With thanks to the Purcell Club singers, prodominantly members of the Westminster Abbey Old Chorister's Association, for a wonderful evening of music and history.  We have already put our name down on the waiting list to go again in 4 years time ! 



Gathering in what was the old wash-house, adjacent to what were the Great Smith Street public baths, we were introduced to the building. Opened in 1995 and housing Westminster's parish, council, church, school and business records, some dating back to the 1450's, they are still accepting items of importance.  With the resurgence in interest, via the Find My Past website, visitors most popular searches are the records of Births, Marriages and Deaths, the Adoption Indexes, Electoral Registers and Censuses. Particular building searches are also popular although most of the original planning records did not survive the LCC clear-out, but Victorian surveyors added drainage details to plans and these can be viewed for thousands of properties.  They have some 7,000 digitised images which can be accessed via their online catalogue WestCat and cabinets full of microfiche and an extensive library.

We first visited the busy Conservation Studio, where work was underway cleaning old maps delicately with special rubbers, carefully removing crumbling mounts and remounting on handmade Japaneese acid-free paper.  The Studio and volunteers had just finished restoring what is the largest public collection of Victorian West End theatre programmes.

Then we were treated to a special selection of Thorney Island material in the Search Room.  Maps, watercolours, etchings, books, photographs and plans.  What a treat and we spent a good amount of time studying closely these fascinating items.  We finished our tour in the Strong Rooms and were shown the oldest item in the Archives, a Henry III Charter of 1256, granting "...the Abbey of Westminster a weekly market every Monday in Tothill, and an annual fair for 3 days...". 

Many thanks to the staff of the Archives for their time, enthusiasm, knowledge and this very special tour.

Letters Patent under the Great Seal of Henry III 1256

Millbank Street before Victoria Tower Gardens c1863

Faithhorne Map 1658

Bomb damage to Old Pye Street and St Matthew's Street 1940

Grant of Arms to the City of Westminster 1601

View of Millbank and Vauxhall Bridge from the Horseferry on the Lambeth shore

Tour of Westminster Archives - June 2018


We had an enjoyable visit to the handsome Institution of Civil Engineers at 1 Great George Street. This year they are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of their founding, by eight civil (as opposed to military) engineers at Kendall’s coffee house in Fleet Street. As the Institution grew they moved premises several times. The last move, which was caused by the demolition of their building for the construction of the present Treasury Building, was across Great George Street, where the present stone-clad building was completed in 1913, incorporating the very fine wooden panelling from their old headquarters, only finished in 1986.

We were lucky to be able to see all the ground floor rooms, in which the earlier panelling was installed. These are often used for conferences, and are each called after a distinguished early engineer and feature many portraits of past presidents – there were many familiar names: Brunel, Stephenson and Telford among them. We then proceeded up the magnificent stairs to the first floor, where there is a lecture theatre and a very sumptuous reception room, previously used for engineering examinations and their annual ball, as well as the old library in which the Institution puts on exhibitions open to the public. We were also taken upstairs to their excellent modern library, which is much used by their 90,000 members.

On the way the portrait of a past president was pointed out: Mr Brodie, who was president from 1920 to 21 and solved the problem of disputes over whether football goals had been scored or not, by proposing the attachment of nets to the back of goals! A good example of the wide-ranging problem-solving that engineers are trained for.

The main entrance, staircase and exhibition room are open to the general public, Monday to Friday and are well worth a visit, especially to view their bi-centenial "Invisible Superheroes" exhibition. 



Walking through Saint James’s Park will never be quite the same again after an illuminating session with Royal Parks Arboriculturist Greg Packman who extolled the secrets of many trees we have been walking past for years without really noticing. 

He started off with a Judas tree near the war memorial in front of Horse Guards Parade. It is a lovely looking tree with beautiful crimson flowers and we were amazed to learn that botanically it is part of the Pea family and in Asia is pollinated by bats.

Next, a bit further down in front of Duck Island was the sprawling Medlar which arrived with the Romans. It looks as though it is hundreds of years old but turns out to be as young as 60 years. It looks as though it is on its last legs but there is a younger one nearby if anything happens to it.

Among other specimens which stood out were a Caucasian Wing Nut tree. Its leaves make you think it is an Ash but actually it’s a member of the Walnut family. We were intrigued by the Weeping Beech on the southern side of the bridge by the lake which is only weeping because of a past mutation or graft. If you planted seeds from it they would grow up straight but any cuttings would produce a similar Weeping Beech.
We were delighted that a maximum of 21 people attended and we are very grateful to Greg who has kindly offered to do further walks for us in future. One option would be The Green Park which he says is much more interesting than it seems at first sight. We will look forward to that and, hopefully, many other walks in future.
In the shade of a Weeping Beech

With the sound of sharp scissors in the background, Richard Hawker, Creative Consultant, described enthusiastically the history of one of the most remarkable survivals of the Gothic Revival of the C19th. Established in 1874 by three leading late-Victorian church architects, George Frederick Bodley, Thomas Garner and George Gilbert Scott, the Younger, all friends and in competition with William Morris at the time.  

Their first workshop in Baker Street was run by none other than Ms. Charmaine Windows ! They kicked off with a prestigious private client list but launched on to the national stage for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee at St Paul’s Cathedral. So it was not the furnishings that first took off, it was the vestments and especially the copes. In 1911 they moved from Baker Street to Dacre Street and established their embroidery school. At this time they produced the exquisite ‘Lady of the Rosebush’ for exhibition, which we were shown.



In 1939, their safe storage unit took a direct hit and much was tragically destroyed, but after the war, the business was handed down through the Scott family and reinvented itself.  Family member, Graham Hoare was tempted to sell the business to Liberty but his wife took an interest and ran it very successfully. She moved the business from Dacre Street to Tufton Street, to the Edwin Lutyens building it now occupies. Elizabeth Hoare had a passion for embroidery and put out a call for 18th and 19th century work to preserve it and create a collection at the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. She sent samples of wallpaper and fabric to Augustus Pugin for the new Palace of Westminster and whilst recovering the alter kneelers in Westminster Abbey, discovered when stripped down, they had been made in wartime from Tate & Lyle sugar crates, which they dutifully re-upholstered. On to the 1980’s, when David Gadesley, took over with a sure eye for good design and expanded the collection testing the new technology of digital machine embroidery. Today Watts makes copes for all Royal Weddings and have numerous customers in palaces, parliaments, private houses, cathedrals and churches around the world, including St Thomas’s, 5th Avenue, New York.  With such knowledge, they advise set and costume designers for film and TV.

A wonderful visit and many thanks to Richard for sharing his enthusiasm and showing us some of the most beautiful patterns and intricate, delicate embroidery.