Tuesday 2 April 2013

My home town (2)

My thanks and a tip o'the hat to the architect Peter Richards who read an earlier blog on my home town, Southend-on-Sea.

I signed off that blog with a picture of the Civic Centre's modernist fountain and he got in touch to tell me:

I and my architect colleague Alan Hardy persuaded the council to commission Willian (Bill) Mitchell to design the civic fountain. He also designed a reworking of the coat of arms which stands over the mayor's chair in the council chamber. We also commissioned the bronze door to the west face (per mare per ecclesiam)

There was also, he tells me, specially designed wallpaper in the council chamber based on the coat of arms and designed by another colleague, Tony Miller. The enormous bronze doors are marvellous, in friendly 'Macmillan Nurses' lettering, as I recall. They must weigh a ton and be worth a small fortune - I hope they haven't been nicked by metal thieves and melted down. The whole site harks back to a now remote era of municipal pride and a bracingly spendthrift approach to civic architecture. Never such confidence again.

Here's another image of the fountain in its time-warp 1970s setting. The years have been kind to the main Civic Centre block in the background, which is beginning to look quite stylish and Centre-Pointy, although the adjacent technical college has been closed for years and is a mess. [Note - now demolished and replaced with some truly stomach-turning apartment blocks.]

The fountain's sculptor Bill Mitchell (born 1925 and happily still with us) has a marvellous CV, including a spell working for Mohammad al-Fayed. I hand't realised that he was also responsible for the monumental figures in Salford known as The Minut Men which share with the Southend fountain a Mayan or Incan quality. This look had a lot of contemporary appeal; I'm reminded of a now-defunct chain of cheap, dimly-lit restaurants called The Golden Egg (there was one in the town) which had turquoise ceramic wall decorations designed to evoke a night out in Machu Picchu.

Bill Mitchell fountain

I don't know whether the Southend fountain has been listed. It should be. There's a wonderful piece on Mitchell here, including newsreel footage on the artist at work and links to other sites:

It was Peter Richards who designed the two attractive red and blue kiosks in the High Street which were perfectly in tune with the festival spirit of a seaside town, and brought a jolly whiff of slap 'n' tickle to the shopping centre. One was (and I hope still is) a fruitmongers; the other an ice cream parlour. You can see them both in this picture taken in (I guess) the early 1980s:

Jolly kiosks

I could find only one picture (below) of the labyrinthine arcades that were once a much-loved feature of the town centre and a magnet for this infant flâneur. I recall sacks of Bonio dog biscuits piled in the dusty gloom, a newsagents smelling of ink and coconut mushrooms, a toyshop full of shiny enamel'd Dinky and Matchbox model cars, and an artists' materials shop run by man with a goatee, Lawrie Matthews. There were articulated wooden figures in its brightly-lit window. The arcades were very lovely: scruffy, shadowy and aromatic. But were all swept away by the aggressively undistinguished Hammerson shopping centre development in the late 1970s. 

The whole pitiful Southend fiasco doesn't feature on the sleek Hammerson website, although there's no shortage of plug-ugly malls with preposterous names still being perpetrated by this venal and rapacious firm in the luckless suburbs and the Centrale (Croydon) can stand for them all. A curse on Lewis Hammerson, the company's founder, his heirs and beneficiaries, his architects and builders. By their company website shall ye know them:

Our strategy is to deliver industry leading shareholder returns by maximising income from our retail properties and development pipeline. We develop or acquire to create compelling retail properties in successful locations.

I could hardly have said it better myself. 'Development pipeline' is perfect although 'Industry leading shareholder returns' is rather coy. They mean mind-boggling profits, we can assume. I loathe everything about the Hammerson Group: their bumptious prose and clobberingly horrible legacy. They  built the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, still going strong, or strongish, in its dingy North Circular way. The gormless windblown rain-stained inelegant poorly-detailed lump they imposed in place of the charming arcades of my home town was, within a few years of opening, so bleak and run down that ITV used it as the setting for a 1978 dystopian television drama about juvenile delinquents called City Sugar, by a young writer calle Stephen Poliakoff. 

Southend arcades

Hammerson development
Paradoxically the image I found which most immediately brought back the pre-Hammerson town of my childhood is this charming painting. I have no idea who the artist is and can;'t find any copyright
holder (so do let me know if you know who it is). It looks to me like it might be a jigsaw design.

Only a fadeograph of a yestern scene

This view, looking north, shows the railway bridge carrying trains to Fenchurch Street in the City of London. Beneath it on the right was a cavernous open-fronted fishmongers which gave the shadowy space a sub-marine atmosphere, the pavement permanently wet with melted ice. Most shops had faded awnings offering shelter for shoppers come rain or shine -  an Edwardian hangover, like the large number of functional public clocks (few back then owned watches) and urinals (which all seem to have disappeared, although we don't seem to be peeing any less). There were relatively few private motor cars (so there was no need for car parks) and the town's well-maintained fleet of double-decker buses had an attractive blue and cream livery and looked like something from a children's book.

The large building in the background with a green copper dome is (now was) the Odeon cinema, the largest in the town. On the left is a branch of Garons (the local equivalent to a Lyons' Corner House) and the two-tone lorry outside is owned by the then-nationalised British Railways. On the right a second, larger Garons (the Starbucks of the mid-century Thames delta).

This is not a nostalgic blog - the town at the time represented in this image was for me as a child a now-town, not a then-town, and seemed perfectly modern. But let me at least stick up for half a dozen things that were certainly better then:

signage, and especially hand-painted signage. No plastic, no generic franchises, no modish logos, no acrylic banners;

- a variety of small, locally-based family-run businesses (before the coming of Tesco and their filthy ilk);

- a bustling mixed retail environment, not a botox'd, barren precinct without traffic or evening visitors;

- civic utility in the form of public transport, meals on wheels (remember that?), mobile libraries and other services run by an elected Borough Council;

- an architectural coherence and proportion, in a largely low-rise Victorian and Edwardian townscape;

- as I recall, some nice sticky-carpet pubs catering for all ages (not the garish hangouts of today).

But I suppose I am being nostalgic, if not actually sentimental. The last time I walked up the High Street from Central Station all the good shops had closed down and what was left were dispiriting hangers-on, all clearly failing. There was no bustle, no sense of being at the centre of things. Much had been permanently lost, much of which we never much appreciated at the time. The townscape has become cruder, brasher, harsher. The surviving businesses are almost all franchises - coffee outlets, fast food places, mobile phone stores and stuff like that. These all seemed to me to be struggling. I expect it's the same everywhere. In time the only sustainable activities in any high street will be nail shops, coffee franchises and topless bars - everything else can be had on the internet.


  1. Hey, Peter Richards again - would you believe it but I designed the long gone Jolly Kiosks in your latest blog. Fame is fleeting but good while it lasted.

  2. The Hammerson development - Victoria Circus as it is known - has been roofed over now, presumably to create a more attractive shopping 'destination'. Inevitably perhaps, the new roof serves merely to protect the empty shops from the weather! The saddest victim of this refurbishment however was the loss of the Cork & Cheese pub on the lowest level. This was a rare treat in Southend with good beer and food, little or no music and, for a seaside town, a relatively peaceful clientele. A sad loss indeed.

  3. Hi Peter, just stumbled upon your blog whilst looking for old photos of Southend and have to say I miss this old Southend look. Today ( Dec 2014) most of the shops are empty due to the magnetism of internet shopping. The lovely painting you are so fond of here was done by a transport painter called Malcolm Root who must have lived in the area for some time as he has used quite a few local settings for displaying the vehichles he likes to paint. And you were right about it being used for a Jigsaw puzzle too! I'm not sure if that was his original intention but it does have that unique 'busy' look that a lot of the traditional painted jigsaws used to have.

    Mike :)

  4. Hello

    I was also searching for photos of southend in yesrs gone by, and happenned upon your blog. I am especially interested in the large fibreglass crustaetians which were in Southend Victorua shopping centre in the 70s and 80s. My nostalgia has got the better of me and I would love to find out more about these - shells, the crab pictured above, and the longest standing - widely refered to as a lobster. My sister and I have a facebook page about this crustaecian, and were thrilled to find a photo of it, along with the shells and crab. I would love to see more photos, and know who design and installed them, but especially, what ultimately became of the "lobster" when it was removed in the late eighties.

    Do you have any photos of these?

    I enjoyed your blog - i love reading about the past and seeing how things used to be - for better or worse!

    1. I'd forgotten about the fibreglass crustaceans! Didn't they move around, settling at one point in the High Street? A lobster and a crab, with space inside for children to scramble. I don't remember the shells - and you say they have a Facebook page? I have no pictures of any of these I'm afraid.

    2. They may well have been placed in more than one location - that would explain the differences in accounts of them. I only remember the lobster personally but pictures of all three installations have bern unearthed. I interestingly the lobster looks more like a prawn or shrimp, but it was widely reffered to as a lobster. We started a facebook page to find photos and see if it was relocated anywhere, after a conversation about our childhood memories of the plaza. The photos are all on there. There was a rumour that the lobster, which we think was the last of the three to survive, was relocated somewhere but we havent found any evidence - we will keep investigating however!