Harry at Highcliffe

Recently in an idle moment I was reading a post entitled ‘So what brings you here’ from one of my favourite London bloggers, who questioned the perverse searches people made to land on her blog.

This got me to investigate whether unusual search terms had been used to choose CabbieBlog. Alas, as I might have expected, many were asking about aspects of cabbie life.

[S]orry, my working day is much the same as yours, except you spend more time taking to strangers. And no, I’m not saying how much a cabbie earns. But what was by far the highest non cabbie related search term
– at 450 – was Harry Selfridge. Which brings me to my Open House visit this year.

On holiday in Dorset we visited Highcliffe Castle near the picturesque town of Christchurch which is like a throwback to the 1950s with its quaint Art Deco cinema. The ‘behind the scenes’ tour of Highcliffe Castle nearby, where at his most flamboyant (and reckless) London storeowner Harry Selfridge once lived.

Listed as Grade I and the most important surviving house in the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture you might have though this beautiful building with views across the sea to The Needles was kept in pristine condition.

Built between 1831-1836 and decorated with medieval French masonry shipped across the Channel from ruined Les Andelys manor house. Known as the King’s Oriel, Highcliffe Castle’s most prominent window had lit the room where Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre, died after being wounded in the siege of Rouen in 1562. Beside him knelt his son, who became the first Bourbon King of France, Henri IV.

Highcliffe’s ancient stained glass has looked down on many luminaries: King Edward VII, Kaiser William II, William Gladstone, and Nancy Mitford before Harry Selfridge took out the lease.

Within 6 years with Selfridge’s fortune in terminal decline Highcliffe Castle passed on to a number of private individuals before being used as a children’s convalescent home.

By 1953 it had become a seminary for the Roman Catholic priesthood. The stone double staircase from the grand hall was removed to create a chapel and a new kitchen installed. This was the start of Highcliffe’s decline.

Sold again in 1967 to three local businessmen who wanted to re-develop this prime piece of real estate. A fire just before the sale failed to convince the authorities that Highcliffe Castle should be demolished due to its Grade I listing .

Harry-2 Highcliffe’s kitchen

Another fire the following year and exposed to the weather and vandals, the castle deteriorated into a ruin. For two decades the derelict Castle was seldom out of the local news as controversy raged over whether it should be pulled down or saved. Nationally, concern about its fate was voiced by organisations such as English Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society, the Victorian Society, the Buildings at Risk Trust and SAVE Britain’s Heritage, as well as prominent architectural historians.

Compulsory purchased in 1977 and now surrounded by a security fence (something that should have been done decades ago), the castle was put a further risk following storms of early 1990 when trusses of the great hall collapsed.

A £2.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has allowed this beautiful building to open as a visitor centre and repairing the stonework won the prestigious Stone Federation Award described as ‘a text book example of great care and skill’.

Unfortunately two further bids for Lottery funds have been unsuccessful and much of the building remains just a shell. Exciting plans as a stained glass workshop and opening the kitchen has had to remain on hold until further funds can be obtained.

Harry-1 Harry Selfridge’s grave

As for Harry Selfridge, his forgotten grave, like his castle is left in a dilapidated and sorry state just across the road from Highcliffe Castle in St. Mark’s Church.

Picture Highcliffe Castle by Mike Searle via Wikimedia Commons.

Hanway’s pernicious brew

Hanway Street is a narrow street connecting Oxford Street with Tottenham Court Road and is named after Major John Hanway the developer whose eccentric nephew dared to invade the rights of coachmen. This ancient lane can be traced back to the time of Henry VIII, first known as Hanover Yard then named Hanway Yard. By the 1740’s it was developed and closely associated with coaching inns situated at this busy crossroads, it later was renamed Hanway Street.

[T]he enterprising Major’s nephew was an interesting individual. After the death of his father, the result of a riding accident, Jonas Hanway at the age of 16 was sent to live with his uncle. The next year his uncle, keen to be rid of his charge, young Jonas was apprenticed as a merchant to an English factory in Lisbon.

It was here, during his 12 year stay that he developed eccentricities in dress and views. After a failed love affair he enjoyed the company of reformed prostitutes and against the custom of the day, would tip servant girls.

Returning to London he planned to lead an expedition to Persia to assess the trading of English broadcloth for Persian silks. Ambushed in Russia, with all his goods stolen, he was forced to escape in disguise.

The indefatigable Jonas then spent 5 years trying to recover his trade before returning to London in 1750. Here he developed his most famous eccentricities, always carrying a sword long after their use had fallen from fashion. He would wear flannel underwear and several pairs of socks to ward off ill-health.

He wrote an essay on tea, claiming it blackened one’s teeth, and which he considered the ‘flatulent liquor . . . pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation’ . . . causing ‘men to have lost their stature and comeliness, women their beauty and chambermaids their bloom.’

Having failed to popularise the use of stilts as a way of sidestepping the muck and grime that covered 18th century streets, his use of an umbrella which were only used by ladies to give shade and as a fashion accessory would bring ridicule but prove a useful shield against mud and stones hurled by mischievous boys.

The umbrella of Hanway’s, which at the time was called a portable room, could not be furled (it would be another 20 years before a folded version would be seen), and carrying one in the crowded streets of London proved unpopular not least from the coachmen and chairmen who carried sedans.

As with today they regarded rain as a boost to their earnings. It was recorded that Hanway underwent:

All the staring, laughing, jeering, hooting, and bullying; and having punished some insolent knaves who struck him with their whips as well as their tongues, he finally succeeded in overcoming the prejudices against it.

The umbrella shop James Smith & Sons a short walk from Hanway Street has his portrait hanging in their shop, the first Londoner who owned an umbrella.

Hanway died at his home in Red Lion Square on 5th September 1786. During his life he published 85 works, many about improving the lot of the poor. Hanway’s Act, put on the Statute Book in 1762, required all London parishes to keep records of children in their care. He was governor of the Foundling Hospital and donated £50 to their cause.

In 1788 a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, the first ever commemorating charitable deeds, for his philanthropic work.

The Finger of Blame

On the night of 26th June 1902 petty thief Harry Jackson broke into a billiard room situated where King’s College Hospital now stands on Denmark Hill and pocketed some balls. He left behind a grimy thumb print on the newly-painted windowsill and in so doing British legal history was made.

The billiards room’s parlour maid pointed out Jackson’s print to Detective Sergeant Collins, who duly photographed it.

[A] few months later Jackson was caught lurking on the roof of another billiard room at a Brixton pub carrying with him a bag of tools.

In court DS Collins argued that the print found at Denmark Hill matched one taken from Jackson after his arrest. The accused, who clearly had a thing about billiard balls, simply said in his defence “I know nothing”.

The jury thought Jackson did know something, he got 7 years and British criminal history was made. The first person convicted using fingerprints as evidence.

In the past the police had used the Bertillion method of distinguishing crooks, by measurements of the body: size of head; ears; arms; fingers; and feet. When Scottish missionary doctor Henry Faulds approached Scotland Yard in 1880 with the idea of using fingerprints as evidence he was dismissed as a crank.

Others agreed, after Harry Jackson’s conviction ‘A Disgusted Magistrate’ wrote a letter to The Times:

Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organisation, will be the laughing stock of Europe it if insists on trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on their skins.

Assistant Commissioner Edward Henry of the CID at Scotland Yard didn’t agree with Disgusted of the Bench. The previous year he had set up the Fingerprint Branch after reading of successful convictions for murder in Argentina and India based on fingerprint evidence.

But it would be another 3 years before fingerprints were used as evidence in a British court. This time for a far more serious offence than the hapless serial billiard ball thief.

In Deptford at 7 o’clock in the morning of 27th March 1905 Thomas Farrow was yet to open the paint shop that he managed when he heard a knock and opened the door. Entering the shop his assailants were not interested in purchasing 5 litres of brilliant white, but demanded the week’s takings due to be collected later that day.

Thomas died at the scene after receiving at least six blows to the head from a crow bar, his wife, found still in her bed, was to die 4 days later from similar injuries received.

A pair of milkmen described seeing 2 men coming out of the paint shop, but were unable to subsequently identify them. Another witness had seen two men running down the High Street and recognised one as Alfred Stratton.

The crime had left police with a dilemma, no sign of forced entry, no murder weapon and no reliable eye witnesses, with only Alfred’s girlfriend’s statement that he had returned home with money and smelling of paraffin.

The only conclusive evidence was a left thumbprint left in sweat on the cash box which matched Alfred Stratton. He was arrested and put on trial with his brother at the Old Bailey, although the case was weak and circumstantial.

Not only were the Stratton Brothers in the dock also on trial was the science of fingerprinting.

Giving evidence, Detective Inspector Charles Collins (note the promotion) told the jury:

At Scotland Yard we have now between 80,000 and 90,000 sets of finger prints, which means between 800,000 and 900,000 impressions of digits. In my experience I have never found any two such impressions to correspond . . . I found that Alfred’s right thumb corresponded with the mark on the cash box and I prepared for the purpose of comparison an enlargement of the mark upon the cash box, and one practically on the same scale of the right thumb of Alfred . . . I have indicated by red lines and figures eleven characteristics in which those two prints agree . . . I did not find any characteristic which is visible in the print on the cash box which does not agree.

It took the jury 2 hours to find the brothers guilty of murder and on 23rd May 1905 they were hanged.

Meanwhile Harry Jackson was still detained at His Majesty’s pleasure dreaming of the day when he could resume stealing billiard balls again.

If you want a more detailed (and grizzly) account of the Stratton Brothers crime it can be found at MurderMap.

The London Grill: Mark Mason

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

Mark Mason

[B]orn in the Midlands in 1971, Mark Mason moved to London when he was 20. Over the next 13 years he sold Christmas cards in Harrods, made radio programmes for the BBC and busked outside Eric Clapton gigs at the Royal Albert Hall. He also published three novels, several books of non-fiction including Walk the Lines, and wrote for publications as diverse as The Spectator and Four Four Two. His latest book Move Along Please is his account of the 1200-mile journey, during which he realises that your home country is often the one you know least. Combining the same mix of observation and trivia with which his Walk the Lines captured London, Mason creates a paint-by-bus-numbers portrait of Britain. He continues to do some of these things, though has now defected to Suffolk, where he lives with his partner and son.

Move along please What’s your secret London tip?
The tour at Lord’s. Even if you don’t like cricket the pavilion’s beauty will knock you out (it’s now a listed building.) Do the tour on a non-matchday and you even get to visit the dressing rooms and the Test Match Special commentary box.

What’s your secret London place?
Gresham College – brilliant free lectures on everything from quantum physics to the London Underground

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
Pedestrians who walk slowly along, come to a complete stop, or perform U-turns without warning. Do any of those as a driver and you’d be banged up.

What’s your favourite building?
Impossible to choose – but let’s go for the Royal Exchange. Apart from the fact it’s stunning, it perfectly symbolises London’s genius for reinvention: one-time trading floor, now a fantastic café and bar. (Though in a continuity vein, the rents from its luxury shops still fund Gresham College, as they have done for centuries.)

What’s your most hated building?
Westfield Shopping Centre.

What’s the best view in London?
The bar of Ye Olde Mitre off Hatton Garden just after they’ve put my pint of Guinness on it.

What’s your personal London landmark?
One Canada Square – my first London home was in Shadwell, just down the river from it, and my major memory is of the flashing light at the top. Later I learned from a brickie that his mate had laid one of the bricks at the top of the building 10mm higher than the others, so he could say he’d laid the highest brick in Europe.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
Film: The Long Good Friday, book: Money by Martin Amis, documentary: The London Nobody Knows presented by James Mason (delightfully surreal)

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
Posh night out: The Wolseley . . . great value: The West End Kitchen (Panton Street, just off Leicester Square)

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Simply walking round. London’s the best human zoo in the world. One guy I passed as I walked the Victoria Line was saying into his mobile: ‘It’ll be an hour and a half before I’m in Romford, Matilda. If you’re going to have a bath, have a bath now.’

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

Beavering away

Before CrossRail cabbies would pass the rear of Henry Heath’s Hat Factory as they negotiated the ‘Dirty Dozen’ twelve roads that once connected Regent Street with Tottenham Court Road.

I’ve often glanced at the decorated tradesmans’ entrance of his factory in
Hollen Street [left] – the richly decorated back entrance while the customers entered his shop at 105-109 Oxford Street.

[B]oasting of his contribution to ‘rational dress’ with a Royal Warrant as ‘Hat manufacturer to King Alphonso and the Royal Court of Spain’ Henry Heath proudly boasted how he only sold direct from Ye Hatterie on Oxford Street and sneered at the idea of supplying other shops where customers wouldn’t experience his impeccable service.

During Victoria’s reign most gentlemen wore a hat for occupational use, or as a fashion accessory, and the top hat was literally at the top end of the titfer market. Replacing the tricorne they were known as a toppers, chimney pots and stove pipes.

In 1797 a certain Mr Hetherington, wore a top hat on the streets of London it was said that a large crowd gathered around, inducing such chaos that the gentleman was arrested and accused of disturbing the public order, the officer who dealt with the problem went on to testify that:

Hetherington had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.

Henry Heath’s hat factory once employed upwards of 70 people. An advertisement at the time asked: Why Wear an Ill-Fitting hat? They could be assured of solving this annoying sartorial problem with a visit to Henry Heath’s subjecting their craniums to a ‘successful system of Head Measurements ensure the luxury of a well-fitting Hat adapted to the form of the Wearer’s head’.

A relief of King George IV, fairly unrecognisable as a Roman emperor crowned with leaves can still be seen above one of the windows of Heath’s shop, with the date 1822 most likely referring to the firm’s establishment. Next to it is a young Queen Victoria, 1887 being the date the premises were rebuilt.

Henry Heath-1 The biggest surprise is what accompanies the two Monarchs. Four North American beaver perch on the gables of Henry Heath’s hat emporium – an unlikely place as any for the nocturnal, semi-aquatic, tree-chewing animal.

Beaver were hunted to near extinction simply because the most desirable top hat was covered with felted beaver fur. Hundreds of thousands of pelts were shipped from America.

To separate fur from the pelts, factory workers soaked the skins in a compound of mercury. Unfortunately, fumes from the chemical had the unpleasant side-effect of poisoning their nervous systems. This made them drool, tremble, talk gibberish and have bouts of severe paranoia, giving rise to the expression mad as a hatter. Heath ensured these unfortunate souls were kept well away from customers.

When beaver colonies were wiped out and less discerning manufacturers slipped rabbit fur in the mix, Victorian fashion readjusted and the reign of the silk hat began.