Sunday, February 02, 2014

Maxim and Butler.

I took the photo above last week; it shows the view looking Northwards along Erith High Street, and shows some of the most notable buildings in the Erith Conservation Area. To the left you can see the Post Office - one of the oldest buildings in the whole town. It was originally a 17th Century stables and livery store. The original gabled roof is still in place, though little else of the old structure is evident nowadays. The closed and empty Potion Bar is to the right of the photo. It is still unclear if there are any plans for the building - if you have any inside information, please let me know. Bang in the middle of the photo is the former Cross Keys pub, which is currently being converted into offices, meeting rooms and shared space. I hope to be in a position to write more extensively about this building in the fairly near future.

With one notable local exception, I am generally suspicious of politicians. Overall I feel that the desire to become a politician should exempt you from ever becoming one. Parliament appears to be mainly staffed by incompetents, buffoons and the self serving. I do concede that there are a number of sincere, hard working MP’s, but these do appear to be in the minority. MEP Nigel Farrage could never be described as dull – strongly opinionated (read “bonkers” to some) but never afraid to open his mouth – if only to stick his foot in it. At least it makes for amusing press coverage I suppose. Farrage made a statement on UKIP policy last week that attracted my attention, and also greatly surprised me. In an interview on LBC Radio;  he said that he would like the UK handgun ban to be lifted, and properly licenced weapons available to shooters. As an ex hand gun owner myself, I was pretty gob smacked by this. The UK has some of the strictest gun laws in the world – rifles and shotguns only permitted where the owner has a clear and demonstrable need for them (farmers and game keepers are the main demographic) and the weapons have to be stored in a steel cabinet, with separate locked storage for ammunition. This is subject to regular checks by the local Police firearms officer, and a licence can be rescinded at any point. All handguns, with the exception of muzzle loading black powder weapons were banned in 1997, when all legitimate owners had their weapons confiscated, albeit with pretty generous financial compensation. Even before the handgun ban, the legal and social position of UK shooters was very different from not just the USA, but much of Europe too. Guns and gun ownership was never part of mainstream British culture – unlike France and Germany, for example, where owning a gun for hunting was, and is still pretty common. The USA is a poor comparison as it really stands on its own in the world in being a unique environment where firearm ownership has very light regulation, depending on state. In the past I have had a number of in depth conversations with police firearms officers about the 1997 handgun ban, and its real – life impact on criminal ownership of guns. The consensus is that banning handguns for law abiding hobby shooters has done almost nothing to stop criminal use of firearms – in fact, if one uses the Home Office own figures, the use of handguns in crime has markedly increased since 1997. Illegal weapons are smuggled in from abroad, often from former Soviet Bloc countries, and old, deactivated weapons are re – activated, which quite often means that the gun is as dangerous to the user as the victim – they can explode. Anyway, having established that the situation in the UK regarding legal gun ownership has little parallel with anywhere else. Nigel Farrage’s comments about bringing back hand gun ownership for law abiding hobby shooters strikes me as well meaning but poorly thought through. The infrastructure for handgun shooting has completely disappeared in the seventeen years since the ban came into force. The largest hand gun range in the UK used to be at Stone Lodge in Dartford, very close to Junction One of the M25. Local residents were largely unaware of the place, as it was set in a large dip in the land, and was not visible from the road. It was open seven days a week and had around four thousand active members, myself included. The Police and Royal Protection Squad used to train there as well. After the handgun ban, Dartford Council pulled the lease on the place from the operator, and it was closed down. If Farrage was ever in a position to get his way, there is nowhere for shooters to go. The likely numbers of ex handgun owners who would take up the sport again would most likely be small, and the costs of opening new facilities disproportionately high. I don’t see it happening – and I am sure that a large number of people would object to the move anyway. I think it is an interesting sound bite from a politician who likes the sound of his own voice, but it is an entirely unworkable policy for a multitude of quite complex reasons.

For some reason, the London Borough of Bexley has historically been the location of some ground breaking events in the arena of science and engineering, but for various reasons the protagonists have mainly failed to make their mark on history. The very first heavier than air flight was not as is commonly believed made by the Wright Brothers in 1903, it was actually undertaken in 1894 by a team led by outstanding inventor Hiram Maxim when the experimental steam powered aeroplane accidentally took off during ground testing in Baldwin’s Park, Bexley – it flew for an estimated 281 meters at a height of 1.4 metres, according to contemporary accounts. You can read more about the story here. Suffice to say that Maxim realised that his design of flying machine was dynamically unstable, and not viable for any longer flights. He abandoned the project shortly thereafter. Maxim returned to manufacturing machine guns in his factory in Fraser Road, Erith (the area to this day is still called the “Pom Pom” by older locals  - from the sound of the guns being tested, though nowadays it is an electrical cable factory).  Maxim also designed the sprung loaded mouse trap, the incandescent light bulb (though for various somewhat nefarious reasons, he was not awarded the patent for the invention), and also the fire sprinkler system that is still in wide use to this day. In a markedly similar manner, the inventor of the first motor vehicle powered by a petrol – fuelled internal combustion engine was not constructed by Karl Benz, as many believe, but by Erith based inventor and engineer Edward Butler, who constructed a working three wheeled motor carriage capable of speeds of around fifteen miles an hour, back in 1884, two years before Karl Benz. The vehicle was called the Butler Petrol Cycle, and was manufactured by the Merryweather Fire Engine Company in Greenwich. It was featured in the February 1891 issue of Scientific American magazine. The big problem faced by anyone experimenting with self powered vehicles at that time was the 1865 Red Flag Act, which forced all self powered vehicles to travel at a speed of no more than two miles per hour in built up areas, and no more than four miles per hour in rural areas. On top of this, the vehicle had to be accompanied by three people, one of whom had to walk in front, waving a red flag to warn other road users. Bearing in mind the 15 mph and 40 mpg capability of the Butler Petrol Cycle, the act seriously impacted the testing and development of the vehicle. Edward Butler said at the time” "The authorities do not countenance its use on the roads, and I have abandoned in consequence any further development of it.". He then abandoned the project as unworkable under the regulations of the time. Edward Butler broke up the machine in 1896, and sold the metal as scrap. Karl Benz, unencumbered by such draconian traffic laws in Germany, was able to test and develop his automobile, and history now records him as the father of the motor car. It strikes me that in both the case of Hiram Maxim, and Edward Butler, had they persevered with their research and development, instead of giving up, then Erith might well be famous both as the home of the aeroplane and the car. More on Edward Butler later on – who says that I don’t plan these things?

I am always pleased when I get to report on some good local news; so often the stories involve doom and gloom, but this time the news is all good. Orbit Housing Association have announced the names of the new roads in the forthcoming Erith Park development, on the site of the late and unlamented Larner Road Estate. You may recall that I was invited to visit the development in October last year, and I was extremely impressed with what I saw.  The road naming has taken into account the wishes of local residents, historical facts, and input from Orbit staff. Here is the press release with details of the new names. “The names of the new streets and apartment buildings in the Erith Park development have just been announced. Residents were among the many local people who suggested names to celebrate the long standing history and culture of Erith. The main road into the new development will be called Callender Road, in recognition of the local cable works whose projects included the D Day pipeline under the English Channel. Downton Mews is named not after the television programme, but for John Downton, artist and philosopher, who was also born in Erith. Apartment building, Gunning Place, is named in memory of GH Gunning, Erith builder and philanthropist, who built some of the older houses around the Erith Park neighbourhood and who donated land for the first Erith hospital. Butler Drive remembers Edward Butler, who was born in Erith and invented an early motorcycle in 1884 (see – I told you – I do plan these things!). Starkey Place and Beadle Place are also named after longstanding Erith families and businesses. Talbot Place is a reminder of Talbot Wharf on the riverfront. Orbit Homes Regeneration Manager, Caroline Field, comments; “The names we put forward to the London Borough of Bexley were shortlisted by Erith Park residents, local people and members of our regeneration project team. It was interesting for all of us to find out more about local history and families. When the new homes are completed, we hope to invite relatives of some of the people we have remembered here, to join us in our celebrations. We’d like to thank everyone who contributed their suggestions”. I think the choice of names is excellent, and provides a real insight into the local area; what could so easily have become a bland compromise designed to placate everyone instead is an imaginative take on the history of Erith and Crayford.

The advertisement above dates from 1938; back in those days Erith had at least two bespoke tailors - the Leonard Cheek shop as shown above, and also the very grand and upmarket Hedley Mitchell drapers store; there are some photos dating back to 1914 which show a large advertising hoarding outside the shop proclaiming bespoke tailoring for ladies and gentlemen, with a man's bespoke suit starting from 26 shillings, and a pair of hand made trousers for seven and six. I heartily wish Erith still had a bespoke tailor, as I would certainly be an enthusiastic customer. To my knowledge the only bespoke tailor in the London Borough of Bexley is Mold and Russell on the corner of Sidcup High Street and Hatherley Road. You can see their website here. I believe that a three piece, hand made bespoke suit costs around £950 from Mold and Russell, depending on the material, styling and detailing. That is a lot less than the £4000 or so from the likes of Anderson and Sheppard, Henry Poole, Huntsman or Dege and Skinner on Savile Row. I would be interested to know how 26 shillings in 1914 compares to £950 now. I suspect that bespoke was much more common back then, and competition fierce. I would think in real terms a bespoke, hand made suit is much more expensive as a proportion of income nowadays. If any reader has an insight into this, or a story regarding bespoke tailoring, please let me know by either leaving a comment below, or by Emailing

I had a lot of very interesting and informed feedback in regard of the photo of Erith High Street from 1910 that I published last week, courtesy of local historian Ken Chamberlain. I had been mystified as to how and why so many men were hanging about in the street; I got a very interesting response from reader David Walsh, which I reproduce here:- “ I suspect the picture of old Erith was probably taken on a spring or summer public holiday. Under a magnifying glass, most of the men seem to be working class by dress, and Saturday morning was - even at late as the early 1950's seen as a working day. Most Saturdays finished at 1.00 pm - a reminder of that survives in the 3.00 pm kick off for most professional football games, and as you say the shadows indicate the picture was taken was probably around midday. It is also worth saying that up until the post WW2 years street life was the norm - put bluntly most houses were small (think of the terraces around West Street or Manor Road) and families were enormous, the womenfolk needed space to do cooking and washing and quite often a lodger or two was common so as to augment the household income. Any census at the time would illustrate that vividly.” I would concur with David’s thoughts; Pewty Acres is a Victorian cottage, which was built in 1866. The first census was carried out in 1871. Back then, the house was home to a man, his wife and SIX children – and that was decades before a kitchen (downstairs) and a bathroom (upstairs) was added to the property. It fits me nicely, but it must have been incredibly cramped for what by modern standards was a very large family.

Over the past while I have documented the anniversaries of a number of popular, and sometimes less than popular home and business computers. The most recent of these was the Sinclair QL that I wrote about two weeks ago. Whilst it failed for a number of reasons, it was utterly eclipsed by the failure of a machine that was a direct competitor, but which came from a background which should have guaranteed its’ success, whatever the vagaries of the early to mid eighties marketplace. It is a computer that failed so massively, very few people in the UK will have heard of it, as it sank without trace. Ironically because of its’ lack of success, the machines are now desirable collectors’ items amongst old computer enthusiasts. The machine in question is the IBM PC Junior, otherwise known as the “Peanut”. It was designed to be a computer which was software compatible with the IBM PC, but with better graphics and sound, to appeal to a home user. Back in the 80’s, IBM could do no wrong. They were massively respected and totally dominated the business and government computer market worldwide. There was a popular saying at the time “nobody gets fired for buying IBM”. Which was pretty much the case; IBM kit was well made, expensive and came with excellent technical support and training. The original IBM PC (the 5150 model) was the first time IBM had designed and manufactured a computer from “off the shelf” standard components, something which would both make the PC the industry standard, and also in time mark the end of IBM as a major producer of desktop hardware, as other companies introduced cheaper and more capable “clone” computers. At the point where the PC Junior was introduced though, IBM was still king of the hill. The launch of a home computer built by the company was thought to be a guaranteed hit. The problems with the Junior were pretty much obvious from the outset. The Junior  came with a terrible “chicklet” type keyboard, which was virtually impossible to touch – type on. The keyboard used a wireless infra red connection which was very unreliable – even of you could get some typing on the keys themselves, quite often the link would break, and you would get half a sentence along, before you realised that the words had stopped appearing on screen. To add to this, the expansion slots and joystick ports were non – standard, making adding third party devices very difficult. If this was not bad enough, the PC Junior only came with 64K or 128K of RAM; this meant that most full PC software would not run on the machine – the much vaunted software compatibility was not anywhere near as good as the marketing people said.  The factors are small when compared to the main problem – the PC Junior was over twice the price of the Commodore 64 – which at the time was the most popular and successful home computer in the world, which had a plethora of third party software and hardware available for it. The PC Junior was launched in February 1984 to poor reviews and public indifference. The IBM marketing people were largely perplexed; they were used to dealing with large corporations, not individual private consumers, and really did not understand this strange new market. The few people who did buy the PC Junior complained so vociferously  and so long about the awful keyboard that IBM eventually decided to provide users with a full stroke keyboard as used on the Juniors’ big brother – the full PC, but this was too little, too late, and the company pulled the plug on the whole PC Junior project within eighteen months. Ironically this also marked the slow decline in the full IBM PC. Because of the open design of the PC, other manufacturers realised that they could make computers which were software compatible with the IBM product, but which were considerably faster, cheaper and easier to upgrade. Dell, Compaq and HP all started producing PC compatible clones, and very soon these became ubiquitous, not just in the office, but in the home as well. The PC took on an identity apart from IBM, and within a decade, IBM had sold their entire desktop manufacturing division to Chinese PC makers Lenovo.

Progress on the construction of the new Bexley College campus on Walnut Tree Road continues apace. Bearing in mind the place is due to open in time for the new student intake in September 2014, there is still a hell of a lot of work to be done. I have still not heard if the new development will include step – free access to the London bound platform at the adjacent Erith Railway Station, and I am beginning to suspect that the lack of feedback indicates that no such provision will be made. It is a scandal that a person with a small child in a buggy, or a wheelchair user cannot readily travel towards London from Erith station because of the steep Victorian footbridge that needs to be navigated to reach the platform. South East Trains at best seem indifferent to the matter, even though they are in contravention of the 2011 Disability Rights Act by not providing access to all, irrespective of mobility. This story has been grinding on for a good couple of years, and thus far shows no sign of resolution. I had hoped that the construction of the new college campus would lead to the impetus to add a lift to the station building – it would be a relatively straightforward matter to fit an individual lift car to each side of the existing footbridge, much in the same way as the wheelchair / buggy lift works at the Erith Yacht Club main building, which I visited and photographed last year. I am certain that a lift at the station would get hugely more use than the one at the yacht club – the difference being, the yacht club has had generous National Lottery funding.

A while back I wrote about how Tesco were opening a distribution centre in Erith for their home delivery service; many of the employees were people who had been long term unemployed. I am no fan of Tesco, but I do concede that they are providing regular work to a number of people who might otherwise have none. I found this short promotional video on the new Erith centre - see what you think and feel free to leave a comment below.

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