Gallic Snug

French HouseAlthough the bar was called York Minster until quite recently most had known it as The French House and it’s had a Gallic feel since it opened in 1914. In the Second World War it became the favoured watering hole of General de Gaulle while he was organising the Free French forces. It was while using the bar as a homely headquarters de Gaulle wrote his famous speech ‘À tous les Français’ urging his countrymen to keep alive ‘the flame of French resistance’. Ironically its frontage was blown out in an air raid.

After the war the Soho bar gained its reputation as a haunt for the heavy drinking, louche bohemian, with regulars a celebrated roster of artists, writers, wits and eccentrics including Aleister Crowley.

[I]n 1984 it became clear the York Minster’s fame had spread worldwide when the real Minster (the cathedral in York) suffered a catastrophic fire and donations for repairs destined for York Minster began arriving at the bar from around the globe.

When the landlord redirected the funds north to Yorkshire he discovered the Bishop of York had for many years been quietly receiving unsolicited cases of claret intended for Gaston Berlemond a Belgian who had bought the pub in 1914.

The French House sells more Ricard than anywhere else in Britain and only serves beer in half-pints, except for on April the first, when a recent custom has been that Suggs serves the first pint of the day.

Picture from Tired of London

Information gleaned with more than a little help from my favourite London app Black Plaques: Memorials to Misadvanture:

Happy Birthday CabbieBlog

Today marks an anniversary; it is four years since CabbieBlog started.

Just let me open my presents and blow out my candles and I’ll be with you in a moment.

After sampling other platforms – including Blogger – in the previous six months I started using WordPress open source software under the CabbieBlog banner on
23rd February 2009.

[N]ow after 434 posts and over 400,000 hits I thought it was about time to say a big thank you to everybody who has checked me out and especially my thanks go out to anyone who has posted comments.

During that time I have learned a few things about blogging which I hope to share with you, whether you are a seasoned blogger, in which case please post your opinion of my summation, or if you are just thinking of starting down the rocky road of blogging then hopefully I can point you in the right direction.

Blogging is proper writing It is not easy writing, well not for me it isn’t, each post has to be researched if necessary and has to be thought out and should be reasonably grammatically accurate.

Blogging is rewarding It reaches out to regular readers and unlike regular writing or journalism you get responses instantly, the comments on your blog mean a lot, reply to them all.

Blogging is not a guilt trip. You shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to write regular posts if you are uncomfortable with that kind of discipline. One of the best London bloggers posts only two or three times per month.

Don’t mess around with your website You are just wasting valuable time rather than writing. However change it when there is a good reason. CabbieBlog was changed last year after over three years with roughly the same design.

Don’t get into blogging to make money It’s hard to make money just from writing a blog. But sometimes quite unexpected things turn up. I have done work for the BBC and I am paid for running a commercial blog, unless you are prepared to work full time on it treat it as a hobby.

Don’t write posts just to make money Focus on integrity. Be happy about what you publish, not what you think will attract readers. Forget the articles you read telling you how to ‘write killer posts’, they don’t exist.

Offer something worthwhile Will your readers take something from your writing? If they do they are more likely to return or put you on their RSS feed.

It’s not all about you Share your personality. It should be a bit of you with some context of the blog’s author. Making it personal is more engaging, but your readers don’t want to read the minutia of your life.

Find a routine I write regularly because I need some kind of discipline to my work, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t, one good post is worth ten poor ones.

Keep your posts short I’m sorry to say that dear reader but most of you on the web have short attention spans, it’s just the way it is – 500-2,000 words are sufficient. If you want to go into greater detail make a separate page with a link so readers can check it out if they wish.

Don’t worry about the stats I know that this post started with how many hits CabbieBlog had received, but worrying about stats again leads to writing ‘killer headlines’ and will reduce the quality of your writing. I check my stats every day and all the search links. Don’t do as I do, do as I say.

Branch out Write guest posts for others and invite them to write on your site. I have started a series entitled ‘London Grill’ inviting contributors to answer the same 10 questions about – well London.

Collaborate with others Send out emails inviting them to write something for your site.

Don’t give up easily Many blogs are lying there redundant. It could be that the authors are dispirited by lack of readers, but it takes time – persevere and try different things. Write for yourself.

Be nice to people Reply to all comments, write with constructive criticism, there has been enough talk lately of trolls on the internet.

Don’t get jealous Everyone seems to be bigger and better. Blogging is an ego trip – get real. A few regular engaged readers are better than thousands of casual hits.

Be controversial Give an opinion, people like to read views based on facts and good research.

Remember real life Don’t get obsessive, much of what you write about will be from real life, there is still life beyond the internet.

Other opportunities You might not make much money but in addition to work already mentioned I have collaborated on two books, one for the 2012 Olympics and another for a French travel guide to London. Your blog is your window on the world and leads to other projects.

Use your blog It says a lot about you, remember prospective employers might just check it out, use your blog wisely.

Most important Enjoy your blog, it is a creative endeavour, take pride in what you produce and how it is designed.

Photo by Los Flowers at Flickr – Knowledge is Power graffiti in Powis Mews

Lost bits of London Bridge

The first London Bridge was constructed by the Romans during their occupation of London around 50AD. It was probably a pontoon type giving a rapid overland shortcut to the Kentish ports, along the Roman Watling Street (the modern A2). After the Romans abandoned Londinium the bridge fell into disrepair as the River Thames marked the boundary between the Saxon Kingdoms of Marcia and Wessex nobody bothered to maintain the structure.

[A] later bridge was thought to have been destroyed by Norwegian Price Olaf in the service of Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred against the Danes. This act might have given rise to the nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down.

King John replaced an older bridge which had been destroyed by fire in 1136, all trace of the bridges prior to this date have been lost. Taking 33 years to build King John’s bridge boasted of having 7-storeys with shops below.

When this bridge was demolished in 1831 some features were sold off. Fourteen stone alcoves originally graced the bridge and four still survive. Two stand in Victoria Park, one stands in the grounds of Guys Hospital while the fourth, bizarrely ended up in the garden of a block of flats in East Sheen.


A coat of arms which was located above the bridge tollgate now can be seen above the door of the Kings Arms on Newcomen Street.

Kings Arms

In 1896 it was estimated that the bridge was the busiest point in London, with 8,000 people crossing the bridge by foot and 900 crossing in vehicles every hour. London Bridge was widened in 1902–04 from 52 to 65 feet, in an attempt to combat London’s chronic traffic congestion. A dozen of the granite ‘pillars’ quarried and dressed for this widening, but unused, still lie near Swelltor Quarry.

London Bridge Corbels

This bridge even after widening lasted barely a century when in the 1960’s it was decided to replace it. Instead of demolishing it one member of the body responsible for London’s bridges proposed that the bridge be sold.

Ivan Luckin – if ever a man needed to live up to the name – thought he could find someone to take the bridge off the City’s hands. This was not some 19th century granite monolith he argued; this bridge was the embodiment of London’s 2,000 year history.

Robert P. McCullock was building a city on the shores of Lake Havasu from scratch. The Colorado River had been dammed but the water at one end was in danger of going stagnant, he needed to redirect it by turning the peninsular obstructing the flow into an island, hence the need for a bridge.


McCulloch’s bridge was reconstructed around a concrete frame using the 1831 London Bridge’s stones as cladding. A few corbels from the Swelltor Quarry were sent as spares to America during this construction.

Not all the Rennie bridge made it to America. There is a piece of granite from the bridge behind the Duke of Wellington statue at Bank, commemorating his involvement with the London Bridge Approaches Act 1827.

Some pictures taken from The Great Wen by Peter Watts

The London Grill: Matthew Crampton

I challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will be ‘grilled’ with the same questions ranging from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out what Londoners really think about their city. The questions are the same but the answers vary wildly.


[M]atthew Crampton recently wrote The Trebor Story, which tells how a small sweet firm from East London rose to become Britain’s largest confectioner. It’s a fun book with hundreds of pictures of sweet wrappers and factory life, along with anecdotes, history and attacks on modern corporate capitalism. You can read extracts and see pictures at Matthew’s now working on a book about Music Hall and the First World War, and he spends his spare time fishing and singing folk songs.

What’s your secret London tip?

People are often friendlier in London than in the country. Not on the tube maybe, but wherever I’ve lived around town, I’ve known my neighbours – and I prefer the London community experience to living in a small village. There’s the same upside – good people around you – but less of the downside – bad people around you – because, generally, London’s size dilutes their poison. The bigger the village, the smaller the feuds.

What’s your secret London place?

I love introducing people to the secret garden in Regent’s Park. If you don’t know it, go look for it.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?

Apart from Borisconi, (gloriously described by arch Tory Max Hastings as ‘a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates’) – my main gripe’s the hideous property bubble that’s swept a swill of rich people into nice middling areas where once dwelled teachers, writers and cab drivers.

TrebourWhat’s your favourite building?

I’ve got strong memories of the Festival Hall from every decade of my life. As a boy I’d roll mints down the grooves in the long stair banisters. Later I’d dare to skateboard down below. In the bookshop I met my first, and last, blind date. Discovering vertigo in a box there at one of many, many concerts. A wild wedding lunch at The People’s Palace restaurant, then drunkenly seeing close friends off to Paris for their honeymoon. More recently, performing in some concerts myself, in the ballroom, the foyer and a beach hut out front. It’s a great public institution – I always feel good there.

What’s your most hated building?

Selfridges. Not for the architecture, but because it’s a palace of bling. When I hear the words ‘designer label’, I reach for my revolver.

What’s the best view in London?

Two years ago I was celebrating the Festival of Britain with a huge amateur choir and a brass band on the South Bank. We were singing Waterloo Sunset by Ray Davies. And as we sang, the sun was setting over a panorama from Westminster to Waterloo Bridge. It doesn’t get much better than that.

What’s your personal London landmark?

I’ve lived next to Hampstead Heath for twenty years of my life. There may be a few corners of it I haven’t yet seen, but not many.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?

“Hands across the ocean” growls Bob Hoskins as he welcomes some American gangsters to his crime manor of East London in The Long Good Friday. This big film is many things; not least a herald for the horrors of Thatcherism, but it’s above all a London film. Hoskins thinks he’s top dog in the top city. He, and we, get unsettled to realise this ain’t necessarily so.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?

Lemonia in Primrose Hill. Best waiters in town. An old gaff with a confident swagger. There’s always a buzz – and I always have the grilled quail.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?

This is ideal, so don’t expect geographic, temporal or climatic consistency. I wake up with a few lengths at the Parliament Hill Lido, water warm from a heat wave. Thence a bacon roll at Borough Market and onto a friend’s barge for a leisurely trip under Tower Bridge – which opens for us, of course. An idle cast from the boat hooks a salmon, fresh in on the tide, which becomes instant mid morning sashimi. Suddenly it’s December and I’m swept into a Putney pub for some winter wassailing with a bunch of folkies. I sing a song of my own, walk out on a wave of glory to find myself – summer again – at a lazy picnic deep in Hampstead Heath. Kids, kites, chicken legs. Over to Kenwood to say hello to Rembrandt, then a quick kip in the hammock on my roof terrace. Now I’m ready for the evening. Snifter in the Savoy, some squid at Sheekeys and wow, Springsteen’s playing a surprise gig at the Greennote in Camden. Midnight finds me high on Primrose Hill. Then, magically sober and alert, I spend the small hours driving round the centre of the city, the pavements still sweating from the daytime heat, the sweet sculptural rhythms of Charles Mingus on the machine. And back home to cool fresh sheets and a functioning blackout curtain. Well, you did ask.

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Over the years Harry Gordon Selfridge has had many immitators: Swan & Edgar, Dickens & Jones, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Marshall & Snellgrove but none have matched him for innovation and flair and knowing how women wanted to shop.

If you, like me, are watching ITV’s Sunday drama Mr. Selfridge and don’t want to read any plot spoilers, look away now for Harry Selfridge had a pretty colourful life.

[H]arry Selfridge was an American self-made millionaire and he did that by understanding how women shopped, he invented the phase ‘the customer is always right’ and gave his iconic department store sex appeal when his competitors were still left in the Victorian era.

What the ITV drama, Mr. Selfridge hasn’t dwelt upon, althought it is loosly based on Lindy Woodhead’s biography: Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge is his early life.

Harry was born in Wisconsin 1856, but within months he moved to Jackson, Michigan were his father had acquired the town’s general store. At the outbreak of the Civil War his father joined the Union Army rising to the rank of Major. When discharged from the army his father deserted his family when Harry was just five. Within a short time his two older brothers died, leaving Harry and his mother to cope alone.

At 10-years-old he was delivering newspapers and by 12 he was working in a local store at the same time he created a monthly boy’s magazine.

After becoming redundant at 20 as a book keeper at a local furniture factory his ex-employer, Leonard Field, agreed to write Selfridge a letter of introduction to Marshall Field in Chicago where he started as stock boy. Over the next 25 years he rose to become a partner in the company and married into a prominent Chicago family.

He invented the phrase ‘Only – Shopping Days until Christmas’ and ‘The customer is always right’. Dubbed ‘Mile-a-minute Harry’ because of his tremendous energy and fountain of ideas, he was the first person to suggest lighting shop windows at night and the first to open an in-store restaurant. He then founded his own, rival store, which he sold for a huge profit.

At the age of 50, flushed with success he determined to travel to London which, with its fusty and unwelcoming stores, was ripe for a retail revolution. On one visit to London, he had gone into a store and a snooty assistant asked what he wished to purchase. When Selfridge replied that he was ‘just looking’ the assistant dropped his posh accent and told him to ‘’op it, mate.’

Selfridge decided to invest £400,000 in building his own five-storey department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The new store opened on 15th March 1909, setting new standards for the retailing business.

Assistants were encouraged to help customers rather than patronise them, and goods were displayed so they could be handled. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Before Selfridge, cosmetics and toiletries had been hidden discreetly away at the back of the shop, considered too racy and taboo to be on display. Moving scents to the front entrance of Selfridge’s so that people entering were assailed by a cloud of sweet scents was revolutionary, and it worked like magic.


Selfridge also managed to obtain from the GPO the privilege of having the number ‘1’ as its own phone number, so anybody had to just dial 1 to be connected to Selfridge’s operators. He proposed a subway from Bond Street Station to his store that was squashed as was his idea of building as massive clock tower on the roof just like Wickhams department store on Mile End Road. His architect told him with its weight it would fall through the roof.

Selfridge was an innovator: the store sold telephones, refrigerators and in 1925 held the first public demonstration of the television. His attention to detail was legendary: he was known as The Chief and would patrol the floors every day.


Unfortunately his womanising would be his downfall. After installing his family at Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch in Dorset (the council and English Heritage have recently restored this magnificent building) he could pursue beautiful women. After his wife died in the influenza pandemic in 1918 along with millions of others that year his spending on women took on a whole new dimension.

Blue PlaqueHe also began and maintained a busy social life with lavish entertainment at his home in Lansdowne House located at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, in Berkeley Square. Today there is a blue plaque noting that Gordon Selfridge lived there from 1921 to 1929. By 1939, exasperated with his profligacy, the Selfridge’s board ousted him from the business he had created 30 years earlier. He owed £150,000 to the store and £250,000 to the Inland Revenue — around £8 million and £13 million in today’s money.

The Selfridges board removed the apostrophe when he left and cut his pension by two-thirds. He ended up in a rented flat in Putney and would often take the bus to Oxford Street to gaze at his creation. By then, his clothes were so shabby that he was once arrested as a vagrant.

In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St. Mark’s Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.

Blue plaque photographed by Simon Harriyott

Highcliffe Castle photograph by Mike Searle