Tag Archives: London curios

Soggy Angels

Today we expect the West End’s shopping streets to put up a show at Christmas, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case, with only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit. The Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be outdone. They hired a well-known Italian designer charged with producing a ‘tasteful’ display to rival their competitor.

[H]IS solution was to produce giant white flying angels made out of papier-mâché posed with their faces looking down serenely at the crowds below.

London in those days was renowned for rain, in fact, you could spot an American a mile-off for they came here prepared for their visit wearing the ubiquitous white raincoat, Columbo style. This particular November had seen an exceptional amount of rain, even by London standards.

The Italian designer just hadn’t taken in the fact that Northern Europe is considerably damper than the Mediterranean. Soon the press was running the story about Pregnant Angels, no doubt to the amusement of Oxford Street retailers.

Journalist and author Alf Townsend takes up the story:

I noticed a guy done up in heavy waterproof gear and wearing a yellow sou’wester. He was sitting on a cart that Westminster Council road sweepers used in those days and I thought to myself, “this bloke is out late”. He came over to ask for a light and we got talking. He said his job started after the traffic had died down and, picking up this long pole with a wicked-looking blade at the end, he told me that the pole could reach some 40 feet when it was extended. His job was to pierce the angel’s tummies and let the water out – hence his heavy waterproofs! We had a good laugh over it – especially when he said the guys back at the depot called him, “the Holy Terminator”.

The Regent Street ‘Angels’ can be found on the Guardian’s vintage photographs of Christmas in London.

Featured image: Regent Street – Angel Christmas Lights (2016-2018). The theme is angels, inspired by the first Regent Street Christmas lights in 1954, by Oast House Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Rolling Stone

London’s most travelled artefact has moved yet again. London Stone, a Grade II* chunk of limestone some 20″ wide, 16″ high and 17″ deep of a substance (oolitic) that is not local to the London area and is thought to be imported by the Romans.

For years it has remained behind an iron grill in an unprepossessing 1960’s office building at 111 Cannon Street, which originally housed the Bank of China in Cannon Street.

[L]ike the Tower’s ravens, legend has it that London’s very existence relies on a lump of rock remaining with the M25. Its providence is unknown, but as with these things, legends have attached themselves to this ironic artefact.

Here are some of my favourites:

It was a ‘millennium’, a Roman milestone that all distances from London could be measured and stood close to Cannon Street Station fortuitously outside the provincial governor’s palace.

Or, King Alfred in 886 decided to stand it at the centre of the grid of streets being built after Vikings had sacked the settlement.

Another is that Druids sacrificed virgins upon it using the rock as an altar. If this was true as John Stow’s Survey of London asserts, a supply of dwarf vestal virgins would have been needed annually as the ‘altar’s’ size is about that of a modern washing machine.

Another myth perpetrated by England’s greatest playwright is that the Stone is a ceremonial object which conquerors of London would lay claim to the city by striking the stone. Rebellion leader Jack Cade was purported to have struck the Stone with his sword. Unfortunately, Will Shakespeare included this event in Henry VI, Part 2.

In the 1862 publication ‘Notes and Queries’, a riveting read if ever there was one, claimed that: ‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish’. This myth is that England’s first King Brutus lugged the base of the original statue of Athena from Troy to a wet outpost in north-west Europe. And there was me thinking Athena was a poster shop selling pictures of knickerless tennis players which went broke.

Another curious myth that surrounds London Stone is that guardians have been assigned over time to protect this ancient piece of rock. The current Mayor of London being appointed the latest in a very long line.

Or it is a mark stone for several leylines.

This last fallacy was alluded to in the title of the post, in that the Stone has never been moved from its original position for fear of retributions. But is has been very mobile over the years, from facing the door of St. Swithin’s Church on the north side of Cannon Street, the Great Fire of London destroyed the surrounding buildings, the damaged Stone then had a cupola built over it. This proved a traffic hazard and it was moved adjacent to the new Wren designed St. Swithin’s Church.


London Stone behind bars opposite Cannon Street Station

Then after two more moves, it ended up in the south wall of St. Swithin’s Church, which German bombs then put pay to that sanctuary. It migrated to the Royal Exchange and then back to be opposite Cannon Street Station. Now it has been moved to the London Museum.

But for how long?

Dancing on the dead

You might have seen on the sidebar that my Christmas read has been Dirty Old London: The Victorians fight against filth by Lee Jackson. The book is a real eye-opener about just how awful were the conditions in the Capital 150 years ago. Almost every means of spreading contagion seems to have been employed.

One of my personal favourites, admittedly briefly mentioned, is the Enon Chapel.

[T]he chapel opened in April 1822 on Clements Lane which was roughly the site of the current London School of Economics. The incumbent of the chapel was certainly economical with his burial fees (fifteen shillings an internment), and the truth. It was built over an open sewer, hardly surprising as London had a labyrinth of rivers and gullies at that time, and the miasma or smell as we would call it today must have permeated throughout the chapel.

Children attending Sunday school during the summer observed a long narrow black fly appeared in the chapel in vast numbers, which they nicknamed ’body bugs’.

At this dubious place of worship attendees would hold handkerchiefs over their mouths during services and complained of a particular taste in their mouths. A wife of one of the congregation recorded that the odour was so bad she had to wash the handkerchief when her husband returned from Sunday service.

At that time grave robbing was commonplace so having a loved one interned in a church’s vault was regarded as the better alternative to graveyard burial, where families would keep vigil over a recently buried corpse until putrefaction has begun making the body valueless to the medical profession.

At the Enon Chapel Mr Howse offered, for a reasonable fee, internment in the chapel’s vaults. In fact 12,000 coffins were squeezed into a space 59 feet by 12 feet. The vanishing trick was accomplished by dropping the human remains into the sewer and breaking up the coffins, using the wood for cooking and heating.

The chapel had been, rather than a dubious place of worship by dissenting Baptist brethren, largely used as a burial speculation at a time when due to London’s rapid expansion, burial sites were at a premium.

The sewer was vaulted over about 1834 and until it closed in 1844 Howse probably used quicklime as a means to be rid of the bodies, although later large quantities of bones were subsequently found under the kitchen floor.

After the chapel’s closure its use took a bizarre twist when it was let out for various purposes.

Dancing-on-the-dead One was as a dance hall for teetotallers, the events were cheerfully known ’Dancing on the dead’. An old show bill from the time indicates that dancing on the dead was one of the attractions of the place: ‘quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels, &c. are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath. Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings’.

In a further twist near the chapel’s last days it was leased by George Walker, nicknamed ‘Graveyard Walker’, who had campaigned to end internment within the walls of a building. To promote his crusade to abolish this practice Walker threw open the doors of the chapel. The desiccated corpse of Howse, who had offered so many dubious cheap burials, was displayed for public inspection. The chapel lasted up until the 1890s.

As a footnote: When excavations on the site in 1967 prior to the building of The London School of Economics under its campus large quantities of bones were uncovered.

Ill met by moonlight

Rarely do I find myself in this illustrious road, which within it are the Russian and Israeli embassies, a palace and a house owned by the founder of London’s most famous up-market estate agents.

At night if you can ignore the police and, probably armed, embassy guards, what you notice is the soft glow emanating from the street lamps, for they are an example of the remaining 1,500 gas lamps left in London.

[T]here are not many places left in the capital where Dickensian London comes alive, but Kensington Palace Gardens is one of them. The lamps are a rare example of Victorian gas lamps maintained by just five lamplighters, a job so popular that a vacancy is rarely advertised by British Gas who provide their services.

Hardly imaginable now, but just over 150 years ago London at night was a very dark and menacing place. Link-boys named after their ‘links’ or torch wicks would lead the way through the darkened roads carrying a torch to get you home, unfortunately sometimes they would take you up an alleyway where accomplices would prey upon their victim.

The first experiment with gas lighting was William Murdoch, who worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt at their Soho Foundry steam engine works in Birmingham, England. After messing about with various types of gas in the early 1790s, Murdoch discovered that coal gas was the most effective, and used it to light up his own house in Redruth, Cornwall in 1792 – the first house lit by gas. In 1798 he used gas to light the main building of the Soho Foundry and four years later, wowed the locals by lighting the outside of the building.

Deeply impressed with the show was a fellow employee, Samuel Clegg, who promptly set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company. On the 28th January, 1807, the gas lamps on Pall Mall were lit by the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, making it the first street in the world to be illuminated by the warm glow of gas light. The occasion was to celebrate the birthday of King George III, and thousands turned up to witness the illuminated street.

Today our precious lamps are visited fortnightly, cleaned, have the glass polished and their mechanisms wound. The clockwork device inside turns the main gas jet which is ignited by the very small pilot flame which is continually burning. The flame then heats a silk-casing coated in lime-oxide which becomes white hot and gives off a warm glow.

This week saw the anniversary of the start of the great smog in 1952 which lasted from 5th to 9th December. Unable to find their way around London people would use the gas lamp pillars to get name. Each has the crest of the monarch at the time of manufacture. The glow of the lamp and identifying the crest enabled one to negotiate the city in the fog.

Photo: Pasta Free Runner.

Gardener’s Hut Soho Square

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building which you might have passed without noticing. Now virtually obscured by the building works of CrossRail this little tool shed is a uniquely London curio, which according to local legend contained the entrance to a secret tunnel that links to Buckingham Palace or could, it is thought, have been built by the Charing Cross Electricity Company in the 1920s, to hide an electricity substation.

[N]ow architecturally, the shed is, we are told, an octagonal market cross building in the Tudorbethan style and today the two-storey hut is a Grade II listed structure.

In the 1960s Soho Square was home to some very enterprising vagrants. Before the days when Westminster Council’s raison d’être was raising money from parking charges, you could leave a vehicle in the square at a place ’reserved’ by a chamois leather wielding chap, and for 2/6d have one’s car washed and guarded for the evening.

Soho Square had only been open to the public since April 1954. Previously named King’s Square for a statue of King Charles II once stood at its centre, and was possibly the earliest London square to be built around a purposely laid out and enclosed garden, which was created in 1680-81

In February 1886 the local residents had spent £1,200 on improvements; at which time the Monarch’s likeness had been removed. At the time so corroded by the London air nobody was sure if it was a likeness of the King or the Duke of Monmouth.

The statue was replaced by the present timbered structure. Part tool shed, part arbour, part pigeon perch. New railings by architect S. J. Thacker were erected and it is presumed the Elizabethan tool shed is also his work.

Recently a bench commemorating the late Kirsty MacColl was placed in the garden. An inscription reads ’One day I’ll be waiting there/No empty bench in Soho Square’. A line from the English singer-songwriter’s track Soho Square on her album Titanic Days.

The car washers of yesterday could have made use of that bench after their labours washing my car.

Gardener’s hut Soho Square by Panhard (CC BY-SA 3.0)