Famous Londoners – John Keats…

This month marks 200 years since the death of Romantic poet and London resident John Keats – famous for poems including Ode to a Grecian Urn and Ode to the Nightingale – at the age of just 25.

Born on 31st October, 1795, Keats was the eldest of Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings’ four children. The story goes that he was born in the stable – owned by his mother’s father and managed by his father, located near Finsbury Circus.

John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn (based on a work of circa 1822) National Portrait Gallery (NPG 194)

At the age of eight, Keats attended the boy’s academy at Enfield (his brothers George and Tom would also attend). He had been at the school for less than a year when, on the night of 15th April, 1804, his father was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident and died the following day.

Within a couple of months, his mother entered an ill-fated marriage and eventually left her family to live with another man. She returned to her family by 1808 but, now ill, she died of tuberculosis in March, 1809. following his mother’s death, his grandmother appointed two London merchants including tea broker Richard Abbey as Keats’ guardians.

Keats, meanwhile, built up a close friendship with headmaster John Clarke and his older son Charles Cowden Clarke at Enfield and through them really began to foster a love of literature (in particular Edmund Spenser‘s Faerie Queene is said to have helped awakened his love of poetry).

But at Abbey’s instruction he left Enfield in 1811 and began to work toward a career as a surgeon, apprenticed to surgeon Thomas Hammond, in nearby Edmonton.

In October, 1815, he left his apprenticeship with Dr Hammond, apparently after a quarrel between them. Moving into London, he registered at Guy’s Hospital for the six-month course of study which was required for him to become a licensed surgeon and apothecary. Lodging with two older students at 28 St Thomas Street, he progressed quickly and was soon promoted to “dresser”, a role which saw him involved dressing wounds daily to prevent or minimize infection, setting bones, and assisting with surgery.

Poetry, however, continued to occupy his mind and his sonnet O Solitude! became his first published poem when it appeared in The Examiner on 5th May, 1816 (editor Leigh Hunt, who was introduced to Keats by Clarke later that year, also went on to publish other works including his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Home).

Keats, who became a certified apothecary in late 1816 (he’d holidayed in Margate with his brother Tom after passing his exams earlier that year), now faced further studies to become a surgeon. But he instead decided to give up medicine and devote himself entirely to his poetry (a move which apparently infuriated his now sole guardian Abbey). About the same time he moved into lodgings at 76 Cheapside with his two brothers, George and Tom (there was also a sister Fanny), having previously lived with that at 8 Dean Street in Southwark.

His circle of artistic acquaintances – which included fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and painter Benjamin Robert Haydon – now growing, in March, 1817, Keats’ first book of poetry – Poems – was published. It was also around that time that he moved with his brothers to a property at 1 Well Walk in Hampstead, no longer needing to be near the hospitals where he had worked and studied.

In May, 1818, Keats published his 4,000 line allegorical romance, Endymion, but it received a rather scathing reception including by Blackwood’s Magazine which apparently declared the work nonsense and recommended Keats give up writing poetry.

In summer that year, Keats went on a walking tour of Scotland, Ireland and the Lake District with his friend Charles (Armitage) Brown. Following his return to Hampstead, Keats nursed his brother Tom who was ailing from tuberculosis (George having by now left for America) and who died on 1st December.

Following his brother’s death, Keats accepted Brown’s invitation to move into his property at Wentworth Place, located on the edge of Hampstead Heath (now the Keats House museum).

Keats’ House in Keats Grove, Hampstead. PICTURE: Spencer Means (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

While living at Wentworth Place, Keats developed an intimate relationship with next-door neighbour Frances (Fanny) Brawne and the couple “came to an understanding” but his literary ambitions and failing health – by early 1820 he too had tuberculosis – meant it never came to marriage.

Keats third volume of poetry – containing his famous odes including Ode to a Nightingale and Ode to a Grecian Urn – was published in mid-1820 but now increasingly suffering from tuberculosis, he was advised by his doctors to head to a warmer climate. In September that year he left for Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn (who painted a famous posthumous portrait of Keats), knowing he would probably never see Brawne again.

In Rome – having had to spend 10 days quarantine after the ship arrived in Naples due to a suspected cholera outbreak, he moved into a villa on the Spanish Steps (now home to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House museum) but, despite medical efforts, his health continued to deteriorate.

John Keats died on 23rd February, 1821, and was buried in the city’s Protestant cemetery. His tombstone bears no name or date, just the words “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water” and an epitaph which speaks of a “young English poet”.

Keats, depicted in a 2007 bronze statue at Guy’s Hospital PICTURE: under_volcano (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Keats had only been a serious poet for some six years prior to his death and his three volumes of poetry had probably only amounted to some 200 copies. But his reputation continued to grow after his death with support from the likes of Shelley, Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites, and he is now well-established in the literary canon as one of the greatest English poets.

As well as Keats’ House – which is managed by the City of London and which features an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the facade, Keats is memorialised with several other plaques in London and a famous statue at Guy’s Hospital which features him seated in a former alcove removed from London Bridge – see image above).

Lost London – The Mermaid Tavern…

Located on Cheapside (with entrances on Friday and Bread Streets), the Mermaid Tavern is best known for being the home of Elizabethan-era drinking club known as the Mermaid Club (and also as the Friday Street Club or even the ‘Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen’). 

cheapsideFounded in the early 17th century (and meeting on the first Friday of each month), its members included such literary luminaries as Ben Jonson, John Donne and Francis Beaumont.

There are also suggestions it was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh and that William Shakespeare was also a member but modern scholars have cast doubt upon both claims.

The earliest reference to the tavern, meanwhile, dates from the early 15th century.

The tavern, the location of which today corresponds to the corner of Bread and Cannon Streets, burned down in the Great Fire of London but lives on in John Keats’ poem Lines on the Mermaid Tavern.

London Pub Signs – The Spaniards Inn…

Stories abound about this historic Hampstead pub – one of London’s oldest, not the least about the origins of its name.

Spaniards-InnTheories about the name include that it was named for a Spanish ambassador attending the court of King James I who sought shelter here during an outbreak of plaque. Others suggest it was named for a Spanish landlord – Francisco Perrero – or for two brothers who once owned it (that is, until one of them died in a duel they fought over a woman).

Whatever the truth, the atmospheric pub, located on the edge of Hampstead Heath, has apparently been around since 1585 and the stories about its connections with the famous (and infamous) number even more than those about its origins.

Highwayman Dick Turpin is associated with the pub (some stories suggest he was born here, although this seems unlikely) and the establishment  is known to have played an important role in sparing nearby Kenwood House, then the home of Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 – apparently it was the action of the landlord, Giles Thomas, in throwing open the cellars which diverted the attention of would-be rioters from the task at hand to one perhaps more enjoyable.

The pub also features in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and in Bram Stoker’s Dracula while among those who frequented it were painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and Lord Byron as well as John Keats who, the story goes, wrote Ode to a Nightingale in the rather extensive garden.

Located in Spaniards Road, this Grade II-listed pub, as well as the main building, features an old toll house on the other side of the road which contains a horse trough (it has been suggested that Turpin stabled Black Bess there but take such claims with a grain of salt!).

Well worth a visit for refreshments after a stroll on the heath. For more, see www.thespaniardshampstead.co.uk.

PICTURE: Philip Halling/Wikipedia 

London Pub Signs – The Globe…

GlobeNo, this pub on Moorgate is not related to William Shakespeare. Its name actually comes from the globe which was used as the emblem of Portugal and advertised the fact that fine Portuguese wines were on sale at the premises.

According the pub’s website, there were eight pubs with the sign of the Globe in London during the reign of King Charles I (when this pub was apparently founded). By the middle of the 19th century, the number had risen to more than 30.

There are still a few other Globe pubs in London – as well as this one, others include the Globe in Marylebone Road and The Globe Bow Street (although we’re not sure whether their names were derived in the same way).

The pub, which is located at 83 Moorgate – close to where Moorgate once punctured London’s city wall and gave access to the fens known as Moorfields. In 2008, the pub merged with the neighbouring pub, the John Keats, now commemorated in the name of the bar (that pub was named for the Romantic poet John Keats, who it has been speculated was born in a pub on the site in 1795).

The pub is now part of the Nicholson’s group. For more, check out its website at www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk/theglobemoorgatelondon/.

Around London – Celebrating the Coronation’s 60th anniversary; Benjamin Britten; Keat’s House Festival; and, silver service in Roman Britain…

Westminster-Abbey3Sunday marks 60 years since Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and Westminster Abbey – site of that event – is celebrating with a series of events. These include a special 60th Anniversary of the Coronation Service on Tuesday (4th June) to be attended by the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and members of the royal family as well as a public lecture to be given by the Bishop of London Richard Chartres on Friday night (7th June – booking is essential), a concert performed by the abbey choir (13th June), and a new exhibition in the chapter house featuring archive images of the 1953 coronation ceremony and of preparations which took place at the abbey. Meanwhile the Coronation Chair, used in most coronations since the 14th century and having just undergone conservation work, is the subject of a new display in St George’s Chapel, and two new commemorative stained glass windows have been installed in King Henry VII’s Lady Chapel – the first commissioned by the abbey for more than a decade, they have been designed by artist Hughie O’Donoghue. For more on the abbey’s celebrations, see www.westminster-abbey.org.

Composer Benjamin Britten is the subject of a new exhibition opening at the British Library tomorrow. Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) looks at the poetic and literary influences on the work of the man often described as the greatest English composer since Purcell. In particular it examines his collaboration with WH Auden and the interplay of his work with authors such as William Blake, Wilfred Owen, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Shakespeare. As well as composition manuscripts, the exhibition features photographs, concert programmes and unpublished recordings of his music. There are a range of events accompanying the exhibition which runs until 15th September. An admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk.

The Keats House 2013 Festival is underway this week with activities ranging from poetry readings to felt-making demonstrations, free family workshops and musical performances. The programme of events runs until 2nd June, all under this year’s theme of ‘Health is My Expected Heaven’: The Body and The Imagination. Poet John Keats lived at the house in Hampstead, not far from Hampstead Heath, from 1818 to 1820 and it is the setting for some of his most acclaimed poetry including Ode to a Nightingale. It was this house that he left to travel to Rome where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. For more on the festival programme, follow this link.

On Now: Silver Service – Fine dining in Roman Britain. This free exhibition at the British Museum recreates the experience of dining late in the Roman era and uses the Mildenhall Great Dish, Britain’s finest late Roman silver dining service, as an example of the type of large platter on which food for sharing would have been presented. The exhibition, which runs until 4th August, is free (keep an eye out for our upcoming Treasures of London on the Mildenhall Great Dish). For more information, see www.britishmuseum.org.

Lost London: Gates Special – Moorgate

Originally a postern (small or secondary) gate built by the Romans, Moorgate came into its own as a larger gate in the 15th century and survived for more than 300 years before it was demolished in 1761.

The name comes from the area in which it stands – Moorfields, one of the last open pieces of space within the City of London – stood just to the north of the gate. It was originally a sparsely populated marshy expanse – so much so that when the gate was first built, the area around it was often flooded and some local residents used boats as a means of transport – but was later drained. Many people were evacuated here during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and some apparently then settled in the area which later also gained a reputation as a hiding place for highwaymen like Jack Sheppard – we’ll take a closer look at Moorfields in a later post.

The gate known as Moorgate, meanwhile, was first rebuilt as a full sized gate with towers in 1415 on the orders of then Mayor Thomas Falconer to provide access to the fields without. It was enlarged several times in medieval years before being damaged in the Great Fire. It was replaced with a ceremonial stone gate in 1672 to provide access to the now well-drained fields before being demolished in 1761 (some of the stone was apparently later used to support the newly widened central arch of London Bridge).

The gate’s name now lives on in the street known as Moorgate (originally formally known as Moorgate Street after it was first constructed in 1846) – worth noting is that the Romantic poet John Keats was born in the street. The area around the street also is also known by the name Moorgate and is home to some of the City’s key financial institutions.

There’s a plaque near where the site of Moorgate once stood at the corner of Moorgate and London Wall.

PICTURE: Moorgate in its final, ornate form. Taken from a London Wall Walk plaque.

LondonLife – Poet Ted Hughes commemorated in Poets’ Corner


The late Poet-Laureate Ted Hughes was honored in a ceremony in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner last week with the dedication of a hand-carved memorial slab. 
The memorial includes a quotation from his work That Morning: “So we found the end of our journey, So we stood alive in the river of light, Among the creatures of light, creatures of light…”. The memorial to Hughes, who died in 1998 at the age of 68, was placed at the foot of that of TS Eliot, who was a mentor to Hughes. Among those who attended the commemoration were Hughes’ widow Carol and his daughter Frieda as well as literary figures including Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Sir Andrew Motion, Michael Morpurgo and Graham Swift. Other literary luminaries commemorated in Poets’ Corner (only some of whom are buried here) include Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Lord Byron and John Keats as well as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling. For more on Poets’ Corner, see www.westminster-abbey.org.

PICTURE: Carol Hughes lays a bouquet of flowers and herbs from the garden of the Hughes’ Devon home at the memorial. (Copyright Dean and Chapter of Westminster).

10 small (and fascinating) museums in London…5. The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

It’s the most unlikely location for anything to do with a hospital. High above the street in what was a herb garrett above a former church sits what was the operating theatre for females of St Thomas’ Hospital.

Built in 1703, the attic space resembles something of a large barn and was likely first used for storing and drying herbs by the resident apothecary at the then newly reconstructed St Thomas’ Hospital (this was largely rebuilt at the end of the 17th century on the same site previously occupied by the hospital as far back as the 1200s).

In 1822, the hospital’s governors decided that part of the herb garrett be converted into a new purpose-built operating theatre for female patients. The addition of windows in what was left of the adjoining garret, meanwhile, suggest it may have been used as a recovery ward.

The first thing that assails you as you enter the herb garrett these days, having clambered up a narrow twisting staircase is the sweet, spicy smell of herbs.

There are plenty of these within the garret, each with a hand written card explaining the curative properties they were renowned for – who knew, for example, that the ash of bladderwrack, dried kelp or seaweed, could be used to treat scrofula and goitre, or that the origins of aspirin go back to 1758 when a Chipping Norton clergyman chewed on a willow twig?

Elsewhere in the space are displays featuring early surgeon’s implements (and all the horror that entails), specimen jars containing human organs, anatomical models, pill and medicine making equipment and a display on nursing (there’s also a display on the poet John Keats who briefly served as an apprentice apothecary at St Thomas’ and St Guy’s in 1815-17).

Through the garret is located the operating theatre itself, complete with the wooden operating table and series of seats for spectators. Information panels nearby speak of such things as the blood box located below the floor into which the blood drained away and the speed with which surgeon’s had to work (until 1846 there was no reliable anaesthetic and it wasn’t until 1865 that Sir Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic procedures). There’s also a panel on the resurrection men – people who traded in cadavers to meet the growing needs of anatomists in the 18th and 19th centuries (and whom were known in London and elsewhere to have murdered people to meet the demand for bodies).

For all the faux-horror of nearby attractions like the London Dungeon, it’s here that you can truly experience the horrors some people have had to face as they prepared to go under the surgeon’s knife.

WHERE: The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, 9a St Thomas’s Street, London Bridge (nearest Tube station is London Bridge); WHEN: 10.30am to 5pm daily; COST: £5.90 an adult/£4.90 concessions/£3.80 children under 16/£13.80 a family (up to four children); WEBSITE: www.thegarret.org.uk.