London Trivia: Goodby GLC

On 31 March 1986 the Greater London Council was abolished, with thousands of people taking part in festivities to mark the historic final hours of 97 years of local rule in London. A throng of 250,000 people gathered on the South Bank in London, home to the Greater London Council, which ceased to exist at midnight, festivities ended with the largest display of fireworks ever seen in the city after a week of events costing £250,000.

On 31 March 1986 Lady Gale died in her apartment at Hampton Court Palace, the result of a fire that caused millions of pounds damage

In 1961 Elsie Batten was killed in Cecil Court by Edwin Bush the first UK man to be caught by the use of an identikit picture

The Oxo Tower’s windows were designed in ‘O-X-O’ shapes to get round rules banning neon advertising. Lit up at night they did the same job

The Imperial War Museum was once Bethlem Asylum known as Bedlam where Victorian artist Richard Dadd was incarcerated

The clock above Horseguards Parade has a black mark by the figure II marking the time when Charles I was executed nearby

Artist Rosetti kept several animals in his Chelsea home including a wombat who ate the hat of a woman he was painting

Waterstone’s Islington Green was built as Collins Music Hall where Charlie Chaplin and Gracie Fields were among the performers

Jonathan Trott has never hit a Test six. The only man ever to hit a six over the Lord’s pavilion was Albert . . . Trott. Related (distantly)

Actor Timothy Bentinck who plays David Archer in the long-running Radio 4 soap drama was the voice of “Mind the Gap” on the London Tube

In 1696 Edward Lloyd published London’s first daily newspaper containing shipping information he picked up from customers in his coffee shop

After purchasing a London cab, the immensely rich Nubar Gulbenkian said that a London taxi can turn on a sixpence – “whatever that is”

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.

Hore-Belisha’s babies

It’s that time of year when the tourists start migrating to London.

Thousands of them descend on the streets forming long conga-lines each one of them intent on following the leader.

[B]UT UNLIKE NATIVE LONDONERS, they tend to stick rigidly to the designated crossing points in the road. Those crossing points are the fault of the gloriously named Leslie Hore-Belisha (1st Baron Hore-Belisha, of Devonport in the County of Devon).

Who in 1934 as Transport Minister was appalled by the statistics that in one year 7,343 died and 231,603 were injured on Britain’s roads.

Soon after being appointed to the post he nearly became a statistic as he used a pedestrian crossing. His brush with death came as he was crossing Camden High Street when a sports car shot up – or was that down? It was two-way then – the street narrowly missing the good Baron. This is not different from today’s Camden High Street except nowadays you have a choice in which car to select to hit you, in 1934 probably only two cars an hour drove up the street.

At the time every vehicle was subject to mandatory speed limits except perversely motor cars, so after his Camden High Street incident, he introduced the 30mph speed limit in built-up areas to all vehicles. Many said that it was the removal of ‘an Englishman’s freedom of the Highway’ but undeterred he also brought in law mandatory driving tests.

Belisha Beacons

His most visible legacy – which actually is the subject of this post – was the pedestrian crossing with their familiar black and white striped poles surmounted by an orange flashing light, nicknamed at the time ‘Belisha Beacons’, the familiar zebra stripes on the road were only introduced on 31st October 1951.

The most famous of these zebra crossings is at Abbey Road made famous by The Beatles which has been given heritage listing ignoring the fact that the crossing has been moved from its original location. Tourists daily risk life and limb being photographed as frustrated drivers push their way across as the tourists stand in the middle having their picture taken.

Nearly 80 years have passed since Belisha’s blinking invention was introduced and apart from a zebra, we have had a few pelican crossings, the occasional panda and now at Oxford Circus one straight from Tokyo the Shibuya crossing with its countdown timers.

Most crossings are still the originals with the stream of tourists patiently holding up traffic as they hesitantly negotiate the West End’s roads. You know they are from out of Town as the locals obstinately refuse to cross at the designated points choosing to jaywalk instead.

The worst crossings

Two years ago a fellow cabbie put out a question. What are London’s worst crossings? Despite the advances in traffic control the top five – as if they were listed heritage sites – remain as Hore-Belisha would recognise.

5th – Abbey Road. I know I’ve already mentioned this one, but what I can’t understand is why people who weren’t even born when that ‘iconic’ shot was taken want to pose on a crossing when Sir Paul McCartney who lives nearby could be walking past with a bemused look on his face. I often see idiots taking their photos on the crossing further north by Abercorn Place.

4th – St Paul’s Churchyard. Everybody around here seems so terribly polite. But with the exaggerated bonhomie, there is always a tourist running across at the last minute. The view of St. Paul’s west door is great though.

3rd – Bow/Russell Street. Situated right by the Royal Opera House and a junction where cabs are constantly trying to turn into the main flow of traffic. The tourists seem to queue up here to jaywalk.

2nd – Endell/Bow Street/Long Acre. Within a few hundred yards of our 3rd placed entry. This one is on the turn of the road that’s littered with rickshaws. It is crying out to be converted into one of those new fanged pelicans or is that panda crossings?

1st – Great Marlborough Street. Since the ‘dirty dozen’ was closed off most of Soho has just become a car park. Cabbies turn down Berwick Street and right into Great Marlborough Street to miss the nightmare of the Shibuya diagonal crossing at Oxford Circus. You are then confronted with herds of young women who are leaving the perfume department at Liberty’s and others queuing to get in.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 30th April 2013

Pagans, prostitutes and paupers graveyard

There is a small plot of land in Redcross Way that must rank as one of the most melancholy places in London.

For buried within an area of less than ¼ acre lie 15,000 souls.

For hundreds of years in the shadow of the Shard this unconsecrated post-medieval burial site was used to bury the dispossessed of Southwark.

[S]ince the 12th century this land south of the Thames by London Bridge came within the jurisdiction of The Bishop of Winchester and as a consequence was beyond the control of the City of London.

Known as the Liberty of the Clink encompassed within this small area banned theatres, the Globe and Rose among others sprung up, bear baiting was a daily occurrence and prostitutes worked in the brothels. As these brothels were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester the prostitutes were known as “Winchester Geese”. The term “goose bumps” was a charming and somewhat alarming term commonly used to describe the first signs of venereal disease, most probably caught working in the “stews” around the notorious Clink prison.

The Godly prelate might have licensed these unfortunates to work for him in the brothels but he excluded them from a Christian burial and so this small plot became a place of internment for “single women”, a euphemism for prostitutes, along with actresses and paupers.

The bodies were stacked upon one another with little ceremony to mark their passing. Many corpses were left exposed to the elements by the inept gravediggers, making it a hunting ground for body snatchers seeking out specimens for the local teaching hospitals.

Eventually in 1853 due to overcrowding the burial site was closed. It lay undisturbed and unloved until the early 1990s when during excavations for the Jubilee Line extension the site was discovered. Archaeologists from the London Museum have unearthed 148 bodies and found evidence of high infant mortality, trauma injuries, malnutrition and infections.

A group called the Friends of Cross Bones has acted since its rediscovery as a pressure group resisting attempts to develop this valuable piece of real estate. They number among their ranks prostitutes and pagans and on the 23rd of each month hold a vigil to remember the forgotten. On Halloween night it has become a tradition to gather at Cross Bones site, as it now known, with candles, songs, flowers and gin to pay tribute to the “outcast dead”. Gin apparently is the proper tribute to honour a “Lady of the Night”.

Another curiosity is to be found in Redcross Way, The Boot and Floggers public house opposite Cross Bones is supposedly the only bar in the country not to require an alcohol licence, because of special dispensation from James I in 1611.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 28th February 2012

London Trivia: A shot in the dark

On 24 March 1918 a bigamist and American conman died at the Wood Green Empire. For years he had masqueraded as Chung Ling Soo the most famous – and wealthiest – ‘Chinese’ magician on London’s stage. His famous trick of being shot backfired when a real bullet hit him. His first English words since reaching Britain were “Oh my God, something’s happened, bring down the curtain”.

On 24 March 1877 the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race ended in its only dead heat with a time of 24 minutes, 8 seconds

Bow Street Police Station was the only Victorian London police station with a white light outside rather than a blue light

Smithfield Market was designed by Sir Horace Jones who also designed Billingsgate and Leadenhall Markets and Tower Bridge

On 24 March 1947 businessman Alan Sugar (The Apprentice, Amstrad) was born in Hackney, East London

The Wiener Library, Russell Square contains 1 million items relating to the Holocaust, it is the world’s oldest library of related material

The 100th anniversary of the roundel (the Tube Logo) was celebrated in 2008 by TfL commissioning 100 artists to produce works that celebrate the design

Early 1980s – Burlington Arcade beadle tells someone off for whistling – they turn round – it’s Paul McCartney – beadle exempts him from whistling ban for life

In March 1950 a ski-jump contest was held on Hampstead Heath with 45 tons of snow brought from Norway in wooden boxes cooled by dry ice

St James is the only Underground Station to have Grade-I protected status. It includes 55 Broadway, the administrative headquarters of London’s Underground since the 1930s

Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in Stoke Newington where he also ran a civet farm in the grounds of his house

London boasts over 300 different spoken languages, more than any other city in the world, 78 per cent cite English, followed by Polish and Bengali

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.

Site Unseen: Syd’s Coffee Stall

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

[N]OWHERE IN LONDON in the last 100 years has seen change so much as Shoreditch, this was once an area of poverty, social deprivation and prostitutes standing on street corners, no different from Jack-The-Ripper’s time. Today it is dubbed the Silicon Triangle with food and beverages sold to the hipsters at astronomical prices.

On the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High Street is a survivor of those far off times, with a bill of fare at more modest prices.

It was 22nd March 1919, exactly 100 years ago, when Sydney Edward Tothill spent his modest invalidity pension, awarded to him due to his being gassed in the trenches in World War I, on a tea stall.

Top quality tea stall

For a costly £117, Syd purchased a bespoke top quality mahogany tea stall, about the size of a horse-drawn carriage, with fine etched glass and brass fittings. The workmanship of the build is evident in that 100 years later that same stall, unprotected from the elements, still offers tea and bacon sandwiches.

Evidence of its longevity can be found under Syd’s Stall, in the 1960’s Calvert Avenue was resurfaced with the literal ‘groundbreaking’ material tarmacadam. By then the churn of fresh water had been replaced with mains water, similarly the coal brazier had given way to a gas connection and electricity was supplied via the nearby lampost. It was decided to leave the stall in-situ and tarmac around, placing kerbstones on the stall’s boundary. Look underneath and the Victorian cobbles are still visible.

Royal visit

Prince Edward, no stranger to the ladies, stopped by one night for a cuppa. During World War II a bomb detonated in Calvert Avenue, shrapnel injuring Syd’s wife May, but the stall was saved by a couple of buses parked nearby.

Syd’s granddaughter, Jane Tothill, has been running the stall for the past 33 years, but the area is changing. Many of the local shops have gone, given way to the ubiquitous bars, restricted parking and even bus routes diverted have reduced the footfall. Hillary Caterers the outside catering enterprise started by Jane’s father, named after the first man to ascent Everest, is only remembered by a sign on the roof of the tea stall.

It is doubtful whether Syd’s Stall will last for another 100 years, but should it go, as a major contributor to life in the 20th century the Museum of London should display the vehicle complete with all the newspaper cuttings which adorn the walls.