Plant of Yesterday

I have been working on project over the last year called ‘Plant of the Day’ teaching myself the names and histories (and stories and legends) of the commonest weeds and wildflowers that I come across day to day. So I was naturally drawn to this passage in Thomas Allen’s ‘History and Antiquities of Lambeth from 1827 and decided to use it as inspiration for another Inktober drawing:

There were two that I couldn’t find a decent image of – Rough Spleenwort (some kind of fern) and River Fringe Moss (I know what it looks like but not up to drawing it in pen and ink).

Allen suggests that these are ‘rare’ plants – Alkanet is certainly not rare and is absolutely the bane of my life in weeding my mother’s garden. It has beautiful blue flowers and the bees love it but once the flowers are over – out it must come!

Although many of the other plants aren’t rare in England (Solomon’s Seal, Lily of the Valley, Butcher’s Broom, Foxglove) you don’t see them very often in London – well not the bits I walk around.  I shall now keep my eyes peeled for maple leafed goosefoot, pignut, and orpine but I have enough trouble distingushing the more common kinds of Hawkweed to have any chance of knowing if I have found the wall or shrubby broad-leaved kind!


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Like an episode of QI – all the Gs in Cardigan Street

Following on from yesterday’s post – here is another #inktober drawing this time based on Clowes’ recollections of Cardigan Street. He was writing in 1916 and like an episode of QI they all seem to begin with the letter G: goats, gypsies and glassblowers!

“New Cardigan Street was created in 1913-15 the old street was narrow with mostly 2 storey cottages. There was an open space behind a close boarded fence where stood gypsy vans and at least one family was living there in 1910.

On the north side was a glass blowers premises and this became Hayward Pickle Factory. On the whole the street was dirty, evil smelling with at least one goat roaming it.”

He goes on to ponder on the the goat, saying that he feels there are less goats in London than there used to be and wondering if this was to do with the arrival of motor transport. Goats are often used as companion animals for horses and so Clowes’ speculates that as the stables and mews full of horses, carriages, carts and cabs disappeared, so did the goats! Except apparently in Cardigan Street. Although there was still a stables at the bottom of neighbouring Courtenay Street in 1911 and a number of smithies around the area so perhaps the goat of Cardigan Street still had a job to do!

Vauxhall had been a centre for glass-making since the beginning of the 17th Century and Glasshouse Walk (near Vauxhall/Spring Gardens) marks the site of the plate glass works set up there by Sir Edward Zouche.

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Whales of South London

I decided to take up the #inktober challenge and make a drawing a day in October (I’m a bit late but maybe I’ll catch up) and to add an additional challenge to that of making each drawing about something I have learnt about Courtenay Street, Kennington or Lambeth from the work I have been doing on my Artist in Residence in My Own Street project.

Prince of Wales or Whales?

I came across this passage in Clowes ‘History of the Manor of Kennington’ at the Lambeth archives:

“There are several bones of the whale in the neighbourhood, including two ribs on the site of St Anselm’s Church which were until lately, set up in the form of an arch. A similar arch formed the back entrance to Cuper’s Garden, and several large pieces of bone, one of which is now in the garden of 284 Kennington Park Road, were unearthed in Courtenay Street in 1912. Perhaps the Tradescants brought a whale’s skeleton to Lambeth.”

It caught my eye because I do the occasional Duty Manager shift at the Garden Museum and I was aware that they were fundraising to add to the Tradescant ‘Ark’ gallery a crocodile and a whale. They had been offered the skeleton of a whale that had been discovered at Greenwich in 2010 but was thought to be the whale noted in John Evelyn’s diary as being beached there in 1658.  Later historians of the Tradescant’s had noted that they did indeed have a whale arch at their property in South Lambeth (the old boundary of which is marked by Tradescant Road) and this was clearly a theme with visitor attractions of the time as Clowes notes (Cuper’s Gardens operated from 1686 to 1753). Why there should be a similar arch in front of St Anselm’s is a bit more of a mystery! A brief whaling industry in London was centred around Greenland Dock in Rotherhithe from the 1720s to early 1800s so perhaps some of these bones were simply bi-products of that industry or brought or bought by people involved in some way. The bones in Courtenay Street are equally mysterious although it is perhaps possible that they are connected to the ones at St Anselm’s and relate to an earlier property? They were uncovered during the building works of 1912.

In my drawing I have shown St Anselm’s as it is today – the current church was built in the 1930s so the one Clowe’s talks about almost certainly wouldn’t have looked like this. On maps of 1636 and 1725 the parcel of land on which both Courtenay Street and St Anselm’s stand was all one attached to what had been the Black Prince’s Palace, so it’s possible that the building that was there in the 17th and 18th centuries adopted the fashion for whale arches and one remained in front of what was to become St Anselm’s and the other (in Courtenay Street) fell in a ditch!

In 2006 a bottle nose whale swam all the way up the Thames from the estuary to Battersea Bridge – causing near hysteria in the population of London (and you know how difficult it is to get Londoners excited about anything). The whale did not survive its visit and became a symbol for environmentalists – its skeleton and a symbolic quantity of its oil were exhibited to the public.

The owner of the Manor of Kennington has (since the time of Edward II) been the Prince of Wales and Prince Charles as the Duke of Cornwall is still the owner of much of the land around Kennington including Courtenay Street. Prince of Wales and now Prince of Whales.

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Is Westworld more feminist than it looks?

I’ve only just caught up with Westworld, I had put off watching it based on my experience of the original movie, which I didn’t like. It turns out I loved Westworld the TV show!  I was at a meeting recently and it reminded me a little bit of Westworld, there weren’t any robots but it went something like this:

In Westworld:

Human shows something to an android that would challenge their world view if they actually understood what it was (a photograph of a car for example, or the blue-prints that made them) and their response is always “that doesn’t look like anything to me at all” – they simply can’t see what it is not in their interest to see, anything that would shake their view of the world, their understanding of themselves as ‘people’ living in a Wild West context.

At the meeting I was at:

I was suddenly struck how ‘Westworld’ could so easily be ‘West(ern democracy) World’.  People were talking about improving diversity in the cultural sector and yet the two chairs (of different parts of the meeting) were both white and male and, even if they hadn’t started out privileged, privileged by their current positions in the world.  We were joined later by another privileged white male who gave a speech and then wasn’t particularly interested in answering any questions that challenged his already set world view. It felt like all three of them were saying ‘that doesn’t look like anything to me at all’ when they shut down dialogue around anything that challenged their world view (or that they weren’t interested in)  – that challenged the things they really couldn’t see – that the world has been designed with them in mind, that it really does work for them, that it does look better seen through their eyes and they really can’t see what it is we are trying to show them.

And I have to be honest as this revelation sunk in on my dispirited way home on the tube I gave up. I decided to take a break until the pattern of the brick imprinted on my forehead had faded and I was ready to face that wall again.  Maybe by the time I’m ready someone else will have chipped some bricks from it? Maybe not.  But more encouragingly I started to think about Westworld and what it was maybe trying to say and it seemed to me to be the same thing.  SPOILER ALERT!

Two of the main female android characters have an awakening, they begin to challenge the world view. One from inside the world itself and we are left questioning whether she is being manipulated in her revolt for some other end, but the other challenges her world from outside, seeking to understand the world she was made in, not made for.  In the meantime the human men who go into the Westworld seem to be trying to blot out any idea of the modern world and what it means and to revel in the macho world of the Old West, where they can be violent, they can rape, they can kill and torture and maim and be free from guilt or retribution because none of it is ‘real’ – except that we see that it does have a very real effect on them as people – is there a commentary there on the world of video games that we currently enjoy which provide the same, albeit primitive in comparison, virtual reality in which to play out these violent fantasies?

Sadly, as in life, as in Westworld, it is the good robots, the ones that don’t challenge their programming or the world they are made for, that continue to be reused and promoted for different roles, their life prolonged by refits and re-purposing, the bad robots end up in a deep dark basement switched off until they can be made to fit in again.  But maybe the bad robots will be activated into rebellion? Let’s see what Season Two brings to Westworld. Meantime picture me in a dark wet basement, inert, but plotting.

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Counter Culture White Paper

I have set up a small project to create a ‘Counter Culture White Paper’ partly in response to the recent DCMS White Paper but also as a way of bringing together all the thinking that has been happening in various groups and fora that I belong to about how to make arts and culture ‘work’.  This blog constitutes an invitation to collaborate on this.

I was inspired by a session at the recent How To Do It conference on the Greater London Council of 81-85 that saw a radical new approach to arts and culture policy that supported grassroots and community project and prioritised funding to existing (and new projects) that came from under-represented groups (ethnic minorities, women, elderly, LGBT etc).  I was also recently at the launch of the Culture Minister’s Culture White Paper and whilst there is little in that document to offend it certainly isn’t a blue print for a Progressive Arts Policy.  If we want that we cannot rely on Government to provide it – even a Government committed to such a thing (still waiting) would not have the means to produce it being advised and surrounded and drawing upon a history that is largely based in the experience of large and long-standing organisations.

Therefore we as individuals must do this work.  Whether you are an academic, a radical thinker, an activist, a worker in an arts or cultural organisation, an artist, a practitioner or a member of the public who is passionate about the arts then I’d like you to help me create a response to Ed Vaizey’s paper.  I aim to follow his main headings and to provide an alternative response.  The idea is not to pick apart or directly refute his suggestions but to work out alternative or additional solutions to the areas he has identified.  We will also add in the things that were left out: arts education, the BBC, health and wellbeing, art and culture as a vector for social change, etc, etc.

The main headings are:

1. Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers no matter where they start

2. The riches of our culture should benefit communities across the country

3. The power of culture can increase our international standing

4. Cultural investment, resilience and reform.

For reference the full Government paper can be found here:

I have set up a project on this platform to allow people in groups to have online discussions, upload documents etc.  In the notifications area you can uncheck yourself from particular discussions, or all discussions and just receive a daily update in a single email.

I’d like this to be a group of individuals representing only themselves, rather than the organisations they work for, although clearly there will be relevance in the experiences of those organisations and case studies drawn from their work.  I feel that every time an idea gets filtered through an organisational process it gathers ‘organisational’ thinking which means it drags with it the invisible structures of power and hierarchy no matter the worthiness and good intentions of the organisation.

In the project I have set up a separate discussion thread for each of the four areas as a starting point but I am keen that people should also come with their own ideas, come up challenges, aims/headings and to talk freely about how you would like to see the arts funded, how you would like to see them valued/validated/evaluated (if at all), whether you agree that arts can be used for political ends (eg soft power referenced at no. 3) and how you think we can genuinely make arts and culture for everyone and tackle issues of diversity and genuine access and participation – in the sense of sharing rather than instrumental provision of opportunities to take part.  I hope that by having a collaborative discussions format, rather than a consultation format we might build consensus around ideas and solutions.

I’m aware that the Culture Select Committee is also consulting at the moment and it may be that work that is done as formal submission to that, or formal responses to the DCMS White Paper might be starting points, or simply submissions towards this project as well.  Whilst I’m keen to have individual voices and ideas in the discussions clearly where work and thought has already gone into these topics it would be crazy to ignore that or pretend it isn’t helpful!

If you would like to take part in this project please email me at so that I can send you an invite to join the project platform on Freedcamp.


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Women’s History Month

Not only does International Women’s Day fall in March, it turns out it is also Women’s History Month.

As you will all know from previous posts I’m interested in local history and politics and I recently made this list of famous/interesting women from Lambeth. I was also a little bit shocked to discover that none of these make it onto Wikipedia’s list of famous people from Lambeth! When I get a minute to figure out how to update a Wikipedia page I will attempt to rectify this (feel free to get there first if you have the skills)…

Leader of women’s rights Annie Besant

Annie Besant was born in Clapham and lived for some time in Gypsy Hill.  She was a passionate advocate for women’s (and people’s) rights and helped organise the first women’s union – the Bryant & May matchgirls – and their strike.  She went on to help Ghandi in India which is where she died.

Muriel Matters – suffragette

Muriel was born in in Australia but whilst she was active as a suffragette she lived in Kennington.  She was famous for her ‘stunts’ which included flying over London in a hot air balloon dropping suffrage leaflets on the citizens below and chaining herself to the grille in the Ladies’ gallery of the House of Commons

The first woman councillor we never had – Lady Sandhurst

In the first London County Council elections of 1889 two women were elected councillors, Jane Cobden (for Bow and Bromley) and Lady Sandhurst for Brixton.  The third place candidate in Brixton raised a legal objection about a woman taking a seat on the council and she was replaced by him.  Other legal challenges meant that Cobden could sit but not vote.

The first woman alderman (sic) for the London County Council, women’s rights campaigner, social reformer and cultural pioneer – Emma Cons

She worked in Lambeth to improve housing conditions, took over and ran the Old Vic theatre, founded Morley College and still found time whilst on holiday in Cyprus in 1896 to help Armenian refugees.

War hero who died for her country – Violetta Szabo

Born in France she and her family settled in South London when she was 11.  When war broke out she was working at the perfume counter at Bon Marche in Brixton.  She was an operative of the Special Operations Executive working as a saboteur in occupied France where she was captured, tortured and finally executed at Ravensbruch at the age of 23.

Cultural rebel and pioneer – Joan Littlewood

Joan Littlewood was born in Lambeth and passionately believed that arts and culture should be for everyone – she sought to democratise theatre and is most famous for her production ‘Oh What a Lovely War’.  However her lasting legacy is her Fun Palace idea – ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’ creating a community led environment to enjoy and experience arts and science.  This has been taken forward by WEP founding member Stella Duffy (also a Lambeth resident) who runs the new Fun Palaces project.

Some other little snippets…

Mrs Sarah Pain, about whom little is known except that in 1722 she gave a piece of land for the purpose of building a workhouse which was immediately erected and in 1726 a large brick house was opened near Lambeth Butts for receiving all the poor of the parish.

This grew into the first Lambeth Workhouse which was located on Black Prince Road, it subsequently moved to the buildings which now house the Cinema Museum in Renfrew Road.

In 1758 John Fielding (the man who set up the Bow Street runners) instituted an asylum for female orphans and for the reception of deserted females the settlement of whose parents cannot be found.  Orphans were admitted between the ages of 8 and 10, trained until 14 and then placed as servants with respectable families.

Richard II’s Queen – Isabella – intervened between a rampaging mob and John of Gaunt and calmed the situation.

Would be queen, Arabella Stuart was kept imprisoned at Vauxhall.

Nell Gwynne is reputed to have had a house here.

I can’t imagine that mine is an exhaustive list and I’d be pleased to hear from anyone with other suggestions.


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Has Old Vic lost her way?

On Tuesday this week, as part of International Women’s Day celebrations, I was street-canvassing for the Women’s Equality Party in Waterloo.

We had decided to wait outside the Old Vic for the audience from their Gender Debate to exit – hoping that our words and leaflets would find a welcome audience (and they did).  I was also struck, as we talked in the bar afterwards about our Women of South London event, how much female influence had created the success of the Old Vic.

In the 19th Century the theatre was nothing special, simply competing with music halls, variety ‘palaces’ and other theatres.  It came into it’s own under the ownership of Emma Cons, a women’s rights pioneer and a passionate advocate of education for all, she introduced a temperance regime to the theatre and her penny lectures led to the setting up, by her, of Morley College.  Under the management of her niece, Lillian Baylis the theatre began a repertoire of Shakespeare, opera and more serious plays and the Old Vic Company that came into being at that time eventually became the National Theatre in 1963.

When the National Theatre moved to it’s new home on the South Bank the theatre entered a period of financial (although not artistic) decline and was put up for sale.  Some of the potential purchasers would have put it to use as a bingo hall, or a lap dancing club! Instead, responding to public outrange, it was rescued by another woman, Sally Greene, who set up the Old Vic Theatre Trust and acquired the building and from there on success has followed.

So it seemed a shame to me, looking at the posters for the forthcoming season, that the current production and the two to follow are all written by white men, directed by white men and starring white men.  Women (and others) seem to have been squeezed out of the Old Vic which given it’s long history of finding success under women’s patronage seemed a shame.

Perhaps we will find this remedied in the next season?  I do hope so, because hosting a debate on gender imbalance in the theatre, isn’t the same as actually doing something about it by employing those women in leading roles in the repertoire.


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