What was the secretive Kit-Cat club?

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Kit-Kats
Kit-Cat club elected a young girl to be its woman of the year – cute then, totally creepy and suspect now!

Over the centuries, London has seen many secret societies – right down to our own time. Normally made up of aristocratic gentlemen or wannabes and engaging in bizarre and sometimes profane or lewd rituals.

The Kit-Cat Club originally met at the house of a pastry cook called Christopher Cat on Shire Lane, near Temple Bar. The name of the club came from the mutton pie that was his speciality. Or at least that’s one theory (most likely from Daniel Defoe). Another was that the members toasted “old cats and young kits”. When Christopher moved out of his house, the club followed him to the Fountain Tavern on The Strand.

The members of the Kit-Cat Club had been gentlemen who had come together to plot a revolution against King James II. This monarch had tried to bring back the Catholic religion and introduce a more authoritarian form of monarchy normally associated with King Louis XIV in France. The so-called “Whigs” – Protestant nobility – were having none of this and they successfully conspired to overthrow James and drive him into exile.

Every year, they would toast a woman chosen by a ballot of the members. Her name would be carved on to the glasses with a diamond. The men voting for Kit-Cat woman of the year included such 18th century grandees as Sir Robert Walpole, the Earls of Halifax and Dorset and the Duke of Somerset. So a distinguished group!

 

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Why Tsar Peter the Great trashed a famous Londoner’s house

Peter
Peter the Great – the house guest from hell

Peter the Great was one of the great tsars of Russian history – modernising his country while employing brutal authoritarian methods of rule. He famously embarked on a tour of Europe to learn how countries like Britain and the Netherlands ran their affairs.

He even tried to go undercover, very unconvincingly, as a dockworker to find out how ships were made. It wasn’t difficult to identify him as the Tsar of Russia given his massive height for the time (about six feet eight) and having an entourage of up to 200 lackeys. So nobody down the docks was falling for his man of the people disguise.

While in England, he stayed at Deptford by the river Thames. The English king, William III, recommended he lodge at the rather impressive mansion of the diarist John Evelyn. That’s a forgotten name now but in the late 17th century he was as well known as Samuel Pepys as a chronicler of his times. And he owned a gorgeous property, Sayes Court, with a very decorative garden cultivated over a forty year period.

Evelyn agreed to put up Peter the Great and vacated the property so that the tsar could move in with his courtiers. It all seemed a very agreeable arrangement. But then, Evelyn’s servants began penning frantic messages to their absent master begging him to return. Because it seemed the tsar and his friends were a bunch of lunatics.

When the diarist returned to his property, it was a to a scene of mayhem. Paintings had been used for dartboard practice; the floors were coated in grease and ink; windows were smashed and worst of all, the garden had been totally trashed. Peter and his friends had developed some kind of game or sport that involved Peter sitting in a wheelbarrow while being driven at speed and force through flowerbeds and a very long, holly hedge. They had even demolished part of the garden wall!

Incredibly, the floors had to be replaced – along with the windows – and new furniture bought. The hell-raising monarch was given somewhere else to stay. And Evelyn successfully got a large dollop of compensation from the state to repair his beloved house and garden.

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!

 

The mysterious Mummy in the City of London

Mummy St James's
No longer on display – the Mummy of St James’s on Garlick Hill

The church of St James’s on Garlick Hill in the City of London has a little secret that’s not put on display anymore. It’s a mummified body that used to be a key attraction.

In a 1937 guide to London, there’s a photo of what’s claimed to be a medieval body. It was discovered in 1839 when the vaults were finally being closed up. The dead man was in almost perfect preservation but had lost all of his hair. A choir boy in the 1880s claimed that the other boys would take it for a run round the church before putting it back in its case!

More recent research suggests that the body was not medieval but dated from between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century. The church website doesn’t mention the mummy and it’s no longer put on view. However, it’s still there – somewhere. So if you’re  passing by this church – you might want to pop in and ask if you can see Mummy!

Knights Templar, lawyers and a bugler

The Temple Horn Blower is a character I discovered recently in one of my antiquarian guides to London. This London curiosity doesn’t seem to exist anymore unless you know better. Let me explain who and what he was.

Temple Horn Blower in action!
Temple Horn Blower in action!

First – we need to go back to the year 1118 and the foundation of the Knights Templar. They set up their headquarters in London approximately where Southampton Buildings sits today.

Then around 1180, they moved to their “New Temple”, which partly remains nearer to the river Thames. You can still see the rotund chapel with carved stone knights over their graves.

In 1312, the Order was bloodily suppressed by the papacy and Europe’s monarchs with their land in London being grabbed by the rival Knights Hospitallers. They held on to the Temple in London until they were dissolved in 1608.

The Hospitallers let part of their property to law students and the area around what is now Chancery Lane evolved in to the legal district of the capital. Inns of Court became established outside the old city of London walls in areas called “liberties” – that is beyond London’s walls but still attached to the city. By 1572, the lawyers had built the Middle Temple Hall. After the Hospitallers were wound up, they developed the whole area for their use.

The legal eagles of the 17th and 18th centuries seemed to like the Templar connection and even adopted the order’s symbols – the Holy Lamb and the horse with two riders (though this evolved into a pegasus for some reason!).

And one custom that emerged was of a chap called the Temple Horn Blower – in top hat, frock coat and gold lace –  bugling the young lawyers to dinner at 5.30pm every afternoon. Apparently, this was to get them back from hare hunting round Charing Cross (not many hares there now).  Once they arrived for dinner, there were strict rules in the Tudor period about not wearing Spanish cloaks or playing “shove-groat”. And no daggers to be carried into the dining hall.

I worked in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for ten years and was never aware of this custom practised nearby. To my knowledge, it expired. Anybody know different?

American “lunatic” shames the British into reform!

My mother worked in one of London’s many psychiatric asylums that were all closed at the end of the 1980s. She was a nurse at Claybury Hospital in north east London. The Victorian complex of buildings was set in beautiful grounds with two big churches, a cinema and other facilities.

There was a combination of locked wards and open wards. I remember as a child seeing patients roaming round outside in their dressing gowns dosed up to the eyeballs with lithium.

By the late nineteenth century, Britain had begun a long journey of trying to understand mental illness and treat it with compassion as opposed to fear and hatred. Up until the mid-1800s, mental patients were pretty much classified as prisoners. Bethlem Hospital was where the city’s insane ended up.

Chained to walls or restrained in other ways. Even as early as 1598, a committee appointed to look at the workings of Bethlem damned the place as loathsome.

William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action
William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action

Always eager to raise money, Bethlem used to charge members of the public to come and gawp at its inmates.

By the eighteenth century, it was making about £400 a year from letting anybody in who fancied a laugh at the expense of the insane.

One observer, Ned Ward, said people visited Bethlem much as they’d go and see lions in the zoo. Even those who had family or friends at Bethlem had to pay the same amount as inquisitive strangers to see them.

One of the people who admitted to popping in for a look around wrote a damning account:

One of the side-rooms contained about ten patients, each chained by one arm or leg to the wall, the chain allowing them merely to stand up by the bench or form fixed to the wall or to sit down again. The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only.

Things came to a head when members of the public saw one particular man, William Norris, restrained with iron bands to a wall – and apparently kept like this for years. The year was 1814 and attitudes were slowly starting to change. Norris found himself being quizzed by members of parliament who dropped in to see this pathetic sight.

So incensed were parliamentarians that they set about freeing Norris and reforming the system. However, the governors of Bethlem put up a spirited fight against these external meddlers in their affairs spending an eye-watering £600 to oppose the bill for regulating asylums.

Daniel Wildman – the bee tamer!

In a 19th century book from my personal library called Old and New London comes the bizarre tale of Daniel Wildman – bee tamer extraordinaire! This Barnum of the bees put on a show at Jubilee Gardens in 1772 called “Exhibition of the Bees on Horseback”.

At the Jubilee Gardens, late Dobney’s, this evening and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted), the celebrated Mr Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments never attempted by any man in this or any other kingdom before.

Where Wildman rode with bees - now stands Pentonville prison
Where Wildman rode with bees – now stands Pentonville prison

The experiment would involve Wildman – said to be an American but possibly from the west country (accents can be so confusing!) – standing with one foot on the saddle of a horse and the other on the animal’s neck.

While riding round he would also have a mask of live bees on his head and face. Just to vary things a bit, Wildman also stood upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth and by firing a pistol, he could make one part of the bees march over a table while another part swarmed in the air then returned to their hive. Must have been quite a show!

Doors opened at six and the stinging commenced at 6.45pm. Admittance in the boxes and gallery was two shillings, cheaper seats were shilling and Wildman seems to have sold swarms of bees to punters.

The venue for this weirdness, Jubilee Gardens, was on a site in north London near Pentonville prison. As with many of these entertainment spaces, they tended to slide into decline, get built over and forgotten about. Not even Wildman’s bees could stop the rot.

Protein and the perils of sex – the life of Stanley Green

Stanley Green does his thing on Oxford Street circa 1977
Stanley Green does his thing on Oxford Street circa 1977

Throughout my childhood, I’d see this curious man on Oxford Street walking slowly up and down with a huge placard strapped to his back.

Like the Hare Krishna groups chanting round Oxford Circus, this odd chap was a regular fixture you kind of screened out after a while. He was omnipresent on London’s main shopping thoroughfare.

Stanley Green believed that a surfeit of protein caused harmful urges and he’d sell a pamphlet to passers by explaining the point. Born in 1915, he was a fixture on the street from 1968 to his death in 1993.

Must admit I had no idea what he was going on about and never bought one of his pamphlets. But I did notice when he wasn’t there anymore. It was as if something was suddenly missing on Oxford Street.

Other Londoners obviously felt similarly as his distinctive placard is now in the Museum of London.