Located in Chancery Lane, this “House for Converts” – for Jews who converted to Christianity – was founded in 1232 by King Henry III.

The buildings, which included a chapel as well as living quarters, provided a communal home for residents – needed because when they converted, they forfeited all their possessions to the king.

Chaplains were employed to teach the new converts and a warden appointed to manage their day-to-day living.

The Royal Treasury bore the expenses of the institution which included paying its residents a small income (although the annual grant from treasury apparently wasn’t always forthcoming leaving the residents destitute) and it was supplemented with a poll tax called the “chevage” levied on all Jews over the age of 12.

In 1290, King Edward I expelled the Jews from England. Residence here was officially the only way Jewish people could remain and some 80 residents apparently did so.

It’s said that apart from these original 80 residents (the last of whom – said to be a woman called Claricia of Exeter – died in 1356), only some 50 further converts were admitted between 1331 and 1608.

By the early 17th century, records of the buildings’ use as a house for Jewish converts had come to an end. The main residential building was destroyed in 1717 to make room for a new house for the Master of the Rolls – the chapel was at this stage being used as a storehouse for the rolls of Chancery.

Subsequently known as the ‘Rolls Chapel’, it was eventually largely demolished to make way for an extension to the Public Records Office which had been built on the site in 1851.

But some monuments from it are preserved in part of the former PRO known as the ‘Weston Room’ (pictured below).

In the late 1990s, the PRO moved out to Kew where it formed part of the National Archives. The building was acquired by King’s College London in 2000 and is now the Maughan Library.

PICTURES: Top – The Maughan Library (FormerBBC; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0); Below – The Weston Room in what is now the Maughan Library (Cmglee; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Advertisements


The first purpose-built luxury hotel built in Britain (and often referred to as London’s “most famous” hotel), The Savoy opened its doors on 6th August, 1889.

Located on the river side of the Strand on the site of what had been the medieval Savoy Palace (its most famous resident was John of Gaunt), the hotel was built by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte using profits made from his staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, some of which were performed in the neighbouring Savoy Theatre.

The now Grade II-listed building, which apparently had no overall architect in its initial design process, exuded opulence and its interiors included the latest in modern amenities such as electric lighting and lifts, en suite bathrooms in most of the guest rooms and constant cold and hot running water.

César Ritz, who would later rise to fame as the owner of The Ritz Hotel in Paris and then London (see our recent post), was hired as the manager and Auguste Escoffier as the chef. Together they oversaw the introduction of a new, unprecedented level of hotel service which would set the standard for future enterprises. This included keeping a comprehensive index of guest’s tastes and preferences and saw Escoffier revolutionise the restaurant industry in the country with the creation of various “stations” in the kitchen (his pots and pans are apparently still at the hotel).

The hotel was expanded in 1903-04 under the eye of architect Thomas Edward Collcutt (the designer of Wigmore Hall) with new east and west wings and the main entrance was moved from the river side of the building to Savoy Court running off The Strand. The Front Hall is a survivor of this period while the Lancaster Ballroom dates from 1910.

The hotel underwent further remodelling in the 1920s – it was during this period that the famous stainless steel sign over the Savoy Court entrance, designed by art deco architect Howard Robertson (later Sir Howard), was created (Savoy Court incidentally is the only street in the UK where traffic must keep to the right – more on that another time). The sign is topped with a gilt statue of Peter of Savoy, the uncle to King Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence (pictured below). It was Peter who first built the Savoy Palace on the land where the hotel now stands. The sign, meanwhile, was created for the 1904 extension but placed here during the 1920s works.

Further modifications – including the introduction of air conditioning – followed in later decades. The hotel now boasts some 267 rooms and suites (the latter include the Royal Suite which spans the entire riverside of the fifth floor), many of which feature panoramic views of the River Thames.

Famous guests over the years have included royalty such as King Edward VII (when Prince of Wales) as well as more recent royals, French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Henry Irving and Sir Laurence Olivier. It’s also hosted a who’s who of Hollywood – everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne – and US President Harry S Truman.

Others associated with the hotel include opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – the dessert known as a Peach Melba was created here in her honour, and artist Claude Monet, who painted Waterloo Bridge from a position on one of the balconies.

Among other significant events to take place within its walls was a 1905 “Gondola Party” hosted by American millionaire George A Kessler which saw the central courtyard flooded as part of a recreation of Venice with guests dining on an enormous gondola and entertainment featuring singer Enrico Caruso.

In 1953, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the hotel hosted a ball attended by 1,400 of the rich and famous with special touches including 16 Yeoman Warders from the Tower of London who lined the entrance staircase.

Films shot here include Kipps (1921), based on a HG Wells novel (Wells was in attendance during the filming), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Notting Hill (1999).

The Savoy remained in the Carte family until it was bought by an American private equity house in 1998 and eventually sold, in the mid-2000s, to become part of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts of Canada.

Closed in late 2007 for a complete renovation (the cost of which has been put at £220 million), it reopened in October, 2010. Among restaurants and bars now in the premises are the Thames Foyer restaurant – hosted in a glass atrium, it’s where afternoon tea is taken, the American Bar – described as the oldest cocktail bar in Britain, the Beaufort Bar, and the restaurant Kaspar’s.

The latter is named after the hotel’s oldest “employee” – Kaspar the Cat. Carved in 1927 by Basil Ionides, the cat was created to act as a 14th guest in the private dining rooms when 13 guests were present, a figure which was considered unlucky and which, tradition held, meant the first person to leave the table would one the first to die.

Its origins go back to 1898 when a wealthy South African by the name of Woolf Joel apparently scoffed at the idea of 13 being an unlucky number at the table and volunteered to leave it first. He was shot dead back in South Africa just a few week’s later. In the wake of his death, management at the hotel decreed that any table of 13 would be joined by a staff member.

But this was only a short-term solution – not only there was there the privacy of diners to consider, the fact staff would be a person down when this was required was a problem. So when Ionides redecorated the private dining room ‘Pinafore’ in the 1920s, he created the cat, complete with napkin, to fulfil the role of the 14th diner. And so he has ever since. Kaspar, the subject of a children’s book written by Michael Morpugo in 2008, can these days be found in Kaspar’s or, when not working, in the Front Hall.

For more, see www.thesavoylondon.com

This Piccadilly institution was constructed from 1904 to 1906 and takes its name from Swiss hotelier César Ritz.

It was constructed on the site of a former coaching inn for the Blackpool Building and Vendor Company – it was the first steel-framed building in London – and designed by Mewés and Davis, the architects of the Paris Ritz. And even though Ritz himself was apparently actually retired at the time, it was built according to his specifications.

The exterior facade features Norwegian granite and Portland stone and boasts an arcade on Piccadilly which deliberately evokes the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The interior, the work of Waring and Gillow, is designed in the style of Louis XVI and was designed to be opulent with all rooms featuring a working fireplace.

Public spaces include the Palm Court – famous for its traditional afternoon teas –  and a Michelin-starred restaurant with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Green Park. Other features include the Rivoli Bar, designed in 2001 by Tessa Kennedy to resemble the bar in the Orient Express, and the basement Ritz Club, a private casino.

The now Grade II*-listed hotel was officially opened by Ritz himself on 24th May, 1906, and was soon adopted by the rich and famous – the patronage of the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VIII) after the death of King Edward VII was one key reason for its success.

Actor Charlie Chaplin, who apparently had to have 40 police hold back the crowd to enter the hotel, is also a name famously associated with it as is that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova who performed here.

The Aga Khan and Paul Getty both had suites, and playwright Noel Coward and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, regularly dined here while Tallulah Bankhead famously sipped champagne from a slipper in the bar. The Marie Antoinette Suite was also famously the location of a conference between Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle during World War II.

The hotel also featured in 1999 film Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, and in the more recent TV drama Downton Abbey.

The five star hotel underwent a major 10 year refurbishment after it was acquired by the Barclay brothers in 1995. The complex these days includes the adjoining 18th century property William Kent House (designed, of course, by William Kent).

In 2001, the hotel was awarded the first Royal Warrant for Banqueting and Catering Services. Other boasts these days include being the only UK hotel to have a certified tea sommelier (among teas served is the hotel’s own Ritz Royal Blend).

For more, see www.theritzlondon.com.

The “lost garden” of Sir Walter Raleigh opens at the Tower of London on Saturday, marking the 400th anniversary of the famous explorer’s death. Sir Walter, an adventurer who was a court favourite in the time of Queen Elizabeth I and enemy of King James I, was imprisoned in the tower on three occasions, at times living there with his wife and family, before he was eventually executed  on 29th October, 1618. Held in the Bloody Tower, he used the courtyard outside to grow plants from the New World and experiment with ingredients from an “elixir of life”. The gardens, which occupy the spot where the original apothecary garden once stood and are now a new permanent display at the tower, features a range of fragrant herbs, fruit and flowers. There’s also information on how they were used by Raleigh and his wife, Bess Throckmorton, to create herbal remedies and the chance for green-fingered families to concoct their own elixir. Meanwhile, the Bloody Tower has been revamped with a combination of film, sound, graphics and tactile objects to provide an insight into Raleigh’s times of imprisonment at the tower. Sir Walter and his wife Bess will also be present, entertaining crowds on Tower Green with stories of his adventures. Included in the usual admission price. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon.

The Domesday book, the earliest surviving public record in the UK, forms the centrepiece of a new exhibition looking at the history, art, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England which opens at the British Library tomorrow. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War spans the six centuries from the end of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest. As well as the Domesday documents – last displayed in London seven years ago and on loan from The National Archives, among the 180 treasures are the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as well as finds from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. The Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, returns to England for the first time in 1,300 years. The exhibition, which runs until 19th February, is being accompanied by a series of talks and events. Admission charge applies. For more, see http://www.bl.uk. PICTURE: © The National Archives.

A series of 20 new works by London women artists go on display in public spaces across the city from today. The free exhibition, LDN WMN, is being curated by the Tate Collective as part of the Mayor of London’s #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign marking the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. It features large installations, paintings and digital graphics in bringing the hidden stories of some of London’s pioneering and campaigning women to life. They include that of reporter and activist Jackie Foster, suffragist Lolita Roy, SOE operative Noor Inayat Khan and the women who built Waterloo Bridge. The artworks, by artists including Soofiya, Manjit That and Joey Yu, will be displayed in locations from Canning Town to Alexandra Palace, Brick Lane to Kings Cross. For locations, head to www.london.gov.uk/about-us/mayor-london/behindeverygreatcity/visit-ldn-wmn-series-free-public-artworks.

Phoenixes, dragons, griffins and other fantastic beasts take over Hampton Court Palace this half-term, bringing the fantasy children’s book series and gaming brand Beast Quest to life. The interactive experience will see families pitted against strange and magical beasts in a quest which will require bravery, quick-thinking and new found skills. The Beast Quest experience is suitable for all the family and takes about one hour, 15 minutes to complete. Runs from Saturday to 28th October and is included in the usual palace admission price. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/.

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

This gothic drinking fountain located in the centre of the Broad Walk in The Regent’s Park takes its name from Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, whose nickname, thanks to his business success, was ‘Readymoney’.

A wealthy industrialist from Bombay, Sir Cowasjee donated the four-sided fountain to the park in 1869 as a thank-you for the protection he and fellow Parsees received from British rule in India (hence why the fountain is also sometimes called the Parsee Fountain).

Made from 10 tonnes of Sicilian marble and four tonnes of red Aberdeen granite, it was designed by Robert Keirle – architect to The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association – and made by sculptor Henry Ross (at a cost of £1,400).

Set on an octagonal stepped base, it features a basin on each of the four sides. Decorative elements above the basins include carved marble panels featuring a lion and a Brahmin bull.

Three of the gables feature a small bust – one of Queen Victoria, another of Prince Albert and another of Readymoney himself. The fourth has a clock instead.

The now Grade II-listed fountain was erected by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association and unveiled by Princess Mary of Teck (later Queen Mary, wife of King Edward VII) on 1st August, 1869 (she also has some gardens in the park named after her).

The fountain was restored in 1999-2000 and again in 2016-17. The water no longer flows but it remains as a memorial to Sir Cowasjee’s story.

PICTURES: Top – Peter Smyly (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0); Right – Chmee2 (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0) Images cropped.

An English author who originally hailed from the west of England (possibly Wales), William Baldwin wrote and published a number of works in the mid-1500s while living in London and has been credited, thanks to his satirical work, Beware the Cat, as being the author of the first English novel.

Baldwin is believed to have studied at Oxford prior to coming to London where, from 1547, he worked with the printer Edward Whitchurch – who had apparently set up shop at Wynkyn de Worde’s former printworks at the Sign of the Sun (now at the Stationer’s Hall, just off Ludgate Hill – pictured) – as a corrector.

Whitchurch also published Baldwin’s works including the popular Treatise of Moral Philosophy (1547) and Canticles or Balades of Salomon (1549), which was dedicated to a young King Edward VI and was a translation of the Biblical book, Song of Songs.

His other works included being the editor and key contributor to the hugely popular and influential Mirror for Magistrates (1554) which was something of a cautionary tale for public officials, and the Marvelous History Entitled Beware the Cat, Concerning Diverse Wonderful and Incredible Matters (aka Beware the Cat).

The latter book, which is an attack on Catholicism, tells the story of a priest who uses alchemy to talk to cats and finds that, despite his low opinion of them, they actually live according to strict rules (reflecting on the arbitrary nature of the “rules” which govern everyday life).

While Baldwin is believed to have finished the work during the last months of the reign of King Edward VI (he died on 6th July, 1553), the subsequent accession of Queen Mary I and her tougher line on the press freedoms led Baldwin to postpone publication until 1561 by which time Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne.

Around the same time as he completed this work, Baldwin is said to have assisted the Royal Master of Revels, George Ferrers, in preparing Christmas festivities at the Royal Court – this was an occasional role he would perform beside his work with Whitchurch.

Baldwin’s last known work was The Funerals of King Edward the Sixth (1560). In 1563, he is believed to have been ordained a deacon and stepped away from the printing trade. He served in various clerical roles (there is an account of him preaching at Paul’s Cross) before dying some time prior to 1st November, 1563.

(With thanks to John N King’s 2004 article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

 

Adorned with giant beasts and topped with a statue of King George I, the steeple of this 18th century Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed English Baroque church is a sight to behold.

The unusual spire, which has topped the church since it was completed in 1731, is stepped like a pyramid and was apparently inspired by Pliny’s description of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World).

At its base can be seen four heraldic creatures – two 10 foot tall lions and two similarly-sized unicorns. They’re actually recreations of the originals by sculptor Tim Crawley based on drawings by Hawksmoor. The originals were removed – and subsequently lost – in 1870 amid fears they were about to topple off.

It’s suggested that lions and unicorns – which look as if they are in conflict over the crown in the middle – symbolise the tussle for the Crown as seen in the several Jacobite risings which took place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The statue on top has King George I dressed in Roman attire and standing on an altar as a symbol of St George – as clear a PR exercise as you’ll find on a steeple. It even featured in a verse by Horace Walpole:

“When Henry VIII left the Pope in the lurch,
The Protestants made him the head of the church,
But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people
Instead of the church, made him head of the steeple.”

The steeple did prove controversial when it was completed – the church commissioners initially refused to pay Hawksmoor, apparently deeming the spire too frivolous for such a serious building. But it was soon recognised as an important part of the landscape – it can be seen in the background of William Hogarth’s 1751 engraving Gin Lane.

In the mid-Noughties, the church and steeple, which had fallen into a state of dishevelment and was apparently on the verge of closure, underwent a major renovation. Funded by American Paul Mellon and the Heritage Lottery Fund, it saw the long-lost (albeit recreated) beasts returned to their place on the steeple (the project was recorded in detail by Harris Digital).

PICTURE: Right – Amanda Slater (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 – image cropped and straightened); Below – Londres Avanzado (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – image cropped and lightened).

 

To be held from 4pm today on the River Thames, Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race is a London institution. The race originated in 1715, and sees up to six apprentice watermen (this year there are two – Alfie Anderson and George McCarthy – rowing the four mile, seven furlong course stretching from London Bridge upriver to Cadogan Pier in Chelsea (these days under 11 bridges) as they compete for the prize of a coat and badge (pictured above). The race came about thanks to Thomas Doggett, a Dublin-born actor and noted Whig, who founded it in honour of the accession of the House of Hanover – in the form of King George I – on 1st August, 1714. Doggett himself personally organised the race for the first few years before leaving provisions in his will for it to be continued. It’s been run almost every year since – there was apparently a break during World War II. While it was initially rowed against the tide, since 1873 competitors have had the luxury of rowing with it, meaning race times have dropped from what sometimes stretched to as long as two hours to between 25 and 30 minutes. This year, the event is being held as part of the Totally Thames festival which, among its packed programme of events, also features a series of exhibitions about the race – titled ‘The World’s Oldest Boat Race’, being held at various locations. PICTURES: From The World’s Oldest Boat Race exhibitions. Top – Doggett’s Coat and Badge (© Hydar Dewachi); Below – ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge’, a coloured lithograph commissioned to mark the first publication of Guinness Book of World Records.

This month marks the 187 years since the opening of “new” London Bridge – the first bridge built over the Thames in London for more than 600 years.

Designed by John Rennie (who had won a competition, beating the likes of Thomas Telford for the honour), work on the new granite bridge had began in 1825 and was completed in 1831.

It was constructed alongside the medieval bridge which had been first completed in the 13th century and added to over the years since (and was eventually completely demolished after the opening of the ‘new’ bridge).

The ‘new’ bridge, said to have cost £506,000 to construct, was formally opened by King William IV on 1st August, 1831, in an event described by The Times as “the most splendid spectacle that has been witnessed on the Thames for many years”.

The royal party – which included Queen Adelaide – had approached the bridge, lined with flags for the occasion, after setting off from Somerset House amid cheering described as “almost deafening” (to add to cacophony of sound, church bells were rung and cannon fired throughout the day).

Watched by thousands of onlookers (who were entertained by bands at various locations), the royal party had processed their way downstream on the river to the bridge with the royal bargemen wearing new livery specially designed for the occasion. Two parallel lines of rivercraft – including barges and steamers – had gathered along the river to provide a sort of honour guard and ensure they had clear passage.

The royals arrived at the bridge at 4pm and the royal party made their way up red carpeted stairs to the bridge’s City end. Following a short ceremony in which the King was presented by the Lord Mayor of London with the sword and keys to the City of London as well as a specially made gold medal to mark the occasion, their Majesties then walked across from the across the bridge to the Southwark end where entertainments had included the ascension of a hot air balloon.

The King and the royal party then returned to the City end of the bridge to attend a banquet – guests were said to number 1,500 people – held under a pavilion erected atop the new structure.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that food was provided by a coffee house proprietor, a Mr Leech, and was said to include 150 hams and tongues, 370 “dishes of chickens”, and 300 turtles as well as 200 fruit tarts and 300 “ice-creams”.

The King and royal party then returned up the river.

Rennie’s bridge was replaced in the mid-20th century with another bridge which was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973 and rather than being demolished, was sold to US oil magnate Robert P McCulloch who had it dismantled and shipped to Arizona where it was reconstructed at Lake Havasu City where it can now be seen.

A couple of sections of the bridge survive in London – two of its pedestrian alcoves, one of which can be found in Victoria Park in London’s east and the other at King’s College London.

There is a famous painting – Clarkson Stanfield’s, The Opening of New London Bridge, 1 August 1831 – which captures the moment of the bridge’s opening and is part of the Royal Collection.

PICTURES: Top – ‘A View of the New London Bridge as It Appeared on the 1st August 1831, When Opened by His Majesty, King William the 4th’, Unknown artist, Lithograph on paper, Photo © Tate (licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)); Right – The alcove in Victoria Park (Public Domain).

Originally built as a dining hall for King Edward IV in the 1470s, the Great Hall is a survivor of the medieval royal palace that once stood on the site and later become incorporated into the Art Deco home created by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s.

The hall, which is comparable in size to that of Hampton Court Palace, was designed by Thomas Jordan, chief mason to the king, and Edmund Graveley, his chief carpenter.

It is 101 foot long and 36 foot wide and has a magnificent oak roof described as a ‘false’ hammerbeam construction (the ‘false’ because the posts are morticed into the ends of the hammerbeams rather than resting on them).

The hall would have once had a raised dais at one end while the other end joined to the rest of the would have featured a screen behind which doors led to a buttery, pantry and kitchen. A hearth was located near the dais end of the hall.

The windows, which are set high in the walls, would have been of stained glass (the stained glass there now was added in 1936 and is the work of George Kruger Gray) and the walls below them would have been decorated with tapestries.

Eltham was a favourite residence of King Edward IV and one of the most lavish feasts ever held there was at Christmas, 1482, when some 2,000 people were fed (it was the king’s last visit to the palace before his death the following April). The hall would have also been familiar to King Henry VIII who spent much of his childhood here but later in his life rarely came to Eltham.

King Charles I was the last king to visit the palace and in 1651 it was sold off by Parliament to Colonel Nathaniel Rich who, as well as demolishing many buildings, stripped the lead off the hall’s roof. The property was later used as a farm and the hall became a barn.

In the early 19th century a campaign was launched to save the hall from demolition which saw the roof propped up and during the latter half of the 1800s it was used as an indoor tennis court.

Further repairs were made in the 1890s and again between 1911 and 1914 when the roof was dismantled and reassembled under the direction of the Office of Works.

The Courtaulds, who had their spectacular adjoining property built in the 1930s, apparently intended to use the hall as a music room and carried out a number of repairs – including to the roof – and additions including a minstrel’s gallery (there is no evidence of such a feature in the original).

After World War II, the Ministry of Works assumed responsibility for the Great Hall (and other palace remains) – opening the hall to the public for three days a week – before in 1984 English Heritage took over management of the Great Hall (and later the entire site).

PICTURE: David Adams

WHERE: The Great Hall, Eltham Palace, Court Yard, Eltham, Greenwich (nearest train station is Mottingham); WHEN: 10am to 6pm Sunday to Friday; COST (without Gift Aid): £15 adults/£9 children/£13.50 concessions/£39 family (English Heritage members free); WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/.

 

This month marks 38 years since Alexandra Palace, known to many as the ‘People’s Palace’, in north London burned down – for the second time.

The palace – named for Princess Alexandra, wife of the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), and subsequently nicknamed ‘Ally Pally’ – was originally opened in 1873 as an entertainment and recreation centre inspired by the success of the Crystal Palace in London’s south.

But just 16 days later – having already attracted some 120,000-plus visitors – Alexandra Palace burned down when a fire started in the dome. A second palace complex was opened on the site two years later, on 1st May, 1875, and this palace, which a 1900 Act of Parliament declared was to remain forever available for public use, stood until 1980.

It served various purposes over the years including, of course, hosting various musical and threatrical events as well as hosting shooting events during the 1908 Olympics, acting as an internment camp during World War I, and being used as the transmitting centre for BBC radio and television – a role which saw it, in 1936, become the home of the world’s first regular public television service.

On 10th July, 1980 – having been transferred into the ownership of Haringey Council from the Greater London Council six months earlier and now in the early stages of a renovation project, it caught fire during a jazz festival.

Starting behind the venue’s historic Willis Organ in the Great Exhibition Hall, the fire spread through the roof and destroyed about a third of the building including the hall, Banqueting Suite, former roller rink and theatre dressing rooms. Only the Palm Court and area occupied by the BBC – including the theatre and transmitting tower – escaped damage (interestingly, the burnt out shell of the Great Hall featured in the film 1984, representing Victory Square).

The building was subsequently redeveloped and restored and reopened again on 17th March, 1988. Offering a range of recreational facilities including performance spaces, an ice rink, boating lake and animal enclosure, it now operates as a charitable trust administered by the London Borough of Haringey.

Grade II-listed since 1996, the palace is currently undergoing a £27 million restoration and development project which will see a new public space created in the East Court and allow visitor access to a range of historical artefacts, including photographs and early film, for the first time, as well as see the Victorian-era theatre restored.

The theatre will reopen in December but before that – on 1st September – will host the Proms with the BBC Concert Orchestra performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (the event is already sold out). For more, see www.alexandrapalace.com.

PICTURE: Alexandra Palace today (Dun.can (licensed under CC BY 2.0))

This grand mansion, which once stood on the south side of Soho Square (then called King’s Square), was built for James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth (and ill-fated illegitimate son of King Charles II) in the early 1680s during the early development of the square.

The duke only lived in the property briefly before he headed off to the Netherlands (and was later, in 1685, was executed on Tower Hill for his failed rebellion against the king).

The three storey brick house stood around three sides of a courtyard (some suggest it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren).

The house, which was left unfinished, stood empty for some time after the duke’s death before, in 1689, part of it was briefly turned into a chapel for Huguenot refugees, known as the L’Église du Quarré (they located in 1694).

The house was sold by the Duchess of Monmouth to Sir James Bateman, Lord Mayor of London and a Sub-Governor of the South Sea Company, in 1716, and subsequently remodelled, apparently to the designs of architect Thomas Archer.

Bateman died in 1718 and his eldest son, William (later 1st Viscount Bateman), lived here until 1739. The property was late let to a succession of dignitaries – including the French and Russian ambassadors – and briefly was under consideration for use as a boy’s school.

It was eventually demolished in 1773 and Bateman’s Buildings now occupy the site. A plaque identifies the site as the former location of the mansion.

PICTURE: An 18th century engraving of Monmouth House.

Jousting returns to Hampton Court Palace this weekend with visitors invited to join King Henry VIII and his court as they watch this sporting spectacle. Along with the thrills and spills of the tourney, visitors can also partake of the delights of Tudor food and music and a specially commissioned play featuring chief minister Thomas Cromwell as he prepares a royal banquet to celebrate the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. The event kicks off with a royal procession in which knights will greet the king with a display of heraldic pageantry before they head to the jousting arena at the East Front Gardens. Admission charge applies. Runs on 14th and 15th July. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk. PICTURE: A previous jousting event at Hampton Court Palace (David Adams).

Venture into the hidden world of shadows in a major new exhibition opening at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington on Friday. Afraid of the dark? takes visitors deep into underground caves, to the depths of the oceans and into the pitch blackness of night as it recreates habitats usually hidden from view and presents hundreds of incredible creatures, some brand new to science, which have adapted to a life without sunlight. The sensory display allows visitors to touch some of Britain’s nocturnal animals, hear the sounds of the deep sea, smell the distinctive aromas of a bat cave and see through the eyes of a cave boa using infrared technology. Runs until 6th January. Admission charge applies (children aged up to 16 are free). For more, see www.nhm.ac.uk.

Bauhaus designers and teachers Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy have been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at the Belsize Park home where they lived and worked in the 1930s. Gropius (1883-1969) founded the art school known as Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 with Breuer (1902-1981), who initially joined as a student before becoming director of furniture workshops in 1924, and Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) who joined the staff in 1923 and edited the house magazine and 14 books. All three went on to have successful careers in the field of design and architecture and live in flats in the Grade I-listed Isokon Building, completed in 1934 and originally known as the Lawn Road Flats, in Belsize Park. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.

Send all inclusions to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

The new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey open to the public on Monday. The museum galleries, located more than 50 feet above the abbey’s floor in the medieval Triforium, tell the 1,000 year history of the abbey through some of its greatest treasures. Entry to the Triforium – never before open to the public – is via the new Weston Tower, the first major addition to the abbey since 1745 which comes with previously unseen views of the neighbouring Palace of Westminster. The exhibition in the galleries, meanwhile, features some 300 objects and tells the abbey’s story around four major themes – building the abbey, worship and daily life, the abbey’s relationship to the monarchy and its role as a national place of commemoration and remembrance. Among the items on show are a column capital from the cloister of St Edward the Confessor’s Church (built around 1100), a scale model of the abbey commissioned by Sir Christopher Wren which features a never built massive central spire, The Westminster Retable (1259-69) – the oldest surviving altarpiece in England, the Litlyngton Missal – an illuminated 14th century service book, Queen Mary II’s Coronation Chair dating from 1689, the 2011 marriage licence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and early abbey guidebooks for visitors. The new galleries and tower were completed in a £22.9 million project funded through private donors and trusts. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.westminster-abbey.org/visit-us/plan-your-visit/the-queens-diamond-jubilee-galleries/.  PICTURES: Top – The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries; Right – The Weston Tower (Images courtesy of Westminster Abbey/Alan Williams).

The Royal Collection’s South Asian art goes on show at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace from tomorrow. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-6 centres on the historic four month visit made by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) to the subcontinent prior to his mother, Queen Victoria, being formally declared Empress of India. It brings together some of the finest examples of Indian design and craftsmanship in the Royal Collection including some of the 2,000 gifts presented to the Prince on his tour. Highlights include an enamelled gold and diamond perfume holder given by Ram Singh II, Maharajah of Jaipur, a 10 piece gold service given by the Maharaja of Mysore, and a jewelled walking stick featuring a concealed gun, thought to have been the gift of Maharao Ram Singh of Bundi. There are also enamelled peacock feather fans, a gold and emerald turban ornament, and a brooch and necklace featuring a depiction of the Prince and Princess of Wales. The display can be seen until 14th October. Admission charge applies. The exhibition is being shown alongside Splendours of the Subcontinent: Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts, which features highlights from the Royal Collection’s world-class holding of paintings and manuscripts from the region. For more, see www.royalcollection.org.uk.

British-born artist Thomas Cole’s depictions of the unspoiled American wilderness form the centre of a new exhibition at The National Gallery. Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire includes 58 works, mostly on loan from North American collections, including his iconic painting cycle The Course of Empire (1834-6), and the masterpiece that secured his reputation (and which has never been seen in the UK before), View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836). Cole’s paintings will be shown alongside those of artists who had the greatest influence on him including JMW Turner and John Constable. Opens on 11th June and runs until 7th October. Admission charge applies. As a bonus, The National Gallery is also hosting a free exhibition of a series of 10 works created by Ed Ruscha in response to Cole’s The Course of Empire. These can be seen in Room 1. Admission is free. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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


Formerly known as Walnut Tree Island (among other names), this Thames River island, which lies just upstream of Hampton Court Place, was once a playground for the wealthy and is now home to about 100 residents living in houseboats.

The island was once part of the manor of Hampton Court and by the mid-19th century was home to a number of squatter families who made a living by harvesting osiers (willow rods) used in basket weaving.

In 1850, it was purchased by a property speculator and lawyer Francis Kent (another name for the island was Kent’s Ait) who evicted the squatters and rented part of the island to Joseph Harvey, who established a pub called The Angler’s Retreat there. Another part he leased to a local boatbuilder and waterman named Thomas George Tagg who set up a boat rental and boat-building business there.

In the 1870s, Tagg – whose name became that of the island’s – took over the licence of the pub and built a larger, more imposing hotel in its place, transforming the backwater establishment into a high society favourite. Among its patrons were none other than Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

The island also become a mooring site for luxurious houseboats and by the 1880s, the island was ringed with the craft – among those who rented one was none other than JM Barrie, later the author of Peter Pan.

In 1911, Tagg’s original lease of the island ran out and it was subsequently taken by Fred Karno (formerly known as Fred Westcott), a theatre impresario who is credited with having ‘discovered’ Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and who had stayed in houseboats on the island.

He subsequently built a luxurious hotel there, The Karsino, which he sold in 1926, but which went on to change hands several time over the ensuring years (and names – it became known variously as the Thames Riviera and the Casino Hotel).

Eventually, in a badly dilapidated state, the hotel once known as The Karsino was demolished in 1971 (but not before putting in an appearance in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange).

Karno also owned a luxurious houseboat, the Astoria, which was once moored on the island but which is now owned by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour (who adapted it into a rather stylish recording studio in the Eighties – A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell were apparently both recorded here) and moored upstream on the northern bank of the Thames.

A road bridge was built to connect the island to the mainland in the 1940s – when the island was being used to produce munitions – but this collapsed in the 1960s.

A new bridge was built to the island in the 1980s and a small lagoon carved out of the centre to increase the number of mooring sites for houseboats.

No homes are these days permitted to be constructed on the island but it’s still a mooring place for houseboats, some 62, in fact. These days the island owned by an association of the houseboat owners who each have their own garden on the island.

In the centre of the island is a rather unique sundial (see below). And just to the south-east of Taggs Island lies the much smaller Ash Island; the stretch of water separating the two was apparently once known as Hog’s Hole.

PICTURES: Top – Houseboats on Taggs Island ( Motmit at en.wikipedia/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0) ; Right – The Karsino in 1924 (Adam37/licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0); Below – The sundial (stevekeiretsu/licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

We’re skipping upstream, past a few islands this week, to take a look at Thames Ditton Island which lies in Kingston Reach, above Teddington Lock. The island is the largest of a group of three which also includes Swan Island (the smallest) and Boyle Farm Island.

Located opposite the grounds of Hampton Court Palace (built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in the early 16th century and then, following his fall from grace, claimed by King Henry VIII in 1525), the 320 metre long Thames Ditton Island owes its existence to King Henry who had the river widened and straightened here so that he could use the river for an uninterrupted journey up the river from Westminster to Hampton Court. In doing so, the island was created.

Used as pasture land for the local manor (and known apparently at one point as Colly’s Ait, ait being a word for a river island, before being renamed Thames Ditton after the village on the west bank) for several centuries, the island became a popular recreation spot for the wealthy interested in water sports during the Edwardian era, thanks to the arrival of the railway in the area in the late 19th century.

The island is these days connected to the Thames Ditton bank by a 1930s suspension bridge which ends near the 13th century Ye Olde Swan pub. It is now home to more than 45 rather exclusive riverside properties (almost all are in stilts to help ward off the danger of flooding, a phenomenon with which long-term residents in the area are familiar).

Swan Island, while lies just to the south of Thames Ditton Island, is tiny and the location of the home of the ferryman, who up until 1911, would take people across the river to Hampton Court.

Further to the south likes Boyle Farm Island which also has a single house open it. It stands opposite the mainland property formerly known as Boyle Farm but now a nursing home known as the Home of Compassion.

Interestingly, while Thames Ditton Island is part of Greater London, Boyle Farm Island is part of Surrey (along with Thames Ditton village).

PICTURE: Andrew Lewin (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And so we come to one of the most curiously named, yet perhaps most famous, of all the Thames islands in London.

First, to the name. The almost nine acre island, which was previously divided into two and perhaps even three, was previously known by other names including Twickenham Ait and Parish Ait. A place of recreation since perhaps as early as the start of the 17th century – there’s an early reference to a bowling alley being located there, since at least the mid-18th century it was also home to an inn, known variously as The Ship and The White Cross.

During the 19th century, the island became a popular destination for steamer excursions and the inn was rebuilt on a grander scale in about 1830. It became famous for the eel pies that could be bought there – so popular were they that the island’s name was apparently changed in tribute (although there’s a very dubious story that it was King Henry VIII who first made the island’s eel pies famous by stopping to sample one from a stall there – that, however, seems unlikely).

Second, to the fame. Now known as the Eel Pie Hotel, in the first half of the 20th century the inn began an association with music which would see it one day make an important contribution to the development of British pop music.

Dances were held there in the 1920s and 30s and in the mid-1950s, jazz sessions were held there. By the Sixties, the venue – under the stewardship of Arthur Chisnall – had started to attract R&B bands and among those who played here in the following years were everyone from Eric Clapton (as part of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers) and The Rolling Stones to The Who, The Moody Blues, David Bowie and Rod Stewart. In 1967, the venue was forced to close due to the cost of repairs but reopened briefly in 1969 as ‘Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden’, attracting bands including Black Sabbath, Hawkwind and the Edgar Broughton Band.

The new venture didn’t last. Squatters moved in and in 1971, the hotel burned down in a “mysterious” fire while it was being demolished.

The island, the centre of which was again damaged by fire in 1996, now hosts about 50 homes and a few boatyards as well as other businesses and artist’s studios. It’s also home to the Twickenham Rowing Club, which was first established in 1860 and moved to the island in 1880.

While for many years it could only be accessed by ferry, the island can these days be accessed via a footbridge (the first bridge was installed in 1957 and replaced in 1998).

Notable residents on the island have included William Hartnell, the original Dr Who, and inventor Trevor Baylis (best known for the wind-up radio). The island has appeared in several books and TV shows including the 2005 series How To Start Your Own Country in which TV personality Danny Wallace attempted to “invade” the island. He was unsuccessful.

PICTURES: Above – Eel Pie Island from Twickenham. Below – A signboard tribute to the island’s musical heritage. (David Adams).

Celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, The Royal Academy of Arts opens its “new” expanded £56 million campus on Saturday.

Designed by Sir David Chipperfield, the new two acre Royal Academy campus features 70 per cent more public space than the RA’s original Burlington House blueprint which will enable the institution to expand its programs of exhibitions and events and create new free displays of art and architecture.

One of the key features of the redevelopment is the new Weston Bridge between the institution’s landmark property, Burlington House, and the RA’s formerly “unloved” building at 6 Burlington Gardens which unites the two-acre campus and creates a new route between Piccadilly and Mayfair.

The Grade II-listed building on Burlington Gardens, which the RA bought in 1991 and which was previously home to, among other things, the Museum of Mankind, has been refurbished and a 250 seat lecture theatre, the Benjamin West Lecture Theatre, inserted along with a new architecture studio within The Dorfman Senate Rooms – restored by architect Julian Harrap – for free architectural displays.

A new public route through the campus has integrated the Royal Academy Schools into the visitor experience with the new Weston Studio, a public project space for students and alumni, and provides views of the Schools’ Corridor and the newly landscaped Lovelace Courtyard, providing visitors with a “greater insight into Britain’s longest established art school”.

It also takes visitors through the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, a suite of three day-lit galleries for temporary exhibitions (Tacita Dean’s LANDSCAPE, the inaugural display, opens Saturday) and past the new Royal Academy Collection Gallery where works by the likes of Michelangelo, Reynolds, Kauffman, Thornhill, Constable, Gainsborough and Turner can be seen. There’s also a new Clore Learning Centre.

New places to eat and drink within the complex include the Senate Room bar and restaurant, and cafes and shops located on either side of the Burlington Gardens entrance.

The Royal Academy was founded by King George III in 1768 after he was presented with a petition by architect Sir William Chambers which had been signed by 36 artists and architects seeking to “establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design”. Initially based in Pall Mall, the institution’s first official home was in the new Somerset House. In the 1830s, it moved to Trafalgar Square where it shared premises with the newly created National Gallery and in 1867, the institution has moved to Burlington House where it’s been located ever since.

To celebrate the opening of the “new” Royal Academy, there will be a weekend-long “art party” this weekend with free workshops, tours, displays, late-night performances and DJs. Highlights will include performances by The Uncollective and Rachael Plays Disco; collaborative mural drawing, party hat making, architectural model making, RA Collection gallery tours, and a family printmaking workshop in the new Clore Learning Centre. The Annenberg Courtyard will host street food and cocktail bars.

For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk/plan-your-visit.

PICTURES: Top – The Weston Bridge and The Lovelace Courtyard/Below – The Benjamin West Lecture Theatre. (Both images by Simon Menges).


The final days of Anne Boleyn are being brought to life in a new play running at the Tower of London. Written and directed by Michael Fentiman, The Last Days of Anne Boleyn tells the story of the last 17 days of the Queen’s life before her execution in 1536 following her spectacular fall from grace. The performance is staged on the site of the lost Tudor palace at the Tower where Anne spent her final days and is based on contemporary sources including letters to her husband, King Henry VIII, and her final speech on the scaffold in the moments before she was beheaded. The outdoor show (suitable for all ages) runs for 35 minutes with two performances a day – 11am and 2pm, from Friday to Tuesday until 28th August (weather permitting). Admission is included in the entry price. For more information, head here. PICTURES: Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces.

This corner pub was originally located in a former royal hunting lodge in what became The Regent’s Park.

It was one of several inns which were in the park which were demolished when it was created.

But unlike others, The Queen’s Head and Artichoke was rebuilt on its current site at 30-32 Albany Street in 1811. The existing building apparently dates from around 1900.

The licence for the pub is said to date back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The story goes that the establishment received its rather odd name thanks to Daniel Clarke, head gardener and master cook to the Queen and her successor, King James I – and, later, the pub’s proprietor.

For more, see www.theartichoke.net.

PICTURE: Ewan Munro (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)