Janus: the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year

By Wes White, Learning and Engagement Officer for Southwark Libraries and Heritage

On Tuesday 17 January we featured the first ‘Museum on the Move’ at Canada Water Library. Each month we’ll present a themed collection drawn from the Southwark Heritage collections. Original documents and artefacts from the Cuming Museum will be on display, freely available for visitors to see and swap thoughts about in the library, while artworks are shown on a big screen above.

Temple of JanusMy theme for January was Janus – the Roman god of beginnings, doorways and the New Year; after whom January is named. He is famous as the god with two faces – one looking into the future, and the other on the back of his head peering into the past. Janus might not be an ‘A-lister’ in the Roman pantheon, being less well known than figures with planets named after them like Jupiter, Mars and Venus; but even so he was a significant figure in Roman mythology, and the Cuming collection actually features a number of objects directly related to him. These come in the form of coins bearing his likeness; and even one showing his temple, from the reign of Nero. The story of Janus’ temple tells that its gates stood open when Rome was at war, but closed in times of peace – and they were rarely closed.

Also featured in the display were some press cuttings sourced from Southwark’s Local History Library and Archives about New Year celebrations in years past; particularly from the year 1900. I picked out that year to look at because of the significance of the turn of the century, only to find myself reminded by the Bishop of Rochester that technically the new century would have begun in 1901.

And considering that New Year’s Eve is famously such a busy time for the emergency services, I was also surprised to find a story called ‘Firemen at Play’ describing the Fire service’s own New Year’s Eve party – it finished up, predictably, with some of them having to get changed out of their party gear to tackle a fire…

Because Janus stood at the threshold of the New Year, he was also the god of all kinds of crossing-over points and doorways. This gave me the opportunity to feature some of the Cuming collection’s keys in the display. Those included a surprisingly small and humble key to Marshalsea Prison (which several visitors thought looked just a bit too easy for the pirates and smugglers the prison held to copy), and a far bigger, heavier, 13th century key to Bermondsey Abbey, which stood until the reign of Henry VIII. The Abbey is widely thought to be the reason that the area is known as ‘The Blue’ – as the colour represented sacredness.

By far the oldest thing on display this month was a fragment of an even older belief system than the Roman myth that Janus was a part of – a fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes. This and other Egyptian artefacts came to the Cuming collection via the explorer James Burton in the 1830s. So, why would there have been a false doorway in a tomb? It was false only to the living: this was the door that the departed spirit was supposed to step through, into the next world.

Fragment of a false doorway from a tomb in Thebes

The next outing for the ‘Museum on the Move’ will be at Canada Water Library on Tuesday 14 February, 2pm to 4pm, and you might be able to guess the theme from the date! It’s Valentine’s Day – come and check out an exploration of romance down the ages.

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Southwark Park Lido

Guest blog from local historian, Pat Kingwell

With summer here how lovely to see so many children and their parents in Southwark Park playground.  I wonder how many of them realise the swings and slides they are enjoying are located on what was once an outdoor swimming pool!  ‘The Lido’, as it was known by local people, was closed to the public in 1992 due to unsustainable costs. In 1999 the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to fund improvements in Southwark Park, but alas the lido could not be rescued.  A much-needed playground was created instead, though the structure of the original pool remains in place, hidden below the surface.

The idea of a ‘bathing lake’ had first been suggested in 1891, but it was not until September 1923 that a reinforced concrete outdoor pool was achieved by the London County Council. It cost £4,999 (about £150,000 today) and was impressively large – over 55m long, 18m wide and in parts over 2m in depth.  To begin with it was open all-year round, but there were no changing facilities, just benches, and bathers were screened from the rest of the park by an earth bank formed from the excavated material.  However, by 1924 ten individual changing rooms and two communal dressing sheds were provided.

Initially there was no charge to use the lido, but costumes, slips and towels had to be hired.

The pool quickly became popular and the Southwark Recorder of 25th June 1926 reported:

“During the recent heat wave the number of swimmers using the open-air bath at Southwark Park leaped to the substantial total of about 1,200 a day.  In the height of the season, when the weather is most favourable, it is no unusual occurrence for the weekly average of bathers and swimmers to be maintained about 5,000.  During this period of the year the baths are open from 6 a.m. till about 8.45.”

During the 1920s the moral issue of mixed bathing greatly exercised the minds of the authorities, and it was not until the summer of 1930 that it was allowed, but only on two days a week, including Sunday.  To take part in a mixed session cost 6d (about £1 today). From the outset one day a week had been reserved for women only, an arrangement which in 1933 the South London Press felt obliged to comment upon:

“At Southwark Park during the lunch hour a crowd of males stood listening with envious ears to the sounds of happy laughter within.  Inside, Eve, free from male presence and attired in the flimsiest of costume, gamboled and sported like mermaids in a summer sea.  A sylph-like creature in a brilliant green costume poised for a moment silhouetted against the sky and cut the water like a rapier.  The men mopped their brows and tried to get into the indoor baths, whose opening times are not easily ascertained.”

 

By the late 1930s a trip to ‘The Lido’ was a regular part of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe life, which even the Second World War could not totally disrupt.  Although much of Southwark Park became a military base, and the lido itself was bomb damaged, the public continued to have a typically very cold ‘dip’ throughout the hostilities.  For about thirty-five post-war years they continued to do so in an increasingly revitalised park. Better changing rooms were installed and by summer 1949 it was reported more than a thousand people per day were attending.  In 1954 a new café and fountain added to the attraction.  Greater access was encouraged through low charges, or none at all in the case of older and visually-impaired people, and by 1957 the South London Press could report on a heatwave day:

“Park regulations about decency in dress were cheerfully ignored by all, and bikinis were not thought out of place in the streets.”

In 1971 Southwark Park was devolved by the Greater London Council to Southwark Council. A few good years for the lido followed but diminishing use, wear and tear and unsustainable running costs cast a shadow over its future. In 1981 it was closed, only in the face of public outcry to re-open a year later.  In 1984 the café building was closed to become an art gallery under the management of Bermondsey Artists Group.  The lido itself struggled on until 1992, when it was permanently closed. For a decade it lay as a sad eyesore in the centre of the park, much lamented by the local community, until the site was replaced with the current children’s playground.  Occasionally there is talk about building another lido in Southwark Park – now that would be something.

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Appeal for images:

Unfortunately we don’t have any photographs of the Southwark Park Lido in our collections.  If you have any photographs which you would like to donate to the Local History Library and Archive please get in touch: LHLibrary@southwark.gov.uk

Southwark on Film

By Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer at the Local History Library and Archive

Historically, films have not really been given the same status as traditional manuscript archives.  Yet, films can contain rich information about place, time, and culture that the written word can’t capture so accurately. ‘Seeing is believing’ is definitely my mantra for film archive! Films can remind us what a street, building or person used to look like and entertain, educate and enlighten us.  Films aid research and those in our collection, on different film formats and spanning over 100 years of film making, help build the story of the borough of Southwark.

Some of the gems in our Film Collection include those from The Bermondsey Borough Council, whose Health Department under the direction of Dr Connan (Medical Officer for Health at the time), made over 30 films between the 1920s and 1940s.  Most of the films were made in-house as it was deemed important that they were made by people with medical expertise. The aim was to send a clear message about good health for its residents.

The Council showed the films in ‘cinemotors’ which, being portable, enabled the film makers to reach a wide audience, much to the delight of local children!  For decades, the films were shown around Bermondsey and Southwark, helping to improve the health of residents and prevent deadly diseases like Diphtheria – a fact highlighted in the film Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931) which boasted an impressive reduction in deaths from infectious diseases over the previous 30 years.

Cinemotor van, Bermondsey, 1937

Around half of our film collection was digitised by London’s Screen Archives in 2012. You can view many of these films on their website and YouTube channel, including some of the films from the Brandon Estate Cine Club whose collection of around 20 films, all shot on standard 8mm film, was made by Richard Morgan and Brian Waterman. Both cine enthusiasts, they started the club on the estate in Walworth in the 1960s. The films record life on the estate through the residents’ activities over more than a decade – summer fetes, Christmas parties and coach trips to Canvey Island.

While some of our films are available online, others can only be viewed in the library and archive. We have the fantastic  ‘Two Bob’s Worth of Trouble’,  a film made by class 3C of Walworth School in 1961, which follows the adventures of a boy who is robbed of his trophy cup. The film features some of Southwark’s lost sites, like the Surrey Canal.  We also have many great films made by local historians, such as Michael Holland, and films by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV.

Each month we showcase a different film from the archives. You can view this, or any of the films listed in our Film Collection booklet, at Southwark Local History Library and Archive, free of charge. It’s usually possible to just drop in and speak to a member of staff about viewing a film, but if you need any more information please give us a call on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

Dickens’ Southwark: Jacob’s Island

DickensAs a journalist in the early 1830s, Dickens would occasionally go out on patrol with the River Police. It was accompanying them that he visited Jacob’s Island and witnessed the poverty and foul stench of Folly Ditch.

“There exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London… In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago… it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed.” Charles Dickens paints a bleak picture of this part of Southwark in his novel, Oliver Twist.

Engraving published in a newspaper depicting the area known as Folly Ditch, Jacob's Island about 1860

This so-called island was created alongside the Thames by the River Neckinger, the docks and a series of tidal ditches. Known as ‘The Venice of Drains’, it’s little wonder that the area was one of the main hotspots for the cholera epidemics in the latter half of the 19th century as the ditches were used for both sewers and drinking water. Sluices at the mills could be opened, allowing the ditches to be filled from the Thames and Dickens writes, in Oliver Twist, that at these times you “will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side, lowering, from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up…every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage – all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.”

Jacob's Island, 1813

Such a place seems a fitting location for the lair, and ultimate demise, of Dickens’ monstrous character, Bill Sykes. A specific property in Eckett Street is traditionally said to be the location Dickens’ had in mind for Sykes’ grim abode, and the 1835 deeds for this house are held by the Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

Eckett Street was just off the present day Jacob Street and, like most of this area, it has been transformed since Dickens’ day. Most of the early buildings were demolished by 1860, replaced by Victorian buildings. The majority of these were cleared following heavy bombing in the Second World War, though New Concordian Wharf is one survivor.

Horwood map of London, 1819 edition

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This is our final Dickens blog in the series – for now. We will look at other Dickens links to the borough in future. If you can’t wait and want to know more about some of Dickens’ old haunts you can wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself. Download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.