During a plague – don’t wear dead men’s hair!

Samuel Pepys kept his famous diary of London life during the year 1665 when plague ravaged the city – killing thousands. He first noticed the onset of the pestilence when red crosses appeared on a door in Drury Lane. In a matter of a few days, King Death had galloped through the City of London and then on to Westminster and the suburbs. Poor Samuel came face to face with the horror when he got off a boat and had to step over a dead body as he headed down an alleyway.

Pepys wearing a fine wig
Pepys wearing a fine wig

It had been a hot summer when the sickness had emerged. Doctors and physicians died so there was nobody to tend the sick. Pepys own medic – Dr Burnett – popped his clogs round about the 25th August of the plague. In the last week of that month, an estimated 10,000 people succumbed. Given the population of London at that time, this was a terrible catastrophe. As Pepys noted, the horror just kept going without any end in sight.

Still, some of the decisions one has to make at the height of a spreading plague are quite mundane. For example, should one wear one’s usual wig? On Sunday 3rd September, Pepys got up and dressed in his fine coloured silk suit. He was about to don his “periwigg” when he remembered that he’d bought it in Westminster just as the plague reached the area.

His worry wasn’t that the shopkeeper had been infected but that the wig might be made of hair from men who had died of plague. Somehow, Pepys reasoned, the disease could transfer from his fashionable head covering to himself. Pepys even wondered if the plague could spell the end for wigs!

It is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwiggs for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

Needless to say Pepys survived and carried on wearing fine wigs, as did every other man in society, till his death.

A right Charlie! This was the face of British policing in 1800

Old soldiers didn’t die in Georgian London – they became Charlies.

A right Charlie - unlikely to be much use in a true crime situation
A right Charlie – unlikely to be much use in a true crime situation

These were watchmen who were supposed to protect Londoners against criminals on the dangerous streets. Only they weren’t very effective. This was before the modern police force was formed by Sir Robert Peel and Charlies gave way to Bobbies. The Charlie was more often than not a bit of an old codger with a rattle, a lantern and a long white pole they struck on the ground to mark the hours.

They had meeting points round the city and small watch-boxes. But their abilities were held in such low regard that the well-off would either take their valuables with them if they had to travel out of town or park their silverware with the bank. Others would carry a “robber’s purse” which was given up to their assailant to avoid being injured or worse in a struggle.

I’ve read one theory that the Charlies got their name in the reign of Charles II – I’m open to any information you have to support or rebut this.

Houses of Parliament burnt down in massive blaze

On the 16th October, 1834, the old Houses of Parliament were completely destroyed by a huge fire. It took several days to extinguish an inferno that engulfed ancient medieval halls, Georgian houses and most of the palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall – a vast space dating back to the Norman period – was only saved because of the wind direction. But the House of Commons and House of Lords were no more. The centre of government was a smouldering ruin.

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834
Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

The reason for the fire was something typically archaic in such a venerable British institution. Incredibly, a primitive system of accounting was still being used by the Exchequer in the nineteenth century that involved digging notches into long pieces of wood called “tallies”. The author Charles Dickens mocked this ridiculous practice saying it was no better than the way Robinson Crusoe had “kept his calendar on the desert island”.

Even under George III (reigned from 1760 to 1820), somebody had asked whether it was time for the state’s finances to be kept using pen, paper, ink and pencils instead of pieces of wood. Finally, in 1826, the tallies were abolished. From now on, no more notches in sticks! However, that left a lot of bits of wood lying around – centuries of them in fact. They were of no use whatsoever and probably never had been. So it was decided to gradually burn the lot.

A stove was used in the House of Lords. A labourer called Joshua Cross was hired to shovel the wood in though it turned out he wasn’t properly supervised in this task by the Clerk of Works. As a result, the raging fire in the stove extended to nearby wood panelling and in no time the whole House of Lords was on fire including a fine tapestry of the Spanish Armada being defeated.

Nearby was St Stephen’s chapel, which had been rebuilt between 1320 and 1352 and under Edward VI became the House of Commons. It was in this chamber that Oliver Cromwell had dismissed parliament. And now it was also consigned to the flames. Thousands watched in awe at the spreading orange glow. The very floorboards that had been trodden by great political figures such as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Canning were incinerated. And all because of a daft form of accounting that had never been of any real use.

Sir Walter Raleigh catches fire in Islington

Sir Walter Raleigh – swashbuckling adventurer under Queen Elizabeth I (or Queen Bess if you prefer) – and Islington don’t exactly sit together in your mind. But Raleigh and other Elizabethans loved popping over to the village of Islington to take the air. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its dairies would become famous for their creams, custards, cakes and gooseberry fools. But in the sixteenth century – the time of Raleigh – it was archery practice on the fields and just admiring the views over the green valley of Holloway and on to Highgate hill. The view has changed a bit since then!

Raleigh's old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition
Raleigh’s old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition

The Tudors took to building country homes in the area decorated with oak panels and stained-glass windows. Raleigh, worn out by long voyages of discovery and returning with tobacco to poison his fellow Englishmen, took up residence with gusto. His house was still standing in 1830 by which time it had become the Pied Bull Inn, behind what was then called Frederick Street. There is a very silly story about Raleigh smoking tobacco that I found in an Edwardian history of London:

Sitting one day in a deep meditation with a pipe in his mouth, he inadvertently called to his man (servant) to bring him a tankard of small ale. The fellow, coming into the room, threw all the liquor into his master’s face and running downstairs bawled out: Fire! Fire! Sir Walter has studied till his head is on fire and the smoke bursts out of his head and nose! 

An unusual case of somebody spontaneously combusting due to too much thinking. Pictures depicting this incident used to appear over tobacconist shops. A stained-glass window in Raleigh’s house was bordered with images of sea-horses and parrots plus tobacco leaves. Years later, the pioneer of the filthy habit would be executed for treason. He allegedly took two pipes with him to the Tower of London, his prison, to have a good puff before the big event.

The She Barkers of Cranbourne Alley

As you come out of Leicester Square towards Charing Cross Road and the Leicester Square tube station, you can cross over at the traffic lights and continue down Cranbourn Street. It’s a pretty innocuous street – very unmemorable. But two hundred years ago, it was the known as Cranbourne Alley and regarded as the “great bonnet mart of London”. If you were a lady, you’d go and buy your fashionable bonnet to adorn your head in Cranbourne Alley.

Bad bonnets not allowed in Cranbourn Alley!
Bad bonnets not allowed in Cranbourn Alley!

But god forbid, if the bonnet you were wearing as you walked down the street was unfashionable. Because you would be badgered by the She Barkers, women employed to harass ladies whose bonnets desperately needed replacing. If you think shop assistants can sometimes be pushy now, that’s nothing compared to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As a book I have from the 1830s explains:

Woe used to betide the woman of the middle classes who passed through Cranbourne Alley with an unfashionable bonnet! It was immediately seen from one end of the place to the other and twenty barkers beset her, each in turn, as she walked forward, arresting her course by invitations to inspect the ware that was for sale within. Many a one has had her cloak or shawl torn from her back by these rival sisters of trade during their struggles to draw her within their den, each pulling a different way.

The axe and block used to behead people at the Tower of London

In the Tower of London, they still have the axe and “heading block” used for executions right up to the mid-18th century. There’s also a mask that was worn by the executioner. The block is chipped and dinted as a result of some considerable use. On it, the heads of three Scottish rebels – Lords Lovat, Kilmarnock and Balmerino – were severed in 1746. It’s not true, however, that the head of Anne Boleyn was taken off using it in the 16th century. She was decapitated by a French swordsman in a departure from the usual method. A nice clean cut!

Anne Boleyn

Terrible accident at St Mary-le-Strand

St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne. The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.

St Mary-le-Strand - killer church!
St Mary-le-Strand – killer church!

Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.

Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.

The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.

Thomas Savage

Londoner executed not once – but twice!

Thomas Savage was born in the parish of St Giles in the Fields and as a youth, became an apprentice to a certain Mr Collins, a vintner at the Ship Tavern at Ratcliff Cross. Three hundred years ago, when this story is set, Ratcliff was a hamlet by the river Thames with a strong ship building and provisioning tradition. It’s long been swallowed up by the borough of Tower Hamlets, located between Shadwell and LImehouse.

Thomas Savage
Thomas Savage at the “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay

The teenager Thomas showed what a wicked person he was by not attending church on the Sabbath.  “Breaking the Sabbath” was illegal at the time – this being the late seventeenth century. But that didn’t bother Thomas too much who spent his Sunday at a “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay, “a vile common strumpet , who was the cause of his ruin” (as one account puts it).

At first, Savage turned up at the brothel with wine and he and the prostitute Hannah got merrily drunk and enjoyed themselves. But being a lady of the night, Hannah wanted money for her services. So she goaded Thomas into robbing Mr Collins. But Savage explained that Collins’ maid was always in the house. To which Hannah responded:

Hang her, a jade! Knock her brains out and I’ll receive the money and go anywhere with you beyond sea, to avoid the stroke of justice.

So the weak-willed Thomas headed back to the Collins house and avoided his master by climbing over a back wall. He then ran into the other servants having dinner including the ever-present maid. Rather unwisely, she took Savage to task for spending too much time at the bawdy house. He didn’t like this telling off and it convinced him to bash her brains out as Hannah had advised.

So one day he took a hammer and began hitting out at objects round the house to provoke her to anger. This presumably would have made it easier for him to do the foul deed. Thomas needed to psyche himself up to commit his first murder. Initially, the maid seems to have tried to ignore this bizarre behaviour but eventually she asked him to stop. He then threw the hammer and scored a direct blow on her head. Falling to the ground she screamed in pain and her assailant hesitated to deal the fatal blow. He just couldn’t quite do it.

But as she moaned and groaned, he set about her with the hammer and snuffed the maid’s life out. Breaking open a cupboard, he found a bag with sixty pounds of Collins’ money – a princely sum then – and escaped. Meeting up with Hannah, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. She asked for all of it but he only gave her half a crown and then fled. In the hours that followed, he sat by the roadside crying out loud about what he had done. Eventually, gathering his wits about him, he went down to a guest house in Greenwich.

The mistress of this guest house was very suspicious to find a seventeen year old with a bag bulging with so much money. She asked him what he was doing. Thomas lied that he was on his way to Gravesend to meet his master, a wine cooper. This story seemed a bit fishy and Thomas, now in a total panic, said she could contact his master and in fact, he’d leave the money with her until she did.

So without any of his ill-gotten gains, Savage wandered off to Woolwich. Shortly after, word of his murder filtered down from Ratcliff to Greenwich – it took much longer for news to get around in the days before mass media. The mistress of the guest house sent a group of men to go after him and he was found in a Woolwich ale house, head on the table and a pot of beer by his side. The men challenged him:

Tom – did you not live at Ratcliff?

Yes

And did you not murder your fellow servant? And you took so much money from your master? You must go along with us!

Yes, with all my heart.

In custody, Savage confessed everything. On the day he went to court, his fellow prisoners got him a bit drunk and he shopped Hannah Blay to the authorities. She was then arrested too. Thomas was sentenced to death – the punishment to be carried out at Ratcliff Cross. This was quite a common thing to do – to kill the criminal at the place where they had committed their crime. Savage’s hanging was postponed on one occasion and news was given to him as he was dressed up for the occasion.

What – have I got on my dying clothes? Dying clothes did I say? They are my living clothes, the clothes out of which I shall go into eternal glory. They are the best clothes that ever I put on!

At Ratcliff Cross, there seems to have been some sympathy among the crowd for this pathetic figure. He said a little prayer and the cart pulled away to leave him struggling at the end of the rope. A friend beat Thomas around the chest to shorten his misery. Motionless and left dangling for a while, everybody assumed Savage was dead. His friends then took him to a nearby house and laid his body on a table. Then something incredible happened. Thomas started breathing!

His throat rattled. He heaved upwards. Then his eyes and mouth opened. His teeth are described as having been “set before” – I assume that means in his death struggle, they’d been pushed out – and he couldn’t speak. Now you might think he’d have been let off but not in seventeenth century England. As word got out that Savage was alive, an embarrassed sheriff turned up and took him back to the gibbet. Poor Savage was then hanged all over again until he was properly dead.

His forlorn friends then spirited his seventeen year old body away to Islington where he was buried on the 28th October, 1668.