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Time Encapsulation

Perhaps it was the burial of the Blue Peter time capsule in 1971 that first fascinated me about this rather quirky way of linking the past with the present. The popular children’s TV program presenters buried various viewers items along with a Blue Peter Annual in the grounds of Broadcasting House. The subsequent loss of the exact location is a hazard to this type of operation and seems to happen quite often.

Back in 1922 building work was being carried out at 153-155 Regent Street for the London outlet of distillers Hedges and Butler.

The company was established in late 17th century London as a fine wine and spirits merchant during the reign of King Charles II by Edmund Harris and initially traded on The Strand,

The sumptuous Regent Street premises were taken in 1819 and subsequently supplied the coronation banquet of King George IV with wine, port and champagne. During the early 20th century the company, by then a family business was joined by Frank Hedges Butler. Butler was a man of his time, a devotee of everything considered modern.

Frank Hedges Butler

He was one of the first people in Britain to own a motor car, buying a Benz in 1897, and was the first honorary treasurer of the Automobile Club of Great Britain. He was also a founder member the Aero Club of Great Britain, later the Royal Aero Club and embraced the coming of the aircraft, managing to be the second Englishman to fly with Wilbur Wright. He later became the first person to take flying lessons from Louis Bleriot.

It was mainly due to Frank’s modernistic tendencies that the building work was undertaken on the Regent Street shop as it was transformed from a rather stuffy Victorian retail premises to a much more up to date Art Deco emporium. Butler was a master of promotion and to keep the brand name at the forefront of peoples minds while the shop was closed for the refurbishment he kept the press fed with snippets of information about the new store, but slightly over reaches himself with what he deemed his master stroke, which was undertaken on the 29th August 1922.

In front of the assembled media deep within the foundations of the new store in what was later reported as “a queer little ceremony” a time capsule was placed. It contained copies of The Times and Daily Mail, gold coins and bank notes, books and a few other undisclosed mementoes and trinkets. Butler, rather grandiosely, declared that the capsule would not be disinterred for “Exactly a hundred years“. To say that the media were a little underawed would be an understatement and had it not been for a member of the presentation team, Professor Archibald Low, it might have passed with less column inches than it subsequently did.

Low, a fellow aeronaut and friend of Butler styled himself as a Futurologist. He was a pioneer in many emerging scientific fields, often leading the way for others, but his lack of discipline meant he hardly ever saw a project through, being easily distracted by new ideas. If it wasn’t for this inability to see things to a conclusion, Low could well have been remembered as one of the great men of science. Many of his scientific contemporaries disliked him, due in part to his using the title “Professor”, which he wasn’t entitled to do as he didn’t occupy an academic chair. His love of the limelight and publicity probably also added to the dislike.

“Professor” Archibald Low

Obviously realising that the event was a bit of a damp squib, Low stepped forward and outlined to the by now bored hacks what life would be like in 2022 when with great ceremony the time capsule would be unearthed and opened. With regard to the ceremonial members he described, “Picture them, first of all, coming up Regent Street. Should they drive, they will drive in soundless and scentless electric broughams, on a street made of some resilient material, such as rubber compound. If it be night, the edges of all the pavements will be lighted in order to facilitate swift nocturnal driving. The street as a whole will no longer be lit in patches, but will be illuminated by a diffused light spreading a soft radius from Oxford Circus to Piccadilly. Compared with to-day there will be a great silence over the city. Motor cars will speed up and down with scarcely a murmur from their powerful engines.

With regard to the shops of Regent Street he went on to say, “In the entrance to every large shop will be a moving stairway always in motion. Shoppers will no longer have to walk through clumsy doors and wait for slow lifts. They will step from the street on to the stairway. They will be whirled inside and transported all round the store, with the whole merchandise of the world passing swiftly before their eyes.

Low goes on to discuss how the deputation might be dressed. “Romance will largely have departed from dress, and in place of the modern jumble of waistcoats, jackets, ties and shirts, the male members of the deputation will be wearing one piece suits. Your business man of AD 2022 will have his under ware made of a single piece of artificial silk, somewhat after the fashion of a modern day boiler suit, and over that he will don a similar garment prepared against cold.“, foretelling the advent of the Onesie! He also sees the footwear of the day being, “one-piece shoes molded from rubber

He got rather close to modern smartphones “In their pockets, apart from the inevitable wireless receiving set, will be a tiny pocket dictaphone, ready to take down at any moment a sound record of their thoughts.” He concludes, rather controversially, “Some of the women of the deputation are almost certain to be wearing trousers.

All of this seems rather sensible, but then Low comes up with a statement that probably shows him as he undoubtably was, a slightly eccentric boffin. With regard to the ceremony a hundred years hence he predicts, “And when they come to take away the stone, perhaps a member of our deputation will make a speech… It will be delivered in a soft voice, very quickly, with many abbreviations in place of the long phrases that we know to-day.

So, the 29th of August 2022 came and what happened? Precisely nothing. No onesie wearing, Croc shod dignitaries turned up in their electric cars sporting the latest miniature pocket Dictaphone and the reason why was explained by a spokesman for the Crown Estate who own the buildings. “Unfortunately we have no further records of the time capsule being buried in 1922, and after following up with our developers and construction managers who worked on the recent redevelopment of the plot, can confirm that nothing was excavated during the construction works. The original buildings that were behind the listed façade were completely demolished and all materials were sorted and recycled thoroughly, so we are confident that nothing ‘slipped through the net’ and was sent away. It may well be that the capsule, should it exist, remains safely buried underneath one of the new Regent Street stores.

So we’ll have to wait and see if it appears in the next hundred years!

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