Director’s Diary: Think Deep for Half Term

Last week I attended an interesting and very well attended launch of Thinkdeep http://www.tduk.org Their mission: To inform and guide the general public, decision makers, politicians and professionals how the use of urban underground space can create better cities with socio-economic benefits for society. This is important work. I am sure you are also familiar with APGUS whose party visited the Thames Tunnel in 2010, during construction work on the East London Line extension. Adam Stuart (Balfour Beatty) and I took the parliamentarians around, and before they arrived I asked APGUS Chair Helen Nattrass if the tunnelling industry had a message for their Lordships. Yes: ‘build it properly, because you never know what it will be used for’. This seems counter intuitive, but it is true: Brunel could not have imagined his tunnel as part of London’s busy underground system, nor motor vehicles on his famous bridge in Bristol, but these are expensive bits of infrastructure, so of course they have been re-used.

Because I was properly brought up, I made no mention to either group of the obvious and consistent use made of underground spaces. But last night the Tunnel of Love was throbbing with activity. Brunel’s First Project opened in 1843 as – amongst other things – the world’s largest underground meeting space for lovers. Last night – being the closest Saturday to the day itself – the Grand Entrance Hall was busy with torch songs, and two hundred and fifty amorous visitors were in very good voice. The Midnight Apothecary served aphrodisiac cocktails, and Eros himself (possibly a volunteer, but impeccably costumed and armed with love darts) watched over the whole affair, like Juliet, from our new balcony. During the breaks, I was pleased to see lovers in the Engine House scouring the display for advice and information: you must remember this was an entirely new French technique.

This week we have a group from St George’s International School, Rome. Last week we had a French school group from Gap, near Marseille. I take much pleasure explaining to these groups that a French man began construction of the London Underground, and I quietly enjoy my exercise of extraordinary self control, not once saying ‘Mind the Gap’. Not once. This week is half term and there will be more children in family groups for boat trips and workshop activities. All things Victorian, every day. Details here and below.

I shall return to BBC1’s TABOO when the children are safely back in school. But I will answer my own question about the East India Company and America by reminding us all that the Boston Tea Party was about tax and East India tea.

Sunday 12th February
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 13th February
10.00 Thames Learning Group meet Tower Bridge Exhibition
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube: an extra day trip for half term holidays
12.00-15.00 Half term Activities for Crafty Engineers: Bring your parent. Look at the Thames and Make your own Stereoscopic Peepshow

Tuesday 14th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks and a party from Ireland
12.00-15.00 Half term Activities for Crafty Engineers: Bring your parent. Love is in the air, Love the Thames. Make your own Valentine’s Decoupage Frames

Wednesday 15th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks and a party from University of Third Age
12.00-15.00 Half term Activities for Crafty Engineers: Bring your parent. Get over the Thames. Design and build your own bridge
Family groups help our consultant Nicky Boyd with evaluation for Audience Development plan
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 16th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
12.00-15.00 Half term Activities for Crafty Engineers: Bring your parent. Remember the Thames. Make a medal to commemorate the biggest ship on the Thames, SS Great Eastern 1858

Friday 17th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
12.00-15.00 Half term Activities for Crafty Engineers: Bring your parent and smell the Thames. Keep the Great Stink away with your own fragrant herb bag

Saturday 18th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room

Director’s Diary: A View from the Bridge. Death. Spice. Life.

Standing on the stainless steel bridge (WhitbyBird) at the mouth of St Saviour’s Dock, I enjoy a spectacular view of Tower Bridge (Wolfe-Barry and Brunel). I am just upstream from the Museum and close to Bermondsey tube station, from where our river walks begin. These are permanent moorings, homes for the affluent, but behind me, when the tide is out and the mud is oozing, it is easy to imagine a different demographic. This is where Dickens placed Fagin and Oliver Twist, where Bill Sykes swung from a crane’s gib, like the pirates and murderers before him from their gallows. Henry Mayhew – philanthropist, social reformer, one time midshipman with the East India Company – described this muddy inlet lined with latrines and emptying into a tidal ditch where children played and women went for water. Across the river is Execution Dock where pirates did the dance of death. Amongst them Captain Kidd, though he was not a pirate: he was a pirate catcher who did not catch enough to satisfy the East India Company. Here at St Saviour’s they nailed up his body parts, and all the time, the water lapping at Saffron Wharf, Cinnamon Wharf, Java Wharf. In Shad Thames: Jacob’s Island, the Clove Building and Nutmeg House. Sometimes when buildings are bruised and converted, you can still smell the spices. And imagine the screams. Death. Spice. Life.

This is the story on our riverside walks and heritage boat tours. For the Honourable East India Company it was always about the spices. In 1600 the merchant traders first received their Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I and established routes to the east and rose to account for half the world’s trade. Their attempt on the route over the top of Russia was an eccentric failure, but given the chance they would have backed madman Columbus…

The Company is at least partly responsible for the Greenwich panorama, sometimes called ‘the English Versailles’. Our walk along the north bank, following the sweep of the river, offers splendid views of Christopher Wren’s buildings framing the Queen’s House. The river was busier when Canaletto painted it, but Wren’s buildings are still there and on our walks we enjoy the view before boarding the train. The Royal Observatory stands at the top of the hill, which visitors climb to stand in the courtyard with one foot each side of the brass line marking 0* prime meridian. A fanciful notion, east and west meeting on a hilltop in Greenwich, but it’s true, except they don’t meet, they collide. In Greenwich the gallery about the East India Company has a moving vox populi: Londoners explain how they come to be here. One Londoner describes how mention of the English Company’s name made her grandfather rage at the people who stole the jewel of his country. But, she candidly admits, she has not her grandfather’s luxury of condemning, out of hand, what is half her heritage. Like many Londoners, she must do more than acknowledge a diverse cultural background, she must resolve and make sense of a violent and conflicted heritage…

BBC1’s TABOO may take some historical liberties – I’m not sure the Company thought of trade across America – but the obsession with routes to the east is real enough. Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, built in the Company’s twilight years, and financed by the Eastern Steam Navigation, is just more compelling evidence. When people think of Brunel, they think of Bristol, the Great Western Railway and the Great Western Steamship, but this is the man who built a Tunnel and a Ship for the trade to the east.

Rotherhithe is the East India Company town where all Brunel Museum walks end.

Sunday 5th February
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 6th February
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 7th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
18.30 launch of Think Deep: environment experts creating sustainable cities using underground space.

Wednesday 8th February
10.30 French students visit from College Fontreyne, Gap
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 9th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
12.30 Harlow U3A

Friday 10th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Saturday 11th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room
17.30 Valentine’s celebration in the Tunnel of Love

Robert

Director’s Diary: Nutmeg for the Big Apple

St Valentine at the Tunnel of Love is Saturday 11th February but most of the tickets have gone. Next Midnight Apothecary is Saturday 18th March for St Patrick’s Day and the anniversary of the Thames Tunnel’s opening. This seems appropriate because there were Irish (and Cornish) miners working for Brunel. Visit our website for details…

TABOO continues to horrify and entertain and shows the East India Company as the most venal and vicious of traders. Brunel’s Tunnel was built for cargo, for traders like them, and Rotherhithe is an old East India town. Our heritage walks tell the same story, but with a little less blood and gore.

The East India Company was first granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I: we say Royal Charter, but this is just a piece of paper: ‘If you see anything you want: take it. If there’s anyone in the way: kill them.’ A huge trading advantage which the East India used to the full; using the Royal Charter and the largest private army in the world, they controlled a quarter of the globe.

Their methods were entirely unscrupulous, their most infamous intervention the Opium Wars. The Company wanted to trade with China, but China would only trade for silver. The Company did not have enough silver, so they illicitly exported Bengal opium to China, creating a drug habit that would then require feeding. In terms of ethical business practice, this is off the scale! As our upright 19th century Prime Minister William Gladstone put it: ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of’.

The greatest prize in the east was nutmeg because it offered protection form the plague. Brunel’s Tunnel was a nutmeg tunnel, and in our Museum bookshop look at the pictures in On the River (pub Age Concern): nutmeg from the hold is moved by spade and by sack. Nutmeg once grew on just five islands in the world, and the Dutch East India Company controlled four of them. The English controlled the fifth, an island called Rhum (not the one in Scotland!), and because it was protected by a reef, the island was difficult to storm. The English held it despite overwhelming odds, but eventually were brought kicking and screaming to treaty. The Dutch forced a trade: the island of Rhum for another island the other side of the world. With ill grace and bad temper, the English traded a small island in Oceania for New Amsterdam, or Manhattan. How many nutmegs is New York worth? The English thought they had been robbed. The moral? In these uncertain times especially, hold your nerve, trade long, don’t sell short: it will probably be alright in the end…

Strategic investment advice, and other valuable insights and information, offered by our guides and global analysts on daily heritage walks and boat tours. See below for details, but remember the value of investments can go up and down. Commodity markets look robust, but there is no nutmeg in the Tunnel. With recent improvements in sanitation, investors holding nutmeg and gambling on another plague should consider diversifying. With St Valentine approaching, chocolate looks like a clever bet, and for the squeamish there are now ethical sources…

Sunday 29th January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 30th January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 31st January
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
Volunteer Interviews

Wednesday 1st Feb
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
11.30 Harlow U3A
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 2nd Feb
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Friday 3rd Feb
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
14.00 Meeting Mayflower 400 Steering Group

Saturday 4th
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch with the Director at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room

Director’s Diary: The Honourable United East India Company

It is still cold and bright along the river, but Wassail provided hot rum punch and a listing and photograph in Time Out’s page Your Perfect Weekend. Quite right!

If you missed out, there are still some tickets left for our Valentine’s event on February 11th when we promise torchsongs for the loved up, the hopeful, the curious and the cynical. And a descent into Brunel’s dark, underground love cave for readings from his diary. The Thames Tunnel was built for cargo, in fact built principally for shipping agencies like the East India Company, but this is also where lovers met, including a very young Brunel and a romantic teenager Fanny Kemble. Fanny wrote about her visit – with fabulous metaphor and innuendo! – in her diary, extract reprinted in our own book The Brunels’ Tunnel:

Mr Brunel, who was superintending some of the works, offered to conduct us to where the workmen were employed -an unusual favour, which delighted us all. We left our broad, smooth path of light, and got into dark passages, where we stumbled among coils of ropes and heaps of pipes, where springs were welling up and flowing about in every direction.

Fanny was later to become the most famous actress of her generation, and even more significantly, gained notoriety as an abolitionist married to a slaver. She struggled with her conscience and sensibilities, and her role as wife and mother, but eventually divorced and published a highly contentious account of her life married to a plantation owner. Difficult and controversial, but this is the only authentic Tunnel of Love. Visit our website for details…

Slavery and the East India Company and many other uncomfortable controversies dominate TABOO. I am enjoying this Saturday night drama, not least because The Brunel Museum heritage boat tours – daily 10.40 Embankment tube (not Sunday, Monday) – cover lots of East India Company ground. Tom Hardy’s series is not for the faint hearted: it is visceral and so are the East India, a greedy, vicious and unprincipled set of businessmen. The Thames is a very dark and dangerous place. This is not just the Rotherhithe of Charles Dickens (Old Mortuary, Resurrectionists, Trotwood, Wickfield and Dombey House), this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Elephant Lane, Ivory Court). Rotherhithe is an old East India Company Town. It’s not just the street names – Rupack Street, Bombay Court, East India Court, Ceylon Wharf – here, away from the bustle upriver, we hear the ageless, endless lapping of the Thames. High romance from the pen of onetime mariner Joseph Conrad:

A change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. From Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests – and that never returned. Adventurers and settlers, kings ships and ships of men, captains, admirals interlopers of the Eastern trade and generals of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they had all gone out on that stream. The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empire.
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore.

East India ships lined the wharves at Rotherhithe. The old school house – still standing – was endowed by East India captains, and the church (John James after Christopher Wren) was rebuilt by the Company’s mariners. The Honourable East India Company paid for the memorial stone in the local churchyard, commemorating the brave actions of Prince Lee Boo, the black prince of Rotherhithe, who saved the lives of mariners on the Antelope, plucked from storm seas off the Island of Palau. The Antelope was on a secret mission for the East India Company, making charts to bring the spices home. Nutmeg had a hugely inflated price because it was believed to offer protection from the plague: you could buy a man’s freedom for one nutmeg. There was more money to be made trading spices than ransacking every Spanish galleon that left port. Not so much ‘pieces of eight’ more ‘pieces of nutmeg’. It was nutmeg led to the wreck of the Antelope.

I shall have more to say about the East India Company as the drama unfolds…

Next week we have the usual heritage walks and boat tours every day. During engineering on the pier, we continue to meet at Embankment tube and walk to Westminster Pier.

Sunday 22nd January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 23rd January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 24th January
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Wednesday 25th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
11.00 Tower Hamlets U3A
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 26th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Friday 27th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Saturday 28th
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room

Director’s Diary: Wassail & Hobbit

Our fifth anarchic Wassail! Anachronistically, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as Butler of the Feast, presides over this ancient ceremony, but the important thing is: all men, women and trees are properly watered. The Butler is aided and abetted by the Wassail Queen, the Green Man and GREENTRAD the Greenwich Traditional Musicians Co-op. The shout Wassail given throughout the evening is call and response, like church but without the incense. This year a congregation of 250.

Wassail is from the Old English ‘waes hael’ or ‘Good Health’ and usually involves dancing round apple trees, but at the Brunel Museum we celebrate under the huge Acacia. The Acacia does not make cider, but the blossom appears in cocktails at the Midnight Apothecary. The Wassail Queen arouses the tree, and the Green Man attempts to impregnate everything: men, women, trees – even musical instruments. It’s all in the best possible taste.

The night is cold, so we set up the cocktail bar in the underground chamber. This is like Beowulf’s Mead Hall, where warriors ate and sang and drank. Brunel’s Entrance Hall has always been a place of welcome, and like the mead hall, noisy with entertainment. We also called it the hobbit hole, as a joke, and because the old doorway was half height. Before the dancing starts, we give our guests a reading from The Hobbit.

But look closely at Tolkien’s text. There are, of course, countless references to tunnels, but more than that, we read of ‘tube shaped halls’, sliding doors, maps, keys and slots. The slot can only be the place for travel cards at the ticket barrier, and now all is clear: this is not just a journey through Middle Earth, this is London Underground the early years. How else to explain ‘the great Kingdom in the east’? Clearly Tolkien’s tribute to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the tube’s first great architect. The nomenclature ‘Great Hall of the high ELF’ is part anagram, part clumsy disguise: ELF is clearly TFL. The ‘one ring that binds them’ is prophetic reference to London Overground, an orbital railway encompassing the whole system.

Like you, I feel a little foolish because I did not immediately see the allegory. Buried meaning…

Next week we have the usual heritage walks and boat tours every day. Embankment Pier is likely closed for a month, so we meet at Embankment tube and walk to Westminster Pier.

Sunday 15th January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 16th January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 17th January
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
11.00 meeting prospective booker

Wednesday 18th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 19th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
08.00 BBC Stargazing Live and Prof Brian Cox filming in Grand Entrance Hall
10.00 funeral Mass St George’s Catholic Cathedral for Stephen Humphrey, eminent local historian, author and Brunel supporter

Friday 20th Jan

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Saturday 21st
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room

Director’s Diary: Io! Saturnalia. Wassail!

The holiday season is over, but not the celebrations. The Museum is open every day. The tweet about graffiti on the children’s train mural is the most loved tweet ever, and revellers have fixed a large toy donkey in the tree. Love London Awards, run each year by Time Out, declares us runner up 2016 (by popular vote) in the Local Culture category. Feel the Love… (more…)

Director’s Diary: The Writing on the Wall

Between Christmas and New Year, the Museum has opened each day for the advertised public walks, which have been well supported and have made sales and friends. Only one meeting, and with the police about graffiti on the mural along Railway Avenue. Coarse thick tags over the children’s delicate, whimsical drawings of a train that is as much Polar Express as Great Western Railway. The effect is of big heavy boots stomping on toys. This is the first vandalism since the mural was completed in 2012: we will clean it off next week, it won’t take long…

(more…)

Director’s Diary: The Iron Men from Cheyne Walk

Now at the end of the year, the entrance to the Underground chamber is made and the moans and clanking of chains on the stairs hold no terror. But remember the Ghost of Christmas Past… (more…)

Director’s Diary: Three Wise Men – are you serious??

A museum dedicated to the work of three men needs to keep a sense of proportion and a sense of humour. A dynasty of engineers: Sir Marc Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Henry Marc Brunel, but remember IKB had a big sister Sophie. As a child, Sophie showed great promise in engineering, but such careers were not open to women. In her memory, and at this festive time, I give you: Three Wise Men – Are you serious?? Happy Christmas! (more…)

Director’s Diary: How to Keep Warm

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and we are busy preparing for the Singalonga next Saturday. This is a wonderful, festive event. If you missed out on tickets, go online and book for Wassail in January, when we will dance with the Wassail Queen and the Green Man, sing the Wassail Carol and pour cider round the roots of our fruit trees to get a good crop. Important work… (more…)

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