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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Filed under Architecture, Buildings, Entertainment, Shopping, Walks

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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Admiring the Adelphi

In the 1750s the three acre site between the Strand and the Thames that had once been occupied by Durham House was nothing more than a ruinous network of slum courts. It was to be transformed into the Adelphi (from the Greek for brothers), an elegant housing development, by the family of Scottish architects John, William, Robert and James Adam. They leased the land for 99 years and imported a large team of bagpipe-playing Scottish labourers – cheaper apparently than the local workmen and a source of considerable resentment. (although the unfamiliar bagpipes may have contributed to that).

The Thames was not embanked at that point and the land simply ran down to the muddy foreshore with landing stages and water gates. It required an Act of Parliament in 1771 to allow the Adam brothers to create an embankment with arched entrances into subterranean streets and storage areas and the Corporation of London was none too pleased at this infringement of its rights over the river. As well as the Mayor and Corporation they also managed to upset the Watermen and Lightermen’s Company, the Coal and Corn Lightermen and (somehow) the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. A popular ditty of the time reveals the general prejudice against the oatmeal-eating Scots.

Four Scotsmen by the name of Adams

Who keep their coaches and their madams,

Quoth John in sulky mood to Thomas

Have stole the very river from us.

O Scotland, long has it been said

Their teeth are sharp for English bread

What seize our bread and water too….

Take all to gratify your pride

But dip your oatmeal in the Clyde.

The Adams brother might have got the site at a good price but they soon found themselves in financial difficulties as they constructed the magnificent terrace of eleven houses which made up Adelphi Terrace shown in the print at the top of the post. They had employed top-level craftsmen and artists on the interiors, including painter Angelica Kaufman. Then, no sooner had they begun than there was a spectacular banking crash “the Panic” of 1772  following the collapse of the Ayr Bank. The repercussions were far-reaching and had an effect in both Europe and America. Faced with bankruptcy they held a lottery in 1774 which cleared their debts (probably helped by the fact that, somehow, they managed to win the main prize themselves.) Their next scheme, Portland Place in Marylebone, built between 1776 and 1790, created further financial problems and with house prices in the Capital falling they found it hard to sell the Adelphi properties and cover their costs with prices falling from £1,000 to just over £300 between 1773 and 1779.

However, they persevered and, with the help of royal favour and celebrity endorsement (David Garrick the star of the stage was a friend and the artist Rowlandson lived there for many years) they went on to sell to a number of big names. Behind the Adelphi Terrace itself was a tight set of streets named after the brothers themselves, along with shops and apartments and the Royal Society of Arts (Below. John Adam Street).

Only a few of the original houses now remain and the fabulous Adelphi Terrace was demolished in 1938 and rebuilt. John Street and Duke Street are now John Adam Street and William Street is Durham House Street.

The vaults under the Terrace still partly exist and can be glimpsed from Lower Robert Street, off York Buildings.

The final print shows the Terrace in the early 19th century. On the left, the little building is the York Watergate, built in 1626 for the Duke of Buckingham to act as a smart entrance to a private landing and steps. It has now been placed in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, completely out of context.

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St George’s Hanover Square – and Its Remarkable Neighbour, Trinity Chapel

 

A marriage between the aristocratic hero and his true love in St George’s Hanover Square forms the climax of many a romantic historical novel, and I’ve used that scene myself. The church, completed in 1724, was built to serve the new and expanding residential area between Piccadilly and Tyburn or Oxford Road (now Oxford Street). These handsome streets and squares were a magnet for the upper classes in Society and handsome St George’s was the perfect place to be married or to have your children baptised. The 5th Earl of Jersey, husband of Lady Jersey one of the famous Patronesses of Almack’s, was a churchwarden here, although their marriage was a private one by special licence in their Berkeley Square house.

In a detail from John Roque’s map of 1747 (below) the new church sits with Burlington House to the South and Berkley (as it was then spelled) Square to the South West.

True, it is not in Hanover Square at all, but on the East side of George Street and its position gives the West front a cramped outlook, almost but not quite, looking down Maddox Street. The view at the top of the post (1812, from Ackermann’s Repository) is probably the best angle, then and now.

It is sometimes easy to forget that the occupants of these fashionable squares, great mansions and elegant terraces were serviced by a multitude of tradesmen, servants and labourers, all of whom ‘lived in’ with their employers or set up shop close by or who lodged within easy walking distance of their employment. St George’s was their church too and in between the glamorous christenings and marriages the humbler parishioners were in and out, tying the knot, naming their babies and being buried.

This was brought home to me by discovering my great-great-great grandfather James Wood marrying Mary Baldwin at St George’s. This was a surprise – James was a humble labourer turned chair mender and caner from Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire. What was he doing in London, let alone getting married in Mayfair? Then I discovered that he was a ‘servant’ (no idea what kind) of the Earl of Bridgewater whose country house was at Ashridge, close to Berkhamstead. The Earl had a London home in Albemarle Street (bottom, centre on the map), so presumably James Wood was there serving his employer in some capacity.

After that discovery ancestors marrying or having children baptised at St George’s in the 18th and early 19th century started appearing in large numbers – all from the concentration of piano makers in Marylebone, just North of Oxford Street. Possibly St George’s was seen as an aspirational place to be married because the Marylebone piano key makers, piano string makers, piano striker coverers and occasional dolls’ eyes makers did have other options in the various chapels of ease that had been built to help ease the pressure on the churches in these new and crowded districts.

One of those chapels  can be seen on the map on Conduit Street facing up George Street. This was Trinity Chapel and had one of the strangest histories of any London place of worship. A Chapel of Ease was a chapel either built before a parish church was in existence or added later to take the strain in a very large or crowded parish. This one started life as a moveable Roman Catholic chapel on wheels used by King James II. After he fled the country in 1688 to be replaced by William and Mary, the chapel was abandoned on Hounslow Heath where James had abdicated. Probably he took mass there in one of his last acts as king. It was transported to Conduit Street and turned into an Anglican Chapel of Ease on the initiative of Archbishop Tenison. Later it was acquired by bookseller and High Bailiff of Westminster James Robson, who had it demolished and rebuilt in brick, but because it was on leasehold land it was not eligible to be a parish church, hence the need for St George’s to be built. Unfortunately no images of the remarkable ‘traveling tabernacle’ seem to have survived and Trinity Chapel was demolished in 1875, the owner of the ground having decided that secular buildings would be more profitable.

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Filed under Architecture, Buildings, courtship & marriage, High Society, Love and Marriage, Religion

A Great Investment – Or an Incitement to Murder? The Tontine

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a tontine is “A financial scheme by which the subscribers to a loan or common fund receive each an annuity during his life, which increases as their number is diminished by death, till the last subscriber enjoys the whole income…” [From the name of Lorenzo Tonti who initiated the scheme in France c 1653].

At first tontines seem to have been large scale affairs, often state-organised, and the reward for investment was the annuity, never a share of the capital, but by the later 18th century the very large tontines were out of favour and they were becoming a device for smaller groups to raise investment for a particular scheme. By the early 19th century there also appear to have been tontines where everything, including the capital, devolves on the survivor. This, of course, makes a perfect motive for murder, even for tontines where the capital is never awarded, but the survivors’ annuities increase with the death of each member. Who would want to stand at the head of a staircase with a fellow tontine subscriber behind you?

My first encounter with the concept of the tontine was in the film The Wrong Box (1966) which was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel of the same name. The heirs of the two elderly Masterman brothers – the sole survivors of a tontine – engage in a range of hilarious and illegal tricks when it seems that one of the brothers has been killed in a train crash.

A few reminders of the tontines remain in the UK, mainly in hotels called The Tontine. There is one is Glasgow, one in Peebles – and the one that reminded me of the whole subject, in Ironbridge, Shropshire.

Here it is at the foot of the famous Iron Bridge itself. The bridge itself was opened in 1784 and immediately became a huge draw for not only  engineers and iron masters but also early tourists. The men behind the bridge saw the opportunity to cash in on this early tourist attraction and formed a tontine to pay for building the hotel. Pioneer industrialists Abraham and Samuel Darby and John Wilkinson were amongst the members of the tontine, but I have not discovered who was the survivor who eventually owned the hotel for himself.

In New York the Tontine Coffee House (1793) was funded by 203 shares of £200 each – a substantial investment. The coffee house on the corner of Wall Street and Water Street became the heart of New York financial dealing – the birth of the stock exchange. In this picture it is shown on the left with the flag above.

Meanwhile I am left wondering if I can’t use a tontine in a murder plot…

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