Wise Howell: Building, Construction and History

Wise Howell: Building, Construction and History

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This month, Jeff Howell’s Wise Howell column for Professional Builder discusses history and construction:

When you think about it, the history of building is the history of society. Civilians often say they know nothing about building, but when they go on holiday they visit museums, and castles and medieval towns, and lap it all up. History is everywhere in building and construction.

It’s not just the walls, floors and ceilings of a building’s structure that make their mark in history, though. Flicking through the TV channels the other day I landed on a programme about the British army in the eighteenth century. Red coats (so they could see each other), big furry hats (to make them look taller), and marching in straight rows towards the enemy’s musket balls, hoping to kill more of them than they killed of us. (One of the few professions to offer a pension, though, if you were lucky enough to still be alive after seven years of such foolhardy practices.)

But the bit that caught my attention most was the bayonets. When the chilling cry of “fix bayonets” went down the line, the infantryman would slide his socket bayonet over the muzzle of his rifle, and give it a twist. A protruding lug on the gun barrel would engage in a slot in the bayonet, and lock it in place.

And hence we have the expression “bayonet cap”, still used for our traditional British design of light bulbs (or “lamps”, as my electrician friends always remind me is the correct term). I have been talking about bayonet cap lamp holders all my life, and never once put two-and-two together to even imagine where the term might have originated. Blimey.

Until I learned this latest fact, I thought my only use of a military term was “soldier”, as in a soldier course of bricks or a soldier arch. Although now I come to think of it, there’s the use of “barrel” in relation to gas pipes. This stemmed from the use of redundant steel rifle barrels from the Napoleonic wars, for the fledgling domestic coal-gas industry. Just cut a thread on the two ends of the barrel, screw on a threaded female connector, and you’re cooking on gas – to coin a phrase.

And while we are on the subject of guns, there is always the recycling of big naval weaponry as street bollards. With a cannon ball welded into its open mouth, the gun-bollard has even been copied in modern replicas – but if you keep your eyes open, you can still spot some of the genuine originals around in London and our other cities (although recently some have been snaffled by the unscrupulous metal-theft gangsters).

But whether it’s bayonet caps, soldier courses or street bollards, military history is never far from the built environment.

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