Stealing underwear in Victorian London

Theft was endemic in Victorian London. Going through court records, one encounters a constant flood of petty stealing. And it wasn’t just precious items like gold watches and jewellery but clothes, bed covers, trousers and even underwear! You have to think of a world where many people had next to nothing. Such was the miserable state of 51 year old Margaret Devine, who lived in the Poplar workhouse in east London.

Victorian drawers

Victorian “drawers” for ladies

On June 23rd, 1890, she faced court proceedings at the Old Bailey accused of stealing a quilt, a jacket and a pair of ladies drawers (very big knickers!) from a woman called Margaret Driscoll.  The victim lived at 40 Sophia Street in Poplar and in her testimony, told the court:

I went to bed about nine, in the back room—I shut the outer door of the house when my daughter went out, and left it on the latch—a little after twelve she came home, she woke me up, and I found the bedclothes gone off the bed in the front room, and a pair of flannel drawers, two quilts, and a jacket—I went out and spoke to a constable, and afterwards went with him to Poplar Workhouse, where I saw the prisoner and the things I had missed—in going to the station I said to the prisoner, “Where are my drawers?”—she said, “I will give them to you by-and-by.

Maria Middleton, a female “searcher” at Poplar police station, strip searched Devine and found she was wearing the stolen drawers. The constable who went with Driscoll to the workhouse reported that Devine made the usual lame excuses of any thief about having got the goods from somebody in the street they had never met. For her crime, the light fingered Devine was sentenced to one month’s hard labour.

Solomon Eagles – mad preacher prophesying the Great Fire of London

Solomon Eagles warns Londoners with burning coals on his head

Solomon Eagles warns Londoners with burning coals on his head

As you know, in 1666 London burned down in the so-called Great Fire of London. I’ll be writing in more detail about that incendiary event in later blog posts. A year earlier, the city had endured the Great Plague. Not a good time to be a Londoner! Hardly surprising then that some folk in the city totally lost their marbles. One such was Quaker preacher Solomon Eagles (sometimes called Eccles) who ran round London in 1665 correctly predicting that a big fire was on the way. To ram home the point, he bore a brazier with hot coals and flames on top of his head. He was also naked.

Clearly, Solomon was not in a good place from a psychiatric perspective. One account said his “eyes were large and black and blazed with insane lustre”. And he shrieked at his fellow city dwellers:

Do you hear this, oh sinners? God will proceed against you in the day of his wrath., though he hath borne with you in the day of his patience. Oh, how many hundred years hath he spared this city. But now…plagues shall come upon it and desolation and it shall be utterly burnt with fire – for strong is the Lord who judgeth it.

Must admit that Solomon reminds me of the 1960s pop band “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” and their front man singing “Fire” with flames on his head. You can watch that performance HERE.

A tight-rope walker in Vauxhall

If you visited Vauxhall now – dominated by its big bus terminal and a railway that ploughs through its centre – you might find it hard to believe that this was once the site of vast public gardens where eighteenth century high society socialised. In fact, the gardens got going during the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s under Charles II. The diarist John Evelyn wrote in 1661 that he had been to see “the new Spring Gardens at Lambeth, a pretty contrived plantation”. Samuel Pepys in 1668 alluded in his diary to young gallants forcing themselves on women at Vauxhall and dragging them off into the hedges.

One 17th century commentator called it a “Mahometan paradise” – presumably referring to the perceived decadence of the Ottoman empire with its harems, silks and questionable morals!  Sir Roger de Coverley pompously lectured the “mistress” of the Gardens that she might make a better manager of the place if there were “more nightingales and fewer strumpets”. The early years of the next century saw Hogarth paint several walls of the pavilions while Roubiliac unveiled a sculpture of the composer Handel.

1732 saw the Gardens re-launched at a prestigious event with Frederick, Prince of Wales, as the guest of honour. There were just four hundred people present – a sharp reduction on the usual crush – and tickets were a guinea each. Guards were posted all round the gardens to keep the riff-raff out. But it wouldn’t last. In the months that followed, Westminster Bridge was crowded with people trying to get to Vauxhall and many opted to come by river to avoid the press of the mob on land


The Music Room at Vauxhall Gardens

A masquerade at Vauxhall Gardens

A masquerade at Vauxhall Gardens

One of the pavilions at Vauxhall Gardens

One of the pavilions at Vauxhall Gardens

The impressive sight of Vauxhall Gardens in 1751

The impressive sight of Vauxhall Gardens in 1751


The artistic community descended on the Gardens including all the leading lights of the Georgian era: Oliver Goldsmith, Sheridan, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr Samuel Johnson. An account in 1751 describes “fine pavilions, shady groves and most delightful walks, illuminated with above one thousand lamps”. In 1798, there were the first recorded firework displays, which were a central feature of celebrations in 1813 for the Duke of Wellington’s latest victories against Napoleon.

In 1817, the entertainment was dominated by Madame Saqui – a tightrope walker “sparkling with spangles and tinsel and her head canopied with plumes of ostrich feathers”.  Quite a sight! She ascended above the crowd and trod the wire at midnight illuminated with blue lights while rockets were fired around her. Not in the least bit distracting!

Madame Saqui on the high wire with ostrich feathers!

Madame Saqui on the high wire with ostrich feathers!

Vauxhall was something of a social equaliser – in that anybody could go provided they could afford the extortionate entry prices. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that quite ordinary people were prepared to scrimp and save to get in. This included highwaymen dressed up to the nines in the company of prostitutes pretending to be ladies of high society.

All this fun had to come to an end. And in 1859, the site was auctioned off for development. Maybe the bacchanalia was not to Victorian tastes. The Gardens were built over until the post-war period when the area was cleared and grassed over to be a green space once more. It’s not exactly recaptured the grandeur of the past – hemmed in by a busy road and railway line. Though nearby is the Royal Vauxhall Tavern where on Saturday nights for the last decade, a cabaret night called Duckies has kept the flame of old Vauxhall burning.

Vauxhall Gardens today - not quite what it was!

Vauxhall Gardens today – not quite what it was!

God Deliver Us from the Wild Northmen!

This was a prayer added to the church litany during the so-called “Dark Ages” as Viking marauders raided monasteries and farmsteads along the coasts of England in the 800s and 900s CE.  In 834, Londoners witnessed Danish longboats heading up the Thames. These were pirates, looking for booty. But by 1003 CE, the Vikings were no longer just plundering, the Scandanavian hard men now fancied their chances at ruling the place.

King Swein of the Danes marched through southern England and headed for London. Unable to breach the old Roman walls, he camped his forces in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. The only way to cross the river and access the city was via London Bridge, the city’s one bridge up until the eighteenth century. The bridge Swein encountered had been built in 994 and was made up of wooden planks, roughly hewn.

King Olaf

King Olaf – pulled down London Bridge

The Saxons, who had been ruling England more or less since the Romans had departed, now mustered an army under Ethelred the Unready and his ally, King Olaf of Norway. For some reason, the Norwegians had fallen out with the Danes! They rushed Southwark but were repulsed with some loss of life. They then decided to oust the Danes from the bridge where they were encroaching.

Olaf took his boats and – according to a later Icelandic chronicle – protected them with wicker shields from stones being rained down by Danes on the bridge. Unfortunately, the stones were hurled with enough force from above to kill many men and damage the boats. But, Olaf’s forces slowly managed to get through the attach ropes to the piles of the bridge. They’d calculated correctly on the tides and the boats were able to pull the bridge’s foundations away with the whole structure crashing into the water.

As the Icelandic chronicler put it in praise of Olaf:

And thou hast overthrown their bridges, O thou Storm of the sons of Odin! Skilful and foremost in battle!

Olaf went on to be canonised as a saint for his role in Christianising Norway (though some historians dispute his importance in this regard). There is still a Saint Olaf’s church in the City of London that dates back to those far off times.

A touch of Moorish Spain in Leicester Square

Leicester Square is at the heart of London’s theatres and clubs. It’s not my favourite London square by any stretch and seems to have permanent building work going on. At present, there are plans to demolish the art deco Odeon cinema. So it seems a good moment to point out what was there before the Odeon was thrown up in the 1930s.

The ill-fated Panopticon in 1851

The ill-fated Panopticon in 1851

The east side of the square was dominated from the 1850s to 1936 by the Alhambra Theatre. The Victorians loved to mix and match architectural styles and with this theatre, they went a bit mad. It looked like an enormous Moorish palace – the sort of vulgar monstrosity Citizen Kane might have constructed. By the time the wrecking ball swung, the Alhambra had enjoyed decades as one of London’s top music halls but it had started out with loftier and more intellectual ambitions.

The Alhambra, built in the “Saracenic style” was originally called The Royal Panopticon of Science and Arts. Wikipedia claims it opened in 1854. But I have a London guide from 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, that has the Royal Panopticon already doing business. A certain Mr E. M. Clarke was the managing director and its original aim was to impart knowledge. As the 1851 guide to London gushes:

A subdued and meditative light is felt to pervade it, and at once to win the mind from the external world of bustle and throng from which it has just escaped.

Alhambra Theatre

The more successful Alhambra theatre in the 1890s

There were exhibitions of “manufactures in their different processes” and a “department for the practice of photography”. But I’m afraid Londoners just wanted something a bit more grounded and entertaining. Far from wanted their thoughts elevated – they wanted a fun night out. And so the Panopticon idea was dropped and the Alhambra was born as a theatre of varieties. A 1906 London guide I own mentions the dances and “ballets” at the Alhambra and long queues to get in.