Category Archives: Disasters

That’ll show the Cnut.

ImageBy God, it’s been a long time since last I posted here. The reasons are complicated – suffice it to say that I think we’ve heard the last of Baron von Hamstern. So, back to posting stuff about London!

There are various nursery rhymes on the subject of London and its characters. One of the most boring is surely ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’ The lyrics you’re probably familiar with are,

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down

Falling down

Falling down

London Bridge is falling down,

My Fair Lady

I mean, there are other verses, but that’s what everyone remembers. In all honesty, you’re not missing much if you don’t know the rest. But did you know that it’s based on a true story?

Oh yes. First, a little background. Now, as you’re no doubt aware, the unbelievably boring bridge that we now call London Bridge is far from the first by that name.ImageThe present bridge replaces one that was built in 1831 (which is now based in Lake Havasu, Arizona, as per this photo). The 1831 bridge replaced a medieval bridge which lasted for hundreds of years in varying states of disrepair. Indeed, the fact that it was falling to bits in the 17th century helped save Southwark from the Great Fire – collapsed buildings on the bridge formed a firebreak.


Old London Bridge. If you look closely, you can see the heads on spikes, which were a popular tourist attraction. You had to make your own entertainment in those days.

So, case closed, right? The medieval bridge, or Old London Bridge as it’s popularly known, was basically all about the falling down. That rhyme could have come from almost any time in its history.

Could have, but didn’t. No, it seems the rhyme dates from even further back from that.

We need to go right back to the 11th century for the origin. At this time, London was under the rule of the Danish King Cnut, a man who was permanently one misprint from disaster. Cnut had conquered England and exiled King Aethelred the Unready, who didn’t see that one coming for obvious reasons.

While Aethelred was in Normandy, plotting his bloody vengeance, he formed an alliance with King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. Olaf sailed his troops up the Thames to meet Cnut’s forces in London. The forces were arranged on either side of the river, with a substantial proportion of them based on the wooden bridge that was then known as London Bridge.

Fortunately, Olaf, unlike Aethelred, was ready for this, and had a cunning plan. He simply hitched his ships to the bridge supports and ordered his men to haul away. The bridge collapsed, killing the troops on the bridge and dividing Cnut’s forces. London was retaken, and the event was commemorated in an epic which begins,

London Bridge is fallen down.

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding,

War-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing,

Mail-coats ringing,

Odin makes our Olaf win!

This is commonly given as the origin of the nursery rhyme. Admittedly Cnut took London back a couple of years later, but nobody’s writing any nursery rhymes about him. Probably because of the aforementioned misprint issue.



Filed under Buildings and architecture, Disasters, History, Landmarks, Literature, London, london bridge, Thames, Uncategorized

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…


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.


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…


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

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

A seat by the fire

The Great Fire of London. Or at least, one of them.

London is no stranger to blazes. Even prior to the now-legendary Great Fire of London of 1666, there had been at least twelve major conflagrations that had destroyed or at least very seriously damaged the city.

This was something of an occupational hazard in a city so crowded and crammed together, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that regulations were so poorly enforced. In theory, it was illegal to build a house out of wood with a thatched roof. In theory, businesses that were a fire hazard were illegal within the city walls (hence the East End, where those things could legally be put). In practice, as you might imagine by my sneering italics, neither of those laws were enforced with any great enthusiasm.

There were firefighting provisions of a sort. Watchmen, employed by the parishes, were expected to keep an eye out for blazes. However, as I have previously mentioned, those chaps weren’t exactly the most dynamic of fellows. Similarly, citizens were expected to form impromptu fire brigades, which were generally pretty effective in the case of small fires – the prospect of losing your house is a great motivator. The favoured method was to use hand-powered fire pumps (such as the one modelled above left) or, where that failed, to demolish houses and thus create firebreaks. If your chimney was on fire, the most common advice was to fire a gun up it. For some people, that’s the solution to everything.

What the Great Fire highlighted was what King Charles II (seen on the right) had been saying for years – that this sort of thing was all very well in the case of small blazes, but in the case of larger ones it was utterly useless. Indeed, during the fire, Rev. Thomas Vincent complained that “London, so famous for its wisdom and dexterity, can now find neither brains nor hands to prevent its ruin.”

Charles, despite being a well-known playa, was not without wisdom when it came to firefighting. He had been one of the louder voices prior to the fire calling for the stricter enforcement of building regulations. During the conflagration, he overruled the rather useless Lord Mayor  and placed fellow firefighting nerd the Duke of York in charge. He himself took a major part in both directing operations and dousing the flames. I presume he wasn’t dressed like he is in that picture, but it would be funny if he was. Following the fire (and indeed, during it), he arranged for operations to temporarily accommodate displaced inhabitants of the city and to bring food to the ruins. Admittedly this was in no small part due to the fear of riot – Charles was pro-Catholic, which had made him a lot of enemies in Protestant London, and there were plenty of people eager to blame the blaze on Catholic conspirators (so much so that when the Duke of York later converted to Catholicism, records of his own heroic efforts were deliberately distorted to make him look like one of the arsonists).

Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t Charles’ firefighting enthusiasm that led to the beginnings of the modern fire brigade, but the commercial incentive. Isn’t that so often the way?

Nobody is entirely sure who invented fire insurance, but the most likely candidate was Nicholas If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon (remember what I said about how London was a Protestant city?). What Barbon offered was a service whereby if you bought insurance with him, his men would fight any fires that broke out on your property and, if they failed to save it, would rebuild it. The idea was eagerly embraced, and soon there were several other companies offering the service. Homeowners so covered would hang a plaque (like the one above) on the wall in the event of fire.

This was in theory a great idea, but the problem was that insurance companies would only fight fires in buildings that they covered. So if No. 2 was covered, but No. 4 wasn’t (not that houses would have been numbered back then, but you know), the street might still burn down. So in the 18th century, the insurance companies cooperated to bring in a new system. The first fire brigade to arrive and quench the flames would get a reward. Good idea, yes? Well, in practice what it led to was a lot of punch-ups between fire brigades over who got there first, to the detriment of property in the vicinity. There were even instances of rival fire brigades deliberately sabotaging each other’s equipment in order to prevent their enemies claiming the cash.

In 1833, eventually some semblance of order was achieved with the foundation of the London Fire Engine Establishment under James Braidwood, an Edinburgh gentleman who agitated for the founding of a proper civic fire brigade (such as the one he had headed in Edinburgh, in fact). The LFEE played a prominent role in attempting to save the Houses of Parliament the following year, despite the fact that, as Braidwood pointed out, they were under no obligation to save the uninsured Parliament buildings. The Duke of Wellington, who was undoubtedly a great military commander but as a politician was a bit of a dick, opposed the concept of a proper fire brigade on the grounds that it would reduce public vigilance. The same man also opposed mixed-race marriages in India and believed railways should be discouraged because they allowed working class people to move about.

Braidwood was killed in the line of duty on 22nd June 1861, when a fire broke out on Tooley Street. This blaze would engulf the waterfront from London Bridge to where Tower Bridge now stands, and was the largest blaze the city had seen since 1666. Like Charles II, Braidwood believed in strategic firefighting, and so to that end advised that getting to the heart of the fire. In so doing, Braidwood was crushed by a falling warehouse.

His death was, however, not in vain. His passing was the cause of national mourning, and led to renewed demands for a civic-funded fire brigade. The loudest calls for reform came from the insurance companies, who under the LFEE’s policies had to fight fires regardless of whether the property was insured or not, and were thus effectively paying for everyone else’s safety. At last reason prevailed, and London got its fire brigade on January 1, 1866. Took us long enough – Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and the aforementioned Edinburgh already had brigades in place. Still, we got there in the end.

Anyone for toast?


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, london bridge, Medieval London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, The City, Westminster

The marriage of heron and hell

I often think the success of a party can be judged by the voyage home. If it was a lame party, the voyage home will be undertaken in a state of sobriety on the Tube. If it was a good party, the voyage home will be undertaken while in a total mess and may well involve a degree of unrelenting horror. Possibly the following morning.

So it was on New Year’s Eve. The party was held in rural Oxfordshire (somewhere called “Bicester” or possibly “Bister”), which for some reason is not served by night buses. Therefore, I had to crash and make my way home the following morning. You get some pretty funny looks when you’re making your way home in a tailcoat, a silver waistcoat and a scarlet top hat, I can tell you.

The train came in at Marylebone, and the quickest route home would have been to simply jump on the Bakerloo line and change at Elephant and Castle, but I felt like a bit of a stroll – I thought I’d walk to Euston, shooting up Baker Street and swinging through Regent’s Park as I went.

This is perhaps not the park at its best.

Regent’s Park is perhaps my favourite of the London parks (though Hyde Park takes some beating). Particularly in the summer, it’s a delightful place to walk when you have nothing particular to do, and it’s easy to get to from Chalk Farm, Camden or the West End. The park was originally land swiped by Henry VIII and used for hunting. In 1818, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) took it over and envisioned it as a rather extravagant town home for himself and his friends, commissioning his friend, the now-legendary architect John Nash, to design the whole shebang. Nash is worthy of an entry in himself, so I won’t go into too much detail beyond saying that he defined the Regency style of architecture more-or-less singlehandedly. His grand plans for the area included a palace and several large villas, but were scaled back into the park we see today. It was, for the time, extremely innovative – the standard concept of the urban park, such as it was then, consisted of rigid, regimented grids. An up-yours to nature. Nash’s concept was the first real attempt to recreate an area of natural beauty within the city, and as such set a trend for urban parkland that would last right up until the present day.

Although the park was open to the public, it was on the basis of an admission fee – well, after you’d spent all that money, you didn’t want just anyone coming in. The fee was abolished in 1835, though the park was still only open two days a week.

Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times (perhaps) and now it’s open to the public all the time. Despite this, on that New Year’s morning there were few people about. The lake was frozen over, which had I known about it at the time might have reminded me of the occasion on 15th January 1867 when the ice on the lake collapsed under the weight of skaters. The Royal Humane Society had stationed icemen nearby, equipped with hooks, ladders and hot baths, but with two hundred in the lake they were utterly overwhelmed. Local boatbuilder William Archer managed to save seven in his boat and Abel Thomas swam out and rescued two (a third attempt being foiled by the intense cold). The master of the Marylebone Workhouse, George Douglas, played a key role in organising the medical care for the victims. Despite these and countless other unacknowledged efforts, forty were killed in the disaster.

Seven years later, the park would bear witness to another disaster, though fortunately with far smaller loss of life.

Following the 1867 disaster, the water level of the lake was reduced somewhat. This might be what made it so very attractive to herons. Herons, specifically grey herons, can be seen all over the place in London, helped in no small part by the number of little rivers, canals, docklands and ponds. They hunt in shallow water, standing motionless, sometimes for hours, before striking. One thing you can’t really say about them, though, is that they’re particularly social birds. It’s quite rare to see more than one at a time. Now, in the above photo, you can see seven. That wasn’t even all of them. There were ridiculous numbers of herons in this place. A little bit freaky, actually. I don’t know if herons are capable of cooperating to, say, bring a human down, but I wasn’t too keen to find out, and left mystified.

I found the answer on my trip to the Greenwich Peninsula a little while ago – it turns out that Regent’s Park is the only breeding colony in London for the grey heron. So all those herons I’ve seen, in Brentford, Merton, Whitton, Hackney, Kingston and so many other places, all came from the same place. Incredible.

No word on whether they can bring a grown man down, though.

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Baker Street and Marylebone, Disasters, Geography, History, London, Parks and gardens, Plants and animals, Regency

Big in Japan, for some reason

The world is a huge and baffling place of many different cultures, and this is a thing we ignore at our peril. What seems self-evident to us may seem strange or even crazy to another culture. For instance, most people in Britain would find the idea of eating dog disgusting, but in many parts of Asia it’s perfectly normal. And meanwhile, there are many places where the fact that the people of Britain eat meat at all is repugnant. To give another example, a lawyer chum of mine had to deal with a divorce case recently in which the husband, a rural Nigerian fellow, was using as a central part of his argument the fact that his wife was secretly a mermaid. Superstition and nonsense? Well, many would say the same about the concept of God.

So when I read yet another comedy article online about how the Japanese are crazy, I tend to roll my eyes a little. I’m not some weeaboo, let me get that straight, I’m not even an anime fan (though there are anime films I enjoy – Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most moving anti-war films ever made). But honestly, most of these “crazy Japanese” articles are either about robots, gadgets or tentacle porn, and often all three. It’s an easy laugh based on cultural differences.

One of the things that I find interesting is the way certain things take off in a foreign country in a way that baffles people in its homeland. For instance, Disney comics. Those are huge in Europe. I mean, even fairly obscure Disney characters have their own comics in places like Denmark and Italy. There are comics in which Goofy is a superhero. There is a comic in which Donald Duck is a gentleman thief. Now, while Disney comics are not unknown in the USA, they have a very small cult following. The closest they’ve come to the mainstream was the Saturday morning cartoon Ducktales, based on Carl Barks’ comics.

A similar phenomenon in Japan is the Kit Kat bar. Now, Kit Kats in Britain are just one of those things. A pleasant chocolate treat to have with your mid-morning cup of tea. In fact, it was originally devised in the 1930s as a portable snack for work. It’s in line with the traditional British attitude towards luxury, i.e. that a bit of luxury is fine, but let’s not go nuts.

Not so in Japan. In Japan, Kit Kats are big business. It’s all down to a linguistic coincidence. “Kit Kat” is a meaningless term in Britain whose sole virtue was that it was catchier than “Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp,” the name used up until 1937. However, in Japan, Kit Kat sounds like a shortened version of “kitto katsu,” which roughly translated means “you will definitely succeed.” Well, who could resist such a positive and friendly chocolate bar? Take note, Mars, you’re on a hiding to nothing with your warlike nomenclature.

Anyway, this means that Kit Kats have become associated with good fortune, and so became hugely popular as good luck charms, particularly around exam time (and even if you do badly in the exam, there’s chocolate afterwards to make you feel better). Now, whereas in Britain we’re satisfied with chocolate and wafer, maybe hazarding dark chocolate, maybe a little caramel if we’re feeling especially naughty, in Japan they’re rather more adventurous with their confectionary. Which is how I came across this while I was in the Cybercandy shop in Covent Garden:

And this is why I'm an atheist.

That is not photoshopped, it is exactly what it appears to be. Cheese flavoured Kit Kat. There have been many, many different flavours of Kit Kat in Japan, ranging from fairly obvious ones like hazelnut and strawberry, through “not obvious but actually quite nice-sounding” like custard pudding and jasmine tea, to “serious cultural differences here,” which is where our friend cheese comes in. As do wasabi, lemon vinegar, wine, baked potato and the top seller in Japan, soy sauce.

Anyway, out of curiosity, I did actually buy this. I have to say, even given that it’s imported, it seemed a bit pricey – £3.80 for what turned out to be ten mini-fingers of Kit Kat, i.e. slightly less in total than an actual full-size Kit Kat. The box they come in is pretty big, which seems like a bit of a swizz to me.

Now, the actual sweet itself. It’s white chocolate-coated. It looks quite benign, actually. Then you take a bite, and… well, it’s unexpected, put it that way. My mouth actually sort of rebelled, unable to quite interpret what it was eating. There was a cheesy flavour, and there was a chocolate flavour, but somehow not both at the same time. The actually cheesy flavour was, I have to say, more Cheez-Whiz than fine Stilton, which didn’t help matters.

Apparently a lot of these flavours are limited editions, created for collectibility first and foremost. That would certainly explain a lot. I mean, I wouldn’t say this was an appalling flavour, but I wouldn’t buy it again. And bear in mind I’m someone who actually really likes salty liquorice. All in all, I’d say it’s something to buy more for the “get a load of this” value than because it’s a taste sensation.

Or maybe I’m just being culturally insensitive.

Further Reading – Get your own here. Or don’t.


Filed under Covent Garden, Disasters, Food, History, Only loosely about London, Randomness, Shopping, Weird shops, West End

A-Peel-ing fellows

I’m always amazed by how long it took London to get a police force. These days, a police force is regarded as one of those basic requirements of civilisation (assuming you’re not being kettled, amirite?). Yet there was no centralised law enforcement agency for the Metropolis until 1829, when  Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, passed his Metropolitan Police Improvement Bill through Parliament.


Prior to this, the policing of the city had been a mess. Each parish appointed watchmen to do the actual policing, and these men did not exactly strike fear into the hearts of evildoers, being generally old, decrepit and poorly paid. A spoof advert published in 1821 suggested that the ideal watchman should be,

the age of sixty, seventy, eighty or ninety years; blind with one eye and seeing very little with the other; crippled in one or both legs; deaf as a post; with an asthmatical cough that tears them to pieces; whose speed will keep pace with a snail, and the strength of whose arm would not be able to arrest an old washerwoman of fourscore.

A watchman. Watchmen were nicknamed "Charleys" after King Charles II.

Then you had the parish constables, an unpaid role that every able-bodied gentleman of the parish was expected to perform at some time. In practice, as the job was unpopular, would-be constables often paid someone else to do the job for them.

This system left much to be desired – for a start, all a thief had to do to escape pursuit was cross into another parish. Where the parish fell short, though, private enterprise was willing to step forward. It was common for the wealthy to hire private bodyguards when travelling on the roads. In the city, thief-takers offered a kind of private police force, apprehending criminals and collecting the reward money. In practice, however, the thief-takers were often gangsters who simply used the appearance of policing to better control their own sections of the criminal underworld.

In 1753, Henry Fielding (writer, satirist and Chief Magistrate for London) founded the Bow Street Runners, the first attempt at an organised police force. The Runners were few but effective, being made up largely of former constables and, indeed, former members of the thief-takers’ gangs. Paid a regular wage and outfitted in smart blue uniforms, these were the obvious ancestors of the modern Met.

However, they couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the need for something more substantial was highlighted by the Gordon Riots in 1780. This shameful episode in London’s history was the result of opposition to a petition by Lord George Gordon to grant a few rights to Catholics which broke out in violence and looting. Having no suitable civil force, the Government sent the army in, who killed some two hundred rioters and wounded at least another two hundred and fifty. The Earl of Shelburne suggested that maybe a police force similar to that in France would be a good idea. This was widely opposed on the grounds that it was totalitarian and a bit French. Peel’s 1829 response (in a letter to the Duke of Wellington) was, “I want to teach people that liberty does not consist in having your house robbed by organised gangs of thieves, and in leaving the principal streets of London in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds.” Dude had a point.

The lack of police was damaging the city’s reputation and, indeed, the nation’s. Spain, for instance, believed a collapse of the British government was imminent and so decided not to bother with peace negotiations. In an effort to prove that sea trade with London was safe, 1798 saw the formation of the Marine Police to patrol the Port.

Constable Tom Smith, 1850. Not an easy man to miss.

Further waves of crime and civil unrest shifted Parliament’s opinion, and in September 1829 the first of the new police were rolled out. They were dressed smartly in their blue tunics and reinforced top hats, the latter designed to be stood on where extra height was needed. Each was equipped with a lantern, a baton, a rattle, a pair of handcuffs and a cutlass.

A policeman’s lot, it has to be said, was not always a happy one. Pay was a guinea a week, but they had to pay the expenses incurred by any wrongful arrest. Police on patrol were not allowed to sit down or lean against anything, and had to be polite to the public at all times. This was not made easy by the fact that a lot of the public were not fans of the polis, nicknaming them “raw lobsters,” “blue devils” and worse (“peelers” and “bobbies” are terms of affection by comparison).

Verbal abuse and physical assault were commonplace, partly due to the extra taxes levied to pay for the police, but largely (one suspects) due to resentment at this form of increased authority. Police were subjected to stonings and knife attacks on a regular basis, with even the odd attempt at vehicular homicide from wealthy carriage owners. If this seems a little daring, it may be worth noting that penalties were surprisingly mild. One young costermonger who injured a policeman for life was given a sentence of only a year, with the jury expressing sympathy for the boy. In 1831, an instance of a policeman being stabbed while breaking up a fight returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. Unsurprisingly, thousands of those early constables either left the force or found themselves turning to drink.

Slowly but surely, though, the police gained the public trust. This may partly have been due to the old watch system being wound down (although the City didn’t abolish their watchmen until 1839). More likely, though, it was due to property owners realising that actually, a few pence extra is a small price to pay for spending 24 hours without getting robbed. Commentator W. O’Brien noted in 1852 that “The habitual state of mind towards the police of those who live by crime is not so much dislike, as slavish, abject terror.” Which certainly beats getting stabbed.

These days, the bobby on the beat is a familiar sight, some would say a little too familiar when you don’t need one and not familiar enough when you do. Nevetheless, it can’t be denied that the Peelers’ modern-day descendents are an iconic part of our city.

Evening all.


As this is the last entry of 2010, may I wish all my readers a happy and prosperous New Year. And all you people who came to this page by mistake while looking for something else, have a good one yourselves.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Crime, Disasters, History, London, Politics, The City, Westminster