Priests and prostitutes having fun in Southwark

downloadLast week, I got my hands on an 1814 guide to London. There’s one page that made me chuckle, describing the way in which men of the cloth and ladies of the night had fun together – for money.

On the south bank of the river Thames, in the borough of Southwark, there were plenty of brothels. Londoners would stroll across the bridge linking their city to this playground and pay for sex. The brothels they frequented were referred to as “stews”.

Stewholders – brothel keepers – rented their premises from powerful landowners. These included the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Walworth (died 1385). These enterprising women were often from across the English Channel in modern Belgium and the Netherlands. They were referred to as the “bawds of Flanders” or “Froes”.

The authorities took a surprisingly lenient view of their activity provided certain rules were obeyed. Stews were not to open on a Sunday, married women could not work in them and female criminals who had been branded for their crime were forbidden to take up this work.

My book, dating from 1814, takes a typically anti-Catholic line. The Middle Ages is depicted as a time of dark superstition and cruelty. When it comes to the stews, the author thinks that brothels were so prevalent because so many Catholic priests before the Protestant Reformation had taken vows of celibacy. It was a vow few of them could keep.

Perhaps in days when thousands were tied up by vows of celibacy, these haunts might have been necessary, for neither cowl nor cope had virtue sufficient to annihilate the strongest of human passions.

The signs for these stews didn’t hang off the building but were painted on the walls. The author thinks it’s hilarious that one brothel was called The Cardinal’s Hat. The involvement of the clergy weren’t just as potential clients. The bishop of Winchester – who ran much of Southwark – didn’t bat an eyelid as he taxed the prostitutes. It was good money. He wasn’t going to forego his cut.

In fact, his taxation became a subject of ribald gossip among Londoners. As they arrived over London bridge, the prostitutes would squawk and cackle at them – looking for business. They became known as the “Winchester Geese”. Let’s hope the bishop saw the funny side.

Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Walk through Leicester Square or Covent Garden today and you can see the usual street performers attracting gawping crowds. If you find these acts annoying, I’m afraid they’ve been a part of London life for hundreds of years. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys were Londoners who kept diaries of their daily lives and both described the entertainers they saw in the 17th century.

So…what kind of people were performing back then?

  • A man called The Turk. A rope was fixed to the top of a church steeple and the other end to the ground at a 90 degree angle. The Turk then climbed by his toes. When he reached the top, this fearless chap slid down head first with his arms and legs spread out.
  • The Hairy Woman. Her eyebrows covered her entire forehead. A lock of hair grew out of each ear. And she had a thick beard and moustache.
  • The Dutch Boy. Exhibiting himself at Charing Cross, this strange child had the words Deus Meus inscribed in tiny letters on the iris of one eye and Elohim on the other iris. Doctors examined him but disagreed whether the words were on his eyes from birth or placed there afterwards. It also seems he wasn’t blind.
  • Richardson the fire eater. This incredible individual chewed and swallowed hot coals, ate melted glass and put a hot coal on his tongue on top of which he cooked an oyster. He then had a drink….of pitch, wax and sulphur – flaming!

Add to that collection the usual array of contortionists, dancing bears and bull baiting. Something for everybody!


When three thousand people died on London Bridge

IMG_6737London Bridge is falling down…  So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.

Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!

Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.

The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.

Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were. Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.

On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market. Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.

You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings. Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.

Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river. Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.


The transgender diplomat who gripped 18th century London

The transgender diplomat allows himself to be examined by some ladies

Some people today find it very hard to even consider giving transgender people equal rights. Maybe they should learn a few lessons from 18th century London where polite society was more than a little obsessed though gratifyingly tolerant of a trans French diplomat called the Chevalier d’Eon.

The Chevalier was a diplomat attached to the French embassy and worked for King Louis XVI (soon to lose his head in the French revolution). He seems to have delighted in confusing people about his true sexuality. This very colourful character lived one part of his life dressed in public as a man (1762-1777) and then another as a woman (1786-1810). During both periods he cross-dressed at parties as the mood took him.

While he was in London, there was a gambling mania. People were betting on anything. And there was feverish speculation about the Chevalier’s true sexuality. The fashionable salons of the city buzzed with gossip and hearsay about the French diplomat – exactly what one suspects he wanted. It must have amused the Chevalier to tease the people whose tongues never seemed to stop wagging.

Reading the 1771 pamphlet I bought today

I was at an antique book fair today and spotted a 1771 pamphlet about an examination of this trans diplomat by a group of well-born ladies who were overwhelmed by curiosity. On the 24 May, 1771, a “jury of matrons” took a good look at the naked form of the Chevalier with his consent at Medmenham Abbey.

If the name of this abbey seems familiar, it was where the so-called Hellfire Club used to meet. That was a group of wealthy men who dressed in gowns and turbans then paid prostitutes to dress as nuns before despoiling them. Yes, eighteenth century England was a very debauched affair!

The aristocratic grand dame in charge of the Chevalier’s examination declared that they had to know what was between his legs in case their daughters married him. She couldn’t abide the thought of one of the girls being accidentally wed to another woman or a “hermaphrodite”. The main cause of concern was that as aristocrats they needed to have children to pass their wealth and estates on to. The Chevalier might not be able to deliver the goods!

One of the other ladies in the room was sure he wasn’t really a man:

For though I threw out every possible lure to induce him to make overtures to me and almost solicited him to my bed, I could never get a tender thing from him. Besides, I observed he had little or no beard and that he always avoided entering upon amorous subjects.

Infuriatingly, the pamphlet says that the meeting couldn’t make up its mind and adjourned. One person who did make up his mind was King Louis XVI. In 1775, his majesty insisted that the Chevalier dress as a woman. He eventually complied but took to fencing with men in public to show he was no ordinary woman!

As an additional point, some feminists today have quibbled about whether trans people can be really regarded as women. Again, the eighteenth century can teach us so much. Mary Wollstonecraft was the leading feminist of her time and mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. She described the Chevalier as a model of female fortitude.

Even though after his death – doctors confirmed that although the Chevalier was very androgynous – he did have male genitalia.





Lost railway stations of London

On my desk right now is a publication from 1830 called The Penny Magazine that I just bought on ebay. I’ve got several editions of this mag that was in circulation from 1832 to 1845 and was intended to educate the working class.

This 26 December, 1840 issue focuses on the marvels of Britain’s expending train network. Even by 1840, there were still way more canals per mile than railway but the new technology was catching up fast. As The Penny Magazine noted:

The effect of canals and roads has been principally to develop the material resources of the country, and to uphold its prosperous condition. The railways will not only have a similar effect, but will exercise a much more powerful influence on manners and institutions.

IMG_6564In the picture, you can see the railway terminus at Blackwall. It was built in the Italianate style by the architect and Liberal MP William Tite – who also designed The Royal Exchange, the huge Roman-porticoed building that confronts you at Bank station.

Blackwall was a busy interchange at a time when the docks were booming and the East End of London was densely populated. But it fell victim in the early 20th century to the emergence of the new tram system and was shut to passenger traffic in 1926. Goods trains continued to arrive there until the 1960s when the decline of the docks signalled the end for the Blackwall terminus.

Not one brick remains today. But the Docklands Light Railway, constructed in the 1980s to revive the dock area of the city, uses much of the old line that took passengers from the City of London eastwards in the 1840s.

There are abandoned train, tube and tram stations across London. Close to where I live you can just about make out the entrance to Camberwell station. It was closed in 1916, during the First World War. There has been talk – lots of it – about re-opening the station but I’m not holding my breath. The reason for the re-think has been the increase in the working population and a realisation since the 1970s that the car is not the answer to everything.

The Victorians were avid builders of railways and accompanying stations and there’s no doubt that some stations became surplus to requirements quite quickly. However, some of the demolition in the 20th century now looks amazingly short sighted. A good example would be the ripping up of rail lines between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace.

I lived in Crouch End for several years and had to join an endless bus queue from there to Finsbury Park. And if you want to attend an exhibition at Alexandra Palace – or “Ally Pally” as it’s fondly known – you have to walk up a steep hill if you don’t have a car or bike. Once upon a time, you could have got a train.



Why did royal psychopath Henry VIII let his fourth wife live?

Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of Henry VIII.

We’re always told it was an unfortunate match made by his adviser Thomas Cromwell that led directly to the poor man being beheaded when it all went horribly wrong. Like so many before him, he was led out on to Tower Hill in east London to feel the axe blade against his neck.

Having seen a very flattering sketch of Anne by the painter Holbein, Henry was expecting his new wife to be quite stunning. The story runs that when he met her though, the monarch was filled with disgust. Apparently, he referred to the poor woman as that “Flanders mare”.

But is this story complete bunkum?

Is the reality that Anne was a very intelligent and quite good looking woman who was betrothed to a physically broken man who may by then have been impotent? Why did the king treat her so favourably after the divorce, showering palaces and even kindness on her? Henry referred to Anne as his “sister” while going on to behead his next wife, Katherine Howard. So clearly their relationship was a friendly one.

Anne had free access to the royal children and went on to outlive the king and all his six wives. She’s an underrated woman as I showed on the next episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs on Yesterday TV.

Why would anybody want to wipe the backside of King Henry VIII?

At the Tudor court, aristocrats vied to be the Keeper of the Stool – responsible for helping King Henry VIII with his bowel movements. Why? Because you not only got proximity to his backside – but more importantly, to his ear. In that confined space, just you and the monarch, there was a great opportunity to drip poison about your enemies or simply advise on state matters while the king went about his business.

This was me on Private Lives of the Monarchs (UKTV – Yesterday TV) explaining this curious court job.

Who was Britannia on the old penny coins?

pennyThis story always tickles me. It seems that Britannia in her trident and helmet on the old penny coins was one of the mistresses of Charles II. The so-called “Merry Monarch”, who ruled after the grim puritan interlude of Oliver Cromwell, had an insatiable libido. He famously carried on an affair with London street girl Nell Gwyn, who started life selling oranges outside the Drury Lane theatre. But it wasn’t Nell that we see as Britannia on the penny coins.

No, it was a lady of impeccable breeding. Frances Stuart, later the Duchess of Richmond, was a fabulous beauty according to that great diarist of London life, Samuel Pepys. She looked down on Nell but in the final analysis, they were up to the same game – using sex for influence at court. And both at the beck and call of the lascivious king.

One French visitor sniffily carped that it was hard to imagine less brains with more beauty than Frances Stuart. But for a women dismissed as dim but pretty, she actually made a large fortune out of manipulating the king’s affections. Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs talking about Frances and her presence on our coins.


The horror of the Great Plague of London

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history. This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

Curious facts about Trafalgar Square

You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact. So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:

The Royal Mews

Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead. This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would  have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.

StMartinsMap1871-1056A workhouse – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery. If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!

Gordon – not where he used to be

Gordon of Khartoum – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule. Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.

St Martin’s in the Fields – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!

“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians. I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.