World, from whom 40% of the present-day population are descended, between 1892 and 1954. 

Here the “tired...huddled masses” first set foot in the New World, and the stringent examinations they underwent determined whether they would be allowed to remain.

The “island of tears”, out in the bleak expanse of New York Harbour, has a powerful emotional pull on American consciousness.

When I first visited Ellis Island the facilities were much as they’d been left after the station finally closed on November 29th 1954.  The minimal security team had had little success in preventing pilfering on the otherwise deserted island.  Water in the central-heating system froze during the winter, and the buildings deteriorated inexorably as the vegetation took over the grounds.  The ferry Ellis Island was left at its moorings, where ultimately it sank.

Since then, Ellis Island has been transformed into an immaculate museum by the National Parks Authority, commemorating the contribution that immigrants have made to American life.  Inevitably, it has lost the patina of decay which badly needed arresting.  I’m glad I saw it in its unrestored state:  it was a powerfully evocative place back then.

The modern visitor can still see the baggage-handling facilities, the scene of much overcrowding and of notorious “losses” of immigrants’ possessions, the staircase which formed part of the “six-second medical”, in which signs of undue exertion were regarded as diagnostic evidence, and the great Registry Room, in which inspectors had to decide, by interview using interpreters in any of up to thirty languages apart from English, whether an immigrant was “clearly and beyond a doubt” eligible to land.

The history of European colonisation is a complex and controversial aspect of international history.  Malcolm was right in urging me to fit in one of the building blocks of my understanding of the USA by visiting Ellis Island while I was in New York.

Admission to Ellis Island is free, but it is – obviously – only accessible by boat.  The public ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan is bookable at  Details of the facilities on the island are at the voluminous website

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 11, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesBirmingham's Heritage

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery [] in the middle of Brindleyplace was formerly the Oozells Street School (Martin & Chamberlain 1877), one of the forty-one designs for the Birmingham School Board produced by Martin & Chamberlain between 1873 and 1898, in this case built to three storeys to make best use of a cramped site.

From 1906 it was the Pupil Teachers’ Centre for Girls, later the Commercial College Day Department and latterly the College of Food and Domestic Arts until 1967.

After years of neglect in the blighted Broad Street area, it was redeveloped for gallery use and its saddle-back ventilation tower rebuilt by Levitt Bernstein Associates (1997).

It’s a superb conversion, for the most part using the original classroom spaces, with modern access needs, including a glass-sided lift, carefully inserted.

Its excellent Café Ikon [] is open to visitors without entering the gallery itself, and is a particularly pleasant place to sit on warm days.  It’s a good idea to beware of the teapots, though:  they’re good to look at but come adrift in the act of pouring.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 8, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Flxible Clipper

I was walking along a street in Launceston, Tasmania, when I came across this strange beast of a bus.

When I got home my friend Doug, who likes buses, helped me to track its provenance.

It’s a Flxible Clipper, an American design dating from 1937 that was imported to Australia in 1947 by Sir Reginald Ansett (1909-1981).

Reg Ansett was an inspired Australian entrepreneur:  he began running buses and taxis between the towns of western Victoria, and then founded Ansett Airways in 1936.  His airline became the basis for investment in hotels and television as well as interests in Diners’ Club and Bic pens.

This particular vehicle is the American original, from which Reg Ansett built a further 105 (or 131, depending on the source,) under licence.  It now belongs to Ken Turnbull, who drove it in the 1950s, bought it in 1974 and restored it to original condition.

There are at least another sixteen Flxible Clippers on the road in Australia, but all the others are converted into motor homes:

They are revered for their durability and speed and their inimitable style.  In the USA they were known as “the DC3 of highway buses”:

A 1951 Australian model figures in this clip:

Flxible, by the way, is pronounced “Flexible”:  the vowel was dropped for trade-mark purposes in 1919.

Posted by: mike on Mar 6, 2013

Category:Sacred placesLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania

St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania

My only chance to see the scale of Tasmania was a bus-journey from Hobart north to Launceston (pronounced Laun-ces-ton with three syllables) – an enjoyable journey following by road an entirely serviceable railway track that hasn’t seen a passenger train since 1978.

My curiosity was aroused by odd places I’d have stopped at if I’d been in a car – Oatlands, its early-nineteenth-century sandstone buildings constructed by convicts, Callington Mill (1837) the only functioning Lincolnshire windmill in the southern hemisphere [], Perth, which has a dignified octagonal Baptist church and a rather sad locomotive “plinthed”, as the website describes it, in a park:

The Launceston Decorative & Fine Arts Society booked me into the splendidly named Clarion City Park Grand Hotel [] and made sure I didn’t starve:  I like to sample southern-hemisphere fish, so at lunch I ordered gummy and potato salad at Silt @ Seaport [now apparently closed –] and after the lecture I was taken for dinner at a carnivore’s nirvana, the Black Cow Bistro

I liked Launceston, where I had a free morning before flying back to Sydney.  The shopping streets are particularly rich in Art Deco buildings.  My particular favourite building, however, was St John’s Anglican Church, a weird pot-pourri of different building phases – a “Regency Gothic” tower dating back to 1830, the chancel and transepts added according to an unfinished plan by the Huddersfield-born architect Alexander North (1848-1945) between 1901 and 1911, with the nave enlarged, again by Alexander North, in 1937-8.  North’s splendid crossing is spanned by a concrete dome, but the massive central tower remains unbuilt.

At the time I visited St John’s I didn’t realise – there’s no reason why I should – that the organ was first installed by Charles Brindley, organ-builder of my native Sheffield, in 1861:   It seems that Brindley, together with his eventual business-partner, Albert Healey Foster, exported organs to the southern hemisphere on a regular basis.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St George's Parish Church, Hobart

St George's Parish Church, Hobart, Tasmania

My only visit to Tasmania so far was a whistle-stop affair.  The lecture-tour itinerary I was following meant that I flew into Hobart on Sunday night, lectured there on Monday night, travelled to Launceston on Tuesday to lecture, and left for Sydney on Wednesday morning.

Van Diemen's Land was a bad place to be in the early nineteenth century.  British criminals feared it;  colonial administrators hated it, and the settlers’ activities ultimately exterminated the indigenous population.

It is a beautiful island, and a place to which I must return.

I stayed at Battery Point, on the hill above Sullivans Cove, at the comfortable Battery Point Boutique Accommodation [], and my hosts, Jill and Bill Bale, made sure I saw as much of their city as possible in a short time.

Battery Point and the harbour-front below it, Salamanca Place, reminded me strongly of Whitby, which is plausible because Hobart dates from 1804 and its oldest streets are more Georgian than Victorian.

In the limited time available I needed to check out Hobart's cathedrals for my 'Antipodean Gothic' lecture and publication. 

I’m glad that Bill, my host, insisted on pointing me towards St George’s Parish Church, a superb Greek-revival building of 1836-8, designed by the Irish-born Civil Engineer & Colonial Architect John Lee Archer (1791-1852).  The particularly elegant tower (1840s, based on the Tower of the Winds, Athens) and the imposing Doric porch (1888) were added by the convict-architect James Blackburn (1803-1854), who had been transported for forgery and who at the end of his life designed the first water-supply system for Melbourne.

St Mary’s Cathedral, seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, is Gothic, imperfectly constructed 1860-6 and re-erected 1876-81.  It has a memorial stained-glass window by John Hardman & Co and a statue of the Virgin and Child, designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and carved by George Myers.  Three modern stained-glass windows are by the Hungarian-born designer Stephen Moor (1915-2003).  In contrast, the font – of unknown provenance – is thought to be Norman.

St David’s Cathedral, the centre of the Anglican diocese of Tasmania, is an early design of the late-Victorian English architect, George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907).  It replaced an earlier classical parish church of 1823.  St David’s Cathedral was begun in 1868 and the nave was consecrated in 1874.  It took until 1936 to complete:  the chancel, consecrated in 1894, proved unsafe and had to be reconstructed in 1908-9;  the tower, for which the foundation-stone had been laid in 1892, was eventually constructed 1931-6.

I keep finding similar stories in the origins of Australian cities – diligent, determined congregations building churches, designed either by people on the spot who’ve brought their skills across the seas, or by British architects sending out plans that they knew they’d never see built.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 1, 2013

Category:Fun Palaces

Blackpool Opera House

Blackpool’s Opera House is the third on its site – a lavish art-deco design by Charles MacKeith, with two balconies and a total seating-capacity of 2,920.  The full stage-width is 110 feet, with a proscenium opening of 45 feet.

The opening-ceremony on July 14th 1939 was performed by Jessie Matthews, who was appearing in I can take it at the Grand Theatre just down the road, with an organ-recital including a duet by Horace Finch, the Winter Gardens’ resident organist, and Reginald Dixon.

The stage show included a train-wreck scene incorporating a full-size replica of the Royal Scot locomotive.

The first variety bill at the reopened Opera House starred George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned out nice again.

The Opera House was the venue for the first Royal Variety Performance to take place outside London, in April 1955.

When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remarked what a fine building the Opera House was, the company chairman Douglas Bickerstaffe commented, “Ay, I suppose so, although it’s nobbut an annexe to t’Tower.”

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 26, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

West Norwood Cemetery:  Sir Henry Tate mausoleum

West Norwood Cemetery:  Sir Henry Tate Mausoleum

There’s more to West Norwood Cemetery (1837) than meets the eye.  It’s one of the “Magnificent Seven” early-Victorian London cemeteries – the others are Kensal Green (1837), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Nunhead (1840), Tower Hamlets (1841) and Brompton (1842) – and it has more monuments than you can shake a stick at, 65 of them listed at Grades II and II* according to the Friends’ website:

Perhaps the only disappointment about this beautifully landscaped place is the loss of the original brick mortuary chapels by Sir William Tite, both damaged in the Blitz:  the Anglican chapel was demolished in 1955, and the Nonconformist chapel was replaced by a modern (c1960) crematorium which I thought quite decorous but which Pevsner dismisses as “indifferent”.

Beneath the site of the Anglican chapel the extensive catacombs remain, and can easily be seen at  The catacombs beneath the dissenters’ chapel were apparently not much used, and were replaced by extensive subterranean cremators from 1915 onwards.

Very early in the history of the cemetery, in 1842, the Greek Orthodox community took a separate plot, on which stands their St Stephen’s Chapel, attributed to John Oldrid Scott, surrounded by its own rich collection of mausolea.

An architectural highlight amongst the wealth of monuments is the Tate Mausoleum, built for Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899), inventor of the sugar cube and founder of the Tate Gallery, by Doulton & Co of Lambeth to the designs of Harold Peto, who enlisted all the richness and crispness that Doulton’s artists could contrive:  The restoration by R K Conservation & Design’s of the mosaic ceiling is illustrated at

Having built a monument for the Tate family, Sir Henry Doulton (1820-1897) chose to build his own terracotta mausoleum round the corner:  This is even more elaborate, probably the work of R Stark Wilkinson who built the Doulton factory on the Albert Embankment [see], with details designed by the company’s artist, Mark Marshall.

Terracotta never caught on as a material for funerary monuments.  I know of only one other, the empty Stearn Mausoleum in Nunhead Cemetery, a few miles to the east:

Norwood Cemetery fell on particularly bad times as its income fell in the twentieth century, even though the company had astutely invested in cremation.  Lambeth Council bought the place in 1965 and initially rode roughshod over the rights of the established grave-owners:  the policy of “lawn conversion” and the destruction of monuments was eventually ruled illegal in the mid-1990s, and the cemetery is now managed more decorously.

Indeed, because the crematorium is fully operational, Norwood Cemetery feels like a place people visit for its intended purpose.

And that, compared with the quieter repose of most of the other “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries, is oddly comforting.

Blog-articles about other "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries are at Catafalque burial, Equestrian geniiFour-legged mutes, Lapidary description, and Victorian values.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

West Norwood Cemetery:  Charles Haddon Spurgeon tomb

Rev Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) was one of the brightest stars of Nonconformist preaching in Victorian times, the “prince of preachers” and the kingpin of London Baptist ministry.

I was once told that Spurgeon said “Love God and do as you please”, and though I now know this was St Augustine of Hippo (AD354-430), the remark resonates with the impact of Spurgeon’s gigantic personality.

He began preaching at the age of twenty, four years after his conversion and baptism:  at that early age he became pastor of the largest Baptist congregation in London, New Park Street Chapel in Southwark.

His reputation, bolstered by regular publications, meant that the congregation had to move first to the 4,000-seater Exeter Hall, on the site that is now the Strand Palace Hotel, and then to the 12,000-seat cast-iron Surrey Music Hall in Kennington.

Spurgeon fell out with the proprietors of the Surrey Music Hall over the issue of Sunday concerts, and in 1861 opened the Metropolitan Tabernacle, where he based his ministry until shortly before his death.

He must have been an immensely powerful figure, capable of changing thousands of lives through evangelism long before the age of broadcasting and electronic media.

Once, when asked to test the acoustics before a meeting at the Crystal Palace, he “cried in a loud voice, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’” – and a workman up in the gallery immediately put down his tools, went home and underwent a spiritual conversion, which years later he related on his death-bed.

Spurgeon came to mind as I sat on the top of a 68 bus ploughing its way round the Elephant & Castle gyratory, past the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which has been twice rebuilt after a fire in 1898 and the Blitz in 1941.  This thriving place of worship is still known as “Spurgeon’s Tabernacle”:

Oddly, my 68 bus took me to West Norwood Cemetery, which I explored for some time before finding myself standing unexpectedly before the tomb of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, embellished with a portrait relief and a Bible open at the words of 2 Timothy 4, vv 7-8:

I have fought a good fight.  I have finished my course.  I have kept the faith.

Hencefore there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day, and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.

Some voices resonate long after they've fallen silent.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 21, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred places

St George's Church, Doncaster

When I last visited Doncaster Minster, formerly the parish church of St George, I was shown the monument to Rev Charles John Vaughan (1816-1897), the much-respected vicar between 1860 and 1869.

His story, hidden for many years and still incompletely recorded, is not broadcast in Doncaster.

He was headmaster of Harrow School for fifteen years from 1844, credited with turning the school round in emulation of the great Dr Arnold of Rugby, and widely tipped for a bishopric or the mastership of a university college.

In 1859 he resigned suddenly and, to universal surprise, became vicar of Doncaster, then rapidly expanding as a major railway town.

The truth was that his love-affair with a student, Alfred Pretor (1840-1908), had come to light, and Vaughan was practically blackmailed, not by Pretor’s parents but by the father of another student, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), who himself in adult life became a poet and advocate of male love, which he termed “l'amour de l'impossible”.  John Addington Symonds Snr, a doctor, rejected the pleas of Vaughan’s wife, Catherine, and insisted that Vaughan should retire to the life of a humble pastor.

At Doncaster he did great work among the people:  he also had a splendid new church, rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott after a fire in the 1850s;   its magnificent Schultz organ was installed in 1862.

When Vaughan was offered, and accepted, the bishopric of Rochester, a telegram from Symonds Snr forced him to reverse his acceptance, to the astonishment of all who knew him.  When he was subsequently offered the see of Worcester, he again declined it.

In 1869 he left Doncaster to become Master of the Temple Church in the city of London.  Only after the death of Symonds Snr was he able to accept the Deanery of Llandaff in 1879.

His greatest work for the Church carries a powerful irony.  From his arrival in Doncaster until shortly before his death he prepared no less than 462 young men for the ministry.  These included Randall Davison, a future Archbishop of Canterbury.  His protégés were so recognisable and highly regarded that they were known as “Vaughan’s doves”.

He clearly had a flair for spotting and successfully recruiting Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates who shared his passion for serving God and ministering to the people.  Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury said of Vaughan, without irony, “No man laid the Church of England under a greater obligation.”

In modern times his Harrow indiscretion would have ended his career.  In the heyday of the Victorian Church of England he achieved a remarkable redemption.

Posted by: mike on Feb 18, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Shibden Hall

Shibden Hall, near Halifax, is one of those black-and-white country houses that was spruced up in the early nineteenth century:  Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840) vigorously modernised the place after she inherited it from her uncle in 1826.

Anne Lister’s remarkable diaries have been edited by Helen Whitbread.  The paperback edition of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840) (1988;  Virago 2002) bears the strap-line, “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.

Anne Lister recognised her unequivocal attraction to her own sex at an early age, and determinedly lived her life according to her inclinations, flirting, taking lovers and eventually finding a life partner.

In her voluminous journal she recorded everyday events in what she called “plainhand”;  about a sixth of the four million words are encrypted (her “crypthand”) so that she could write frankly and securely about her emotions and passions for future reflection.

After her unexpected death during a journey to Russia, the diaries remained at Shibden Hall.  Anne’s ultimate heir, John Lister, and his antiquarian friend Arthur Burrell deciphered the crypthand code towards the end of the nineteenth century.

They were so shocked by the content that Burrell proposed to burn the lot.  John Lister, who apparently had secrets of his own to conceal, simply hid them behind the panelling in the Hall.

When Halifax Corporation took over the Shibden estate in 1933, the town clerk enquired about Anne Lister’s diaries and Arthur Burrell delicately suggested “someone...should be, so to speak, armed with a knowledge of what the cipher contains”.  The most suitable person, it was decided, would be the borough librarian.

So the diaries remained under lock and key for decades.  In the 1950s, two female researchers explored the crypthand passages:  one described them as “excruciatingly tedious to the modern mind... and of no historical interest whatsoever”;  the other reticently remarked that the coded content was essential to understanding Anne and her lifestyle.

In an increasingly enlightened social climate, from the 1980s onwards, Helen Whitbread systematically researched Anne’s life and journals and brought them at last to public attention.

Here is a militantly individual landed lady, known to her intimates as “Fred” and to the unfazed locals as “Gentleman Jack”, striving with difficulty and increasing success to be true to her nature.

At one point she contracts a venereal complaint indirectly from her lover’s husband, and takes a surreptitiously acquired prescription to the local pharmacist, Mr Suter.  She enquires if he is ever asked for this particular prescription and he replies, “Yes, very frequently.”

Clearly there was a great deal of private activity in Halifax in the 1820s, as there is everywhere, all the time.  We know a good deal more about it, thanks to Anne Lister and Helen Whitbread, than several generations of Halifax’s male spinsters would have dared reveal.

Visitor information about Shibden Hall is at

Posted by: mike on Feb 15, 2013

Category:Country HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Little Moreton Hall Long Gallery

Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, built in stages from c1450 onwards, epitomises for many the black-and-white timbered architecture of north-west England.  Its curious bay-windows, crowding each other in a corner of the courtyard, and the famous view of its gatehouse, tottering over the moat, make it one of the most memorable Elizabethan manor houses.

The final stage, the long gallery over the gatehouse, is almost certainly an afterthought, probably built in the 1570s by John Moreton.  It defies logic, gravity and time.  Indeed, an architectural model inside the building shows where judiciously hidden modern steel joists hold it rigid.

The Elizabethans were fascinated by height in houses, and many owners built galleries and belvederes so they and their guests could take indoor exercise while admiring the gardens and the distant views from above.

Present-day visitors can still pace back and forth between two plaster reliefs, taken from Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge (1556), reminding them of “The Sp[h]eare of Destinye whose Rule is Knowledge” and, on the other hand, “The Wheele of Fortune whose Rule is Ignorance”.

Not many people realise, though, that Robert Recorde was the Welsh mathematician who first introduced, in his The Whetstone of Witte (1557), the equals sign =.

If you visit Little Moreton Hall you can astonish your companions with that little-known fact as you breeze up and down the long gallery, and if they’re not suitably impressed, add that Robert Recorde also contrived the word “zenzizenzizenzic” to represent the eighth power of a number.

Where would we be without Wikipedia?

Visitor details for Little Moreton Hall are at

Posted by: mike on Feb 13, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Burton Agnes Hall

I never tire of visiting Burton Agnes Hall in North Yorkshire.  It has so much to offer the visitor.

It’s one of the most beautiful of Jacobean country houses, in warm brick with distinctive round “compass bays”, with extraordinarily fine wood panelling, fireplaces and a magnificent staircase. 

The history of the place goes back a long way.

In the grounds, behind a seventeenth-century façade, are the standing remains of the original Norman manor house.

The Jacobean house was built by Sir Henry Boynton after he was appointed to the Council of the North in 1599.

His daughter Anne was attacked nearby and subsequently died of her injuries.  She asked her sisters to make sure that after her death her skull should kept within the house saying that “if my desire be not fulfilled, my spirit shall, if it be permitted, render the house uninhabitable for human beings”.

Initially, her corpse was buried intact in the churchyard, but the supernatural ructions were such that, in consultation with the vicar, the sisters had the grave reopened and the skull brought within, upon which peace was restored.

Subsequent attempts to remove the skull from the premises – in one instance by burying it in the garden – always led to terrifying consequences until eventually the skull was interred within the walls.  Anne, and Burton Agnes, now rest in peace.

Marcus Wickham-Boynton, who owed Burton Agnes Hall between 1947 and 1989, resolved when he inherited to live “quietly, but not too quietly”, and spent his life modernising and beautifying the house and its gardens.

With the Yorkshire architect, Francis Johnson, he brought in panelling and fireplaces from neglected and unwanted houses and restored the long gallery, which had been divided into bedrooms and a store.

Marcus Wickham-Boynton was an astute art collector, bringing to Burton Agnes an impressive array of English and French paintings by such artists as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin, Duncan Grant, Augustus John, Edward Lear, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Walter Sickert and Maurice Utrillo, alongside two impressive bronze busts by Sir Jacob Epstein.

His heir has added further items that are displayed in the Long Gallery, such as a tapestry by Kaffe Fassett and furniture by John Makepeace including the Millennium collection, ‘Tuscan Obelisk’, ‘Spiral’ and ‘Coppice’.

Visitor information for Burton Agnes Hall is at

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 11, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Hardwick New Hall

You would not mess with Bess of Hardwick.  Her descendant, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, described her as “hideous, dry, parched, narrow minded, but my prudent, amassing, calculating buildress and progenitrix” and Edmund Lodge, an eighteenth-century historian, characterised her as “...a woman of masculine understanding and conduct, proud, furious, selfish, and unfeeling”.

Like her monarch, Queen Elizabeth, she was adept at the epistolary put-down from which there is no recovery.  She told Sir Thomas Stanhope, with whom she was clearly displeased:

Tho you be more wretched, vile and miserable than any creature living, & for your wickedness become more ugly in shape than the vilest toade in the worlde and one to whom none of reputation would vouchsafe to send any message, yet she hath thought good to send this much unto you:  that she can be contented you should live, and doth no wayes wish your death, but to this end that all the plagues and miseries that may befall any man may light on such a caitiff as you are.

She outlived four husbands, each of whom enriched her.  By her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, she was the direct ancestor of two great dukedoms, Devonshire and Newcastle, and indirectly a third, Portland.

She bought the estate of her yeoman father from her debt-ridden older brother and extended the manor house in which she was born into a splendid hill-top tower-house, Hardwick Old Hall.

No sooner had her fourth and final husband, George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, expired in 1590 than she began work on one of the most adventurous of all Elizabethan houses, Hardwick New Hall, the finest work of the architect Robert Smythson.  She moved into the New Hall in October 1597 and there she died on February 13th 1608.

Built almost entirely from the materials of her extensive estates, exuberantly exhibitionist and famously “more glass than wall”, its most audacious motif is the series of strapwork parapets around the turrets, emblazoned with her initials ES (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and her coronet.

Several of the turrets served as banqueting houses, for the serving of desserts in the open air on summer evenings.

When, in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Capulet urges his guests to stay longer, he tells them, “We have a trifling, foolish banquet toward.”  In the Elizabethan way, he was giving them the menu in a witty conceit.

Hardwick Old Hall is in the care of English Heritage:  Hardwick New Hall and the surrounding gardens and park are maintained by the National Trust, who are extremely proud of their new visitor centre:  Both buildings are visible from the Derbyshire stretch of the M1 motorway, between junctions 28 and 29.

Posted by: mike on Feb 9, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Barlborough Hall

Barlborough Hall, on the borders of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, is one of a number of country houses which Mark Girouard ascribes to the architect Robert Smythson.

It has all the Smythson trademarks of Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall – symmetry, height, lots of glass – and it was built (c1583-4) for Francis Rodes, an ambitious lawyer, staunch Protestant and associate of George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the fourth and last husband of Bess of Hardwick.

It’s ironic that Rodes’ house is now a Catholic prep-school, and Mass is celebrated in his drawing room.

I was very surprised to be told, on a recent guided tour of Barlborough, that there’s a priest’s hole in the building.

Why, I asked, in a Protestant house?

Because, the guide replied, Francis Rodes’ wife was a Catholic.

I’ve not checked this further, but if it’s so it must have been an odd marriage.

Barlborough Hall is a preparatory school and as such is not open to visitors:  However, the Barlborough Heritage Centre [] welcomes visitors.

Posted by: mike on Feb 7, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wollaton Hall

I once took a friend who was reading for a town-planning degree to see Wollaton Hall, on the outskirts of Nottingham.

I told him it wouldn’t get planning permission now.

The crazy silhouette, high on the hill above the old village, was designed for Sir Francis Willoughby and “built with rare art” by Robert Smythson, the first man in England ever to call himself an architect.

It’s an Elizabethan progidy-house, defying logic and gravity to hoist an enormous prospect-room high above the great hall of a house that in addition had two long galleries.

The Prospect Room is amazing, both from outside and within its empty, extravagant space.  It lacks a fireplace and has only the narrowest of staircases for access.  It can never have been intended for any purpose other than looking down on the surrounding countryside.

Later generations of Willoughbys never seemed to know what to do with it:  at one point it was used as a servants’ dormitory, called – after the custom – “Bedlam”, but the noise disturbed the whole house below.

It seems likely that Sir Francis, part way through the building-period, took it into his head to urge Smythson to build higher.

The ‘Chinese lattice’ joists supporting the Great Hall ceiling would have been adequate to support a lead roof, but have proved too weak to carry the weight of the tower above:  even in the late seventeenth century external buttresses were added at clerestory level to stabilise the structure.

Wollaton Hall is a fascinating, improbable place that has astonished visitors from the day it was built.

Indeed, it’s a wonder it’s still standing.

Wollaton Hall is open to the public, together with the Nottingham Industrial Museum in the adjacent stables:

Posted by: mike on Feb 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesBirmingham's Heritage

St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham (1977)

St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham – viewed from the old Snow Hill Station (1977)

Birmingham’s Catholic St Chad’s Cathedral was conceived in a white-heat enthusiasm following the Emancipation of Britain’s Catholics in 1829.

It was the first major work of the architect August Welby Northmore Pugin, built 1839-41 for around £20,000.

Pugin himself gave an “ancient German carved oak figure of the Blessed Virgin and Child...said to have been the first image of the Blessed Virgin exposed for public veneration in England since the Reformation”.

John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury gave £1,000 towards the construction-costs and a fifteenth-century brass lectern from Louvain, along with an elaborate set of High Mass vestments.

It was one of the first Pugin churches in which he installed, despite opposition from Cardinal Wiseman, one of the rood screens about which he quickly became notoriously obsessive.

Pugin’s total plan was only fully complete when the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor was constructed to a design by Sebastian Pugin Powell in 1933.

St Chad’s became a cathedral on October 27th 1850.  Edward Ilsley, who had been bishop since 1879, became the first archbishop when the see was elevated in 1911.

During the Birmingham blitz, on November 22nd 1941, an incendiary bomb penetrated the south-aisle roof and burnt a radiator which extinguished it.  This remarkable incident is commemorated in the replacement roof-panel, which is marked “Deo Gratias”.

This romantic North German structure once towered above Birmingham’s Gun Quarter until 1960, when the surrounding buildings including Pugin’s Bishop’s House across Water Street was demolished to make way for a bleak stretch of the inner-ring road.

In 1967 the rood-screen was taken down and transferred to the Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Reading and in the same remodelling the lectern given by Lord Shrewsbury was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of New York for £105,000.

St Chad’s is still an awe-inspiring place, but it’s no longer seen as Pugin visualised it.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 2, 2013

Category:Sacred placesBirmingham's Heritage

St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham

St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham

The parish church of St Philip was designed by Thomas Archer in 1709 and consecrated in 1715.  It was intended to serve the new northern streets, then called High Town, away from the ancient parish church of St Martin in the Bull Ring.

Archer was an interesting character, brought up in Henley-in-Arden, the son of the MP for Warwick, and as Groom Porter to Queen Anne he effectively held a patent to tax gambling across the nation.

St Philip’s was his first attempt at church-design and he went on to build St John’s, Smith Square, in London (1712-30) and St Paul’s, Deptford (1714-28).

He gave up architectural work when he was appointed Controller of Customs at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1715.  He died in May 1743 worth £100,000, which he bequeathed to his youngest nephew, Henry Archer, MP for Warwick.

As well as knowing the right people to make a lot of money, he was an exceptional designer.  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner & Alexandra Wedgwood point out that St Philip’s was “the first English church since St Paul Covent Garden to be designed by an architect who had seen for himself major Continental buildings”.

Its form is rectangular yet subtly varied and makes lively use of Doric and Corinthian orders.

The tower, which was not completed until 1725, is immediately recognisable by its scrolls and octagonal dome and may have inspired Cuthbert Brodrick’s tower for Leeds Town Hall (1853-8).

Archer’s original plan was to surmount his tower with a large cross, but this was replaced by a boar’s-head weathervane to acknowledge Sir Richard Gough’s influence in obtaining the £600 donation from King George I that enabled the lantern to be finished.

Money talks.

The Victorian architect J A Chatwin (1830-1907) extended the original chancel, adding extra Corinthian columns and a stepped entablature in white and gold to Archer’s square piers and round arches.  Ian Nairn described Chatwin’s work as “grand-slam Classical”.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1838-1898), who was born at Bennett’s Hill a short walk away and had been baptised in the church, designed for the three windows of Chatwin’s apse a triptych of the Nativity, Crucifixion and Ascension in William Morris glass, and subsequently gifted the design for the West Window which represents the Last Judgement.

St Philip’s became the cathedral when the Anglican Diocese was formed in 1905.

Incendiary bombs destroyed the roof in 1941, and the Cathedral was restored in 1947-8 by Philip and Anthony Chatwin, the son and great-nephew of J A Chatwin.

This must be one of the most intimate and welcoming of all the English cathedrals.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 30, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Harwich Electric Palace

The survival of the Electric Palace, Harwich is an example of serendipity approaching the miraculous.

This tiny 308-seat picture house, opened on November 29th 1911, was one of hundreds built across Britain in response to the requirements of the Cinematograph Act (1910), which outlawed travelling picture shows and dangerous conversions of pre-existing premises in order to prevent fires and panic.

Designed by the 26-year-old Harold Ridley Hooper of Ipswich, it was commissioned by the East Anglian showman, Charles Thurston.

Built on a backstreet plot vacated by a recent fire, its most prosperous days were 1914-18, when Harwich was a teeming naval base surrounded by army camps.

Thereafter the Palace struggled against bigger and more modern rivals and an inter-war shift of population away from the docks into new housing in Dovercourt.

When it converted to sound films with The Singing Fool on March 10th 1930 the Palace gained a Western Electric system that was superior to those used at the Regent and the Empire cinemas in Dovercourt.

Though it never fully recovered from the damage caused by the 1953 East Coast Flood, it was the entertainment tax, particularly punitive for a small auditorium, that drove the Palace out of business.

It closed on the night of Saturday November 3rd 1956.  Its lessee, Major Bostock, instructed the manager simply “to lock the door and leave it locked”.

And so it remained, vandalised and stripped of anything of value, colonised by stinking feral cats but still with the tickets in the paybox machine, until it was discovered in 1972 by Gordon Miller, a Kingston Polytechnic lecturer running a field-study programme in Harwich.

He enlisted the support of Mrs Winifred Cooper, chairman of the Harwich Society, and one of his former students, David Atwell, who was then in the midst of writing Cathedrals of the Movies (1980), the first serious textbook about cinema architecture in Britain.

The nascent Harwich Electric Palace Trust gained as its first patron Sir John Betjeman, which no doubt helped things along.

To the fury of Harwich Borough Council, who wanted the site for a car park, Gordon Miller’s campaign got the Palace listed, and with increasingly powerful support and favourable media attention the building was cleaned up, restored and reopened as a cinema on its seventieth anniversary, November 29th 1981.

It was one of the very first cinema-preservation projects in Britain, and it remains a delight to visit:

The Cinema Theatre Association’s magazine, Picture House No 37 (2012) reproduces Gordon Miller’s extensive survey and historical account of the Palace, written in 1972 to support the application for listing.  It’s a bulky read, but fascinating and copiously illustrated:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 27, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Apart from being great fun, the Pleasure Beach has a long, proud history as part of Blackpool’s entertainment culture and as a hugely successful business dedicated, in the words of its former director, Leonard Thomson, to “separating the public from their money as painlessly and pleasurably as possible”.

Leonard Thomson was the son-in-law of one of the co-founders of the Pleasure Beach, William George Bean, who brought an American Hotchkiss Bicycle Railway to Blackpool’s South Shore in 1895 and collaborated with a Yorkshire meat-trader, John W Outhwaite, to import other rides from Coney Island to set up a permanent fairground on what had previously been a gypsy encampment.

Their ambition was to create, in the words of W G Bean, “…an American Style Amusement Park, the fundamental principle of which is to make adults feel like children again and to inspire gaiety of a primarily innocent character”.

In 1906 they contracted for an electricity supply from the Tramways Department, which meant that the rides could operate into the evening, which in turn increased the traffic on the tramway.

When the Corporation widened the Promenade across the site in 1913, Bean and Outhwaite secured an advantageous agreement that no amusement facilities or tram services would be permitted further south for fifteen years.

Their price for varying this agreement when the trams were extended to Starr Gate in 1926 was that all trams made a compulsory stop at the Pleasure Beach, and those trams terminating there showed the destination “Pleasure Beach” rather than “South Shore” – providing free advertising that continues to this day.

When Leonard Thompson died in 1976 his widow Doris became Chairman and their son, Geoffrey Thompson, Managing Director.  Mrs Thompson made a point of testing each new ride as recently as 2002 when, aged 99, she rode the Spin Doctor.

Geoffrey Thompson ran the company until his death at the age of 67 in June 2004:  his mother died, aged 101, shortly after her son’s funeral.

The company is now operated by Geoffrey’s children, Amanda and Nicholas Thompson.

The Pleasure Beach website is at

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 24, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric Chester

Chester Cathedral Refectory

Chester Cathedral Refectory

It’s hard work being a tourist.  You need to eat and drink.

When my mate Richard and I explored Chester recently, we had reasonable coffee in splendid surroundings at the Queen Hotel, directly opposite the railway station:

At lunchtime we had a pit-stop at a branch of Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street:  This is a dependable food-chain experience, very French – so French, in fact, that I felt compelled to text my Francophone friend John to find out that ‘framboises’ means ‘raspberries’.  It’s a male thing, not liking to ask.

By teatime we’d reached Chester Cathedral.  We both take exception on principle to having to pay admission to a place of worship, but we’re more than happy to pay good money for superb cakes, tea and coffee in the Refectory Café

Richard is adept at real-beer research, so by 5pm opening-time we were at the door of The Albion [], where we put away a couple of pints of a beer called Flying Scotsman (“hints of raisiny spiciness and toasty dryness. Fresh, slightly citrus tang with a rich rounded finish” – while gazing at evocative enamelled advertisements for Colman’s Starch “sold in cardboard boxes”, the Public Benefit Boot Co [] and one with the reassuring strapline that “Craven ‘A’ will not affect your throat”.

For our evening meal we hiked back towards the station to the canal-side Old Harkers Arms [], named after the chandler whose warehouse became a pub in the late 1980s.  Here we drank Great Orme Celtica (“full of citrus taste and aroma – and I ate an excellent steak-and-ale suet pudding.

We saw some buildings too.  See The Scrape School, The other Chester Cathedral and Quaint old Rows.

Posted by: mike on Jan 21, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureHistoric York

The Principal's House, King's Manor, York

The Principal's House, King's Manor, York

When people think of the wealth of architecture and history in York, the Victorian period isn’t prominent.  Yet much of present-day York owes its appearance to the Victorians.

After all, it was in the Victorian age that York became a great railway centre and a major chocolate producer.

When I joined a Victorian Society South Yorkshire Group walk around York, the leader, Philip Wright, pointed out the Principal’s House (1900) at the King’s Manor, built when the site was occupied by the Yorkshire School for the Blind by Walter Henry Brierley (1862-1926).

Glancing at it, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was built in the seventeenth century, like some of the buildings around it – such is the subtlety and good manners of Brierley’s design.

Like John Carr of York and Francis Johnson of Bridlington, Brierley chose to practise in his home area, where he designed around four hundred buildings in the course of his career.

The reason he was labelled “the Yorkshire Lutyens” is obvious from his very last building, Goddards, completed in 1928 for Noel Goddard Terry of the chocolate dynasty.

From the summer of 2012 it’s possible to visit Goddards, now that the National Trust has moved some of its administration away from the building.  Opening times and visiting arrangements are at

The Principal’s House and the other buildings at the King’s Manor are used by the University of York and are not open to the public.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 18, 2013

Category:Exploring AustraliaCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Waverley Cemetery, Sydney

Sydney is an attractive city and its finest amenity is its coastline.

Even the deceased can lie within sight of the sea, and for the bereaved, visiting loved ones can be an uplifting experience.

Waverley Cemetery is lies in the south-east of the city, in a suburb called Bronte (sic, without a diaeresis) not far from Bondi Beach on a magnificent cliff-top site.

It’s a classic example of a Victorian commercial cemetery, funded by the sale and maintenance of burial plots, established in 1877.

However, unlike the major British company-cemeteries – Kensal Green, Highgate and the rest – Waverley was established by the local council, backed by the government of New South Wales.

And unlike British municipal cemeteries, it’s financially supported by an independent sinking fund to insulate it from the vagaries of public-authority finances.

As such it continues to provide a service and pay its way:

Posted by: mike on Jan 16, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring AustraliaCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Site of Cemetery Station No 1, Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney

Site of Cemetery Station No 1, Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney

As your train leaves Sydney Central Station, you may spot on the right-hand side an elaborate Gothic building.  When I last visited in 2011 it was shrouded in scaffolding, which is why I don’t have my own image of it.

This was the Mortuary Station, designed by the Colonial Architect, James Barnett, opened in 1869 and later named Regent Street [].  It was the terminus for funeral trains to Rookwood Cemetery (1868) at Lidcombe to the north of the city, Woronora General Cemetery (1894) at Sutherland to the south-west, and – if Wikipedia is to be believed – Sandgate Cemetery (1881) in Newcastle, a hundred miles up the coast.

Whether the name Rookwood was chosen in reference to the English Brookwood Cemetery is unclear.  Rookwood Cemetery is so vast, nearly 750 acres, that today it has its own bus service.

Originally, funeral trains terminated at the very fine Haslam’s Creek Cemetery Station, otherwise known by a variety of names including Cemetery Station No 1, also by James Barnett (1867):  [ and].

The line was further extended, to Mortuary Terminus (1897), later Cemetery Station No 3, and then to the eventual terminus at Cemetery Station No 4 (1908).  Between Nos 1 and 3, the Roman Catholic Platform, latterly Cemetery Station No 2, was opened in 1901.

The line through Rookwood Cemetery closed in 1948, though its alignment is clearly visible on Google Earth, branching south-east of Lidcombe Station.  The site of Cemetery Station No 1 is in the middle of Necropolis Circuit.

The building itself was badly vandalised and damaged by fire, and was eventually dismantled and transplanted in 1958 to Canberra, where it now serves as All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie

In the course of rebuilding the bell-tower was moved to the liturgical south of the building.  It is now fitted with a locomotive bell presented by the Australian Railway Historical Society.

The church has two English stained-glass windows, the War Memorial east window from St Clement’s Parish Church, Newhall, Sheffield, and another from St Margaret’s Church, Bagendon, Gloucestershire.

Posted by: mike on Jan 14, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Railway Square YHA, Sydney Central Station

On one of my rail trips out of Sydney Central Station during my lecture-tour for the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, I gazed across the platforms and noticed a group of obviously ancient passenger carriages.  I couldn’t tell from my viewpoint whether they were parked at a couple of platforms or grounded.

They belong to the Railway Square YHA, one of many Sydney bases for backpackers and people visiting a city on a budget.

Its website invites prospective guests to “stay in one of the funky railway carriages on the former Platform Zero or one of the comfy rooms in the historic 1904 main building, now converted into contemporary accommodation.”

It’s apparent from the reviews that it’s a noisy night’s stay – if the other guests don’t disturb you with lively conversation, the trains on the adjacent platforms will.

That said, there are far, far worse places to rest your head in Sydney.

Posted by: mike on Jan 12, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Central Station approach, Sydney

New South Wales suburban and outer-suburban trains are double-deckers, built to the generous Australian loading-gauge, based on the pre-war French prototype, the Voiture État à deux étages.

The doorways at the end of each carriage lead to a mezzanine level, which is used by passengers with pushchairs or wheeled luggage, and stairs lead up and down to the two central compartments.

It’s an odd sensation to sit so high above rail-level on the top deck, and even odder to sit below-decks with the platform edge skimming the windows.

Double-deck carriages twenty metres long carry nearly 50% more passengers than single-deck rolling stock of equivalent length, saving the huge expense of lengthening station platforms.

To allow for the low-slung centre section, designers had to move as much electrical and mechanical equipment as possible on to the roof above the entrances.

The first of double-deck trailer cars were introduced in 1964, followed by double-deck motor cars four years later.  Interurban double-deck trains, with an additional burden of air-conditioning units, followed in 1970.

Travelling to outer Sydney, with little idea of direction let alone distance, I was anxious to know what level of creature comforts my train would provide.

I quizzed the travel-information officer about on-board lavatories in my best Pommie accent.  He replied, “You’re in the wrong country mate.”

Ask a silly question.

Posted by: mike on Jan 10, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Wynyard Station, Sydney

In just over four weeks of travelling to give lectures for Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies I got lost only once, and that was in the middle of Sydney.

Wynyard Station, on the City Circle, has two exits, and I took the wrong one, so that I had to wander the streets to find a hotel that’s almost next to the other entrance.  C’est la vie.  The travel co-ordinator revised the map for my successor.

I got used to Wynyard Station in my comings and goings, and realised that the building above the platforms is a rather fine piece of Art Deco, with lots of jazzy detail in pale green faience.  Next to the York Street entrance (the one I needed) is a doorway leading to the Department of Railways offices. 

The station was designed by John Bradfield (1867-1943), and opened in 1932, as part of the transport links that served the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Originally it was a terminus, until the City Loop between Wynyard and St James via Circular Quay was completed in 1956.

The platforms at Wynyard are numbered 3 to 6.  The original platforms 1 and 2 were intended for the unbuilt Northern Beaches line [ – compare with the eventual network:].

As an interim measure the Northern Beaches platforms and approaches were used for the North Shore tram services that crossed the Harbour Bridge.

When the trams were abandoned in 1958 the trackbed over the bridge was adapted to make two further motor-vehicle lanes, and the platforms at Wynyard were used for car-parking.

A 2009 discussion paper proposed to build a Fast North Shore Line [, Attachment 5, page 1] which would reinstate heavy rail on the Harbour Bridge and into the unused platforms at Wynyard.

This alignment could also be used for a long-term plan for a high-speed rail-link between Newcastle, north of Sydney, and Canberra to the south.

What goes around comes around.

There is in fact a complex archaeology of unused or disused rail tunnels under the centre of Sydney. 

There is a faintly fanciful video-clip of the tunnels under St James Station, also on the City Loop, at [], an article from the Sydney Morning Herald that illustrates an uncompleted tunnel, abandoned in 1932, at North Sydney Station across the harbour 5km north of Sydney Central [], and a photo-album of tunnels at Central, Redfern, and North Sydney stations [].

Posted by: mike on Jan 7, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

Bell Edison Building, Birmingham

One of the finest terracotta buildings in the centre of Birmingham is this rhapsody of ornament by Frederick William Martin (1859-1917), whose partnership, Martin & Chamberlain, was one of the leaders of the local ‘terracotta school’ of architects and best-known for their board schools and other public buildings.

It was originally the Bell Edison Building (1896), Birmingham’s first telephone exchange and headquarters of the National Telephone Company.

Its decoration is a riot of beasts and foliage with turrets, Dutch gables and chimneys enlivening the skyline.

The exchange equipment was originally installed on the top floor, where up to two hundred operators could connect callers.  Female operators had their own entrance and cloakroom.

The decorative wrought-iron gates are by the Bromsgrove Guild.

It was modernised as an office block, Exchange Buildings, with an additional floor by Mark Humphries Architects in 1994.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 4, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred places

St Cecilia's Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield

As a result of last winter’s campaign to save St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, I became intrigued by the history of inter-war churches in north Sheffield, built at the instigation of the first Bishop of Sheffield, Rt Rev Leonard Hedley Burrows (1857-1940;  bishop 1914-1939), in order to serve the housing-estates that mushroomed on what had previously been open countryside.

It seems that Bishop Burrows enlisted the Society of the Sacred Mission, the “Kelham Fathers”, to staff up to six churches as they were built.  The Kelham Fathers made a point of recruiting non-graduates to the ministry, and their practice was highly Anglo-Catholic.  The bishop and the director of the SSM must have thought this the most suitable approach for ministry to aspirant Sheffield working people transplanted from the slums to the splendid new council estates.

One of these new parishes was served by St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, built in 1939 to the designs of a little-known architect, Kenneth B Mackenzie (1891-1977) of Bibury, Gloucestershire.  How he came by the commission is a mystery:  he built hardly any major buildings and no other churches:

Yet St Cecilia’s is an interestingly rectilinear take on the form of the traditional gothic parish church, built of stone and set in a tight close of council houses.  It has a tower, and at the east end no window but a blank wall.

The congregation moved out of the church in 2011 because of “numerous issues with the building – failure of heating system, life-expired roofs and electrical installation to name but a few”, and the parishioners now worship in the practical but unlovely little mission church of St Bernard of Clairvaux, Southey Hill

This move follows the direction indicated by a 2010 diocesan document, ‘Task & Tools:  Bishop’s commission to review ministry and mission in the North Sheffield estates’, which wrote off St Cecilia’s in a stark paragraph:

We believe that the decision on redundancy is right and should stand.  The Church building has reached the end of its life.  We also believe that demolition is the right course of action.  And we also believe that this should proceed swiftly – with the Church’s procedures for demolition being made to deliver that outcome.  Delay neither serves the mission of the Church nor heals the hearts of the congregation and its priest.

So that’s that, then.  Or is it?  The building may have reached the end of its life as a church, but it appears to be physically secure, and could stand for years not doing anything, not earning its keep.

I wonder about this determined ditching of substantial buildings.  All the mainstream Christian denominations are lumbered with expensive structures, many of which they cannot use.  Yet in such churches as St Cecilia’s there is financial capital, quality material, environmental energy and community potential that once discarded can never be recovered.

Posted by: mike on Jan 2, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred places

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (December 2011)

It’s a year now since one of my neighbours started up a campaign – seven years too late – to raise awareness of the intended demolition of St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen after I’d raised an alert following a news item in the Ancient Monuments Society Newsletter.

Approximately 350 people signed the campaign petition, few of whom had probably set foot in the building for years, if ever, but all of whom didn’t want to see it go, whether they valued it as a landmark, a piece of the local heritage, or somewhere with which they had associations through baptism, marriage or other family connections.

The campaign generated more heat than light, because the Diocese and the Church Commissioners declared that they had followed all the necessary protocols to consult the local community, which appeared to amount to sticking an A4-size notice on the church door for six weeks, and were on the point of selling the building to a developer.

Months later, the identity of the developer remains a mystery and the building still stands.

It’s easy to sympathise with the church position:  Archdeacon Martyn Snow has pointed out that “…within a two mile radius of St Hilda’s we have six other church buildings all of which I would regard as ‘at risk’ ie the current congregations are struggling to pay for the upkeep of the buildings and if nothing changes in the next 5-10 years they may all face closure”.

Yet if the St Hilda’s building had been properly secured in the first place it would now be in better condition, and more likely to recoup the capital invested in it.

One very good way to send an unwanted building into decline is to leave half the windows unprotected so that the local ne’er-do-wells lob bricks at the glass and let the birds and the weather in.

And, ironically, if the fabric had been protected the members of the community who didn’t attend church and weren’t aware it was declared redundant in 2007 might have found a way to take it off the Church’s hands.

As matters stand, the building stands.  In the present economic situation it’s probably not worth demolishing.  It might yet be turned to use.

Posted by: mike on Dec 30, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delight

Stockport Lord Street Station

Former Southport Lord Street Station (2012)

The Southport & Cheshire Lines Extension Railway was never a good idea:  it opened from Aintree Central, formerly a terminal station, on September 1st 1884 to an impressive new station next to the Southport Winter Gardens, fronting on to Lord Street.

It was a creation of the Cheshire Lines Committee, a consortium of the Great Northern, the Midland and the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire (later Great Central) Railways which managed a collection of lines stretching into their competitors’ territory.  Less than half the Cheshire Lines lines were actually in Cheshire.

The idea behind the S&CLER was to compete with the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway’s service from Liverpool Exchange, which ran directly north-west via Bootle and Formby to Southport Chapel Street station in the centre of town.

The S&CLER, however, ran from Liverpool Central Station, southwards to Hunt’s Cross, and then round the back suburbs of Liverpool through Gateacre and Aintree before crossing to a coastal approach to Southport Lord Street.

No-one in their right mind wanting to travel from the centre of Liverpool to the centre of Southport would take the Cheshire Lines route.

It may have been fairly busy at the height of the summer season, but outside the holiday period services were so unprofitable that they were closed as an economy measure between January 1917 and April 1919.

The only time the line was heavily used was a period of a few weeks in 1940, when Liverpool Exchange Station was closed by bombing.

Although British Railways extended the platforms for longer trains in the late 1940s, the Lord Street passenger service was closed on January 1st 1952, and freight services along the line followed shortly after.

The track-bed of the S&CLER between Southport and Woodvale now forms the Coastal Road, and a further section is used as the Cheshire Lines Cycle Path.

The Lord Street train-shed was adapted as a bus station for Ribble Motor Services, simply by filling the trackbeds level with the platforms.

The bus station closed in 1987, and the train-shed was demolished in 1993.  The site was subsequently redeveloped as a supermarket, but the street frontage remained unused and derelict until the iron-and-glass verandas became dangerous and had to be demolished.

The building is due to open as a Travelodge hotel in 2013:

The best illustrated account of Lord Street Station is at

Posted by: mike on Dec 28, 2012

Category:Fun Palaces

Southport Garrick Theatre

Bingo has been a great benefactor of Britain’s historic auditoria.  Without the rise of the bingo industry in the 1960s a great many exciting buildings would have disappeared when television overtook the cinema as the most popular means of entertainment.

Mecca maintains the former Garrick Theatre, Southport, in superb condition, and the building continues to earn its keep at the south-west end of Lord Street.

It was built on the site of the 1891 Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, which had been destroyed by fire in December 1929, and opened on December 19th 1932.

Matcham’s theatre seated two thousand, and the Southport architect George E Tonge designed its replacement as a live theatre, with a fifty-foot-wide proscenium, seating 1,600.

Tonge devised an interesting mix of theatrical tradition and thirties modernity.

The exterior is a lively essay in jazzy modernity, with tall windows of zigzag glazing and a sweeping corner feature punctuated with stepped verticals.  On the Lord Street façade an open colonnade carries a concrete moulding depicting a violin and a saxophone, flanked by the classical masks of comedy and tragedy.

The auditorium is pure Art Deco, with four practically useless boxes beside the proscenium and a frieze of sunbursts with musical notes and dancing figures.

When the Essoldo cinema circuit bought the Garrick in 1957, they used the follow-spot operator’s perch in the ceiling as a projection box, despite the severe angle which necessitated tilting the 37-foot screen on the stage below.

Southport was already well-provided with cinemas:  apart from the first-run Odeon and ABC there were already four others, and Essoldo quickly returned to a mixed programme of film and live shows, which in turn gave place to bingo in 1963.

Conversion to a bingo club entailed levelling the stalls floor to meet the stage, removing the stalls seating and installing a staircase from the stalls to the balcony.  Otherwise, this fine auditorium is largely intact.  The stage-tower is concealed from halfway up the proscenium, and the wings-space is brought into the club.

As such, the building is virtually intact.  It’s in excellent condition, warm and welcoming, and well-loved by its patrons.  All thanks to bingo.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 25, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiences

Palacio de Valle, Cienfuegos, Cuba

When I spent Christmas in Cuba in 2001, the most eccentric building I visited was the Palacio de Valle in Cienfuegos on the south coast:

Built for a wealthy sugar merchant Oclico or Acisclo del Valle y Blanco as a wedding-gift from his father-in-law, it was designed by an unnamed local architect, possibly Pablo Carbonell Donato, and constructed by Alfredo Colli Fanconetti, an Italian civil engineer.  Begun in 1913, it was completed in 1917 at a cost of 1½ million pesos.

It’s an astonishing mixture of styles and materials – marble, alabaster, brass, glass and faience.  The dining room is in the Mudéjar (Andalucian) style, based on the Patio of the Lions in the Alhambra.  The music room is Louis XV.  The three rooftop turrets are respectively gothic, Indian and Moorish, respectively symbolising war, love and religion.

Del Valle died in 1920, and his widow and children left the place a couple of years later.  After passing through a succession of ownerships it was converted by Panchin Batista, brother of the dictator, to a casino in 1950.

After the Revolution it became an art school and is now a restaurant.  When I visited, some years ago, a lady whom our guide described as a “character” played a grand piano very loudly all through the meal.

There’s so much to see and enjoy in Cuba, but in the time I spent there I saw nowhere more memorably unusual than the Palacio de Valle.

Posted by: mike on Dec 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Shrine of St Edward the Martyr, Brookwood Cemetery

Shrine of St Edward the Martyr (former South Station), Brookwood Cemetery

South of the London-Southampton main line, just beyond Woking, lies the vast spread of Brookwood Cemetery, founded by the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company in conjunction with the London & South Western Railway in 1852.

"Necropolis", in Greek, translates as “city of the dead”.

The idea was to provide practically limitless space to bury London’s dead away from the insanitary churchyards and the high-priced commercial cemeteries such as Kensal Green, Highgate and Brompton.

Funeral trains left the Necropolis Station at Waterloo, reversed at a specially installed siding at Brookwood, and proceeded along a ¾-mile branch through the cemetery grounds to one of two funeral stations, one Anglican and the other Nonconformist.

There were, inevitably, concerns about this innovative prelude to the last great journey.  The Bishop of London worried that “the body of some profligate spendthrift might be placed in a conveyance with the body of some respectable member of the church, which would shock the feelings of his friends”, so the company provided hearse-vans with first-, second- and third-class compartments for coffins.

Nevertheless, Brookwood funeral trains soon attracted something of a reputation, especially on the return journey.  The Builder reported in 1856 that “At the funerals by the Necropolis Company, we are told that not unusually, mourners have carried drink with them, of which on the return journey, they had partaken to such an extent, that they have been found dancing about the carriage, by the ticket-collector.”

Of the original 2,100 acres purchased from Lord Onslow, only 400 were laid out as a cemetery and much of the rest was sold for residential development.  Nearly a quarter of a million burials have so far taken place, and there is still 200 acres to spare.

After the First World War parts of the Brookwood Cemetery were given over to military cemeteries for British, American, Canadian, Turkish and Czechoslovakian combatants, and many of its more recent burials are for religious groups with specific needs and requirements – Russian Orthodox, Muslim, Zoroastrian.

By the 1930s the daily funeral trains had reduced to twice a week at most, and the service abruptly stopped in 1941 when a bomb destroyed the building at Waterloo and much of the rolling stock.

The trackbed within the cemetery is now landscaped, and the South, Anglican station belongs to the Brotherhood of St Edward, an Orthodox Christian community dedicated to maintaining the shrine and relics of the Saxon king St Edward the Martyr (c959-978/9).

The cemetery itself was purchased by Mr Ramadan Houssein Guney, Chairman of the UK Turkish Islamic Trust, in 1985.  He painstakingly reversed the cemetery’s long decline, clearing encroaching undergrowth and reinstating the lake in the Glades of Remembrance, aided by the voluntary efforts of the Brookwood Cemetery Society who have organized the restoration of significant graves.

It’s a fascinating cemetery to explore – but it does involve a lot of walking.

For information, see

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 20, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Prague

Crowne Plaza Hotel Prague

Yet another of my wanderings around Prague by tram took me on route 20 to Podbab, where I found an astonishing Crowne Plaza Hotel which I considered couldn’t possibly have been built as a hotel.

Sure enough, it turns out to be a defence-ministry building, the creation of the very powerful Stalinist Minister of Defence, Alexej Čepička (1910-1990) who, if his Wikipedia entry is to be believed [], came straight from Central Casting.

According to Wikipedia, its nuclear shelter for 600 people is now the staff cloakroom.

Though the hotel website [] describes its architecture as Art Deco, it was actually constructed in 1952-4.

A Czech website describes the style as “an original combination of the architecture of Socialist Reali known as Sorela, and art-deco of the American type, completed by Czech artists and craftsmen”:

The room-rates aren’t at all bad:  I could stay there.

Posted by: mike on Dec 18, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Prague

Prague Lapidarium

The Lapidarium, Stromovka, Prague

A random tram journey through suburban Prague on route 5 took me to Stromovka, where I jumped off out of sheer curiosity to find out what on earth was a grandiose building which turned out to be the Industrial Palace of the 1891 exhibition:

The huge expanse around it was virtually deserted.  One building which looked semi-derelict but open turned out to be the Lapidarium [], the Czech National Gallery’s home for old statues.

Here is gathered a plethora of baroque saints and bishops waving their arms about and carrying on – or as my mother would have said “showing off”.  The baroque style is essentially theatrical, so the figures which adorn church interiors, rooftops and the King Charles Bridge camp themselves silly.

It’s a delightful experience to stroll among statues from nine centuries – the noisest, liveliest gathering of figures, totally silent and frozen in time.

Posted by: mike on Dec 16, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Prague

Prague Tramway Museum:  Mayor's Tram 200 

During my ramblings round Prague I found my way on to the Historická tramva, the “historic tram”, which charged off up the hairpin slope Chotkova and eventually ground its way into a tram depot at a place called Střešovice.  In the absence of anything else to do, I followed a desultory crowd to the far end of the track fan and found my way into the Prague Tramway Museum, which for a little over £1 displays dozens of trams, trolleybuses, motorbuses and associated paraphernalia in immaculate condition:  

This is no work-in-progress like the Sydney Tramway Museum:  it looks for all the world as if they could run a historic fleet of several dozen trams, but for the fact that there is another, operational historic fleet at the other end of the depot.

The most endearing of these antique vehicles was the Mayor’s Tram, no 200, designed by the leading Art Noveau architect Jan Kotěra (1871-1923) and built by the Ringhoffer Company in 1900. 

Its headlamps are garlanded with delicately moulded metal leaves, and its interior consists of comfortable chairs and occasional tables, designed for the city councillors to meet and converse while riding in state through the streets.

When new it was exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition, and subsequently carried every mayor of Prague until 1951.  Thereafter it became a transport for nursery schoolchildren until it was acquired by the Tramway Museum after it opened in 1993:

Posted by: mike on Dec 14, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Prague

Prague tram 7112

When I first visited Prague I had a flashback moment in the taxi from the airport.

My antennae twitch when I see tram-tracks, not only because my parents taught me to read (in block capitals) and count (in Gills Sans) by means of the trams running past our house in the late 1940s, but also because whenever we left Sheffield by road or rail our return was always marked by a competition to see who could first see a cream-and-blue Sheffield tram or bus.  And there were, in my early childhood, rather more trams than buses on the streets.

So when I first spotted a red-and-cream Prague tram (or trams – they mostly seem to run as attached pairs), I had a flashback to 1968, when the Crich tramway museum hit the national headlines because an antique Prague tram, with its minders, narrowly escaped the Soviet army arriving to extinguish Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring:

Prague is in fact a tram city, rather like Melbourne.  Most major streets have tram-tracks and there are services twenty-four hours a day.  A twenty-four-hour travel pass costs the equivalent of just over £3.

From my hotel near the metro-station I P Pavolva (named after a Russian physiologist), I found the 22 tram invaluable.  It crosses the river, threads its way through the Old Town (passing at one point through a tiny arch you would think twice about driving a bus through) and climbs hairpin bends up Chotkova to the level of the Castle (and returns with suitable caution down the slippery slope).

But I also made a point, as I do still with London buses, of hopping on and off at random simply to see the city unfold before me.

By that means I learnt my way round Prague without a guidebook, and found some remarkable and unexpected places.

Posted by: mike on Dec 12, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Prague

Prague Castle & St Vitus' Cathedral

There’s plenty to eat in Prague.

On the night I arrived I ate at the charming and comfortable Restaurant Benada, next door to the Clarion Hotel [], where I sat on the veranda overlooking the park, dodging the raindrops, to eat veal ossobuco with a glass of representative Czech beer and a cappuccino.

The best lunch I found in the city was round the corner from the Cathedral of St Vitus, the Vikárka Restaurant [], which would be extremely cosy on a cold day, and provides a veranda with people-watching opportunities in good weather.  I had a classic beef goulash [guláš] and another glass of generic Czech beer.

Most evocative of all was Café Slavia [] opened in 1881, the same year as the National Theatre across the road, remodelled in the 1930s, the regular haunt of the dissident playwright Václav Havel in the years before he became president.

The first dinner I had there was a steak of Norwegian salmon roasted in ham with spinach roll strudel and horseradish aioli.  It was memorable, with a large glass of Budweiser.

The following night I grabbed the very best window seat, looking over the Vltava River to the Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral as the sunset faded and the lights came up.  I ate beef broth with meat dumplings, pork tenderlion coated with almond breadcrumbs with a potato salad that included a significant proportion of gherkins, accompanied by another large glass of Budweiser.  I treated myself to a blueberry sponge-cake and a cappuccino.

My final eat-your-way-round-Prague experience was the simplest:  a pot of tea in Paul, a patisserie alongside the I P Pavolva metro-station.  (Make what you can of their website:

Posted by: mike on Dec 9, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTaking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Matlock County Hall

County Hall, Matlock (formerly Smedley's Hydro)

Matlock owes its importance as the county town of Derbyshire primarily to two men.

The first, John Smedley (1803-1874), was a local hosiery manufacturer who made a recovery from typhus at the age of forty-three at the newly-opened Ben Rhydding Hydro near Ilkley.  He felt he owed his life to an innovative form of water-cure, hydropathy, a system of baths, compresses and treatments in mineral-free water to expel morbid impurities from the body through “putrescent excrescences”.

He underwent a religious conversion which led him to encourage temperance through the promotion of hydropathic “cures”, which he promoted as an “entirely an original system, not the cold water cure”.

In 1853 he bought a small private medical establishment serving six patients and developed it into the huge Smedley’s Hydro on Matlock Bank.

After his death the business was incorporated as Smedley’s Hydropathic Company Limited, with capital of £25,000.  The buildings were repeatedly extended until by the Edwardian period Smedley’s had 300 bedrooms.

The opulent architecture of Smedley’s Hydro reflects the gradual relaxation of its founder’s strict temperance regime:  tobacco, cards, billiards and dancing were introduced over the years, and the iron-and-glass Winter Garden of 1900 was built with a dance-floor.

What John Smedley had intended as a therapeutic establishment open to all classes gradually became a high-class hotel for those who could afford it:  eventually there was actually a licensed bar on the premises.

The comfort and luxury of Smedley’s in the early twentieth-century was a long way from its founder’s precepts banning “books, newspapers, or tracts of an irreligious character”, visitors or receiving letters on the Sabbath.

The entire building was taken over at the start of World War II and used as the Military School of Intelligence.  Business resumed in 1947, but failed to pick up, and Smedley’s Hydro closed in 1955.

At that point the second “father” of modern Matlock stepped in – Alderman Charles White (1891 -1956), the chairman of Derbyshire County Council, who spotted the opportunity to move the council’s offices from cramped sites in the centre of Derby to a huge empty building nearer the geographical centre of the county.

Smedley’s became County Offices, and in the 1990s was aggrandised as County Hall.  There is a species of rush hour up the bank and across the moors twice a day as hosts of civil servants flit in and out of the town.

Its position as the county town is no doubt the reason why Matlock retained its rail service as a branch-line when the main line to Manchester closed in 1968.  Perhaps it’s also the reason it has a Sainsbury’s.

There’s a particularly well-constructed website of Matlock and Matlock Bath history at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Dec 7, 2012

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Matlock Bath Royal Well

Royal Well, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

Driving through the limestone gorge along the A6 through Matlock Bath always has a feeling of being on holiday.

The place has in fact been a resort since the end of the seventeenth century, when a mineral spring on the hillside was developed for the growing fashion for cold-bathing that had already fostered the growth of new spas such as Harrogate, Scarborough and Tunbridge Wells.

This spring still feeds into a grotto at the back of a public car-park that occupies the site of the Old Bath Hotel, latterly the Royal Hotel, which burnt down in 1929.

The New Bath Hotel of 1762-7 remained a hotel where the basement bathing pool is supplied with tepid thermal water from the original spring, until it suddenly closed in July 2012:

Further along the valley, the Temple Hotel [] was built in 1786 alongside the Fountain Baths, which had opened eight years previously.

A fourth hotel, known simply as the Hotel or Great Hotel, proved overambitious, and was subdivided in the 1790s into a terrace which became Museum Parade, so named after Mawe’s Old Museum which took over the enormous dining-room.

In days gone by, the appeal of Matlock Bath was that it wasn’t Buxton.  Though Buxton was anything but grand until the 5th Duke of Devonshire tried to turn it into Bath in the late eighteenth century [see Mary, Queen of Scots slept here, Buxton’s Crescent and Duke’s Dome], Matlock Bath, in a dark gorge with hardly any road access, was much more secluded.

Phyllis Hembry, the historian of British spas, described the late eighteenth-century lifestyle:  “…the company...had their meals at 1s each in common ‘in a very sociable manner’;  they dined at 2 pm and had supper at 8 pm and were free to drink as they pleased.  The evening concluded with dancing or card-playing.  Visitors inclined to exercise could take the ferry near the Old Bath, rowed by Walker the boatman, to the other river bank where he had made a Lovers’ Walk.”

Indeed, Dr Hembry relates, when the teenage 5th Duke of Rutland turned up with some friends at the end of the season in 1796 he had the place to himself.

Nowadays the main road runs through the dale, and at weekends it’s the resort of bikers, whose gleaming machines are lined up outside the cafés and chip-shops.  The black leather gear may look intimidating, but you may be sure the people inside are entirely respectable.

Indeed, when my mate Richard bid at a fantasy auction for a ride on a Harley Davison, he found himself whisked off to Matlock Bath for a greasy-spoon breakfast by a hospital consultant.


There’s a particularly well-constructed website of Matlock and Matlock Bath history at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Dec 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Sydney

One of the ladies who guided me around Sydney’s architectural heritage when I was off-duty from my commitments to Sydney Decorative & Fine Arts Society was Robin, who after showing me Vaucluse House, made an offer I couldn’t refuse:  would I like to see a fine Victorian lunatic asylum?

Callan Park Hospital for the Insane was designed by the Scots-born Colonial Architect for New South Wales, James Barnet (1827-1904), and the Inspector of the Insane, Dr Frederick Norton Manning (1839-1903), to take the overspill of patients from the Gladesville Hospital of the Insane at Bedlam Point, which had opened as the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum in 1838.

The Callan Park Hospital opened in 1885 in a grand complex of Neo-classical buildings known as the Kirkbride Block, built around an existing residence, Garry Owen House (c1840), which had been built for the Crown Solicitor and Police Magistrate, John Ryan Brenan.

Dr Manning was a leading figure in the development of enlightened care of the mentally ill.  He aimed to provide treatment, rather than operate what he described as a “'cemetery for diseased intellects”.  He encouraged visitors and battled to beat down the nineteenth-century prejudice against what was still called lunacy.

Callan Park was his first opportunity to design an institution from scratch.  Barnet’s design was based on an English model, the Chartham Down Hospital for the Insane, near Canterbury, Kent.  The complex consists of a series of pavilions and courtyards, with plenty of opportunity for fresh air and changes of environment.  The gardens were designed to have a calming influence by the Director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, Charles Moore (1820-1905).

The hundreds of cast-iron columns which support the verandas channel rain-water into an underground reservoir, the level of which was indicated by the ball that rises and falls above the central clock tower.

Over the years, Callan Park became under-resourced and overcrowded, and eventually became notoriously outdated.

The mental-health facilities, latterly known as the Rozelle Hospital, left the site in 2008: the Kirkbride complex is leased to the Sydney College of the Arts, part of the University of Sydney, and the grounds are used as a public park.

There is a detailed account of the history of Callan Park at

Posted by: mike on Dec 2, 2012

Category:Exploring Australia

Vaucluse House, Sydney

Vaucluse House, Sydney

William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872) could perhaps be forgiven for having a chip on his shoulder as he made his way in New South Wales society in the early nineteenth century.

His father, D’Arcy Wentworth, was a distant relative of the Wentworths of Wentworth Woodhouse [see Quirks of Fate and Plenty of room for guests]. Irish-born, he trained as a surgeon in London but practised as a highwayman, and so was transported to New South Wales in 1789-90.

On the voyage to Australia D’Arcy Wentworth formed a liaison with Catherine Crowley, who had stolen clothing.  She presented him with a baby son, William, which he accepted even though the birth took place less than nine months after they met.  D'Arcy and Catherine never married.

Nowadays, convict ancestry is a mark of distinction in Australia, but even though D’Arcy Wentworth developed a landed estate in Parramatta, his son was disparaged for his antecedents and his illegitimacy.

William Wentworth studied law in England, then returned to New South Wales where he became a powerful political figure, bitterly opposed to and by the Sydney respectability.

His Sydney residence was Vaucluse House, a neo-Gothic hotchpotch that he purchased in 1827, two years before he got round to marrying his mistress, Sarah, the native-born daughter of convicts.  They had ten children, eight of them in wedlock.

He developed the house piecemeal, using its space and grandeur as a backcloth for popular political celebrations.

After leading the successful campaign for self-determination for New South Wales Wentworth, “the hero of Australia”, retired to England in 1856, where he became a Conservative MP.  On his return to Sydney in 1861 he and his wife found a greater measure of acceptance, and at his death he was accorded a state funeral.  His Australian descendants have continued to take a prominent part in Australian society and politics.

The original estate extended to 515 acres.  Because of the Wentworth connection it was acquired as a public park as early as 1910, and unlike the other prominent harbour-side villas of its period, such as Lindesay House and Elizabeth Bay House, Vaucluse House retains its garden setting and twenty-five acres of planting and natural bush.

For many years the house served as a museum, but since 1981 the New South Wales Historic Houses Trust has followed a plan to return it to its condition during the occupancy of William Charles Wentworth up to 1853.

There is a guide-book to the house, with detailed background on the Wentworth family, at

Posted by: mike on Nov 30, 2012

Category:Exploring Australia

Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney

Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney:  Saloon

The inlet to the west of Darling Point, where Campbell Drummon Riddell built Lindesay House, is Elizabeth Bay.

Here another Scot, Alexander Macleay (1767-1848), obtained a grant of 54 acres of land from Governor Darling in order to lay out an extensive and magnificent garden in 1826.

He eventually began Elizabeth Bay House in 1835, employing the architect John Verge (1782-1861) to design a grand Palladian villa, very unlike the Gothic gloom of Lindesay House.

Macleay was financially incompetent, preoccupied with his interest in entomology.  Indeed, his appointment as Colonial Secretary of New South Wales was dictated by the need to bring his finances under control.

The strategy failed:  he lost his government post in 1837 (though he was later appointed Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843), and the house was only rendered habitable when his more astute son, William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865), retired to Sydney in 1839.

Even so, a severe economic downturn in the colony obliged the Macleays to begin subdividing the estate in 1841, and by 1844 Alexander Macleay’s bills were being directed to his son’s account.  Furniture from Elizabeth Bay House was sold to furnish Government House in central Sydney when it was completed in 1845.

In fact, the elegant exterior of Elizabeth Bay House is unfinished.  John Verge intended a single-storey colonnade to extend around three sides of the building.  The existing portico was added in 1893 because Lady Macleay, the mother of a later owner, James William Macarthur Onslow, feared for the safety of her guests in the morning room, where French windows opened on to a sheer drop where the planned colonnade would have stood.

Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bay House is by all accounts one of the most impressive of Australian nineteenth-century domestic interiors.  Its crowning glory is the oval saloon with its cantilevered staircase, possibly based on Henry Holland’s Carlton House Terrace in London (1811) and reminiscent of James Paine’s Stockeld Park, Yorkshire, of 1757-63.

Alexander Macleay’s estate was repeatedly subdivided for housing development, until only three acres remained in 1882.  Eventually, the house itself was bought by a development company in 1926, and the year after the remaining three acres was itself divided into sixteen lots, only five of which found buyers.

The house was divided into flats in the early 1940s, and remained in multiple use until it became a museum in 1977.  It is now administered by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, restored as far as possible to its condition when the Macleays first moved in.

Here too, as at Lindesay House, you can stand at the front door and gaze across Sydney Harbour, ignoring the modern development all around and imagining the stupendous beauty of the place when Sydney itself was barely fifty years old.

The guidebook to Elizabeth Bay House is at

Posted by: mike on Nov 28, 2012

Category:Exploring Australia

Lindesay House, Sydney

The most distinctive feature of Sydney’s vast harbour is its diversity – a seemingly endless succession of bays and promontories, best viewed from the fleet of ferries that departs in all directions from Circular Quay.

In nineteenth century, before the city extended outwards, the outlying areas of the bay were remote retreats where leading figures of the time built exclusive residences, some of which survive – and some of which remain exclusive.

On Darling Point, in 1834, the Scots-born Campbell Drummond Riddell (1796-1858), Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales, built Lindesay House, one of the first examples in the colony of what Australians now call “domestic Gothic” style, naming it after the Acting Governor, Lieutenant Patrick Lindesay.

After the Riddells left Australia in 1838, a subsequent owner divided the estate into eighteen plots for development, and another Scot, Sir Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855), Surveyor General of New South Wales, bought the house and five of the plots in 1841.  On one of these plots he built another Gothic house, Carthona, which became his residence, and he sold Lindesay on to Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), the first Speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Council and one of the founders of the University of Sydney.

The house passed through a succession of subsequent ownerships until in 1963 the last private owner, Walter Pye, donated it to the National Trust of Australia.

The Trust opens it to the public one afternoon a month.  At other times it is a “much sought-after venue by brides”, though rationed to only twelve major functions a year.

The very perfunctory Lonely Planet review states, “It's rarely open but aside from Nicole Kidman inviting you in for tea, this is probably your best chance to look inside an actual Darling Point mansion.”

I was, therefore, very lucky to have a Sydney DFAS contact, Margaret, who was prepared to give me a personal tour of the house, so I could see how, despite the encroachments of later development, you can still stand on the lawn and gaze across one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.

Details of visiting arrangements for Lindesay House are at

Posted by: mike on Nov 25, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesHistoric Chester

Chester St John's Church

St John’s Church, Chester, which lies outside the city walls near the half-exposed Roman amphitheatre, looks to all practical purposes Victorian, though with a ruined east end that has to be older and a stump of a tower in south-west corner.

When you step inside, the fine Norman interior comes as a surprise.

It has an architectural feature unique among English churches – the nave arcades have a barely perceptible but deliberate outward lean – and there is a noteworthy wall-painting of St John the Baptist on one of the columns.

This church was from 1075 until 1102 the cathedral of the former diocese of Lichfield, and even after the see was transferred to Coventry, St John’s remained a nominal cathedral within what was known as the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield until the Reformation, when the nave became a parish church and the east end was left to ruin.

You can see in the Norman architecture exactly where the bishop’s departure interrupted the building programme:  the nave triforium and clerestory are anything up to a century newer than the arches on which they stand.

Although the Victorian architect R C Hussey had carried out a restoration in 1859-66, the mainly sixteenth-century north-west tower collapsed in 1881.  The Chester architect John Douglas rebuilt the north porch, leaving the ruins of the Norman choir and Lady Chapel and the fourteenth-century choir chapels.

Most historic buildings are a palimpsest – a document repeatedly erased and rewritten – but St John’s has suffered more alterations than most.

St John's Church is open daily for visitors and worshippers.  No admission-charge is levied, and donations are welcomed:

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesHistoric Chester

Chester Cathedral

The present-day Chester Cathedral began as the tenth-century church of St Werburgh, was refounded as a Benedictine abbey by the Norman Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester, and at the Dissolution of the Monasteries became the centre of a new diocese, when the last abbot became the first Dean of Chester.  (Henry VIII had apparently first considered locating the see at Fountains, where the abbey buildings were kept intact for a brief, deliberate pause.) 

The present building was begun in 1092 and then remodelled and enlarged from the late thirteenth century onwards:  the later generations of builders kept their work in harmony with their predecessors, as did their contemporaries at Westminster Abbey and Beverley Minster.

Its exterior has been so repeatedly and heavily restored, by Thomas Harrison (1818-20), R C Hussey (from 1844), Sir George Gilbert Scott (from 1868) and Sir Arthur W Blomfield (after 1882), that it’s difficult to be sure if any of the visible fabric is earlier than the nineteenth century.

Certainly the apse at the end of the south choir aisle, with its exaggerated roof, is pure Scott.  This most notorious of the Victorian “Scrape” school of restorers, obsessively committed to tidying up and purifying the style of medieval churches, was heavily criticised for his work at Chester, yet some of his contributions, such as the choir screen and its wrought-iron gates (1876) are now highly-regarded designs in their own right.

He was not the only author of Victorian depredations:  Dean Howson, regrettably, ordered the removal of five medieval misericords, of which the subject-matter was considered to be “very improper”.

Ironically the medieval shrine of St Werburgh survived the Reformation because the base was used for the Bishop’s throne.  Sir Arthur W Blomfield restored it as best he could in the late Victorian period.

The Chapter House, described by Pevsner as “the aesthetic climax of the cathedral”, dates from the thirteenth-century, but was restored by R C Hussey in the mid-nineteenth century.  Similarly, the south side of the cloisters is a reproduction by Sir George Gilbert Scott.  The refectory, still with its monastic pulpit, has an east window by Giles Gilbert Scott, installed in 1913, and the roof is by F H Crossley, completed in 1939.

In contrast, the most modern, uncompromising yet least obtrusive addition to the Cathedral is the Addleshaw Tower, a detached bell-tower by George Pace, completed in 1972-4, after the old bell-frame in the central tower was found to be beyond safe restoration.

So Chester Cathedral looks now like it never did in the past.  This is true of most ancient buildings.  I think this complexity makes it all the more interesting, once you know what you’re looking at.

Chester Cathedral operates as a tourist attraction, charging for entry outside service-times:

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 20, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Wingfield Station, Derbyshire (1976)

Wingfield Station, Derbyshire (1976)

The 2012 version of the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings list headlines Wingfield Station, Derbyshire of 1840, by Francis Thompson (1808-1895), one of the very first architects to specialise in designing railway buildings:

The Transport Trust considers that “Francis Thompson's best work was on the North Midland Railway, between Derby and Leeds” [], yet all the others have disappeared, apart from one small isolated structure at Chesterfield and his Railway Village, next to the main station in Derby.

Wingfield Station appeared, transformed into a suburban villa, in a supplement to John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture.

As long ago as 1950 Christian Barman, author of the pioneer study An Introduction to Railway Architecture, described it as “the most perfect of all station houses”.

Passenger services ceased in 1967, but trains still thunder past twenty-four hours a day:  the North Midland line remains a major trunk route between Sheffield and London, and between the North East and South West of England.

Soon after the station closed to passengers it was bought as a residence, but the passing trains must have made life intolerable.  For several decades the building has simply been left to rot, and lead thefts have led to extensive water damage.

The Victorian Society commentary unequivocally lays the blame for the dire condition of this beautiful little building on neglect by the private owner and negligence by the local planning authority, Amber Valley Council:  “The building has seen too much time go by to wait any longer. The council needs to take action urgently:  compulsory purchase looks to be the only answer.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the national publicity will lead to a burst of energy from a cash-strapped council.

Even more interesting will be the search for a practical use for an elegant station building with too many trains and no passengers.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Snow Hill Station, Birmingham (1975)

Snow Hill Station, Birmingham (1975)

The absurdities of Victorian railway competition are only equalled by the profligate waste of the railway closures in the 1960s.

Birmingham’s two main stations lie at right-angles to each other, on different levels and several hundred yards apart, because three entirely separate and competing companies built the lines into Birmingham.

The Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill Station, first opened in 1852, developed into a magnificent red-brick and terracotta structure of 1911-12 behind J A Chatwin’s grand Great Western Hotel of 1875.

In 1961 a scheme was published to turn Snow Hill into “the most modern railway terminal in Europe”.

As late as 1964, during the electrification of the West Coast Main Line, it handled 130,000 trains and 7,500,000 passengers, compared with 175,000 trains and 10,000,000 passengers at New Street.

Later in the 1960s many former GWR services were closed or diverted to the redeveloped New Street, except for Stratford and Warwick local services which terminated at the suburban-relief station at Moor Street, south of the Inner Ring Road.

The Great Western Hotel was demolished in 1971.  Snow Hill Station itself remained derelict after the last train-service finished in 1972, became structurally unsafe and was eventually cleared in 1979.

However, from 1987 the Moor Street services again ran through the reopened tunnel, and a new Snow Hill Station was incorporated in the unlovely Colmore Court office-development. 

Since 2001 the Birmingham to Wolverhampton service of the West Midlands Metro has used a platform of Snow Hill station as its city-centre terminus.

So, apart from the fact that more trains run from Moor Street than Snow Hill, and the second London service runs to Marylebone rather than Paddington, there are relatively few significant differences in the availability of services now than there were in 1960.

Hindsight is a wonderful luxury, but I can’t help wondering if the planners’ plans really added up correctly in the 1960s, any more than the haphazard eccentricities of Victorian laissez-faire did 110 years previously.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 15, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesBirmingham's Heritage

Great Western Arcade, Birmingham

Birmingham’s finest shopping arcade, the Great Western Arcade, was built, as its name suggests, on the girders which were installed to cover the open railway cutting leading into Snow Hill Station in 1874.

Designed by the Birmingham architect W H Ward, it lost its top storey, its dome and the original design of the entrance to Colmore Row in the Birmingham blitz.  Sympathetically refurbished by Douglas Hickman of the John Madin Design Group in 1984-5, and further restored in 2009, it remains one of the pleasantest of Birmingham’s shopping experiences.

Even if you hate shopping and shops, one of the great pleasures of central Birmingham is the Victorian Restaurant [] in the Great Western Arcade – an ideal place for breakfast, lunch or tea, preferably on the first floor, looking out on to the gallery and a glazed roof that could be Victorian, but isn’t.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 13, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Duddeston Viaduct

Almost every time I travel from Sheffield to Birmingham, the train pauses outside New Street Station to wait for a vacant platform.

Looking to the south, it’s possible to discern two railway viaducts, one carrying trains into Moor Street Station, from where they traverse a tunnel at right angles to the New Street lines under the city centre to Snow Hill Station.

There’s another viaduct that carries only bushes and small trees.

This is the 1,100-yard-long 58-arch Duddeston Viaduct, built by the Great Western Railway as a linking curve towards the old Curzon Street station that closed when New Street opened in 1852.

The companies operating into New Street, the London & North Western and the Midland railways, blocked the Great Western access to their old and new stations, and the Great Western instead built Snow Hill station and tunnel at great expense.

Duddeston Viaduct halted at the land-boundary and, though it still exists, has never been used to carry trains since it was built.


The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 10, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Cadman's Cottage, Sydney

Cadman's Cottage, Sydney

The historic heart of Sydney is the area between Circular Quay and the Harbour Bridge known as The Rocks, because of the soft sandstone ridge on which it stands.

Standing on the harbour front, it was always a rough, disreputable district, and after an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 the New South Wales Government took steps to flatten the entire area.  The interruptions of two world wars and the disruption of building the approaches to the Harbour Bridge in the 1920s meant that a substantial number of historic structures survived into the 1960s.

An energetic campaign by a residents’ group in the early 1970s secured the conservation of the Rocks area, and now it is a tourist magnet, especially interesting for the overlays of successive historic periods on the oldest colonised site in the whole of Australia.

Among the places to see is Cadman’s Cottage, named after John Cadman, one of the government coxswains, an English publican transported for stealing a horse.  It dates from 1816 and is the third oldest building in Sydney.

The history of The Rocks is well interpreted in The Rocks Discovery Museum [], set in an 1850s warehouse restored by the National Trust.

What must have been the roughest collection of pubs in Sydney is now a variegated succession of tourist honeypots – the Fortune of War (1828) [], the Lord Nelson (1841) [], the Orient (1844)[] and the Russell Hotel & Wine Bar (1887) [] – among many others.

A good way to start a stay in Sydney is to have dinner in the open air at Circular Quay, watching the ferries come and go, and then to take your pick of the watering-holes along George Street towards the Harbour Bridge.

The big city seems far away, though actually it’s just over the hill.

Posted by: mike on Nov 8, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Museum of Sydney

If you arrive in Sydney and want to understand its history, the best place to start is the Museum of Sydney, a modern complex at the base of a high-rise block immediately south of Circular Quay, designed by Richard Johnson of Denton Corker Marshall and opened in 1995.

It stands on the site of the original Government House, built in 1788 for Governor Arthur Phillip and occupied until 1846.  Some of the foundations and the outline of the building are visible, and within there’s a detailed model and a recreation of part of the façade.

On the forecourt of the Museum is a haunting sculpture by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley entitled ‘Edge of Trees’, marking the spot where the Gadigal natives must have observed the arrival of the First Fleet of colonists from England.

The three floors of exhibition space tell the story of the early settlers and their relationship with the indigenous population.  There are models of the eleven ships of the First Fleet, and displays about the nine Governors who resided on the site, other important figures in the early history of the city, and a video montage Eora [“people”], by Aboriginal filmmaker Michael Riley, highlighting the life of Sydney people of indigenous descent back to the time of their dreaming.

Details of visiting times, and an online guidebook, are at

Posted by: mike on Nov 5, 2012

Category:Fun Palaces

Morecambe Midland Hotel

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe (1933) – an unlikely building in an unlikely setting – is one of the finest examples of Streamline Moderne (late Art Deco) architecture in Britain.  Its heyday lasted barely six years, until the outbreak of war.  After that, it became progressively difficult to operate, until it was rescued, sumptuously renovated and reopened in June 2008 by the developer Urban Splash.

Its railway-owned predecessor dated back to 1848, to the very beginnings of the resort that became Morecambe, and the Promenade Station was constructed in 1907 specifically to bring trains as close as possible to the hotel’s front door.

By the early 1930s the old hotel was badly out of date, and in January 1932 the directors of the London Midland & Scottish Railway approved plans to replace the 1848 building with “a building of international quality in the modern style”, designed by Oliver Hill (1887-1968) on a budget of slightly less than £72,000.  The new building rose from the lawn of the old hotel, which was subsequently demolished.

Oliver Hill was at the height of his career in the 1930s:  after starting out designing picturesque Arts & Crafts cottages, he embraced the visual potential of the Moderne style, of which his best designs, in addition to the Morecambe Midland Hotel, are the partially-built Frinton Park Estate in Essex (1934-6) and the house Landfall (1938), near Poole in Dorset.

His attributes were an eye for unifying architecture with decoration, and his adventurous use of materials such as concrete, chrome and vitrolite.  The result was a building that, in the words of the Architectural Review, “rises from the sea like a great white ship, gracefully curved”.

Hill’s brief for the Midland Hotel enabled him to recruit the best available decorative artists while maintaining full control of the building’s aesthetic programme.

The sculptor and designer Eric Gill (1882-1940) designed and carved for the façade two Portland stone seahorses in the form of the celebrated Morecambe Bay shrimps, a ten-foot Neptune and Triton medallion above the central staircase, a bas-relief, Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa, and a map of North West England, painted in oil by his son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier.

In the circular café were originally murals by Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) of the seaside by day and by night.  These quickly deteriorated, and one mural was reconstructed by London Weekend Television set-designers for the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot in 1989.

The floor of the entrance hall was embellished with a mosaic seahorse and circular, wave-patterned hand-knotted rugs by Marion Dorn (1896-1964), who also worked on the Berkeley, Clarides and Savoy Hotels in London and the Cunard liner Queen Mary.

The new hotel opened on Wednesday July 12th 1933, and quickly attracted celebrities in search of luxury and privacy within easy reach of London, performers from the Winter Gardens and other theatres, and Yorkshire businessmen who commuted by railway club carriage to Leeds or Bradford through the summer months.

It’s interesting that the LMS Railway thought it worthwhile to cater for the most affluent members of British society in the north of England.  After the war and nationalisation the British Transport Commission could hardly get rid of it fast enough.

There are images of the Midland Hotel as it stood before Urban Splash took it on at

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 2, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightSheffield's Heritage

Sheffield Victoria Station (1976)

Sheffield Victoria Station and the Royal Victoria Hotel (1976)

The Holiday Inn Royal Victoria Sheffield, is a splendid Victorian hotel, dating from 1862, but it stands in splendid isolation, high above the River Don, cut off from the city by the Inner Ring Road, and – as its website plaintively declares – half a mile from the railway station:

This is ironic, because the hotel was built to serve Sheffield Victoria Station on the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway.  When Victoria Station opened in 1851, it provided the first direct service from Sheffield to London.

The rival Midland Railway had a station nearby, Sheffield Wicker, opened in 1838 on the site that's now occupied by Tesco Extra, but that line took passengers north to Rotherham where they had to change to a London train.

Only after the Midland Railway opened their new station in 1870 did Sheffield have a choice of direct trains to London and (from 1876) to Scotland.

Victoria continued to provide the quickest service to Manchester and served the east-coast resorts that were popular among Sheffield folk – Cleethorpes, Mablethorpe and Skegness.

In 1954 the Manchester-Sheffield service was electrified, cutting the journey-time between the two cities to 56 minutes.

The 1960s Beeching rationalisation caused the transfer of almost all the passenger services from Victoria into the erstwhile Midland Station, and after some controversy the Sheffield-Manchester service was diverted to the Hope Valley route, which served more local communities and carried the cement traffic from Hope.

Until 1983, rail passengers between Sheffield and Huddersfield via Penistone had the weird experience of trundling through what remained of Sheffield Victoria and reversing to gain access to the former Sheffield Midland.

Eventually, that route was adjusted to run via Barnsley to reach Penistone, and all that now remains of Sheffield Victoria is a single track to carry trains to the steelworks at Stocksbridge.

There is a proposal to reinstate passenger services over the existing track to Stocksbridge:

Meanwhile, fast trains between Sheffield and Manchester via the Hope Valley complete their journeys in under an hour via Stockport.

The authoritative account of Sheffield Victoria Station is at

Posted by: mike on Oct 31, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightSheffield's Heritage

Sheffield Midland Station

When I book a taxi and absentmindedly ask for Sheffield’s “Midland Station” the switchboard operators generally haven’t a clue what I’m talking about.  There’s been no reason to call it that ever since Sheffield’s other station, Victoria, closed in 1970.  Yet when I listen to black-cab driver’s radios, they often refer to it as “LMS”, though it ceased to belong to the London, Midland & Scottish Railway on the last day of 1947.

Similarly, Sheffield's trams – and possibly buses – still showed 'LMS Station' as a destination until the end of the 1950s [see Going nowhere anytime soon].

For practical purposes, it’s now simply Sheffield Station.

It’s not a particularly spectacular building, though it was handsomely refurbished in 2002.  Indeed, the most impressive structure is out of sight – the culvert that takes the River Sheaf (after which Sheffield is supposedly named) underneath the platforms:

The present frontage dates from 1905, designed by Charles Trubshaw who also rebuilt the Midland Railway’s stations in Nottingham and Leicester and designed the Midland Hotel in Manchester.  Trubshaw’s first-class waiting room and the adjacent dining room are now occupied by one of Sheffield’s fine real-ale pubs, the Brewery Tap [].

The location of the station was controversial when it was built in the late 1860s as part of the “New Road” extension from Grimesthorpe to Chesterfield [see Round house on the Old Road].  The local landowner, the Duke of Norfolk, insisted on the southern approach being hidden in a tunnel (later removed) so that it was invisible from his residence, The Farm.

At the same time Sheffield Corporation, concerned that the streets to the east where Park Hill Flats now stand would be cut off from the town centre, demanded a right of way across the station footbridge.

That’s an argument that’s still running 140 years later.  The operator, East Midlands Trains, seeks to close the footbridge with ticket-barriers:

Alan Williams, in an article about Sheffield Station in Modern Railways (June 2012), suggested that the railway obsession with ticket barriers may be less connected with fare-dodging (which according to the four train operators serving Sheffield is no worse on their lines than the national average) and more with national security, because the specification for installing the barriers includes enhanced CCTV with individual personal recognition:  “What better way of ensuring that we all dutifully line up to have our picture taken than in a secure station and gating scheme?”

Posted by: mike on Oct 28, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal:  Farmer's Bridge Locks (1976)

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal:  Farmer's Bridge Locks (1977)

Opposite the National Indoor Arena is a circular island with a signpost in the middle of the canal, for all the world like a waterway roundabout.

It dates back to the Second World War, when LMS Railway engineers installed it to hold stop-planks which would dam the canal in the event of bomb-damage, with the aim of protecting the railway-tunnel below from flooding.  The signpost, beckoning in three directions, to Liverpool and Manchester, Nottingham and Lincoln, and to Coventry and London, is a cross-roads of the English canal-system.

One arm of the junction leads on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, which shortly begins the descent of the thirteen Farmer’s Bridge Locks.

This was the eighteenth-century equivalent of the motorway system around Spaghetti Junction.

At one time there were 124 separate wharves and works between Farmer’s Bridge and Aston Junction, and until at least the 1920s the locks were gas-lit in order to operate twenty-four hours a day.  This stretch is a varied and spectacular piece of canal-scape, whether viewed from the towpath or by boat.

The canal plunges beneath the high-rise buildings associated with the 498-foot Telecom Tower (1965-6), which actually straddle Locks 9 and 10.  Locks 12 and 13 are similarly located beneath the bridges of Livery Street, the Great Western Railway approach to Snow Hill Station and Snow Hill itself.

The Farmer’s Bridge flight is a powerful and evocative walk beneath the streets of central Birmingham, the city that boasts it has more canals than Venice.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 26, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham Gas Street Basin

Gas Street Basin, Birmingham (1976)

I first came across Gas Street Basin, the heart of Birmingham’s canal-system in 1976, when it still had the patina of a neglected, workaday industrial site.

The canal basin lies at the end-on junction of the Birmingham Canal and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, the site of one of the famous absurdities of the waterways system.

From the moment the Worcester & Birmingham gained its Act of Parliament in 1791, the Birmingham Canal refused to share its water supplies, and set up the notorious Worcester Bar, a physical barrier 7ft 3in wide and 84 yards long over which freight had to be craned.

Eventually the Birmingham Canal consented to install a lock in return for heavy compensation when the Worcester & Birmingham line was fully opened in 1815.

The area was riddled with wharves, most of which have been filled in at various times during the twentieth century, and what few warehouses survive have been rehabilitated.

Nowadays Gas Street is positively gentrified, with apartment-blocks, canal-side pubs and restaurants and trip-boats, and the mirror-glass slab of the Hyatt Regency Hotel (Renton Howard Wood Levin 1990) dominates the area.

There’s no point regretting the loss of the scruffy patina.  Decay is destructive.

But I do regret the demolition of the Gothic Unitarian Church of the Messiah (J J Bateman, 1860-2), which stood above the short tunnel at the west end of the basin, a landmark both for street-passengers and boatmen.

It was the place of worship of the enormously significant Chamberlain, Nettlefold, Kenrick and Martineau families, and it contained the memorial of Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the discoverer of oxygen, political radical and victim of the Priestley Riots of 1791.

This monument of Birmingham’s history deserved better than to be obliterated.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 23, 2012

Category:Transports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Sheffield 189 (1968)

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Sheffield 189 (running in 1968)

The last time I had a chance to indulge my inner anorak talking to someone from the National Tramway Museum, Crich I made a point of asking why, whenever I visit the museum, I never get the chance to ride on the dignified, elegant Sheffield trams I remember from my childhood.

The superbly restored Sheffield 74 operates quite often, but otherwise the Sheffield vehicles in the collection stay in the depot.

The two Crich volunteers, who themselves happen to come from Sheffield, looked a little shamefaced, and said they were itching to get their hands on repairing and restoring Sheffield’s Last Tram, the Roberts car 510, which has a number of technical defects and needs a complete overhaul.*

It’s in the queue [see], but the cost in time and money will be considerable.

But what, I asked, about the two most representative Sheffield trams, the Standard 189 and the Improved Standard (similar but with curves) 264?

It seems that they both have serious bodywork defects.  The frames are creaking and they aren’t safe to run.

I felt like Dame Edith Evans, who refused to play Lady Macbeth because, she said, there were some pages missing from Shakespeare’s script:  “Why does she go mad?  She was perfectly all right at dinner.”

Both these trams came to Crich in 1960, straight from the streets.  They were perfectly all right when they left Sheffield.

When the museum began running services in 1964, those trams that were already in running order were the mainstay of operations.

Gradually, new restorations joined the fleet, and the Sheffield standard trams were parked up indefinitely.

There’s an additional irony.  264, which always ran in the post-1930s cream-and-blue livery, has been repainted twice since it reached Crich.  189, on the other hand, has the older, elaborate, traditional Prussian blue livery that dates back much further.

As such, it was rarely if ever repainted after it was built in 1934.  Once the elaborate lining and lettering had been completed, such trams were given many layers of varnish.  Every few years, the varnish was sanded down and reapplied.

So, my Crich contacts told me, the actual paintwork of 189 is a historical artefact, and as such should be preserved intact.

The fact is that Crich, like almost all museums, has far more exhibits than it can show at once.  But its pioneering raison d’être from the early 1960s onwards was to run as a working line, alongside the early preserved railways like the Talyllyn and the Bluebell.

So I hope that before I become completely doddery I’ll have the chance to catch an orthodox second-generation Sheffield tram, as I used to do when I went to school in the 1950s.

For information about the National Tramway Museum, see  There is a detailed and richly illustrated history of the museum at, and

* Update:  The Museum's blog reports that Sheffield 510 has entered the workshops for its overhaul:

Posted by: mike on Oct 21, 2012

Category:Transports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Sheffield 74

As part of its mission to show fully the evolution of British railed street transport, the National Tramway Museum has carried out some remarkable restorations.  Indeed, some of the restorations are almost reconstructions.

One of the oddest-looking stages in the development of the British tramcar from an electrified, railed, double-ended horse bus to a suitable vehicle for speedy, weather-proof mass transportation is illustrated by the impeccable example of Sheffield 74, dating from 1900 but displayed in its late Edwardian condition.

It’s fundamentally a four-wheeled open-top tram, but with the upper deck enclosed in a substantial and shapely top cover.  However, in order to sit in sheltered state upstairs, you have to brave the icy blast climbing up and down the stairs from the platform.

It was a half-way house, dictated by the nervousness of designers and – more significantly – the Board of Trade, about the feasibility of extending an upper deck out over the platform.

Fairly quickly those concerns were dealt with, and most British double-deck trams from the First World War onwards had a full-length double deck, commonly fully enclosed by glass:  [see Essentially Victorian Blackpool].

Sheffield 74 went through a number of metamorphoses, including transfer to Gateshead, where it ran until the early 1950s.  It must have looked as we now see it for only a few years.

When I first rode on the restored 74, I asked one of the crew how much was actually original.  The answer was identical to the answer I got when I asked about a tram at the Birkenhead Tramway – only the lower saloon, which in this case survived in Gateshead as a garden shed.

In the restoration of Sheffield 74, the top deck was taken from another Sheffield tram, 218, with parts from a third, 215, and the chassis (in tramway jargon, the truck) is from Leeds and the motors from Blackpool.  Most of the rest is, apparently, a superbly crafted fabrication.

The wizards of the Crich workshops have performed this feat time and time again – Derby 1 (formerly a summer house), Chesterfield 7 (a cottage), Leicester 76 (a cricket pavilion).  Some others, such as the Leeds trams 345 and 399 and the Liverpool Green Goddess 869, stood derelict for so long that they had to be fully rebuilt to be fit for passenger service.

What you see is not always what you got in vehicle restoration:  sometimes the shining monster is back-restored from a later design (like some of the locomotives currently emerging at Didcot) or even built totally from scratch, like the LNER A1 locomotive Tornado.

But up to now, the workshops at Crich and the other British preserved tramways have always ensured that what you see is built round something original, and what you get is at least as good as new.

For information about the National Tramway Museum, see

Posted by: mike on Oct 18, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

Morecambe Winter Gardens

What is now called Morecambe Winter Gardens isn’t in fact the Winter Gardens at all.  It’s the Victoria Pavilion, built in 1897 alongside the original Winter Gardens and Empress Ballroom of 1878.

The original complex began as the People’s Palace, built for the Morecambe Bath & Winter Gardens Company to provide entertainment, baths and an aquarium, on the lines of the Scarborough People’s Palace & Aquarium (1875-7) and the Great Yarmouth Aquarium (1876).

The Victoria Pavilion was designed by the Manchester-based practice Mangnall & Littlewoods which had already designed the Morecambe West End Pier and Pavilion in 1895-6, and were then working on the Central Pier Pavilion and the Hotel Metropole at the same time as the Victoria Pavilion.

The Winter Gardens closed in 1977, and the adjacent Ballroom was demolished in 1982 on the specious grounds that the replacement development would finance restoration of the Pavilion.

In fact it didn’t:  the Friends of the Winter Gardens were formed in 1986 and its current owners are the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust Ltd [], established in 2006 to take on the huge task of making the theatre fit to earn its own living once more.

It’s a magnificent building, inside and out, listed Grade II*, and one of the few remaining Victorian structures in a resort that has not stood the test of time.

The Theatres Trust identifies it as “a rare type, probably now unique” – a large-scale concert-party auditorium, very broad in relation to the width of the proscenium and the size of the stage.

It was used as a location for the Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer in 1959.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 15, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Chapel of St John the Baptist, Matlock Bath

A few weeks ago I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Friendless Churches – not something I do every year, but an opportunity to see and photograph the immaculate restoration of the Chapel of St John the Baptist, Matlock Bath, designed by Guy Dawber (1861-1938) for Mrs Louisa Sophia Harris, who lived at The Rocks, on the cliffside above Artists’ Corner in Matlock Dale.

Mrs Harris disliked the liturgical practices of the vicar of St Giles’, Matlock, and objected to his refusal to memorialise her pet dog, so she erected her own private Anglo-Catholic chapel at the end of her garden in 1897.

St John’s Chapel is a delightful architectural composition, its simplicity relieved by the oriel window and bell turret that punctuate its setting on the side of the cliff.

It’s also a gem of Arts & Crafts design, with stained glass by Louis Davis (1860-1941), plasterwork, embellished with painted vines and individually-modelled swallows, by George Bankart (1866-1929) and a painted altarpiece by John Cooke.  The rood screen, and probably the other interior fittings, were designed by Guy Dawber.

After many years of neglect and wanton vandalism, the chapel was vested in the Friends of Friendless Churches in 2002, and they have spent some £300,000 returning it to immaculate condition.

The Friends’ website is at, which is the portal for gaining access to their properties.  There is an introduction to the Friends by the Secretary, Matthew Saunders, at

The AGM took place at Masson Farm [] and included a high-quality afternoon tea with a view to match.

You know you’re at an upscale AGM when someone sends apologies for absence because they’re helping to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Posted by: mike on Oct 12, 2012

Category:Birmingham's Heritage

The Rotunda, Birmingham

The post-war redevelopment of Birmingham was a sorry story.

The City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), notoriously declared in 1957, “I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past.  They are often more sentimental than valuable. In fact, I sometimes deplore the modern tendency to pay exaggerated respect to everything old…

“As to Birmingham’s buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture.  Its replacement should be an improvement, provided we keep a few monuments as museum pieces to past ages.  Such buildings as the Town Hall, the Law Courts and a few churches will undoubtedly be retained...As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.”

Ironically, much that Manzoni’s generation built in Birmingham in place of Victorian and older buildings is now under threat, but James A Roberts’ Rotunda (1964-5) remains most dominant, memorable and perhaps the most satisfying of the 1960s buildings in the city.

271 feet high from road level, it was designed to provided accommodation for two storeys of shops, three storeys for a bank, one of them the strong room, sixteen office floors and two floors for services, plus a parapet.

The penthouse floor was occupied as offices by the James A Mander Design Group, an architectural practice of which the senior partner was James A Roberts.

Roberts had the satisfaction of seeing his design become the subject of an outcry when it was threatened with demolition in the 1980s.  Listed in 2000, it was refurbished as apartments for the developer Urban Splash by Glenn Howells (2004-8).

Not everything that was built in the 1960s was regrettable.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 10, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureBirmingham's Heritage

Victoria Law Courts, Birmingham

Victoria Law Courts, Birmingham

Birmingham is Britain’s terra-cotta city.

The material was extremely popular in late-Victorian British towns and cities, because it was theoretically washable, though the rain was rendered sulphurous by coal-fired homes, factories and trains.

Of all Birmingham’s terra-cotta buildings, there can be few more exciting than Birmingham’s Victoria Law Courts (1886).

Building this ambitious structure was in fact part of the deal by which Birmingham gained its own Assizes.

The design-competition was assessed by Alfred Waterhouse, designer of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington and house-architect to the Prudential Assurance Company, who loved the material so much that his colleagues nicknamed his style “slaughterhouse Gothic”.

What Waterhouse loved about terra-cotta was that it rendered rich detail crisp and plastic, so that sensuous curves flow across and die into the structural forms of wall surfaces and apertures.

The competition was won by Aston Webb (1849-1930) and Ingress Bell (1887-91), an ambitious pair who astutely chose as the pseudonym on their competition-entry, ‘Terra-cotta’.

The exterior is built of Ruabon brick and terracotta, but the interior is entirely in buff clay by Gibbs & Canning of Tamworth, Staffordshire.

The design is stuffed with Arts and Crafts statues and reliefs, by William Aumonier, William Silver Frith with Walter Crane, and Harry Bates.  The ornamental stained glass was designed by Walter Lonsdale, and the furnishings – many of which survive – were supplied by Chamberlain, King & Jones.

Mottos moulded into the decoration include “Truth is the highest thing that man may keep” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”.  The clear intention was to inspire wonder in visitors and awe in clients.

The Grade I listed Victoria Law Courts has become increasingly impractical for dispensing justice efficiently.  Like the terra-cotta Methodist Central Hall (Ewan Harper & James A Harper 1903-4) across the road, it will present a problem to tax both planners and conservationists.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 7, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces


Ravenscar is the highest point on the Yorkshire coast between Scarborough and Whitby.  Until the end of the nineteenth century it was simply called Peak.

Peak House, latterly Raven Hall, was built in 1773 by the owner of the local alum works, Captain William Childs.  He bequeathed it to his daughter Ann, widow of the Dr Francis Willis (1718-1807) who treated King George III in his apparent insanity.  Their son, Rev Dr Richard Willis, was a notorious gambler and a reputed smuggler.  There is an enjoyable tale of the estate being lost on a bet over two lice crossing a saucer:  in fact, it was mortgaged by Mr William Henry Hammond, who foreclosed and took over the property in 1845.

W H Hammond went to inordinate lengths to sponsor a railway link between Scarborough and Whitby, though he died in 1884, three months before the line opened.

The railway was absurd:  gradients of 1 in 39 and 1 in 41 meant that locomotives often stalled and had to take a run at the summit.  Hammond insisted that the track ran through his estate in a practically unnecessary tunnel.  Passenger trains from Scarborough to Whitby had to reverse to enter both termini.

In 1890 Hammond’s daughters sold the estate to the Peak Estate Company for £10,000, and by 1895 the house was extended and converted into a hotel “replete with every modern convenience”, and the surrounding land was laid out as a holiday resort of 1,500 building plots with roads and mains drainage and a public water-supply.

The North Eastern Railway was persuaded to rename the station “Ravenscar” in 1897 and to provide a passing loop and second platform.  Regular land-sales were held from 1896 onwards, for which free lunches and special trains from the West Riding towns were provided.

In fact, barely a dozen houses were ever built.  One sad boarding house, clearly intended as part of a terrace, stands in the fields that would have been the Marine Esplanade.  On one occasion the station waiting-room blew away in a storm.

The Ravenscar Estate Company apparently went into liquidation in 1913, but sales were continued until after the Great War.  Building a seaside resort seven hundred feet above sea level was perhaps not a good idea.

Still, from time to time, hopeful descendants of the original purchasers appear at Ravenscar clutching deeds they have found among family papers:  their reactions on seeing their inheritances are, by all accounts, uniform and entirely understandable.

The railway, which closed in 1965, now forms part of the Cleveland Way trail:  Ravenscar is also the terminus of the celebrated Lyke Wake Walk:  see

However you get there, don’t miss tea at the Raven Hall Hotel [] with a log fire and the view across to Robin Hood’s Bay.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureFun Palaces

North Euston Hotel, Fleetwood

We’ve purposely located the Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage (July 10th-15th 2013) tour at the North Euston Hotel, Fleetwood [],– not only for its comfort and quietness but because it’s significant in the history of the Lancashire coast.

Its name indicates that it was once the northern terminus of the railway from London’s Euston Station, at a time when George Stephenson proclaimed that no locomotive would ever manage the climb over Shap to the Scottish border.

The town of Fleetwood was planned and named by Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood (1801-1866) as the transhipment point between the Preston & Wyre Railway, which opened in 1840, and the steamer service to Ardrossan which was connected by rail to Glasgow.

This worked fairly well until what we now call the West Coast Main Line opened over Shap in 1847.  By that time Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood had gone bankrupt, and though Fleetwood harbour in time served other purposes, its railway remained forever on a branch line from Preston.

The grandly curving hotel was designed by Decimus Burton as part of Fleetwood’s intended holiday resort.

The hotel’s first manager, a Corsican called Zenon Vantini, was responsible for the first railway-station refreshment-room, at Wolverton, and ran the Euston and Victoria Hotels in London.

Opened in 1841, it was eventually bought by the War Department a School of Musketry for Officers, and reopened in 1861 as the Euston Barracks.

Vantini took a lead, in conjunction with the first vicar of Fleetwood, Rev Canon St Vincent Beechey (son of the painter William Beechey), in founding the Northern Church of England School in 1844.

This school later took the name Rossall School [] after it leased and then bought the Rossall Hall estate from Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood.

Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood died in such poverty that his estate could not pay for his funeral.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 1, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Barrow Hill Roundhouse 30075

I don’t know much about railway locomotives, but I thought I could identify a Southern Railway USA-class 0-6-0 tank locomotive when I saw one.


I spotted a locomotive with the unmistakable American outline at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse [see Round house on the Old Road], but 30075 isn’t what it seems and its story is interesting.

These USA tank locomotives were mass-produced by the United States Army Transportation Corps in 1942, as part of the preparations for what became D-Day.  382 of these punchy little shunters (which the Americans call “switchers”) were stockpiled in Britain, ready to operate the railways of Europe as they came under Allied occupation.

After the Second World War the Southern Railway bought a batch of fifteen to use in and around Southampton Docks, because they could cope with very sharp curves and yet were powerful enough to haul a full-length boat-train if necessary.

Fourteen were actually used, while the fifteenth was broken up for spare parts.  Under British Railways the fourteen were numbered 30061-30074.  Four of them survived into preservation.

30075 is not one of the fourteen, let alone the four.

Other ex-US Army locos were bought by private railways in Britain;  the Chinese bought some, as did the Egyptians, and some ended up in Israel and Iraq.

The Yugoslav State Railways thought they were so good they bought over a hundred, and then built nearly a hundred more themselves.

One of these, number 62-669, dating from 1962, was purchased from a Slovenian steelworks by the Project 62 Group [] in 1990. 

They brought it to the UK, converted it as closely as possible to the British specification, and gave it the next number in sequence after the fourteen originals.

In 2006 the Group bought another from a steelworks in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and this will in due course become 30076.

In the 1960s we thought steam locomotives, apart from a few museum pieces, would disappear forever.  Fifty years later, preservation is morphing into reconstruction and, in this case, reconstitution.

It’s an interesting and welcome twist on the conventions of museum preservation, and it’s ironic that while many genuine historic locomotives are preserved in aspic, sitting indoors, beautifully maintained, highly polished like works of art, brand new locomotives like Tornado and nearly-new examples like the USA tanks are coming into service.

If it steams, and it moves, and it brings pleasure, I’m in favour.

Posted by: mike on Sep 29, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Deltic Preservation Society D9009 Alycidon

Among transport-preservation enterprises, I think the Deltic Preservation Society is particularly admirable.

The Deltics were the first-generation high-powered diesel locomotives that replaced steam on the East Coast expresses between London and Edinburgh in the early 1960s.  In their time they were the most powerful diesel locomotives in the world.

The prototype was named Deltic as an allusion to the marine-pattern Napier engines, which featured a triangular arrangement of cylinders like the Greek letter delta.

Twenty-two production locomotives were built, replacing a roster of 55 express steam locomotives dating back to the 1930s, and ran the East Coast services until the arrival of the Advanced Passenger Train [see High-speed Designer] in 1978.

They lasted another ten years on other routes, and six of the original twenty-three have been preserved.

They’re much-loved for their size and power, their classic American shape and the distinctive sound of their diesel-electric power units.

Three of these belong to the Deltic Preservation Society [] and are based in a purpose-built depot at Barrow Hill Roundhouse, Derbyshire [See Round house on the Old Road].

All three locomotives – D9009 Alycidon, D9015 Tulyar (both named, in the old LNER tradition, after racehorses) and 55019 Royal Highland Fusilier – were purchased as long ago as the 1980s, and they have now been in preservation for more years than they were in public service.

Another Deltic, 55022 Royal Scots Grey, recently made news when it was hired as a working locomotive by GP Railfreight to haul bauxite trains:  [].

The Society maintains them in working condition so that they can earn their keep on preserved railways and on main-line excursions.  Alcyidon and Royal Highland Fusilier are serviceable, and Tulyar is currently under overhaul.

It’s good to see superannuated locomotives in practical use, rather than as frozen-in-time exhibits in a gallery setting.

I applaud the acumen of groups of enthusiasts who have so successfully combined their own enjoyment of maintaining traditional engineering with a commercial business model that brings pleasure to present-day enthusiasts and guarantees a long-term future for these fine locomotives.

A similarly laudible preservation campaign, but at an earlier stage in the process, is the Deltic Preservation Society’s neighbour at Barrow Hill, the 5-BEL Trust’s project to restore an entire train, the Brighton Belle

Posted by: mike on Sep 27, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

60163 Tornado

I’ve been looking forward to seeing the new A1 locomotive 60163 Tornado, ever since it took to the rails in 2008.  I caught up with it at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse “Fab Four” event in April – a well-organised facility for people who like locomotives to stand and stare at them and, in many cases, take photographs.

I happened to find my way to the trackside at the moment when a large, loudly hissing cloud of steam advanced down the line.  By the time it came alongside, anyone with a camera needed to shield their lens against the fog of cool condensation that completely enveloped us.

The cloud turned out to contain 60019 Bittern, one of the glorious streamlined A4 Pacifics now displayed in garter-blue livery.

The next cloud of steam proved to be 61994 The Great Marquess.  It was a damp, cold morning, and each loco was loudly blowing off surplus steam through its safety valves.

It’s an extraordinary sensation to stand within a few feet of a railway line, amply protected by safety fencing, as a hundred and more tons of locomotive glides past, the steam exhaust utterly deafening, the wheels and motion barely audible.

The final cloud of steam was something else.  60163 Tornado snorts and clanks and blows steam in all directions:  it’s intended to speed down long, straight stretches of main line, and doesn’t take particularly kindly to doing a catwalk turn.

Once this procession had reversed back into exhibition position I took an opportunity to look over Tornado closely.  It’s a strange beast:  it makes weird banging noises while sitting doing apparently nothing.

It is indeed a magnificent piece of engineering, built from scratch to fill the gap in the ranks of preserved main-line locomotives that ran the East Coast route in the days of steam, to the original post-war design by Arthur H Peppercorn, the last Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London & North Eastern Railway.

In order to run on main lines the design is necessarily adapted to present-day railway conditions – slightly lower than the original, fabricated with the advantages of modern engineering, equipped with the data recorders and warning protection that modern trains carry, with riding-lights that look like traditional oil lamps but are in fact LED clusters.

In effect Tornado represents the form that the original A1s would have evolved into if steam had continued in Britain after the 1960s, and it carries the “next in class” running number accordingly.  Its name commemorates the RAF Tornado pilots who flew in the first Gulf War.

The first standard-gauge steam locomotive to be built in the British Isles since 1960, Tornado has all the dignity and elegance of original museum pieces, with the added frisson of being virtually brand new.

The very sight of Tornado brought audible expressions of ecstasy from hardened rail enthusiasts.

This must have been how it felt to see Flying Scotsman, Mallard and the rest when they emerged from the workshops between the wars.  Tornado’s website is at

It won’t be the last.  Other new builds of lost locomotive designs are on their way, led by a new LMS ‘Patriot’, which will take the last-in-class number 45551 and the name The Unknown Warrior as a national memorial engine, replacing the long-lost, much rebuilt original 1919 London & North Western Railway memorial locomotive, Patriot

Posted by: mike on Sep 24, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney

St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

St Andrew's Cathedral (top) and St Mary's Cathedral (above), Sydney

Catholic cathedrals in most Australian cities were deliberately designed to outshine their Anglican neighbours.

In Sydney, Australia’s earliest settlement founded in 1788, the Anglicans were quicker off the mark, and after a couple of false starts completed St Andrew’s Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1868.

The architect, Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883) had a difficult time adapting the existing foundations and part-construction of an earlier project, and produced a modest-sized but imposing composition, with more than a passing resemblance to York Minster.

Sadly, St Andrew’s Cathedral has been compromised more than once.  Because of the noise of Sydney’s trams passing the east end of the cathedral, the entire church was reversed, placing the entrance on the east so that communion was celebrated as far as possible from the tramlines at the west end where the choir had to fight, not the trams, but the acoustics.

When in 1999-2000 the original layout was restored, liturgical considerations required that the old altar had to go.  It was, in addition, riddled with termites.

As a result, the fine reredos designed by John Loughborough Pearson and carved by Thomas Earp was left framing a vacancy.

The seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney is the splendid St Mary’s Cathedral – also the successor to a couple of earlier structures which were successively destroyed by fire.

The foundation stone of St Mary’s was laid in 1868, the year St Andrew’s was consecrated.

The Catholics had the unforeseen advantage, however, of a spacious site on the edge of the built-up city-centre, and they chose as their architect William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), who already had St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, well under way.

Wardell lived long enough to see St Patrick’s substantially completed, but St Mary’s took much longer.  Work on the nave began in 1913 and was completed in 1928.

Even then, Wardell’s elegant design was truncated, because there were insufficient funds to complete the twin western towers with spires.

Indeed, it seemed unlikely that such expensive luxuries would ever be justified, until an A$5,000,000 grant from the New South Wales Government prompted the ingenious solution of flying in steel frames by helicopter and cladding them in Wondabyne sandstone to match Wardell’s original design and intentions.

St Mary’s Cathedral was topped out, in the literal sense, in August 2000, completing a project that began in 1868.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 21, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Kedleston Hall Chatterton statue

On the way from the house to the lavatories at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire there is a disconcerting moment when one comes upon a recumbent marble figure at the base of the garden wall.  It appears that an eighteenth-century gent has fallen from the top of the wall and expired.

In fact, the statue is a reproduction of Henry Wallis’ painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’, which hangs in Tate Britain.

Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) was the sad, unregarded poet who passed off his work as “The Rowlie Poems”, the rediscovered work of a fifteenth-century monk.

He was found dead of arsenic poisoning in his London attic at the age of seventeen.

Horace Walpole took against what he saw as a literary fraud, but Keats dedicated his ‘Endymion’ to Chatterton’s memory, and Wordsworth thought well enough of his talent to describe him as “the marvellous boy”.

How his statue came to Kedleston – or who sculpted it – remains obscure.  Apparently Lady Ottilie Scarsdale, wife of the second viscount, found it in pieces in the yard of a monumental mason, and bought it.

I admire her wit in positioning it where it startles passers-by.  It’s something to chat about.

For visitor information about Kedleston Hall see

Posted by: mike on Sep 19, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Kedleston Hall royal bathroom

When my friend Jenny and I visited Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, I was disappointed not to be able to show her the royal bathroom.

The early twentieth-century owner of Kedleston, the Viceroy Lord Curzon [see Love Match] was ambitious to entertain King George V and Queen Mary, and in anticipation had an en-suite bathroom discreetly added to the State Bedroom.

I had the opportunity to photograph this some years ago, but the room stewards assured us, with regret, that it’s not usually shown to the public.

Apparently there’s a second modern (that is, early twentieth-century) bathroom, which I haven’t seen, nearby.

As consolation, Jenny and I were allowed to see the po-cupboard next to the dining room.  This common, convenient feature of grand dining was for the use of gentlemen after the ladies had retired to the drawing room.

It saved a long trek in white tie and tails.

I duly photographed the po-cupboard, but the royal bathroom is far finer.

For visitor information about Kedleston Hall see

Posted by: mike on Sep 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Kedleston Church Monument to Lord & Lady Curzon

Nestling against the cool classical pile of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire is the far older medieval parish church of the long-vanished village of Kedleston.  The north aisle of the church is an early-twentieth century Gothic memorial to a great love match.

George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquis and Earl Curzon, Viceroy of India (1859-1925), famously the “superior person” of an undergraduate ditty, like a number of his contemporaries married the daughter of an American millionaire.

Mary Victoria Leiter’s father was a co-founder of what became the Chicago-based Marshall Field department-store empire.  Her wit, charm and elegance was legendary.  The breaktaking peacock coronation gown, by Worth of Paris, which she wore as Vicereine at the Delhi Durbar in 1902 is on display within Kedleston Hall.

Perhaps the only sadness about their relationship was her inability to produce an heir, and the medical complications following a miscarriage destroyed her health.  She died in her husband’s arms on July 18th 1906.

Curzon commissioned the Gothic Revival architect George Frederick Bodley to design the memorial chapel at Kedleston, and employed the Australian sculptor Bertram Mackennal to carve her effigy in 1913.  Mackennal, by then Sir Bertram, ultimately provided an effigy of Lord Curzon which was installed in 1931.

Lord Curzon’s second wife, who has no obvious memorial at Kedleston, was Grace Elvina Duggan, a rich American widow aged 38 at the time of their marriage in 1917.  Though she had three children from her first marriage she did not provide a Curzon heir, and the marriage deteriorated into a separation.

The finest monument to Grace Curzon is not at Kedleston.  She was the subject of John Singer Sargent’s final portrait in oils, now in the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire,_Marchioness_Curzon_of_Kedleston.jpg.

Posted by: mike on Sep 14, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureManchester's HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Manchester John Rylands Library

Leave the traffic and bustle of Manchester’s Deansgate, and step into the studious quiet of the John Rylands Library, and you’re transported to a different world – of peace, calm and more books and manuscripts to study and admire than you could absorb in a lifetime.

It’s no longer usual to enter through the street doors into the gloom of the original entrance lobby, which in some ways is a pity.  Instead you enter through a light, white modern wing that brings you to the original Gothic library by a gradual route.

This brown stone Gothic Revival temple of learning is a monument to one of Manchester’s greatest cotton merchants and philanthropists, John Rylands (1801-1888), conceived and paid for by his third wife and widow, the Cuban-born Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908).

She had a very strong idea of what she wanted – a free public scholarly library in the heart of the city of Manchester, for which she purchased as core collections the Althorp Library of Lord Spencer and, later, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana from the Earl of Crawford.

Initially, she intended the library to specialise in theology, and specified a Gothic building that would suggest ecclesiastical and university architecture, so she engaged Basil Champneys (1842-1935) on the strength of his work at Mansfield College, Oxford (1887-90) [see,_Oxford].

Enriqueta Rylands was so anxious to begin work on the Deansgate site that, though Champneys produced the initial design within a week of gaining the commission, she demanded to see building work begin before the detailed work had even started.

To satisfy her, he contrived a 4ft 6in concrete platform on which later rose his spatially complex, technological advanced repository of some of the most valuable books in Manchester – its interior insulated from the smoke and noise of the city by lobbies and ventilated by the best air-conditioning that was practical at the time.

The reading-room is on the first floor, to catch the limited available light, approached by a capacious, picturesque sequence of staircases, galleries and vaults that Nikolaus Pevsner described as “a cavalier throwing-away of whole large parts of the building to spatial extravagance pure and simple”.

The atmosphere of monastic calm, within yards of the busy city-centre street, is dramatic, and reflects the religious emphasis of the original book-collection, though Mrs Rylands insisted on toning down some ecclesiastical features such as the intended traceried screens to the reading-bays. 

Despite the romanticism of its aesthetic appeal the building was designed to be fireproof, with a six-inch ferro-concrete lining to the masonry vaults, and was from the beginning lit by electricity, generated in the huge basement.

Cost was not a restriction:  when it opened in 1900 the bill came to £230,000, and by 1913 Champneys was required to extend the building.  Further extensions were added in the 1960s and in 2004-7.

Since 1972 the building has been the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, though members of the public are free to join:

The building itself is open to the public [], and the entrance wing contains the excellent Café Rylands [] and a quality bookshop.

It’s worth seeking out.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Manchester's Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester's Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Sep 11, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's Heritage

Carlisle Street Schools, Sheffield (1985)

Former Carlisle Street Schools, Sheffield (1985)

I have the publisher’s word that I was the very first person to hand over money for the Victorian Society South Yorkshire group’s excellent new publication Building Schools for Sheffield, 1870-1914 – even before the Lord Mayor received his presentation copy.

When I browsed through it at the book launch, over tea and fruit-cake, I saw that one of the very few Sheffield Board Schools for which there appeared to be no satisfactory image was the Carlisle Street Schools (1891), in the heart of the east-end steelworks.

I had to confess to Valerie Bayliss, the Group Chairman, that I had a couple of images that I’d taken when the steelworks were being cleared in the mid-1980s.  I’ve now passed them on to be in good time for the second edition.

Indeed, the panorama that is included on page 48 of the book demonstrates vividly why this long-forgotten school needed a capacity, after an extension in 1894, of 1,121 pupils.

Very few people have lived in the Lower Don Valley now for decades, but when the School Board handed over its responsibility to Sheffield Corporation in 1902, it had provided places for over 12,000 pupils in the heart of the steelmaking east end of the city.

Building Schools for Sheffield, 1870-1914 is obtainable from

Posted by: mike on Sep 8, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Sydney Tramway Museum:  prison tram 948

I had great difficulty persuading anyone to take my admission money when I checked out the Sydney Tramway Museum.  Eventually, a gentleman dressed as a tram conductor, on the second tram I rode, correctly answered my question “Do you think I look like a concession?” and I decided the operation was simply relaxed.

Similarly, when I made my second visit to the deserted refreshment cabin it was another tram driver who actually provided me with a plastic cup, a teabag and a large carton of milk – and a ceramic mug to dispose of the wet teabag.  The whole experience was very relaxed.

Finding the Museum is a matter of deduction.  There’s virtually no signage:  resting trams can be seen from the platform of Loftus railway station, but it requires navigation to find a way into the site.

Two tram-rides are on offer in opposite directions, out-and-back trips where the entertainment at the outer end is watching the crew reverse the trolley poles.

The display hall has a fascinating collection, not always well displayed.  There are welcome invitations to climb aboard some trams, including the Sydney prison tram, 948, which is difficult to photograph because of the photo display boards propped against its sides.  Displays throughout are copious and labelled in detail.

It’s apparent, though, that a significant proportion of the fleet of trams is off limits to visitors.  It’s a pity there isn’t an escorted tour of the workshops and other storage areas where interesting-looking relics in a variety of liveries lurk.

A huge amount of volunteer effort has gone into this well-resourced museum, and further development is afoot behind a fine Victorian façade beside the track.  In time to come, when there are attractions at the termini and high-quality shop and refreshment facilities, the Museum will provide a magnificent day out.

This is the place to learn about Sydney’s complex, interesting and much lamented tram system.  If you’re passionate about steel wheels on steel rails it’s a must.  At present, though, for a simple outing it’s a bit of an effort.

To see the state of Sydney trams that didn't find a home in the museum, see and

Posted by: mike on Sep 6, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Melbourne Tram 896

The Melbourne attachment to tradition embraces its trams, though the system itself survived partly because it was electrified much later than most.

Melbourne people regard the traditional W-class single-decker as part of the city’s furniture, like Londoners’ attachment to red double-deck buses.

The design dates as far back as 1923, and has been modified repeatedly over the years.  The latest were built in 1956, in time for the Melbourne Olympics.

Street-running trams are ideal for Melbourne’s transport needs, and new, improved vehicles have been introduced up to the present day.

But every time the authorities try to pension off the W-class there is uproar.

When the drivers (“motormen” in Melbourne) complained about the brakes, a media campaign pushed for the brakes to be improved, rather than retire the trams.

Around two hundred cars are in storage, and a much smaller number work the City Circle and a couple of routes where their restricted speed doesn’t conflict with more modern trams, and three are converted for the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant operation.

They are heritage listed, like the San Francisco cable-cars.  Some have been retired to transport museums, and there are several in the USA, but there is now an absolute embargo on exporting them.

Elton John has one in his back garden near Windsor, and Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark were given one as a wedding present.  (Princess Mary was born and grew up in Tasmania, and worked for a time in Melbourne.)

There’s nothing quite like the Melbourne tram-system, and the operation on the same tracks of the most modern LRTs alongside a ninety-year-old design that won’t retire results from an endearing combination of practicality and public affection.

See and

Posted by: mike on Sep 4, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Flinders Street Station, Melbourne

Melbourne people are vehement about their traditions.  They don’t take kindly to the prospect of losing time-honoured components of the city’s lifestyle.

Flinders Street Station (opened in 1854, current buildings completed 1910) is a traditional city-centre meeting place.  You meet “under the clocks”, in much the same way that New Yorkers meet at the clock in Grand Central Station.

The clocks are an array of clock-faces above the station’s main entrance, giving the times of imminent departures on the various lines served.

From the 1860s until 1983 a man with a pole moved the clock fingers as each train left to show the following departure time.

One day the clocks at the Flinders Street entrance were taken down ready for the installation of digital displays.

The following day the decision was announced to restore them – such was the public outcry about their removal.

Ever since the clocks that everyone meets under have been computer-controlled;  the man with the pole is long since retired and everybody’s happy.

Posted by: mike on Sep 1, 2012

Category:Transports of delight


Ex-London Transport RM167, operating as a tour bus in Christchurch, New Zealand (February 2011)

A couple of years ago my cousin Richard and I dined at Paradiso Inferno on London’s Strand, an Italian restaurant that I understand was a favourite of the late, great journalist, Bill Deedes (1913-2007).

Richard is actually my first cousin once removed, so we’re a generation apart and I’m as fascinated by his understanding of the technological present as he is bemused by my ramblings about the historical past.

I pointed, as a tease, to the succession of red buses that stopped nearby, and mentioned that if you look closely at the destination indicators, the letter ‘l’ curls at the base and the dots of the ‘i’ and ‘j’ characters are actually diamonds.

That’s because the lettering is not Gill Sans but the specific font that London Transport’s chief executive officer, Frank Pick (1878-1941), commissioned from the typographer Edward Johnston (1872-1944).

This formed part of Pick’s campaign to give the capital’s transport system a uniform brand-image at every level from architecture and vehicle livery to poster-design and typography.

Frank Pick is a towering figure in modern marketing, and his legacy continues to colour the streets of London.

After all, though London Transport was broken up in 2000 and its bus-services are now run by a variety of operators, Transport for London still uses a revision of the Johnston font and the trademark roundel, and the buses are still red.

For the whole of our meal on the Strand, Richard and I found ourselves looking up at passing buses to check that the ‘i’s and ‘j’s really did have diamonds for dots and that the ‘l’s were turned up at the base.

Versions of Johnston’s Underground font crop up unexpectedly, even – as in the illustration above – in New Zealand.  [See also Christchurch by bus.]

An interesting article on Frank Pick, Edward Johnston and the designer of TfL New Johnston, Eiichi Kono, is at

If you'd like to own your own piece of Johnston – at a price – you could visit my friendly neighbourhood picture-framer at

The Paradiso Inferno website is still live at, though the building was empty when I passed by in January 2012.

Posted by: mike on Aug 30, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Savoy Hotel

My 1960s grammar-school education was enlivened by the headmaster’s obsession with the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan, which provided our only experience of practical drama.  Shakespeare was for classroom study;  any play written after 1900 was to be seen in the professional theatre.

I didn’t understand for years why the G&S canon is referred to as the “Savoy operas”.

The reason, of course, is that the promoter of these odd survivals of Victorian show-business was Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), who used the capital he accumulated from the first collaborations of William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) to build a brand-new theatre on the land between the Strand and the Thames Embankment, ground which had been the site of the medieval Savoy Palace, of which the chapel still survives.

He named his new venue the Savoy Theatre.  When it opened in 1881 it was the first building in the world to be entirely lit by electricity, though limited generating capacity meant that the stage itself was lit by gas for the first couple of months.

D’Oyly Carte’s other theatrical innovations included free programmes, queues, numbered tickets and tea at the interval.

The Savoy Theatre was built on the profits of Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and Patience, which transferred from the Opera Comique to open the Savoy Theatre.  Gilbert & Sullivan’s first work for the new theatre was Iolanthe.

It seems that the profits of The Mikado provided the capital for D’Oyly Carte to build the Savoy Hotel (1889), which boasted no less than 67 bathrooms, “ascending rooms” between each floor and “speaking tubes” communicating between floors.

When the hotel was enlarged in 1903 its main entrance transferred to the Strand, and the theatre-foyer was moved to the hotel courtyard, so that the audience enters at a level higher than the top of the proscenium arch, descending to their seats by stairs and corridors which are partly beneath the roadway of Savoy Court, the only roadway in Britain where vehicles drive on the right.

Rupert D’Oyly Carte, Richard’s son, had the entire theatre remodelled in 1929 in an uncompromisingly modern manner by Frank A Tugwell and Basil Ionides – a splendid confection of silver and gold, autumnal fabrics and concealed lighting.

This was the venue for the 1941 première of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

During a renovation in 1990 a fire destroyed the entire auditorium.  The terms of the theatre’s insurance required that Tugwell and Ionides’ design should be meticulously reinstated, and so it reopened in 1993.  The architect, Sir William Whitfield, added a further storey, so that now the 56-ft stage-tower is surmounted by plant rooms and a leisure-centre with a swimming pool.

The hotel was closed in 2007 for a comprehensive renovation that took until 2010.

The stories and the personalities attached to the theatre and the hotel are endless.  My own favourite is of the actor, Richard Harris (1930-2002), a long-time resident, who was carried out of the hotel foyer on a stretcher on his way to his hospital death-bed, shouting to passers-by, “It was the food!”

There is a comprehensive history of the theatre in Kevin Chapple et al, Reflected Light:  the story of the Savoy Theatre (Dewynters 1993).

To see what's on at the Savoy Theatre, go to  The Savoy Hotel website is

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 27, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Duncombe Park Terrace

You can spend an enjoyable day in North Yorkshire pretending to be an eighteenth-century aristocrat lording it over the landscape.

Visit (in either order) Duncombe Park [] and Rievaulx Terrace [].

In the grounds of Duncombe Park, stretching along Ryedale towards Rievaulx Abbey, are a series of artificial high-level terraces.

Duncombe Terrace is significant because it’s one of the first such features to ignore formal geometry and follow the contour.

It’s punctuated by two temples dating from around 1730, an Ionic rotunda which closely resembles Vanburgh’s Rotondo at Stowe (1721), and a circular Doric temple.

The terraces at Rievaulx are rather later, dating from about 1758.  The pattern is the same, with a temple at either end, and the Rievaulx temples follow the same classical orders as their companions at Duncombe, but in this case a circular Doric Temple is paired with a rectangular Ionic Temple.

Both are spectacularly expensive ways of giving guests somewhere to stroll, and apart from the landmark temples, each provides dramatic vistas:  the Duncombe terrace looks across to Helmsley Castle, while the walk at Rievaulx provides a whole series of views, cut through the trees, to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in the valley below.

The two sets of terraces are some three miles apart, and it’s probable that they were meant to connect by means of a scenic ride.  Large worked stones found in the intervening river-bed could have been the basis for a viaduct.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s comment [The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: The North Riding (Penguin 1966)] on Rievaulx Terrace sums up the breathtaking assurance of the eighteenth-century handling of natural and man-made beauty:

The whole a superlative example of large-scale landscape gardening and of that unquestioning sense of being on top of the world which the rich and the noble in England possessed throughout the Georgian period.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 25, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Duncombe Park House

After decades of talk of “the destruction of the English country house” it’s refreshing to find more and more houses that were given over to institutional use have been restored as homes in the past twenty years.

One such is Duncombe Park House, North Yorkshire, (1713) designed by the gentleman-architect William Wakefield, possibly with assistance from Sir John Vanburgh, who was at the time coming to the end of his work at Castle Howard.

It’s a house that has survived a succession of crises.

All but the shell of Duncombe Park was destroyed by fire on a snowy night, January 11th 1879.  The parish magazine describes how the maids woke to the sounds of crackling and extremely hot carpets.  The water-supply to the house had been turned off to prevent frozen pipes, so the main block burnt to a shell although all of the family, guests and servants and – after desperate efforts – many of the contents were saved.

Work on rebuilding the main house stopped when the heir, Viscount Helmsley, died unexpectedly in 1881, leaving a two-year-old son to inherit from his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Feversham.

When rebuilding resumed in 1891, the architect William Young based his plans on the original design and some surviving fabric, but with an additional bay projecting the east front further into the garden.  He also made the original round-headed windows square, and reduced the interior size of the entrance hall, converting the design of its plaster ceiling from an oblong to a forty-foot square.

In 1894 a further fire destroyed furniture, tapestries and £6,000-worth of jewellery that had escaped the 1879 fire.  The damage was quickly restored, with the addition of a chapel by Temple Moore, in 1895.

When the second earl, grandson of the first, was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, a year after inheriting the title, his son took the title at the age of ten, inheriting an estate encumbered with two sets of death duties in rapid succession.

Duncombe Park House was let to the Woodard Foundation and opened as Queen Mary’s Girls’ School in 1926.  The third earl throughout his life lived at Nawton Tower elsewhere on the estate.

At his death in 1963 the earldom died out but the older barony passed to his fourth cousin, the 6th Lord Feversham, at the age of eighteen.  It now belongs to his son, the 7th Lord.

The school’s lease did not cover repairs, and Lord Feversham was not prepared to allow modern buildings to be added, so when a break-lease fell due in 1986 Lord and Lady Feversham chose to reclaim the house, and the school removed to Baldersby Park near Thirsk – another fine early-eighteenth century house, though much altered, by Colen Campbell.

The restoration of Duncombe Park was carried out by Martin Stancliffe to such a standard that it’s difficult to visualise that the place was for sixty years a thriving, though apparently well-disciplined boarding school.

It’s a shame that it’s no longer possible for the general public to tour the house at Duncombe Park, though the gardens remain open:

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 22, 2012

Category:Black-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Spon Lane, Coventry (1983)

Wikipedia has a main-page feature that asks annoying “Did you know?” questions that are so specialised you’re supposed to click on the article to find out something or nothing.

Recently the question was “Did you know... that Spon Street survived the air raid that obliterated much of Coventry City Centre and is now a Conservation Area?”  Well, actually I did, for once.

Spon Street is now “Coventry’s hidden treasure” – “a unique selection of quality and niche shops... occupying a range of historic renovated medieval buildings”:

It’s also a conservation tragic-comedy.

In the early twentieth century Coventry, according to its historian, Mary Dormer Harris, had so much genuine medieval architecture it could have been the “English Nuremburg”;  J B Priestley in his English Journey (1934) commented, “you peep round a corner and see half-timbered and gabled houses that would do for the second act of the Meistersinger”.

After the Luftwaffe devastated the centre of the city in November 1940, the City Architect, Donald Gibson (1908-1991), set about destroying much of what the Germans left.

He grasped the opportunity to give the people of Coventry a splendid new city centre, spacious, clean, modern and new, aligned on an axis with the tower of the bombed Cathedral, with duplex shopping arcades based on – of all things – Chester’s Rows.

Meanwhile, a Worcester architect, F W B (Freddie) Charles (1912-2002) took a contrary approach.

He was the architect of Shrewsbury’s fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Bear Steps and a founder of the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings

In Coventry he transplanted timber-framed buildings from elsewhere to join surviving structures on Spon Street, a former road into the centre severed by the inner ring-road.

7-10 Much Park Street became 163-4 Spon Street in 1970-4;  142-3 Spon Street was restored on a different-shaped site as 16 Spon Street in 1972-5;  the former Green Dragon Inn at 122-123 Much Park Street became 20-21 Spon Street after partial collapse between 1972 and 1982.  159-162 and 167-168 Spon Street were restored in situ, with new “medieval” facades in 1981-5.

So it was that some fragments of Coventry’s wealth of medieval buildings that existed in 1900 and survived 1940 were – literally – sent to Coventry.

Posted by: mike on Aug 19, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring Australia

St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne

As Australian cities grew up in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Anglicans in each place set about building their cathedral but were often trumped by the Catholics, who were mostly poor Irish settlers escaping the penury and famine of their native land.

Catholic cathedrals in Australia usually stand on top of a hill, and are richly ornate.  Their builders – congregations, priests and architects – went out of their way to state that only the best was good enough for God.

In Melbourne, the Anglican Cathedral, St Paul’s, [see Exporting Gothic Architecture] is particularly fine, yet the Catholic Cathedral, St Patrick’s, is magnificent.  Its spire, 344 feet high, is the highest in Australia.

The architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral was William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), a London-born convert to Catholicism, trained by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.

The cathedral was begun in 1858 and consecrated in 1897:  William Wardell was one of the few architects of Gothic cathedrals to see his design substantially completed in his lifetime, though the spires were added in 1939 by Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the politically powerful Irish-Australian who held the see from 1917 until his death at the age of 99 in 1963.

Mannix’s statue by Nigel Boonham (1997) stands outside Wardell’s cathedral, gazing across to Parliament House, symbolising the lengthy struggle to overcome the early disdain towards Irish and Catholic settlers in Australia.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Melbourne Shot Tower

Apart from eating and drinking my way round Melbourne with Gabe and Dave [Eat your way round St Kilda, Eat your way round central Melbourne and Exploring Melbourne:  Madame Brussels] I’d come to the city to work.  This was the starting point for my lecture tour with the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies [ADFAS:], and as soon as I met my Melbourne host Christine Penfold I knew I was in good hands.

Christine brought to my hotel not only a fat folder of air-, train- and bus-tickets, but also a beautiful bowl of fruit to sustain me.  This told me that I was being looked after, as I had been with the New Zealand Decorative & Fine Art Societies, by warm-hearted, civilised people with imagination and a flair for enjoying life.

ADFAS put me up at the Mercure, Spring Gardens [] which meant that when I wasn’t needed for their programme I could find everything I wanted on the doorstep – food and wi-fi at the Spaghetti Tree [] and a memorable independent bookshop:

The one tourist site I fitted in within my work-schedule was the 165-feet-high Coops Shot Tower (1889) [] spectacularly enclosed in the dome of the Melbourne Central shopping-centre, built in 1991.

Built to manufacture lead shot by dropping molten lead through a copper sieve, it’s not even the tallest shot-tower in Melbourne:  the sister Clifton Hill Shot Tower of 1885, [;295] built by the same Coops family, stands 263 feet high.

I’d never paid any attention to shot towers in the UK, though I knew there was one in Derby that was demolished in 1931-2 to make way for the bus station.

There are remaining examples in Chester (1799) [], Twickenham (late 18th-/early 19th-century) [] and Bristol (1968) []. 

Posted by: mike on Aug 15, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring AustraliaCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Springthorpe Monument, Booroondara Cemetery, Melbourne

Quite the most astonishing Victorian edifice that Gabe showed me on our trip round suburban Melbourne was the Springthorpe Monument in Booroondara Cemetery, in Kew not far from Villa Alba.

Dr John Springthorpe (1855-1933) erected this tomb in memory of his wife Annie, who died giving birth to their fourth child in 1897 at the age of thirty.  The power of his grief led him to commemorate her in a rich, intense, uplifting memorial.  It cost around A£10,000 – ten times what he spent on his three-storey house and surgery in Collins Street in the city-centre.

Within a massive Greek temple twenty feet square, designed by the architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear (1865-1933), lies an exquisite Carrara marble group by the sculptor Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931) showing the deceased with two angels, one placing a now-lost wreath on her head, the other playing a lyre.

Both these artists were Melbourne natives, though Bertram Mackennal gained prestige for his work in England as well as Australia:  his is the relief of King George V that appeared on British and Empire coinage, medals and postage stamps.  He was also responsible for the tomb of George and Mary Curzon at Kedleston in Derbyshire.

The crowning architectural glory – literally – of this monument is the dome of deep red Tiffany glass, which bathes the statuary in a warm light that is the opposite of funereal.

The tomb is inscribed with a plethora of quotations from the Bible, the classics and from nineteenth-century poetry.  The one omission is Annie Springthorpe’s name.  Instead there is a simple, poignant inscription:

My own true love
Pattern daughter perfect mother and ideal wife
Born on the 26th day of January 1867
Married on the 26th day of January 1887
Buried on the 26th day of January 1897

Professor Pat Jalland, an Australian academic best known in the UK for her fascinating book Death in the Victorian Family (OUP 1996), wrote about the Springthorpe monument in The Age in 2002:, and there is further detail in George Nipper’s contribution to

Further illustrations can be found at

There is a biography of Dr John Springthorpe at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 13, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Australia

Villa Alba

My Melbourne friend Gabe and I share an enjoyment of Victorian architecture and photography.  For Gabe, of course, as a Melbourne resident, the adjective “Victorian” has both a historical and a geographical sense.  So Gabe and I spent an afternoon looking at Victorian Victorian architecture.

Without him I wouldn’t have found Villa Alba in the suburb of Kew, the home of William Greenlaw, a Scottish farmer’s son who rose to be general manager of the Colonial Bank of Australasia and in 1883-4 kitted out his wife Anna Maria in opulent splendour overlooking the Yarra River.

He may have designed the structure himself, but he employed the brothers Charles Stewart Paterson (1843-1917) and James Paterson (1853-1929), also Scots, to provide elaborate painted and stencilled colour schemes throughout the house.  Each room had its own theme, with much use of trompe l’oeil including outdoor scenes of Edinburgh and Sydney, Mr & Mrs Greenlaw’s respective birthplaces, scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels and, in the boudoir, a tented ceiling.

The furniture by W H Rocke & Co has largely disappeared, and one satinwood cabinet is in the National Gallery of Victoria.  A satinwood overmantel, illustrating scenes from Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been returned to the house.

When William Greenlaw met the fate of over-confident bankers and was made insolvent in the early 1890s, his home was safely in his wife’s name.  Two years after his death in 1893, she sold up and let the place, and in due course it became a nurse’s home and then a college.  At some point in the 1950s, much of the Pattersons’ decoration was overpainted to “brighten the place up”.

The Villa Alba Museum Inc bought the house and garden in 2004, and is now slowly and surely recovering the lost decorative schemes.  It’s fascinating to see the place in transition, and in time to come it’ll look as glorious as it did in 1884.

For details of the restoration see  A more detailed historical description, which first appeared in Antiques & Collectables for Pleasure & Profit (Spring 2011), is at  The house is illustrated in glorious detail in Russell Winnell’s photostream:

Posted by: mike on Aug 10, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Barrow Hill Roundhouse Fab Four event, April 13th 2012

BaBarrow Hill Roundhouse Fab Four event, April 13th 2012:  from left to right, 4464 Bittern, 4468 Mallard, 60103 Flying Scotsman, 4771 Green Arrow

My friend Doug, who likes trains nearly as much as he likes buses, tipped me off that the Barrow Hill Roundhouse “Fab Four” event would be good value.

The original intention behind the title, apparently, was to reunite for the first time in preservation examples of the LNER A1, A2, A3 and A4 locomotive classes.

I had to look this up, having discarded my Ian Allan spotting books many years ago.

The A1 Pacific locomotives were all scrapped in the early 1960s, and a brand-new version, 60163 Tornado, has been painstakingly constructed.

The A2 was an updated version of the A1.  Its sole survivor is a household name, 60532 Blue Peter, which looks magnificent and only needs half a million pounds spending on its next overhaul.

The only surviving A3 is an even more familiar household name, 60103 Flying Scotsman, saved by the late Alan Pegler, doyen of railway enthusiasts.  (His obituary in The Times, March 23rd 2012, relates a life well lived:  “When the good Lord calls me to the happy shunting yard in the sky, I shall have no regrets,” he told the Railway Magazine.  “I’ve had a great innings.”)

The Fab Four plan came adrift because Flying Scotsman, nearing the end of its latest overhaul, was indisposed, so the Barrow Hill people and their sponsors, Railway Magazine, fielded two examples of the instantly familiar streamlined A4 class, LNER 4464 Bittern, which is in full working order, and the record-breaking 4468 Mallard, which is apparently regarded as so precious a piece of history that it hasn’t steamed since the 1980s.

It was a tremendous show, and drew hordes of visitors, including hard-core railway photographers who carry not only dauntingly huge cameras but also stepladders, like paparazzi.

The implicit thematic intention was to show locomotives that hauled the East Coast main line expresses between London and Edinburgh and beyond.

In addition to the Fab Four, there were other locomotives with an East Coast Route connection.

Great Northern 251, dating from 1902, spun on its own axis on the roundhouse turntable.  LNER 4771 Green Arrow, a variant version of Sir Nigel Gresley’s Pacifics, lined up with the Fab Four.  61994 The Great Marquess, a more rugged beast designed for yomping across the Scottish Highlands, pulled trains up and down the Barrow Hill demonstration track.

Barrow Hill is also the home base of the Deltic Preservation Society [], which maintains in running order a roster of three of the diesel successors to the steam-powered Fab Four.

It was a fine display, beautifully organised.  I warmed to the fact that every Barrow Hill volunteer I spoke to wished me an enjoyable day.  They may have been scripted but they clearly meant it.  I admired the fact that the carriages hauled by The Great Marquess were immaculately turned out in British Railways maroon on the side that the public sees;  the other side is still in the Rail Blue livery that they brought from mainline service.

I had only one complaint about the whole experience.  The advertised advance-ticket prices were fictional.  It was practically impossible to buy a ticket in advance without paying a “transaction fee” of £1.00.

I don’t at all mind paying £15.00 rather than £14.00 for an entertainment.  But I do expect to pay the price on the price-tag.  Compulsory add-ons simply make me feel ripped off.

There’s no need for it.  It would have cost the Barrow Hill Roundhouse and the Ticket Factory nothing at all to come clean and say the cost is £1 more than they pretended.

To do otherwise leaves a nasty taste.

Posted by: mike on Aug 8, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Barrow Hill Roundhouse

To this day, when trains north from Chesterfield turn right towards Barrow Hill and Beighton, rather than take the direct route via Dronfield into Sheffield, railway staff call it the “Old Road”, because it’s the line of the North Midland Railway which opened in 1840.  The newer route was opened thirty years later, so has now been new for over 140 years.

At the same time that the Midland Railway opened its direct route north into Sheffield, the Barrow Hill locomotive shed was constructed.  It has survived to become a unique piece of railway archaeology – the only surviving operational roundhouse locomotive depot.

There are other roundhouses, of course:  the Roundhouse at Camden Town, in north London is now a celebrated arts venue [], the Derby Roundhouse is a multipurpose conference venue [] and the main hall of the National Railway Museum [See Rail museum proceeds with caution] is built around one of the two turntables of the former York North motive-power depot in Britain.

But only at Barrow Hill can you sense, smell, almost taste the atmosphere of coal and oil and grime that characterised the age of the steam locomotive.

And there, within the roundhouse itself and in the surrounding buildings, the graft of maintaining steam engines and diesel locomotives continues, thanks to the vision of a group of enthusiasts who realised that when the place closed to operational use by British Rail in 1991 an important piece of railway heritage was in danger.

The Barrow Hill roundhouse is home to a variety of preservation projects, including the Deltic Preservation Society [;  see also Keeping the wheels turning] and the Brighton Belle project [].

This is a workaday place.  Visitors are welcome, but there’s a healthy preoccupation with getting jobs done.  Contemplate the hours of graft that bring back the neglected railway heritage;  ask questions and show an interest.  It’s places like Barrow Hill that keep the antique wheels on the modern rails.

Didcot Railway Centre [see God’s Wonderful Railway] has something of the same atmosphere, but is more fully developed as a tourist site.

For details of opening-times and special events at Barrow Hill, see

Posted by: mike on Aug 6, 2012

Category:Transports of delightHistoric York

National Railway Museum, York:  L&YR signalman training model

National Railway Museum, York:  L&YR signalman training model (1912)

It’s an interesting reflection on British culture that, in addition to a National Gallery and a National Portrait Gallery, we have a National Collection of railway vehicles – 280 locomotives and items of rolling stock, most of them distributed between the Science Museum in London, the Locomotion museum at Shildon, Co Durham, and the National Railway Museum in York [].

The York museum has something for everyone.  I once took a school group there, and discovered the kids enthusiastically tracking the lavatory outlets on the Royal Train carriages.

NRM York, as it’s now called, started in a small way, built around the core collection of historic artefacts that came from the Stockton & Darlington Railway and its successors, the North Eastern and London & North Eastern Railways.  Gradually, the other three of the pre-war “Big Four” railways added items which ultimately found a home on the site of the York North locomotive depot, literally across the line from the city’s passenger station.

This location has been repeatedly transformed, in 1975 when the Museum opened celebrating the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, in 1990-2 when the main building was re-roofed to create the Great Hall and in 1999 when the site was extended to create The Works.

An ambitious new plan, NRM+, has been shelved, unsurprisingly, for lack of funds, and the existing displays and activities stretch between serious museum work such as the splendid new research facility, Search Engine, and popular exercises to increase footfall such as the Railfest gathering [].

There is so much potential in this vast collection of transport memorabilia.  I’d particularly like to see the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway's signalman training model displayed with sufficient space to appreciate fully its scale and complexity.

It’s unfair to expect exciting new developments at a time when every pound counts.  All that matters is that places like the NRM survive to maintain their collections and give pleasure and learning to their visitors.

And the miracle of the NRM and the other great national museums and galleries is that they continue to offer free admission.

For that we should be grateful – and as generous as possible in support.

Posted by: mike on Aug 3, 2012

Category:Historic York

Fairfax House, York

Charles, 9th Viscount Fairfax of Emley (1700-72) had a hard life, despite his aristocratic status.  His first wife died less than a year after their marriage.  Of the nine children by his second wife, seven did not survive, and she died not long after her last pregnancy.  One of the two remaining daughters died at 17 in 1753.  His only surviving daughter, Anne, was twice engaged, but never married.

Probably in the hope of giving Anne a secure place in York society, Lord Fairfax purchased a property on Castlegate, and in 1762 commissioned the most prestigious Northern architect of the day, John Carr, to build the residence now known as Fairfax House.

After Anne died in 1793 the house passed through a succession of owners until 1865, when it became a gentlemen’s club (in the Victorian, rather than the modern sense).

In 1919 it was purchased so that a thousand-seat cinema could be constructed on the back-land.  The entrance was made through the next-door house, no 23, and Lord Fairfax’s house was incorporated.  The rear domestic offices, including the original kitchen, were demolished;  the drawing-room and saloon were amalgamated as a ballroom, and a first-floor bedroom became  lavatories.

Nevertheless, at the behest of an early York conservationist, Dr Evelyn, most of the interior features were safeguarded, and the grand staircase became a positive asset for the St George’s Hall.

Eventually, in 1980, the York Civic Trust took it on as a museum of eighteenth-century domestic life and a home for the valuable furniture-collection bequeathed by Noel Terry, the chocolate manufacturer.

The restoration was accomplished by another first-rate architect who chose to base his practice in North Yorkshire, Francis Johnson (1911-1995), a Classicist of subtlety and judgment.  [See the late Giles Worsley’s obituary – – and the website of Johnson’s successors’ practice:]

The tactful 1920s cinema foyer remains as a public entrance.  Much of the superb eighteenth-century plasterwork by James Henderson and Guiseppe Cortese remained sufficiently intact for restoration, though the busts of Shakespeare and Newton on the main staircase are replicas.  Similarly, the ironwork of the main stairs, by Maurice Tobin, is original, as is all but the bottom flight of the secondary staircase.  Of the public rooms, only the kitchen is a replica.

Francis Johnson knew where to find the best craftsmen to work in the eighteenth-century manner – Hare & Ransome (joiners), Bellerbys Ltd (interior decoration), W M Anelay Ltd (leadwork and stonework), Dick Reid (carved woodwork), Leonard Stead & Son Ltd (stucco) and Moorside Wrought Iron of Kirkbymoorside (wrought iron).

The Assembly Rooms gives the modern visitor the scale of grand living in Georgian York;  Fairfax House provides the style.  It’s a museum that feels like a home, and offers a rewarding couple of hours’ looking and learning:   Even if it’s not practical to visit the house, visit the informative, erudite, beautifully organised blog, a classic of the genre, at

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 1, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric York

Assembly Rooms, York

The most magnificent eighteenth-century interior in York is the Assembly Rooms (1731-2), designed for grand public gatherings by the grandest architect of the day, Lord Burlington (1694-1753), who for a generation locked British building design into the classical Roman style promoted by the sixteenth-century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio.

Burlington’s Yorkshire residence (now demolished) was at Londesborough, from where he would naturally visit York for the assizes and the races.  His neighbours were clearly grateful to him for providing a decorous environment for social occasions:  “We entirely leave to your lordship to do in what manner you shall think proper.”

His lordship conceived the Great Assembly Room, as it was called, as a Vitruvian Egyptian Hall – in other words, Egyptian as understood by the Roman writer Vitruvius, interpreted by the Italian designer Palladio.

It is a truly magnificent space, 112 feet by 40 feet and 40 feet high, bordered by huge Corinthian columns, eighteen on the long sides and six across the ends, painted, marbled and gilded.  In daylight this toplit space is breathtaking;  at night, when sympathetically lit, it is magical.

Now it’s a restaurant, operated by the ASK Italian chain [!/restaurants/york].

I’ve taken every opportunity to eat there because there’s no more elegant accessible eating place in the city, and I’ve regularly brought people there to be impressed.

Originally, there were tablecloths, and elegantly dressed staff, and baroque music on the PA system.

The last time I went the tables were bare and the chairs hard and modern.  All the waiters, male and female, were in denims and T-shirts.  The music was wallpaper.

The cheerful and welcoming staff were energetically hospitable.  They asked how we were so often they might have been working for the NHS.  When they were wrong-footed into a unscripted conversation they turned out to be warm and charming.

The maitre d’ tells me that all this is a marketing concept.  It’s called Milano.  Presumably it saves laundry bills while increasing footfall.  But it demeans the building.

The food is as excellent as ever.  For £13.95 my mate Richard and I had bruschetta classica (Italian bread with chopped marinated tomatoes), rigatoni di manzo piccante (pasta and meatballs) and apple rustica (essentially apple crumble).  This was the winter set menu, and will no doubt have changed with the season.

I’m imagine this admirable menu is on offer at every ASK Italian restaurant in the country.  I gather that wherever you eat it you sit on the same tables and chairs.

The furniture sits well in an ordinary building, like my local ASK Italian in Sheffield.  But there’s nothing anywhere like the York Assembly Rooms.  The building deserves appropriate dressing.

ASK Italian’s mission-statement says, “We want it to be amazing.  A restaurant that's fresh and bold.  With a passion for the details.”  To which I say, in York at least, bring back tablecloths (paper if necessary) and turn up the Vivaldi.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 30, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric YorkFun Palaces

Blue Bell, Fossgate, York

When my mate Richard and I have a day out together there’s always a problem period around late afternoon, when we struggle to find something to do.  The shops and tourist places start to close down, and it’s too early to dine in style.

In York recently we sandwiched the National Railway Museum between coffee, lunch and afternoon tea, and then spent an hour in the small but enriching York Art Gallery [].

Thanks to the Good Beer Guide [] we came upon the Blue Bell, 53 Fossgate – easily missed, and unmissable.

It’s an utterly unremarkable-looking place until you step inside.  It has a bar and a smoke-room, neither big enough to swing a cat in, board-panelled from floor to ceiling.  There’s a real fire and a splendid choice of beers.  The old cliché about stepping into someone’s front room is entirely apt at the Blue Bell.

It seems odd that the Blue Bell is listed II*, until you read the English Heritage list description:

Like many buildings in the streets of central York, the Blue Bell and no 54 next door have a timbered core, here dating back to the middle of the seventeenth century.  The jettied timber fronts were cut back and refaced sometime in the late eighteenth century.

At the end of the nineteenth century, when no 53 became the Blue Bell, an embossed front window was installed.  Since then, very little is changed:  the list description, without specifying a date, describes it as “the last C19 pub interior in York to survive intact”.

This is probably because it was continuously owned by the same family for almost a century until 1993.

Like the more famous “Nellie’s”, the White Horse Inn in Beverley, East Yorkshire, the Blue Bell has survived all the vicissitudes of the licensed trade through the twentieth century, so that it’s now a tiny treasure, an unlikely jewel in the crown of the historic heart of York.

And it’s a particularly good place for what in Yorkshire we call a “sneck-lifter”.  “Sneck” is the latch of a door or gate.  When you lift the sneck, literally, it lets you into warmth and hospitality.  When you sip your first pint (and your second), you’re ready to enjoy the next few hours.

Update:  Evidence that a quiet night is virtually guaranteed in the Blue Bell is to be found in this article in the Daily Mail (March 22nd 2013):

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 27, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Blackpool locomotive

Alongside their sleek new LRT vehicles, Blackpool Tramways has retained some of its previous fleet – a few double-deckers adapted to fit the new disability-compliant boarding platforms and some authentic heritage trams surreptitiously fitted with transponders to operate the new traffic signalling.

In order to rescue some of the others, the Lancastrian Transport Trust is planning a retirement home for superannuated Blackpool trams at Thornton Gate, on the way to Fleetwood:

This location was last used by the contractors upgrading the line to light rapid-transit standards.  Before that it was used as the permanent-way yard for the tramway.  Originally it was a coal-delivery yard.

Apparently, to forestall a 1919 plan to build a railway line from Thornton to Cleveleys, Blackpool Corporation Tramways agreed to run railway wagons of coal along the Fleetwood tramway, and acquired an electric locomotive for the purpose.

The coal deliveries started in 1927 but were ultimately unprofitable and ended in 1949.

The locomotive was useful and survived, and now serves as a shunter at the National Tramway Museum at Crich, Derbyshire:

Posted by: mike on Jul 25, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Blackpool LRT trams 012 & 013

The new Blackpool trams are up and running – sleek, smooth articulated LRTs in a funky purple-and-white colour scheme.

It’s a superb service, all the way from Starr Gate to Fleetwood and back with space, comfort and ease.  It cost £100 million.

The demise of the old fleet is regretted by some, but it really was past its sell-by date.  Some trams dated back to the 1930s, and many had been rebuilt and patched like the hammer with three new handles and two new heads: [see Essentially Victorian Blackpool and Tram terminus].

The beauty of the promenade tramway, and the reason it survived, is its ability to shift holiday crowds, most of all at the illuminations.  Blackpool trams have always been much bigger than buses, and they take up less road space because they mostly run on their own private tracks.

And the new ones, like the old ones, appear to be crewed by committees.

I don’t know how the new service will shake down, though.  One vehicle with the capacity of a small train every twenty minutes doesn’t offer the same opportunity to hop on and off on an impulse as a constant procession of trams running on demand.

It remains to be seen how much spare capacity is available when the crowds materialise later in the year.

Unlike their predecessors, the new trams are free to holders of senior bus passes.

And if you want a nostalgia trip, you can pay buy a day-saver to use the heritage fleet, when it’s running:

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 22, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Melbourne General Cemetery:  Sir Samuel & Lady Gillett monument

Dave is one of the half-dozen brightest people I ever taught.  When I told him that he asked for it in writing.  QED.

I hadn’t seen him for ten years when we met up in Melbourne, where he’s worked for the past few years and is happily settled.

We acted out the Australian dream drinking beer in the sunshine at the Beachcomber at the St Kilda Sea Baths:, and then we hopped on a tram to sample the fleshpots of central Melbourne.

I recall, with diminishing coherence, the Palmz roof bar at the Carlton on Bourke Street [], Penny Blue (in the former Money Order Building next to the GPO) [], before eating at the Golden Monkey [] where Dave’s marital-arts experience came in useful tussling with the Japanese menu.

On a second evening out we drank at the Gin Palace [] where the gents has a set of urinals for use and another for lighting, and ate at Sarti [].

At some point I regaled Dave (who is at heart a Sheffield lad) with the story of Sir Samuel Gillott (1838-1913), a Sheffield lad who emigrated to Melbourne at the age of eighteen, trained as a lawyer and operated as a politician, became Melbourne’s first Lord Mayor and was eventually exposed for his financial dealings with a lady called Caroline Hodgson, who traded as Madame Brussels and ran brothels like banks, with branch operations scattered around the city-centre.

Without a word Dave led me into a strange rooftop bar with artificial grass instead of a carpet and waitresses in maids’ outfits with white ankle socks, where only after I’d ordered St George Ethiopian beer and turned to the menu did I discover the name of the place:

Posted by: mike on Jul 20, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Central Melbourne from Kew

Central Melbourne from Kew

During my weekend’s rest and recuperation in St Kilda, one of my hosts was Gabriel, the guy I’d met on The Ghan on my previous visit to Australia [Exploring Australia 5:  The Ghan].

I took to Gabe immediately when we met because we introduced ourselves as Gabriel and Mike, and he immediately said, “Ah! two archangels!”.  This guy’s sharp, I thought, and then cottoned on that he’s Romanian, and unlike me capable of wit in more than one language.

It fell to Gabe to help me find clean clothes to buy in Melbourne, in the course of which he felt compelled to buy a couple of T-shirts out of a sense of solidarity.  Our salesman was a Botswanan guy called Ojee, with a Singaporean degree studying media in Melbourne as a postgraduate.

Gabe also showed me where to eat:  the French Brasserie [] is architecturally exciting, gastronomically satisfying, and tucked out of sight of Flinders and Exhibitions Streets;  Mecca Bah [], out in the wide-open spaces of Melbourne’s Docklands, is elegant, comfortable Moroccan cuisine with an Australian accent.

Once I was properly clothed, fed and watered, and after we’d drunk white beer on his balcony with a magnificent view across the centre of Melbourne, Gabe gave up his precious time off while his wife Cordelia was at work to show me some fascinating Victorian buildings that I would never have found unassisted.

I’ll describe them in a short while, but first comes an article that could be entitled ‘Drink your way round Melbourne’, but isn’t.

Posted by: mike on Jul 18, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Le Bon Continental Cake Shop

When I first visited Melbourne I decided that on my second visit I would stay in St Kilda, the beach resort twenty minutes away by tram from the Central Business District.

True to his word as ever, Malcolm the genius Co-op travel-agent found me a minimalist suite at the Medina Executive Hotel, St Kilda [], one of a chain of apartment hotels – the sort which provides a kitchen capable of roast Sunday dinner, and a patio big enough to host a dozen people.

All of which was ironic because I arrived there with only my laptop and the clothes I stood up in after Air New Zealand left my luggage in Nelson.

The beauty of St Kilda, even away from the beach, is that you can eat, drink and do most things al fresco.  On my first night I had chicken risotto on the street outside the hotel, and every morning I had breakfast – eggs Benedict and or a big fry-up, with flat white coffee – at 2 Doors Down [], and the only time I ate lunch in the apartment I had a salami sandwich from the baker Daniel Chirico [ (website half-baked, so see the reviews and].

There is, of course, much more to eat in St Kilda:  my earlier explorations are described at Exploring Australia 10: St Kilda.

But the real deal in St Kilda is one or both of the cake shops on Acland Street, Le Bon Continental Cake Shop [] and Monarch Cakes “exquisite since 1934”

The only way to decide between them is to try both.

Posted by: mike on Jul 15, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Windsor & Eton Central Station:  Royalty & Railways (1983)

Replica GWR locomotive 3031 The Queen, as decorated for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, 1897, depicted at Madame Tussauds’ Royalty & Railways exhibition, Windsor & Eton Central Station (1983)

While I was waiting for a book to come up from the stack in Sheffield Reference Library, I came across a reproduction of the first issue of Railway Magazine, a periodical that continues to serve industry professionals, enthusiasts and general-interest readers:

In June 1897 the dominant rail news was the construction of the Great Central Railway, then burrowing under Lords Cricket Ground on the approach to its new terminus at London Marylebone.

The lead interview, however, was with Mr Joseph Loftus Wilkinson, the General Manager of the Great Western Railway, who was profiled because the GWR prided itself as the “Royal Railway”, and was about to unveil a new Royal Train in time for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

The magazine duly included a detailed description of the new royal carriages and locomotives, noting that the Queen’s original saloon had been meticulously incorporated into the new coachwork without any alteration whatsoever:  it was the only part of the new train that remained oil-lit.

The Chief Mechanical Engineer, William Dean, intimated to the reporter that though Her Majesty insisted on a speed limit of 40mph for her travels, she sometimes unwittingly approached nearer sixty.  Presumably she was not expected to read the Railway Magazine.

Mr Wilkinson, in what nowadays would be seen as undisguised PR, remarked that at the Great Western “we firmly believe in speed.  In these high-pressure days everybody is in a hurry.”

Posted by: mike on Jul 12, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred places

All Souls' Church, Haley Hill, Halifax

At the same time that Colonel Edward Akroyd set out his model village of Akroyden in 1855-6, he began work on his greatest gift to the locality, All Soul’s Church, Haley Hill.

He employed George Gilbert Scott, who also provided the original layout for the village, to design the grandest possible statement of High Anglican pride, a fourteenth-century Gothic church with a tower 236 feet high, one foot higher than that of his carpet-manufacturing rivals, the Crossleys’ Congregational Square Church down in the valley below.

Scott was and is generally regarded as the best architect alive at the time, and Scott himself described All Souls’ as “on the whole, my best church”.

As might be expected, the finest decorative materials were used – Minton tiles, glass by Clayton & Bell, Hardman & Co, and William Wailes, ironwork by Skidmore & Co, the font of Lizard serpentine marble standing on an Aberdeen granite base, Caen stone for the pulpit, alabaster for the reredos.

The tower houses a ring of eight bells by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and the four-manual Foster & Andrews organ of 1868 was the biggest in Halifax.

This huge church became redundant in 1979, and stood neglected until 1989 when the Churches Conservation Trust took it over.

Unfortunately, the Steetley limestone Scott chose for the structure reacted badly to atmospheric pollution, and the twin tasks of conserving the fabric and securing it against vandalism are prodigious.

Details of access and coming events at All Souls’ are at

Graham White’s fine set of photographs is at

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 10, 2012

Category:Victorian architecture


Salisbury Terrace and former co-operative store, Akroydon, Halifax (1992)

When Colonel Akroyd came to build his second model village in 1855 (the first was Copley), he went upscale, as the Americans say.

Influenced by the growing permanent building society movement, he planned housing for his Haley Hill Mills, overlooking the centre of Halifax, to be purchased rather than rented by his workers.  He donated the land, adjacent to his own residence, Bankfield, and arranged for the cost of building to be underwritten by the Halifax Permanent Building Society.  The community was named Akroydon and all the streets were named after Anglican dioceses.

He hired George Gilbert Scott, the greatest Gothic Revival architect of the day to design 350 houses in terraced blocks of eight to ten in the style they called domestic Gothic, “the original style of the parish of Halifax”.  Akroyd considered that “intuitively this taste of our forefathers pleases the fancy, strengthens house and home attachment, entwines the present with the memory of the past, and promises, in spite of opposition and prejudice, to become the national style of modern, as it was of old England.”

However, he found that potential freeholders are not so pliable as prospective tenants.  Being Yorkshire people, they first regarded the whole thing as a speculation, and shunned it.

Then they objected to the Gothic style:  “...although they liked the look of it, they considered it antiquated, inconvenient, wanting in light, and not adapted to modern requirements.  The dormer windows were supposed to resemble the style of almshouses, and the independent workmen who formed the building association positively refused to accept this feature of the Gothic, which to their minds was degrading.”

Scott’s former pupil, W H Crossland, later the architect of St Stephen’s Church, Copley, recast the scheme as 92 houses “clustered around a market cross in a toned-down Gothic style ‘simple, yet bold in detail’”.

These were duly built, and still remain.  The original owners, long gone to their rest, left their mark as a result of an inspired appeal to their vanity:

The occupiers find their new homes commodious in every respect, with abundance of light;  and their prejudices against the pointed style are now finally uprooted.  They are much gratified by one feature recently introduced, viz, the insertion of the owner’s monogram or device, on a stone shield, placed over the door, with the intent to give individuality and a mark of distinction to each dwelling.

These Englishmen’s homes were indeed their terraced ancestral castles.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 8, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred places

St Stephen's Church, Copley, West Yorkshire

I find it hard to imagine the sheer power of churches in nineteenth-century England.

There’s a specific reason why the magnificent parish church of St Stephen, Copley, West Yorkshire, was built on the opposite side of the River Calder from Colonel Edward Akroyd’s model village beside the mill.

The vicar of All Saints’, Dudwell, objected having a new church so near his own, so the site was moved from the main road to the woods beyond the village.

The £4,000 cost of the building was raised by public subscription, and Colonel Akroyd spent a further £5,000 of his own money on the furnishings, stained glass, and building the chancel and sacristy. 

Consecrated in 1865, it’s a complete essay in Victorian church design by the Huddersfield architect William Henry Crossland (1835-1908) – rich in stained-glass, some of it by Hardman & Co, carving, mosaic and painted decoration.

Furthermore, according to Malcolm Bull’s informative Calderdale Companion website, Colonel Akroyd contributed to the vicar’s stipend.

In 1872 Colonel Akroyd took against the practices of the vicar he’d appointed, Rev J B Sidgwick, and stopped paying his voluntary contribution.  A group of parishioners promptly made up the deficiency, while others decamped to the local Methodist church.

St Stephen’s, which is big enough to seat a third of the village, is now redundant, and is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust:

Graham White has an admirable series of photographs of the interior at

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 6, 2012

Category:Victorian architecture

Copley, West Yorkshire

Tucked by the river Calder, the village of terraced houses at Copley, West Yorkshire, looks a pleasant place to live.

That was exactly the intention of its builder, Edward Akroyd – always known as Colonel Akroyd – when his family firm transferred the business and employees to their new mill at Copley in 1846.

In the political conflicts of the time, Colonel Akroyd became one of the driving forces in the movement to reconcile the interests of workers and capitalists.

To house the workforce at this unpopulated spot beside the River Calder he began a small community which eventually consisted of 136 houses, accommodating by the 1870s a population of about seven hundred.

This was anything but cheap housing, but the village provided excellent facilities, including allotments, a co-operative store, an employees’ canteen-shed seating 600 and serving dinners of meat and potatoes at three-halfpence or twopence each, boys’ and girls’ schools (1849), a burial club (1849), a lending library (1850 – free until 1863), a branch of the Yorkshire Penny Savings Bank (1862) and a clothing club (1863).

Colonel Akroyd admitted he didn’t make much money out of renting houses to his workers, but he believed his business gained “from a more attached and contented population”.

It’s tempting to think of the building-society movement as a nineteenth-century workers’ enterprise, sponsored by radical politicians, but in some cases it was the product of employers’ enlightened self-interest.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 3, 2012

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

 Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (1984)

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (1984)

The Sheffield Star reported in June 2012 that the Abbeydale Cinema, which has been run as a not-for-profit community venue, was threatened with closure:

I drew attention to the Abbeydale in a blog-article some time ago [Iron curtain at the Abbeydale] because of its rare surviving iron safety-curtain, complete with 1950s advertisements for local businesses.

At that time, a Friends group were restoring it as a venue for amateur drama and other community uses:

There are some fine interior views at

A further article in the Star at the end of October reported that the building had been sold for £150,000.  The then unnamed buyer dismissed the possibility of running as a theatre as "not financially viable", but said, "It's a lovely facility.  The intention is to bring it back into public use."

The new owner is in fact Phil Robins, who runs The Edge, an indoor climbing centre near Bramall Lane football ground.  He announced in January 2013 his intention to seek planning permission to adapt the building for climbing, bouldering and a multi-gym.  His scheme restores the interior space to its 1975 condition, and will be known as The Picture House.

Sheffield has only two listed cinemas:  the other one is the Adelphi, Attercliffe, which has been mothballed for years.

It'll be interesting to see what happens next at the Abbeydale.

Posted by: mike on Jul 1, 2012

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Ritz Cinema, Parson Cross, Sheffield (1988)

Ritz Cinema, Parson Cross, Sheffield (1988)

Sitting innocuously in the midst of Parson Cross, Sheffield’s largest housing estate, the former Ritz Cinema, an Art Deco masterpiece stood unknown, neglected and without a purpose until it was demolished at the end of January 2013.

It was built in 1937 on the site of Toad Hole Farm to serve a brand-new community.  The Parson Cross council estate covered the green fields with well-appointed houses for fortunate working-class families who had previously struggled with inadequate housing in the Victorian inner city.

The Ritz was designed by the well-reputed Sheffield architectural practice Hadfield & Cawkwell, with a restrained brick exterior and a sensational art deco auditorium which looks for all the world like the inside of a typewriter.

In its early days the Ritz was almost the only entertainment facility, apart from pubs and working-men’s clubs, on the estate.  There is a wartime photograph of the manager, Bernard Dore, sitting with his front-of-house staff in front of a “House Full” sign looking thoroughly satisfied with the state of business.

Between 1962 and 1966 the Ritz gradually went over to bingo, and was for many years run as an independent operation by Mr David Chapman.  He once told me that his business rested on being the only place in Parson Cross that ladies could go for entertainment without their husbands.

When I ran a Sheffield Cinema Society visit to the Ritz Bingo Club in 1988 the operating box (or projection room, to those of us who don’t belong to the industry) was intact.  Apparently the deeds of the building included a covenant requiring it to remain capable of reverting to cinema use.

Bingo finally ended at the Ritz sometime soon after 2001, since when it has stood empty and become vandalised.

The last record of its condition that I can find is an urban explorer’s report from 2009 at  The projectors were still in place, but trashed.  "Speed" declares in his or her report an intention to return and put them right.

The Ritz deserved a much better fate.  It was a victim, not only of economic forces, but of the ungenerous and uninformed process of listing twentieth-century buildings in Sheffield.

Sometimes it seems as if listing is a process of creating rarities rather than protecting the historic-buildings stock for future evaluation and resuscitation.

To see something of the sorry catalogue of missed opportunities among the buildings of Sheffield, see Huntsman’s Gardens, Picture palace bites the dust, Rue Britannia Praised with faint damns, and – still a cause to fight – No use for St Cecilia's.

Posted by: mike on Jun 28, 2012

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun Palaces

Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (1985)

Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (1985)

When my mate Richard and I have our regular weekday evening putting the world to rights in whichever local pub is not having karaoke or a quiz night, towards the end of the night we phone our ETA to Lee or James, fish-friers of distinction, and go to the Norwood Fish Bar, 411 Herries Road (0114-242-4127) for our supper, freshly cooked and timed to perfection.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s Lee or James on duty:  the food is invariably top quality.

The Norwood Fish Bar is a shop-unit in an utterly unremarkable block that has been a Tesco supermarket since the early 1970s.  Before that, the site was the Forum Cinema, Southey, one of a series of huge 1930s cinemas built on Sheffield’s then new northern council estates.

(Someone on the council was clearly a literature lover.  There are roads named after Chaucer, Wordsworth, Keats and so on.  Sheffield folk, as is their habit, choose to pronounce “Southey” to rhyme with “mouthy”, just as when a pub or street is named “Arundel” – after the home of the city’s ground-landlord, the Duke of Norfolk,– it's always accented on the second, not the first syllable.)

The Forum was built by and for the Sheffield construction company M J Gleeson Ltd, who constructed the surrounding houses and appear to have had some kind of deal to build the adjacent shops as well as the cinema.

The architect was George Coles (1884-1963), a specialist cinema designer best known in London and the south-east for the Gaumont State, Kilburn, and a series of Odeons including the Odeon, Muswell Hill.

The Forum opened on September 17th 1938 and was closed on May 31st 1969.  It’s illustrated at

A couple of miles away, its sister cinema, originally the Capitol, Sheffield Lane Top, also by George Coles and built for M J Gleeson, survives as a carpet showroom.

The Capitol was due to open the week the Second World War broke out, so it stayed closed under the national ban on gatherings for entertainment until September 18th 1939, when it opened with Angels with Dirty Faces, starring James Cagney.

The opening-day description in the Sheffield Star refers to the cream faience dressing highlighting the brick exterior and the tubes of red and green neon on the canopy and the tower fin which inevitably remained switched off until 1945.

The Capitol subsequently became the Essoldo in 1950 and ultimately the Vogue in 1972, by which time it was one of only three remaining suburban cinemas in Sheffield.  It closed on October 4th 1975.

Its interior was always very plain, understated, faintly neo-classical in style, with alcoves and statues long concealed behind timber facing.  It’s not an outstanding building:  neither it nor the Forum would ever have been seriously considered for listing.

Nevertheless, the Capitol appears still to earn its keep and to lend a little distinction to an ordinary streetscape.

Even though the tower fin has been reduced in height, presumably for structural reasons, it’s a more attractive structure than the architecturally illiterate 21st-century block of flats that has been built alongside.

Posted by: mike on Jun 26, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

The first high-level crossing of the Avon Gorge at Bristol was not, in fact, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s suspension bridge, but a wrought-iron bar, installed in 1836 when bridge-building was about to begin, a thousand feet long and 1½ inches thick, suspended two hundred feet above the River Avon, to carry a basket for transporting materials hung from a roller.

Brunel made the first trip across (after his newly-wed wife, Mary Elizabeth Horsley, declined the opportunity) and got stuck halfway when the bar dipped.  He shinned up the suspension ropes to free the pulley and reached the opposite bank without further difficulty.

By 1843, with £45,500 spent, only the piers had been completed, linked by the single iron bar:  work stopped – to Brunel’s lifelong disappointment – and the unused suspension chains were sold and incorporated in his railway bridge across the Tamar at Saltash.

L T C Rolt, in his biography Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1957;  revised edition with an introduction by Angus Buchanan 1990), reports that when construction of the bridge stopped for lack of funds, the Clifton Bridge Company collected £125 in fares from members of the public who wished to ride across in the bucket.

The bridge as we know it was completed, to a variant of Brunel’s original design, in 1864 using the chains from another of his suspension bridges, across the River Thames at Hungerford.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 23, 2012

Category:Sacred placesExploring New Zealand

Nelson Cathedral, New Zealand:  west front

It would be good to think that Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, on New Zealand’s South Island, was a work in progress.  Its frankly odd appearance is a result of its history:  it reached its current shape and style through earthquake, fire and not a little controversy.

In 1842, within a year of the establishment of what became the town of Nelson, Bishop George Selwyn [see Gothic New Zealand: Auckland 2] arrived with a tent which he planted at the top of what is now called Church Hill.  He returned in 1851 to dedicate the replacement wooden church as Christ Church [see].

This structure was enlarged and altered in 1859, 1866 and again when it was inaugurated as a cathedral in 1887.  The spire was damaged by an earthquake in 1893 and the tower demolished as unsafe in 1921, shortly before the building was further damaged by fire.

In 1927 an ambitious new stone Gothic cathedral was begun to the designs of Frank Peck (1863-1931), a British architect trained by Sir Aston Webb, who had emigrated to New Zealand in 1915.  (He may be the same Frank Peck who designed Petwood, Grace Maple’s house at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire:  [Eat your way round Woodhall Spa].)

Peck’s design would have looked magnificent [], but hardly had work begun than the Murchison earthquake of 1929 led to tighter building regulations, and construction came to a halt in 1932.

The result was that Peck’s nave stopped abruptly at clerestory level:  a temporary roof was installed, and the previous wooden chancel attached to the east end.

A simplified design of 1954 by Ron Muston brought a sense of closure and practicality to the interrupted design.  Muston used reinforced concrete, faced with ground marble, to complement Peck’s marble blocks.

The dominant feature is the tower, a tall, spare essay in lightweight Gothic, much more adventurous than Peck’s orthodox Gothic Revival design.

Not everyone liked it.  The Nelson Evening Mail grumbled, “We are apparently to be satisfied with the second best.”

The cathedral was completed in 1967 and consecrated, once it became clear of debt, in 1972.

Of course, it doesn’t look complete.  Peck’s cathedral proved to be unbuildable on its tectonically vulnerable site.

But perhaps one day it might be possible at least to complete the nave.  Some medieval cathedrals stood incomplete for centuries:  Cologne, paused in 1473, was finished in 1880;  Bristol, interrupted at the Reformation, was eventually completed in 1888;  the first stone of Milan Cathedral was laid in 1386 and construction ended in 1965.

Never say never.

Nelson Cathedral, New Zealand:  tower

Posted by: mike on Jun 21, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

One of the finest ferry journeys in the world is the 70-kilometre Interislander voyage across the 24-kilometre wide New Zealand’s Cook Strait, between the south of the North Island and the north of the South Island.  The three-hour trip takes so long because it involves sailing in or out of Wellington Harbour and penetrating the drowned valleys of the Marlborough Sounds.  There's a detailed history of the Cook Strait ferries at

It’s a fine, relaxing journey – as long as you’re a passenger, and not responsible for steering the ship.  The Cook Strait is notoriously rough and unpredictable, with particularly weird tidal surges:

The vessel, MV Kaitaki, felt oddly familiar.  It turned out to be a former Irish Ferry, originally built in 1995 for the Holyhead-Dublin route:  originally the MV Isle of Innisfree, it was latterly P&O’s MV Challenger, operating between Portsmouth and Bilbao.  'Kaitaki' is the Maori word for ‘challenger’.

The other two vessels on the Interislander service, DEVs Arahura and Aratere, are rail-capable, purpose-built as the physical link between the railway systems on the two islands.

Though none of the ferries transport passenger rail vehicles, they make it possible to travel all the way from Auckland to Christchurch by surface public transport, using the Overlander [see Train through Middle Earth], the Interislander ferry and the Coastal Pacific train [see].

Indeed, when I return to New Zealand at leisure I plan to use that route and then the TranzAlpine to reach the west coast of the South Island at Greymouth:  [see By rail across the Southern Alps].

The errand that took me on the Interislander was a lecture for the Nelson Decorative & Fine Arts Society at the Suter Art Gallery [].

While I was in Nelson my host, Ainslie Riddoch, and her colleagues gave me snapper for lunch at the Boat Shed Café [] and dinner at Harry’s Bar [], where we admired the waiter’s sang froid in serving a ménage à trois in the far corner.  Ménage à trois is not, I’m assured, usually on the menu.

Ainslie’s husband, Hamish, told me about the holiday potential of the “Top of the South”, in particular, the tiny settlement of Collingwood, named – like Nelson and Wellington – after a British hero of the French wars a generation earlier.

During the 1850s gold rush there was a serious suggestion that Collingwood should be designated the capital of New Zealand.  Now it’s where tourists go to experience wide-open spaces, with curious outliers of history such as the Collingwood Cemetery (1857) and St Cuthbert’s Church (1873):

I’m fascinated by remote places that time passed by, so I will return to the Top of the South.

Posted by: mike on Jun 18, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred places

Wainsgate Baptist Church

Visitors to Hebden Bridge often find their way to the older hilltop town of Heptonstall, but few find their way to the other hilltop settlement on the opposite side of the valley of the Hebden Water – Old Town.

Up the hill above Old Town stands the Wainsgate Baptist Church, founded by the Particular Baptists c1750.

The second minister, Rev John Fawcett (1740-1817), had packed up ready to move to a better-placed ministry in London, when the distress of his Yorkshire congregation at losing him made him change his mind and remain in Hebden Bridge for the rest of his life.  He used this experience when he wrote the great nonconformist hymn, ‘Blest be the tie that binds’.

The present church dates from 1859-60, a typically robust, elegant classical, galleried chapel, expensively embellished at the end of the nineteenth century.

It’s hard to imagine how the houses scattered along the hillside could fill the chapel and the Sunday school – and the graveyard – year in, year out, but they did.

This fine Grade II* listed building was taken over by the Historic Chapels Trust after it closed in 2001 [], and it’s now used as a venue for musical events.

To see what’s on, go to  It’s worth turning up in good time to be sure of a parking place.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 15, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Regent's Canal above Camden Lock

Thousands descend on Camden Lock and Camden Market to eat, drink, shop and otherwise enjoy themselves in the industrial-picturesque surroundings of the Regent's Canal, within a short bus- or tube-ride of central London.

On my last visit I spent an unseasonably warm spring lunchtime with my mate Ants at Camden Lock, eating and drinking and gazing across the water outside the Ice Wharf

There’s much more to the scene than meets the eye.

The Regent’s Canal was originally the early nineteenth-century version of the M25, built by a consortium that included the canny architect John Nash (1752-1835), who had the ear of the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and who made the most of his royal patronage to devise a master plan for a swathe of central London that runs from St James’s Park via Regent Street to Regent’s Park.

The practical purpose of the canal was to link the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington Basin with the London docks at Limehouse.  It was begun in 1812, completed as far east as Camden Town by 1816 and fully opened in 1820.

In fact, most of its traffic came from the docks:  it was more used as an artery to deliver freight around north London than to convey traffic to the Midlands canals.

Boats floating through Regent’s Park were an embellishment rather than intrusion:  indeed, repeated attempts to turn the canal into a railway through the nineteenth century invariably came to grief.

In between the First and Second World Wars, the Regent’s Canal amalgamated with connecting waterways through the Midlands as the Grand Union Canal, a brave and partially successful attempt to revive water transport as a bulk carrier.

Since 1945, commercial traffic has given place to pleasure cruising, encouraged by recognition of the amenity value of canalside homes and leisure facilities, and the growth of some of the finest market-shopping opportunities in the capital.

Latterly, it has proved invaluable for an entirely different purpose:  since 1979 trunk cables have carried electricity at 400KV, cooled by canal water, buried beneath the towpath.

John Nash and his chief engineer, James Morgan, would be astonished.

Posted by: mike on Jun 12, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

SS Great Britain

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship Great Britain carries an immense cargo of stories.

Brunel remarked to the directors planning to build the Great Western Railway, “Why not make it [the GWR] longer and have a steamboat to go from Bristol to New York and call it the Great Western?”

The Great Western duly made its maiden voyage to New York in 1838, by which time the Great Western Railway reached out from London only as far as Maidenhead.

The Great Britain was his second steamship – the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven transatlantic steamship, at the time of her launch the largest ship in the world, the first ship ever to be photographed (by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1844).

She was floated for the first time on July 19th 1843, and ultimately returned to rest in the purpose-built dry dock in which she was constructed on July 19th 1970.  The launch was observed by the Prince Consort, and the return to Bristol by the present Queen’s consort, Prince Philip.

During her active life she served as a troop ship during the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War, carried the first England cricket team ever to visit Australia in 1861 – an event that produced the first sponsored sporting tournament, the first cricket test match, and the first hat trick.

Her career had more than its fair share of cock-ups.  Brunel, the great risk-taker, repeatedly modified the design during construction – changing from a wooden to an iron hull, extending the dimensions five times and scrapping the half-completed engine and building a new one in order to switch from paddle- to screw-propulsion.

The completed vessel stuck in the lock on departure from Bristol, ran aground in Ireland because of navigational errors, and went through repeated modifications to the engines, propeller and auxiliary rigging.  Eventually, SS Great Britain gained a reputation for reliability shipping migrants from England to Australia.

She ended up as a sailing collier, and finally acted as a floating coal-bunker in the Falkland Islands, where she was eventually beached at Sparrow Cove.

Her rescue, promoted against huge odds by a group led by Richard Goold-Adams and Ewan Corlett and largely financed by Sir Jack Hayward and Sir Paul Getty, is itself one of the great stories of the sea, and her return to Bristol, sailing under Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of the memorable moments of many people’s lifetimes.

Though she arrived in Bristol as a rusting hulk, she is now vividly restored.  Wandering among her elegant saloons and cramped cabins brings to life the life-changing experiences of Victorian voyagers.  The only omission, fortunately, is that she doesn’t make anyone seasick.

Nevertheless, I noticed how one particular mannequin, a sad lady in black, sat alone in the dining saloon, repeatedly attracted the sympathetic curiosity of young children.  Her silence and their attention says all that’s needed about the cost of emigration – and the power of imaginative curating.

Read the story at

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 9, 2012

Category:Manchester's HeritageFun Palaces

Manchester Piccadilly Gardens (2009)

Manchester Piccadilly Gardens (2009)

It amuses me when highly respectable historical and amenity societies report the activities of urban explorers.

Those risk-taking, law-bending, under-the-wire investigators of derelict and inaccessible structures are distinguished by their principles – “take nothing but photographs;  leave nothing but footprints” – and the quality of their photography.

They must be a great annoyance to property-owners who would prefer their empty and neglected spaces to remain unvisited and to become forgotten.

For conservationists and architectural historians, however, it’s very useful to have assiduous and athletic enthusiasts reporting on the web the current condition of endangered sites of heritage importance.

I repeatedly visit Manchester, and yet hadn’t given a second glance to the Primark store in Piccadilly.  It was originally Lewis’s, described by Clare Hartwell in the Pevsner Architectural Guide, Manchester, as “a huge untidy Baroque pile” built by J W Beaumont & Sons in 1915 and extended by the same architects in 1929.

Clare Hartwell says it was the biggest department store in the provinces when it was built.  Lewis’s stores aspired to bring the splendour of London department stores to the major provincial cities [see Losing a Liverpool legend:  Lewis's department store].

The Primark chain only uses the lower floors of the Manchester building, and above the snowline lies a sleeping treasure – Lewis’s ballroom:

Posted by: mike on Jun 6, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred places

Todmorden Unitarian Church

Todmorden Unitarian Church (1864-9) is a highly unusual piece of nonconformist architecture, designed and built as a splendid recreation of a fourteenth-century Gothic church, with a spire 192 feet high and internal arrangements which – but for the absence of an altar – are largely Anglican in layout and design.

It has an elaborate font and pulpit, a William Hill organ originally powered by a water-powered air pump, and very fine stained glass by the Belgian designer, Jean-Baptiste Capronnier.  The tower contains a clock, carillon and a ring of eight bells hung for change-ringing.  The final cost amounted to £35,000, almost six times the initial estimate.

It was paid for by the Fielden brothers, Samuel, Joshua and John, as a memorial to their father, “Honest John” Fielden (1784-1849) by John Gibson, who also built Todmorden Town Hall and John Jnr’s residence, Dobroyd Castle, overlooking the town and the Unitarian Church.

John Gibson (1814–1892) is an under-rated architect, otherwise best known for his “Marble Church”, St Margaret’s, Bodelwyddan, in Denbighshire.

William Gaskell, the widower of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and the respected minister of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester gave the address in the inaugural service.  He suggested that it was entirely proper to enlist art to serve religious observance – if it was done sincerely.

The Fieldens transferred ownership to a trust in 1882, and inevitably over the years the available income became increasingly unequal to the costs of maintaining the structure.

After a centenary refurbishment, the building became increasingly impractical, and in 1987 the diminished congregation moved down to the lodge at the bottom of the drive.  The decaying and increasingly vandalised Grade I listed church was taken over by the Historic Chapels Trust in 1994 and is now cared for by local volunteers:

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Dobroyd Castle

Dobroyd Castle (2007)

The Pennine border-town of Todmorden is founded on the acumen and discipline of the Fielden family, and particularly “Honest John” Fielden (1784-1849).  The son of a clothier, he built up the Fielden Brothers’ cotton-spinning business and pursued an energetic political career as MP for Oldham alongside William Cobbett.  As a successful millowner, he argued a powerful case for an eight-hour day, saying that shorter working days would equally benefit factory-owners and workers by restricting production and thereby increasing prices and wages.

He also founded the first Unitarian church in Todmorden, and served as its Sunday School superintendent, exerting a “severe and wholesome discipline”.

He handed on the business, first to his brother Thomas (1790-1869), and then to his three sons, Samuel (1816-1889), John (1822-1893) and Joshua Fielden (1827-1887). 

Fielden Brothers became an extremely powerful business, employing at its peak two thousand workers with, in addition to the Todmorden mills, trading offices in Manchester, Liverpool, London and New York.  In the period 1850-65 it generated net profits of around £1.2 million.  During the cotton famine of 1861-5, Fieldens paid half wages to their unemployed workers for road-building and other public works.

Of the three, Joshua was the most prominent.  He became a Conservative MP, retired from the business in 1869 and bought Nutfield Park, Surrey.  There and on his yacht, Zingara, he lived an opulent lifestyle, particularly after giving up his parliamentary seat in 1880.  He died at Cannes, and was brought back to Todmorden for burial:  despite his expensive tastes he left an estate of half a million pounds.

John Jnr lived a quite different lifestyle.  He chose as his wife a mill-girl called Ruth, for whom he built Dobroyd Castle, designed by John Gibson and completed in 1869 at a cost of £71,589.  This sombre, domineering pile on a hill high above the town remained in family ownership until 1942, when it became a Home Office approved school for boys and later an independent boarding school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

In 1995 it was purchased for £320,000 by the New Kadampa Buddhist Tradition and opened as the Losang Dragpa Centre for meditational retreats.  The Buddhists peremptorily moved out in August 2007, and the Castle reopened as an outdoor pursuits centre, operated by Robinwood Activity Centres [], in March 2009.

Dobroyd Castle is not open to the public.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 2, 2012

Category:Victorian architecture

Todmorden Town Hall

Todmorden is essentially a border town.  The River Calder was the historic border between Yorkshire and Lancashire until 1888, since when the town has been in the West Riding and latterly West Yorkshire.

It’s not a big place, and its centre is dominated by the grandiose Town Hall financed by the three cotton-spinning Fielden brothers, Samuel, Joshua and John, and designed by their favourite architect John Gibson as a magnificent Roman temple on the lines of Birmingham Town Hall and St George’s Hall, Bradford.  It cost of £54,000.

The pediment of the south façade contains two carved female figures, the left-hand, western one symbolising cotton-spinning Lancashire, while the other represents the agriculture and engineering of Yorkshire.

The Town Hall actually straddles the River Calder which runs in a culvert underneath.  Before the boundary-change of 1888 it was possible to dance in the main hall from one county to the other and back again.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 31, 2012

Category:Fun PalacesExploring New Zealand

Embassy Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

When I visited the Wellington Decorative & Fine Arts Society to present my Fun Palaces lecture in February 2011 my host, David Carson-Parker, showed me the Embassy Theatre, a restoration-project in which he had been involved.

The Embassy was originally and appropriately called the “De Luxe”.  It was designed by the New Zealand architect Llewellyn E Williams (1884-1967) for the theatre entrepreneur William Robert Kemball (1881-1969), and opened on October 31st 1924.

It was and is a notably distinguished building on a corner site facing Courtenay Place, four storeys high with an impressive classical frontage.  The grand tiled foyer and staircase remains:  originally the auditorium consisted of stalls and a generous balcony.  The stage was suitable for live performances and there was an orchestra pit, which was later used to house the console of a Wurlitzer organ and is now the second screen, the aptly-named Cinema Deluxe.

The De Luxe passed to another New Zealand cinema magnate, Robert Kerridge, who renamed it the Embassy.

In 1960 it was equipped with a wide screen for 70mm projection, and in the 1970s the auditorium was converted to a single rake by building out from the balcony front, so that the stalls space could be used for other purposes.

A 1991 project to convert it as a home for the Royal New Zealand Ballet came to nothing, and there was a risk that the Embassy would be lost.

To resist this possibility the Embassy Theatre Trust was formed in 1995.  In conjunction with the Wellington City Council, the Trust bought the building in 1997 and restored it to greater glory.

It re-opened in time to host the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King (2003), the final part of his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  As such, it now holds a place in the history of New Zealand film, and well as New Zealand cinema.

When David showed me round on a quiet summer Sunday morning, my first reaction was – what a splendid place to have coffee and read the Sunday papers.  You can eat and drink at Blondini’s Café & Bar, and indeed take your refreshments into the auditorium, which consists of the original balcony and a few additional rows beyond the balcony front.

The refurbished auditorium has all the comforts and amenity that contemporary filmgoers expect.  Behind the modern screen, however, the original proscenium and ante-proscenium remain in faded pale blue, grey, pink and gold.

David tells me there’s a scheme to make this original decoration visible from the auditorium.

When we showed images of it to the Wellington DFAS audience, people were astonished to discover that it still existed, and delighted to find that there’s more to the Embassy than meets the eye.

There is a detailed description of the Embassy Theatre at  If you need to know what’s on at the moment, the website is at

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2012

Category:Fun PalacesExploring New Zealand

St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington, the largest city in New Zealand’s North Island, came close to losing its most attractive and comfortable theatres in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Now the Opera House, the St James and the Embassy provide a thriving cultural repertoire which enriches the city centre.

The city is currently marketed as the "capital of cool", but it might easily have been left out in the cultural cold.

I was given privileged access to the St James Theatre, known in the entertainment industry as “Jimmy’s”, thanks to the manager, Bob Foot, and my Wellington host, David Carson-Parker.

Its initial claim to fame is that it was the first steel-framed, reinforced concrete theatre in the world when it was constructed in 1912 to the designs of Henry Eli White (1876-1952), a prolific New Zealand theatre architect, for the impresario John Fuller, who had operated an earlier theatre on the site.

Its ornate auditorium is embellished with plasterwork by William Leslie Morrison, who used his grandson as a model for the cherubs.  (I wonder what angst the lad suffered when he grew into his teens and went with his mates to see shows at the St James.)

The St James Theatre closed in 1987 and became the focus of a furious conservation row between a developer, the Chase Corporation, and local campaigners, with Wellington City Council in the midst.

Eventually in 1993 the city council bought it and restored it as a venue for the New Zealand International Arts Festival and a home for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, extending into the adjacent property to provide a café and bar, “The Jimmy”.

If Wikipedia is to be believed [,_Wellington] the St James hosts a wonderful company of ghosts – a Russian performer called Yuri, a wailing woman and wheezing Stan Andrews.

None of these were in evidence when Bob, David and I toured the building from top to bottom on a sunny summer morning.

They couldn’t show me the auditorium of the rival theatre across the road, the Opera House (William Pitt, 1911), because a lighting rehearsal was in progress, so I have to return when I’m next passing by.

The St James Theatre and the Opera House, long-time rivals, are now under co-ordinated management, operated by Positively Wellington Venues:  To see what's on, go to

Posted by: mike on May 26, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Kennet & Avon Canal Caen Hill Locks

Kennet & Avon Canal:  Caen Hill Locks

The excitements of the dotcom bubble and the speculation that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis seem leisurely compared with the sheer farce of the Canal Mania of the early 1790s.

The financial success of the early canals, which sometimes halved the price of coal and other commodities in inland towns, caused a headlong rush to promote waterways across Britain from anywhere to everywhere. 

Optimistic investors literally fought to put their names on subscription lists for waterways which in most cases had little chance of a practical future.

In the West Country serious promoters took to keeping their subscribers’ meetings secret to avoid attracting frivolous speculators.

On one occasion, according to Kenneth R Clew, historian of the Kennet & Avon Canal, an advertisement appeared in the Salisbury Journal for a promoters’ meeting in Devizes without indicating a precise venue.

On the day the town became overcrowded with increasingly irritable potential investors looking for a meeting that nobody had organised.  Eventually the town clerk was persuaded to chair an ad hoc assembly but “no business of any consequence could be done, and the meeting could only be a tumultuous assembly called together without any knowledge for what purpose, no person appearing to take an active part in it”.

The only people who profited from this farce were the publicans of Devizes.  A bed for the night cost a guinea, whereas a post-chaise back to Bristol was ten guineas.

The Kennet & Avon Canal was eventually built through Devizes:  it opened in 1812 and after years of neglect is once again navigable.

Just outside Devizes the canal climbs through a series of 29 locks – sixteen of them in a magnificent single flight at Caen Hill.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City Grand Central Terminal

The very heart of Manhattan’s 42nd Street is Grand Central Terminal, New York’s principal monument to the age of the railroad, which will celebrate its centenary next year:

Many New Yorkers have never forgiven the destruction of the other great terminus, Penn Station, McKim, Mead, and White’s triumphant pink granite temple to transportation, built in 1910 and flattened in 1963:

Grand Central was the destination of steam-hauled trains from the north, ploughing down a cutting that was covered over when electrification became practical from 1889 onwards.

Begun in 1903, the terminal was structurally completed ten years later but not fully operational until 1927.  Its concourse is 275 feet by 120 feet and 125 feet high, lit by arched windows 75 feet high.  The Guastavino roof is decorated with a painted zodiac (which is for some reason reversed) by Paul Helleu. 

It has sixty-seven tracks on the two levels, a turning loop and connections to the subway, including the 42nd Street Shuttle, which takes a minute to shunt between Grand Central and Times Square.

This was the starting point for some of the great trains of the early twentieth century, the Knickerbocker to St Louis, the Ohio State Limited to Cincinnati and the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago to which, among its many luxuries, is attributed the original red-carpet entrance.

A major conservation campaign, led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, saved Grand Central from demolition in the 1970s, and in 1994-8 a $197-million renovation was undertaken by LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing, the restorers of the superb Union Station in Washington DC.

Now it looks as good as it did in 1913 – if not better.

The quintessential Grand Central experience, other than catching a train, is to eat at the Oyster Bar [], where journalists used to take advantage of the acoustics to pick up scoops.  If that's outside the budget, there's plenty to eat in the food court:,

To see images of parts of Grand Central Terminal that ordinary travellers don’t see, go to

To enjoy the best flashmob invasion of the Grand Central concourse go to

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 20, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTaking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Buxton Dome

Any modern tourist resort needs a car park.  A Victorian resort needed a railway station.  In the days of coach-travel, stables were essential.

When the 5th Duke of Devonshire developed the spa at Buxton [see Buxton’s Crescent], he commissioned the architect John Carr of York also to build a commodious stable block on the hill at the back of the Crescent (1780-90).

The Stables (1785-1796) was a huge octagonal building accommodating 110 horses and sixty coaches, with a circular covered gallery around the internal courtyard for exercising.  Ostlers and grooms were accommodated above the horses, to take advantage of their body heat.

On top of the capital cost of the Crescent – £38,601 18s 4d – the Stables cost the Duke a further £40,000.

The imminent arrival of the railway in 1863 [See The shortest way, or the prettiest] indicated that the Stables would soon be redundant, and the Seventh Duke allowed two-thirds of the building to be converted by the Buxton Bath Charity “for the use of the sick poor” by the Chatsworth estate-architect Henry Currey in 1859.

Subsequently the courtyard was enclosed in 1881-2 by the superb 156ft-diameter dome – the largest in the world at the time of construction – by the Buxton architect Robert Rippon Duke (1817-1909).

Robert Rippon Duke is one of those minor Victorian architects who never made a national reputation, but stamped his identity on a particular locality.  His life is chronicled in an admirable biography by Mike Langham & Colin Wells, The Architect of Victorian Buxton:  a biography of Robert Rippon Duke, “the Duke of Buxton” (Derbyshire Library Service 1996).

The hospital was renamed the Devonshire Royal Hospital in 1934, and continued to offer hydropathic treatments until 2000.

After it closed, the University of Derby took over the site, restored and converted the building as reopened it as the Devonshire Campus in 2003.

The dome is open to the public and, because the campus houses the faculties of hospitality and what are described as culinary arts, there’s always a cup of coffee to be had at Bistro 44, and serious food at the Fine Dine Restaurant  Be sure to book.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 18, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakVictorian architectureTransports of delightTaking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Buxton LNWR Station

At one time, you had a choice of rail routes to travel between Buxton and Manchester.

As a result of farcical Victorian competition, there were two Buxton stations, served by two companies, running between Buxton and Manchester by completely different routes.

The London & North Western service, which survives, took a reasonably obvious way over the hills to Whaley Bridge and Hazel Grove, where it joined the main line through Stockport to Manchester.

The Midland route, which was a by-product of that company’s desperate dash to find an independent route from Derby to Manchester, dived through deep Derbyshire limestone dales and a lengthy, 1½-mile long tunnel at Dove Holes, to link with the Cheshire Lines into Manchester Central.

Though the Midland line passenger service closed in 1967, almost all of the track is still in place for use by mineral trains.  Only the approach tracks into Buxton and the Midland station have gone, replaced by the town’s inner relief road.

Present-day trains run into the North Western platforms, and though the train-shed roof has been demolished, the distinctive gable with its Crystal Palace fanlight window remains.  The adjacent Midland station was a mirror-image of this.

The shape of the window hints at the involvement of Sir Joseph Paxton, the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener and a Midland Railway director.  It seems that the Duke, as principal landowner, insisted that the two stations should sit harmoniously side-by-side, and Paxton was instructed to advise the architect, John Smith.

Indeed, when the two companies opened on May 30th 1863 it seems that the inaugural dinners were scheduled to begin an hour apart.  Presumably, Paxton turned up to both, and got two starters and only one pudding.

A full and well-illustrated account of the Buxton Midland station can be found at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 16, 2012

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Buxton Crescent

The major health-resort of the Roman Empire was Aquae Sulis, which we know simply as Bath.  The second most important was Aquae Arnemetiae, high in the bleak Derbyshire hills, which is now the town of Buxton.

Whereas the spring-water of Bath steams at a temperature of 116°F, Buxton water is comparatively tepid at 81-2°F.  If you're in Buxton, you don't have to buy the stuff in a bottle;  you can simply fill your flask for free at St Ann's Well opposite the Crescent.

The fifth Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), taciturn husband of the effervescent Georgiana (respectively played by Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess, 2008), reputedly used a single year’s profits from his copper-mine at Ecton, Staffordshire, to set up Buxton as a rival to Bath.

He employed the architect John Carr of York from 1780 to 1790 to build a crescent of hotels and lodging-houses, resembling John Wood II’s Royal Crescent at Bath.  Whereas John Wood had the advantage of an eminence overlooking the Avon valley and sufficient space for his expansive half-ellipse of thirty residences, Carr had to incorporate the thermal spring on a cramped site at the bottom of a steep hill.

Carr made the best of it, and designed a semicircular crescent with an arcade that offers protection in a town that famously catches the worst of the weather at every season.  Because of its low-lying position, the building is visible from all angles, especially by arriving travellers, so the cornice continues right round the building, hiding all the roof features except the cruciform chimney-stacks.

From no viewpoint is it apparent that the two return blocks are asymmetrical:  the east wing has seven bays, while the west has only five.  The wedge-shaped lodging houses are arranged with three storeys facing into the Crescent and four behind, so that the arrangement of rooms and staircases is curious and complex, to maximise the flexibility of accommodation for first- and second-class guests.

John Carr also gave Buxton, for the first time in its history, an imposing formal assembly room as part of the Great Hotel in the eastern pavilion.  Carr’s command of three-dimensional planning challenged his masons:  he was obliged to make a full-size model of the assembly room staircase which sits within the spandrel where the curved south wall joins the rectangular east wing.

This beautiful Adamesque assembly room with plasterwork by James Henderson Jnr of York was, in the 1970s, beautifully restored as the local branch library, until it became clear that the weight of the books and bookcases was threatening the stability of the floor.  The library was quickly removed, and from 1993 onwards the rest of the building gradually fell derelict.

The whole exterior of the Crescent has been restored, but schemes to renew the interior and bring the building back into use have repeatedly stalled.  The latest project is detailed at

The Buxton Crescent has stood empty for too long.  It’s a building that deserves to be enjoyed.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 14, 2012

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent ValleyCountry Houses

Buxton Old Hall Hotel

When I lectured to the Cavendish Decorative & Fine Arts Society in Buxton [], I was taken for an enjoyable lunch to the Old Hall Hotel [], where the food was as excellent as the service was leisurely.  I chose wild boar burger which, to be honest, tasted much like any other hand-made burger – very good indeed.

The Old Hall is at the heart of historic Buxton.  It stands on the site of the Roman bath and medieval holy well, and was constructed as a typical Midland four-storey high house [compare with North Lees Hall, Hathersage] by George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury who recovered from an attack of gout after trying the “baynes of Buckstones” in 1569.  It had a battlemented roof and contained a great chamber and lodgings for up to thirty guests.

Here he entertained most of the greatest names in Elizabethan politics – Lord Burghley (1575), Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (five times between 1576 and 1584) and his older brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick (1577).  Queen Elizabeth herself never travelled this far north, but did receive a delivery of Buxton water, which gave her no benefit:  it was said not to travel well.

Lord Shrewsbury was the fourth husband of the formidable Bess of Hardwick and the custodian of the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, who stayed here nine times between 1573 and 1584.  Caught between his domineering wife, the duplicitous Scottish queen and the volatile English one, he lived an unenviable life [See Des Res].

Buxton Old Hall was substantially rebuilt in 1670 and again in the late eighteenth century, but its core survives within the present-day hotel, as becomes obvious when you move from room to room through thick walls and odd doorways.

Celia Fiennes hated it when she visited in 1697:  

Its the largest house in the place tho’ not very good... the beer they allow at the meales is so bad that very little can be dranke...if you have not Company enough of your own to fill a room they will be ready to put others into the same chamber, and sometymes they are so crowded that three must lye in a bed;  few people stay above two or three nights its so inconvenient:  we staid two nights by reason one of our Company was ill but it was sore against our wills, for there is no peace or quiet...

Needless to say, it’s much improved over the past three hundred-odd years.  They take their time over the boar burgers, and the result is worth waiting for.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 11, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's HeritageCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Tinsley Park Cemetery, Sheffield

I’ve known Tinsley Park Cemetery, Sheffield, all my life, because my maternal grandfather and a bevy of Salvation Army aunties and uncles lie there.  When you visit a cemetery for a funeral, or even simply to tend a grave, as my mother and grandmother did when I was little, you don’t take notice of the surroundings.

The cemetery was built by the Attercliffe Burial Board to supplement their earlier cemetery adjoining the burial ground of Christ Church parish church, a Commissioners’ church built in 1826 and demolished after it was ruined in the 1940 Blitz.

In recent years, when I’ve found my way to Tinsley Park Cemetery, I’ve been intrigued by the quality of the architecture of the funeral chapels, a typical pair – one for the Church of England, the other for the Nonconformists – with an archway, a timber loggia, a clock in the gable and twin bell-turrets.  Each of the arches of the carriageway is decorated with angel headstops carrying Biblical mottoes.

The superintendent’s house incorporated a boardroom for meetings.  It opened in 1882.

The cemetery was designed by a local practice, Holmes & Johnson.  Samuel Furness Holmes (1821-1882) was essentially a civil engineer:  he had been a highway surveyor and was Borough Surveyor from 1864 to 1873.

It’s likely therefore that the architectural work was done by his partner, C H Johnson, about whose career and work I’ve so far been able to trace nothing of any substance.

The Burial Board was taken over by the city in 1900, and Tinsley Park Cemetery remains under the care of what is now called Sheffield Bereavement Services:  The Anglican chapel is still available for funeral services, while the Nonconformist chapel is a store.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 9, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's HeritageCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield

Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield:  Anglican Chapel

The great company cemeteries of the early Victorian period attract a great deal of attention [see Catafalque burial, Equestrian genii, Four-legged mutes, Lapidary description, Steel barons' ValhallaVictorian values and Wool barons’ Valhalla], but the major push to bring decent burial to Britain’s industrial towns and cities followed the Burial Acts of 1852-7, which recognised that most people couldn’t afford the fees of the cemeteries companies, and empowered local authorities to provide dignified burial facilities for all.

In most towns this led to the establishment of an elective Burial Board, backed by the power to levy rates and led by local figures who knew, and felt a responsibility to, their local community.

This meant that overcrowded, insanitary churchyards could be closed.  It also enabled Roman Catholics and Nonconformists to be interred by their own clergy, rather than by the local Church of England priest.

I recently visited my local Victorian municipal burial ground, Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield, which has a small but active Friends’ group:

The cemetery was opened in 1861, and extended by Sheffield Corporation when they took over from the Burial Board in 1900.  It’s still open for burials in existing graves, and the magnificent chapels by Flockton & Son are intact and listed, but in urgent need of weather-proofing and restoration.

In more prosperous times a company called Creative Outpost devised a grandiose restoration scheme but it seems to have closed down:

This leaves the Friends seeking fresh support, expertise and – most of all – funds.  They’ve digitised the cemetery records to provide an invaluable service locating graves for relatives and descendants, and they’ve begun a detailed study of some of their more celebrated “residents”:  

They open the chapels as often as possible on Sunday mornings, and they serve as a link between the local community and the council’s Bereavement Services department.

Their existence is the vital factor that keeps Burngreave Cemetery safe and civilised, and encourages its use as a place to walk, jog and enjoy the fresh air in a built-up area that is not blessed with many amenities.

Every cemetery deserves friends like the Friends of Burngreave Cemetery.  The co-ordinating body for such organisations is the National Federation of Cemetery Friends:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 7, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's HeritageCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Sheffield General Cemetery (1976)

Sheffield General Cemetery:  Nonconformist chapel (1976)

When I first knew the Sheffield General Cemetery in the late 1960s it was an undignified, sometimes frightening eyesore.

It was hard to believe that when it was opened in 1836 the Porter Valley was Sheffield’s classical Elysium.  On the north side of the valley stood the classical terrace The Mount (William Flockton c1830-2), the Botanical Gardens (Benjamin Broomhead Taylor & Robert Marnock 1833-6) and the Palladian Wesley College (William Flockton 1837-40, now King Edward VII School).

Opposite, the General Cemetery was laid out in terraces by the designer and curator of the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, Robert Marnock, with Greek Revival buildings, the Lion Gate, the Nonconformist chapel and the Secretary’s House, all designed by Samuel Worth, the designer, with B B Taylor, of Sheffield’s Cutler’s Hall (1832).

The original nine acres were extended by a further eight in 1850 to provide a consecrated section, dominated by William Flockton’s fine Gothic Cemetery Church.

The valley became built up in the later nineteenth century.  The turnpike road became a tram-route and Cemetery Avenue, originally built across open fields, is now one of the very few streets of terraced houses in the city with trees on either side [].

The Cemetery is now recognised as one of the finest provincial company cemeteries in England, built in response to the 1832 cholera epidemic (which in Sheffield killed 404 people, including the Master Cutler), founded as a joint-stock company by Nonconformists, with picturesque landscaping and a fondness for Egyptian detail on otherwise classical buildings.

It is the resting place of many of the great names of Victorian Sheffield – Samuel Holberry (1816-1842), the Chartist leader;  James Montgomery (1771–1854), newspaper editor and hymn-writer;  Mark Firth (1819-1880), steel magnate and philanthropist and the brothers John, Thomas, and Skelton Cole, founders of the Sheffield department store. 

Like all early-Victorian company cemeteries it fell into ruin as the income streams of plot-sales and burial fees dried up after the Second World War.

A development company bought the cemetery company, but gave up on the idea of building apartments on the site when they realised they’d have to exhume up to 77,000 corpses.

Eventually, in 1978, Sheffield City Council took it over, secured an Act of Parliament to extinguish burial rights, and perhaps ill-advisedly cleared eight hundred gravestones to create a green recreational space.

In 1989 a Friends’ group, now reconstituted as the Sheffield General Cemetery Trust [], took on a voluntary role as custodians of the place, encouraging conservation, preservation and appropriate use of a fine amenity that at one time seemed an insoluble liability.

There is still much for the Trust and the City Council to do:  the Lion Gate has been fully restored, but both chapels are empty shells awaiting a creative and sympathetic use.

In the meantime, the Trust works constantly to “encourage everyone to enjoy this historical site by walking its paths, learning its history or simply as a quiet place to sit and contemplate”.

Without their voluntary labours, the place would simply slip back into dereliction.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Knifesmithgate, Chesterfield

Knifesmithgate, Chesterfield

Chesterfield is mainly famous for the Crooked Spire of its medieval parish church.  Indeed, the borough motto is “Aspire”.

Its town-centre buildings would be unremarkable but for the work of the Borough Surveyor from c1904 to 1933, Major Vincent Smith.

He included in the Bill that became the Chesterfield Corporation Act of 1923 a provision for altering the building-lines in order to arcade the new shopping-streets.  This provided shelter for pedestrians and additional first-floor space for the buildings’ owners.

While admitting that members of Chesterfield Corporation had visited Chester, he flatly denied that his project meant to imitate Chester’s Rows.  He claimed the precedent of the eighteenth-century buildings on Chesterfield Market Place.

In fact, the closest similarity between Chesterfield’s 1920s shops and the black-and-white buildings of Chester is John Douglas’ Shoemakers’ Row of 1897.

So it is that Chesterfield visually resembles its near-namesake Chester, not because of Chester’s unique Rows, but of a link with a late-nineteenth century architect who was himself adapting the idea of the Rows to modern needs.

Posted by: mike on May 1, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureHistoric ChesterBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern