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, they 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 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. So a distinguished group!
It’s a great mistake to build a palace that rivals that of the monarch. Take Cardinal Wolseley who commissioned Hampton Court Palace only to have Henry VIII decide it was way too good for his top adviser and took it over. The same dangerous error was made by the Lord Protector Somerset – who built a previous version of what we know today as Somerset House on the Strand.
Somerset was the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour – who died after giving birth to Henry’s successor, Edward VI. He became king as a child and Somerset had to exercise effective power – hence his title of Protector. Enjoying his new role, the boy’s uncle decided to construct a massive home for himself between London and Westminster.
The only problem was the presence of other people’s homes – like the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. The solution was easy. Demolish the residences and use the masonry for his new palace.
He also 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.
All of this wasn’t enough. His lordship’s new Somerset House needed to be huge and impressive. 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.
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.
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.
Hard to believe now but the Strand was once dominated by a vast and luxurious hotel called the Hotel Cecil.
With 800 rooms and riverside views, it became a centre of the “flapper” scene in the 1920s or the Jazz Age if you prefer. But the hotel had been built by a fraudulent company called the Liberator Society, led by Liberal Party politician Jabez Balfour (MP for Tamworth and later Burnley).
Balfour was a wheeler-dealer in the property market who played fast and loose with investors’ money. He eventually did a prison stretch having been arrested in Argentina, where he’d done a bunk.
Thousands of investors detested the very sight of the Hotel Cecil as it had been built with their savings frittered away illegally. so I doubt any survivors wept when the huge complex was swept away by the oil giant Shell in 1930.
It replaced the great Victorian edifice with Shell Mex house, a great hulk of an art deco statement that still graces the riverside today.
An 1890s guide to London I own describes the building in very scornful terms:
It was one of the outcomes of the notorious Liberator Society, whose shameful transactions led to the ruin of thousands of poor investors and for which the promotors have been justly punished.
Far from being impressed by Balfour’s sprawling hotel, the guide angrily notes that two venerable streets were swallowed up by the Hotel Cecil: Cecil Street and Salisbury Street. The name “Cecil” refers to the great aristocratic family who advised Tudor and Stuart monarchs.
Most famously, Sir William Cecil (Lord Burleigh) who had a house on the Strand – on the other side of the road from the hotel. There is still a Burleigh Street that roughly marks the spot, a pretty inconspicuous thoroughfare with a Barclays bank and the back end of the Lyceum Theatre on it.
As The Strand is renovated and is starting to recover its past glories – I can’t help feeling a renovated Hotel Cecil would have been hugely popular today. Ah well.