Tag Archives: London eccentrics

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.