21 November 2013

Canvey Island Concrete

Just five miles east to west, three miles north to south, and of seven square miles, Canvey Island, in the Thames estuary, feels like a world of its own. The low-lying land is criss-crossed by creeks, and accessed by means of one of two bridges.

Settled since the Roman period, Canvey was first protected from the sea in the 1620s, the reclamation work, which conjoined a number of smaller islands, possibly undertaken by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden. The island was largely agricultural until the twentieth century, but in the 1930s became popular with Londoners wanting to take the air.

The International style Labworth Café, of reinforced concrete, was opened in 1933. This is the only building in the world designed solely by the famous engineer Ove Arup, who modelled it upon the bridge of RMS Queen Mary. Originally called the Canvey Island Café, this became known by the word "Labworth" painted in large letters on the inland side, the building constructed as it was on the Labworth Estate.

Canvey was inundated in 1953 by the North Sea flood, which claimed 58 lives, and between 1973 and 1982 gained 15 miles of upgraded and massive sea walls, running around 75% of the island. Construction of these buried the supporting piles of the Labworth, reducing it to two storeys.

The building only narrowly escaped demolition, but found a new lease of life in the late 1990s, having been Grade II listed in 1996. In 2001 the building was altered again, decidedly for the worse, when the shelters that had formed its wings, which originally had ship-like railings atop them, were enclosed.

During WWII a common weapon against shipping was the magnetic naval mine, often dropped by parachute. Although this was largely a redundant technology by the time of the Cold War, in 1963 the Admiralty built the Degaussing Range Station (below), known locally as the Canvey Loop.

In two loops of thick cable on the bed of the Thames a charge was induced by the magnetism of passing ships' hulls, which charge was detected at the station. Where the readings demanded this, the ships could then be degaussed. The station closed when the new seawall, the steel piles of which would have severed the cables, was constructed, although it was only declassified in 1993 - the equipment remains partially secret.

19 November 2013

Springfield Brewery, Wolverhampton

In about 1840, William Butler, a grocer by trade, started selling home-brewed beer to his fellow workers at Wolverhampton's Shrubbery Iron Works, where he was a shingler. Two years later, Butler left his job and became a full-time grocer and brewer. By 1848 he had built the Priestfield Brewery in the city.

The wells here began to run dry as demand increased, so Butler moved production to Springfield, which had a good water supply and was hard by both the canal and the railway, making for convenient transport of his beers. The Springfield Brewery was fully operational by 1874, and included maltings, a cooperage and stables.

The Great Western Railway ran a siding into the site, which expanded as did business. A new brewing tower was brought on stream in 1883. William died in 1893, when his son, also William Butler, pursued an aggressive strategy of acquiring rival breweries so as to increase Butler's number of tied houses. Both Bloxwich Brewery and Cannock Brewery were acquired in 1925, and Eley's in 1928.

This expansion continued into the 1950s, making Butler's one of the Midlands' largest brewers. It was itself incorporated into Mitchell's and Butler's in 1960, which in turn was taken over by Bass just a year later. Brewing ceased at the site in 1991, and the buildings were gutted by fire in 2004.

17 November 2013

Ekco & Animation

The Ekco AC86 was released in 1935, a year after the AC85 of which it was a restyle, the cabinet design undertaken by Serge Chermayeff. The set was available in both walnut (pictured) and black Bakelite, the latter with chromium detailing.

The AC86 could also be had in AC/DC (AD86), battery (B86) and export (SW86) versions. It is known to vintage radio enthusiasts as the 'Dougal'. When first bought, the set would have swallowed 13 guineas, about £820 in today's money, and three to four weeks' of the average wage of 1935. Quite how much LSD was ingested by the radio's namesake from The Magic Roundabout is not known.

The AW70 was released in 1939. It operated only on alternating current, but was available also in battery form (BAW71). By this point, immediately pre-war, Ekco was no longer producing black and chromium variants, although it did so again in 1945 with the A22.

The set's dial features the word "Aircraft" at 900 metres. A feature first introduced in 1934, this marked the frequency at which one could listen to traffic between airborne 'planes and the control tower at London Airport, Croydon, unthinkable in today's controlled world. It was presumably the AW70 that inspired the design of the alarm clock merchandise spin-off from Aardman Animations' 2000 film Chicken Run, being spirited away by Fetcher and Nick

09 November 2013

Broadwell Conduit Head, Shrewsbury

Hidden away in the woods of the Nobold area of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, are the remains of the sixteenth-century conduit head from which the town was supplied with water from 1556, right through to 1947.

The conduit head building, Grade II listed, is constructed of roughly-squared red sandstone, timber trusses to each gable, and plain tiles, and dates to about 1578. Inside is a single space, taken up with a brick-lined water tank.

Water was collected from nine wells in the immediate vicinity, seven of which can be easily located amongst the briars. The wells are accessed by a series of interconnected and covered boardwalks, tiled with shingles.

From the site, known as Broadwell, water was piped into town, originally in hollowed-out elm trunks, elm being resistant to decay when permanently wet. Five of the later outlets once associated with the system survive in the town.

Originally a licensed private enterprise, the facility was acquired by the town's corporation in 1878. On the same site is a later pumping house, of 1903, which was in the 1980s converted by Severn Trent Water into a visitor centre, now closed and vandalised. The council acquired the site in 2007, but has, of course, done nothing with it.

08 November 2013

Ekco & Sir Misha Black

Amongst the architect-designers engaged by Eric Kirkham Cole to design Ekco's Bakelite radio cabinets was (later Sir) Misha Black. Azerbaijan-born, Black came to England aged two. His design for Ekco's AC/DC UAW78 of 1937, pictured, evinces shades of Ellis, Clarke and Williams's 1932 Daily Express Building in Fleet Street, London, with its round corners in vitrolite and clear glass, an icon of Art Deco architecture. Original price £11.0s.6d. A battery version (BAW78) and an accumulator/vibrator version (BV78) were also available.

In 1943 Black founded, with Milner Gray, Design Research Unit, one of the first practices to address itself to architecture, industrial design, and graphics. DRU had significant involvement with the 1951 Festival of Britain. Black developed the external styling of British Rail's Class 71 electric (1958), and Class 52 diesel (1961) locomotives; and designed Westminster's street name signs (1968) and the iconic geometric orange, black, yellow and brown moquette used on London Transport seating (late 1978).