The Greatest Day in our History

We’ve all had a Tardis Teaser fantasy. What moment in history would you like to be transported if you had a time machine? One point in London’s timeline worthy of consideration might be the opening of ‘The Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ or as Punch nicknamed it the Crystal Palace. Covering 19 acres with room inside to accommodate four St. Paul’s Cathedrals it was at the time the largest building on earth.

[S]tarted 160 years ago on 31st August 1850, a year earlier it had not even existed as an idea, until Henry Cole more famous for inventing the Christmas card conceived the idea after visiting the Paris Exhibition.

An open competition attracted 245 designs all were deemed unworkable. A design committee was formed having amongst their number Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and between them they produced a vast low, dark shed of a building, needing 30 million bricks. Now with only 16 months to go desperate times required desperate measures and Joseph Paxton was approached.

Paxton, born into a poor farming family in Bedfordshire, he was at the age of 20 running an experimental arboretum for the Horticultural Society. There one day he made such an impression on the Duke of Devonshire in that his strong, clear voice could be heard by the near deaf Peer of the Realm, he was offered the post of Head Gardener at Chatsworth House.

Paxton really was a boy wonder, he created one of the great gardens of England at Chatsworth with the Emperor Fountain’s raising a jet of water 290 feet into the air, a feat only exceeded once to this day in Europe; built the largest rockery in the country; designed estate villages; became the world’s expert on dahlias; produced the country’s finest melons, figs, peaches and nectarines winning numerous prizes; he ran two gardening magazines; a daily newspaper; he was on the board of three railway companies; built the world’s first municipal park, later copied to form Central Park in New York; the hot house at Chatsworth he built was so vast that when Queen Victoria visited the Great Stove, as it was called, she toured it in a horse drawn carriage.

Learning of the committee’s struggle to design a building for the Great Exhibition he doodled plans while chairing a meeting and had completed drawing ready for review in two weeks. The design broke all the criteria stipulated for the competition, but desperate times required desperate measures and after a few days of hand wringing the committee accepted them in their entirety.

Nothing, really absolutely nothing, says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than entrusting this iconic building to a gardener. No bricks, no mortar, no foundations, prefabricated from standard parts away from the building site it was simply bolted together. The build time was phenomenal in eight months, one million square feet of glass, 18,000 panes a week (one third of all the glass produced that year); 20 miles of guttering, 33,000 iron trusses and tens of thousands of planks of wooden flooring, this being tested by a battalion of soldiers marching across it. The finished building was 1,851 feet long (in celebration of the year the exhibition was held, now copied by the new World Trade Centre whose height matches in feet the year of their independence), 408 feet across and 110 feet high and spacious enough to accommodate a much admired avenue of mature elm trees.

Queen Victoria opened the exhibition on 1st May 1851 describing with some justification that it was ‘the greatest day in our history’. Open for five and a half months it attracted six million people at a time when Britain had a population of only 20,959,477. Almost 100,000 objects went on display; a knife with 1,851 blades; furniture carved from coal; a 4-sided piano; a bed which automatically tipped its surprised occupant into his morning bath; an enormous lump of guano from Peru. Newfoundland for some inexplicable reason devoted its entire stand to cod-liver oil, and the highlight of the day was a use of the elegant ‘retiring rooms’ the flushing toilets, a novelty at the time. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny each to use them, this is often given as the origin of the British euphemism ‘to spend a penny’.

Unlike its successors the Great Exhibition cleared a profit of £186,000, enough to buy 30 acres of land south of the exhibition site where the Royal Albert Hall, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal College of Art and Royal College of Music were later built.

Exhibition Gates After the Exhibition was closed the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham were we managed to burn it to the ground in 1936. All that marks its passing is the Colebrookdale Gates originally made to stand at the entrance to the north transept of the Exhibition, now moved to the entrance to Kensington Gardens beside Alexandra Gate and behind which Albert sits enthroned in his memorial, on his lap he hold a book:

The Catalogue of the Great Exhibition.

Another Cabinet of Curiosities

[U]nfortunately CabbieBlog’s first cabinet has now been filled with all manner of interesting London trivia. So as to show off my collection to visitors another one has been obtained and here CabbieBlog gives you a further London Cabinet of Curiosities:

Tube Trains Village Underground
Situated on a roof in Shoreditch High Street, Village Underground is the brainchild of the splendidly named furniture designer Auro Foxcraft, who claiming he couldn’t afford a studio decided to build his own. To do this he spent £25,000 obtaining four redundant Jubilee Underground Line carriages, craned them onto the roof of a Victorian warehouse – quite a task: they weigh around 26 tonnes each – and fashioning out of them a series of offices for writers, photographers and other arty types.

Elephants The Elephant House
On the western side of Duke Street in Brown Hart Gardens, this peculiar structure is referred to as the Elephant House; its title suggests a place where huge mammals once resided. The story is that Queen Victoria kept her elephants here; apparently Victoria acquired the elephants when she was appointed Empress of India, having received a herd of elephants as a gift from loyal Maharaja’s. These unfortunate animals were then shipped back to London and the Elephant House was built to provide the animals with some kind of comfortable habitat. The design has huge gates where an elephant could access entry and exit, and has entrance doors that have an eastern looking appearance. Unfortunately there is no evidence as to the authenticity of this story and it would appear that the Victorian architects who designed this unusual structure, were overindulging their creative minds.

Unfortunately this building has a more prosaic history; it was developed as an electricity substation in the late 1800s and so remains to this present day, generating electricity to the local Mayfair area.

Before being redesigned in 1903, the site had a communal garden with trees, benches and a fountain but had become a hangout for ‘undesirables’. The new structure therefore continued to provide residents with a communal garden while accommodating transformers below. But one other curious fact remains why is the ‘garden’ the only place in London where quarrelling is specifically forbidden by law?

Statute The mole that killed a king
This statute of William III is only there because the well-heeled residents of St James’s Square got fed up with the centre of their square used as a rubbish tip for kitchen rubbish, dead cats and scraps of timber. They wanted something in the middle to give the square purpose, rather than as a refuse dump and William of Orange seemed to good idea at the time. William’s statue was not initially popular so despite the resident’s enormous wealth, they refused to pay for it, than a merchant, Samuel Travers, bequeathed in his will funds for its completion. But the family contested the will and for the next 70 years the statute remained just on paper.

Molehill Eventually in 1806 the statute was finally completed, but there is something strange about it. A small molehill lies at the feet of Sorrel, the King’s horse. What is the molehill for? The answer is that William is said to have died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, resulting from a fall off his horse. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow.

William was the Protestant King brought to England from Holland to replace the last Catholic. King James. James’s supporters and all Jacobites then and now still toast ‘the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’. The mole that killed a king.

The saying ‘Dutch Courage’ also comes from William III’s reign. After the Thirty Years’ War British troops returned home with ‘Dutch Courage’. Soon gin distillation took place in England. King William III actively encouraged gin production and gin was sometimes given to workers as a part of their wages.

Coat Hook Secret policeman’s hook
This hook on the wall near the junction of Great Newport Street and Upper St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden is reputed to have been here since the 1870s. Probably used for holding a policeman’s cape while he directs traffic or possibly to let the garment dry after rain. As this junction nowadays is only congested with pedestrians was it a Victorian traffic hotspot? It’s a popular yarn, whether it’s true, who knows? All Cabbies on The Knowledge are expected to find it.

Requires no skill to operate


The man who invented the world’s most intrusive device described his instrument as: “The telephone may be briefly described as an electrical contrivance for reproducing in different places the tones and articulations of a speaker’s voice so that Conversations can be carried on by word of mouth between persons in different rooms, in different streets or in different Towns
. . . The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus is that it requires no skill to operate the instrument”.
[My italics]

[A]lexander Graham Bell (if ever a person’s name was better suited for his invention, I’ve yet to find), couldn’t have imagined what his invention would lead to in the 21st century or for that matter what idiots would make use of it.

So what has the latest reincarnation of Mr Bell’s invention got to do with CabbieBlog I hear you muttering amongst yourselves? Well, driving in London is becoming ever more stressful with pedestrians engrossed in using their i-phones walking into the road, then looking up with a startled expression when they see my cab bearing down on them.

Women are often accused of lacking spacial awareness, but men, sorry chaps it’s usually the male gender, that seems engrossed in their phones, and whatever they are doing on it, certainly excludes any road sense.

So when Alexander Graham Bell informed the populace that his “apparatus . . . required no skill to operate he should have added the caveat – but retraining might be necessary in the art of crossing a road, for how to talk on one’s phone and cross London’s busy roads needs a skill that many have failed to acquire.

FOOTNOTE: Around the mid 1800’s many were trying to invent the telephone, the most unfortunate was the American Elisha Gray who actually filed something called a patent caveat – a sort of holding claim that allowed one to protect an invention that wasn’t quite yet perfected – on the very day that Alexander Graham Bell filed his own, more formal patent, unfortunately for Gray, Bell beat him by a few hours.

Thanks for checking out CabbieBlog just don’t do it while crossing the road.

And thanks to Dan Forys at for permission to use his cartoon. Check it out the site is very funny.

Famous Fictional Front Doors

[L]ondon has always been a rich seam for novelists, its diverse population from every corner of the world, 2,000 year history and a wonderful varied architecture makes for works of fiction.

Here is a CabbieBlog’s illustrated list of front doors that don’t exist:

new-black-door 280 Westbourne Park Road: Remember the famous blue door that belonged to Hugh Grant’s character in the 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill? When the movie was filmed, it belonged to Notting Hill writer and director Richard Curtis, after it became such a hit (the highest grossing British film to date, in fact), Curtis cleverly sold his home at a nice profit, nice work if you can get it. The new owners became tired of all the attention their famous blue door received and auctioned it off for charity, and a nondescript black door now stands in its place.

221b Baker Street 221b Baker Street: When Conan Doyle installed his great detective at No 221 the street numbering ran no further than 85. It was renumbered in the 1930s, with former building society Abbey National landing the desirable 221. For a period, Abbey even assigned staff to answer correspondence addressed to Sherlock Holmes. In 1990, a Sherlock Holmes Museum open on the street, and despite its address being 237, Westminster Council allowed it to adopt the number 221b. All Sherlock Holmes letters, however elementary, are no handled there.

27a Wimpole Street 27a Wimpole Street: “I have often walked down this street before”. The masculine book lined study occupied by Professor Henry Higgins who takes a bet from Colonel Pickering that he can transform unrefined, dirty Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady in My Fair Lady are supposedly at this address, although in reality the premises are occupied by a doctors’ surgery.

110a Piccadilly 110a Piccadilly: Why Dorothy L. Sayer invented a fictional address for her great character Lord Peter Wimsey she inserted an ‘a’ in the address, suggesting either an act of homage to Sherlock Holmes or a sly parody. Unfortunately as a front door it remains fictional for the Park Lane Hotel ballroom occupies the site.

Cracking the Coade

Standing on Westminster Bridge guarding the gateway to south London stands the 13-ton South Bank Lion, made from London’s famous artificial stone, said to be the most durable and weatherproof of any such material so far invented. Patented by Richard Holt and manufactured in his Lambeth yard from 1720 for 40 years this stone was successfully modified in 1769 by unmarried ‘Mrs’ Coade by the addition of finely ground glass and prefired clay.

[O]ver the next 70 years Coade Artificial Manufactory as it became known, produced a range of garden nymphs, sphinxes, statutes, busts and other ornamental features for buildings, Coade stone can be found at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and on the tomb of Captain Bligh in the churchyard of St. Mary-at-Lambeth.

As it says on one of its paws the South Bank Lion was completed in May 1837 just three years before the factory closed with a loss of the stone’s precise composition formula.

Our Lion first graced the Lion brewery on the south bank of the Thames near where Hungerford Bridge now stands. Painted red and standing high over the entrance archway he even survived the Blitz. The brewery was demolished in 1949 and our Lion disappeared to emerge to grace the Festival of Britain in 1952. Two years later at the King’s suggestion the Lion was placed at the entrance to Waterloo Station.

He has only stood in his current position since 1966. When it was moved several items of interest were found in a recess in the lion’s back, they included two coins from the time of William IV and a trade card of the Coade family, so when the Lion was moved to its present site a 1966 coin and a copy of The Times for 17th March 1966 were added to the original items.

The lab boys have rather broken the myth of a lost formula for Coade Stone having recreated it perfectly in a laboratory in the British Museum.

If you want to have a go this is how you go about it:

Its manufacture requires special skills: extremely careful control and skill in kiln firing, over a period of days. This skill is even more remarkable when the potential variability of kiln temperatures at that time is considered. Mrs Coade’s factory was the only really successful manufacturer.

The formula used was:
10% of grog (see below)
5-10% of crushed flint
5-10% fine quartz (to reduce shrinkage)
10% crushed soda lime glass.
60-70% Ball clay from Dorset and Devon.

The ‘grog’ was made up of finely crushed fired items, such as pitchers (ware that has been fired but rejected due to the presence of faults). This was also referred to as “fortified clay” which was then inserted (after kneading) into a kiln which would fire the material at a temperature of 1,100 degrees Celsius for over four days.

As a further blow to his mythical status our Lion’s manhood was reworked after being considered too large once he came down from his high archway over the brewery gate.