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.

Terrible accident at St Mary-le-Strand

This is the story of a terrible accident that occurred because of shoddy building work on a church that still stands in central London to this day. But first we must go back three hundred years to the tragic day in question.

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.

Teenage Londoner whose dress caught on fire!

This is the sad tale of a young lady whose rather large dress caught on fire. It’s an instructive story about the perils of high fashion. It’s also a warning not to stand next to an open fire when you’re wearing highly combustible fabric.

This account of the death of an 18th century socialite comes from a contemporary book in my large collection of antique volumes, magazines and documents. I am a terrible hoarder of ancient stuff. I scour book fairs and antique markets – plus ebay of course – for new additions to my old library. And then flick through the pages looking for stories that would otherwise be forgotten forever.

And so – let’s go back and discover our teenager from two hundred years ago who caught fire.

Isabella Courtenay lived in Grosvenor Square. She was “most elegantly accomplished” according to a report in 1783, the year of her untimely death. Just eighteen years old, this privileged young lady had everything to live for.

But in March of that year, she was warming herself before a fireplace when a spark flew from the grate setting her clothes on fire. This was in the days of big dresses, petticoats and suffocating corsets.

Still, you might have reckoned that somebody would be able to put out the flames that were now engulfing her. In the same room were Isabella’s sister, Lady Honywood, and child.

But the latter was unable to offer any assistance, for reasons not specified, while her ladyship fell into a fit. Poor Isabella ran screaming from room to room without meeting anybody who could help.  In no time at all, she was quite the fireball!  

As a contemporary chronicle explains:

It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright

The same chronicle then advises that should you, as a lady wearing big dresses, catch fire – then the best thing to do is NOT run about. In fact, you should fall down and roll yourself up in a carpet or bed quilt.

Here is the contemporary account below from 1783…

The story in a 1783 annual register