Pall Mall, gas lights and celestial beds

Peep Gas Lights Pall Mall
A caricature of reactions to the lights by Thomas Rowlandson

This day in London history: on 28 January 1807, London’s Pall Mall became the first street to have public lighting by gas.

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Gainsborough plaqueThe artist Thomas Gainsborough lived here, in Schomberg House, from 1774 until his death and there is a blue plaque to commemorate the fact. Another resident of the house was WIlliam Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and military commander. He was the third son of George II, and in 1739 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow him an annual income of £15,000 from the civil list.

The Duke also became known later as the ‘Butcher of Colloden’ after the half hour battle in which around two thousand Scottish rebels were slain. His brother, the future King George III, was instrumental in spreading unpleasant rumours about him, but he ended up being generally disliked with little help from anyone else.

Even more of a claim to fame, or infamy, for the house, built in 1698, was its use as a headquarters for the quirkiest of quacks. James Graham studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, though it is not certain that he even actually qualified. He was not ignorant of basic health and hygiene: he supported vegetarian diets, fresh air, temperance in the consumption of alcohol, and sleeping on mattresses. But he went on to more elaborate medical theories and practices.

Schomberg House 1850
Schomberg House in 1850

Graham first set up his operations at Adelphi Terrace, in an elaborately decorated house with equipment said to have cost around £10,000. The cost of this ‘Temple of Health and Hymen’ proved too much and in 1781 Graham moved his operation to Schomberg House. It was, basically, an 18th-century sex therapy clinic and fertility centre, though mud baths and card games were also available. One of Graham’s assistants was a young girl known as Vestina, Goddess of Health. She was one Emy Lyon, later better known as Emma Hart and then even more famously as Lady Hamilton, mistress of Admiral Nelson and the mother of his child.

The centrepiece of this temple of Hymen was the Grand Celestial Bed, guaranteed (at £50 per night) to induce conception for even the most infertile of couples. The bed, which had mattresses filled with springy stallion hair and coloured sheets, was supported by forty glass pillars and surmounted by a mirror-lined dome. The name comes from the not very flattering line in Hamlet where the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him:

So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

Music, which came from the mouths of gild nymphs on each of the glass pillars, completed the course necessary for the conception of perfect babies with a couple “powerfully agitated in the delights of love”. Also important for the treatment was the prior lecture on generation, delivered by the ‘doctor’ himself.

Despite his innovative ideas, Graham was not always taken seriously. He became something of a religious fanatic and eventually returned to Edinburgh, called himself the Servant of the Lord OWL (Oh Wonderful Love). He was, for a time, confined to his house as a lunatic and finally died at home on his 49th birthday.

Nell Gwynne plaquePall Mall also bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. She, too, had an impressive bed that may have served as an inspiration for Graham: it was solid silver and situated in a room lined with mirrors. Nell, of course, was less famous for her bed than for who was in it – most notably Charles II.

Her start in life was relatively inauspicious: Nell was born in one of Covent Garden’s sleazier streets, in a brothel run by her mother. She was orphaned after her father died in prison and her mother drowned in a drunken stupor. Despite remaining illiterate all her life, she was known as “pretty, witty Nell”.

One of best, non-physical, attributes – as far as Charles was concerned – was that she did not try to dabble in politics, unlike some of his other mistresses. (Dabbling in politics was, and possibly is, a not uncommon failing of royal mistresses, as with Lola Montez.) Nell was, however, insistent that her child by Charles who, though the son of a king, was illegitimate and so had no rights under law, be given a title.

To ensure this, she dangled the child from a window and threatened to drop him until Charles finally gave in and said, “Nay, Nellie, pray spare the Earl of Burford.” Nell was probably Charles’s favourite of all his many mistresses and, as tradition has it, his last words were, “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

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8 thoughts on “Pall Mall, gas lights and celestial beds

  1. The other version I’ve heard about how Nell’s son got a title was that Nell said “Come here, you little bastard” (or words to that effect) and when Charles protested at the child being called a bastard, she pointed out she had no better name for him.

      1. Absolutely true. All of the stories about her support that view, from the 1st time she met Charles to the mocking of the Duchess of Portsmouth. Always did enjoy the one about her response to the people who mobbed her coach once, believing she was the D of Portsmouth. “Peace, good people! I am the PROTESTANT whore!” And they cheered her on her way.

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