Tag Archives: London eccentrics

Mayfair’s leering peer

When the Les Enfant terribles of apparel arrived at London’s centre of bespoke tailoring of all places opposite Prince Charles’s tailor the makers of sartorial elegance were up in arms to protect their image. Even worse when Messrs. Abercrombie & Fitch opened their flagship store at 7 Burlington Gardens shoppers were greeted by male models stripped to the waist.

[A]ll this might be seen as innovative edgy retail and the American retailers must have thought they were the first owners of that property to shock – how wrong they were. This grand building, known as Queensbury House was once owned by The Duke of Queensbury who seems to have spent his long life as a gambler, drinker and notorious womaniser.

He was the last person to employ a running footman, during one interview for the post; the candidate was given a full livery outfit to wear, despite the particularly hot weather. He was then made to run back and forth in front of the house while the Duke timed him from the balcony. When the Duke shouted “You’ll do for me”, the candidate briskly replied, “and this” (pointing at the gold braided uniform) “will do for me!” at which point he sprinted off, never to be seen again.

William_Douglas,_4th_Duke_of_Queensberry_by_John_Opie The Duke seems to have single handily stopped the consumption of milk in London, for he was said to believe bathing in milk ‘maintained his potency’ and gallons were needed for each bathe, for many years Londoners avoided drinking milk because they feared it may have come from his bath.

In 1752 he moved to 17 Arlington Street, for the primary reason that it was next door to Miss Frances Pelham to whom had come to the attention of his lecherous eyes. Miss Pelham’s brother, the Hon. Henry Pelham, was not enamoured of Lord March as he was then, as a suitor for his sister and had him thrown out of the house. His Lordship was undaunted; he had a bow window built in his house which commanded a view of a convenient window of Miss Pelham’s so he could continue his ardent courtship with her.

He was given the Dukedom in 1778 at the age of 58 when his uncle the Third Duke of Queensbury died having been predeceased by his two children.

The newly ennobled Duke of Queensbury then took up residence in his Mayfair home and pursued a long and distinguished career as a gambler, drinker and womaniser until his death 203 years today on 23rd December 1810.

Sarah Baartman In his latter years the Duke would sit on the balcony and leer at passing ladies. If any took his fancy he’d have his butler run down and pass lewd messages to them. At the ripe old age of 85 the Duke had Sarah Baartman, the South African Hottentot Venus brought to the house so he could minutely examine her voluptuous figure in private. [ A caricature of Baartman drawn in the early 19th century left ] Regularly lampooned the Duke was known as ’The Star of Piccadilly’ for what the poet Wordsworth satirised his lifestyle in a sonnet as ’degenerate Douglas’.

For all his womanising he is better known for being an inveterate gambler. Men with too much money and time on their hands would wager obscene sums of money on trivial events – which droplet of water will reach the bottom of a window pane, is one often quoted. A member of White’s Club, in 1749 he placed a wager that became known as ’The Race Against Time’. Written in its famous betting book, it’s still in existence and reads:

‘Col Waldegrave betts Ld. March fifty guineas, that his Lordship does not win the Chaise match. N.B. Ld Anson goes col Waldegrave halves. paid.’

In short the Duke wagered that he could get a four wheeled carriage carrying a man and drawn by four horses to run a course of nineteen miles in an hour. It seems incredible now that this should seem so stupendous, but many of that time would have thought it impossible – because even if the state if the roads been better, carriages were heavy and cumbersome, without springs or tyres.

He immediately put all his ingenuity to the problem for he had bet another thousand guineas on the outcome. The rules were carefully regarded and, as no carriage body was required, this was stripped away from the frame by carriage makers he had contracted.

In fact he commissioned several carriages to be built, and at great expense, to find the fastest, lightest one for the race. Even the equipment was given careful scrutiny and the traces were made of silk and harnesses of silk and whalebone. The total weight of the carriage and harness was an incredible two and a half hundredweight.

The event took place on Newmarket Heath on 29th August 1750 at seven o’clock in the morning. Lord Queensbury was a spectator; the dubious privilege of riding in the ‘carriage’ with no seat, no support and little to cling on to was given to his groom. It was said they went off so fast that the carriage had covered four miles in the first 9 minutes. In fact the entire nineteen miles was covered in a phenomenally fast 53 minutes and 27 seconds.

Towards the end of his life Queensbury made a notable figure about London when he drove out. He always wore dark green and had long tailed black horses, and in winter he would also carry a muff. Two servants were seated behind him and his groom, Jack Radford followed on horseback ready to execute any commissions. As Radford’s commissions were usually taking notes and messages to desirable looking girls that took the Duke’s eye he managed to increase his unsavoury reputation.

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.

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.’

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.

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.

I could eat a horse

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

To 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.

[B]uckland’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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

Born 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.

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 fledgling 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.

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.

Rage against the machine

[T]his year’s mayoral race is following the predictable campaign that you would expect from the front runners, all the time honoured issues are being aired and as per usual it looks like a two horse race. Fortunately for Londoners some with more eccentric views have made their voices heard over the years on the Capital’s streets which have both amused, entertained and informed us in equal measure.


Stanley Green

An entrepreneurial spirit has at times been commendable with some individuals, for example Stanley Green who upon retirement from the civil service decided against taking up golf, but chose to spend the next 30 years warning us of the dangers of protein. “Protein makes passion” his printed leaflets exclaimed, so reduce your consumption of fish, bird, meat, cheese, egg, peas, beans, nuts and well err . . . sitting, and the world will be a happier place. From 1968 until his death in 1993 Stanley sold his own pamphlet called “Eight Passion Proteins with Care”, which sold over 87,000 copies. With an eccentric approach to punctuation the document was 14 pages long and rendered in a smorgasbord of font faces and weights, it also existed in a 392 page book form, which the Oxford University Press rejected in 1971.


Bill Boakes

Riding a bicycle festooned with slogans and driven by a solidly-built, elderly gent Bill Boakes fought his first Parliamentary contest in 1951 when he stood for election at Walthamstow East polling 174 out of 40,041 votes cast; in 1956 he tried his luck again but this time in Walthamstow West, here he had an even worst result at 89. After a 30 year career in the Navy (he was a gunnery officer at the sinking of the Bismark) he stood under the banner: ‘Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident.’ Road safety was central to his manifesto, that and a little racism thrown in for good measure. He would push a pram loaded down with bricks on to pedestrian crossings to make the point that motorists should slow down. He is pictured here in his ‘campaign bus’. It was actually a 140lb armoured bicycle hung with road safety and other posters that cleverly concealed an iron bedstead. Sadly for one who dedicated his life to road safety he was injured whilst stepping off a bus and died from complications to a head injury.


George Ives

A poet, writer, penal reformer and early gay rights campaigner. Born in Germany the illegitimate son of an English army officer and a Spanish baroness, he was educated at Magdalene College where he started to amass 45 volumes of scrapbooks of press clippings of murders, punishments, freaks, theories of crime and punishment, transvestism, psychology of gender, homosexuality, cricket scores, and letters he wrote to newspapers. In 1897 Ives created and founded the Order of Chaeronea, a secret society for homosexuals which was named after the location of the battle where the Sacred Band of Thebes was finally annihilated in 338 BC. Working to end the oppression of homosexuals, what he called the ‘Cause’ he hoped that Oscar Wilde would join the ‘Cause’, but was disappointed. He met Wilde at the Authors’ Club in 1892, Wilde was taken by his boyish looks and persuaded him to shave off his moustache, whereupon he kissed him passionately the next time they met in the Travellers’ Club. In later life he developed a passion for melons, filling this house with them. When the Second World War ended he refused to believe it and carried a gas mask with him everywhere in a case until his death.


Lord Sutch

Screaming Lord Sutch founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in 1983 and fought the Bermondsey by-election. In his career he contested over 40 elections, rarely threatening the major candidates, but often getting a respectable number of votes and was easily recognisable at election counts by his flamboyant clothes. It was after he polled several hundred votes in Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley constituency in 1983 that the deposit paid by candidates was raised from £150 to £500. His most significant contribution to politics came at the Bootle by-election in 1990 securing more votes than the candidate of the Continuing Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by former Foreign Secretary David Owen, within days the SDP dissolved itself. In 1993, when the British National Party gained its first local councillor, Derek Beackon, Sutch pointed out that the Official Monster Raving Loony Party already had six. He committed suicide by hanging on 16th June 1999.