Sunday, March 09, 2014

The fire station and the Luftwaffe.

The photo above shows the progress of the construction work on the main building of the new Bexley College in Walnut Tree Road, opposite Erith Town Hall and the currently empty old Erith Library building. The new college is going up at a veritable rate of knots. I pass the building site twice a day on my way to and from work, and the speed at which the site changes is astonishing. I wonder if anyone thought to set up a time lapse camera to record the activity? It would certainly make fascinating viewing if played back at high speed.  I can think of no down side to the relocation of the college into the centre of Erith. The old college buildings in Tower Road are well past their sell – by date. I have spent quite a time in the old college in the past – I studied construction technology there once on day release, and in 1997 I studied for my Amateur Radio licence there too. My tutor was Colin Turner, callsign G3VTT – an excellent teacher, and a former Radio Caroline transmitter engineer as well. I was pleased to pass the City and Guilds exam on the first attempt – albeit after tens of hours of personal study. I was awarded the unique radio callsign M1CXN which will be for me for life. I recall that the old college was either very hot and stuffy, or chilly as hell – the place had little or no insulation, and the windows were both single glazed and with solid metal frames. On top of this, the second, slightly smaller tower does not have a lift – which is no good if you have mobility problems of any type, as the stairs are a nightmare for the able bodied as it is. All this will be a distant memory when the new campus opens in September, just in time for the new academic year. Not only will students get a shiny new environment with the latest in technology, but the location of the new campus on the edge of Erith town centre will mean that students and lecturers alike will have a far better choice of public transport options open to them, as Erith operates as a major transport hub for the entire borough. Erith Riverside Shopping Centre will benefit from a large influx of new customers to the shops (I predict that the biggest beneficiary, at least initially will be Domino’s Pizza, but that any food outlet will have an upturn in customers, as I have previously outlined, when discussing the long and hotly debated “Scores on the Doors” rating system).  What I am particularly interested in from a personal viewpoint is what evening and weekend courses the college will be offering. I think there is a strong demand for practical and social courses – personally, I would love to learn to weld, but that is another story. I think the area will benefit from an influx of new people, many of whom with a disposable income, and I think the students will benefit from not only the new educational facilities, but exposure to the fact that Erith is not the out of the way place they had assumed it to be – it will be instructive to see how long it takes out of town students to discover the Riverside Gardens and the pier. I think they will be quite a draw when the weather is good. I have been contacted by the college, and once the building work is completed, and the place ready for business, I have been offered a guided tour around the campus. I anticipate that there will then be a Maggot Sandwich special on the college, complete with photos. It is a while off yet, but expect such a special towards the end of the summer, all things being equal.

Here is a bit of a personal request; does anyone know of a reliable and reasonably priced landscape gardener that they could recommend to me? The back garden of Pewty Acres is looking terrible, and I want to start it again from scratch. Last year the lawn was so full of moss and weeds that I had little choice but to weed killer the entire thing, ready to start again once the weather improved this spring. The time is now here, and I am looking for a person who can remove the rockeries at both the top and bottom of the garden, and dig up and remove the first inch or so of topsoil from the entire garden area. I have a number of ideas as to how I wish to rebuild the garden from scratch, including replacement of a fence that was victim to the recent storms. Any suggestions would be welcomed.

The problem of the proliferation of betting shops springing up in empty shop units around the country is getting worse; as I wrote about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBT) back in January of this year; the main reason that the large betting companies want to open more outlets is that the law limits the number of FOBT’s in any specific betting shop, but it says nothing about the number of betting shops in any location. To increase the number of very lucrative FOBT units in a town, the bookmakers just open additional shops. Many local councils have been reluctant to block this, due to the fact that during the recession, many shop units have stood empty, and the betting shops offer a steady council tax income, which the council otherwise would not get. A recent report makes for extremely troubling reading; it reveals that in the 55 most deprived boroughs in the UK – overwhelmingly located in Northern cities and urban Greater London have a  total of 2,691 bookmakers shops, in which £13 billion was gambled on FOBT machines, and £470 million lost by gamblers in the last year alone. In the same time period, there were 1,258 bookmakers shops in the 115 wealthiest areas, adjusted to cover the same volume of population, within which players gambled a total of £6.5 billion, losing £231 million.  The report was commissioned by the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, and shows that the large betting companies have targeted the poorest areas that have the highest unemployment, lowest per capita income and higher crime rates. The last year has also seen a large increase in the number of high street betting shops, mainly due to the leap in the total number of FOBT machines, such as digital roulette in use. In December 2013 there was a total of 9,343 active betting shop licences in the entire United Kingdom, which was an increase of 280 since 2012. The most deprived town council in the UK was identified as being Liverpool. A total of £118 million was gambled in 570 machines, and £23 million was siphoned off by bookmakers in the process. In the same time scale, the place voted as the most desirable place to live in the UK – the Hart district of Hampshire there are just seven betting shops with a total of 24 Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. Liverpool council have understandably got very worried by the figures, and are now keen to place strong control measures on the betting shop operators. The problem with FOBT machines is that large amounts of money can be spent on the machines very quickly, and losses can mount up almost before the gambler realises. A hundred pounds can be lost in no more than thirty seconds. Nick Small, of Liverpool City Council said of the situation “millions of pounds that should be used for paying for food and rent was being sucked into the FOBT machines”, and that “Bookies are arriving all the time into prime retail locations. This is all driven for FOBTs. I have no doubt of it. We are seeing horrific reports of family breakdown caused by gambling debts, problems with loan sharks. We are pretty sure organised crime is using the machines to launder money. It's out of control in a city like ours, where there are a lot of poorer people”.  The same situation exists all around the UK, with poorer areas – just like Erith, being hit far harder than wealthier regions. Industry observers have commented that one way to reduce the problem specific to FOBT machines would be to limit the maximum stake gambled to £2 – like ordinary one armed bandit machines, and to limit the maximum payout to £100. The gambling industry is not keen on this approach, for obvious reasons. To add to this, the Government are now showing an interest, as the subject is gaining column inches in the press now. The government have taken a very weak stance, saying that they will wait for the findings of the (gambling industry sponsored) research before any decision will be taken; at the rate things are progressing, it will be the end of the year before any changes come into force, if at all. The problem is that the gambling industry is wealthy and powerful, and has a strong lobby in parliament – last year the five big gambling firms, which between them account for 92% of all bookmakers shops on the high street made an estimated total gross profit of £1.6 billion on FOBT machines alone – and this does not take into account the additional cash they generate through conventional stakes based gambling; still a very lucrative market, if now being overshadowed by the rise of the electronic gambling machine, and also it ignores the vast amounts of cash spent during online gambling – a somewhat shady and overlooked area of an industry that already has a somewhat tarnished image. Personally I feel that the UK gambling industry needs a massive shake up. It has been allowed far too free a rein for years, and has exploited the market to the point where it is more powerful than some banks. People rightly get annoyed by the activities of certain banks and bankers, whilst seemingly overlooking the scourge of the high street and nowadays also the web, the big five bookies. If all this was not bad enough, the web based casinos and poker sites that operate on the periphery of some country’s laws are proving increasingly aggressive in trying to separate people from their hard earned cash. I have noticed that sites such as 888 Casino and 888 Poker use software resistant pop – ups and pop unders, which are embedded into legitimate web sites, usually without the owner’s consent. The fact that a large organisation would willfully contravene the Computer Misuse Act 1990 to try and promote its dubious services to me says a lot about their intentions.

Here is a hypothetical question for you, somewhat in the same field as BBC Radio 4's “Moral Maze” programme. I would be interested in your personal thoughts  on the matter:-  You are at a council waste tip to deposit some stuff for recycling. Whilst there you notice a group of young children who have been playing amidst the rubbish, apparently unaccompanied or supervised by an adult or older sibling. One of the children, all of whom are no more than seven or eight years of age approaches you to say that his little brother (aged around five) has climbed up on to the top of a storage hopper and he cannot get down. He asks if you would lift the child down. It is evident the small child is in distress. What would you do? Do you ignore the children, drop off your rubbish and go on your way, or do you lift the child down and risk a potential allegation of child abuse for touching a minor? I think that women might find this thought exercise more easy to respond to than most men. You can either leave your comment below, or Email me directly to Either way I would be interested in what you think. I will possibly explain the reason for my posing the question next week.

Last week, whilst enjoying a rare break in the windy and rainy weather, I took a walk around Erith with my camera; one of the results was the photo of the progress of construction work  on the new Bexley College campus that you can see at the top of the page. I also took the photo of the small green plaque that commemorates the old Erith Fire Station that you can see above (click the photo for a larger version). Nowadays, all that is left of the original fire station is a very small brick built structure with a wooden door, that to my mind rather resembles an old fashioned outside privy. The building is located to the right of the entrance to the staff car park behind Erith Council Offices. I doubt that many people even realise the plaque is there. I have been conscious that there is a lot of history to the local fire service, so I have once again been in contact with local history guru Ken Chamberlain for his take on matters. Ken wrote a pamphlet on the history of the fire service in Erith, and almost certainly has more knowledge on the subject that anyone else. "At the outbreak of the second World War in 1939 there were only 9 regular firemen. However there were no less than 112 full time Auxiliaries, and 160 part time AFS recruited. Properties in Cross Street and the High Street were taken over to house them. Some of course served at satellite stations set up at the Royal Oak Garage in Bexley Road, the Sanatorium in Belmont Road (Now Belmont school) Bedwell School in Albert Road, Belvedere, “Elmhurst” Borstall and St. Marys Hall, Abbey Wood. During that time twenty four lorries, eight high powered cars were acquired. As well as a barge that was converted to a fire float. On the 7th September 1940 local units attended the London dock area assisting the overstretched Local units. They finally returned to Erith after a sixteen hour shift minus a pump that had been blown into the dock. On the night of 21st/22nd January 1944 the Bexley Road station suffered a direct hit by a delayed action bomb. Several years ago I spoke to a survivor of the incident he recounted how they were in the engine room when they heard a loud crash and debris started falling about them. They ran out to see where the bomb had fallen. This action undoubtedly saved their lives as at that moment the bomb exploded. He claimed not to have heard a bang, but was stone deaf for six weeks afterwards. He did however suffer injuries. He was taken to Erith Hospital, treated and was back on duty in two hours. There were no fatalities. The 1907 building was demolished and a temporary structure was put in its place. The wartime control room remains as does a part of the entrance doorway. The temporary station remained until 12th July 1961 when it was replaced by the station that is now located in Erith Road, Belvedere". Thanks for the information Ken - I always get favourable feedback when either I, or more usually a guest writer have an account of historical Erith. You can see a couple of Ken's photos from his extensive collection below - the first one shows Erith Fire Station just as it had received the first motorised fire engines in the 1930's. Strange to think that only a handful of years later the station would be flattened by the Luftwaffe, as you can see in the second shot, taken on the 22nd January 1944, the morning after the fire station received the direct hit. At least Hitler missed the White Hart - more of this later. 

As pretty much everyone who lives in, or spends any time in London will be aware, the Old Bailey (more properly named the Central Criminal Court) is an imposing building topped by a famous bronze statue of the “Lady of Justice” who holds the scales of justice in her left hand, and a sword in her right hand. Interestingly, although the statue is meant to represent blind justice, the statue is not blindfolded, as is commonly thought. Lady Justice has a “maidenly form” which is supposed to symbolise her impartiality. The symbolism of the statue atop Britain’s most famous criminal court is clear – you will get a fair and impartial trial with a supposition of innocence until proven otherwise and decided on by a jury of your peers. I would say that this is still broadly true for the most serious and onerous of crimes, but the situation in respect of the more mundane issues of law such as unfair dismissal, property disputes, workplace bullying, or the breakup of a marriage or civil partnership, there is now little recourse to the law unless you earn a substantial amount of money. The ministry of Justice has cut the grants it used to give to legal advisors so that they could give free advice on points of law to people on low incomes. The end result of this on a local level is the closure of the Erith based Law Centre in Cross Street, which is shutting permanently this month. The centre opened in 2006 and has been offering free legal advice to around 1,500 clients on low incomes every year since. That is a lot of advice to a lot of local people that is now no longer going to happen. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau may be able to take up some of the work, but they don’t have the specialist legal knowledge that the Cross Street Law Centre has until now provided. It is not just people on benefits that will be losing out; all people on anything other than a very respectable income will potentially suffer. Engaging a solicitor privately can be an eye wateringly expensive experience. How the loss of free legal advice will affect courts will have to be seen, but it should be noted that for the first time in decades the most vulnerable in society will not have proper legal representation and advice. Recently, I attended a meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall as part of my day job. Once I had got through the incredibly tight security at the entrance, I was able to make my way across an inner courtyard and over to the office where I was due to meet with a couple of real life Sir Humphrey Appleby types. In the courtyard, lined up like a parade, were ten, brand new Daimler Jaguar long wheelbase luxury saloon cars, all fitted with what looked like antennas for encrypted communications, plus a few other modifications from the factory standard. The cars all had consecutive number plates, so had been ordered as a job lot all at the same time. I would estimate that each car must have cost in excess of £100,000, even allowing for a substantial bulk discount. Bearing in mind that the Government has been banging on for several years about the need for austerity measures, and to reduce spending wherever possible, it does strike me as conspicuous consumption. I understand that in the greater scheme of things the amount of money expended on the vehicles is negligible (the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has an annual budget of £1.5 billion) but it does send out a very mixed message; on the one hand, public services such as hospitals and fire stations are being shut down to save money, but the Whitehall Mandarins can still splash out on a fleet of swish new limousines. It is not only what you do, but what you are seen to be doing that counts. Again – the cost of just one of the luxury Daimler Jaguars would keep the Cross Street Law Centre open for a whole year. I am pretty certain this kind of major impact for a relatively minor cash saving is being mirrored in towns and villages all around the country. I think it is short sighted, and is going to cost the country more than it saves in the long run.

Earlier I mentioned how the Luftwaffe missed the old White Hart pub when it managed to flatten the old Erith Fire Station; well, as regular readers will know, the White Hart was subject to corporate vandalism back in 2008, when it was converted into the ill - fated Potion bar. The historic frontage was ripped out of the listed building and the character of the place ruined. Now the place has gone bust and the operators ousted by the freeholders of the building. A long time Maggot Sandwich reader who prefers to remain anonymous has made the following observations and suggestions:- "Perhaps we should get as many signatures as possible and lobby Bexley council for their incompetence in the matter regarding Potion. Thus taking the onus off the free holder. I also think Bexley council should get three estimates from from companies competent of carrying out such work and the owners of Potion bar should be made to reinstate the building to its original state. Bexley council would come after anyone else with a bailiff's order". An interesting idea; I am unsure how legally sound it would be, but I think it would be worth a very good try. Do you have an opinion on the subject? Either leave a comment below, or Email me directly to

The ending video this week has rather been dictated by something I mentioned earlier; namely my trip to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall. I mentioned in passing my meeting with some senior civil servants. The epitome of the Whitehall Mandarin is Sir Humphrey Appleby, never seen in better action than in this classic clip from "Yes, Prime Minister". Incidentally, some years ago I attended a meeting which included a senior advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron. The chap said to me in all seriousness that Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister should be watched, not as an entertaining and well written sitcom, but as a gritty, fly on the wall documentary. It certainly made me think...

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