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.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Old Barge House Alley

Dick Payne was 27 years old, married with two young sons. He had moved to London from his village in Hertfordshire in March 1665 with the intention of making his fortune there. He had set up home in rented accommodation close to Barge House Stairs, which was approximately where Old Barge House Alley is today. The stairs led down to the Royal barge house, which was overseen by the Royal Barge Master, who maintained and prepared the barges for every state occasion.

Payne had spent what little savings he had on a small boat called a wherry or a skiff, with the sole intention of using it as his new business, in ferrying paying customers back and forth across the river.

A good friend of Payne, who had lived in his village, had reliably informed him that travelling even a short distance through the streets of London during this time could be a formidable task. There were no streets or roads as we know them today, most were just dirt tracks, full of pot holes, and great cart track ridges, that were formed during the rainy weather, and hardened in the winter to form even more hazardous tracks that often brought what little traffic there was to a complete standstill.

To add to the general mayhem, farmers would also drive their herds of cattle to market through the narrow streets, and were a constant obstacle to carriages and pedestrians alike, making accidents a frequent occurrence. Not even the Royal Coaches could escape the confines and disruptions of the city streets. The River Thames offered the only, clean and uncluttered alternative. You could hire a boat and oarsman, just like you would hire a taxi today, and travel in relative comfort, at reasonable cost, and arrive at your destination a lot quicker than you would overland, through the miserable and filthy streets.

One thing that Payne’s friend had neglected to tell him, was that the River Thames was absolutely teaming with watermen plying their trade, as well as various other craft of all types, sometimes making the river almost as crowded, dangerous, and difficult to navigate at the London streets. Payne was nevertheless determined to make his living on the river, and went to such extremes (in those days) as displaying an advertising hoarding outside his house, complete with destinations and prices. He also painted his skiff bright red, with a colour resembling gold around the top edge, with the idea of making it look as much as possible like King Charles II Royal Barge, which he had studied meticulously from the window of his house.

Whether it was the distinctive paintwork, his reasonable prices, his affable manner, or maybe an amalgamation of all three, but Payne’s efforts started to pay off, and before he knew it, he was earning a fairly comfortable living, and had built up a considerable list of regular customers, one of whom was the diarist Samuel Pepys, whom Payne would pick up every morning from his home in Woolwich and take him to his place of work at the Admiralty in London, and sometimes back home again later.

Payne had been relatively healthy all his life, so the stories he was starting to hear about the Black Death, didn’t particularly worry him too much. Living by the water’s edge and being surrounded by water all day would surely protect him he told himself. When his youngest son suddenly fell ill and large black lumps started to appear on his little body, he knew in his heart that it was undeniably the Black Death. A neighbour had told him some weeks earlier that it was cats and dogs that were spreading the disease, and the only way to combat it, was for everyone to get rid of their pets. Payne immediately got rid of his pet cat, as did many other people throughout London. It was estimated that 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were destroyed that year, which of course did nothing to halt the ever-growing menace of the plague. It was found out much later that the plague was caused through a certain type of flea, which was carried by rats, meaning that without the cats and dogs, that were the rats natural enemies, the plague spread even faster than it would have.

Getting rid of his cat did nothing to help of course; his poor son, along with so many others, was getting worse every day, and the population were becoming frantic with worry. When it became known that anyone in a house had become a victim of the plague the house was sealed, a red cross painted on the door, and no one in the house was allowed out until 40 days after the victim either recovered or died. Fearing for his wife and second son, Payne quickly sent them away, back to the countryside, and said nothing to anyone. Three days later Payne’s son died, and a distraught Payne quietly buried his little body in the garden of his house without telling anyone. It was only when Samuel Pepys saw the tears in his eyes as he ferried him across the Thames that Payne admitted to him what had happened.

Pepys was as worried about catching the plague as the next man, which was the main reason he had moved out of central London, to Woolwich, which at that time was still very countrified. But being the educated man he was, Pepys knew that a casual encounter such as he had with Payne would in all probability cause him no harm. Pepys also afforded himself the added protection of the tobacco plant, which when either smoked or taken as snuff, was said to protect the user from the plague. It most definitely worked for him as he lived through the epidemic and much beyond, recording life and death around him as he did so.

Payne wasn’t so fortunate however, and within days of burying his son, found the telltale black lesions upon his skin, that he had been dreading. He had heard of victims being attacked in the streets and beaten to death, and others being thrown into the Thames and drowned. On the 27th August 1665, just after nightfall, Payne dressed from head to foot in black, so as not to be recognised, and took his skiff out onto the Thames, ignoring the calls from people on the bankside who required his service.

At daybreak the following morning, Payne’s body was found washed up on the shore of the Thames, close to Barge House Stairs, the wreckage of his skiff was also found close by. The cause of his death was recorded as being a victim of the plague, as anyone could see at first glance the ugly black wheals upon his face and body. No mention was ever made of how his boat came to be smashed up and his body washed overboard.

There was much talk and rumination amongst the watermen as to the real cause of Payne’s death. Some said he must have collapsed because of the plague, and have fallen into the water and drowned. Others said that he had killed himself after the tragedy of losing his son and then finding out that he had the plague himself. One man however had a completely different theory as to how Payne had died. The man was a carpenter, who said he had been called out just after Payne’s body had been found, to carry out some urgent repairs to the Royal Barge. The man swore that the red paint on the damaged boards of the barge, matched the red of Payne’s skiff exactly.

Was Payne’s death due to him collapsing and falling into the water, or did he kill himself, or was he in a collision with the Royal Barge, which was then quickly hushed up? The truth will never come to light now; it is buried along with all the thousands of victims of the Great London Plague of 1665.

The history of watermen, plying their trade on the River Thames, goes back for hundreds of years. All trade carried out on the river, used to come under the jurisdiction of the Crown, until 1197 when King Richard I sold the Crown's rights to the Corporation of the City of London, but it still remained under Royal prerogative until 1350 when King Edward III passed an Act of Parliament prohibiting any obstruction of the River. So many structures had been built jutting out into the river for fishing and milling purposes that it was fast becoming almost impossible to navigate around, especially with large vehicles, such as the Royal Barges.

Henry VIII was particularly perceptive to the watermen and their needs, and in 1510, granted them a licence, giving them exclusive rights to carry passengers on the river. An Act of Parliament was also passed, which set up a trade body to govern tariffs and help reduce accidents. The trade body was overseen by the London mayor and aldermen, who chose eight watermen each year, to make and enforce regulations. The body had jurisdiction over all watermen plying between Windsor in Berkshire, and Gravesend in Kent. They also produced other rules and regulations, many of which were not very popular with the watermen, such as trying to implement a seven-year apprenticeship for all watermen, and ordering them to pay quarterly contributions. These rules and regulations caused a great deal of grievance amongst the watermen, who accused the trade body of taking bribes to supply licenses to so called apprentice watermen, and also lining their own pockets by imposing the quarterly charges.

The watermen finally managed to oust the ruling body and introduced a more representative form of management. The 55 leading towns and stairs between Windsor and Gravesend would then choose each year, representatives, who would in turn propose candidates to govern their body.

Thames watermen played an important part in the very early movements that ultimately led to the creation of the modern trade union movement in the United Kingdom. In the 1600s they successfully petitioned the curtailment of the growth of hackney coaches, and by 1644 they were deemed so important to the economy that the House of Commons exempted watermen from military service. This might have saved them from death on the battlefield, but it didn’t save them from premature death due to circumstances surrounding their jobs. There was no effective police force in London during the 1600s, and watermen were often attacked and killed as they plied their lone trade, by mobs and vagabonds in a city prone to riots and mob violence. They also faced further risks, such as accidental death by drowning, but perhaps the biggest threat to their lives was their susceptibility to Bronchial Diseases caught from working and living close to the murky waters of the Thames.

Two hundred years later, when the health of the greater population of the country was improving rapidly, one would have thought that the watermen would also have benefited, but unfortunately, the invention of the flush toilet in the 1840s quickly turned the Thames into a giant sewer causing Typhoid and Cholera outbreaks and the Great Stink of 1858. The whole of the city’s sewerage system had to be redesigned, starting with the Embankment area, which was a popular area for watermen to ply their trade. The sewage had to be re-routed away from the river, but in doing so, it also meant removing the stairs and sloping incline to the river, and replacing the access points with piers.

In 1865 Charles Dickens set out the grim lives that watermen led in his novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Dickens was always interested in social reform, and would use his popular novels to get such messages across to the public. He also wrote a short essay entitled Silent Highwaymen in 1879, again highlighting the plight of the watermen; both works proved very controversial at the time, and sparked a new social conscience.

In 1893 the Amalgamated Society of Watermen, Lightermen and Bargemen was formed, eventually merging with the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1922. During World War I many watermen turned their barges over to government use for the transport of coal and goods that were of particular importance during wartime. In 1934 the British Tug Owners Association was founded, allowing watermen to use their skills, particularly in close quarter manoeuvres, in ports overseas, skills that in recent years with the use of newer technology have seen a decline in use. In 1938 speed trials took place on the Thames for Armed high speed launches, some of which would latter form the fleet of boats used in Air Sea Rescue piloted by watermen during the 1940s 400 barges or Thames lighters were turned over to military use as bumboats (small boat used for ferrying supplies or goods to a ship at anchor or at a mooring) or simply beached during the Normandy landings of 1944.

During the Blitz of World War II the London docks were severely damaged, putting thousands of men out of work, but by the 1960s, newer container technology and relocation to Tilbury had brought back some of the work, but had made the work of watermen and lightermen obsolete. One consolation came a little earlier during the Festival of Britain in 1951 when lightermen were encouraged to set up river cruise companies. The cruise companies offered a good service and provided many ex watermen with fresh employment. They also utilised the river further by buying up surplus barges from smaller lighterage companies that had gone into decline, and capitalised on this opportunity by using the empty coal barges, on return trips, to transport rubbish from London's streets.

Regular and fairly well paid work for Thames watermen in times of economic downturn was on the so-called Bovril Boats, (Bovril Boat was a slang term used to describe the specially designed sewerage dumping vessels, also known as "Sludge vessels" that operated on the River Thames from 1887 to 1998). EU legislation prevented the dumping of sewage at sea and forced this process to stop in 1998, thus cutting off yet another valuable source of revenue for the ever-declining watermen.

You will not find watermen waiting to take you across the river today, in their small boats, but you can still take a trip on a river-cruiser along the Thames, probably the modern day equivalent of the watermen’s skiffs of yesteryear. You can still also visit Old Barge House Alley, which once led down to Barge House Stairs, and the Royal barge house, where the King’s barges were moored. The Alley is conveniently located, approximately halfway between the Tower of London, and Westminster.

It is difficult to imagine today, that this street, which looks more like a trendy Chelsea mews, or a West End yard, with craft shops, restaurants, and art galleries, was once a narrow alley leading to the Royal barge house.

The adjacent, Gabriel's Wharf, also houses more shops and restaurants, and caters almost entirely, for the passing tourist trade, most of whom could never envisage this area as it was just fifty or sixty years ago. It was then filled with tall, smoke blackened warehouses, sitting edge to edge, blocking out all traces of sunlight, along the banks of the Thames, but how many visitors, or even locals, come to that, really know that the ground they are walking on, in the beautifully laid out park, and the nearby shops and cafes, was once the very ground which King Henry VIII, walked upon, on his way to his Royal Barge.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Downing Street


Downing Street

The name, Downing Street, is synonymous with one house in that street, which sits at number 10. No other country in the world can boast of such a world-renowned name, and certainly no other country can boast of such a world-renowned leader, as Sir Winston Churchill, who took office there on May 10th, 1940 and remained there, all through WW II as British Prime Minister, until 1945, when he surprisingly lost the General Election. He did however return as Prime Minister again in 1951 until 1955, and remained a Member of Parliament until 1964. But it was as Britain’s wartime leader, that most people remember Winston Churchill.

To get to this point in time we need to go back some months, to September 3rd 1939, when the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, announced in a radio speech, that the British deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Poland had expired. He said the British ambassador to Berlin had handed a final note to the German government that morning saying unless it announced plans to withdraw from Poland by 11.00, a state of war would exist between the two countries. Mr Chamberlain continued: "I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany."

That very same day, Chamberlain appointed Winston Churchill into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty. In May 1940 Neville Chamberlain resigned after pressure from Labour members for a more active prosecution of the war, and Winston Churchill became the new head of the wartime coalition government.

Churchill loved the historical significance of Downing Street, but like the pragmatist he was, he also realised that number 10, and indeed, all the buildings in the street, were not of first class construction, and would certainly not stand up to German aerial bombardment. Downing Street, was built by Sir George Downing, who has been described as an enterprising rogue - a spy, traitor and shady property developer, who saw building houses on prime London land as a means to getting rich quick.
Downing didn’t have any intention of building quality properties, he was in this purely for the money, and so his houses were cheaply built, and lacked proper foundations, which they should have had, considering the boggy ground they were built upon. Downing even cheated on the brickwork, and instead of neat brick façades; they had lines drawn into the mortar to give the appearance of bricks.

There was nothing much that Churchill could be taught about building, as he had most famously built a very large wall at his house, Chartwell in Kent some years earlier, and at one time had held a card in Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers.

“One solitary German bomb” declared Churchill, “could demolish this building, and wipe out the entire British Government within minutes”. He demanded a bombproof bunker, large enough to hold the entire Cabinet, to be built immediately. He was informed that work had already begun the previous year, in adapting some humble storage areas, ten feet below ground, in King Charles Street, which runs adjacent to Downing Street. The site was originally planned to house the central core of government and a unique military information centre. The events of the Munich crisis in the early autumn had speeded up the process.

Churchill’s demand, of immediately, wasn’t possible, as he had made demands, which were not part of the original plans for the site. He was assured however, that the remaining work could be finished within weeks. In the meantime, somewhere else was needed, which could be used until the Cabinet War rooms were finished to his specifications.

Underground railway stations (the Tube) were at this time being considered as temporary air-raid shelters for the populace. When Churchill heard about this, he commented, “If they are good enough to protect the people of London, then surely one can be found to protect me and my cabinet?” A list of disused Underground stations was drawn up and it was found that ‘Down Street’, which was situated between Dover Street (now renamed Green Park) and Hyde Park Corner, had been redundant as a station for some years, and was currently being used as the headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee. Churchill immediately took control of the station, under the Railway Control Order of 1939, and within days it was being used by Churchill's War Cabinet, who nicknamed it, the Burrow.

The Burrow was put to good use during the limited time it was used, and several cabinet meetings, chaired by Churchill, took place there, but as soon as the new Cabinet War Rooms were ready, the entire operation moved to there, which of course was much closer to Downing Street, and the Houses of Parliament.

Churchill’s calling for the new Cabinet War Rooms, had nothing to do with personal fear, it was based entirely upon his need for an operational headquarters, as close as possible to Downing Street and Parliament, where his entire Government would be relatively safe from German bombing raids. In fact, later on, during the Battle of Britain, Churchill would often go up onto the roof of 10 Downing Street, to watch the RAF do battle with their German counterparts, in the skies above him.

When the new Cabinet War Rooms were at last ready, Churchill rushed around the corner from Downing Street, to view them, and to make sure his orders had been carried out to the letter. He was more than pleased at what he saw, with the entire site stretching over an area of three acres, and including, the Cabinet Room, the Map Room, Churchill’s own private room, complete with a bed for overnight stays, should it be necessary, a canteen, a hospital, even a shooting range.

Another room, which could be almost overlooked, if visited today, was the Transatlantic Telephone Room, which was used by Churchill to keep in touch with Washington. This room was, and still is, probably the smallest room in the whole complex, used originally as a broom cupboard, but converted on specific orders from Churchill himself, in order that nobody else could be present there when he was using the Transatlantic line to Washington. As a further precaution, to make sure his telephone conversations were kept absolutely top secret, Churchill had a complicated telephone system, installed, which had a scrambler device, codenamed Sigsaly, which was so large, that it had to be housed in the basement of the Selfridges store in Oxford Street. Sigsaly was developed by the American Bell Telephone Laboratories, to partially encipher telephone conversations from Churchill’s Telephone Room, and transmit them by cable from the 'hot-line' to the Selfridges site where it was then enciphered and sent by radio waves to the President in Washington, thus ensuring Churchill to talk to Roosevelt in complete privacy.

In 1984 the Cabinet War Rooms was designated as a historic site and opened to the general public. It has been kept, as near as possible, to how it was left at the end of WWII, even including such touches as one of Churchill’s cigar butts, left in an ashtray on his desk, and the Map Room, which ceased to be operational on 16th August 1945, the day after VJ Day, and was left almost exactly as we see it today, every book, map, chart, pin and notice occupying the same position now that they occupied then.

Not every part of the Cabinet War Rooms however, is open to the general public. It is alleged that there are underground tunnels leading from 10 Downing Street to the Thames, and from Buckingham Palace to the Thames, as well as a tunnel leading from the BBC Radio centre to Admiralty Arch. All these tunnels are supposedly inter-linked, and all link directly to the Cabinet War rooms. These tunnels were allegedly built in Victorian times and extended during WWI and further extended again in WWII.

For security reasons we will probably never know the truth about these alleged tunnels; do they really exist, or are they just wildly exaggerated stories, made up by the press and other writers over the years? The Buckingham Palace Tunnel for instance, could be the tunnel, which supposedly runs along the Mall to the underground citadel called Q-Whitehall, which is rumoured to stretch as far north as Holborn. Supporters of this theory, point to the huge extractor fan which can be seen outside the gent’s toilets in the ICA, which the ICA deny as being anything to do with them. There is also the “top-secret fortress” on the corner of the Mall and Horse Guards Road, which is said to be an entrance to Q-Whitehall, although there are supposed to be others scattered around London. The Q-Whitehall complex is also alleged to connect to 10 Downing Street via the nuclear bombproof bunker, which was built under the Ministry of Defence building at a cost over £110 million in the early 1990s.

Much of the affairs of Government, are kept for security reasons, as closely guarded secrets, and as such, we will probably never know the true facts regarding the alleged tunnels connecting Downing Street, with all these other locations. We do know however, the historical facts regarding the building of Downing Street, which has already been briefly dealt with here. That it was built by Sir George Downing, a shady property developer, who built it as a means to getting rich quick.

But how many know that Downing once worked for Oliver Cromwell, as his Chief of Intelligence, and part of his inner circle? But when Cromwell died in 1658, Downing immediately changed sides, and offered his services to King Charles II. When the diarist, Samuel Pepys heard of his U-Turn, he described Downing as “a perfidious rogue”.

After the Restoration, King Charles II rewarded Downing with honours and money, but it seems this wasn’t enough for him, and so he set about making his fortune elsewhere. With the type of contacts he had, he was soon tipped off about a piece of land around Hampden House, which was originally called Knyvett House, after Lord Thomas Knyvett, the Keeper of Whitehall Palace, who was famous for capturing Guy Fawkes in 1605 and foiling his plot to assassinate James I. The previous year, Knyvett had moved into a house next door, approximately where Number 10 Downing Street is today.

From this time, members of the royal family and the government usually lived in Hampden House. Princess Elizabeth lived there from 1604 until 1613 when she married Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and moved to Hanover. She was the grandmother of George the Elector of Hanover, who became King of England in 1714, and the great-grandmother of King George II.

Downing registered an interest in the land in 1654, but had to wait until 1682 before he finally secured the leases to the property, which allowed to him to start building there. He immediately set about pulling down what was left of existing properties, and building a cul-de-sac consisting of approximately 15 to 20 terraced houses along the northern side of Downing Street.

Houses at that time were not numbered in sequence, as they are today. They tended to be known by the name or title of their occupants, and those that were numbered, were done so quite haphazardly. The current Number 10 started out life as Number 5, and was not renumbered until 1779. The present Number 10 is actually made up of two houses joined together, with Downing’s cheap terrace house stuck on the front, on the Downing Street side, as we know it today, and a much grander building, adjoining it on the back, and overlooking Horse Guards Parade.

The grand house on Horse Guards Parade was built around 1677, as the home of the Countess of Litchfield, daughter of Charles II. The Countess was very proud of her house, and not at all happy when the cheap row of terrace houses were built so close to her property. Her father, King Charles, advised her to have a high wall built around her property in order to preserve her privacy. Her surveyor, who just happened to be Sir Christopher Wren, set about the task immediately, and that terrible row of cheap houses (Downing Street) were obliterated from her site.

When the Countess of Lichfield eventually left the house, it passed to Lord Overkirk, who was William III’s Master of the Horse, and when he died it passed yet again to Count Bothmor, and renamed Bothmor House. The last private resident of Downing Street, was Mr. Chicken. Nothing much is known about him except that he moved out in the early 1730’s. In the 1730s Number 10 began to be linked to the office of prime minister. It was a period of great change. Rule by a powerful monarch had given way only a few decades earlier to a different style of government led by Parliament and party politics. It became important to house the chief ministers in buildings grand enough for their status.

King George II took possession of both the house on Downing Street, and the house overlooking Horse Guards, and in 1732 offered them as a gift to Sir Robert Walpole, who held the title First Lord of the Treasury and effectively served as the first prime minister. Walpole however, accepted them on the condition that they were a gift to the office of First Lord of the Treasury rather than to him personally.

In 1766 it was found that parts of the house were in desperate need of repair. It was decided to take down the front adjoining the street as well as the eastern wall, which flanked the wall of the hall. In 1781 further extensive works were carried out and in June 1781, the Board of Works called attention to the dangerous state of the old part of the house inhabited by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was during these extensive works that the fronts of number 10 and its adjoining buildings were rebuilt with bricks, as we see them today.

Downing Street today is a cul-de-sac, which runs from Whitehall to St James's Park and consists of a row of buildings numbered as 10, 11 and 12. Number 10 Downing Street is arguably the most well known address in the world, and is the official residence of the prime minister of the United Kingdom. Number 11 is the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and number 12, the office of the government whips. Number 10 however, is not just the family home of the Prime Minister, it is also a workplace for the many civil servants who support the Prime Minister. There is also a large staff, which includes the secretaries of the basement Garden Room, a busy press office, switchboard clerks, a unit to handle correspondence, as well as security, cleaners, and kitchen staff. The Prime Minister has his own office where he works, meets colleagues, receives important guests, and gives interviews. Regular Cabinet meetings are held in the Cabinet Room at number 10 every Thursday while Parliament is in session, and this has been going on since 1856. As number 10 was built as a private house, with another house adjoining it, the offices are spread across many rooms on different floors.

Official functions, meetings, receptions, lunches and dinners are held at number 10 almost every week. The State Dining Room holds up to 65 guests seated around a huge D-Ended mahogany dining table. For small events, such as lunch, the small dining room seats a maximum of 12 guests.

It isn't just important heads of state and official dignitaries who visit number 10; functions are also held on a regular basis for people from all walks of life and all areas of the UK, including notable achievers, public service employees and charity workers. Receptions tend to be informal gatherings, where drinks and canapés are served, as guests are encouraged to meet and talk to the Prime Minister and other hosts, and wander through the historic staterooms enjoying the art and historic objects on display.

Prior to 1989, the general public used to be able to walk into Downing Street, and pose, as many tourists did, outside the famous black door of number 10 to have their photograph taken. But in 1989, following a bombing campaign by the IRA, cast iron security gates were installed at the entrance to Downing Street on the orders of Margaret Thatcher. It is unlikely the gates will be removed in the foreseeable future, as Britain's security services still perceive there to be a threat from overseas militant/terrorist organisations, as well as other less hostile pressure groups.

There are many strange things about Downing Street, some of great significance, and others to a much lesser degree, but one curious little piece of trivia that is not widely known, is that the front door of number 10 has no keyhole and can only be opened from the inside. For the sake of the country, let us hope that there will always be someone at home to answer that famous door.