Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Golden Dustman.

Bearing in mind Erith is very much a maritime town, the River Thames does not really get the exposure or use one would expect. Historically Erith was an important port outside of London. Many ships which were too large to make it into the Port of London were unloaded at Erith, with their cargoes being taken further up river by Thames sailing barges. This was before the river was fully dredged and managed as it is nowadays. Today one can watch huge container and bulk carrier ships passing Erith river front on a daily basis; the best time to see ship movements is at or around the changing of the tide. As previously mentioned, some of the small and medium sized vessels can often be seen moored on Erith Pier as well. Some rather more photogenic craft will be appearing on the Thames soon. The annual Thames sailing barge race is due to take place on Saturday the 13th of July. It will be the 150th anniversary of this historic race, which was first run in 1863, when the barges were an integral part of river traffic and a major source of local employment, with thousands of boys and men crewing the river craft. The race starts at Mucking in Essex at 8.30am and finishes at Erith Pier at around 4.30pm, where many of the barges will moor. It will be an excellent opportunity for local sailing and photography enthusiasts to get up close to a large fleet of these classic vessels. The origin of this historic competition is well documented. It was the brainchild of a man who was nick named “The Golden Dustman”. His real name was Henry Dodd. He was born in 1801 into a very poor family; his first job was as a plough boy in arable fields that were within view of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which he did until he was in his early thirties, when he found employment as a “scavenger” – a sort of prototype recycling consultant. He soon discovered that the big money was in transporting waste, rather than actually sorting it. London was rapidly growing in size, and the population was booming. As the number of people in the capital increased, the amount of rubbish they generated went up. Dodd saw this as a very lucrative business opportunity, so instead of using slow and somewhat unreliable horses and carts to haul rubbish, he first hired, then purchased a fleet of sailing barges, which could transport far greater cargoes at a higher speed than any contemporary road solution. Most of the waste material Dodd was transporting was burned outside the capital, and the resulting ash was a vital ingredient in making bricks, which in turn were used to build the expansion of London. Never one to overlook a business opening, Dodd invested in several brickworks, including a very large site on what is now Manor Road in Erith. Nowadays, this kind of end to end ownership of all stages in a manufacturing process is known as “vertical integration” and Henry Dodd was a pioneer of it. All this made Dodd incredibly wealthy; he was one of the richest commoners in England, right at the start of the then new middle class. Dodd’s money bought him a degree of respectability in Victorian society (though I am sure there were whispers behind his back – though after having been brought up in the environment he had, I somewhat doubt if this bothered him). Dodd became a very enthusiastic patron of the theatre, and through this mutual interest he became very good friends with Charles Dickens. Dickens scholars believe that Dodd was the inspiration for the character of Mr. Boffin, the millionaire dustman who appears in the novel “Our Mutual Friend”. Dodd invested a large amount of money in sailing barges, and soon discovered that there was an intense rivalry between barge skippers. Never one to miss a main chance, he decided that in 1863 he would stage a sailing barge race – for entertainment, but also as a means to improve the business. The first race was only for his own sailing barges, and was run from Erith to Canvey Island and back, with the fist barge and skipper to make the round trip being awarded a generous cash purse, which was awarded under the auspices of the Prince of Wales Yacht Club. Many in society assumed that the event had Royal patronage (something that Dodd did little to discourage), but in fact it was named after an Erith pub! In 1864 the race was opened to all comers, and after a while it became such a big event the running of it was passed over to a committee of barge owners. Within ten years, specially built racing barges were being constructed purely to try and win the race. Passenger steamers would be chartered to follow the racing barges on their course, and records show that over 10,000 people watched the race from on board these steamers. Henry Dodd, the “Golden Dustman” died in 1881; he left a fund to sustain the match – an eye watering sum of £100,000, which today is equivalent to tens of millions of pounds. In the latter years of the 19th century, the event was covered by Charles’ Dickens son (who confusingly was also called Charles) in his annual gazetteer. For the Centenary Match raced in 1963, the two principle rivals in Britain’s coasting trade, F T Everard and The London and The Rochester Trading Co. lavished money on their fastest barges in an attempt to ensure success for craft which were, by that time, an anachronism in transportation terms. The 48 mile course was from Mucking to the Mouse Lightship, and then back up to Gravesend. F T Everard’s Veronica was the winner, leaving the rest far behind in her wake. The 150th Anniversary Match on Saturday 13th July 2013, has the contest finishing at Erith for the first time since 1894. Not only is this spectacle thought to be the second oldest sailing contest in the world after the America’s Cup, unlike the America’s Cup of 1851, it is still sailed in craft virtually unchanged since those times, and as such is in itself an especially important part of this nation’s maritime heritage. Hopefully the News Shopper and the Bexley Times will be covering the event, as it is of considerable historical and local interest. I will certainly be on the pier with my camera. Many thanks to one of my small group of local informants for bringing this fascinating story to my attention.
It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. A chap in Bostall Heath called James has recently set up a Blog called “The Bostal News” (sic) in which he cites the Maggot Sandwich as his source of inspiration. I am very happy that he feels that I have motivated him to write, and to take a keen interest in his local area. Starting off a blog is not an easy task; I sometimes look back at my early postings and wince. The style and content of the Maggot Sandwich did take quite a while to settle down into the form that it takes now. It is now only a couple of weeks until  the Maggot Sandwich has its’ seventh birthday. I did not think for a moment that it would last more than a scant few months – I certainly had no inkling it would achieve the following it now has; as of today I am getting a tad over 23,500 page views per month, which is quite astonishing. I hope that James keeps at it and produces something he can be justly proud of, though at present I don't think he's discovered the Blogger spelling and grammar checking functions. Still, blogging is a continuous learning process, and you have to begin somewhere.

On Monday, I attended a meeting at the Royal Society in Carlton House Terrace, near St. James’s Park. After the meeting (where I had a chat with Ian Peters CBE, the Chairman of British Gas, but that is another story), I was making my way out of the impressive Georgian building. When I reached the reception area, I saw a tall figure standing with his hands in his pockets. He looked vaguely familiar, and after a couple of seconds of trying to recall his name, I realised that there was a portrait of him on the other side of the reception area – it was Sir Tim Berners-Lee! He’s a fellow of the Royal Society, so I suppose that it was not so unlikely to see him on the premises. I did think of asking for his autograph, but then I thought that it would be a rather naff thing to do, so I nodded politely as I passed him on my way out of the building. There are very few people who can lay claim to have really changed the world, but Sir Tim Berners-Lee is most definitely one of them.

The News Shopper are reporting that the Pizza Hut in Northumberland Heath that made the national news over the appalling state of its’ cleanliness has now re – opened after a full refurbishment. Actually that’s not quite what they wrote. Once again they got Erith and Northumberland Heath confused. Erith does not actually have a Pizza Hut; it does have a Domino’s delivery shop, and a host of kebab and fried chicken places that can knock up a pizza if required. Personally I don’t use any of them, as I think that pizza is one of the biggest consumer rip – offs around. The profit margins are phenomenal – after all, it is just a bit of bread dough covered with tomato sauce, a bit of cheese and some toppings – which then retails for around £10. I also find them heavy and hard to digest – “proper” Roman style pizza is thin enough to see light through, is given a very minimal topping and is designed to be simple, rustic fare – even a Milan style pizza, which has a slightly thicker base is still thin in comparison to the type of thing offered in the UK. The eye watering array of weird and eclectic toppings that are offered by many pizza retailers strikes me as odd – where in Milan or Rome would you find a chicken tikka or lamb doner pizza I wonder? To be honest, Pizza Hut has such a poor level of hygiene overall, that just because this franchised takeaway has had its’ act cleaned up for now, there is no guarantee it will still be that way in six months or a years’ time. I avoid it for all of the reasons above. Your thoughts and feedback are welcomed, as always.
The local area seems to be having a resurgence of interest in the arts and culture recently. Not only do the Running Horses have a monthly stand up comedy night, which I have heard very good things about, but the Red Barn pub in Barnehurst are hosting regular jazz music nights, the next one being on Friday the 28th June with music from the Neil Tucker Group. The pub has a strong historic connection with jazz, and in particular Trad Jazz – it was the centre of the Trad Jazz revival movement, which began in 1944, when a group of amateur musicians, who worked at the Vickers armaments factory in Crayford came together at the Red Barn to form a Trad Jazz combo called “George Webb and the Dixielanders” who used to have a regular Monday night gig in the pub. After the war, the Dixielanders got a recording contract with Decca, and released a number of very successful records. In 1949 the trumpeter Humphrey Littleton took over leadership of the group from George Webb. The newly revamped Dixielanders then made some historical recordings with Sidney Bechet, and later moved to the Parlophone label, where they had a major hit with a track called the “Bad Penny Blues”. Back in 1985 the Jazz master George Melly unveiled a plaque on the outside wall of the Red Barn, commemorating its’ historical place in the great Trad Jazz revival. Incidentally, I used on occasion to see George Melly at Charing Cross station, where he was probably waiting for a train to his home in Blackheath. I used to think his outrageous, lurid suits were part of his stage attire; this was not the case – he really wore them in public! You really could not miss him, even in a crowd of people.

As some of you will be aware, I was a carer for quite a few years; my Dad died in 2011 after a ten year battle with the degenerative neurological condition known as Multi System Atrophy / Lewy Body Syndrome. Although no longer a carer myself, I am acutely aware of the issues and challenges that carers experience; I am chair of the Carers’ Network at my employer (a blue chip multinational). I was interested to see an article in the News Shopper earlier this week, which stated that the London Borough of Bexley has the third highest number of unpaid carers in the whole of London. Quite how anyone can come to this figure surprises me – many carers are not registered or described anywhere as a carer, but nevertheless have caring responsibilities – it is widely accepted that the figures from the 2011 census are nothing more than a finger in the wind. Something like one in six people in the UK are currently caring for someone other than a child, it really is the elephant in the corner as far as the welfare state is concerned – if the NHS had to fund all of the caring that currently gets done for free, its’ overall budget would end up more than doubling. One phenomenon that is now commonplace is that of what is known as the “Sandwich Carer” – a person who is caring for both small children and elderly parents – the increase in average life expectancy in the last few decades is a major contributor to this. The past week has been National Carers’ Week, and you may have seen a few references to this in the press; I was interviewed by the Reuters News agency the week before last in my capacity as a corporate Carers Network chair. It will be interesting to see when the article pops up.

I was gutted to discover that the oldest continuously run business in Erith is closing due to lack of business. Owen’s Iron monger shop has been in the town since 1905 and has been selling plumbing, electrical and building materials ever since. I have used the shop on several occasions, and it is a real pleasure to shop there –the two guys that run the place really know their stuff. Until a couple of years ago, Owens could also boast that it was the home to Britain’s largest cat, which used to sit in a box on the counter, watching the world go by. I recall that on one occasion when I was in the shop to buy some two core electrical wire, a chav in a hoody came into the shop with what looked like a pit bull on a very flimsy lead. The dog saw the cat and went berserk – barking and snarling and trying to lunge at the counter where the cat was sitting. Rather than running scared, the cat slowly and methodically climbed down from the counter and walked up to the dog, who was still making a fearful din. The cat swiped the dog’s nose with a paw complete with claws – the dog howled, then ran behind the feckless owner and looked terrified. The two chaps behind the counter were somewhat amused to say the least – they knew full well how territorial their pet was, and being as large as a bulldog, the cat had absolutely no fear. I do wonder if the animal was a cross with a Lynx or other wild cat, as it was so very much larger than any other domestic cat I have ever seen. Unfortunately the cat died a while back, and from talking to the two chaps in the shop, they still get customers coming in asking after it. From September even that will be no more. I am guessing that a combination of the downturn in the economy, and the spread of chain stores like B and Q and Wickes have take their core business away. A real pity, as the place has a real charm, and you can still order things in Imperial measures if you so wish (though I did once hear a customer asking for a three metre length of two by four) – which got me intrigued – the owners did not seem to mind, and the wood was soon supplied just as the customer had requested.
As you will see from the scan of the certificate above, the Erith Watch team have won a national award; as you may already be aware, yours truly is one of a small team who operate Erith Watch, and I am webmaster of their website. It is very gratifying to see that we have received formal recognition for our work. You can view the Erith Watch website here. Erith Watch is the largest Neighbourhood Watch group in the London Borough of Bexley. The average Neighbourhood Watch group consists of around 40 houses. Erith Watch has just over 300 residential addresses under its' remit, and is looking to expand still further. Do feel free to join the Erith Watch website - even if you are not a local resident, you may learn more about safety and personal security issues that will help you wherever you actually live.

I notice that the lemon flavoured alcopop drink Hooch is now back on the shelves of supermarkets and corner shops all over the country. The drink was the poster boy of the alcopop craze in the mid to late nineties, but was taken out of production in the UK in 2003 following concerns that it, and other brightly coloured and fruit flavoured alcoholic beverages were encouraging under age drinking.  I was in Morrison’s last week when I noticed that it was back on the shelves in the off – licence area. After doing a little research, it would appear that its’ manufacturer (I won’t dignify it with the name brewer) is Molson Coors. They are targeting the re – launched Hooch at young men, attempting to woo them away from boutique ciders and other fussy concoctions.  The difference between Hooch when it was originally launched and now is that they have made the taste sharper and more lemony – partly to refute the original complaints that the drink was aimed at children who tend to have a very sweet tooth. They are also now recommending that it be served with ice – just like Magners, the “Irish” cider – which is actually made from apple pulp imported from Spain, and is coloured with caramel. It strikes me that alcopops do tend to attract the younger drinker – in my experience it tends to be young women, however – usually glugging on bottles of lurid blue WKD or similar. I don’t know if as the drinkers get older, their tastes mature too. I somehow find it hard to imagine an alcopop drinker moving on to real ale, but I would love to be proved wrong.

And now on to the ending video. I don't know if you recall that a couple of years ago, there was a Top Gear special, where Jeremy, Richard and James challenged their counterparts on Top Gear Germany to a series of car related challenges, and they famously turned up at the race track in a trio of two seat Spitfires? Well, I have found the out take video on YouTube, which shows them taking off and flying over South East England, on their way to the challenge, which was filmed in Belgium. Here you can see three normally grumpy and fractious middle aged blokes transformed into eight year old boys.


  1. Hello Hugh,

    I am a local, regular reader of your fantastic blog and remember you mentioning on more than one occasion that you used to DJ for Radio Caroline. I thought you may be interested to know that another radio station of that era is back too. The station is 'Radio Sutch', started by the late, great 'Screaming Lord Sutch' in 1964. I have a 2 hour slot (Mod & Ska)every Thursday 10pm till midnight and often add a lot of our local bands into the sets, such as, The Pretty Things, Bern Elliott & the Fenmen/Klan, Erkie Grant & the Earwigs (yes, they're a real band) & The Rolling Stones of course. Reggie King, singer with a very popular Mod group of the era (The Action) was also an Upper Belvedere resident I believe, until 2010 when he sadly passed away. I hope you can get a chance to listen in, all music played is of the 1950's-60's period. Here is a link to the main web page...

    Keep up the good work, it really is appreciated.

    Yours sincerely
    Brett Smith

  2. Hello Ol' Friend.

    Take-away food, once again a topic. As most of us indulge it is a topic worthy of note. Especially as you have pointed out that some of the worst offenders in the country you live in are indeed very local and therefore warrant mention on your magnificent blog.

    The fact that they are worst in the UK is not accurate. According to the Which? report you quoted, they are worst in NI, Wales and England but statistics have not been compared by Which? for UK. The figures are available via the FSA website, but are not comparable as systems therefore the dubious accolade of worst in the UK cannot be decided here.

    What is certain is that your area of England is the worst in your country and that should be highlighted so imporvement can be made. My first thought would be to recommend to these oulets that they opt for a lightly battered deep-frying which kills of bacteria. If your going to eat shit, make sure the turd is sterilised. An approach to fast food that keeps us all well.

    On a serioous note, this does highlight that when looking at 'national' figures for the UK, always read the small print to make sure it is truely national and not UK regional.

  3. Owen's Ironmongery closing is a very sad state off affairs, open 108 years and destroyed by Erith council more than the economic downturn. My Dad (the much stockier of the 2 guys who worked there) had been employed at Owen's since the age of 16, nigh on 50 years.

    Owens was originally sited in the old town and, as they owned the building they were in, it cost less to run.
    Erith council decided to "start again" with the town and compulsory purchased their shop for not very much (considering how much property cost in 1905). They forced them (with very little notice) into a unit that they stayed in on Cross St for the rest of the duration. They weren't given the option to buy the unit so had to pay a lot of rent which they hadn't needed to do for the previous 60 years. This was the first problem.

    The rebuild in the 60's created more shops to the East so Owen's went from being in the town centre to being to the West.
    Despite this, Owen's continued to thrive because they were cheap, had parking outside, had loyal customers and the people there were helpful and knowledgeable.

  4. The problems began when Erith council decided to redo the town centre again. Once more, the entire town spread East.
    Then Morrisons was built. Erith did need a supermarket however, being built on the old dock site meant that the centre of the town moved once again East. The free parking (only free parking in Erith) was used and abused by the locals so no one passed the shop as part of their shopping, it was now well out of the way. The multi-storey car park was taken down and the entire commercial area of Erith was topped with residential.

    You'd initially think that a greater population would help the stores. It helped Morrisons and a few other shops, just not the oldest Shop in the borough of Bexley. The reason? This residential dive is all rented out so these scum don't do DIY as they don't own it. They don't take care of their own health and appearance, why would they care about their grubby child infested flat.

    The killer blow was the residential, reason being was the residents parking. The old parking area just outside Owen's was made residents only and the new car park South of Pier Rd was a lot less free than Morrison's option. To put the cherry on the cake, Erith council added double yellow lines outside that short parade of shops and instructed the traffic wardens to be strict, and they were.

    No one could park close enough to pop in and we all know that parking is very important for a shop. People would rather go down the road to B&Q or Wickes and save parking charges even though over all it would have been much cheaper buying from Owen's. People are lazy and don't want to walk.

  5. The closure was imminent but wasn't helped by a few big account holders not paying their bill. The economy has affected us all but small businesses have got it worst, especially when the council seem to have so little regard for the shop keepers. They moved mountains to accommodate Morrisons and B&Q and Wickes to make the town more commercial and less family orientated.

    I'm glad to say that the 2 remaining owners are looking to buy the stock and start again in an industrial estate just off Bronze Age Way. They will have a load of parking but will mainly deal with companies. The public is welcome but most people won't know where they are or that they have even reopened elsewhere.

    I suspect the old shop will remain empty for quite a while to to the poor positioning, parking and "locals".

    Regarding the cat, Gizmo, he was found by my Dad as a feral kitten and never really lost that edge. He was the cat equivalent of Reggie Kray and I'd seem him attack a few dogs that dared have a go at him. He would regularly attack one of the previous employees but wouldn't be bothered at all by children, no matter how they treated him. He was a big cat because so many of the local shops would bring scraps round for him. The fish shop kept that cat going, I swear Gizmo was mainly comprised of Omega 3.