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September | 2014 | via antiqua |
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Archive for September, 2014

Between Fiction and History : Senate House

In Allgemein by Francesca / 19. September 2014 / 0 Comments

Senate House, Front Entrance

Senate House, which houses the University of London library and administration offices, is an intriguing-looking, 19-storey art-deco colossus in the middle of Bloomsbury, between the British Museum and Russell Square. When it was unveiled in 1937, it was one of London’s earliest skyscrapers. At 210 feet (64m) high, when it was completed, it was the second tallest building in London (after St Paul’s Cathedral).

Until then, the tallest office building in London had been 55 Broadway, unveiled in 1929, by the same architect, Holden. Designed at the behest of the London Electronic Railways, a precursor to the London Underground, the Headquarters building on 55 Broadway impressed the University Planning Commission. For the London University, a new institution compared to Oxford and Cambridge, an entirely modern design was desired, rather than anything that would appear to imitate the appearance of the older colleges.

55 Broadway made the case beautifully, so much a work of architectural modernism that it roused the ire of many critics and patrons.

55 Broadway

Holden was a supporter and enabler of avant-garde and controversial sculptors of his day, for example Jacob Epstein. At 55 Broadway, he incorporated reliefs by eight avant-garde sculptors of the day, as well as a matched pair of sculptures, Day and Night, by Jacob Epstein.

„West Wind“ by Samuel Rabinovich

Predictably, a public outrage followed the unveiling of these naked, modernist beauties. But modernity was just what the University of London committee wanted. In 1921, with a donation from the Rockefeller Foundation, the government bought a plot of land in Bloomsbury from Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford. On 26 June 1933, King George V laid the foundation stone for Senate House. Construction works stalled various times after funding cuts in the mid- to late 1930s, and at the outbreak of World War II, the building temporarily became home to the Ministry of Information.

The creation and existence of an Information Ministry and its history have been steeped in controversy ever since, not least because the only historical counterpart from which it might have been inspired, was Goebbels‘ Ministry of Propaganda. As a place of history, this ministry is curiously located somewhere between history and fiction. One of the reasons it is at all still remembered might be that George Orwell’s wife worked in it, in the Censorship Department, from 1939 to ’42. When George Orwell wrote about a “Ministry of Truth” in his novel 1984, it was all too apposite to think that this fictional state department was inspired from the Ministry of Information in Senate House.

Four buildings towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. They were startingly different from any other objects in sight. They were enormous pyramidical structures of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously… The Ministry of Truth, Winston’s place of work, contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below.

Senate House, Entrance

Not as adventurously ornamented and avowedly modernist as 55 Broadway, the Senate House building style was described by its critics as totalitarian or even stalinist. With a sculptureless, semi-neoclassical and imposing modernist feel, it emanates an air of authoritarianism which has drawn many Hollywood and British Film producers to the site. In Batman Begins, the Gotham Court of Justice lobby is filmed on the Senate House premises, for grimly imposing effect. Others in turn believe that Senate House owes its design to the American skyscraper. Clearly the producers of James Bond : The World is Not Enough thought so.

As a library user, I regularly get the chance to enjoy the precious and elegant interior designs, which are far more refined and add, as I think, a whole second layer of thought into the design of this one-time giant, which has meanwhile been dwarfed by the City of London’s all-new fashion for 100-storey skyscrapers.

From the Cradle to the Coalmine : Book Review

In Allgemein by Francesca / 10. September 2014 / 0 Comments

Image : girl pulling a coaltub, mid 19th century. Click to read Last week’s introduction to this post

Mining in Wales was the proverbial fuel for Britain’s industrial revolution. The Big Pit Museum, amongst other places in Wales, is there to commemorate, document and visualize the extravagance. It can’t be denied the industrial revolution brought progress and prosperity to the -henceforth- industrialized nations of 19th century Europe. But anyone who has read a bit of Zola, or Browning, has an idea already of the child labor that also helped fuel it.

From the Cradle to the Coalmine : The Story of Children in Welsh Mines by Ceri Thompson is a short, impactful and richly illustrated book published by the National Museum of Wales and Cardiff University press earlier this year. It is illustrated by photographs and other pictures, testimonials from interviews and historical documents such as diaries and reports, as well as lines from popular rhymes and songs. A timeline of historical events in the beginning of the book chronicles the years 1833-1972, from “Factory Act introduced to regulate the labour of children and young persons in the mills and factories of Great Britain. The act does not cover coal mines” (1833), via an 1860 “Coal Mines Regulations Act: minimum age for employment underground was raised to twelve years old”, the introduction of the eight hour working day in 1909, free health checks for new employees in 1947, free helmets supplied in 1956, to the 1972 “Wilberforce Award: adult wages to be paid at eighteen years old in the mining industry. School leaving age was raised to sixteen years”, the short timeline on p. XIV traces the history of dire working conditions worthy of press scandals and outrage.

Indeed, the book delves into the importance of press coverage – and the struggle for press coverage to be permitted – for the introduction of controlling bodies and investigative commissions which took baby steps over a period of more than a century, in their attempts to improve safety at work, recognize health risks, and develop social policies that gave children from poor families a chance of going to school instead of being put into work at a very early age. In the light of how long it took to achieve how little, by contrast with how effectively the industry produced goods and grew, one cannot but realise that these efforts were false.

As the author points out in the beginning, children have always worked, usually to aid the household of their own family and/or family production, for example in farms. But by comparison to these traditional rural jobs of the feudal age, in the 19th century, with the emergence of factory work and industrial mining, workplaces and children at work took on a markedly different look. And in the 19th century, the public opinion began to be polarized on the issue of children at work. Whilst factory owners would often argue that their factories helped families stay out of poverty by creating jobs, and that many a small child’s income made the crucial difference to whether or not a family could survive,
many others were strongly discomforted by the appearance of child laborers in industrial work places. The high accident rate in coal mines, and the spread of work-related pulmonary, skin and other diseases would not have painted a very comforting picture at all. It has to be said, as the author also writes, that many work-related diseases were not immediately understood to be work-related, and rather thought of as diseases relating to poverty more generally. It also took many decades, as the author explains, for it to be understood that a first-aid qualified individual (or preferably more than that) should be present in situ, in the event of accidents. And it also took a long time to convince the owners of coal mines that providing a certain amount of training for their new young employees would significantly reduce the risk of accidents and deaths. It is only in the 1950s that a clear rule was established as to how many hours of training an employee should have. In the 19th century for the first time, it became a prevalent view that children should not be working, and that special care should be taken to ensure the protection of children in work and to ensure they completed a minimum of school education.

The book presents a polyphonic body of evidence which gives personal voices to the drawn-out struggles between coal mine owners, workers, and social reformers. In part, it uncovers what should surprise no-one, that with every child protection act introduced, with every work safety regulation, whilst coal mines certainly pretended to accept and enforce the rules, they did not. Thus, even in the 1920s, twelve-year-olds are entering employment in coal mines – often without the parents‘ permission, indeed without their knowledge.

By the early 1980s, the entire coal mining industry ground to a halt – a mixed blessing, as many still argue today. What doesn’t go unnoticed with the ending of this book is that, though the mining industry was shrunk and shut down, most of the problems associated with child labor were simply left unsolved. The book ends with a note on child labor in mines and factories today, by no means a phantom of the past.

Classics, Colonialism, and 19th Century Social History – A Trio Infernale…

In Allgemein by Francesca / 5. September 2014 / 0 Comments

When I started to contemplate the ways in which classical antiquity is mediated to us today through a number of traditional educational and cultural channels, I didn’t fancy it but always inevitably found myself pondering the influence of 19th century ideas, and evaluating the work of 19th century scholars and thinkers. The great museums of classical antiquities, for instance, were developed, expanded and feted in the era, and in the scholarly study of classical texts, reference works of encyclopedic dimensions were launched, such as the Cambridge Ancient HIstory. These works continue to be educational tools in the present day, although mindsets have shifted and the world has changed.

Despite a sense of having a reasonable idea of the 19th century’s historical turning points and of the ideas that accompanied these, its social history often remains outside the view of a classicist’s contemplations. Part of the reason for this is that classical study in the 19th century was, all things considered, a preoccupation reserved to the cream of society, so that few echoes of social diversity would be found in the scholarship itself. The socio-political rhetoric couching classical study in the 19th century is by most accounts one of civilization and its satisfactions, its refinements, British society having reached an all-time peak of cultural efflorescence, prosperity, industrial superiority, and intellectual advancement. The missionary ideology of colonialism, which in the 19th century was in full swing, paints an image of the European home country and its awe-inspiring metropolis as a marvel of luxury and comfort.

Very little is said, by contrast, about the dire struggles of the working class at the same time, the so-called diseases of civilization, child labour in British factories and coal mines.In a recent book, Sarah Butler throws light on how the British working classes in the colonial era fell victim, in the scholarly literature, to an anthropological classification that sought scientifically to define their nature as lower-than-human, un-English, much in the same way as the imperial anthropology sought to conceptualize the people of other continents as sub-civilized in their development.

In a different post, I briefly traced the architecture of British workhouses. That the workhouse was a pillar of Victorian society as much as was the police or the crown court, might have been known to classical scholars, but none the less, its image was perpetually eclipsed from serious reflection. Functioning as a prison-like home for destitute individuals and families, the homeless, the sick poor, the elderly poor, as well as to unmarried pregnant women and many illegitimate children, this institution is estimated to have had a grand total of 14 million residents in Britain over the decades of its existence. But just as the architectural structures have been destroyed in large parts, the workhouse was a place of national embarrassment already in its day, and the moral and socio-political tenets which it embodied are quickly glossed over with a veneer of industrial progress and economical prosperity.

Nonetheless, these social structures and establishments — the workhouse, the tenements of the working class, rampant poverty in the 19th century, child labour, child mortality, and the laws legislating the employment of children which developed in sync with casualties and bouts of public outrage at the time — were a reality visible on a large scale. As such, the thought of it was latent in the cultural perception of scholars, who are the mediators of classical learning to us today. Perhaps this is the case more so now that the digital renaissance is bringing back to life many scholarly works from the Victorian period. Despite their many critics, and despite the re-structured understanding of a modernist sensitivity and beyond, the 19th century roots of many cultural appraisals appear and re-appear in a reflection upon classical antiquity, and it is important to study not only the colonial, but also the domestic social policies and the assumptions which underlie them. I have just finished reading a brand new book sent to me for review, about child labourers in Welsh coalmines in the 19th century. I will post my review here next week.


The image shows a cover of a phrenology journal. Phrenology, a now defunct science, developed and gained momentum in Victorian Britain and beyond (especially in Edinburgh), with the aim to divine a person’s moral disposition, character traits and talents, through the medium of examining their head.