Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Clock Tower.

Many people think that Erith is just a small, semi industrial outer London suburb. What they don't realise is less than fifteen minutes walk from the town centre, and you can be in an area of outstanding natural beauty, which has hardly changed since the Bronze Age. The photo above shows the salt marshes and reed beds that border the banks of the River Thames to the Eastern end of Erith. The photo was actually taken from Erith Yacht Club, and shows the characteristic Erith "big sky" which you can only find in this part of the Borough. The marshes are a great place to visit when the weather is warm - you can walk dogs, or ride a mountain bike, or just go for a stroll. If you do have a dog, you need to be able to keep it under control, as there are a couple of farms on the marsh, which have both sheep and cows grazing in the area. Worth a visit once the incessant rain and high winds finally abate. Click on the photo for a larger view.

After the unwelcome revelation last week of Erith KFC applying for a 24 hour opening licence, I forgot to mention problems I encountered whilst logging my own objection to the plan on Bexley Council’s website. As I have written in the past, the site is very comprehensive, but it is labyrinthine and very difficult to navigate. If you do persist for long enough, you can generally find what you are looking for, but the experience is very far from pleasant. One thing that many of Bexley Council’s website online contact forms have in common is that they require not only your name and Email address, but full postal address, along with multiple phone numbers. Not only are some of these forms not encrypted by HTTPS, meaning that data uploaded onto them could potentially be intercepted and stolen, but on top of this, the logic parser used by the pages does not allow for any contact fields to be left blank. Quite why the council feel the need for so much personal information is a mystery to me.  I particularly found the form field for a mobile phone number a challenge. I tried inputting “N/A” and “I don’t have a mobile phone”, but these were both rejected. I tried a string of zeroes, but this too was not accepted. In the end I was forced to make up a number. I hope some poor innocent does not get phoned by a council worker trying to get hold of me. Quite why the council think absolutely everyone has a mobile phone is a mystery. By making a mobile number a compulsory field, they are effectively blocking a small but nevertheless significant group of residents from accessing their services online. I have also discovered that it is possible that my objections, and those of others may not have been correctly recorded by the site; the council are already aware of this and are currently investigating. I have agreed with them that if Maggot Sandwich readers wish to send me Emails of protest regarding KFC potentially opening 24/7 in Manor Road, I will collate the messages and forward them to Bexley Councillor Chris Ball, who is managing the investigation of the possible website problem. You can Email any objections to and I will ensure that the correct people in the business licence team get the messages. I think it is extremely unlikely the Council will permit the vastly extended opening hours. As I wrote last week, the KFC Drive Through site is surrounded by residential housing on three out of four sides, and already causes a degree of noise and disruption due to the number of vehicles passing through the premises, allied with the smell of frying oil that surrounds the site if the wind happens to be blowing in the wrong direction. I suspect that the application may be “a play”. They may not actually want 24/7 opening, they are just requesting it, but when it gets refused, they then will submit a more “reasonable” change request with the hours that they actually want to extend to. Currently they are open 11am to 11pm. I would not be surprised if they would really like to open at 6am and close at midnight, but to be honest, this is just a guess on my part. Both the KFC and adjacent McDonald’s Drive Through are both in relatively close proximity to the residential care home / sheltered housing on the opposite side of James Watt Way; I would imagine that any licencing changes would have to take into account the potential increase in disturbance to the care home residents. Any increases in the opening hours will be vigorously opposed by local residents. Watch this space.

If this was not enough, Bexley Council Highways Department are shortly to begin work to introduce traffic calming measures to Manor Road. These will include raised pedestrian crossings, traffic cushions and narrowing of the carriageway at key points. How successful this will be is open to debate. Manor Road is very long, and mostly fairly straight. It does suffer badly from speeding vehicles, especially in the evenings when the road is otherwise quiet. It experiences a classic problem – the Western end of the road (the Erith end) is relatively high density residential, whereas the Eastern end (towards Slade Green) is populated by industrial units and heavy industry. The road gets a lot of heavy lorries using it in the daytime, but is relatively quiet in the evenings, when most of the speeding problems seem to occur. It is unclear whether the council work will also include resurfacing the road yet again, as it is crumbling and potholed, even though it has been resurfaced twice in six years. The same can be said  of Fraser Road, which in many places is in an even worse state. I was on a 99 bus last weekend, and was almost thrown out of my seat as the vehicle hit a massive hole in the road just outside of Wickes. Both of these roads urgently need major remedial work, but I somehow doubt that it will get done. The only upside of the pot holes is that some (but not all) speeding drivers may be deterred by the terrible driving conditions. I think it is only time before either a motor bike or bicycle rider has a serious accident, either caused by hitting a pothole and being thrown off their vehicle, or by swerving to avoid a hole and riding into incoming traffic. Either way the local potholes are a danger to all road users.

Some months ago I embedded a trailer for the then soon to be released movie featuring veteran rock band Status Quo, who were appearing in their very own action comedy film, called “Bula Quo”. It looked like amiable guff, and I thought no more about it until last weekend, when a friend popped round with it. I must admit that I was expecting a train wreck of a movie, and sat down in front of the television expecting to laugh at it. I think pretty much everyone who had heard of the project was of the impression that it was some kind of elaborate tax avoidance scheme on the part of the band’s management. It all sounded like a pub conversation that went too far – the Quo travel for a series of concerts on the island of Fiji, and manage to inadvertently get on the wrong side of the local Mafia chief; comic mayhem ensues. Actually, upon sitting down and watching it, the movie is actually OK. It is not going to win any awards; Rick Parfitt has trouble playing himself, and most of the cast seem to have been recent graduates of the Formica School of Acting, but overall it is actually quite enjoyable. A prime example of the humour can be summarised in the following exchange – Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi have been locked in a room with a toy that has been converted into an IED, which is seconds from exploding:- (Rossi) “It’s a doll!” (Parfitt) “It’s a bomb!” (Together) “it’s a blow up doll!” Quite. To be honest, the scenery in Fiji is so stunning that you will have something worth looking at wherever the camera is pointed, and the story unfolds at a leisurely pace. The only believable and well acted role is that played by Craig Fairbrass, who plays the band’s much put upon manager cum minder – he’s completely believable as an ex special forces guy who handles most of the fisticuffs. I commented during the film that Bula Quo is way better than Ridley Scott's pseudo Alien prequel Prometheus, as it has several things that the multi-million dollar sci fi extravaganza lacks; namely a plot that makes sense, characters who have believable motivation and who act in a logical manner. One could never accuse Prometheus of any of those points I am afraid. Bula Quo is cheesy, cheerful and fully aware of exactly how ridiculous it all is. At the end of ninety minutes I have to say that I enjoyed myself – which is most definitely not something I could say after watching  Ridley Scott’s leaden clunker.

You may recall that last week I wrote at some length about the 70th birthday of Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer. I had a series of very interesting Emails from regular Maggot Sandwich reader Christine, whose Dad also worked at the Dollis Hill Post Office Research Centre before and during the war, and also worked at Bletchley Park. It is entirely possible that her father knew my Great Uncle Horace, who I wrote about last week – we have very little hard evidence of precisely what Horace did during the war, but there is considerable circumstantial evidence he was one of the team that built the ten Colossus computers at Bletchley Park  that cracked the Nazi Lorenz Cipher, and so shortened the war by an estimated two years, saving countless lives in the process. Since then I have recalled a couple of events that took place in the late 1970’s. Uncle Horace’s full name was Horace Payne. He was 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, 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.

Whenever I write about the history of Erith and the surrounding areas, one thing comes up time and time again. People have strong memories of the Hedley Mitchell department store in Erith High Street. From what I can gather, it specialised in drapery, soft furnishings and clothing, including bespoke tailoring. I have had conversations with people who recall that the shop had an upmarket image, and was generally regarded as a premium place to shop – a bit like John Lewis and Waitrose are today. I wonder if any readers have any specific memories, or indeed period photographs of the store that they would wish to share with others? Maybe you worked there, had friends or relatives that worked in the shop, or maybe you were just a regular customer with fond recollections of the place? If so, please feel free to drop me a line to and let me know. Any stories that I publish will get a full credit for the author; I know a lot of people are interested in the history of the shop, and regret the fact that it was demolished when the hideous concrete shopping centre and multi story car park was built in its’ place. In fact most people I have quizzed on the subject question the need for the old Erith to have been demolished in the first place. The general opinion seems to be that with a fairly extensive refurbishment, it would have been preferable to have kept the old town; by now, if suitably looked after, it would have been quite a tourist attraction. Obviously it was not to be, but it is nevertheless interesting to speculate as to what could have happened had things not been demolished in the late 1960’s. I am a little too young to remember the old shops myself, but I am pretty certain quite a few readers will have recollections that they would like to share.

Yet another thirtieth technology anniversary is coming up. A company that until this point thirty years ago which was known for producing cheap (and pretty nasty) home all – in – one hiifi systems decided that they wanted a slice of the home computing pie that was being dominated by Sinclair (the ZX Spectrum) and Acorn (the BBC Micro). The company was Amstrad, who at the time had no history in making computers. Chairman Alan Sugar (way before Sir Alan, and even further from Lord) had noticed what a commercial success affordable computers were having in both the UK and beyond, and with his business head firmly on, he told his design team that they needed to create a computer that had the following properties:- 1) It had to be an “all – in – one” unit, with a cassette deck or floppy drive, and  a monitor included (Sugar cleverly realised that many of the computers would get used in a bedroom. Back in the day, not very many children had their own TV, and a machine that would have to be connected to the family TV in the lounge might not get much use, as Mum and Dad would want to watch Coronation Street, and not have a home computer taking up their precious telly). 2) It had to be made from cheap, easily sourced components, to keep the price down. 3) There had to be a large quantity of high quality, affordable software available for the computer on the day of public launch. Unusually for a computer of the period, the design of the case was finalised before the internal architecture had even been decided. Alan Sugar made sure that a large number of functional prototypes were given to software development houses, so that they could get cracking with writing software for the machine prior to the launch date. The actual electronic design of the computer was farmed out to a number of contractors, many of which were based in the Cambridge area. There was a false start when one supplier had a breakdown and handed back their advance fee for writing the computers firmware. Another company was found, and the Amstrad CPC 464 (cassette deck) and 664 (floppy drive) models were launched on time,  with a pile of good quality software available on day one, just has Alan Sugar had promised. The prices were keen too. A CPC 464 could be had with a green screen monitor for £249, or with a full colour screen for £359 – a bargain when you consider that a colour monitor alone could cost around £200 in 1984 prices. The 664 model with the unusual 3” Hitachi floppy disk drive, accompanied by a green screen monitor became a very popular first computer for many small businesses. Accounting, purchase ledger, spreadsheet and word processing software was produced for the machine, and some of it was of exceedingly high quality for the period and the relative limitations of the eight bit architecture. The CPC range sold very well indeed; in fact in the late 1980’s the Amstrad brand was one of the few computer companies to survive the great computer crash. Even former giants like Sinclair were forced to go cap in hand to Amstrad; Alan Sugar bought all of Sinclair’s intellectual property and assets for a bargain price of £5 million. Three years earlier, Sinclair had been valued at in excess of £200 million. Amstrad expanded their range of computers to include the dedicated word processor and printer bundle called the PCW 8256, which was incredibly successful, shipping eight million units worldwide from 1985 to 1989. The print quality from its’ dot matrix printer was not very good, but the word processing “LocoScript” software was excellent – very easy to use, and quite powerful considering the rock bottom price. Many former, self confessed “technophobes” were introduced to computing by the PCW 8256, and the machines were in popular use for many years after they went out of production.

The advert above was found in a local publication dating back to 1947; the dance studio featured was located directly above the Montague Burton bespoke tailors shop (you may recall I featured a period advert from that retailer last week - who says that I don't plan these things?) I would surmise that F.W Kemp was a precursor to Len Goodman, who has his dance studio in Dartford. It all sounds faintly glamorous, but in reality it is not. Just like the historic Burton dance studio being located above a shop, the Len Goodman Dance Studio is located above a Londis convenience store. I wrote about it, complete with photograph, back in November 2011. You can read all about it by clicking here.

The ending video this week is a real gem. It is a four minute long silent, black and white film that shows the unveiling of Bexleyheath Clock Tower, back in July 1912. The film was shot by pioneering early professional cinematographer Harry Pease. The original film is in the collection of Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre, which to my knowledge is not relocating to Bromley after all. It is fascinating to see how much Bexleyheath has changed in the last 102 years, although it is still recognisable. One thing is for certain - it was a lot smarter then than now, and the people were much better dressed. Nowadays most of the people hanging around the Clock Tower are tracksuit wearing, tattooed and multi pierced. I think if you were to wear a tweed or flannel three piece suit in Bexleyheath nowadays, a certain percentage of the natives would think you had come from another planet. Do feel free to leave a comment below, or Email me at

1 comment:

  1. A couple of points.

    First Mitchell's. Mt own memory as a kid was, as for most other people, the little cash tins that rattled back and forth across the ceiling pulled by some kind of rip cord. Cash in, and change and a receipt back, all signaled by a ping on a little bell on the counter. One person who could answer a lot of questions would be well known poet, Wendy Cope, whose dad was the store's last general manager. Perhaps someone could approach her.

    Secondly, the Clock Tower unveiling. Fascinating to see that the straw boaters and top hats all stayed on despite there being high wind and rain (see the shaking trees at the beginning). Also good to see the old bottle brown and green tiled facade of the long gone Kings Head - a snug pub in every sense of the word.