27 April 2009

The mysterious Mr Tibbet

At the top of Putney Hill in southwest London there’s a large junction where traffic is shunted off to various directions, with the main road continuing along the fringes of Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common until it reaches wealthy Wimbledon Village.  This thoroughfare is the old stagecoach route from London to the south coast, and the city’s traffic has been using it for centuries – but instead of oxen pulling heavy wagons and four-horse stagecoaches, the road now bustles with a multitude of red London buses, articulated lorries, black cabs, and commuters of all varieties. 

In 1969 the authorities sorted out these competing traffic forces by installing a hefty, brutalist construction: a broad roundabout with motorway-style on- and off-ramps and a spaghetti tangle of under-bridges for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through the centre.

The junction is called Tibbet’s Corner.  Well, actually it’s known as ‘Tibbets Corner’ without the apostrophe, but hey, it’s a possessive, surely?  It’s not the sort of place you’d hang around after sundown – there are no houses near the roundabout and the concrete tunnels are DSC08920dark and spooky.  This effect is augmented if you’ve heard the story that in days gone by the site may also have been the home of a gibbet for hanged highwaymen and other criminals.  Nowadays the tallest structures around are the space-age streetlights that hover over the junction like a pod of alien observers.

The volume of traffic and the size of the roundabout that if pedestrians or cyclists want to pass through the area, they have to use its tunnels.  The only leavening of the grim grey decor is the grassy knoll at the centre of the roundabout, a noisy circle of green that is gazed down upon from passing buses but never picnicked upon due to the traffic volume.  The engineers shaped the dirt in the centre of the roundabout into a low hillock, planted a few thin trees, and re-erected an old sign to remind passers-by of where they’re flitting past.


The sign depicts a skulking highwayman wearing a long-brimmed hat and brandishing a pistol, obviously intent on surprising his next victim.  It was made in 1936 to a design by a Mr L. Hoare of Fulham, who was a student at the nearby Putney College of Art, and celebrates the memory of a famous highwayman who used to frequent the then lonely wastes of Putney Heath in the days before the highways were well policed. 

In the 18th and early 19th century Tibbet’s Corner was a well-positioned spot for such criminal endeavours.  The top of Putney Hill marked the end of dense settlement, with wealthy townhouses straggling out.  It was also the spot at which horses would be tired from lugging their coaches and riders up the steep incline of Putney Hill. 

The problem with the name of Tibbet’s Corner and the highwayman sign is that while the area was definitely the haunt of criminal ne’er-do-wells and malcontents eager to relieve wealthy road users of their watches, jewellery and purses, the fact remains that there is no record of a highwayman by the name of Tibbet operating anywhere near the spot.  Local historian Clive Whichelow points out that it may simply be a case of mistaken identity:

One thing that should perhaps be reiterated is that there never was a local highwayman called Tibbet.  Because of the sign at Tibbet's Corner it is sometimes assumed that Tibbet was the name of the highwayman, but it was the name of the gate-keeper at the entrance to Lord Spencer's estate.  It is thought that the similarity between the words Tibbet and gibbet has led to the confusion (Clive Whichelow, Local Highwaymen, London, 2000).

Another historian tells a similar story:

The heath was certainly frequented by highwaymen, but none were called Tibbet, although a Mr Tebbit lived in one of the gate lodges here (Patrick Loobey, The Archive Photographs Series: Putney and Roehampton, Stroud, Gloucs., 1996)

And if that’s not enough, it might also be worth mentioning that even if there was a highwayman called Tibbet (which there wasn’t), the sign doesn’t actually depict a highwayman anyway.  That term only applies to robbers mounted on horseback.  The pistol-wielding man on the Tibbet’s Corner signpost would’ve been known as a mere footpad – several rungs lower in the criminal food chain than a lofty highwayman. 

(Directions to Tibbet’s Corner by public transport: from Putney take the 39 or 93 bus; from Southfields take the 39 or 493; from Wimbledon take the 93 or the 493).

Stand and deliver!

Outlaws and highwaymen

Review: Outlaws and highwaymen

20 April 2009

City of lights

Who could fail to be excited at the prospect of a visit to Paris?  It’s not like I’ve not visited before – in fact, I’ve been three or four times between 1997 and 1999.  But despite the ease of the Eurostar service from London, I’ve not been back to the French capital since 1999.  This, I thought, was a lamentable lack of judgement and needed to be remedied.  So when my work plans were curtailed by an impending trip back to New Zealand I decided to fit in a quick visit to the City of Lights to reacquaint myself with its many beautiful attractions. 

Organising such a trip at short notice leads to certain compromises, because the cheap Eurostar seats are often booked a long way in advance.  In order to secure the coveted 60 euro return fare I had to sign up for the first morning service: the dreaded 5.25am train.  This required me to get up at 3am in order to catch two buses to reach St Pancras International, because the Underground isn’t running at that hour.  Despite the ridiculous middle-of-the-night time, the bus journey itself was surprisingly easy, whizzing through the middle of London in the dark and reaching the station in only about 40 minutes.  As the bus passed through the West End there were still revellers heading home from the night before. 

Day 1

After the two-and-a-bit hour train journey from London to Paris’ Gare du Nord station I bought a ten-pack (carnet) of Metro tickets and headed out to Metro Pt de Bagnolet to find HI D’Artagnan, the youth hostel I was staying at.  I dropped my bag and returned to the heart of Paris for a massive walk to revisit the main sights and enjoy the gleaming springtime sunshine. 

From Metro Temple I walked past the Pompidou Centre with its futuristic exposed internal workings, and then proceeded to the Ile de Cite to see the justly famed Notre Dame.  Inside it was cool and peaceful, and I admired the soaring nave and its beautiful rose windows. 





 Notre Dame, Ile de Cite Then I headed northwest to admire the courtyard of the massive Louvre palace, which is set off nicely by I.M. Pei’s 1989 glass pyramid smack in the centre.  I saved going in to visit the Louvre’s enormous art collections for another day, not wanting to leave myself insufficient time to explore its many rooms.

Louvre 01.04.09

From the Louvre I passed through the Place de la Concorde, where the revolutionaries beheaded King Louis XVI in 1793, and up the Champs d’Elysee until I veered left and enjoyed the vista from the Trocadero, with its superb views of the Eiffel Tower. 

Place de la Concorde

DSC01286 There was time to pay a visit to a photography museum in the Marais district on the Right Bank, where I admired a collection of early 20th century American picture postcards and a collection of large-scale prints documenting the South American hobby of spinning ‘fighting tops’.  Most of the other exhibits were a bit too pretentious for my tastes though!

As the afternoon turned into evening I returned to the hostel, footsore but still prepared for another day of exploring.

Day 2

Returning to the same part of the city, on my second morning in Paris I took the Metro to the Trocadero and visited the Maritime Museum.  It struck me as a little strange that the French national maritime museum would be in a landlocked city, but apparently there are several other branches of the museum in prominent port cities.  I enjoyed the eclectic mix of maritime paintings, wooden figureheads and nautical curios like the 19th century prototype deep sea diving costume that looked like a prop from the movie Aliens

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Then there was time for another lengthy stroll through Paris – down underneath the Eiffel Tower (avoiding the press of tourists queuing to ascend), east past the gilded glory of the Invalides dome that houses the tomb of Napoleon, and further on to the arty Left Bank where I spent an hour or two in the superb Musee National du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages). 



I recalled the delicate 7th century Visigothic votive crowns from my last visit in 1999, but also relished the opportunity to view the museum’s excellent collections of medieval statues and ivories such as the 6th century Ariadne from Constantinople pictured below.  And as a centrepiece exhibit, the museum’s set of tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn are justly famed worldwide for their intricate detail and stately beauty. 


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DSC01364To complete the day I met former work colleague Bronwyn for a nice dinner nearby.  She now works in Paris, and I was able to catch up on her adventures in France since she left Wellington in 2007.  I was impressed to learn that she now has an apartment on the Blvd St-Germain, which is just about as trendy as you can get in Paris!

Day 3

DSC01387 After breakfast at the hostel I walked to the nearby Pere Lachaise cemetery, a huge suburb of the dead decked out with elaborate mausoleums.  There I admired the tombs of Oscar Wilde, the composer Chopin, The Doors’ Jim Morrison’s humble blocky memorial, and the 19th century tomb for the relocated remains of medieval lovers Heloise and Abelard(Right: Oscar Wilde’s grave)

Then it was time for the big one – an assault on the fabled glories of the Louvre collection.  Saving time by avoiding the queues and purchasing my ticket from a machine in the Carrousel de Louvre underground shopping precinct, I entered at 1pm and spent the next five hours seeing as much as my feet and stamina could cope with.  Highlights are too numerous to mention, and it’s really not possible to do justice to the treasures on display in the vast multi-level galleries that fill the former grand palace by the Seine.  But I did get to indulge my usual fondness for classical sculptures and fine Renaissance paintings, even if it did mean doing battle with the massive throngs of sightseers near the Mona Lisa and the Venus di Milo. 

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DSC01429(Above, clockwise: Winged Victory of Samothrace; Mona Lisa; Venus di Milo)  

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(Above: clockwise from top left: wooden Egyptian mask, 1400-1300BC; silver statue of Henri IV as a boy, 1824; Augustin Pajou’s portrait bust of Natalie de Laborde, 1789; 13th century carving of St Matthew from Chartres)

Cour Puget, Louvre

(Above: sculptures in the Cour Puget)

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(Above: Quentin Metsys, 1514; Jacob Claesz, c.1520-24)

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(Above, clockwise from top left: Jacopo della Quercia’s Virgin and Child, 15th century; St Constance, 15th century; Gregor Erhart’s Mary Magdalen, c.1515)

At 6pm the Louvre reduced its ticket price by a third, and this resulted in a deluge of visitors into the galleries, so this was my cue to depart.  But, as always, I’d had a fabulous time.  A day at the Louvre is always a day to remember.

Day 4

DSC01583 Determined to make the most of my last full day in France, I decided to journey out of Paris to visit Chartres Cathedral, which is one of the marvels of medieval architecture.  The double-decker train from Gare du Montparnasse in the southern suburbs took about an hour, and navigation from the train station was simple because the famous mis-matched spires of the cathedral towers were visible from the platform at Chartres.  (The right-hand spire is from the 1140s, while the left is from the early 16th century).  I walked up the slope to the cathedral yard, admiring the fine statuary adorning the west front and the contrasting medieval spires, built several centuries apart.  Once inside I took an audioguide tour, which highlighted the peerless artistry in the early 13th century stained glass windows and the allegorical tales told by the statues in the north and south porches. 


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Chartres North porch

After an hour or two in the cathedral I strolled around Chartres town, admiring the view of the cathedral from the riverside.  Soon it was time to return to Paris though, where I enjoyed my last evening sorting through my photographs and reading.  It had been a superb few days in France, and the following morning I would return to London on the 9am Eurostar.  I had fitted a great deal into my days, but visiting Paris for a short time only reminds you just how much there is to see.  I’ll have to plan another visit soon!

06 April 2009

England’s green and pleasant land

The stirring verses of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ were written in the first decade of the 19th century, and are still sung today at the Proms to the music added by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916.  The last verse reads:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

This stands in contrast to the contents of the second verse, in which Blake asks:

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?

This jab at the grim reality of the damage being wrought upon the English countryside and populace by the industrial revolution has long been quoted as an early example of environmental sentiment. 

In the 21st century it is possible to see one particular feat of design and engineering that has reversed some of the environmental damage of industrial processes and created a vibrant ecosystem that enhances the English landscape. 

Near the tiny china-clay town of Bodelva in Cornwall a huge disused clay pit has been turned into the Eden Project, a colossal environmental endeavour that includes the largest greenhouse in the world, housing a rainforest in the middle of the distinctly un-tropical Cornwall.  Opened to the public in 2001, the Eden Project now hosts huge numbers of visitors each year, as well as playing host to a series of rock concerts each summer.

I visited the site whilst staying with family friends Jack and Anna in Truro last week.  Here’s some photos to give you an idea of the views.  They won’t convey the temperature inside the greenhouse though – I was glad it wasn’t summertime, because it was quite steamy in there!

Eden Project 29.03.09 Panorama from below the Visitor Centre



Recycling statue


Inside the tropical biome


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Left: inside the Mediterranean biome, right: the Seed, a 70-tonne granite carving.



The last sight of old Plymouth

On a recent visit to the West Country I stopped for a brief visit in Plymouth, the port from which the Tucker family emigrated to New Zealand in 1840.  I was intending to journey inland to the town of Calstock, where I believe Edward and Jane Tucker lived before their emigration, and where an outlying area of fields is still known as Tuckermarsh.  However, it quickly became apparent that my single day in Plymouth was not sufficient to allow a side trip to Calstock, because the trains only ran there every two hours and I had a train to catch later that day to Truro.  Still, I managed to hunt down a few details of the country they left in 1840, taking their children to a new colony on the other side of the world in the hope of a better life.

Edward and Jane were relatively old for would-be colonists: when their ship the William Bryan sailed on 19 November 1840, Edward was aged 50, Jane was 47 and they took with them seven children.  They had married on 8 December 1818 at St Andrew’s Church in Calstock, a mainly 15th-century church built on the site of an old Roman fort, their wedding taking place only a few years after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars at the Battle of Waterloo (1815).  According to the family research of Emily J. Tucker, neither Edward or Jane was from Calstock (they are listed as ‘sojourner of the parish’ on the marriage certificate, despite Jane having been baptised in the same church on 1 December 1793).  Both signed the register with an ‘x’, although this does not necessarily mean they were illiterate – it was common at the time.  

Edward was born around 1790 at an unknown location.  After the birth of their first child George (about whom I only know that he was not aboard the William Bryan, but did later move to New Zealand because he is listed as dying in a place called Araperara).  At some point the Tuckers moved from Calstock to Tavistock, five miles to the northeast, because their second child William was born there in 1820.  The third and fourth children, Edward and Margaret, were both born back in Calstock in 1823 and 1825 respectively.  Five more children were born to the couple further west in North Hill on the edge of the moors between the years 1829 and 1839, indicating that North Hill was probably their last place of residence before they left England.

With so many children and a seemingly transient life, it appears likely that the Tuckers were unable to provide for their family needs on an agricultural or mining worker’s income.  (When Edward senior died in Auckland in 1855 his occupation was listed as ‘farmer’, so he probably plied the same trade in England).

The founding of the Plymouth Company of New Zealand provided the Tuckers with the opportunity to escape the poverty of life in Devon.  With a powerful patron in the 10th Earl of Devon, William Courtenay (1777-1859), the Plymouth Company managed to secure the funds necessary to send six colonising vessels from Plymouth to found the Taranaki settlement of New Plymouth.  Henry Brett, in his 1928 book White Wings (vol. II), noted that the Plymouth Company:

…was initiated at a meeting held in Plymouth on January 25, 1840, at which it was decided to raise £150,000 capital for the purpose of acquiring land in New Zealand and settling it with people from Devon and Cornwall. At the head of the company was the Earl of Devon, and associated with him were a number of prominent persons, several of whom bore titles. The names of some of these leaders are perpetuated in the streets of New Plymouth, such as Courtenay Eliot, Buller, and Pendarves. Great care was taken in selecting the settlers, many of them being of good yeoman stock.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that the Earl obtained his title rather fortuitously, because the ninth Earl, also a William Courtenay (1768-1835), had no issue and was seemingly openly gay, and known as ‘Kitty’ to his family and friends.  The 10th Earl was his third cousin).        

Plymouth at the time the Tuckers departed was still an isolated part of England.  The railway did not arrive in town until 1848-49, and a telegraph connection was not established until 1852.  However, according to the Thomas’ Directory of 1836 (‘being an alphabetical list of the inhabitants of Plymouth’), which I consulted in the local history section of the Plymouth library, there were five or six Tuckers noteworthy enough to warrant mention:

  • Tucker, Mark – grocer / tea dealer, Frankfort Street
  • Tucker, Robert – lieutenant, Royal Navy, King Street
  • Tucker, William – grocer / tea dealer, Exeter Street
  • Tucker, William (as above?) – grocer / tea dealer, High Street
  • Tucker, Robert – baker, Looe Street
  • Tucker, William – shoemaker, Drake Street.

So perhaps Edward and Jane had relatives to stay with when they came down to Plymouth four years later in 1840 – but given the size of their brood, perhaps not!


The William Bryan was a 312-ton barque under the command of Captain McLean, and according to this website it was ‘built at Southampton in 1816. Originally owned by Messers Domett & England she was sold to Tullock & Company in 1844’.  The emigrants enjoyed an impressive send-off from Plymouth, according to the Cyclopedia of New Zealand, written in 1908:

Previous to the departure of the expedition, a dinner was given to the pioneer emigrants, who were chiefly from Cornwall, where Sir William Molesworth had made great efforts to induce a number of agricultural and mining labourers, who resided on his estates, or in their neighbourhood, to enter into the scheme. Much enthusiasm prevailed at the meeting, and each emigrant was promised a town section in the town of New Plymouth, on his arrival. The dejeuner took place on the 30th of October, and the Earl of Devon was in the chair. On the previous day the proclamation of the British sovereignty of the Islands of New Zealand had been published in London in the Government Gazette. Mr. Gibbon Wakefield was in London at the time, and, on hearing the important news, he immediately started for Plymouth by the mail coach, and arrived there during the least, at which he was called upon by Lord Devon to communicate to the assembly the intelligence he had brought from London.

It was a rainy November week when the William Bryan arrived in Plymouth for loading.  Dr Henry Weeks, the ship’s surgeon, recorded the loading in his diary:

At last the Wm. Bryan arrived, and shortly afterwards the day of embarkation. It rained in torrents and the decks were ankle deep in dirt. Boats and barges arrived at the ship's side with the emigrants and their luggage, some, poor things, in a most woeful plight. Each family had on the average about four children, making seventy in all. There were one hundred and forty-one steerage emigrants and how they possibly could be stowed away was to me a problem. Now just imagine a number of people, almost all strangers to each other, endeavouring to squeeze themselves and part of their things into little dark places called berths; grumbling all the while and expressing a wish to return; sailors swearing, pigs grunting, and children crying their little lungs out. What a treat this would have been for Hogarth's musician! Travelling indeed makes us acquainted with strange bedfellows.

The emigrants would have been transferred to the ship from the old port of Plymouth, known as the Barbican.  The old stone steps down to the water still remain, and these steps are surrounded with plaques commemorating the departure of a multitude of emigrants from the port (aside from the Taranaki-bound settlers, the Barbican was also the scene of the departure of the Mayflower to the New World in 1620 and the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the convict settlements in Australia in the mid-1830s). 




The William Bryan lay becalmed in Plymouth Sound for several days, and would likely have been visible to any nearby relatives wishing to wave goodbye from the headland known as Plymouth Hoe.  (On this site Sir Francis Drake is reputed to have played bowls before sailing out to defeat the Spanish Armada; there’s a Drake statue there now, and a bowling green).  Here’s a panorama view of the Sound from the centre of Plymouth Hoe, with the Barbican located down below the large war memorial on the far left.

Plymouth Hoe 27.03.09

When the William Bryan finally departed Plymouth, the last sight the emigrants would have had of Devon (assuming they were allowed on deck) would have been the Smeaton’s Tower – which was then the Eddystone Lighthouse.  Coincidentally, the tower they passed in 1840 is now secure on Plymouth Hoe – it’s the red and white striped tower in the panorama above and the photo below.  It was replaced in the 1880s and moved to the Hoe as a historic landmark.   



Finally, in one of those typically New Zealand coincidences, the William Bryan also carried my father’s family to the colony: Richard and Agnes Chilman, who were cabin passengers.  Richard Chilman found himself a job working for the commander of the colony effort, the naval architect George Cutfield, en route to New Zealand - the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (cited above) recorded that ‘on board were Mr. Richard Chilman, of London, who, on the voyage, was appointed clerk to Mr. Cutfield’. 

Mrs Chilman also had an eventful journey.  In the ship’s surgeon’s diary, the entry for 11 December 1840 reveals some collateral damage resulting from on-ship boredom:

11th. The man at the wheel saw a shark this morning. Don't think I shall repeat the bathing. Some dolphins have also been following in the wake of the ship but we cannot tempt them to taste our bacon on a baited hook. Mr. King having dressed himself in a bonnet and cloak of Mrs. Chilman's, immediately on his coming on deck to be introduced, a puff came and took the bonnet overboard. To complete the day's disasters, Aubrey flung King's cap overboard.

Mrs Chilman was also on the receiving end of a dousing in salt water on 28 December 1840 when the William Bryan crossed the line of the Equator, an old ship’s custom.

The Chilmans experienced the hard times that beset all of the early New Plymouth settlers.  In a republished extract from his diary dated 11 December 1841, he wrote:

All the circumstances seem adverse to us, and this settlement, which ought to be one of the most flourishing in New Zealand, threatens, through the shameful land jobbery (to characterise it by the mildest terms) in England by the Plymouth Company, to be abandoned at no distant date. When we consider that we might have had the very place chosen by the Nelson settlement where there are three ships now safely landing their cargo, it is enough to disgust us entirely with the whole affair. With regard to the Plymouth Company, it was openly stated during the selection of the town sites that a large sum of money remitted for purchase of some of those sections was returned to Halifax with the answer that they were all disposed of. Judge then, of our astonishment to find that when the “Amelia Thompson” left England the Company was holder of upwards of a thousand town lots, which with 200 for the natives, and 600 held by absentees, reduces the number held by actual colonists to less than 400 sections. These circumstances justify anybody in stigmatising the Company as being engaged in land sharking transactions, which will entail a heavy loss, perhaps ruin, upon all who have bought land.

By September 1842, the Cyclopedia reports, the Chilmans had ‘partly cleared and fenced a fifty acre section’.  By 1853, according to Puke Ariki, Chilman had improved his lot, having been appointed Provincial Treasurer, and in 1871 he returned to England to raise capital to exploit the ironsands of Taranaki.  A New Plymouth street was named after him too. 

For more details of Richard Chilman’s adventurous life, see this text (near the bottom of the page) from a volume entitled The Taranaki Pioneers, which was written in 1878.