Downing-Street

One of the most famous streets (and photographed) in London (though sadly not open to the public), Downing Street in Whitehall is these days most well-known for being the location, at Number 10, of the official residence of the British Prime Minister.

But Downing Street’s history dates back to a time before the first British PM moved in (this was Sir Robert Walpole in the 1735 and even after that, it didn’t become a regular thing for Prime Ministers to live here until the Twentieth century). And its name bears testimony to its creator, Sir George Downing, a soldier and diplomat described as “a miserly and at times brutal” man who served first under both Oliver Cromwell and, following the Restoration, King Charles II (and was, coincidentally, one of the first graduates of Harvard University).

In the 1650s, Sir George took over the Crown’s interest in land here, just east of St James’s Park, and intended to build a row of townhouses upon it. His ambitions were delayed, however, due to an existing lease with the descendants of Elizabethan courtier Sir Thomas Knyvet who had once lived in a large home on the site of what is now Number 10 Downing Street.

By the 1680s, however, the lease had expired and between 1682-84, Downing was able to construct a cul-de-sac, closed at the St James’s Park end, featuring either 15 or 20 two storey terraced townhouses with stables and coach-houses, designed by no less than Sir Christopher Wren.

While the homes were apparently of shoddy craftsmanship and stood upon poor foundations (Churchill famously wrote that Number 10 was “shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear”), the street apparently attracted some notable residents from the start.

These included the Countess of Yarmouth, who briefly lived at Number 10 in the late 1680s, Lord Lansdowne and the Earl of Grantham, and even, briefly, apparently the diarist James Boswell in the mid 1700s. Downing himself isn’t thought to have ever lived here – he retired to Cambridge a few months after the houses were completed.

The houses between Number 10 and Whitehall – on the north side of the street – were taken over by the government and eventually demolished in the 1820s to allow for the construction of offices for the Privy Council, Board of Trade and Treasury while the houses on the south side remained until they were demolished in the early 1860s to make way for the Foreign, India, Colonial and Home Offices.

The numbers in the street have changed since Downing’s houses were first built. Of the original homes in the street only Number 10 (home of the PM) and Number 11 (home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer) survive.

Access to the street has been restricted since the 1980s with the current black steel gates put in place in 1989.

An underground tunnel apparently runs under the street connecting number 10 with Buckingham Palace and the underground bunker, Q-Whitehall, built in the 1950s in the event of nuclear war.

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Before Madame Tussaud arrived in London, there was Mrs Salmon and her famous waxworks, one of several such establishments in London.

Prince-Henry's-RoomsFirst sited at the Sign of the Golden Ball in St Martin’s Le Grand – where it filled six rooms – in 1711, the display was relocated to the north side of Fleet Street where it remained until 1795 when it moved across the road to number 17 Fleet Street, now housing Prince Henry’s Room (pictured, room takes its name from Prince Henry, eldest son of the king, who died at the age of 18 and was apparently the inspiration for an inn which previously occupied the building called The Prince’s Arms).

The waxworks were apparently originally run by Mr Salmon – there are references to him being a “famous waxwork man” – but his wife, Mrs Salmon, continued it alone after his death in 1718 until her own death, variously said to have been in 1760 or as late as 1812. At some point after his death, Mrs Salmon is said to have remarried, to a Mr Steers.

Described in a handbill published soon after its initial move to Fleet Street, the exhibitions were said to include a scene of King Charles I upon the scaffold, another of the ill-fated Queen Boudicea, and more exotic tableaux including one showing Canaannite ladies offering their children in sacrifice to the god Moloch, another of a Turkish seraglio, and another of Margaret, Countess of Heningbergh with the 365 children she is said to have given birth to (all at once!). There was also a mechanised figure of the “famous English prophetess” Old Mother Shipton, who is said to have given a boot to visitors as they left.

While some accounts say the waxworks – which, according to the City of London website remained at the site until 1816 – were taken over by a Chancery Lane surgeon named Clarke after Mrs Salmon’s death (and by his wife after his death), it is also suggested that at some point they moved to Water Lane in east London where they were ruined by thieves.

Whatever its fate, it’s generally accepted that the famous waxworks were visited by the likes of James Boswell and artist William Hogarth. They were also mentioned by author Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. 

For more of London’s past, see Philip Davies’ Lost London 1870-1945.

Where is it?…#45

September 28, 2012


The latest in the series in which we ask you to identify where in London this picture was taken and what it’s of. If you think you can identify this picture, leave a comment below. We’ll reveal the answer early next week. Good luck!

Congrats to Mike, Debbie, Janet, and Zoe (on Facebook), this is indeed the back of the statue of Hodge the cat in Gough Square in the City of London, just outside Dr Johnson’s House at No 17. One of the cats of the famed lexicographer, Dr Samuel Johnson, Hodge had his own moment of stardom in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson in which Dr Johnson is heard remarking that he’s had better cats than Hodge before, apparently in response to Hodge’s reaction, stating that he was “a very fine; a very fine cat indeed” (Johnson was apparently unusual for his love of cats; Boswell did not suffer the same love). This bronze statue of Hodge, by sculptor Jon Bickley and placed here in 1997, has Hodge sitting on a copy of Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary and beside him is some empty oyster shells, referring to Dr Johnson’s habit of buying oysters for his cats to eat. For more on Dr Johnson’s House (where Dr Johnson lived from 1747-59), see www.drjohnsonshouse.org.

First laid out in the mid 17th century, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, on the east bank of the Thames just south of Lambeth, rose in fame to become one of London’s leading public entertainment venues.

The gardens, initially known as New Spring Gardens, are believed to have opened around the time of the Restoration of 1660 on a site which had been formerly an estate owned by vintners John and Jane Vaux (Jane was apparently widowed).

Initially apparently no more than an ale-house with a garden attached, the gardens grew to span several acres and featured a central hub and long avenues for strolling. Admission was initially free with money made from food and drink sold there. Among the earliest recorded visitors to the gardens was John Evelyn in 1661, describing it as a “pretty contrived plantation” and diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote of a visit he made on 29th May, 1662 (he is known to have returned numerous times).

From 1729, the gardens came under ownership and management of John Tyers, entrepreneur, property developer and patron of the arts, and it was he who, until his death in 1767, oversaw the transformation of the area into an arts hotspot which included sculpture (in particular a fine statue of the composer Handel), music, painting and architecture. Thanks partly due to the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, the gardens become the fashionable place to be seen.

The variety of entertainment on offer at the gardens – the name of which was only officially changed to Vauxhall Gardens in 1785 – grew substantially over the years: from concerts and fireworks displays to performances by tight rope walkers and lion tamers and even re-enactments of famous battles. The gardens became renowned as site for balloon ascents and, for its architecture – the number of buildings there grew over the years to include a rococo ‘Turkish tent’, Chinese pavilion, and, another rococo building, the Rotunda (where concerts could be held in wet weather). There was also a cascade and private ‘supper boxes’ for those who could afford them; those who couldn’t could dine at tables set under the trees.

From the outset, Vauxhall was known as a place where the sexes could mix freely and, therefore, for romantic assignations – in fact, one area of the gardens became known as the ‘Dark Walk’ for the fact it was, unlike other areas of the gardens, never illuminated by lamps and it was in this area, frequented by prostitutes, that many of the more illicit liaisons took place.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, the gardens, one of a number of pleasure gardens in London, had reached the height of their popularity with reportedly more than 60,000 people said to have  attending a fancy dress party held one night in the late 1700s.

Those who attended events in the gardens included royalty as well as the likes of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell (see Thomas Rowlandson’s image above, Vauxhall Gardens, showing the likes of Johnson and Boswell, along with Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, and the future King George IV, at the gardens in about 1779) as well as, much later, Charles Dickens (by the time Dickens visited, however, the heyday of the gardens was already well over).

The gardens closed in 1859 due apparently to declining popularity and were eventually replaced with housing. After being badly bombed in World War II, however, the site once again returned to being a garden, known as Spring Gardens. The gardens (pictured) still occupy the site not far from Vauxhall tube station – part of them is used by the Vauxhall City Farm as paddocks for horses and livestock and they also contain a multi-use games court.

For an authoritative and comprehensive work on the Vauxhall Gardens, try David Coke and Dr Alan Borg’s Vauxhall Gardens: A History. There’s also much more information on David Coke’s website here. There’s also a detailed history here.

David Coke is curating an exhibition at The Foundling Museum, The Triumph of Pleasure, which looks at the way in which the gardens and the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in 1739 “changed the face of British art forever”. Runs from 11th May to 9th September. For more, see www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.

PICTURES: Wikipedia and David Adams

The man behind what is perhaps the most famous quote about London – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” – Samuel Johnson was a noted writer, critic and raconteur of the 18th century whose work included a then unparalleled English language dictionary.

Often simply referred to as “Dr Johnson”, Johnson was also the subject of one of the most famous biographies ever written – that of his friend James Boswell’s aptly named Life of Samuel Johnson.

Born in 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire (the home is now a museum), Johnson – who often struggled with poor health and depression – was the son of a bookseller who managed to help fund his brief time at Pembroke College in Oxford before lack of funds meant he had to leave without a degree (he was later awarded an honorary degree).

He worked with his father and as a tutor before eventually, in 1737, heading to London with his friend and former pupil, actor David Garrick, and there worked for the rest of his life as a writer producing works including magazine articles and essays, poetry, sermons, and biographies.

In 1746, he was commissioned to produce the dictionary and rented  a property at 17 Gough Square, not far from Fleet Street, where he would spend the nine years working in it. Published in 1755, the dictionary was a remarkable work which not only won him acclaim ever since but also resulted in King George III granting Johnson a modest pension for the rest of his life (he had previously been arrested for debt).

The Gough Square house is these days open to the public and includes an exhibition on Johnson’s life, particularly with regard to his time there (there’s a statue of his cat Hodge in the square itself). Other sites which Johnson is known to have frequented include Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the Anchor Inn in Bankside, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) in Bow Street where the Beefsteak Club met, and St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell where he once had an office.

Johnson married an older widow, Elizabeth Porter, in 1735, but she died in 1752 and it was following her death that Francis Barber, a former Jamaican slave, moved in as his servant, eventually becoming Johnson’s heir.

Johnson’s friends included some of the great luminaries of the time, including artist Joshua Reynolds, philosopher Edmund Burke, poet Oliver Goldsmith, and, of course, Boswell.

Following a series of illnesses, Johnson died in 1784 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The 300th anniversary of his death was marked with a series of events last year including a re-enactment of the walk Johnson and Garrick made from Lichfield to London.

Dr Johnson’s House (17 Gough Square, nearest tube is Temple, Holborn or Chancery Lane) is open Monday to Saturday, 11am-5.30pm (5pm from October to April). Entry costs £4.50 an adult, £3.50 for concessions, £1.50 for children and family tickets are available for £10. For more information, see www.drjohnsonshouse.org.