Anyone for tennis?

Should you go down Lillie Road, just past the Ibis Hotel near the curiously named Telephone Place there is a small terrace of Grade II listed mid-19th century stuccoed houses. Nothing unusual then, all over London you can find these types of houses – slated roofs; pane sashes; and painted white – except number 62 which has a highly decorated round window above the ground floor and above that what looks like a Royal coat of arms.

[C]oncealed behind trees and street furniture (as the Google street view shows) this intriguing addition to what is a very normal group of London townhouses.


Google street view

Could it be Edward VII moniker? Rumours have it that the future monarch would have secret trysts with Lillie Langtry within these modest walls. But our portly heir-apparent went to enormous lengths to remain undercover while having his dalliances. Rules Restaurant had a secret door to access the private room used by the couple; so it’s hardly likely the Prince of Wales is going to advertise his presence in such a manner as sticking the Royal Crest on the outside wall, while he got on with the business inside.

The answer must be Joseph Bickley. At this point anyone reading this with just a passing interest in playing on an indoor court will be uttering his name in reverential hushed tones. Bickley lived at 62 Lillie Road between 1889-1919 and was known for architectural moulding – hence the ornate ox-eye window. His fame (and fortune) came from his patented process of laying ‘non-sweat’ floor rendering for tennis courts.


Joseph Bickley window and Royal crest

All good stories involve a little mystery and Bickley’s tennis courts are no exception. He patented his method in 1889 and refined the process issuing a further patent in 1909. He would personally make up the ingredients part of which involved sieving fine sand through a 0.5mm mesh that at the same time, it was thought, adding the secret ingredient along with manganese dioxide, known as Bickley’s Mineral Black and always working while there was no prospect of a frost. The surface was then polished continuously night and day until the flawless court floor was achieved.

In 1964 Harrow School wanted to replicate the Bickley formula. Contacting a former employee a Mr. Harbour who had honeymooned in New York at the company’s expense while constructing a new court on Park Avenue. Harrow School found that the composition of Portland cement had subtly altered since Bickley’s day. The court was completed but was it the same as the fabled Bickley formula?

Featured image: Queen’s Real Tennis Court one of two constructed there by Joseph Bickley. 

Historic England have a picture of Crabbet Park, Tennis Court And Orangery, Worth, West Sussex taken on 26 July 1907 with Joseph Bickley then aged 72 standing on the left slightly away from the landed gentry who intend to play on his court.

London Trivia: Death by visitation

On 29 January 1842 the body of PC Nicholls, ‘his face much bruised and disfigured as if from severe violence’, was found on South Lambeth Road. At the time his demise was attributed ‘death by the visitation of God’. 140 years later a Kennington policeman re-investigated this death by visitation and concluded the culprit as a fellow police officer moreover the relevant page in a police register of the time was missing.

On 29 January twelve bombs explosed in the West End, one person a taxi driver, was hurt. A 13th device was discovered later in an HMV record store

The Blind Beggar was the scene of a murder when thief Bulldog Wallis stabbed a man through the eye with an umbrella later Ronnie Kray killed George Cornell by shooting him through the eye in the same pub

Shoe Lane, EC4 is named after the ancient Sho well that was situated at the north of the street. In 13th century it was Showell Lane

On 29 January 1820 Britain’s King George III died insane at Windsor Castle, ending a reign that saw both the American and French revolutions

On 29 January 1857 Queen Victoria introduced the Victoria Cross with its inscription For Valour, two thirds of all awards have been personally presented by the British monarch

On 29 January 1942 the BBC first broadcast Desert Island Discs its presenter Roy Plomley went on to host the programme 1,791 times

Tradition has it that Pimlico is named after Ben Pimlico, a 17th Century Hoxton brewer who supplied London with a popular Nut Brown ale

In 1577 John Northbrooke’s Treatise deplored blasphemous swinge-bucklers, tossepots, loitering idle persons and the governing of football

The Underground’s longest continuous tunnel is on the Northern line and runs from East Finchley to Morden (via Bank), a total of 17.3 miles

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his first symphony in 1764 as he and his family lived at 180 Ebury Street, Belgravia

On 29 January 1959 dense fog brought road, rail and air transport in London to a standstill-chemists reported a boom in the sale of smog masks

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

Down Your Alley: Great Turnstile

Off the south side of High Holborn, approx 300 yards west of Chancery Lane Station, just by the London Weather Centre you will find Great Turnstile and its smaller cousin Little Turnstile. When the area around here was largely open space and cattle grazed in the fields to the south, known as Cup Field, Fickett’s Field, and Purse Field, a turnstile in a narrow lane allowed the passage of pedestrians but prevented the straying of cattle.

[T]his lane, sometimes known as Turne Style Lane, was the main access to the group of fields from the highway and was therefore called ‘Great’ to distinguish it from another turnstile (Little Turnstile) further west. When the turnstile was abandoned the alley was built up with shops and became what was described in 1720 as ‘a great thoroughfare’ having the shops of milliners and shoemakers. When these traders moved out the alley was taken over by literary buffs, housing bookshops and publishing houses. Until earlier this century there were four sturdy wooden posts fixed into the ground at the entrance to the alley, they served as a reminder of the restrictions imposed by the old turnstile. On the south- west corner stood the Turnstile Tavern but, alas, that was many years ago and today not a single stick of evidence remains. It was closed in 1640 and subsequently given over to the Council.


Looking from Gate Street into Little Turnstile

To the south of Great Turnstile is Lincoln’s Inn Fields, formed under that name in the early 17th century out of the three previously named fields – Cup, Fickett’s, and Purse. Until the early 18th century a path crossing these fields was a perilous place to tread. By day it was a favourite resort of beggars and hired children who often used violence on unsuspecting victims in order to relieve them of anything worth having. By night, thieves lurked in the darkness ready to pounce on anyone daring to travel the lonely road. The fields, in the course of time, have been witness to events ranging from tragedy to comedy. It was here that Babington and his scheming band were put to death after their planned conspiracy to oust Queen Elizabeth from the English throne and replace her with Mary of Scotland. For his supposed involvement in the Rye House Plot, Lord William Russell was executed in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

On the 29th January 1727 the first staging of John Gray’s The Beggar’s Opera took place at the Lincoln’s Inn Playhouse, on the south side of the Fields. This was also the venue for Thomas Arne’s first opera Rosamund, performed here in 1733.


Mary Ward in Great Turnstile

John Gray knew this area well and probably suffered at the hands of muggers on more occasions than one; he gives this warning and advice to anyone contemplating a crossing:

Where Lincoln’s Inn wide space is railed around,
Cross not with venturous step; there oft is found
The lurking thief, who while the daylight shone
Made the wall echo with his begging tone:
That crutch which late compassion moved shall wound
Thy bleeding head and fell thee to the ground.
Though thou art tempted by the linkman’s call,
Yet trust him not along the lonely wall;
In the midway he’ll quench the flaming brand,
And share thy booty with the pilfering band.
Still keep the public streets, where oily rays,
Shot from the crystal lamps, o’erspread the ways.

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Hansard, the Government publication which records the business of the House of Commons first saw the light of day in Great Turnstile. In 1797 Luke Hansard, a printer from Norwich inherited a business together with a contract for the printing of Government papers. However, it was not until 1892, long after Hansard’s death, that the publication was produced under his name.

At the end of Great Turnstile, to the right, is a narrow turning into the quiet backwater called Whetstone Park. On its appearance today we may be coaxed to conclude that it has always been that way – but how wrong that would be. A local rag of 1682 puts to right any deception: ‘500 apprentices, and such like, being got together in Smithfield, went into Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where they drew up, and marching into Whetstone Park, fell upon the lewd houses there, where, having broken open the doors, they entered, and made great spoil of the goods; of which the constables and watchmen having noticed, and not finding themselves strong enough to quell the tumult, procured a party of the King’s guards, who dispersed them, and took eleven, who were committed to New Prison.’ This was not an isolated incident; the same gang, on being released from the cells ‘came again, and made worse havoc than before, breaking down all the doors and windows and cutting the feather beds and goods in pieces.’ It was all part of everyday life in Whetstone Park where theft and violence flourished hand in hand with the antics of ladies who lived by immoral earnings.


CabbieBlog-cabMuch of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.