Treasures of London – Bas-relief of Charles Dickens (and some famous friends)…

PICTURE: Eden, Janine and Jim (licensed under CC BY 2.0).

Christmas is fast arriving so we went in search of some related monuments in London and found one depicting two famous characters from an iconic Yuletide text.

Located on the site of a house where 19th century writer Charles Dickens wrote six of his famous books, including A Christmas Carol, is a stone relief featuring several characters from them including Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost (represented as a door knocker in the top left).

Dickens lived at the property at what was then 1 Devonshire Terrace, Marylebone, between 1839 and 1851. It was demolished in the late 1950s and replaced with an office block upon which was incorporated the stone relief.

The bas-relief is the work of Estcourt J “Jim” Clack and features a large portrait of Dickens as well as the characters who, alongside the characters from A Christmas Carol.

They apparently include Barnaby Rudge with his raven ‘Grip’ (from the book of the same name), Little Nell and Granddad (The Old Curiosity Shop), Dombey and his daughter Florence (Dombey and Son), Sairey Gamp (Martin Chuzzlewit), David Copperfield and Wikins Micawber (David Copperfield).

Correction: The name of Barnaby Rudge’s raven has been corrected.

London Pub Signs – The Churchill Arms, Kensington…

The Churchill Arms decorated for Christmas in 2015. PICTURE: Loco Steve (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s Christmas in London and for such a festive occasion, one pub immediately springs to mind – The Churchill Arms.

The name is certainly not a mystery and doesn’t really have anything to do with the Christmas theme. It stems from, of course, wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill – or rather, his grandparents, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, John and Frances Anne Spencer-Churchill, who were patrons here and which, in honour of Churchill and them, saw the pub so-named after World War II.

Churchill remains a theme in the interior where a good deal of related memorabilia can be found – including wartime posters, pictures of the man himself and a (fake) plaque commemorating Churchill’s use of the pub for his wartime broadcasts (there’s even a celebratory night held each year around Churchill’s birthday).

The pub, which is located at 119 Kensington Church Street, dates from 1750.

But in recent times, it’s become famous for its stunning Christmas light displays which this year reportedly feature some 80 Christmas trees and 22,000 lights. The pub is also known for its extraordinarily profuse flower displays which cost thousands of pounds each year and which have even won at none other than the Chelsea Flower Show.

It also holds the claim to fame of being the first London pub to serve Thai food when it did so as far back as 1988.

A Fullers pub, for more head to www.churchillarmskensington.co.uk.

This Week in London – Faberge eggs; Royal jeweller Garrard; and, Christmas at Kew…

The Alexander Palace Egg, Fabergé. Chief Workmaster Henrik Wigström (1862-1923), gold, silver, enamel, diamonds, rubies, nephrite, rock crystal, glass, wood, velvet, bone, 1908 © The Moscow Kremlin Museums

• The largest collection of Faberge’s Imperial Easter eggs to be displayed together in a generation go on show at the V&A from Saturday. Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution is the first major exhibition devoted to the international prominence of Russian goldsmith, Carl Fabergé, and his little-known London branch. Divided into three sections which cover everything from the techniques and detailing synonymous with the Faberge name to his time in London, the royal patronage he received, and the impact of the Great War and Russian Revolution on the business. The display features more than 200 objects with highlights including a prayer book gifted by Emperor Nicholas II to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna on his Coronation Day, the only known example of solid gold tea service crafted by Fabergé, a rare figurine of a veteran English soldier commissioned by King Edward VII, and a “kaleidoscopic display” of 15 of the Imperial Easter Eggs. The latter include several that have never before been shown in the UK including the largest Imperial Egg – the Moscow Kremlin Egg – which was inspired by the architecture of the Dormition Cathedral, the Alexander Palace Egg – which features watercolour portraits of the children of Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra and contains a model of the palace inside (pictured), the recently rediscovered Third Imperial Egg of 1887 (found by a scrap dealer in 2011) and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s Basket of Flowers Egg. Runs until 8th May. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk.

The Royal Family’s relationship with the jeweller Garrard is the subject of a new exhibition which has opened in Kensington Palace’s ‘Jewel Room’. Going on display for the first time are examples of the firm’s ledgers which document royal commissions dating back to 1735 while other highlights include Queen Mary’s fringe tiara which was made in 1919 using diamonds taken from Queen Victoria’s wedding gift to Queen Mary and which was subsequently worn by Queen Elizabeth II on her wedding day. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace.

Botanical illustrations from the archives at Kew Gardens are brought to life on a canvas consisting of a selection of spectacular trees from the arboretum as part of this year’s Christmas display. Christmas at Kew also includes Spheric – a 15-metre-wide dome of light covered in more than 2,000 individually controlled LED pixels which sits on a reflective water pool and allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in a unique mirrored illusion as they cross the lake, a new installation for Holly Walk which will illuminate the night sky for over 200 metres overhead as it replicates the enchanting visual phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, a vibrant rainbow tree illumination which brings to life the 12 Days of Christmas, and the ever-popular Fire Garden. The display can be seen until 9th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.kew.org.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

10 sites of (historic) musical significance in London – 6. Royal Albert Hall… 

PICTURE: Raphael Tomi-Tricot/Unsplash

Arguably the grandest music venue in London, the Royal Albert Hall, named in memory of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, has been hosting musical events since it first hosted a concert in 1871.

The Grade I-listed hall, which has a seating capacity of more than 5,000 and which did suffer from acoustic problems for many years (until mushroom-shaped fibreglass acoustic diffusers were hung from the ceiling following tests in the late 1960s), has been the setting for some of the most important – and, in some cases, poignant – music events of the past 150 years, not just in London but the world at large.

Among some of the most memorable are the Titanic Band Memorial Concert – held on 24th May, 1912, just six weeks after the sinking of the iconic ship to remember the 1514 people who died with a particular focus on the eight musicians who played on as the stricken vessal sank, the ‘Great Pop Prom’ of 15th September, 1963 – only one of a handful of occasions when The Beatles and Rolling Stones played on the same stage, and Pink Floyd’s gig of 26th June, 1969 – coming at the end of a UK tour, the on-stage antics saw the band banned (it was short-lived, however, they returned just a few years later in 1973).

Other musical figures to have taken to the stage here include everyone from composers Richard Wagner, John Philip Sousa, and Benjamin Britten to the Von Trapp family, jazz greats Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and the likes of Shirley Bassey, Bob Dylan and Elton John – a veritable musical who’s who of the past 150 years. The venue also hosted the 13th Eurovision Song Contest in 1968.

Of course, Royal Albert Hall is famous for The Proms, an annual festival of classical music which was first performed here in 1941 after the venue where it had been held since 1895 – the Queen’s Hall on Langham Place – was lost to an incendiary bomb during World War II.

Prom stands for ‘Promenade Concert’,  a phrase which originally referred to the outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens during which the audience was free to walk around while the orchestra was playing (there are still standing areas during performances). The most famous night of the season is the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which, broadcast by the BBC, features popular classics and ends with a series of patriotic tunes to stir the blood.

A Moment in London’s History – Crystal Palace burns…

The Crystal Palace fire in 1936. PICTURE: Unknown author (via Wikipedia)

This month marks 85 years since the Crystal Palace in London’s south was destroyed in a fire.

The Joseph Paxton-designed building had originally been located in what is now Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and, following the end of the exhibition, had been dismantled and relocated to Sydenham.

When the fire in broke out on the night of 30th November, 1936, two night watchmen tried to put it out. Sir Henry Buckland, the building’s general manager, was out walking his dog with his daughter Crystal (named, apparently after the building) when he spotted the flames and called the fire brigade.

They arrived at about 8pm but the fire, fanned by a wind, was soon out of control and so further aid as summoned with hundreds of firefighters and some 88 engines attending the scene. It has been said the blaze could be seen across eight counties.

A crowd of spectators – said to number as high as 100,000 – arrived to watch what was apparently a rather spectacular sight (special trains were apparently put on to transport people from towns in Kent and private airplanes were spotted overhead). Police, some on horseback, did their best to keep the crowds away but had limited success given the numbers who turned out (Winston Churchill, among those watching the building burn, is said to have remarked: “This is the end of an age” while Sir Henry told reporters later that the palace would “live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world”).

By morning, the building was reduced to bits of twisted metal and ash but thankfully no lives were lost in the conflagration. The cause, however, remained a mystery – there was speculation it had been started by a stray cigarette butt or had been deliberately lit by a disgruntled worker. Television pioneer John Logie Baird, who had a workshop in the building, believed it could have been started by a leaking gas cylinder in his workshop.

Two water towers, located at either end of the building, survived the blaze but were later demolished. Among the few remains of the building which did survive the blaze is the subway located under Crystal Palace Parade. The park which surrounded the building remains home to the famous ‘Crystal Palace dinosaurs’.

Lost London – Prison hulks on the Thames…

Floating prisons known as ‘hulks’ were a regular site on the Thames in London between the late 18th century and mid-19th century, used to house convicts awaiting transportation to British penal colonies including in what is now Australia.

The ‘hulks’ were actually decommissioned warships, dismasted and repurposed for the purpose of housing prisoners.

The Warrior’ converted into a prison hulk off Woolwich. PICTURE: Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 21st February, 1846.

The decision to use the former warships – some of which had a storied history – for such a purpose was initially seen as a temporary measure to ease overcrowding in the jails with an Act of Parliament in 1776 only authorising their use for two years.

But, despite rising concerns over conditions on the hulks, they remained in use until 1857 when the act finally expired for good. Some 8,000 convicts were housed upon them in the first 20 years alone.

The hulks were initially moored off Woolwich – the former East Indiaman Justitia and a former French Navy frigate Censor were among the first – and the convicts aboard them put to use working to improve the river and at Woolwich Arsenal and nearby docks. The hulks were also later positioned at sites including Limehouse and Deptford (and the idea of using hulks was also exported to colonies in Australia and the Caribbean).

The hulks were initially operated by private individuals under a government contract but from 1802 they were placed under the supervision of the Inspector of Hulks. Aaron Graham was first to hold the post while his successor John Capper, who was appointed Superintendent of Prisons and the Hulk Establishment in 1814, oversaw numerous reforms of the system. During Capper’s tenure, the use of private contractors was later phased out with the government assuming direct responsibility for the hulks.

Some hulks – like positioned at Limehouse – were used as “receiving hulks” where prisoners were initially sent for several days where they were inspected and issued clothing, blankets, and a mess kit. They were then sent to “convict hulks” where they were assigned to a mess and a work gang for the long-term. Other hulks were to serve specific purposes such as being a “hospital hulk” (there was also a hulk off Kent, the Bellerophon, which was specifically designated for boys).

Conditions on board the vessels were indeed appalling and disease spread quickly with mortality rates of 30 per cent not uncommon. Prisoners were kept chained when aboard and floggings handed out as punishment for any offences. Food and clothing were of poor quality.

Despite this, the hulks continued to be seen as a convenient means of housing convicts and, in 1841, there were still more than 3,500 convicts on board hulks in England. It was said that one ship – a second vessel named Justitia – housed as many as 700 convicts alone.

Following several government inquiries into the hulks and the construction of more prisons on land, the hulks were gradually decommissioned. But altogether, between  1776 and 1884, the British Government had converted more than 150 ships into hulks in both the UK and the colonies.

This Week in London – Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots; Ellen and William Craft honoured; and, Kehinde Wiley’s ‘Portrait of Melissa Thompson’…

Ink and pencil drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8th February, 1587 © British Library (Additional MS 48027, f. 650r)

• The complex relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, is the subject of a new exhibition opening at the British Library in King’s Cross tomorrow. Highlights of Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, the first major exhibition to consider both women together, include Queen Elizabeth I’s 1545 handwritten translation of her stepmother Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations – a gift for her father King Henry VIII, a sonnet by Mary, Queen of Scots, which was handwritten the night before she was executed in 1587 (possibly the last thing she ever wrote), the ‘Penicuik Jewels’ which she is thought to have given away on the day of her death and Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing depicting her entering the hall, disrobing, and placing her head on the block (pictured right). Other items on show include King Henry VIII’s Great Bible (dating from 1540, it was later inherited by Elizabeth I), Elizabeth I’s mother-of-pearl locket ring (c1575) containing miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn, and the warrant confining Mary, Queen of Scots, in Lochleven Castle in 1567. The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of events. Runs until 20th February. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk/events/elizabeth-and-mary.

Nineteenth century African-American abolitionists Ellen and William Craft have been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at their former Hammersmith home. The Crafts escaped from enslavement in Georgia in the US in December, 1848, and fled to Britain, settling in a mid-Victorian house at 26 Cambridge Grove where they raised a family and campaigned for an end to slavery. The Crafts returned to the US following the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people and settled in Boston with three of their children. In 1873, they established the Woodville Cooperative Farm School in Bryan County, Georgia, for the children of those who had been emancipated. Ellen died in Georgia in 1891 and William in Charleston in 1900.

Melissa Thompson standing beside Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of Melissa Thompson, 2020, now on display at the V&A © Victoria and Albert Museum

American artist Kehinde Wiley’s monumental Portrait of Melissa Thompson has gone on display in the V&A’s British Galleries, alongside William Morris’s Wild Tulip designs that inspired it. The massive oil painting, which was created as part of Wiley’s series The Yellow Wallpaper and was first exhibited at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in 2020, was acquired earlier this year and is being displayed as part of a series of initiatives marking the 125th anniversary of William Morris’s death this October. The painting will be displayed in the William Morris Room (room 125) until 2024, after which it will move to its permanent home at V&A East Museum in 2025. Admission is free. For more, head to vam.ac.uk.

Send all items to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

Famous Londoners – Charles Cruft…

His surname now synonymous with the famous annual dog show, Charles Cruft is credited as taking the concept of dog shows to a whole new level.

Charles Cruft (picture from From Dog shows and doggy people (1902) by Charles Henry Lane).

Cruft was born, thought to have been in Bloomsbury, on 28th June, 1852, and attended Ardingly College in Sussex, before initially following on in his father’s footsteps and working in the family jewellery business (while taking evening classes briefly at Birkbeck College).

But it was his next move, taking on the role of office boy in the Holborn shop of “dog cake” manufacturer James Spratt that brought him into the world of canines.

Cruft quickly moved into sales and then management at the firm and it was while on a trip to Europe that he was given the opportunity to run the dog show at the third World’s Fair in 1878 (he married Charlotte Hutchinson, with whom he had four children, the same year). Further offers to run shows followed and in 1886, he was approached to run a dog show for terriers in London by the Duchess of Newcastle.

The show – billed as the “the first great show of all kinds of terriers” – opened at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster on 10th March that year and further annual shows, expanding into other breeds, followed. In 1891, his name was added to the event with the “Cruft’s Greatest Dog Show” held at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington with 2,437 entries and 36 breeds.

So popular had the shows become that Queen Victoria and Russian Tsar were among the exhibitors (Cruft did also try his hand at cat shows in 1894 and 1895 but it was a short-lived venture).

By 1914, Cruft’s show had become the largest in the world and in 1936, when it celebrated its ‘Golden Jubilee’ (or 50th anniversary), there were more than 10,000 dogs entered.

Cruft, who had married his second wife Emma Isabel Hartshorn in 1894 following Charlotte’s death (they had no children together), died of a heart attack on 10th September, 1938. He was buried 11 days later in the western area of Highgate Cemetery (the tomb is now Grade II-listed). Tributes flowed in and apparently included comparisons to American showman PT Barnum.

Emma took over the running of the show following his death and since 1948, the show has been run by the Kennel Club. 

There’s a plaque on the home where he died in Highbury Grove in Highbury (other London residences included 325 Holloway Road).

Where’s London’s oldest…flyover?

PICTURE: Teseum (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

The oldest flyover in central London was actually built well before the first automobile.

Spanning the Fleet River valley, it was built between 1863 and 1869 and, spanning Farringdon Street below (which follows the line of the Fleet (now beneath the ground), it linked the City of London with Holborn (or more specifically Holborn with Newgate Street).

Statue of commerce on the flyover. PICTURE: steve_w (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The flyover was designed by City of London surveyor William Heywood. It was part of a number of improvements designed to create better access to the City from the West End.

A number of old buildings and indeed some entire streets had to be demolished before construction could begin and thousands of bodies buried in St Andrew Holborn’s northern churchyard had to be relocated.

Made of cast iron, the flyover is about 1400 feet (425 metres) long and 80 foot (24 metres) wide and features three spans – the largest in the middle – supported on granite pillars.

Pavilions containing stairs allowing pedestrians to move between levels were built at either end on both sides of the roadway (the two northern buildings are both replacements – the previous versions were demolished after being damaged during the Blitz and have been replaced in more recent years).

The decorations include a series of four bronze statues featuring Agriculture and Commerce on the south side (the work of Henry Bursill) and Fine Arts and Science on the north side (the work of firm Farmer & Brindley).

There are also statues of winged lions and globe lamps (the current lamps are replicas with the originals thought to have been destroyed during the Blitz) as well as well as the City of London’s coat-of-arms and dragons.

The buildings containing the stairs, meanwhile, each feature a statue of a famous medieval Londoner on the facade – merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), engineer Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631), and Mayors Sir William Walworth (d.1385) and Henry Fitz Ailwin (1135-1212).

The viaduct was opened by Queen Victoria on 6th November, 1869. It was listed as Grade II in 1972.

LondonLife – Lost ‘garden snug’ recreated at Red House…

The new garden snug with the Red House in the background. PICTURE: © National Trust/Chris Davies

A lost ‘garden snug’ has been recreated at 19th century designer William Morris’ Arts & Crafts home, Red House, in Bexleyheath. Inspired by the original notes of architect Philip Webb, the design draws on an ordnance survey map from when Morris and his family were residents at the house between 1860-1865 which shows outdoor spaces separated into different ‘rooms’. Photos of the garden from the 1890s were also used to guide the project. The 100 square metre garden is enclosed with traditional hazel and hawthorn and the planting inside its bounds references some iconic Morris & Co designs like ‘Trellis’, ‘Daisy’ and ‘Fruit’. At the centre is a Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) and the garden also features traditional cottage plants like Shasta daisies, columbines, honeysuckle, irises, peonies, jasmine and mock orange. Around the central tree are specially commissioned wooden seats from Scottish craftsman Angus Ross with distinctive two-metre high arches designed to echo the house’s medieval-inspired architecture. For more, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house.

The Red House and lawn seen from the south east. PICTURE: © National Trust/Andrew Butler.

Lost London – The Maharajah’s Fountain…

Former site of The Maharajah’s Fountain, looking into Hyde Park from Bayswater Road (you can see the plaque to the left of the path). PICTURE: Google Maps.

Once located in Hyde Park, this drinking fountain was a gift from Maharajah Meerza Vijiaram Gajapati Raj Manea Sooltan Bahadoor of Vijianagram (a small princely state once located in what is now the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh).

Installed in 1867 by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, the towering structure in the neo-Gothic style was apparently designed by the architect Robert Keirle (also the designer of the Readymoney Fountain in The Regent’s Park).

It was installed close to the park’s north-east corner (between North Carriage Drive and Bayswater Road, not far west of Marble Arch).

The fountain was eventually removed in 1964 (apparently due to the prohibitive cost of repairing it). A plaque these days marks its location.

10 London memorials to foreign leaders…3. Simón Bolívar…

PICTURE: Rept0n1x (licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0/image cropped)
PICTURE: Another Believer (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of a cluster of statues depicting foreign leaders around Belgravia Square (thanks to the presence of so many foreign embassies in the area), this work depicting Simón Bolívar, a towering figure in the early 19th century liberation of South America from colonial powers, was erected in 1974.

The bronze, by Hugo Daini, shows Bolívar standing as though about to make a speech

The inscription describes Bolívar as the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama and the founder of Bolivia and also mentions the details of his birth – Caracas, Venezuela, 24th July, 1783 – and death – Santa Maria, Colombia, 17th December, 1830.

It is accompanied by a quote on the side of the pedestal, featuring words attributed to Bolívar: “I am convinced that England alone is capable of protecting the world’s precious rights as she is great, glorious and wise”.

The statue was erected by the aforementioned nations (the coats-of-arms of which are on the plinth) and unveiled in by James Callaghan, then Foreign Secretary (and later PM).

A Moment in London’s History – The opening of Royal Albert Hall…

Crowds gathered at the Opening of Royal Albert Hall, on 29th March, 1871, as seems in the Illustrated London News, on the 8th April, 1871.

Next week sees the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary concert taking place, one of a number of events to mark the anniversary of the hall’s opening.

This spectacular building in South Kensington was officially opened on 29th March, 1871, as The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences (the opening was actually brought forward from 1st May – 20th anniversary of the opening of the Great Exhibition – at the request of Queen Victoria).

The Queen had laid the foundation stone in 1867 and the work on the building, the creation of which was partly funded by profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851, was complete by the end of 1870 (at least its structure – much of the interior decoration was apparently added later).

An image of the interior of the hall during the opening ceremony on 29th March. 1871. The illustration originally appeared in The Graphic. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia.

Queen Victoria and members of the Royal Family left Buckingham Palace in a line of state carriages for the event at noon escorted by the Royal Horse Guards Blue. Large crowds lined the route of her passage and a guard of honour composed of the Grenadiers stood opposite the entrance.

On arriving, the Queen was met by the Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), members of the building committee and some of those who has served as commissioners of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Queen processed to a dais inside the building’ auditorium where some 8,000 dignitaries and invited guests waited in the audience. But she was apparently too overcome by memories of her late husband – Prince Albert, after whom the building as named – to give a speech. So it was the Prince who did so, although the Queen did reportedly add her own comments, saying according to an account in The Guardian: “I cannot but express my great admiration for this beautiful building, and my earnest wishes for its complete success.”

A battery of artillery performed a salute in nearby Hyde Park after which the Queen and Royal Family took their seats in the Royal Box to watch the musical program that followed. The Queen then returned to Buckingham Palace.

Interestingly, the first concert at the hall, held to test acoustics, actually took place month earlier on 25th February for an audience of some 7,000 people made up of those who had worked on the building and their families as well as officials and various invited members of the public.

Famous Londoners – Sir Rowland Hill…

Famous for his reform of the postal system, Sir Rowland Hill was a national celebrity during the Victorian era.

Born in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, on 3rd December, 1795, Rowland was the son of schoolmaster Thomas Wright Hill. Educated in his father’s school, Hill Top, in a Birmingham suburb, it was determined he would follow in his father’s footsteps at an early age and by the age of 12 had become a student teacher and in 1819 helped his family establish new model school, Hazelwood, in Edgbaston near Birmingham. In 1827, he was also involved with his family in establishing another new school, Bruce Castle School, in Tottenham, Middlesex.

Statue of Sir Rowland Hill in London. PICTURE: Julian Osley (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/image cropped)

That same year, Hill married Caroline Pearson, who originally came from Wolverhampton, and together they had four children – three daughters Eleanor, Clara and Louisa and a son Pearson.

In the following years, Hill became involved in campaigns to colonise South Australia and in 1835 he joined the South Australian Colonisation Commission as Secretary, a role which he held until 1839 (interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly given his interest, Hill’s sister Caroline would later emigrate to South Australia with her family).

Hill was in his early 40s when he became interested in reforming the postal system – what to be his life’s great work. In 1837, he published his influential pamphlet, Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, in which he argued for consistency in the system including pre-payment of standardised charges for sending mail.

Hill believed that if letters were cheap to send, more people – including the poorer classes – would send more and thus the profitability of the system would increase (a thought which proved true). It’s said, although whether it’s true or not is uncertain, that Hill became interested in reforming the postal system after he noticed a young woman who too poor to claim a letter sent to her by her fiancé (at the time it was usually the recipients who paid for the letter’s mailing).

Only three years later,  Parliament passed the Penny Postage Act which saw the world’s first official postage stamps – the penny black and the two-penny black – issued. Hill and his family had by then moved to Orme Square in Bayswater (there’s now an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the property).

After the new government of Sir Robert Peel took office in 1841, Hill was dismissed and, joining the London and Brighton Railway as a director in 1843, relocated to Brighton.

But Hill was able to resume his postal reform efforts in 1846 after another change of government saw him appointed Secretary to the Postmaster-General. In 1854, he was appointed Secretary to the Post Office, a job he held until his retirement in 1864 due to ill health.

Hill was knighted in 1860. He spent the last 30 years of his life at  Bartram House, Hampstead, and it was there he died 27th August, 1879 (a plaque now marks the house). He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

There are several public statues commemorating Hill include a bronze which, created in 1881, stands in King Edward Street in London (pictured).

LondonLife – Hampstead Heath Act turns 150…

PICTURE: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

This month marks 150 years since the passing of the Hampstead Heath Act, which confirmed the heath as a public open space, and, to celebrate, the City of London Corporation, the Heath & Hampstead Society and other partners have launched a year of commemorations. Upcoming planned highlights include an outdoor exhibition showcasing the heath’s history and the significance of the 1871 Act which will be launched on the heath (on the main path leading onto the heath from the Hampstead Heath Overground Station) on 23rd June, a community fun day (27th June), an outdoor cinema screening (8th September), a summer music event (tentatively scheduled for 5th September) and historic walks as well as an Historic Postcard Project featuring an interactive online map with historic images of the heath. For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/hampstead-heath.

10 London hills – 9. Highgate Hill…

Highgate Hill seen from Hampstead Health (with the spire of St Michael’s visible). PICTURE: Adrian Scottow (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/image cropped)

This hill in the city’s north rises 136 metres (446 feet) above sea level and is said to take its name from a tollgate the Bishop of London once erected on the summit.

The hill, which stands to the northeast of the expansive Hampstead Heath and south of Highgate Wood, is topped by Highgate Village, long a fashionable residential district which features some significant 18th century buildings. It boasts views of central London.

Landmarks include the famous Highgate Cemetery – resting place to everyone from Karl Max to George Eliot and Douglas Adams – and the Highgate School, established on 1565 to educate the poor and now a rather exclusive – and expensive – establishment (the school, incidentally, was built on the site of an earlier hermitage). TS Eliot was a former master there and students included Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman.

Other buildings of note include The Flask pub, St Michael’s Church (dating from 1831) and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church (dating from 1888).

Famous residents have included Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (he was originally buried in a crypt below the school’s chapel but his remains were relocated to St Michael’s Church in 1961) while 16th and early 17th century philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon died in what was then called Arundel House (now The Old Hall) in 1626. Classical scholar and poet AE Housman’s former house at 17 North Road is marked with an English Heritage Blue Plaque.

Highgate Hill is also famous for being where, so the story goes, Dick Whittington, who was accompanied by his cat, heard the Bow bells and felt called back to London (there’s a monument to Whittington and his cat close to the bottom of Highgate Hill Road).

LondonLife – The Bow Street Police Museum opens its doors…

The Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in 2006, the year of its closure. PICTURE: Edward (public domain)

The Bow Street Police Museum, located on the site of the 1881 Bow Street Magistrates’ Court and Police Station, has opened its doors in Covent Garden. The museum tells the story of the early Bow Street Runners, the first official law enforcement service in the city, and the Metropolitan Police officers who came after. Visitors can explore the former cells and hear the stories of those who once worked in the building. The connections between Bow Street and the constabulary dates back to 1740 when Thomas de Veil opened a Magistrates’ Court in his family home at number four Bow Street in the 18th century and continued until the closure of the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in 2006. Among the famous faces who passed through Bow Street’s police station and court over that time were Oscar Wilde, Suffragettes Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst and Mrs Drummond, and the Kray twins. For more, head to https://bowstreetpolicemuseum.org.uk.

This Week in London – Nero at the British Museum; Stephen Hawking’s office to be recreated at the Science Museum; and, Blue Plaque for Indian engineer Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia…

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Head from a bronze statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England, AD 54– 61. PICTURE: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A bronze head of the Roman Emperor Nero found in the River Alde in Suffolk – long wrongly identified as being that of the Emperor Claudius – and the Fenwick Hoard – which includes Roman coins, military armlets and jewellery – are among the star sights at a new exhibition on Nero at the British Museum. Nero: the man behind the myth is the first major exhibition in the UK which takes Rome’s fifth emperor as its subject. The display features more than 200 objects charting Nero’s rise to power and his actions during a period of profound social change and range from graffiti and sculptures to manuscripts and slave chains. Other highlights include gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii, a warped iron window grating burnt during the Great Fire of Rome of 64 AD, and frescoes and wall decorations which give some insight into the opulent palace he built after the fire. The exhibition, which opens today, runs until 24th October in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/nero/events.aspx.

The office of late theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking will be recreated at the Science Museum, it was announced this week. The contents of the office, which Hawking, the author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time, occupied at Cambridge’s department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics from 2002 until shortly before his death in 2018, includes reference books, blackboards, medals, a coffee maker and Star Trek mementoes as well as six of his wheelchairs and the innovative equipment he used to communicate. The museum, which reportedly initially plans to put the objects on display in 2022 and later recreate the office itself, has acquired the contents through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, which allows families to offset tax (his archive will go to the Cambridge University Library under the same scheme).

Nineteenth century civil engineer Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia – the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Society – has been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former Richmond home. The plaque, which can be found on 55 Sheen Road – the villa Cursetjee and his British family moved to upon his retirement in 1868, was installed to mark the 180th anniversary of his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Cursetjee is considered the first modern engineer of India and was the first Indian at the East India Company to be placed in charge of Europeans. He was at the forefront of introducing technological innovations to Mumbai including gaslight, photography, electro-plating and the sewing machine. Cursetjee first visited London in 1839 and travelled regularly been Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and London until his retirement. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques.

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Famous Londoners – Thomas Crapper…

One of the most famous plumbers in the world, Thomas Crapper was the founder of London-based sanitary equipment company, Thomas Crapper & Co, and a man whose name has become synonymous with toilets (although he was not, contrary to popular belief, the inventor of the flushing toilet).

A portrait of Thomas Crapper. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia.

Crapper was born in the town of Thorne in Yorkshire in 1836, the son of Charles Crapper, a sailor (his exact birthday is unknown but he was baptised on 28th September, so it’s thought to have been around that time).

In 1853, he was apprenticed to his brother George, a master plumber based in Chelsea, and, having subsequently gained his own credentials, established himself as a sanitary engineer in Marlborough Road in 1861 (he had married his cousin, Maria Green, the previous year).

Sometime in the late 1860s, in a move some saw as scandalous, his company became the first to open public showrooms displaying sanitary-related products. He was also a strong advocate for the installation of flushing toilets in private homes.

While not the inventor of the modern flushing toilet (that is often credited to Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1595, although there are even earlier examples), he was responsible for a number of advances in the field including making design improvements to the floating ballcock, a tank-filling mechanism, and the U-bend, an improvement on the S-bend.

Crapper’s company did have some high profile clients – in the 1880s it supplied the plumbing at Sandringham House in Norfolk for then Prince Albert (later King Edward VII). This resulted in Crapper’s first Royal Warrant and the company would go on to receive others from both Albert, when king, and King George V.

Crapper’s branded manhole covers, meanwhile, can still be seen in various parts of London, including around Westminster Abbey where he laid drains. His name can also be found on what are said to be London’s oldest public toilets.

Thomas Crapper & Company logo. PICTURE: Oxyman (licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Crapper retired in 1904 (his wife had died two years earlier) and the firm passed to his nephew George (son of his plumber brother George) and his business partner Robert Marr Wharam (the firm, Thomas Crapper & Company, continues to this day – now based in Huddersfield, it still sells a range of vintage bathroom products).

Having spent some time commuting from Brighton, Thomas lived the last six years of his life at 12 Thornsett Road, Anerley, in south-east London (the house now bears a plaque). He died on 27th January, 1910, of colon cancer and was buried at Elmer’s End Cemetery nearby.

While it is often claimed that it’s thanks to Thomas Crapper and his toilets that the word ‘crap’ came to mean excrement, the word is actually of Middle English origin and was already recorded as being associated with human waste when Crapper was just a young boy.

But there is apparently more truth to the claim that toilets became known as ‘crappers’ thanks to Thomas Crapper’s firm. It was apparently American servicemen who, when stationed overseas during World War I, encountered Crapper’s seemingly ubiquitous branding on toilets in England and France and, as a result, started referring to toilets as such.

London Explained – The Tube…

Commonly used as a nickname to describe the London Underground, the “Tube” is an obvious reference to shape of the tunnels themselves.

Construction of the Tube at Mile End (c1946). PICTURE: The National Archives UK (London Transport Museum © Transport for London)

The word is believed to have been first popularised around 1890. Underground lines had previously been constructed using the ‘cut and cover’ method – that is, digging out the trench for the Underground line, lining the tunnel with iron and them covering it.

Thanks to its depth (due to the fact it had to pass under the Thames), City and South London Railway’s line from King William Street (a now disused station) to Stockwell was the first to be created by boring a tunnel through the earth and then lining it to create a tube. The line, a forerunner of what is now the Northern Line, opened in December, 1890. It was the first true ‘tube’ of the Underground system.

The construction of the line was followed in 1900 by the opening of the Central London Railway’s line from Shepherd’s Bush to Bank (now part of the Central Line) which was given the nickname the “Twopenny Tube”.

The name stayed and was soon applied to the entire network of Underground lines (and interestingly, it wasn’t until 1908 that the word “Underground” first appeared in stations).