Bloomsbury Blues

When I first started working, driving a cab in London, dotted around the Capital were a number of small independent garages, many providing facilities for cabbies to empty their bladders as well as fill up their cabs.

[O]NE POPULAR SUCH GARAGE with the most basic of washroom facilities was once to be found in Waverton Street, Mayfair occupying a site worth probably many millions more than the fuel they were selling.

The oldest garage in London, which until recently was located in Store Street, a short anxious drive from Oxford Street when running low on diesel. The Bloomsbury Village Garage reminiscent of a period that Enid Blyton wrote about closed in June 2008 after being turned down for listing by The Department for Culture Media and Sport.

Duke’s exclusive use

It opened in 1926, probably for the exclusive use of The Duke of Bedford a well-known car enthusiast, who on 1st April 1968 was fined £50 for undertaking on the M1, when the police had recognised his number plate DOB1.

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The petrol station which attracted famous customers’ including Lewis Hamilton and Jamie Oliver was once probably used by Virginia Woolf’s chauffeur has now been redeveloped using most of the original brick and stone incorporating the original kiosk. A mosaic above harks back to the ‘golden age’ of motoring when it was possible to fill your tank and spend a penny in central London.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 28th May 2013

Bashing the bishop

If ever there was a place which encapsulates ‘Englishness’ the Ye Olde Mitre Tavern is it, hidden away down an alleyway in Hatton Garden. The first Mitre Tavern was built in 1546 as the boozer for servants working in the Palace of the Bishops of Ely. This small area is still technically under the control of the Diocese of Ely, Cambridgeshire and until the last century, the pub licence was issued from Ely. The City police at that time had no jurisdiction within its bounds.

[T]he Palace, before being demolished in 1772 was the magnificent residence used by the Bishops when they came to town, boasting a vineyard, orchard, gardens, fountains and ponds, all surrounded by a wall to keep out the locals. The community inside was then declared part of the mother county which became a corner of some foreign city that would be forever Cambridge.

Strawberry fayre

If you believe Shakespeare’s opinion on soft fruit, the strawberries grown there were the finest in London. The Duke of Gloucester speaking to the Bishop of Ely in Act 3 of Richard III declares:

When I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there: I do beseech you, send for some of them.

A strawberry fayre is still held in Ely Place every June in aid of charity.

Ely Place was the centre of religious and political power, John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II is staged here:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle; This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars; This other Eden, demi-paradise; This fortress built by Nature for herself; Against infection and the hand of war; This happy breed of men, this little world; This precious stone set in the silver sea; Which serves it in the office of a wall; Or as a moat defensive to a house; Against the envy of less happier lands; This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

After the Reformation Queen Elizabeth forced the bishops to rent some of their lands to Sir Christopher Hatton, one of her courtiers, the area then became known as Hatton Garden, which now, of course, is the centre of London’s diamond trade.

The Virgin Queen seems always to have a liking for trees. In the front bar of the Mitre is the preserved trunk of a cherry tree around which she is said to have danced the maypole. Likewise at Hatfield House, until recently their gift shop had leant against the wall the trunk of the oak she was reputed to have been sitting under when she received news that she was now Queen.

London’s oldest pub

The Mitre today claims to be the oldest pub in London, which although rebuilt in 1772 it is technically still part of Cambridgeshire, so it should lay claim to being the oldest boozer in Cambridge.

Soon after its rebuilding, Dr Johnson was a regular – Is there any 18th-century public house without that claim? – and much of the interior would be familiar to the grumpy lexicographer. If you want to be transported back to Georgian London a trip to the outside gents toilets will give you that questionable experience. The only hand basin in the men’s is in the cubicle so be weary of pissing on your hands if somebody is taking a dump there. The women’s toilets are upstairs in the Bishop’s Room it would be too tempting to have the men’s toilets in the Bishop’s Room for fear of jokes about bashing it.

Beware of head and body injuries in Ye Olde Mitre, as the ceilings are low and the rooms are small, dark and crammed with furniture and people, particularly is a tour group have just turned up. There is a coffin-sized cubby-hole off the back room that is large enough for a single table and four very close friends. The furniture comprises of harsh wooden upright seats and solid wooden tables that look as though they were used to lay-out dead bodies in the local mortuary. A sign requests that furniture is not moved away from the authentic wood-panelled walls. With no TV’s, gaming machines or piped music, just the murmur of polite conversation Ye Old Mitre is a hidden gem.

More information on Ye Old Mitre can be found at London Details. The picture of the stone mitre that came from the gatehouse of the nearby Palace of the Bishop of Ely (demolished in 1772) by Mike Quinn.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 21st May 2013

London Trivia: The Wallace Collection

On 25 August 1870 Richard Seymour-Conway the 4th Marquees of Hertford, died in Paris, Richard Wallace his illegitimate son, learned that the nobleman was his father and inherited a priceless collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative objects. After his death, the collection was donated to the nation by his widow, it is now located in what was his London home, Hertford House, Manchester Square.

On 25 August 1840 a conductor on an Chelsea omnibus found a pocket book containing £150, owned by Mr Kempis on New Road. He received £60 for his honesty

In Farringdon Street is the site of the Fleet Prison where fallen clergymen conducted clandestine weddings until the 18th century

The Tudor frontage of St. Bartholemew The Great Church which had been covered was revealed after a Zeppelin raid on the City

In the late 1880s, the life expectancy of an East End labourer was less than 19 years, his average wage was 25/- a week it would just cover his rent, and a very sparse diet for him and his family

The 0 on 10 Downing Street’s front door is at an angle, in tribute to original door, whose 0 slipped due to poor fixing

In the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy MI5 headquarters was, in fact, the Victoria and Albert Museum store in Olympia

Petticoat Lane home to London’s Sunday market doesn’t exist renamed Middlesex Street in 1830 the market still retains its original name

A site where starved bears were chained to a post and set upon by dogs as spectators bet on the outcome is marked by Bear Gardens Southwark

Half of London’s Tube stations have no light switches, meaning their lights can never be turned off. Transport for London (TfL) has no idea how much that is costing

Edwards of Camberwell has a Royal Warrant to supply the Queen with err . . . mopeds, it is not known if Her Majesty has need of that form of transport

Knightsbridge is the only Underground station with six consecutive consonants in its name, Aldwych has six but closed in 1994

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.

Delay at Victoria Station

Fighting for one’s country at times shows displays of heroism or in some cases downright being foolhardy and for Flight Sergeant Ray Holmes’s day on 15th September 1940 it started with sheer bravery but soon turned into the latter. The bombardment of London had just begun in earnest when on a beautiful Sunday Ray’s 504 Squadron was scrambled from Hendon to intercept 17 Dorniers on a bombing run over the capital.

[H]AVING JOINED THE Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve soon after its formation in 1936 Ray ‘Arty’ Holmes (his initials were R. T. hence the nickname) was a highly experienced pilot flying his Hurricane to stop the German midday bombing raid. In was to become one of the most celebrated events to act out above London during the Battle of Britain, due in part to the final seconds of the engagement being filmed.

Having already shot down one enemy plane Ray pursued its two companions. When he pressed the firing button, nothing happened, he had run out of ammunition.

Believing, probably rightly that the bombers were heading to Buckingham Palace, desperate measures were called for. Ray then aimed his Hurricane at one of the enemy’s Dorniers.

In his words:

All the other aircraft had disappeared. I discovered that I was heading for this Dornier. When I fired, my guns didn’t operate; my ammunition was used. So I carried on and took his tailplane off with my wing. His tail came off and he went nose down. But I found out that it had damaged my aerodynamics. I had to get out.

Ray, through luck or judgment had hit the Dornier’s most venerable point, the rear fuselage. The tail parted company with the plane’s body which then did a violent front somersault snapping off the outboard engines mounted on the wings before crashing on the forecourt of Victoria Station.

Ray’s Hurricane fared no better and crashed at the junction of Buckingham Palace Road, Pimlico Road and Ebury Bridge, burying itself into the road. The plane wasn’t found until 2004 when the remains of the Hurricane were excavated. The plane’s joy-stick was reunited after 64 years with Ray with the brass safety button still set to fire.

Ray had parachuted safely landing in Buckingham Palace Road suspended by the cords of his chute just off the ground with his feet in a dustbin. He was taken to the nearby Orange Brewery public house and given a swift whisky. A different fate befell the German pilot, landing in Kensington, he was beaten by a mob and died the following day.

Photo: Mike Kemble

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 11th November 2013

Hanway’s pernicious brew

Hanway Street is a narrow street connecting Oxford Street with Tottenham Court Road and is named after Major John Hanway the developer whose eccentric nephew dared to invade the rights of coachmen. This ancient lane can be traced back to the time of Henry VIII, first known as Hanover Yard then named Hanway Yard. By the 1740’s it was developed and closely associated with coaching inns situated at this busy crossroads, it later was renamed Hanway Street.

[T]HE ENTERPRISING Major’s nephew was an interesting individual. After the death of his father, the result of a riding accident, Jonas Hanway at the age of 16 was sent to live with his uncle. The next year his uncle, keen to be rid of his charge, young Jonas was apprenticed as a merchant to an English factory in Lisbon.

Eccentric attire

It was here, during his 12-year stay that he developed eccentricities in dress and views. After a failed love affair he enjoyed the company of reformed prostitutes and against the custom of the day, would tip servant girls.

Returning to London he planned to lead an expedition to Persia to assess the trading of English broadcloth for Persian silks. Ambushed in Russia, with all his goods stolen, he was forced to escape in disguise.

The indefatigable Jonas then spent 5 years trying to recover his trade before returning to London in 1750. Here he developed his most famous eccentricities, always carrying a sword long after their use had fallen from fashion. He would wear flannel underwear and several pairs of socks to ward off ill-health.

He wrote an essay on tea, claiming it blackened one’s teeth, and which he considered the ‘flatulent liquor . . . pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation’ . . . causing ‘men to have lost their stature and comeliness, women their beauty and chambermaids their bloom.’

Portable room

Having failed to popularise the use of stilts as a way of sidestepping the muck and grime that covered 18th-century streets, his use of an umbrella which were only used by ladies to give shade and as a fashion accessory would bring ridicule but prove a useful shield against mud and stones hurled by mischievous boys.

The umbrella of Hanway’s, which at the time was called a portable room, could not be furled (it would be another 20 years before a folded version would be seen), and carrying one in the crowded streets of London proved unpopular not least from the coachmen and chairmen who carried sedans.

As with today, they regarded rain as a boost to their earnings. It was recorded that Hanway underwent:

All the staring, laughing, jeering, hooting, and bullying; and having punished some insolent knaves who struck him with their whips as well as their tongues, he finally succeeded in overcoming the prejudices against it.

The umbrella shop James Smith & Sons a short walk from Hanway Street has his portrait hanging in their shop, the first Londoner who owned an umbrella.

The Hanway Act

Hanway died at his home in Red Lion Square on 5th September 1786. During his life, he published 85 works, many about improving the lot of the poor. Hanway’s Act put on the Statute Book in 1762, required all London parishes to keep records of children in their care. He was governor of the Foundling Hospital and donated £50 to their cause.

In 1788 a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, the first-ever commemorating charitable deeds, for his philanthropic work.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th October 2013