Oscar Wilde’s house and London’s misnomers

FanOn 22 February 1892 Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan was first produced. Irish-born Wilde spent many years in London, living at Tite Street in Chelsea – a fashionable address for artistic and literary folk. The house at 16 (now 34) Tite Street was the Wilde family home from 1884 to his arrest in 1895.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

Wilde was arrested for gross indecency, found guilty and sentenced to the maximum punishment possible, two years’ hard labour. After serving some time in London’s Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons, he was transferred to Reading. Wilde, known then as Prisoner C. 3.3 was not, initially, even allowed paper and pen. Upon his eventual release, Wilde left the country for France, where he spent the remainder of his life and wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with its famous line, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”

But this blog is not really about Oscar Wilde, or even about Tite Street, but about the nearby Paradise Walk. In London street names ‘paradise’ was often used for an enclosed garden or burial ground and this particular Paradise may have been heavenly by name but it was not always heavenly by nature.

Tite Street house
The Wilde family home in Tite Street

In the latter half of the 19th century, the area was a dismal slum, with more than one family often crammed into small houses. Wilde had a window that overlooked the walk and hid the view with a screen.

Inappropriate street names have generated much debate and comment over the years and in 1856 a gentleman by the name of W Gallaway wrote an illuminating pamphlet entitled ‘Reflections on the defective state of the street nomenclature and numerical irregularities of the metropolis, accompanied with suggestions for their remedy’.

Mr Gallaway, who was particularly irritated by illogical street names, used Paradise as more than one example. For instance, he waxed indignant about the fact that there was an Adam and Eve Court half a mile away from a Paradise Street; one should, he argued, have led into the other.

And, apart from that, he huffed, there was a Paradise Road that was full of “hairdressers, chandlers and brokers shops, and beer-houses (intending no disparagement to any of their callings), dirty kennels, and a police office adjacent”. Did any of that, he demanded to know, “convey any idea of the imaginary residence of our ancestors?”.

Perhaps not.

A comic 19th-century poem by James Smith  addresses the same issues, with the lament:

I find Broad Street, St Giles’s, a poor narrow nook,
Battle Bridge is unconscious of slaughter,
Duke’s Place cannot muster the ghost of a duke,
And Brook Street is wanting in water.

The conclusion he draws is that, “London’s one mighty misnomer”.


Museums, cocoa and boat races

Sir Hans Sloane

This day in London history: on 15 January 1759 the British Museum first opened to the public, following a 1753 Act of Parliament to establish the museum. The early exhibits were collections once belonging to Sir Hans Sloane who wanted the 70,000-plus objects he had collected in his lifetime to be preserved intact. He bequeathed his entire collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs.

AN00031346_001The museum was first housed in a seventeenth-century mansion, Montagu House, in Bloomsbury on the site of today’s building. Entry was free and given to “all studious and curious Persons” of which there were some 5,000 a year; it remains free today to the six million people who visit it every year.

In addition to being a collector, the Irish-born Sloane was a physician and naturalist. He was a member of the Royal Society, and a fellow of the College of Physicians, under the auspices of which he travelled to Jamaica. There is he discovered a local drink, cocoa, which he found nauseating, but made more palatable by mixing it with milk rather than the customary water. He brought it back to England, where it was originally manufactured and sold by apothecaries as a medicine.

Chelsea physic gardenThe Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London is one of the livery companies of the City of London and was founded by Royal Charter in 1617. The Company founded the Chelsea Physic Garden was in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. Sloane, who had purchased the Manor of Chelsea, comprising four acres of land, from Charles Cheyne, leased the land to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year in perpetuity.

Doggett race finish
An early Doggett Coat and Badge race finish

In 1983 the Garden became a registered charity and was opened to the general public for the first time. The public entrance is on Swan Walk, which takes its name from a tavern sign; the swan was a common sign for inns, partly because it featured on Henry IV’s coat of arms, and it was especially popular for waterside inns. This Chelsea inn was a common gathering ground for the fashionable set of 17th-century London, of whom Samuel Pepys was one.

Doggett prize
The race prize

The Swan was also the finishing post for the famous Doggett Coat and Badge race – the oldest annually contested event in the British sporting calendar. Thomas Doggett was an actor, singer, and player at the Drury Lane Theatre, and founded the race in 1716 in honour of George I’s accession to the throne. It provided for six young watermen (who ferried passengers on city centre waterways) to race four-and-a-half miles against the tide; the winner would receive a silver badge and a livery coat.

The race is still held every year, though the qualifications have had to change with the times, there being rather fewer young watermen these days.

Gulliver’s Travels and hot cross buns

Jonathan Swift

This day in London history: on 13 January 1695 Jonathan Swift was ordained an Anglican priest. The Irish-born Swift, in addition to being a biting satirist, was also a poet, essayist, cleric, and political pamphleteer. However, he is probably best known for Gulliver’s Travels, both a satire on human nature and a parody of the travellers’ tales genre of literature.

Published in 1726, the book has never been out of print. As Swift’s friend John Gay told him in a letter, “From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.”

Gulliver's travelsSwift spent a great deal of time in London, which is where he showed the manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels to, among other, John Gay and Alexander Pope. It was published anonymously as a true account by Lemuel Gulliver.

In addition to his contribution to literature, Gulliver is also responsible for immortalizing the shortcomings of a bakery frequented by London’s high society, including royalty.

Bunhouse Place in Chelsea (unlike Bunhill Row, which was named for the less appetizing Bunhill Fields) does have a bun connection . The Chelsea Bun House, established in the 18th century, sold Swift a stale bun one day; he wrote in a letter dated 1711, “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it…”

Chelsea Bun House pre-demolition
The Chelsea Bun House before it was demolished

Despite Swift’s disappointment, Bun House did a storming trade and there were said to be as many as 50,000 people waiting outside on Good Fridays to buy hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on that day. This caused some consternation among the neighbours and in 1793 the proprietor Mrs Hand declared that she would not sell any hot cross buns on that day.

This was made clear in a notice on the shop, which read, “Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Despite the fact that business began to decline in 1804, there were still nearly a quarter of a million buns sold on Good Friday 1839, the year when the Bun House finally closed.

In 1592 it was made illegal to sell hot cross buns except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Those who ignored the edict had to forfeit their buns to the poor.

There is a nursery rhyme all about hot cross buns:

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One a penny two a penny
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons
One a penny two a penny
Hot cross buns!