This beautiful photo is of the top of the railings that surround the back garden at the David Parr House. Shrouded in the remains of copious amounts of bindweed and taken with the autumn sun shining through, it shows the beauty in even the most humdrum of objects. Seeing this made me look back in David Parr’s notebook to find out what he had written about the fence: the entry shows where he got it from and for how much:
‘The Iron Fencing of Back Garden was
Made and fixed by Alsop & Sons East Road
During October 1904 Costing £9 9s 2d.’
The Alsop firm was started by John Thomas Alsop, and was working out of 85 East Road by 1882. John took his sons into the business and renamed the company ‘The Britannia Works’ after the Britannia Inn over the road from his premises, and next door to his shoeing forge. The company seemed to be able to make anything in iron – they advertised as being wheelwrights, blacksmiths, art iron workers, fence makers and could even construct you a caravan. One of their specialities was horse-drawn preacher’s caravans which travelled around the country, decorated with biblical texts.
Here is a photo of Alsop standing by the wheel of one of the missionary caravans his company made.
This one was for the ‘Caravan Mission to Village Children’. It was made to the traditional gypsy design and painted maroon, with religious texts inscribed on the side, possibly in gold. Arthur Alsop was John’s artistic son and he did the signwriting on these caravans.
Here is the caravan in action in 1893 with two of the missionaries sitting outside their tent. The idea for the production of these caravans may have come about because John Alsop was also a lay preacher for the Plymouth Brethren.
But, getting back to fences, the firm also produced some of the iron posts and railings that so define the edges of the Cambridge Commons. Alsop ironwork can still be seen on Coldham’s Common, the Backs, Sheep’s Green and the City Cemetery.
One of John Alsop’s grandsons called him ‘a great dandy and always very well turned out, a good tradesman but not such an efficient businessman’. He must have done something right though, since the Alsop firm was sold in 1912 to a Mr Donald Mackay. It is still in business today, still in East Road, still with an iron works where you can still get anything that your garden or house might need – though I am not so sure about a missionary caravan!
Find out more about the Caravan Mission to Village Children
For a lovely pamphlet on iron works see if you can hunt out: ‘Cambridge Iron Founders’ by K Alger, A Brigham, B Hockley and J Wilkinson. Cambridge Industrial Archaeology Society