In Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous 1886 story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,the address of the home of Dr Henry Jekyll (and his alter-ego Mr Edward Hyde) is simply given as a square in Soho – then a rather seedy district.
Dr Jekyll is said to have bought the property from the heirs of a “celebrated surgeon”. Like the man himself, the house has two characters and features a “blistered and distained” rear entrance used by the dastardly Mr Hyde.
In a BBC Scotland documentary broadcast several years ago, author Ian Rankin identified the house in which Jekyll and Hyde lived as being based on that which pioneering Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793) lived in on the east side of Leicester Square.
Hunter leased both the property at 28 Leicester Square (the present number 28 – the ground floor of which is a pub – is pictured) and another behind it (it fronted onto what was then Castle Street) in the 1780s. He then spent a good deal of money joining the two properties together, creating a complex of rooms which included space for his thousands of specimens (now in the Hunterian Museum) as well as an anatomy theatre. It was at the rear Castle Street entrance that he apparently received human cadavers, brought by so-called “resurrection men” for dissection.
“In the book, Stevenson gives a detailed description of the layout of Dr Jekyll’s home,” Rankin said in the documentary. “It is identical to John Hunter’s.”
He added that, despite Hunter’s “fame and respectability” – he was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III and was one of London’s most sought-after doctors, “Hunter still demanded a constant supply of cadavers for his growing anatomy collection and teaching”.
“Naturally Hunter’s new home, in Leicester Square, was purpose-built for a surgeon’s double life.” Or for the respectable Dr Jekyll and brutish Mr Hyde.
Interestingly, the previous owner of Dr Jekyll’s home us said to have been a Dr Denman – there was a Dr Thomas Denman who was a contemporary of John Hunter who was a pioneering obstetrician.
The Leicester Square property later became the site of the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art (more of that in an upcoming Lost London post).
PICTURE: Top – Number 28 Leicester Square as it is today/Google Maps; Below – A ground floor plan of John Hunter’s residence made in 1792 (drawn in 1832) © Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0
February 20, 2017
Immortalised in a statue in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital on South Bank last year, Mary Seacole is the first named black woman to have a memorial statue made in her image in London.
Mary Jane Seacole (nee Grant) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805, the daughter of a Scottish army lieutenant, James Grant, and a mixed-race Jamaican woman who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers. She was taught traditional medicine by her mother from a young age and travelled extensively, visiting other parts of the Caribbean including Cuba and Haiti as well as Britain – staying in London for about a year around 1821, during which she added to her knowledge of medicine.
In 1836, she married merchant Edwin Seacole (he was the godson of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson – some rumours have it that he was actually his illegitimate son) but he died only eight years later in 1844. She subsequently spent some time in Central America – opening a ‘hotel’ there and aiding in the response to an outbreak of yellow fever – before returning to Jamaica where she apparently provided nursing services at the British Army HQ in Kingston.
In 1854, Seacole returned to England and, amid reports of the hardships soldiers were facing in the Crimean War which had broken out the year before, asked the War Office to send her to the Crimea as an army nurse. She was refused on multiple occasions (some say because of her race; others because she was too late to join the teams of nurses that were sent) and so she headed to Crimea herself.
There, she founded the British Hotel near Balaclava which provided food, quarters and medical care for sick and convalescent officers. She also apparently rode out to the front line of battle where she cared for the sick and wounded and such was her fame that Mary became known as ‘Mother Seacole’, earning a reputation said to rival that of Florence Nightingale.
Seacole returned to England after the war in ill health and poverty and apparently such was her renown that a benefit festival was held in her honour in July, 1857, to raise funds for her to live on. That same year she published her memoir, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.
Seacole returned to Jamaica in the early 1860s but was back in London by 1870. She died at her home in Paddington of ‘apoplexy’ on 14th May, 1881, and was buried in Kensal Green.
In 2004, Seacole was ranked the greatest Black Briton in an online poll. She has also been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque (located on her one-time residence at 14 Soho Square) and a City of Westminster Green Plaque in George Street on the Portman Estate.
The three metre high bronze statue of Mary, built through funds raised in a public appeal and installed using money granted by the government, is the work of sculptor Martin Jennings. It was unveiled by actress Baroness Floella Benjamin in June last year before a reported crowd of some 300.
A disk behind the statue is inscribed with the words of The Times‘ Crimean War correspondent Sir William Howard Russell, who wrote in 1857: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”
Seacole remains somewhat of a controversial figure with some saying her recent fame has unfairly come at the expense of contemporary Florence Nightingale.
The rather grim Adolf Verloc, the smut purveyor-come-spy and main protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (recently made into a BBC series starring Toby Jones), lives in a residence attached to a small shop in Soho.
The residence, where he lived with his wife Winnie, her mother and young, mentally affected brother Stevie, and shop, where he sold scandalous publications, photographs and other bric-a-brac, was located at 32 Brett Street in Soho.
Except there is no Brett Street in Soho.
While it has been suggested Conrad may have taken the name Brett Street from Brett Road in Hackney – near where Conrad had lodgings at one stage, it’s also been put forward that Conrad based the streetscape on Irving Street (previously apparently known as Green Street) which runs between Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road (pictured above).
The street itself was named after actor Sir Henry Irving, whose statue stands at the junction with Charing Cross Road (pictured, it’s located at the rear of The National Gallery), and is these days filled with eateries and cheap theatre ticket box offices aimed at tourists.
Conrad’s book, which was set in 1886 but published in 1907, was loosely based around a bombing which took place in Greenwich in 1894.
September 13, 2016
Looking down Shaftesbury Avenue, the heart of London’s Theatreland, in the West End. PICTURE: Pedro Szekely/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
March 23, 2015
There’s been a pub on the site of this Soho institution since before the 1700s, although the current building at 7 Greek Street is believed to date from the start of the 20th century.
The pub’s name is an ancient one – it refers to two landmarks, the Rock of Gibraltar on the north side and Mount Hacho or Jebel Musa on the south side (there is apparently some dispute over which), that mark the entrance to the Mediterranean and are together known as the Pillars of Hercules. The name apparently comes from a legend that Hercules created the Strait of Gibraltar between them when pushed the two pillars apart apart and so separated Europe from Africa.
There’s been several pubs in London which have borne this name although this particular premises does get a mention in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (a street which runs under the pub’s archway is named after one of its characters, Dr Manette). There was apparently a similarly named tavern on the site of what is now Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (that one gets a mention in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling).
According to a sign on the pub, this Pillars of Hercules was also frequented by nineteenth century poet and cricket lower Francis Thompson, author of the poet The Hound of Heaven.
The current half-timbered pub – located just to the south of Soho Square – has apparently continued as a favoured locale for literary types. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan are among more recent writers who have visited (along with Clive James who referred to it in the title of his collections of literary criticism, At the Pillars of Hercules).
This Week in London – John Singer Sargent (and friends); Chinese New Year in Soho; and, ‘Cravings’ at the Science Museum…
February 19, 2015
• A major exhibition of the works of John Singer Sargent has opened at the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square this week. Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends – which has been organised in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – brings together a collection of the artist’s intimate and informal portraits of his friends including Robert Louis Stevenson, Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin. Sargent (1856-1925), born the son of an American doctor in Florence, studied in Italy and France before scandal led him to move to England where he established himself as the country’s leading portrait painter. He made several visits to the US during his career, painting portraits as well as decorative paintings for public buildings including the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition runs until 25th May. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.npg.org.uk. PICTURE: Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio
• It’s Chinese New Year and the celebrations kick off in London’s Chinatown in Soho this Sunday. The day starts with a parade at 10am which runs from Duncannon Street to Shaftesbury Avenue featuring floats and Chinese lion and dragon teams. It will be followed by a free programme of events in Trafalgar Square which, starting at noon, include music, dance, acrobatics and martial arts. Other events are taking place at a range of locations across the West End. For more information, check out www.london.gov.uk/get-involved/events/chinese-new-year-2015.
• Ever wondered how your appetite is shaped by food? A new free exhibition at the Science Museum in South Kensington, Cravings: Can Your Food Control You? explores how the brain, ‘gut brain’ and bacteria influence our diets. Along with personal stories and objects as well as the use of science and tech to present the display, those who attend the exhibition will also be able to take part in a ground-breaking neurogastronomy experiment to explore how our senses influence appetite (the experiment is also available online – follow the link below). There’s also a digital quiz where you can consider the ethical challenges that cravings, appetite control and food regulations pose. Runs until January next year. For more, see www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/cravings.
• The history of the Foundling Hospital’s Boy’s Band is the subject of a display at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. Foundlings at War: Military Bands is part of a series of exhibits supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund exploring the hospital’s links with the military. The Boy’s Band was established in 1847 and boys who joined increasingly went on to serve in the military. Runs until 10th May. For more, see www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.
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December 16, 2013
This part of East London is believed to take its name not from lime trees nor from a house bearing that name. Rather it owes its origins to the process by which chalk shipped from Kent was converted into lime.
The process of ‘lime burning’ – which took place in these parts on the northern bank of the River Thames – involves heating the chalk in a bottle-shaped kiln, also known as an oast. Hence ‘lime oast’ became corrupted into Limehouse.
The earliest reference to the name comes from the early medieval era but in later centuries the area was noted not so much for its lime-burning but its links with shipping – particularly following the opening on the Limehouse Cut in 1770 which linked the Thames with the River Lea and allowed goods to taken from the north of London directly to ships on the Thames without the need to navigate around the Isle of Dogs (see our earlier post on the Limehouse Cut). Limehouse Basin (pictured above, from the Limehouse Cut) opened in the early 19th century.
The area, which became increasingly industrialised as a result, is also known for its links to the Chinese community – and this included, in the Victorian era, opium dens, but the association ended around the 1950s by which time the Chinese community had largely moved to Soho (where Chinatown still stands today).
This Week In London: The London that might have been; the V&A’s Christmas tree; Christmas celebrations at the Geffrye; and, World War II recollections…
December 5, 2013
• A new exhibition looking at the London that might have been opened at Wellington Arch near Hyde Park Corner yesterday. Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed uses digital technology to look at how several redevelopment proposals – including a 1950s conceptual scheme for a giant conservatory supporting tower blocks over Soho and a 1960s plan to redevelop Whitehall which including demolishing most of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings around Parliament Square – would have changed the face of the city. The exhibition also looks at how the latest developments in digital mapping can be used in the future and features ‘Pigeon-Sim’ which provides a bird’s-eye view of the city’s buildings with an interactive flight through a 3D photorealistic model of the city. The exhibition runs until 2nd February. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wellington-arch/.
• A specially commissioned Christmas tree has been unveiled at the V&A in South Kensington. The 4.75 metre high ‘Red Velvet Tree of Love’ is the work of artists Helen and Colin David and will stand in the museum’s grand entrance until 6th January. The design of the tree – which is coated in red flocking and decorated with 79 sets of hand cast antlers and 67 white, heart shaped baubles – was inspired by an 1860 HFC Rampendahl chair in the V&A’s collection which features a real antler frame and velvet upholstery. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk.
• The annual Christmas Past exhibition is once again open at the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch. Festive decorations have transformed the museum’s rooms and give an insight into how the English middle classes celebrated in times gone past. The exhibition runs until 5th January. Admission is free. Accompanying the exhibition are a series of events including an open evening celebrating an Edwardian Christmas between 5pm-8pm tonight. For more, see www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/whatson/christmas-past-2013/.
• The World War II experience of Chelsea Pensioners are being commemorated in a new display in the White Space Gallery at the National Army Museum in Chelsea. The Old and the Bold is the culmination of a year long collaboration between the museum and the Royal Hospital Chelsea and features nine interviews with 14 In-Pensioners. Their accounts span iconic moments in World War II history – from D-Day to North Africa and the Falklands and are supported by items from the museum’s collection. Runs until 3rd January. Admission is free. For more, see www.nam.ac.uk.
July 1, 2013
Poet. Painter. Visionary? William Blake failed to find great success in his lifetime and died in relative obscurity but is now known internationally for his controversial and innovative works in the written word and visual arts.
Blake was born on 28th November, 1757, at 28 Broad Street in Soho, the third son of hosier James Blake and his wife Catherine (he was christened at St James’s Piccadilly). Little is known of his early life although accounts suggest he had some spiritual experiences – including a vision of a tree full of angels – as a young boy and also showed an interest in the visual arts at an early age.
About the age of 10, he started attending Henry Par’s drawing school before, at the age of 14, becoming an apprentice to James Basire, engraver to the Royal Society and Society of Antiquaries. Among his early assignments was to make drawings of the monuments and paintings at Westminster Abbey – interestingly, Blake’s earliest extant drawings are of the opening of King Edward I’s coffin on 2nd May, 1774.
In 1779, his apprenticeship completed, Blake enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts and at the same time, made his living as a copy engraver. His clients included the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson through whom he became introduced to people like Joseph Priestley. He also began producing original works on historical themes apparently with the aim of forging a career in the painting of history.
In 1782, Blake married Catherine Sophia Boucher and they took up life together at a property near Leicester Square, later moving to Lambeth. They were to have no children.
Experimenting with new methods of engraving, in 1788, he published the first of what he was to call his “illuminated books” – All Religions are One, and There is no Natural Religion – with his first illuminated book of poetry, Songs of Innocence, coming a year later (its sequel Songs of Experience was published in 1794). In 1789, he published The Book of Thel, combining his new method of engraving with “prophetic” verse.
Later works in prose and poetry – created while Blake was still working as an engraver – continued to explore his increasingly radical views on religion and politics. They included The Marriage of Heaven and Hell published in 1790, The French Revolution in 1791, America: A Prophecy in 1793 and Visions of the Daughters of Albion the same year.
In 1800, Blake moved to Felpham, West Sussex, thanks to his friendship with one William Hayley who engaged his skills on several projects. It was while living here that Blake began work on his epic poems Milton (printed in 1810-11) and Jerusalem (completed in 1820).
Following an incident in 1803 in which Blake removed a drunk soldier from his garden, Blake was charged with high treason but acquitted after a trial at Chichester.
Having meanwhile moved back to London, in 1809 Blake made a last effort to gain the public’s attention with his work and held an exhibition of his paintings and watercolours at his family home in Broad Street (now home of his eldest brother James). But the exhibition did not elevate his profile as he may have hoped and during his last years, Blake increasingly sank into obscurity amid tightening finances and, although he continued to produce poetry, paintings and engravings, he found it hard to find work.
Blake died on 12th August, 1827, at his home at 3 Fountain Court on the Strand and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields. The stone which now stands there (pictured above) was added later.
It was during the Victorian-era that Blake’s work made its way into the hands of a larger audience than it ever had while he was alive, thanks to Blake enthusiasts like his first biographer Alexander Gilchrist and people associated with the Romantic movement.
His work continued to gain attention into the 20th century (in particular around the centenary of his death in 1927) and by mid-century had become what Robert N Essick says in Blake’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “one of the cultural icons of the English-speaking world”. Interest in Blake and his works has continued both in the UK and around the world.
A new room dedicated to showing Blake’s works opened at Tate Britain in May.
October 31, 2012
We’ve had a quick look at the origins of Covent Garden before (as part of our What’s in a name? series) but it’s worth a recap.
Now a favorite of tourists visiting London, Covent Garden is these days largely known as a specialty shopping and entertainment precinct in the West End. But its beginnings as a market go back at least to the 1600s when a licence was formally granted to hold a market in the piazza.
The land had been formerly owned by the Abbey (or Convent) of St Peter in Westminster which had established 40 acre kitchen garden here (hence ‘Convent Garden’) and had passed into the hands of the Crown at the Dissolution. Later owned by the Earls of Bedford, it was the 4th earl, Francis Russell, who commissioned Inigo Jones to design a great residential square- including St Paul’s Church, known as the Actor’s Church – on the site.
By 1650, fruit and vegetable markets were regularly been held on the site and, interestingly, around this time the market adopted the pineapple, a symbol of wealth, as its emblem (it was also around this time that Punch and Judy shows were introduced to the area (see our earlier post on Mr Punch here)). Covent Garden’s rise to prominence as a market came when the Great Fire of London destroyed many of London’s other markets leaving it as the foremost fruit, vegetable and flower market. In May 1670, the 5th Earl of Bedford, William Russell (later 1st Duke of Bedford), obtained the formal right to hold a market on the site from King Charles II.
The growth of the market and the development of fashionable residential developments further west in Soho and Mayfair saw many of the affluent people who had lived around the market move out and the character of the square changed (in an indication of this, a list of Covent Garden prostitutes was published in 1740).
In 1813, the 6th Duke of Bedford, John Russell, secured an Act of Parliament regulating the market and in the late 1820s began to redevelop the site, commissioning architect Charles Fowler to design new buildings (up until then the market was housed in makeshift stalls and sheds). These include the grand main market building which still stands on the site today.
The market continued to grow – there is said to have been 1,000 porters employed at the market’s peak – and in 1860 a new flower market was built on the south piazza (where the London Transport Museum now stands), while in the 1870s, a glass roof was added to the market building. A “foreign” flower market opened in what is now Jubilee Hall in 1904.
In 1918, the Bedford family sold the market to the Covent Garden Estate Company. The next major installment in the market’s life came in 1974 when the market, which had outgrown the West End site, moved out to a new site in Nine Elms at Vauxhall in London’s inner south.
The Covent Garden site was left to fall into disrepair but, saved from demolition and redevelopment largely through the efforts of Geoffrey Rippon, then Secretary of State for the Environment, it subsequently underwent restoration, reopening as a speciality shopping centre in 1980 with areas including the Apple Market (pictured above), the East Colonnade Market and the Jubilee Market. Now owned by Capital & Counties who purchased it in 2006, the market – along with the larger 97 acre Covent Garden area – remain under the care of the Covent Garden Area Trust.
The first in a regular section of tips to make the most out of your time in London…
South Bank Walks. Five free online walking guides, each of which comes with maps and detailed descriptions of points of interest along the way, are available on the South Bank Walks website, created by the South Bank Employers’ Group . The walks take in more that just South Bank – one starts in Soho and finishes in South Bank; another starts at St Paul’s and ends up at Borough Market – and include a guide specifically designed for young people. The website also has a terrific building and street search feature. www.southbankwalks.com