Tag Archives: London icons

A penny for your thoughts

Penny frontPenny obverse

[G]ENERATIONS OF SCHOOLBOYS have searched through their change in the vain hope of finding one and in August 2010 on the internet auction site eBay a 1933 penny bearing the head of King George V surfaced. Experts have always worked on the assumption that only seven such coins were minted and, if genuine, this one would have been worth at least £80,000. Two versions to the coin were struck and it is thought that four had a slightly different image of the King in preparation to an updating of his likeness on all coins. These are particularly valuable.

The Royal Mint had no plans to make any pennies in 1933 because there were already plenty around, however, a small number were produced following requests for a commemorative coin and experts have always worked on the basis there were seven. Of these, three were placed by the King under the foundation stones of buildings, two were presented to the British Museum and two found their way to private collectors. In September 1970, during building work, one of the coins was stolen from the cornerstone of the Church of St Cross in Middleton, Leeds and rather than risk a further theft, the Bishop of Ripon ordered that another coin buried at St Mary’s Church in Hawksworth should be unearthed and sold.

Today the Mint Museum, British Museum, and the University of London each hold one of the coins, with three in private collections. It is worth recalling an urban myth that has again resurfaced following the eBay auction of the rare penny.

The clock keepers of Big Ben have used pre-decimal pennies stacked on the pendulum of the clock to act as weights to help regulate it since 1859 when the clock tower was completed and the first strikes of its 13.7-ton bell, nicknamed ‘Big Ben’, were heard. Adding or taking away coins effects the pendulum’s centre of mass and the rate at which it swings, adding just one penny causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

There is a long and historic relationship between Big Ben and the UK’s coins and few people realise the technical role that old pennies have played inside the clock. There is a possibility, although slim, that one of the 1933 coins has been used in this way. Now the clock keepers of the Palace of Westminster intend to keep hold of the old pennies in case they need to be returned to the pendulum at a future date.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 31st December 2010

Boudicca’s graves

For someone who led a short and
inglorious life, the wife of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni has gained an almost mythical status.

The Iceni tribe occupied the modern
counties of Norfolk, parts of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. After the Roman invasion of AD 43, the King negotiated a treaty with the Romans and established himself as a client king for the remainder of his comfortable life.

[U]pon his death, however, despite the fact that he willed half of his kingdom to the Roman emperor and half to his family, the Roman administrator ignored the will and took over the entire kingdom.

Historian Tacitus wrote:

. . . his widow Boudica was flogged and their daughters raped. The chieftains of the Iceni were deprived of their . . . estates . . . The king’s own relatives were treated as slaves.


The tribes were enraged, and rallied to Boudicca who joined Iceni forces with the neighbouring Trinobantes, and then led an attack on the Roman colony Camulodunum (now Colchester), destroying it. For most of this we have to rely on Roman writers to supply a narrative – the Icini at that time were preoccupied in causing death and mayhem.

Having defeated the relatively ill-prepared troops they went on a slaughtering spree of industrial levels, burning down the cultural and commercial centres of Colchester, St. Albans and London, killing both Roman invaders and the indigenous peoples in their thousands.

In their one battle with the enemy’s regular troops they lost ignominiously despite vastly outnumbering their opponents. Tribal lands were laid waste and her people were ‘enslaved’. She is said to have committed suicide by taking poison. Not much glory then.

All the rage in Queen Elizabeth’s time (they were, after all, ruled at that time by a real warrior Queen); during Victoria’s reign Boudicca was almost deified so much so that an impressive statue was erected opposite Parliament in 1902. To further perpetuate the freedom fighter image the statue has at its base a secret tunnel entrance said to be an escape route from Parliament. No so say Guerrilla Exploring who just found a mass of service pipes.

Having a barbaric past hasn’t deterred modern romantics weaving tales about her and her final resting place; she has taken on an almost iconic queenly status.

First in the late 19th century a round barrow on Parliament Hill was declared to be Boudicca’s. Unfortunately it pre-dated her death by some considerable margin and it was most unlikely that the Romans would have allowed such a splendid grave to her built for a despised rebel leader.

Next comes the popular myth that she lies under Platform 10 (8 or 9, take your pick) of King’s Cross Station. The station was built on the site of a hamlet called Battle Bridge, which must obviously be the site of her last doomed stand. The earliest reference to ‘Battle Bridge’ is as late as 1559 coming from a simple corruption of an earlier Bradford Bridge.

Now hot on the heels of King Richard III’s remains being discovered beneath a car park, the Warrior Queen might, just might, be waiting to be discovered beneath a McDonalds in King’s Norton, Birmingham. Check out Boudicca, the burger queen of Brum.

Money to burn

It is arguably Londoner’s favourite industrial building and best viewed when travelling along the road of the rich and famous – Cheyne Walk. There on the opposite bank of the Thames is ‘The Temple of Power’ as it was then dubbed when constructed in the 1930s.

Battersea Power Station, the largest brick built building in Europe – even if it does not have a roof – was constructed in two halves, both identical from the outside and comprising two individual power stations. Battersea A Power Station was built first with Battersea B Power Station to its east constructed later in the 1950s. The two stations were built to an identical design, providing when finished the well known four-chimney layout. The station ceased generating electricity in 1983, but over the past 50 years it has become one of the best known landmarks in London and is Grade II* listed.

[T]wo years ago we had rather hoped, or at least I did, that Real Estate Opportunities had a viable plan to ‘save’ Battersea and develop the site with the mix of retail units and the ubiquitous riverside residential units.

They have gone the same way as other developers with money to burn – at least in 1940 when they literally ran the boilers on bundles of used notes the power station produced electricity and not just hot air.

In the 1980s Alton Towers owner John Broome wanted to turn the building into a giant fun fair, even booking Mrs. Thatcher to cut the ribbon. His dreams went up in smoke selling his £350 investment for £10 million to Taiwanese property tycoons, but their dreams of developing its prime riverside location also went down the Swanee – or the Thames.

BatterseaEven using it for a photo shoot has been eventful. A pink pig tethered to Battersea’s chimneys for Pink Floyd’s album Animals broke its moorings and soared 5,000 feet disrupting air traffic approaching Heathrow, the pig eventually landing in a field in Kent. At King’s Cross the stark beauty of industrial heritage has been recognised by many who argue that an English Heritage listed Victorian gasometer become a centre piece of a new park being constructed. Could we not use Battersea Power Station as a centrepiece of a new park?

The old girl was earned a dignified retirement, not a single day’s production of electricity was lost during the war and at one time the generators were supplying one fifth of London’s power, she has earned her place in the sun.

So instead of the latest wiz-bang idea to make a buck by turning it into a 60,000-seater stadium for Chelsea FC (how can that be with Chelsea on the opposite bank?), let Battersea Power Station be a park, a quiet place for reflection and a chance to remember when we had an Empire and coal was King, while instead of buying France’s power we could actually keep the home fires burning and the lights turned on using electricity produced at Battersea.

Jack The Lad

Jack Sheppard by Thornhill

The term “lovable rogue” has been applied to many crooks over the years, most are just unpopular villains, but one from the 18th century remains known to us even today, in fact so great was his popularity over one-quarter of London’s population came to his execution.

John Shepherd known to all as Jack was a fairly diminutive chap at 5’4” and was by all accounts very strong for his size. Born in 1702 in Spitalfields he was Christened with some haste due to his frail condition at St. Dunstan’s. At six years old he was apprenticed to a cane chair maker, that didn’t last, but later following in the footsteps of his father he took up an apprenticeship as a carpenter; he was probably only accepted as his mother’s current lover had taught him to read and write. Leaving his employer after five years he took up with a bad lot at a pub in Drury Lane called the Black Lion and would frequent an area, now developed as the London School of Economics, called Clare Market frequented at that time by prostitutes and later would become the centre for pornography.

[H]e made friends with a criminal called Joseph “Blueskin” Blake and Jonathan Wilde known as the Thieftaker General. Wilde led a double life and was high up in what purported to be the police force at that time, he also led a group of thieves who would steal property and then he would return the stolen goods to the rightful owners for a fee. He also met a prostitute Elizabeth Lyon known to all as Edgeworth Bess who was, not to be ungallant, a woman with a fuller figure.

In 1723 Jack – who by that time had given up his apprenticeship and was partial to a drink – stole two silver spoons from the Rummel Tavern at Charing Cross. He was caught and put into St. Giles Roundhouse a prison that was situated near modern day Seven Dials.

So far nothing unusual, hundreds of small time crooks in London must have taken the same road to the hangman’s noose at that time.

Jack was somewhat different and would have put Houdini to shame. He overcame his first incarceration by breaking through the cell’s timber ceiling and fashioned a rope from sheets with which he shimmed down while still wearing his leg irons.

He was rearrested two years later for picking pockets in Leicester Fields (known today as Leicester Square). This time he was sent to New Prison in Clerkenwell. When later Edgeworth Bess came to visit him he broke out of prison ending up on the roof, from there jumping down into an adjacent building only to find himself in Bridewell Prison next door, this time he climbed a 22ft wall while still manacled and helped Buxom Bess along the way.

Later after being plied with a copious amount of alcohol Bess disclosed to the authorities Jack’s whereabouts, he was duly arrested and this time sentenced to death and put into Newgate. This time he loosened the bars of his window and escaped dressed as a woman. He then went into exile on Finchley Common, but Jack really was Jack The Lad and liked having money, drink and a woman on each arm.

He came back into London and was rearrested, put back into Newgate. This time he found himself in “The Castle” which was a prison within a prison and was thought by the authorities to be impregnable. He was clapped in leg irons and chained to two metal staples attached to the stone floor. He escaped again climbing up a chimney and scaling a 60ft wall making his escape via six barred doors. Back outside with a crowd forming upon hearing of yet another escape and while still in leg irons he diverted their attention by claiming to see somebody on the roof.

Thinking himself untouchable he was at large for two weeks before he broke into Rawlings a pawnbroker in Drury Lane. There he stole a number of items including a fashionable black silk suit which he proceeded to put on and went out on the lash. So conspicuous was he that inevitably he was arrested and put in the “Middle Stone Room” of Newgate and this time loaded with 300lbs of iron weights.

Loved for his escapology people pleaded for commuting his death sentence to deportation but to no avail. Taken by cart from Newgate, a journey that could take two hours, he was plied with drink along the way. At one hostelry, the City of Oxford on modern Oxford Street they gave his a pint of sherry.

When London’s population was estimated at 700,000 an audience of over 200,000 turned up for his execution. He did not die immediately as his diminutive frame was too light to allow the rope to break his neck. After 15 minutes the crowd surged forward wanting a memento of Jack which prevented his friends cutting him down, and trying to resuscitate him.

Buried at the recently rebuilt St. Martin’s in the Fields he was known in his time as Jack The Lad and Gentleman Jack and has had over the years a huge following in popular culture. Painted while in Newgate by Sir James Thornhill the Serjeant Painter to the Crown [see illustration]; the Beggar’s Opera is loosely based on his life; he has been the subject of two silent films; and Christopher Hibbert wrote The Road to Tyburn based on his life. More recently the 1969 film starring Tommy Steele Where’s Jack was also an adaptation based on Jack’s colourful life.

The Festival of Britain


Sixty years ago on 3rd May 1951 King George VI opened The Festival of Britain declaring that it was “a Symbol of Britain’s abiding courage and vitality”. The Festival was originally planned to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition – an event so popular that six million people would go there – amounting to an incredible one-third of Great Britain’s population at the time.

Planning for the Festival of Britain had started six years previously a few months after VE Day, and was intended to highlight a century of artistic, industrial and scientific innovation over the previous 100 years. A 27-acre site was chosen on what was later to become the South Bank, but was at the time a wasteland after the war, but at least had good transport links with Waterloo Station nearby.

[M]en had arrived home after the war swelling Britain’s population and coupled with the dreadful winter of 1946-47 which had led to fuel shortages followed then by horrendous flooding, Britain found itself in serious difficulties which resulted in rationing becoming even stricter than it had been during the war. Life in London at that time really was grim.

Clement Attlee’s Labour government had gained power after the war and Attlee’s number two was Herbert Morrison who was put in charge of organising the Festival. He soon realised that the Festival needed to be more than just a celebration of 100 years of Britain’s achievements and set about raising the tone of the exhibition. When he was asked his views on what the Festival would achieve he replied simply “I want to see people happy”.

Over the next few years the Festival’s organisers encouraged more than 1,500 towns and villages to stage miniature celebrations of their own to coincide with London’s event.

It was to be a schoolboy’s dream. Funded by the Festival authorities a 400-seat, state-of-the-art cinema was specially designed to screen both film (including 3-dimensional films) and large-screen television. The newly constructed escalator on the South Bank had Churchill riding up and down like a delighted child. With exhibitions on the theme of discovery, The Dome of Discovery which had a diameter of 365 feet and stood 93 feet tall making it at the time the largest dome in the world, showed the Living World and the Sea to the Sky and Outer Space. A Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion was steeped in patriotism; Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, paintings by Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. The most memorable sight was the futuristic Skylon [pictured] a vertical steel cylinder which appeared to have the ability to float unaided in the air.

By the time the Festival of Britain closed in September almost 10 million – a quarter of Britain’s entire population – had visited its pavilions.

The Festival captured the public’s consciousness at the time, renewing a feeling of patriotism at a time of severe austerity. One can’t help comparing the National psyche then and now. Will the Olympic Games light our national flame next year? I doubt it.