Tuesday, 28 June 2011


During the early 1800s, the famous clown Grimaldi lived in a house in Stangate Street. He was at the height of his fame at this time, and certainly the most well known clown in England, if not the world. Grimaldi was one of that special breed of people, who could make people smile and laugh, just by looking at him.

Joseph Grimaldi was born in Clare Market, London, the son of an Italian, Signor Giuseppe 'Iron Legs' Grimaldi, ballet-master at the Drury Lane Theatre. Giuseppe was something of a reprobate, with children by several different partners, one of whom (Rebecca Brooker) was the mother of Joseph. By the time Joseph was born in 1778, Giuseppe had set up home in Little Russell Street with Rebecca. They were doing quite well for themselves, and had four maids and an African footman named Sam.

Giuseppe, who was also known as the Signor, was a talented dancer and man of the theatre, but he was a ferocious teacher and father, who drilled his children mercilessly. His idea of training children for the theatre was to put them in the stocks or suspend them in a cage 40ft above the stage. He routinely beat his wife and terrified the household with his obsession with his own death. He had once dreamt that the devil had spoken to him and told him that he would die on the first Friday of the month. After the dream he kept vigil on that day, every month. He filled the room with clocks and calendars, to be sure he would not miss the exact date and time, and would pace up and down for hour after hour, until the dreaded time had passed, and he was free to live his life once again.

He became obsessed with death, after reading a book entitled, ‘The Uncertainty of Signs of Death’ and had a great fear that he would be buried alive. When he died in 1788, he stipulated in his will that his children should sever his head from his body before he was buried. His daughter duly obliged by keeping her hand on the saw worked by the surgeon, who had been hired for the purpose.

No sooner had Giuseppe died, when his youngest son, John, who was so eager to escape his late father’s influence, and the bad memories of what he had endured, that he immediately signed on to join a ship’s crew. When he learnt that the ship was not departing for another ten days, he abandoned his possessions, dived into the murky waters and swam to a neighbouring vessel, due to sail the next day. He signed on as cabin boy – he was just eight years old.

Joseph Grimaldi was not so fortunate, for he had by then been under the influence of his father for some nine years, since he was born. Under this influence he had made his stage debut at the age of three at the Sadler's Wells Theatre. He was later to become the mainstay of the Drury Lane Theatre before settling in at Covent Garden in 1806 in 'Harlequin and Mother Goose; or the Golden Egg'. His three year contract paid him one pound a week, rising to two pounds the following year, and finally three pounds a week. Grimaldi wasn’t very happy with the production, which he claimed had been hastily put together on a sparsely decorated stage. Sparse it may have been, but it eventually ran for 92 nights, and took over £20,000.

The lack of great theatrical production allowed Grimaldi to project himself to the fore, 'he shone with unimpeded brilliance' one critic wrote. Another marvelled at his performance 'whether he robbed a pieman, opened an oyster, rode a giant carthorse, imitated a sweep, grasped a red hot poker - in all this, he was extravagantly natural'

Grimaldi’s rise to fame wasn’t an easy one. A very turbulent time in his early career came in 1809, when Thomas Harris and Charles Kemble opened the rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre. In order to raise funds to pay off the builders, prices were raised across the board, and the “Old Price War” was instigated. Regular theatre goers turned up night every night and stopped the performances, by chanting “OP” and staging fights. These nightly skirmishes lasted an incredible sixty-seven days.

It wasn’t just the audiences that were aggrieved, for the workers, who were still waiting to be paid, also took their revenge on the production, but in doing so, they also took revenge on the artistes, who included Grimaldi himself. They would deliberately leave trapdoors unlocked, which led to Grimaldi falling through on several occasions. Fires broke out, management teams went bust, and arguments of all sorts led to unrest and stars walking out on the productions. All the while, Grimaldi’s celebrity grew, but at the same time, his injuries, due to the open trapdoors, as well as the gymnastics and stunts, which became necessary to entertain the disgruntled audiences, resulted in many broken bones and severe muscle injuries.

Grimaldi nevertheless kept going, like the true trooper he was, he felt that not only must the show go on, but it must also improve with every performance. In one particular show, which was on the verge of collapsing at any day, he pulled all the stops out and reinvented not just his act, but the whole production.

Within days the word started to spread and people flocked for miles to see the wonderful surreal brilliance of his new creation. He had tables and chairs hovering above the stage as if by magic, with no visible strings attached. Live birds flew out of enormous apple pies. Actors jumped off balconies and disappeared before they hit the floor. Men in soft hats took them off and rang them like bells. Six large bottles were opened to release a swarm of bees, which then mysteriously vanished as quickly as they had appeared. In between all this madness and mayhem, Grimaldi strutted the stage, serenading a pretty girl by singing and banging out the tune on an old tin bath.
Grimaldi ended the show by running back and forth across the stage, leading a group of dancers, and juggling and smashing crockery as he went.

Still in his early forties, Grimaldi was starting to feel more exhausted with every performance. It was at this time that he moved to the house in Stangate Street, in order to be closer to the theatres.

It was whilst living in Stangate Street that he started what some saw as paranoia. He started talking more and more about his early life, and how his father had disciplined him, and forced him into a life on the stage, which was now killing him. He became very superstitious, and engrossed in ghosts and the supernatural, and swore that his dead father paid him nocturnal visits.

He befriended a bookseller who sold books on the occult, and who also lived in Stangate Street, and together they would go for midnight walks to the nearby gloomy area of St George's Fields, where they would discuss various superstitions and legends until the early hours of the morning.

Grimaldi had started to develop the same fears that his father had, that he would collapse one day and be wrongly diagnosed as dead, and therefore be buried whilst still alive. His friend the bookseller lent him a book called "The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death," which worried him even more, so much that some said it unbalanced his mind, and led eventually to his early retirement.

Close friends tried to break him of his morbid fears of being buried alive, telling him that he would outlive them all. In 1823 they even arranged a party for him at a local inn in Stangate Street, but when the now crippled Grimaldi staggered in, he looked round at all the smiling faces around him and declared “I used to say that I was Grim-all-day and made people laugh all night, now I am afraid I will be permanently grim forever”. He walked out of the party and retired the following day. He was forty-five years old. The years of acrobatic jumping and tumbling had taken their toll on his body, making it almost impossible for him to even walk, and the morbid thoughts of being buried alive most certainly took a grim toll on his mind.

Two years later he found himself running desperately short of money and had to sell the house in Stangate Street, moving then to lodgings in Pentonville. By 1828 he had become penniless, and a benefit performance for him was held at both Sadlers Wells, and Covent Garden. In his farewell speech he told his audience 'Like a vaulting audition, I have overleaped myself and pay the penalty in advanced old age. It is five years since I jumped my last jump, filched my last oyster, boiled my last sausage and set in for retirement'.

He received a pension of £100 a year from the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund, which enabled him to spend his last years beside the fireplace of 'The Marquis of Cornwallis' tavern, in Pentonville The landlord of the tavern would carry Grimaldi, piggy-back style, home each evening. On the morning of May 31st 1837 after being deposited back home on the previous evening by the tavern’s landlord, in the usual manner, he was found dead in his bed. A post-mortem was held, which found Grimaldi died of natural causes, brought on by what was described as premature old age, and most definitely not premature burial, as he had long feared.

Today, Stangate is just a short stretch of roadway extending from Westminster Bridge Road to Lambeth Palace Road, with Westminster Bridge to its south, and the Houses of Parliament standing directly opposite. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Royal Barge was kept there after the King's Barge House in Upper Ground fell into disuse. State barges of several of the City Companies including the Armourers, the Goldsmiths and the Barber Surgeons, who were succeeded by the Drapers, were also moored there. The Dukes of Richmond and Montague, who had houses across the Thames at Whitehall, also kept their barges there.

Stangate dates from at least the mediaeval period, and it is possibly of Roman origin. The name probably derives from ‘Stone-Gate’, as all Royal Moorings would have had gates attached to stop site-seers and possible looters. The path leading through the open fields of Lambeth Marsh towards the Thames at this point, became known as Stangate Street, which then led to Stangate Stairs, and to the mooring itself.
During the eighteenth century, Thames Watermen provided a ferry service from Stangate Stairs for ordinary passengers who wanted to cross the river.

The Stangate Street path, which led through Lambeth Marsh and eventually became Stangate as we know it today, was a carefully laid out path that had to manoeuvre its way around its high and low points, as the Marsh was a flood plain caused by the Neckinger River. Although the Neckinger was more a stream than a river, it could still prove dangerous at high tide, before it eventually flowed out into the Thames at the point where Waterloo Bridge now stands.

South of where the National Theatre is situated, lies Upper Ground, which was previously called Narrow Wall, after an old river wall made from earth, which originally extended south as far as the gateway to Lambeth Palace, which allegedly constituted the boundary between the grounds of the Archbishop's house and the river. The wall remained a footway for many years, known in the 19th century as Bishop's Walk, but it never developed into a road until the formation of the Albert Embankment and Lambeth Palace Road.

The ground that now lies in front of the National Theatre was originally reclaimed from the Thames, and was used mainly as timber yards during the late seventeenth century. Where the Royal Festival Hall now stands, was the site of the only wind-powered sawmill in London.

St. Thomas's Hospital lies at the foot of Westminster Bridge, and extends along the bank of the river towards Lambeth Palace. The hospital stands on between eight and nine acres of ground, and was purchased from the Board of Works, at a cost of about £100,000. The ground where the hospital now stands, was always known as Stangate Bank, and has a long disreputable history. Over the last 200 years or so, it has been known as being a place of poor design, with bad housing and foul smells. Not even the construction of the Houses of Parliament on the opposite shore, or the building of one of the finest bridges in Europe, (Westminster Bridge) failed to redeem this “stinking shore-line”, with its rat infested tenements, and filthy boat yards. What we see today of the land on which the present St. Thomas's Hospital stands, nearly half of it, was reclaimed from the mud of the river, which was due to the decision to construct the Southern Thames Embankment.

This particular area of London has always enjoyed a close association with the theatre, dating back to Shakespeare and even earlier. Between Westminster Bridge Road and Stangate Street, stood the Canterbury Music Hall, which was opened by Charles Morton in 1849, and was the first music hall established in London. It survived until World War II, when the building was destroyed by German bombers. Another popular place of entertainment was the Bower Saloon, which stood at the junction of Upper Marsh and Stangate Street. The Bower was not as grand as the Canterbury, probably more of an inn than a theatre, but it did have a theatre room and a music room, which were used for crude melodrama and variety entertainments in the mid 19th century.

A popular London magazine of the Victorian period, was “The Night Side of London”, which was published by J. Ewing Ritchie in the mid 1800s, and one of the first such publications which delved into London’s social history. In 1858 J. Ewing Ritchie wrote the following in his magazine: "The Upper Marsh, Westminster Road, is what may be called a low neighbourhood. It is not far from Astley's Theatre. Right through it runs the South-Western Railway, and everywhere about it are planted pawnbrokers' shops, with an indescribable amount of dirty second-hand clothes, and monster gin-palaces, with unlimited plate-glass and gas-lights. Go along there at what hour you will, these gin-palaces are full of ragged children, hideous old women, and drunken men. The bane and the antidote are thus side by side. Let us pass on. A well-lighted entrance attached to a public house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs, along a passage, lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and ninepence if we ascend into the gallery. We make our way leisurely along the floor of the building, which is really a handsome hall, well lighted, and capable of holding 1,500 persons; the balcony extends round the room in the form of a horseshoe. At the opposite end to that which we enter is the platform, on which are placed a grand piano and a harmonium, on which the performers play in the intervals when the professional singers have left the stage. The chairman sits just beneath them. It is dull work to him; but there he must sit, drinking, and smoking cigars, from seven till twelve o'clock. The room is crowded, and almost every gentleman present has a pipe or a cigar in his mouth. Let us look around us. Evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics or small tradesmen, with their wives and daughters and sweethearts. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen. Every one is smoking, and every one has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical, and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter. The presence of ladies has also a beneficial effect: I see no signs of intoxication. I may question the worth of some of the stanzas sung, and I think I may have heard sublimer compositions, but, compared with many of the places frequented by both sexes in London, Canterbury Hall is, in my opinion, a respectable place; though, to speak seriously, I have my doubts whether all go home quite sober."

Today, Stangate and the immediate area surrounding it, still offers much to see and do for visitors and tourists. Only minutes walk away from the South Bank Centre, The Old Vic and The National Theatre, as well as plenty of traditional watering holes, and a large selection of modern restaurants and shops. Probably of most importance, and still there, all around, for everyone to see, is the true history of the area which stretches back centuries, and hopefully will continue for centuries to come.

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