Tag Archives: London curiosities

Sit on Bismarck’s Bench

The ‘baby-boomers’ among you will recall the name, Bismarck. At the beginning of World War II, it was the name of the most powerful battleship in the world. In 1960 the film Sink the Bismarck starring Kenneth More was released and became for many the defining account of naval battles.

The ship was named after Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg, known as Otto von Bismarck.

It was he who was instrumental in unifying Germany in the second half of the 19th century. In 1885, as Germany’s Chancellor, he came to England on a state visit, and having expressed an interest in English ale he was taken to the now forgotten Barclay Brewery in Southwark.

Naturally, at the end of the tour, eager to prove English beer was the equal of the German variety, he was asked if he would like to partake a ‘drop’ of the company’s strongest brew.

A delighted Bismarck was given a half-flagon full of their finest. Etiquette demanded that the visitor would take just a sip and hand the flagon back.

Somehow the courtesy was lost in translation and Bismarck emptied the half-flagon. The manager, probably to hide his embarrassment, commentated to the Chancellor that very few men had ever drunk two half-gallon tankards. In true Germanic tradition, Bismarck proved them wrong by insisting on a refill and proceeded to down the second.

After leaving the brewery his carriage was passing over Westminster Bridge, when one of Europe’s most powerful men ordered his vehicle to stop, alighted and promptly lurched towards a bench. Giving instructions to be woken an hour fell into a deep sleep as senior members of the Foreign Office waited patiently for the slumbering Chancellor to awake.

On the hour he awoke, refreshed and continued his State visit unperturbed.

Alas, the bench opposite Boudica’s statue has been removed and lost, but Scottish brewers BrewDog have risen to the occasion admirably.

Sink The Bismarck is believed to be the strongest beer in the world with a 41 per cent alcohol content and costing £55 for a 330ml bottle. I would like to see the current Chancellor knock that back.

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.