Alexander Parkes – The man who changed and poisoned the world

Alexander Parkes is another one of those people from the Victorian Age that is forgotten despite him changing the world and his story is being told in a new exhibition in Bow, East London.

The fact the the exhibition is in East London may give something of a clue that Alexander Parkes is the man who invented the very first plastic.


Alexander Parkes

He was trained as a chemist and was something of an industrial inventor with over 60 patents successfully filed (including Vulcanising rubber) and it is in a long since demolished factory in Hackney Wick that Alexander worked on the chemical processes that allowed him and his colleagues to create what are now common household objects such as plastic combs.

However the impact of mass-production and consumerism has impacted upon the planet in a way that even the most far-sighted and ingenious Victorian inventor could ever have  imagined.

The common comb has real teeth biting into the East End’s industrial heritage and its links to modern-day global pollution.

It is part of the story of how plastic was invented by a Victorian chemist in a factory at Hackney Wick which is being told in an exhibition opening next week in Bow.

The inventor responsible for a chemical process that probably led to plastic pollution on the Thames and around the world two centuries later was Alexander Parkes.

His invention 160 years ago has been researched by Bow Arts organisation, into how his process has had a global impact ever since.

The ‘Raw Materials Plastics’ exhibition is being opened next Friday by his descendant Roderick Parkes, exploring the forgotten industrial heritage around the River Lea.


Parkes created Parkesine in 1865, a precursor to celluloid and one of the world’s first man-made plastics, developed at the Parkesine works in Wallis Road.  This new marvel was created during research to create material to mimic rare and endangered natural materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell. Parkesine led to the development of the Ivoride Works in Homerton in the late 1860s and eventually to the establishment of the industrially successful British Xylonite Company, which included the eponymous Halex brand in Hale End, Walthamstow.

The exhibition includes the earliest Victorian plastics made by Parkes in the 1860s; surprisingly ornate pieces inlaid with mother of pearl and precious metals, coloured with brilliant blues and greens through recently invented dyes. An early billiard ball illustrates the game changer Parkes’ invention provided in replacing ivory, the material previously used to make the balls of this common game. The British Xylonite Company then went on to produce Europe’s supply of ping pong balls.

The story of plastic’s evolution continues through the 1930s with Art Deco objects from the Halex brand, including an imitation shark-skin or ‘shagreen’ dressing table set and trinket boxes with iridescent surfaces mimicking semi-precious stones. Also on show will be photographs of the factory working environments, including the company’s all too necessary ‘in-house’ fire brigade and – a further testament to the flammable nature of the materials involved – a copy of the factory rules; bringing matches or lighters on site could lead to instant dismissal. The exhibition continues with the later years of the British Xylonite Company activity in east London, including its contribution to the second world war and the 1960s celebrations of its Walthamstow base.

New artwork commissions in plastic are also on show. Peter Marigold responds to Parkes’ early moulding techniques using his own bioplastic, while Frances Scott’s new Xylonite film uses state-of-the-art laser scanning to animate 3D images of early plastic objects.

Bow Arts has been working on the project with the Plastics Historical Society, the V&A and Science museums, Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow, University College London and local authority archives in Hackney, Newham, Barking & Dagenham and Waltham Forest.

The free exhibition opening May 17 at the Nunnery Gallery at 181 Bow Road, opposite Bow Church, runs until August 25 (closed Mondays).

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The Himba Baby Song

I was thinking today of the famous quote by David M. Eagleman that each person suffers three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

It’s something interesting to ponder isn’t it?  The gap between the first death and the third is for some people very quick, indeed for a few the last time the name is spoken may well be the first or second death,  Whilst others such as a tiny minority of ancient historical figures are still alive and kicking millennia after they may have been buried.

It got me wondering if there was anything similar for measuring the life of someone before they were born and whether it is entirely true or not, it’s a very interesting concept.

In Namibia in southwestern Africa, the Himba tribe is one of the few that counts the birth date of the children not from the day they are born nor conceived but the day the mother decides to have the child.

When a Himba woman decides to have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child who wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches him the song. When the child is conceived, they sing the song of the child as a way of inviting the child.

When she becomes pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people gather around him/her and sing the child’s song to welcome him/her. As the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or gets hurt, someone picks him/her up and sings to him/her his/her song. When the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honouring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.


A young lady from the Himba tribe.

In the Himba tribe there is one other occasion when the “child song” is sang to the Himba tribes-person. If a Himba tribesman or tribeswoman commits a crime or something that is against the Himba social norms, the villagers call him or her into the centre of the village and the community forms a circle around that person and sing their birth song to them.

The Himba views correction not as a punishment, but as love and remembrance of identity. For when you recognise your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when the a member of the Himba tribe is laying on their deathbed, all the villagers that know his or her song come and sing – for the last time that person’s song.

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The fake Number 10 Downing Street

It’s perhaps the most famous doorway in the world, number 10 Downing Street.  For centuries home of the British Prime Minister and I’m standing in front of it.  Except it isn’t and I’m not.


Though until just the 1990’s, one could easily walk up and pose on the doorstep of Number 10, since the IRA tried to blow up the Cabinet, access has been sadly curtailed.

Nevertheless, for those people who want to pretend to stand outside the famous door and fool their friends (who don’t read my blog anyway), then just half a mile or so away is a a near replica door of a very similar house which was built during the same period.

10 Adam Street just off the Strand, designed by the architect Robert Adam as part of a number of neoclassical terraced houses as part of his ‘Adelphi’ development which covers the secret Lower Robert Street which I wrote about on Monday.

As you can see from the actual photo, the two frontages are passably similar though not identical.


Apart from differences in the physical appearance of the two doors, one important difference is that following the IRA attack, the door at number 10 Downing Street was replaces by a bomb proof steel door.  In fact it is  so heavy that each time it’s refurbished it takes eight people to lift it.

The real number 10 doesn’t have an outside door handle as there is always someone on duty inside the door to open it.

10 Adam Street does have one other thing going for it that Downing Street doesn’t and that is that it is for £650 a month, you can hire a working area here.  Presumably the price includes someone on the inside to open the door for you and so you can pretend that you’re the Prime Minister too.

Many of the subjects of my recent posts are places we visit on our Secret London Tour by Ye Olde England Tours.

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The secret underground road right in the heart of London

It’s hard to believe that just a few minutes walk from the iconic Trafalgar Square or the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden, there is an almost forgotten and entirely buried street in the very centre of London.

It’s rarely used by anyone these days save for those of us who know London like the back of our hands and that generally means taxi drivers, couriers and friendly independent tour guides but if you know where to look and you don’t mind slightly haunted, twisted dark tunnels then Lower Robert Street might be just the short-cut you’ve been looking for.


From the 21st to the 19th Century.


Did you hear Poor Jenny?


Emerging into the modern era.

What now looks rather creepy and indeed was once creepier still started life as an extravagant palatial development just behind York Watergate that I wrote about last week.

Developed by four Scottish brothers; John, Robert, James and William Adam; they named the scheme, ‘Adelphi’ which is the the Greek word for brothers.

Construction began in 1772 and with many of the labourers who worked on the project also being Scottish, live music was provided for the workers in the form of a group of bagpipe players.


Because it was so close to the river Thames, the Adelphi was located on a slope.The main building – the row of ornate houses- remained level with the Strand, jutting out over the incline.  To fill in the large void below, a complex of vaulted arches and subterranean streets were created- of which Lower Robert Street is now the only remaining example in practical, public use though a quick walk around the area reveals many other potential though largely hidden geographical quirks.

Richard D’Oyly Carte  who went on to founder of the nearby Savoy hotel (see the Victorian Farting Lamp) lived here as did the important social reformer Charles Booth as well as several prominent literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Sir J.M Barrie and Thomas Hardy.

The Adelphi- and in particular the subterranean lair which lurked beneath- was also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ 1850 masterpiece, David Copperfield;

I was fond of wandering about the Adelphi, because it was a mysterious place, with those dark arches. I see myself emerging one evening from some of these arches, on a little public-house close to the river, with an open space before it, where some coal-heavers were dancing; to look at whom I sat down upon a bench. I wonder what they thought of me!

The glitz and glamour of the Adelphi was sadly relatively short-lived when in the late 1860s much of the Thames in central London was reclaimed as part of a vast engineering program to improve the city’s sanitation and the river waters pushed back as the wide Victoria Embankment was created.


The Victoria Embankment Under Construction

The new major road which also includes sewers and of course the Circle and District Underground lines were built right in front of the Adelphi’s lower vaults and roads, robbing them of their tranquil and prestigious riverside location. Now isolated from the Thames, the area beneath the Adelphi sank into decline and the twisting underground roadways became a haven for beggars and criminals. As one historian noted; “the most abandoned characters have often passed the night” beneath the Adelphi, “nestling upon foul straw.

Of course, such a squalid history in London means that the street also has that other prerequisite for unusual tourism in the form of its own resident ghost who is known as ‘Poor Jenny’.

‘Poor Jenny’ was a prostitute who lived and worked in the bowels of Lower Robert Street,  living on and amongst at pile of filthy rags.  Sadly one one night, Jenny was throttled by one of her clients and today, her screams and gasps can be heard echoing through Lower Robert Street.  Sometimes even the awful noises are accompanied by a rhythmic tapping; the sound of Jenny kicking the floor as she fights against her attacker.

Its probably for the best that Lower Robert Street has long been closed off through the night.  I had to rely on Google for the final image below as the street is temporarily closed off.  At first I ended up deep under ground in a parallel but private area; not wanting to be foiled, I managed to find access for my other photos via alternative means.

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The exit at the Embankment side.

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York Watergate – The ceremonial gateway to the River Thames, out of sight of water.

Following on from Mondays post on the Lions of the River Thames, not to far away is one of the last remnants of an era of grandeur on the Thames that has largely been swept away.  The York Water Gate.

However, if you walk along the River Thames you won’t ever find it.  That’s because the York Gate is now marooned 150 yards or around 137 metres away from the river, a reminder of just how much wider the Thames used to be, indeed going back to London times London was one vast marshy valley with Westminster Abbey and Parliament being on Thorney Island surrounded by rivers.

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The location of York Watergate.

Until Victorian times, when the Thames was narrowed, the length of the river in this part of London was sided by expensive and expansive mansion houses belonging to the rich and the powerful.  One of the few reminders of this is the magnificent Somerset House.

York Watergate was for York House which originally sat up on the Strand, the linking road from the City of Westminster to the City of London or for all intents and purposes for tourists today, liking Trafalgar Square to St Pauls Cathedral.   The name Strand is actually a very old English word for ‘shore’ as it used to run just along the riverbank.


York Water Gate and the Adelphi from the River by Moonlight in 1850

Lots of important people would enter London this way when river and sea transport was the primary mode of transport, rather like the later ceremonial arch in the India city of Mumbai which is known as The Gateway To India.  And the purposes of both were quite similar.

1807 Daniel Turner Nelson's Funeral Procession on the Thames, 9 January 1806 oil on canvas 58.4 x 106.6 cm National Maritime Museum, London

This painting shows the funeral cortège of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson approaching the archway.

Following the 19th century sewage works and the final embankment of the Thames in this part of London, these highly desirable residences lost their precious riverside vantage points with some areas even becoming a haven for crime and squalor before the whole district was either voluntarily re-built by city planners or a few decades later by the Luftwaffe planners.


York Watergate in London

As you can see, it’s still perfectly preserved and the only remnant of York House.  Given that it is in the original position on reclaimed dry land, one can only imagine it would look even more splendid when it sat 10-12 feet up from the water.


Looking through the gate, the River Thames is nowhere to be seen and is across the park, several lanes of traffic, a broad pavement and a deep drop behind a wall.   If that is all a little bit sad, at least we can no longer smell the Thames from miles away.

If you’d like to see this and many other unusual relics in London, why not book our Secret London Walking Tour.





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The Thameside Lions that guard against flooding

There is always something to look out for in London, even in the most unlikely places.  One might not know that you’re seeing but there are points of interest all over the place.

Should you happen to to be near the Victoria Embankment and peer over the wall without falling into the river below then you might see a number of bronze cast lions heads.


When the lions drink, London will sink!

The mouth of each lion holds a mooring ring, for use by anyone in an emergency needing to tie up a small vessel. There is very little evidence that the rings have ever been used. It is said that if the lions drink the water from the Thames, London will flood.

They were originally sculpted by Timothy Butler as part of the scheme by Sir Joseph Bazalgette to create a new Victorian sewage system around 1868-70 as a permanent solution to the Great Stink.   In fact many of the sewers are on the reclaimed land from the Thames which was narrowed.  As well as the roads and attractive riverside parks that you can find here, underneath the ground in addition to the sewers are the Circle and District Underground lines which were built at a similar time.


Getting back to the lions, there is of course a playful rhyme that helps us to remember the meaning of the lions,  “When the lions drink, London will sink. When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains.

The lions also hold mooring rings in their mouths for small boats to tie up alongside the embankment.


It’s relatively rare that the Lions do end up drinking but they are getting to drink more as  the years go by and it should be remembered that London is at sea-level and would likely have been more seriously flooded in recent decades if not for the engineering marvel of the Thames Flood Barriers just east of Greenwich.

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Smithfield Market on the moo-ve after 900 years

One of my favourite less-visited parts of London is the area known as Smithfield.  Like many an ancient city in the Middle-East, India or elsewhere, London had and to an extent still has, districts that would specialise in certain produces such as gold, silver, fruit or meat.   Smithfield has been a meat market for more than 800 years and is one of the largest too.

Sadly, just as with the main fruit and vegetables and fish markets which moved a few decades ago, it seems that Smithfield Market is about to relocate out of its historic city centre location to an area further east.   Partly to allow expansion and modernisation and partly no doubt as the existing site is so incredibly valuable sitting as it does on the boundaries of the old Roman City of London as well as it being somewhat anachronistic to have the centre of the city meat trade in amongst financial and technological institutions.

In 1123, the area near Aldersgate was granted by King Henry I for the foundation of St Bartholomew’s Priory at the request of Prior Rahere, in thanks for his being nursed back to good health. The Priory exercised its right to enclose land between Aldersgate (to the east), Long Lane (to the north) and modern-day Newgate Street (to the south), erecting its main western gate which opened onto Smithfield, and a postern on Long Lane. The Priory thereafter held the manorial rights to hold weekly fairs, which initially took place in its outer court on the site of present-day Cloth Fair, leading to “Fair Gate”.

An additional annual celebration, the Bartholomew Fair, was established in 1133 by the Augustinian friars. Over time, this became one of London’s pre-eminent summer fairs, opening each year on 24 August. A trading event for cloth and other goods as well as being a pleasure forum, the four-day festival drew crowds from all strata of English society.

Royal 18 E I f.165v

The culmination of the Peasants Revolt took place at Smithfields

Originally known as Smoothfield, Smithfield was once a large open space just outside the city boundaries. It was used in the 12th century as a recreational area for jousts and tournaments.

Though it is fashionable to think for people in times part to me simple, the people of London made some sensible decisions with city planning.  One of the oldest hospitals was established here and at the other end of the scale, from the early 13th century Smithfield was used as a place of execution for criminals. Notably, Scottish leader Sir William Wallace was executed there in 1305.    No-one wanted executions right on their doorstep and by having them here, it was out of the way from the main city and the bodies could be easily disposed of or left for animals such as wolves to take them away.

Smithfield in the Middle Ages was a broad grassy area known as Smooth Field, located beyond London Wall stretching to the eastern bank of the River Fleet. Given its ease of access to grazing and water, Smithfield established itself as London’s livestock market, remaining so for almost 1,000 years. Many local street names are so-called due to the meat trade such as “Cow Cross Street” and “Cock Lane” and until the Victorian re-development of the area there were many more such as  “Chick Lane”, “Duck Lane”, “Cow Lane”, “Pheasant Court”, “Goose Alley”.


Smithfields as it was around 1561AD

In 1348, Walter de Manny rented 13-acre (0.05 km2) of land at Spital Croft, north of Long Lane, from the Master and Brethren of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, for a graveyard and plague pit for victims of the Black Death. A chapel and hermitage were constructed, renamed New Church Haw; but in 1371, this land was granted for the foundation of the Charterhouse, originally a Carthusian monastery.

From its inception, the Priory of St Bartholomew treated the sick. After the Reformation it was left with neither income nor monastic occupants but, following a petition by the City Corporation, Henry VIII refounded it in December 1546, as the “House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII’s Foundation”. Letters Patent were presented to the City, granting property and income to the new foundation the following month. King Henry VIII’s sergeant-surgeon, Thomas Vicary, was appointed as the hospital’s first superintendent. The King Henry VIII Gate, which opens onto West Smithfield, was completed in 1702 and remains the hospital’s main entrance.

The Priory’s principal church, St Bartholomew-the-Great, was reconfigured after the dissolution of the monasteries, losing the western third of its nave. Reformed as an Anglican parish church, its parish boundaries were limited to the site of the ancient priory and a small tract of land between the church and Long Lane. The parish of St Bartholomew the Great was designated as a Liberty, responsible for the upkeep and security of its fabric and the land within its boundaries. With the advent of street lighting, mains water, and sewerage during the Victorian era, maintenance of such an ancient parish with so few parishioners became increasingly uneconomical after the Industrial Revolution.

In 1910, it agreed to be incorporated by the Corporation of London which guaranteed financial support and security. Great St Barts’ present parish boundary includes just 10 feet (3.048 m) of Smithfield — possibly delineating a former right of way.

Smithfield and its Market, situated mostly in the parish of St Sepulchre, was founded in 1137, and was endowed by Prior Rahere, who also founded St Barts. The ancient parish of St Sepulchre extended north to Turnmill Street, to St Paul’s Cathedral and Ludgate Hill in the south, and along the east bank of the Fleet (now the route of Farringdon Street). St Sepulchre’s Tower contains the twelve “bells of Old Bailey”, referred to in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. Traditionally, the Great Bell was rung to announce the execution of a prisoner at Newgate.   The Old Bailey of course being one of the oldest courts in the world and again cleverly placed on the old city walls.


Victorian Smithfield Market.


Despite all of this history, at its heart, Smithfield has always been about the meat trade.  At times, the meat-trade and the execution business could happily though illegally help each other out when those tasked with disposing of the bodies would find eager purchasers in the meat-trade who having cut up and skinned the bodies would them be able to disguise the human flesh in those famous London meat pies to the impoverished masses who wouldn’t ask too many questions, if they even noticed at all, as to what was in their beef, lamb, pork or chicken pies.

In Victorian times, divorce was an expensive and shameful procedure and to avoid expense, men would bring their unwanted wives to Smithfield and swap them with other men which is why in Britain we sometimes use the term ‘meat-market’ when teenagers go to discos and clubs hoping to find a girlfriend.

Visit Smithfield in the day-time as I do and it is hard to imagine anything much going on but Smithfield is primarily a nocturnal market with hotels and restaurants buy vast quantities of meat.  Unlike 1,000 years ago when animals arrived on foot or 150 years ago when they came by train, these day the animals arrive as carcasses.

One thing that hasn’t changed however is the unusual tradition

Soon to be married male ‘bumarees’ (that’s Smithfield porters) are likely to suffer the ignominious tradition of being stripped to their birthday suit, then carried into a stock trolley, stripped naked, pelted with eggs, flour, offal and any other rotten matter the others can get their hands on. The poor newbie is then left in the trolley for a while to be gawped at by the general public. Welcome to Smithfield Market, hope you like the job!

A number of my tours with Ye Olde England Tours visit Smithfield including Sherlock, Great Crimes and Punishment, the Pub Crawl and the London Extended History Tour.

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