London hated the French long before Brexit

If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!

Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.

If you think Brexit has made people more xenophobic about the French – eighteenth century London would be a huge shock.

There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!

The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).

At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.

He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.

The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists. If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!

No matter how bad things are with Brexit – no French person to my knowledge has faced such a terrible threat today in London. But correct me if I’m wrong.

The gang that terrorised Georgian London!

So you think urban gangs are a modern phenomenon? Well, 18th century Georgian London was horrified by the activities of the Black Boy Alley gang who showed no mercy to their victims but came to a pretty gruesome end themselves!

Let me take you back to the early 18th century and the wickedness of a group of criminals known as the Black Boy Alley gang. They operated very near to what is now Holborn Circus – or “midtown” as estate agents like to call it. I worked around this part of London as a journalist for many years and it’s a kind of intermediate zone between the City of London in the east and the bustling shops of the West End.

The story of this gang turned up in a book published in 1817 from my large collection of old London related volumes going back three hundred years. The book is called A History and Description of London and was probably written around ten years before by David Hughson – whose real name was Edward Pugh.

It consists of a series of walks through the city that includes some really nasty areas. Hughson seemed determined to expose his readers to the sleazier side of London life! The streets he mentions once led off what is now Holborn Circus roundabout towards the meat market at Smithfield. Saffron Hill is still there but Chick Lane and Black Boy Alley have gone – and maybe not surprisingly!

Black Boy Alley was where a gang operated from in Georgian London

Because under the reign of King George II (reigned 1727 to 1760), Black Boy Alley was “the terror of the whole city” – according to Hughson. The Black Boy Alley Gang used prostitutes to lure passers-by into the grubby tenements. These hapless individuals were then gagged, robbed and murdered. Their bodies were unceremoniously thrown into a ditch with all the city rubbish.

Women played a prominent role in the crimes and three were executed in 1743. These included Ann Duck and Ann Barefoot (I’m not making these names up!!). A man called George Cheshire survived an attack by both of them in nearby Chick Lane. Duck and Barefoot beat Cheshire giving him some severe cuts and bruises. In total, they stole four pence. And for that crime – both women were hanged.

Sarah Bartlet and Martha Ewers were sentenced to transportation for luring a man called Robert Copperthwait into a house on Black Boy Alley and relieving him of his watch. Lucky for him he wasn’t murdered but inexplicably decided to return and they mugged him again – this time taking his money.

The gang included a 21-year-old local lad known as Gugg (real name William Billingsley). He had gone to the free school to learn to read and write but crime was way more attractive than working as a lamp lighter. Then there was Thomas Well, reputed to be the husband of Ann Barefoot mentioned above. At his trial, he was said to have been “much addicted to vile women and drinking, swearing, gaming and every other destructive vice”.

Then there was Dillsey (real name William Brister) and a fourteen-year-old called Scampey (real name Henry Gadd). At his trial, Scampey was asked who was his Redeemer and instead of saying “Jesus”, he scandalised the court by yelling “the Devil!”. Another gang member was a Frenchman called Sulspice du Clot who was a Roman Catholic, as was an Irish gang member, Patrick Bourk.

The Black Boy Alley gang also had two Jewish members: Benjamin David Woolfe who was born in Prague, then part of Bohemia and now the capital of the Czech Republic. And Hannah Moses was from Frankfurt. She had seen her husband executed in February 1743 in London for robbing a silversmith.

The law eventually caught up with the gang and a staggering nineteen were executed on a single day at Tyburn gallows – near where Marble Arch is today at the end of Oxford Street. The mass hanging took place on Christmas Eve 1744. Gugg, Dillsey, young Scampey, the Frenchman Sulspice and the two Jewish gang members all swung from the end of a rope in front of a large, festive crowd.

And so ended the terror of the Black Boy Alley gang!

The London of the Frankenstein Chronicles

If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chronicles you might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Frankenstein Chronicles

Frankenstein Chronicles

I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.

The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.

Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.

At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.

The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.

Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:

Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.

The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.

To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!

Monkey versus Dog in fight to the death

Georgian London had some dreadful “attractions” but going to see a dog fight a monkey to the death has to be about the worst. The pits you might say. Because you had to visit “the pit” to see this horrific carnage.

This weekend I found an astonishing print of a fighting pit where animals were set on each other in the back streets of London in the 1820s.

The picture features a monkey called Jacco Macacco that became a celebrity simian on account of its ferocious fighting capability. He was a small ape with a big temper set on dogs in the Westminster Pit. Around the rim of the little arena, Georgian types placed their bets on the outcome.

Jacco Macacco

The Westminster Pit was a notorious animal fight venue, not far from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. In those days, the back streets of Westminster were a sprawling and desolate slum. The Pit was in Duck Lane, Orchard Street – which now has the far more respectable name of St Matthew Street.

The life of a fighting monkey!

Jacco Macacco’s life story varies a bit. One account has the monkey landing at Portsmouth where he distinguished himself by maiming a few dogs in the local pits before being taken to London. There, he continued to entertain bloodthirsty crowds at the Tottenham Court Road pit before being sold to the owner of the Westminster Pit.

Jacco Macacco
An advert for a Jacco Macacco fight

Now, I should say that these venues were not universally liked. There was already a movement in respectable society to have them shut down. More because of the immoral behaviour that they were believed to encourage than the rights of the animals – though some people pitied the plight of these creatures.

The print I bought this weekend comes from a book by a sports journalist of the early nineteenth century called Pierce Egan who has two roguish gentlemen called Tom and Jerry visiting the pit to see Jacco Macacco.

The book is a fictional work about this duo experiencing all the delights of the capital city – both in high and low society. And yes, that is Tom and Jerry like the cat and mouse characters that followed over a century later.

The last dog fight for our poor monkey

In real life, things went badly wrong for Jacco Macacco. He was pitted against a dog called Puss (ho, ho!) and was savaged so brutally that he died later. Puss was owned by Tom Cribb – who was a celebrity bare knuckle boxer of the time.

Tony McMahon and his library

Dog dung used to make books look good

Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.

And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!

The people who collected dog dung for books

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.

That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.

So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

Getting dog dung for books was good business

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available.

Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

Victorian slang for beginners!

Have you ever wanted to talk like a Victorian Londoner – not a posh one, but a street kid with plenty of 19th century attitude? Maybe a character in a Charles Dickens novel like the Artful Dodger? Here is the guide to Victorian slang!

Now let’s talk Victorian slang!

Well, I’m now going to teach you how to talk like a London urchin circa 1851. I’m using various sources but Mayhew’s London published that year is where I’ve picked up most of the terrible language that follows!

If I said you were flatch kanurd – I’d have meant you were half-drunk. I might also add that you’re kennetseeno – which means stinking, but it was a word normally applied to rotten fish. There could be a police officer passing by and I’d tell you to cool the esclop (look at the policeman).

DISCOVER MORE: Victorians and Edwardians on film

“Cool the” or “Cool ta” seems to have been a way of saying “look at that” – so if I was getting you to stare at an old woman, I’d say: “Cool ta the dillo nemo”. Or just to say “look at him” would be “cool him”.

The word for NO was “On” and the word for YES was “Say” – that’s just reversing those words. Often saying words backwards or messing with the letter order was a way of talking to avoid being understood by the police or people outside your group.

If you were warning your mates that somebody was a bad sort, you’d call them a “regular trosseno”. They might then respond that they understood you – “tumble to your barrikin”.

Victorian slang terms for money

Expressions for money were:

Flatch = halfpenny (remember, flatch kanurd is half drunk)

Yenep = Penny (messing round with letter order there)

Exis Yenep = Sixpence

Couter – Sovereign (big gold coin)

Flatch ynork = Half-Crown

Then to conclude, I might say I’m on to the deb (I’m off to bed) or I was going to do the tightner (go to dinner).

During the Victorian period, Londoners soaked up Jewish expressions from new immigrants, foreign words they came across on the docks and made up stuff. London slang is still evolving today incorporating Jamaican, Bengali and words from other languages. I was told this week by a Londoner that I was “on fleek” – turns out I’m dressed well. Good to know.

Here is a young Londoner today teaching an American girl slang!

Top movies about London!

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!

LONDON MOVIES: 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.

LONDON MOVIES: 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.

LONDON MOVIES: 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.

LONDON MOVIES: 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.

LONDON MOVIES: 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.

What was the secretive Kit-Cat club?

kit-kat

The Kit-Cat club brought together the cream of 18th century London society. Originally, they harboured a treasonous intent against the reigning monarch and had to meet behind closed shutters. But over time, they simply morphed into a dining club.

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, the Kit-Cat Club 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 involved in 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.

The exact membership of the Kit-Cat Club remains a mystery but there were 48 portraits commissioned that hung in a room at Barn Elms House, the rural HQ of the club. Many of them are now at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

They include those mentioned above plus John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough and the dramatist Sir John Vanbrugh.

Londoners riot at the building of Somerset House

Somerset House today is an 18th century hulk of a building used for art exhibitions and offices. Previous it housed civil servants working for the Inland Revenue. And before that, it began as a Tudor palace built by an arrogant and unpopular aristocrat.

Edward Seymour wasn’t famous for being humble or tactful. He was very much a creature of his turbulent age. He was the first Earl of Hertford and his sister became the third wife of Henry VIII. Unlike the previous beheaded wife, Anne Boleyn, Edward’s sister Jane gave Henry the son he craved but then died shortly after childbirth.

Edward Seymour

That son ascended to the throne when Henry VIII died – at the age of only nine. So, Edward Seymour became the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. With his new found power – effectively ruling England – he decided it was a time to have a palace that befitted his new status.

Somerset House would spring up in the area between the city of Westminster and the city of London. This strip along the river – now a road called the Strand – had always been home to the palaces of bishops and princes. But Edward wanted a particularly huge palace.

So he started tearing down other people’s palaces!

In order to build Somerset House, he bulldozed (or the Tudor equivalent) the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. And incorporated their masonry into his fabulous new home. But that wasn’t going to suffice.

He then knocked down the nearby church of St Mary’s for more materials. And then Somerset’s men tore down a chapel in St Paul’s churchyard; robbed more stone from the church of St John of Jerusalem near Smithfield and then wrecked the Strand Inn near the Temple.

Still, Edward Seymour cast his greedy eye around and wondered what else he could demolish. So, the ambitious noble ordered his masons to start tearing bits off St Margaret’s church in Westminster – a much loved place of worship. And that’s what finally got to Londoners.

They formed the Tudor equivalent of a human chain around St Margaret’s and drove off Somerset’s masons. This didn’t help Somerset’s popularity and his star began to wane. Building stopped on Somerset House and the man himself was eventually dragged to the scaffold to have his head chopped off.

The gory history of Temple Bar

If you stand in front of St Paul’s cathedral and look to your left, towards Paternoster Square, you’ll see a stone arch with windows and well-worn statues. This is Temple Bar. Hard to believe now, but there were once human heads on poles adorning the top of it.

The structure was built in 1670 by Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect who gave us St Paul’s Cathedral and many smaller churches. He set about rebuilding London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, a vast inferno that consumed much of the ancient city.

This terrible event had one upside. It gave Wren the opportunity to design a new and more ordered metropolis. However, poor Wren’s hopes of creating piazzas and wide streets was confounded at every turn by stubborn Londoners and their wish to keep the medieval winding thoroughfares and dark alleys.

So, why did Wren build Temple Bar?

The stone gate replaced wooden posts and chains that separated the City of London from the City of Westminster. It was originally positioned across the road in front of what’s now the Royal Courts of Justice. On one side was Fleet Street in the City and on the other was The Strand leading to Whitehall and the centre of royal government.

Everybody entering the City had to pass under the Temple Bar. It wasn’t entirely popular. For one thing, it held up traffic. The archway soon became way too narrow for the mass of carts, horses, carriage and people trying to cram through and do business.

It also had four poorly crafted statues of James I, Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II that were described in very unflattering terms by one Victorian writer as “mean” with “small feeble heads”. They’re not the greatest works of art it must be said.

The man who carved these mediocre works of art was called John Bushnell. By all accounts, he was somewhere between eccentric and insane. One scheme he devised was to prove that the Greeks could have invaded Troy by building his own Trojan Horse out of timber and covering it in stucco.

He spent £500 of his own money (a vast sum then) on this project creating a horse’s head that could hold a dining table to seat twelve people. The whole thing fell to pieces during a storm.

There is a room along the top portion of Temple Bar that was used as a storage room for Child’s bank. On the very top of Temple Bar, the heads of traitors once stared down on passers-by. This was meant to be an object lesson for 17th and 18th century Londoners not to rebel against their anointed kings and queens.

The first head to appear on Temple Bar was Sir Thomas Armstrong involved in the so-called Rye House Plot. Next came Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend who planned to assassinate King William III as he returned from hunting in Richmond – intercepting his coach between Brentford and Turnham Green.

They were hanged at Tyburn despite pleading their innocence – and their heads removed for public display.

In a ghoulish twist, typical of London, there were enterprising people in 1746 who were reportedly hiring out looking glasses at Temple Bar so that passers-by could take a closer look at the severed heads. It cost a halfpenny apparently. In 1766, a man was arrested for firing musket balls at the heads – which he then confessed to having done for three nights running.

In 1772, one of the heads blew down during a storm. Incredibly, the blackened object had been on top of Temple Bar since 1723 – nearly fifty years! A chap called John Pearce took it to a local tavern where it was then buried under the floor. Must have been an amusing subject of conversation beforehand!

Between 1880 and 2003, Temple Bar sat forlornly in a park in Hertfordshire. It was bought by the Meux brewing family. The City of London sold it to them as they’d long wondered what to do about what had become an unloved traffic obstruction. However, nearly twenty years ago it was uprooted once more and brought back into town.

Temple Bar has returned to the centre of London – not blocking any traffic and not sporting any severed heads.