Where’s London’s oldest…street with house numbers?

OK, so we’re not absolutely certain which street is the oldest in London to have introduced a number system. But one contender – according to The Postal Museum at least – is Prescot Street in Whitechapel.

That comes from a mention, in 1708, when topographer Edward Hatton made a special note of the street’s use of numbers instead of signs in his New View of London, in a rather clear indication that the use of numbers was still at that stage rather unusual.

The following century saw the numbering of properties become more common. Some suggest that the banning of hanging signboards (under an 1762 Act of Parliament) and the subsequent requirement that names to be fixed to all thoroughfares (under the Postage Act of 1765) both played a significant role in encouraging the use of house numbers.

Interestingly, not all numbering schemes are the same. The first schemes introduced in London involved numbering houses consecutively along one side of the street – this can still be seen in streets like Pall Mall and Downing Street, where Number 10 – official residence of the Prime Minister, is located next to number 11 – official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The system used in more modern times, typically, involves numbering one side of the road with odd numbers (usually the left with the lowest number closest to the city or town centre) and the other with even.

But it’s fair to say that the numbering of houses was, initially at least, rather haphazard and it wasn’t until the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act that the numbering of properties become more standardised with the then new Board of Works given the power to regulate street numbers.

PICTURED: Number 23 Prescot Street, said to be the street’s single 18th century survivor.

Where’s London’s oldest…surviving cabmen’s shelter?


More than 60 of these shelters were built at major cab stands around London between 1875 and 1914 in order to allow cabmen to seek refreshment without leaving their vehicle.

The narrow, rectangular, green huts were constructed by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund – which was established in 1875 by a philanthropically-minded group including the newspaper publisher Sir George Armstrong and the  Earl of Shaftesbury (the group also had the support of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII).

The story goes that it was Sir George who pushed the idea forward after a servant he sent to find a cab in some inclement weather took a long time in returning thanks to the fact the cabbies were all off seeking a hot meal in nearby pubs.

The shelters, which police specified were not allowed to be larger than a horse and cart given their position on a public highway, were initially very simple in design but become more ornamental as time went on (architect Maximilian Clarke, who designed a shelter for Northumberland Avenue which was built in 1882, was a key proponent of this more ornate style).

Most were staffed by attendants who sold food and drink to the cabbies (there were also kitchen facilities for them to cook their own as well as tables to sit at and a variety of reading materials). Drinking and gambling, as well as swearing, were apparently strictly forbidden.

The first of these shelters, which reportedly cost around £200 each, was erected in Acacia Road, St John’s Wood, but that shelter is long gone. Just 13 of the huts now survive and all are Grade II-listed. They have various nicknames assigned to them by London’s cabbies – one on Kensington Road, for example, is apparently known as ‘The All Nations’ thanks to its proximity to the site of the Great Exhibition of 1850, while another at Temple Place is simply known as ‘The Temple’.

As to which is the oldest?

Well, that’s proved a bit of a vexed question. According to listings on the Historic England website, the oldest we could find dated from 1897. They included one located in Hanover Square, another in Russell Square (this having been relocated from its previous position in Leicester Square), and a third in Thurloe Place in South Kensington, opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum.

But there were three for which we could find no details of the date on which they were built. They include one on the Chelsea Embankment near the Albert Bridge, another in St George’s Square in Pimlico, and the final one in Wellington Place in St John’s Wood near Lord’s cricket ground.

Update: According to our cabbie correspondent – see comments below – the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund have said the oldest shelter is that in Kensington Park Road, which they dated to 1877. Historic England have this one listed as dating 1909 – perhaps a rebuild?

Correction: The shelter known as ‘The All Nations’ is in Kensington Road, not Kensington Park Road as originally reported.

PICTURES: Top – The Russell Square shelter (David Nicholls, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0); Below – the Cabmen’s Shelter in Thurloe Place opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington (Amanda Slater, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Where’s London’s oldest…cheesemonger?

With origins dating back to a cheese stall established by Stephen Cullum in Aldwych in 1742, Paxton & Whitfield are generally said to be the oldest cheesemongers still operating in London (and one of the oldest in the UK).

Cullum’s business was successful enough that in the 1770s he opened a shop in Swallow Street. By 1790 his son Sam had taken over the business and took two new partners – Harry Paxton and Charles Whitfield.

In 1835 – with Swallow Street demolished to make way for the construction of Regent Street – Sam moved the business to new premises at 18 Jermyn Street (Sam died the following year).

In 1850, the business received the Royal Warrant of Queen Victoria and just three years later finally settled on the name Paxton and Whitfield which the company still bears to this day.

In 1896, the business moved to its current premises at 93 Jermyn Street and a flurry of Royal Warrants followed – that of King Edward VII in 1901, King George V in 1910, King George VI in 1936, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1972, Prince Charles in 1998 and Queen Elizabeth II in 2002.

The firm, meanwhile, has since passed through several hands but continued on at the same premises (albeit becoming, during the period between the two World Wars, an ordinary grocery shop due to the lack of supply of eggs, butter and cheese).

Business picked up after World War II and the company opened shops in Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath. In 2009 formed a partnership with Parisian cheese mongers, Androuet, and in 2014 it opened a new shop in Cale Street, Chelsea.

For more, see www.paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk.

PICTURE: Herry Lawford (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

 

 

 

Where’s London’s oldest…bicycle shop?

Thanks to Guinness World Records, Pearson Cycles in Sutton, south-west London, is officially not just London’s but the world’s oldest bicycle shop.

The premises was established by blacksmith Tom Pearson in about 1860 (when Sutton was still a town in Surrey and not at that stage part of London) and he soon found his skills put to use in working on bicycles.

In 1889, Tom was succeeded by his son Harry who moved full-time into the manufacture of bicycles with the Endeavour the first model.

The shop, at 126 High Street in Sutton, is now run by a fifth generation of the family, Guy and Will Pearson. The company also has a shop in East Sheen.

PICTURE: Tony Monblat (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/image cropped)

Where’s London’s oldest…door?

Yes, London has an officially dated oldest door. In fact, it’s the oldest door in Britain.

The door is located in Westminster Abbey and is believed to date from the time of King Edward the Confessor, who founded the abbey which was inaugurated in 1065.

Made of five vertical oak planks – all cut from the same tree, most likely felled on abbey lands, possibly in Essex – and held in place by three horizontal iron straps, it opens from the Abbey Cloisters into the octagonal Chapter House’s outer vestibule. In 2005 it was dated, using ring-patterns in the wood, to around 1050.

The door now stands six-and-a-half feet high and four foot wide but it has been cut down. It’s believed the original door was nine foot high and slightly wider.

It’s thought to be probable that both faces were originally covered with animal hide (the iron straps are, unusually recessed into the wood on both sides to enable this, and were covered with decorative iron straps and hinges – only one of decorative straps remains today).

The door may have originally served as the door to the chapter house built for Edward the Confessor’s abbey. It is believed to have been moved into its current location in about 1250 when King Henry III’s Chapter House was built as part of extravagant reconstruction of the abbey.

WHERE: Westminster Abbey (nearest Tube stations are Westminster and St James’s Park); WHEN: Times vary – see the website for details; COST: £23 adults/£20 concession/£10 children (discounts for buying online; family rates available); WEBSITE: www.westminster-abbey.org

PICTURE: Pjposullivan1 (licensed under CC- BY-SA 2.0)

Where’s London’s oldest…French patisserie?

The oldest existing French patisserie in London is said to be Maison Bertaux, based in Greek Street in Soho. 

The premises, where you can still indulge in delights including eclairs, croissants and delectable fruit tarts, was founded in 1871 by one Monsieur Bertaux, apparently a French communard from Paris.

It lies at the heart of what was then the city’s French community and located at number 28, stands next door to another Soho landmark, the Coach and Horses pub.

Bertaux apparently ran the business until 1909 and it’s since passed through a number of hands with current owners, sisters Michele and Tania Wade, reported as having taken over in 1988.

Famous patrons have reportedly included writers Virginia Woolf and Karl Marx,  actors Steve McQueen and Nicole Kidman, artist Grayson Perry and musician Bob Geldof. The patisserie also famously made Lily Allen’s wedding cake and hosted the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s 25th birthday party.

Bastille Day celebrations are, of course, a highlight of the year.

For more, see www.maisonbertaux.com.

PICTURE: Google Maps.

Where’s London’s oldest….chophouse?

London’s oldest chophouse, Simpson’s, can be found in the City of London, just off Cornhill, and dates from the mid-18th century.

Thomas Simpson had opened his first ‘Fish Ordinary Restaurant’ in Bell Alley, Billingsgate, in 1723, catering to a clientele made up largely of those working at the Billingsgate (Fish) Market.

When that was demolished, he retired briefly before purchasing the Queen’s Arms in Bird in Hand Court off Cheapside.

Located in Ball Court Alley, Simpson opened the current establishment in 1757 (although the Grade II-listed building itself dates from the late 1600s or possibly early 1700s). It was a gift from his father.

Customs at the restaurant included having meals were presided over a chairman who would ensure lunch started promptly as one (their job also included introducing notable guests and measuring the cheese – a task related to a tradition of placing bets on the height, weight and girth of the cheese).

Seating is arranged in stalls and the layout is apparently consistent with that of the 19th century (although some things, thankfully, have changed – ladies were finally admitted in 1916).

For more, see www.simpsonstavern.co.uk.

PICTURES: Elisa.rolle (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

LondonLife – Oldest skull fragment found by mudlark in London goes on show…

Making headlines last month was the discovery – by mudlark Martin Bushell – of a skull fragment found on the south bank of the Thames.  While it was initially reported to the Metropolitan Police, radiocarbon dating soon discovered that the frontal bone (or piece from the top of the skull) was actually likely to be that of a man over the age of 18-years-old who lived in about 3,600 BC in the Neolithic Period. The Museum of London, who now have the fragment on display, state that traces of human activity dating from between 4,000-3,500 BC – mainly in the form of flint tools or weapons and pottery fragments – have been found along the River Thames floodplain. They say that those residing on what would be the site of London lived as semi-nomadic herders who supplemented their food sources by hunting and gathering and some agriculture. With some evidence that Neolithic people viewed the Thames as a sacred river, the remains could belong to that of a man dropped into the river as an offering – but the body may also have been swept down the river when his grave was swamped. The skull fragment is on display in the museum’s ‘London Before London’ gallery. PICTURE: © Museum of London.

WHERE: The Museum of London, 150 London Wall (nearest Tube stations are Barbican and St Paul’s); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

10 most popular (new) posts of 2018…Numbers 8 and 7…

The next two on our countdown of most popular (new) posts for 2018…

8. 10 islands in the Thames – 1. Chiswick Eyot…

7. Where’s London’s oldest…umbrella shop?

Where’s London’s oldest…ice skating rink?

The ice skating season is upon us so we thought it timely to take a look at where the oldest rink is located.

QUEENS: Skate, Dine, Bowl at 17 Queensway in Bayswater houses what’s generally said to be the oldest surviving ice skating rink in London, having opened its doors as QUEENS Ice Club on 3rd October, 1930.

It was the work of architect and entrepreneur Alfred Octavius Edwards who apparently had a passion for ice skating.

It was apparently the first rink used by the BBC for televised ice skating and a number of world and Olympic champions have skated here.

The establishment underwent a revamp a couple of years ago (although bowling lanes were added as far back as 1994) and now features a wide range of amenities including, as well as the ice rink, bowling lanes, a vintage games arcade and bars and a diner. For more on Queens, see https://queens.london.

Ice-skating. PICTURE: rawpixel/Unsplash

 

Where’s London’s oldest…bus route?

London’s oldest bus route is commonly cited as Route 24 which runs over seven miles from Hampstead to Pimlico.

The route was first launched in 1910 but initially stopped at Victoria Station. It was extended to Pimlico just two years later in 1912 and has largely unchanged ever since (apparently with the exception of some minor adjustments due to one-way traffic schemes).

The route, which operates 24 hours a day, does take in some key landmarks of London – among them Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards Parade and Parliament Square. In 2013, Transport for London, said some 28,000 people used the route each day.

In 1965, the double-decker buses on the route – which have always been powered by motors rather than horses – became the first to have front entry. In 1988, it became the first route through central London to be privatised when purchased by Grey-Green (the line is now operated by Metroline).

Mostly recently, in 2013, it became the first route to fully implement the curvaceous new ‘Routemasters’ (while they’ve commonly been called that, the new buses are actually just called the ‘new bus for London’).

PICTURE: One of the new buses on the route in 2014 (Aubrey Morandarte (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0))

 

Where’s London’s oldest…traffic lights?

OK, well, they’re not there any more but the first traffic lights erected anywhere in the world were placed on the north-east corner of Parliament Square in Westminster on 9th December, 1868.

The location at the intersection of Great George, Parliament and Bridge Streets outside the Houses of Parliament wasn’t chosen by random – there had been several traffic accidents at the congested site.

The seven metre tall lights, which were operated by a police constable, were based on railway signals – in fact they had been invented by a railway engineer, John Peake Knight of Nottingham. A City of Westminster plaque commemorates him close to the site.

The structure (pictured above in a police notice of which apparently some 10,000 copies were made) featured three semaphore arms which were lowered to an angle (signalling go or caution) or raised to horizontal (signalling stop). There was also gas-powered light for use at night – it changed from green (go or caution) and red (stop).

They didn’t last too long – many drivers didn’t recognise what the signals meant, others ignored them and there were frequent problems including a gas leak at the base which led to an explosion injuring the policeman operating them at the time. They were removed the following year.

The first electric lights, meanwhile, didn’t arrive in the capital until after their invention in the US where the first were  installed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914. In London it wasn’t until 1926 that the first electric lights were installed, this time at the intersection of Piccadilly and St James’s Street.

The first vehicle-activated lights came some seven years later and were installed at the corner of Gracechurch Street and Cornhill in the City.

PICTURE: Leonard Bentley/Creative Commons

 

Where’s London’s oldest…umbrella shop?

Established back in the early nineteenth century, James Smith & Sons Umbrellas is a West End institution in London and is certainly among the oldest, if not the oldest, surviving business established to sell umbrellas.

The original shop was founded by James Smith in Foubert’s Place, off Regent Street, in 1830 with the umbrellas made in a rear workshop and then sold at the front. The shop then moved to Saville Place but when this building had to be knocked down to make way for road widening, it moved to Burlington Street near Piccadilly Circus.

Business boomed following the invention of Samuel Fox’s lightweight steel frame umbrellas in 1851 and in 1867, a second shop was opened at 53 New Oxford Street (in Hazelwood House, where it remains today). The Burlington Street branch, meanwhile, continued to be operational until it was destroyed by a bomb in World War II, leaving just the shop in New Oxford Street.

The New Oxford Street shop still sells a plethora of types of umbrellas as well as made-to-measure walking sticks. Some of the umbrellas – which include antique and more contemporary models – are reportedly assembled on site.

In the shop you’ll also find a portrait of Jonas Hanway, said to be the first man who owned an umbrella in London. Being an early adopter of this imported fashion trend from France, he apparently attracted the ridicule of London society as well as that of coach drivers who saw the threat to their trade he represented. But history was on Hanway’s side and while the umbrella has survived the past couple of centuries, the coach as a means of transportation has not.

PICTURE: Top –  Jorge Royan/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0/ Right – Ewan Munro/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Where’s London’s oldest…hatters?

Hatters they are, but mad they most definitely are not (more on that connection later). Lock & Co Hatters, which describes itself not only as London’s oldest hat shop but the world’s oldest, has been serving the city’s hat needs since James Lock first opened the doors at number six, St James’s Street, in 1765.

Lock took over the premises after completing an apprenticeship as a hatter with Charles Davis, son of Robert Davis who had opened a hatters in St James’s Street in 1676. Lock had married Charles’ sister Mary in 1759 and, along with his new bride, had inherited his father-in-law’s business. In 1765, they and their growing family moved across the road from that premises to No 6, previously a coffee house.

The shop soon established itself with the city’s elite and its client list grew to include the likes of Lord Grenville, Prime Minister between 1806-07, and, most famously, Admiral Lord Nelson, who first visited the shop in 1800 to order his signature bicorne – a “cocked hat and cockade” – with a specially built-in eye shade (Nelson had lost his eye at the Battle of Calvi). Nelson’s final visit, incidentally, would take place in September, 1805, when he settled his bill before setting sailing to Spain where, wearing one of Lock’s hats, he would lose his life – and become part of a legend – in the Battle of Trafalgar.

But back to the Locks. James Lock died in 1806 and it was his illegitimate son, George James Lock (aka James Lock II), who inherited the business which continued to flourish (clients around this time include the Georgian dandy Beau Brummell). George’s son, James Lock III and his younger brother George took over in 1821, and in 1849, they were commissioned by Edward Coke to create a hard-domed hat for his gamekeepers – the result was the iconic Coke hat (known to some as the Bowler hat, a name which came from Southwark-based Thomas and William Bowler whom Lock had commissioned to make the hat) .

The Lock & Co hat business continued to pass down through the family and the list of the famous who purchased hats in the store continued to grow – Oscar Wilde bought a black fedora there to wear on his US lecture tour (and due to his later incarceration was unable to pay his bill which was settled more than 100 years later by one of his fans after this news was included in an article in The Times) while Sir Winston Churchill wore a Lock silk top hat on his wedding day and also purchased his trademark Cambridge and Homburg hats there.

In 1932, film star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, moved in above the shop (and naturally bought some monogrammed hats which were sold in 2011 as part of his estate) while Charlie Chaplin purchased hats there in the 1950s and, impressively, in 1953, Lock worked with jewellers Garrard and Co to design the “fitments” for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation crown.

A warrant from the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, followed (in 1993, Lock & Co received its second Royal Warrant, this time from the Prince of Wales.

Others among Lock’s more high profile clientele over the years have included Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of US President John F Kennedy, and Lock’s Coke hat even made a famed appearance on the silver screen as the headwear of the Bond villain Oddjob in Goldfinger.

The firm, meanwhile, has continued to grow, acquiring Piccadilly hatters Scott & Co in the 1970s.

Lock’s association with Lord Nelson was remembered in 2012 when it designed a hat for his statue atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square which featured a full-sized Olympic torch and which, due to popular demand, was left on the admiral for the duration of the Olympics.

Interestingly, it is also claimed that James Benning, a member of the Lock family and a servant of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) – writer of Alice in Wonderland, was the inspiration behind the ‘Mad Hatter’.

PICTURES: Top – Jeremy T. Hetzel; Right – Matt Brown – both licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

Where’s London’s oldest…public art gallery?


The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London’s south celebrates the 200th anniversary of its public opening this year. It is the oldest public picture gallery in all of England.

The origins of the gallery back owe their existence to an art dealership run by a Frenchman, Noël Desenfans, and his Swiss friend, painter Sir Francis Bourgeois. In 1790, the men were commissioned by King Stanislaus II Augustus of Poland to form a royal collection of art for him.

They spent five years doing so but in 1795, the king was forced to abdicate and the two dealers were left with the collection. They began searching for a new home for it but failed to find one and following Desenfans’ death in 1807, Sir Francis decided to leave the collection to Dulwich College (apparently on the advice of his friend, actor John Philip Kemble). The college had been founded in the early 17th century as the ‘College of God’s Gift’ by Edward Alleyn, actor and theatre entrepreneur, who had left it his estate.

Sir Francis died in 1811 and, under the terms of his will, the paintings left to Dulwich had to be made available to the public to view. There was an existing gallery at Dulwich College (the collection had originally been formed around Alleyn’s collection which included portraits or kings and queens) but, conscious that it might not be ideal for displaying the collection, Sir Francis had left £2,000 in his will to refurbish it and made it clear that should this be required, he wanted his friend, Sir John Soane to oversee the work.

Sir John, visiting the college the day after Sir Francis’ death, inspects the existing building but decides that an entirely new wing will need to be built to house the collection. He submitted numerous designs but the cost – more than £11,000 – was considerably more than the college could afford despite Sir John’s efforts to cut costs and simplify. Eventually, after Margaret Desenfans agreed to donate £4,000 of her own money, the college officials agreed to begin construction.

In 1814, the collection was moved into the building and the following year, the now completed building was opened to Royal Academicians and students.  The public opening came two years later, in 1817, and the same year the Desenfanses and Francis Bourgeois were buried in the gallery’s mausoleum as its founders.

Several additions and renovations have since followed (including works after bombing during World War II). The last major works were carried out in the 1990s after which the gallery was formally reopened on 25th May, 2000, by Queen Elizabeth II.

Those who visited the gallery, many as students, have included some big names in the art world – John Constable, JMW Turner and Vincent Van Gogh. Charles Dickens referenced the gallery in his work, The Pickwick Papers, in which he had Samuel Pickwick visit the gallery following his retirement.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is now an independent registered charity. Its more than 600 works include one of the finest collections of Old Master paintings in the world by artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Poussin, Watteau, Canaletto, Rubens, Veronese and Murillo. Collection highlights include Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window (1645), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s The Flower Girl (1665-70), Thomas Gainsborough’s Elizabeth and Mary Linley (c 1772) and Sir Peter Lely’s Nymphs by a Fountain (early 1650s).

WHERE: Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Dulwich (nearest rail is West Dulwich or North Dulwich); WHEN: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday; COST: £7 adults/£6 seniors/under 18s free (additional cost for special exhibitions); WEBSITE: www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

PICTURES: Courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Where’s London’s oldest…bandstand?


There are several 19th century bandstands in London but we believe the oldest still standing is in Hyde Park.

This octagonal, Grade II-listed, bandstand was originally located in the adjoining Kensington Gardens (near Mount Gate),  having been built in 1869, only eight years after the first ever bandstand in London had been installed in the nearby Royal Horticultural Gardens in Kensington.

It was moved to Hyde Park in 1886 – it can now be found on the north side of Serpentine Road, just to the north-west of Hyde Park Corner – and concerts were apparently held here three times a week in the 1890s. (Another bandstand was erected in Kensington Gardens in the 1930s).

Featuring cast iron decorative columns and a tent roof, the Hyde Park bandstand appeared in the 1935 film, Top Hat, which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (although the building in the film was actually a replica located on a Hollywood soundstage). Others who have ‘played’ the bandstand include the famous trumpeter Harry Mortimer.

The bandstand, which is now one of the oldest in Britain, is still used for concerts on occasion as well as being part of the annual Winter Wonderland event. Check The Royal Parks website for details of when events are scheduled here.

PICTURE: Claire Ward/Geograph/CC BY-SA 2.0

Where’s London’s oldest…public toilets?


The oldest extant public toilets in London can be found Wesley’s Chapel in City Road.

The gentlemen’s facilities, located off to the side of the chapel, were designed by the famous Thomas Crapper & Co and consist of enclosed wooden-walled cubicles, a series of urinals and wash basins.

The well-appointed toilets were installed in 1899 – more than 100 years after John Wesley’s death and long after many other parts of the Georgian and Victorian complex of buildings (including Wesley’s house) were built – but remain in working order even today.

Crapper, who had founded his company in the 1860s, championed the concept of the flushing toilet (although the idea had already been invented) and was responsible for the invention of the ballcock system. And contrary to common belief, Crapper – who received several royal warrants for his work – did not lend his name to a slang word for excrement – its origins go back much further.

WHERE: Wesley’s Chapel (with The Museum of Methodism and John Wesley’s House), 49 City Road (nearest Tube stations are Old Street and Moorgate; WHEN: 10am to 4pm Monday to Saturday/ 12:30pm to 1:45pm Sunday; COST: free (donations appreciated); WEBSITE: www.wesleyschapel.org.uk

PICTURES: Top – Ra Boe/Wikipedia/CC-BY-SA-3.0; Right – James O’Gorman/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 (images cropped)

 

Where’s London’s oldest…street sign?

tavistock_street_londonNow located on a street of another name, London’s oldest street sign is generally believed to be that of Yorke Street and dates from 1636.

The rather small sign, which is located on a building dating from the 1730s, is now located high up at 34-36 Tavistock Street in Covent Garden (above a blue plaque commemorating author Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), writer of Confessions of an English Opium Eater).

Another of the oldest signs can be found at the corner of Chigwell Hill and The Highway – it refers to ‘Chigwell Streate’ and bears the date 1678.

PICTURE: The Yorke Street sign is the white oblong at the top right under which can be seen the blue plaque (Via Spudgun67/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Where’s London’s oldest…public clock (with a minute hand)?

st-dunstans-clock

We reintroduce an old favourite this month with our first ‘Where’s London’s oldest’ in a few years. And to kick it off, we’re looking at one of London’s oldest public clocks.

Hanging off the facade of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street is a clock which is believed to have been the first public clock to be erected in London which bears a minute hand.

The work of clockmaker Thomas Harris, the clock was first installed on the medieval church in 1671 – it has been suggested it was commissioned to celebrate the church’s survival during the Great Fire of London and was installed to replace an earlier clock which had been scorched in the fire. Its design was apparently inspired by a clock which had once been on Old St Paul’s Cathedral and was destroyed in the fire.

Like the clock it replaced, this clock sat in brackets and projected out into Fleet Street which meant it was able to be seen from a fair distance away (and being double-sided meant the black dials could be seen from both the east and the west). Like the Roman numerals that decorate it, the two hands, including the famous minute hand, are gold.

To the rear and above the clock dials are located the bells and striking mechanism. The bells are struck on the hours and the quarters by ‘automata’ – Herculean figures, perhaps representing Gog and Magog (although to most they were traditionally simply known as the ‘Giants of St Dunstan’s’), who do so using clubs and turn their heads.

Such was the attention these figures attracted that when the clock was first installed the area became notorious for pick-pockets who apparently went to work on unsuspecting passersby who had stopped to watch the giants at work.

This church was demolished in the early 1800s to allow the widening of Fleet Street and when it was rebuilt in 1830, the clock was absent. Having decided it couldn’t be accommodated in the new design, it had been auctioned off with the art collector, Francis Seymour-Conway, the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, the successful bidder.

He had it installed on his Decimus Burton-designed villa in Regent’s Park and there it remained until 1935 when Lord Rothermere, who had bought the villa in 1930, returned it to the church to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V.

There are numerous literary references to the clock including in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield and a William Cowper poem.

Where’s London’s oldest…public library?

While the designation of London’s oldest public library depends on your definition, for the purposes of this article we’re awarding the title to the Guildhall Library.

Its origins go back to about 1425 when town clerk John Carpenter and John Coventry founded a library – believed to initially consist of theological books for students, according to the terms of the will of former Lord Mayor, Richard (Dick) Whittington (for more on him, see our previous post here).

Guildhall2Housed in Guildhall (pictured above), this library apparently came to an end in the mid-1500s when Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector for the young King Edward VI, apparently had the entire collection loaded onto carts and taken to Somerset House. They were not returned and only one of the library’s original texts, a 13th century metrical Latin version of the Bible, is in the library today.

Some 300 years passed until the library was re-established by the City of London Corporation. Reopened in  1828, it was initially reserved for members of the Corporation but the membership was soon expanded to include”literary men”.

By the 1870s, when the collection included some 60,000 books related to London, the library moved into a new purpose-built building, located to the east of Guildhall. Designed by City architect Horace Jones, it opened to the public in 1873.

The library lost some 25,000 books during World War II when some of the library’s storerooms were destroyed and after the war, it was decided to build a new library. It opened in 1974 in the west wing of the Guildhall where it remains (entered via Aldermanbury).

Today, the 200,000 item collection includes books, pamphlets, periodicals including the complete London Gazette from 1665 to the present, trade directories and poll books as well as the archive collections such as those of the livery companies, the Stock Exchange and St Paul’s Cathedral and special collections related to the likes of Samuel Pepys, Sir Thomas More, and the Charles Lamb Society.

The library also holds an ongoing series of exhibitions.

Where: Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury; WHEN: 9.30am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday; COST: Entry is free and no membership of registration is required but ID may be required to access rarer books; WEBSITE: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visiting-the-city/archives-and-city-history/guildhall-library/Pages/default.aspx.