A penny for your thoughts

Penny frontPenny obverse

[G]enerations of schoolboys have searched through their change in the vain hope of finding one and in August of this year on the internet auction site eBay a 1933 penny bearing the head of King George V surfaced. Experts have always worked on the assumption that only seven such coins were minted and, if genuine, this one would have been worth at least £80,000. Two versions to the coin were struck and it is thought that four had a slightly different image of the King in preparation to an updating of his likeness on all coins. These are particularly valuable.

The Royal Mint had no plans to make any pennies in 1933 because there were already plenty around, however, a small number were produced following requests for a commemorative coin and experts have always worked on the basis there were seven. Of these, three were placed by the King under the foundation stones of buildings, two were presented to the British Museum and two found their way to private collectors. In September 1970, during building work, one of the coins was stolen from the cornerstone of the Church of St Cross in Middleton, Leeds and rather than risk a further theft, the Bishop of Ripon ordered that another coin buried at St Mary’s Church in Hawksworth should be unearthed and sold.

Today the Mint Museum, British Museum and the University of London each hold one of the coins, with three in private collections.

Now tonight as the Nation’s attention is focussed on England’s most famous clock it is worth recalling an urban myth that has again resurfaced following the eBay auction of the rare penny.

The clock keepers of Big Ben have used pre-decimal pennies stacked on the pendulum of the clock to act as weights to help regulate it since 1859, when the clock tower was completed and the first strikes of its 13.7 ton bell, nicknamed “Big Ben,” were heard. Adding or taking away coins effects the pendulum’s centre of mass and the rate at which it swings, adding just one penny causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

There is a long and historic relationship between Big Ben and the UK’s coins and few people realise the technical role that old pennies have played inside the clock. Now as part of Big Ben’s 150th anniversary celebrations three of the 10 coins in use have now been replaced with a £5 crown – produced as part of the Royal Mint’s collection to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics – which features Big Ben’s clock face.

There is a possibility, although slim, that one of the 1933 coins has been used in this way. Now the clock keepers of the Palace of Westminster intend to keep hold of the old pennies in case they need to be returned to the pendulum at a future date.

So as you watch Big Ben for the correct moment to celebrate the New Year, a penny might, just might, be up there, the value of which could make your New Year wishes come true.

Zil Lanes

Today’s post comes with a health warning, before reading further please hold on to something to steady yourself, or better still sit down.

It has taken east Londoner Paul Charman two years using the Freedom of Information Act to bring to our attention just what we signed up for when London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics and it makes sobering reading.

[D]on’t expect to find an available hotel room for the duration of the Games, London has to provide the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”), staff and officials with 40,000 hotel rooms including 1,800 four- and five-star hotel suites, ensuring the Dorchester, Grosvenor House and London Hilton are already booked solid, in addition an Olympic Village for athletes is being built in east London at a cost of £325 million.

Dedicated traffic lanes nicknamed “Zil Lanes” from Soviet Russia will provide 250 miles of traffic free travel – even the Royal Family doesn’t enjoy that privilege – and one lane stretches from London to Weymouth to facilitate access to the sailing events. Using those Zil Lanes (no buses, bikes or taxis allowed) will be 500 air-conditioned limos, complete with uniformed drivers.

All advertising for the duration of the Games can only contain material approved by the IOC, so unless you are a sponsor to the Games your product may not see the light of day in London. Even spectators may not wear clothing advertising a non-Olympic sponsored brand, so forget wearing your football stripe to east London. Journalists and photographers are not allowed signage of any kind, and so if a photo-journalist used a Nikon camera and if Nikon is not on the approved list, tape will have to be placed over the camera’s identity. London police have to be made available to enforce any infringements to these draconian requirements, so for the duration of the 2012 Games most of London will remain a State within a State with many of our rights and freedoms subservient to the requirements of the International Olympic Committee.

Every lamppost in the Capital looks to have hung from it what the IOC call pageantry, and because French is the Olympics’ second language expect the “pageantry” to appear in England and French.

This post can only be a taster for what is expected by the IOC, if you still have the need for more information to what London has signed up for, read the excellent article by Ed Howker and Andrew Gilligan in the Spectator.



Christmas History Trivia

Victorian London played a massive part in how we celebrate Christmas today.

William Sandys published Christmas carols and Christmas plays; Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol; Sir Henry Cole invented Christmas cards; Thomas J Smith invented the Christmas cracker; and Prince Albert encouraged us all to put Christmas trees in our homes, like good Germans. It is a custom we all practise today.

[T]hroughout the Middle Ages a midwinter festival associated with Christmas was celebrated with feasting, dancing, games, boozing and general merriment. Things ran into difficulties from the Reformation, particularly with Puritan elements, whereby many Protestants saw Christmas as being either a pagan or Popish celebration. Christmas was actually banned by a Puritan-dominated parliament in 1647. Protests and riots followed, notably in Canterbury.

Matters improved throughout the Georgian period, but by the early 19th Century, Christmas as a celebration was once again in decline.

Then, in 1833, London solicitor and antiquarian William Sandys published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, comprising 80 carols which included classics such as The First Noel and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen. He published an updated version, called Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music, in 1852. In addition, Sandys wrote several Christmas plays and other Christmas-related works.

Charles Dickens. As we all know, he wrote A Christmas Carol, which was published on 19th December 1843. The effect of the book on the revival of Christmas cannot be underestimated. Apart from adding to the language of Christmas, with scrooge, bah, humbug and all the rest of it, the book revived the Christmas tenets of family, good cheer, feasting, gift-giving and charity. The phrase Merry Christmas was pretty much invented by Dickens.

Christmas cards were first produced in London by Sir Henry Cole in 1843, the same year as A Christmas Carol was published. Sir Henry was instrumental in introducing the penny post a few years previously, so we can see where the shrewd fellow was going with this one. Themes on early cards were celebratory rather than religious.

Christmas crackers were invented by a sweet manufacturer called Thomas J Smith of London in 1847. Whereas we now have a toy inside the cracker, Smith originally used one of his sweets. He came up with the idea of the message inside and the explosion on pulling the cracker.

The Christmas tree is a German innovation which was introduced to Britain by Queen Charlotte, consort of George III. Prince Albert further promoted the use of Christmas trees, since when they became a fixture in the British home. The spruce Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is a thank-you gift to the people of London from the people of Oslo for British assistance in defeating Germany in World War II. The tradition began in 1947. The plaque reads:

This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.

Christmas Day was always a customary as opposed to a statutory holiday having the same rest-day status of Sundays. It only reached the statute books under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971. Boxing Day was established as a public holiday a full century earlier under the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 and is a peculiarly British tradition, only really celebrated in Britain and Commonwealth countries.

Copyright ©2010 London Historians Ltd. Registered in England No. 07325071

My thanks go to Mike Paterson for permission to reproduce Christmas History Trivia which appeared on his London Historians blog. London Historians was launched in August 2010 as a club for Londoners who’d like to learn more about their city’s history. They will be organising visits, talks, walks, social events and discounts to selected historical attractions and exhibitions. The site features a ton of useful information to give you a single launch pad to everything you want to find out about London’s history. Members are invited to contribute information and reviews to the site, if you like reading about London’s history you won’t be disappointed by following this link.

Good Moaning

Sid James

[C]ary Cooper the professor organisational psychology at Lancaster University – no doubt taking time away from encouraging his students to man the barricades in Parliament Square – has concluded that the ‘Brits like to enjoy a good moan’.

According to a survey of 4,000 people, we complain for eight minutes a day. Good Brief! Only eight minutes a day, what a strange world it must be in the organisational psychology faculty at Lancaster University (no I hadn’t heard of that esteemed branch of higher learning either).

In my world I come down to breakfast after my wife has had 30 minutes to read the Daily Mail. Ken Clarke’s idea of inspired genius to allow knife wielding yobs off with a slap on the wrist prompts a rather lively debate before my first mouthful of cereal has reached my lips, I seem to recall. My wife then goes on to inform me that I’m donating £300 to bail out the Irish – apparently we export more ‘stuff’ to Ireland than anywhere else. I can’t afford the stuff, but my money is going to Ireland so they can buy it. Thinking my blood pressure can’t rise any further I head for the door to start a day’s work. “Oh! By the way the coalition are building a new aircraft carrier to replace the Ark Royal they have scrapped, but they haven’t any planes to fly from its deck”, my wife informs my retreating back. I can ignore that comment, she’s just trying to ruin my day, and even Gordon Brown in his most insane moments as Chancellor wouldn’t have done that.

I drive my taxi through the chicanes thoughtfully provided by the utility companies, half a million holes in London’s roads this year and counting. Not a workman to be seen, still mustn’t complain, they don’t in Lancaster.

Arriving at Paddington Station where the police have thoughtfully parked their car near the exit while they have a cuppa causing a half mile tailback, I pick our trade newspaper. What this! “Bicycle Clips” Boris plans to scrap all cabs over 15 years old, I’m informed. Far better to release all those dangerous metals locked into my old cab, than offend Europe with my polluting Euro 3 emissions. Oh Well, that’s knocked a few thousand from my cab’s value, maybe the Irish can have my worthless cab in lieu of the £300.

At last a passenger gets into the cab, completely ignoring my cheery, albeit forced, greeting of good morning.

Bang, the tip up seat crashes into the partition as he removes his dirty feet from it, why didn’t the manufacturers just put in recliner chairs so these slobs could really feel at home?

While driving my way around London’s streets I speculate, will my homecoming be greeted with a letter from a London council informing me of a traffic violation, or is it to be a Red Letter Day, without the need to help fill that council’s coffers, Victor Meldrew had it easy, he should have been a London cabbie.

Some find me curmudgeonly, even accusingly me of being a Luddite (why wouldn’t I want to change my cab every three years). To my passengers and you dear reader I say it’s simply the moaning that helps keep me sane.

The French, they have their Gallic shrug, while our contribution to European culture is a good whinge, it suggests our subliminated anarchic streak, our desire to overthrow the political correctness that’s pervading our lives, and mourning the loss of common sense and courtesy.

Whinging in short is a person’s daily attempt at rebellion, in fact we English excel at it and it should be a source of pride and not shame that we lead the world in this field. And if you are a stoic London taxi driver, you’re really just not trying!

It would seem according to researchers at Bristol University, that since writing this article I have put on weight. According to their findings, distractions such as playing games or checking e-mails, make it harder for us to remember what we have eaten. This absent-mindedness stops us feeling full, and sends us reaching for snacks. It is thought that our memory of what we have eaten plays a key role in dampening appetite – now did I have that fried Mars Bar, or didn’t I?

London’s smallest square

As Westminster Council spends thousands of pounds turning Pall Mall into a dual-carriageway racetrack, parts of St. James’s remain an oasis of peace and calm. Thought to be the smallest public open space in London, Pickering Place is perhaps most famous for being the location of the last public duel in England. This gas lit courtyard, which until 1812 was known as Pickering Court is adjacent to some of London’s most famous clubs.

[A]n appealing vision of two fiery young blades slipping out of White’s to settle an old score over their honour can be imagined here in this secluded irregularly shaped paved square.

Approached from St. James’s Street through a narrow 18th century oak-panelled tunnel which lies alongside Berry Brothers and Rudd, thought to be Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, having traded from the same shop for over 300 years. Berry’s was established in 1698 by the Widow Bourne, whose son-in-law, James Pickering built Picking Court as it was then known in 1731. By 1765, at the “Sign of the Coffee Mill”, Berry’s not only supplied the fashionable Coffee Houses (later to become Clubs such as Boodles and Whites) but also began weighing customers on giant coffee scales. Records of customers’ weights, including those of Lord Byron, William Pitt and the Aga Khan, span three centuries and continue to be added to, to this day. Their extensive cellars running under Pickering Place and down Pall Mall store over 200,000 bottles. Today members of the Berry and Rudd families continue to own and manage the family-run wine merchant.

Texas LegationThis tiny Georgian alleyway and courtyard has another secret, in that Texas (yes that one!) was once a republic and had its own Legation in London. The Republic of Texas covered modern-day Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming and existed from 1836 to 1846 when it was annexed by the United States. Its Legation had their office in the premises of Berry Brothers and Rudd.

Other residents have been the author Graham Greene who kept a set of rooms overlooking the courtyard and Lord Palmerston who lived here for a time, a stone bust commemorates the former Prime Minister’s property.

Not surprisingly St James’s has the highest concentration of listed buildings in England, with nearly 60 listed Grade I and Grade II* buildings, and perhaps a 100 more listed Grade II, and it is this fact that Picking Place and its neighbours manage somehow to able to cling on to its little eccentricities and charms.