Inky Stephens’ House


I went to a business meeting at Inky Stephens’ House in Finchley recently.  When I was told the venue, I said, “Who?” I’d never heard of him. At least, I thought I’d never heard of him.

The Houseimage


Originally built in 1859, the house was renovated and enlarged in 1874 by Inky Stephens. The original house boasted a library, rooms in which the children were taught and, of course, the normal features of any house. When I say “house” I really do mean mansion, it’s huge. I couldn’t go into all of it (parts of it weren’t open to the public, and anyway, I was there out of hours, and I had a meeting to attend) but it was one of those places I should have loved as a child. Places where you could sneak and hide this way and that. More than one staircase (although one is now a fire escape and I expect would have been for use only by the servants back in the day, but when did children ever bother about things like that?

When Inky died in 1918, he left the house and gardens for “the enjoyment of the public,” which was very generous of him. The house is interesting but the gardens are beautiful, as the photographs show.


They were designed in the “gardenesque” style by Robert Marnock. Marnock was a landscape gardener and he included lawns and ponds, as well as a walled kitchen garden and a Bothy (I think this is a Scottish term but it just means a park-keeper’s house) in the design. A water tower was also installed and Stephens had a lodge, a coach house and a stable block built. He also had a number of rare trees planted imagethroughout the grounds. I didn’t have time to go around all of the gardens so I missed the famous bench with a statue of Spike Milligan, as well as the Bothy Garden. Spike was a local resident and the statue was installed in the gardens by the Finchley Society in 2014. Another visited is called for, it seems.


When Stephens died, the house was being used as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital (basically, a hospital staffed by volunteers). It continued to be used as a hospital between 1919 and 1925 by the RAF. The grounds were formally opened to the public in May 1928. Since then, the house has been used as a public library and then council offices.

There was a fire in 1989 which completely gutted the east wing of the house, but fortunately it’s been restored. The house is now a Grade II listed building and is used as events venue (hence my meeting there). Part of the house is now a museum that tells the history writing materials, again, I didn’t get to see that on this visit.

Who was Inky Stephens?

Have you ever heard of the Stephens’ Ink Company? I didn’t think I had until I picked up a leaflet in the house and something clicked in my head that I may have seen it before. The logo for the company calls it “Superior Black Japan Ink,” and that does vaguely ring a bell. As someone who went to school when we had to use fountain pens (no, they didn’t didn’t have a quill, and don’t be so cheeky, although if you didn’t have your own you could borrow something not unlike that, but just much plainer) it should have been familiar to me, I suppose. (I’m pretty sure that we were allowed to use ballpoints at my grammar school, but not at primary school. We graduated from pencils to proper ink.) I digress.

So, Inky’s father, Dr Henry Stephens, founded the company, which was first registered in 1832. He invented indelible blue-black “writing fluid” (that’s ink to you and me). The ink was used by the civil service, the military, and was even taken to the Antarctic by Captain Scott, so was presumably good stuff. Inky (also named Henry) inherited the company from his father, but he wasn’t just some poor little rich kid. He was a chemist in his own right, and went on to become a politician. He learned his trade and knew a bit about the business when he took over the running of it.

Inky was born in February 1841 in Lambeth, and died at the age of 67 in July 1918. Dr Stephens moved the family up to Finchley, to Grove House in Ballards Lane, where he was able to use the out buildings as a laboratory, in which to invent his indelible blue-black writing fluid.

Inky went to school in France for a while, and then returned to the UK to finish his schooling. He left school at age 16 but continued to study science, particularly chemistry and also started to learn the family business. His father died suddenly when Inky was 23 years old, so he took over. Inky had married the year before and he and his wife lived in the family home until he purchased Avenue House – now Stephens’ House – and ten acres of land.

He became a Conservative Party politician and became the Member of Parliament for Hornsey (which covered Finchley) from 1887 to 1900. Inky became known as the uncrowned king of Finchley because he became so popular for what he did – as well as being a businessman, he was also a lecturer and philanthropist.


You can find more details about the house and gardens, and the opening times, at
© Susan Shirley 2015


Rush Hour Travel


I’ve been a commuter for more years than I care to remember but this week has pretty much taken the biscuit. I haven’t had a week like this for many, many years.


Every day so far this week there has been a problem both ways on my line, the District Line, and it’s only Wednesday. I ended up getting a cab part of the way home on Monday because I was so late, and almost crying with tiredness. I’d had a very busy weekend. The cab driver went the slowest way in the world, although, in fairness, when I told him I wasn’t happy, he refunded some of the money. Still, you’ve got to love a tryer. (Do I look as though I came off last year’s Christmas tree?)

Tonight though, little Hot Chocolate and I were walking to Victoria together. It’s always a nightmare at that time of night, which is why we don’t often do travel at this time of day. We had almost reached the crossing closest to Victoria Station when a woman coming the other way barged into HC.

“There’s no need to push,” said HC.

“Oh yes there is,” said big rude blonde woman going the other way. (And I so hope you read this, you ignoramus. And if you don’t know what that means, look it up in the dictionary.)

HC and I were stunned. True, there were lots of people, and true, when you are trying to get onto a very crowded train, there is place for a bit of barging, but in what world do you think it is ok to barge into someone smaller than you who is not even trying to be difficult?

HC is a little firecracker usually so big rude blonde woman must have got her on a very good day. She was lucky. Very lucky.

HC and I went our separate ways and I went to my platform. The train wasn’t too crowded so I go on, and got a seat. (I usually tend to let trains pass if they are too crowded, I don’t generally do the whole sardine thing.) I got as far as Embankment when they announced a problem at Blackfriars. It was hot and crowded and I was already glowing so I got off, went back one stop and got on the Jubilee line. That was pretty crowded too, but not unbearable. And the AC is a bit better. I got back on the D line at West Ham, knowing I’d have to stand most of the way, and then a woman got on at the last minute, and pushed up very close to me.


Ok, I get this, I understand that travelling on a crowded tube is horrible, especially when you are short and can’t reach the overhead bars. (Hell, I can only just reach them when I’m wearing flats, which I tend to wear to and from work now.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I try to be considerate. I could see the woman wanted me to move my hands as I was gripping onto the vertical bar, so I did, which allowed her to lean her head on it. I’m there sister, I know how this feels. Then she nestled in closer to me. I am not crazy about people being close to me without permission, I’m very conscious of my own personal space and let me tell you, I can suck my teeth with the best of them, which did not go down a treat. Then something amazing happened. At the next station, the woman in the seat by me got up to get off and the little woman squooshed past me and took the seat!!!!!! (She was short enough to get under my – very clean and fragrant – armpits.) Actually, I would probably have let her have it, I’m fit enough to stand, even though I don’t like it, but how rude to shove past me like that! As it so happened, by the time everyone had disembarked at this station, there were enough seats for all of us.

I love London and this is the worst of it, and it is not at all typical, in my experience. I, for one, will give up my seat for people less able to stand than me, and many’s the time young men have given up their seat for me. (I know I should be grateful, but I’m really not that old. I’ve just had a hard life. Nor am I pregnant. Seriously though, it is sweet and I am grateful) I just think if we all had few more manners on the tube, it would make life easier.


Which includes:

Don’t play your music too loud. I’m not deaf although YOU will be if you keep playing your music so loud when you are wearing head ’phones. I know you are going to get upset if I ask you to turn it up so we can all hear it properly; I also know that it needs to be louder when the train is moving so you can hear it above the noise of the train if you are wearing those cheap little earpieces. So do us all a favour, and either (a) buy a decent pair of Bose or Dr Dre’s that will stop the surrounding noise interfering with you and you interfering with us, being cheap isn’t classy; or, (b) turn it off.

Have a shower and use deodorant. It’s really not difficult and I don’t care how poor you are, there is no excuse for being smelly. Fresh sweat may be full of apocrine pheromones and be a little erotic but stale sweat is not. HAVE A WASH. Honest to God, there is nothing worse than travelling in close proximity to someone who smells like a four-year old yak from the foothills of the Himalayas.

In the same vein, wash your clothes regularly. Think about where you are travelling. Much as I dislike it, people DO put their feet on the seats, and worse. Do I need to spell it out? Do you really want to be carrying that around with you for a long period of time? And if you can’t afford the dry cleaning bills, wear things that can be washed instead.

Mobile ‘phone conversations. In my opinion, the worst thing that LUL can do is to make it possible for us all to talk on our ‘phones on the whole of our journey on the underground. I really do not want to know the entire conversation you had with your husband/wife/son/daughter/boss/whatever. Your private life is just that: private. Or should be. Even I don’t tell you everything about my life here, and yet, in the space of half an hour, I know more about some people than you will ever know about me.

And while we are on that topic, when you are talking to your friends, do you think you could moderate the level of your voice? It is undignified to shout and I still don’t need to know everything, but be warned: if you speak loudly enough for me to hear, I may well use your conversation in a book or story. There is no copyright on what you say in public. Sorry and all that, but it’s your fault if you speak loudly. We writers love a bit of people watching and eavesdropping.

If that’s not enough to change your behaviour, I don’t know what is, until I take your photograph and blog about you (no laws broken there either folks, sorry, not in this country). Until the next time…

© Susan Shirley 2015

Elvis at the O2


My friend Kate came to stay this week. We’ve been friends forever and although she only lives a couple of hours drive away, we don’t get to see each other anywhere near as often as we’d both like. To make up for that, we hook up for a few days two or three times a year, I go to hers and she comes to mine. Katewas born in London but moved away more than 30 years ago, so when she comes down, we do a bit of the tourist stuff: the London Eye, the cable car, the bus tours, that kind of thing. This year was a little bit different though…

Kate is a massive, massive Elvis fan and desperately wants to go to Gracelands in Memphis and I promised her years ago that we’d go one day. For a whole host of reasons, we haven’t made it there yet, but, this year, Elvis has come to us! Yes, there is an exhibition at the O2 and I got tickets.

The exhibition is billed as being the “largest Elvis Presley retrospective ever mounted in Europe” and boasts over 300 artefacts. Kate had never been to the O2 before, so the whole thing was a  bit of an experience for her and we had a short time before our session at the exhibition started (you have to book a slot) to sit and look at the actual structure (something I’ve never done before) so before I go back to the exhibition, a little diversion into the Dome.

The O2 started its life as the Millennium Dome, and became the O2 in 2007, when the Dome was re-opened to the public. There are several restaurants and bars in the O2, as well as more outside, a club, the arena and the exhibition area, and it is just a short walk to the Emirates Airline Cable Car across the Thames.

The Dome is one of the largest of its type in the world, and is made from a PTFE glass fibre coated fabric that is 52m high in the middle, a metre for every week of the year. It has 12, 100m high support towers (one for every month of the year). It appears as a circular structure, 365m in diameter – a metre for every day of the year. So that’s the O2 and Kate and I enjoyed sitting looking before going into the exhibition.

The exhibition though, that was something else. It is billed as the “largest Elvis Presley retrospective ever mounted in Europe” with over 300 exhibits taken from Gracelands itself, including some of Elvis’ jump suits, hand written letters and photographs of Elvis with President Nixon. All the advertising says that Elvis pink caddy is going to be there but I’m pretty sure that the car I saw was a cream Lincoln Continental. Did I miss something?


It’s well laid out, the exhibition starts with Elvis’ early years and takes you through his youth through to his film career to what the O2 terms the Concert Years. Kate told me that his movie career was part of his downfall – the exhibition alluded to this but wasn’t explicit as the King’s uber fan Kate. In fact, I doubt that she learned anything new here, I rather think she could have told the O2 a few things. One of the things I did enjoy was that lots of the women there were singing along to the songs that were being played, Kate found herself a singing partner and even I had a bit of a sing and a dance.

We spent an hour of so looking around and then we went into the finale show – a 26 minute show of some of Elvis’ filmed performances. I really began to understand how he captivated so many hearts when I saw this, and, let’s be honest, even I like a lot of his music.

If you are an Elvis fan, I’d say it’s worth going. Even if you’re not, it might still be worth it, although it’s not particularly cheap – full price tickets total at £21.75. It was worth it for me because Kate liked it so much.

We went for a bite to eat afterwards, which wasn’t bad, but it was the wrong time of day, it was a grill and some of the meat was a trifle overcooked but we enjoyed it anyway.


© Susan Shirley 2015


Hail Alexander Graham Bell


I bought new telephone handsets the other day. Yes, I still have a landline, and I have more than one handset so I that don’t have to run at break-neck speed to get from one side of the house to another. That makes it sound as though I live in a mansion, and, of course, I don’t, it’s just that the kitties are not respectful of my jogging needs.

Back to my new handsets. I’ll be honest; I tend to go for pretty much the least expensive when buying these things. I need an answer phone and something that stores my most frequently used telephone numbers. Heaven forefend that I should actually have to start learning the numbers that I dial frequently again, that all went by the wayside when I started to use mobile ‘phones.

So I bought handsets that were reduced in price. They were advertised as call blockers, but I took absolutely no notice of that. Nope, I just needed new handsets. They looked ok, they did what I needed them to go, and so that was it.

When they arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only do they synchronise so that I only have to save the number one handset and it saves to all of them (my old ones, which weren’t that old, didn’t do that, which meant I either only dialled from the base handset where I’d stored the numbers or needed my mobile to hand), they actually do block unwanted calls! In the first few days, they have stopped me from having to take a number of dodgy old marketing calls. Every vulnerable person should have one of these.

It’s only when I’m home during the day that I realise how many nuisance calls I get, even though I’m ex-directory, am registered with the Telephone Preference Service, and almost never give out my home ‘phone number. And this little gizmo tells me how may calls it’s prevented. It’s amazing.

Of course, this all set me off on a train of thought; I’ve been doing quite a lot of that lately. I can remember when I got my first mobile ‘phone, back in 1998. I was a bit of a late starter in the mobile revolution, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of carrying around one of those house bricks. Do you remember those early mobiles? Even my first one was big and clunky compared to the Smart phones we have nowadays. It didn’t even show who was calling me, even if their number was stored in my ‘phone book. Or contacts list as we now call it.

I’ve gone through the card with mobile ‘phones since then. My first was a Motorola, and I stuck with them for a few years, then I changed my allegiance to Nokia and then back to Motorola. Then I got into Blackberries (Blackberry’s?). Oh how I loved my BB. It is true that they were a little limited in functionality compared to Smart phones but I liked being able to see e-mail messages when I didn’t have a signal, because they were stored on the ‘phone not the server. It was a sad day when I said goodbye to my last BB, but as my other ‘phone was a Samsung (one for work, one for personal), all was not lost and I got another of those.

All these changes, amazing that it was only about 20 years ago that mobile ‘phones were first introduced and the humble landline about 115 years ago. I marvel at all theses changes, in such a relatively short space of time.

I don’t know whether children today do this, but I remember making a “telephone” out of two empty baked bean cans tied together with string. You had to ensure that the string was tight or it wouldn’t work, but you could actually hear each other. What I didn’t know then (and I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t either) is that this was known as the Lover’s Telephone. They work purely on mechanical vibrations. It seems crazy to think this now, but until the patent on Alexander Graham Bell’s electrical telephone ran out, mechanical telephones were more popular – there was no patent because they had been around since at least the 1600s although there range was very limited. No doubt this is the reason why there were so many local telephone companies in the US who didn’t charge for those calls – the operating costs would have been negligible.

Bell invented the telephone as a result of trying to make improvements to the telegraph, which had been operating successfully since 1839 on the Great Western Railway, from Paddington to West Drayton., a total of 13 miles. The principle of the two devices was the same, both were based on electrical signals but the telegraph was based on Morse code (dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash) making it a slower, one-way-at-a -time form of communication.

A number of people vied for the honour of inventing the telephone, and we will probably never know for sure, but I suppose it was a bit like an early VHS vs Betamax war (that’s dating me too, I suppose). The bottom line was, in the US, the fight came down to two people and Alexander Graham Bell beat Elisha Gray and so globally we now attribute its invention to him.

Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell

It appears that Bell had something of a musical bent (or maybe it was because his father and grandfather had been what we would now call speak therapists and voice coaches) which somehow enabled him to devise a system of transmitting several messages at the same time – the harmonic telegraph. It wasn’t until March 1876 that the first speech was transmitted over the telephone, and then only to Bell’s colleague, Thomas Watson, in the next room, but great oaks from little acorns grow.

Once the electrical telephone took hold, it was bound to grow in use and I suppose it’s a natural assumption that in a post-industrial revolution world, someone was going to come up with a telephone exchange and switchboard. I remember my friend Kate, and her mum, both working in the old style exchanges where they used the key and lamp system. Basically, a light showed you which line had the call and the telephonists connected it to the correct person by putting a jack in the right socket. The boards with the sockets on were big and both Kate and her mum have problems with their shoulders as a result – what we’d now call Work Related Upper Limb Disorder.

Of course, it’s all moved on since then, and it’s possible to have a switchboard in a different country from the one where the company is based. A far cry from the two baked bean cans and a piece of string…

© Susan Shirley 2015