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”.

Bishops, wormwood, and Dirty Dick

bishopsgate cropThe next in our series of London’s gates is Bishopsgate, which gives its name to a street that is one of the longest in the City of London. The gate itself, according to John Stow, was named for Bishop Erkenwald, who became Bishop of London in 675.

The site of the former gate is marked by a stone bishop’s mitre, where Bishopsgate meets Wormwood Street and Camomile Street, two streets that  are exactly what they sound.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the old London Wall and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Two of the wild flowers that grew here were camomile and wormwood.

Wormwood, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Dirty DicksOne of the streets that intersects Bishopsgate is Leadenhall Street, the location of a warehouse owned by of Richard (or Nathaniel) Bentley. Bentley, once known as the ‘beau of Leadenhall Street’ as he was well-dressed and a frequent visitor at court, later became known as Dirty Dick. A famous London pub – Dirty Dick’s, which stands just off Leadenhall Street in Catherine Wheel Alley – takes its name from the warehouse.

Bentley’s change in hygiene is said to have come about when the girl to whom he was betrothed died the day before their marriage; he may have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens when he penned the character of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations.