Top movies about London from the last hundred years!

Since the dawn of cinema, London has featured over and again in the movies. It’s provided an inspiring backdrop to thrillers, comedies and dramas. Here’s a selection of films you may not have seen and the introduce different aspects of London. The styles are very varied – enjoy!

Frenzy (1972)

This was a late Alfred Hitchcock directed thriller with the master of suspense returning to his home city, London, to make this movie. It’s not his greatest work but I love it. Frenzy involves a series of murders committed in and around the fruit and vegetable market of Covent Garden. That area of London has now been gentrified and the market has gone. So, it’s a real period piece – and fascinating to watch.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

London based Hammer Film Productions is best known for its horror movies often featuring Dracula or Frankenstein. But in 1967, it brought out a classic science fiction drama. Based on a BBC TV series, the main protagonist was the very fatherly Professor Bernard Quatermass. He is called to a London Underground station where a Martian space craft has been discovered. It’s millions of years old but has a grim secret, which it decides to share in a devastating manner.

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

This film was produced by the Ealing Studios – which created a series of “Ealing comedies” in the 1940s. In 1949, Britain was still reeling from the economic after shocks of the Second World War. A group of disgruntled working class residents in the Pimlico district find out they have ancient rights that allow them to proclaim independence from the rest of Britain – but the government has other ideas.

Clockwork Orange (1972)

Legendary film director Stanley Kubrick took us to a dystopian London where extreme youth thuggery is tackled by the government using psychological torture. The movie included scenes shot in Chelsea and the Thamesmead estate – a brutalist housing development. Clockwork Orange was massively controversial for years after its release.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law were teamed up to play Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in this high octane rendition of the classic detective tale from the author Arthur Conan Doyle. As everybody knows, Sherlock lived in Baker Street and it’s a huge tourist draw today. The incisive detective has been portrayed in very different ways from the sedate to the manic. What I liked about this movie was the capturing of Victorian London including the construction of Tower Bridge in the background.

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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.

The Debtor’s Doom – the grim fate for London’s penniless

Grim business being in debt in the old days – a debtor could expect to end up behind bars!

London had its fair share of prisons located very centrally and one of them was the Fleet – where debtors were flung. The location is quite hard to imagine now but it would have been roughly where Limeburner Lane and Fleet Place are today – bordered by Ludgate Hill, Old Bailey and what is now Farringdon Street. That street was originally the Fleet river, which still runs underneath channeled into the sewers.

Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison in 1691 – note the inmates begging for passing charity

The prison was pulled down in 1846 after 700 years of banging up criminals. The site was sold off to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway company and there’s still a City Thameslink station nearby. I can remember in the 1970s when there was a now removed railway bridge across the road. All traces of the miserable prison disappeared long ago but it was a notorious place in its heyday. A poem in 1738 summed up the horror:

A starving life all day we lead; No comfort here is found; At Night we make one Common bed; Upon the boarded ground

And the prisoners often grumbled that there were plenty in high society who were committing worse crimes than they had but got away it because of their social position:

Thus, we Insolvent debtors live; Yet we may Boldly say; Worse Villains often Credit give; Than those that never pay

For wealthy knaves can with applause; Cheat on, and ne’er be try’d; But in contempt of human Laws; In Coaches Safely ride

The Fleet was mainly a debtors prison from the 17th century onwards and run by a warden who had almost dictatorial powers. He also had the right to “farm” the prisoners – that is, extort fees from them for their upkeep. This may seem unusual to us now, but prisoners on arrival at the Fleet had to cough up six shillings, bring their own bedding or hire some or sleep on the floor. Conditions were appalling and abuse was rife. One warden, Thomas Bambridge, was notorious for holding prisoners in irons and refusing to let them leave after their sentences had expired.

Fleet Prison in 1830 - note the racket court
Fleet Prison in 1830 – note the racket court

During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Fleet was burnt down but after repairs, it carried on in business. Prisoners would beg passers by for charity. Raising some money was their only forlorn hope of escaping this four storey hell with its high walls, chapel, coffee-room and tap-rooms. It was badly lit and a countless number of doors opened up onto rooms averaging 14 by 12 feet. Walking down the dark corridors, you would have heard an endless clanging of doors to jar your nerves. If the prisoners were lucky, a wealthy passer-by clutching scented herbs to their nose, would approach the barred windows and press a coin in to their hands.

There was a recreation yard that included a racket court. Every year, the prisoners elected a Racket Master to run the sports activities here and this was apparently a hotly contested position. In 1841, three

people were running against each other to win the position. One candidate noted that the “health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed”.  Skittle Master was another bitterly contested post among the prisoners!Fleet prison

In 1842, parliament agreed to proceed with the demolition of the Fleet and transfer of all prisoners to the Queen’s Bench Prison. Some prisoners weren’t happy about this, especially as the Queen’s Bench ran a tougher regime. A song went thus:

To racquets, skittles, whistling shops; We must soon say farewell; The Queen’s assent to her prison bill; Has rung their funeral knell

Who was the notorious London Monster?

Everybody knows about Jack the Ripper but there have – regrettably – been other men who have attacked women in the metropolis. And they had equal notoriety.

One such was the London Monster.

He didn’t actually murder women, unlike the Ripper, but slashed at them in the face or backside. The knives or daggers were reputedly strapped to his knees – as the illustration shows – or concealed in other ways to take his victims by surprise.

London Monster
The London Monster at work – note knives attached to his knees!

Most of the women he attacked seemed to have been ladies of substance – unlike the prostitutes targeted by Jack the Ripper.

And he appears to have suffered from some psychopathic condition that necessitated this curious lashing out.

Eventually, a man, Rhynwick Williams, was apprehended after allegedly attacking a spinster called Ann Porter. It seems to have been his intention to rip at her clothes more than the person inside them.

The court proceedings stated:

RENWICK WILLIAMS , was indicted, for that he, on the 18th of January last, with force and arms, at the parish of St. James, Westminster, in the king’s highway, in a certain public street there, called St. James’s-street , unlawfully, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did make an assault on Ann Porter , spinster , with an intent to tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments and clothes; and on the same day, with force and arms, in the same public street, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments: to wit, one silk gown, value 20 s. a pair of stays, value 5 s. a silk petticoat, value 5 s. one other petticoat, value 5 s. a linen petticoat, value 5 s. and a shift, value 5 s. her property, part of her apparel which she had on her person, against the form of the statute, and against the king’s peace, &c.

The opening of the trial was full of hyperbole. The Monster had captured the jaded imaginations of Londoners who had feigned terror at being set upon by this madman. Here’s the opening comments from the trial (source: Old Bailey online):

It is an unpleasant task to call your minds to a scene so new in the annals of mankind; a scene so unaccountable: a scene so unnatural to the honour of human nature, that it could not have been believed ever to have existed, unless it had been demonstrated by that proof which the senses cannot resist: but while we are trying the prisoner at the bar, for this unnatural, unaccountable, and until now, unknown offence, we should not forget that he is our fellow being, and give him an attentive hearing.

The attacks, the prosecution railed, had been against women who were “the most beautiful! the most innocent! the most lovely!” But what puzzled the court was that William didn’t seem to be after their money or any riches.

His attack on Ann Porter had occurred as she returned from a ball in St James’s, Westminster. Unfortunately for Williams, having torn at her clothes, he then paused to stare at her. As a result, his face was etched on her mind. A little later, she spotted Williams in St James’s Park and a male friend chased him to his dwellings. From there he was arrested and put on trial.

Only some historians cast doubt on whether Williams was the London Monster or indeed if such a person even existed. Was it an example of a kind of urban hysteria? Was Ann Porter leaping on the bandwagon of other reported attacks? Or was Williams just mistakenly identified?

Whatever the truth – he got six years in prison.

A woman who made a living stealing clothes from children

Mall Floyd was a wicked woman who developed an unpleasant line in criminal activity. She would steal or kidnap children, take them somewhere far from their parents or guardians and then relieve them of their clothes and valuables. They’d then be left to fend for themselves as best they could.

In 1674, Mall Floyd found a girl of about eight years of age in Shoe Street. I may be wrong but I think Shoe Street now corresponds to what’s called Shoe Lane in Farringdon. In the seventeenth century, that thoroughfare would have been just outside the ancient city walls.

The road ran parallel to the Fleet River, which is now hidden away in a sewer. It was there then that Mall Floyd chanced upon this refined girl who looked very finely dressed. Our thief figured the girl’s clothes would make a pretty penny or two.

Approaching the eight year old, she claimed to be from her mother and then carried off the child as far as St Giles.  That was a pretty run down village where Centre Point stands, at the top of Tottenham Court Road. The parish church of St Giles is still there behind Centre Point. St Giles was a notorious slum that contributed a great number of villains to the hanging tree at nearby Tyburn.

So, Mall Floyd took the child to an ale house and seeing that it was about to rain, suggested that the girl should remove her expensive laces and linens as they would be spoilt. Now with her hands on the goodies, Mall Floyd took the girl to the churchyard of St Giles. Luckily for our villain, there was a burial going on with a big crowd. Without a second thought, Mall Floyd simply dumped the girl in the crowd and melted away.

Tyburn gallows
Mall Floyd was lucky not to end up here

The distressed kid burst into tears and a charitable individual took pity and very gallantly escorted her back to the house of her parents.

The girl recounted everything that had happened – the women claiming to be a friend of her mothers, taking her to a pub, removing her pricey garments and then disappearing. The family were furious but what could they do? Then a remarkable thing happened.

The child’s mother was walking through Holborn when she saw her daughter’s lost clothes hanging up for sale in a shop window. She raised hell with the shopkeeper and after some investigating – there were no police in those days remember – the family found the culprit. Mall Floyd was dragged before the courts.

Incredibly, she confessed everything and was sent to Newgate prison. When she returned for sentencing, Mall Floyd might have expected to dangle from a rope for the amusement of the crowd at Tyburn. Instead, she was “transported to some of the plantations beyond the seas”. Most likely the Americas where Mall Floyd, if she survived the journey, undoubtedly breathed her last.

Children brutally punished for stealing

illus-089On the 8th September, 1747, Richard Henson and Edward Wood saw a linen sheet hung out to dry on a washing line in the parish of Hampstead.

In those days, Hampstead was a village a few miles out of London – today it’s been swallowed up into the great urban sprawl of north London. The two thieves took the sheet and went to a pawnbroker. The sheet was still wet and he refused to take it.

So they went on to a baker and got a couple of rolls in exchange for it. They didn’t have long to satisfy their hunger being apprehended and dragged before a judge for sentencing. Sarah Johnson got her sheet back and Henson was sentenced to be whipped.

It’s not certain how old Henson was – but Wood, whose punishment I’ve not been able to find, was ten or eleven years old. Rough justice!