Category Archives: 18th century

Mother’s Ruin

As regular readers will know, I like a drink now and again and again and again. The way I see it, it’s not an addiction if you’re still enjoying yourself. But even I must draw the line somewhere. Today I think I saw where that line was. In Sainsbury’s this evening I came across the disturbing discovery that, in their Basics range, the supermarket does gin.

It’s not that I have anything particularly against gin, you understand. Actually, I quite like it. But I take the view that spirits, below a certain price, are best employed in experiments to determine whether your tractor really will “run on anything.”

Gin enjoys something of an uneasy reputation these days. Scotch suggests manly sophistication, vodka suggests a fashionable cocktail lifestyle, Jack Daniel’s suggests maybe you aren’t quite ready for spirits yet. Gin, it seems, will be forever stuck with the reputation of being a drink for the elderly and terminally alcoholic.

Although it does tend to be historically associated with London, the origins of the present-day spirit lie with the Dutch physician and chemist Franciscus Sylvius at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century (though similar beverages are recorded as far back as the 10th century). It’s made of distilled grain alcohol and traditionally flavoured with juniper berries, and enjoyed great popularity in Holland as a medicine.

In 1688, William of Orange ascended the throne of England and brought with him this exciting new Dutch spirit. There were a number of contributing factors to its success within these shores. Firstly, William increased the taxes on importing booze and deregulated distillation in Britain, making gin cheaper and more readily available than any other form of spirit. Secondly, food had fallen in price recently, meaning there was more money to spend on life’s little luxuries. Thirdly, grain was particularly abundant at that time, and so gin production was an attractive way to get rid of the surplus, especially as the grain used in gin did not have to be particularly high quality. Fourthly, booze was a way of life in those days – in those days before effective sanitation, alcohol was far safer than water. And finally, gin was cheap and could get you ratted more quickly than beer. There’s also another interesting theory that folk took to drink as a result of being unable to adjust to city life, but that’s a minority view that I only mention for the curiosity value.

Anyway, the result was the Gin Craze, as memorably satirised in William Hogarth’s grotesque and blackly humorous Gin Lane, reproduced right. If you’ve ever been though Kingston-upon-Thames on a Saturday night, imagine that, only all the time. Lord Harvey noted at the time that “Drunkenness among the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from  morning ’til night.” Sick leave rose to an unprecedented degree as a result of people simply being too pished to make it into work, with the corresponding economic effects. Crime, too, rose drastically – it was observed by magistrates that gin was “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” (though the lack of a police force didn’t help).  And of course there were the direct and indirect physiological effects of such widespread boozing – liver disorders, blindness, syphilis and a rise in juvenile alcoholism as a result of spirit-infused breastmilk. Daniel Defoe feared the creation of “a fine spindle-shanked generation.” There was even a (possibly apocryphal) reported increase in cases of spontaneous combustion.

Not helping matters at all was the poor quality of gin on sale. With the simplicity of production, the aforementioned lack of any police force to speak of, almost anyone could set up a still and go into business. And there were plenty of dubious ways to increase your yields if you were unscrupulous. If the buyer was lucky, their gin would be watered down. If they were unlucky, it might be padded out with turpentine. If they were really unlucky, industrial acid.

In desperation, the government introduced no less than eight Gin Acts to counter this between 1729 and 1751. However, what probably did for gin was one of the contributing factors in its initial ascension – the price of grain, which had begun once again to rise due to poor harvests. Just in time for the Industrial Revolution, in fact.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Gin had gained such unflattering nicknames as “Mother’s Ruin” and low drinking dives were popularly known as “gin shops,” whether they sold gin or not.

Gin would enjoy a resurgance during the 19th century with the opening of the Victorian “gin palaces,” the finest surviving example of which is the Princess Louise in Holborn. I mention this purely because that’s my favourite boozer. Also contributing to its popularity at this time was the discovery of quinine’s anti-malarial properties. Quinine is quite a bitter substance, and so it was typically diluted to make what we now call tonic water. To make the tonic water more palatable, the colonials of the British empire would add gin, which I would imagine also alleviated the boredom of some of those Imperial outposts. And thus was the gin and tonic forged.

And I suppose this was the final nail in the coffin of gin’s reputation – that imperial association. Granted, it’s not regarded as the abomination it was in the 18th century, not least because the following century would see improvements in distillation and a corresponding increase in quality. But nevertheless, it is perhaps the least cool thing behind a bar south of the liqueur shelf.

Oh well. Here’s my recipe for a gin and tonic. G&T seems to be a matter of personal preference, so my word isn’t even close to the last on the subject. I favour Malawi for the gin – it’s a highly aromatic spirit with strong juniper notes, which is really what you look for in a gin. For the tonic, I go with Schweppes, the diet stuff for the sake of my waistline (the relative sweetness of the Malawi balances this out). And here’s where I get a little bit heretical – I don’t add ice. Rather, I chill the gin and the tonic beforehand. Then mix in a ratio of 2:3. Then drink. Then kill my children in a drunken stupor and spontaneously combust.

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Beneath the Grave – Ghosts of the Central Line

Good evening, fright-fans, it is I, Tom, your extravagantly-cleavaged Master of the Dark [picture inadmissable]. As Halloween approaches with the inevitability of death, I thought an appropriately-themed entry might be in order. As last year’s entry on the ghosts haunting the Northern Line was so popular, I figured I might continue the theme with the hauntings on the old Central London Railway or, as the kids call it nowadays, the Central Line. Mind the gap…

Northolt

You’ve all heard of the Beast of Bodmin, but did you know there was a Beast of Northolt? In the early 1990s, there were several sightings of a big cat alongside the Central Line between Northolt and Greenford. Accounts vary as to the species of cat, although most seem to settle on “puma.” Whence it came and how it got to Northolt without being noticed remain to be explained.

Marble Arch

If you should find yourself leaving Marble Arch late at night, when the station is quiet, you may find yourself being followed up the escalator. Several people have reported a sinister man in 1940s clothing who they sense close behind them on the escalator and see out of the corner of their eye. Upon turning around completely, the man vanishes. Again, no explanation has been offered as to who this restless spirit might be.

British Museum

Perhaps the most unlikely ghost out of the many on the Underground was sighted at this now-closed station. The ghost would, so the story goes, appear at one end of the platform and walk to the other, wailing mournfully. What marked this particular spectre out, however, was the fact that he was dressed in the clobber of an Ancient Egyptian. Being the intelligent and probably very sexy reader that you are, you’ve no doubt figured out why there might be an Ancient Egyptian haunting British Museum Station. To be more specific, the Egyptian is said to have some sort of link to the so-called Unlucky Mummy (pictured right), a sarcophagus lid in the Museum that is said to be cursed. This is just one of many legends attached to it, the most interesting of which says that it was responsible for sinking the Titanic.

Even bearing in mind that I’m a sceptic, I’m inclined to take this one with a pinch of salt. The accounts are lacking in detail and only emerged shortly before the station was closed down. I’m inclined to believe it was the invention of a journalist looking for a spooky story. Nevertheless, the story persists, albeit with the ghost now haunting Holborn. Why Holborn and not the closer Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road stations? It is a mystery.

Chancery Lane

Chancery Lane has plenty of secrets of its own, but in the tunnels between here and Holborn, there’s said to be one more surprise. During the 1960s,drivers stopping at signals here would often be freaked out by the appearance of a man standing next to them in the cab. Apparently some sort of fellow crewman, he would be staring straight ahead, and would vanish as soon as the train pulled away.

Bank

I covered the manife-stations (see what I did there) at this stop in last year’s entry, but I thought I’d mention that it’s a haunted station on the Central Line for those pedants who’ll leave comments if I don’t.

Liverpool Street

This terminus is built on the site of a plague pit and one of the several incarnations of the notorious Bedlam. The building of this and neighbouring Broad Street Station involved the disturbance of many final resting places, so really it would be surprising if there were no hauntings here. Sure enough, Liverpool Street and environs are said to be haunted by the ghastly screams of a woman.

The most popular suggestion for the screamer is one Rebecca Griffiths, an inmate at Bedlam in the late 18th century whose illness included a compulsive need to hold on to a particular coin. Upon her death, one of the staff (who were not known for their selflessness) stole it from her lifeless fingers and Rebecca’s inconsolable spirit searches for it still.

More recently, in 2000, the Line Controller sighted a man in white overalls in the tunnels who should not have been there. He sent the Station Supervisor to investigate, who found nothing. What made this particularly peculiar was that the Supervisor found no man down there – even though the Controller could see the man on the CCTV screen right next to him.

Bethnal Green

I’ll finish with the Easternmost of the haunted Central Line stations that I’m aware of, and one of the most frightening hauntings. This one is traceable to a specific incident that took place on 3rd March 1943. As often happened in the East End at that time, when the air raid siren sounded, the local people made for the Tube station. Unfortunately, on this night it had been decided to carry out a test-firing of an experimental new type of rocket in nearby Victoria Park. Panicked by what sounded like a very nearby explosion, the crowds surged forward. A woman on the stairs lost her footing and fell, taking several others with her and causing further panic, which in turn worsened the stampede and the crush inside the station. 173 people were killed in the disaster, crushed or asphyxiated. For reasons of morale, the Bethnal Green incident was covered up until 1946.

From 1981 onwards, however, there were reports of an extremely unnerving nature from the station. Staff working late at night spoke of hearing screams – at first one or two, then more and more, clearly identifiable as women and children. These screams would go on for up to fifteen minutes before dying down.

There you have it, readers. I hope you enjoy your Halloween this year and whatever you do, don’t have nightmares…

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Hackney, History, London, London Underground, Museums, Occult, Paranormal, Suburbia, The City, Transport, West End

“A most infamous, vile scoundrel.”

I’ve written about some pretty dreadful people in this blog before, but I think the subject of today’s entry might well beat all. You see, most of the notorious figures I’ve written about have had some redeeming feature – usually in terms of the comedy value of their actions, or because to some extent they acted the way we all secretly wish we could. Colonel Charteris, however, seems to have been utterly irredeemable.

Francis Charteris was born in Edinburgh in 1675, inheriting much of his wealth from his family. This he augmented with his considerable skill at gambling, both honest and dishonest, as well as lending money at ruinous interest, bribery, blackmail, fraud and shares in the South Sea Company (being one of the few investors not to lose his shirt in that most unwise venture). To give some idea of his methods, he once managed to con £5,000 out of Child’s Bank simply by informing them that he was going to withdraw that amount, sending down a servant to collect it, subsequently denying all knowledge and kicking up a stink over the bank’s security until the poor chap in charge was forced to “reimburse” him. He bought his way up through the army to the rank of Colonel before his dodgy dealings were uncovered and he was kicked out, then he was allowed to re-enlist for reasons that are not entirely clear. 

He is perhaps best known for seduction. “Seduction” here being a very loose term, as many of the 300 women he claimed to have seduced were not as willing as he might have pretended. He was a great enthusiast for the ladies, claiming a fondness for those with “B-tt-cks as hard as Cheshire Cheeses, that could make a dint in a wooden chair” and would go to any lengths to get them

For instance, while staying at an inn in Lancaster, he took a fancy to one of the servant girls, promising her a shiny guinea in exchange for her favours (cough). The girl was initially reluctant, but gave in. The following morning, Charteris indignantly spoke to the landlord, claiming to have given the girl a guinea to change into silver and not had the money back. A search revealed that the girl did indeed have Charteris’ guinea, which was returned to him and the girl dismissed. This story did not work in Charteris’ favour when he was later standing for election to MP for Lancaster.

He found himself in a similar pickle in Scotland after raping a married woman at gunpoint. For this, he was charged, but able to avoid arrest by virtue of running away. This meant he was unable to visit his extensive estates north of the border, to which you or I might sarcastically remark, “Boo hoo.” However, Charteris was able to get around this by… asking the King for a pardon in 1721. It really was that easy.

The classy thing to do under the circumstances would surely be to lie low. However, “classy” was not exactly an adjective one could apply to Charteris, and as Fog’s Weekly Journal put it,

We hear a certain Scotch Colonel is charged with a Rape, a misfortune he has been very liable to, but for which he has obtained a Nolle Prosequi. It is reported now that he brags that he will obtain a Patent for ravishing whomever he pleases.

Note that it’s clear from this that Charteris’ reputation for rape was already well-established. It may have been at around this time that he began referring to himself as “the Rape-Master General of England.”

This was not the first time his tendency to let his Old Chap Downstairs rule over him would get him into trouble, nor would it be the last. On several occasions he found himself having to fork out considerable sums of money to avoid prosecution. Most of these stories are far too depressing to recount, so I’ll instead recount the tale of the one who got away. It seems that there was a young lady looking for employment as a servant near Charteris’ Leicestershire residence, Hornby Lodge. Charteris took a fancy to her, hired her and at once set about having his way with her at gunpoint. The young lady pretended to acquiesce to his demands, and the horny bastard dropped trou and prepared himself for the act. So excited was he at the prospect of getting in there that he made the mistake of putting the gun down. The young lady seized the firearm and forced him to let her out unmolested. I hope she didn’t give him time to put his pants back on.

Less amusing was the case of Anne Bond. Such was Charteris’ reputation in 1729, when Bond was hired to work at his Hanover Square residence, that she wasn’t actually told who her employer was – it was claimed that he was a Mr Harvey. However, she soon figured out his true identity, not least because of his persistence in offering her money for sex. She requested to leave, whereupon Charteris had her up. A month later, he called for the “Lancashire bitch” and raped her. He then had her horsewhipped, stripped and robbed to silence her. Nevertheless, when she was allowed out, she told a friend and Charteris again found himself under arrest. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Charteris being Charteris, however, this was not the end of the story. By means of some £15,000 worth of bribery, a campaign was set up for his release. The most surprising voice among the pro-Charteris campaigners was Bond herself, almost certainly thanks to an £800 payment. Rumour at the time had it that she was planning to use the money to finance a pub called ‘The Colonel Charteris’ Head.’ In 1730, the ageing rake was released from Newgate.

Thereafter, Charteris fell ill and died in February 1732 in Edinburgh. One theory has it that this was the result of sickness contracted in prison. His funeral was not exactly one of pomp and ceremony, as an angry mob tried to seize the coffin and threw dead animals and offal into the grave.

Charteris was perhaps the most hated man of his era. The poor hated him for his crimes and ability to avoid punishment, and the rich hated him for being a crass upstart with no honour or conscience. The title of this entry was given to Charteris by Jonathan Swift. The playwright John Gay sarcastically wrote to Swift during the Bond trial, “Does not Charteris’ misfortune grieve you? For this great man is liable to save his life and lose some of his money. A very hard case!” William Hogarth portrayed him (right) in ‘The Harlot’s Progress,’ leering out of a doorway, having a covert wank. While he was far from the worst figure in history, it’s hard to think of one less personally likeable.

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Filed under 18th century, Crime, History, London, Notable Londoners

To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

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I Predict a Riot

One of the things I like about Britain is that, when it comes to religion, we don’t really give a damn. Aside from a handful of fanatics, most people seem to be okay with you believing whatever as long as you’re not being a dick about it. Well, except in Northern Ireland, where “being a dick about it” seems to be the norm, but that’s another story (it’s the only place where I can say I’ve ever been persecuted for my atheism AND LET’S JUST LEAVE IT AT THAT SHALL WE).

Of course, it wasn’t always thus. For centuries, the people of England were in conflict over the question of Catholicism versus Protestantism. Long story short, Henry VIII founds the Church of England. The first coffee morning is held a week later, Sir Thomas More refuses a slice of Henry’s famous pineapple upside-down cake and is executed for it.

Edward VI ascends the throne, is Protestant, dies young. Mary I ascends the throne, is Catholic, persecutes Protestants. Elizabeth I ascends throne, is Protestant, persecutes Catholics. No heir, James I comes down from Scotland. The hope among Catholics is that as the son of Mary, Queen of Scots is that he’ll follow in Mama’s footsteps and restore Catholicism. He doesn’t, and the Gunpowder Plot happens. The English Civil War ushers in Oliver Cromwell and the fun-free version of Protestantism practised by the Puritans. Charles II is restored to the throne along with fun. In 1666 London is burnt down in the Great Fire. In 1681, the Monument to the fire receives the additional text: “But Popish frenzy, which hath wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.” And just less than a century later, one of the stupidest events in the history of the city takes place.

You see, even in the supposedly enlightened late 18th century, an awful lot of people genuinely believed there was still some sort of evil Papist conspiracy to take the country over, throw out the Archbishop of Canterbury, abolish bring-and-buy sales, &c, &c.

It all started in 1766, when the Vatican officially recognised the Hanoverian dynasty as rightful rulers of Britain. This eliminated any threat the Catholic church might have posed, and therefore in 1778 Sir George Savile introduced the Catholic Relief Act. This effectively recognised Catholics as citizens with the right to own land, join the Army and vote (albeit in accordance with the very strict restrictions on voting in place back then). Not too much to ask, you might think.

Well, it was for Lord George Gordon. Gordon, pictured right, was what is known in political terms as “kind of a prick.” While he favoured American independence and improved conditions in the Navy, he was also the sort of man who picked fights against every other MP in the House, regardless of political alignment, and  would seemingly change his opinions at the drop of a hat.

Gordon saw the Relief Act as certain evidence of a Popish plot, and so, in accordance with his talents, began shit-stirring. Among his many bizarre claims was the suggestion that Smithfield market was to be turned into the headquarters of a new Spanish Inquisition where people would be publicly burnt alive. Why Smithfield? Gord only knows.

Weirdly enough, he was able to find an audience who did not think he was insane, presumably from the readership of Ye Dailie Mayle. On 2nd June 1780, some 50,000 supporters marched on Parliament with a petition, wearing blue rosettes and painting ‘No Popery’ wherever they could, in case we hadn’t got the message that they were, in fact, Protestant.

The riot quickly turned ugly (well, uglier) as its members began smashing up Catholic chapels, houses and businesses. In Westminster, MPs and their carriages were attacked by rioters. Gordon himself was placed under arrest for high treason, and somewhat sobered by this, and the promise of an armed response from Parliament, the mob dispersed a little.

It wasn’t to last, however. Over the next couple of days, rumours spread, and in accordance with mob mentality it was decided that the best solution was to smash some more stuff up. Mobs descended on Moorfields, home of a large Irish population, and then began a programme of attacking just about every building of importance in the city – the Temple, the Inns of Court, the Royal Arsenal, various embassies, the prisons, the palaces, and the Bank of England twice. Why it was felt that the Bank required two attacks I don’t know, it’s not like there was anything of interest in there. Newgate Prison was burnt down, and in an astonishing show of intelligence and compassion the rioters didn’t think to let the inmates out first. Of course, Savile’s house was targeted.

Perhaps the strangest attack of all was on Langdale’s Distillery in Holborn. As the distillery burned, liquor flooded the streets. The crowd, not being the sort of people to look a gift horse in the mouth, decided to drink their fill of free booze. Free booze… that was on fire. Accounts speak of men, women and children knocking it back unto death. Seriously, even I wouldn’t do that.

With no police force to speak of, there was little to check the robbers, and the city was effectively in a state of anarchy. On 9th June, the King ordered the Army in. Order was eventually restored, with 285 rioters shot and 139 arrested. 25 of the ringleaders were executed.

The Gordon Riots, as they came to be known, were one of the most shameful events in the history of London. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage were caused by the rioters, mostly to property owned by Catholics, and the incident was a blow to the acceptance of democracy in Europe. The Riots did have one positive effect, though – they highlighted the need for a proper police force in London.

As for Gordon himself? Well, he was acquitted and, after more adventures, eventually converted to Judaism. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

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Filed under 18th century, Booze, Churches, Crime, Disasters, History, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, The City, Westminster

Science Fiction Single Feature

I love science fiction. I was first introduced to it at the tender age of 8, via the glorious medium of Thunderbirds repeats on Friday afternoons. From there, I discovered Doctor Who and Star Trek. Then, a couple of years later, I was directed to the works of Asimov and Clarke (and Douglas Adams, of course). And from there, things just sorta grew. Despite the best efforts of secondary school to wean me off this juvenile nonsense, it’s an interest I maintained into adulthood and, indeed, even had the opportunity to study at university.

So when my good chum Succubusface drew my attention to the Out of This World exhibition at the British Library, I figured it had to be worth seeing. One of my flatmates recommended it, and so the decision was made. On Saturday, Succubusface and I made our way to St Pancras.

I tend to be a little wary when serious literary folk start talking about science fiction because, as I suggested in the intro, there’s a tendency to be rather snobby about it, to assume that it’s a juvenile genre of square-jawed space heroes firing ray guns at marauding robots. I once came across a critical essay which suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t science fiction because it was too good.

I couldn’t disagree more – I believe that science fiction is as valid a literary genre as any other. It grants the licence to explore questions that could not easily be answered in other genres. What does it mean to be human? How do we know what’s real? What if humanity isn’t superior in the universe? What responsibility do we have to that which we create? How might political systems work when played out over centuries? One of my favourite novels is Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, the story of a man who struggles with Christian faith all his life, only to find himself transported to first century Galilee and the reality of the beliefs he’s fought – a story that inherently relies on time travel, but whose subject matter (religion and idealism) is universal. Another is, as I said above, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Douglas Adams uses the broad canvas of space opera to satirise and absurdify (is that a word?) our society.

Of course, there’s a lot of junk lit out there, and this was particularly prevalent before the 1960s and the rise of the New Wave sci-fi movement. The picture on the right is a fine example. However, I am reminded Sturgeon’s Law. Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon was once confronted with the suggestion that ninety-nine per cent of science fiction was crap. His response was to look at the interviewer with an expression of mild bewilderment and say, “Ninety-nine per cent of everything is crap.”

The exhibition takes a more enlightened view than many critics, and as such would be enjoyable both to hardened geeks and relative newcomers. It describes itself as “science fiction, but not as you know it,” a mission statement which it fulfils admirably. A lot of the works covered therein are not what one would traditionally consider science fiction (although, when you think about it, they are). Things like Thomas More’s Utopia, J. G. Ballard’s High Rise or Stanley Kubrick’s film Doctor Strangelove. The classics you would expect to see are in there – Childhood’s End, Foundation, Flatland, Metropolis, Doctor Who, War of the Worlds, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (spoiler: yes) and the like. There were also quite a few of the less widely known and yet equally worthy works, like Jane Loudon’s The Mummy and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.

The exhibition is ordered by subgenre – dystopia, apocalypsealien invasion, time travel, steampunk etc,which I think serves to make it all more approachable to the casual non-geek. It also showed the many different approaches to different concepts – the utopia/dystopia section featured works as diverse as The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Utopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four and V for Vendetta. The displays explained the basics of each subgenre in an understandable and non-patronising way.

Speaking as a geek, I found it utterly absorbing, and might even make another visit. I found a load of titles that weren’t familiar to me, but which are now firmly on my reading list.

The only caution I would give is that it’s not really a great exhibition for young children. There’s the funny sleepy robot and the draw-an-alien activity, but the displays are very wordy and I suspect that boredom would quickly set in for a child. For everyone else, though, I can’t recommend it enough.

Further Viewing

Here, the subject of Yr Humble Chronicler’s literary mancrush, China Miéville, takes us on a tour of the exhibition for the BBC.

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Electrickery

I’m strangely fascinated by pseudoscience. Homeopathy, Young Earth Creationism, Scientology, all utter bollocks and yet I love hearing about them. I don’t know why. I frankly have nothing but contempt for all pseudoscience, particularly where it crosses into the realm of medicine.

Pseudoscience relies on ignorance to work its magic. You don’t understand quantum physics, do you? So when we tell you that this pendant will use quantum energy transference to resonate with your cellular integral field to reduce your risk of cancer, arthritis and diabetes, promoting weight loss, immunity to disease and essential wellbeing, you won’t know any better. You can’t say it won’t do that, so just run with this here. Only two hundred pounds to you, sir. A bargain if ever there was one.

Oftentimes, pseudoscientists work to actively promote ignorance – maybe those hoity-toity “legitimate scientists” claim to be able to understand quantum resonance, but why should you believe them? You can’t even understand what they’re talking about!

In the case of medical pseudoscience, or “quackery” as it’s more commonly known, I have particular contempt due to the emotional manipulation involved. Sure, quacks sound sympathetic, but that’s because they tell you what you want to hear. Doctors tell you cancer has no cure? Well, that just shows how callous they are, because I can cure it with simple-feng-shui-ley-line-type crap. There appears to be a concentration of toxins in your breasts, let me lay my hands on them. Even when quacks aren’t taking advantage of the desperate and incurable, they’re still emotionally manipulative. Diet and exercise are hard, wouldn’t it be far easier if you just used acupuncture to somehow, against all laws of physics, cause the fat to disappear? The worst aspect of all this is that people often reject conventional medicine in order to spend a fortune on the modern-day equivalent of a bottle of snake oil, endangering their chances of recovery and often their lives.

As quackery relies so heavily on people’s lack of scientific knowledge, it often employs whatever the latest weird and exotic science is to make suckers sit up and take notice. Potential patients may have heard of this new “magnetism,” “radiation” or whatever, but aren’t so likely to know the full range and scope of its abilities. Particularly given that many of these substances are used in legitimate medicine – radiotherapy, for instance.

For an awfully long time, the big thing was electricity. Luigi Galvani discovered in 1786 that passing electricity through a dissected frog’s leg would cause it to kick. This seemingly confirmed a popular misconception that electricity was a vital force.

Not that the quacks had been waiting for scientific confirmation, of course. James Graham (pictured below), for instance, had been convinced ever since seeing a demonstration by Benjamin Franklin in the early 1770s that electricity was worth paying attention to. He proclaimed it to be a force that “invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”

In 1779, he came to London and opened the Temple of Health and Hymen just off the Strand, at No. 4 Royal Terrace. This was showmanship of which P. T. Barnum would have been proud. No expense was spared. The place was filled with huge, exotic-looking machinery that promised to use electricity to blast “aetherial forces, vivifying air, and the magnetic effluvium into the whole body or any particular part of it.” Various other electrical and chemical treatments were available, including an electric bath and an electric throne.  Don’t try this at home, kids. If you fancied a takeaway, you could purchase Graham’s range of “Imperial Pills” and “Aetherial Balsams.”

If you were having a little trouble in the bedroom (cough), then you might consider a session on Graham’s notorious “Celestial Bed.” This was a large and magnetically-charged bed which vibrated, played music and released fragrances that were supposedly “aetherial” in nature (but frankly, what in the Temple wasn’t?). The unhappy couple would hand over a whopping fee of £50 and spend the night therein in the hope of relieving infertility. I suspect that any successes arising were purely coincidental.

Graham’s particular interest was matters of a sexual nature, and it certainly didn’t escape his notice that sex was a pretty good selling point. To that end, some of the most popular attractions in the Temple were the Goddesses of Health, delightful young ladies whose job was to assist Graham and to depict what physical perfection should look like. In the name of science, of course. Scantily-clad science. Rumour has it that one of the Goddesses, depicted right, would later marry into wealth, becoming Lady Emma Hamilton and later still Lord Nelson’s mistress.

The temple was, initially at least, a roaring success – so much so that within a couple of years, Graham was able to up sticks and move to fashionable Pall Mall. Alas, while Graham was a persuasive quack, he wasn’t so strong on the financial side of things, and his extravagance resulted just two years later in his having to sell up entirely.

He never quite managed to replicate the Temple’s success, and spent the rest of his days promoting ever more bizarre alternative medicines, such as being buried naked in mud and not eating for weeks at a time. He died in 1794 at the age of just forty-nine, which says a lot about the efficacy of his methods.

Fortunately, such quack electrical nonsense didn’t last long, because – oh wait, no, the belief in electricity’s mystical health-giving properties lasted until at least 1951, when the Food and Drug Administration in the USA banned the sale of electrical remedies. Hell, there are probably people even today who think you can cure impotence by electrocuting your gentleman’s prerequisites. There’s a sucker born every minute.

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