Wednesday, 27 June 2018

London, 1832: Looking for the Elusive Mr. Cholera

Cholera arrived in Britain in 1831, after moving relentlessly from India, to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Attempts to keep cholera out by quarantine and inspection of ships failed, despite the determined efforts of John Bull to send Mr. Cholera back to India (first cartoon). The disease appeared in the port of Sunderland in October, and spread to London and other British towns during the following year.

Most Western doctors believed cholera arose from miasmas, or bad air. Others thought it was contagious and spread from person to person by touch. Neither was true. The fruitless attempts of health boards to locate the source of the disease stimulated much satire, as in the cartoon below.

The main source of cholera infection was/is water polluted by human wastes. The first person to demonstrate the water borne theory was John Snow, a London surgeon, in 1855, although the cause, the cholera vibrio microbe, was not discovered until German doctor Robert Koch isolated it in the early 1880's, and showed it could cause the disease.

Yet some people suspected the water well before Snow and Koch. In the cartoon from 1832 below, George Cruikshank indicates that some people even then pointed to the sewage-polluted Thames as the source of cholera in London. "We shall all have the cholera" one person cries, as numerous sewers empty their virulent contents into the river, the source of many people's drinking water. No wonder so many people drank gin and beer.

Friday, 22 June 2018

St. Bride's, the London Church that Inspired the Tiered Wedding Cake.

London's St. Bride's Church on Bride Lane, just off Fleet Street, has a tower that looks like a tiered wedding cake. You might think that the cake inspired the spire, built to the design of (who else?) Sir Christopher Wren. It was apparently the other way round. The spire inspired a local baker to design a wedding cake that looked like St. Bride’s tower. The name of the church no doubt helped with the inspiration. Spire, spire, please inspire.

Although the current version of St. Bride's, like many London churches, was built after the Great Fire of 1666, a church has been here since Anglo-Saxon times, possibly earlier. Part of a Roman street can be found in its crypt, along with a history of the church and the area around it. St. Bride’s was once known as the printers’ church. The church contains a memorial to Wynken de Worde, the first man to set up a printing press on Fleet St. Many other printers followed. After Fleet Street became synonymous with the newspaper press, St. Bride's  became known as the journalists' church. The interior was largely destroyed by enemy bombing during the Blitz, but has been restored. Today the church contains a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty, many quite recently. it is well worth a visit.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

London's Iconic Newgate Prison, 1188-1902

For centuries, Newgate Prison was a London landmark and almost a synonym for incarceration. It stood on the site of a gate in the Roman Wall for more that 700 years. It was located just to the south of the equally old St. Bartholomew's Hospital, at the corner of today's Newgate Street and Old Bailey. The first Newgate Prison was built in 1188 and looked something like this:

It was rebuilt several times, including by Christopher Wren (who else?) after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The last version, pictured below, was erected in 1782. It was designed by another prolific architect, George Dance the Younger.

"New" Newgate became the scene of public executions the following year, when they were moved from Tyburn (near today's Marble Arch) to outside the prison gates. The authorities made the move because the traditional processions to Tyburn and the hangings attracted large and boisterous crowds, and sometimes produced riots. 

Nevertheless, large crowds also gathered to watch the hangings at Newgate. They often paid large sums for good observation posts. Hawkers sold "confessions" of the condemned as well food and drink to the crowds. Public executions were much like modern sports events, except everyone knew in advance who was going to lose. 


That sort of entertainment ended in 1868, when the authorities removed the executions from the public gaze altogether. Henceforth, they took place inside the prison walls. An illustration by French artist Gustave Dore of the prisoners' exercise yard around that time captures the grimness of life in Victorian Newgate.

Newgate closed in 1902 and was demolished. It is now the site of London's Central Criminal Court, which was moved from its earlier location nearby. It has long been known as the Old Bailey after the street it fronts upon.  A statue of Justice upon its roof announces its purpose, if not always its results.

Famous prisoners of Newgate included Ben Jonson, Daniel Defoe, alleged pirate Captain William Kidd, Casanova, and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. Of this group, only Kidd was executed, but he was hanged at Wapping Dock on the River Thames, as was the custom with pirates.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

London's Fascinating Fleet Street: Printers, Prisons, Publishers and Pubs

London's Fleet Street starts at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, a street atop which sits St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fleet Street derived its name from the nearby River Fleet, which today runs underground beneath Farringdon Street and New Bridge Road. Fleet was once the center of England's printing trade and later became a metonym for its newspaper industry. 

Just north of Fleet Street beside the River Fleet, lay the Fleet Prison  which incarcerated people for debt from medieval times until the 19th century. Alas, it is no longer there.

Just south of Fleet Street Henry VIII erected a royal residence, Bridewell Palace. After his death his heir Edward VI gave it to the City of London. The City Fathers used it for a house for punishing “disorderly women” and a school for young lads, an interesting juxtaposition. One can only wonder about the curriculum. 

The boys moved out later and Bridewell became a general house of correction. Eventually all such establishments became known as “bridewells.” All that is left of the palace is the gatehouse, which boasts a relief portrait of Edward VI, a king whose main claim to fame was dying young and being replaced by Bloody Mary.

One of the most popular spots on Fleet Street is just a short walk down a lane on the north side of the street: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The pub, as its sign tells you, was “Restored in 1667,” the year after the Great Fire of London. It seems to have been untouched since. It’s dark, with all sorts of little nooks and crannies for drinking, plotting, and whatever. And lots of history.

Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Tennyson, and other literary figures are among those claimed as "regulars." Dr. Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame lived at nearby Gough Square, and is said to have popped in here occasionally with friends, such as James Boswell and Oliver Goldsmith, who buried next to nearby 12th century Temple Church, built as the spiritual home of England's Knights Templar. Another nearby church, St.Bride's, has a fascinating history as well. It inspired the layered wedding cake!

Gough Square contains Johnson’s house, which is open to the public, and a statue of his cat, Hodge. It is well worth a visit, because Johnson was a fascinating, idiosyncratic fellow.

One of the surprises in the house is a portrait that some believe to be of Johnson’s black servant. Francis Barber was a former slave who Johnson basically adopted and educated at his own expense. At his death, Johnson left Barber a large sum of money.

To the west of are many buildings related to the law, as the ancient law schools and courts are nearby. At the end of Fleet Street, where it becomes The Strand, stands the massive neo-Gothic pile of the Royal Courts of Justice

On an island at the end of Fleet Street lies St. Clement Danes church, made famous by the nursery rhyme, “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clements.” It sounds nice until you get to the last couplet: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!”