Thursday 17 December 2020

Frank Herriot Risdon and a Modernist find in Kent

Fort Grenham, Minnis Bay, Kent

Earlier this year I spent a few days exploring the delights of Kent including Margate, Ramsgate and Birchington-on-Sea. Birchington is home to the wonderful Twentieth Century art deco house, built in 1935 and now a superb bed and breakfast hotel. There are a few other deco buildings not far from Twentieth Century including Fort Grenham, built in 1936 and designed by architect Frank Herriot Risdon. The house was built for one Harry Vivien Ward and the Kelly's Directory of the Isle of Thanet for 1939 confirms him living there. Ward was a local notable and served as a Councillor then Alderman on the former Margate Corporation as well as being Mayor in 1953/54. No doubt Fort Grenham saw many important guests during this period.

This impressive, four bedroom house appears to have retained its original crittal windows and has a roof terrace which must command excellent views as the building faces the sea. However, at least externally, it is in poor shape and in need of some loving care. This seems to be a long standing issue as Thanet Council's minutes from April 2013 note that a Section 215 notice had been served on the property. According to UK legislation, a local planning authority can serve such a notice where the condition of land or buildings adversely affects the amenity of the area, requiring the owner to deal with the poor state of a building. 

Risdon was not an architect I had come across before but a little research revealed him to be both accomplished and a bit of a character. Born in Brixton, South London in 1913, he was named after his father who had fought in the Boer War and the First World War. Perhaps inspired by having received drawing lessons from a cousin, he went on to study at the former North London Polytechnic in Holloway, where he later taught. He chartered in 1936 and had the great fortune to find work with Frederick Gibberd who designed Pullman Court, an iconic modernist group of apartment buildings in Streatham. Indeed, Risdon drew the plans for Pullman Court, a project that perhaps inspired one or two of his later works, despite his initially being more enamoured of the classicist Italianate style. His commitment to modernism is further evidenced by him having built a house for himself in this style. Like Fort Grenham it was built in 1935 and was located in Beckenham, then in Kent, now amalgamated into Bromley in South London. I have been unable to locate this house, or even to confirm that it still stands, so if anyone reading this has details please share them in the comments below!

Pullman Court, Streatham, London

The Second World War began just three years after Fort Grenham was built and Risdon saw active service in the Navy in Norway and Greece and was also involved in the action at Salerno, Italy in 1943. After the War he formed a partnership with Alec Shingler and together they designed Hertford's Castle Hall and Dunstable' Civic Centre as well as shopping centres in Glasgow (Drumchapel) and Jarrow, the Herbarium at Kew, and the University of the South Bank premises at Wandsworth. Other projects included the London Nautical School and Audley Square Garage in Mayfair, Central London.

Risdon had a long working life, combining managing his architectural practice with a senior role at North London Polytechnic. He appears to have been popular with his students, several of whom went on to work for him, but at least one of them was not completely comfortable with his approach. In his autobiography, architect Thomas Saunders claims that Risdon "coerced many of his fourth and fifth year students to produce drawings and details for his private work for the odd five or ten pounds". As with many things there are two ways of looking at this. Saunders clearly considered it to be taking advantage but others may have seen it as a chance to get experience of working on a live project and this seems to have resulted in a least some of them gaining paid employment at a later date. Saunders goes on to say that "everyone had to be a cardboard replica of himself. One was either a dedicated disciple or discarded". Despite this, he admits he admired Risdon's work, which is perhaps more important than views on his personality. 

Frank Herriot Risdon died in December 2005. He had worked as an architect for sixty years, not retiring until 1996, at the age of 83. In addition to this architectural work, teaching and naval careers, he continued to paint throughout his life and to take an interest in local planning issues. It is a shame that Fort Grenham, one of the first buildings he was fully responsible for has not been better preserved.

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Thursday 26 November 2020

Essential items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown - Stories from the pandemic

My plan for September had been to spend the whole month in India. For obvious reasons I wasn't able to go and instead traveled vicariously through the pages of contemporary works of fiction by Indian writers. This proved to be a journey of discovery made from my armchair and through the pages of some great books by, amongst others, Deepa Anappara,  Megha Majumdar and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. Most recently I have been reading Essential Items and Other Tales from a Land in Lockdown by Udayan Mukherjee. This collection of ten short stories, all of which take place during the Covid crisis, describes the lockdown experiences of different levels of society but with common themes running though them.

Perhaps the strongest of these themes is that of the outsider. Some are literal outsiders, such as those that live in the street outside the gated communities of the better off, dependant on and waiting for acts of charity in order to survive. And there other, more surprising outsiders, such as the one in a group of wealthy young professionals, whose anger at the virtual signalling charitable work of his friends boils over during a forbidden drinks party. But the most moving and striking example of the outsider, is dealt with in the penultimate tale - Homecoming. When India's lockdown was announced at just four hours notice, millions of internal migrant workers began desperate attempts to reach their home areas rather than being stranded without work or funds in the larger cities. As transport ground to a halt amidst frantic scenes at bus and train terminals, many of these workers began to walk hundreds of miles in order to get home. The un-named narrator of Homecoming tells the story of his return from Gujarat to his village in Uttarakhand. Seemingly cheated of his savings being held "for safekeeping" by his boss, he finds himself, together with many other returnees, held in a camp, separated from the locals to prevent the spread of infection and then forced to stand in line under the watchful eye of baton wielding police, three feet apart from his companions, whilst waiting to be loaded on to a special train. The combination of camps and trains is chilling for historical reasons but equally disturbing is the cold and suspicious welcome some received on reaching their villages, where the locals perhaps rightfully so, were fearful of the virus having been brought from the city to their homes.

Other stories in the collection show a more positive approach to the outsider and the power of the occasional kindness of strangers. In Shelter from The Storm, another group of migrant workers passing through Kolkata get caught in a storm (that really did take place) and sit outside the gates of a formerly wealthy family. Hoping for assistance they are met with a surprising response, whilst in Border Town, a stranded traveller is taken in by an elderly man and his grandson, despite opposition from their neighbours. 

Other stories demonstrate the author's skills in capturing the less public impact of the lockdown on a variety of lives. His characters include an older woman who may or may not have dementia, two funeral workers in Varanasi, worried at the prospect of catching the virus from the bodies they are paid to cremate and the women who clean the houses of the wealthy who one by one were asked not to come to work in case they brought the infection with them and who then worry about their ability to survive without work. The stories are firmly set in India and relate to Indian themes and society but the issues they tackle are universal and will be familiar to readers almost everywhere.

The author was born in Kolkata and previously worked in TV, covering the financial markets. He is also the author of two previous novels. As with several of the books I have enjoyed this year, I came across a review for Essential Items on which is not only a news site but also contains extensive coverage of India's arts scene including specialist sections on books and cinema. Try something different - have look!

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Sclater Street - full of history and a hot spot for street photography

Sclater Street runs from Bethnal Green Road near the Shoreditch Overground Station to the junction with Brick Lane. Quiet and almost abandoned during the week it comes alive on Sunday when there is a flea-market on a rough piece of ground normally used as a car park. The street is closed to traffic and stalls of varying degrees of authority sell household goods, second hand clothes, training shoes and bicycle parts. Its also possible to buy a bicycle from one of the several dealers who stand outside the flea-market and who are subject to regular checks by police looking for "lost" bikes. The Sunday crowd fascinates me. In normal times it includes many tourists on their way to Brick Lane or to Spitalfields' covered market as well as local old timers, hipsters, students and occasional film crews who like the "edgy" urban environment. It is also possible to hear many different languages being spoken with Bengali, Arabic, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Russian and Turkish, reflecting both the local communities and the tourists. In recent years a handful of restaurants, small cafes and the relocated Brick Lane Gallery have added to the eclectic mix and attract yet more visitors.

The street has an interesting history. On the left hand side of the road when walking from Brick Lane towards Bethnal Green Road, there are three weavers' houses, built from 1718-1720. The original inhabitants would have been Huguenots, French protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution. In London many of them were employed in the textile industry. Numbered 70-74 Sclater Street, each house consists of three storeys and a cellar with a single room on each floor. The houses are in a disgraceful condition, covered in graffiti and seemingly abandoned. They back on to and are part of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard site which I understand is the subject of an office development proposal. Whatever the implications of this for the weavers' houses, they are already at risk due to their condition. The website of Chris Dyson architects contains information about a plan to restore the facades but dates from 2013 with no more recent details.

When researching for this piece I came across Sclater Street's entry for the 1891 Census which includes a full listing of all residents in the three houses. Number 70 was home to the Hall family, the head of which, James, aged 44, is listed as a "bird dealer-dog". Nine people lived there including James' brother Daniel aged 22, also employed as a bird dealer-dog and one Caroline Lambert aged 68, listed as a bird dealer. All the residents of number 70 were born in London, most of them in the East End. 

Number 72 was home to seven people including brothers Domenico and Donatio Puncia, both born in Dorigo, Italy. Domenico aged 31 is listed as a restaurant keeper and his brother, a year older, as a cook. The brothers shared the property with six members of the Waters family. William Waters, 28 worked as a stone mason and his wife Mary Ann, 27, was a needle woman. The youngest member of the household was their daughter Mary, just two weeks old. Like the Halls next door, the Waters family were all born in the East End, most of them in Bethnal Green.

Number 74 was home to nine people, most of them members of the Stanwich family. 30 years old Abraham, a picture framer was listed as head of the household. His wife Rachael was a little older than him at 33 and together they had four small children - Judah, Annie, Amy and Alice. Other residents included Abrahams' younger brothers Hyman and Meyer -  a picture framer and a tailor respectively. The other resident was a 22 year old woman listed as "Cohen Kitty" whose name was almost certainly  mistakenly inverted in the records, "Kitty Cohen" being more likely. She worked in the tailoring industry as a button hole maker. The older members of the family have "Russia-Poland" listed as their birthplaces the others were born locally. Their names indicate that the family was Jewish. 

The records for other buildings in the street show that other residents came from Lancashire, Birmingham, Dorset and Wales as well as from Austria and Poland. Occupations listed include boot makers, hatters, cabinet makers, beer house keeper, fancy bird cage maker, ship foreman and numerous jobs connected with the garment industry. This street must have many stories to tell.

The occupations listed for James, Daniel and Caroline at number 70 give a clue as to why they were living in Sclater Street. From the 1850's onwards people came here to see the Bird Fair. Originally located in nearby Club Row it expanded across Bethnal Green Road as time went on. Birds and dogs were traded and there was widespread belief that some dogs being sold at the Fair were "hot" property. There is even a record of a 1912 court case relating to a stolen dog found there. By the 1920's as well as birds and dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, squirrels, tortoises and various other animals were being sold at the Fair. In 1923 a stampede involving up to 4,000 people resulted in the loss of 2000 birds and the death of at least 100 cats and dogs. You can read more about the Bird Fair and see pictures of Sclater Street from the early 1900's here.

Coming back to today, Sclater Street continues to fascinate and tell stories. It is perhaps my favourite London location for both people watching and street photography. I like to find a sport and watch the comings and goings as the weekend drama plays out over several hours. Its proximity to Brick Lane, Spitalfields Market and what remains of Petticoat Lane means that I can move between these locations quickly and also take advantage of the many coffee and snack stalls. The pictures featured in this post are all recent candid shots taken on Sclater Street. They include at least one candidate for the cat walk, an elderly woman wheeling her goods to her favourite spot before spreading them out for sale, a conversation between a director and an actor during a filming session and of course several mask wearers. Some of the pictures feature a backdrop of colourful posters, some of them scrawled with graffiti. The wall on which those posters are displayed is the facade of the aforementioned weavers houses.

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Friday 4 September 2020

Twentieth Century - Art Deco in Birchington-on-sea

Birchington-on-sea is a large village in Kent not far from the larger seaside towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Whitstable and the historical city of Canterbury. It is a short walk from the stunning scenery of Minnis Bay and home to one of Britain's most elegant Art Deco homes. 

In 1935, local builder Chas Hawkes designed and oversaw the construction of an Art Deco building in Birchington. It was to be a home for him and his wife Kathleen and would also have an office for her Minnis Bay Estate Agency. When completed it would have been the epitome of modernism with its striking white exterior, crittall windows, delightful curves and subtle decorative references to the Art Deco "rule of three". Perhaps to emphasise its modernity the couple named their new home Twentieth Century.

The Hawkes lived there for several years until for reasons unknown, they moved to another home just a short step away. They were not the only notable people to have lived in the house. In 1962 Tudor Gates, author, playwright, screenwriter and Trade Unionist acquired the property and lived there until 1986. During that time he wrote a number of TV scripts and screenplays including Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971) - all of them for Hammer, the famed horror film company. He also contributed to the script of Barbarella (1968) and to the TV series The Avengers, The Sweeney and The Saint. Gates changed the building's name to The White House, a name it retained until just a few years ago.

As well as changes of name and ownership, the house was subject to a number of  physical alterations over the years. Kathleen Hawkes' estate agency office originally occupied what is today the breakfast room and had a door leading directly to the garden, enabling the main entry to be retained for private use only. This door disappeared at some point as did the original crittall glazing and the elegant Minnis Bay Estate Agency lettering on the office facade. The original design included stunning squared-off, wrap around windows at the front of the building and sadly these were also removed at some point. Not only this, the lintels installed to support the wall above the windows were removed making it difficult and expensive to reverse this at a later date. The house came on the market in 2011 and Wowhaus, the website devoted to Art Deco and modernist architecture wrote scathingly about the changes describing them as "how no to do it" rather than "wow". At about this time, the house became a bed and breakfast hotel.

Today the wow is well and truly back thanks to current owners Kat Webb and Spencer Stedman who purchased the property in November 2017 after having stayed there as a treat for Spencer's birthday. Both of them have been serious Art Deco collectors for several years and Kat even has an Art Deco dolls house given to her in her childhood! On taking possession they not only restored the original name to the house but undertook significant restoration work to bring it back to its original splendour. This labour of love resulted in them receiving the 2019 Raven Award from the Birchington Heritage Trust.

Today the Twentieth Century Bed and Breakfast is a wonderful place to stay, not only for Art Deco enthusiasts but for anyone wishing to explore this part of Kent with its beaches and other natural and historical attractions.  It has four themed rooms including the Baron and Lady Carson Art Deco suite which is named after the owners of the land on which the house sits. The Tudor Gates room has a collection of posters and other items related to Gates' career and the Amy Johnson room is filled with memorabilia commemorating the famous aviator. The David Bowie room is a tribute to the musical superstar who performed in nearby Margate and who is known to have visited the area as a child. The idea behind the themed rooms is that they reflect different periods with the twentieth century and commemorate people with links to the house and the area. 

Kat and Spencer have displayed items from their Art Deco collections in the common areas of the house and during my recent stay they kindly showed me their wonderful collection of photographs. These include images of the original exterior and of Chas and Kathleen Hawkes and the labourers who worked on the building. They are extremely knowledgable about Art Deco and were very happy to show me Hawkes' original architectural drawings and to share stories about the building's history. They are also wonderful hosts who serve a great breakfast which includes herbs, tomatoes and other fruit grown in their garden. Why would you want to stay anywhere else?

You can find more details about Twentieth Century on their website.

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Monday 24 August 2020

Whitechapel Library - University of the Ghetto

Twenty two London public libraries and cultural facilities have borne the name of Victorian journalist, philanthropist and politician John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911). His particular interest in funding public libraries may have been due to his reportedly having access to few books as a child. The first London library he funded was the former Whitechapel Library, now absorbed into Whitechapel Art Gallery at 77-82 Whitechapel High Street.

It opened its doors on 9th May 1892, the construction costs of £6454 being fully provided by Passmore Edwards but this was not the first attempt to provide a public library in this part of London. The Public Libraries Act of 1850 had followed a Select Committee report that suggested libraries could be used to steer people towards "temperate and moderate habits". Despite strong opposition to the Act from some MPs, it was eventually passed. The Act allowed for levying a charge on the rates of a half-penny in the £ in order to ensure continued funding. Such proposals had to be put to the vote locally before a free public library could be established and in 1878 the voters of Whitechapel rejected adopting the legislation, opposed to providing a facility "...wherein idle people may enjoy themselves".

Samuel Barnett, social reformer and Vicar of St. Jude's Church and his wife Henrietta, co-founder of Toynbee Hall campaigned for a library in Whitechapel but in 1891 Passmore Edwards came forward with the necessary sum.  A site was identified and architects Potts, Son and Hemmings were engaged to design the building. Initial services included a closed-access lending service, separate reading rooms for boys and girls and a reference library. Closed access meant that readers had to ask a member of staff to check the availability of books for them rather than having direct access to the stock. This was common practice in the early days of public libraries. There was also a museum of the natural history collections of the Reverend Dan Greatorex who had earlier established small collections of books on merchant ships for the use of the seamen.

Impressive hours of service were offered, including Sunday afternoons and late opening until 10pm. A programme of talks and lectures was held and schools were able to borrow items from the museum. Modern technology meant that the building had its own generator so as not be dependant on an external energy supply. Formal opening took place on 25th October 1892 with Lord Roseberry, Foreign Secretary and Chairman of the London County Council as the guest of honour.

By the end of 1892, there were 2,500 members including actors, comedians, diamond cutters, lard refiners, leather merchants, at least three journalists and my favourite, "ladies with no occupation given". This impressive list tells only part of the story of the library's role in its community which by 1914 is said to have included 90% of the total Jewish population of the UK. Evidence of its impact is borne out by the stellar list of writers, artists and future academics who made use of it during their youth. It is known that artist Mark Gertler borrowed art books from the library and practised drawing in the reading room. Fellow Whitechapel Boy David Bomberg was also a user.

Playwright Arnold Wesker used the library as a child and later spoke about borrowing and enjoying The Wind In The Willows. Fellow playwright and novelist Bernard Kops was also a regular user and loved the place so much he wrote a poem in its honour as well as a play set within the building. Child psychologist and author of The Ascent Of Man, Jacob Bronowski studied there and mathematician Selig Brodetsky learned English in the library. Born in Russia and one of thirteen children, Brodetsky had a fine career in academia. He studied at Cambridge, lectured at Bristol University, held a chair in Applied Mathematics at the University of Leeds and for a time was President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. East End chroniclers Simon Blumenfeld and Willy Goldman also studied there.

Perhaps the most famous former user was poet and painter Isaac Rosenberg. The child of poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, he was also the author of some of the most famous poetry to emerge from the First World War and was tragically killed in action on 1st April 1918. He is memorialised with a Blue Plaque on the exterior of the building. The achievements of Rosenberg and other writers and artists led to the library being referred to as the university of the ghetto.  Most of the users would have lived in dark, overcrowded and noisy conditions with no space for quiet study, reading or reflection. The library provided this and enabled some of them to go on to great things whilst to others it was a place to find peace and cultural enrichment. Lack of space at home remains one of the main reasons why people come to public libraries today and competition for study space can be fierce.

In 1900 the library came under the auspices of the former Metropolitan Borough of Stepney. Over the next few decades a large collection of Judaica was developed, lending became open access in 1922 and in 1930 a children's library was established in the basement.  Aldgate East Underground Station lies beneath the building and in 1937 a street level entrance to the Tube was inserted into the facade. The East End was severely bombed during the Second World War and damage was sustained to the second floor in 1940. From the late 1940's onwards the neighbourhood began to change with the large Jewish community moving away and being replaced by newcomers, particularly from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh which until 1971 was part of Pakistan.

Levels of use fell in the decades following the War and when I first visited in the early 1990's the building was in a poor state of repair and in need of investment. By this time, Whitechapel was under the control of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest areas in the city and one whose library service was amongst the least used in London. The Council undertook a re-branding exercise, closing some libraries and opening a series of modern, purpose built Idea Stores, combining library services with adult education and expanded access to technology. Whitechapel Library was closed in 2005 and was replaced by the much larger and more strategically located Idea Store, close to Whitechapel Station, a street market and the area's main shopping facilities. On the last day of service, an evening event was held to commemorate the contribution of the library to the local community. It featured performances by Anna Tzelniker, the last active performer of the once great Yiddish theatre and a reading by Bernard Kops of  his poem, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.

The building received Grade II listed status in 1990. After closure it was acquired by the neighbouring Whitechapel Art Gallery which also has a long tradition of serving the local community and has exhibited works by the aforementioned Gertler, Bomberg and Rosenberg. On a personal note, most of my career was spent working in and managing public libraries. Researching for this post I realised that at different times I either worked in or was responsible for six of Passmore Edwards' London libraries. Is this a record?

Perhaps the last word should go to Bernard Kops.

Monday 29 June 2020

Whitechapel Road - The Working Lads' Institute

It's interesting that we can walk past a building hundreds of times without really noticing it and then one day it catches the eye. I must have walked past the former Working Lads' Institute on Whitechapel Road hundreds, possibly thousands of times but only recently noticed it. It stands next to the main and currently closed entrance to Whitechapel Underground Station, a six storey red brick building, completed in 1885. Designed by Scottish architect George Baines, the facade features Portland and Ancaster stone dressings and a three sided Oriel window flanked by additional bay windows at first floor level. It was formally opened to great fanfare by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 31st October 1885. The Illustrated London News reported that "despite the rain which continued throughout the day, there was an immense assemblage of people along the roadway through which the Royal party had to pass".

The Institute began life as an organisation in 1878, in Mount Place, also in Whitechapel, and was founded by Henry Hill, a successful merchant in the City of London. Hill's objective was "to supply a counter attraction to the low music halls and other east end resorts for the young which are so fatal to their social and moral well-being". To this end a library, lecture hall, classrooms, laundry, kitchen, gymnasium and swimming baths were provided for the area's young working class men. The lecture hall could accommodate up to 600 people and boasted stained glass windows with representations of art, religion and industry as well as nine semi-circular lights with images of the seasons and sports. The main facilities were advertised by the words Lecture Hall, Gymnasium and Swimming Bath carved in stone above the two entrances at street level on Whitechapel Road. It was these signs that finally drew my attention to the building and led me to notice the much larger Working Lads' Institute sign emblazoned across the full width of the building at the upper level. How did I ever miss it? 

The total cost of the project was £12,000, a significant sum for the time. Hill did not manage to raise all of the required capital before construction started and so the works were completed in two phases. He managed to secure additional funds from Reverend Thomas Jackson who ran an Evangelical Mission in Clapton and had a history of working with the poor. Jackson was to have a long association with the Institute and eventually purchased the building in 1896, saving it from the threat of closure due to a constant lack of funds.  He was influential in increasing the organisation's work with young homeless men. From the beginning, accommodation was offered for those in need with an initial 24 beds and space to expand to 60. Additional beds were made available to young men aged 17-21 including some who were referred by the courts with Jackson sometimes acting as probation officer. However, it is important to note that not all of those who made use of the hostel had been involved in criminal activity and that some would have committed what would be considered very minor offences today.

As well as providing education, leisure and refuge to young men, the Institute occasionally hosted other activities, including in 1888 the inquests into the deaths of Mary Ann Nicholls (also known as Polly Nicholls) and Annie Chapman, two victims of the Whitechapel Murderer.  

The Institute no longer operates from Whitechapel Road and has been renamed the Whitechapel Mission. The building now contains a number of flats with retail units at ground floor level. The facade was restored in 2012 as part of a wider improvement project linked to the London Olympics. This online edition of Spitalfields Life includes pictures of some of the lads who attended activities or lived there as well as of one of the stained glass windows. It also makes reference to the Institute being one of the first organisations of its type to admit Black men and includes a photograph of Reverend Jackson with a group of Black soldiers at the time of the First World War. So much history in one building. 

Wednesday 13 May 2020

The Ahuja Family And Early Burmese Photography.

From 1824 to 1937, Burma (today's Myanmar) was ruled as part of British India. It was then governed as a separate entity until independence in 1948. During the colonial period, many Indians came to live, work and establish businesses in the country. It is estimated that there are over 900,000 people of Indian ethnicity living in Myanmar today, many of them the descendants of those who came in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ahuja family arrived in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1885 when D.A. Ahuja acquired the Kundandass and Co. photographic studio. There is a division of opinion about where the family came from. In his excellent book, Burmese Photographers, Lukas Birk suggests they came from Shikapur, Sindh in what is now Pakistan but at least one other source refers to them as Punjabis. 

1901 was an important year for the business. In addition to changing its name to the D.A. Ahuja Studio, our man published a guide to "Photography in Burmese for Amateur Photographers" and his nephew Tickamdas Naraindas Ahuja (T.N.) joined him from India. The studio thrived, attracting customers from the British community as well as from local families who came to be photographed or to buy cameras and photographic paper imported from India. The success of the business is demonstrated through the studio being located on the first floor of a building at 47 Sule Pagoda Road, in the heart of downtown Yangon. There is anecdotal evidence of the business surviving there until the 1960's.

Around 1906, D.A. acquired a number of pictures taken by German photographer Philip Adolphe Klier. The collection included architectural and highly stylised ethnographic pictures taken in different parts of Burma. Ahuja began publishing the pictures as postcards but there seems to have been some problem about how he acquired these works and in 1907, Klier took successful legal action against him. Losing the legal battle was only a temporary setback as in 1909 Ahuja purchased the archive of Italian photographer Felice Beato and also became the legal owner of Watts and Skeen, a studio established by Frederick Skeen in 1887. The Skeen family also had a photographic business in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Beato's archive included landscape works, stylised portraits and also war photography from Japan, China and the Middle East. Klier died in 1911 and from 1914, Ahuja resumed producing some of his pictures as postcards. He was to publish 600 cards over the next 20 years, some of which can be found at card sales or occasionally on eBay. The cards were sent to Germany to be chromo-lithographed, ensuring the best quality finishes.

The postcards cover a wide range of subjects. There are several studio shots of elegant women, slightly stiff looking family groups, important monuments, snake charmers and dancers. There is also at least one card showing prisoners in Rangoon jail queueing to collect their food which whilst fascinating is an unusual image to send to the family back home.

D.A.'s nephew, T.N. opened his own studio in 1916 with a shop at 86 Phayre Street (now Pansodan Road) where he operated as an agent for Kodak products. There is some evidence that he also served as magistrate. Business was interrupted in 1942 when the family fled before the arrival of the Japanese but they quickly returned to reopen the studio at the end of the war. In 1948 T.N.'s son, R.A. Ahuja opened another studio at 386 Dalhousie Road (now Maha Bandoola Road). The store became the sole agent in Burma for the sale of Gevaert products and operated until 2007. R.A. the last remaining member of the Ahuja family in Burma died in 2014, bringing almost 130 years of their presence in the country to an end. The date of D.A.'s death is unknown.

The images included in this post are from reprints of the cards I purchased from the Yangon Heritage Trust at 22-24 Pansodan Road in 2017. The Trust is a great source of information on Yangon's built heritage. As well as selling books, maps and postcards, it stages occasional exhibitions and guided walks.  I have a habit of buying postcards on my travels and then putting them "somewhere safe" when I get home. During the lockdown I have been sorting through my collection and rediscovered my Ahuja cards. I also turned back to the already mentioned  excellent book by Lukas Birk which has a short section on the Ahujas.  Birk is an accomplished traveller and photographer whose projects have included research into the now almost disappeared box cameras of Kabul. 

D.N. Ahuja also produced postcards featuring images from India, some of which may have been his won work. You can see some of them on the Paper Jewels website.

It is not possible to confirm which of the images featured in this post are the work of the Ahuja family or are from other photographer's archives.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Postcards From My Hometown - 2, The Bathing Pool

I was born and spent the first 20 years of my life in Redcar. I have fond memories of spending time in the area known as the Coatham Enclosure with its indoor swimming baths, boating lake and amusement arcade which included a large fairground ride known locally as the "mad mouse". These were the remnants of a much larger range of facilities constructed in the late 1920's when a major building programme funded by the local authority provided work for men made jobless after the General Strike of 1926. There were no state funded benefits at that time and rather than have families seek relief from the Guardians of the Poor Law, the Council established construction jobs with wages funded through the rates.

The original complex included an outdoor swimming facility called the Bathing Pool. It is astonishing to think that during the 1930's, Redcar's residents and visitors could benefit from three swimming pools. As well as the indoor baths, demolished in 1978, there were two outdoor facilities - a large one for adults and confident swimmers and a smaller, rectangular pool for children and learners. A small charge was levied, 4d for adults and 2d for children, whilst towels and swimwear could be hired at a small cost. Both pools were eventually closed. An outdoor roller skating rink was built over the larger one whilst the smaller one was built over to provide a car park for the indoor pool. I have vague memories of the closed skating rink and of trying to see over the surrounding wall with friends. This too is long gone.

The postcard featured in this piece shows an image of the Bathing Pool including swimmers, spectators and a daring diver launching himself from the highboard. When I bought the card my first thoughts were that this was an image of the Boating Lake due to the impressive buildings of Newcomen Terrace that can be seen in the background. However, a little online research and help from my brother soon uncovered the story of the long lost Bathing Pool. The site is now occupied by a youth facility know as The Hub. Whilst researching for this post I came across a couple of short films of Redcar in the 1930's the first of which includes some footage of a beauty contest at the Bathing Pool. You can see them here.

The card is post marked 8th July 1943 and was posted during the Second World War.  It was sent by one Nora to a Miss Jean Horn in Guildford, Surrey. Nora has written a chatty message saying she is on a course which apparently was "terribly stiff and means working all the time, night and day". She asks to be remembered to some friends and is anxious to make it clear that the picture on the card is from before the war "so don't think it is lovely here". She notes her temporary address on the card which suggests that Nora was in Redcar was connected to the R.A.F. so she may have served in the armed forces.

As with the card in my previous post, this one was purchased from the wonderful Saltburn Framing Company, located in Saltburn Station. More postcards coming soon.

You might also like Postcards From My Home Town 1 - The Beach, Redcar

Monday 20 April 2020

Postcards From My Hometown - 1, The Beach, Redcar

When I travel I still like to send postcards. I know this is considered terribly old fashioned especially when Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and a host of other platforms offer the opportunity to immediately send a virtual postcard to scores of people. I also enjoy sharing news and pictures online but still think there's something special about receiving a hand written postcard addressed to me personally.

However sending postcards from abroad can sometimes be a challenge. A few years ago I bought some beautiful cards in Guatemala but then found that the country had suspended its postal service so I couldn't send them. I eventually posted them from Costa Rica where I had a short stopover on the way home. It felt a bit like cheating. On my first visit to the Philippines in 2016 I purchased some postcards in Vigan, a beautiful historic city and a World Heritage Site. I took them to the post office where I was greeted with a smile and the confusion as the staff explained that it was so long since anyone had sent postcards that they no longer had details of what to charge me. They very politely  told me that "everyone sends pictures home on their phone these days sir," before a nominal charge was decided and the cards handed over. 

I should explain that I don't send hundreds of cards but always try to find one for my elderly relatives, my grand daughters and one or two friends in different countries who I think will appreciate receiving them. I know my aunt has a collection of every card I have ever sent her and when my dad was alive he carefully steamed off the stamps so that he could add them to his collection. Speaking of collections I must admit that I have hundreds of postcards that I've bought at exhibitions, markets and even online. They cover a wide range of subjects - vintage advertising, Art Deco and art nouveau architecture, souvenirs from places I visited years ago and lots of those cards that art galleries sell to generate a little income. What do I do with them? They are useful research tools and sometimes come in useful for blogging but for the most part I keep them in boxes under my sofa and look at them perhaps once in a few years. Still,  I am loathe to be parted from them.

I recently bought some vintage cards from the Saltburn Frame Company, a great little gallery and framing shop inside Saltburn Station. All of them are historical views of my home town, Redcar. The first, at the top of this post is a beautiful image of fishing boats on the beach during low tide and of very stylish people strolling along the promenade or standing on the beach. The women wear long heavy skirts, the men are sporting boaters and even the boys wear caps. The woman with the white parasol standing on the beach and looking out to sea is especially elegant. Today the sea front is   quite run down but the image here shows that this was not always the case. The Royal Hotel, on the left hand side of the picture was once owned by the parents of actress June Laverick closed several years ago and has been converted into flats.

The rear of the card identifies this image as one of the famous Frith's series. Francis Frith was a pioneering photographer, born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire in 1822. He was a man of many talents. He became a founding member of the Liverpool Photography Society in 1853 (established just 14 years after the invention of the art), ran a major publishing business and was also the owner of a successful grocery store. Frith was prolific, producing not only a photographic record of Britain but also travelling extensively, practising his art in Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Syria. He died in 1898 and his photographic publishing company was taken over by his son and later by his grandson.  According to online data the picture at the top of this post, number 47993 was taken in 1901 so can't have been his own work. The postmark shows the card to have been sent at 5.30pm on July 20th but the year is not legible. The stamp bears an image of King George V whose reign ran from 1910 to 1936 but of course these stamps would have remained in circulation for some time after his death.

The card was sent to a woman called Hilda who lived not very far from Redcar in Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough. The writing is difficult to read, even with the help of a magnifying glass, but the sender reports that it is a lovely day, very hot albeit a little cloudy and that they had been outside from 10 am until 12.45. Unfortunately his or her name is illegible but the message reminds me of the things my relatives wrote on cards sent from Torquay and Bournemouth whilst I was growing up.

Look out for more postcards from Redcar coming soon!

Monday 6 April 2020

Picture post 73 - Purim in Mea Shearim

On March 11th I was walking the streets of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, camera in hand, witnessing its Ultra Orthodox community celebrating Purim. A lot has happened since then and life has changed so much that rather than a few short weeks it seems like months ago. Two days later as the situation rapidly deteriorated with more and more cases of the coronavirus being reported and restrictions on movement and travel beginning to be implemented, I cut my trip short and came home. I had planned to write about my time in Mea Shearim soon after my return but I fell ill with the virus and was unable to do anything much for a couple of weeks. I am much better now and bit by bit am able to resume my normal activities.

Mea Shearim is one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. The name literally translates as one hundred gates but can also be understood as one hundred fold. Founded in 1874 it was funded through a partnership of 100 share holders who purchased land outside the old city in order to escape the poor sanitation and to live in a healthier environment. The contractors for the project were Yosef Rivlin a prominent member of the Jewish community who worked with a Christian Arab to construct a courtyard neighbourhood surrounded by a wall, the gates of which were locked every evening. 

Today the area is populated almost exclusively by different groups of Haredi, ultra-Orthodox Jews who strictly maintain religious laws, wear modest clothing and generally live separately from the the rest of society. This separation includes rejecting many aspects of modernity, including as a rule, photography. However on certain occasions it is possible to enter the neighbourhood to respectfully and discretely take pictures. However to is not acceptable to take portraits without permission and if people signal that they do not wish to be photographed it is my strong advice to respect that.

Purim is one of Judaism's happier festivals, celebrating the survival of the Jews in ancient Persia and the foiling of a plan to exterminate them. It is celebrated rigorously, almost riotously in  Mea Shearim. Many people take part in the tradition of wearing a disguise or costume, the many yeshivas (schools focusing on the study of religious texts) hold mass celebratory events in the presence of important rabbis and some of the men of this normally sober community indulge heavily in the consumption of alcohol.

As I walked the streets of the neighbourhood with a photographer friend we met with a variety of responses. Some people hurried away or covered their faces when they saw the cameras. One or two called al tetzalem b'mea Shearim - do not take pictures in Mea Shearim, whilst others were curious, wanted to talk a little and in some cases were happy for a portrait to be taken. Most interesting were some of the children who having seen us, would approach, not speaking but inviting us to admire their costumes and to photograph them by standing and posing in front of us, such as the boy in the clown suit pictured above. 

Perhaps the highlight of my time in Mea Shearim was spending an hour in a particular yeshiva where hundreds of Haredi men stood swaying, chanting and singing in the open air on bleacher style seating whilst the rabbis sat at an elevated table observing the proceedings. The singing could be heard several streets away, strong, loud and beautiful. Arriving in the grounds of the yeshiva I first entered a refectory where food and copious amounts of wine were laid out on a series of tables. Several of the men looked the worse for wear including boys perhaps as young as ten or eleven, some of them collapsed on the floor whilst others had over indulged so much that they were physically ill in the courtyard. One or two became very loud from the alcohol, dancing, falling and in some cases collapsing. In the midst of this I noticed a young man wearing an immaculate kaftan (coat) and cap who had perhaps the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Standing alone he seemed preoccupied and apart from the others. He is pictured at the top of this post.

Back in the streets we came across family groups on their way to visit relatives, the children all wearing costumes. Looking up we noticed many small children playing on balconies and watching the activity below with much interest. We also met Shmuel aged 12 who was looking after a bakery but was happy to pose for us. I asked him if the bakery belonged to his father. He said it didn't and that he didn't want to say who owned it. The residents of Mea Shearim are often suspicious of outsiders which probably explains his answer.

Back home and in lockdown, I have no idea when my next expedition will take place. In the meantime readers are welcome to follow my instagram account  or Flickr page. 

Sunday 2 February 2020

Faces of Yangon

Yangon is one of those cities that tourists visit for a couple of days, go to the main attractions and then leave thinking they've seen everything. They are wrong. True, it may lack the sophistication of some major Asian cities, has little in the way of nightlife and its public transport system can be challenging. But none of this matters when there is something, or someone, interesting around every corner. The eclectic mix of architecture that includes Indian and Chinese influences, crumbling survivors of the colonial period and classic Burmese style pagodas is reflected in the diversity of the people, many of them happy to share their story with interested passers-by.

Buddhist monk on Yangon's Circle Line train
The best place to see this rich mix is of course in the streets, particualrly the numbered lanes that cross the main boulevards of the city centre. From 17th Street to the high 20's it is a good idea to look up and admire the many remaining shop-houses, some of them 100 years old. Built to accommodate a commercial purpose on the ground floor with a residential unit above they are beginning to fall victim to developers so go and see them now. Some have retained their wooden facades and in 19th street in particular there are a number of Clan Association buildings with Chinese signage and the occasional, live, fighting cock tethered outside. There are also numerous markets. 17th Street hosts a famous daily street market as does the upper end of 38th Street, both of them selling all kinds of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish as well as flowers, spices and other goods. The famous Bogalay Zay and Bogyoke markets are also worth a visit although the latter a little too touristy for me nowadays. Outside of the organised markets there are countless, often "informal" vendors selling snacks. fruit, household goods or offering various street side repair services.

Happy vendor, 17th Street
Waiting for customers, rickshaw driver, 14th Street
Interesting as the architecture and sale goods are, it is of course the people of Yangon that bring these streets to life and who hold a special attraction for me. They also make this one of the most photogenic locations I've ever visited and in general people are happy to pose for photographs. It is also relatively easy to take candid shots of the city's street life. One of the iconic sights of Yangon and Myanmar generally is the daily procession of Buddhist monks and nuns collecting donations of rice, other foods and sometimes money from the faithful who hope to gain merit from this good deed. I often find this to be can a moving sight as some of the nuns in particular are very young, many of orphans or from families too poor to look after them.

Breakfast in the San Pya fish market
Shy porter, Thiri Mingalar wholesale market
As well as walking the streets of Yangon, I enjoy visiting the huge wholesale markets located just a short distance from the city centre. The San Pya wholesale fish market and the vast Thiri Mingalar fruit, vegetable and flower market receive few foreign visitors.  So few that I don't recall seeing a single tourist during any of the visits I've made. The workers may be a little surprised to see a foreigner but are nonetheless very welcoming. In most cases they are too busy to spend much time talking but the workers are generally relaxed about being photographed. This makes up for the overpowering smell at San Pya which permeates everything and which will require you to send all of your clothes to the laundry after a visit!  Waterproof boots are also strongly advised if visiting.

This cheeky pair followed me around Thiri Mingalar until I took their picture
Worker with neck tattoos,  San Pya fish market
During my most recent time in Yangon, I had the privilege of visiting the neighbourhood of a good friend who I first met as a guide four years ago. Yuzana Garden City is about a thirty minute drive from the city centre. Primarily a residential area, it also has a large, busy market selling the usual food items and household goods. Until recently the market location was not busy as the vendors preferred to set up shop at the roadside. This may have been good for business but it prevented traffic from passing or in some cases even entering the streets. The local authority stepped in and there is now enforcement in place to prevent this behaviour - although it doesn't stop some vendors sneaking back to the street side in the afternoons!

As we walked through the market, people called out "hello"and "where are you from" - something that I have experienced in my travels in many countries, but here they also like to tease. The female vendors in particular have a good sense of humour, suggesting I might like to marry their friend or take them back to London with me. Several of them claimed me as their relative when neighbouring vendors expressed surprise at seeing me. My kind of humour. Here, not only were people happy to be photographed but some also requested me to take their pictures or those of their friends. I often find that when someone volunteers their friends for a picture, what they really mean is they want one of themselves but are too shy to ask. My hour or so in the market here passed very quickly and I am extremely grateful for the experience.

Herbs vendor, Yuzana Garden City
Snacks vendor, Yuzana Garden City
Rickshaw driver waiting for customers, Yuzana Garden City
I've written several times about the etiquette of photographing people in the street but it's worth mentioning a few things again. If I want to take a close-up or a more "formal" portrait, I always seek permission first. I wouldn't want someone to come up to me shove a camera in my face and then walk off. If I can I make efforts to talk to the person a little before requesting a picture. It's helpful to walk with someone local as they can interpret and also advise on any important issues that might not occur to an outsider. If I want to photograph children I always ask the parent or an adult accompanying them and I never photograph children who are alone. In markets I often buy something from a vendor first. This works better in some cases than in others. Buying a few pieces of fruit is not a problem and they can always be given to someone who needs them more than me. Fish, meat or live animals is a bit more of a problem! Obviously for candid shots things are a little different but it is still important to be sensitive and if someone says "no" or indicates they are unhappy with being photographed then accept this graciously and point your camera elsewhere. It is always good to show people their pictures on the camera screen and if possible to print copies and take them back to the although this can be difficult due to one's schedule or because it can be hard to find the people again.

The portraits featured in this post were taken over five days in January this year. I printed copies and was able to distribute some of them. I plan to continue this project and to capture the stories of some of Yangon's people during my next visit.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

And to close, some more citizens of Yangon...

Rakhine woman, fruit vendor outside Indian Bazaar
Buddhist nun, 18th Street
Vendor, 17th Street
Alone and watching the world go by, 17th Street
Just me and my phone, porter in 17th Street
Ponderous look, 38th Street
Preoccuiped smoker, Merchant Road
Mister Ayoob, merchant in 41st Street
Time for a rest, 17th Street
Confidence, Innsein township, Yangon suburb