Sunday, July 25, 2021

Then and now.

Work continues to remove the potentially hazardous cladding on the apartment block on the corner of Erith High Street and James Watt Way, which historically was previously the location of the Erith Odeon cinema. The cladding removal is taking longer than had initially been estimated. From a source who lives in the building, it would appear that there have been difficulties in removing some of the cladding panels, as the bolts used to secure the cladding to the building have in some cases rusted solid, and instead of merely unscrewing them, they have had to be cut by angle grinder. In addition, the number of panels needing to be removed has proved to be greater than anticipated; the original three week period of work to complete the removal process has been extended by another couple of weeks. The cladding is made from polyethylene (PE), plastic sandwiched between two very thin sheets of aluminium. France-based Arconic Architectural Products called its version of the product Reynobond PE, and sold it to big building projects all over the world. Generically, the material is called aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. A large number - the precise details are unclear - of apartment buildings in the UK are still fitted with Reynobond PE, and similar ACM cladding products. 

The dramatic fire at the giant, computerised Ocado warehouse in Erith last week was not the first to hit the company in recent times. News has come to light that Ocado had a similar fire at their Andover facility back in February 2019, which completely destroyed that warehouse, at a cost estimated to be in the region of £100 million. The damage caused at the Erith warehouse is said to be much smaller - something like one percent of the total building area is said to be damaged by the fire, caused by the collision of three robots on the warehouse floor. Sources have said that the Erith fire was contained using experience learned from the much more damaging Andover fire. Since the fire, orders which would have been fulfilled by the Erith warehouse have been rerouted via other Ocado facilities in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and Dordon, Warwickshire, resulting in delays to customer deliveries in the local area. Ocado have seen their share price drop as a result of the Erith fire, and also possibly due to the end of their business link up with John Lewis / Waitrose, and their new alliance with Marks and Spencer. 

At this time of year, so many people seem to carry around a bottle of water; when the weather is hot, this seems like a sensible move. What I find very hard to understand is that rather than carrying an individual bottle containing up to half a litre, I see many people carrying 1.5 or even two litre bottles of water. Are they really planning on drinking that much? What will happen when they need to use the loo, and as we know, the number of public toilets in the UK has been cut back to almost nothing. Back in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to do more to save Britain's dwindling number of public lavatories. Cameron said he would examine the case for lifting thousands of pounds of taxes from them every year to try to save them from closure, though any actions taken would now appear to have been ineffective. The search for public toilets in towns and cities has become more and more desperate in recent years because the number of lavatories has fallen markedly. Campaigners say that many have had to be closed because of councils have to pay onerous business rates on them. The British Toilet Association has estimated that 40 per cent of local authority run public conveniences have disappeared in the last decade, taking the number down from 12,000 to 6,000, in part because councils have to pay business rates on them. The Daily Telegraph reported that Public toilets have traditionally been liable for business rates in the same way as non-domestic premises such as shops and offices, while churches and premises used to care for disabled people are exempt. Raymond Martin, managing director of The British Toilet Association, said: “This is a public facility. People have to go to the toilet. We have to do five things in life – we have to eat, sleep, breathe, drink and we have to go to the toilet. Failure to go to the toilet we get sick, we get disorientated, we have high blood pressure, we can have strokes – this is a health and wellbeing issue. It is about equality, social inclusion and bringing more older people into town. The reason that toilets are closing is councils do not get any financial support from government to do it, so they have to sit down and look at costs. I have calls coming into me from councils saying ‘how do we close down all our toilets’. Councils really want to provide these facilities, they really want to have them but commercially and economically they can't afford to do it. The fall in numbers of public lavatories meant more and more shop owners are complaining about people urinating in the street, and worse".

The photo above was taken on the 17th July 1966; it shows Erith High Street. In the far left distance you can see the Prince of Wales Hotel, which was on the site of what is now the McDonald's drive through. This was where the very first 99 bus service was started back in 1916, as I featured last week. The block of shops in the middle of the photograph is now the Sherwood House residential care home, and the Tip Top Bakery was on the site of what nowadays is Erith Health Centre. 

And here is (as close as possible) the same location exactly fifty five years later - and it could not really look any more different; nothing at all survives from 1966. If you have any photos of old Erith, please send them to me - I would like to re - photograph the same site so that "then and now" comparisons can be made. Contact me at

Recently, I have been asked to contribute a number of stories about my time on Radio Caroline, some of which may (or indeed, may not) be incorporated into a book on the subject, being written by Station Manager Peter Moore. One of the stories I submitted for consideration was my rather scary encounter with the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery. Back in the day I almost had a too close encounter with the infamous shipwreck – more on this later. In case you are not aware, the remains of the SS Richard Montgomery are one of the most contentious and controversial ship wrecks in the world. The American Liberty Ship, loaded with bombs and ammunition, sank in a storm in 1944, and broke in half in the Thames Estuary, between Sheerness on the Kent side of the river, and Southend on the Essex side. Contemporary accounts say that  on 20th August 1944, she started dragging her anchor, and despite warning sirens from surrounding ships, she ran aground on a sandbank around 270 yards from the main Medway Approach Channel, in a depth of 33 feet of water. Normally a Liberty Ship has an average draught of 28ft but the Montgomery, at this time, actually drew 31ft. Her overloaded, shoddily built and early welded construction made her vulnerable to the severe stress of grounding, and several serious cracks appeared in her hull, she eventually broke her back on the sand banks near the Isle of Sheppey about 1.5 miles from Sheerness and 5 miles from Southend. As the tide ebbed the ships plates snapped with a sharp crack heard over a mile away and the crew, mindful of its hazardous cargo, abandoned ship at 0300hrs using floats and lifeboats. A Rochester-based Master Stevedore T.P.Adams of Watson and Gill, was given the urgent and highly hazardous job of removing the cargo, which began on 23rd August 1944 at 1000hrs, using the ship's own cargo handling equipment, driven by a venerable, old (and expendable) steam ship the “Empire Nutfield” moored alongside. By the next day, the ship's hull had cracked open further, causing several cargo holds at the bow end to flood. The salvage operation continued until 25th September, when due to a severe gale they were forced to finally abandon the ship before all the cargo had been recovered. Subsequently, the ship broke into two separate parts, roughly at the midsection. During the enquiry following the shipwreck it was revealed that several ships moored nearby had noticed the Montgomery drifting towards the sandbank. They had attempted to signal an alert by sounding their sirens but without response, as Captain Willkie of the Montgomery was asleep. The ship's chief officer was unable to explain why he had not alerted the captain or carry out any remedial action. A Board of Inquiry held aboard the ship during the initial unloading, concluded that the ship’s crew had acted in accordance with their instructions and that the anchorage the harbour master assigned had possibly placed the ship in jeopardy, and returned the Montgomery's captain to full duty. The salvage of the SS Richard Montgomery was abandoned shortly thereafter, and the vessel was declared a hazard to shipping and marked by several warning buoys. It has stayed in position ever since. According to a 2008 survey, the wreck is at a depth of 49ft, on average, and leaning to starboard. At all states of the tide, its three masts are visible above the water. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency nevertheless still believe that the risk of a major explosion is remote. The UK government's Receiver of Wrecks commissioned a risk assessment in 1999, but this risk assessment has never been published. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency convened with local and port authorities to discuss the report in 2001 and concluded that "doing nothing was not an option for much longer." The New Scientist magazine carried out an investigation concluded in 2004, based partly on government documents released in that year, that the cargo was still deadly, and could be detonated by a collision, an attack, or even the shifting of the cargo in the tide. The bad condition of many of the bombs is such that they could explode spontaneously. Documents declassified shortly before, revealed that the wreck was not dealt with immediately after it happened, or in the intervening 60 years, due solely to the expense. According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the United Kingdom Maritime and Coastguard Agency, it was confirmed the wreck still held munitions totalling approximately 1,400 tons. This is thought to consist of:- "13,064 general purpose 250lb bombs, 9,022 cases of fragmenting bombs (these would produce massive amounts of shrapnel.), 7,739 semi-armour piercing bombs, 1,522 cases of fuses, 1,429 cases of phosphorous bombs, 1,427 cases of 100lb demolition bombs, and 817 cases of small arms ammunition". However, because the emergency unloading was carried out in great haste and under less than ideal conditions, no check or tally was made of exactly what was unloaded. Due to this, estimates of explosives remaining in the holds vary between the official figures of approx. 1400 tons and 3600 tons which was the unofficial estimate made by the stevedores and confirmed by the SS Richard Montgomery’s First Officer back in 1944 when the abortive salvage attempt was made. Although the published breakdown of cargo carried appears to be comprehensive, a ship's manifest exists which indicates, that in addition, she was carrying 240 Mustard Gas bombs and other unidentified munitions. Although chemical weapons were not used by either the Allies or Axis powers during WWII, both sides did stockpile such weapons for potential use. A BBC news report in 1970, speculated that if the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery exploded, it would throw a 1,000-foot-wide column of water and debris nearly 10,000 feet into the air and generate a wave 16 feet high. Almost every window in Sheerness (population 37,852 (2011 census - 2021 census results are not yet available)) would be broken and buildings would be structurally damaged by the blast. This, however, is a very conservative view based on 1400 tons of explosive detonating in a chain explosion rather than one single detonation. The opinion was sought in October 1964 of retired Royal Engineer Major A. B. Hartley, MBE, GM., Britain's then most famous bomb disposal expert. His initial analysis said that "Some sixteen different basic combinations of explosives were used in American fragmentation bombs during the war. Those that were filled with TNT might remain comparatively safe for a long time provided, of course, the TNT hadn't crystallised  (crystalline TNT is so unstable that the tip of a penknife blade scraped across its surface may cause it to detonate). And provided that the TNT was pure to begin with. But the production standards of all explosives made by the warring nations Allied and Axis became less rigid toward the end of the war. And by 1944 manufacturers were required only to produce explosive fillings with sufficient 'shelf life' to get them through the war. Those bombs inside your ship have existed long past their intended shelf life." His conservative forecast would be for windows to be shattered in Southend-on-Sea, Westcliff-on-Sea, Leigh-on-Sea, Shoeburyness, all some 6.5 miles away in Essex, and a number of smaller communities with a population totalling at least 375,000. In addition all these places might also suffer a heavy fall of shrapnel. The ship and cargo are closer still to the town of Sheerness, Kent and it is estimated that that damage and casualties might well be severe. A tidal wave would inevitably follow the huge explosion, which could  wash away sea walls and flood defences. The bombs also happen to lie alongside the Thames main fairway used by thousands of the world's merchant ships including LPG Gas tankers feeding a huge gas terminal and storage, also seriously at risk and countless amateur yachtsmen at various marinas. There is no doubt that any ships, however large or small, in the vicinity of the explosion would go down. A tidal wave could sweep up the River Medway to cause havoc in Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and a dozen or more outlying places in Kent. If Mustard Gas bombs are indeed also on board as has been claimed, the results of any detonation could potentially involve widespread chemical contamination on top of any blast and tidal wave damage. In the late 1980’s when I was working for Radio Caroline, we would often make tender runs from Strood on the River Medway, out into the Southern North Sea, and the South Falls Head, where the Radio Caroline ship, the Ross Revenge was moored, outside British territorial waters, and thus outside of the law. These trips were invariably made at the dead of night, navigating by radar and from navigational buoy to navigational buoy using good old fashioned charts and a compass - back in those days, GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite navigation was exceedingly expensive, slow and unreliable, unlike nowadays, when almost every smartphone is equipped with it. On one occasion I was at the wheel of the thirty foot fishing cruiser we were using as a covert supply vessel; we had to time our trips precisely; at that time, the Olau Line ferry company operated a couple of very large passenger ferries out of Sheerness. The skipper of the Olau Britannia was a great friend to Radio Caroline, and would often go out of his way to help us. One way he gave us practical help was by allowing us to exit the Thames Estuary in the huge vessels’ radar shadow, thus hiding our activities from the authorities. I was concentrating on staying in formation with the giant car ferry, when I suddenly noticed a series of warning buoys dead ahead – I was steering the vessel straight into the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery! Needless to say, I came around hard to Starboard, to the consternation of the skipper and the rest of the crew, who were thrown around by my sudden course changes, and we narrowly avoided a collision. I reckon if we had have hit the wreck, we would probably have been the first fishing cruiser in orbit! Comments and feedback to me at

Following one of my Radio Caroline memories, an associated story springs to mind. Recent figures show that after nearly a decade of a steady reduction in the number of unlicensed, pirate radio stations in London and the South East, the number of stations is now back on the rise. It is thought that this increase is directly linked to the long Covid-19 lock down, leaving many people with little to do if they are on furlough. I must admit that my views on this have changed over the years; back in the late 1980’s when I was involved with Bexleyheath based pirate station Radio Lumberjack, there was very little to listen to on the FM bands, save the BBC and a handful of heavily regulated independent local stations. If you wanted to hear specialist music, there was very little option but to listen to one of the many pirates operating from in and around London. Radio was the only option; now the web offers a means of transmission around the globe that back then the FM radio pirates could only dream of. With mobile apps available to enable streaming content to be sent to all manner of mobile devices – phone, tablet, smartwatch etc. The need to have a transmitter on the top of a tower block seems to be gone. Back in the day we only had one option; nowadays the openings to get your message across are legion – and to be honest a lot more effective. Even a relatively powerful VHF FM broadcast band transmitter, well located high up on top of a block of flats is unlikely to have a range of more than ten to fifteen miles at best. With an internet connection, you can “broadcast” to the world from your bedroom. Technology has in my opinion changed the nature of broadcasting, just as it has in many other areas. It is easy to romanticise the land based pirates of the 80’s and 90’s, but in reality lugging around car batteries, breaking into the lift motor room on top of a tower block and fitting antennas on the roof whilst keeping an eye out not just for the Police and the DTI, but potential rival station operators was really not much fun for the most part. In my opinion all that has now become redundant. Which brings me on to a piece of information which is pretty ironic, bearing in mind what I have just written. Back in 2015, I was inducted into The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame under my radio pseudonym of "Tony Palmer". I get the feeling that now that the Hall of Fame was already filled by the famous and influential faces in pirate radio, they then got round to inducting the less well known – they were scrabbling around for the minnows such as me, after all of the big fish had already been caught. Still, it was, and is nice to be so recognised. You can see some of my photographs from my Radio Caroline Flickr album here.

This week marks another technology birthday. It is the 50th anniversary of the launch of the computer floppy disk. In July 1971, IBM introduced the first-ever floppy disk drive, the IBM 23FD, and the first floppy disks. Floppies made punched cards obsolete, and its successors ruled software distribution for the next 20 years. Throughout the 1960s, IBM shipped many mainframes with magnetic core memory, which could retain its contents when powered off. As the mainframe computer industry began to use solid-state transistor memory that lost its contents when powered down, IBM found itself needing a way to quickly load system software into these new machines at boot to get them going. The conventional solution required loading data from stacks of punched cards or spools of magnetic tape, which could be slow and bulky. That led to a search, beginning in 1967, for a new removable storage medium that could retain information without power and could be transported easily to remote computer installation sites. Soon, an IBM engineering team came up with a rotating flexible plastic disc impregnated with iron oxide that could hold a magnetic charge similar to magnetic tape. To improve reliability, the team placed the disc inside a plastic sleeve surrounded by fabric that could sweep away dust as the disc rotated. In 1971, IBM introduced the world’s first commercial floppy disk drive, the 23FD Floppy Disk Drive System. It used 8″ square disks that held about 80 kilobytes. In a notable limitation, the drive could only read data, not write it. A special drive at IBM wrote the disks that would then be distributed to remote computer systems for loading system updates. Initially, IBM referred to its first floppy disk media as a “Magnetic Recording Disk” or a “Magnetic Disk Cartridge.” IBM called its new disk a “floppy disk” because it was flexible, unlike the rigid aluminium platter hard disks that came before it. The idea for a floppy rotating disk was so novel that ComputerWorld magazine described a competing floppy diskette technology developed by Innovex as a “sheet of magnetic tape” in 1972. In 1973, IBM released a refined version of the 8″ floppy disk called the “IBM Diskette” (“Diskette” meaning a small disk—and also potentially referring to its secondary position relative to hard disks in a computer system.). With the IBM Diskette’s matching 33FD floppy drive, users could write data to the disk as well as read from it, so IBM hailed it as a new medium. The floppy diskette represented a substantial breakthrough in computer data storage, with each diskette equivalent to about 3,000 punched cards in data capacity. Compared to huge stacks of punched cards, the floppy disk was small, portable, light, inexpensive, and re-writable. Competing firms soon began creating 8″ floppy drives that could read and write IBM’s floppy disk format, and a new standard was born. While initially used for mainframe computer systems, floppy disks quickly played a key part in the personal computer revolution of the mid-1970s. While initially, the high expense of 8″ floppy drives and controllers made many early PC hobbyists stick to paper tape or cassette drives for storage, floppy technology kept pushing forward. In 1976, Shugart Associates invented the 5.25″ floppy drive, which allowed for smaller, less expensive media and drives. Consumer PC breakthroughs, such as Steve Wozniak’s Disk II system for the Apple II, brought floppy disk storage to the masses in the late 1970s. Although some inexpensive home computers still regularly used cassette tape drives for storage until the mid-late 1980s, floppy drives became standard equipment for early business-oriented personal computers by the late 1970s. In 1981, the IBM PC 5150 shipped with bays for two 5.25″ internal floppy drives, further cementing their use in the industry. With so many people using floppy disks to store computer data on personal computers in the 1980s and 1990s, software programs in the GUI era began to represent the act of saving data to disk with an icon of a physical floppy disk. Decades later, the trend persists in programs such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Paint. This has led to some criticism due to the fact that many computer users today didn’t grow up using floppy disks, so they might not know what they are. Apple made a decisive move against the floppy disk in 1998 with the release of the iMac, which controversially omitted any kind of floppy drive for the first time in Macintosh history. By that time, Apple assumed that people could transfer files through local area networks, CD-ROM, and over the internet—and the company was largely right. Without the legacy reliance on BIOS upgrades by floppy, the Mac was free to cut its floppy ties earlier than most. While some people still used floppies for quick data transfers by the late 2000s, the floppy’s commercial end had finally come. In 2010, Sony announced that it would cease production of floppy disks in March of 2011 due to dwindling demand, and today, no one manufactures floppy disks or floppy drives. 50 years after the floppy disks’ launch, it’s amazing that the technology is still with us. Personally, I would say that is a big success, and IBM is rightfully proud of itself for initially inventing the medium. Happy birthday, floppy disks!

No Neighbourhood Watch news this week; since Bexley Police unilaterally decided to cease providing the detailed ward activity reports some time ago - much to the dissatisfaction of everyone else concerned, Bexley Borough Neighbourhood Watch Association have decided that their submission will - at least for the time being - move to being published bi-weekly. 

The end video this week features some recently shot aerial drone footage of the local area. It shows a flight over the River Thames to Erith Pier from Coldharbour Lane in Rainham, Essex, Feedback to me at

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