On the trail of London's railings

I've been engaged in what I realise is a probably a pointless exercise - to post a series of civil tweets (@slowflaneur) without sniping, bitching, or name calling. To find a series of happiness bombs or at least interesting quirks hidden in plain sight.

Today's was too involved for a tweet so the backstory is explained here. The question is - Why are London's railings interesting?

Original Georgian railing in Peckham
Original Georgian railings in Peckham

After reading this you may conclude they're not, but let me try to convince you otherwise.

We probably all know that London's iron railings were removed in significant numbers during the second world war. However, as these railings and boot scraper in Peckham show not all of them disappeared. I couldn't help but wonder why.

The answers, or possible answers surprised me touching on the class system, some inverted power play and a bit of World War II propaganda.

What we know is that no house from the high status Belgravia town houses to the lowly Victorian villas was complete without railings. Apart from aesthetics and security, they also provide clear demarcation of property boundaries echoing the protective past of a portcullis or even the turnpikes.

Black and Gold railings also in Peckham

The eagle eyed among you will notice both examples shown here are in Peckham. It's an interesting fact that most of the remaining original railings exist in the very well to do areas of the 1940's and in what would have been the poorest areas. There is something of a gap in the middle, but more of that later.

To me, these gold embellishments are effective, but unusual as well over 90% of railings are just black. But that is a fairly recent thing.

In Georgian times, frontages would have been much more colourful with reds, blues, black, white and yellows. It was only with the death of Queen Victoria that public parks and buildings painted their railings black in an act of public mourning.

The look caught on and over a century later it's the accepted norm. Indeed, many conservation areas insist on nothing but black, despite the fact that it's probably far from the original look.

Railings being removed from houses in London 1942

What we know is that railings from across the country were removed in an effort to recycle the metal for the war effort. London was particularly keen removing most from public parks and many of the houses across the city,

So why were Peckham and similar areas able to keep theirs.

There are a number of competing theories but two seem to be supported by some evidence. The first relates to who was doing the removing and their social status at the time. In simple terms three of the main departments charged with removal were based in areas that retain the most railings today. It has been suggested that workmen left their own areas until last taking them from those they perceived as being less needy in the richer parts of the city. The very richest houses also had their metalwork taken, but had the money to have them replaced as soon as the war shortages which wasn't the case for the middle class homes and some public spaces.

The second reason is timing and public perception. It was certainly the case that removals took place as part of the war effort to recycle into much needed metals. The problem is, that recycling didn't happen on the scale we imagine. The country had lost so much infrastructure that melting down and reusing metals were just too much for the country to achieve at volume.

The Thames Estuary

By the time areas like Peckham were due to have their railings removed this was already obvious to the powers that be so further removals were quietly discontinued.

In 1978 then elderly workers on the Thames estuary reported significant amounts of scrap metal and railings being dumped into the estuary in the 1940's. They suggest this happened rather than admit they had been removed for no immediate reason and damage morale.

This would appear to be backed up by former Thames pilot boat captains who explain they have long been needed since the war given ship's navigation systems can be impacted by significant amounts of iron and metal in the estuary bed of the Thames..

Stretcher railings exist across London

After the war many of the railings that had been removed had replacements installed. Many if not most of the post war housing estates of the 1950's have examples of these 'stretcher' railings.

This picture shows the panels which are in fact recycled metal stretchers used to move the sick and injured during the war. Next time you see something like this, there are ways to identify them. At the end of each panel check for the former legs bending back a few inches away from the road. These would have been short legs that kept patients off the ground when used as stretchers. They are a sure sign of their former use. So much history in something we walk by every day.


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