Category Archives: Westminster

The Leaning Tower of Westminster

So anyway, one of the significant stories this week revolving around Our Fair City is the discovery that Big Ben is, in fact, leaning. Some reacted with indifference, some with curiosity, those angry guys you see in the Wetherspoon’s at 2pm with a clenched fist of triumph. Some pointed out that technically Big Ben isn’t leaning, because the clock tower isn’t actually called that.

I have to admit, Big Ben (I am going to call it that, pedantry be damned) is not a landmark I feel any great affection for. That might be partly because I used to work opposite it, so it was just another part of my daily routine. I’m also not a huge fan of the architecture, which to my eye is just a bit too “busy,” if you know what I mean. Still, I’m not going to deny that it’s a significant part of our skyline and we’d all miss it if it was gone. After all, how would you establish that characters from American movies had arrived in Britain if not for a shot of Big Ben and a couple of bars of ‘Rule Britannia?’ Not easily, that’s for sure.

The clock tower was completed on 10th April 1858, part of Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament. The Gothic style being very much in fashion then, that was the architecture plumped for by the Powers that Be. The clock tower at the end was farmed out to Augustus Pugin, who you may see on the left there. Pugin was a noted architect of the Gothic style, and when not busy designing spooky buildings, he supplemented his income by looting from shipwrecks (I am not making this up).

After completing his design, he went mad, probably as a result of syphilis, and died in 1852. Students of architecture will note that this is a surefire way to ensure that your building includes lots of non-Euclidian geometry and possibly summons the Elder Gods, but there has been no sign of that thus far. It would certainly liven up the parliamentary debates.

As I said at the start, Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower, but the big bell, the one that sounds the bongs. The official name for the bell is the rather less interesting “Great Bell” (how long did it take you to come up with the name for that, guys?). It was originally cast in Yorkshire and brought down to London by water, its size nearly wrecking the boat carrying it. On arrival, the bell was found to be defective. It was melted down and recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, from whence most of London’s bells originate. The method used to cast “Big Ben II” was an unusual method of casting, unique at the time and now used for bells all around the world. Oddly enough, Big Ben is actually cracked, resulting in its very distinctive tone. I’m sure a campanologist could tell us more.

The origin of the nickname is disputed. The official story has it that it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the Royal Commissioner for Works at the time of the tower’s construction. Another has it that it was named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxer of the time who was himself nicknamed “Big Ben.”

The clock is famed for its accuracy. However, should the necessity arise, it is possible to adjust the swing of the pendulum and thus change the time. On top of the pendulum is a little stack of old pennies. By removing or adding a penny, the speed of the pendulum is changed. You’d expect something a bit more hi-tech, or at least legal tender, but I suppose it’s worked this long.

The most recent news, to return to the start of this entry, is that the tower is actually leaning. In fact, this is not particularly new news, and I’m not sure why it should particularly come to prominence now. Thanks to all the many different tunnels dug under Westminster since 1858, the ground isn’t as firm as once it was, and so a degree of lean is to be expected. Wake me if it actually falls.


1 Comment

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Current events, History, Landmarks, London, tourism, Westminster

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

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

Snuff and nonsense

I see Terry Pratchett is working on a book by the title of Snuff. He says this title will play on the fact that the word “snuff” has more than one meaning (I can think of three). I’m guessing the scenario will be something along the lines of “snuff becomes popular in Ankh-Morpork and there’s a murder, also some candles need putting out fast.”

Snuff, perhaps sadly (perhaps not, depending who you are) is a habit that’s virtually dead in this country. Despite the fact that smoking is becoming less and less legal, there’s no sign of any major resurgence, either. Snuff, if you aren’t familiar with it, is powdered tobacco taken nasally. It’s normally taken either in the form of a pinch between the forefinger and thumb, sniffed from there, or snorted off the back of the hand. Particularly enthusiastic snuffers may choose to snort a line of the length of their forearm. It commonly induces sneezing, but I’m informed this is more common among beginners.

Enthusiasts of the brown stuff point out that it’s probably safer than smoking, and the British Medical Journal notes that it doesn’t involve taking carbon monoxide and tar into your lungs – they note that there may possibly be a risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. I’m going to put in the fact that nicotine – the most addictive substance on the market – is still a thing with snuff. However, one thing both its enthusiasts and detractors have to admit is that the habit is so uncommon these days that it’s impossible to come to any definite conclusions about it. Still, speaking as a non-smoker, it’s a lot less annoying to the rest of us than smoking. Just don’t sneeze on me, yeah?

Snuff first appeared in the sixteenth century, but reached the height of its popularity in the eighteenth. The reason for this was largely availability. During the 1702 Battle of Cadiz, Sir George Rooke seized fifty tons of fine Cuban snuff, which was distributed among the sailors and sold on dirt-cheap at the English ports. With the habit firmly established, a kind of snuff culture began to grow up. Accessories such as the rather exciting snuff box above began to appear (and now fetch a pretty penny at antiques markets). Rules and etiquette were established for the offering of snuff – depending on the person, you could offer them the Pinch Careless, the Pinch Surly, the Pinch Politick, the Pinch Scornful, and presumably some nice ones as well. There were those who condemned the habit on health grounds, but also those who believed it could be beneficial (for instance, the Gentlewoman’s Magazine advised that it could cure sight problems).

There were many varieties of tobacco available, and more could be created by careful blending. Later in the century, artificially scented varieties became available. Ingredients used included prunes, port wine, ale and even strong cheese. Why you’d want prune-flavoured tobacco, I don’t know. Mind you, I also don’t know why you’d want to wear a periwig, but people still did it.

I think I can safely say that the most devoted snuff-taker in England is one described by H. W. Morton, one Mrs Margaret Thompson of Burlington Gardens. Such was her enthusiasm for the powder that when she died in 1776, she stipulated in her will:

I desire that all my handkerchiefs that I may have unwashed at the time of my decease, after they have been got together by my old and trusty servant, Sarah Stuart, be put by her, and by her alone, at the bottom of my coffin, which I desire may be made large enough for that purpose, together with a quantity of the best Scotch snuff (in which she knoweth I had the greatest delight) as will cover my deceased body; and this I desire more especially as it is usual to put flowers into the coffins of departed friends, and nothing can be so precious and fragrant to me than that precious powder.

She also requested that the aforementioned Ms Stuart should walk in front of her bearers, scattering snuff in their path and on to the crowd. The said bearers should the six greatest snuff takers in St James, each of whom should carry a box of snuff from which they should feel free to take as much as they fancy. Instead of black, they were to wear brown.

I think if I were a smoker, I should demand similar arrangements as an up-yours to the healthcare profession.

What really killed snuff as a habit for all but a handful of devotees was the appearance of cigarettes in the middle of the nineteenth century, again as a result of war – British soldiers in the Crimea picked up the habit from their Turkish allies. Another contributing factor may have been a fashion for white handkerchiefs – without getting too detailed, it’s a little difficult to keep a clean handkerchief when you spend your day shoving brown powder up your hooter.

Will snuff ever make a return? I rather doubt it, unless cigarettes were banned outright. Still, it is worth noting that it’s not covered by the smoking ban, so you can get a snozzfull in the pub and no one can stop you. Try it some day.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Fashion and trends, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Regency, Stuart London, Westminster

Gone for a Merton, Part II

In yesterday’s entry I talked about Merton Abbey Mills, and briefly brushed against the subject of the Abbey itself. Today, Seb drew my attention to the following:

I didn't have a decent photo of the ruins of the Chapter House, so here's a better picture of the Colourhouse - which may well have once been part of the Abbey.

This is a BBC report on the hidden ruins of the old Priory. The custodians of the site are hoping to get it World Heritage status. I support this, firstly for the obvious reason that I live near it, but secondly because it’s one of those secret, unknown parts of the city that really deserves to be better known.

Henry III. Now there was a man who understood facial hair, even if his crown did come from a Christmas cracker.

As the chap says in the video linked to above, Merton Abbey is hugely significant in English history. In its heyday, it was on a par with Westminster Abbey in terms of importance. It was founded under Henry I, Henry III held court there and mad Henry VI was crowned there. Thomas Becket (not A Becket, that’s a scribe’s error) was educated here. In 1235 the Statute of Merton was drawn up. This, the follow-up to the better-known Magna Carta, formed the basis of modern English law. Helpfully, it also defined a bastard. That guy who drives through a massive puddle, spraying you with mud while you’re waiting for a bus even though he could easily steer around it? Not a bastard, at least in law.

There are plenty of other places vying for World Heritage status. A lot of industry is represented – the Great Western Railway and other railway pioneer places are hoping to win the status, as are Chatham Docks, the Welsh slate industry and the Forth Bridge. A couple of cities are hopeful – Lincoln and York. Blackpool is also in there, though it’s hardly a city. The almost unspeakably beautiful Flow Country in Scotland and Lake District in England are on the list. More recent hopefuls include Jodrell Bank and RAF Upper Heyford. All have a claim, but in the end, there can be only one.

So what does World Heritage Status mean? Well, basically, that it becomes the responsibility of the world to preserve it. In a nutshell. There may be money. And you probably get a nice plaque or something.

London can boast several sites. Kew Gardens, Maritime Greenwich, the Palace of Westminster, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Westminster School and St Margarets Church all have World Heritage Status. Will Merton Abbey be joining them? Well, here’s hoping.

Further Reading – The “Tentative List,” as it is known, of British sites nominated this year.

1 Comment

Filed under Buildings and architecture, Churches, Current events, Film and TV, History, London, Medieval London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Suburbia, tourism, Westminster

Number Ten

Well, chums, it’s election time again. Yr Humble Chronicler must confess to being uncertain who to vote for. I have no confidence whatsoever in the major political parties and that nice Mr Saxon isn’t running this time (what happened to that guy, anyway?)

I’ll probably just end up writing an obscene message on the ballot paper. Why don’t we have the “None of the above” option like they do in Australia?

Well, I suppose I might as well write something vaguely politics-related. So let’s talk about Downing Street, shall we?

Westminster has been the home of British politics, one way or another, since the 11th century. The misprint-inviting King Cnut was believed to have been resident here during his reign, long before it was even called Westminster. At that time, it was known as Thorney Island for two very obvious reasons. Firstly, it was thorny, secondly, it was an island. Originally simply a royal residence, the Palace of Westminster was sited where it was simply in order to have access to the river – then by far the quickest way of getting from place to place. Under Henry VIII, who had just acquired some fancy new digs from Cardinal Wolsey at Whitehall, its function became primarily a meeting place for Parliament. In 1834, the much-altered Houses of Parliament were burnt down when a clearout went horribly wrong (we’ve all been there, amirite?). Despite William IV’s suggestion that Parliament move to Buckingham Palace, the new house that he hated, Charles Barry’s new Gothic-style buildings were constructed at Westminster. John Soane’s proposal for a neo-Classical building (which can be seen in his house) was turned down, despite Soane’s work on the old buildings.

So that’s a brief history of Parliament at Westminster. From this, we may conclude that a) tradition was important and b) monarchs saw Parliament as a handy way of filling houses they didn’t want any more.

Sir George Downing in an extremely pimp outfit.

As for Downing Street, that was built in the early 1680s by Sir George Downing, a deeply shifty figure described by Samuel Pepys as a “perfidious rogue” – and not in a good way. He was undoubtedly a capable politician, but he was also something of a turncoat when it suited him – he served under both Cromwell and Charles II, claiming to the latter that he had been undergoing some sort of incredibly long moment of madness. He also made a heinous amount of money in property, although I suppose it would be churlish to hold that against him.

Sir Robert Walpole in an extremely pimp coat.

Number 10 Downing Street, as we know it today, was originally three houses. The house behind Number 10 was owned by the Crown from 1733 and, by coincidence, the Crown also had a lease on Number 10 itself at the time. These, together with the house next door (owned by the delightfully-named Mr Chicken) were given to Sir Robert Walpole by King George II in gratitude for his services. Walpole was not technically the first Prime Minister, as the title didn’t exist as such, but as near as dammit. His actual titles were First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. He was offered these titles in 1721, in large part due to the fact that he was one of the few major politicians not to have played some nefarious part in the notorious South Sea Bubble, and held office for 21 years. If you assume him to be the first Prime Minister, that also makes him the longest-serving Prime Minister.

Back to the address. Walpole semi-refused George II’s gift. He said that he would take it on condition that it was a present to the First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally. George agreed. The three houses were joined together to form the massive residence that exists today, and they have been the traditional home of the Prime Minister ever since.

In fact, passing time would show the houses in Downing Street to have been rather badly constructed, prone to subsidence. Few of the Prime Ministers (or First Lords, or whatever) actually lived there – in any case, most of them already had much nicer houses of their own. It was only really in the mid-19th century that it became effectively de rigeur for Prime Ministers to actually live there.

The present Number 10 is not, technically, the original building given to Walpole. Further architectural problems were becoming evident throughout the 20th century, and in 1960 the whole lot was pulled down and replicated on site with better foundations using as much original material as possible. Even then, there were extensive problems with dry rot in the “new” building, and work was undertaken to address this in the late ’60s and early ’80s.

One of the oddities of the current building is that, as you can see, it’s built of dark grey bricks. Except it’s not. It is, and always has been, built of yellow Kentish bricks. But what with over a century of pollution, the bricks had been stained quite black with soot. This was discovered during the 19th century rebuild when the bricks were cleaned up. In order to maintain a sense of consistency, the cleaned bricks were painted black. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, happy voting tomorrow, as long as you’re not voting for any of the people I hate.

Further viewing – If politics is depressing you, here is a video of an Italian woman singing about potatoes.

Leave a comment

Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Current events, Geography, History, London, Medieval London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, Thames, Westminster