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Mr Barry’s War

Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

Edward Alleyn

We cannot allow Shakespeare 400 completely to overshadow the anniversary of another giant of Elizabethan theatre.

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Edward Alleyn (1566 – 1626) was born 450 years go this day in Bishopsgate to a quite well-off family with some royal connections. He was pretty much Shakespeare’s exact contemporary.

Alleyn eschewed the family innkeeping business to take to the stage, supported by his elder brother John. From a teenager in the early 1580s to about 1600 he was spectacularly successful as a leading actor with great stage presence. Working successively for the Earl of Worcester’s Men, the Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men, the young actor performed both in the capital and on tour. His best-known roles were written by Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson.

Alleyn’s only significant performing rival was Richard Burbage (1567 – 1619), who worked primarily with Shakespeare. Alleyn had teamed up with his stepfather-in-law Philip Henslowe (1650 – 1616). These, then, were the two dominant rivals in the London theatre business at the turn of the 17th Century.

Despite the rise of puritanism at this time, entertainment in London was nonetheless massive business. Alleyn and Henslowe coveted the mastership of the bears, the patent to run all animal baiting shows (bears, bulls and even lions for King James himself, a noted connoisseur of animal cruelty). They succeeded in securing this from 1604, until 1612, a period during which they also won the direct patronage of young prince Henry. Meanwhile, the two business partners invested in and built a new playhouse, the Fortune, in St Giles Cripplegate. Despite local and puritan opposition against the venture, the impresarios had more than enough influence in very high places to win through.

Still only in his thirties, Alleyn retired from acting completely around 1600 to concentrate on co-managing the business which had made him exceptionally wealthy. Conspicuous philanthropy was a particular leitmotif of the age. Edward Alleyn – twice-married yet childless – wished to cement his name, reputation and memory through worthy foundations. Having purchased the manor of Dulwich in its entirety in 1605 and moved there, he endowed Dulwich College which was formerly opened on 13 September 1619. The ceremony was attended by Francis Bacon, Inigo Jones and other worthies. Old Alleynians of note include Sir Ernest Shackleton, P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler.

Please remember to raise a glass to this Londoner of great note.

** It just so happens that a week today is our Annual Lecture for 2016 at Gresham College. Professor Sheila Cavanagh will be talking about the whole theatrical environment and business during Shakespeare’s time. Preceded by a wine reception. There are about a dozen places still available at time of writing. **


Edward Alleyn in Wikipedia
Edward Alleyn in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required).

General the Lord Dannatt recently retired from the ancient position of Constable of the Tower. Here, LH Member Chris West writes a guest post about some of the highlights of this 900 year old office.

This is the most senior appointment at the Tower; the first Constable was Geoffrey de Mandeville, appointed by William the Conqueror in 1078. In the medieval period, four Archbishops of Canterbury held the office, Thomas à Becket being the most famous. The Constable of the Tower was nominally responsible for management of the site when the monarch was not in residence; the duties for managing the site devolved to a deputy known as the Lieutenant of the Tower, who had an office with clerks to oversee administration, accounting and running the Constable’s own court of law.

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Over time Constables acquired a variety of legal and financial privileges which included collecting tolls on selected goods from trading ships and entitlement to all flotsam and jetsam on the Thames. They also gained from fees paid by state prisoners for their upkeep, the ownership of livestock falling from London Bridge and passing swans. Sir Henry Bedingfield was appointed Constable by Queen Mary and was responsible for Princess Elizabeth while incarcerated at the Tower prior to her removal to Woodstock. The Princess was reported by some sources to have lived in fear for her life while at the Tower. Following her succession, Queen Elizabeth may have advised Bedingfield to stay away from Her Court. Sir John Holland, Duke of Exeter, was a leading army commander who had served at Agincourt. He was appointed Constable and died in 1447. Originally, his tomb was in the nearby Royal Foundation of St Katharine but is now in St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower itself. Since 1784 the Constable has been a senior Army officer, either Field Marshal or General. Henry VIII built The Queen’s House for Anne Boleyn which has since been used by Constables and Governors.

duke of wellingtonArthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington was Constable from 1769 to 1852. He made important changes, which included draining the moat, removing the menagerie of wild animals, reorganising the establishment of the Yeoman Warders, overseeing the building of the Waterloo Barracks and other extensive restoration of the site. He also made the last, unsuccessful attempt to refill the moat. Wellington did not favour its development into a museum and preferred the Royal Repository at Woolwich for the prizes from Paris in 1815. He did ensure that the guns captured in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo would be preserved at the Tower, some of which are still outside the Waterloo Block. His memory is honoured with a plaque in the Chapel Royal- though interestingly, this was only initiated recently.

Since 1933 the Constable’s appointment has been for five years. His installation is celebrated on Tower Green before an invited audience. The Lord Chamberlain hands the keys of the Queen’s House to the new Constable, who then entrusts them to the Resident Governor, responsible for the management of the Tower.

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The Constable still retains the right to direct access to the monarch. Ceremonial events are attended, including gun salutes, state parades and the Ceremony of the Dues, representing the historic toll of wine or goods paid by ships entering the Pool of London. A Royal Navy vessel berths at Tower Wharf, bringing into the Tower a ceremonial keg slung from an oar, accompanied by a parade headed by the Chief Yeoman Warder, then a military band followed by the ship’s company. At Tower Green, they are met by Tower officials in full dress uniform and the keg is presented. Both parties and guests then retire for refreshments.

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Former Chief of General Staff, General the Lord Dannatt has just finished his tenure as the 159th Constable, having served for seven years instead of the usual five. He has further distinguished himself with his extensive input while resident. Being a Trustee of Historic Royal Palaces (the independent charity responsible for running the Tower), he was involved in the excellent 2014 poppies installation in the moat, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. He also helped coordinate the services charities involved and was a central figure in the daily Roll Call ceremony.

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Lord Dannatt was extensively involved in life at the Tower, its residents and the various ceremonies, while still regularly attending at the House of Lords. Lord and Lady Dannatt were key figures in raising money to renovate the Chapel Royal and to improve funding for the unique choir, successfully hosting many special day and evening events.

General Sir Nicholas Houghton replaces Lord Dannatt as the 160th Constable.


 

eykalisSorry for the lack of posting of late: I’ve been overseas for three weeks. This, at least, enabled me to catch up on some reading, including this assertively-titled work by Matt Brown, which was published very recently.

Most of us who love London are aware that there are many canards out there, some of the most obvious relating to Dick Whittington, for example, or the American hotelier who purchased London Bridge. What Brown has done is to undertake as deep and wide a trawl as possible and deliver from the most obvious to the most obscure, and if you know him personally or from his writings at Londonist, you’ll realise that he’s just the man for the job. The obvious trap in a project of this kind is, of course, to come across as a didactic bore. This is something the author acknowledges in his introduction and then skillfully manages to avoid through lightness of touch and twinkleness of eye: it’s joyous to read and a book that will make you smile frequently.

From a review point of view, the danger here is spoilers. So I will just mention that there are bits which debunk beliefs relating to Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin, Hitler, the Great Fire (topical), Bob Holness, Boris, Napoleon and Boudicca. That’s a tiny percentage of it. There is tons more, nicely arranged thematically into 10 chapters, including an important section which throws a huge bucket of freezing water over the most idiotic trivia fed to tourists.

I think my knowledge of the capital is pretty good on the whole, so it was occasionally disappointing – but in a nice way – to discover that some things I believed turn out to be complete bollocks (nylon, Jeremy Bentham); and other new things (to me) of which I was completely unaware (Green Park and flowers; Jimi’s parakeets). I’m sure you too can look forward to similar triumphs and disasters, and treat those two impostors just the same.

So lots of juicy and factual content, then, but also room for editorialising. There is one item in particular which takes a sideswipe at Victor Meldrews like me who dislike change, in this instance relating to names of areas. It’s a point well made, as is the book itself which is very nicely designed, illustrated, printed and bound.

Well-written, knowledgeable, amusing, authoritative. This is a fine book to own and one which friends will thank you for as a gift. And mean it.

Everything You Know About London is Wrong (192pp) by Matt Brown is published by Batsford with a cover price of £9.99. It can be purchased directly from the publishers www.pavilionbooks.com, in good and some bad bookshops, and on Amazon.

Exhibition at the Museum of London 23 July 2016 – 17 Apr 2017.

DSC04194cIt’s known of course as the Great Fire of London. So great in fact that more generally it is simply called the Great Fire. It raged for four days from 2 to 5 September 1666, destroying most of the Square Mile and a substantial area immediately west of the city wall. This being the disaster’s 350th anniversary, it is being commemorated with sundry events in many ways and places. Nobody is better equipped to deal with this than Museum of London with its vast collection of contemporary objects.

The overall design of the show is immersive and atmospheric, that is to say dark and quite noisy, but not intrusively so. This makes complete sense. The fire started at night and virtually all known paintings of it are nightscapes (at least three of which are on display). The first section is narrow and claustrophobic to give you the feel of the medieval London streedscape: it works.

Thereafter the the spaces open out to accommodate more object displays which take us chronologically through the before, during and after phases of the Fire.

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The technical stuff shows us just how pathetic was 17C fire-fighting equipment. Most risible of all were the squirts, a couple of which are on display. A beautifully-restored fire engine – also hopelessly inefficient – is one of the centrepieces of the exhibition.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

The firesquirt. Just a large syringe.

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

17C fire engine. For effectiveness, it flatters to deceive!

A very large proportion of the objects feature the everyday – tiles, bricks, household objects. These quite obviously resonate the most and where the museum has a huge supply, not least via years of archaeology through MOLA and its predecessors.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

Hoard of 17th-century glass found underneath burnt debris during excavations of a cellar on Gracechurch Street.

There’s lots of interactivity that will prove popular with children (of all ages!). Microscopes to view in detail carbonised articles; pushbutton x-ray reveals of encrusted household objects such as locks, keys, knives; interactive computer game of saving buildings with a choice of methods – firehooks, gunpowder etc.

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane. Museum id BPL95[119] This image may be used free of charge to promote and review the Museum of London Exhibition 'Fire Fire' 2016-17. All other uses must be cleared with the Museum of London picture library

X-Ray of melted iron key found at Boltolph Lane.

In addition, of course, there is no shortage of the paperwork: documents, diagrams, plans, panoramas, books. These could be an exhibition in their own right. And almost especially for me: old pub signs! Five of them!

The Monkey and Apple.

The Monkey and Apple.

The final phase of the exhibition shines a light on the aftermath and ramifications of the tragedy. For me and for many historians I suspect, this is the most absorbing part of the show because it reveals a clear break from many things medieval. It tells us of how Robert Hooke and his team along with voluntary Fire Judges decided who owned what;  how the leading thinkers of the day – Wren, Evelyn and others – came up with new plans for London (none was implemented: London had to get back into business asap); the birth of insurance; modern building regulations.

The Fire Judges' table.

The Fire Judges’ table.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you'd attach the badge to the front of your building.

Fire insurance. If you had cover, you’d attach the badge to the front of your building.

One of Wren's drawings for the new St Paul's.

One of Wren’s drawings for the new St Paul’s.

Given the subject matter and the inventory at the museum’s disposal for a show such as this, the task would seem an embarrassment of riches for any curator. But in a way, this actually makes the task more challenging. Meriel Jeater and her team have surpassed that challenge to plan, design, assemble and deliver a wonderfully balanced and evocative exhibition of one of London’s greatest calamities. Do go.


Fire! Fire! runs at the Museum of London from tomorrow until 17 April 2017.
Tickets from £8 adults (when booked online).
More information and booking. 

Princelet Street

A guest post by LH Member Wendy Forrest. 

The Landmark Trust recently invited London Historians to 13 Princelet Street, Spitalfields. Just outside the bounds of the City, the area has long been home to those living on its fringe, servicing lifestyles from which they were themselves largely excluded. Spitalfields has sheltered Hugenots fleeing religious persecution, the Irish forced out by famine, Jews escaping pogroms and Bangladeshis remaking their lives after a genocidal war of independence.

The desperate living conditions of most 19th and 20th century residents left the Georgian dwellings in need of their own rescue. Militant conservationists and artistic gentrifiers turned Princelet Street and its neighbours from slum to swank. But the area is now threatened by a new and devastating wave of speculative development. Plans for Bishopsgate Goodsyard would create a looming wall of glass towers, some over 40 storeys high. British Land propose to bulldoze historic Norton Folgate retaining just a few Potemkin facades. Princelet Street would stand but its neighbourhood would be destroyed.

The history of No 13 Princelet Street is intimately tied to that of its neighbours and the street is full of stories that reflect the changing fortunes of Spitalfields. The invitation from Landmark Trust prompted a look at the way the street was developed and at the events that shaped some of the most extraordinary houses in the street. The visit felt especially timely as this area, the largest collection of early Georgian terraced houses in London, may soon be changed beyond any possible restoration.

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The first houses on Princelet Street were built just after 1700 on land used for market gardening after the priory and hospital of Street Mary Spital were dissolved in 1539. Leonard Gurle moved to the area in the 1640s to create a nursery for fruit trees, jasmine, honeysuckle and lilacs and was so successful that he was made the King’s Gardener in 1677. Spitalfields was still horticultural when construction began on Princelet Street. The plot was known as Joyce Garden, part of an estate bought by Charles Wood and Simon Michell after some shady dealing and at least one Chancery case. These two gentlemen of Lincolns Inn were also involved in the new business of sewage. They won the right to construct a local sewer system, along what is now Hanbury and Wilkes Street, ensuring they benefitted from all neighbourhood development.

Shortly after Wood and Michell acquired the land, Parliament resolved urgent action to counter the spread of non-conformist Protestantism. Fifty new Anglican churches, financed by coal taxes, were planned to serve the ‘godless thousands’ outside the City. Spitalfields, where a thriving Hugenot community now lived alongside established dissenters, was an obvious early site for one of these Queen Anne churches. Hawksmoor was appointed surveyor and designed six of the twelve actually built. The land for Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, Christ Church Spitalfields, was sold to the Church Commissioners by Wood and Michell and was linked to the sewer serving Princelet Street. As intended, Christ Church towered above the neighbouring Hugenot chapels, as it still dwarfs the synagogues and mosques which some of these chapels became.

Wood and Michell sold a couple of plots on Princelet Street outright but then decided to parcel out the land on leases of no longer than 99 years. Development fell to speculative builders including several carpenters, a stonemason, a painter, a bricklayer and a blacksmith. Samuel Worrall, carpenter, was chief amongst these and lived at No 18 himself using the back yard, which also had access from Fournier Street, as a timber yard. Worrall was a significant figure in Georgian Spitalfields: carpenter at Christ Church, churchwarden of the parish, overseer of the poor and a trustee of the almshouses in Crispin Street. A Samuel Worrall, probably his son, later rose to become Master of the Masons Company.

The stately Georgian townhouses of Princelet Street are sometimes seen as typical of the houses in which silkweavers lived and worked. Certainly many were built or adapted for silk production with wide windowed lofts designed to illuminate the looms within. Spitalfields was the centre of the industry and by 1832 a parliamentary report noted 50,000 people in the weaver’s district of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green – half the population – entirely dependent on silk manufacture. But the houses of Princelet Street are hardly the average weavers’ lodgings. Most silk workers were poor and, as the industry declined in competition with foreign silks and Indian calicos, many desperately so.

George Godwin (London Shadows 1854) weaving as misery.

George Godwin (London Shadows 1854) weaving as misery.

The master weavers who lived in Princelet Street often put work out to as many as 200 journeymen and apprentices. Its likely that some of these houses would have been targeted during the periodic weavers riots, most intense during the 1760s, when silks were slashed on the loom by ‘cutters’ protesting poor rates of pay. Other early Princelet occupants included a weaver, a glover, a brewer, a cutler, a doctor, carpenters and clergymen who would also have been amongst the wealthiest in their respective trades. The local dominance of the textile industry is confirmed by the presence of weavers, a tailor, a needlemaker, a dyer, a knitter and silk brokers.

No 13 was built by a stone mason, Edward Buckingham and his first tenant was probably a tailor. Several early occupants had Hugenot names and local trade directories list silk merchants at this address. But by the second half of the 19th century Spitalfields silk was in decline and new trades arrived at No 13. By 1861 these included a poulterer and a mangler or washerwoman suggesting a dip in the fortunes of the tenants. The house was now multi-occupied, shared between four families by 1871. There were also new names: Guttenberg, a jeweller, and Levy, a boot ‘clicker’ who cut out leather for shoe uppers. By the time Peter Lerwill bought the house in 1984 decades of poverty and overcrowding had taken their toll. He took on a slum but one that retained its original plan, partitions and panelling. Lerwill left the restored house to the Landmark Trust in 2004.

13 Princelet Street.

13 Princelet Street

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No 19 was built by Samuel Worrall in 1719 and the first occupants were a silk weaving Hugenot family, the Ogiers, who were followed by a number of poorer weaving families and their looms. Later it became home to Polish and Irish immigrants and in the 1860s a synagogue was built into a garden extension. Israel Zangwill tells us ‘Its furniture was bare benches, a raised platform with a reading desk at the centre, and a wooden curtained ark at the end…The worshippers dropped in, mostly in their workaday garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorused the prayers with zeal which shook the windowpanes’. A secret room below the synagogue hosted anti-fascist meetings in the 1930s including preparations for the battle of Cable Street. Children from the Kindertransport found a first sanctuary there in the 1940s. In 1980 the attic was unlocked to reveal cabbalic writings and scattered texts in fifteen different languages, traces of the erudite caretaker who had disappeared suddenly and without trace over ten years earlier. This house is now the Museum of Immigration.

Number 19.

Number 19.

No 2, a three storey house with roof loft on the corner of Wilkes Street, was one of the last to be built by Samuel Worrall. Initially tenanted by a glover, it was soon home to Anna Maria Garthwaithe, one of the most celebrated designers of the 18th century. She lived in Princelet Street for 35 years creating flowered patterns for silk damasks and brocades, nearly a thousand of which are still held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Anna Maria was a Lincolnshire vicar’s daughter and it was only when her father died that she was able to establish an independent life living with her widowed sister. At the age of 40, she came to Spitalfields to work directly with the highly skilled weavers who bought her designs. The house was later tenanted by the Goldsteins, the Venicoffs, the Marks, the Hellers and then by a number of Bengali families before it was restored in 1985.

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Number 2.

No 4 is a handsome double fronted house taken in 1724 by Benjamin Truman, third generation brewer responsible for a major expansion of the family firm. The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane was a major employer well into the 20th century and is still a local landmark. Ben Truman supplied beer to the Prince of Wales and was knighted by George III when he took the throne in 1760. Truman was painted by both Gainsborough and Romney and his portrait graced beer labels well into the 1970s. By the mid 18th century No 4 was also occupied by Hugenot weavers who added the characteristic loft. Today it trades on its history and is hired out as a location for photographs and films. The house can be seen in the scene where Sharon Stone ties Hugh Dancy to the bed in Basic Instinct 2 or where Rupert Pendry-Jones finds the victim of a Ripper copycat killing in a 2009 episode of Whitechapel.

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Number 4.

No 6 became London’s first Jewish theatre in 1886. Public funds were raised by a local butcher and Sir Samuel Montagu, Liberal MP for Whitechapel. This enabled Abraham Goldfaden, an actor-manager from Riga, to set up the Hebrew Dramatic Club. Jacob Adler, an actor who rose to great fame in New York, performed there after fleeing Odessa. A character in Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto claims the Jargon or Yiddish theatre is ‘the only real theatre in London’. In 1887, during a production of The Gypsy Girl, the firm alarm was raised in error and 17 people were killed in the rush to the exits. The theatre closed shortly after. It is not the street’s only link to the arts. Lionel Tertis, international viola player and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, lived at No 8, his father was the reader and circumciser at the synagogue at No 19.

As the Jews moved on, the Bengali community tenanted the Spitalfields slums. From the early 19th century Syleti men had travelled to Calcutta and found work crewing British ships, often in the sweltering boiler rooms. Some were marooned in London, some jumped ship. Their new London homes were close to the docks and a 1964 survey showed that the highest concentrations of Pakistanis in East London (Bangladesh was still East Pakistan) were in Princelet Street and old Montague Street. The 1971 Bangladesh genocide and War of Independence led to another great refugee influx and by 1971 there were 200 Bengalis occupying just sixteen addresses in Princelet Street. Living conditions were Victorian and Spitalfields was one of the most deprived and overcrowded wards in the country. The campaign for decent housing was led by the community itself through organisations like the Spitalfields Housing Co-operative which took over and improved twenty houses in Princelet Street in the 1970s and manages more than 600 local properties today.

Demolition and redevelopment threatened the whole area in the 1970s and the militant campaign to protect and restore Spitalfields was hard fought. No 13 Princelet Street is a wonderful example of what was saved. On 17 and 18 September The Landmark Trust are holding an Open Day and London Historians are warmly invited to attend. To find out more about developments in Spitalfields:

www.landmarktrust.org.uk for holiday lets and open day news
www.morelightmorepower.co.uk for the campaign for Bishopsgate Goodsyard
www.thespitalfieldstrust.com for plans for Norton Folgate
www.19princeletstreet.org.uk for visiting No 19 and the Museum of Immigration
www.princelet.co.uk interior details at 4 Princelet St for filmmakers and the curious
www.bishopsgate.org.uk for local history learning and research


More images of Princelet Street on our Flickr space.

Boswell’s Prank

Quite recently I read Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson, A Biography (2008). There was a lovely episode involving a convoluted prank which James Boswell conspired to play on his friend. It featured the firebrand John Wilkes (1725 – 1797), one of my all-time favourite Londoners. As an establishment Tory, Johnson (1709 – 1784) had a poor opinion of the radical Wilkes, whom he had never met; he felt Wilkes to be no more than “a criminal from a gaol”. Equally dismissive, Wilkes viewed the lexicographer as “a slave of the state.” Boswell thought it would be a rum caper to engineer a situation whereby the two men unavoidably bumped into each other socially – a challenge, given their different circles.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

He set the trap with the help of a mutual friend of all the parties, Charles Dilly. Dilly was a publisher who liked to entertain at his home in the Poultry, which had become something of an informal literary hub. Both men were invited to dinner on the evening of 15 May 1776 without the other’s knowledge.

On the evening itself, on discovering Wilkes was in the room, Johnson sulkily sat down with a book. But Wilkes – as charming as Johnson was grumpy – sat next to the older man and made a big fuss over him. Johnson’s resistance evaporated almost immediately and the two great men spent the evening in sparkling and warm conversation.

Boswell didn’t mind a bit that sparks didn’t fly. It was just a mischievous experiment and he was no doubt pleased that for once his friend failed to dominate the room.