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.


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”

Wire rope is another London first

George Wright Binks Memorial in City Cemetery

I WAS in the City of London Cemetery when Superintendent Gary Burks pointed out the memorial above to me, dedicated to George Wright Binks. As you can see, his family claimed he invented wire rope. If he had, you might have expected something even more elaborate on his grave, given the wealth this might have brought him.

Binks was a foreman ropemaker at Woolwich Dockyard in the mid-1830s when Andrew Smith was pioneering wire-rope manufacture in Millwall. Smith used the ropewalk techniques of the existing hemp industry to make wire ropes for ships’ rigging and has the first patent for it in 1836.

In 1840, engineer Robert Stephenson opened an experimental rail system called the Blackwall Railroad (much of the route and its bridges are now part of the Docklands Light Railway). It used stationary steam engines feeding hemp cables off and on drums at each end of the line.

Smith’s wire ropes soon replaced the hemp ones but they kinked badly and Robert Newall, another rope maker, who was making wire ropes by machine rather than the hand-twisting method, was brought in. His ropes worked much better on the Blackwall Railroad but Smith took Newall to court for patent infringement.
Newall won the legal battle, as his was an obviously superior product, but the two companies then merged after Smith went bankrupt in 1849. (And steam locomotives were brought into use on the Blackwall Railroad.) Newall’s design of rope was used for the standing rigging of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iron-hulled SS Great Britain, launched in Bristol in 1843 as the largest merchant vessel ever built.

Meanwhile, in about 1853, Binks had gone into partnership with James Stephenson in Millwall to make wire rope. The partnership broke up around 1860, when Stephenson started making submarine cable at Cuba Street, and Binks Brothers setting up in Strafford Street in 1863. The firm was taken over by British Ropes Ltd in 1970.

In 1852 Smith went with his son, also called Andrew, to California where the Gold Rush needed wire ropes for mining. The father returned home in 1853, but the young Andrew (Smith Hallidie – taking the name of a favourite uncle) enjoyed a gold rush of his own when he patented a cable car system in 1871 for the hilly streets of San Francisco. It used an endless wire rope driven by stationary engines, the same principle as the Blackwall Railroad. Hallidie stood for election to the California State Senate in 1873 and in 1875 as mayor of San Francisco but was defeated both times. However, he enforced his cable car patents worldwide and died in 1900 a very wealthy man.

So did George Wright Binks invent wire rope? He certainly experimented with it as early as 1834 and he is credited with persuading the Royal Navy to replace hemp rope with wire, following a successful demonstration with the first wire-rigged ship, the schooner Marshall out of Grimsby. That was certainly a significant step and one his family can rightly be proud of.

Dog Food, another London first

I WAS driving down Acton Lane when a large painted sign on a gable (above) caught my eye. It reads ‘Spratts Dog Poultry Cage Bird Foods’ (you can also just make out a faded ‘Guinness’ painted on top of it).

Spratts was the very first maker of dog food, setting up a factory in High Holborn in 1860. James Spratt, though from English family (an Admiral James Spratt fought at Trafalgar), was born in Ohio. He worked as an electrician and came back to England to sell his patented lightning rods.

A dog-lover, Spratt was struck by the packs of half-starved dogs that hung around the docks to be fed on ship’s spoiled hard tack biscuits. He soon patented a ‘Meat-Fibrine dog cake’, shaped like a bone and made of wheat, vegetables and beef blood. However, he encouraged the idea that his biscuits used buffalo meat by putting up adverts showing American ‘Indians’ hunting bison – the first use of billboards in London.

His factory thrived, expanding into America in the 1870s (though Spratt died in 1878) and building a new factory in Poplar in 1897 – ‘The Biggest Dog Biscuit Factory in the World’. As it grew, it diversified into feeds for other animals, as the gable wall advert shows, veterinary medicine and other products for pets, such as kennels and collars etc. The company was bought over by Spillers in 1960, who still make dog-shaped ‘Bonio’ biscuits, and the trademark survives.

His most famous employee was a certain Charles Cruft who seems to have been a born salesman. He targeted the hunting packs at country estates but soon realised that was a limited market. His brainwave was to encourage the breeding of pedigree dogs, betting that their owners would pamper them with a special diet. And so Crufts Dog Show was born in 1891. Cruft never owned a dog himself.

He also gave Spratt his trademark – an ‘X’ – which Cruft used to distinguish trade from retail customers on the accounts. He also made a showcard from an engraving of a pointer by Sir Edwin Landseer RA, now better known for his horse portraits – and for the lions in Trafalgar Square.

The Poplar factory closed after the imposition of purchase tax on pet food in 1969. It is now converted into flats, being ‘within easy reach of the vibrant shops and bars of Canary Wharf’. Here is a picture of the interior of one:

Acton Lane advert:

The first traffic lights

I WAS recently reminded about the policeman’s hook on Great Newport Street in Covent Garden and was amazed to discover it was still there (above, right). It’s just beside the Verve Bar in case you’re looking for it. It’s been my most fun discovery since ‘Wellington’s nose’ on Admiralty Arch.

I have no idea what the hook was for but seem to remember being told it was for policemen to hang their capes on when directing traffic. It does seem too low for a raincoat, so that might make sense, though I have no idea if the Met Police ever wore capes – something one associates more with their colleagues in France.

Anyway, trying to find information about it led me to some info about the first traffic signals in the world, which were outside the House of Commons at the corner of Bridge Street and New Palace Yard, as the poster above shows. They were designed to allow Members of Parliament to stop traffic while entering the Palace of Westminster.

As the poster also shows, they were semaphore signs like the railway signals of the day, on a 7m-high pillar, but  also used a red and green gas lamp at night.

Built by Saxby & Farmer, they were designed by Nottingham-born railway engineer John Peake Knight (1828-1886). Peake is also noted as one of the first engineers to introduce emergency brake cords in trains.

Opened on December 9, 1868, a few months later, on January 2, 1869, they exploded, injuring the policeman who operated them by throwing grit into his eye and were withdrawn from service in 1872. The sign was never popular with the public – and especially with cab-drivers.

More familiar three-colour lights, although also manually operated, were first used in London at Piccadilly, in 1926.

Motoring firsts: Croydon was the setting of the world’s first fatal car accident when Bridget Driscoll was run over on August 17, 1896 at the Crystal Palace. A Rogers-Benz driven by Arthur Edsell was giving joy-rides to visitors when she froze in the road after suddenly seeing the car coming at a terrifying 4mph. At her inquest, the coroner said he hoped ‘such a thing would never happen again’.

The first circus

DID you know London was the birthplace of the circus?

Philip Astley (1742-1814) served as a Sergeant Major in the 15th Light Dragoons in the Seven Years War. When he retired from the army he became an equestrian trick rider, performing with others at the Vauxhall (see next entry) and Ranelagh pleasure-gardens.

He eventually opened a riding school in 1768 near Westminster Bridge, offering lessons in the morning and trick riding in the afternoon. With experimentation, he found that the best size of ring for his acrobatics was a ring 42feet (13metres) in diameter – still the standard size of a  circus ring today.

As demand for his performance grew, Astley added extra attractions. By 1772, the Circus had dancing dogs, jugglers, acrobats, tightrope walkers and clowns. Of course, Astley had no wild animals – which means the modern circus is returning even more to his original format.

Astley opened the first circus in Paris, the Amphitheatre Anglois, while Astley’s Circus was a fixture on the South Bank for many years. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris (France, for you Americans).

The first postmark

Statue of Rowland Hill near St Paul's

IN Prince’s Street EC2 – behind the Bank of England – you’ll find a blue plaque which notes: ‘Near this spot the General Letter Office stood in Post Office Yard, 1653-1666. Here were struck in 1661 the first postmarks in the world’.

Postmarks predate stamps, being used to indicate the date of posting of a letter (so senders couldn’t claim for alleged postal delays), though they later came to be used to cancel stamps.

The postmark was devised in 1661 by Henry Bishop, postmaster general, who was in charge of the mail between London and the six main post roads towards Bristol, Chester, Kent, North, Western and Yarmouth. A letter mailed in London was stamped when it left, one from elsewhere when it arrived in London. The mark was a circle with a two letter abbreviation for the month in the top half, the day in the bottom half. No year was thought necessary (which might say something unflattering about modern mail).

The Penny Black, the first ever adhesive postage stamp, was issued on May 1, 1840. Before then, postage was paid by the person who received the letter, who the postman had to track down. A stamp cost four pence 1814 – a day’s wages for a labourer. Over 15 miles, the stamp cost six pence.

A postmark was issued at the same time to cancel the stamp, in the shape of a Maltese cross. At first it was also black but because it was hard to see a black postmark on a black stamp the colour was changed to red in 1841.  The first forged stamps appeared in 1841 and the colour of the stamps was then changed to red, the postmark returning to black.

Strangely, Benjamin Cheverton idea of having a young girl’s head on the stamp to prevent forgery was almost an afterthought. Rowland Hill (above), the man behind the universal penny post, himself developed this suggestion, adapting a portrait of Queen Victoria as a princess at the age of 18.

Here’s a fascinating history of the post: