The Bluecoats

Bluecoat boy, St Andrew’s Holborn

HOW DID you advertise your shop in the days when most of the population could not read? With a hanging sign, of course, the most common remnant of that practice being the red and white striped pole you see outside a barber shop. (The red representing blood, as barbers also used their razors to let blood, once a common cure-all.) Continue reading “The Bluecoats”


The first female surgeon in Britain

LIKE memorial stones in graveyards, there are many statues around London that meant a lot to the people who put them up, but little to us now after the passage of time. Hopefully, they will remain in place, like gravestones, for many generations so as not to disturb the souls of those who have gone before, and a reassurance that our own heroes will in turn be treated with respect. Continue reading “The first female surgeon in Britain”


London’s oldest street sign?

WHERE is London’s oldest street sign? I am glad you asked, because it has been amusing me recently to track it down.

Of course, short of carbon dating, it is rather hard to be exact about the age of many. I am talking about the ones that actually have a date on them, although that does mean assuming the dates are accurate.

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Two of the easiest to find, quite close to each other, are ‘Cowley Street 1722’ and ‘Smith’s Square 1726’, in Westminster. Smith Square SW1 is famous for St John’s church, nicknamed ‘Queen Anne’s Footstool’ because of its four corner towers, and is also where the European Parliament and European Commission have their London offices. Cowley Street hosts the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is why you may find a wandering policeman keeping an eye on you as you search for stray signs.

In Soho, you can find a lovely square plaque marking ‘Meards Street 1732’. It’s a lovely street, too, a quiet haven from the bustle of the rest of the area. Look out for the ‘Soho Nose’ nearby – that is another story.

Even older is the sign from ‘Chigwell Streate 1678’ which you will find on the corner of Chigwell Hill and The Highway E1. The Highway dates back to Roman times, as you might note by its straightness, and a Roman bath has been excavated alongside it.

In Covent Garden, you have to look very hard to spot ‘Yorke Street 1636’. Don’t go looking for York(e) Street, as it is now renamed Tavistock Street WC2. One very famous former resident of 4 York Street was Thomas de Quincey who wrote ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ in 1821. High above his blue plaque you will spot the street sign. Its date, predating the Great Fire of 1666, makes it the oldest I have found so far in London.


A ‘Nazi’ funeral in London, 1936

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At 9 Carlton House Terrace, to the right of the top of the Duke of York steps, there is a small patch of garden and in it is a tiny gravestone. It reads: ‘Giro, ein treuer Begleiter! London, im Februar 1934, Hoesch.’ Hoesch was German Ambassador Leopold von Hoesch and Giro his pet terrier dog (‘ein treuer Begleiter‘ = ‘a true friend’), accidentally electrocuted in 1934 when he chewed through a cable. Continue reading “A ‘Nazi’ funeral in London, 1936”


The politest statue in London

Doffing his hat to the cars whirring around Holborn Circus, and regally isolated from pedestrians by them, Prince Albert’s statue is ignored by all. It’s a bit of a comedown for the man Queen Victoria mourned for 40 years and whose efforts gave us the Albert Hall and the Science, Natural History and V&A museums.

Continue reading “The politest statue in London”



A selection of coalhole covers from Kensington

Looking up is usually the best way to spot unusual things in London but looking down also has its moments. (I am reminded of the friend of mine in London whose day’s work used to be going out to look for dropped cash – he lived quite well off it. Six billion pennies have disappeared from circulation – many of them lying in gutters.)  Coalhole covers are easy to pass by but they are one of the most common pieces of decorative street furniture still surviving from Victorian times, with most dating to the mid-1700 to mid-1800s.

I can just still remember living in a house where the coalhole was still in use (not in London) but, for those who don’t know, a coalhole was where coal was poured down into a cellar. Coal was used to heat every house in London before the introduction of the Clean Air Acts – and central heating. That’s one of the reasons Victorian households had so many maids: cleaning coal dust was a full time job.

The covers are the only such ‘manhole’ cover that can’t fall inside the hole they cover. They sit in an iron rim and are locked from inside with a chain attached to an eye underneath. They are quite small so that burglars can’t use them – although there are stories of small children being sent down them to unlock doors from the inside.

Almost all are circular and the moulded patterns are raised to stop pedestrians slipping on them in the rain or icy weather. The way in which the iron designs has worn down in a century or so shows the amount of foot traffic that has gone over them. In days gone by, falling down an open coalhole must have been a real danger, especially in the thick smogs that the coal itself did so much to create. (Speaking of smog, note that the coalhole shown top right bears the name ‘A Smellie’.)

Each foundry has its own unique designs, a trademark if you like, and sometimes also the name of the firm. Keep an eye out and you will start to recognise familiar ones: ‘Hayward’s Patent Self-Locking’ is  a common one that seems to have stood up to wear very well.

Hayward’s – as the covers say – was based in Borough but they moved to several larger premises as business grew. The designs were cast by pouring molten iron into a sand mould made by stamping with a wooden or metal master. However, Hayward’s (actually two bothers from a family that had been making glass since 1783) really made their fortune by inventing a way of allowing light into gloomy cellars. The pavement lights that you see many scooters parked on around the West End were a very profitable development for the company – combining the family glass and iron working skills – and you will see the Hayward name on them, too.

The ‘holy grail’ of coalhole spotting is one bearing the traditional sign of an ironworker: a dog with its head in a pot. It was a Hayward Brothers trademark and you can read a bit more about that here:




Haywards Window Light near Old Street

The elephant who was shot 152 times

In 1676 a grand shopping precinct called Exeter Exchange opened in Covent Garden. Sadly for the developers, the expected influx of grand shops and customers never came. The building languished until 1773, when a menagerie was set up in the upper floors by a circus owner as winter quarters for his performing animals.

This was London’s first proper zoo to compete with the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London (where ‘the Lions … are publicly washed every 1st of April’). It cost a shilling to see such then-exotic animals as a tiger or a hippopotamus – all kept in small iron cages. You could see: ‘Nero the largest Lion ever seen in the whole world, the Boa-constrictor and the laughing Hyena, Ourang Otang, Birds of Paradise, Ostriches and every living animal from the Jungles in the far East.’

But the star attraction was Chunee, an Indian elephant who had arrived in London in 1809 to star in the Theatre Royal and was then bought for £1,000 to promote the Exchange.

The poet Lord Byron wrote about visiting the Exchange in his diary for November 1813: ‘The elephant took and gave me my money again, took off my hat, opened a door, trunked a whip, and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler.’

For 17 years Chunee was a familiar sight walking along the Strand every Sunday. However, suffering from a septic tusk, Chunee ran amok one Sunday in February 1826, killing a keeper. It was decided to put him down but two soldiers fired 152 musket balls into him with no effect. It took a sabre attached to an iron pole to finish him off mercifully. The noise of the guns and Chunee’s agonised trumpeting brought crowds who closed The Strand.

Hundreds paid to see his carcass, while his meat was sold off with a recipe for elephant stew. The skeleton was also sold at auction for £100 and went on display in the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Chunee’s barbaric end and his living conditions were the subject of many letters of protest to The Times and helped lead to the founding of The Zoological Society of London in April 1826.

After Chunee’s death, Exeter Exchange fell out of fashion and was demolished in 1829. The Strand Palace Hotel now stands on the site. The animals were sent to a new home at the new London Zoo in Regent’s Park and to Surrey Zoological Gardens in Kennington.

In 1941, during the Blitz of World War II, the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Collection suffered a direct hit from a German bomb, destroying two-thirds, including Chunee’s remains.

The world’s oldest tailors

Ede & Ravenscroft

SAID to be the oldest firm of tailors in the world, Ede & Ravenscroft have been robemakers to everyone from the royal family and the judiciary to professors and students since 1689 – the same year that William and Mary came to the throne, wearing coronation robes provided by the firm.

The firm, in Chancery Lane, has supplied coronation robes – made of silk, mantua, satin, damask, sarsnet, cloth-of-gold, ermine and priceless gems – for 12 subsequent coronations, including that of Queen Elizabeth II.  It is one of a very few companies to hold all three royal warrants from the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Prince of Wales.

Ede & Ravenscroft also supplies garments for ceremonial occasions for every branch of government, from the monarch and Parliament to the legal system and local municipalities.  It has supplied attire for royal funerals, robes and regalia for chivalric orders such as the Order of the Garter, robes for Parliament and for the Lord Mayor of London, legal dress and wigs for judges, barristers, and QCs, and academic garb for university graduates. It is particularly known for its white horsehair wigs worn by members of the legal profession – although it is a vanity to wear a very old, well-worn one. Its extensive records contain invaluable documentation of centuries of the ceremonial history of London.

But did you know it also owns one of the world’s finest collections of miniature furniture? With the same interest in fine detail and design which has allowed them to retain royal patronage for more than 300 years, Ede & Ravenscroft have commissioned artisans to create miniature period rooms which painstakingly and accurately reproduce 18th-century furniture.

Pieces of furniture by the great French ébénistes found in the Wallace Collection, such as a secretaire by Carlin, and a roll-top desk by Riesener, are reproduced in miniature scale, incorporating fine materials such as Sèvres porcelain, Carrara marble, gilt bronze, and velvet.  The tiny, delicate results are works of art combining historical detail with modern luxury – much like the grand robes and finery which Ede & Ravenscroft have been producing for hundreds of years in the same neighbourhood of London.

A tip of the hat to history

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Established in the Reign of King George the Fourth
FASHION – Speciality. “AILE DE CORBEAU” – The most brilliant Silk Plush yet produced – retains its glossy brilliancy in wear.

IN 1797, a Mr Hetherington, haberdasher by trade, caused a storm in the streets of London by wearing a new invention, the silk top hat. He was arrested for disturbing the peace, and fined £50, with a witness testifying: “He appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny luster and calculated to frighten timid people)… several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken.”

It’s a great story but, sadly, not true and first appeared only about 100 years later. Given the bewildering variety of hats of the time, it’s hard to believe anyone would be so disturbed by a new style.

It’s easy to forget how common an item of wear hats once were, until the mass adoption of the motorcar in the 1950s – and long hair (for men) in the 1960s – saw them fall out of fashion. No respectable man, or woman, would once have gone out of doors without one and there was a whole industry supplying and looking after them.

The hat check ‘girl’ was an early occupation for independent women and it required brains to keep track of hundreds of near-identical hats, matching the right one with the right patron. Pay depended on tips, so flirtation was a key skill, giving them a reputation for cheek and loose morals. One of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest parts was as a struggling singer working as a hat check girl (cloakroom attendant) in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954).

Patrons did resent the cost of checking a hat several times during an evening out, but it was preferable to finding someone had ‘accidentally’ taken your good hat from a hook, leaving their battered reject. Good hats cost a lot of money then, and still do.

London was a centre for hatmaking and you can see the Henry Heath Hat Factory (pictured) on Oxford Street, near the corner with Great Chapel Street, topped by statues of beavers. Beaver fur was preferred to rabbit for its water-proofing qualities and, from the 1550s onward, the beaver hat was a must-have. The European beaver had been hunted to near-extinction by the 1600s but the trade was revived when the Hudson’s Bay Company started imports from Canada in the early 1700s.

The wealth from this trade was an underlying reason for the war between France and Britain in Canada and accelerated the exploration of the west of the country in search of fresh beaver stocks.

Look inside up inside the gates of St Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate, and you can see the splendid Arms of the company, complete with beavers (pictured), while a beaver weathervane tops the building (pictured). This was the London headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company until 1970.

In the mid-1800s, some 50 years after Mr Hetherington’s supposed first outing, silk replaced felted fur as the popular material for hats and the fur trade collapsed.

Will hats ever come back? There are some signs they are. In the meantime, let us remember the words of Mr Pete Doherty:
“There are fewer more distressing sights than that
Of an Englishman in a baseball cap.”
(The Libertines – Time for Heroes)

Some links about top hats:
Guide to buying a top hat/
Royal Ascot: Gentlemen prefer toppers

Advertisement in Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879:

Why wear an Ill-fitting Hat?

HENRY HEATH’S Successful system of Head Measurement ensures the luxury of a well-fitting Hat adapted to the form of the wearer’s head. The principle is equally applicable to Hats selected from Stock. Residents in the Country can ensure a comfortable fitting Hat being forwarded by writing for HENRY HEATH’S New Measuring Band, which takes the form and size of head. Post free, with Card of Shapes, &c. Hats forwarded to any part safely in wood boxes. No extra charge.

HENRY HEATH, manufacturing his own Goods can guarantee – 1st , Their Quality; 2nd Excellence of Finish; 3rd Style; his Factory (adjoining) employs upwards of Seventy Persons.

His goods cannot be procured at or through any Co-operative Stores. He has always refused to supply goods to or be in any way affiliated to them. His goods are charged Cash Prices, and will compare favourably with any Store Goods. His customers can always rely upon receiving business-like attention.