Fire, whores, and Wall Street

This day in London history: on 4 January 1698 Whitehall Palace burned down, in a fire that raged for 17 hours. The event was noted, somewhat casually, by the diarist John Evelyn who wrote, the following day, “Whitehall burnt, nothing but walls and ruins left.”

The Duchess of Portsmouth

It was not the first time the palace had been struck by flames: in 1691 a fire broke out in the apartments of the Duchess of Portsmouth, one of Charles II’s mistresses. The Duchess, born Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille of French nobility, was Catholic and was not popular with the English – in particular one of Charles’s other mistresses, Nell Gwynne.

Nell referred to her rival in the king’s affections as Squintabella and said Louise’s underclothes were not clean. On one occasion, when booed by people mistaking her for Louise, Nell said, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

Nell Gwynne

Along those lines, Nell is also said to have witnessed a fight between her coachman and another man who referred to her as a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.”

The palace gave its name to the street Whitehall, now considered the seat of British government. The only surviving part of the palace – the Banqueting Hall – was where Charles I was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell lived at the palace, as did Charles II, following the the Restoration when he was invited to take the throne. Like his father, he also died at the palace, but of natural causes, rather than decapitation.

The execution of Charles I

Also on this day in London history, 56 years earlier, King Charles I had entered the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament for high treason. The men he sought (John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, John Pym and William Strode) had been tipped off and already fled.

The king was defied (politely) by the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, who said, “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”

Lenthall’s reply was, basically, reminding the king of the parliamentary privilege. Since then, no monarch has entered the House of Commons.

Wall Street
New York Stock Exchange in Wall Street

And now for something completely different: also on this day in history: January 4, 1865, the New York Stock Exchange opened its first permanent headquarters at 10-12 Broad near Wall Street. Wall Street, apparently takes its name from, surprisingly, a wall, built in 1653 when New York was New Amsterdam. Britain and The Netherlands were at war at the time and the city dwellers were expecting an attack from New England.

The Great Smog of London and the Fumifugium

This day in London history: on 5 December 1952 the Great Smog of London began. As many as 12,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the severe air pollution, with up to 100,000 who fell ill because of the smog’s effects on their respiratory systems.

Nelson in fog
Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square during the Great Smog. Photograph N T Stobbs

In the days that the smog lasted, visibility was virtually nil; public transport ceased, and public events, such as cinema screenings and theatre performances were cancelled as the fog seeped indoors. This event was a direct contributor to the first of the Clean Air Acts, which was passed in 1956, ensuring that such an event never occurred again.

At the time, there was little or no panic, Londoners being accustomed to the ‘pea souper’ fogs so beloved of movie directors. This was not the first time that severe cold and the burning of coal made the air of the city poisonous. In fact, there are a Seacoal Lane and an Old Seacoal Lane in the Fleet Street area, named because of the barges on the River Fleet that docked arrived here with their loads of seacoal.

Seacoal croppedThis mineral coal was so named to distinguish it from charcoal and it proved to be such a contributor to air pollution that in the 14th century,  following a petition from the City’s population, Edward I passed a law prohibiting the burning of it .

This had little effect; subsequent monarchs and increasingly severe punishment – at one time death – did not stop people from burning seacoal. In  1661 John Evelyn, diarist and member of the Royal society, wrote a pamphlet, one of the earliest known publications on air pollution. One of his recommendations was to remove works using seacoal to five miles outside the city.

This pamphlet rejoiced in the title of Fumifugium, or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated together with some remedies humbly proposed by J.E. esq. to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now assembled. On the 13th of September that year, Evelyn notes in his diary that he presented his Fumifugium ”dedicated to his Majesty, who was pleased that I should publish it by his special commands, being much gratified with it”.

Later that year Evelyn writes of another encounter with Charles II, this time on one of the royal boats, when the king, he says, “was pleased to discourse to me about my book inveighing against the nuisance of the smoke of London, and proposing expedients how, by removing those particulars I mentioned, it might be reformed; commanding me to prepare a Bill against the next session of Parliament being, as he said, resolved to have something done in it”.

In the winter of 1683-1684, known as The Great Freeze, when the Thames was frozen for two months, the cold conditions and the continued pollution gave rise to this comment in Evelyn’s diary: “London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast so as one could scarcely breathe.”

London and the Great Freeze

This day in London’s history: on 24 November 1434 the River Thames froze over. This was a not uncommon occurrence between the 15th and early 19th century. On this occasion, according to B Lambert, author of ‘The history and survey of London and its environs’:

“In the year 1434 a great frost began on the 24th of November, and held till the 10th of February, following ; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes and provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, and brought by land to the city.”

In later years, there were Frost Fairs held on the Thames; the most memorable of these was in the winter of 1683-1684, known as The Great Freeze, when the Thames was frozen for two months. According to the diarist John Evelyn, “The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished and full of commodities, even to a printing press.”

Even more recently (in 2010) the River Wye froze; in December of that year the ice started to melt and crack into pieces that floated downstream.

Frozen Wye Frozen Wye 2