An actor, an artist, tug of war, and bushrangers

David Garrick in the Alchemist
Garrick (right) in Jonson’s The Alchemist, painted by Johann Zoffany

On 19 February 1717 Hereford-born actor, playwright, and producer David Garrick was born. Apart from his successes on stage, Garrick was responsible for establishing the fame of German artist Johann Zoffany, after whom Zoffany Street in Islington is named.

Zoffany was born in Germany and ran away from home at the age of 13 to study painting. He went to England in 1758 and had his first success in 1762 when he was commissioned by Garrick to use him as the model to paint a scene from Garrick’s own play, The Farmer’s Return.

The painting was very popular with the public, establishing Zoffany, who became a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768, as a name in the art world.

Johann Zoffany self portrait
Johann Zoffany, a self portrait

Zoffany, who also enjoyed the patronage of George III and Queen Charlotte, spent many years in Italy – at the expense of George III – and, later, in India, where he made enough money to return to England and buy the copyhold (tenure of land) of a house at Strand-on-the-Green, now named Zoffany House.

19 February is also International Tug of War Day. Tug of War was once an Olympic sport and in 1908 (the first games to see the now traditional gold, silver and bronze medal awards), the City of London Police took gold for Great Britain in the Tug of War event. They took gold again in 1920, the last time Tug of War was an Olympic sport, so technically they are still the reigning champions.

The 1908 games were held in the purpose-built stadium at White City; the White City area of London features many streets names with an international flavour, including Batman Close.

John Batman
Engraving of John Batman

Batman Close is nothing to do with comic book heroes or member of the armed forces (a batman was a soldier assigned as a servant to a commissioned officer). In this case, the street is named for John Batman, the Australian who founded a settlement on the River Yarra; that settlement later became the city of Melbourne.

Batman gained prominence for his capture of Matthew Brady, an English-born bushranger known as the Gentleman Bushranger due to his good manners when robbing his victims and the fact that he never insulted women. Before Brady’s execution in Hobart Town, his cell was filled with flowers from the women of the town.

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Plum Pudding Day, Noel Street, and North Pole Road

Christmas in February: 12 February is, it seems, Plum Pudding Day – the traditional British Christmas dessert. So in the spirit of Christmas, here are a couple of seasonal London street names which have nothing to do with Christmas.

Noel Street, just south of Oxford Street, was named for Lady Elizabeth Noel, daughter-in-law of Hans Bentinck, Duke of Portland and a friend of William III. The king gave a great deal of land in Soho to Bentinck; in the 1730s it was Lady Elizabeth who was responsible for developing much of the property, and the nearby Marylebone area abounds with street names from the Bentinck family.

Noel Road, further north in Islington, is famous, or infamous, for having been where the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell lived, and where they died. They were living here when they were sentenced to a six-month jail sentence for stealing and defacing library books (now proudly displayed in the same library’s Orton archives). In 1967 Halliwell battered Orton to death with a hammer and then committed suicide.

There is also a North Pole Road, named from a 19th-century tavern of that replaced an earlier inn called the Globe. North Pole was a relatively common pub name in Victorian London, so the name predates any expedition to the pole. For some time Robert Edwin Peary was considered to have been the first person to reach the North Pole but that was disputed and the official first explorers reached there in 1969.

Read in the Bathtub Day (but at your peril)

Moorfields Hospital
Moorfields Eye Hospital
UPDATE: Peerless Pool has been nominated for an Islington People’s Plaque 2014.

This day in London’s history: 9 February is, apparently, Read in the Bathtub Day and there is a Bath Street in Clerkenwell, leading to Peerless Street (location of the Moorfields Eye Hospital), which takes its name from a luxury swimming bath that was once a dangerous pond. The name is more of a disguise than an indication of any superlative quality.

The name comes from a spring that overflowed and formed a pond – Perilous Pond – so-called, says London historian John Stow, because “divers youths, by swimming therein, have drowned”. The pond, with its unfortunate propensity for drowning people, was finally closed off.

In 1743, William Kemp, a jeweller, converted the pond to a luxury swimming bath with a well-stocked fish pond next to it. In the winter the pond was used for ice skating. Both were available to visit at the price of one guinea per annum or two shillings per visit; Kemp wisely changed the name from Perilous Pond to to Peerless Pool.

The path alongside the bath was called Peerless Row and later became Peerless Street. The pool was closed in 1850 and then built over.

St Apollonia
St Apollonia

In addition to Read in the Bathtub Day, February 9 is also celebrated (or otherwise noted) in the US as National Bagel Day and National Toothache Day. Entertainingly, some people point to the founding of the Hershey Corporation on 9 February 1894 as being a possibility for the reason behind Toothache Day. More likely is is because 9 February is St Apollonia’s Day; she was a virgin martyr whose torture included having her teeth either broken or pulled out. She is regarded as the patron saint of dentistry and those suffering from toothache.