Friday, 7 April 2017

The Highway
Tigers – Vampires & Mass Murders

The Highway, formerly known as the Ratcliffe Highway, dates back to Roman times. Today it is a fairly nondescript road in the East End of London that stretches from the City of London, bypassing the Tower of London in the east, and winds in a westwardly direction towards Limehouse and the Limehouse Link tunnel.

There are two notable exceptions to the blandness, which the Highway has now become enveloped in, and they are firstly, and most importantly, the church of St George-in-the-East, which was designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, and first opened in 1729.

The second is the church of St Paul's Shadwell, which is an Anglican church that was first built in 1657. Not such a famous designer as St George-in-the-East, but the church has had a number of well-known members including Captain James Cook and Thomas Jefferson's mother. It became known as the Church of Sea Captains because of its links to the docks and maritime trade and there are over 70 sea captains buried in the graveyard surrounding the church. During its time, John Wesley preached here a number of times and indeed preached his last sermon from the church's pulpit before dying a few days later.

Most of this area was unfortunately bombed by the Germans during WWII, leaving very little of historical importance for the visitor to see. The few old houses and warehouses that were left standing have since been demolished to make way for supermarkets, offices and garages. The same applies to the old pubs and inns, which once dominated this area; they have nearly all been forced to close due to the smoking ban, which was introduced into the UK in 2007.

This rather sorry state of affairs has turned the Highway into an almost arterial road, a lifeless thoroughfare, carrying mostly heavy goods vehicles from the City to outer London and vice-versa; a place where pedestrians are a rare sight indeed.

If we travel back to the 19th century, the Highway was an altogether different place, with a notorious reputation for vice and crime. At that time it was known as the Ratcliff Highway, which takes its name from 'red cliff', referring to the red sandstone cliffs which descended from the plateau on which the road was situated down to the Wapping Marshes to the south.

Just off the Highway, stands Tobacco Dock, which was converted in 1990 into a shopping centre at a cost of £47 million and was intended to create the Covent Garden of the East End but the scheme was unsuccessful and it went into administration. The property is not in a major retail area and has only moderately good public transport access. Since the mid 1990s the building has been almost entirely unoccupied with the only tenant being a sandwich shop, and a plan to convert it into a factory outlet did not come to fruition, leaving this sad Retail Mary Celeste, empty and desolate. There is one thing however, that remains, and that is a 7 ft tall bronze sculpture of a boy standing in front of a tiger.

This strange sculpture has nothing to do with the origins of Tobacco Dock, it in fact refers to something which happened on the nearby Highway, where in the late 1800s, a man named Charles Jamrach, who became the world's most renowned dealer in wild animals, opened Jamrach's Animal Emporium on The Highway, close to where St George-in-the-East now stands.

The store became the largest animal store in the world, supplying zoos, menageries and private collectors. Even seamen arriving at the Port of London would bring back exotic animals they had bought or caught from other countries around the world, and sell them to Jamrach.

The name Jamrach became famous around the world, and an incident, which happened one day, was to make him even more famous. It started when a fully-grown Bengal tiger escaped from Jamrach's shop one day and bounded out into the street. A small boy saw the tiger, and as he had never seen such a big cat before, he approached it, and tried to pet the animal. The tiger opened it enormous jaws, picked up the boy and carried him off. By this time, Jamrach had been alerted to the escaped animal, and ran out of his shop, just in time to see the tiger carrying the lad off. Jamrach gave chase, caught up to the tiger and threw himself upon it, placing his hands around its neck and pressing two vital points behind its ears. This obviously had the desired effect, as it seemed to weaken the tiger’s grip on the boy, and without wasting any time, Jamrach prised open the animal's jaws with his bare hands and pulled the very frightened but otherwise unhurt boy from the jaws of what would have inevitably meant death for the boy.

In August 1886, which was not long after this bizarre incident occurred, workmen began road works in the area close to St. George in the East, at the junction of Cannon Street Road and the New Road. The workmen couldn’t believe their eyes, when six feet below the surface they unearthed a skeleton with a wooden stake protruding from the cavity in the ribcage where the heart was once housed. When the skeleton was brought to the surface, it is thought that the workmen sold its skull to the publican of the Crown & Dolphin pub nearby, who placed it behind his bar, where it stayed as a showpiece for many years, although it has since disappeared.

Being buried at a crossroads with a wooden stake driven through the heart, was normally the reserve of those thought to be a vampire, but as far as we know, there were little or no reports of vampire activity in London at this time, or indeed England as a whole. To find out more about how the remains of this gruesome corpse came to be here, we need to delve back seventy-five years, to the early hours of 8th December 1811.

Timothy Marr was a 24-year-old linen draper and hosier, who lived with his wife Celia, their three-month old son, an apprentice, James Gowan; and a servant girl, Margaret Jewell. Marr’s business was situated at 29 Ratcliffe Highway, where he and his family also lived in the rooms above the shop.

Marr had finished work for that day and was busy taking stock and preparing for the following day’s trading. He was very happy with the day’s takings, and decided to send Margaret Jewell, out to buy some oysters for their supper.

As Margaret opened the shop door to go out, she later alleged that she saw the figure of a man framed in the moonlight. She wasn’t particularly worried about this, as the entire area was usually busy after hours, and customers were always coming and going and staring in the shop’s window. Margaret made her way along the road to Taylor’s oyster shop, which was unfortunately closed, so she walked back past Timothy Marr’s shop, where, through the window, she could see Mr Marr still busying himself at work. Margaret continued past the shop and on to the baker’s shop, in the hope of being able to buy something to eat there.

By the time she reached the Baker’s shop, they were about to close and so she couldn’t get any food there either. From the time she had left the shop, until the time she returned there, empty-handed, she had been gone for a total of approximately twenty minutes, which probably saved her life.

The house and shop were in total darkness, and the street door locked, when Margaret returned. She knocked, thinking that maybe they had forgotten that she was still out, but there was no movement or sounds inside whatsoever. She listened at the door and knocked again, but then she heard a noise that sounded like footsteps on the stairs. This was quickly followed by the familiar sound of the baby upstairs, as it let out a little cry, but still no one came to the door.

By this time Margaret sensed that something was seriously wrong. The moon was now hidden behind a cloud, leaving the street scene in total darkness. She felt an air of icy horror creeping over her, as she heard the sound of footsteps approaching her on the pavement behind her. She slammed the knocker against the door as hard and as loud as she could, hoping and praying that someone would come to the door and let here in, while all the time listening to the footsteps growing ever closer.

Margaret almost fainted as she felt a hand upon her shoulder, but was relieved when she turned to see the figure of George Olney, the night watchman who called out the time every half hour. He had heard the noise she had been making by banging on the door, and had come to find out what was going on. Margaret explained the situation, and he also knocked and called out several times to Marr, whom he personally knew quite well.

While all this was happening, a neighbour, John Murray, who had a pawnbroker’s shop next-door, also came out to find out what was going on. Murray decided to help by returning back into his own house and climbing over the dividing garden wall into Marr’s house. The back door of Marr’s house was standing open, so Murrey entered and edged his way up the stairs, calling softly to the Marrs as he went.

After a few minutes of complete silence, he decided to return to the downstairs area and the shop. Murray was not however, prepared for the carnage he was about to behold, for as he got to the narrow passageway at the bottom of the stairs, the floor itself was coated with blood and gore, making it almost impossible to pick a blood free pathway to the front door. The first victim he saw was young James Gowan, the apprentice, who was lying on the floor, just inside the shop door, about six feet from the stairs. The bones in the boys face had been smashed, pulverizing his brain and causing it to be splattered around the walls and even across the shop’s counter, where it was then dripping onto the floor.

A strong feeling of nausea came over Murray. He rushed towards the street door, but stumbled across yet another corpse before he got there. This time it was Mrs Marr lying facedown, her head had also been severely battered like young James Gowan’s had, and there was blood still oozing from her wounds. Murray took a deep breath and ran to the door, but instead of being able to rush outside and take a breath of fresh air, he was almost pushed back inside again by George Olney, who was eager to help with the search.

A moment or two later and Murray and Olney continued to search for the rest of the Marr family, and within minutes had found Timothy Marr lying behind the shop counter, in much the same condition as the other victims, battered to death, with blood and bone fragments splattered everywhere. With three corpses now having been found, their concerns naturally turned to the baby, which certainly was not in the shop area. Murray and Olney rushed to the living quarters, which were in the basement, and it was there that they found the poor child. The boy was still in his bed, his little face hardly recognisable, with his mouth cut open and gaping. One side of his face was crushed and his throat had been slashed open so severely that his head was almost severed from his body. The tiny crib that he lay in was covered with blood and bone splinters from the frenzied attack. When Murray first saw him, he could not hold himself back any longer and made another dash for the door, but unfortunately vomited on the floor before he could reach there.

By this time, people in the neighbourhood had started to hear what had happened, and a crowd had started to gather outside, some of them even entered the home, and holding candles aloft, not only gathered to gaze at the bodies, but also searched for a possible murder weapon.

There was no formal police force In Britain in 1811, Sir Henry and John Fielding, had replaced what was known as the thief-takers, with the Bow Street Runners, whose main job was to track down known criminals and deliver writs of arrest. There was however, another body, known as the River Thames Police Office, which had been set up to protect ships and cargoes at anchor. It was to them that assistance was summoned, and it was their constabulary who rose to the occasion and attempted an investigation that night.

The first officer on the scene was Charles Horton, who immediately cleared as many onlookers from the house as possible, and set about looking for clues. Close to where the body of Timothy Marr had been discovered, he found a ripping chisel, which he thought might be the weapon used on the victims, but upon closer examination, it bore no blood. In the master bedroom upstairs, Horton found a long-handled iron mallet, known as a maul, which was covered with blood. He assumed this was almost certainly the murder weapon, especially when upon closer examination he saw that human hairs were stuck in the congealed blood on the flat, heavy end.

He then discovered two sets of footprints at the back of the shop, and because the tracks proved to contain not only sawdust from work done by a carpenter inside that day but also traces of blood, it became obvious that they were left after the murders had been committed, and more importantly, by two separate people, or killers!

There was however, one very important thing still missing, and that was a motive. No valuables appeared to have been taken; there was money left in the till, as well as in several drawers around the house. One possibility was that the culprit or culprits had been scared off by all the commotion at the street door, and had fled the scene before they had finished what they came for. The other possibility was that it might have been some sort of revenge attack, which would indicate that the perpetrator probably knew Timothy Marr and had a personal grudge against him.

Without any apparent motive, the authorities found it very difficult to pinpoint any suspects. The only clues they had to go on were a carpenter’s bloodstained maul, which was found at the scene of the crime, a chisel, and some bloody footprints. The nature of the crimes struck fear into the hearts of not just the locals, but to the population of London as a whole. The Government tried to quell the fears by offering a small reward of fifty pounds for any information leading to an arrest. A handbill was also drafted and nailed onto local church doors.

The suggestion of a reward led to a number of baseless arrests, all of which were released within days, sometimes hours. One of the carpenters who had worked in the shop that day was detained, but was quickly released owing to a lack of evidence against him. A servant girl who had worked for Marr some months earlier, was also arrested and questioned, but she too was released for the fact that she was deemed too small to have carried out the murders on her own, and she certainly didn’t have or know anyone in the criminal fraternity. At one point, even Marr’s brother came under scrutiny, since it was rumoured that he had had a disagreement with his brother. He was questioned for forty-eight hours, but released after his alibi was checked and proved that he could not have possibly been there that night

An inquest took place on December 10th in which the principal players retold their stories from that fateful night. When the servant girl, Margaret Jewell gave her evidence, it seemed apparent that someone had been watching the premises that night, and was waiting for her departure, but how anyone could have known that she would be sent out to buy food at such a late hour, was never discussed.

After the inquest had taken place, it was decided that the bodies should then be buried, but not before the general public had their final glimpse of them. During this time, no one thought about preserving a crime scene or respecting the dead; victims of crime were considered fair game and the public had a strong appetite for scandal and gore. The bodies of the four victims were laid out on beds in the house at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the general public was allowed in to view them. People came from all over London to stare at the horribly mutilated corpses, for their wounds were not sutured (stitched up), leaving gaping holes in their flesh; even their eyes had not been closed.

The ghoulish infatuation with the poor victims didn’t end there, for literally hundred more turned up, alongside genuine mourners, when they were given a memorial service at the church of St. Georges in the East, where the Marrs had proudly baptized their firstborn three months earlier.

Even after the victims were dead and buried, the people of London and especially the local populace, did not easily forget the case, for with the crime unsolved, the big fear was that the perpetrator could strike again at any time.

They certainly did not have long to wait, for on 19th December, John Williamson, a publican at the Kings Arms Tavern at 81 New Gravel Lane, just off Ratcliff Highway, along with his wife Elizabeth, their fourteen-year-old granddaughter and a servant girl named Bridget Anna Harrington. They also had a boarder, John Turner, who had been there for approximately eight months. That night John Williamson, his wife, and the servant girl, were all murdered in much the same fashion as the Marrs had been.

Earlier on that evening, Williamson had noticed a man who he thought looked very suspicious; he seemed to be watching the pub and at one point, listening at his private door. Williamson mentioned it to one of the parish constables and asked him to keep an eye out for the man.

A short while after this, the constable heard the cry, “Murder” coming from the direction of the Kings Arms. As he neared the pub a crowd had started to gather. A man dressed only in his shirt was lowering himself down from a second floor window on some knotted sheets. As he let go of the sheets and fell the last few feet to the ground, he was grabbed by members of the crowd that were gathered there. The constable rushed in and saved the man before the crowd could have ripped him apart, thinking he was yet another murderer. The man quickly explained that he was John Turner, who boarded at the Kings Arms, and that he had just witnessed a terrible sight.

Upon hearing what Turner had described to the constable, the crowd wasted no time in battering down the doors of the tavern and forcing their way inside. The first sight to greet them was the body of Mr Williamson, lying on its back on the steps leading into the taproom. Williamson’s head had been caved in, his throat slit from ear to ear, and one of his hands had been nearly hacked off. Blood was running from his wounds and soaking into the steps next to him, where an iron crowbar was lying beside him.

In the parlour, Williamsons wife and the servant girl were found in a similar condition, both with their skulls smashed in and the throats slashed. The servant girl was lying in front of the grate, as if she had been preparing the fire for the morning when the killer had struck. One of the onlookers, a middle aged woman, fainted as she bent down to get a better view of Mrs Williamson, and then noticed that her neck had been severed to the bone.

The crowd started to arm themselves with whatever they could find and rushed about from room to room in the hope of finding the perpetrators still on the premises. The killer or killers had gone, but in an upstairs room they came across Kitty Stillwell, the young granddaughter, in her bed, alive and untouched. She had slept through the entire attack and had no idea what had just occurred downstairs. Given what had happened to the Marr family, including their baby, just twelve days earlier, it seemed miraculous that this young girl was still alive.

The Government realised that something needed to be done or they could end up with riots on their hands. The investigation was widened, with the Bow Street Runners and the River Thames Police lending their full support. This in turn, led to almost anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of the crime that night, becoming a suspect.

The main suspect to begin with was John Turner, the lodger who had escaped the building that night by climbing down a sheet from a second floor window. He said he had seen a tall man bending over Mrs Williamson's body. When other witnesses insisted that they had also seen a tall man loitering outside the tavern that night, it gave credence to Turner’s story, and he was more or less eliminated as a suspect.

Blood had been found on one of the windowsills, which indicated the killer’s escape route. A footprint in the mud below the window outside confirmed this, and the killer got away by apparently running along a clay-covered slope, using the same escape route that the Marr family killer had taken.

It now started to look like the Marr killer and the Williamson Killer might well be one and the same person. The Shadwell Police office started rounding up everyone who had a possible connection to both sets of victims. One such person was an Irish sailor, named John Williams, who had been an acquaintance of Timothy Marrs. There were rumours that he held a grudge against Timothy Marr since they had sailed at sea together some years earlier.

When Williams’ roommate was questioned he said that Williams had returned to his room at the Pear Tree tavern, just off Ratcliffe Highway, after midnight that night. Other witnesses said that Williams was a regular at Williamsons’ tavern, and so it seems that armed with just these two very circumstantial pieces of evidence, John Williams now became the number one suspect in both cases.

Williams didn’t deny he had been to the Kings Arms tavern, in fact he admitted that he had even been there that night, but he insisted that he got on very well with the Williamson family, and that they treated him almost like a son. When another witness came forward to say that he had told them that he had no money that night, this went against him, as when he was arrested after the murders he most certainly did have money on him, although he insisted that the money found on him had come from pawning some of his clothing. Pawn tickets found on him bore this fact out.

Despite the fact that no real evidence had been offered up against him, Williams was remanded to Coldbath Fields prison, where another suspect was also being held. Officials believed that Williams had not acted alone; in fact they were still searching for a third suspect as well.

On Christmas Eve, after a tip-off from the landlord of the Pear Tree lodging house, the police searched the room of a sailor, John Peterson, who was at this time away on a sea trip. The landlord showed them a trunk belonging to Peterson, which he said had contained a maul, but which was now missing.

The landlord said Peterson had often let him borrow the maul, which had been in a well-stocked toolkit inside the trunk, but when he had gone to borrow it again this time, it was no longer there. A significant fact here was that when the maul found at the Marr’s hose had been cleaned of the hair and blood, the initials “JP” had been found, clearly etched into the metal.

The ‘facts’ against John Williams were now starting to add up. He had had the opportunity to take the maul; he had no money before the murder but did have money after the murder, and had returned to his room just after the killer had fled the second crime scene. He also, according to a woman who washed his clothing, had a bloody and torn shirt. There was no forensic evidence in those days, courts had to rely on so called logic and eyewitness testimony, although they did attempt to identify the maul and to ascertain whether Williams’ shirt did in fact have bloodstains on it. The best they could do was surmise what probably happened, taking into account the spoken words of witnesses, and then leave it for the courts to decide.

When the lodger, John Turner was asked if he could identify John William as the man he had seen standing over the body of Mrs Williamson, he replied that he could not, but admitted having seen Williams on a number of occasions at the tavern.

While all this ‘evidence’ was piling up against him, Williams was still languishing in Coldbath Fields prison, awaiting trial. On 28th December he was summoned to Shadwell Magistrates Court for a hearing, where the officials and public had gathered to hear more testimony and to ask him more questions. When Williams’ name was called, instead of him appearing, a prison guard stood up and informed the court and all those present that Mr John Williams had been found hanging in his cell that morning, having apparently taken his own life. His death came as a great surprise, although many years later, people would speculate whether he had in fact been murdered to prevent the authorities from having to cast their investigations further afield in the search for the ‘real’ culprit.

Upon hearing of Williams’ untimely death, the people of East London felt they had been cheated. Such was the outpouring of their rage, that the Home Secretary ordered Williams’ body be paraded through the streets, which was a common practice at this time; although Williams was one of the last to receive this somewhat dubious ‘honour’

It was finally taken as read, that Williams was guilty of both sets of murders, and that he had delivered his own form of justice by taking his life, which seemed at the time to be a clear statement of his guilt.

To make sure Williams could never repeat these terrible crimes again, a mob of local citizens took the body, which was laid out on the back of a cart, in a huge procession along the Ratcliffe Highway, pausing for fifteen minutes opposite the late Mr Marrs house. It then moved on to the Kings Arms tavern, where it stopped for ten minutes.

The procession then advanced to St. Georges Turnpike, where the road is intersected by Cannon Street, where they stopped upon reaching the grave, which had already been dug, six feet deep, but not very wide or long, as they wanted the murderer to feel uncomfortable even in death. John Williams’ body was tumbled unceremoniously out of the cart and lowered into this hole, but not before the coachman had also whipped him three times across the face. Before his grave was filled in with earth, a wooden stake was hammered through his heart.

In other words, Williams was buried at a crossroads where four roads meet, as a so-called vampire might be. The idea was that one who was buried is such a way could never rise up from the grave again to attack more victims. Crossroads were believed to confuse evil spirits, in the event that if they did break free and rise from the grave, they would not know which direction to take. Quicklime was also added to William’s grave before it was finally covered over.

The motive of the Ratcliffe Highway murders remains a mystery and a source of constant debate for historians and crime buffs to this day. Yet in a city that often seems fixated on the macabre, the brutal nature of these crimes, and their unsolved nature, has propagated the mystery even more so over the centuries and will in all probability continue to do so.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Romilly Street

 Lillie Langtry & King Edward VII

George Albert Sweetman was seventeen years old, the only boy, and breadwinner, in a family of four younger sisters and his widowed mother. It took him over two hours each morning, to walk from his house in Stepney, to his place of work, at the recently built Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. He had been employed as a ‘call boy’, which is someone who calls to the performers in their dressing room, telling them when it is time for them to go on stage.
George had worked at the theatre for six months, since April 1892, and although he was employed as a call boy, his duties actually consisted of a great deal more, including cleaning and sweeping, running errands, and even making tea and sandwiches. These extra duties didn’t worry George too much, as they often led to him receiving tips from the cast and staff of the theatre, as well as being able to take home various cakes and sandwiches, that had been left over, for his family.
Life for a seventeen-year-old boy, in those days, was not just all work, and no play, George was a full-bloodied, heterosexual male, and had his eye on Mary, a girl about his own age, who worked in a nearby bakery. Whenever he visited the bakery, he would regale Mary with tales about the theatre, telling her stories about all the famous stars he knew, and how much they relied on him. Mary was infatuated by George and his stories, and said how much she wished that she could one day visit the theatre, and meet all his friends.
Being born within the sound of Bow Bells, is supposed to make you a Cockney, and as Stepney was most definitely within that vicinity, George was a Cockney, both by birth and by nature. For Cockneys are supposed to be wily, scheming people, always one step ahead of what is going on, and George put his true Cockney ideals into play when he heard Mary say she would do anything to have him show her around the theatre. Anything?
He asked her if she knew Church Street, which was Romilly Street’s former name. Its name was changed in 1937 when it was renamed after Sir Samuel Romilly, the Solicitor-General and law reformer, who was born nearby. Mary did indeed know the street, and confirmed that it was the street that the theatre backs onto. George said that if she came to the stage door, which is in that street, at nine o’clock the following night, he would let her in, and show her around.
Mary jumped at the offer, and was so eager that she was there at the stage door at 8.45. Dead on the stroke of nine the door swung open, and George let her in. She could hardly believe her eyes, for instead of his usual collarless shirt, neckerchief, braces and flat cap, he was wearing a dark suit, white shirt with a stiff collar and a tie, all of which had once belonged to his late father, but now fitted him reasonably well.
George took Mary’s hand and hurried her along the passageway, past the stage-door-keeper’s office, which was empty, as he knew old Sid always slipped out to the pub for half an hour at about this time. It was like a maze in there, with stairs and more passageways, twisting and turning all the time. Mary wondered how George could find his way about without getting lost. At one point, a door suddenly burst open and a young lady dressed in just her underwear, looked out and called out to George, asking him to be a dear and fetch Millie, the seamstress for her, as her costume had burst a seam again, and she was due on stage in fifteen minutes. George quickly pushed Mary into a doorway behind him and told the young lady he would do it right away.
George continued to lead Mary along yet more passageways, where the faint sound of music could be heard in the distance. He paused for a moment at the seamstress’s room, and reported the burst seam as he had been asked, then whisking Mary ever onwards, to where the sounds of music was now getting louder. George put his finger to his lips, indicating for Mary to be quiet. He peered around the side of a heavy draped curtain, and then pulled Mary towards him and whispered for her to have a look at what was happening on stage. Mary could hardly believe her eyes, when she saw the stage itself; it was enormous, and in the very centre of the stage was the figure of a man, singing, while all along the edge of the stage were flaming gas-jets encased in brass shells, illuminating the whole scene. Mary asked who the man was, and why did he sing like a woman? George could hardly contain himself from laughing out loud, as he pulled Mary closer to him and whispered to her that the ‘man’, who was singing, was not a man at all, but Vesta Tilley, who always dressed as a man.
Mary found it difficult to comprehend why a woman would want to dress as a man, but who was she to question such goings on, after all, this was the theatre!
Mary was infatuated by what she was seeing, and was by this time completely under George’s spell. She let herself be guided by him, not even bothering to ask where they were going next. George paused for a moment and asked if she had ever drunk champagne. Before she could answer, he pushed open a door in front of him and led her into a room that was lit by six large crystal chandeliers that sparkled and shone their reflections onto the cut glass mirrors that lined the surrounding walls. Along one wall was a bar lined with bottle after bottle of champagne, lying in wait, for the onslaught, that took place every night as soon as the interval occurred. This bar only served champagne, and was used, almost like a club by some people, many of whom didn’t even bother to watch the show. Hoping that he wouldn’t be recognised in his new “posh” suit, the young George affected an accent and asked for two glasses of champagne. No problem there, the two ‘free’ glasses of champagne were forthcoming immediately.
At one end of the bar, stood a crowd of about six men, with a large, red-faced gentleman, holding court in the centre, this was Frank Otter. George wasn’t exactly sure who Otter was, or what he did, but he did know that he was very rich and apparently something to do with the theatre, so he decided that he and Mary should move to the other end of the bar, in case he was recognised.
As George continued to point out minor celebrities to Mary, Otter and his crowd were getting louder and louder. Mary expressed her concern to George when she saw another man, who looked very drunk, push his way into the centre of Otter’s crowd, and started to address them. George told Mary not to worry too much about it, as from what he had heard Mr Otter could take good care of himself.
At that point, Otter shouted at the man in a very loud voice, causing everyone in the bar to look round. He told the man that this was a private conversation between gentlemen and friends, and as he was from neither category that he should kindly shut up and go away.
The drunk looked bleary eyed at Otter, as he pushed his outstretched arm out of his way and took centre floor again. He started to tell the group in a very slurred voice, that he had been coming to this theatre and using this bar since it opened, and no one was going to stop him.
Otter stubbed his cigar out in an ashtray on the bar, seized a bottle of champagne, and rapped the man over the head with it. As the man fell to the floor, completely knocked out, Otter calmly turned to one of the bar staff, and told him to get someone to throw this damn nuisance out, adding that he had just ruined what was once, a perfectly splendid evening.
As staff ran about, Otter seemed to be the only person in the room, not fazed by the commotion. Mary was by this time starting to get very worried and wanted to leave, but it seemed that George still had other things on his mind. He was just about to get another glass of champagne for her, when he saw someone enter the room that made his heart skip a beat. He swivelled round, hoping against all hope this person would not see him. He carefully put his glass back down on the bar, and whispered to Mary to do the same, telling her to follow him out of there as quickly as possible.
Mary knew something was seriously wrong, as she had seen George look at this woman as she had entered the room. His face was still drained of its colour, even as they hurried down yet another corridor, well away from the glittering bar and that woman. After some time, he stopped and explained to her that the women was none other than the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and she was the governor of the theatre at that moment, and was a very important person, and would have recognised him. The great Oscar Wilde, he explained, had just written a play for Sarah Bernhardt, that’s how important she is.
Wilde had indeed written ‘Salome’ for Ms Bernhardt, but it had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain that same year, while still in rehearsal.
Mary was worried, not so much for herself, but for George, who she knew could have been fired on the spot by this woman if she saw him escorting a young female around the theatre when he was supposed to have been working.
Ever the optimist, George insisted that he had one more surprise for her before she left. This time he led her down a narrow flight of stone stairs and into a dark, damp smelling basement, telling her not to be frightened, and to keep hold of his hand. He stopped in front of a large wooden wine rack, with just a few empty bottles stacked in it. He then pulled on one side of the rack, opening it up, like a door, to show a narrow passageway on the other side. He then lit a match and then a torch, which he took out of a holder on the wall, and started to lead her through the passageway, with their long shadows reflected upon the walls by the flames from the torch as they went.
A few yards further on, he stopped again in front of another door and placed the torch into another wall holder. He asked Mary if she was hungry, but by this time Mary was in no mood for food or more adventures, she just wanted to go home.
George however, had one more surprise in mind for Mary. Kettners, probably one of the most famous restaurants in London, was now no more than a few feet away, and entering through this secret passage meant that unlike the normal diners to the restaurant, they did not need a reservation. George explained that they had just come through a secret passage, which led from the Palace Theatre to the basement of Kettners.
Kettners restaurant was first opened by Auguste Kettner, chef to Napoleon III in 1867, at 29 Romilly Street. It’s close proximity to the West End theatres, helped make it a favourite of royalty, and the upper echelons of society. It is housed in four interconnecting Georgian houses, over five floors with the ground floor being used as the public restaurant area, and a warren of private rooms, upstairs known as Cabinets Particuliers. It was in one of these rooms that King Edward VII allegedly entertained his mistress Lillie Langtry.
George put his finger to his lips, indicating Mary to be quiet, as he opened a cupboard and took out a long white apron, which he quickly put on, and told her, to wait there for him. Now looking every inch a waiter, he pushed open a pair of swing doors, which led into the kitchens and disappeared inside. Within one minute Mary heard the noise of someone approaching and quickly ducked down out of sight as the doors swung open again, and a waiter carrying a silver salver with plates of food upon it, strode through and out another door on the other side of the room. Two seconds later the doors flew open again, but this time it was George, also carrying a silver salver. He told her to follow him, and two minutes later they were in a small room, not much bigger than a cupboard, where George had placed a chair up against the door, in case they were disturbed. He had constructed a makeshift table by using an upturned wooden crate, using a sheet of newspaper on the top as a tablecloth, and in the centre was the dish he had brought in from the kitchen, still piping hot and steaming. He asked Mary if she had ever had pheasant; to which she relied that she hadn’t, but was more than willing to try it. This is where he found out that he had forgotten the cutlery. They laughed and giggled as they picked away at their luxurious meal with their fingers, and Mary told George what a wonderful time she was having.
A loud bang from outside the door caused them to stop talking and stare in silence at the door, as if waiting for it to crash open at any moment. This was followed by a voice from outside, asking if there was anybody in the room? Mary and George sat motionless, wondering what was going to happen next. The door handle moved, and rattled, as someone tried the door, but the chair that George had placed there, stopped whoever it was from getting in. Whoever it was outside, then spoke again, but this time, as if to someone else, saying that the door is locked sir, there can’t be anyone in there. This was followed by another, much lower voice, answering the first one, telling them to lead on Jenkins.
From inside the little room, George and Mary listened, as at least two, maybe three pairs of footsteps walked away from the door, and gradually grew fainter, before finally disappearing altogether. George quickly pulled the chair away from the door, led Mary out into the hallway once again, and whisked her up a flight of stairs, which led to a small landing, lined with two doors on each side. A man was standing at one of the doors, and bidding goodnight in a reverent manner to whoever was inside, calling them sir, and ma’m. George pulled Mary into a dark recess, and silently watched as the man walked past them.
George stuttered, as he told Mary that the man was the Prince of Wales’ manservant, he had seen him many times at the theatre with the Prince and his fancy lady, Lillie Langtry. Mary could hardly believe what she was hearing as it suddenly dawned on her that it must have been the same man outside the door downstairs, and those other footsteps they heard must have been none other than the Prince of Wales and Lillie Langtry, and she, an ordinary shop-girl was standing just a few feet away from them.
George knew that they had to get out of the building as quickly as possible, as the Prince’s manservant could return at any time, and if they were caught anywhere near him, they would be in severe trouble. George rushed Mary through yet another passageway, to where he knew they would be safe, but as he turned the last corner he crashed straight into someone, sending both the other man and himself, sprawling onto the floor. He prayed to himself not to let it be the Prince’s manservant again, and sure enough his prayers were answered, as a helping hand came down towards him, and lifted him to his feet. The younger man whom he had collided with had already got up, and was brushing himself down, but it was the larger of the two men, the one wearing the green carnation in his buttonhole, who had helped George to his feet. He smiled at George and in a faint Irish accent asked if he was all right, to which George assured him that he was. The man then turned to his young companion, and said, “I don’t know how you manage it Bosie, you always seem to bump into the most handsome people”.
Not wanting to waste any more time, George and Mary excused themselves and ran as fast as they could. They didn’t bother to go back through the secret tunnel to the theatre, but ran directly through Kettners restaurant, much to the surprise of both the diners, and the staff.
It had started to rain as they got out into Romilly Street, but that was the least of Mary’s worries. She just stood in the middle of the street and looked around her, to Kettners restaurant opposite, and then to the stage door of the Palace Theatre, where this adventure had began just a couple of hours earlier. George looked at Mary and jokingly asked, “Same time tomorrow then?” There was silence for almost a whole minute, and then they both started to laugh, and they didn’t stop until George had seen Mary to her nearby home.
George and Mary are sadly, no longer with us, but Kettners still thrives. You probably won’t find our future King using the secret tunnel between the Palace theatre and the restaurant these days, but you will still find an elegant dining experience there. Kettners has never tried to become a part of the in-scene, preferring instead, to cater for the rich and famous, who want nothing more than good food, and plush, intimate surroundings.
During the late 1900s people such as the author Agatha Christie and crooner, Bing Crosby dined there regularly. Jeffrey Bernard, (of he who is unwell fame), also held court there, along with the jazz singer George Melley. Today it is a different crowd, and by next year it could have changed again, but one thing you can be sure of, is the fact that Kettners will still be there, come what may.
Further down the street from Kettners, at number 33 Romilly Street, and the corner of Greek Street, is the Coach and Horses pub (which I have dealt with elsewhere in this book). To give a brief outline on the pub, there has been a pub on this site since the 1720s, but the present pub owes its fame, or maybe notoriety, to its recently retired landlords, Norman Balon, who was reputed to be the rudest Landlord in London.
The Coach and Horses has been the favourite watering hole of the media and arts crowd for many years. Frequented by such luminaries of the British school of acting, as Peter O’Toole and Tom Baker, it was also, for some time reputed to be the favourite meeting place of Private Eye columnists, including its celebrity Editor Ian Hislop, and former Editor Richard Ingrams.
One can walk the length of Romilly Street in just two or three minutes. The south side of the street is taken up by the backs of the Palace Theatre and other large buildings with frontages facing onto Shaftesbury Avenue, while the north side, has developed in relation to the character of present day Soho, with many restaurants, clubs and bars, including, as already mentioned, Kettners Restaurant.
The first reference to houses being built in this street was in 1678, when just nine ratepayers are listed. There doesn’t seem to be any record of an earlier name for the street; the current name stems from the lawyer Samuel Romilly, who lived just around the corner, and was successful in campaigning to abolish the death penalty for petty crimes such as theft during 1810.
During the 1950s and 60s Soho was known as much for its crime and drugs, as for its theatres and restaurants. Thankfully, that side of its reputation has since subsided, and visitors and locals now feel much freer to walk the streets at night. The original ‘Ladies of the Night’ or ‘Street Walkers’, as they were often called, no longer ply their trades on the open streets as they did during the 50s and 60s, but they do still exist.
As recent as the 18th December 2008, three police officers from Charing Cross Clubs and Vice Unit visited a flat in Romilly Street, Soho, and issued a written notice against a young lady, who worked as a receptionist there, informing her that they intended charging her with “controlling prostitution for gain”. An organisation known as the ‘English Collective of Prostitutes’, spoke up for the young lady, stating that Soho has become one of the safest places for women in the sex industry to work, and as a receptionist, the young lady would be the women’s first line of defence against any possible violent attacks and exploitation.
The police responded by what was seen as a backdown, stating that they were familiar with this, and other flats in Soho, and that their visit was “to check the welfare of the occupants and to ensure that there are no juveniles or trafficked victims working at the location”. Needless to say the proposed charge against the young woman was dropped, and both the young lady and Romilly Street, lived to see another day.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Bolt Court

Dr Johnson and Boswell in Fleet Street - on their way back to Bolt Court

It was cold, it was seven o’clock in the morning, and it was February 1940. London had endured yet another night of sustained German bombing, for this was the prequel to what became known as the London Blitz.

Most adults would be scared out of their lives at the thought of bombs falling on the city, and of hearing about how many people were killed in the previous night’s air-raid, but Kenny was just 14 years old, and was tucked up in bed, fast asleep when the big old alarm clock on the table beside him, started ringing so furiously that it actually started to wobble and move as if it were walking towards him. Just before it reached the end of the table, and without opening his eyes, the young lad stretched out his hand and slammed it down onto the clock, stopping it ringing and moving, immediately. He groaned and turned over, and looked at it through one half opened eye. It was still so dark outside that he could hardly see the clock, let alone the time. Kenny grappled under his pillow for his torch, and shone it at the face of the clock, which showed 7 am.

He pulled the bedclothes over his head and turned over to get some more sleep, but as he did so, there was a loud banging on his door, followed by his father calling out, asking if he was up yet.

Young Kenny couldn’t understand why his father wanted him up so early, it was pitch black outside, and he was sure that no respectable people would have been about at such an early hour, let alone opened their premises for business yet. The reason Kenny was thinking about business opening times was because his father had made an appointment for him to go for a job interview that morning.

Kenny’s father banged on the door and called out again, this time demanding that he got up. It was alright for him, thought the boy, he only has to go downstairs to his barber’s shop and open up, while he makes him go out in pitch black darkness, with the possibility of being killed by German bombers attacking London; didn’t he know there was a war on, mused Kenny.

Half an hour later, as Kenny was in the kitchen, picking at a bowl of porridge that his mother had lovingly prepared for him, his father came into the room, looked up at the big clock on wall and started shouting yet again, telling his son to pull himself together and to hurry up and get his breakfast down him. He was always saying things like this, telling him it was no wonder he was so skinny, he was like a little girl instead of a boy. Kenny opened his mouth in an attempt to reply, but was quickly stopped by the wagging finger of his mother, who could see the type of mood his father was in. Kenny rolled his eyes and decided to take his mother’s silent advice, and continue with his breakfast; another mouthful of porridge, followed by another carefully posed sip of tea, with his little finger standing out at a right angle, trying his best to annoy and ignore his father at the same time.

Kenny’s father shouted at him yet again, telling him that he was supposed to be there at eight, to which Kenny rose silently to his feet, flicked his hair off his face, and left the room, muttering to himself as he went out the door, that he might not be there at all if one of those German bombs got him.

Ten minutes later, Kenny was standing in front of the hallway mirror, while his mother brushed down his overcoat, and patted his hair into place, telling him not to take any notice of his father, and to just go there and do his best. This made young Kenny feel better, but as he got halfway down the stairs on his way out, the bellowing voice of his father resounded from the top of the stairs, telling him that for his information, the Germans don’t drop bombs in the daytime.

It was starting to get light when Kenny left his home in Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury, and to his surprise there were plenty of people about, and shops opening for business. As he passed the Marquis of Cornwallis pub in his street, he heard someone call his name, and looked around to see Derek, an old schoolmate, who asked what he was doing out so early. Kenny explained to him that he was going to the Bolt Court School of Lithography just off Fleet Street for a job interview. As soon as Derek heard the name Fleet Street, he naturally assumed that Kenny was going to be a reporter.

Kenny explained to his friend that it was his father’s idea, and in his best and most exaggerated theatrical voice, told him how he had always wanted to be an actor. This made his friend laugh, as Kenny was very good at impersonating people and putting on funny voices. Kenny saw that he had a captive audience, and so continued with the nasal twang, telling Derek that daddy thought that acting is no way to earn a living and, in his eyes, all men in acting are poufs and all the women are tarts. His friend couldn’t stop laughing as Kenny ended with “blooming cheek I think, I’m not a tart”.

The two friends parted and Kenny continued on his way to Bolt Court. He wasn’t going there to become a reporter as his friend mistakenly thought, or to be interviewed for some sort of job, it was purely to train as a cartoonist, which was at least a honourable profession, in his father’s eyes, and not ‘some namby-pamby job in the chorus line of some theatre’.

Kenny did his best at the Bolt Court School of Lithography, staying on there for nearly six months, but his heart was never in it, and so when he and many other young people of his age, were ordered by the Government to be evacuated out of London for the duration of the war, he was quite pleased. In 1944 he was conscripted into the army, where he joined the Combined Services Entertainment, and from there he went onto become one of Britain’s best known comedy actors, in such shows as Hancock’s Half Hour, and from there to the Carry On films.

The young boy who set out to train as a cartoonist in Bolt Court ended up known to millions, as the world famous Kenneth Williams.

In keeping with the world of the theatre and the acting profession, a reference to Bolt Court can be found in an article about Jenny Hill (1850-1897), who started singing in 1869, and was one of the earliest music hall singers. The article mentions Jenny Hill as singing "a very ordinary pot-house sing-song in Bolt Court, Fleet Street." Records show that there has only ever been one Inn or Tavern in Bolt Court, and that was the Bolt-in-Tun Inn, which means that the ‘pot-house’ referred to in this article must be the Bolt-in-Tun Inn. The article goes on to mention what a good singer she was, and how some of her "husband-nagging, semi pathetic songs" had certain parallels with a lot of female blues singers of the 1920's and '30's.

The Bolt-in-Tun Inn, or Tavern, as it later became known, stood at the southern end of Bolt and Tun Court, which has now been whittled down simply to “Bolt Court”. Over the years the Court has had various names, from "Bolt and Tun Yard," in 1642, "Bolt and Tun Alley," in 1644, "Bolt and Tun Court," in 1677), and "Bolt in Tun Yard" in 1875. The most likely explanation as to how the name originated, goes back to Prior Bolton of St Bartholomew, Smithfield, from whom it is alleged that it was a rebus on his name. The old sign for the inn, depicted a tun, which is a large wine cask with a capacity of 252 gallons, pierced by a bolt, which was the missile fired from a crossbow. Part of one of the stone windows of the church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in West Smithfield, depicts this in memory of Prior Bolton, who died in 1532.

In its heyday, the famous old coaching inn saw many stage coaches rumbling out of the Court every day; passengers on their way to various destinations across the country, such as Cambridge, Lincoln and Winchester. Evenings at the Inn saw scenes of tears and sadness, as relatives and friends said their farewells to those traveling
the following day. This was often followed by drunken celebrations, which could often last long into the night.

Whether these nocturnal activities ever blossomed out, beyond the confines of the Inn, is not recorded, but on 1st August 1748, a local newspaper, “The General Advertiser”, carried the following story: ‘Early on Tuesday morning last some rogues broke open the house of Mr. Berry in Bolt Court in Fleet-street, and stole from thence a large quantity of plate, money, and wearing apparel. They got in by wrenching the bars off the cellar window. This makes the sixth or seventh robbery committed in the Courts in that neighbourhood, within a short time. It is surprising that the inhabitants do not prevent such mischief, which might be done, by keeping, at a joint expense, two stout super numerous watchmen, to patrol through the Courts all night’.

Although Bolt Court is most certainly associated with The Bolt-in-Tun Inn, the Court also attracted the more normal, every day activities of those who lived and worked in the Court. The most famous being Doctor Samuel Johnson, who had moved from nearby Johnson's Court to take up residence at number eight Bolt Court in 1776. When Johnson’s good friend, James Boswell called at the doctor's house in Johnson's Court on the 15th March 1776, he was astounded to find out that the man was no longer living there, and worst still, that he hadn’t bothered to even tell him of his proposed move. He recorded the event in writing, with these words: 'I felt a foolish regret that he had left a court which bore his name; but it was not foolish to be affected with some tenderness of regard for a place in which I had seen him a great deal, from whence I had often issued a better and a happier man than when I went in, and which had often appeared to my imagination, while I trod its pavement in the solemn darkness of the night, to be sacred to wisdom and piety.'

Boswell last saw Johnson on the 30th June 1784 at the Fleet Street entrance to Bolt Court, where both Johnson and Boswell had just returned by coach from dining with their mutual friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds. As Johnson climbed down from the coach, he called out to Boswell 'Fare you well' and then hurried away, which Boswell described as 'with a kind of pathetic briskness', down the dark alley towards his house. Unfortunately this was the last time Boswell would see his old friend, for two days later, he embarked on a business trip to his native Scotland and did not return to London before Johnson's death on the 13th December 1784.

Just a few doors away from Doctor Johnson’s house, the Scottish astronomer James Ferguson lived at number 4 Bolt Court. Ferguson died there in 1776.

The name Fleet Street is still synonymous with newspapers and the publishing industry, even though the industry has since moved out to Wapping in east London. One company which began around 1557 was the Stationers Company, who became involved in training and education, when ‘apprentice’s indentures’ were drawn up by the Company and printing houses were obliged to present their apprentices at Stationers’ Hall, for the fee of sixpence, during their first year.
In 1861 the Stationers Company established the first Stationers’ School, based in Bolt Court, to benefit the sons of the Liverymen and Freemen of the Company. The school later moved to Hornsey but unfortunately closed in 1984.

Today, Bolt Court shows no signs of its past. All the old properties have long been demolished, including the Bolt-in-Tun Inn. In their place are nondescript office buildings. A blue plaque marking the site of where Doctor Johnson’s house once stood is the only reminder left of Bolt Court’s historic past.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Ireland Yard & the Gunpowder Plot

Ireland Yard

In January 1604, four men met in a house known as the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard. It is alleged that two of the men were Nicholas Owen, and Robert Catesby; the other two men have never been identified with any certainty. It is thought that the house was then owned by a man named John Robinson.

Nicholas Owen was an Oxfordshire master builder, who specialized in building priest-holes, which were hiding places for Catholic Priests, as under Elizabeth I, the practice of the Catholic faith was banned. Priests were exiled and forbidden under pain of death from returning or performing the sacraments. Many priests however, risked their lives to come back and minister to their flock, and many Catholics likewise risked their lives and fortunes to hear Mass and have their children baptised. Wealthy families either built, or had built, hiding places, "priest holes", in their homes to hide priests in case their homes were raided by the secret police. Nicholas Owen had worked solidly for twenty years to help his fellow Catholics in re-establishing their religion in houses across the country.

Robert Catesby was a charismatic young country gentleman from Warwickshire. He was a devout Catholic and familiar with the price of his faith. His father had been imprisoned for harbouring a priest, and he himself had had to leave university without a degree to avoid taking the Protestant Oath of Supremacy.

This was a time of conflict and violent religious turmoil. It was a time when firstly Queen Elizabeth I, followed by James I, succeeded in galvanizing the very faith of a nation, against a backlash of insurgency, recusancy and calls for religious freedom. It was thus a time that not only nurtured treason, but also provoked it, and fuelled it.

In 1601 Robert Catesby’s name was brought to the attention of the Government, as having played a role in a plot, to overthrow the Queen, which was led by Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and which became known as the Essex Rebellion. Supporters of Essex arranged for Shakespeare’s play, Richard II to be played at the Globe Theatre, the day before the rebellion was to start. The play tells the story of how Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV and how Richard the King, like Elizabeth the Queen, had abdicated many of her powers in favour of her advisors Cecil and Raleigh. It was hoped that the theme expressed in the play would generate support for the rebellion amongst Londoners, but it failed to generate any support, and when Essex marched into the streets of London with his followers, the ordinary man in the street stayed as far away as possible, fearing trouble.

Needless to say, when the Queen heard about it, she was furious and ordered Essex’s arrest. The rebellion collapsed and Essex was captured. On 25th February 1601 he was executed for treason. No evidence was offered, as to Robert Catesby’s involvement in this plot. Equally, no evidence was offered regarding Shakespeare’s involvement; did Shakespeare realise the significance of playing Richard II? Did any of his company know about the rebellion? Certainly no proof was ever offered up, and no charges were ever made.

James I eventually succeeded Elizabeth to the throne in 1603. The Catholic leaders celebrated what they saw as their newfound religious freedom. James, however, was not to be their saviour. No sooner had the Hampton Court Conference ended, with no compromise being given to either the Puritan faction or the Catholics, than James re-introduced the harsh penalties for recusancy (a dissenter; a nonconformist).

What then, were these two dissenters, Nicholas Owen, and Robert Catesby, along with their two unknown friends, doing at the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard in January 1604? In the three years that followed the failed Essex Rebellion, Catesby had certainly not been letting the grass grown beneath his feet, and had formed a small band of fellow conspirators around him. He had persuaded his young cousin Thomas Wintour, along with friends John Wright and Thomas Percy, and later friend Robert Keyes to join him in his plot to blow up the new king and overthrow the government, thus returning England to Catholic rule. Wintour had met Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshire born soldier, serving in Spanish service, whilst on a trip to Spain. Fawkes was an expert in the use of gunpowder, and had changed his name to Guido Fawkes to reflect his allegiances with the Catholic Spanish.

Catesby and Fawkes pledged to incite an uprising in England, with Spain providing troops to secure power, but this so-called “Spanish treason” was met with a lukewarm reception by the Spanish Government, who was eager to restore friendly relations with the new regime in England. Undeterred the plotters hatched a plan to smuggle a large quantity of gunpowder into the cellars of the Parliament building, with the aid of Thomas Percy, who was a well-connected courtier, and was able to rent cellars there without arousing suspicion. Catesby was to become known as the leader of the Gunpowder Plot.

The Gatehouse in Ireland Yard had been known for some years, amongst dissenters, as a Catholic Mass house. After the Gunpowder Plot, Government priest-hunters raided the house on numerous occasions. But this meeting took place a year prior to the Plot, when the Gatehouse was still considered as a relatively safe house, both for prayer, and perhaps to store anything of a more controversial nature, such as gunpowder perhaps. The amount of gunpowder needed to cause enough damage to Parliament and to kill the King, was considerable indeed, and would necessitate finding a reasonably close storage place, and then transferring it to Westminster in smaller amounts. Ireland Yard is very close to the River Thames, from where a boat could take as little as 20 minutes to travel almost unseen and unhindered, to Westminster where it could unload its cargo at the waterside quay of the Parliament building.

As we now know, the Gunpowder Plot was set to take place on November 5th 1605, which was the official State Opening day of Parliament, when the King, Lords and Commons would all be present in the Lords Chamber. The day before however, an anonymous letter was alleged to have been sent to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, warning him not to attend the State Opening. Monteagle was very perturbed by the letter and enlisted the help of the Lord Chamberlain, who helped him to make an initial search of Parliament. By later that day however, the news of the letter had spread, and armed guards made a thorough search of the whole building. When the guards entered the cellar at midnight, they found Guy Fawkes, surrounded by barrels of gunpowder. He was immediately seized and arrested.

News quickly spread of Fawkes capture and the failure of the plot. The other conspirators immediately saddled their horses and fled as far away from London as possible, in the vain hope of rallying further support from the area around Warwickshire. By this time however, the Sheriffs of both Worcestershire and Warwickshire had been informed and with an army of around 200 men, they surrounded the house the conspirators were staying in, and a great battle took place,
Killing both Catesby and Sir Thomas Percy, along with many of the others. Those who were not killed, were apprehended, imprisoned in Worcester jail, and then transported to London to await trial.

Nicholas Owen was also arrested, but not immediately charged with anything. He was kept in prison and tortured, in the hope of getting more information about all the conspirators from him. Earlier on in his life, he had ruptured himself while single-handedly building priest-holes. An iron plate was therefore fitted around his body so that he could be tortured on the rack without ripping his body open. It did not work. In early March 1606 his bowels burst and he died, taking his secrets with him.

On 27 January 1606, Fawkes and those of his fellow conspirators that were still alive were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. On the 30th January, Sir Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John grant and Thomas bates were dragged through the streets of London before being hung, drawn and quartered in front of the crowds in St Paul’s Courtyard. The next day, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes and finally Guy Fawkes, were also hung, drawn and quartered but this time at Westminster. The heads of the traitors, including those that had died at Holbeach, were placed on spikes as 'prey to the fowls of the air', a grim warning to others who may threaten the King or his Government.

So ended the now infamous Gunpowder Plot, but two mysteries still remain, which are firstly, who sent the so called anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle, and secondly, who were the other two men who visited the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard, with Nicholas Owen, and Robert Catesby that day in January 1604?

The only person to benefit from the so called anonymous letter, would have been someone in the pay of the head of the secret service at this time, the Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who seems to have infiltrated the plot at an early stage and to have manipulated it for the King’s propaganda purposes.

One of Cecil’s informants at this time was a man recorded solely as ‘Davies’. It has been widely speculated since the Plot, that Davis, was none other than Sir John Davis, who had been one of Robert Catesby’s co-conspirators in the Essex Rebellion. Some say that Catesby was too trusting of those around him, and confided too much to Davis, whom he still considered to be a Catholic, and to be on his side. The meeting at the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard that day had obviously been in connection with the forthcoming Gunpowder Plot, and there can be no doubt that neither Owen or Catesby would inform on themselves, so that leaves Davis as the most likely candidate to have informed about the Plot.

But what of the fourth man present that day I hear you say? The fourth man was none other than William Shakespeare, who although never displaying any outward signs of his religious beliefs was brought up in the Catholic faith, and according to an Anglican vicar Richard Davis, after Shakespeare’s death, he claimed that Shakespeare received the last sacrament from a mysterious Benedictine, and later wrote that Shakespeare ‘dyed a Papist’.

The four men then, were all of the Catholic Faith, with some misgivings regarding Sir John Davis, who was obviously present that day in the pay of his master, the Earl of Salisbury. Robert Catesby, as the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, Nicholas Owen, as his fellow conspirator, and priest-hole builder, and William Shakespeare, as a practising Catholic, attending that day for Mass. Some will say that Shakespeare was more involved in the Plot, than just attending the Gatehouse to pray, but there is absolutely no proof whatsoever of that.

Nine years later however, in 1613, Shakespeare did in fact buy the Gatehouse. The exact reason for Shakespeare buying this property, remains something of a mystery, as he never lived there himself, but immediately after buying it, re-let it to its original tenant, John Robinson, at a peppercorn rent. He also moved back to Stratford-upon-Avon in that same year, and made his daughter, Susanna, the recipient of the Gatehouse, in his will, and she in turn passed it to her daughter, Elizabeth, who was Shakespeare's last descendant, who then sold it on around 1667.

Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, on Sunday 26th October 1623, a major tragedy occurred in Blackfriars. A clandestine meeting of some three hundred Catholics, assembled for Mass in a secret garret at the top of the Gatehouse. The combined weight of all these people, proved too much for the wooden beams that supported the garret floor, and it gave way, sending at least ninety worshippers, and two priests, plunging to their deaths.

The Anglican Bishop of London, George Montaigne, gave strict instructions, that none of the dead were to be buried in the City's cemeteries. Two large pits were dug at the site of the accident, and at least sixty-three of the bodies were unceremoniously, disposed of there. When news of the tragedy reached the Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuna, who resided at St. Etheldreda’s, he made special arrangements to bury the Catholic dead beneath the Crypt and cloister garth at St. Etheldreda’s, where they remain to this day under the flagstones at St. Etheldreda’s.

The tragedy became known as the ‘Doleful Evensong’, and was denounced from Protestant pulpits. Some Anglican homily writers wrote off this terrible calamity as the Lord’s vengeance on Catholics for the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Other notable names, who have lived in Ireland Yard, were Shakespeare's friend the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, who had a house there in about 1607 and the painter Van Dyck, who also lived there between 1632-41.

The old Gatehouse, which Shakespeare paid £140 for in 1613, is no longer standing, but the present day Cockpit public house, roughly marks its position. No physical description of the house survives, but a deed of Conveyance for the property states that it was: 'now or late being in the tenure or occupancy of one William Ireland... abutting upon a street leading down to Puddle Wharf on the east part, right against the Kinges Majesties Wardrobe'. The King's Wardrobe was a department of the royal household. The name still survives in nearby Wardrobe Place, and in the name of the church of St. Andrew By the Wardrobe.

The Gatehouse was then the main entrance to the vast monastery of the Black Friars, so called because of the black habits they wore. The monastery, which consisted of several buildings, had been seized and sold off during the dissolution of the Monasteries, but was left, mostly intact. The former Gatehouse remained, and it was this, which Shakespeare bought, and which in all probability featured heavily in the Gunpowder Plot.

Sadly, the only relic of the monastery buildings and the Gatehouse, which once stood here, is a small section of the wall of the Provincial's Hall. This can be seen in the part of St. Ann's churchyard that is still preserved here.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Baker Street

Robert Rowland was an amateur radio ham who lived in Wimpole Street, which is about half a mile away from Baker Street. The time was 11.00 pm on Saturday, 11th September 1971 and Rowland was trying to contact a fellow ham in Australia, but every time he touched the very sensitive dial, between the whistling noises and crackling, he kept hearing other voices coming through much louder and clearer. He didn’t take any notice at first, of what was being said, as his main interest was to bypass them and get a clear contact with his Australian friend.

The voices however, were not quite so easy to bypass as he first thought, as they were coming through on a wavelength only used by walkie-talkies, and were undoubtedly coming from a source within a one to two mile radius of his own location. Rowland had experienced problems like this on other occasions, and while he did find it annoying, there were ways around it, even if somewhat time consuming.

What Rowland suddenly heard however, was one man’s voice talking in hushed tones, telling his accomplice on the other end of the line, to switch off all equipment and stop hammering, as the ‘old Bill’ (criminal slang for police) had just pulled up, and were parked very close by. At first Rowland thought it might be someone having a joke, but as he listened in more, he heard more expletive laced references to digging and the ‘old Bill’, as well as the rooftop where the first man was seemingly located.

After a few minutes, the conversation continued again, the police had apparently left the location, and the next thing he picked up was a man with a strong South London accent declaring that they now had about 400,000, and would let him know when they were coming out. The man then asked if he was being heard OK, to which his accomplice replied that he could hear him loud and clear, and wanted to know how much longer they would be in there.

Rowland was pretty certain by this time that he was listening in to a robbery taking place somewhere within his immediate vicinity, and with the reference to 400,000, he thought the most likely outcome would be a tobacconist shop with 400,000 cigarettes being the most likely theft.

Rowland phoned the police and reported his suspicions to them, but for one reason or another they did not act immediately upon his call, probably assuming that he was just ‘another of those crazy radio hams’. It was at this point that Rowland began to record the radio exchanges, while still trying desperately to get through to someone else within the police, who would take him seriously.

Shortly after midnight, the conversation between the man on the roof and his accomplices was still continuing. The voice of a man who identified himself as Steve came through, telling the rooftop lookout that he wanted him to switch off his walkie-talkie and stay on the roof all night, and then come back on the air with both radios at six o'clock in the morning. The lookout however was very worried about the plan for him to remain in place while the gang left for the night, but Steve argued with him, telling him that the place was filled with fumes and if security came in and smelled them they would have to beat a hasty retreat, which would mean leaving with nothing, whereas this way they would have 300 grand to cut up.

At this point another gang member chipped in, telling the lookout that he wasn’t prepared to go at this point as they were almost there. There was a series of heated exchanges between the lookout and various members of the gang, including one voice, which was definitely that of a woman. At one point the lookout shouted ‘Money may be your god, but it's not mine, and I'm f***ing off.’ After a few more minutes and a further intervention by the female member of the gang, the lookout relented, and agreed to remain on the rooftop overnight before signing off.

Rowland meanwhile had made several more phone calls to the police, and finally one to Scotland Yard, who allegedly stated that the uniform branch didn’t know what they were doing and that they would send two Scotland Yard officers over immediately. The Scotland Yard officers were joined by two other officers from the Met, and between them they listened to the tapes that Rowland had recorded, and then stayed there all night until 9am on Sunday morning when gang member, Steve came back on air again and told the lookout that they were going to finish off in here. It was at this point, that he actually mentioned the word, bank, and said that they would be coming out early that afternoon. He went onto tell the lookout that he would have to bluff his way straight down off the roof.

At long last it seemed that the police had started to take things seriously, admitted that a bank robbery was taking place somewhere in the immediate area. They called in radio detector vans in an attempt to trace the transmissions, but unfortunately, by the time Post Office engineers could be brought in from weekend leave; the walkie-talkie conversations had ceased.

Police officers then checked on 750 banks in the inner London area, paying special attention to the 150 banks within a mile of Wimpole Street. On Sunday afternoon, they visited Lloyd's Bank on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, but found no signs of a forced entry; the 15-inch thick doors of the vault were intact and secured by a time lock. What they did not know at this point, was that the raiders were just over 12 inches away from them, still inside the vault. It was not until Monday morning when the bank opened for business after the weekend, that the robbery was discovered. Scores of empty safety deposit boxes were found broken open and lying all over the floor of the vault, their contents had been looted in what was then Britain’s biggest ever robbery.

News of the raid broke at 9am the next day, Monday, September 13th 1971. The gang had dug a 40-foot tunnel from the basement of Le Sac, a leather goods shop, which they had leased, two doors away from the bank. The robbers tunnelled under a Chicken Inn restaurant and then, using a Thermic Lance, through the 3ft of reinforced concrete which formed the floor of the vault. The floor was not wired to the alarm system, as it was thought to be impenetrable. Eight tons of rubble was excavated and left behind in the shop when the gang escaped with their haul consisting of the contents of 268 deposit boxes. The haul was estimated at the time to be in the region of £500,000. It has since been alleged that the haul was in fact in excess of £3million, which, in 1971, made it the largest ever bank robbery on British soil. For the next four days, the story dominated the news, the national press were full of it, one headline screamed ‘The Moles of Baker Street’, while another exclaimed ‘Sewer Rats’, and then, as suddenly as it started, the story disappeared. The last reports ran on Thursday, September 16. This was followed by complete silence.

One might be forgiven for wondering why such a big story as this was suddenly shelved after just three days. One might also wonder why when a reporter visited Mr Rowland on the morning the story broke, and asked about his involvement, he was immediately warned off by a detective. Mr Rowland’s tape recordings and his phone were also confiscated by the police, and not given back to him for six years, after the police discovered that a reporter was telling his editor about Rowland’s story. Mr Rowland also allegedly claimed that the police told the editor of a D-Notice on the story, banning publication.

Mr Rowland stated that D-Notices are for security situations not bank robberies. He was told not to talk to any more Press. He seemed to think at the time that it was to hide the police incompetence, although the secrecy could also have come from MI5. The police even threatened to prosecute Mr Rowland for listening to an unlicensed radio station, a blow softened by a £2,500 reward from Lloyds Bank.

The Press embargo however, did not seem to stop the fresh allegations that were now starting to rise. A new theory was being bandied about, not just about a gang of bank robbers, or incompetent police officers, but about a member of the Royal Family. It was alleged that the police were very interested in the activities of a certain Michael X, who was a well-known Trinidadian activist and gangster operating here in Britain. Through underworld contacts, they found out that Michael X was holding compromising photos of Princess Margaret, which are said to have been taken on the Caribbean island of Mustique. They wanted to prosecute Michael X for a number of crimes, one of which was murder, but while he had the photos he was untouchable.

It is further alleged that the robbery was then masterminded by MI5, who offered it out to a gang of well known villains, who were told they could keep all the valuables and money as long as they turned the photos over to the contact in MI5, who could then use them to neutralise Michael X's threat. Shortly after the bank raid Michael X was tried in his native Trinidad for the murder of Joseph Skerritt, a member of his Black Liberation Army. Michael X was hanged in 1975.

The photos of course have never been publicly shown, if indeed they ever existed in the first place, but rumours about Princess Margaret's 'colourful' life have long been bandied about. She was rumoured to have had affairs with lovers including Peter Sellers and a string other well known and some not so well known faces about town.

One such character was the late tough-guy actor and gangster John Bindon, boyfriend of baronet's daughter Vicki Hodge, an actress and model. Bindon was definitely a regular visitor to Mustique, and did indeed meet and attend parties where Princess Margaret was present. It is alleged that she thought he was very amusing, and that he was a favourite of the princess, and that he often impressed her with his party trick of balancing five half-pint beer mugs on his manhood. A recent television documentary took this into account, while offering no real proof. A book also suggested that they conducted a six-month affair, which had the authorities so concerned that MI5 was brought in to keep it under wraps.

The real story behind the ‘walkie-talkie robbery’, as it became known, will probably never come to light. It is similar in one aspect to one solved by Baker Street resident Sherlock Holmes in The Red-Headed League.

In this case, however, countless questions remain unanswered. In 1973 four men were convicted over the robbery, though most of the loot was never recovered. When the gang departed the scene of the crime, they left a parting message for police. Spray-painted on the inside of the vault was: ‘Let Sherlock Holmes try to solve this.’

The story has now been made into a film, The Bank Job, with Jason Statham.

The reference the robbers made to Sherlock Holmes, was of course because the bank was located in the same street as the home of the great fictional detective and his assistant Doctor Watson. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, he also created a fictional address to go with him, which was 221B Baker Street.

Baker Street was originally known as York Place and Upper Baker Street. Then in 1930 the entire length of the street was renamed Baker Street and the houses were renumbered. Number 41 Upper Baker Street was redesignated as 221 Baker Street but later on that same year it was demolished to make way for Abbey House, which eventually occupied 215-229 Baker Street, serving as the offices of the Abbey National Building Society.

There is, however, now such an address as 221b Baker Street, recognised even by the Post Office with a designated postcode. 221b Baker Street is now the official address of the Sherlock Holmes Museum. But just to confuse visitors perhaps and give them something of a somewhat Sherlock Holmes quandary to mull over, the site of 221B Baker Street is actually 239 Baker Street!

Another very important, but perhaps not so well known address in Baker Street was number 64. In March 1938 with the threat of war with Germany looming ever closer, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Admiral Sinclair, had Major L.D. Grand seconded from the Army into MI6, and ordered him to form a new section within MI6, with a mission to devise and formulate plans which could adversely affect any possible enemy country’s actions against Great Britain. Thus section D of the Secret Intelligence Service came into being. Number 64 Baker Street was chosen as the ideal location for this operation, as it was not part of any Government building, and blended in perfectly with the normal office building that surrounded it.

By 1939 yet another secret department was in the process of being set up in the same building, by the Foreign Office. This was headed by Sir Collin Campbell-Stuart, an acknowledged media expert and former Managing Director of The London Times. Its brief was to devise and plan all forms of propaganda. A small research department based in the War Office specialising in all forms of irregular warfare, had already formulated its own plans for clandestine and covert warfare, later to be known as M.I.R. These three departments were eventually integrated into the one building in Baker Street and presided over by the Foreign Office.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1939, the Foreign Office decided the need for secrecy of location was not so great, and by the July of the following year, the S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) was formed and occupied most of the building. The S.O.E was soon after the fall of France, to foster resistance among the civil population in Nazi-occupied Europe and to promote sabotage and subversion. Winston Churchill inspired the formation of S.O.E. and continued to support it until it was dissolved in 1946, its wartime task completed.

Before it was dissolved in 1946, the S.O.E occupied virtually all of Baker Street and the surrounding streets. It employed over 14,000 people, of which 3,100 were active agents. The houses and offices in the surrounding streets were used mainly for interviews and for briefing agents. Number 64 however still had overall control of nationwide operations such as houses set in the countryside and suburbs, known as ‘stations’.

Stations were used for training agents and for carrying out research, and manufacturing equipment and material for sabotage, such as derailing trains, while others manufactured false documents, identity cards, military passes and ration cards etc., while others packed and stored containers, packages and parachutes. Last but certainly not least in importance were the stations that exchanged wireless messages with our agents in Europe.

Somewhere between number 64 and number 83 Baker Street, the exact location is unsure, is where Winston Churchill once held some of his most critical wartime meetings. When visitors stand back and look at Baker Street today, it is difficult to imagine that so much went on here that played such a crucial roll in helping Britain win WWII.

One of London’s most famous institutions is the famous waxworks exhibition, Madam Tussauds’, which is just around the corner to Baker Street, in Marylebone Road.

Madam Tussauds however, did not start out in Marylebone Road. Madam Tussauds was born in Paris in the 1770s. She learned the art of wax modelling from her art teacher, Dr Philippe Curtius. So good was she at her art, that by the time she was just 17, she became art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister at the Palace Of Versailles.

During the French Revolution, she was forced to prove her allegiance to the then ruling party by making death masks of the executed aristocrats. Madame Tussauds wasn’t happy with being forced to do such work, and so decided to come to Britain in the early 19th century alongside a travelling exhibition, consisting of revolutionary relics and effigies of public heroes and villains.

Madame Tussauds’ exhibition was an instant success with the British public, touring the country and providing an insight into global events and bringing the ordinary public face-to-face with the people in the headlines. Priceless artefacts from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were brought vividly to life. Bearing in mind that at this time, newspapers were still in the infancy, so by the time the public got to hear of what was happening in Europe for instance, the story could be months old, and figures such as kings and queens were only names in most people’s eyes.

Madame Tussauds didn’t just tell the stories that were in the news; she showed the stories to the people. She showed figures of leading statesmen set in replicas of their original surroundings; she also added another attraction called the Chamber of Horrors, where notorious villains who had previously been known only by their names, now had faces added to their names.

So successful was Madame Tussauds’ touring exhibition, that in 1835, she established a permanent base in London in Baker Street, which became known as the Baker Street Bazaar. Visitors paid ‘sixpence’ for the chance to come face to face with some of the biggest and sometimes infamous names of the day.

Madame Tussauds died in 1850, and her grandsons took over the business. In 1884, after a very successful 49 years in Baker Street, the exhibition eventually moved to its present, and much larger site in Marylebone Road.