Little slices of London's history

Royal mistresses, swans, and Big Ben

Big Ben close-upOn 20 October 1714, George I was crowned king of England and on the same date in 1858 the great bell, nicknamed Big Ben, was winched into place (but it didn’t ring until the following year).

George, German by birth, ruled for 13 years but never learned to speak English. He is remembered, among other things, for his two mistresses, one of whom was very thin and the other very large. They were known as the Elephant and the Maypole (or Scarecrow), though some sources say they were also known as the Elephant and Castle.

There is a Swan Walk in Chelsea, which takes its name from a tavern sign; the swan was a common sign for inns, particularly waterside inns. This Swan was the finishing post for the famous Doggett Coat and Badge race – the oldest annually contested event in the British sporting calendar – a race founded in honour of George I’s accession to the throne.

Back to Big Ben: the bell is in what is now officially called the Elizabeth Tower, in honour of Elizabeth II, but is also, like the bell, referred to as Big Ben. At the top of the tower is In the lantern at the top of Elizabeth Tower is the Ayrton Light, which is lit when either House of Parliament is sitting after dark.

The light, named for Acton Smee Ayrton, the First Commissioner of Works (a cabinet post that no longer exists) in the early 1870s, was installed in 1885 at the request of Queen Victoria so that she could keep an eye on the Members of Parliament to make sure they weren’t shirking their duties.

The bell was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which was established in 1570 and lays claim to being Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Thousands of people turned out to watch the bell being taken from Whitechapel to Westminster in a cart that needed sixteen horses to pull it.

Incidentally, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry also cast the original Liberty Bell. More information on the foundry and both of these famous bells can be found here.

2 responses to “Royal mistresses, swans, and Big Ben”

  1. There is a Doggett’s Coat and Badge Pub on Blackfriars Bridge, south side. Unfortunately, it is architecturally unattractive. Any self-respecting South Londoner could tell you about that race.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I used to work across the street from the Doggett and when I went in recently for old times’ sake it was even grimmer inside than I remember. Unattractive however you look at it!

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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