Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Lambs Conduit Passage

Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont - or should that be Charles?

On a warm summer’s evening in 1765, David Hart was on his way home from his job at the newly built Whitbread Brewery in Chiswell Street. Working in a brewery, and being able to drink almost as much beer as he wanted, didn’t deter David from fancying another pint to cool him down. The Lamb Public House in Lamb’s Conduit Street was on David’s way home, and it was as inviting then, as it still is today, so without hesitation, David pushed the door open, and smelt the warm, inviting odours of beer and tobacco smoke, waft up his nostrils as he went in. Even though it was still quite light outside, the interior of the Lamb was relatively dark, with the heavy curtains and wood panelling, the light from the candle-lit lanterns just about allowed David see those closest to him.  

David paid for his pint and moved away from the bar, to a table close to the door, where he could watch to see if any of his friends came in. Within a couple of minutes, the door opened again and a very elegant looking man came in, accompanied by a beautiful young lady, who was dressed in the highest of fashion. The man looked around for somewhere to sit, and seeing that David’s table was the only one available, he politely asked David if he would mind if his companion and himself shared the seat with him.

The man went to the bar to buy drinks, leaving the young lady sitting down almost opposite David at the table. She was certainly very attractive, thought David, as he supped on his beer, peering over the top of his glass at her, as he did so. Was that a little reciprocal smile he saw on her lips he wondered? After all, she was not wearing a wedding ring, and even if David did think so himself, he was quite a good-looking young man.

Whether or not, the young lady’s partner had spotted the little mischievous glances going on between David and the young lady, was not exactly clear, but when he did return to the table, he positioned himself in such a way that she had to turn away from David to face the man. Unperturbed, David carried on drinking his beer and watching the door, just in case a friend should walk in. The couple were by this time, deep in a very hushed conversation, with the man doing most of the talking, and from what David could see, the man looked quite angry and was wagging his finger at her. Suddenly however, she turned the tables on him, her voice louder now as she started arguing back at him. This was the first time David had heard her speak; she had a low husky voice, and was most definitely not English, more likely to be French he thought, as he recognised a word here and there that he knew to be of that language.

The argument between the couple grew more agitated, with both the man and the woman, now talking in raised voices at each other. David could not understand anything they were saying as they were both talking in French, but by this time the woman had got to her feet and started to leave, only to be shoved down into her seat again by the man. David grew more perplexed, as the woman now kept turning to him, not saying anything to him but her eyes were pleading for him to help her.

Other people in the bar were now turning to look at what was going on, but before David could think about what course of action he should take, the man sprung to his feet and was pulling the young lady out of her seat. She looked again towards David as if appealing for help, and then started scrabbling about with her purse. Surely she wouldn’t hit the man with that, thought David, it was hardly big enough to hit a mouse with, let alone a big strong man. Within seconds the man had dragged her out the door, and they were gone, much to the relief of the rest of the pub’s clientele.

David gulped down the rest of his beer, feeling that he needed it by this time. As he did so, he noticed a small white card on the seat where the young lady had been sitting, which must have come out of her purse by accident, or maybe not such an accident he thought. He picked the card up and sure enough it was the young lady’s business card, with the name, Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont, and an address in Millman Street, which was just around the corner from Lamb’s Conduit Street. 

As David walked home to his flat in Lamb’s Conduit Passage, which he shared with his parents and two younger brothers, he couldn’t stop thinking about Mademoiselle Lia. She was young, and beautiful, and obviously a woman of class. He kept asking himself why she had left her business card for him, was it that she liked the look of him, or was it that she needed help in some way? Whatever the reason, he decided that he would call on her the next day.

David didn’t go to work the following day: he spent the best part of two hours getting himself ready, washing his hair and getting dressed in his best Sunday clothes. On his way to Millman Street, he wondered what he would do if she couldn’t speak any English. He knew how to say bonjour and au revoir, but after that, he was completely stuck.

Suddenly he found himself there, at Lia’s house in Millman Street. His hand was shaking as he took the business card out of his pocket again, as if to be sure he was at the right address. He pulled the bell on a chain, which was hanging next to the door and waited; several minutes elapsed and still no one answered the door. Maybe she wasn’t in, he told himself, or maybe the man she had been with had injured her, and she was in hospital, or maybe…. The door suddenly swung open and David was confronted by a young man in a dressing gown, who stared at him for several moments without saying a word, as if angry at him for having the audacity to ring his bell. David stammered out that he had come to see Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont. The young man nodded his head, almost as if to say he was expecting David, and then with a flourish of his hand, waved him into the house, telling him to wait in the drawing room, and Mademoiselle Lia would see him in a few minutes.

Twenty minutes later, the drawing room door opened, and Lia came in. She smiled demurely at David, and held out her hand for him to kiss. She remembered him from the previous night, and thanked him for coming, in her wonderful broken English, which David loved. After preliminary introductions, she poured them both a glass of Sherry, and they sat in the window seat, where she started to tell David a story of spies and intrigue. She told him that she was a friend of King Louis XV of France, who had forced her to spy for him against the Russians, by becoming a confidant to the Russian Empress Elizabeth. The man whom David had seen her with the night before, worked for the Russian embassy in London, and had taken her out to dinner that night on a supposedly friendly basis, but he became angry when she denied any knowledge of her spying activities, and if it hadn’t been for a passing police officer, she thinks he might well have killed her.

This was all too much for David to take in, after all he was just an ordinary worker in a brewery, what possible reason could she want him involved for? Was it that he looked as if he could be trusted, or maybe that she thought he would make a good bodyguard?  When David woke the following morning with Lia lying beside him in her bed, he knew exactly what she wanted him for.

David only returned to his parent’s house in Lamb’s Conduit Passage from time to time during the following years, to supply them with money and other gifts, for as his relationship with Lia continued, so his personal wealth increased, so much so that just one year after their initial meeting, he acquired his own house in Millman Street, just a few doors away from Lia’s.

One might well ask at this point, what is so important or different about this story to warrant its inclusion in this book? The answer to this is the mystery surrounding Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont, for Lia was really Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée D’Eon de Beaumont, who was born a male in 1728 into a noble French family. D’Eon was first noticed by King Louis XV when he appeared dressed as a woman at a masquerade ball in Paris. The King and the Prince de Conti formed the idea of hiring him as a spy to engage in secret diplomacy while disguised as a woman. In 1755 he was sent to Russia disguised as Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont, where he became a confidant to the Empress Elizabeth.

The King rewarded D’Eon for his services and made him a Captain of Dragoons. He resumed to wearing male apparel and continued working for the secret service, and as a member of the French Embassy in London from 1763 was involved in many political intrigues. Around this time various rumours started to spread to the effect that the Chevalier D'Eon, as he was now known, really was a woman, who disguised herself in men’s clothes. King Louis XVI granted D’Eon, a large state pension in return for some state papers and a sworn oath never to reveal the King’s involvement in D’Eon’s earlier spying missions. To cover up any Royal implications, he also insisted that the state pension would only be paid on condition that D'Eon henceforth dressed in the garments of the female sex.

D'Eon returned to London, where he started living a lavish lifestyle, but when he decided to publish damaging diplomatic papers, he was outlawed by France. It was from this point that he adopted female clothing as a disguise to disappear. In the 1770s, even though still involved with David, D'Eon was missing his native Paris, and so came to an arrangement with France, part of which included him permanently wearing female attire, as a means of controlling his actions.

During his residence in England, more speculation arose as to his sex, and several very large wagers were laid upon the outcome, if it could be proven one way or the other. One such wager was so large that it ended up in court where one witnesses declared that D'Eon was a woman concealed in man's clothing. There was of course no proof of this other than from the Chevalier himself, which wasn’t forthcoming, and so the trial was terminated by the judge, Lord Mansfield. The verdict was given for the plaintiff for the recovery of the wager.

After the trial, D'Eon once again put on female dress and continued to earn a living as a kind of theatrical performer, giving demonstrations as a swordsman while wearing his female clothes, which he continued to wear until his death, when all doubts regarding his sex were at once put to rest, an examination of the body being made in the presence of several distinguished personages. Charles D'Eon, or Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont, as he was more oft known, died at the house of his friend and partner, David Hart, in Millman Street, on the 21st of May 1810. The two men had lived together as partners for 45 years.

After David’s parents died, their old home in Lambs Conduit Passage, was eventually demolished; not for street widening or improvement, as one would imagine in such a narrow passage, but purely because it was literally falling down and had become a danger to other residents and passers by.

Lambs Conduit Passage is still a narrow passageway to this day. It derives its name from William Lamb, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal under Henry VIII. In 1577 Lamb put £1500 of his own money, which was a great sum at that time, into rebuilding the old conduit, or water duct, which fed water to Smithfield, from a spring at Holborn. He connected several springs to form a head of water, which was conveyed by a leaden pipe, about 2,000 yards in length, to Snow Hill, where he rebuilt a conduit, which had been in disrepair and unusable for some years. His generosity didn’t stop with the rebuilding of the conduit, he then gave out 120 pails (buckets) to the poor women of the neighbourhood so they could fetch and carry their new water supply. 

The area surrounding Lambs Conduit at that time, consisted mainly of open fields and pastures, and formed a favourite promenade for the local inhabitants. A record of the period relates how one such local man, speaking of the herbs, winter rocket, and cresses, says: "It groweth of its own accord in gardens and fields, by the way-side in divers places, and particularly in the next pasture to the Conduit Head, behind Gray's Inn, that brings water to Mr. Lamb's Conduit, in Holborn."

During the Great Fire of London in 1666 most of the City’s conduits were consumed and destroyed by the fire. The Lambs Conduit however, was deemed so important to the City that in 1667 it was rebuilt, from a design by Sir Christopher Wren. In 1746 all the conduits in the City, including Lambs conduit, were dismantled and destroyed for so called health reasons, but it has been alleged that this was an underhand move by City Councillors to force the citizens to pay for the water of the New River laid on to their houses.

Then as now, people tended to reminisce about the past, about the ‘good old days’. A letter from a former resident of the area to a friend, dated April, 1857 says: "About sixty years since I was travelling from the West of England in one of the old stage-coaches of that day, and my fellow-travellers were an octogenarian clergyman and his daughter. In speaking of the then increasing size of London, the old gentleman said that, when he was a boy, and recovering from an attack of small-pox, he was sent into the country to a row of houses standing on the west side of the upper part of the present Lamb's Conduit   Street; that all the space before him was open fields; that a streamlet of water ran under his window; and he saw a man snipe-shooting, who sprang a snipe near to the house, and shot it. He further said, that he once stated the fact to an old nobleman, whose name he mentioned, but I have since forgotten it, and he replied: 'Well, when I was a young man, I sprang a brace of partridges where Grosvenor House now stands, and bagged one of them.' I have myself seen a pump reputed to be erected on the Conduit Head, and standing against the corner house of a small turning out of Lamb's Conduit Street, on the right-hand side as you go towards the Foundling, and nearly at the upper end of the street."

Lambs Conduit Passage, formerly called Little Conduit Street, lies at the north-eastern corner of Red Lion Square. Similar alleys originally existed at all four corners of the square, but road alterations have removed most traces of the other three.

The British Humanist Association have their base at the southern end of the Passage and on the south-west corner is Conway Hall, home of the South Place Ethical Society, a liberal religious organisation formed in 1793. Nicholas Barbon laid out Red Lion Square in 1684. It took its name from the famous Red Lion Inn, a large thriving hostelry that occupied a site near to the Pearl Assurance Building in Holborn.

In 1661 the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw were exhumed from Westminster Abbey and carried to the Red Lion Inn where they were kept over night. The next day they were dragged through the streets on sledges to Tyburn, where they were beheaded and burnt near to the gallows. It has been alleged, but never proven, that Cromwell was buried in Red Lion Square, and that his ghost haunts the square.

At the north eastern end of the Passage, on the corner with Red Lion Street, sits the flower bedecked Dolphin Tavern, which looks like a typical 18th century pub with plenty of old world charm, wooden panelling and original style windows. One of the main attractions of this pub is in the clock that hangs on the wall, with its hand frozen at the time the original pub was destroyed by a bomb from a Zeppelin Airship in 1915, during World War I. The clock was the only thing to survive intact, and remains on the wall of the rebuilt pub as a monument to the people killed that day.

Lambs Conduit Street, which is not to be confused with the Passage, is just 100 yards away, across the other side of Theobald's Road, which runs parallel with the north side of Red Lion Square, and separates Red Lion Street from Lamb's Conduit Street. Even though they are two different thoroughfares, both names derive from the same source, which is that of Mr William Lamb and his conduit.

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