Past imperfect

At home in a north London suburb the only evidence that Britain was recovering from war was a broken fence panel. A stray German bomber had dropped its stick on nearby railway sidings, and a stray piece of shrapnel broke the top off a feather board.

In a road where one was expected to keep a pristine garden, my father resolutely left the broken tooth as evidence of our home’s sacrifice in the war effort.

[H]aving spent my youth at a first class school staring out of the window I left at 15 without a qualification to my name. So coming to Clerkenwell at that tender age proved a working and cultural shock. As the junior apprentice one would be expected to run errands – sandwiches, sundries and ciggies – while you endeavoured to spend as long out of the office as you could get away without your absence being noticed.

Walking to a supplier in Clerkenwell Green one day (the shop is now Dans Le Noir? where visually impaired waiters serve at table while you eat in absolute darkness) I passed a tenement building with damp running down the walls, washing hanging limply from balconies and children playing outside wearing ill-fitting clothes. It was a shock, for deprivation to me was one’s inability to purchase gob-stoppers.

The tenements have been demolished and the new flats have a Yo-Sushi restaurant beneath.

This was post-war London, not the Swinging-Sixties so beloved of writers, but a monochrome of dirty ramshackle buildings brought about by decades of neglect and pollution.

Another errand was to type founder Stevenson Blake on Aldersgate Street not far from where William Caslon set up London’s first type foundry

William Caslon

Their building had been occupied by them since 1871 selling to the newspaper industry and had survived seeming intact from the Blitz. Its neighbours had not, for behind the shop was a mass of rubble stretching seemingly for as far as the eye could see with only the fire station surviving giving some perspective of the wasteland’s vastness.

The Barbican complex now occupies this bombsite.

It was to be the coldest winter for 200 years, opposite our factory were Peabody Buildings with no efficient heating or insulation. Giant stalactites of ice some 100ft in length formed on the outside pipes. The poor residents of Clerkenwell having endured 6 years of war would have no water until Easter.

The area had a cosmopolitan persona. A thriving Italian community had established itself in Clerkenwell since 1850; St. Peter’s Catholic Church, continental delicatessens and even an Italian Driving School the Scuola Guida Italiana.

We didn’t realise it at the time but post-war Clerkenwell prosperity was declining. The engineering, printing, publishing and meat and food trades left as did many of the decedents of those enterprising Italians.

The good old days?  The past was certainly imperfect. Now residents live in new or refurbished buildings. The whole area has a feel of energy about it. A major train station is being constructed at Farringdon and it is claimed that the area has the highest concentration of architects and building professionals in the world.

Tiddy Dolls

When on The Knowledge one has to go out, find and memorise ’points’, places where you might reasonably he asked to take a passenger when driving a cab.

Some points are easily forgotten while others for various reasons stick in the memory.

One such place was, for me, Tiddy Dol’s Eating House, remembered, I suppose, for its unusual name. It closed in 1998.

[M]uch missed by many. An account by Lesley Styles recalls this quintessential English restaurant in its heyday. The name has always fascinated me and reading Lucy Inglis: Georgian London: Into the Streets
I discovered that this Mayfair Restaurant was the last of many eating houses given the same name – one of which Titty Doll’s (its name slightly changed) even operated from within Marshalsea Debtors Prison and run by a prisoner and his wife.

The origins of Tiddy Doll derive from a unique Georgian street seller. Nowadays we will buy popcorn while watching a movie, for the Georgians in 18th century London it was gingerbread that was eaten while being entertained while watching a hanging or any other outside amusement.

Tiddy Diddy Doll was a celebrated baker and vendor of gingerbread who obviously had a flare for self-publicity. With his stylish clothing, a laced hat topped with an ostrich plume, a laced ruffled shirt, a white gold suit of clothes, white silk stockings and a fine white apron, his apparel was more suited to a person of high rank. This led him to become known as ’The king of the itinerant tradesmen’.

He was in attendance at every public occasion, amusing the crowds with a constant stream of humorous patter. Often he would sing his own words to the tune of a popular ballad:

“Mary, Mary, where do you live now Mary?
I live, when at home, in the second house in Little Ball Street,
Two steps underground, a wiscum, a riscom, and a why-not.
Walk in ladies and gentlemen, my shop is on the second floor backwards
With a knocker on the door
Here is your nice gingerbread, your spice gingerbread
It will melt in your mouth like a red-hot brick-bat
And rumble in your insides like Punch and his wheelbarrow.”

He always ended by singing “Tiddy Diddy Doll”, lol, lol, lol” hence his nickname.

Such was his fame in popular culture of the day that his name became linked to popular sayings relating to a person who dressed above their station e.g., “You look quite the Tiddy Doll” or “You are as tawdry as Tiddy Doll.”

gillray-tiddy-doll Perhaps part of Tiddy’s success was a cutting satirical wit used to attract customers to his gingerbread. The famous print-maker James Gillray once depicted him in, ‘Tiddy-Doll, the great French Gingerbread-Baker, drawing out a new Batch of Kings’. The print [right] shows details such as a basket in the foreground, with the heads of men and women puppets wearing crowns and holding sceptres, peeking out. The basket is labelled ‘True Corsican Kinglings for Home Consumption and Exportation’. Nearby a fool’s cap forms a cornucopia containing ‘Hot Spiced Gingerbread! All hot – come who dips in my luckey bag’ – and spilling from it are coronets, crowns, sceptres, and a cardinal’s hat.

Whatever happened to Tiddy Doll, or what his true name was, seems to have been lost in the mists of time, in the reign of George II he was one of London’s most colourful and famous characters. He appeared in Hogarth’s ‘Southwark Fair’, people dressed up as Tiddy Doll for fancy-dress parties and chop-houses carried his name into the 20th century.

England’s Rich Impact on Gambling History

There is a long history of English stereotypes involving heavy gambling, and it should be no surprise as England has a rich history of gambling. Once a hobby of the highest class of society, gambling has found its way into the world’s eye as one of the most popular pastimes of all types of people. England might not have started gambling, but it sure made it a spectacle and an exclusive club, and is a huge part of what has made gambling so popular in the modern era.

[J]ust a short few hundred years ago, the place to be in high society England was in a gentleman’s club. Many exclusive clubs existed, but a few had such renown that they live on by name alone throughout history. Two of the biggest names to remember are White’s and Brook’s, the unofficial headquarters of the Tory and Whigs parties, respectively. Men were ‘elected’ to the clubs by unanimous vote – even one ‘no’ was sufficient to deny entry. As a result, these clubs were highly exclusive and offered private areas where upper class men could socialize and gamble, without the interference of commoners.

Clubs were organized for all sorts of groups, there was even a club for drivers. Naturally, as the best clubs were frequented by upper class men looking to escape from everyday life, gambling was a huge hit and became the main focus of many clubs. Bets were wagered on pretty much anything, from births and deaths to sports or dares. Many of the more extreme bets have been immortalized by history, either because the wager itself was absurd, or the amount wagered was simply so extreme it could not be forgotten.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of crazy bets was back in the early 1800s, when Lord Alvanley replaced Beau Brummell as ‘arbiter elegantiarum’, the most socially influential person in the club. Alvanley famously bet a friend three thousand pounds over which of two raindrops would hit the bottom of a window first. Of course, ridiculous bets have been made throughout history, including a wager over who the ugliest man in Britain is.

More recently, amazing bets have been made that rival those of the past, and they are definitely worth a mention. In 2004, Ashley Revell amazingly bet his entire life’s worth on a single roulette spin, managing to pull through and double his value. He reportedly gave the dealer a hefty tip, said thank you, and returned to England, where he invested his winnings and continued on with his life. Even better, Russian Andrei Karpov bet his own wife as a last resort in a poker game, which he also lost. If that wasn’t enough, she actually left him of her own will when she found out about the bet—marrying the man he lost to.

If these outrageous bets aren’t enough for you, just remember that some people bet on events they think are ‘sure wins’, such as the football match in which Mali was down to Angola 4-0 with 11 minutes left. For the people who bet their life’s savings on Angola, only to see it slip away in mere minutes, perhaps the famous bets in history are not all that impressive.

Of course, people bet on anything and everything, and while most people make friendly bets or cling to low wagers, as they are not actually willing to risk their livelihoods, people still have a huge history of outrageous gambles. This is especially true in England, which is known for being a fan of betting. Intercasino even has a game called Pints and Pounds, which draws upon the English gambler stereotype. While the nation’s history of gambling might be known around the world, and many might not view gambling as the noblest of sports, it is something to be proud of. Many table games such as poker are becoming accepted as sports, and gambling has grown into one of the world’s leading businesses – it is all thanks to the English and their gambling clubs.

This is a Guest Post by Jackson Stiles. Jackson is a talented writer who enjoys learning about history and culture. In his spare time, he loves to travel and try new foods, hang out with his friends, and dance like no one is watching. Should you wish to be published please check out my Write a Post page.

Alaska Building

Once the haunt of ‘clerks, shavers, blubberers, fleshers, dyers, tubbers and top-hatted wing-collared aproned craftsmen’, only the entrance gates with a carving of a seal remains of the old factory, a company which once employed about a tenth of all fur workers in the United Kingdom.

The sealskin trade originated from the discovery of how to remove the ‘top hair’ or long guard hairs and flourished from the subsequent rise of sealskin products to become highly fashionable in Victorian days. The seals were originally from Antarctic waters, but later from Alaska and Canada. Unhairing, dressing and dyeing were the main processes undertaken in the factory.

[T]he factory of C. W. Martin traces its origins to 1823, when John Moritz Oppenheim set up as a fur-skin merchant in the City of London. The business that he founded passed into the hands of F.A. Schroeter, who built the Alaska Factory in 1869, and then to Charles W. Martin and Emil Teichmann in 1873. From 1880 until his death in 1889, it was Martin’s alone. Thereafter it was a family partnership until it was incorporated in 1911, but members of the Martin family continued to direct the business.

As the seal trade became insufficient to support the firm on its own, due to a decline from over-hunting, Martin’s came to deal in general furs, and in their dyeing and reconditioning. A new head office was built in Upper Thames Street, in the fur district of the City. This was near the north end of Southwark Bridge and close to Beaver House, the last London headquarters of the historic Hudson’s Bay Company, which conducted fur-trading in North America. Trade once again expanded. The Martin-Blau fur-cleaning process was introduced, and Queen Mary’s Coronation robe was cleaned by Martin’s in 1937.

AlaskaBuildingsBermondseyRebuilding of the main Alaska Factory began in 1932 to the design of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, whose contemporary buildings included the Firestone (sadly destroyed in 1980) and Hoover factories on the Great West Road, and Victoria Coach Station. The Alaska building that you see today dates from that time, with some post-war restoration, and is labelled ALASKA on the tower, where it once said MARTIN’S.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the firm had 1,100 employees. The Alaska Factory suffered a serious fire early in 1940, caused by an electrical fault, and had a narrow escape from an unexploded bomb during the subsequent Blitz.

War work was undertaken on a large scale. No fewer than 345,000 sheepskins were processed for manufacture into flying suits for the R.A.F., plus 100,000 linings for flying coats. In addition, 140,000 of the sheepskin flying suits were reconditioned for the R.A.F. and 38,000 for the U.S. air force. Among more specialised tasks were the making for the R.A.F. of 3,000 hoods with special yellow colouring for air-sea rescue identification, and bunk rugs and clothing for Mrs Churchill’s Aid to Russia Fund. Winston Churchill himself was photographed wearing a Martin’s sealskin hat.

Much of the information here, and more,  is to be found on a plaque outside the Alaska Building.

Picture: The Alaska Factory Gate, Bermondsey, SE1 John Goodall (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Picture: Alaska Buildings, Bermondsey, Southwark. Converted factory. C Ford, (CC BY-SA 3.0)