Tag Archives: London eccentrics

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.

England’s Rich Impact on Gambling History

There is a long history of English stereotypes involving heavy gambling, and it should be no surprise as England has a rich history of gambling. Once a hobby of the highest class of society, gambling has found its way into the world’s eye as one of the most popular pastimes of all types of people. England might not have started gambling, but it sure made it a spectacle and an exclusive club, and is a huge part of what has made gambling so popular in the modern era.

[J]ust a short few hundred years ago, the place to be in high society England was in a gentleman’s club. Many exclusive clubs existed, but a few had such renown that they live on by name alone throughout history. Two of the biggest names to remember are White’s and Brook’s, the unofficial headquarters of the Tory and Whigs parties, respectively. Men were ‘elected’ to the clubs by unanimous vote – even one ‘no’ was sufficient to deny entry. As a result, these clubs were highly exclusive and offered private areas where upper class men could socialize and gamble, without the interference of commoners.

Clubs were organized for all sorts of groups, there was even a club for drivers. Naturally, as the best clubs were frequented by upper class men looking to escape from everyday life, gambling was a huge hit and became the main focus of many clubs. Bets were wagered on pretty much anything, from births and deaths to sports or dares. Many of the more extreme bets have been immortalized by history, either because the wager itself was absurd, or the amount wagered was simply so extreme it could not be forgotten.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of crazy bets was back in the early 1800s, when Lord Alvanley replaced Beau Brummell as ‘arbiter elegantiarum’, the most socially influential person in the club. Alvanley famously bet a friend three thousand pounds over which of two raindrops would hit the bottom of a window first. Of course, ridiculous bets have been made throughout history, including a wager over who the ugliest man in Britain is.

More recently, amazing bets have been made that rival those of the past, and they are definitely worth a mention. In 2004, Ashley Revell amazingly bet his entire life’s worth on a single roulette spin, managing to pull through and double his value. He reportedly gave the dealer a hefty tip, said thank you, and returned to England, where he invested his winnings and continued on with his life. Even better, Russian Andrei Karpov bet his own wife as a last resort in a poker game, which he also lost. If that wasn’t enough, she actually left him of her own will when she found out about the bet—marrying the man he lost to.

If these outrageous bets aren’t enough for you, just remember that some people bet on events they think are ‘sure wins’, such as the football match in which Mali was down to Angola 4-0 with 11 minutes left. For the people who bet their life’s savings on Angola, only to see it slip away in mere minutes, perhaps the famous bets in history are not all that impressive.

Of course, people bet on anything and everything, and while most people make friendly bets or cling to low wagers, as they are not actually willing to risk their livelihoods, people still have a huge history of outrageous gambles. This is especially true in England, which is known for being a fan of betting. Intercasino even has a game called Pints and Pounds, which draws upon the English gambler stereotype. While the nation’s history of gambling might be known around the world, and many might not view gambling as the noblest of sports, it is something to be proud of. Many table games such as poker are becoming accepted as sports, and gambling has grown into one of the world’s leading businesses – it is all thanks to the English and their gambling clubs.

This is a Guest Post by Jackson Stiles. Jackson is a talented writer who enjoys learning about history and culture. In his spare time, he loves to travel and try new foods, hang out with his friends, and dance like no one is watching. Should you wish to be published please check out my Write a Post page.

Mole Man resurfaces

It has all the ingredients of a Grand Designs programme for Channel 4, Kevin McCloud walking through the rubble and telling viewers that the restoration of 121 Mortimer Road poses problems not seen before and unlikely to be featured on any subsequent show. You might recall in 2006 the house’s previous owner was given the epithet ‘Mole Man of Hackney’ when it emerged that William Lyttle had gained the reputation of one of London’s finest eccentrics.

[F]or 40 years the civil engineer had secretly burrowed a labyrinth of tunnels under his house, spreading up to 22 yards in every direction, removing an estimated 3,500 cubic feet of soil.

William Lyttle One apocryphal story was that he claimed to be digging to the local bank to break into its vault only to discover that when he arrived it had become a wine bar, but Mr. Lyttle always claimed he just had a very big basement for use as a wine cellar.

His neighbours begged to differ when one of his tunnels collapsed in 2001 leaving a hole in the pavement above, or another time when he cut a 420 volt cable plunging the street into darkness.

It eventually became too much for even the liberal Borough of Hackney and in 2009 he was moved to, presumably, a flat above the ground floor in Lawrence Court and billed for £100,000, the cost of stabilizing the street. With Mr. Lyttle safely above ground level the council removed 40 tonnes of excavated gravel and junk from his back yard.

In June 2010 William Lyttle died taking with him the reason for his extreme DIY, but he left one lasting legacy. It is reported that while at the flat Mr. Lyttle couldn’t resist knocking a hole between the kitchen and living room.

The 20-room detached house in Mortimer Road was put up for auction with a guide price of £750,000 with planning permission to demolish and build two new 4-storey townhouses in its place.

In the event the property was sold for £1.12 to artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble who once prophetically produced a piece entitled The Undesirables’, which comprised a mountain of detritus collected from outside their house with a shadow image of the artists above. The artists have hired architect David Adjaye to come up with a design retaining as much of the original property and trace the existing print of the area dug out in order to create a basement space.

If they go ahead, as a lasting tribute to Mole Man will they excavate the trashed four wrecked Renault 4 cars, a boat, several baths and fridges and numerous TV sets under his home? They are still there, encased in the concrete used to shore up the property.

Photo: 121 Mortimer Road Mark Pilkington (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo: William Lyttle Christine Quigley

April Fool

In Berners Street there now has as its most famous building the Sanderson Hotel in a building which was once the headquarters of the famous furnishing designers with whom it shares its name. Because the building is Grade II* listed the name was retained when converting it to its present use. The hotel’s guests might be surprised to discover that this quiet West End backwater was once the address of one of London’s most spectacular pranks.

[T]heodore Hook was an inveterate joker who while passing 54 Berners Street made a wager with his friend Samuel Beazley that he could transform the aforementioned house into the most talked-about address in London.

Under the pseudonym of Mrs Tottenham (Tottenham Street being a few yards distant) Hook sent out thousands of letters requesting deliveries, visitors and assistance.

On 27th November 1810 stationed in a house opposite the two watched as the ensuring chaos would bring a large part of London to a standstill.

The day started early as the maid opened the door at five o’clock to a chimney sweep, she would inform his and the other eleven that followed that their services were not required.

Theodore_Hook There then followed a procession of tradesmen delivering large quantities of coal, cake makers presenting wedding cakes, deliveries of potatoes, feathers, harpsichords, cranberry-tarts, fishmongers, shoemakers all trades were well represented.

Next to arrive were doctors, lawyers, vicars and priests along with The Lord Mayor summoned to the death-bed confession of someone within the house. Unsurprisingly undertakers carrying coffins arrived soon after.

The street was becoming gridlocked with confused tradesmen and bemused onlookers. Next to arrive were over a dozen pianos and accounts at the time reported ‘six stout men bearing an organ’ arriving.

By the afternoon the Governor of the Bank of England, the Lord Chief Justice, the Commander of the Chief of the Army and the Archbishop of Canterbury came to pay their respect to the ‘widow’ within, but Hook’s piece de resistance was the arrival of the Duke of Gloucester.

Many who knew Hook suspected he was the perpetrator, but he managed to evade detection and laid up for a week or two before embarking on a tour of the country.

Later having no knowledge of accounting but with a gift of improvising song (and do doubt his gift of the gab) he persuaded the Prince Regent to appoint him, at a salary of £2,000 a year, as Accountant-General of Mauritius where he spent five delightful years until his deceit was discovered along with a shortfall of £12,000. Returning to England he managed to evade prison and would go on to write many novels during his life and started the magazine John Bull.

Main picture: Sanderson Hotel from Fitzrovia News (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)