The nautical connection between Change Alley and Strand

Marine Society
Photo from openplaques.org

My recent absence from these pages has been largely to do with boating matters, so I thought that a nautical theme might be appropriate to mark my return to blogging, and what more nautical than the Marine Society, the world’s first charity dedicated to seafarers

That society was formed by Jonas Hanway, whom we have mentioned before on this blog, but more for his eccentricities than for his philanthropy. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls him a philanthropist and a merchant and in 1756, when Britain was on the brink of war with Europe, Hanway was concerned that his crew would be poached to fight in the King’s navy.

He therefore came up with what would today be called a win-win solution: he recruited boys from poor backgrounds and gave them naval training so they were equipped to fight on the King’s ships. This not only helped him protect his business interests, it also opened up career prospects for those boys who would otherwise be limited in terms of job prospects.

EAS_4102Hanway’s philanthropic activities also embraced the Foundling Hospital, which received a £50 donation from him (the largest single donation he was ever to make to any charity, according to the ODNB); the Stepney Society, designed to apprentice poor boys to marine trades; the Troop Society, which provided clothing and shoes to British soldiers in Germany and North America; and the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. He also raised funds to relieve victims of foreign fires: one in Montreal in 1765 and another in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1766.

What does any of this have to do with London street names: First, the King’s Arms Tavern, where the Marine Society was founded, was in Change Alley. That is nothing to do with metamorphosis, but is an abbreviation of ‘Exchange Alley’ – from the Royal Exchange.

EAS_3851Hanway also lived in Red Lion Square, which takes its name from the Red Lyon tavern, “in olden times the most important hostelry in Holborn”, and developed by Nicholas Barbon; and for a time he lodged with his sister in lodgings in Strand – a name, apparently, of Saxon origin.

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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”.

A great British eccentric and his umbrella

Jonas Hanway with umbrella10 February is Umbrella Day, so it is a good day to remember a true British eccentric, explorer and philanthropist, Jonas Hanway, who was instrumental in introducing that great British accessory – the umbrella – to the men of the UK.

Hanway was sent to London as a young boy, where he lived with his uncle, Major John Hanway, in Oxford Street; the nearby Hanway Street is named after that uncle. The teenaged Jonas was sent to Portugal as a merchant apprentice and spent many years there. According to one source, “Some of his later eccentricities in dress, as well as his philanthropy, can be traced to these formative years.”

His eccentricities of dress included carrying a sword and umbrella; swords by then were unfashionable and umbrellas were considered effeminate and unseemly for British men. In those days umbrellas were used primarily by women and were viewed as protection from the sun rather than from the rain.

It was not until Hanway, incurring the wrath of cab drivers and the amusement of small boys and passersby, persevered in his use of the umbrella that they became associated with rain. For years after his death, however, it was still considered unmanly to use them – as late as 1818 the Duke of Wellington banned his troops from using them.

According to John Pugh, Hanway’s contemporary biographer, Hanway “loved the society of women”; he was a supporter of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes in Whitechapel and he would entertain reformed prostitutes in his home, providing them with small gifts.

Back to the umbrella: Hanway also raised funds to relieve victims of foreign fires, one of which was in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1766. Barbados is the birthplace of singer Rihanna who had a hit song called ‘Umbrella’.

Among the streets associated with Hanway are Red Lion Square, once rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of Oliver Cromwell and Strand, where he lodged and could be seen walking to the Coffee House near the Royal Exchange, where he conducted business.

Cromwell, ghosts, Tyburn, and umbrellas

This day in London history: on 16 December 1653, following the lack of success of the Barebones Parliament, Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England, Wales, and Scotland. The decision was made by the new Protectoral government at a meeting Cromwell did not attend). Centuries after Cromwell’s death (in 1658, probably of septicaemia following a urinary infection), opinion is still divided as to whether he was a hero or a villain.

In any event, over two years after his death (on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I), the bodies of Cromwell and two other men were disinterred from Westminster Abbey, taken to Tyburn where they were ceremonially hanged and decapitated, and their heads displayed on poles above Westminster Hall.

One line of thought is that the bodies had been left overnight in Red Lion Square in Holborn before being taken to Tyburn, and that later the bodies were taken back there and secretly buried. This would appear not to be true, but there was a rumour that the spirits of the three men haunted the area for many years.

Nicholas Barbon
Nicholas Barbon

Red Lion Square takes its name from the Red Lyon tavern, “in olden times the most important hostelry in Holborn”, which gave its name to the square and the nearby street.The square was one of the first licensed developments outside the City, when London was still rapidly spreading west. It was developed by the speculator Nicholas Barbon, the son of Praisegod Barebone.

Barbon was, in his own way, as much of an eccentric as his father. He started off with a career in medicine, having studied in Holland and been admitted to the College of Physicians in 1664, and later became involved in financial matters.

Barbon wrote two treatises on money and was the originator of fire insurance in Britain; he was also a persuasive man who radiated charm and arrogance in equal measure, depending on his objective. A contemporary referred to him as a “rogue, knave and damned”. He became, after the Great Fire, one of the most active and influential builders in London. He did get it wrong sometimes: not all of his buildings stayed up, but even ones that didn’t collapse could cause excitement and Red Lion Square was no exception.

Red Lyon Fields, as it was known prior to the 17th century, was purchased by Barbon for speculative development and building commenced in the late 1680s. However, lawyers in the area (the “gentlemen of Graies Inn”) were unamused at the thought of their rural surroundings being spoiled, and they began a campaign against the development and its workmen.

This campaign, or riots, if you prefer, began in 1684 and the legal men had the upper hand at first: despite the bricks being hurled at them by workmen they were able to take two hostages. Barbon was not the sort to take that kind of thing lightly, and returned the following day with hundreds of workmen, shouting threats and promising not to be intimidated. The excitement eventually died down when the square proved that it was attractive, and it became a commercial success.

Even in death, Barbon proved that he was not a man who could easily be daunted – his will directed that none of his debts was to be paid.

Red Lion Square also had its fair share of famous residents, and the most delightfully eccentric of them all was Jonas Hanway (1712-1786), explorer and philanthropist, who lived and died there. Among other things, Hanway was known for instituting the Foundling Hospital. 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.

Although long used by ladies in the UK, and a status symbol in China in the 11th century BC, the umbrella was considered effeminate and unseemly for British men. They were originally viewed as a sunshade rather than protection against the rain. It was not until Hanway, incurring the wrath of cab drivers and the amusement of small boys and passersby, persevered in his use of the umbrella that they became associated with rain.

For years after his death, however, it was still considered unmanly to use them – as late as 1818 the Duke of Wellington banned his troops from using them. Towards the end of the 19th century the curved steel frame rib, which allowed the umbrella to be furled, made the use of them more widespread.

The umbrella more recently was made even more famous by the Barbadian singer Rihanna, who had an award-winning song in 2007 entitled simply ‘Umbrella.