Category Archives: The City

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

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

Give my regards to Broad Street

As regular readers will know, I’m fascinated by abandoned railway stations. Almost as fascinating, though, are the dilapidated ones, the ones that haven’t changed since some time in the early 1980s, shabby, echoey and grubby. Trains are few and far between, as are passengers. I don’t know why I love them so much, maybe it’s because such places feel undisturbed, like I have some sort of privileged access to them. Or maybe it’s just because I’m unbelievably strange and perverted.

For these reasons and more, I wish I’d had the opportunity to visit the terminus at Broad Street. Poor, poor Broad Street. If the London termini were people, Broad Street would be a pitiful drunk sitting in a bar telling everyone how he “used to be somebody.”

It started out so well. Broad Street was originally built by the cumbersomely-named East & West India Docks & Birmingham Junction Railway. The aim of this company was, as its name suggests, basically to make its fortune transporting goods from the Docklands to the London & Birmingham Railway. In this, it succeeded admirably. An early amendment was to change its name to the snappier “North London Railway.”

Commuter traffic was initially a secondary consideration for the NLR – they ran passenger trains fo’ sho’, but this was more of a “we might as well” measure than anything else.  To the surprise of the company directors, though, it turned out that their passenger trains into Fenchurch Street (run by arrangement with the London and Blackwall Railway, who owned that terminus) were very popular indeed. This despite the fact that the NLR took a ridiculously circuitous route around London before reaching Fenchurch Street, no less than 44 miles.

It was therefore decided that the NLR could afford to take a gamble on getting more direct access to the City. Particularly since the London and North Western Railway (of which the aforementioned London & Birmingham Railway was now part) offered to stump up much of the cost in exchange for use of such an extension.  The LNWR also supplied a designer, their own engineer, William Baker. The site of the new terminus was to be at the end of a branch from Kingsland, on the junction of Liverpool Street and Broad Street.

Construction was not without its difficulties. Building through crowded East London necessitated the demolition of many crowded streets – the NLR undertook to provide a cheap workers’ train from Dalston, but those forced out decided they’d rather walk and just moved to the neighbouring streets, making them yet more crowded. Excavation revealed some sort of medieval mass grave whose origins were not known – one theory had it that, as one of Bedlam’s several incarnations was nearby, this had been where its dead were buried.

Nevertheless, in 1865 the station opened. Alan A. Jackson describes the architectural style as “really rather horrid,” which I think is perhaps going a bit too far. The Illustrated London News was more charitable, describing the style as “mixed Italian.” Perhaps it is a bit over-elaborate for the size of the terminus. Oddly, we don’t know who the architect was – presumably William Baker had assistance, but from whom is unrecorded.

One ingenious feature to make the most of the very expensive land was to build the goods depot requested by the LNWR under the station, with wagons lowered by a hydraulic lift. As a result, whatever architectural merits the station may have lacked, it was undeniably an efficient use of space, taking up a mere 2½ acres in total.

The NLR nicknamed the station its “happy afterthought,” for it was immediately popular with commuters and rapidly became the third-busiest terminus in London. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than one train a minute left the station, serving such varied destinations as Richmond, Chalk Farm, Bow, Watford, Kingston, High Barnet, Kew, Potters Bar, Mansion House, Kensington Olympia and even Birmingham.

Unfortunately, this prosperity was not to last. As it turned out, the success of Broad Street was largely based on the fact that it had a monopoly on fast commuter trains. As the Tube, tram and bus networks expanded, so people turned to those instead. The NLR desperately advertised their service as “the open-air route,” but no one fell for it.

In 1911, when passenger numbers reached their lowest since the station’s opening, the LNWR decided that electrification was in order – as has been mentioned before, this was seen as terribly clean and modern. This did seem to slow the decline considerably, but services never entirely recovered.

During the Second World War, many of the East London stations were severely damaged by enemy action, and it was decided after the end of the conflict that it wasn’t worth fixing them up again. The service to Poplar (which was rather unPoplar with passengers) was cut altogether. Broad Street itself had been hit, and again, it was not considered worth repairing.

The main station building was abandoned altogether in the 1950s and replaced by a couple of smaller buildings on the concourse. Traffic at this stage was so poor that only two staff were needed for the entire terminus.

In 1963 British Railways declared their intention to close the place altogether, but were thwarted by local opinion. Instead, BR carried out what is known in railway circles as “closure by stealth,” i.e. not officially closing the station but instead making the station so useless as to render it undesirable to keep open. To this end, services were diverted or cut altogether and maintenance was cut to the bare minimum. Part of the overall roof was removed in 1967 which, as you can see above left, gave the station a half-complete look. By the 1980s, only one platform was needed to accommodate the pathetically small number of passengers. Demolition of the rest began in 1985 and final closure came in 1986.

Although the North London Railway mostly survives as part of the Overground and Docklands Light Railways, nothing remains of old Broad Street. The Broadgate Estate was built on top of it, so it couldn’t be reopened even if anyone wanted to (and they don’t).

And it showed such promise.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, London's Termini, Politics, Shoreditch, The City, Transport

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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Filed under 18th century, Bloomsbury, Booze, Camden, Clubbing, Current events, Fashion and trends, Film and TV, History, Literature, London, Markets, Shopping, Soho, The City, Weird shops, 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?

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

Good Friday? I’ll say!

Happy Easter, chums. I hope the weekend finds you well. I am fine. At the time of writing, it’s Good Friday and I’ve just come back from a rather unexpectedly pleasant day out which was, I feel, in the true spirit of psychogeography.

I mean, it was a lovely sunny day outside, and as it was a four-day weekend, I was feeling rather chipper. I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do, so I thought I’d explore the canals around Limehouse a bit more. Alas, when I got to Bank, I discovered that the Docklands Light Railway wasn’t running. Yes, I know, I know, could have seen that when I started the journey, but that’s not how I roll.

So, vaguely at a loss, I decided to just go for a wander. I broke the surface (not literally) and wandered vaguely North-East through Leadenhall Market. This place, pictured right, is an absolutely gorgeous Victorian shopping arcade. During the week it houses a food market, but at weekends is rather peaceful – I have yet to sample the weekday wares, alas. You may know it from the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which it appeared as the area around Diagon Alley. I got the impression Chris Columbus was going for the Bridget Jones’ Diary school of London film making, in which London is a magical place that hasn’t quite moved out of the Victorian era.

Heading out beyond Liverpool Street, I came upon Petticoat Lane market. I’ve never been here before, and I must admit that I’d never really thought about going there before. I’d heard of it, but had no especial desire to visit. It’s not one of the top tourist destinations, and as such doesn’t cater to tourists. It’s primarily a clothing market, which is great if you are me. However, I do have to say that there’s a lot of duplication between stalls – if you’ve seen one selection of shirts, you’ve seen them all. The market has historically been a place of dubious legality, only becoming official in 1936, but despite this and the lack of tourism, it remains a firm local institution. While I wouldn’t go out of my way for it personally, it’s worth a look if, like me, you get stupidly excited about clothes.

Speaking of places where one can get stupidly excited about clothes, Brick Lane is very nearby, and so I made a beeline that way. With it being a bank holiday and thus less crowded than usual, and with the sun out, it was an utterly delightful experience. Sadly, at present, I find myself having to hold the purse strings – I’m moving house shortly, you see. And so it makes perfect sense that the universe should choose this point to taunt me with an incredible stripy blazer in black, red and grey (which I could totally pull off, I’m telling you) and a pair of Chelsea boots in exactly the style I’ve been looking for. Sadly, I could afford neither of these. Not even in the “can but shouldn’t” way. Instead, I consoled myself with a bagel, and now my fingers smell indelibly of chopped herring.

It was at this point that a teenager told me to get a haircut. I have thus out-fabuloused both the teens and the Shoreditch kids, which I believe is what is termed “bi-winning.”

This being done, I decided to finish my journey by walking up City Road to Islington. Wandering around Camden Passage, I came across one of the most amazing canes I have ever seen. It had a silver skull-shaped handle with a jawbone that doubled as a cigar cutter. But sadly it was £150, which I really, really, really cannot afford. Finally, I know the pain of unrequited love.

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Filed under Current events, East End and Docklands, Fashion and trends, Geography, Islington, London, Markets, Photos, Psychogeography, Shopping, Shoreditch, The City, tourism, Weird shops

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?

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