St David’s Day, Nell Gwyn, and David Garrick

Today’s blog is based on the facts that, first, it is St David’s Day; St David being the patron saint of Wales and, second, that I had a recent ‘I never knew that’ moment when I learned that the Pretenders were (apart from Chrissie Hynde) from Hereford. Or at least the original band members were.

So, here we go again with the tenuous connections, and leap straight to Nell Gwyn (or Gwynne). The city of Hereford claims to have been the birthplace of Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II, and supporters of that theory point to the fact that Gwyn is a name of Welsh origin and Herefordshire borders Wales.

It is, however, considered more likely that she was born in London, in Coal Yard Alley off Drury Lane. The alley did actually lead to an old coal yard; in the 19th century it was described as “a row of miserable tenements”. Much of the ‘facts’ about Nell Gwyn are largely a matter of speculation: Pepys records that Nell said she was “brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong water to the guests”.

Incidentally, there is a Hereford Road in West London; the land in this area was developed by a Mr William Kinnaird Jenkins, a Herefordshire lawyer and landowner (with a Welsh name) who named many streets after places in Herefordshire and the neighbouring Welsh area.

But back to Nell, who was described as the “indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in court”; it was also said of her that “the King loved more for her wit than the attractions of her person … it was difficult to remain long in her company without sharing her gaiety”. Indeed, Charles II’s last words were reputed to have been “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

Nell did not try to hide her humble beginnings or her status as a concubine; one example of her wit was when she was bing booed by people mistaking her for Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, another of Charles’s mistresses, Nell said, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

Nell spend the last years of her life in Pall Mall, where she spent her last years and where she had a solid silver bed in a room lined with mirrors.

And even more – not even that tenuous – connection: Nell was reputed to have sold oranges outside of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane; the actor and playwright David Garrick managed the theatre for nearly 30 years. Oh, yes, and Garrick was born in Hereford.

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Pall Mall, Emma Hamilton, and Curtain Road

Update to Curtain Road (below): it takes its name from the curtain wall (a defensive wall) of the priory.

Update to Pall Mall (more below): it is also possible that there is a connection between Pall Mall and the expression ‘pell mell’ generally taken to mean disorderly confusion or reckless haste.

Today’s blog will start yesterday in the sense that on 28 January 1807, London’s Pall Mall became the first street to have public lighting by gas. Continuing the Pall Mall theme, however, on 29 January 1801 Lady Emma Hamilton, Horatio Nelson’s mistress, gave birth to a daughter christened Horatia. So with two Pall Mall connections, we should revisit that street briefly.

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

The expression ‘pell mell’ has been linked with the street; although they have different derivations there are, apparently, early records of both being called ‘pell mell’.

The disorderly confusion comes from the Old French to mix and, as The Phrase Finder puts it: “Whether the game was disorderly and confused and the name was coined from that is speculative. It may be that the similarity between the two is merely coincidence, backed up by indifferent spelling.”

Schaumburg House, at number 82 Pall Mall, has a number of historical connections, but most fascinating was its use as a ‘Temple of Health and Hymen’ or, not to put too fine a point on it, sex therapy clinic and fertility centre. The ‘temple’, established by James Graham, employed at one stage a young girl, known as Vestina, Goddess of Health. She was Emy Lyon, later better known as Emma Hart and then even more famously as Lady Hamilton.

(Incidentally, Horatia was born in a house at 23 Piccadilly – another street name with many theories about its derivation.)

But back to today’s date, and from Nelson to Shakespeare: according to some sources, Romeo and Juliet was staged for the first time on 29 January 1595 in the unimaginatively named Theatre theatre. By happy coincidence, the theatre was on what is now Curtain Road in Shoreditch and, though Curtain is a great name for a lane with a theatre, it was the land, belonging to the priory of Holywell, which was called the ‘Curtayne’. The origin of the name, apparently, is uncertain.

Pall Mall, gas lights and celestial beds

Peep Gas Lights Pall Mall
A caricature of reactions to the lights by Thomas Rowlandson

This day in London history: on 28 January 1807, London’s Pall Mall became the first street to have public lighting by gas.

Pall Mall takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

Gainsborough plaqueThe artist Thomas Gainsborough lived here, in Schomberg House, from 1774 until his death and there is a blue plaque to commemorate the fact. Another resident of the house was WIlliam Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and military commander. He was the third son of George II, and in 1739 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow him an annual income of £15,000 from the civil list.

The Duke also became known later as the ‘Butcher of Colloden’ after the half hour battle in which around two thousand Scottish rebels were slain. His brother, the future King George III, was instrumental in spreading unpleasant rumours about him, but he ended up being generally disliked with little help from anyone else.

Even more of a claim to fame, or infamy, for the house, built in 1698, was its use as a headquarters for the quirkiest of quacks. James Graham studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, though it is not certain that he even actually qualified. He was not ignorant of basic health and hygiene: he supported vegetarian diets, fresh air, temperance in the consumption of alcohol, and sleeping on mattresses. But he went on to more elaborate medical theories and practices.

Schomberg House 1850
Schomberg House in 1850

Graham first set up his operations at Adelphi Terrace, in an elaborately decorated house with equipment said to have cost around £10,000. The cost of this ‘Temple of Health and Hymen’ proved too much and in 1781 Graham moved his operation to Schomberg House. It was, basically, an 18th-century sex therapy clinic and fertility centre, though mud baths and card games were also available. One of Graham’s assistants was a young girl known as Vestina, Goddess of Health. She was one Emy Lyon, later better known as Emma Hart and then even more famously as Lady Hamilton, mistress of Admiral Nelson and the mother of his child.

The centrepiece of this temple of Hymen was the Grand Celestial Bed, guaranteed (at £50 per night) to induce conception for even the most infertile of couples. The bed, which had mattresses filled with springy stallion hair and coloured sheets, was supported by forty glass pillars and surmounted by a mirror-lined dome. The name comes from the not very flattering line in Hamlet where the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him:

So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

Music, which came from the mouths of gild nymphs on each of the glass pillars, completed the course necessary for the conception of perfect babies with a couple “powerfully agitated in the delights of love”. Also important for the treatment was the prior lecture on generation, delivered by the ‘doctor’ himself.

Despite his innovative ideas, Graham was not always taken seriously. He became something of a religious fanatic and eventually returned to Edinburgh, called himself the Servant of the Lord OWL (Oh Wonderful Love). He was, for a time, confined to his house as a lunatic and finally died at home on his 49th birthday.

Nell Gwynne plaquePall Mall also bears a plaque on the site of the house occupied by Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne in the last 16 years of her life. She, too, had an impressive bed that may have served as an inspiration for Graham: it was solid silver and situated in a room lined with mirrors. Nell, of course, was less famous for her bed than for who was in it – most notably Charles II.

Her start in life was relatively inauspicious: Nell was born in one of Covent Garden’s sleazier streets, in a brothel run by her mother. She was orphaned after her father died in prison and her mother drowned in a drunken stupor. Despite remaining illiterate all her life, she was known as “pretty, witty Nell”.

One of best, non-physical, attributes – as far as Charles was concerned – was that she did not try to dabble in politics, unlike some of his other mistresses. (Dabbling in politics was, and possibly is, a not uncommon failing of royal mistresses, as with Lola Montez.) Nell was, however, insistent that her child by Charles who, though the son of a king, was illegitimate and so had no rights under law, be given a title.

To ensure this, she dangled the child from a window and threatened to drop him until Charles finally gave in and said, “Nay, Nellie, pray spare the Earl of Burford.” Nell was probably Charles’s favourite of all his many mistresses and, as tradition has it, his last words were, “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

Art and pre-car traffic lights

 Royal Academy of Arts
This day in London history: on 10 December 1768, The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in London by George III. The 34 founding members were a group of prominent artists and architects including Sir Joshua Reynolds (who was the first president) and Sir William Chambers, who were determined to achieve professional standing for British art and architecture.They also wanted to provide a venue for exhibitions that would be open to the public; and to establish a school of art through which their skills and knowledge could be passed to future generations of practitioners. The Academy was originally housed in Pall Mall.One century later, on 10 December 1868 (and before the introduction of the automobile), the first traffic lights were installed in London, outside the Palace of Westminster at the corner of Bridge Street, Parliament Street and Great George Street.

The lights resembled railway signals – they used semaphore arms by day, and red (for stop) and green (for caution) gas lamps at night. They were designed by John Peake Knight, who had proposed a signalling system for traffic in a year when over 1,100 people were killed and over 1,300 injured on roads in London.

(Unfortunately, soon after the new lights were installed, a gas leak caused them to explode, injuring a police constable. Perhaps the builders of the lights should have used the principles of Webb’s sewer gas lamp.)

John Peake Knight, who worked in the railway business, also did a great deal to improve the quality of railway travel –he introduced the Pullman car and safe carriages with alarm pulls for ladies.

A memorial plaque to his invention was unveiled in March 1998 on Bridge Street, close to where the original traffic lights would have been erected.

Actresses, oranges, and paille-maille

This day in London’s history: on 8 December 1660, Thomas Killigrew opened his new theatre and made history by having the first actress to play on the British stage. The role was Desdemona in Shakespear’s Othello but there is some debate as to who the actress was; many sources point to either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall.

Another, less likely, candidate is Katherine Corey, who was involved in a major scandal. Nell Gwynne, perhaps the most famous of Charles II’s mistresses, was embroiled in a feud with a noblewoman by the name of Elizabeth Harvey. Nell bribed the actress to mimic Harvey on stage, an act that moved Lady Harvey to hire thugs to hiss Corey on stage and throw oranges at her.

The oranges, presumably, may have been a reference to Nell’s earlier life; in her teens she sold oranges at the King’s Theatre, when the actor Charles Hart became her lover. (Before she became a royal mistress, another of her lovers was Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Nell referred to her lovers as Charles the First and Charles the Second, so that when the king came along, he became to her Charles the Third.)

In the last years of her life, Nell lived in Pall Mall, which takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.