Category Archives: Puppydog tails

Another Cabinet of Curiosities

[U]nfortunately CabbieBlog’s first cabinet has now been filled with all manner of interesting London trivia. So as to show off my collection to visitors another one has been obtained and here CabbieBlog gives you a further London Cabinet of Curiosities:

Tube Trains Village Underground
Situated on a roof in Shoreditch High Street, Village Underground is the brainchild of the splendidly named furniture designer Auro Foxcraft, who claiming he couldn’t afford a studio decided to build his own. To do this he spent £25,000 obtaining four redundant Jubilee Underground Line carriages, craned them onto the roof of a Victorian warehouse – quite a task: they weigh around 26 tonnes each – and fashioning out of them a series of offices for writers, photographers and other arty types.

Elephants The Elephant House
On the western side of Duke Street in Brown Hart Gardens, this peculiar structure is referred to as the Elephant House; its title suggests a place where huge mammals once resided. The story is that Queen Victoria kept her elephants here; apparently Victoria acquired the elephants when she was appointed Empress of India, having received a herd of elephants as a gift from loyal Maharaja’s. These unfortunate animals were then shipped back to London and the Elephant House was built to provide the animals with some kind of comfortable habitat. The design has huge gates where an elephant could access entry and exit, and has entrance doors that have an eastern looking appearance. Unfortunately there is no evidence as to the authenticity of this story and it would appear that the Victorian architects who designed this unusual structure, were overindulging their creative minds.

Unfortunately this building has a more prosaic history; it was developed as an electricity substation in the late 1800s and so remains to this present day, generating electricity to the local Mayfair area.

Before being redesigned in 1903, the site had a communal garden with trees, benches and a fountain but had become a hangout for ‘undesirables’. The new structure therefore continued to provide residents with a communal garden while accommodating transformers below. But one other curious fact remains why is the ‘garden’ the only place in London where quarrelling is specifically forbidden by law?

Statute The mole that killed a king
This statute of William III is only there because the well-heeled residents of St James’s Square got fed up with the centre of their square used as a rubbish tip for kitchen rubbish, dead cats and scraps of timber. They wanted something in the middle to give the square purpose, rather than as a refuse dump and William of Orange seemed to good idea at the time. William’s statue was not initially popular so despite the resident’s enormous wealth, they refused to pay for it, than a merchant, Samuel Travers, bequeathed in his will funds for its completion. But the family contested the will and for the next 70 years the statute remained just on paper.

Molehill Eventually in 1806 the statute was finally completed, but there is something strange about it. A small molehill lies at the feet of Sorrel, the King’s horse. What is the molehill for? The answer is that William is said to have died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, resulting from a fall off his horse. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow.

William was the Protestant King brought to England from Holland to replace the last Catholic. King James. James’s supporters and all Jacobites then and now still toast ‘the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’. The mole that killed a king.

The saying ‘Dutch Courage’ also comes from William III’s reign. After the Thirty Years’ War British troops returned home with ‘Dutch Courage’. Soon gin distillation took place in England. King William III actively encouraged gin production and gin was sometimes given to workers as a part of their wages.

Coat Hook Secret policeman’s hook
This hook on the wall near the junction of Great Newport Street and Upper St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden is reputed to have been here since the 1870s. Probably used for holding a policeman’s cape while he directs traffic or possibly to let the garment dry after rain. As this junction nowadays is only congested with pedestrians was it a Victorian traffic hotspot? It’s a popular yarn, whether it’s true, who knows? All Cabbies on The Knowledge are expected to find it.

Famous Fictional Front Doors

[L]ondon has always been a rich seam for novelists, its diverse population from every corner of the world, 2,000 year history and a wonderful varied architecture makes for works of fiction.

Here is a CabbieBlog’s illustrated list of front doors that don’t exist:

new-black-door 280 Westbourne Park Road: Remember the famous blue door that belonged to Hugh Grant’s character in the 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill? When the movie was filmed, it belonged to Notting Hill writer and director Richard Curtis, after it became such a hit (the highest grossing British film to date, in fact), Curtis cleverly sold his home at a nice profit, nice work if you can get it. The new owners became tired of all the attention their famous blue door received and auctioned it off for charity, and a nondescript black door now stands in its place.

221b Baker Street 221b Baker Street: When Conan Doyle installed his great detective at No 221 the street numbering ran no further than 85. It was renumbered in the 1930s, with former building society Abbey National landing the desirable 221. For a period, Abbey even assigned staff to answer correspondence addressed to Sherlock Holmes. In 1990, a Sherlock Holmes Museum open on the street, and despite its address being 237, Westminster Council allowed it to adopt the number 221b. All Sherlock Holmes letters, however elementary, are no handled there.

27a Wimpole Street 27a Wimpole Street: “I have often walked down this street before”. The masculine book lined study occupied by Professor Henry Higgins who takes a bet from Colonel Pickering that he can transform unrefined, dirty Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady in My Fair Lady are supposedly at this address, although in reality the premises are occupied by a doctors’ surgery.

110a Piccadilly 110a Piccadilly: Why Dorothy L. Sayer invented a fictional address for her great character Lord Peter Wimsey she inserted an ‘a’ in the address, suggesting either an act of homage to Sherlock Holmes or a sly parody. Unfortunately as a front door it remains fictional for the Park Lane Hotel ballroom occupies the site.

Cracking the Coade

Standing on Westminster Bridge guarding the gateway to south London stands the 13-ton South Bank Lion, made from London’s famous artificial stone, said to be the most durable and weatherproof of any such material so far invented. Patented by Richard Holt and manufactured in his Lambeth yard from 1720 for 40 years this stone was successfully modified in 1769 by unmarried ‘Mrs’ Coade by the addition of finely ground glass and prefired clay.

[O]ver the next 70 years Coade Artificial Manufactory as it became known, produced a range of garden nymphs, sphinxes, statutes, busts and other ornamental features for buildings, Coade stone can be found at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and on the tomb of Captain Bligh in the churchyard of St. Mary-at-Lambeth.

As it says on one of its paws the South Bank Lion was completed in May 1837 just three years before the factory closed with a loss of the stone’s precise composition formula.

Our Lion first graced the Lion brewery on the south bank of the Thames near where Hungerford Bridge now stands. Painted red and standing high over the entrance archway he even survived the Blitz. The brewery was demolished in 1949 and our Lion disappeared to emerge to grace the Festival of Britain in 1952. Two years later at the King’s suggestion the Lion was placed at the entrance to Waterloo Station.

He has only stood in his current position since 1966. When it was moved several items of interest were found in a recess in the lion’s back, they included two coins from the time of William IV and a trade card of the Coade family, so when the Lion was moved to its present site a 1966 coin and a copy of The Times for 17th March 1966 were added to the original items.

The lab boys have rather broken the myth of a lost formula for Coade Stone having recreated it perfectly in a laboratory in the British Museum.

If you want to have a go this is how you go about it:

Its manufacture requires special skills: extremely careful control and skill in kiln firing, over a period of days. This skill is even more remarkable when the potential variability of kiln temperatures at that time is considered. Mrs Coade’s factory was the only really successful manufacturer.

The formula used was:
10% of grog (see below)
5-10% of crushed flint
5-10% fine quartz (to reduce shrinkage)
10% crushed soda lime glass.
60-70% Ball clay from Dorset and Devon.

The ‘grog’ was made up of finely crushed fired items, such as pitchers (ware that has been fired but rejected due to the presence of faults). This was also referred to as “fortified clay” which was then inserted (after kneading) into a kiln which would fire the material at a temperature of 1,100 degrees Celsius for over four days.

As a further blow to his mythical status our Lion’s manhood was reworked after being considered too large once he came down from his high archway over the brewery gate.

Grub Street

Grub Street

[T]his is a perfect post for your humble scribe, for the term Grub Street describes the world of impoverished journalists and literary hacks. Originally Grub Street possibly meant a street infested with worms, or more likely named after a man called Grubbe. But since the 17th century is has been used in connection with needy authors and poor journalists. Dr Johnson said it was “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems”, which seems to sum up CabbieBlog perfectly.

Even though this street was renamed Milton Street in 1830, the world of hack writers is still known as Grub Street. The inhabitants of this now metaphorical place churn out words without any regard for their literary merit. They were often called penny-a-liners. A Grub Street writer is also called a hack writer, which is another London allusion: Hackney in East London, was the place where horses suitable for routine riding or driving were raised. The word hack, in related senses, is a short form of hackney, and now, of course, refers to taxis or Hackney Carriages.

As any writer would tell you, publishing is a long and slow journey, but according to London cabbies it’s only five minutes from Grub Street to Fleet Street. Unfortunately there was much rebuilding in the area following war damage, and since the 1960s the pedestrian seeking to turn into Milton Street from Fore Street is faced with a solid block of buildings. The coffee shops and mean lodgings have long gone, and we will surely not meet Dr Johnson on his late night wanderings. No matter: as long as there are writers in the land, Grub Street lives on.

“To succeed in journalism”, the late Nicholas Tomalin once wrote, “you need three qualities: a rat like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability . . . There are still some aspects of the Grub Street trade that can be learnt with a little application.”

A lot more information about this long lost street whose name lives on can be found if you have rat like cunning and care to follow this link.

London’s fame menagerie

Camberwell Beauty Camberwell Beauty
First identified in this corner of south-east London around 1748, this butterfly has been adopted as the borough’s icon after the library in Wells Way portrayed a giant mural on its wall in 1920, consisting of ceramic tiles from the Doulton factory in Lambeth. It was painted over during the war when Nazi Lord Haw-Haw in his broadcasts boasted that the Luftwaffe used it for navigation.


Old Cheshire Cheese Cheshire Cheese Parrot
This remarkable bird, long-time resident of Fleet Street’s famous pub could mimic almost anything, and as a result she acquired a very blue vocabulary. Famously garrulous and rude about visitors she didn’t like, Polly celebrated the end of the First World War in 1918 in her own way. She imitated the noise of champagne corks popping an estimated 400 hundred times and then fell off her perch suffering from exhaustion. Upon her death in 1926 the BBC announced solemnly her demise on the wireless, and her obituary appeared in more than 20 newspapers worldwide, it was probably the last time a parrot was so honoured.

800px-Guy_the_Gorilla_statue Guy the Gorilla
Arriving at London Zoo on 5 November 1947, hence his name, Guy proved to be one of the Zoo’s most popular residents, and as my father worked in the zoo, as a young man I’ve been in the cage with Guy when he, and I, were very young. Sadly dying 30 years later his statute is to be seen at the zoo, with another in Crystal Palace. Alas Guy’s body remains forever stuffed at the National History Museum.


Jumboride Jumbo the Elephant
London’s first African elephant arrived at Regents Park in 1865, for fifteen years he enjoyed the affection of an adoring public (even as elephants in Africa were being slaughtered wholesale for their ivory tusks). But perhaps boredom set in, for in 1881 he became increasingly grumpy and unpredictable, and the rides were stopped. Against public opposition he was sold to Barnum’s Circus were they shipped him to America and promptly allowed him to be killed by a train.


Kaspar Kasper the Cat
Nearing completion of a multi-million pound makeover the Savoy in its time would keep a large figure of a cat in the event that 13 people would sit down to dinner. To allay any fears of bad luck that might ensue, the dinner guest list would be made up to a more acceptable number 14. It remains to be seen if the Savoy’s new owners revive this quaint and idiosyncratic custom.



Dick Whittington’s Cat
The 4-times Lord Mayor of London could have had a cat if only to keep down London’s rat population (which has been attributed to the spread of the Plaque). Whittington funded the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal and during a recent restoration the mummified remains of a cat were discovered.

Cocky the Cockatoo
Probably London Zoo’s most long lived bird that died in 1982; this uninspired named bird outlived five Monarchs after arriving in London during reign of Queen Victoria.