Let’s hear it for the boys: London’s eccentrics

Following on from our last post about London’s wicked women, equality of the sexes demands that we should have a look at some of the bad (or eccentric) boys of London’s history, starting with one of the true bad boys of the Victorian age, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Rossetti was a great animal lover and lived in Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk with a menagerie of exotic animals, including owls, kangaroos, wallabies, a racoon, a Canadian marmot, and laughing jackasses. (He was discouraged from keeping peacocks because of the noise.) Rossetti also had a pet wombat called Top. This name was by way of adding insult to injury: Rossetti had an affair with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend and fellow artist William Morris, whose nickname from student days was ‘Topsy’.

Jonas Hanway, an explorer and philanthropist who lived in Red Lion Square, is an example of that great British institution, the eccentric. 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. In his day the umbrella was considered effeminate and unseemly for British men but Hanway, incurring the wrath of cab drivers and the amusement of small boys and passersby, persevered in his use of an accessory now viewed as another great British institution.

Sir Nicholas Crisp, who gave his name to Hammersmith’s Crisp Road, fared better at the pen of Samuel Johnson than did Hanway; Johnson said of Crisp that he was “a man of loyalty that deserves perpetual remembrance”. This may have been became Crisp, a native of Hammersmith, was a dedicated Royalist who spent over £100,000 in the cause of his king, Charles I. Money was the least of it: Crisp also paid for a bust of Charles I to be erected in the Hammersmith parish church of St Paul’s; upon Crisp’s death, his heart was to be placed in an urn under the effigy of his king and refreshed annually with a glass of wine.

On to Leadenhall Street and Dirty Dick. Richard, or Nathaniel, Bentley gave his name to a pub in the area. He kept a warehouse in Leadenhall Street and was once known as the ‘beau of Leadenhall Street’ as he well-dressed and a frequent visitor at court. He later became known as Dirty Dick and his change in hygiene is said to have come about when the girl to whom he was betrothed died the day before their marriage.Bentley went into a mental decline, closing off the room that had been prepared for his wedding breakfast and leaving it – and himself – to accumulate grime for the next 40 years or so. He may have been the inspiration for Miss Haversham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Before we go, a quick look at Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was known for many things but for the purposes of this blog, he is a garden thief. John Stow’s father had a house in Throgmorton Street where Cromwell also lived. When Cromwell wanted to extend his nearby garden, he dug up Stow senior’s house, put it on rollers and moved it out of the way with so much as a by your leave. According to Stow junior, “this house they loosed from the ground, and bare upon rollers into my father’s garden twenty-two feet, ere my father heard thereof; no warning was given him”.

Pugs, wombats, birdcages, and murder

The Painter and his Pug 1745 by William Hogarth 1697-1764
The Painter and his Pug by William Hogarth

20 February is Love Your Pet Day (no details on who or why decided that), so let’s honour some animals, famous and otherwise, and their London connections. For instance, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s favourite pet (and he had a huge menagerie, much to the annoyance of his Chelsea neighbours) was a wombat called Top.

London artist William Hogarth owned many pugs and painted a self-portrait that included his pet pug Trump. (Apparently Hogarth often commented on the resemblance between himself and the dog.)

Ivan the Terrible kept bears, which have been referred to as pets, but it is more likely that his only real affection for them was the damage they could do on the people that Ivan threw to them for his own amusement. There is a Bear Gardens in London, which commemorates one of the more revolting sports of earlier times: bear baiting. Bear Gardens marks the site of a 17th-century bear pit visited by the diarists Samuel Pepys, who described it as “a very rude and nasty pleasure; and John Evelyn (1620-1706), who noted that it was a “rude and dirty pastime”.

EAS_3842The expression ‘a bear garden’ is used to refer to something full of noise, confusion, and argument. For years the Bear Gardens housed a museum of Elizabethan theatre. It is now in the centre of the modern Bankside area, the location of the rebuilt Globe Theatre.

Monarchs James I and his grandson Charles II were fond of animals and had a number of pets: Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace is the site of an aviary started by James I and enlarged by Charles II (though some sources give Charles the credit for establishing it). James was fond of animals and in addition to the birds had a comprehensive menagerie, including crocodiles and an elephant.

EAS_3973Charles expanded the aviary considerably with a collection of exotic birds; he was also to be seen strolling through the park, feeding the ducks and playing with his dogs, “affable even with the meanest of his subjects”, according to the Welsh traveller and writer Thomas Pennant.

Birds of a different kind were also connected with the walk: it was once a royal cockpit; the ‘sport’ of cock fighting is said to be the world’s oldest spectator sport.

Continuing the theme of bloodshed, the walk was also the site of murder in 1848. Annette Meyers, an unemployed housemaid, killed her lover, Henry Ducker of the Coldstream Guards. Ducker was an unpleasant character whose affection for his various girlfriends was in direct proportion to the amount of money with which they could provide him.

EAS_4123The out-of-work Annette was desperately afraid she would lose Ducker to a rival who was lucratively employed in prostitution. She purchased a gun, shot Ducker, and meekly surrendered to the authorities, denying nothing. Initially sentenced to death, Annette was given a reprieve and was sent to Van Diemen’s Land – Tasmania – in 1851.

Sympathy for Annette was strong, and there was a ballad written about her, referring to her as a “sad young woman doomed to die”, Jane Carlyle, wife of the essayist Thomas Carlyle, visited Annette in prison and reported in a letter that she was the “sauciest looking commonplace little creature that ever played the part of a Heroic Criminal”.

EAS_3990Unrelated to animal, but related to the Carlyle couple, one of Samuel Butler’s many witty comments was that “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

London generally is not short of animal street names even if they are more from inn signs than from pets.

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Artists, peacocks, and wombats

This day in London history: on 19 December 1851 the artist JMW Turner died at Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Cheyne Walk takes its name from Charles Cheyne, First Viscount Newhaven, who bought the manor of Chelsea in 1657. His son, William, later laid out Cheyne Walk and Cheyne Row.

Other famous names associated with the street include George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskill, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Henry James.

Rossetti plaque cropDante Gabriel Rossetti also lived there with menagerie of exotic animals, including owls, kangaroos, wallabies, a racoon, a Canadian marmot, and laughing jackasses. He was discouraged from keeping peacocks because of the noise, but he did have a wombat called Top, which was his favourite pet.

The wombat was named after Rossetti’s friend and fellow artist William Morris, whose nickname from student days was ‘Topsy’. Morris’s wife Jane, who had an affair with Rossetti, was a favourite muse of his and perhaps the epitome of the pre-Raphaelite woman as depicted by the artist.

There is no Wombat Street in London, but there is a Peacock Street, probably named from the Peacock Brewery in Southwark.

Photo: JJ Harrison