Tag Archives: London trivia

London’s fame menagerie

Camberwell Beauty Camberwell Beauty
First identified in this corner of south-east London around 1748, this butterfly has been adopted as the borough’s icon after the library in Wells Way portrayed a giant mural on its wall in 1920, consisting of ceramic tiles from the Doulton factory in Lambeth. It was painted over during the war when Nazi Lord Haw-Haw in his broadcasts boasted that the Luftwaffe used it for navigation.


Old Cheshire Cheese Cheshire Cheese Parrot
This remarkable bird, long-time resident of Fleet Street’s famous pub could mimic almost anything, and as a result she acquired a very blue vocabulary. Famously garrulous and rude about visitors she didn’t like, Polly celebrated the end of the First World War in 1918 in her own way. She imitated the noise of champagne corks popping an estimated 400 hundred times and then fell off her perch suffering from exhaustion. Upon her death in 1926 the BBC announced solemnly her demise on the wireless, and her obituary appeared in more than 20 newspapers worldwide, it was probably the last time a parrot was so honoured.

800px-Guy_the_Gorilla_statue Guy the Gorilla
Arriving at London Zoo on 5 November 1947, hence his name, Guy proved to be one of the Zoo’s most popular residents, and as my father worked in the zoo, as a young man I’ve been in the cage with Guy when he, and I, were very young. Sadly dying 30 years later his statute is to be seen at the zoo, with another in Crystal Palace. Alas Guy’s body remains forever stuffed at the National History Museum.


Jumboride Jumbo the Elephant
London’s first African elephant arrived at Regents Park in 1865, for fifteen years he enjoyed the affection of an adoring public (even as elephants in Africa were being slaughtered wholesale for their ivory tusks). But perhaps boredom set in, for in 1881 he became increasingly grumpy and unpredictable, and the rides were stopped. Against public opposition he was sold to Barnum’s Circus were they shipped him to America and promptly allowed him to be killed by a train.


Kaspar Kasper the Cat
Nearing completion of a multi-million pound makeover the Savoy in its time would keep a large figure of a cat in the event that 13 people would sit down to dinner. To allay any fears of bad luck that might ensue, the dinner guest list would be made up to a more acceptable number 14. It remains to be seen if the Savoy’s new owners revive this quaint and idiosyncratic custom.



Dick Whittington’s Cat
The 4-times Lord Mayor of London could have had a cat if only to keep down London’s rat population (which has been attributed to the spread of the Plaque). Whittington funded the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal and during a recent restoration the mummified remains of a cat were discovered.

Cocky the Cockatoo
Probably London Zoo’s most long lived bird that died in 1982; this uninspired named bird outlived five Monarchs after arriving in London during reign of Queen Victoria.

Bathtime in London

[T]he next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, or your hotel uses a cheap hand wash, think about how things used to be here in London in the 1500s:

① Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour, hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

② Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, the women were next followed by the children and last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying; Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

③ Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying; It’s raining cats and dogs.

④ There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house; this posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

⑤ The floor was composed of dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying; Dirt poor. The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence the saying; a thresh hold.

⑥ In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme; Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

⑦ Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.

⑧ Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

⑨ Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

⑩ Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

⑪ London is old and crowded and the inhabitants started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a . . . dead ringer.


Cornucopia of Curiosities

[T]his contribution to CabbieBlog has a rather fruity flavour to it; with its artificially high climate London can support a wide variety of soft fruit varieties.

Hanged by silk
There stands in the south-west corner of Buckingham Palace’s gardens a testament to hope over adversity, evidence of when King James I decided that England would benefit from an indigenous silk industry and to that end planted four acres of mulberry trees. Alas the Mulberry Garden as it became known came to nothing and just one tree was left producing nothing more valuable than its fruit. Silk is useful for if one is granted the freedom of the City of London and if you are then sentenced to hang for a crime, the execution can only be carried out using a silken rope.

Olive tree in Chelsea Psysic garden Chelsea’s spiff crop
Established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, Chelsea Physic Garden is home to Britain’s tallest outdoor olive tree; at over 30ft high it was capable in 1970 of producing 7lb of its delicious fruit. The garden is also home to the world’s northern-most outdoor grapefruit tree. Hidden behind towering its brick walls, protected from the city’s sounds and harsh breezes, the most idyllic collection of plants flourish in a unique, carefully created microclimate. The garden at one time was home to London’s only legitimate cannabis plants and predictably scrumpers bunked over the wall and ‘harvested’ the crop.

Great Vine Hampton Court The Gantsville Grape
With a girth of 12ft round its base the Great Vine in Hampton Court Palace garden is the oldest and largest known vine in the world. Planted by the famous garden designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown around 1768 its rods measure an incredible 120ft. The vine produces an average of 600 bunches of grapes a year which can still be bought from the Palace’s shops. In 1933 proceeds of its crop were given to soldiers blinded in World War I. The vine originated from a small cutting taken from a vine in Valentine’s Park at Gants Hill in Essex. Gants Hill is an area now so favoured by London’s cabbies to live in they are known as Gantsville Cowboys.

Nellie Melba Life’s a peach
When Dame Nellie Melba visited London in 1893 the Savoy’s chef Auguste Escoffier created a dish in her name containing the diva’s favourites – peaches, raspberries, redcurrant jelly and vanilla ice-cream – combining the ingredients in such a way as to reduce the impact of cold ice cream on her vocal cords. The hotel once boasted an orchestra led by Johann Strauss, a dishwasher by the name of Guccio Gucci who went on to start the famous fashion brand and its first manager was César Ritz. Now after a complete refurbishment which has cost the equivalent of over £1 million per guest room, will it raise the standard of cuisine again?

What’s in a name?

Road Signs With a city as old as London, which was founded by the Romans soon after their invasion in AD43; who eventually surrounded the City with a wall enclosing 330 acres and making it the 5th largest city in the Roman Empire, it’s not surprising that some strange street names have appeared over the centuries.

In the Square Mile of the City for example, an ancient ordinance defines a road as a highway without houses, which is why to this day, no thoroughfare in the City may be called a road; it’s either a street, lane, passage or an alley, much to the dismay of modernisers.

Here are some of the more unusual street names with that Square Mile:

Bucklesbury: An ancient city street from 14th Century named after the Buckerei a powerful family in the 12th century city. In Shakespeare’s time it was known for its apothecaries and the peculiar smell they made he made mention of the smell in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

Cripplegate: Derived from the crepel an Anglo-Saxon word for den or underground passage. After the curfew bells had been rung and the city gates were closed for the night it was impossible to enter, that is apart from that underground passage.

Crutched Friars: Not as rude as it sounds, but is an old form of ‘cross’ and takes its name from the holy order that stood nearby.

French Ordinary Court: Not about mundane Frenchies. ‘Ordinary’ is an eating house, this one dates back to 1670 for French ex-pats.

Frying Pan Alley: The frying pan was the emblem once used by braziers and ironmongers. It was the custom for ironmongers to hang a frying pan outside their premises as a means of advertising their business.

Idol Lane: Formerly ‘Idle Lane’ where lazy sods hung around.

Jewry Street: Again renamed from Poor Jewry to denote it from the rich Jews in Old Jewry.

Little Britain: Alas not as colourful as its name suggests. The Duke of Brittany had a house here before the 16th Century.

Minories: The Sorores Minores (Little Sisters) established a convent here in 1293. In 1958 we thought it a rather splendid idea to demolish their church.

Undershaft: Not what you might be thinking, it’s a boring maypole or shaft was erected nearby, but its use then banned for many years after the 1571 May Day Riots.

Wardrobe Place: From 1359 until burned down by the Great Fire, a place where, you’ve guessed it, ceremonial robes were kept.

A few more to throw into the mix: Threadneedle Street; Pudding Lane; Hanging Sword Alley; Poultry.

[A]nd a small reminder for our Mayor of London, Boris who was a student of history, and for all I know bases his current strategy on what he reads in CabbieBlog, you have only 33 years left to plan for the bi-millennium of the arrival of the Romans to London.

London’s Urban Myths

The Seven Noses of Soho

The Myth of the 7 Noses of Soho is a peculiar one. Rumour has it that there are 7 sculpted noses on buildings in the square mile that is Soho. It’s said that if an individual finds all 7 they also attain infinite wealth. Oh! If I find all 7 noses and become infinitely wealthy you can be assured that I would share the infinite wealth fairly with everyone who reads CabbieBlog. Paul Raymond is the only person attributed to finding them turning him from a failed ventriloquist into a property mogul.

Pigeon Travel cards

It’s not much as urban legends go, but many people claim that pigeons regularly ride the Underground on certain routes, routinely boarding and exiting at the same stations. Not surprisingly, my sources aren’t clear on which stations or lines the pigeons have been seen riding. I’ve seen one board a train at Earl’s Court, but I’m not certain it was deliberate. I didn’t see it alight from the train, either. Scary thought, that: first clever sheep, now intelligent commuting sky rats.

moon Ghost of the Underground

While on the theme of the Underground, it is less expected to discover a ghost on the Tube, and not far from the Tower. Staff at Aldgate station have been keeping a log of such incidents since the 1950s. In one report a maintenance worker is said to have survived a 22,000 volt shock from the third rail, immediately after a colleague had observed what he took to be a grey-haired figure, presumably his guardian angel, gently stroking his hair.

Queen’s Resting Place

Boudica was queen of the Iceni tribe of East Anglia. She joined up with the Trinovantes of Essex to rebel against the Roman treatment of her people. Together they attacked Roman settlements at Colchester, St Albans and destroyed the city of Londinium in AD60. She is said to be buried under platform 9 or 10 of King’s Cross Station.

Nelson in a gilded cage

Contrary to the popular rumour Nelson’s body isn’t in the gilded ball on the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral but down below in the crypt. Brought back to England preserved in a barrel of rum, Nelson’s body on arrival was placed in a magnificent sarcophagus originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal didn’t need it after his altercation with Henry VIII.

Sniffy Judges

Judges presiding at the Old Bailey today still at certain times carry nosegays of aromatic herbs. This is a tradition harking back to a time when typhus or “jail fever” was endemic in the Justice Hall of Newgate. There is of course no evidence that a nosegay provides any protection whatsoever.

Camelot in Cockfosters?

Sir Thomas Mallory seemed convinced that Winchester was Camelot. Now there is another contender for the site of Arthur’s legendary Court, this time in North London, at the far end of the Piccadilly Line. Yes, I know it sounds rather far-fetched, but all the evidence (and there is plenty of it) indicates that a real Camelot once existed at the very centre of Enfield Chase, the Royal Hunting Ground of the Plantagenet Kings. Today it is still there, hidden in woods on the fringe of Trent Country Park, and known as Camlet Moat. Archaeological digs have been conducted, back in the 1880s and again in 1923 and some interesting finds were unearthed. They suggest a substantial structure with stone walls over five and a half feet thick, a massive drawbridge 38ft long and a subterranean dungeon. Sounds like a castle, doesn’t it? Smaller relics from the Roman period suggest the site is originally of impressive antiquity.

So how far will your cabbie go?

Sorry, I had to clear up this Urban Myth. Cabbies do not have to take you wherever you choose. Unless we have a good reason not to, drivers must: Accept any hiring up to 12 miles (20 miles if starting at Heathrow Airport) or one hour duration if the destination is in Greater London. Fares for destinations outside Greater London may be negotiated between the passenger and driver before the journey. If no fare is agreed before the start of the journey then the maximum fare will be that shown on the meter at the end of the journey. There, now don’t ask me again.