Bringing Spice to the Kitchen – Or the British and ‘Curry’

The British in India, from the 17th century onwards, cheerfully lumped the many and varied styles of cooking, and the subtle differences in dishes they encountered, under the term ‘curry’, a word copied from the Portuguese. Pietro della Valle (died 1652) described as ‘caril’ or ‘carre’ the ‘broths… made  with Butter, the Pulp of Indian Nuts… and all sorts of Spices, particularly Cardamons and Ginger… besides herbs, fruits and a thousand other condiments [which are] poured in good quantity upon … boyl’d Rice.’

The British in India ate ‘curry’ with every meal, using the term to cover anything in a spicy sauce. No British lady would dream of undertaking her own cooking, so she would have no idea about how the dishes her Indian household served up were made. Eventually curry powder came to be considered a spice in its own right, completely ignoring the infinite varieties and combinations that might be used. Anglo-Indians might think they were immersing themselves in local culture – like the young East India Company employee above, listening to Indian musicians amongst his European furniture – but they seemed to have no appreciation of the subtleties of the cuisine.

As East India Company officials came back to Britain they brought their taste for curry with them and often they brought their Indian cooks with them. These men had learned to create the first Anglo-Indian cookery style to suit their employers and soon curry began to appear in ordinary household cookery books.

One enterprising India entrepreneur, Sake Dean Mahomed [Sidi Deen Mahomet in some sources], opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain in 1810. I discovered it (or, rather, where it had been) when I was researching for Walking Jane Austen’s London. It was located on the corner of George Street and Charles Street, just North of Portman Square, a fashionable area and one that was home to many retired Anglo-Indians.  The Hindostanee Coffee House even had a smoking room where patrons could smoke hookahs. Despite serving ‘Indian dishes in the highest perfection… allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequaled to any…ever made in England’ the business became bankrupt the following year. Possibly his choice of location was unfortunate and many of the Anglo-Indians could eat curry at home made by their own Indian cooks or they preferred to combine business with curry by patronising the various City coffee houses that served curry alongside English food. Norris Street Coffee House on Haymarket had been serving curry since 1773 when its ‘Mistress’ advertised in The Public Advertiser ‘true Indian curey paste.’ ‘At the shortest Notice [she would send] ready dressed Curey and Rice, also Indian Pilaws, to any Part of the Town.’ East India Company merchants had created almost a club for themselves at the Jerusalem Coffee House on Cornhill. No specialist Indian restaurant appeared again in Central London until the 1920s.

Sake Dean Mahomed (right. Painted by Thomas Mann Baines c.1810) had far more success with his bathing establishment in Brighton. “Mahomed’s Baths. These are ascertained [sic] by a native of India, and combine all the luxuries of oriental bathing. They are adapted either for ladies or gentlemen, and the system is highly salutary in many diseases, independently of the gratification it affords, particularly to those who have resided in the East.”  [W. Scott. The House Book or Family Chronicle of Useful Knowledge (1826)] The ‘luxuries of oriental bathing’, I learned when I was researching for The Georgian Seaside, included shampooing – not of the head, but of the whole body in a foaming massage.

The Epicure’s Almanac (1815) has a section on seasonal foods and for July mentions that ‘various preparations of curry afford a delectable repast to those who have acquired a taste for this Indian diet.’ Ready-made curry powder could be bought alongside other spices and was first mentioned in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery (1747).

Here is a recipe for curry made with curry powder from The New London Family Cook (1811) by Duncan McDonald, head cook at the Bedford Tavern and Hotel, Covent Garden. The Bedford Tavern and Hotel was a large establishment on the Great Piazza. It opened in 1726 and continued in business throughout most of the 19th century.

And this is from A New System of Domestic Cookery (1807)

curry 2

curry 3 For a fascinating history of Europe’s love affair with curry, try Lizzie Collingham’s Curry; a biography (2005).

 

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Two Hundred Years Ago – the Birth of Circus in England?

The Sunday Times newspaper on 7 January mentions the celebrations planned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Astley’s Amphitheatre as the beginning of circus in England. This reminded me that I own a playbill for Astley’s for November 10th 1813  which features a tightrope act “being  justly allowed the First Performer in the United Kingdom”. The Unparalleled Wilson’s act was complete with Wonderful Somersets (somersaults) and Surprising Leaps. Philip Astley, a six foot tall cavalryman, rose to the rank of sergeant major and left the army in 1768. With two horses he began to give unlicensed shows of horsemanship and riding lessons on open ground in Southwark. According to the London Encyclopedia he obtained a licence with the patronage of George III after subduing an out of control horse near Westminster Bridge. This enabled him to open ‘The Royal Grove’, a canvas-covered ring close to the southern end of Westminster Bridge in 1769. Today if you stand on the bridge and look towards St Thomas’s Hospital on the far bank you can see a patch of trees where the hospital gardens are. This is approximately the location of Astley’s, shown below in 1777.

Astley’s fame spread rapidly and in 1772 he performed before King Louis XV at Versailles. Patty, his wife, was also an accomplished rider. At first she assisted by beating out rhythms on a large drum but she soon joined in with horseback tricks including riding with a “muff” of swarms of bees over her hands and arms. Her husband began to incorporate comedy into his tricks, including his most famous act, The Tailor of Brentford.

As the popularity of his shows increased Astley gathered other acts, scouring fairs and going as far afield as Paris to find good street performers. The shows began to incorporate many of the circus acts we would recognise today – acrobats, jugglers, rope-dancers, clowns, strong men and, of course, the equestrian acts. The arena was roofed by 1780 so that he could continue to give shows year-round.

Astley is credited with discovering that the ideal size for a circus ring is 42 feet in diameter, allowing the optimal use of centrifugal force to keep him on the horse’s back as he galloped round the ring. However, Astley did not use the name ‘Circus’ for his show as this had been appropriated by Charles Dibden whom opened The Royal Circus nearby in 1782, stealing many of Astley’s ideas.

When The Royal Grove was destroyed by fire in 1794 he rebuilt in splendid style, this time calling it Astley’s Amphitheatre. By now it was so established, eclipsing Dibden’s Circus, that he could attract famous performers such as the clown Grimaldi and he added melodramas, comic sketches such as the one entitled ‘Honey Moon’ in the poster and dramatic sword fights. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 23 August 1796 that she had arrived safely in London and that “We are to be at Astley’s tonight, which I am glad of.” Unfortunately there is no letter describing what she saw, but she sends lovers Harriet Smith and Robert Martin to Astley’s in Emma and Harriet “could dwell on it all with the utmost delight.”

As well as the ring  the Amphitheatre had a stage with a proscenium arch linked to it by ramps allowing dramatic gallops from ring to stage. By the time the building was destroyed by fire again in 1803 Astley could afford to rebuild on a far more impressive scale as the print of 1803 [“*57-1633, Houghton Library, Harvard University”] shows.

Astley died in 1814 but the Amphitheatre continued to be wildly popular and would include crowd-pleasing shows recreating the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Astley also contributed to the development of the circus  by taking shows on tour in the summer months to wooden amphitheatres he’d had constructed throughout Britain and in eighteen cities on the Continent. He died in Paris and is buried there. The 1803 building lasted until a third fire in 1841. Charles Dickens describes it in Sketches By Boz as “delightful, splendid and surprising.” It was rebuilt in 1862 as the New Westminster Theatre Royal, but demolished in 1893.

 

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The Story of a Square 5: Golden Square – or ‘Do Come Up & See My Etchings, Miss Austen.’

Today Golden Square is a pleasant area to sit – paved, planted, shaded by trees and liberally supplied with benches. It sits just South of Carnaby Street, East of Regent’s Street, a good place to rest from shopping and sightseeing, surrounded by corporate buildings housing mainly media companies.

It is a late 17th century construction, still showing as fields on William Morgan’s map of 1682. The London Encyclopedia suggests that its name is a genteel corruption of ‘gelding’ because Gelding’s Close, a field in the area, was used to graze geldings. It seems more likely to me that it was owned by a Mr Gelding – a genuine, if unfortunate, surname. However it began, by the early 18th century it was a popular place to live for aristocrats including the Duchess of Cleveland, the Duke of Chandos and Viscount Bolingbroke. By about 1715, however, the aristocrats seem to have moved out and professional men such as surgeons and artists of the top rank moved in. It was still very respectable. and in 1720 in his Survey of London John Strype described it as “a very handsome place railed round and gravelled with many very good houses inhabited by gentry on all sides.” None of the 17th century houses remain but four of the 18th century replacements do. (Numbers 11, 21, 23, 24). Below is a detail from Roque’s map of 1747. Warwick Street, to the left, remains, but Great and Little Swallow Streets vanished under Regent’s Street

Anastasia Robinson (c.1692-1755), was a singer for whom Handel created many pieces, beginning in 1714 when he wrote Ode For the Birthday of Queen Anne for her. Her father owned a property in Golden Square and that was where her first private recitals were held. She was the secret wife of the Earl of Peterborough, unacknowledged until shortly before his death. Another performer of Handel’s works was Elisabetta de Gambarini (1731-65) who was also a composer, conductor and skilled keyboard player on a range of instruments. She lived at number 13 from 1753 to 1763.  Artist Angelica Kauffman, a leading Society painter and one of the two female founding members of the Royal Society, lived at number 16 between 1767 and 1781. Artist Martin Archer Shee, later President of the Royal Society, lived at number 13 between 1795-6. Mrs Jordan the actress who became the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, had three daughters by Edward Ford who lived at number 4. In 1803 she took number 30 to house the girls.

Diplomats also moved into the Square with the legations of Genoa, Russia, Bavaria, Brunswick and Portugal. A Blue Plaque on number 23 marks the location of the Portuguese Embassy, occupied 1739-44 by the eminent statesman the Marquess of Pombal. The Bavarian Legation took over 23 and 24 and both houses were bought in 1788 by Bishop James Talbot so that the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory could be built in the gardens. Number 24 became the presbytery. The church can still be seen with its entrance on Warwick Street.

Doctor James Stanier Clarke, Domestic Chaplain and Librarian to the Prince Regent, lived at number 37. He had met Jane Austen on November 13 1815 when she had visited Carlton House by invitation of the Prince Regent. Doctor Clarke’s role was to hint, heavily, that Miss Austen should dedicate her next work to his employer. Jane was no fan of the Regent, being a supporter of his estranged wife, Princess Caroline, and tried to wriggle out of it. Two days later she wrote to Doctor Stanier Clarke asking for clarification – had she received a suggestion, a request or an order? “I shd be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or Ungrateful.” Eventually her publisher, John Murray, and her family persuaded her that she had no option and a presentation set of Emma, respectfully dedicated, was dispatched to Carlton House in December 1815.

Doctor Stanier Clarke (portrait c.1790 left) proved to be not just a fan of Miss Austen, but also a rather annoying groupie. He so irritated her with suggestions for plots and characters (“to delineate in some future Work the Habits of Life and Character and enthusiasm of a Clergyman—who should pass his time between the metropolis & the Country . . . Fond of, & entirely engaged in Literature—no man’s Enemy but his own”) that she eventually wrote the satirical Plan of a Novel, according to Hints from Various Quarters in 1816. In December 1815 Doctor Stanier Clarke invited  Miss Austen to visit his house in Golden Square to use his personal library. This was a quite shocking thing for an unmarried gentleman to do, although he assured her that a maid would be in attendance. Whether he was simply too star-struck to care or too insensitive to realise the impropriety or whether this was an invitation along the lines of, “Come up and see my etchings,” Jane did not accept.

One feature of the Square that Doctor Stanier Clarke would recognize today is the battered statue at the head of this post. It is a full-length standing figure in Roman military garb, generally considered to be George II  (although some insist it is Charles II). In the quote from Dickens below it is described as “mournful” and is reputed to have come from the roof of the Duke of Chandos’s seat at Canons Park.

By the mid 19th century the Square had gone down in the world and Dickens described it in Nicholas Nickleby:

“Although a few members of the graver professions live about Golden Square, it is not exactly in anybody’s way to or from anywhere. It is one of the squares that have been; a quarter of the town that has gone down in the world, and taken to letting lodgings. Many of its first and second floors are let, furnished, to single gentlemen; and it takes boarders besides. It is a great resort of foreigners. The dark-complexioned men who wear large rings, and heavy watch-guards, and bushy whiskers, and who congregate under the Opera Colonnade, and about the box-office in the season, between four and five in the afternoon, when they give away the orders, all live in Golden Square, or within a street of it. Two or three violins and a wind instrument from the Opera band reside within its precincts. Its boarding-houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of the square. On a summer’s night, windows are thrown open, and groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passer-by, lounging at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices practicing vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee-singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its boundaries.”

You can take in Golden Square in Walk 5 (Soho to the British Museum) in my Walking Jane Austen’s London

 

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Story of a Square 4: Leicester Square – From Common Land to Fashionable Residence to Popular Entertainment Centre

For Jane Austen the Leicester Square area was the location of some of her favourite shops. Until 1630 it was Leicester Fields, common land available for parishioners of any class to dry clothes and to pasture their livestock after Lammas Day (12th August). But London was moving out from its old centres and the Earl of Leicester acquired the area in 1630 in order to build Leicester House. That occupied, more or less, the area between today’s Lisle Street and the Northern edge of the Square. To the East it finished more or less where Leicester Place is and to the West on a line where the edge of the Empire cinema stands. Lisle Street ended at the Western edge of its gardens.

The parishioners were, naturally, unhappy about this incursion on their land and rights and Charles I had to appoint a Privy Council committee to arbitrate. His lordship was ordered to make compensation and he had a high brick wall built along the Southern boundary (the current pavement line, more or less) and, in accordance with the committee’s instructions, had the rest of the land – the present Square – turned ‘into Walkes and planted with trees along the walkes and fitt spaces left for the Inhabitantes to drye their clothes there as they were wont, and to have free use of this place.’ As the other sides of the open area were built on the contractors railed off the centre and planted elms. The map at the top is a detail from Roque’s map of 1740.

In 1670 Leicester Square was laid out for ‘the benefit of the family, the advancement of their revenue, and the decency of the place before Leicester House.’ This was an indication that fine houses were being built around the Square. By the early 18th century there was a brick wall with iron railing and in 1784 a statue of George I in armour and on horseback was moved from the garden of the Duke of Chandos’s house to the centre. The gardens gradually deteriorated and so did the statue which lost a leg. It was finally sold for scrap for £16 in 1872.

Part of the Leicester estate, including the Fields and surroundings was acquired by the Tulk family in 1808. By this time all four sides of the Square were built up with fine houses and no commercial development had been permitted although by 1782 there was a linen draper by the name of Gedge operating at the corner with Cranbourn Street (running from the top Eastern corner of the Square). Six earls had residences in the Square and several artists, writers and men of business lived there. Hogarth created Marriage à la Mode, Rake’s Progress, Industry and Idleness and Gin Lane at no.30 and Joshua Reynolds lived at no.47 from 1760 to 1792. All the fine 17th and 18th century houses have gone now, replaced by buildings of the late 19th century onwards.

By the end of the 18th century the area had become rather less select and had taken on the form shown in the second map above. The Earl of Rockingham had lived at no.27 until his death. It became a bagnio – technically these were bathhouses, but more usually were brothels. This was the location for the great hoax of 1726, the place where anatomist Nathaniel St Andre brought Mary Tofts, a poor women from Surrey whom, he claimed, had given birth to a litter of 15 rabbits after being frightened by one when walking through a field. The story attracted George I’s surgeon who was taken in and claimed to have delivered her of part of another rabbit. Sir Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society arrived to view the birth of yet more rabbits. Eventually she was caught buying rabbits and the scam was exposed.  The bagnio and the sensational hoax perhaps mark the beginning of Leicester Square as a centre for popular entertainment, although as this print of 1812 (from Ackermann’s Repository) shows, it was still a very smart area.

The view is from Leicester Place down to the North-East corner of the Square. If you stand there today you can still see the indentation in the street on the right hand side – I love how landholdings like this are reflected years later in the modern building line.

Jane Austen came to the area to shop, especially when she was staying with her brother Henry in Covent Garden. Prices were slightly lower than those in the Mayfair area and she patronised Isaac Newton the linen draper in Leicester Place whose unimaginative approach to window dressing can be seen in this print. Next door is a doorway with a sign over it “Rome Malta” which was the entrance into Barker’s Panorama, opened in 1793. It was a rotunda of 27 metres in diameter. It’s two rooms, one above the other, displayed perspective views of famous scenes and locations which could be viewed ‘in the round’ from the centre

of each room. Jane Austen also shopped for bonnets and caps in Cranbourn Alley.  On a snowy day in March 1814 she wrote to her sister Cassandra,

‘Here’s a day! The Ground covered with snow! What is to become of us? We were to have walked out early to near Shops, & had the Carriage for the more distant… Well, we have been out, as far as Coventry St; Edwd escorted us there & back to Newtons, where he left us, & I brought Fanny safely home.’ On that snowy shopping trip she saw, ‘A great many pretty Caps in the Windows of Cranbourn Alley! I hope when you come, we shall both be tempted.’ Intrigued, I set out to find Cranbourn Alley which runs between Cranbourn Street and Bear Street. It is still there – and a horrible little passageway it is now. I wouldn’t want to walk down it in daylight, let alone at night!

By the mid 19th century the ‘garden’ in the centre of the Square was so derelict that it had the Great Globe, a vast ball-shaped panorama built on it in 1851. Later it became a wasteland with occasional circuses, poor quality stalls and was used as a waste tip. It was surrounded by high wooden hoardings covered in advertisements  until in 1873 the Master of the Rolls had them removed and ordered that the area be returned to use as a garden. It was rescued in 1874 when it was bought by the flamboyant, and very rich, MP for Kidderminster, Albert Grant, who was created a baron by the King of Italy. He had the garden laid out much as it is today with a fountain and bust of Shakespeare in the centre. It was refurbished in 1992.

It seems difficult to see anything of the Georgian and Regency periods in Leicester Square today with its vast crowds of tourists queuing for theatre and cinema tickets, its souvenir shops and its endless food outlets. However, when I researched the area for Walking Jane Austen’s London and Walks Through Regency London I found plenty of fascinating reminders within a short distance. There’s Freibourg & Treyer’s shop, the oldest surviving in London,  in Haymarket. In Gerrard Street you can climb the stairs that Doctor Johnson and Joshua Reynolds would have used in the days when no.9, now a Chinese supermarket, was the famous Turk’s Head coffee house. The area has numerous Regency-era shopfronts too, especially in Lisle Street. Then you can have a drink and sandwich in Tom Cribb’s pub on Panton Street and escape the crush around the Square!

 

 

 

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The London Stone

I get my daily dose of the wonderful ravens at the Tower on Twitter from @RavenMaster1, thus doing my bit to support the realm because, as everyone knows for a fact, the continuing presence of ravens at the Tower is essential for the very existence of the nation.

The importance of ravens might be A Fact, but there are also myths about objects key to the existence of London, most famously, the London Stone. Normally this is quite difficult to get a good look at, because for years it has been stuck behind bars in a building that is now being demolished. Until it can be returned to Cannon Street, where it has been since at least the 11th century, it is on display at the Museum of London.

So what is the London Stone? No-one really knows. It is a block of Clipsham limestone, heavily weathered, with a rounded top with two grooves in it. An 11th century reference to it as ‘the Londenstane’ is the first written record, but it is probably Roman in origin. Cannon Street Station, very close to its traditional location, was the site of the Roman Governor’s Palace, so it might be a stone from there. There is also a suggestion, without any foundation, that it is a Roman milestone marking the centre of Londinium.

In 1450 the Kentish rebel Jack Cade, calling himself John Mortimer, led his men into London. He struck the Stone with his sword, announcing, ‘Now is Mortimer Lord of the City!’ Shakespeare makes much of this incident with a heavily-embroidered version in Henry VI Part 2.

The print of 1831 above shows it – or, rather, its protective housing – as it was from the 1780s, in the wall of Wren’s church of St Swithen’s. You can see an oval opening just behind the man who appears to be carrying something suspiciously like a coffin on his shoulders. The Stone has always been somewhere close to this location, but it has shifted about somewhat over the years. Originally it was on the southern edge of medieval Candlewick Street (the early name for Cannon Street), opposite the ancient church of St Swithen. In 886 King Alfred had laid out a grid of streets for Saxon London and the Stone would have been central in that, which might account for its significance.

The Great Fire swept over the site in 1666, leaving its mark on the Stone and destroying St Swithen’s, but it was still of enough significance in 1720 to have a protective housing built over it. When Wren’s new church was built the Stone in its shelter was moved across to stand in front of it and later it was built into the wall of the church, still in the 1720 cover.St Swithen’s was gutted during the Blitz, but remained standing as a ruin, complete with the Stone, until the 1960s when the church was demolished. The photograph below is 1962, just before the demolition. An unlovely building (111, Cannon Street) for the Bank of China was built on the site and the Stone was housed – or, rather, caged –  behind bars in the front of this building.(Colour photo).

 

Now the block is being redeveloped and the Stone is in the Museum of London for safekeeping before it can be replaced on site.

The earliest surviving list of Canterbury Cathedral’s London properties, which dates to between 1098 and 1108,mentions property given by a certain “Eadwaker æt lundene stane” (“Eadwaker at London Stone”). People living near the Stone adopted it as part of their surname, for example Ailwin of London Stone who was the father of Henry Fitz-Ailwin the first mayor of the City of London ( 1189 and 1193). Their house stood on the north side of St Swithin’s church.

By the 17th century the Stone was a tourist attraction  and remained an address for businesses. By that time it has accumulated a mish-mash of legends and ‘history’ – it had  been placed there by Brutus, by, King Lud, it was  Druidic sacrificial altar and finally that an ancient prophecy stated that, ‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish’. Unfortunately this appears to have been entirely made up by the author of an article in the journal Notes and Queries in 1862! So – catch the London Stone in all its enigmatic mystery while you can still see it from all sides.

 

 

 

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Just How Romantic Were Highwaymen?

I have a vested interest in that question because two of my ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century – fortunately for me, they had married and left children by then. Not so fortunate for their families. So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it.

But the highwayman was a popular figure (at least, if you weren’t one of his victims). The crowd loved a villain, especially one who robbed those better off than themselves, carried out daring raids and escapes and, when almost inevitably brought to justice, “died game” on the gallows. Reality was less romantic – even the famous Dick Turpin, shown here on Black Bess, was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers. The dashing Frenchman, Claude du Vall was hanged at Tyburn January 1670 despite (according to legend) gallantly sparing the possessions of any pretty lady who was prepared to dance with him. Presumably the plain ones just got robbed. The Victorians loved him and he was immortalized in a painting by Frith.

So, what was the risk of encountering a highwayman? Up until the third quarter of the 18th century the danger was significant. Roads were bad, so travel was slow and out-running a mounted attack virtually impossible. There was no effective policing of highways and the response of the law was to react to incidents, not to prevent them. The London Gazette in 1684 carried an advertisement offering a reward after the Northampton stage was, ‘set upon by four Theeves, plain in habit but well-horsed,’ and in one week in 1720 every stagecoach into London from Surrey was robbed by highwaymen.

However, as I discovered when I was researching  Stagecoach Travel, although rapid improvements to roads in the later 18th century meant that there were far more vehicles moving over them it also meant that the coaches – increasingly better designed – became faster. Stage and mail coaches were now major businesses with a lot to lose and the guards were better armed and trained. The authorities put mounted patrols on the roads and eventually made the whole business too risky to be worthwhile.It took a while, though – the last incident of highway robbery on Knightsbridge, the road between Hyde Park Corner tollgate and the village of Kensington, was in 1799.

Today as you travel along that route, perhaps on the top of a London bus, look north as you pass the Royal Albert Hall, built on the site of Gore House. Opposite Gore House was the infamous Halfway House Inn (below). There the spies for the highwaymen of Hounslow Heath would congregate to see who was travelling and pass the word on to alert the highwaymen about fine carriages or vulnerable riders.  The wall behind the inn is the boundary of Hyde Park.

Highwaymen did persist longer in Ireland where the roads were less good and the slower coaches made easier pickings. In 1808 a coach lined with copper and advertised as bulletproof was tried on the Dublin to Cork road, an indication that highwaymen were not afraid to shoot into the body of the vehicle at the passengers as well as threaten the guard and coachman.

The highwayman and his less glamorous compatriots were sufficiently significant in Georgian society to have left their mark on the slang of the time as I discovered when I was researching Regency Slang Revealed: Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.   The mounted highwayman was “on the High Toby” the footpads were on the “Low Pad” or “Low Toby”. I found eleven general terms for a highwayman – a Gentleman’s Master being one that perhaps gives a clue as to why they were popular with the common people. A Bully Ruffian was a very violent highwayman whereas a Royal Scamp preyed on the rich in a most gentlemanly fashion. It seems that equipment was important – a Rum Padder was particularly well-armed and well-mounted and a Chosen Pell was a highwayman operating inside a town, riding a horse with leather covers on its feet to muffle the sound of hoof-beats.

A highwayman’s mistress was his Bloss or Blowen and she may have waited for him at inns like the Halfway House when he went “on the pad” advised by his Carriers or Cruisers – the informants. They would all have hoped for a Catching Harvest – a time when the roads were thronged with travellers going to some event or another. Fairs, boxing matches and races gave particularly good pickings.

Just remember, when you are held up by a highwayman – mention the Music. That’s the universal password that will see you safe.

I’ll leave you with a watercolour portrait that I own. I have no idea of date, artist or subject, but he haunts me. I just have the feeling that he’s a highwayman, no longer in his prime. Should he mount up and take to the High Toby tonight? Or would that be one time too many…

 

 

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Lighting Up St James’s Square

Yesterday I was reading The Courier (as one does) for September 23rd 1817 and discovered that two hundred years ago, almost to the day, St James’s Square was being renovated and lit by gas.

St. JAMES’S SQUARE

“No expense is spared, that can render the area of this assemblage of noble dwellings delightful to the taste of its inhabitants. The wall on which the iron railing of the new inclosure is to be placed, having been found so high as to obstruct, in some measure, the view of the intended greensward, it has been lowered, although the coping had been laid on, and great part of the iron railing fixed. Besides this provision for the pleasantness of the square by day, care has been taken, not only for its security, but for its splendour by night. The gas-lights will be scarcely more than twenty paces distant from each other, raised upon handsome iron stands, through the hollow of which the gas will ascend. The form of these is nearly that of a cannon, as far as three feet from the ground; afterwards, they become slender tubes, of a figure not unlike the stalks of some plants. The lamps they are to bear will be large; and not curved but angular, according to the present fashion. The east and west sides are to have seven each; the northern side six. It may be hoped that the improvement, which will be made here by the introduction of these lights, will lead to their use in St. James’s Park, where they are still more necessary.”

(The reference to the Park is presumably to its notorious reputation as a location for nocturnal sexual activity!) The rather small image at the top of the post is a version of Ackermann’s print and shows the Square in 1812 looking northwards towards St James’s church standing opposite the top of Duke of York Street (formerly Duke Street). The statue of William III in the centre and the covered seat on the far left still remain.

St James’s Square has always been the location of some very smart houses, but its central area has had a somewhat chequered past. The area was developed on open fields shortly after the restoration of Charles II by Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans. He laid out a square which had fine new houses on three sides, but which, on the fourth, southern, side, consisted only of the backs of the houses already facing onto Pall Mall.

The central area though, was a problem and, for some reason, no-one seemed to take control of the ground and landscape it. At first it was simply a bare area decorated by ash heaps, rubbish, dead cats and dogs and a storage shed erected as a timber store. There is even a record of a man who ‘kept the ring in St James’s Square for cudgel playing.’! It was also the site of occasional grand firework displays. One of the most spectacular must have been to celebrate the Peace of Ryswick in December 1697 when 1,000 skyrockets, 2,400 ‘pumps with stars’, 15,000 ‘swarms’ 7,00 ‘reports’ and 22 rocket chests each with 40 rockets, were let off.

In February 1726 a petition was presented to the House of Commons complaining that the Square ‘had lain and doth lie rude and in great disorder.’ There were individuals ready to spend money on improvements but they needed an Act to be able to do so. It proceeded with great speed (presumably due to the exulted status of the local inhabitants of the area) and the Trustees were enabled to clean up and ‘adorn’ the Square. Things then proceed slowly until in February 1727 the decision was made to dig a ‘bason’ to be surrounded by an octagonal five foot high iron railing incorporating eight stone obelisks with lamps. This must be the work that is shown in Horwood’s map of 1795.

There were also plans for a statue of William III in brass, showing this very Protestant king ‘trampling down popery, breaking the chains of bondage, slavery etc.’ Nothing came of that, although it was discussed by the Trustees endlessly. Meanwhile the Trustees had to wrestle with the problems created by the fountain in the middle of the octagonal pond which stopped working . In 1778 its surrounding plinth was removed which produced  correspondence from a gentleman ‘who had some interest in the ducks’ that roosted on it. Whether he was a naturalist or a lover of roast duck is not clear. Finally the statue was erected, on a plain plinth, in 1807.

For some reason, in 1799, the Trustees were considering changing the octagonal enclosure to a round one and the Ackermann view of 1812 appears to show that this was done. A Committee for Lighting the Square was set up and it is, presumably, its preparatory work that The Courier was reporting on. However, the number of lamps was exaggerated – in the end twelve lamps were set up, plus one on the South side which was supplemented by four more paid for directly by the residents. The installation of these lamps makes St James’s Square the first public area to be lit by gas. Demonstration lights had been used in Pall Mall 1808-10, but they were not permanent until 1820.

Having routed, they hoped, streetwalkers, pickpockets and undesirables with their new lighting, the Trustees turned their attention to upgrading the centre of the Square and secured the services of John Nash, architect of Regent’s Street. Nash’s scheme included an iron fence around the pond and plantings of shrubs with paths weaving through them. The pond continued to be a nuisance with the need to keep cleaning it out and it was finally filled in during 1854. During the Second World War the railing were removed for scrap metal and the gardens converted to allotments. The present railings and gates date from 1974, the Square having narrowly escaped a proposed underground car park (1953) and a cost-cutting exercise by Westminster Council that would have fenced it with plastic-covered chain-link.

It is still possible to walk along gas-lit streets in the St James’s area, although now the gas lamps are on a timer system, not requiring a lamp lighter, except to change the timer seasonally. The photograph shows gas lamps in Crown Passage which cuts between Pall Mall and King Street.

 

 

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