Halloween and London’s spooky streets

How can I resist the opportunity to look at a couple of London’s ghostly streets on Halloween?

Let’s start with Cock Lane, which probably takes its name from having been a breeding ground for cocks – cock fighting having been a highly popular sport in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The lane was the scene, in 1762, of one of the great faked supernatural manifestations, now known as the Cock Lane ghost and used generically for ghost stories with no basis in fact.

A man called Parsons owned a house in Cock Lane and took in lodgers; among these lodgers was a couple, William Kent and his sister-in-law Fanny, whose sister Elizabeth had died in childbirth. Fanny had moved in with Kent to look after the child (who also died soon after), and the two began a relationship. Fanny became pregnant and later died, apparently of smallpox.

Parsons’ 11-year-old daughter began to talk of knocking and scratching noises and visitations from a beautiful lady who spoke to her of having been murdered. Various learned men of the day, including Dr Johnson, visited the Parsons household to investigate the phenomenon of ‘Scratching Fanny’ – so named because of the noises that the ghost supposedly made.

Eventually someone  discovered that the noises were made by the Parsons girl who had a board hidden under her bed. Parsons was accused of putting her up to the trickery, in the hopes of blackmailing Kent, and was pilloried.

In addition to the ghost, another of the lane’s claims to fame was that the Great Fire of London finally halted at the intersection of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street.

Garlick Hill, which was named for the hythe, or wharf, where shipments of garlic were landed on the Thames, also had a ghost. The parish church of St James Garlickhythe was built in 1326, later destroyed in the Great Fire and then rebuilt by Wren. In 1839, when workmen were closing up the old vaults, a perfectly mummified corpse was discovered, and was given the name of Jimmy Garlick.

Jimmy was somewhat unceremoniously relegated to a small closet until his coffin was jolted by a bomb during the Second World War and he was put on display in a glass-fronted coffin. During this time his spirit wandered the church, frightening locals and tourists alike.

Eventually Jimmy’s body was shown the respect it deserved; he was rehoused to a non-viewable coffin away from the public gaze and he ceased his practice of appearing to unwary visitors.

 

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Baking themes in London’s street names

I’ve just been watching the Great British Bakeoff Final, so what better theme for a post than that of baking?

We can start with the obvious: Baker Street, which is probably most famous as the the literary location of 221b – the residence of that brilliant detective, violinist, cocaine user, and misogynist Sherlock Holmes. Number 221b was never a genuine address in Baker Street, and was carefully chosen by Conan Doyle for that very reason.

That has not stopped people over the years from writing to Holmes: the first letter was in 1890 when an American tobacconist wrote asking for a copy of Holmes’s monograph ‘Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos’, which was referred to in various cases. Whether or not he was serious, he started a craze and other people were soon also writing to Sherlock Holmes.

These letters were, for many years, fended by the Abbey National Building Society whose Abbey House stood on the spot where 221b would have been. At one time, up to 400 hopeful correspondents would received a polite reply explaining that Mr Holmes had vacated his room and his current whereabouts were unknown. 

The street stands on the Portman Estate – in 1553 Sir William Portman bought nearly 300 acres of land in the area; 200, years later development of the Portman estate began. The name does not come from any prevalence of bakers in the area. It commemorates a person called Baker, though opinion has been fiercely divided as to which particular Baker. 

Peter William Baker is one candidate: he was the Portman agent; others are Sir Edward Baker of Ranston was a friend of the Portmans; John Baker was also said to be a friend of the Portmans; and Sir Robert Baker, a Bow Street magistrate who helped quell the riots at Queen Caroline’s funeral in 1821.

Next we have Pudding Lane, with a baking connection: the lane is most famous for being where the Great Fire of 1666 first broke out, starting in the house of a man called Faynor (or Farryner), the king’s baker. The lane was a narrow one with pitch-covered wooden houses and led to the riverside warehouses full of oil and combustible materials such as hay, coal, and timber. Once the fire got going, it caused the destruction of thirteen thousand hoses and fourteen streets – though, amazingly, only eleven deaths.

Incidentally, the pudding part of Pudding Lane is nothing to do with baking or desserts: the lane, once part of the meat centre of London, was on the route where ‘puddings’ – parcels of offal – were transported to be thrown into the river.

Piccadilly can also be brought into the baking theme, although the name, first recorded in 1623, may come from a ‘pickadil’, defined as “that round hem or several divisions set together about the skirt of a garment.

The popular theory is that the name of the street itself arose from one Robert Baker, an early 17th century tailor, who bought a plot of land in what was still far from being central London. He built a large house and, four years after his purchase, he was referring to himself as a ‘Gent’ – a source of amusement to those who thought of tradesmen as being tradesmen and not gentry.

The house was thus dubbed ‘Pickadilly Hall’ in honour of those items that had brought him his money (and, presumably, to remind him of his origins). The name, as that sort of thing does, gradually stuck.

Oh, yes, and of course there is Bread Street, which gets its name from the fact that it was one of the many ‘shopping’ streets, connected with the Cheapside market, which were named for their speciality. Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from this street. Before that, the “leprous women of St James’s” were allowed a tenement here in 1204; part of the street was later destroyed by fire in 1263.

Incidentally, I haven’t forgotten the challenge thrown down by one reader to be fair regarding the World Series and mention the Dodgers, aka the losing team. Did I mention the Red Sox won? I haven’t been able to find anything Dodger-like yet, but the closest I can come for now is another Oliver Twist character: Bill Sikes. In Dickens’ time, Saffron Hill was an evil slum, and features in Oliver Twist: “in an obscure parlour, of a low public-house, in the filthiest part of Little Saffron Hill…sat, brooding over a little pewter measure and a small glass…Mr William Sikes”.

Strange names and street names: a follow-on to Red Lion Square

Hanway Street, from Wikimedia Commons

Thank you to my loyal readers for not only being my loyal readers but also for keeping me on my toes. First of all, following on from the Red Lion Square post, I have been reminded that Jonas Hanway had a street named after him: Hanway Street, just off the Tottenham Court Road. As the Galliard Homes website puts it:

“The Street is rumoured to be named after the Portsmouth-born traveller, philanthropist and Hanway resident, Jonas Hanway (1712-1786). Records around 1740 indicate that the footpath was initially known as Hanover Yard, before becoming Hanway Yard and then finally Hanway Street. Hanway is most famous for being the first Londoner to brave ridicule by championing the use of an umbrella, however, he also founded The Marine Society in 1756, became governor of the Foundling Hospital two years later and then went on to help establish the Magdalen Hospital.”

On the subject of streets named after people, there is also a Barbon Alley, named after Nicholas Barbon, something else that I should have mentioned in the context of Red Lion Square.

This is probably a good time to point out that the Barbone, or Barebone, family were exceedingly creative when it came to names. Praisegod was christened “Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone” and Nicholas Barbon’s middle name was “If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned”.

Another loyal reader, a fellow Red Sox fan, also challenged me to be fair and give some air time to the Dodgers: “Artful Dodger, Dickens…should be right up your alley”, was the comment. A very fair point and I will have to look at rising to that challenge.

London’s Red Lion Square and a posthumous beheading

Now that the Boston Red Sox have clinched the 2018 World Series, I thought I would mark their victory by looking at one of London’s ‘red’ street names – technically, a ‘square’ name: Red Lion Square.

The name comes from the Red Lyon tavern, “in olden times the most important hostelry in Holborn”, which gave its name to the square and the nearby street. This tavern is alleged to have been where, following the Restoration of the monarchy, the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and two others were kept overnight after being disinterred from Westminster Abbey so that they could be posthumously tried and executed.

The men were ceremonially hanged at Tyburn and beheaded; their bodies were buried in a pit by the gallows at Tyburn and their heads were displayed from the roof of Westminster hall for his head remained on a spike above Westminster Hall for nearly 25 years, until a storm broke the spike and hurled Cromwell’s head to the ground. It was then bandied about amongst collectors of such grisly items, and finally buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. The spirits of the three men supposedly haunted the area for many years.

Red Lion Square was one of the first licensed developments outside the City, when London was still rapidly spreading west. It was developed by the speculator Nicholas Barbon, whose father Praisegod Barebone, was an anti-royalist and supporter of Cromwell.

Barbon started off with a career in medicine, having studied in Holland and been admitted to the College of Physicians in 1664. He later became involved in financial matters, wrote two treatises on money and – following the ravages of the Great Fire of London – was the originator of fire insurance in Britain. In 1680 he started an ‘insurance office for houses’ with plans to insure up to 5,000 homes in the City.

Nicholas Barbon was a persuasive man who radiated charm and arrogance in equal measure, depending on his objective. A contemporary referred to him as a “rogue, knave and damned”. In addition to the fire insurance, he was one of the most active and influential builders in London following the Great Fire. He did get it wrong sometimes and not all of his buildings stayed up (such as one in Mincing Lane).

Red Lyon Fields, as it was known prior to the 17th century, was purchased by Barbon for speculative development and building commenced in the late 1680s; it was one of the first licensed developments outside the City. However, lawyers in the area (the “gentlemen of Graies Inn”) were unamused at the thought of their rural surroundings being spoiled, and they began a campaign against the development and its workmen.

These ‘riots’ began in 1684 and the legal men had the upper hand at first: despite the bricks being hurled at them by workmen they were able to take two hostages. Barbon was not the sort to take that kind of thing lightly, and returned the following day with hundreds of workmen, shouting threats and promising not to be intimidated. The excitement eventually died down when the square proved that it was attractive, and it became a commercial success.

Even in death, Barbon proved that he was not a man who could easily be daunted – his will directed that none of his debts was to be paid.

Red Lion Square also had its fair share of famous residents, and the most delightfully eccentric of them all was Jonas Hanway, explorer and philanthropist, who lived and died there. Among other things, Hanway was known for instituting the Foundling Hospital. Samuel Johnson said of Hanway that he “gained some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it by travelling at home”. In any event, Hanway’s reputation lives on mainly because he was instrumental in introducing that great British accessory – the umbrella – to the men of the UK.

Although long used by ladies in the UK, and a status symbol in China in the 11th century BC, the umbrella was considered effeminate and unseemly for British men. They were originally viewed as a sunshade rather than protection against the rain. It was not until Hanway, incurring the wrath of cab drivers and the amusement of small boys and passersby, persevered in his use of the umbrella that they became associated with rain. For years after his death, however, it was still considered unmanly to use them – as late as 1818 the Duke of Wellington banned his troops from using them. Towards the end of the 19th century the curved steel frame rib, which allowed the umbrella to be furled, made the use of them more widespread.

Three of the core pre-Raphaelites – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Morris (1834-1896), and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), lived at number 17 Red Lion Square, where there is a blue plaque to mark their residence. Their lease included the restriction that “models are kept under gentlemanly restraint as some artists sacrifice the dignity of art to the baseness of passion”. Another pre-Raphaelite, Leigh Hunt, also had a connection with the square: he had memories of an old lady who lived there and who used to astound him by letting her false teeth slip out and back in again.

A blue plaque also indicates that John Harrison, who invented the marine chronometer, lived and died in the square. Bertrand Russell is still in residence there, in the form of a statue, and there was a statue to Pocahontas there. The publishers, Cassells, were once based in the square; they commissioned the statue and then took it with them when they moved.

Uncovering the story of Roman London’s mysterious Mithraeum

Flickering Lamps

In November 2017 one of London’s most famous Roman sites reopened to the public after spending several years hidden away in storage.  The Mithraeum, a subterranean temple dedicated to the god Mithras, has had an eventful afterlife since its celebrated rediscovery in 1954.  Moved from its original site to make way for a new office development, it was reconstructed at a new location nearby before the great wheel of redevelopment turned again and offered the chance for the Mithraeum to be reinstated at its original location on the banks of the now-underground river Walbrook.  The Mithraeum offers modern Londoners a glimpse into one of the Roman period’s more unusual elements: the secretive cult of Mithras, and the work to restore its ruins to the banks of the Walbrook also gave archaeologists an incredible opportunity to discover more about Roman-era Londinium.

The new entrance to the Mithraeum at 12 Walbrook

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Two artists and their beautiful tomb in a Chiswick churchyard

Flickering Lamps

Chiswick Old Burial Ground is a large extension to the old churchyard at St Nicholas, Chiswick, close to the River Thames in west London.  The Georgian graves clustered closest to the church (including the grand tomb of the artist William Hogarth) give way to Victorian and more modest headstones, filling a site that’s just under 7 acres in size.  Unlike some of London’s larger Victorian cemeteries, most of the memorials here are fairly modest in scale and ornamentation, made from stone or occasionally marble.  But one incongrous memorial catches the eye, despite being tucked away near the cemetery’s northern boundary wall: a striking copper tomb turned green by the passing of the years, which marks the burial place of two artists.

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