Sunday, 18 September 2022

Our Latest Merrie Monarch

It will take some getting used to but within just 48 hours we had a new Prime Minister and a new Sovereign to enhance our lives.  For the former, expectations could hardly be lower, but the latter, for all that he’s been part of the landscape for our entire lives, may surprise us all, though not necessarily in a good way.  This 1952 cover story dates from when he was just 4 years of age and it’s a tribute to the expertise of mid-century character analysts that so much evidence of fine qualities could be deduced from scrutiny of his infant features, though it’s notable they had nothing to say on the subject of intelligence.  It will be fascinating to see how many of these attributes will guide his conduct over the course of his reign but it’s inconceivable that he could display fewer than the new Prime Minister possesses. “Tenacity of Purpose” can be detected in disconcerting abundance, beyond that is mostly a vacuum.


Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Heath Robinson’s Merrie Monarchs

Two volumes of Monarchs of Merrie England were published in 1907. Each volume had 10 colour plates by W Heath Robinson (WHR) and humorous verses by Roland Carse.  A much abbreviated edition followed in 1910 comprising 4 card covered volumes, each with 2 colour plates. Which is what we are showing here.  WHR’s lively illustrations are full of movement and incisive drawing and form a perfect accompaniment to Carse’s rhyming couplets.  At this point in his career, WHR was mostly employed illustrating more prestigious colour-plate gift books and critical voices have overlooked Monarchs of Merrie England in favour of Bill the Minder, Twelfth Night and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales.  Printers Thomas Forman of Nottingham extended the life of these illustrations in the form of postcards that were marketed to small traders to publicise their services.


Friday, 19 August 2022

Some Huntley & Palmer Publicity

Following on from our previous post is a display of magazine advertising of Huntley & Palmer (H&P) products. H&P never established a reputation for graphic excellence and their output often lacked the kind of house style cultivated by some of their competitors. Which makes for an uneven selection of examples.  The earliest from the 1920s depends on a time honoured cliché of an attractive, sophisticated female with little or no obvious association with the product.  Our model stares disdainfully at what may be a dish of Imperial biscuits but the real reason for her presence is a shapely pair of legs, conscientiously rendered in all their glory.  Schweppes comes to mind as an especially assiduous practitioner of this strategy.  Photographic imagery predominated in the 1930s along with some generally unadventurous graphic design. The savoury biscuit ad from 1937 was an unusual exception. A welcome revival in the use of illustration led to more interesting imagery in the 1950, especially on the part of Pauline Baynes whose ice world fantasy made such an impact in 1953.  C M Brock, usually a dependably competent illustrator contributed an unhappily crude piece of horsey cliché. The single thread running through this selection is the frequent resort to jingoism and in this respect Huntley & Palmer were very much in the mainstream.


Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Walking to Work

The town of Reading has been turned down for city status four times and remains stuck with the unwanted distinction of being Britain’s largest town by population. For many years it was home to the largest biscuit factory in the world, Huntley & Palmer, and a source of enduring fascination to the producers of picture postcards.  Something about the spectacle of working men and women flooding the streets on their way to and from the factory was held to have significant customer appeal.  Although for many holidaymakers it was a painful reminder of the world from which they had been temporarily released.  The men make their way home with an air of grim determination, while the women appear more relaxed, though a few show signs of high spirits.  For the historian they offer evidence of changing fashions and a measure of workforce morale.  Since their introduction into the marketplace, biscuits have always been an optional purchase and Huntley & Palmer played a major part in developing ever more elaborate recipes in beautifully designed and often luxurious packaging to expand their appeal.  The business followed a traditional path - decades of expansion under private ownership were followed by absorption by multinational competitors and a loss of identity in a vast portfolio of brands.  Manufacturing in Reading ended in 1976 after which the brand had no links with the town.  After further changes in control the brand was sold off in 2006 to new owners who have operated on a much smaller scale with a modest range of sweet and savoury products.  The factory buildings have been gradually replaced with offices and apartments and the last surviving portion is being converted into living spaces.  For an earlier post from 2010 on Huntley & Palmer, please follow this link.


Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Laxton, last open-field village in England

On July 11th. the open fields of Laxton lay scorched under blistering sunshine.  Not the best day to explore this Nottinghamshire village that, by the vagaries of history escaped enclosure and today survives as the last functioning open-field village in England. It’s one of those fascinating rural anomalies that seems worthy of a pilgrimage even in the knowledge that it will yield little in the way of spectacular sights. What makes Laxton unique is best appreciated by looking at a map that shows how each field is divided into strips which are then allocated to local farms.  The origin of this system lay in the early medieval period when the small farms clustered in the village expanded their land use by clearing the woodland that surrounded them for cultivation.  In the interests of fairness the newly available land was divided into strips and distributed among the local farmers, all of whom were tenants of the Lord of the Manor, so that all received portions of good, average and poor quality land. Which is the reason that Laxton farmsteads are concentrated in the village centre rather than being dispersed through the surrounding countryside.

These egalitarian arrangements couldn’t survive the gradual erosion of tenants’ rights that began in the 13th. century when manorial lords acquired the right to consolidate the strips of land into single fields. For the open-field system it was a lingering death as the 18th. and 19th. century enclosure acts accelerated the process with the last examples being lost by 1850.  Elsewhere in Europe where various versions were  widely used it lasted a little longer.  In Russia it took Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation to bring it to an end.

Among several explanations for the survival of Laxton are a lack of agreement on enclosure by local farmers and an impecunious Lord of the Manor (Earl Manvers of Thoresby Hall) lacking the funds to pay for the work. In 1952 the village land freehold was sold to the Ministry of Agriculture by Gervas Pierrepont, 6th Earl Manvers and then passed into the control of the Crown Estate both of whom favoured preserving the existing system as a historic survival. In 2018 the Crown Estate put the village of Laxton up for sale with the following classic, mealy mouthed excuse, “As a commercial real estate business, we recognise we may not be best placed to manage the estate moving forwards and have therefore reached a decision to sell.” They claim to be looking for an owner in the heritage sector who would honour the commitment to maintain the open-field system but the real reason must be a desire to be rid of an asset that can’t be endlessly sweated to maximise a financial return.  Since 2020 the new owner in an unusual circular move is The Thoresby Settlement, part of the Thoresby Estate, owner of Thoresby Hall, once the home of the impecunious Earl Manvers.

There’s a fascinating text online from 2010 when the resident of Thorseby, Hugh Matheson, delivered his thoughts on the past and future of Laxton.  To a layman it reads as an admirably objective assessment of the problems that flow from maintaining Laxton in its present state - elderly and difficult to replace tenants and the need to make farming small parcels of land financially viable.  At the same time there was a genuine desire to find a way forward that could secure Laxton’s future.  The conclusion was that the growing number of agencies and stakeholders involved required strong leadership and a willingness to invest in the future.  This would appear to be beyond the capacity of the Crown Estate, implying that a change of stewardship was essential. Twelve years on and Mr Matheson has his wish and it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Laxton as the Thoresby Estate exerts its influence. It will certainly be a challenge to develop Laxton as a heritage attraction with a wide appeal to the general public without compromising the features that make it a really special place.


Saturday, 2 July 2022

Noisiel Revisited in Postcards

Twelve years ago I visited Noisiel to see the unique Chocolat Menier factory complex designed by Jules Saulnier on the banks of the River Marne, east of Paris.  The factory was in production from 1871 to 1993 and in 1997 was remodelled to serve as the headquarters of Nestlé France. Le Moulin Saulnier is the landmark building - behind the chromatic brilliance of its ceramic cladding lies an interior in which iron box girders and arched roof trusses create uninterrupted floor space for machinery.  Since 2010 I’ve acquired some vintage postcards of Noisiel that can be seen below, what they confirm is how well everything appears to have been conserved. A recent acquisition is this corporate prospectus of the Noisiel factory published by Menier in the 1930s to mark more than a century of progress. On the cover is a familiar school girl figure in use in Menier publicity since 1892, as airbrushed and updated 50 years later for the 1930s. There’s a double page spread of photos illustrating the major buildings and the manufacturing process at the Usine de Noisiel.  Alongside a chance to win a Peugeot 302 “luxe”, more photos can be seen on the back, including views of the internal railway that ran through the premises.  

In 2020 Nestlé France moved out of Noisiel to new premises in Issy-les-Moulineaux and disposed of the entire site to a developer, leaving the buildings to face an uncertain future.  Much wrangling is now going on between developers, local authorities and nearby residents - developers want to maximise the residential potential while locals are looking for community and cultural facilities.  The buildings have some protection as National Monuments but many spectacular interiors could be lost whichever way the argument is settled. Some reports say that the developers intend to permit a number of community enterprises to operate within the site on a temporary basis until 2024, the date set for launching the redevelopment.  This is unlikely to offer any public access to the site. More Chocolat Menier posts can be seen here and here.