Aquatic cabbies

Unlike today’s cabbies the London watermen were not adverse to going ’South of The River’.

In fact many were residents of the South Bank or Wapping.

In their open black boats exposed to the elements, working on the turbulent river
they were a hardy breed who ferried
people across the Thames in all weathers.

[A]s with Licensed London cabbies today they were regulated and required to wear a badge to denote their qualifications. Restricted in number and proud of their ancestry they formed a guild near Garlickhythe.

Working upstream of London Bridge it was a decent option for someone with little capital who had substantial physical strength. The rapids between the starlings of London Bridge were a particular hazard; one waterman freezing to death in 1771 after his boat became caught in ice forming under the bridge.

The papers reported:

A waterman . . . had his boat jammed in between the ice and could not get on shore, and no waterman dare venture to his assistance. He was almost speechless last night and it is thought he cannot survive long.

A week later, the papers reported:

The Body of Jacob Urwin the Waterman who was unfortunately drowned last week at London Bridge was drive up with the Tide on a shoal of Ice, and brought ashore at Monsoon Dock.

Much like today watermen would queue – or rank in today’s parlance – at various river stairs, often fighting with unlicensed boatmen, and like today questioning the safety of the interlopers.

Known for being rowdy and hurling abuse at passing craft they had curious culinary taste of ’broil’d red herring’ and ’bread and cheese and onions’. Presumably their customers would spend as little time in their company.

This manner of travel, particularly in summer, was the least worst alternative. Portuguese merchant Don Manuel Gonzales was quoted:

The pleasantest way of moving from one end of the town to the other in summer time, is by water, in that spacious gentle stream, the Thames, in which you travel two miles for six-pence, if you have two watermen, and for three-pence if you have but one: and to any village up or down the river, you go with company for a trifle.

After a 7 year apprenticeship the waterman obtained their ’freedom’ allowing him to work for his own account. But apart from the River’s hazards, a further peril awaited them.

P39524Because of their familiarity with life on water they were a target of the press gang to be taken to serve in the King’s Navy.

In 1716 the world’s earliest surviving competitive race was started which had the added bonus of immunity from the press gang for the winner.

Thomas Doggett was an Irish actor and comedian who became joint manager of Drury Lane Theatre. Every year the new journeymen would race the Doggetts Coat & Badge from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier, it was to be the beginning of rowing races on the Thames.

A pub on the South Bank at Blackfriars Bridge – Doggetts – commemorates the race and the watermen.

Picture: When ferrying passengers across the river became obsolete as more bridges spanned the Thames Georgian watermen became lighterman, above is one taken in the 1950. Picture by Organized Rage.

Sign of the silver mousetrap

When the traffic is bad there is a little cut through from Kingsway to Holborn via Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One passes the Seven Stars public house, always popular with the legal profession. It’s where barristers bring their clients for celebratory champagne or a stiff commiseratory short. Next door is one of London’s oldest jewellers; it’s not in Hatton Garden, but Carey Street just behind The Royal Courts of Justice.

[A]fter proudly proclaiming to have been in business since 1690 A. Woodhouse & Son have a sign above the door of a silver mousetrap.

At this juncture a little bit of French history is necessary. The Marquise of Fontange, a mistress of King Louis XIV lost her cap while hunting with the king. The lady tied up her hair using a ribbon in a manner that pleased him. This style of headdress became known as a fontange and the fashion quickly spread across Europe.

As with these things a simple ribbon became taller coiffure and infinitely more complex.

Despite its courtly origins fontanges were forbidden to be worn at French state occasions. But the English embraced the fashion. Georgian ladies had their hair piled up into vast sculptures built around wire frames.

A_Woodhouse_and_Son_-_The_Silver_Mousetrap_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1169610 Small pillows stuffed with wool were inserted and the assembly decorated with jewellery, lace ribbons, feathers, flowers, cow’s tail, horse hair and someone else’s human hair. The creation was rubbed with sticky pomade made from wax and beef-marrow then dusted with flour to disguise all the different hair and create a white, powdery look.

All this coiffure took a painfully long time so ladies tried to make the expensive handiwork last for as long as possible – a week at least.

But this caused particular difficulty when in bed. To begin with, ladies had to sleep sitting up and many complained of headaches from the constant weight.

But more distressingly, warm, dry unwashed hair combined with diverse vegetable and animal products was a mouse’s idea of heaven.

So every night before going to sleep, ladies placed elegant silver mousetraps around their bed and beside their pillows.

It is this fashion accessory that a little jeweller proudly advertises above their shop at the sign of The Silver Mousetrap.

Mice weren’t the only price to pay for making a fashion statement. Though silver mousetraps may have stopped small mammals, ladies simply had to endure the plague of lice and other bugs that took up residence on their head.

Photo: Sign for The Silver Mousetrap Mike Quinn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Penny Licks

John Hammond got it right, when faced with his imminent demise in Jurassic Park the entrepreneur played by Richard Attenborough, expecting to be eaten by dinosaurs – due to a power cut unlocking their cages – Hammond picks up a tub of melting ice cream and proceeds to eat the whole gallon tub.

This summertime treat, taken for granted now, was first sold in London at affordable prices by Carlo Gatti. Brought up in the Italian speaking region of Switzerland, after harsh beating at school he walked the 600 mile journey to Paris to join his father running a small business selling chestnuts.

[C]afés flourished in Paris at the time offering coffee and ice cream, but Gatti was ambitious and in 1847 at the age of 30 he arrived at Dover with his wife Marie. He settled into the Italian community in Holborn, the remnants of which can still be found at the western end of Clerkenwell Road.

He started selling chestnuts from a stall but by 1849 went into business with Battisa Bolla opening a café specialising in chocolate and ice cream – a treat previously reserved for the very wealthy. Soon business was booming he would go on to exhibit their chocolate machine at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Hokey-Pokey-Seller The first of five shops was opened in Hungerford Market (about where Charing Cross Station now stands) selling penny licks – a penny’s worth of ice cream served in a shell. This take-away novelty proved so popular in summer, London’s streets were soon echoing to the cry Gelati, ecco un poco! (“ice cream, here’s a little!”) or O che poco! (“O how little!”), meaning it was cheap rather than insufficient in quantity, and led to the cry hokey-pokey! (“Penny a lump!”).

The term “hokey-pokey” soon became identified with poor-quality ice cream, however, as it was sometimes made of questionable ingredients under very unsanitary conditions, and it was not uncommon for consumers to become ill after eating it. The way it was served didn’t help either. When customers finished eating their ice cream from a penny lick, the glass “penny lickers” were returned to the vendor who simply gave them a brisk wipe with his ever present rag before refilling them for his next customers. It’s no wonder that in London, in 1899, a law was passed to ban the use of penny licks as they were believed to contribute to the spread of tuberculosis.

By 1862 Gatti had become the biggest importer of ice from Norway. He set up a fleet of delivery carts supplying ice to householders. He would go on to open many confectioners, cafés, restaurants and even the world’s largest billiards room. At  the time Gatti died in 1878 (not from eating his products) ice cream vendors peddling their treats from brightly painted carts could be found all over London.

Photo: Penny lick vendor with horse Nancy Oswald.
Photo: Edinburgh Penny lick vendor and more information on Italian entrepreneurs The Quilietti Family

The London Grill: N. Quentin Woolf

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.


[N] Quentin Woolf is a novelist and broadcaster. His short stories have appeared in publications internationally and online, in exhibitions and as part of stage performances. A passionate advocate of the benefits of peer critique, NQW has hosted Writers’ Mutual, a popular collaborative critique group for writers, for a number of years; he also runs The Writers’ Lab in East London. Having formerly presented The Arts Show for radio, NQW is now the anchor of Londonist Out Loud, a weekly podcast focusing on news, arts and history in London, UK, as well as the literary podcast The Wireless Reader. He has also appeared on BBC Radio 4. His novel, The Death of the Poet, is published by Serpent’s Tail.

DeathofthePoet_thumb.jpgWhat’s your secret London tip?
London rewards the curious. Do something you’ve never done, every day. Look down an alleyway, visit a weird museum, check out a tiny park, speak to a stranger, go to that tube stop you’ve never been to. If you’re seeing the same people and the same streets every day, you’re missing the point. Explore! The city evolves constantly – you’ll never run out of new experiences.

What’s your secret London place?
Not a lot of people know this, but there’s this one place where they’ve got all these life-size models of celebrities, made out of wax. Keep it to yourself.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
People who treat bus drivers like crap. I could never be a bus driver. I’d drive up and down the same route for about a day-and-a-half, maybe less, and then I’d feel absolutely compelled to turn left instead of right, or take a detour, or something – anything – to alleviate the monotony. Hats off to anyone who is able to stick that. These guys (of all genders) have to be patient and professional in the face of all sorts of obnoxiousness from within and without, and, yes, I know there are a few duff ‘uns, but for the most part they are unassuming, patient, reliable and uncomplaining. Some even smile. And when they don’t pick you up outside of a bus-stop, or when the bus is full, it’s because that’s how buses work. A good bus driver is good precisely through resisting acts of spontaneity. Go easy on the driver. If we are blessed with anything in London, it’s the certainty that there will be another bus along in a minute.

What’s your favourite building?
London Bridge – the old one, long gone, with the buildings on it. Heads on spikes at the gatehouse at one end, dire traffic jams in the narrow passage between the shops and houses, the odd pedestrian being blown into the Thames when the wind got up. Not to mention the fire hazard. What’s not to like?

What’s your most hated building?
The Barbican terrifies me. It’s not a complex, it’s a dystopia.

What’s the best view in London?
I did a show with London’s Air Ambulance, and up we went, and London from 1000 feet is something to behold. The only other thing in the same space is the Shard; everything else is laid out with Toytown neatness, with a river made of tin foil snaking through it. The Tower looks like a cake decoration; Tower Bridge like a Crazy Golf shot. And, even from that height, the Barbican still looks like it might suck out your soul.

What’s your personal London landmark?
That very high bridge near Highgate village. Always makes my knees go funny.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
Film: 28 Days Later (2002). The knowledge that those spooky scenes of deserted London streets were done without SFX (they were simply shot during quiet moments) blows my mind. Book: a toss-up between Mrs Dalloway (1925), with the leaden circles of sound emanating from Big Ben and dissolving in the air, and Bleak House (1853), with that image of a megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill. Documentary: The Dalek Invasion Of Earth (1964), which details how London will meet its end, in 2164.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
Starbucks. It doesn’t fall exactly into any of the above categories, but it does understand that the early 21st Century Londoner requires the ability to a) leach electricity and b) connect to wifi while c) injecting caffeine into their eyeballs. Put Starbucks in charge of the electric car scheme, and we’d have a pollution-free city (and the shakes). Screw it – the chippy in Victoria Park Village. Heart disease never tasted so good.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
In the morning I would locate some squirrels, and attempt to feed them. Within seconds, every pigeon, gull, goose, urban fox and royal swan within half a mile would descend upon me, tearing the food from my hand, the hair from my head, stealing my trousers and leaving me to flee for my life.

Shortly afterwards, bleeding profusely, I would present myself to one of our friendly accident and emergency wards, where a sympathetic administrator would greet me by name and ask whether I’d been feeding the squirrels again.

In the evening, I’d write. I am working on a novel, and there’s nothing better than shoving off to a pub with wood chairs and an open fire, setting down a few paragraphs, growing dozy, nodding off and catching alight.

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

Smutty Streets

It is reputedly the talk around the table of every Islington dinner party – house prices.

That might be so but the residents of one N1 street are probably less willing to discuss their good fortune.

According to Cumming Street flats sell for £66,000 less than nearby Britannia Street, and according to a recent survey the reason is the name.

[T]he English are apparently still a reserved lot when it comes to – how can I put it? – smutty street names. A survey of 2,000 found the embarrassing truth that 31 per cent would be put off buying a house when they would have to tell strangers they lived in Minge Lane, Upton-upon-Severn.


Cock Lane near Smithfield fared little better with 6 per cent being adverse to living there. Once known as Cokkes Lane’, it made its name as a hotbed of legal brothels. Today its popularity probably not helped by having a naked boy at one end marking the spot where the Great Fire of London was finally halted. The statue is supposed to depict the sin if gluttony (apparently one of the causes of the conflagration), but to modern Londoner’s he is using his appendage to direct the flow dousing the flames.

Other London streets shy buyers might like to avoid are:

Nuding Close SE13

Balls Pond Road N1

Slagrove Place SE13

Clitterhouse Road NW2

Beaver Close SE20

Bottom Lane WD3

Hookers Road, E17

Bonar Road SE15

Laycock Street N1

Back Passage EC1

While these might produce a smirk, some of London’s most embarrassing streets have been renamed. Pity the poor medieval estate agent trying to sell a property in Grope C**t Lane. It was after all a haunt of prostitutes. Now its been renamed to the more prosaic Milton Street EC2.

With compacted shit, entrails and rotting food what better name can you give to a street than Shiteburn Lane? This what mediaeval locals called modern Sherborne Lane EC4.

Picture: Street sign