Archive for November, 2013

st michael's cornhill

This weird sculpture is in the vestibule of St Michael Cornhill in the City of London, near the Royal Exchange. Weird, but not uncommon, because if you keep your eyes alert, you’ll see this image in stained glass, prayer books and other media carrying the Christian message. So what’s going on here?

The carving is of a pelican feeding her young from what looks like grapes on her chest. What’s actually going on is the bird has pecked a wound in her own chest and her young are feeding on her blood. This is what was actually believed in former times, making the pelican an important and obvious beast in Christian iconography, strongly representative of the Passion of Christ.

Our ancestors had strange idea about many animals. From ancient times, salamanders were thought to be fireproof and hence were depicted engulfed in flames as in this logo of the Gas Light and Coke Company on a war memorial in Brentford.

Fire salamander

For some reason, it was thought that the staple diet of ostriches was iron, the disastrous consequence of which was that the first two ostriches in the royal menagerie at the Tower of London, having been force-fed nails and the like, perished immediately. The Worshipful Company of Ironmongers used this ostrich with a horseshoe in its beak to decorate their ceremonial barge.


These three examples are just some that come to mind. Please add in comments if you know of others.

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royal hospital chelseaIf you watched the moving Remembrance concert at Albert Hall on Saturday evening you will have seen the contingent of Chelsea Pensioners prominently featured. This is one of their busiest times of year, understandably. But you see small numbers of them out and about at other great occasions and if you’re ever in Chelsea, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter them simply out for a walk.

I had walked past their home – the impeccably symmetrical Royal Hospital Chelsea – many times, usually on my way to the National Army Museum nearby. With three sets of imposing gates out front, I had no idea that the place was open to members of the public. But it very much is (see below for details). During the summer I joined a group of our friends from the Westminster Guide Lecturers Association for a wonderful tour of the complex. Led by the excellent Michael Allen, who features in these pictures.

The moving spirit behind the Royal Hospital was Charles II, inspired during his exile by Les Invalides in Paris. With a waft of the royal hand, Sir Christopher Wren – with quite enough on his plate thanks very much – was contracted to design our very own version, using 66  acres of land originally acquired by James I in Chelsea, then of course pretty much countryside. Unsurprisingly, he did a fantastic job, which is more or less unchanged to this day.

In Wren’s day and from medieval times, the word hospital had a much wider meaning than today, being a derivation of “hospitality” rather than more narrowly a place for sick people, although it did generally imply a charitable function. There are usually around 300 in-pensioners (colloquially: “Chelsea pensioners”). As these terms imply, for a place in the Royal Hospital,  you must be over 65 and surrender your army pension in return for total accommodation and provision. You must be able to look after yourself in day-to-day normal routine and until very recently, you had to be male. There is a tiny handful of female pensioners. (In a ballot, the overwhelming vote by the pensioners in favour of staying all-male was overruled.). Generally, inmates are from “other ranks”. The only officers who may apply will have spent 12 years or more in the ranks. Pensioners retain the rank they left the forces with, hence you will see badges of rank on the tunics of some.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Figure Court. Accommodation in the wings ot the left and right. Great Hall and Chapel immediately left and right of the main portico and tower.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Statue of Charles II in classical garb, by Grinling Gibbons. Gilded for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. I’m not convinced such a great idea.

Royal Chelsea Hospital

Central cupola.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The Great Hall, where the pensioners take their meals.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The chapel.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Extremely rare example of a Royal Mail letter box with two slots, for when the gate is locked.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The public cafe does excellent cream teas.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Warriors on mobility scooters. Old soldiers are less steady on their pins than once they were.

In addition to what you see in these pictures, the Royal Hospital also has an excellent museum and shop, the entrance to which is the Wellington room, featuring portraits or the Iron Duke himself, Her Majesty, a superb diorama of the Royal Hospital in the 18C and a panorama of the battle of Waterloo painted in 1820.

You may visit the places here described for free if you’re on your own or in a small group. Groups of 10 or more must make a group booking which comes with a Chelsea pensioner guide. Or you can join an existing group booking if you want the tour. These occur twice a day. Details and opening times here.

For more of our images from the Royal Hospital Chelsea, see our Flickr account here.

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join london historians british legion specialIf you’d care to join London Historians between now and Friday midnight, we’ll donate £10 for each new Member to the Royal British Legion.

Last year when I watched the official opening of the Bomber Command memorial, a Lancaster from the Memorial Flight opened her bomb bay and dropped many thousands of poppies. I gathered some up and have been wondering what to do with them every since. Well, now I know, we’ll include one with your joining pack. That’s to say the first twelve, because that’s how many I have.

Applies to Individual Membership (£39) and Joint Membership (£49). Joint Membership counts as £20 to Royal British Legion, so we’re passing on the full £10 differential.

Join London Historians.

Update 12 November: We have five new Members on this now, welcome and thank you one and all, so £50 so far for Royal British Legion. Also, I had a bit of a tidy-up and in fact we have 15 Bomber Command poppies, not 12 as previously stated.

Bomber Command Memorial Flight

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George I, by Kneller, c1714.

George I, by Kneller, c1714.

Review: Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain.
The British Library

The Georgian period (patron saint: D Cruickshank) has overtaken the Tudor (patron saint: D Starkey) in recent times and if you’re still not with the programme, as they say, then this is the show that’ll help you catch up toot sweet.

The trigger for the show is the tricentenary next year of the birth of the Georgian dynasty, in 1714. The settlement of 1701 meant that the Elector of Hanover leapfrogged over 50 Catholic pretenders to become King George I on the death of Queen Anne, the last Protestant Stuart.

But the four Georges – whose portraits appear right at the start of this show – are simple date markers who take no further part in proceedings. This exhibition, characterising the period,  is all about the emerging middle classes, increasing in in both wealth and in numbers, who become firmly established for the first time. And for the first time we have a new set of people outside the nobility who have a lot of leisure time as well as the financial means to fill it.

In the service of this came a massive explosion of printed matter, some genres emerging for the first time: newspapers, periodicals, novels, satire, children’s literature, self-help books, fashion magazines, travel guides, maps, treatises. Increasingly, trade was done on credit, honour and promise (often with disastrous consequences), so instead of bullion, there emerged cheques, promisary notes, shares, bonds, chits, and so forth. There are some rather nice examples from Hoare & Co, posh bankers.

Cute. One of a selection of tiny children's books. They are matchbox sized.

Cute. One of a selection of tiny children’s books. They are matchbox sized.

The British Library has items such as these in abundance and this being their show, these objects are the mainstay. Even the ones that contemporaries may have thought mundane are beautiful in their own right. Although the Georgian period embraced simplicity in, say, architecture, in print they were very showy. Most of the items on show feature elaborate and beautifully executed engravings accompanied by highly elaborate text. This is most typified by frontispieces which are a riot of typefaces, often a dozen and more.

The Georgians were interested – obsessed even – in taste, manners, deportment, fashion. They talked about it, read about it, wrote about it. They were consumers of new kinds of food, decor, luxury goods. They pursued hobbies and sport. They were interested botany and gardening and travel. They liked to visit gardens and country houses and towns in the provinces. All of this had to be written down, codified and published, to make sure it was done right. I particularly liked a section featuring the Compleat Tutor… series of self improvement books, very much the …For Dummies of the Georgian period.

The big guns of the period are represented and in general no big surprises. In architecture, for example, it’s Adam, Soane and Nash. The Soane section is particularly nicely done with a very large hand drawn representation in ink of Adam’s Alelphi, so a two for one there. Our favourite Georgian piss-takers – Hogarth, Gillray, Cruikshank – are judiciously and sparingly used. The choice of Hogarth’s “Country Dancing” from the Analysis of Beauty is inspired, I really did giggle.

Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Detail. Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Gilray sneers at lower born tourists. 1800. So funny, though.

Gillray sneers at lower born tourists. 1800. So funny, though.

There are dozens else. Pugilism, the Turf. Cock throwing. Heard of that? At fairs, punters threw sticks and stones at a tethered chicken. The winning shot won the dead chicken. A beautiful series of four large scale maps of Kensington turnpike featuring all the shops and fancy houses from Knightsbridge through Kensington High Street. Beautiful. Pleasure gardens, theatres and opera. Dancing. Picnics, philanthropy. One of the heroes of this blog: Philip Astley, the circus guy.

I have written mainly about the print: it dominates. But there is a strong supporting cast comprising household items, clothes, shoes, accessories and ephemera. Most pleasing for me: Jeremy Bentham‘s violin. He’s another son of London we admire.

Jeremy Bentham's violin, c1969. Museum of London.

Jeremy Bentham’s violin, c1769. Museum of London.

Overall, the show is inevitably very London-centric. Therefore the big London room at the end with the entire floor being a large Georgian map of London is somewhat superfluous, but fun nonetheless and great for us London Historians.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain runs from 8 November until 11 March 2014 at the British Library. Tickets £9, usual concessions apply. All information here.

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The Magpie and Stump in Old Bailey was famously a venue where – if you could afford it – you could get your kicks on a Monday morning watching the hanging outside Newgate Prison opposite. Although its building is now modern, the new licencee has refurbished the place to remind us of its macabre past. Here, beer historian Martyn Cornell ponders how far back we can trace this historical tavern.

A guest post by Martyn Cornell.

My library of pub books only seems to have a few brief mentions of the Magpie and Stump and none gives a definite age, though we can certainly push it back to nearly 300 years old at least. City of London Pubs (Richards and Curl, 1973) says it changed its name to the King of Denmark “[w]hen James I married Anne, a daughter of King Christian IV”, changing it back to the Magpie and Stump only after “many years elapsed”. If correct, this would mean the pub was around in 1589, which was when the marriage took place. There are a couple of problems here, though: Anne was the daughter of Frederick II, not Christian IV, who was her brother (though he WAS king of Denmark at the time of his sister’s marriage to James), and while James was, of course, heir presumptive to Elizabeth I in 1589, I’m not sure a pub in London would name itself after the royal brother-in-law of the ruler of a rival kingdom.

However, after James succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne, Christian IV came to visit his sister and brother-in-law, in 1606, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised that the pub was renamed then: though according to this book  even before Christian’s visit, the Danes and their king had a reputation in England for being heavy drinkers. If the pub wasn’t actually renamed at the time of Charles IV’s visit to London, which seems perfectly possible, it seems just as likely it would have been renamed at some slightly earlier time around after a well-known heavy drinker with strong family links to the new king of England.

Whatever the true story here, the pub appears as “the Magpie” in the Vade Mecum for Maltworms, the rhyming “good pub guide” probably written by Edward “Ned” Ward and published around 1718, with the entry revealing that the inn sign showed the bird sitting on a stump, so it is definitely that old, at least, albeit under a shorter version of today’s name: The scan shows that it appears to have been a hangout of supporters of the (long-vanished) Commonwealth, as well as the “thieves, thieftakers and turnkeys” you might expect from its position by the prison, that the landlord’s name was “Sk–ck” (Skeock would be my guess – a rare North East of England/Scottish surname), and that the house tipple was Twopenny, which was a type of pale ale.

magpie and stump

Its politics look to be confirmed by a mention in Larwood and Hotten’s History of Signboards, which says that the Magpie and Stump “was the sign of one of the Whig pothouses in the Old Bailey during the riots of 1715”, that is, the Mug-House riots between supporters of the Hanoverians and the Stuarts, something confirmed by this entry from Chamber’s Book of Days  which again says the pub was just “the Magpie” in the early 18th century: presumably “and stump” was added because of what the inn sign showed.

HE Popham’s The Taverns In the Town (1937) says the Magpie and Stump at that time “bears a sign telling that it has been established over two hundred years”, which appears to have been an under-estimate even then. It also gives the story of “the gentry” hiring rooms at the pub to watch the public hangings that took place at Newgate Prison from 1783 to 1868. The Old Inns of London (Stanley, 1957) pretty much rehashes what Popham says.


Martyn Cornell, who is a journalist and award-winning author, is one of our leading authorities on the history of British beer, the subject of his book, Amber, Gold and Black (2010). He also has an excellent blog: Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile.

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