Sunday, February 23, 2020

Compulsory purchase?


The building in the above photos (click on either for a larger view) is one of the landmarks of Erith. It is the first thing many visitors see when they enter the town for the first time, but it is also one of the least memorable. The large and nowadays rather run down and scruffy brick building is called Electricity House – though many locals are unaware of this. It was built back in 1938 and opened in November 1939 as a showroom and offices for the local electricity company, which at the time was run by the council. Pre – war services such as gas, water and electricity supply were quite commonly managed and supplied by local councils; the idea of private companies being involved was something that did not happen until after the war had ended. Electricity House was also a place where new electrical customers could view domestic appliances which they could buy via hire purchase (it sounds like an early version of BrightHouse, but without the crippling interest rates). As well as the showroom, Electricity House was home to what contemporary accounts say was a very upmarket dance hall with a fully sprung Canadian Maple floor; there was also a small Pathe cinema. The local electricity business was astonishingly successful – probably much helped by the fact that it offered the cheapest metered electricity in the entire UK at the time – one penny per unit. Ten thousand local people signed up for electrification in the first month alone, attracted by the offer of free connection to the local power grid – unusual at the time – many suppliers would even charge for the copper cable to connect new customers. In 1939 the Erith electricity board made a (for then) massive profit of £13,000. The idea was that the money would be used to improve local services and amenities for all, but the advent of war meant that early in 1940 Electricity House was handed over for war work, and once peace was restored, the money intended to benefit local people was absorbed by the LEB during nationalisation, and nothing was ever seen of it. Much of Erith was still lit by gas until relatively recently. I believe that some houses in West Street did not get electricity until 1947 when the London Electricity Board was formed, and the local council control of power was nationalised. For the last six years I have been writing about how Bexley Council had plans to compulsorily purchase the building, and redevelop the large site as a new gateway development for Erith. I have had some inside information from a number of confidential sources on the project, but was asked to keep quiet on certain subjects - until now, when Bexley Council have made the following public announcement:- "At its meeting next week (25th February) the Council’s Cabinet will consider options to improve the top end of Pier Road near the Queens Road Roundabout to create a new welcoming gateway for Erith town centre. The Council has been buying properties on Pier Road since July 2017 as part of the Erith Regeneration Programme and wants to create a high quality, mixed use commercial and residential area that provides a more welcoming entrance to the town centre. Cllr Louie French, Bexley’s Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Growth said: “We want Erith to become a vibrant riverside town again and upgrading the gateway to the town centre at Pier Road is an important part of this. We have been working hard over the past few years to secure the site and are now at a stage where we need to make a decision about how best to move things forward.” One option that will be considered at the meeting is whether or not to use the Council’s compulsory purchase powers to buy properties and identify a development partner to help redevelop it. If it chooses this option, the Council will work closely with those affected and keep them informed at all stages of the process". I wonder what the reaction was of the owners of the newly refurbished kebab shop in the block - what used to be Town Kebab, which closed nearly two months ago after it was sold, and the new owners extensively (and expensively) gutted the old shop and refitted it with an impressive new interior and kitchen. It has been renamed Best Kebab and Chicken. I hope that Bexley Council will properly recompense them when the compulsory purchase goes through.

Last week I wrote a long piece on wartime SOE agent Violette Szabo. I got an Email from a somewhat unexpected source as a consequence. Caroline Field of Orbit Housing Association wrote the following, very surprising article:- "I was fascinated to read your piece on Violette Szabo. I have a very loose family relationship to her – through my in-laws by marriage.  This is how we discovered it….  Long ago my 12 yr old son was extremely disgruntled to be asked to ‘find a love poem and write about it’ as homework.  I’d recently read Leo Marks’ book and gave him the ‘The life that I have’ poem.  This went down very well, spies, ciphers  and sabotage helping to make the love poem theme  a lot more palatable. Ten years or so on my father-in-law had just died.  He was a lay minister and all through his terminal illness he carried on conducting funerals, taking great care to personalise each ceremony with the bereaved.  He died the day he conducted his last funeral, having left no indication of his preference for his own.  The order of service for his last one was on the table so we turned to it for inspiration.  It included the Violette poem and my mother-in-law suggested that she would like it. I told her the story behind the poem, which she hadn’t known. ‘Violette Szabo was related to us’ she said. Not surprisingly we then decided to use the poem for the funeral and memorial service. It transpired that Aunt Brenda (mother-in-law’s sister)  had long ago travelled to Australia by sea.  Someone discovered that distant relatives would be on the voyage and put them in touch with Brenda, who would be otherwise be travelling alone. These relatives were Violette’s parents and her daughter, Tania.  Tania and Brenda have stayed in touch ever since."


It is 76 years this month since the world's first stored program digital computer was first switched on. On the 5th of February 1944, the MK1 Colossus attacked its first cipher challenge. Contrary to some erroneous accounts, Colossus was not used to break the German Enigma code – that work was done on a separate set of electromechanical analogue computers called Bombes. What Colossus did was crack the daily key settings of an even more fiendishly complicated cipher system called Lorenz, which was exclusively used by the Nazi High Command to communicate with each other. Colossus was designed and built by a team headed by an amazing electronic engineer called Tommy Flowers, who was born and raised the son of a bricklayer in Poplar, East London. Flowers was ferociously intelligent, and whilst an  apprentice electrician at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, he undertook  evening classes at the University of London, where he was awarded a BSc in Electrical Engineering. He later became the head of the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill, where prior to the war he was instrumental in the design of the first automatic telephone exchange. I have a personal connection with this piece of history; my late Great Uncle Horace worked in the Dollis Hill Research Station during the war. We know very little of his wartime experiences, but we do know that as well as being exempted from military service, he was also exempted from Home Guard or fire watching duties, which was extremely unusual at the time. He never said anything about what he had been doing, but it remains very likely indeed he was part of Tommy FlowersColossus design and construction team, which was the most secret allied project of the war, classified even higher than the Manhattan Project to create the first nuclear weapons. Uncle Horace’s full name was Horace Payne. After the war he became the chief telephone exchange engineer for the City of London, and was based at the old international telephone exchange in Upper Thames Street (or it may have been King William Street - my memory is hazy - I was very young, and it was a long time ago), which handled all phone lines to America. He was one of only two people who had the key to the international hotline that linked London, Moscow and Washington DC, which was in a room made to look like a store cupboard.  When I was seven or eight years old, during a school holiday I got to spend the day with him at work. He showed me the hotline room, and actually it was not very impressive - no flashing lights as you would see in a cold war thriller. Instead it was very plain, and painted with what appeared to be war surplus battleship grey. There were a few panels with unlit lights, and a patch panel with some cords attached to it. There was also a small table and a matching chair, and that was about that. Reality did not match the fictional “James Bond” image, which was very disappointing for a small boy. In his office Uncle Horace had a big Victorian roll - top desk, and propped against it was a very tatty and battered looking cricket bat. I recall I was sat with a carton of Kia Ora drink whilst he made some phone calls whilst smoking a horrid roll - up cigarette. For some unknown reason he smoked roll – ups at work, but at home he smoked conventional boxed cigarettes; he had a large collection of vintage cigarette cards, some in albums, and others in large piles which he kept on top the fireplace in his back room. I would imagine that nowadays they would be worth a small fortune. A junior engineer came in and said that there was a problem with a relay rack (the City exchange was the last one in London to be converted to digital, and at this time was still electro mechanical). Horace slowly got up, stubbed out his fag, then picked up the cricket bat, before winking at me as he said “come with me lad”. We went into the open relay floors, where tens of thousands of electro mechanical relays were clattering as they made automatic phone connections. The junior engineer pointed to a rack where the relays were not moving - they appeared to be frozen or jammed. Uncle Horace said “Stand Back!” to me over the din. He then took a great swing with the cricket bat at the relay frame. There was a loud bang, and the  frozen relays all jumped back into life!. He then fished around in the pocket of his waistcoat for a piece of chalk, and marked a cross on the side of the relay frame, before saying to his assistant “we’ll take this one out tonight - get it booked”. Now - this really impressed me! That was the only time I ever got to see what he did at work; he was extremely diffident about his past, and always managed to steer the conversation elsewhere if the subject came up. Ironically I am now sitting here typing this whilst wearing Horace’s Omega dress watch, which I inherited from him when he died. He was a real enigma, and a lovely man. Colossus was an amazing feat of engineering - It occupied the size of a living room (7 ft high by 17 ft wide and 11 ft deep), weighed five tonnes, and used 8kW of power. It incorporated 2,500 valves, 501 of which are thyraton switches, about 100 logic gates and 10,000 resistors connected by 7 km of wiring. Reading 5000 characters per second (faster than anything ever produced commercially), Colossus found the start wheel positions of Lorenz-encrypted messages to enable the decryption of 63 million characters. Typically, it took Colossus up to four hours to establish the start wheel positions of messages. It is often surmised that the Allies might have been reading some of the decrypted messages even before they reached Nazi High Command. By the end of the war, 63 million characters of high-grade German messages had been decrypted by the 550 people working on the ten functioning Colossi at Bletchley Park. After the war, some of the Colossi were destroyed, and the remaining ones moved to GCHQ, where it is said they were in operation until the mid 1970’s. By the early 1980’s the story of Bletchley Park and the Colossus computer was finally coming out, after over thirty years of total secrecy. Great Uncle Horace never said a word, and it is to my great regret that we only discovered after his death what almost certainly was his involvement with the astonishing feat which has gone on to change the world. Comment and feedback to hugh.neal@gmail.com.


Uncle Horace's best friend was the highly acclaimed amateur astronomer, comic actor and film star Will Hay - a name largely forgotten today, but a comic actor whose best work influenced the likes of The Goon Show, and Monty Python, and his most famous film "Oh, Mister Porter!" was a direct influence on "Dad's Army" - in fact,  Jimmy Perry, in his autobiography, wrote that the trio of Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones and Private Pike in Dad's Army was inspired by watching Oh, Mr Porter!  Born in Stockton in 1888, Hay’s family moved him south to Suffolk before his first birthday. As his father became a jobbing engineer so the family’s mobility quickly increased – moving next to Hemel Hempstead then to London and finally to Manchester where Hay Senior established his own firm. Wanting independence, Will refused to join the family company and started instead as an apprentice engineer for Westinghouse. Yet Hay was no typical engineer and his humour hid by the fact that, by the age of 19, he had learnt German, French and Italian to such a high level that he was able to leave engineering and became an interpreter. His nineteenth year also saw him married to fellow teenager Gladys Perkins and when his daughter Gladys Elspeth was born some eighteen months later Hay decided he could make a better living for his new family in the pre-Great War music halls. Stealing some of his sister Eppie’s staff room reminiscences – she was a full time teacher – Hay began to develop his pompous, bumbling schoolmaster act. After working for over three years with the Fred Karno troupe, where Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin had developed their craft, Hay swiftly found himself the talk of the town: selling out Britain’s biggest music halls, playing sets for the Prince of Wales and successfully touring America, South Africa and Canada. Then came Boys Will Be Boys (1935) his first starring film role with a screenplay written by Hay himself. The story wasn't overly deep – a prison teacher cons his way into a boarding school job and helps stop a diamond theft – but it did have its moments. And it was the perfect frame for Hay’s idiot teacher routines…Then, in 1937,  Graham Moffatt joined Moore Marriott as Hay’s two sidekicks in the finest comic film any of them would ever be involved with, Oh, Mr Porter! wherein Hay discovers the (Northern) Irish railway station he’s been sent to run, Buggleskelly, is actually a run-down mess. Gun-runners, ghosts, secret windmills and missing trains – Hay and his two stooges come out on top in a film that is, even now, genuinely funny, at times hilarious. Oh, Mister Porter! (1937) was a deserved box office smash in its day, taking some £500,000 in British cinemas alone – the equivalent now would be over £15 million. In the immediate pre - war years, Will Hay was the second highest paid entertainer in Britain, earning a reputed £800 per week - narrowly pipped in the earnings stakes by George Formby. Outside of show business, Will Hay was a dedicated and respected amateur astronomer. He constructed a personal observatory in his garden in Mill Hill and built a glider in 1909. He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1932 and is noted for having discovered a Great White Spot on the planet Saturn in 1933. The spot lasted for a few months and then faded away. He also measured the positions of comets with a micrometer he built himself, and designed and built a blink comparator. He wrote the book Through My Telescope in 1935, which had a foreword by Sir Richard Gregory, formerly Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Queen's College, London. When Hay died, a few items of his equipment were bequeathed to the British Astronomical Association. Some years ago I came across a long out of print book on the life of Will Hay, and it had some photos taken of his garden and his private observatory; in one of the early shots, the construction of his observatory is shown; several people are helping with the digging of the observatory foundations. One chap is seen stripped to his string vest and leaning on a shovel - it was my late Great Uncle Horace on what must have been a very hot day for manual labour. I wish I had a copy of the book. In 1947, Hay suffered a stroke which left him physically disabled. He died at his flat in Chelsea, London after a further stroke in 1949, and is buried in Streatham Park Cemetery, London SW16.


Pac-Man, the biggest arcade game of all time, turned 40 years old last week. Released by the Japanese company Namco in February 1980, Pac-Man was like nothing else at the time. At a time when Space Invaders and Asteroids and other games with abstracted, monochrome graphics ruled the arcade, Pac-Man offered a striking, cartoonish design with an appealing central character. It revolved around eating, not shooting; and it was designed to appeal to young women and couples, not spotty nerks in anoraks (although they all played it too). The colourful design and unique collect-the-dots maze gameplay—plus the wonderful tension of running away from those ghosts, then scrambling to eat them once you got a power pellet—made Pac-Man almost instantly addictive, eating ten pence pieces as rapaciously as its protagonist swallowed pixels. By one count, Namco sold 400,000 Pac-Man machines, head and shoulders above anything that had come before, or since. And it is still highly playable and popular in a way its contemporaries are not—few people are paying for Asteroids or Space Invaders updates today, but Namco Bandai still makes and sells variations on Pac-Man on every platform imaginable. Pac-Man’s ubiquity was our first indication that games were about to become the dominant entertainment medium of the information age. (It also arguably marked the beginning of Japan’s impending pop-cultural invasion of the rest of the world, even if players at the time didn't know where it came from).

Now for the weekly local safety and security updates from Bexley Borough Neighbourhood Watch Association. Firstly the report from Barnehurst ward:-


"This knife was recovered by an alert resident of Northumberland Way whilst out walking his dog in Castleton Avenue on the evening of 18th February. He saw a vehicle pull up next to a BT green box, saw a woman get out and then heard something metal drop behind the box. When the vehicle drove off he looked and found a 12' knife. The knife is now in possession of the police. Good news again for Barnehurst as we did not have many crimes. The Barnehurst team have been visiting residents this week and have been offering crime prevention advice. We are more than happy to come to your home and offer you crime prevention advice, so please give us a call on 02087212577. We have noticed that there has been 3 Theft from Motor Vehicles around the Colyers Lane area as we are urging residents to make sure that their vehicles are locked. We have had one burglary on Castleton Avenue, whereby entry was gained via the ground floor front door. The team also arrested a male for GBH and are continuing to provide proactive patrols across the ward. Please join us for our community contact day on TUESDAY 3rd MARCH at 11:00 hours at Barnehurst Golf Course. We will discuss any ward issues that you have and we will also provide residents with crime prevention advice". Belvedere ward:- "Overnight on the Saturday 15/02/2020 to Sunday 16/02/2020 at Jutland House, little Brights Road several of the mailboxes were broken into and contents thrown on the floor. Unknown who did this at present but enquiries are ongoing with the estate management regarding CCTV enquiries. On Sunday 16/02/2020 a burglary occurred on Orchard Road in the early hours. Someone had gained entry via the kitchen window. Documents were taken. On the Friday 14/02/2020 there was a commotion on Picardy Street whereby a male started arguing with another and a fight took place. The dental surgery also suffered damage in this affair. Investigation ongoing. Officers conducted a weapon sweep around Picardy Street on Sunday 16/02/2020 after the incident the day before and a chisel was found dumped in the bushes opposite the shops. Blade was rusty but could still cause damage if used for a nefarious purpose". Bexleyheath ward:-"Tuesday 11/02/20 1720 Robbery Air Pods Broadway. Wednesday 12/2/20 2100 – 13/2/20 0600 Theft From Motor Vehicle Martens Avenue - change stolen. Between Wednesday 12/2/20 2200 and Thursday 13/2/20 0630 Theft From Motor Vehicle Sterling Road car broken into nothing stolen. Between Friday 7/02/20 and Wednesday 12/02/20 Theft From Parking Meters Cineworld Car Park coins taken. Between Saturday 8/02/20 1500 and Sunday 9/02/20 1400 Criminal Damage Henfield Close rear gate damaged, no entry gained to property. Thursday 13/02/20 1900 Burglary Broomfield Road suspects have forced door, resident has been alerted to noise and shouted at suspects who have left scene. Friday 14/02/20 1545 Purse dropped on BROADWAY went back and found it however money and travel card were missing. Friday 14/02/20 1755 Robbery Air Pod case stolen by youths near Subway on Broadway. Saturday 15/02/20 0030 – 0600 Theft of Motor Vehicle Land Rover Latham Road. Saturday 15/02/20 1225 Robbery Russell Park. 3 suspects arrested Sunday". Crayford ward:- "We are happy to report that Crayford hasn't suffered any burglaries this week. We have managed to locate two stolen vehicles this week one was a motorcycle that was dumped by the thieves in a quiet cul de sac and car that was too badly damaged to be returned to its owner . The team have made a couple of arrest over the last few days, one for ABH after a male had assaulted an ex-partner at their home address and another male was arrested for a breach of a court order. ASB around the ward has improved lately, although we are still getting reports of youths causing issues in and around the Town Hall Square area. During evening patrols around the Dale Road area of Crayford, officers witnessed what they believed to be a drug deal in a dimly lit alley way, as they approached the two males they ran off towards Dale Close where unfortunately they were lost. However, officers retraced their steps after seeing objects fall out of the pockets of one of the males which was discovered to be a quantity of cash (notes) We have also conducted six stop and searches with some positive results". Erith ward:- "One burglary from the last week, Rear door forced open, and items of jewellery taken. We have a few sets of Smart Water left so if you would require one please email us and we will do our best to get one to you. 3 theft of motor vehicles and 2 thefts from motor vehicles. Vehicle crime is by far the largest crime across Erith. If you park your car on a drive way or outside your house it might be a good idea to invest in a camera, CCTV cameras are getting cheaper all the time, just a suggestion worth thinking about. Crimes of note from the last week: Theft of Motor vehicle Wednesday 12/02/2020 Queen Street, Residential burglary Wednesday 12/02/2020 Bramble Croft - Entry through locked rear window. Untidy search. Watch and jewellery taken". Northumberland Heath ward:- "No burglaries in the last week. 2 vehicles broken in to overnight on Thursday 13/02/2020. A log book and other paperwork were stolen from a vehicle in Camrose Avenue. A mobile phone was stolen from a vehicle in Belmont Road. Please do not leave any valuables in your vehicles at any time or any important papers etc. Due to staffing levels there will be no Community Contact Session until early in March. PCSO Lorraine is continuing ASB patrols in the park, Sussex Road and Becton Place whenever possible". Slade Green and Northend ward:- "A burglary took place between 10am and 3pm in Sun Court on Friday 14/02/2020. Items taken included a tv, car keys and jewellery. Entry was made via the kitchen window (situated at the rear of the property. Please ensure all doors and windows are locked each time you go out. We have had 3 vehicles damaged in 3 separate roads in the past week, all on different nights. A windscreen was smashed in Bridge Road, all windows smashed in Duriun Way and a wing mirror ripped off along with scratches on the car door in Hazel Road. It is unclear if these are all linked but if you happen to see anyone loitering around during night time hours, please call 101. Due to the weather we had to cancel our Smart Water event in Egerton Place last Saturday. A new date will be sent out in due course. Our next Community Contact Session is from 2.30pm on Thursday 27/02/2020 at Slade Green library". Thamesmead East ward:- "No burglaries this week Motor Vehicle Crime Kale Road Wednesday 12/2/20 between 1:00am -5:am an unknown person ,managed to gain entry to a vehicle without causing any damage, steal trainers, an iPad and a wallet containing £20.00. Hartslock Drive Saturday 15/2/20 between 12:55pm and 1:05pm the catalytic converter was stolen from a parked vehicle. Criminal Damage Glimpsing Green Between Tuesday 11/2/20 6:00pm and 7:30am on Wednesday 12/2/20 a resident reported that her post box had been damaged. Walsham Green Wednesday 12/2/20 between the hours of 3:50pm and 11:20pm ,eggs, flour and tomato ketchup had been thrown at the front of the residents property, hitting the door and windows. Good News PC's John and Nana, over the weekend, the group of youths who had been involved in shoplifting attended the Thamesmead East police office were given strong words of advice as to their future conduct and had to write letters of apology. The youths attended with their parents or an appropriate adult". West Heath ward:- "Excellent news this week no burglaries and no vehicle crimes have been reported on West Heath Ward. The Ward officers have been working collaboratively with East Wickham and Crook Log officers on proactive burglaries and motor vehicle crime patrols. On Monday 17th February 5 males were stopped and searched for drugs at various locations on the wards, one stop resulting in an investigation for possession of cannabis with the intent to supply. On Tuesday 18th West Heath officers took part in a Knife Arch Operation at Slade Green BR where three arrests were made for various offences including a suspect carrying a knife".

To celebrate the ascension to the throne of King George V, Bexley Urban District Council commissioned Walter Maxted Epps to design a clock tower for Bexleyheath town centre. Early professional cinematographer Harry Pease shot this film of the inauguration of the clock tower in July 1912. It is part of the archive film collection at Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre. Look out for the firemen standing on their horse-drawn engine. Please feel free to Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.