Monday, June 9, 2014

More Pricks than Kicks | Spiky deterrents then and now

‘Homeless spikes’ in London (Source)
Over the last few days I’ve noticed a number of posts and photographs referring to the installation of metal studs, so-called ‘homeless spikes’, at the entrance to a property at 118 Southwark Bridge Road, London. Articles have appeared in The Guardian, ThinkProgress, Elite Daily, BuzzFeed, New York Daily News, and London’s Metro. I don’t particularly wish to make comment on the morality of using such a deterrent, other than to observe that it has united people across the political spectrum in condemnation. If there is an ‘upside’ to this story it must be that it has brought attention back on to the issue of homelessness in London, and in other cities generally.

As terrible and heart-breaking as the issue of homelessness undoubtedly is, it would appear to have little direct relevance to an archaeology blog such as this. Indeed, the footnote I’d like to bring to the discussion is in relation to the notion that such deterrents are in any way new or novel. In Newtownsmith, in Galway city there are a number of spiked metal bars inserted into the stonework of St Vincent’s Convent of Mercy. From the marks left in the walls, it is clear that, though some are now missing, they were originally set in pairs at calf and thigh/buttock height. They are confined to the inner angles between the gable walls and the three of four off-set buttresses. A fourth set may have existed in the angle between the fourth buttress, but is likely to have been removed when the Árus de Brún building was constructed. Over my years in the city, I’ve heard from a number of sources that their function was to act as anti-courting devices – preventing couples from seeking shelter and intimacy. While I cannot confirm that this was their genuine function, it does certainly seem plausible.

The Convent of Mercy spiked bars (in red rectangles), looking towards
Abbeygate Street (

I’ve long laboured under the belief that no life experience should be overlooked as a possible source of experimental archaeological research. In this context, I feel it appropriate to relate that, as a veteran of a number of amorous misadventures in ‘Babylon on the Corrib’, when the wind blows in from the cold Atlantic, any source of shelter is appreciated. Though the religion is different, it reminds me too of the oft-quoted line from the movie Rob Roy: ‘Do you know why Calvinists are against shagging standing up? ... They fear it might lead to dancing.’ It would appear that this is another case of nuns preserving the populace from the scourge of dancing.

From what I can gather, the convent was established on this site in 1842, though the spiked bars may conceivably (excuse the pun) date from some time later. Whether they were specifically designed to thwart the romantically inclined, or – like their modern London expression – were to keep the homeless and destitute at bay is unclear, but they would have functioned well for both.

I doubt that these two sites (Galway and London) are the only examples of this kind of thinking in the last one and a half centuries. If you know of other such deterrents, please let me know in the comments. 

The Convent of Mercy examples, looking towards University Road (Source)

I usually include a link on my posts suggesting that if you like what you read, you might be inclined to pass a small donation my way to help me keep running this little enterprise. That really doesn’t seem appropriate today. Instead, I’d ask you to spare a thought for the homeless in our society and give a donation to the Shelter charity. While you're at it, you might care to sign this petition, asking Property Partners (the owner of the building) and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to remove the spikes: here.

The same type of thing has appeared (and quickly disappeared) in Montreal, Canada: here.

A couple of people who've commented on this posit in various fora have noted that items like the Galway spiked bars exist in other countries including France and Austria, but that they were used to stop people urinating in public. One commentator, familiar with the Galway examples, tells me that he'd always been told that these were for just this purpose - to stop people having a pee up against the convent walls. I'm in no position to pronounce on whether they were designed for one thing or the other (excuse the pun), but they could easily have prevented both.

Declan Nessan Shaw has also been in touch and has very kindly shared a photograph from his youth of one of these barriers, outside the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. If the Vienna and Galway examples are designed for the same purpose, the Austrian ones appear to have ditched the spikes in favour of restrained elegance.

I've also been directed to a number of articles on another form of anti-object - the Camden Bench. Read about it: here | here | here

I hadn't realised that there were already so many anti-designs already in existence in our towns and on our streets ... I've even seen some of those shown in this article and not even understood  their true purpose.  

No comments:

Post a Comment