Archive for January, 2011

Lots of good stuff by Caroline’s Miscellany of late, rather than list them all, suggest go straight to her blog. And congratulations to House Historian whose first book will be published in the spring.

Girl, I want to take you to a gay bar by Georgiana
George Lambert’s Views of Chiswick by Georgiana
Secret London: Inside the Black Museum by the Great Wen
Pussyfoot Johnson and the London Mob by the Great Wen
How the London Football Map Might Have Looked by the Great Wen
The Distastrous Debut of the World’s First Traffic Lights: London 1868 by Victorianist
The Staplehurst Rail Crash, Or How We Nearly Lost Charles Dickens Early by Victorianist
Tarts and Jellies Wherein Were Poison by Dainty Ballerina
Review of an LGBT history workshop at the Museum of London by Lucy Inglis
Elizabeth I is Crowned Queen by the Anne Boleyn Files
The Six Wives’ Stereotypes by the Anne Boleyn Files
“What to do with the Crystal Palace”? by the Property Historian
What Did the Victorians Have for Breakfast? by Lee Jackson
Breast Feeding by Lee Jackson
That Fred Vokes and his Legmania by the Virtual Victorian


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chaucer manuscriptI love the idea of doing the pilgrimage walk to Compostella and one day I’d like to chuck a large seashell around my neck and give it a go.  The problem is, it takes time. But fortunately, we have a pilgrim route on our doorstep: London to Canterbury. This should probably take three to four days, I reckon.

A quick tweet produced an immediate small flurry of interest in such a project. But Twitter is not a good forum for this sort of thing. So let’s take things one step further for the moment. If the idea appeals to you in principle, please send an email to admin@londonhistorians.org with “pilgrim” in the Subject line. This denotes interest only, not a commitment in any way, shape or form.

I, meantime, will start on feasibility: route, cost, time, accommodation, that sort of thing. For a start, I understand the original route is blighted by M roads and A roads, so we’ll have to check out alternative scenic options while staying as close as possible to Chaucer’s journey. I think the trip should be done no earlier than mid-July and no later than end of September and probably start on a Saturday going through to a Monday/Tuesday; straddling a weekend, at any event.

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A quick slap-dash post while this is newsy, and perhaps matching the sloppiness of media reporting yesterday about 55 Broadway receiving Grade I listed status. Most of the reports I saw or heard touted it at the time of opening(1929), as being “London’s tallest building” when what they meant to say was London’s tallest office block, St. Pauls remaining London’s tallest for some time to come. The word “skyscraper” was much bandied, ironically I hope. No matter, I was quite surprised that it wasn’t Grade I already.

charles holden

Charles Holden (1875 - 1960)

55 Broadway is the headquarters of London Transport and sits atop St James’s Park underground station. It was built between 1927 and 1929 and designed by the legendary modernist architect Charles Holden (nb: great link). A few years later, Holden extended the record for London’s tallest office block when he designed another iconic building:  University of London’s Senate House.

But probably Holden is better known for many of London’s art deco style tube stations, particularly in the suburbs. He also designed the wholly subterranean Piccadilly Circus station with its circular concourse. All of this wonderful work was the result of his close collaboration with Frank Pick, the visionary managing director of the then Underground Group. The best part of a century later, we tend to take these wonderful public buildings for granted.

Coincidentally, and as luck would have it, the V&A (in conjunction with RIBA) currently have an exhibition of Charles Holden’s preparatory sketches for his underground designs. More details here. (scroll down a bit). The show ends on 13 February, don’t miss it.

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astley's amphitheatre

 He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley’s. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley’s.
from Emma, by Jane Austen, Chapter 54.

Long-faded in popular memory, “Astley’s” in its day occupied a huge space in the public imagination, among Londoners in particular. Combining for the first time the then-disparate entertainments of trick-riding, acrobatics, clowns and pantomime, it was the world’s first modern circus.  Mentioned in the popular fiction of Dickens, Austen and Thackeray among others, it was oft-lampooned in the pages of Punch. But Dickens himself loved the place. It was based just south of Westminster Bridge in part of the site of today’s St Thomas’ Hospital.  Astley’s Amphitheatre, as it was most commonly known, existed under various names and proprietors from the 1770s until 1893, nearly 80 years after the death of its founder, the remarkable Philip Astley (1742 – 1814).

philip astley portrait

A very ordinary portrait engraving of Philip Astley

Philip Astley was an amazing character. The son of a cabinet maker from Newcastle under Lyme, he became a master of horsemanship and swordcraft in the 15th Light Dragoons, rising through the ranks to sergeant-major. He saw plenty of action during the Seven Years War, distinguishing himself by capturing an enemy standard. But his métier was horsemanship and he completed his service breaking and training horses. Such was his esteem, on discharge in 1766  he was given a white charger called Gibraltar by General Elliot.

Six feet tall with a hot temper and a booming voice, Astley was a man who stood out in a crowd. But for all his bluff outward appearances, Astley was a shrewd operator and businessman: he did his homework, what we would call market research. Visiting London’s leading theatres, he noticed that audiences loved the supplementary entertainments: jugglers, clowns, acrobats. At the same time, dramatic theatre in the age of David Garrick (1717 – 79) was taking itself more seriously, and these novelty acts were increasingly being dropped from the bill. Astley identified an opportunity to make these acts the focus of the entertainment combined with highly popular equestrian troupe performances which typically took place in parks or fields outside the city centre. Setting up shop with an open air stage on land south of Westminster Bridge, he met with immediate and resounding success.

Rather than stop there, the energetic impressario almost immediately opened a similar show in Paris  (the Manège Anglais, later the Amphithéâtre Anglais which was thereafter mostly run by his son John, also a highly-talented equestrian) and soon afterwards, in Dublin. And when the London season finished in the spring, he took his company on tour around Britain.

Astley's Amphitheatre, circa 1807

Astley's Amphitheatre, circa 1807

But Astley’s progress was not all plain sailing. Competition soon sprang up in the form of the “Royal Circus”, established by his protegé and now rival, Charles Hughes. Although successful for a while, Hughes and his partners lacked Astley’s business acumen and their operation struggled for years mired in debt and constant feuding, eventually disappearing altogether at the turn of the century. Astley’s second problem was the loss of his Paris operation after the revolution, something he bore patiently until it was restored after the Peace of Amiens in 1802. And third, the scourge of all theatres in an age of wood, canvas, spirits and flame-based illumination: fire. Astley’s Amphitheatre burned down in 1794 while Astley was away on active service with his old regiment (aged 51, what a trouper!), and again in 1803. Fortunately, his business had more than enough bottom to allow immediate rebuilds.

War and revolution notwithstanding, Astley spent much time in Paris, where he and the locals clearly appreciated one another. He died there in 1814 from stomach gout and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Son John continued the business until his own death from alcohol-related problems seven years later. Thereafter, Astley’s continued more or less successfully and popularly though almost the entire 19C under various managers and owners, notably Andrew Ducrow, Dion Boucicault,  the Sanger brothers and William Batty. The building was demolished in 1893.

Hercules Road in Lambeth, where Astley had his mansion, is named after one of his popular acts, the human pyramid, or Force d’Hercule.  In his time, he was celebrated in song and fêted by kings, queens, princes and people alike. Today, unlike the likes of PT Barnum and Billy Smart, this titan of popular entertainment is all but forgotten. One can only wonder what the Millennium Dome project would have become with Philip Astley in charge.

Update 25/09/2011
On our recent visit to Kensal Green Cemetery, one of the guides showed us this advertisement for circus performer Andrew Ducrow, whose tomb is in the cemetery. It shows Astley’s still going strong nearly 20 years after the death of its eponymous founding proprietor.

astley's advertisement 1831

Of the sources listed below, the best is Circopedia, while AVictorian.com (a delightful discovery today) gives interesting contemporary reports.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The London Encyclopaedia by Weinreb, Hibbert et al.
Brewer’s London Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Russ Willey.

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Booth Map of Seven Dials

Booth Map of Seven Dials

A guest post by Emily Brand.
The voices of Victorian London, as numerous and as voluble as they are, allow us to paint a fairly intimate portrait of life on the streets of the nineteenth-century capital. Alongside the fictional narratives that give strong colour to our modern perceptions of the Victorian era, perhaps most notably those of Charles Dickens, a flurry of social commentators tirelessly documented how people lived, worked, and looked as they went about their daily business.
My two interests in the history of print culture and genealogy conveniently converge in one particular area of London – the parish of St Giles, nestled between the Borough of Camden and Covent Garden. It was famously depicted in William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751), which promised to get you “Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for two pence” – an easy task considering that one in four houses was said to double up as a gin shop. It was later called a place “where misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side by side, and groan together” (Keats).

Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that generations of my nineteenth-century ancestors called this distinctly disreputable parish home. Even better, they were born and brought up in that “hotbed of villainy”, the Seven Dials. The promise of intrigue and criminality haunting the footsteps of the Victorian Brand family immediately caught my eye, but alas!, thus far they have proved a fairly unassuming bunch of saddlers and hatmakers. Nevertheless, I have had great fun researching the streets where my family were raised and practised their trades.

That the parish was dedicated to St Giles – the patron saint of lepers, beggars, cripples, the miserable and the lonely – could perhaps be held to account for the sorrows it has suffered throughout history. However, he was seen as an appropriate choice with the establishment of a hospital for lepers in the twelfth century. As London developed, this ill-defined area attracted not only the foreigners and vagrants expelled from the city itself (with a particularly large Irish community), but also to a handful of notables wishing to settle closer to Westminster. By the 17th century, the contrast between rich and poor was stark. The Booth Poverty map (shown above) was compiled in the late nineteenth century to illustrate the relative wealth of the inhabitants of London, indicated by the colour allocated to their street. It seems that the Seven Dials (the crossroads in the centre) housed those of “ordinary earnings”, peppered with those suffering “chronic want” and the “vicious, semi-criminal”.

The reputation of the parish was little improved by the fact that this was where the Great Plague first reared its ugly head in 1664, and it was generally held that “that one parish of St Giles at London hath done us all this mischief.” By the Victorian era, the Seven Dials could at least boast a bustling (if not exactly high-end) trade in “glass bottles, rags, old iron, left-off clothing, and second-hand toothbrushes”. It was also “the abode of bird-fanciers”, and both Great St Andrew Street and Little St Andrew Street (which have now combined to become Monmouth Street) could boast a number of “bird keepers”, “bird cage dealers” and the occasional “bird and beast preserver.” The image below from Thomas Miller’s Picturesque Sketches of London (1852) suggests that the aforementioned beasts could mean anything from a dog to a pig.

St Giles

Perhaps the sense of depravity could be brightened by a little birdsong, but the area certainly continued in its inclinations towards crime, poverty and vice of all persuasions. A stone’s throw from the theatre district of Drury Lane, the local area was home to countless bawdy-houses and streetwalkers, conspiring with swarms of thieves to empty the pockets of passers-by. In 1865, one visitor wrote “all about are man whose countenances and general appearance proclaim them to be thieves and cadgers.” Indeed, crime rates were among the highest across the whole of London, and it was widely acknowledged that “the walk through the Dials after dark was an act none but a lunatic would have attempted.” One such booze-fuelled effort in the 1860s was described thus:


A swaggering ass named Corrigan… once undertook for a wager to walk the entire length of Great Andrew Street at midnight, and if molested to annihilate his assailants. The half-dozen doubters who awaited his advent in the Broadway were surprised about 1a.m. to see him running as fast as he could put his legs to the ground, with only the remnant of a shirt on him; after recovering his breath and his courage he proceeded to describe the terrific slaughter he had inflicted on an innumerable number of assailants.

I like to think that Corrigan might have been an acquaintance or friend of the 19th-century Brand family, who at this time had long been living and working on the very street that deprived him of his clothes and money. Or perhaps it is more likely that they numbered among his attackers? The history of London is so cast and well-documented that anyone with a connection to the capital cannot fail to find any number of treasure that lend a personal touch to the lives of their ancestors. The Booth Poverty maps, the etchings of Gustave Doré and the journalism of Henry Mayhew, among countless other commentators, combine to provide a lively picture of times past and those who lived through them. And herein lies the fascination of having a family history in the capital ­– these ancestors are my own personal connection to the History I know and love.

census return

Searchable online Poverty Map of London, from Charles Booth
Contemporary notes on Seven Dials, from @VictorianLondon

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If you live in the greater London area, please check our list of local history societies here, and do let us know if we’ve missed yours out.

Local history groups are part of the bedrock of the London History scene and I’ve made it my business over the past three or four months to get to know them by attending monthly meetings. So far, I’ve been to Brentford & Chiswick and Hounslow – my two “home” groups – plus Twickenham, Sheen & Mortlake and Camden, all easy striking distance from home. During this year, I’ll try to get to as many of the rest as possible. I have found out that:

1) They are value for money. Typically they cost £5 – £12 per annum.
2) They hold monthly talks of the highest quality, free for members and typically a quid or two for non-members
3) Their meetings are well-attended, usually over 50 members show up in my experience so far
4) The demographic is the elderly

I’d like to address the possibly delicate question of 4). At most of these meetings, I am invariably among the youngest there, and being in my early 50s, I’m no spring chicken. Through Twitter, Facebook and other agencies, I know that London is packed with history lovers of all ages, yet there seems to be little Venn diagram crossover between these groups and local societies.

Where does this leave local groups? When their members pass on, will they wither and die? I don’t think so: most of these organisations have been around for over 50 years and all appear to be thriving. I believe that when people reach a certain age – say 55-65 – they tend to start doing things such as gardening, playing bridge… and joining their local history society. I’m aware that I’m generalising a bit here, but I believe this is the demographic that nourishes the local groups from the bottom end.

So if you’re under 50 and reading this, do yourself a favour: check out your local history society, you may be missing out.

Oh, and by the way, membership of a local history group gets you a £10 discount off membership to London Historians, please contact us to find out how.

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I had a chat live on BBC Radio London this evening on the Sonny and Shay programme, about Piccadilly Circus. I thought I better mug up a bit beforehand, so made some notes. No point wasting them, so here they are:

Notes on Piccadilly Circus (1819)


piccadilly circus

Piccadilly Circus, December 2010

Intersection of six roads:

  • Piccadilly (formerly Portugal Street)
  • Coventry Street
  • Regent Street (North)
  • Regent Street (South)
  • Glasshouse Street
  • Shaftsbury Avenue

Estimated 34 million pedestrians a year pass through.


  • Early 17C Robert Baker wealthy draper/tailor, maker of piccadils (fancy collars) buys land north of east part of modern Piccadilly (near corner of Great Windmill Street) and builds large factory-mansion called Piccadilly Hall.
  • Late 17C, area around PC gets built up with shops mainly and becomes overtly commercial. Wealthy and aristos start building town houses north of Piccadilly into what becomes Mayfair. Despite being named Portugal St after Charles II’s consort Catherine of Braganza, people continue to call the street Piccadilly.
  • 1813-19: John Nash lays out and builds Regent Street, encouraged by Prince of Wales and supported by parliament. Joins Regents Park (then Marylebone Gardens) all the way down to Pall Mall (Carlton Terrace)
  • 1886: Shaftsbury Avenue and Charing Cross Roads developed – Joseph Bazalgette heavily involved.
  • 1893: Shaftsbury Memorial Fountain unveiled by Duke of Westminster, designed by Alfred Gilbert.
  • 1925-28: Piccadilly Underground Station rebuilt, at junction of Piccadilly Line and Bakerloo line. The first entirely subterranean tube station. Architects: Charles Holden and SA Heaps.


  • North-East Part of the Circus, on the front of London Pavilion
  • First illuminated sign: 1908 for Perrier
  • Early advertisers: Schweppes and Bovril from 1910
  • Over 50 brands since, include Coke (1955 to date, longest), Guinness, Cinzano, Skol, Fosters, Players, Philips, Fuji, VW, Canon, TDK, Sanyo, Samsung, JVC
  • Today run by Piccadilly Lights on behalf of Land Securities (landlords)
  • Apart from WWII blackout, switched off 3 times: Deaths of Diana and Churchill and WWF Earth Day

Shaftsbury Memorial

  • “Eros” actually the Angel of Christian Charity, modelled on Anteros not Eros
  • First aluminium cast sculpture in Britain
  • Moved in the 20s (Embankment Gardens) to build the station and WWII (Egham)
  • Is not aimed down Shaftsbury Avenue, a myth

7th Earl of Shaftsbury

Anthony Ashley-Cooper (1801 – 1885), Tory politician, philanthropist and “Christian Zionist”: Factory Act, Coal Mines Act, Lunacy Act, foundation of ragged schools, supporter for Florence Nightingale etc etc

Theatre nearby is Criterion, opened in 1874

PC part-pedestrianised in 1990s

Reference Material:

1) Wikipedia

2) The London Encylopaedia by Weinreb, Hibbert et al.

3) Brewer’s London Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Russ Willey (of this parish)

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