Sunday, November 21, 2021


Since it opened in 1999, the branch of Morrison’s supermarket in Erith has not really had any serious local competition. As I have mentioned in the past, I do feel that Morrisons has somewhat “rested on its laurels” for quite some time. The fact that the supermarket closes the salad bar so early, usually at around 7pm, even though the store is open until 10pm on weekdays, and the fact that after 7pm it is often the case that only the self service checkouts are available - as readers may be aware, I resolutely refuse to use automated tills in any event. Things may now be changing, however. As many will be aware, the Farmfoods supermarket in Pier Road - only a couple of hundred metres from Morrisons - has been closed for several weeks. The reason for this is the discount store has been subject to a large refurbishment and expansion. The expansion has taken the space in what originally was the adjacent Erith Police Office, which closed last year, to the disappointment of many local residents. Now Farmfoods has reopened and the new shop layout is huge, as you can clearly see from the photos above - click on any one of the three for a larger view. Farmfoods are not a particularly well known food retailer in the local area, though they do have a store in Gravesend. Farmfoods is a British frozen food supermarket chain based in Cumbernauld, Scotland. It is owned by CEO Eric Herd, and has over three hundred shops in the United Kingdom, of which more than a hundred are in Scotland. The company started in 1955 as a meat-processing business. A shop was opened in Aberdeen in the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s the company had about twenty. In the 1990s it bought Capital Freezer Centres and Wallis Frozen Foods. In 2005 it had annual sales of just over £400 million, the highest of any private mid-market firm in Scotland in that year, and fourth-highest in the United Kingdom. Farmfoods sales soared by 35% in 2020 as the frozen food retailer continued trading and opened new stores throughout the pandemic. Turnover was £892.5m in the 12 months ending 2 January 2021, up from £661.8m the year before, accounts filed at Companies House have revealed. Profit before tax was up 18.5% to £26.2m. In my opinion, Farmfoods is the spiritual successor to the old Bejam frozen food chain from the 1970's and 1980's.

Following the recent untimely death from lung cancer, of lifelong non - smoker James Brokenshire, the MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, several prominent Conservative politicians have been seen in the local area. Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has been seen canvassing for local Conservative candidate Louie French for the forthcoming by - election. This is something of a mystery; historically the seat is a very safe one for the Conservatives - bearing any major controversy or upset, I think it is very unlikely that another party will win at the forthcoming by-election. This to me does beg the question - as to just why so many Conservative “Big Guns” are appearing in the constituency? If anyone has inside information on this, or indeed any other subject, then please Email me at

I have written extensively in the past about Hiram Maxim, who was one of the most influential industrialists of his era. There was a second foreign born engineer and inventor who worked in Erith at around the same time as Hiram Maxim; his name was Thorsten Nordenfelt, who you can see in the photo above - click on it for a larger view. Nordenfelt was born in Örby outside Kinna, Sweden, the son of an army colonel. The surname was and is often spelt Nordenfeldt, though Thorsten and his brothers always spelt it Nordenfelt, and the 1881 Census shows it as Nordenfelt. He was a Swedish born and educated man who married a British woman and moved to the UK; initially they lived at an address in the Uxbridge Road, Paddington, after migrating to the UK in 1867. Thorsten and his British brother in law started a business trading high quality Swedish steel for British railway rails and engineering fittings. After a while, he founded the Nordenfeldt Arms and Ammunition Company, which manufactured a variety of medium calibre deck mounted guns for arming motor torpedo boats and coastal patrol vessels. The guns were manufactured in Erith (as you may gather, in Edwardian times, Erith was a major centre for weapons manufacture, and many locals were employed in the factories). The problem that Thorsten Nordenfelt had was that he  was an excellent engineer, but an absolutely terrible businessman. His arms factory was losing money hand over fist, and after much pressure from his bank – Rothschilds – Nordenfeldt was forced to merge his company with Maxim to form the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition company, with Maxim as the majority shareholder. Two years later Nordenfeldt was declared personally bankrupt, and lost complete control of the company, leaving Maxim the benefactor. Not to be deterred, Nordenfeldt and his family upped sticks and moved to France, hoping to start afresh. He set up a new company designing arms, and developed a revolutionary new breech mechanism for the French 75mm field gun. This all went swimmingly until he received a letter from Maxim’s lawyers, reminding him that he had signed a non compete clause that Nordernfelt had signed upon leaving the Maxim Nordenfelt company. The case went as far as the House of Lords, and was found partially in Nordenfelt’s favour, but by this time he had grown heartily sick of the arms business, and decided to go into the then brand new submarine business instead. He formed a new company with a vicar and keen amateur naval architect called the Reverend George Garrett. They jointly designed a new submarine – the Nordenfeldt One, which weighed in at fifty six tons, was 19.5 metres long and had a range on the surface of 240 kilometres, powered by a one hundred horse power steam engine which gave the vessel a speed of nine knots. It was armed with a single torpedo, and a deck mounted gun. It had to shut down the steam engine before it could dive. It was accepted by the Greek Navy, but never saw active service, and ended up being scrapped in 1901. A Nordenfeldt Two submarine was later built, followed by a Three, which was larger at thirty metres long; It did have one claim to fame – it was the first ever submarine to successfully fire a torpedo at a target whilst fully submerged. The final Nordenfeldt submarine was the Four, which was commissioned by the Russian Navy, but in sea trials it proved to be unstable and very unseaworthy, and ended up running aground off Jutland. The Russians refused to pay for it, in yet another commercial disaster for Nordenfeldt. He then decided to call it a day and retired to Sweden, where he died in 1920 aged 78. Some small signs of Thorsten Nordenfelt do still exist in Erith. Nordenfeldt Road, off West Street is one link, as was the Nordenfelt Tavern at 181 Erith Road – a local pub named after the man; it is now long closed and converted into flats, and so another link with our past is severed.

Following the tragic deaths of two adults and two children in the horrendous house fire that took place on Thursday evening in Hamilton Road, Bexleyheath, local fire services were called out late on Saturday morning to another house fire - this time in Picardy Road, Upper Belvedere, as you can see in the photo above - click on it to see a larger version. Fortunately this fire was far less serious. The occupants of the house were out at the time of the fire, which was reported by a particularly observant and resourceful neighbour. The cause of the blaze is still being investigated, but initial reports indicate that the source of the fire was the microwave oven in the kitchen of the end of terrace house. A quick response by the fire brigade meant that damage to the property was thought to be limited mainly to the kitchen, though smoke is said to have caused some cosmetic staining to other parts of the property. Nobody was hurt, and the emergency services left the site by around 12.30pm. 

Following on from my article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the BBC Microcomputer last week, I had some correspondence from a couple of readers, who, over the Covid-19 lock down had retrieved  their old home computers from the 80’s and 90’s from storage, and were keen to put them back to productive use. Have you ever dug an old computer, games console, or other bit of long forgotten old electronic kit out of a cupboard or loft, only to find that the original, light grey plastic case had turned a nasty tobacco brown colour? Many people think that this is just a bit of ingrained dirt – but the staining does not come off, however much you scrub. This unwanted phenomenon has been known for several years, and has been researched by a number of people keen on restoring vintage home computers. The problem is caused by the special kind of plastic used to manufacture the cases. It is called ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene – you can see why even the scientists just call it ABS!) The plastic is made of three different substances, which when mixed together in certain proportions give the plastic its strength, flexibility and impact resistance. The trouble with ABS plastic is that it is very flammable unless steps are taken to do something about it. Scientists came up with a flame retardant chemical that could be added to the ABS plastic mix to stop it combusting. The chemical was one of the CFC group – which you may recall used to be widely used, until  it was discovered that they caused serious damage to the Ozone layer, and were then internationally banned in the 1990’s. Back in the 1980’s though, the chemicals were used in all sorts of ways. The discolouration of ABS plastic cases is caused by a chemical reaction when strong sunlight containing a high percentage of Ultra Violet (UV) light is allowed to shine onto the plastic. Any computer left on a desk in an office, or games console left in a kid’s bedroom would suffer this. The UV light causes the element bromine from within the CFC fire retardant to slowly leak out of the mix – bromine, which is naturally a brown colour – and this is what causes the tobacco – like staining to the ABS plastic. A group of hobbyists, some of whom have a background in chemical engineering have worked on a way to remove this horrible discolouration which can seriously affect the looks of what otherwise would be some attractive and historically important computers. They have created a cleaning gel called RetroBrite, which when pasted onto the discoloured ABS plastic surface of an old piece of electronic kit, then exposed to a UV lamp for a few hours, will completely remove the brown discolouration and return the object to an “as new” appearance. For various technical and legal reasons, this bunch of enthusiasts have been unable to patent RetroBrite, and instead publish online their formula for making it, and instructions on how to use it. To be honest, RetroBrite is pretty nasty, corrosive stuff, and has to be treated with caution. You can read more about it here.  If you ever see RetroBrite available for retail sale, it has been produced by a third party, not the original creators. Because one of the active ingredients in RetroBrite is high strength Hydrogen Peroxide, it is illegal to transport by post or courier. Some shady characters have offered pre – mixed RetroBrite bottles for sale on EBay. This actually contravenes the website’s rules, as it is regarded as a hazardous chemical. If you ever see RetroBrite for sale, it is dodgy. Making it from the recipe on the RetroBrite website is perfectly acceptable, however, and to be honest, it works best when it is freshly made. 

Over the periods of Covid-19 lockdown, the amount of time people have spent listening to the radio has increased - in some cases quite dramatically, as the most recent consumer report by radio analyst RAJAR has shown. This is not really surprising, as people have been spending far more time at home, and listening to the radio is a great way to keep both informed and entertained. The significant local radio station for our area is supposed to be the Shooters Hill based Maritime Radio, which states on its website:-”we reach around 24,000 listeners every week across south London and north-west Kent”. The thing is, their claims for their coverage area do not seem to stack up as far as I have been able to determine. I live in Erith, and as many readers will be aware, I am a licenced Radio Amateur. I own radio receiving equipment that is far more sensitive and sophisticated than the domestic kit most people use to listen to the radio. Even with this sophisticated receiving equipment and antennas (some, but not all of which is shown above - click on the image for a larger view) Maritime Radio is almost unintelligible - a hissy, distorted mess that makes for very uncomfortable listening, if at all. Conversely, the other “local” station - Time 107.5 FM, based in Romford, but with a great many listeners in Erith, Bexleyheath, Dartford, Thamesmead and Belvedere - comes in crystal clear on even the most basic of radio receivers. Every local radio station set up in the Bexley area to date has historically closed down through a lack of both money and listeners. The original community radio station Radio Thamesmead, which originally broadcast by cable from its studios in Tavy Bridge (now demolished) later metamorphosed into RTM Radio in 1990, when it got itself a FM broadcast licence on 103.8 MHz. It was very much a community centred station, and any profits generated were ploughed back into projects to benefit the local area. It ran successfully for nearly ten years, until in 1999 it was successful in an application to the Radio Authority to change its remit and become a fully commercial operation. When this was permitted, the station changed its name to Millennium 106.8 FM in the year 2000. This name was again changed in 2003 to Time FM (not to be confused with the excellent, Romford based Time 107.5 FM which is a successful and ongoing broadcasting business today), in an attempt to try and forge a link with the Greenwich Meridian, and to strengthen its’ local identity. Shortly thereafter the station was purchased by the Sunrise Radio group, and was run by them until 2009. The stations’ audience ratings were never that good, though it did have a small, but dedicated following. In its final year, the audience had shrunk to just 13,000 people – less than one percent of the listening audience for the area. Sunrise put Time FM up for sale, famously putting an advert on the station’s website before any staff knew about it. No buyer was found, and the station closed for good in April 2009. Time FM was not alone in being a local radio broadcaster – there was a second contender, which actually had studios in Erith, based on the Europa Industrial Estate in Fraser Road. This was a station called TGR Sound 103.7 FM. It was a volunteer run, not for profit station that went on air back in November 2006 and set out to provide community information and news, as well as both mainstream and specialist music programming. When it initially started, it was Internet only, but soon got an FM broadcast licence. To say the station was homespun would probably be probably under – describing it. There were many occasions when I would tune in and be able to hear a conversation going on in the studio, as the presenter had forgotten to switch the microphone off whilst they were in the middle of playing a track. Bearing in mind part of their mission statement was to train future presenters, a certain degree of mistakes were I suppose to be expected, but it did seem that things went wrong with depressing regularity – it was as if there was no supervision of inexperienced presentation staff. Coming from my own historical background in radio, it was very easy to work out what was going wrong and when, and it made for occasionally painful listening. TGR Sound stood for Thames Gateway Radio, although some local wag soon called it Totally Godawful Radio. It was designed to be a community resource, not a commercially viable radio station. It was funded from a mixture of government and GLA grants. Once the recession began to bite, the funding soon dried up and TGR Sound was forced to close down. I am always supportive of local enterprises, but TGR Sound was really not very good at all, and it never really succeeded in finding an audience – I doubt that many people in the London Borough of Bexley even realised that it existed, and if they did come across it whilst tuning around the FM radio dial, they probably thought that it was a particularly inept pirate. Things are different nowadays – the number of amateur / hobby stations that broadcast online is huge and extremely varied. A potential listener can be spoiled for choice. The history of local community based radio does not read well. Every station that has been set up in the area has ended up closing through lack of money.

I was sent a link to a story by a reader last week; it makes for fascinating reading. Did you know that popular beef based drink / sandwich spread Bovril actually takes part of its name from a pioneering Victorian science fiction novel, which was incredibly well known and successful when it was published - leading to what is considered the world’s first science fiction convention - but nowadays it is almost completely forgotten. The writer of this pioneering novel was Edward Bulwer-Lytton; the book called The Coming Race was later published with the full title, "Vril: The Power of The Coming Race". While Bulwer-Lytton set out to write about the occult, his story displayed the kind of sci-fi fantasy elements that would eventually shape and establish the genre. It deals with a fascinating subterranean Egyptian-like world occupied by winged beings who call themselves Vril-ya. The Vril-ya enjoy equal rights, speak their own language, have telepathic powers, and can take away pain. These ancient underground beings sustain their powers through an elixir-like spiritual energy called "Vril" that can both heal and destroy. Bulwer-Lytton's book would become the precedent for modern stories about strange worlds and their workings. When H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was published in 1895, The Guardian's review started off with: "The influence of the author of The Coming Race is still powerful, and no year passes without the appearance of stories which describe the manners and customs of peoples in imaginary worlds, sometimes in the stars above, sometimes in the heart of unknown continents in Australia or at the Pole, and sometimes below the waters under the earth. The latest effort in this class of fiction is The Time Machine, by HG Wells." The Coming Race with its Vril-ya garnered such a niche following that in 1891, The Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fête fundraiser festival was held at the famous Royal Albert Hall in London. It is this five-day event that is considered by many to be the world's very first sci-fi convention, complete with merchandise booths and people dressing up like the winged Vril-ya. It was at this event that the famous savoury spread named Bovril was invented. To create something that resembled the Vril elixir, festival-goers got to sip on small bottles of salty beef extract that got its name from mixing "Bovine" with "Vril." Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s better known contribution to culture was that he coined the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword”. 

The end video this week is a bit of history; it is a TV news report that was broadcast on ITV Thames News back on Friday the 24th of May 1985. It is a story about the then May & Baker weedkiller factory in Lower Belvedere, that was suspected of leaking poison into the local environment. The chap with an Irish accent interviewed in the article was local Councillor Joe Delaney (Labour) - a very well liked and decent man who was respected across political party boundaries for his dedication to the area. Feedback and comments to the usual address -

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