Category Archives: Crime

The Sweeney

Sweeney Todd has been very much on my mind lately. I recently saw a really excellent production of the Sondheim musical at Twickenham Theatre (ave atque vale). Then I heard that another production is to be staged at the venerable Harrington’s pie shop in Tooting, which also sounds like it’ll be worth seeing. And between these, I’ve been working on props and puppets for another Sondheim musical (come and see it, it’ll be awesome).

Sweeney Todd So who was Sweeney Todd? The tale has various forms, but the basic essence is that Todd is a murderous barber in Fleet Street (No. 186 to be precise) who kills his customers by means of a special chair (pictured left) and his trusty razor. The bodies are disposed of by his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, in the form of extremely tasty meat pies.

The story first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful called The String of Pearls: A Romance (“romance” meant something different then). Its enduring popularity led to its being retold in various versions over the decades, most of which played with the details a little – maybe Mrs Lovett was actually his lover, for instance. Oddly, the detail that he sliced his victims with a razor while preparing to shave them, which you’d think would be a pretty good starting point for such a horror story, was added in later versions. Christopher Bond’s 1970 play recast Todd as an anti-hero with a revenge motive, and this was carried over into Sondheim’s 1979 musical and the Tim Burton film version thereof.

Some folklorists would have you believe that Todd was a real figure, and certainly he shares with Sherlock Holmes the honour of being a London character so vivid that he almost seems to transcend fiction. But one thing we can be almost certain of is that he was not real. There are no surviving contemporary accounts of such a man, and the concept of a barber who kills his victims with a descending chair like some perverted version of a Thunderbirds launch sequence prior to serving them in delicious pie form would definitely be the sort of thing that would make the papers.

Stories of cannibalism were nothing new even then, and even the gruesome detail of the unwitting cannibal declaring the meat delicious was pretty long in the tooth – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Historia Regum Britanniae of a king marooned on an island whose servant was so loyal that he gave the king a slice of his own leg, which the king declared to be the most toothsome thing he’d ever eaten, and he had the good taste not to say, “I’ve heard of self service, but this is ridiculous!”

A popular suggestion is that the inspiration came from the legend of Sawney Bean, the 15th century patriarch of a family of cannibals who preyed on unwary travellers in Galloway. The fact that “Sweeney” sounds very much like an Anglicised version of “Sawney” leads me to think they’re on to something here, although admittedly other than the cannibalism, the two stories have little in common.

However, I wonder if there might have been a source of inspiration closer to home. I’ve written before about the epidemic of food adulteration in the 18th and 19th centuries – suppose our unknown author took this to its logical conclusion? Looking for a name for the chap who’d do such a thing, he recalled an old Scottish tale. Perhaps he even adapted it from an already existing urban legend.

I’d love to explore this further, but my dinner’s ready.


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Filed under 19th century, Crime, Food, Literature, The City

Queensbury rules

The Victorian era produced some real bastards, I think you’ll agree. However, many of them were simply ill-served by history – while we’d now consider them dreadful examples of humanity, they were perfectly acceptable by the standards of the society they lived in. The ninth Marquess of Queensbury (1844-1900) was not one of those people. No, by the standards of any era, the Marquess was an utter shit.

These days, he has two major claims to fame. Firstly, he invented the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of professional boxing. And secondly, it was Oscar Wilde’s libel suit against him that resulted in the writer’s trial and imprisonment, an important event the history of LGBT culture in Britain. It’s a strange pairing of claims to fame, but then, Queensbury was a strange man.

Queensbury, or John Sholto Douglas, to use his name, was defiantly nonconformist in his outlook. For one thing, he was a proud atheist before such beliefs were widely accepted. Unfortunately, he was the sort of atheist that tends to shame other atheists by being a bit too outspoken. He refused to sit in the House of Lords on the grounds that the oath of allegiance was Christian in nature. Well, that’s not entirely unreasonable. I mean, the oath is meaningless if you don’t believe in the thing you’re swearing on. He also got chucked out of a performance of Tennyson’s The Promise of May at the Globe Theatre because one of the characters was an atheist and also a villain, and Queensbury felt this demanded that he kick up a ruckus.

But I mean, the fact that he was an extremist doesn’t make him a bad person, right? I mean, every cause has its extremists, doesn’t it? Maybe he was just responding appropriately to the times and he’s a misunderstood pioneer? Well, maybe, but how about we look at one of his other obsessions, namely homosexuality?

Homophobia was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was, after all, still illegal. Queensbury, however, took things a little further. He believed that homosexuality was literally contagious. You might have guessed that he wasn’t exactly flying the rainbow flag from his part in the Wilde trial, but there were certain other dimensions to his gay-bashing that are perhaps worthy of note.

To start with, we need to look at his relationship with his sons. Let’s just say that it was strained at best. One of his favourite taunts to use against them was to claim that he wasn’t their real father (maybe he wasn’t – his second marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation) and therefore they could expect to inherit nothing. It’s a historical irony, therefore, that his eldest son Francis was granted a seat in the House of Lords – the same one that Queensbury had refused to take an oath for. Rather than shrug his shoulders, Queensbury had a fall-out with Francis.

Francis had been backed by Lord Rosebery, whom Queensbury decided was “a snob queer.” Therefore, of course, his motivation was obviously to corrupt the lad with gayness. Queensbury decided that the remedy to this was to start stalking Rosebery, which he did all the way to Germany, where he threatened to give the Lord a damn good thrashing if he didn’t stay away from Francis. The Prince of Wales himself had to intervene, and Rosebery subsequently referred to Queensbury, not unreasonably, as “a pugilist of unsound mind.”

And this is where the Wilde business comes in. Like most conspiracy theorists, Queensbury wasn’t going to be put off by a lack of evidence or, indeed, logic. And when he found out that his youngest son, Alfred (or “Bosie” as he was nicknamed) was bonking one of the leading playwrights of the day, it was clear what had happened – Rosebery had set his homosexual sights on another member of the Douglas family.

Queensbury didn’t publicly pursue Rosebery this time, perhaps because batshit insane though he was, he knew when he was beaten. However, he infamously left a visiting card at the Albermarle club describing Wilde as a “posing somdomite.” You’d think an obsessive homophobe would learn to spell “Sodomite,” but I digress.

This being a fairly serious matter, Wilde sued for libel. Unfortunately, the problem with suing someone for libel is that there has to actually be an element of falsehood. What this meant was that by suing Queensbury, he was basically saying, “Prove I’m gay.” Which he was. Queensbury had plenty of testimony from London’s rent boy community to back this up – homosexuality seems to have been something that was fairly openly discussed provided you weren’t actually caught doing it. Anyway, having got lots of evidence that Wilde actually was as gay as a tangerine, he turned it into the police and Wilde was sent down.

Queensbury was undoubtedly the villain in this, and of course I’m not going to condone the laws against homosexuality. But why would Wilde have embarked on such a course against his self-appointed enemy? He wasn’t stupid – maybe arrogant, but even that shouldn’t have blinded him to the fact that it would put him in a perilous position. One popular interpretation has it that Bosie actually put him up to it. Maybe so – romantic feelings can make one do stupid things. And God knows Bosie had the motive to seek revenge against his old Dad.

The verdict against Wilde wasn’t universally popular, and though there were plenty of moral guardians who praised Queensbury for removing this menace to society, there were plenty of literary followers who cursed his name. Theatregoers, literati, Christians, Members of Parliament, his own family – it seemed that there was no one he didn’t annoy one way or another. The Marquess stipulated in his will that he wanted to be buried upright, and his request was granted at his death at the age of 55. Well, apparently. Rumour has it that the gravediggers, no fans of Queensbury, buried him head-first. And really who can blame them?

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Filed under 19th century, Crime, History, Literature, Notable Londoners, Politics, Theatre

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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Filed under 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Booze, Crime, History, London, Medicine, Politics

“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.


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

Fairies, schizophrenia and other distractions

The other day I found myself at a loose end and so, as I’d been meaning to do for quite some time, I went with Hurricane Jack to the Richard Dadd exhibition at Orleans House in Twickenham, which as it happened was in its final week.

Richard Dadd is primarily famous for two things – fairy paintings and being insane. Outsider art, particularly that produced by the mentally ill, holds a strange fascination for me. I suppose it’s because art, perhaps more effectively than any other form of expression, offers a view into the mind. Art is heavily reliant on emotion and imagination, and as such is an ideal gauge of the mind. I’m not the first one to suggest this, of course, and art therapy is these days a popular form of psychiatric treatment.

In the 19th century, of course, there was no such thing as art therapy. Hell, there was hardly anything you’d even call therapy in the modern sense. However, during Richard Dadd’s periods in Bedlam and Broadmoor, he produced a number of works of art that are these days regarded as classics of outsider art – although given that he was an established and respected mainstream painter, it’s debatable whether you could really call him an “outsider artist.”

Come Unto These Yellow Sands, 1842

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Dadd was born in 1817 and, from a young age, was considered a highly talented artist. A number of his works were put on show at the Royal Academy and he received several commissions from wealthy patrons. Unfortunately, he also exhibited a number of unusual personality traits which were amplified during a trip to the Middle East. He became violent and deluded, hearing voices and developing the belief that he was descended from Osiris and obliged to fight the Devil. The Devil, he believed, was capable of taking human form, and one of the forms he took was that of Dadd’s own father. Therefore, on 28th August 1843, he murdered his father and fled to France. He was arrested and put in Bedlam. Among his personal effects were a number of sketches of friends and family members with their throats cut and a list of people who he felt had to die. The general consensus now seems to be that he was afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia.

The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, 1855-64

During his period in Bedlam he produced his most famous works, including the intricate fairy painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. This is commonly regarded as his masterpiece, inspiring a song by Queen and the Terry Pratchett novel The Wee Free Men. The intense detail in this and his other fairy paintings tends to be seen as a sign of an obsessive mind (although you might also argue that it’s a sign of someone with a lot of time and very little to do, but then, I’m not an art critic or therapist).

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke wasn’t in the exhibition, nor were any of Dadd’s other fairy paintings. Actually, the exhibition seemed almost apologetic about this fact. I think this was unnecessary – it’s very often the case with artists, particularly notorious ones, that a particular work or type of work they did has been allowed to eclipse other, equally worthy works.

Sketch to Illustrate the Passions: Agony – Raving Madness

So what we have in this exhibition is, basically, The Rest. A selection of Dadd’s art from before his arrest and throughout his time at Bedlam and Broadmoor. Quite a lot of it is, I’ll be honest, rather pretty. If you didn’t know its origins, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was the work of a schizophrenic. I rather liked his stained glass work. However, there were a number of works seemingly produced as a deliberate expression of his mental state – the evocative “Passions” series stood out for me, which features allegorical figures representing various negative qualities. Some of these appear to have been painted from life, including a couple of representations of the architecture of Bedlam.

I wouldn’t have described the exhibition as what I was expecting from a Richard Dadd show, and that actually doesn’t bother me at all. I came away with what I felt was a fuller understanding of a very complex artist. Frankly, the chap deserves better than to be known simply as a mad artist.
Oh hey, look at this
Izzi has a new blog devoted to art. Take a look at it, do.

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Filed under 19th century, Arts, Crime, Current events, History, Medicine, Museums, Notable Londoners, Suburbia

Coke en Stock(well)

Don't explain the joke, you idiot.

I thought I’d elaborate a little on a small adventure that happened on the way back from the Carnival, as described in the last entry, for ’twas quite the strangest thing that happened that day. Well, not quite the strangest. Probably in the top ten. Or twenty. It was certainly strange.

You see, the problem with being very drunk and very tired and altogether in quite a state is that it can be quite difficult to stay awake. And the problem with getting from Bayswater to Colliers Wood is that it’s quite a complicated route by night bus. End result was that I kept ending up in completely the wrong place by virtue of falling asleep on the bus. Eventually, when I ended up in Vauxhall, I decided to give it up as a bad job and walk as far as I could.

Now, it took me quite a while to figure out that Vauxhall is close to Stockwell, and a night bus to Colliers Wood goes that way. It is a testament to how very mashed up I was that it took me this long – I’ve worked in Stockwell and Waterloo, and several times I’ve walked from one to the other by way of Vauxhall.

Nevertheless, after much trial and error, I arrived in Stockwell. All in all, I was feeling pretty invincible. Which is good, because as places go, Stockwell sucks.

[PARENTHESIS: I’ve noticed something odd about London. My decadent and sinful lifestyle takes me through many different parts of the city. Yet in places like Hackney, Elephant & Castle, Battersea, Brixton, Tooting, Feltham and Stockwell, I rarely have any trouble. Meanwhile, in supposedly affluent, middle-class places like Richmond, Kingston and Wimbledon, I’ve had far more trouble with lairy drunks trying to start fights – to the extent that I actually try to avoid Kingston and Wimbledon late on a Friday or Saturday.]

Stockwell is famous mostly for the notorious case of the Stockwell Strangler back in 1986 and in 2005, for the shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes during the 7/7 attacks. Apparently it’s on the up these days due to the fact that it is literally within walking distance of Central London. At the moment, though, it’s still pretty sketchy. This I mused upon as I waited for the good old N155.

At this point, a couple of gentlemen approached me. Well, I didn’t initially think they were approaching me – after all, it’s a bus stop, one of the things about public transport is that it’s for the public (though you wouldn’t think that judging by some of the people you mumble mumble mumble).

But then one of them spoke up. “I like your…” he began, and ran into difficulties. My scuffed jeans, chocolate-smeared T-shirt and worn out shoes didn’t exactly give him much to work with, and so he settled on “…glasses.”

“Thanks,” I said, uncertain how best to react. I mean, I like my glasses too. They stop me from being blind. They are, I must emphasise, nothing special. Fairly discreet with black wire frames. Basically, I use them to see with.

“You having a good night?” asked the fellow.

“Yeah, you know, long night, good night, complicated, going home now, bed,” I said incomprehensibly. All of which was true.  At this stage it was half past four and the fun part of being drunk was well and truly over. I just wanted to get home.

“Oh hey, that’s great,” said the chap. “Do you like Charlie?”

I was confused. Charlie? Was that his friend? Was I being propositioned? Solicited, even?


“Do you like Charlie?”


“Charlie?” He opened his bag and pulled out a couple of bags of white powder. “Charlie?” he repeared.

Ah yes, Charlie. Cocaine. Blow. Peruvian Lady. Bolivian marching powder. Aunt Nora. Witch and Zip. Foo-foo dust. The White Stuff. Alas, cocaine is not among my many vices, and I explained as much.

“Not at all?” asked the man, with palpable disappointment.

“Afraid not. I’m more of a booze man myself.”

“Not even to try?”

“Sorry. It’s just very late at night, I don’t want a buzz, I just want to go to bed.”

“Oh,” said the man sadly, and he and his friend trudged off.

I spoke the next day to Hurricane Jack and Succubusface, who opined that the guy was either not a very good drug dealer or the cocaine he had was fake, as discretion should really be your watchword when you’re out selling illegal substances in public. Indeed, it’s my own personal experience that normally when someone approaches you with the intent of selling drugs, what you get is a muttered “Skunk?” as they pass you. At least, I think that guy was selling skunk, it was fair to say that I’d woken up in the wrong part of London and not showered that morning.

And so I think we all learned an important lesson.


Filed under Booze, Crime, Current events, London, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia

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?


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