Category Archives: An urban view

Shakespeare Wos ‘Ere

Historians aren’t certain that William Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day 1564, although he was baptised on 26 April that year, what we do know that he died on this day 405 years ago.

For several years of his life, Shakespeare’s home was London, although we don’t know where most of them are, there are a couple where we have proper documentary evidence.


William Shakespeare first moves to lodgings in London


Now lodging somewhere in Bishopsgate


Now lodging somewhere in the parish of St. Helen’s in Bishopsgate


Now lodging somewhere on Bankside, near the Globe Theatre

And that’s not the current Globe Theatre, which is too near the Thames. Back then a row of theatres ran slightly further back, within the ‘Liberty of the Clink’, an ancient enclave whose laws permitted entertainments banned a few streets away.

The site of the original Globe can be found by crossing Southwark Bridge and then taking steps down immediately beyond the large office block, before reaching the traffic lights.

Information boards on Park Street, which runs parallel to the Thames and below Southwark Bridge Road, reveals that the site lays before you, beyond the railings, within the protective realm of a block of flats. The limit of the Scheduled Ancient Monument area is defined by a change in the cobbles, with a late Georgian terrace plonked straight across the middle of it, because nobody back then cared about heritage.

The Globe had burnt to the ground in 1613, ignited by a cinder during a performance of Henry VIII, and only a few minor archaeological traces remain. It’s believed that Shakespeare might have lived in a house adjacent to the theatre, but that’s mere speculation, and nobody knows precisely where.


Shakespeare now lodging in Cripplegate

By this time, he’d already written most of his classics like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Othello, perhaps in response to his increased reputation he moved back north of the river and rented lodgings in the City.

His landlord was Christopher Mountjoy, a French Huguenot refugee and a maker of ladies’ ornamental wigs in the elaborate Elizabethan fashion. We’d know none of this was it not for a family dispute following the marriage of Mountjoy’s daughter Mary to his apprentice Stephen Belott. When a promised dowry failed to materialise in full, Bellot took Mountjoy to court and Shakespeare was called as a witness. His words, in this case, weren’t particularly useful, but modern scholars were bequeathed a rare example of his handwriting as a result, and also a precise address. The Mountjoys’ house was situated on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street, on the boundary between the wards of Farringdon and Cripplegate.

The catch is that neither the house nor either of the streets still exists, the house disappeared in the Great Fire, and then the local area was wiped from the map again during the Blitz. Pretty much the whole of Cripplegate was consumed, and the street pattern substantially remodelled during the erection of the Barbican estate. The location lies just outside this modern development, either underneath or fractionally to the south of London Wall, which despite its name is another modern interloper on the A-Z. Head to the section east of the Museum of London, close to the actual remains of the actual London wall on Noble Street. The best clue to the precise site of the Bard’s lodgings is St. Olave’s church, a small place of worship whose churchyard abutted the street corner in question. This was also destroyed in World War II, but its footprint remains as a tiny garden, with a raised lawn and a footpath winding through, and an old stone bowl which might be a font or maybe a birdbath, it’s hard to be sure. The City has erected a plaque by a bench to confirm the Shakespearian connection, using the usual convention of ‘Near Here’ to confirm there’s no remaining wall to properly attach it to. If you’re planning on getting up close and maybe taking a photo, best hope there isn’t a modern-day Romeo and Juliet canoodling on the bench when you visit. But if it’s free, take a seat and look around you at the lofty offices and high walks, and try to imagine that Macbeth and King Lear were likely written right here.


Now with property in Blackfriars

With more than a third of London’s adult population watching live theatre every month, Shakespeare had become a wealthy man he had retired to a fine house in Stratford but was now rich enough to be able to buy a second property here. Maybe it was his bolthole in the capital, maybe simply an investment or a holiday home, there isn’t even enough documentary evidence to prove he ever stayed the night. Whatever the reason, when he bequeathed it to his daughter he left us one of only six confirmed signatures still in existence today.

The best guess is that the property may have occupied the north side of Ireland Yard where it joins St Andrew’s Hill, which is where the City of London have placed another blue plaque.

Things would have been a lot busier around here in early Jacobean times, not least because of the Blackfriars Theatre where Shakespeare’s troupe played out the winter months. These days the bypassed quadrant of backstreets to the south of Ludgate Hill goes mostly unnoticed except by those who work here, which is a shame because it’s almost quaint in parts. It’s also easier here than at the Barbican to imagine our greatest playwright stepping out from home… until that fateful day exactly 405 years ago when Will’s will suddenly become important.

Rockin’ Roads

As someone who has made a good living studying maps, I’ve come to accept that many roads are named after local worthies, some of these are commemorating politicians, and some commendably feature the name of a local hero or it could be a sports person, in fact, Tessa Sanderson has two to her name.

But one group seems to have been forgotten – musicians. So much so I’ve only managed to locate four in London.

Bob Marley Way, Brixton

Bob Marley arrived in London on 3 January 1977, fleeing Kingston after an attempt to kill him (he would go to his grave years later with a bullet still lodged in his arm), he moved into 42 Oakley Street, just off the King’s Road, giving him easy access to the recording company Island Studios in Basing Street, Notting Hill. Marley would leave London after 16 months returning to Jamaica in April 1978. His eponymous street is off Mayall Road which runs parallel to Railton Road, but so small it doesn’t appear on the map.

Ronnie Lane, Manor Park

With a name that lends itself perfectly to a street, Ronnie Lane was an obvious choice when naming a new development. Close to the North Circular, Ronnie Lane has three entirely separate stunted dead ends leading off two different main roads. A founder member of the 1960s rock band Small Faces, the Plaistow-born musician, who subsequently played bass guitar with Faces, acquired the nickname ‘Three-Piece’, much like the three cul-de-sacs which now take his name. He died in 1997, after suffering from multiple sclerosis for more than two decades.

Vera Lynn Close, Forest Gate

The singer, from East Ham, became known as the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’ for her performances and recordings during the Second World War. She became the first centenarian to have an album in the charts last year when a collection of songs to mark her 100th birthday made it into the top three. Again this close off Dames Road is too small to feature on a map.

Freddie Mercury Close, Feltham

Farrokh Bulsara worked at nearby Heathrow washing dishes in a kitchen, growing up at 22 Gladstone Avenue (another road named after a worthy), which is marked with a blue plaque. Farrokh is better known as Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury, but I’m surprised they haven’t put the giant figure which stood outside the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road at the entrance to this unprepossessing cul-de-sac off Hanworth Road.

Featured image: Ronnie Lane, Manor Park, London Borough of Newham. Street named after British musician Ronnie Lane by Sludgegulper (CC-BY-SA-2.0).

Royal Albert Hall

This Monday, the 29th March, marks the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary when Queen Victoria inaugurated the hall and fulfilled Albert’s dream of being the country’s premier concert hall.

Here are some fascinating facts about this much-loved venue which, has hosted the BBC Proms since 1942 after the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place was destroyed when a bomb hit the roof, causing a fire.

The foundation stone having been laid by Queen Victoria, and still in mourning for her beloved husband, the Queen renamed the prosaically titled ‘The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences’ to The Royal Albert Hall in honour of her late husband, turning a tribute to a prince into a cultural icon.

Albert, the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria was a great lover of the arts, he wanted to establish more permanent venues for the public to engage in the arts and sciences after the success of the Great Exhibition. Work was still being done on this scheme when Albert died in 1861.

Albertopolis was the provisional name given to the area which has included within it: The Natural History Museum; Imperial College London; The Royal College of Music; The Royal College of Art; The Science Museum; The Victoria and Albert Museum; The Royal Navigation Museum; and The Albert Hall.

The building is not actually circular, but more of an oval shape. The Royal Albert Hall is a Grade I listed building and has been in continuous use since its completion in 1871. Over 350 performances take place at the Royal Albert Hall every year.

Costing £8,000, the Organ, built in 14 months, the largest in England with 9,999 pipes, was once powered by 2 steam engines, if laid end-to-end the pipes would stretch almost 9 miles. The largest measures 2ft 6in diameter, 42ft high and weighs almost 1 tonne – the smallest as wide as a drinking straw.

Before the dome was placed on top of the hall, it was completely assembled in Manchester to be sure it fit together properly before being dismantled and taken to London. It then was re-assembled, when the props were knocked away it fell 0.08mm precariously dropping into its current position.

The glazed-iron roof of Royal Albert Hall measures 20,000 sq .ft. and was at the time of building the largest unsupported dome in the world. The Royal Albert Hall can currently seat 5,400 people, but when it was first built, it could seat 8,000.

The Royal Albert Hall’s distinct shape may also have spared it from the bombing, as the Luftwaffe reportedly used it as a landmark, although most of the glass panes were bomb-damaged. During the First and Second World Wars, the Hall’s roof was used as a navigation point by pilots on the London skyline.

The design of the hall was based on the Coliseum in Rome, the acoustics inside weren’t perfected until 1969 when 135 fibreglass acoustic damping discs were suspended from the ceiling, they have been redesigned and 50 diffusers were removed, the remaining 85 were reconfigured.

A woman’s mosaic class designed the frieze on the top of the building. The first Sumo wrestling tournament in the sport’s 1,500-year history was held in the Royal Albert Hall in 1991. It has a Grade I listed chimney (called ‘The Chimney’), still in use today sitting above the steam boilers which heat the Hall.

In 1872, the year after the Royal Albert Hall was completed, plans were developed to build a pneumatic railway that would carry visitors from the South Kensington Tube to the Royal Albert Hall by way of The Victoria and Albert Museum. However, the plans went nowhere and the railway was never built.

Featured image: Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Grade I listed building completed in 1871. © Copyright Julian Osley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Duke of Wellington Steps

Just over two hundred years ago on 21st June 1815 Major Henry Percy staggered into Mrs Boehm’s house in St. James’s Square while a ball was in progress. Major Percy covered in dust and carrying captured French Colours in each hand had had an arduous three days.

He arrived just as the first quadrille was lining up looking for the Prince Regent to tell him of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

Three days previous Wellington’s aide-de-camp had remained at Wellington’s side on the battlefield, having his horse killed under him, becoming one of just three of the General’s staff not injured in the battle.

On Wellington’s orders he was despatched to England to bring news of the victory. The journey to Ostend took a full day, then embarking on a ship that lay becalmed mid-Channel. Taking to a rowing boat to reach the English coast and finally riding post haste to London. After calling at 10 Downing Street he was sent to St. James’s Square to deliver news personally to the Prince Regent.

Arriving at the ball the music stopped as he dropped on one knee before the Prince proclaiming “Victory, Sir! Victory!”

Wife of the nouveau riche merchant Mrs. Boehm bore a grudge of the man who stopped her ball writing:

Well, I must say it! Of course one was very glad to think one had beaten those horrid French, and all that sort of thing. But still I always shall think it would have been far better if Henry Percy had waited quietly till the morning, instead of bursting in upon us, as he did, in such indecent haste.

Wellington by contrast would be feted as England’s greatest commander. His house Number 1 London (taken to be the first house encountered on arrival at the capital) is a museum. Around London there are many other monuments: the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, his sarcophagus in St Paul’s Cathedral and an equestrian statue of him outside the Royal Exchange [above] in the City of London to name but a few.


He would become Prime Minister and a member of the newly founded Athenæum Club at Waterloo Place. In 1830 – six years after the club was founded – Prime Minister Wellesley suggested the club should erect some mounting stones to assist in getting on and off horses. Then in his 60s, the Duke would not have been as able as he once was so the stones would have encouraged a more graceful dismount.

Over 180 years later, the stones remain on the kerb, although these days unused.

On the inward facing side, a rusty plaque reads: ‘This horseblock was erected by desire of the Duke Of Wellington 1830.’

Dick Whittington’s Cat

Normally at this time of year children would have been taken to the Panto, giving them an introduction to cross-dressing, crass jokes and mild peril. One of the established characters in this uniquely British tradition is Dick Whittington.

In the year that Dick will not be appearing on stage, also marks the bi-centenary of the Dick Whittington Stone, which has sitting upon it a black cat.

Traditionally Knowledge boys and girls touch the cat’s head to bring them luck at their next Appearance. Much like the tests to become London cabbies, the history of this monument is shrouded in mystery.

Everyone knows the story of Richard Whittington who having failed to make his fortune started to leave London and climbing up Highgate Hill heard the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside some 4 1/2 miles away (he must have had some pretty acute hearing) and took the peal to be giving him a message to return to the City.

The traditional rhyme goes:

Turn again, Whittington,
Once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!

He returned with his cat and the popular pantomime character was born.

The reality of this iconic site is more complicated but closer to actual events. The 1821 stone we see today was not the original. An engraving in Beauties of England published in 1776 reported that ‘the stone is a small pyramid mounted upon a larger pediment’, and was thought to have marked the spot of a leper hospital that stood opposite.

This stone was reported to have been sawn in half and placed on each side of Queen’s Head Lane, Lower Street, Islington (I understand that Lower Street was renamed Essex Road).

The current stone, inaugurated in 1821, is in two segments and was restored in 1935, even so, its inscription telling of medieval merchant and City dignitary Sir Richard Whittington is almost illegible:

Whittington Stone.
Sir Richard Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London.
1397. Richard II.
1406. Henry IV.
1420. Henry V.
Sheriff in 1393.

The cat surmounting the stone arrived later, in May 1964, when Dennis Biddett unveiled the cat upon the stone. The cat was carved by Jonathan Kenworthy, in polished black Kellymount limestone, looking back at London.

This and the iron railings are the only pieces we can date with some certainty, the story of the stone(s) is far more convoluted than I’ve described and can be read at IanVisits.

Featured image: Archant