Tuesday 29 November 2011

Photographs of Tower Bridge being constructed are found in a skip

Images courtesy of Wikipædia
Photographs of Tower Bridge being constructed are found in a skip

A fantastic find here as previously unseen pictures of the iconic Tower Bridge in the very early stages of its construction are revealed, after laying undiscovered in a London flat for years - including at one point being consigned to a skip!

Some of these photos must date from close to the beginning of the bridge's creation in 1886, as quite apart from the basic amount of progress visible in some of them, according to the accompanying report the "most recent" ones date from 1892 - two years before completion!

It always amazes me how such historically important documents can be lost and even disposed of without a second thought, let alone dismissed - particularly by those who should know better.  More fool that Tower Bridge Museum worker who indifferently claimed "we've got enough of those photographs already"!  How many of us have come into possession of - have saved - really old items that people were going to throw out as rubbish?  I know I have!  Well done to this caretaker, whoever he is, and to City of Westminster tour guide Peter Berthoud, for saving a record of the construction of a beautiful landmark structure and a piece of British history.

Tower Bridge, with its 19th Century Gothic stonework and unique design, has long been one of my favourite London landmarks.  Crossing it is always a thrilling experience and to see it or approach it both up close and from a distance is one of the greatest delights of working in the City.  I'm overjoyed to see these new photos detailing its creation, which was in itself an engineering marvel, and I'm sure they will now take pride of place in a London museum.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Flying on four wheels - the best of the classic aero-engined monsters

Bespoke Bentley that rewrites the rules of giant cars

Image from The Daily Telegraph
Inspired by the above article and with the feeling that I ought to blog about something really masculine to counterbalance recent posts featuring women's fashion I thought I'd gather together some of my favourite examples of "giant cars" - vehicles old (and new) that are powered by aeroplane engines.

1909 "Blitzen Benz"

The 1909 Blitzen Benz was not actually powered by an aeroplane engine, but rather a development of Mercedes' grand prix engine at the time.  The aim was to build a car that could exceed 200km/h (124mph), for no other reason than to see if it could be done, one supposes.  The standard in-line 4-cylinder 150hp racing engine (and remember, this is 1909, over 100 years ago!) was found to be unequal to the task, however, so Mercedes did the usual thing when an engine was not powerful enough for the job - they increased the displacement.  To 21½-litres.  That's right - twenty-one point five litres.  Power jumped to 200hp at 1,600rpm  (a modern Ford Focus 1.6 develops its full 180bhp at 5,700rpm) and on the 9th November 1909 at the Brooklands race circuit, a Blitzen Benz set a new record of 202km/h (126mph) over 1km.  Then two years later at Daytona Beach another one was clocked at 228km/h (141mph) over 1 mile, a record that stood for 8 years.  A total of six Blitzen Benzes were built with many of them surviving to this day and one can be seen at the Mercedes Benz World museum at Brooklands in Surrey. 

1924 Fiat Mefistofele

Another monster that began life as a grand prix car, this time a 1908 Fiat with an original displacement of 18 litres, which you'd think would be big enough as it is.  When that engine exploded in 1922 (quite spectacularly, according to contemporary reports) the car passed into the ownership of one Ernest Eldridge.  He promptly replaced the shattered 18-litre engine with an in-line 6-cylinder Fiat aeroplane engine of 21.7-litres capacity, more normally found in airships and heavy bombers.  This was then modified further, resulting in power increasing from an already heady 260hp to a scarcely believable 320hp, again at the ridiculously low rpm of 1,800.  Despite weighing 2 tons and with no front brakes, Mefistofele hit 146mph on the 12th July 1926 taking the world speed record at the time.  Fiat bought Mefistofele from the descendants of Eldridge in the late 1980s and it is now in their Turin museum, with occasional guest appearances elsewhere.

1921-1927 Chitty Bang Bang

A series of four cars that inspired the well-known story of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all owned by a Count Louis ZborowskiThe exact source of the car's name is unknown, it was either an onomatopoeic appellation taken from the noise of the car's engine or it was based on a bawdy First World War song.

Regardless of how the name came about, Chitty Bang Bang began life in 1921 as a Mercedes-based race car fitted with a 23-litre Maybach in-line 6-cylinder aeroplane engine.  In this configuration it eventually achieved a top speed of 120mph (190km/h).  The second Chitty was slightly smaller both in length and engine size, making do with an 18.8-litre Benz aero engine; the third incarnation was similarly equipped and lapped Brooklands at 112mph.

The fourth car to bear the name went all-out with a 27-litre V12 Liberty aero engine of 450hp and a gearbox and chain-drive taken from one of the Blitzen Benzes.  After Zborowski's death this car was bought by Welsh racing driver and land speed record holder John Godfrey "J.G." Parry-Thomas who renamed it "Babs" and on the 28th April 1926 used it to take the world land speed record at Pendine Sands in Wales with a speed of over 170mph (270km/h).  A year later on the 3rd March 1927, after the record was broken again by Malcolm Campbell, Parry-Thomas attempted to reclaim the title but was killed in the attempt.  The car was wrecked and later buried in the sand.  It remained there for almost 40 years before eventually being recovered and restored (not without difficulty considering the terrible condition it was in) during the 1960s/70s; it is now shared between the Pendine Museum of Speed and Brooklands.

1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Merlin

Starting out as a standard 1931 Phantom II this particular example was modified to accept a 27-litre V12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (of Spitfire fame) some time in the 1970s.  Restored in the 2000s it recently sold at auction for $410,000 (£263,500).  With an estimated 1,100hp on tap performance was described as "unbelievable" and on one occasion this 1931 Rolls-Royce was able to out-accelerate a 1958 grand prix car!

1933 Napier-Railton and 1968 Napier-Bentley

The 1933 Napier-Railton was built especially for racing driver John Cobb by renowned automotive engineer Reid Railton (what a name!); both men would later work together on the land-speed record-beating Railton Special.

The Napier-Railton had a 23.9-litre W12 Napier Lion aeroplane engine and put out more than 500hp.  At the Brooklands track in 1935 Cobb set a lap record of 143mph (231km/h), a mark that stands to this day.  Theoretically capable of a maximum speed of 168mph, the Napier-Railton has been in the possession of the Brooklands Museum since 1997.

The Napier-Bentley was built as an homage to the Napier-Railton in 1968, originally based on a Sunbeam but later rebuilt using a Bentley chassis.  It uses the same engine as the Railton and so has practically the same performance but is in private hands, although it makes frequent appearances at Brooklands and elsewhere.  (I have been lucky enough to see both in action at the Brooklands Centenary celebrations back in 2007 - or was it 1937?).

1953 Swandean Special

Built by a man called Michael Wilcock of Worthing in Surrey out of two army Daimler scout cars and a 27-litre V12 Merlin engine bought from a scrapheap for £50, this took part in several time trials up and down the country, once being clocked at 150mph - in third gear!  Fitted with a supercharger it reputedly made 1,600hp at 3,000rpm.  Later made its way through several American collectors before being restored to pristine condition in time for the 2008 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

2010 Packard-Bentley "Mavis"

Obviously not satisfied with owning the aforementioned 24-litre Napier-Bentley, automotive enthusiast Chris Williams has since built a successor to that car and one that fully deserves the title of "monster".  Again, not really an aeroplane engine, but rather a variant of a Packard V12 42-litre engine in marine form taken from a Second World War PT boat.  With fifteen hundred brake horsepower and 2,000lb ft (2,700Nm) of torque, nothing can come close to this imposing beast.  It's a wonder the 1930 Bentley 8-litre chassis can handle it, even with all the modifications it has had to have.  You might want to turn the volume down (or up, if you're so inclined) a bit for this one, it's LOUD! 

1925 BMW "Brutus" Experimentalfahrzeug

Well, perhaps almost nothing can touch "Mavis" (oo-er missus!).  Meet Brutus.  Wouldn't they make a lovely couple?(!).

After its defeat in 1918 and the signing of the Versailles Treaty a year later Germany was not allowed to produce armed aircraft, which meant a lot of surplus aero engines lying about.  Nothing was mentioned in the treaty about cars (except of the armoured variety) however, so BMW took one of its redundant V12s and plonked it on to a 1908 American-LaFrance racing chassis.  With 46-litres and 12-cylinders the result is 740hp and the ability to do 60mph at 800rpm (about where your car idles).

I was going to include the bespoke aero-engined land speed record cars like the Railton Special, the Golden Arrow and Malcolm Campbell's various Blue Birds but I think I've gone on for far too long, so I'll save them for another time.  As it is I've got an urge to don some white overalls, leather hat and goggles and tinker about with some big-engined cars.  Vroom-vroom!

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Forties Fashion #4: Day Wear 1941

I hadn't forgotten this fashion series, taken from a sourcebook I picked up in a library sale at the beginning of the year, and as there seems to be a dearth of things to blog about at the moment now would seem to be the time to continue it.

We've now reached 1941 so clothes rationing is really beginning to bite, but did that ever stop anyone?

The first three ladies are intent on going about their business as stylishly as the war will allow and wear, from left to right, the following:

(l) Charcoal grey wool two-piece suit:  long single-breasted fitted jacket with 3-button fastening and turned-up collar & lapels; seams of top-stitched panels continue into knee-length skirt (clever!); hip-level patch pocket with inverted bow pleat and black ribbon bow trim matching small breast pocket; fitted inset sleeves with padded shoulders.  Brimless (there's a war on, remember) draped black silk hat with pink silk carnation trim.  Black leather clutch bag and matching shoes.

(c) Tan and beige patterned wool-jersey edge-to-edge coat with full-length fitted sleeves, padded shoulders and hip-level welt pockets; lapels matching buckled belt and collarless dress.  Beige felt hat, long beige leather gloves and tan leather shoes.

(r) Powder blue linen dress with bloused bodice above navy blue leather buckled belt; padded shoulders, matching buttons on mock double-breasted fastening and top-stitched darts on right side of fabric continuing as hip yoke in knee-length flared skirt; white cotton-piqué roll collar with matching short-sleeve cuffs.  Navy blue felt hat [small crown, swept-up bonnet brim], navy blue leather clutch bag and shoes with white cotton gloves.

So on to the next lady, who wears:

Yellow crepe dress patterned with grey and white flowers and bloused bodice, self-fabric buckled belt, elbow-length sleeves and padded shoulders; gathered shaping between high round neckline and curved half-yoke seams, repeated cut and gathered side panels.  Small white straw hat with yellow flower trim, white leather clutch bag and gloves; black and white leather shoes (co-respondents or spectators, perhaps?)

Now then chaps, finally, here we go!  The poor old outnumbered man (I know how he feels!) wears:

Grey wool three-piece suit consisting of single-breasted jacket with 3-button fastening with wide lapels and piped pockets, single-breasted collarless waistcoat and straight-cut trousers with turn-ups.  White cotton collar-attached shirt and striped silk tie; grey felt trilby and black leather lace-up shoes.

Well there we have it for another fashion phase.  I'm hopeful that it won't be another 8 months before another appearance of Forties Fashion which, for the record, will be evening wear.  Hmmmnn, perhaps I shall tie it in with the Christmas party season...

Thursday 17 November 2011

The Artist pays homage to Hollywood's silent era

The Artist pays homage to Hollywood's silent era

There is a lot of anticipation surrounding this film in vintage blogdom, and rightly so.  A silent black & white film, set between 1927 and 1932 and filmed in the style of period?  Yes please with knobs on!

This could have been a big risk for French director Michel Hazanavicius but it looks to have paid off handsomely and then some.  Highly acclaimed at its premiere in Cannes, with lead star Jean Dujardin winning the best actor award, it now seems that the Oscars themselves are in this film's sights.  Could this be the first silent film in eighty-three years to win Best Picture?  It would certainly do wonders for it (not to mention the entire genre) if it did.

I've scarcely been able to contain my excitement about The Artist ever since I first heard of it a couple of months ago, but my enthusiasm has always been tempered by how these types of films (which some might call arthouse) have been treated by the large cinema chains and received by moviegoers in general.  When I tried to see film noir homage The Good German back in 2006 I was disheartened to discover that my local cinema was showing it for only one week, once, at midnight.  And that was it.  Then there was the time I had to travel 20 miles to see Flyboys and found myself the only person at the screening!  (OK, perhaps it was fun to have the whole auditorium to myself, but it was also disappointing to see such a low turnout even for the weekday matinée that it was).

So it is with some trepidation that I continue to wonder about the reception this film will receive from wider audiences both here and in the United States.  How will modern filmgoers used to 3D, not to mention colour and dialogue, take to monochrome and inter-titles?  Will it even get a full and proper nationwide release?  With luck and thanks to its success at Cannes, its overwhelmingly positive reviews and possible Oscar presence it may well break into the "mainstream".  We can only hope!

And if it does, it may mark something of a resurgence in popularity for silent movies.  If it can introduce at least one modern viewer to the delights of early cinema, it will have been a success if you ask me.  Plus with the release of Silent Life, a similar film about Rudolph Valentino, also planned for next year, 2012 could well be the year of the silent movie!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Attention ladies!

Shameless plug time again, but knowing my female readers' penchant for vintage frocks and their general handiness with the needle and thread, one that you might all appreciate.

My American Auntie - whose vintage eBay store I have mentioned previously and which appears at the bottom of this blog - has some items that you may be particularly interested in.  Are you ready?

These are just a few examples of the sixteen patterns currently available in the store.  I know next to nothing about these things, of course, but I felt it only right to give you a heads-up in case you're interested.

Right, advert over!

Monday 14 November 2011

A small redesign...

What ho, one and all! 

You may have noticed a slight change to the layout of Eclectic Ephemera.  Yes, I've switched to a 3-column look in order to free up a little bit of room on the blog - I felt it was getting a mite overcrowded.  And all done in an instant, without any fiddly resizing or formatting!  The wonders of Blogger - well done chaps!

Here's hoping you like my attempt at redecorating...

Thursday 10 November 2011

Castle Hedingham regulars to restore £1 phonebox to 1930s glory


Castle Hedingham regulars to restore £1 phonebox to 1930s glory

Castle Hedingham is a charming mediæval village in the north of Essex, close to Colchester (and actually lies on the Roman road to Cambridge).  It retains the Norman-era Hedingham Castle as well as several original timber-framed buildings; it is also home to the Colne Valley Railway heritage line.  In short, it is an historical gem.

The locals know this too, which is part of the reason why the area has managed to retain so much of its rural character. Now the parish council and The Bell Inn public house are further adding to that character by adopting the classic red telephone box that stands opposite the pub, with the intention of restoring it to its 1930s glory - complete with period adverts and signage!

Image courtesy of Chris & Sarah Plows/PicturesOfEngland.com

So thanks to the residents of Castle Hedingham and the owners & patrons of The Bell an iconic telephone box will soon be given a new lease of life as a centre-piece of a traditional English village, in a great example of civic pride and co-operation.  Excellent news all round and yet another welcome addition to this delightful little corner of Essex.

Monday 7 November 2011

Vintage: "an unhealthy fantasy-world"...?!

Do I look unhealthy to you?
I've been involved in debates recently with some people who don't quite "get" the vintage idea, culminating in the comment that forms the title of this post.  They have been perfectly amiable; a frank exchange of opinions among friends with no malice intended on either side, even if we don't fully accept each other's point of view.  As all good discussions should be, in fact.  Those discussions have been at the forefront of my mind for a time now, as a matter of fact, and it struck me what a fine blog post they might make.  It is often good to put these things down in writing and for others to read and comment on, and I can think of no better group of people whose own thoughts on the matter I would rather read than those of the vintage blogger community.  The fact that Penny Dreadful and Tuppence Ha'Penny have both written blog posts about similar attitudes that they have encountered recently makes my own experience all the more pertinent.

It started off with the usual argument that I still for the life of me can't understand - that if we like certain positive aspects of our particular favourite time period (which for the purposes of this post will be my 1920s-30s bent) we must perforce have and accept all the bad aspects as well.  "You can't expect to have the good manners, the nice clothes and the art & design without the terrible poverty, racism and colonialism that went on then as well.  You just can't have one without the other; it's part and parcel of that time period.  You must accept that with the good comes the bad."

Look, for the hundredth time I do not want to live in the 1930s.  I'm fully alive to the hardships that would have been endured in that time and I'm well aware that there were aspects of that era that in hindsight are reprehensible.  I know I wouldn't have been living in a rambling country house or a large London penthouse, going out to my club or the local nightspot every evening (a pity, I know!).  I'd have probably been in some menial clerical position, or even doing some sort of manual labour in a factory while living in a run down tenement.  In fact, I probably wouldn't even have survived at all.  I'm very grateful for the advancements that have been made over the past eighty years, which have allowed me to live my life better than my 1930s counterpart.  And there are many modern inventions and designs that I admire and employ on a daily basis; I'm not advocating a wholesale return to the 1930s or the writing out of eighty years' worth of progress and improvement.  That's not to say the 21st Century is perfect though; we still have our problems and bad points, just as every decade has.

But who in their right mind wants the worst of something?  What I seek is the best of the 1920s and 1930s, married to the best of the 2010s.  And I truly believe it is possible.  Not just possible in fact, but downright popular.  Just look at the number of vintage fairs and events that go on all year round; see how vintage fashion is all the rage right now (some may say that it is just the latest bandwagon that all today's clothes designers and their followers have jumped on and it may well be out of fashion by this time next year, but I'd like to think that the current economic climate and the disillusionment felt by many of the younger generation in regards to this modern world may give vintage the edge for some time to come).  The rise of steampunk and dieselpunk.  I could cite a dozen examples where vintage style has met modern technology with great success.  There are scores of everyday household appliances that can be had in the retro style, from chromium toasters and Aga cookers to digital radios and even television sets.  And if it can only be had in boring black or uninspiring silver, chances are there's someone out there who creates a wonderfully embellished version.

This is what I'm talking about.  21st Century technology (CD, digital radio) with flowing Art Deco aesthetics.  Far better than your average anonymous silver box any day. 

The Times critic Richard Morrison wrote a fantastic column a few years ago about this sort of thing, citing a local Victorian pumping station as an example.  The Victorians decorated buildings that the general public might never even see; nowadays every office building is a study in drabness.

Would you rather work in this...
...or this?

And of course it's not just design and mechanics we're talking about here.  I think everyone would agree that social conduct was in many ways better eighty years ago than it is today.  People didn't swear every other word.  There was a good deal more respect (in the proper sense of the word).  I could go on, but you all know what I mean, I feel sure.  Is not politeness, good manners and general gentlemanliness (which can be ascribed to both sexes) something we should all wish to return to?  Is that not one of the foundations of this government's "Big Society" pledge?

Which brings us to the next level.  When presented with this last counter-argument, the response is:  "Yes, well it's too late now, isn't it?  We won't be able to get back to how things were, the rot's been set in for too long now.  Might as well get used to it and make do with things how they are.".

Now, unlike some I'm not a pessimist.  I guess you could describe me as an optimistic realist.  Yes, things are bad and there is no quick fix.  But to say there's no hope of getting back to some semblance of a social ideal?  That we ought to just shrug our collective shoulders and say "Oh well..."?  Not on your nelly!

It might take a generation or two, but I truly believe that if enough people stand up, set an example and really press our elected officials then we can certainly overcome this yob culture of today.  To add myself to the myriads who (mis)quote Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".  This, once again, is the serious agenda behind the foppish, Wodehousian facade of The Chap movement.  If you look at the original "Chap Manifesto" you'll probably, like me, find yourself nodding in agreement as well as laughing quietly to yourself.  It's humorous, but at the back of it all there's a kernel of truth about it:

Society has become sick with some nameless malady of the soul. We have become the playthings of corporations intent on converting our world into a gargantuan shopping precinct. Pleasantness and civility are being discarded as the worthless ephemera of a bygone age - an age when men doffed their hats to the ladies, and small children could be counted upon to mind one's Jack Russell while one took a mild and bitter in the local hostelry.

Instead, we live in a world where children are huge hooded creatures lurking in the shadows; the local hostelry has been taken over by a large chain that specialises in chilled lager, whose principal function is to aggravate the nervous system. Needless to say, the Jack Russell is no longer there upon one's return.

The Chap proposes to take a stand against this culture of vulgarity. We must show our children that the things worth fighting for are not the latest plastic plimsolls but a shiny pair of brogues. We must wean them off their alcopops and teach them how to mix martinis. Let the young not be ashamed of their flabby paunches, which they try to hide in their nylon tracksuits - we shall show them how a well-tailored suit can disguise the most ruined of bodies. Finally, let us capitalise on youth's love of peculiar argot only replace their pidgin ghetto-speak with fruity bons mots and dry witticisms.

It is time for Chaps and Chapettes from all walks of life to stand up and be counted. But fear not, ye languid and ye plain idle: ours is a revolution based not on getting up early and exerting oneself - but a revolution that can be achieved by a single raised eyebrow over a monocle; the ordering of a glass of port in All Bar One; the wearing of a particularly fetching cardigan upon a visit to one's bookmaker. In other words: a revolution of panache. We shall bewilder the masses with seams in our trousers that could cut paper, trilbies angled so rakishly that traffic comes to a standstill; and by refusing the bland, watery substances that are foisted upon us by faceless corporations, we shall bring the establishment to its knees, begging for sartorial advice and a nip from our hip flasks.

And should anyone say that this "Old England" (for want of a better term) never existed, that the afternoon cricket matches on the village green, the corner tea houses, the young boys in short trousers tugging deferentially on their caps, the uniformed policeman walking the beat ready to give a swift cuff around the ear to whoever might test the law, the general "good day to you sir/ madam!" nature of the man in the street are all just concoctions or rose-tinted, wistful half-memories then they should be referred to me and I will begin their re-education by showing them this advertisement from the 1933 copy of Modern Boy that I mentioned in a previous post:

Just one glance at the gifts on offer in this ad, and the way in which the language is couched, should leave you in no doubt that the Twenties and Thirties were a different (and some, myself included, might say a more wholesome) time.  "A real model of a dashing speed-boat -- a willow bladed cricket bat that will hit crisp fours" - you can just see young Johnny and his friends at the local park, playing a game of cricket before trying out the toy boat on the nearby pond.  And I doubt Nestlé, or anyone else for that matter, would even dream of giving away a 3" sheath knife with bars of chocolate these days!  How has it happened that in 1933 a boy can be trusted with a steel blade whereas a boy in 2011 is discouraged to go near anything remotely pointed, for fear that they might stab themselves or someone else?  The cry goes up - "Is that progress?!". 

And so we come to the zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of the argument, this "unhealthy fantasy-world" that all we vintage aficionados are apparently living in.  We're all refusing to face up to the modern world and seeking "protection" in a past that never was, or was at least a lot worse than we're willing to accept.  Those of us who like to wear vintage fashions and take pride in our appearance are "wearing a disguise" so that we "don't have to engage with the world of today".  In fact, what we get up to is "a lot like a religion - taking comfort in a belief, a warming influence that provides a crutch and envelops".

Well, I'm not going to get too much into the religious aspect.  It could be argued that religion and society go hand-in-glove and that the general decline in standards could be linked a more secular society.  But to say that liking vintage has a quasi-religious bent to it is missing the point.  I'm not trying to "convert" people, and I'm sure you're not either.  The wish to return to a more refined age is not a crusade, it's just good sense.  I like vintage, dress vintage and do my best to act "vintage", yes because I feel more comfortable doing so, and naturally it follows that I will have a greater affinity with my chosen time period than I do with today.  But I'm not using it as a "crutch" - if anything it's the other way around.  To a certain extent I like to think I'm using vintage to prop up a society in moral and cultural decline, and I'm sure that's at least partly the attitude of a good few others as well.  My clothes are not "a disguise" - I feel more at home in them than I've ever done in modern things, it raises the standard and encourages others to raise theirs, I like to think.  I've not been brainwashed into liking this stuff, it's come on naturally over time and in no way am I saying it is categorically better in every respect to now.  It just comes back to what I was saying earlier - you can have the best of both worlds.

So there you have it.  Are we all in fact just unoriginal nutcases who wear old clothes and wander about the place going "what ho, old chap!" and so on?  What is your reaction to this summary of our interests?


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