Monday, 23 May 2011

William Thomas Whiffin

During my last voluntary stint at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, I took the opportunity of finding out a little more about the photographer behind the Whiffin Photographic collection. There is a small collection of papers (Whiffin 770 (Folder 3) includes a few letters written by Whiffin) from which I gleaned a few biographical details. The man behind these photographs was William Thomas Whiffin (circa 1879-1957), a successful and highly accomplished professional photographer, with studios in the East India Dock Road, King's Cross, Harrow Road and Mare Street in Hackney. Whiffin documented significant events in the East End (he turned his lens on the rise of 'Poplarism' in the early 1920s and the General Strike of 1926) but many of his photographs are of inconsequential scenes which are all the more fascinating because of their ordinariness. In September 1939 Whiffin applied for a permit to document life in Poplar during WW2, and was presumably successful, albeit working under restricted conditions. One particularly poignant handwritten note from a municipal official, dated 14 May 1941, presses Whiffin to attend a makeshift mortuary in Knapps Road to photograph the corpse of an unidentified boy aged 14. My first thought was that the young lad was a victim of the Blitz, but I suppose he could have died in some other way. How ever it was he died, it brought me up short when I read that. I wonder if the authorities ever did identify the child.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Military and civil engineering

Although it is wise never to indulge in any travel writing because a) it is a debased genre, and b) the great I, Ludicrous examine the folly of the holiday bore in their epic 'Oh, Really' (to be found on the peerless LP Idiots Savants), I would suggest that anyone with an interest in the history of civil and military engineering should consider visiting the Argolid region of the Peloponnese in Greece. Within easy reach of the town of Nafplion are prime examples of ancient Mycenean defensive citadels, classical Greek temples and theatres, Roman baths and Frankish, Venetian and Turkish castles; some of these structures are so immense, and positioned such in the landscape that they almost defy belief. The building techniques employed by the Myceneans, and the manner in which they must have co-ordinated the sheer brute strength necessary to transport and manoeuvre such huge blocks of stone, are particularly impressive; quite how they did it is, I gather, still a matter of some debate amongst scholars of antiquity. I have no ideas to contribute on that score (perhaps I should ask my brothers who work in the building trade ...), but I can certainly appreciate building and engineering genuis when I see it.