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Archive for November, 2010

newgate: london's prototype of hellBack from freezing France where I was, at least, able to do some chunky reading, quickly despatching the above-titled narrative history of Newgate prison by Stephen Halliday. The descpription “prototype of Hell” comes from Henry Fielding, one of the 18th century’s big personalities. A dramatist, writer and impressario, on becoming the chief magistrate of Bow Street, he set to work cleaning up the local criminal justice and penal landscape which had become saturated in corruption. Unfortunately, after the death of his brother John who succeeded him, the system soon returned to its old ways.

The Fieldings were two participants of dozens who populate the Newgate story. The prison, sited next door to the Old Bailey, witnessed the trials, incarceration and deaths of many thousands of men and women for some seven centuries. More died from disease within its walls than ever did at the gallows. Along with petty criminals and debtors, its inmates included celebrities such as Dr Dodd, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, political agitators, traitors, sex offenders and those deemed to be a general thorn in the side of authority such as the writer Daniel Defoe. All the significant dramatis personae of the Newgate story here are given separate pen-portraits, an approach I really like. One can take a break from the narrative and make a mental note to find out more later about those whose story extends beyond their relationship with the prison.

The value of this book is not just in the absorbing tale of Britain’s most notorious prison, but the history of crime and punishment in England across the ages and society’s response to them. One soon gets the measure of the essentially medieval system that persisted through to the late Georgian period and how it failed to contain crime, despite the “Bloody Code”, in the world’s most populous city. But the most interesting part of the story is how the penal system was thorougly transformed, from its faltering beginnings with the Fieldings through the Victorian era and into the 20th Century.

One would think it not too challenging to write a story as colourful as Newgate’s that was thoroughly entertaining and indeed, Stephen Halliday achieves this with ease. But the reward of a good history book is to leave the reader truly enlightened on a particular subject and in this the author is throroughly successful.

Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, The History Press, 2006. 317 pp. ISBN 978-0-7509-3896-9,

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A bit of a blog break by me, off to France for to nosh oysters for four days. Why not get  yourself a hot water bottle, a nice cuppa, and explore the blog, we’ve built up quite a good body of work (if I may say so) this past three months.

And while you’re at it, here are some other posts we enjoyed.

Everett Millais, John Ruskin and Effie Gray… by Virtual Victorian (book review)
London Gas Works: 1895 by the Victorianist
Islington and Belgravia by House Historian
Cupid as a Link Boy by Joshua Reynolds by Georgian London
These Papist Priests Were Drawne Along by Dainty Ballerina
Shop Assistants by Lee Jackson

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Dr William Dodd by John Russell

Dr William Dodd by John Russell, ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

When visiting Dr Johnson’s House recently, I was intrigued by the story of Dr William Dodd (1729 – 1777), a portrait of whom is on display there (not the one featured here). I met him again a few days ago where he is covered in Stephen Halliday’s excellent book about Newgate Prison (page 109), which I’m reading.

Dodd, a clergyman, was a social-climber, dilettante and bon viveur who, in order to support his lifestyle, put himself in terrible debt: this ultimately cost him his life. But he seemed to be well-liked as evidenced by the trouble that many influential people took to see him pardoned. To no avail.

In 1777, Dodd was tried for forgery and sentenced to death by hanging. Finding himself in insurmountable debt, he had forged a bond in the name of his friend the Earl of Chesterfield for £4,200, a whopping sum. The Earl himself did not wish for the prosecution to proceed, but matters were out of his hands. Even at his trial, the jurors themselves did not wish for Dodd to be condemned to death. There followed a petition of 37,000 to have him pardoned. Samuel Johnson and others vigorously petitioned for his life to be spared and the matter eventually reached the King. Despite Dodd having once been the King’s own chaplain, George III decided that he could not make a special case, and the flamboyant reverend’s fate was sealed.

Or was it? One of Dodd’s many past preoccupations was the development of a method to resuscitate victims of hanging. He collaborated on this with the eminent surgeon Dr Hunter and even published a paper on it. The procedure involved the immersion of the corpse in a warm bath. Immediately after his execution at Tyburn, Dodd’s friends rushed his body to a private house and attempted his own innovation to return  him to life, but unfortunately their efforts failed.

There is much more to tell about the fascinating Dr Dodd, a true eccentric. I recommend you follow the Wikipedia link above, whence there are excellent further external links.

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Crossing the River by Brian CooksonSetting up London Historians this past two months has seriously curbed my book reading. Whereas I’d normally expect to do a book in a week, it has taken me nearly a month to read Brian Cookson’s Crossing the River, subtitle: The History of London’s Thames Bridges from Richmond to the Tower. The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed articles on Old London Bridge and Westiminster Bridge which Brian wrote for us, which are posted on the web site here. (Acrobat (.pdf) files).

So does this allow me to write a balanced item about the book? Absolutely. If I didn’t like it I simply would not have covered it. In fact, you will never see a negative book review on this blog, because what’s the point? I’m not a professional book reviewer and besides,  I’m only interested in spending time on a blog post to share something I think you’ll enjoy.

Cookson has arranged the book in geographical order, west to east, as the title suggests. This can be a little disconcerting for those used to reading history chronologically, but I think it works rather well. Each bridge has its own story, all are fascinating and no two are remotely similar. There are intriguing tales behind the funding of the structures (a dry topic amply and often amusingly redeemed by the author);  arguments, lobbying, tolls and vested interests; war; the architects and engineers; the local areas and how bridges affected them.

What struck me is how cheaply the earlier bridges were constructed compared to the mid-20th century onwards, even taking into account inflation. Also notable is how late the Thames got properly bridged, given its pre-eminent global status from the 18th Century onwards. Up until the early 1700s, Old London Bridge stood proud as the only road crossing in what is now the greater London area. Of the 40 or so bridges described, 19 were built during the Victorian period and a further 12 in the 20th and 21st Centuries. When it comes to feats of engineering, once again it was the Victorians wot done it.

A very pleasing feature is that most of the prominent builders are given separate pen portraits covering their careers, among them Rennie, Barry, Jones, Clark, Locke, Walker, Page and, of course, Bazalgette and Brunel.

Cookson has an informal, easy style which pushes you along Crossing the River‘s 300 pages with ease and pleasure.

Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower. Mainstream Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1840189762.

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Even today, I get a little mixed up between Marble Arch and Wellington Arch, a bit like people who have difficulty with their left from their right. I know which is which to look at, but I run into problems remembering at which corners of Hyde Park they are sited. And other related details. For example, when visiting Wellington Arch recently, I wondered what had happened to the “smallest police station in London”. This was actually in Marble Arch. Trawling around touristy photo pages on the web reveals that many think that Wellington Arch is Marble Arch with some clearly under the impression that there is only one – known as Marble Arch – whether it be the correct one or Wellington Arch.

So at the risk of patronising our better-informed readers, here goes. Marble Arch is the one without the decoration on top and is sited on the north-east corner of  Hyde Park, that is to say Speaker’s Corner, which is near the junction of Oxford Street and Edgware Road. Wellington Arch, with the angelic charioteer statue on top is on the south-east corner of Hyde Park, that is to say Hyde Park Corner, where Knightsbridge meets Piccadilly at the corner of Green Park.

Marble Arch, near Speaker's Corner

wellington arch london

Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner

These structures, along with Euston Arch, were erected almost contemporaneously in the 1830s. Late Georgian Britain had emerged as the dominant power in the world in trade, industry and arms and was feeling proud and confident. This was particularly reflected in art and architecture, manifesting itself  in neo-Classical styles,  grandees having bizarre statues of themselves dressed as imperial Roman generals, and also these triumphal arches.

Euston Arch, sited in front of the old Euston station when it was first built in 1837, is perhaps appropriately more industrial and chunky-looking than its Hyde Park counterparts. There it stood until the early 1960s when it fell victim to modernism during the rebuilding of the station in the modern international style. The fate of the arch boiled down to a choice between demolition at a cost of £12,000 or re-siting at a cost of £190,000. The preservation option was fiercely fought for by the Victorian Society, led by Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, but to no avail. Nobody, including the government and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan himself, was prepared to fund the latter option, and lacking a preservation order, the arch came down.

euston arch london

Euston Arch in 1896

The good news is that most of the stone pieces of the arch were rediscovered in the 1990s dumped in the River Lea and a project to re-erect it at Euston, led by Dan Cruickshank, Michael Palin and others,  is progressing well. This worthy initiative is run by the Euston Arch Trust, who have an excellent and newsy web site.

Update: 14 April 2011

Some more arches for you. Two, it can be argued, are really gates. But both Wellington Arch and Marble Arch once served as gates. So, they are mostly interchangeable. First, York House Gate on the Embankment. This is the oldest in our series so far, dating from 1626, built in the Italianate style and placed on the bank of the Thames by George Villers, 1st Duke of Buckingham in front of his London mansion, York House. Note that Villiers Street is close by. The stairs in front of this arch were a common feature the entire length of the London Thames before embankment, yet the names of many of them live on. Once Bazalgette embanked the river in the 1860s, this gate became somewhat stranded, some 150 yards from the edge.

york house watergate

Next we have a simple memorial arch at Guy’s Hospital to remember the doctors and staff who lost their lives in the two world wars.

memorial arch, guy's hospital

Finally (for now), we have Temple Bar in Paternoster Square near St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can read all about the story of Temple Bar here.

temple bar

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Or Victorian. He straddled the border. A few months ago when rooting about for a suitable image to put on our members’ cards, after a few false starts, I came across just the thing. A view of the Thames and Somerset House from the west by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1792 – 1864). Because it featured lots of sky, it enabled me to incorporate London Historians logo without interfering with the image unduly. The picture is listed on the Internet as having been painted in 1817, and you’ll notice the Thames is not yet embanked, something Joseph Bazalgette famously undertook some 50 years later. I think you’ll agree, it’s a fine picture.

thomas hosmer shepherd

Somerset House by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1817

So who was Thomas Hosmer Shepherd? As you can see, his Wikipedia entry is not much more than a stub. Using my new DNB subscription, I turned there, only to find him mentioned just the once and in passing, with relation to his brother, who was seemingly more Important.

And yet there are quite a few examples of his work knocking around the web. I like them very much, both aesthetically and as great references of London’s buildings and streets during the Victorian period. What I have been able to find out is that Shepherd was mainly a watercolourist and that rather than being an exhibiting or commercial painter, he appears to have been commissioned as an architectural illustrator, many of his paintings being turned into engravings for reference books of pretty buildings. You can buy these on places like abebooks.com for up to £1,500 for first editions, or very cheaply for reissues that were printed in the 1970s. So we know that someone was on the Thomas Holmer Shepherd case relatively recently.

So like Erasmus Bond, whom I wrote about recently, Shepherd is undeservedly obscure, in my view. But I suspect we may find out more about him more easily than the mysterious Mr Bond. If you know anything, please do get in touch. Meantime, here are a few more of Shepherd’s lovely pictures.

st james's palace by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd

St James's Palace

westminster abbey

Westminster Abbey

marlborough house by thomas hosmer shepherd

Marlborough House

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Ugly Clock

ugly clock hammersmith station

Have you ever seen a more unpleasant public clock? Hammersmith Station.

Update: A reader has quite rightly pointed out (via Facebook) that the design is based on Harry Beck’s tube diagram, using Piccadilly and District Line colours, both of which service Hammersmith. This partially redeems it, I suppose, but I still say it’s ugly. Beck eschewed curves (except little ones at corners) and I think possibly this is the problem here.

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