I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history. This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!
You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact. So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:
Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead. This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.
A workhouse – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery. If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!
Gordon of Khartoum – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule. Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.
St Martin’s in the Fields – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!
“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians. I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.
If you enjoyed the BBC series Taboo – you’re probably wondering what London was really like at that time.
That violent drama is set in 1814, the late Georgian period, and as luck would have it, I own several guides to London from the first two decades of the nineteenth century. One from 1804 is especially descriptive and I’ll quote liberally below.
These books were intended to guide a visitor around the city taking in places of interest, like a prison for example or a mental asylum. Yep, you really could pay to go and gawp at criminals and the insane. So – here’s a selection of oddities from the period of Taboo.
- Visiting a prison: You’ve arrived in London and wondering what to go and see. How about a prison? You could pop along to Newgate prison – where the Old Bailey now stands – and pay the “turnkey” two or three shillings to go in and stare at the unfortunates behind bars. One guide I have to London laments the overcrowded part of the prison for debtors, who were treated worse than thieves and other felons. Those who were condemned to death were normally held in irons, which must have been a thrilling sight for the Georgian tourist!
See somebody condemned to death: Incredibly, you could pay a shilling to a door-keeper at the Old Bailey and watch a trial for a capital crime. The death penalty wasn’t just for murder. There was a whole range of offences that could lead to the rope. These included counterfeiting money or stealing. And children could still be hanged in public at this time. If a trial was high profile, the doorkeepers would increase the entrance fee to as much as a guinea.
- Then watch a public execution: My 1804 guide bemoans the attitude of Londoners to the growing number of executions. They’d become quite indifferent to them! “Among the many nuisances which disgrace the metropolis, there is not perhaps one which excites more horror than the frequency of public executions. The numbers of unhappy culprits that annually forfeit their existence by violation of the laws, afford sufficient proofs that an ignominious death is no longer our safeguard. Six, eight and ten criminals executed in the public streets, even in the heart of the metropolis, in the broad light of day, before the eyes of the multitude, scarcely excite emotion.”
- You’re a victim of crime during your visit to London: There’s no police force at the time of Taboo so having been robbed, beaten up or defrauded by a fortune teller – you could take your case to one of the places where magistrates were in session every day of the week like the Mansion House, Bow Street, Hatton Garden or Guildhall. In a “summary way” they would deal with everything from murder to “disorderly houses”, “persons of ill fame found in avenues to public places with an intent to rob” and “vagabonds”.
- Pop into a workhouse: In the early 1800s, Dr Hooper was the resident doctor at the St Mary-le-bone Workhouse and was happy to show any gentleman round if they were interested. There was also the St Martin’s Workshouse in Castle Street, near Leicester Square (roughly corresponding to the National Portrait Gallery). In my 1804 guide to London, it’s pointed out that one of the inmates was 104 years old! If you made a proper application to the master of the house or the churchwardens they were prepared to “readily gratify the curious”.
- Strange entertainments: Like today, Londoners loved the theatre. Some of it was very bawdy while other houses put on fine operas and plays. Then there was just the plain bizarre. For example, Mr Cartwright could be found at the Lyceum putting on a display of “philosophical fireworks” while Miss Cartwright played the musical glasses. In the absence of movies, you could also go and watch The Phantasmagoria – also at the Lyceum. Basically, images projected on to a screen from a “magic lantern”. No CGI I’m afraid.
Watch a medical operation: If your day in London had proved to be rather dull, it could be enlivened by going to watch a medical operation. The operating table at Guy’s Hospital was circled by viewing galleries where students and the curious could breathe their germs down on the poor afflicted patient. Amputations normally resulted in death due to infection but the removal of kidney stones through the urethra (I’m crossing my legs just thinking of it) had an excellent survival rate.
- Moral societies for bettering Londoners: If you were aghast at the depraved ways of Georgian London, you could join a society to improve things. In one guide to London I own the author recommends The Society for giving effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality founded in 1787. There was also The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge by distributing books among the Poor and The Society for Preventing Crimes by prosecuting Swindlers, Sharpers and Cheats, based in the Strand.
- Observe the diseases killing Londoners: In 1802, Londoners died of an interesting variety of ailments. Nearly six thousand had perished before reaching two years of age; 266 died of apoplexy; 3,503 died of “convulsions”; 559 were spirited away by measles; 1,579 succumbed to small-pox and 107 died of the condition that hit heavy drinkers of port wine – gout.
- Cheer the chimney sweeps!: Children were still being sent up chimneys at this time. And there were plenty of chimneys to clean with most houses using filthy fossil fuels. There was a growing awareness that this was a terrible thing to do to young kids but nobody seemed to have come up with an alternative. Still, once a year, the chimney sweeps of London – on MayDay – dressed up in their finery (whatever that amounted to) and paraded through the streets to the cheers of London’s citizens. Only to be sent back up the chimneys the following day.
London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish. Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle?
- Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London
- Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed.
- Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
- Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
- Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a location deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
- Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
- Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
- Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
- Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
- St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.
- It was previously referred to as Ficket’s Fields and Whetstone’s Park and was considered very dangerous because of the high level of robberies
- The square may also have been known as Cup and Purse Field
- Queen Elizabeth I and then James I forbade the building of houses on top of Lincoln’s Inn Fields preserving it as a green space
- Then James I changed his mind and the famed architect Inigo Jones was allowed to design a public square
- The four sides of the square have distinct names: Newman’s Row, Arch Row, Portugal Row and Lincoln’s Inn Wall
- Lord William Russell was beheaded in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21st July, 1683 and Algernon Sidney later that same year
- In 1662, the Duke’s Theatre was opened on Portugal Street on the site of an old tennis court and was named after Charles II’s brother, James the Duke of York
- After barbers and surgeons became separate professions in 1745 (no, really, that happened), Barber-Surgeons Hall was abandoned with surgeons wanting their own headquarters in London. They chose Lincoln’s Inn Fields
- Being so close to Chancery Lane, several Lord Chancellors lived on the square
- After the Great Fire of London in 1666, recent archaeology (conducted by Channel Four’s Time Team) suggests that refugees fleeing their burned homes camped in the square. Remains of large tent pegs were discovered
Elizabeth was married to James Brownrigg, a plumber who moved with his wife in to Flower-de-Luce Court off Fleet Street. It was the year 1765 and plumbers seemed to have been doing as well back then as they are today. James was coining it sufficiently to afford a little house in Islington as a retreat from the City of London.
Elizabeth gave birth to a staggering 16 children and having been a midwife, she was appointed by the overseers of the poor of St Dunstan’s parish to take care of the poor women in the workhouse. On the surface, Elizabeth Brownrigg looked like a fairly prosperous Mum with a hard working husband and a sense of civic today. What wasn’t to like? Plenty as it turned out.
She started to take pregnant women into her house to lie-in as private patients. To look after them, Elizabeth needed servants so she moved in some of the poor girls of the parish as cheap home helps – or slave labour if you prefer.
These apprentices were treated appallingly from day one. A girl called Mary Jones, an orphan from the Foundling Hospital, was laid across two chairs in the kitchen and beaten ferociously until Elizabeth had to stop because she was tired. Mary escaped and got back to the Foundling Hospital where she was examined by a surgeon who was shocked by the extent of her wounds. The hospital’s solicitor wrote to Elizabeth asking her to explain what on earth was going on – but she ignored the letter and the matter was dropped.
Another girl in the house, Mary Mitchell, was also being beaten and managed to escape into the street but was caught by Elizabeth’s son and returned to the house – where things got a great deal worse. Incredibly, the overseers of the poor for the parish of Whitefriars sent another girl, Mary Clifford, to be an apprentice to the evil Elizabeth.
This individual was tied up naked and set about with a hearth broom, horsewhip and a cane. She was forced to sleep on a mat in a coal-hole. Her diet was bread and water. One night, aching with hunger, Mary Clifford open a cupboard looking for food. Elizabeth discovered this and forced her to work naked the next day with a chain around her neck.
Now you might be asking – what did Elizabeth’s husband and aforementioned son make of all this? Well, the answer is they were willing accomplices. One of Elizabeth’s favourite punishments was to bind the girls hands and haul them up with a rope slung round a water pipe. When that gave way, Elizabeth’s husband hammered a hook into a ceiling beam.
Mary Clifford eventually confided to a French lady lodging in the house that she was being abused terribly. Inevitably, Elizabeth found out and flew at Mary with a fury that included cutting at her tongue with scissors. The parish authorities were persuaded that there was a problem at the Brownrigg house and took the husband into custody. Elizabeth and her son John fled to Wandsworth in disguise renting a room.
Poor Mary Clifford died a few days later. Elizabeth and John’s landlord recognised his lodgers as murderers and turned them in. All three were put on trial where Elizabeth was found guilty of murder but her husband and son got away with just six months in prison. After being hanged, Elizabeth’s body was put in a hackney carriage and taken to Surgeon’s Hall where it was dissected and her skeleton hung up to be viewed by medical students.
There are many hidden treasures in London that I’m still discovering after a lifetime in this city. One that I was completely unaware of till recently was the dog cemetery in Hyde Park. From 1880 till about 1915, about 300 dogs and some cats and birds were interred in a plot of ground near the Victoria Gate – close to Lancaster Gate tube.
The names of the deceased canines vary with a couple being rather politically incorrect now. But they include Pepys, Little Lord Quex and My Little Dorritt. Grave inscriptions include a slightly changed Shakespeare quote: “After life’s fitful slumber, he sleeps well”.
The whole thing was started by the Duke of Cambridge in 1880 when he got permission for his wife to bury her pet dog in the park – where he was the official ranger. And then the dead pooches just kept coming!
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!
In a seventy year old guide to Soho in my collection, there’s a great chapter entitled: Wide Boys, Spivs, Dippers and Steamers. It details the murky criminal underbelly of London’s entertainment district. Because mid-twentieth century Soho was a dangerous place. But also exciting. As the book puts it:
One has only to take a short walk from Great Windmill Street to Charing Cross Road via Old Compton Street to see fifty faces that would fit into the Police Gazette with no trouble at all.
On a street corner, you might see a fence with a jeweller’s magnifying glass screwed into his eye regarding a watch or ring that somebody wanted to sell in a hurry for cash and no questions asked. A former Special Branch officer Detective Inspector Harold Brust stated: “Regarding criminal haunts in London, there are districts which are known as haunts of vice and depravity full of bolt-holes for hunted men. Soho is one such region.” That was his opinion in 1937.
Not surprising really as the previous two years had seen a series of brutal murders in Soho – mainly of prostitutes. “French Fifi” was strangled by a silk stocking in Archer Street. “Red” Max Kassell, who was believed to be the head of a supposed White Slave ring was also killed. Jeanette Cotton was strangled by a silk hanky in her flat on Lexington Street on Thursday, April 16th, 1936. Connie Hine (spelt Hind in another account) was garrotted with piano wire.
In a rather melodramatic turn of phrase, my Soho guide claims:
This trail of homicide led to the formation of the CID’s Vice Squad, which managed to get a line on Soho’s white slavers and dope kings in double-quick time.
In fact, the crimes went unsolved. Local ladies of the night talked to police but it all came to nothing. Once the police lost interest, Soho clammed up on itself. This may be a Soho that’s hard to imagine now – one of poverty, crime, seedy cafes and violence – but it certainly existed. At the close of World War Two, for example, a Canadian officer was killed by a blow to the head with a brick while walking down Bourchier Street – linking Wardour Street and Dean Street. As he lay dying, he was relieved of his wallet.