Tag Archives: London curiosities

First and Last

Leafing through my 1951 copy of cabbie Hugh Pearman’s Curious London, it shows a very different city than today.

The book promises to be:

An illustrated guide to the curious things in the twenty-nine boroughs and cities that make up the county of London.

This description alone shows how much London has changed over time.

Each area appeared in alphabetical order with six photos from the area and a description for each. Under The Royal Borough of Kensington, I came across Old Court Place Fire Station.

The LFB Enthusiast website gives the following details:

Command District: Western Opened: 1904
Address: 13 Old Court Place, Kensington High Street, London W8 4PL

It also gives this caution which I heeded “Please be aware that if you plan to visit/photograph this fire station, it is located next to the Israeli Embassy and armed Police Officers patrol the area”.

Kensington Fire Station replaced an earlier station of 1871 in King Street, which was demolished to make way for the expansion of Barker’s Department Store. Fire station designs from other cities across the world were examined to achieve a solution to enable a rapid response without separating men from their families, by accommodating the single men, who crewed the first turn-out, directly above the appliance room, while married quarters were located in the rear block. The station was one of the first to incorporate sliding poles for firemen, a feature copied from American fire-fighting practice.

Hugh Pearman captions his photograph as follows:

This Fire Station in Old Court Place was the last to use horses. At one time, in its stables were kept 300, but this great number eventually dwindled two bay mares, Lucy and Nora, who on returning from their last fire about Christmas time 1921 were received in state by the chief of the L.C.C. [London County Council] who gave them sugar and carrots, served on a silver tray.

So there you have it, one of the first London fire stations to use a pole when on a shout, and the last to have a horse-drawn tender.

Beavering away

Before CrossRail cabbies would pass the rear of Henry Heath’s Hat Factory as they negotiated the ‘Dirty Dozen’ twelve roads that once connected Regent Street with Tottenham Court Road.

[I] HAVE OFTEN GLANCED at the decorated tradesmens’ entrance of his factory in Hollen Street [featured] – the richly decorated back entrance while the customers entered his shop at 105-109 Oxford Street.

Boasting of his contribution to ‘rational dress’ with a Royal Warrant as ‘Hat manufacturer to King Alphonso and the Royal Court of Spain’ Henry Heath proudly boasted how he only sold direct from Ye Hatterie on Oxford Street and sneered at the idea of supplying other shops where customers wouldn’t experience his impeccable service.

During Victoria’s reign most gentlemen wore a hat for occupational use, or as a fashion accessory, and the top hat was literally at the top end of the titfer market. Replacing the tricorne they were known as a toppers, chimney pots and stove pipes.

Arrested for wearing a hat

In 1797 a certain Mr Hetherington wore a top hat on the streets of London it was said that a large crowd gathered around, inducing such chaos that the gentleman was arrested and accused of disturbing the public order, the officer who dealt with the problem went on to testify that:

Hetherington had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.

Henry Heath’s hat factory once employed upwards of 70 people. An advertisement at the time asked: Why Wear an Ill-Fitting hat? They could be assured of solving this annoying sartorial problem with a visit to Henry Heath’s subjecting their craniums to a ‘successful system of Head Measurements ensure the luxury of a well-fitting Hat adapted to the form of the Wearer’s head’.

A stone relief of King George IV, fairly unrecognisable as a Roman emperor crowned with leaves can still be seen above one of the windows of Heath’s shop, with the date 1822 most likely referring to the firm’s establishment. Next to it is a young Queen Victoria, 1887 being the date the premises were rebuilt.

Henry Heath-1 The biggest surprise is what accompanies the two Monarchs. Four North American beaver perch on the gables of Henry Heath’s hat emporium – an unlikely place as any for the nocturnal, semi-aquatic, tree-chewing animal.

Beaver was hunted to near extinction simply because the most desirable top hat was covered with felted beaver fur. Hundreds of thousands of pelts were shipped from America.

Mad as hatters

To separate the fur from the pelts, factory workers soaked the skins in a compound of mercury. Unfortunately, fumes from the chemical had the unpleasant side-effect of poisoning their nervous systems. This made them drool, tremble, talk gibberish and have bouts of severe paranoia, giving rise to the expression mad as a hatter. Heath ensured these unfortunate souls were kept well away from customers.

When beaver colonies were wiped out and less discerning manufacturers slipped rabbit fur in the mix, Victorian fashion readjusted and the reign of the silk hat began.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 15th October 2013

London’s Beer Flood

Near the Dominion Theatre was one of the most deprived areas of London, and the scene of the Capital’s most bizarre tragedy – the London beer flood. Before New Oxford Street was constructed the area behind Centre Point, the St. Giles area, was a rookery where some of the poorest of London lived in dirty, cramped conditions, and on the boundary of the rookery, on the site of the Dominion Theatre stood the Meux’s Brewery.

[A] popular beer at that time was porter, a dark beer which originated in London during the early 18th century. Prior to that beer was distributed to the publican “very young” and aging was performed in the ale house, porter was the first beer to be aged at the brewery and dispatched to be drunk immediately. It was also the first beer which could be made on a large scale, and as it was invented in London and drunk by London’s porters it naturally became known as London Porter.

Three or four pints a day

Working in London’s markets were thousands of porters and manual labourers who would daily consume three or four pints or this dark heady brew that had an alcohol content of between 6.6 and 7.0% ABV.

london-beer-floodThe brewing process of porter enabled producers to make it on an industrial scale, building ever larger vats to accommodate its growing demand. Meux’s Brewery Company had by 1795 vats 22-foot high that could contain 8.4 million pints of beer. So large were these barrels, upon the completion of a new one a reception would be held and one account relates that 200 diners sat down to a meal within its gigantean walls.

This highly profitable enterprise came to an end on Monday 17th October 1814 at about six in the evening, when a corroded hoop on a large barrel prompted the sudden release of over 2 million pints of beer. The explosion could be heard some five miles away. It destroyed the brewery wall and badly damaged two houses.

Drowned in beer

Some were drowned by the tsunami of beer and others were overcome by the fumes, while an even greater number hampered in rescue while using pots of collect this manna from heaven. The area, as today, was very flat and rescuers were sometimes up to their waists in beer trying to evacuate people from their basements.

Some nine people died that day as a direct result of the accident, and one victim died some days later of alcohol poisoning; he had heroically attempted to stem the tide by drinking as much beer as was humanly possible.

As with the way of the poor in those days, to try and make ends meet families displayed the victim in their house propped up in an armchair for inspection at a small fee. In one house so many crowded into the room that the floor collapsed, the spectators plunging into the basement, which was of course was full of beer.

The smell of beer lasted for months and many lost their homes and livelihoods, while the Meux Brewery was taken to court over the accident, the judge ruled that the calamity was an Act of God with the deaths simply casualties.

Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi once said: “Bacchus has drowned more men than Neptune”. He could have been talking about 18th century London.

Picture from Los Flowers’ Flickr stream.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 10th January 2012

Marking Time

Islington might today be trendy with little crime, it certainly wasn’t at the turn of the last century. Then, unlike today, a policeman had to walk his beat, a certain presence to deter criminal activity and reassure the public.

One place in need of policing was Myddelton Passage, just behind modern Sadler’s Wells Theatre. At the time this was a narrow footpath frequented by prostitutes and thieves.

[S]o the local constabulary decided to position a policeman to guard this little alley. But what was the poor chap to do during these lonely evenings?

Today, should you pass an embassy guarded by SO6 you’ll often see them looking at their phones, rather than scanning the locality in which nothing seems to be amiss.

For the Edwardian plod, he had no such distraction and so a tradition seems to have arisen where members of the Metropolitan Police G Division (Finsbury) based out of King’s Cross Station, carved their collar numbers in the soft brickwork on a wall running one side of Myddelton Passage.

In addition, some officers added their initials and even their full name.

Curiously the incisions are only located in one area of the wall, with the rest of the brickwork untouched, posing the question: were the officers instructed to stand for hours at one point mid-way along the passage to deter miscreants?

Research by Peter Guillery from English Heritage and Margaret Bird of the Metropolitan Police Service historical archives have even tracked down some of these would-be Banksys.

Further images of inscribed bricks may be found at Cabbie’s Curios: The Policemen’s Wall.

Four chairs

Recently I was lucky to be given the opportunity to give a London tour of my favourite parts of the capital to some friends, one of which is a painter blessed with a considerable talent.

So, naturally, the tour was given an ‘artistic’ slant and curiously featured some of the capital’s chairs.

Our first stop, on the full day tour, was St. Mary’s, Battersea, where J. M. W. Turner in his latter years would paint.

[W]hen Turner decided to return to London with his Margate landlady Mrs Booth he lived with her at Davis Place, Chelsea (now 119 Cheyne Row), under the pseudonym of Admiral Booth. It was his habit of a morning to ask on old waterman, Charles Graves if he predicted a fine day. Given to set-fair he would employ Graves to ferry him across the river to St. Mary’s, Battersea a little upriver from his home. Later Graves’ son, a painter and waterman, would later row James Abbott McNeil Whistler about Chelsea Reach.


Turner’s chair

From the vestry, Turner would view the Thames through an oriel window and paint some of his sublime works. The chair he would rest upon, now predictably called Turner’s Chair, is still to be found within the church.

Our next chair was at Truefitt and Hill the oldest barbershop in the world, considering they claim to count many of the rich and famous among their clients, surprisingly they were good enough to let us see the chair used by, among others, Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein. A current customer, although not seated within their august walls at the time, is the Duke of Edinburgh.


Churchill’s chair

Next ‘chair’ was a fictional one. In 1951 Abbey National hosted a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain. It featured much Holmes’ ephemera including crumpets supplied each day by a local baker and left on a plate with two different sets of bite marks. When the exhibition was over, it went on a world tour before returning to London.


Sherlock’s chair

A publican of a Charing Cross pub, the Northumberland Arms (then re-named The Sherlock Holmes), bought it exhibits and put them on display in an upstairs room where it remains to this day. It features what Holmes’s study would have looked in Victorian London.

Our last ‘chair’ was considerably less comfortable, and connected to a profession being decimated by the burgeoning cab trade; much like our modern nemesis – Uber. A short walk from Shakespeare’s Globe is Bear Gardens and near its original location is a ferryman’s seat. It is quite narrow and very uncomfortable, presumably early cabbies were more stoic – and thinner than today.


Ferryman’s chair

Although the exact age of the seat is unknown, it’s most likely to have been established around the 12th or 13th century; a period when London was beginning to spread south, where Southwark was gaining a reputation as a seedy but popular entertainment district.

Unfortunately, the city had just one river crossing – London Bridge – the result of which caused jams, which it could take over an hour to cross the river. Combined to this was the additional hazards of mugging in the slow moving traffic and getting contents of chamber pots which were lobbed out of the ramshackle houses lining the bridge.

The ferrymen provided this efficient form of transport until the building, in Victorian times, of London’s bridges, and cabbies were prepared to go ‘Sarf’ of the River.

Featured picture: The Thames above Waterloo Bridge J. M. W. Turner, painted in the 1830s. This unfinished painting takes us to the heart of the smoky commercial capital which, though a Londoner by birth and resident for most of his life, Turner usually preferred to depict from a distance. Here he looks along the Thames towards Waterloo Bridge © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0)