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.

Adventurous crossing

BEST TO WATCH THE SHORT VIDEO (1 minute) FILMED IN BANGALORE (India) BEFORE READING THIS!

Watch here:  https://vimeo.com/409423869

SINCE THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, and the worldwide decline in road usage, what is written below has temporarily become historical.

Crossing main roads in Bangalore and many other Indian cities requires an act of faith and is quite an adventure. There are, of course, some pedestrian crossings controlled by traffic signals that are usually but not always obeyed. Once we were in an autorickshaw in Ahmedabad. The driver hardly ever stopped at red signals. When we asked him about this, he told us that there was no need to stop at red lights unless there was a policeman nearby.

Despite the availability of controlled pedestrian crossings in Bangalore, most people cross busy roads wherever they feel like and however hectic the traffic, putting life and limb at risk every time.

Now, I do not want you to think that I am singling out Indian road users including pedestrians for their exciting approach to road safety.

Long ago in Rome, I got the feeling that pedestrians who expected motorists to stop at pedestrian crossings mostly stimulated drivers to drive more rashly when they were trying to cross the road.

In another former imperial city, Istanbul, which I visited in 2010, motorists drove fast and recklessly. When drivers paused at pedestrian crossings, it was only briefly. They were like energetic dogs straining on their stretched leashes. I had the feeling that at any moment cars would charge forward to crush the people scurrying across the road.

Indian drivers, although seemingly undisciplined, expect anything to happen on the road, be it a cow that suddenly strays onto the carriageway to vehicles driving in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic and people who have decided to dry their grains on a sun drenched flat road surface. Most Indian drivers, expecting the unexpected, seem to have good reflexes. So, pedestrians wandering across the road wherever and whenever they feel like it do not pose a great problem for drivers. That said, I feel that crossing busy roads in Bangalore requires much courage and faith in the skill and care of drivers.

My approach to crossing busy roads in Bangalore is as follows. Quite simply, I look for someone else nearby who wants to cross. As these strangers are often locals, I assume, perhaps naively, that they are experienced in crossing the road. I join them to take advantage of their supposed experience and because any sensible motorist would rather injure one pedestrian rather than several at once. Foolish reasoning, maybe, but apart from making long detours to find allegedly controlled crossings, I will willingly accept better suggestions.

Well, at the moment (April 2020), the streets of Bangalore and London, where I live, are pleasantly devoid of traffic apart from occasional cars, delivery motor bikes and public service vehicles.

Even in London, where drivers are not mentally prepared for pedestrians wandering into their paths away from controlled crossings, traversing the street ‘Bangalore style’ has become possible. My worry is that when ‘lockdown’ is unlocked, will people in London be able to get out of their newly acquired habit of crossing wherever and whenever they feel like it?