Friday the 13th is unlucky for some

MUCH OF MOTCOMB Street in London’s Belgravia is now pedestrianised. It is lined with nineteenth century buildings that house shops and food outlets, mostly aimed at wealthy customers. Here, you can find the shops of Christian Loubertin, Ottolenghi, Nicola Donati, Marie Chantal, Maison Corthay, to mention but a few you might know. It is probably safe to say that this is not much of a street for bargain hunters, but to be fair, it does boast a newsagent and a large branch of the Waitrose supermarket chain.

Motcomb Street first appears on a map in 1830, when it was briefly known as ‘Kinnerton Mews’. By 1854, many of the houses along it became shops and places where cows were kept. A publication (http://www.grosvenorlondon.com/GrosvenorLondon/media/GrosvenorLondon/WALKING-IN-BELGRAVIA.pdf) produced by the Grosvenor Estate details the shops:

“… a cow-keeper, a saddler, two tailors, a plumber, a wheelwright, a grocer and two sellers of asses’ milk (thought to be beneficial to health and used in nearby hospitals).”

The ‘Alfred Tennyson’ pub stands on the corner of Motcomb and Kinnerton Streets. It was formerly known as ‘The Pantechnicon’. The reason for its earlier name becomes obvious if you walk away from it westwards along Motcomb Street. Opposite Waitrose and by far the most imposing building in the street is a neo-classical façade supported by ten sturdy pillars with Doric capitals. As impressive as many of the great neoclassical façades in central London,  such as that of the National Gallery, these pillars support a slab on which the word ‘PANTECHNICON’ is boldly displayed.

The Pantechnicon was built as commercial premises in about 1830-34 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1223569) for the property developer Seth Smith (1791-1860), most probably designed by the architect and civil engineer Joseph Jopling (1788-1867; http://farnham.attfield.de/fam1012.html). The Pantechnicon was enormous. Covering two acres, it stretched backwards (north) from Motcomb street and was surrounded by the backs of many of the houses lining the east side of Lowndes Square and the west side of Kinnerton Street. When it was completed, it was originally:

“… a bazaar, and was established principally for the sale of carriages and household furniture. There was also a ‘wine department’, consisting of a range of dry vaults for the reception and display of wines; and the bazaar contained likewise a ‘toy department.’” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp1-14).

By 1850, when Peter Cunningham published his “Handbook of London”, things had changed. It had become a repository, where you:

“… may send the whole contents of an extensive house – furniture, wine, pictures, even jewellery; and the utmost care will be taken of them, at a comparatively reasonable charge …”

Cunningham lists these charges in detail and later added reassuringly:

“The building is well ventilated, and considered fireproof; but the risk (if any) of accidents by fire, civil commotion, or otherwise, will attach to the owners of the property sent to the Pantechnicon to be warehoused.”

Incidentally, the owners of the Pantechnicon designed a new form of removal van. Its innovation was a movable rear ramp that aided the loading of heavy or bulky objects. Originally, horse-drawn, these became known as ‘Pantechnicons’, a word often applied to motorised removal trucks in use today. And just in case you are wondering, the word ‘pantechnicon’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘pan’ and ‘techne’, meaning ‘all arts’, and was coined to describe wide range of goods that were available to buy in the bazaar in Motcomb Street.

Disaster struck on Friday, the 13th of February 1874 at about 4 pm. The fireproof Pantechnicon burst into flames. By 7 pm, the roof had collapsed. Karen Odden, who has written an interesting article about this conflagration (https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2020/01/the-pantechnicon-fire-of-1874.html), noted:

“ …the event was perhaps the single largest episode of destruction of art and furnishings in the Victorian era … It is difficult to assess the value of the objects lost. Because people had such faith in the Pantechnicon, they under-insured their valuables—or found ways to avoid insuring them altogether. For example, one family hid their jewels in their furniture. The cost of insuring a headboard was significantly less than insuring jewels—but jewels hidden inside were (ostensibly) safe all the same. (Tricky!) However, it is known for certain that the fire destroyed the MP Sir Richard Wallace’s painting collection, worth £150,000; and the MP Sir Seymour Fitzgerald’s art collection, worth £200,000, which included many portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and paintings by other masters including J.M.W. Turner. Contemporary accounts estimated the total value upon the destroyed items at £2,000,000 (approximately £220,000,000 or $280,000,000 today).”

Luckily for us, many of Wallace’s works were not involved in the fire as can be seen by visiting the Wallace Collection in his former home in Manchester Square.

Today, only the façade of the Pantechnicon remains standing. Located opposite a modern ‘bazaar’, Waitrose, it conceals a lovely public space behind it, which contains benches and a few artworks, and is lined by Halkins Arcade. A modern building attached to the old façade houses restaurants, bars and other businesses, some of which can be entered from the Arcade.

It worth making a visit to Motcomb Street not only to see the impressive remnant of the Pantechnicon but also because the short pedestrian-friendly street has become a particularly pleasant place to linger.

Fear of flames

Coiffure_500

” I have always been filled with fear at the prospect of any physical intervention on my body. This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows that I am a dentist, who makes a livelihood from trying to assist people who fear my interventions, but this is the case.

For example, from an early age, I have feared going to the barber, an experience that most people enjoy. I am not certain whether this fear of having my hair cut originated from hearing the tale of the barber of Fleet Street, who used to deliver his unsuspecting customers to the basement of the butcher next door, in order for them to be turned into sausage meat. I still cling onto the armrests of the barber’s chair, just in case… Or, did my fear arise from the worry that I might be injured or infected by the scissors or the cut-throat razors, which are still used today?

There is yet another possible source of my ‘pre-barber angst’. This dates back to the 1950s, when I was less than ten years old. In those days, I used to be taken to a large hairdressing salon in Golders Green Road, where Mr Pearce attended to my coiffure. The salon was filled with a nauseous odour, that of people having the split ends of their hair singed with the flame of a lighted taper. What, I wondered, would have happened had Mr Pearce begun to singe my hair? Would my head have erupted into a fiery ball? Well, this never happened. My beloved, but neurotic, mother would never have allowed anyone to approach my hair with a flaming taper. Indeed, as a child, I was never allowed to hold a box of matches, even safety matches, because, my mother was concerned that it might have spontaneously burst into flames. She should have known better. Her grandfather manufactured matches in South Africa. “

 

This is a short extract from my book “Going without the Flow“, which is about the fear of surgery. It is available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Lulu.com, and Kindle

Fire plug

 

The first time I encountered the term ‘fire plug’ was when I was researching the life of my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg, who died in 1936. As an 18 year old, he went from his home in the German Empire to the South African town of King Williams Town in 1880.  By 1885, he had established a factory for making matches. Such factories are full of raw materials that are prone to catching fire. As his business grew, so did his need for a reliable water supply for dealing with fires. 

Water in the Eastern Cape was expensive in the late 19th century. Franz had to apply to the town council for permission to increase the supply of water to his factory. He also needed permission to install more fire plugs. In my published biography of my great grandfather, I wrote:

“Almost a decade later, in 1898, Franz and his brother-in-law Mr Siegfried Salomon (who married Franz’s sister Ida and was a Town Councillor for a while) both applied to the Town Council to have ‘fireplugs’  placed on their premises. This was allowed on condition that the applicants paid the expense of placing them there; and that they would be liable to other charges including a fine of £25 if they used the water from these for any purpose other than the extinction of fire.”

Recently, I visited Windsor Castle, where I saw several signs such as is shown in the illustration to this blog article. They indicate the locations of fire plugs in the castle. Had I not seen the term ‘fire plug’ before while writing about my ancestor, I might not have noticed these small old-fashioned signs.

So, what, you might be wondering, is or was a fire plug? The modern term for them is ‘fire hydrant’. The fire plugs, which were precursors of fire hydrants were simply holes made in the water mains pipe, which were blocked with a plug. The plug could be removed when water was required to extinguish fires.

I suspect that you are by now asking yourself if Franz ever had to make use of the plugs he had requested. Well, he did occasionally:

In February 1893, the Cape Mercury newspaper published a long article about Franz’s match factory. It begins with a spark of humour:

In December last an unusual illumination made a “King” industry more widely known than before. A fire broke out in, and consumed the drying shed at Messrs. Ginsberg & Co.’s Lucifer Match Factory, which is situated in Victoria Street. The loss was not great, but the advertisement was extensive – and cheap – for it was gratuitous.’”

 

If you want to know more about my ancestor who went to South Africa in search of prosperity and later became a senator in that country, please read:

Soap to Senate: A German Jew at the dawn of apartheid

by Adam Yamey.

It is available from: lulu.com, Amazon, bookdepository.com  and Kindle

 

 

 

Paris

Wallace ladies_500

 

The recent tragic conflagration of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and its resultant degradation of one of the world’s best-known buildings evoked a sensation that I had not experienced since 1976. In that year, there was a devastating earthquake in the Friuli area of north-east Italy. 

We had good friends living in that area. They had taken us to see many  unique masterpieces of Longobard art and architecture that existed in the area. When we first heard the news, we were extremely worried about the fate of our friends, who, luckily, all survived. We were also concerned about the works of art and architecture we had grown to love.  Fortunately, most of these were restored eventually.

Ten years before the earthquake in Friuli, there was a terrible flood in Florence in November 1966. About 100 people were killed, and many, many valuable works of art perished in the oil-filled flood waters. Our family was extremely upset because we used to visit the Tuscan city every year to see old friends and to enjoy its rich artistic heritage.

We did not visit Florence the following year because of the damage, but recommenced our annual visits in 1968. For years after the flood, the height of the flood water levels was visible on the walls of buildings where central heating oil from the city’s boilers and tanks had mixed with the water and made indelible stains.

The fire in Paris brought back feelings of horror and disbelief that i had experienced in 1966 and ten years later. 

The picture illustrating this blog piece is a reminder of another tragedy that hit Paris: The Siege of Paris (1871) and the Commune. During those difficult times, there were great water supply problems. The English philanthropist Richard Wallace (1818-1890) built a number of drinking fountains for the people of Paris. Each was decorated with the four sculpted ladies shown in my illustration.

Already, many people are offering to donate money to help restore Notre Dame to its former glory. Had he been alive, i am sure Richard wallace would have been a willing contributor.

The Old year in flames

The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.

Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.

Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.

After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.

During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.

At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.

Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.

For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.

I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.