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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Jane Austen, Oliver Cromwell, and a notorious pickpocket

16 December in London’s history: Jane Austen was born on this day in 1775. One of the most widely-read authors in English history, Austen spent her early life in Hampshire, moving to Bath and later Southampton with her family.

Austen did, however, visit London on occasion to visit her brother Henry, who was also her literary agent. One of the places she would have stayed was Henry’s residence in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. Hans Place was named after Hans Sloane, who founded the British Museum and also brought cocoa to England.

Also on this day in London’s history, Oliver Cromwell was appointed as appointed as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. There are many London associations with Cromwell, including Whitehall and Long Acre, where he lived; Cripplegate, where he was married; Tyburn, where his body underwent a mock execution on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I; and Red Lion Square, where his remains were reputed have been interred briefly before that mock execution.

Other Cromwell connections include Horseferry Road, where he is supposed to have taken the ferry; and Fleet Street, where the pickpocket Moll Cutpurse targeted Cromwell supporters.

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.