Steam engines, Dickens, and television

Today’s post follows on from yours truly having read and enjoyed Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovich’s delightful and quirky novel. One area that features heavily in the book is Covent Garden, in particular Long Acre, so let’s take a brief look at them. Covent Garden (or the convent garden) was an area of seven acres of land that once belonged to the Abbots of Westminster and may have been used for both of the seemingly at odds purposes of kitchen garden and burial place.

The first purpose seems obvious from the name; the second was presumed following the 19th-century discovery of human bones. Part of the Abbots’ land was Long Acre; this, like Bow Street, was named for its shape, which was long and narrow. It was originally called The Elms, Elm Close, and then The Seven Acres, and an avenue of tall elms was reported to have stood on the line taken by the current road.

Building began on Long Acre in the early 17th century, and, like the Covent Garden area in general, the street became a fashionable place to live. One of its residents was Oliver Cromwell, who lived there from 1637 to 1643.

The aristocrat and writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was baptised at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, also lived there; according to a newspaper of 1731, “A few days ago the Right Hon. the Lady Mary Wortley Montague set out from her house in Covent Garden for the Bath”.

Long Acre was also key to some important industries: it was once a centre for coach makers, one of whose customers in 1668 was Samuel Pepys, and it was later the home of Merryweather & Sons, builders of steam fire engines and steam tram engines. St Martin’s Hall, a theatre with an entrance in Long Acre, is where Charles Dickens made his first appearance as a public speaker; he appeared on behalf of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.

More recently, the first television broadcast in Great Britain was made from Long Acre on 30 September 1929. It was a triumphant moment for John Logie Baird, after experimenting with a television set that consisted of projection lamps in an old biscuit tin and a motor in a tea chest.

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Amen Corner, Dickens, and Bleeding Heart Yard

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

This day in London’s history: on 7 February 1812 Charles Dickens was born; he and his writing are an intrinsic part of London’s history and street names. Dickens got the name of Pickwick Papers from a sign in the window of The Bolt in Tun inn off Fleet Street; he had an office in Bell Yard; he stayed in Wood Street when he first arrived in London; and he wrote a whole chapter about Bleeding Heart Yard in Little Dorrit.

From Bleeding Heart Yard to Amen Corner (and there is a connection between both of them and Dickens): a tiny lane, a short way from St Paul’s cathedral, and one of a group of streets with religious names. One explanation is that, before the Reformation, there was a regular procession of the clergy around the cathedral; this involved reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Paternoster Row, the Hail Mary in Ave Maria Lane, the Credo in Creed Lane, and the Amen in Amen Corner.

EAS_3883Another, less colourful but possibly more accurate, theory is that Paternoster Row, the oldest of the streets and dating from the 14th century, is where rosary beads (paternosters) were made. The other names may have followed on naturally in the religious context, especially as clerks who copied religious texts lived there.

There was once also a tiny village near Bracknell in Berkshire called Amen Corner (now it is a suburb of Bracknell and the centre of a number of high-tech industries). The name derives from the prayers which were said during the ‘beating of the bounds’ ceremony; this was common in the days before maps when members of the community would walk the boundaries of the parish, usually led by the parish priest and church officials, in order to maintain knowledge of the parish limits.

(There was also a 1960s pop group called Amen Corner but they were Welsh and took their name from a club in Cardiff. Their biggest UK chart hit was ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’ which stayed in the charts for 16 weeks in 1969, two of them at the No 1 spot.

RIchard Harris Barham
RIchard Harris Barham

But back to the Amen Corner of St Paul’s, which leads to Amen Court, where canons of St Paul’s resided, including the Reverend Richard Harris Barham. He was a minor canon and elder cardinal of St Paul’s, rector of St Augustine’s, Watling Street, and St Mary Magdalen, Knightrider Street. He was also the author of, among other works, The Ingoldsby Legends.

These legends, published originally under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby, were written for his friend and schoolfellow, the publisher Richard Bentley, whose magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, was first published in 1837 and edited by Charles Dickens. One of the ‘legends’ – many of which were stories invented for the purposes of satirizing topics of the time – was called ‘The House-Warming!!’ and offers an explanation of the story behind Bleeding Heart Yard. Perhaps this is where Dickens got his inspiration for the chapter in Little Dorrit.

At the back of Amen Court is part of a Roman wall that once formed the boundary of Newgate prison’s graveyard. Amen Court was the path leading to the graveyard and for a time had the cheerful sobriquet of Deadman’s Walk. For years it was supposed to be haunted by various spectres, one of which was the Black Dog of Newgate, a creature resembling a large black dog that crawled along the top of the wall and disappeared into the courtyard.

Another ghost said to haunt the court was that of Amelia Dyer, a Victorian mass murderer known as the Reading Baby Farmer. Dyer collected money to look after unwanted babies and then drowned them in the River Thames. She was executed in June 1896 and took her final stroll along Deadman’s Walk.

Johnson, Bolt Court, and Dickens

James Murray
Sir James Murray, chief editor of the OED

Well, gentle reader, yesterday’s transmission was interrupted due to a cooking injury, but today my sense of duty has combined with yesterday’s fascinating facts, so…. This day in London’s history: on 1 February 1884, the ‘A to Ant’ section of what we now know as The Oxford English Dictionary was published. It was originally called, appropriately wordily for a dictionary, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Material Collected by The Philological Society and was not known as The Oxford English Dictionary until 1895.

The main driving forces behind the dictionary, work on which had begun much earlier, in 1857, were Herbert Coleridge, Frederick Furnivall, and Richard Trench. One of its most prolific early contributors was Dr WC Minor, a retired US army surgeon, who was, at the time, imprisoned in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire.

All of which is nothing really to do with London or its street names, except that Sir James Murray, who was chief editor of the OED from 1879 until his death in 1915, moved to London and taught at the Mill Hill School. Mill Hill’s name was first recorded as Myllehill in 1547 and, not surprisingly, appears to mean ‘hill with a windmill’.

Johnson
Samuel Johnson

But for London dictionary connections, we need look no further than Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. Although not the first of its kind, it is considered one of the most influential works of its kind in the English language. And Johnson’s comment to his faithful fan and biographer, James Boswell, is among the most quoted lines about London:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

One of the many places where Johnson, who was born in Lichfield, lived in his time in London was Bolt Court. The court takes its name from the rebus of the Bolton family who owned a great deal of local property. Prior Bolton was one of those who did a great deal to restore the nearby church of St Bartholomew.

Pickwick ClubThe rebus is a device once commonly used to denote names by the pictorial representation of words and the Bolton rebus was a birdbolt (a short blunt arrow used to kill birds without piercing them) through a tun (a large barrel or fermenting vat). There is still an example of this rebus in the church.

The device also features in the sign for the Bolt in Tun, a famous inn off Fleet Street that gave its name to the now-extinct Bolt in Tun Yard. In the window of this inn Charles Dickens once saw a sign advertising the Bath and Bristol coach; the name of the proprietor was Moses Pickwick and Company.

Port and prejudice, history, and spies

BBC206171
Gibbon painted by Joshua Reynolds

This day in London history: on 16 January 1794, the historian Edward Gibbon died at the age of 56 in London. Gibbon’s education was sketchy: he was a sickly child; his mother died when he was seven, his father neglected him and he was largely cared for by a fond aunt who instilled in him a love of reading – what Gibbon called “the pleasure and glory of my life”.

Gibbon’s father arranged for him to attend Oxford as a ‘gentleman commoner’, but the experience was an unpleasant one and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in his memoirs “Gibbon drew a damning picture of Oxford, as a university sunk in port and prejudice, and almost completely indifferent to its educational mission”.

Nevertheless, Gibbon went on to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a six- volume work that became a model for later historians because of its relative objectivity and extensive use of primary sources. Gibbon lived for 10 years at 7 Bentinck Street in Marylebone and there is a blue plaque there commemorating the fact; it was during this period that he began the massive project of the Decline and Fall. [Photo: Peter Clarke]

Edward Gibbon plaque
Photo: Peter Clarke

Bentinck Street was named for William Bentinck, second Duke of Portland. The duke’s grandfather, Hans Willem Bentinck, was the Dutch envoy famous for arranging the marriage of Prince William of Orange and Princess Mary, the future joint monarchs of England.

Other famous residents of the street include Sir James Mackenzie, a doctor who carried out a great deal of research into diseases of the heart and, ironically, died of angina pectoris. Charles Dickens had a 21st birthday party here and, most infamously, the street was also the home of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, members of the Cambridge Spies, who shared a flat here during World War II. There were lavish parties in the flat, which was described by one visitor as having “the air of a rather high-class disorderly house”.

Dickens, prisons, and bowler hats

This day in London history: on 17 December 1843, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published and on 17 December 1849, the first bowler hat was sold.EAS_4053(Update: this blog is about Dickens; for more on the bowler hat, read this post.)

Charles Dickens has many associations with London, starting with Wood Street: the young Dickens stayed at Cross Keys inn there upon his arrival in London. Samuel Pepys and Ben Jonson frequented a tavern – the Mitre – in Wood Street.

Wood Street’s name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard I’s farsighted edict that all houses should be built of stone to avoid the risk of fire). It could also be that, as with so many other streets in the Cheapside area, it was given the name wood because wood was sold there.

The street was particularly infamous because of the Wood Street compter, mainly a debtors’ prison, but which also served to take in overflow from Newgate, and had three sections – where you were depended on whether you were rich, poor, or comfortably well off.  Prisoners were transferred here in the 16th century from the Bread Street compter and then, in the 18th century, the occupants of Wood Street compter were, in turn, transferred to the Giltspur Street compter.

The debtors’ prisons played a big role in the life of the young Dickens and, consequently, in his writing. His own father had been sent to Marshalsea in Southwark because of a debt to a baker. This meant that Dickens had to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory.