November 30, 2016
Famed as a luxury shopping destination for the rich and famous, Harrods on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge takes its name from founder Charles Henry Harrod.
Harrod first established a drapery business in Southwark in 1824 and in 1832, founded Harrods & Co Grocers in Clerkenwell. Two years later he established another grocery, this time in Stepney, with a particular interest in tea.
In 1849, to capitalise on trade to the upcoming Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, he took over a small shop on the site of the current store – initially with just two assistants and a messenger boy. In 1861 his son, the similarly-named Charles Digby Harrods, took over the business and by 1880, the store was employing more than 100 people offering customers everything from medicines and perfumes to clothing and food and already attracting the wealthy customers it would become known for.
Even the burning down of the store in late 1883, failed to dint its long-term success, and Harrod took the opportunity to build a capacious new building on the site. Designed by Charles Williams Stephens, the building, which wasn’t finished until 1905, featured Art Nouveau windows and was topped with a dome. One of its attractions opened on 16th November, 1898, when it became home to England’s first “moving staircase” (escalator). Nervous customers were apparently offered a brandy once they’d made the journey.
Harrods’ fame continued to grow and over the years a who’s who of London society has been associated with the store – everyone from writers like Oscar Wilde, and AA Milne, actors Ellen Terry, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier and luminaries such as the “father of psychoanalysis” Sigmund Freud and many members of the Royal family.
Under the motto of Omnia Omnibus Ubique (All Things for All People, Everywhere), the store became famous for selling whatever the customer wanted including, thanks to an exotic pets department which lasted up until the 1970s, a lemur called Mah-Jongg which was sold to Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in 1923 and lived with them at Eltham Palace and a lion called Christian to Australian expats John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke in 1969 (it was later set free in Kenya).
The ownership meanwhile has long since left the Harrods family – Charles Digby had sold his shares as far back as 1889 when the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange and renamed Harrods Stores Limited with Sir Alfred James Newton as chairman and Richard Burbridge as managing director. Burbridge was succeeded by his son in 1917 and he by his son in 1935.
In 1959, the company was bought by House of Fraser and in 1985, the store was sold to the Al-Fayed brothers (Mohamed Al-Fayed famously had two memorials created inside dedicated to Diana, Princess of Wales, and his son Dodi Fayed, both of whom died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. He also decided not to renew the company’s Royal warrants – it has had up to four). Current owners Qatar Holding, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, bought the company in 2010.
The company has opened a number of other Harrods stores over the years – including its only ever foreign branch (long since independent) in Argentina in 1914 and, in 2000, a shop aboard the ship RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.
The Knightsbridge store, meanwhile, has been twice bombed by the IRA – in 1983 when six were killed and scores more injured after a car bomb exploded in an adjoining street and in 1993 when a bomb was placed in a litter bin, injuring four. In 1989, it controversially introduced a dress code, banning casual wear like flip-flops and Bermuda shorts.
Now the largest department store in Europe, the Brompton Road store has more than million square feet of selling floor over seven stories. It attracts some 15 million customers a year to its more than 300 different departments and other facilities including more than 25 restaurants and cafes, a concierge, bank, spa and personal shopping service.
January 6, 2016
We hit the 20th century with this London ‘battle’, a confrontation in Stepney between police and a range of anti-fascist and fascist forces in the lead-up to World War II.
The ‘battle’ took place on a Sunday – 4th October, 1936 – following a summer of anti-Semitic violence and was sparked by a decision by the British Union of Fascists, led by Sir Oswald Mosley , to march through the East End, then the heartland of London’s Jewish community.
Incensed at the plans (and faced with government inaction despite calls for the march to be called off), anti-fascist protestors – which included large numbers of Jewish and Irish people as well as trade unionists, communists, socialists, anarchists and local residents – gathered initially at Gardiner’s Corner (named for a department store which once on the site at the junction of Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Road) to prevent the march.
The protestors were chanting and carrying banners which read “No Parasan” (“They shall not pass”, a slogan taken from anti-fascist forces who used it during the Spanish Civil War).
Estimates as to how many people turned out in protest vary widely – from 100,000 people up to as many as 250,000 or even 500,000 – but it’s clear that whatever the actual number, the crowd was huge and vastly outnumbered the up to 3,000 fascists – known as Blackshirts – who turned up to march and the 10,000 Metropolitan Police officers, some of whom were on horseback, sent to prevent the march from being disrupted.
With the path blocked despite police charges into the crowd, Mosley and his Blackshirts were advised by authorities to head south to Cable Street but there they encountered road-blocks made from furniture, paving stones and even apparently overturned lorries which appeared at the street’s west end, around the junction with Christian Street.
Police again attempted to clear the road but were blocked by the makeshift barricades and a wall of protestors while residents in houses lining the streets threw rubbish and even the contents of chamber pots at them. Police responded by sending in squads of men to snatch the ringleaders of the protests; protestors responded by ‘kidnapping’ some police officers.
Faced with continuing violence, Mosley was forced to abandon the march and the BUF were dispersed back through the City of London. The protestors meanwhile were said to have turned the event into a giant street party in celebration of their victory.
More than 100 people were said to have been injured in the violence and some 150 of the demonstrators were arrested. Most of the charges were of a minor nature but some of the ringleaders were given up to three year terms of imprisonment.
A large mural depicting the battle was painted on the side of St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street in the 1980s and there’s also a red plaque in nearby Dock Street (pictured) commemorating the incident.
Aside from a victory in itself, the battle was the catalyst for the passing of the Public Order Act of 1936 which meant the organisers of marches would henceforth have to seek permission of the police before holding them. It also banned demonstrators from marching in uniform.
PICTURED: A plaque commemorating the ‘battle’ in Dock Street which runs off the west end of Cable Street. Via Richard Allen/Wikipedia
May 25, 2015
This City of London thoroughfare runs between St Botolph and Outwich Streets and its name – first recorded in the 13th century – apparently relates to its location on the outer side of the wall, dating from the Roman era, which once encircled the city.
On the outer side of the wall lay a ditch which, although filled and redug several times in its history, was eventually filled permanently in the 16th century (and became the street you can now walk upon).
Dogs were associated with this ditch – the skeletons of some dogs were found here in 1989 during an archaeological dig at the wall, possibly dating back to Roman times – although there’s a couple of theories on exactly how.
According to one version, the ditch, before it was finally filled, had become the repository of all sorts of rubbish but was particularly known as a site to deposit the corpses of dogs. An alternate theory, meantime, suggests that kennels which housed dogs used in hunting were once located here.
The name ‘houndsditch’ was apparently used for many sections of the ditch which lay outside the city wall before it came to be associated with this particular stretch of ditch.
The street (and the area in which it sits, also known as Houndsditch) has apparently been associated with several different trades over its history including bell founding, gunmaking and cannon founding and, later for the rag trade. In the 20th century, it was the site of department store, The Houndsditch Warehouse.
It was in Houndsditch that Dr Thomas Barnardo found 11 boys sleeping huddled together on the roof of the old rag market – a fact which helped push him to found the first of the Barnardo’s homes for the destitute in Stepney.
Famously, of course, it was also the scene of an attempted robbery and shoot-out in 1910 which led to the infamous Siege of Sidney Street (see our earlier post here).
For more on the Houndsditch murders, see Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street.
Sir Winston Churchill will be forever associated with this now rather nondescript East London street, thanks to a series of events that occurred when he was Home Secretary.
Known as the Siege of Sidney Street or the Battle of Stepney, the event was sparked when, on 16th December, 2010, a gang of Russian and Latvian exiles attempted to break into a jewellers in Houndsditch by tunnelling from an adjacent property in Exchange Buildings.
Tipped off by a neighbour, the police arrived and in the series of events that followed, a number of officers were shot and three – Sergeant Charles Tucker, PC Walter Choate and Sergeant Robert Bentley – were killed (Sergeant Tucker died at the scene and the latter two later that day in hospital). The event became known as the Houndsditch Murders.
The gang members largely escaped – although one gang member, George Gardstein, was later found dead of wounds he had received during the gunfight – and an intensive manhunt commenced for the gang.
Some two weeks later, on 2nd January, 1911, police were informed that several members of the gang, including the alleged mastermind known as Peter the Painter (who may not have even existed or who may have been a Polish decorator Peter Piaktow), were hiding at a property at 100 Sidney Street.
Expecting fierce resistance, several hundred police officers moved in to surround the property the next day and, at dawn – after encountering heavy fire from the building, the siege began.
When the then 36-year-old Churchill received word of the siege (apparently while taking a bath), he made his way to the site, already attracting crowds of onlookers, to observe and apparently offer advice.
At the scene he authorised the use of the military – including a detachment of Scots Guards from the Tower of London and 13 pounder artillery pieces. These, drawn by the Royal Horse Artillery, had just arrived when a fire began to consume the building (it may have been sparked by a bullet hitting a gas pipe). The fire brigade attended but Churchill apparently refused them entry until the shooting stopped.
The gang members inside the building never attempted to escape the building and the remains of two of them – Latvians Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow – were subsequently found in its ruins.
Along with the thee policemen killed at the attempted burglary, a firefighter – Charles Pearson – was also killed, struck by falling debris. There is a memorial plaque to him at the former site of 100 Sidney Street.
Seven supposed members of the gang were eventually captured by police but all either had the charges dropped, were acquitted or had their convictions quashed.
Churchill’s role at the six hour siege was the matter of some controversy and former PM (and then Opposition Leader) Arthur Balfour was among those who accused him of acting improperly and risking lives.
There’s a famous photo of Churchill – who was recorded by one of his biographers saying the event had been “such fun” – peering around a corner at the scene (there’s a story that a bullet tore through his top hat, almost killing him, during the siege) while the event was also one of the first news stories to be captured on film (by Pathe News).
December 8, 2014
Eighteenth century physician Dr Richard Mead is noted not only for his attendance on the rich and famous of his time – including royalty – but also for his philanthropy, his expansive collections and, importantly, his contributions in the field of medicine.
Born in Stepney, London, on the 11th August, 1673, as the 11th of 13 children of nonconforming minister Matthew Mead, Mead studied both Utrecht and Leiden before receiving his MD in Italy. Returning to England in 1696, he founded his own medical practice in Stepney.
He married Ruth Marsh in 1699 and together the couple had at least eight children, several of whom died young, before her death in 1720 (he subsequently married again, this time to Anne, daughter of a Bedfordshire knight, Sir Rowland Alston).
Having published the then seminal text – A Mechanical Account of Poisons – in 1702, the following year Mead was admitted to the Royal Society. He also took up a post as a physician at St Thomas’ Hospital, a job which saw him move to a property in Crutched Friars in the City – his home until 1711, when he relocated to Austin Friars.
It was after this that he become friends with eminent physician John Radcliffe who chose Mead as his successor and, on his death in 1714, bequeathed him his practice and his Bloomsbury home (not to mention his gold-topped cane, now on display at the Foundling Museum – see note below).
Following Radcliffe’s death, in August of that year Dr Mead attended Queen Anne on her deathbed. Other distinguished patients over his career included King George I, his son Prince George and daughter-in-law Princess Caroline – in fact he was appointed as official physician to the former prince when elevated to the throne as King George II – as well as Sir Isaac Newton, lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Sir Robert Walpole and painter Antoine Watteau.
Mead, who had been named a governor of St Thomas’ in 1715 and elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1716, was over the years recognised as an expert in a range of medical fields – including, as well as poisons, smallpox, scurvy and even the transmission of the plague.
Among the many more curious stories about Dr Mead is one concerning a ‘duel’ (or fistfight) he apparently fought with rival Dr John Woodward outside Gresham College in 1719 over their differences in tackling smallpox and others which concern experiments he conducted with venomous snakes to further his knowledge of venom before writing his text on poisons.
Dr Mead was also known for his philanthropy and became one of the founding governors of the Foundling Hospital (as well as being its medical advisor) – a portrait of him by artist Allan Ramsay (for whom he was a patron), currently hangs at the museum.
Dr Mead, who by this stage lived in Great Ormond Street in Bloomsbury (the property, which backed onto the grounds of the Foundling Museum and which Mead had moved into after his first wife’s death, later formed the basis of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children), is also noted for the large collection he gathered of paintings – including works by Dürer, Holbein, Rembrandt, and Canaletto, a library of more than 10,000 books, antiquities and classical sculpture as well as coins and jewels, all of which scholars and artists could access at his home (it took some 56 days to sell it all after his death).
While Dr Mead – who died on 16th February, 1754 – was buried in the Temple Church, there is a monument to him – including a bust by Peter Scheemakers – in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey.
Dr Mead is currently being honoured in an exhibition at the Foundling Museum – The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead – which runs until 4th January. There’s an accompanying blog here which provides more information on his life and legacy.