A Festival of Plague

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the last great plague to arrive in London. By the year’s end nearly 100,000 people were dead most from infection while many ‘natural’ deaths were probably unreported plague victims. As the pestilence spread houses of victims were sealed for 40 days (biblical overtones?), with those surviving occupants entombed relying on neighbours charity in supplying food from a respectful distance.

[T]here were plenty of quack cures: a pint of garlic infused milk, doctors wore frightening masts infused with herbs to keep away the miasmas; tobacco was another method employed to ward off the aromas, even children were made to light up a pipe, students of Eton college were ordered to light up or be whipped; money was immersed in a bowl of vinegar during shop transactions in an attempt to stop the spread.

Lucky charms were the order of the day to ward off the contagion; a certain Dr. George Thomson wore a dead toad around his neck; plague water from powdered unicorn horn and frogs legs; tail feathers from live chickens administered to the victims buboes were thought to draw out the poison; or as an alternative the application of a recently killed pigeon.

By the time the pandemic had run its course 68,000 Londoners had officially died from the virus. Those rich enough having obtained health certificates mainly meant the rich like Dr. Alston, President of the College of Physicians could leave London while the poor remained to await their fate. It is estimated that 100,000 died in London, incredibly one-quarter of the city’s population perished.

To mark the anniversary the Guildhall Library has on display various documents recording this momentous event. Records of medical advice given, municipal accounts, recording the fatalities spreadsheets of the dead, Bills of Mortality. The exhibition is open Monday to Friday until 11th September – admission free.


If you have contracted a desire to learn more the excellent Tales of Plague tour guides are mounting ‘A Pestilential Festival’. From Friday 4th September until Sunday 6th September music, drama, walks, talks, exhibitions, workshops and one climatic ‘Pepys Party’ celebrating London’s unconquerable spirit.

Billed as the most infectious event in the capital for 350 years it will kick off from Tower Hill on Friday 4th September with a ‘dead cart procession’. Assembling from
9.30 am for a 10.00 am start at the Tower Hill. The procession of peasants, plague doctors, wenches and rogues will weave their way up to St. Botolph’s Church, Aldgate. For the full programme of events visit: www.talesofplague.co.uk/festival

Pictures: Nell Gwyn, Samuel Pepys and a Plague Doctor. Credit: ©Annie-Marie Sanderson.

The BBQ Cab Company

Here is more proof that old cabs never due, they just become food retail outlets.

This occasional series features innovative uses for London cabs once Boris has deemed them ‘unfit for purpose’. Today features Andrew Brown, proprietor of the BBQ Cab Company, who commissioned my local garage to convert a 1998 taxi with 370,000 miles on the clock into a mobile Barbie.

[P]ainted in flame red it boasts of two 100kb ceramic cookers. One of the biggest bug-bears of this version of the London taxi is that the heater is almost impossible to turn off. In summer this makes for a very cosy experience.

Heat in a cab should be no deterrent to Andrew who was once a restaurateur in Darlington and has been a cook for over 20 years. Now he plans to take his distinctive vehicle around the north-east and further afield to food fairs, festivals and shows.

Thanks to Andrew for letting me use the image of the converted cab. He can be contacted via Twitter @BBQCabCo

The London Grill: Valentin Boulan

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.

Valentin-Boulan[V]alentin Boulan was born in a small town of France, and moved to London at the age of 15. Valentin went on to study History at the University of Bristol before returning to London. He now works as a Digital Marketing specialist in one of the city’s most established agencies. His specialties include content marketing, search engine optimisation and social media campaigns. He also writes a personal and travel blog, A French guy in London.

What’s your secret London tip?
Just make the most of the city. London has so much to offer, whether you’re into cultural trips, partying, meeting new people, etc. So get out and enjoy it. I’m often asked by other French people about living in London. Their questions are always centred around how expensive life in London is. They barely even ask about the city itself half the time. I think most people don’t realise how much there is to do here. This can be said of many Londoners, too.

What’s your secret London place?
I once had lunch at the East India Company headquarters near Oxford Circus. I had no idea they still officially existed. That’s pretty secret, right?

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
Some people’s public transport etiquette can be very frustrating. I particularly struggle with slow walkers during rush hours. I also can’t stand people who are overly loud of buses. Other than that, renting prices are an absolute killer.

What’s your favourite building?
The Natural History Museum is absolutely stunning, both inside and outside. I’ve always liked dinosaurs too, so you can imagine my excitement the first time I stepped inside the museum as a kid.

What’s your most hated building?
As a Frenchman and bitter loser, Nelson’s column!

What’s the best view in London?
The view from the London Eye is pretty good.

What’s your personal London landmark?
The British Museum is a personal favourite. Always something new to see and learn about. In a different category, I like walking around Harrods for the sheer, outrageous excessiveness of the whole concept. The food floor is fantastic!

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
I assume you mean set in London? I really enjoyed the King’s Speech. Another one, perhaps lesser known is ‘From Hell’, a film about the hunt of Jack the Ripper. Gives interesting insights to everyday life in London’s East End in the late 19th century, which as a historian I find fascinating. Documentary-wise, I’m a big fan of most things the BBC produce.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
Tough one! I’ll have to give my local pub, The Globe in Brentford, a mention. It’s only a few minutes away from my house which is rather convenient. The staff are always really, they serve decent food and have a lovely little summer beer garden. It’s also the preferred location for Brentford FC fans, so it can get pretty lively at weekends.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
In an ideal world where I could fit everything into my schedule, I’d probably wake up early to visit a couple of museums. Then stop for lunch somewhere nice. I’d go on to watch a football game at the Emirates Stadium and end the day on a bar crawl. Make a night of it whilst I’m out.

Taxis through time

We might take them for granted nowadays, but taxis have a long and illustrious history. However, if you’re looking for a quick way to get home on a Friday night, you might struggle a bit with some of the vehicles, fares, and drivers common in previous years.

Here is a potted history of the taxi from ancient Rome to modern times, this is a Guest Post courtesy of The Taxi Centre who have also produced an infographic.

[T]he first stop on our taxi journey back in time is ancient Rome, and a funny little vehicle called the Lectica. When we say vehicle, we mean this in the loosest possible sense; the Lectica is essentially a glorified chair, and roughly translates to ‘portable couch’. How am I going to get home on a couch? we hear you ask. By slave power, that’s how! Yes, whilst the Lectica does seem like a slow way to get around, the kind of people who used them most definitely had the time and money to take the leisurely route. For a select few of the elite- or patrician-class, the Lectica was a stylish and ostentatious way to travel. For most though, especially the downtrodden subjects who were unfortunate enough to be tasked with carrying the thing, travelling like this was simply not an option.

For our next stop, we’ll fast forward a few hundred years, and head over to Norman Britain. The taxi industry was still a long way away, and if you wanted to get from A to B in a hurry you’d have to find a willing squire from which to hire a Hacquenée. A Hacquenée was essentially an unremarkable horse, specifically used for hiring out to budding travellers – for a fee, of course. Whilst this is surely faster (and more humane) than a couch with handles, the price of hiring a horse was still far too expensive for anyone but the elite.

So we travel forward to the time of Queen Elizabeth, where we see the first real signs of the foundation of the taxi industry. Here we see the introduction of the cart or Hackney Carriage and with it, the first taxi drivers. These carriages were usually the property of the ludicrously wealthy aristocracy, hired out to the less ludicrously wealthy aristocracy to maintain the costs of upkeep (horses don’t run for free, you know). However, taxi travel was still out of reach for most people. If not for the cost, this will have been due to the negative connotations associated with carriages, which were viewed as effeminate in comparison to actually riding a horse.

Over the next few hundred years, the horse and carriage was king of the emerging taxi trade. Hackney carriages went from being an effeminate luxury to a day to day way to get around. Soon, budding entrepreneurs started to purchase carriages second hand from the wealthy, and hire them out at taverns and shops; the first taxi ranks. However, as the carriages were second hand, a ride from one of these ranks wasn’t the cushy experience it is today. Instead, you might have to contend with splinters, maggot infested wood, or even the prospect of the floor dropping out beneath you.

However, that didn’t stop the popularity of the hackney. By the 1700s, there were over 1,000 carriages plying their trade across the streets of London. This would have been all very well, if it wasn’t for the lax and often unenforced regulations of the time. Whilst this period saw the introduction of standard fares, this didn’t stop crafty drivers from massively overcharging the unaware (or too drunk) punters. Coupled with the overcrowded roads, and a lack of speed limit, this earned the carriages of the time the name ‘Hackney hell carts’.

Whilst the industry was doing better than ever, stark reforms and stricter regulations needed to be introduced if a real move forward into respectability was to be made. So what did the Georgians do? Go back a good 2,000 years, of course. Yes, the mid 1750s saw the huge rise in popularity of the sedan chair, reminiscent of the Lectica used in Roman times. Georgian fashionistas and socialites shunned the horse and carriage, and moved back to the apparent ‘luxury’ of human power. However, unlike Roman times, a real viable industry was built around the Sedan Chair, with chair carriers being paid a fairly decent wage. Chair carriers had their own uniform, operated from ranks, and due to the overcrowding of the roads, were even faster than a trip in a Hackney carriage.

After the extravagant step back the Georgians took to tackle to problems of congestion, it took the industrious Victorians to put forward a real solution. In 1834, the Hackney Carriage received an overhaul, and the Hansom Cab took to the streets of London. Although quaint seeming now, the Hansom Cab was revolutionary at the time, with the vastly smaller carriage allowing drivers to manoeuvre the vehicle with a much higher degree of control. The Victorian era also saw the introduction of the meter, vastly reducing fares and restoring public faith in the taxi industry.

As we go forward in time to the turn of the 20th century, we start the long process of saying goodbye to horses as a regular mode of travel. With the introduction of the Hummingbird in 1898, the new and exciting power of electricity was harnessed as a way to provide efficient and cheap travel round London. Well, we say efficient and cheap. The novelty factor meant that the cabs were run at a premium, and the relatively new and untested electric motors were prone to malfunctioning. In fact, the Hummingbirds were so unreliable – and at times, dangerous – that they were totally withdrawn from the streets after just two years of service.

However, with the introduction of the Prunel in 1903, the Hummingbird wouldn’t have stood a chance anyway. The Prunel was just one of a whole new range of petrol powered models active on the streets of London in the early 1900s, providing travellers with a faster way to travel than ever before. The rise of petrol power would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for equine travel, although this took longer than you might have expected. In many places, you might have been still been able to hitch a ride on a horse and carriage well into the 1930s. This was especially true during the Second World War, where entire fleets of taxis were commandeered by the Auxiliary Fire Service as a valuable source of transportation for fire crews and equipment alike.

From here on out, the motor car ruled the taxi industry, with a range of new models, manufacturers, and vehicles hitting the streets of not just London, but the world. However, one manufacturer and model sped out in front – within the speed limit, of course – and became not just the most popular taxi vehicle in London, but also a cultural icon. With its unique shape and all black body, the Austin FX4 is instantly recognisable as the black cab. Since its introduction in 1958, the FX4 has been imitated and reproduced around the world, with countries as far flung as China, Lithuania and Singapore having vehicles reminiscent of Austin’s finest.

Whilst the look of taxis today is still largely rooted in the models of a good half century ago, innovation in the industry hasn’t halted. With the introduction of ‘green’ models like the HyTEC Black Cab, trialled for a limited period during the 2012 Olympics, we’re perhaps seeing the first signs of another big change for taxicabs. And whatever you think of them, apps like Uber and Hailo are altering not just the vehicles we use, but the entire structure of a centuries old industry.

It’s difficult to predict what the future might hold for taxis, but whatever happens, you can be assured that The Taxi Centre will be there right at the heart of it.

The Ultimate Blue Plaque

For someone who spends a lot of my time sitting in traffic jams staring out of the cab’s window, I often find myself discovering blue plaques and wondering who the commemorated person might be.

I know the subject of the first blue plaque, Lord Byron. It was unveiled at 24 Holles Street; Cavendish Square in 1867 demolished in 1889. I know London’s earliest surviving blue plaque Napoleon III on King Street.

[B]ut just who was Arthur Henry War Sax Rohmer, apparently the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu or Francis Pettit Smith inventor of the screw propeller?

The most important blue plaque at 16 Eaton Place, Belgravia commemorates a gentleman unknown to most: William Ewart, MP who lived here from 1830 to 1838.

Eaton Place

Ewart apparently was a social reformer who was responsible for the Act that introduced public libraries. It was he who in 1863 proposed to the House of Commons that a scheme to commemorate worthy citizens. Probably because Members of the House had visions of themselves remembered for posterity the scheme was swiftly adopted.

English Heritage now decides the worthy recipients. While the City of London has, as with many things, not adopted the scheme and has just one blue plaque in Gough Square depicting Dr. Johnson.

Today London has more than 880 with some incongruous couplings: Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel share the same wall. Next year scheme finds itself in rude health and on the cusp of its 150th anniversary. A Blue Plaques programme celebrating this major milestone in the history of the scheme launches next year.

Photos: Former home of William Ewart in Eaton Place by Basher Eyre (CC BY-SA 2.0); Blue Plaque William Ewart 1798-1869 reformer lived here by Spudgun67 (CC BY-SA-4.0)