Tag Archives: London eccentrics

I could eat a horse, and other animals

The site of 37 Albany Street, near Regent’s Park was once home to naturalist William Buckland, Dean of Westminster, a fanatical animal collector and one of London’s strangest characters.

[T]O PROVE THE EFFICACY of bird droppings as fertiliser he once used great quantities of it to write the word ‘guano’ on the lawn at his Oxford College. When the summer came and the grass had grown well the letters could be clearly seen.

Buckland’s house was overrun with animals including two monkeys he let drink and smoke, some he slept with and others were kept till they died and then dissected or just left to rot. But Buckland’s taste for natural history extended further.

Culinary delights

He started the Society for the Acclimatisation of Animals which aimed to naturalise exotic animals to widen the nation’s diet. His wide circle of friends were guests at Albany Street and were treated to roasted hedgehog, grilled crocodile streak, slug soup, horse’s tongue, boiled elephant trunk, rhinoceros pie and boiled porpoise head which tasted like ‘broiled lamp-wick’. If you partook of his generous hospitality, the chances are that the dish of the day came from an animal that had roamed Buckland’s house and garden a little earlier as a pet.

The stewed mole was a dish that Buckland announced to be the most revolting thing he’d eaten, though this was before he tried ‘horribly bitter’ earwigs and ‘unspeakable’ bluebottles.

Buckland acquired exotic creatures when there was a death at nearby London Zoo. On one occasion returning from holiday he was furious to discover in his absence, the zoo had buried a dead leopard. Buckland eagerly dug it up for supper.

He showed no qualms in using his taste buds in pursuit of knowledge. Travelling to London on his horse one dark wintry night Buckland got lost, but trusting to his extraordinary sense of taste he simple dismounted, picked up a handful of earth, tasted it, shouted “Uxbridge!” and went on his way – if only London’s cabbies could do the same.

While visiting a cathedral where saints’ blood was said to drip on the floor, Buckland took one lick to determine the ‘blood’ was in fact bat urine.

A king’s heart

Buckland’s friend Edward Harcourt, Archbishop of York, was, like Buckland himself, a great collector of curiosities and had managed to obtain what was believed to be the shrunken, mummified heart of Louis XIV. He kept it in a snuff box in his London house and rashly showed it to Buckland during a dinner party. “I have eaten many things”, Buckland is reported to have said, “but never the heart of a King” and before anyone could stop him he
gobbled it up.

Picture: William Buckland in 1843.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 12th March 2013

Hanway’s pernicious brew

Hanway Street is a narrow street connecting Oxford Street with Tottenham Court Road and is named after Major John Hanway the developer whose eccentric nephew dared to invade the rights of coachmen. This ancient lane can be traced back to the time of Henry VIII, first known as Hanover Yard then named Hanway Yard. By the 1740’s it was developed and closely associated with coaching inns situated at this busy crossroads, it later was renamed Hanway Street.

[T]HE ENTERPRISING Major’s nephew was an interesting individual. After the death of his father, the result of a riding accident, Jonas Hanway at the age of 16 was sent to live with his uncle. The next year his uncle, keen to be rid of his charge, young Jonas was apprenticed as a merchant to an English factory in Lisbon.

Eccentric attire

It was here, during his 12-year stay that he developed eccentricities in dress and views. After a failed love affair he enjoyed the company of reformed prostitutes and against the custom of the day, would tip servant girls.

Returning to London he planned to lead an expedition to Persia to assess the trading of English broadcloth for Persian silks. Ambushed in Russia, with all his goods stolen, he was forced to escape in disguise.

The indefatigable Jonas then spent 5 years trying to recover his trade before returning to London in 1750. Here he developed his most famous eccentricities, always carrying a sword long after their use had fallen from fashion. He would wear flannel underwear and several pairs of socks to ward off ill-health.

He wrote an essay on tea, claiming it blackened one’s teeth, and which he considered the ‘flatulent liquor . . . pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation’ . . . causing ‘men to have lost their stature and comeliness, women their beauty and chambermaids their bloom.’

Portable room

Having failed to popularise the use of stilts as a way of sidestepping the muck and grime that covered 18th-century streets, his use of an umbrella which were only used by ladies to give shade and as a fashion accessory would bring ridicule but prove a useful shield against mud and stones hurled by mischievous boys.

The umbrella of Hanway’s, which at the time was called a portable room, could not be furled (it would be another 20 years before a folded version would be seen), and carrying one in the crowded streets of London proved unpopular not least from the coachmen and chairmen who carried sedans.

As with today, they regarded rain as a boost to their earnings. It was recorded that Hanway underwent:

All the staring, laughing, jeering, hooting, and bullying; and having punished some insolent knaves who struck him with their whips as well as their tongues, he finally succeeded in overcoming the prejudices against it.

The umbrella shop James Smith & Sons a short walk from Hanway Street has his portrait hanging in their shop, the first Londoner who owned an umbrella.

The Hanway Act

Hanway died at his home in Red Lion Square on 5th September 1786. During his life, he published 85 works, many about improving the lot of the poor. Hanway’s Act put on the Statute Book in 1762, required all London parishes to keep records of children in their care. He was governor of the Foundling Hospital and donated £50 to their cause.

In 1788 a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, the first-ever commemorating charitable deeds, for his philanthropic work.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th October 2013

Pull the other leg

A one-legged transvestite female impersonator could have lost England the American Colonies in a scandal that rocked Georgian society.

It was possibly the extraordinary life of Samuel Foote that provided the material for Peter Cook’s ‘One leg too few’ sketch when Cook turns to Dudley Moore portraying a ‘unidexter’ Tarzan “I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you”.

[B]ORN INTO WHAT AT ONE TIME had been one of the most illustrious families in England, a long-running dispute – reminiscent of Dicken’s Bleak House – over his mother’s inheritance, had left the family impoverished. Later send down from Oxford for idleness and ill-behaviour Foote was to spend time in a debtor’s prison.

First crime novelist

He would become the first person to write a true-crime novel recounting the murder at sea of one of his uncles by another uncle. He then went on to write some immensely popular plays, but if this had been the sum total of his success little be known about him today.

But in 1776 his life would change when the brother of King George III, the Duke of York played a practical joke on Foote to ride a horse. He was thrown off the animal and suffered a compound fracture of his leg. With medicine in its formative years, the only recourse for this kind of injury was to have the leg amputated.

A little remorseful for Foote’s lost leg the Duke persuaded his brother to give Foote’s fledgeling Hay Market Theatre a Royal Warrant. This is why today it is known as the Theatre Royal Haymarket, it is also the reason actors say ‘break a leg’ to wish fellow thespians good luck.

Foote turned the leg amputation to his advantage by writing many highly successful one-legged comedies with him in the starring role. A route that Peter Cook avoided when he penned the famous ‘Tarzan Sketch’, giving Dudley Moore the one-legged part.

Censors thwarted

The ever-resourceful Foote circumvented the censorship laws which forbade imitation of other people at that time. Any work written directly for a show had to be submitted to The Lord Chancellor. As much of his work was satirical Foote invented the tea party, which he charged its members for a dish of tea and they got a topical comedy on the side. This is why the Boston Harbour Riot was called the Boston Tea Party.

In 1776 his life would be turned upside down. By now one-legged Foote was Georgian London’s top celebrity, but his footman (presumably he only needed one footman) accused him of ‘sodomitical assault’. The press then erroneously named Foote’s accuser as Roger.

This gave the news periodicals the copy of a one-legged Foote ‘rogering’ a footman named Roger. To which retorted Foote “Sodomite? I’ll not stand for it”.

All this set Georgian society alight and as the coffee houses were discussing Foote’s predicament most failed to notice a certain Thomas Jefferson had written a rather good document declaring independence for his country, which had been ratified by 56 delegates to the Continental Congress.

The greatest lost figure of Georgian has now been the subject of an autobiography written by Ian Kelly who goes out on a limb to redress this oversight. Mr. Foote’s Other Leg.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 20th November 2012

Queen of Hell

Quite why at the age of 70 Elizabeth Gibbons decided to build an enormous house on the north side of Portman Square when she had a second home opposite remains a mystery.

She could certainly afford the luxury of two London houses. Having inherited her father’s Jamaican plantations as his sole surviving child, then to marry one of the Island’s richest men at the age of 16 to become a widow
13 years later.

[N]ine years after her first husband’s death on Christmas Day 1742 she remarried William the Eighth Earl of Home (pronounced Hume). Within eight weeks he left her to pursue men of a similar persuasion and his military career with the Dragoon Guards, later to die in Gibraltar in 1761.

With her inherited wealth from the Jamaican estates and the title of Countess of Home, she lived in a large house on the south side of Portman Square. Described as ’flamboyant, eccentric, given to swearing like a trooper’ with her gambling and drinking she was well known to the Irish chairmen.

These were the predecessors of today’s modern cabbies and were themselves a pretty rough bunch but, even they gave the moniker of ’Queen of Hell’.

She didn’t restrict her rough demeanour to the poor working classes, for she had engaged 26-year-old James Wyatt to design for her a large house on the north side of Portman Square.

Soon they fell out and she replaced Wyatt with his great rival Robert Adams to finish the job.

He produced one of London’s finest houses designed, it was said, to hang two very large full height portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland painted by Gainsborough – they now reside within the Royal Collection.

Home House stairs In Home House Adam produced a series of grand reception rooms leading to the Imperial Staircase which rises through the entire height of the house to a glass dome.

Built at the time when the abolitionist movement to the sugar industry and the slavery needed to produce it was on the rise amongst London intellectuals.

Her neighbour Elizabeth Montagu would hold abolitionist tea parties for up to 700 guests designed to raise the public’s awareness of how their daily sweet fix had been grown – ’As he sweetens his tea, let him consider the bitterness at the bottom of the cup’.

Home House might have been built on the proceeds of slavery but the Queen of Hell has given London one of its finest houses.

The house has recently been restored, having for some years housed the Courtauld Institute, and is now an exclusive Club.

Tiddy Dolls

When on The Knowledge one has to go out, find and memorise ’points’, places where you might reasonably he asked to take a passenger when driving a cab.

Some points are easily forgotten while others for various reasons stick in the memory.

One such place was, for me, Tiddy Dol’s Eating House, remembered, I suppose, for its unusual name. It closed in 1998.

[M]uch missed by many. An account by Lesley Styles recalls this quintessential English restaurant in its heyday. The name has always fascinated me and reading Lucy Inglis: Georgian London: Into the Streets
I discovered that this Mayfair Restaurant was the last of many eating houses given the same name – one of which Titty Doll’s (its name slightly changed) even operated from within Marshalsea Debtors Prison and run by a prisoner and his wife.

The origins of Tiddy Doll derive from a unique Georgian street seller. Nowadays we will buy popcorn while watching a movie, for the Georgians in 18th century London it was gingerbread that was eaten while being entertained while watching a hanging or any other outside amusement.

Tiddy Diddy Doll was a celebrated baker and vendor of gingerbread who obviously had a flare for self-publicity. With his stylish clothing, a laced hat topped with an ostrich plume, a laced ruffled shirt, a white gold suit of clothes, white silk stockings and a fine white apron, his apparel was more suited to a person of high rank. This led him to become known as ’The king of the itinerant tradesmen’.

He was in attendance at every public occasion, amusing the crowds with a constant stream of humorous patter. Often he would sing his own words to the tune of a popular ballad:

“Mary, Mary, where do you live now Mary?
I live, when at home, in the second house in Little Ball Street,
Two steps underground, a wiscum, a riscom, and a why-not.
Walk in ladies and gentlemen, my shop is on the second floor backwards
With a knocker on the door
Here is your nice gingerbread, your spice gingerbread
It will melt in your mouth like a red-hot brick-bat
And rumble in your insides like Punch and his wheelbarrow.”

He always ended by singing “Tiddy Diddy Doll”, lol, lol, lol” hence his nickname.

Such was his fame in popular culture of the day that his name became linked to popular sayings relating to a person who dressed above their station e.g., “You look quite the Tiddy Doll” or “You are as tawdry as Tiddy Doll.”

gillray-tiddy-doll Perhaps part of Tiddy’s success was a cutting satirical wit used to attract customers to his gingerbread. The famous print-maker James Gillray once depicted him in, ‘Tiddy-Doll, the great French Gingerbread-Baker, drawing out a new Batch of Kings’. The print [right] shows details such as a basket in the foreground, with the heads of men and women puppets wearing crowns and holding sceptres, peeking out. The basket is labelled ‘True Corsican Kinglings for Home Consumption and Exportation’. Nearby a fool’s cap forms a cornucopia containing ‘Hot Spiced Gingerbread! All hot – come who dips in my luckey bag’ – and spilling from it are coronets, crowns, sceptres, and a cardinal’s hat.

Whatever happened to Tiddy Doll, or what his true name was, seems to have been lost in the mists of time, in the reign of George II he was one of London’s most colourful and famous characters. He appeared in Hogarth’s ‘Southwark Fair’, people dressed up as Tiddy Doll for fancy-dress parties and chop-houses carried his name into the 20th century.