The Streets Of London – Part Thirty One


St Michael’s Alley, EC3V

Midway down Cornhill on the right hand side as you walk from the Royal Exchange is to be found St Michael’s Alley which runs alongside St Michael’s church, more of which anon. The area between Cornhill and Lombard Street is a warren of little passageways and alleys and gives the sense of what London might have been like, without, of course, the stench, dirt and foul air.

One of my favourite watering holes, the Jamaica Wine House, or as the habitues of the financial district call it, the Jampot, is to be found here, charming workers and tourists alike with its wooden interiors, high ceilings and rather abrupt service. It gets its name, alas, from its association with the slave trade in the Caribbean and the current building is newer than you would think, only dating back to 1869.


Of principal interest is a blue plaque on the exterior of the wall of the pub – so keen was I to get my hands on its foaming Kentish brews that it escaped my notice until recently – proclaiming “Here stood the first London Coffee House at the sign of the Pasqua Rosee’s Head 1652”.

Pasqua Rosee was a servant of an importer of goods, including coffee, one Daniel Edwards. There are two versions of how the coffee house was established. One was that Rosee fell out with Edwards and set up his own business. The other, more likely I would have thought, was that Edwards used to entertain guests to his house with the exotic caffeine based brew and realised the commercial possibilities that existed in selling it. So Edwards helped Rosee set up what was in reality a wooden shack, adjacent to the church, a landmark that was visible across all of what was the then city.

The sign gracing the establishment showed Rosee in profile, resplendent in turban and with a twirly moustache and so memorable was this image that it became the default sign for other coffee houses. There is some confusion over the name of Rosee’s gaff with some records calling it the Turk’s Head and others, a version adopted by the manufacturers of the blue plaque, The Sign of Pasqua Rosee’s Head.

Rosee issued printed advertisements extolling the virtues of the coffee drink and claiming that he was the first to make and sell the drink in England. This claim was erroneous, the honour of establishing the first coffee house actually fell to a Jewish chap called Jacob who opened the Angel in Oxford a year earlier, in 1651.

Notwithstanding that, Rosee’s coffee house became extraordinarily popular as a meeting place and a venue for conversation and business and spawned many rival establishments. Presumably buoyed by his success – shortly after opening he was selling around 600 coffees a day – Rosee planned to move his business to a more permanent establishment on Cornhill adjacent to Newman’s Court. Whether he succeeded in doing this or not is unclear and Rosee disappears from the records around 1658. His own ability to profit from the coffee craze that he had created was tragically short-lived. By 1663 there were 82 coffee houses in London and by 1675 around 1,000, selling what detractors called “a liquid resembling syrup of soot and essence of old shoes”.

Ironically, Rosee’s intended second venue is now a Starbuck’s; the chain also runs a coffee shop at the house he used to live in with Edwards at 38, Walbrook.

Excuse Of The Week


One of the few joys of regular commuting was marvelling at the ingenuity that had gone into constructing the excuse to explain the cancellation of your train. As well as the wrong type of snow or leaves on the line my favourite always was due to essential emergency improvement work. But I have never come across “The next train to London has been cancelled because its wheels are too light”.

This autumn has been a particularly bad time for commuting from East Anglia to London, I’m told. Up to two trains a day have had to be taken out of service a day because their wheels are too light to mulch the leaves on the track. The leaves lodged in the wheels often cause skids or sliding, damaging the track by rail burn and creating flat sections on the wheels, which then have to be removed and repaired, taking the train out of commission.

What’s it to be – heavier wheels, chop the trees down or grin and bear it? It’s hell being a commuter!

Murmur Of The Week


There is no finer sight at this time of the year to my mind than a murmuration of starlings, the great black cloud of birds flying in formation, swirling and diving against the backdrop of a greying sky and the skeletal leafless trees. Who needs the Red Arrows when you have nature’s own formation flyers on your doorstep?

Samuel Coleridge shared my fascination for these murmurations – “starlings on a vast flight drove along like smoke, mist, or anything misty without volition – now in a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse and Oblong …

Sadly, though, those under the flight path of the starlings and, more importantly, near where they roost take a different view, particularly the Romans who have decided to take action against the migrating starlings in their trees. The problem, you see, is shit – the starling droppings are so thick on the streets that they are causing an ‘Elf and Safety issue.

The beleaguered authorities are to deploy five Texan falcons to scare the starlings away but it is hard to think what they could do against so many birds. If nothing else, the Romans will see many more murmurations as the formations they adopt are a defence mechanism against predators.

An alternative approach to the problem is to play recordings of starling distress calls over a loudspeaker system. The implementation of this solution has been delayed because companies are still submitting their bids for the contract.

Mamma mia, why don’t they forsake their Prada shoes for once and enjoy nature?

All Change – Part Six


Continuing our series on words which have changed meaning over the centuries.

I suffer from heartburn, pretty unpleasant it is too and, I’m told, the sharp pain that I experience in the chest area from time to time is the result of acid reflux, probably if truth be told, testimony to my poor lifestyle. Nowadays we pretty much use heartburn to describe this medical condition but the first usage of the word was in the context of feelings and emotions associated with the heart such as jealousy and hatred.

Having broadcast my medical problem to the world at large, let’s look at that word. Today it is almost exclusively associated with communications. We talk about radio and television broadcasts where the word is used as a noun and as a verb it denotes the act of communicating stuff, usually words, images and sounds, to a wide constituency. Inevitably this is a relatively recent usage of the word as TV and radio are creatures of the 20th century. In the 18th century broadcast was used to describe scattering seeds in a wide arc. You can understand how the sense was hi-jacked by the nascent broadcasting world two hundred years later.

The adjective nervous has had an interesting history. If you were called nervous in the 15th century then you would be quite pleased because it meant you were sinewy and vigorous. However, by the early 18th century you would be less pleased because it meant you were suffering some form of disorder to the nervous system and by the end of that century it was a commonly used euphemism for the mentally ill. So widespread was its usage in this context that the medics used the term neurological to describe a form of nervous disorder. When in these more politically correct and sympathetic times we use the adjective we normally use it to indicate that someone is timid or easily agitated.

Similarly, being described as a bully is not normally something you would aspire to. After all, someone so tagged is seen as using their strength, power or influence to harm or intimidate their weaker brethren. But in the 16th century bully was used as a term of endearment for either sex. A hundred years later it was used to describe someone who was a bit of a show-off and it was only in the 18th century that it acquired its more pejorative meaning.

Careful is used to describe someone who is cautious and/or painstaking in what they do. Not always so though. The original meaning of the word was exactly what it said on the tin, someone who was full of cares and woe. Of course, exercising caution is a good way of ensuring that you are not full of woe, another example of a complete transition of original meaning.

Matrix is one of those words which seems to have been given a new lease of life by the cinematographic industry. As a noun it has various connotations but the principal concept is around an environment, whether cultural, social or political, in which something develops. In mathematical usage it describes a rectangular array of quantities of expressions in columns and rows which is treated as a single entity and manipulated according to certain rules. But, as the Latin scholars will know, its root is matrix which means a womb, where human and animal life develops.

If you are presented with something that reads or sounds complete rubbish – be gentle, dear reader! – you might utter the exclamation, balderdash, a term used originally to describe an unusual mix of drinks sich as beer and wine or milk and beer. Only in 1670 did it mean a senseless jumble of words and thence become a portmanteau to describe nonsense.

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Fifteen


The great plague of Marseille – 1720 to 1722

In Western Europe this was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague that had first appeared in the 14th century as the Black Death. The plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, was carried to the French trading port on the Grand-Saint-Antoine which had set out from the Levantine port of Sidon, having previously called in at Smyrna, Tripoli and more fatally at the plague-ridden island of Cyprus.

A Turkish passenger died during the voyage and with several crew members falling ill, the ship was denied entry at Livorno and sailed on to Marseille, where it was promptly put into quarantine in a lazaret adjacent to the harbor. All might have been well had not commercial expediency overruled any public health considerations. The cargo on the benighted ship, quantities of silk and cotton, were needed by the city merchants for the great fair at Beaucaire and pressure was exerted by the powerful mercantile lobby on the health officials to lift the quarantine.

This they did and not unsurprisingly within days the plague broke out in the city. So rapid was the spread that hospitals were overwhelmed and the frantic citizens drove the sick from their homes and out of the city. This served only to allow the bacillus to spread into the surrounding countryside. Mass graves were dug but they proved insufficient to accommodate all the cadavers and soon thousands of bodies lay scattered and piled up in the streets.

The horse having well and truly bolted the French officials tried belatedly to shut the stable door by passing legislation in the Parlement of Aix imposing the death penalty on anyone in Marseille seeking to communicate with other parts of Provence and, presumably, vice versa. Judicial execution or death by bubonic plague – must have been a tough call.

A more enduring measure to seal off Marseille from the rest of the mainland was the construction of a dry stone wall two meters high and 70 centimeters thick with guard posts set back from it, known as the Mur de la Peste. Parts of it are extant.

The plague over the two-year period that it was at its most virulent accounted for 50,000 of Marseille’s 90,000 population with a further 50,000 dying in the outlying countryside areas.

Once normality prevailed the French authorities enhanced the plague defences of this vital port by building a new lazaret, Lazeret d’Arenc, which boasted a double line of fifteen foot walls around a new compound to which ingress and egress was only permissible from the waterfront. Entry to the lazaret was only permissible once crew and cargoes had passed a rigorous inspection on an island away from the harbor. Despite the appalling loss of life it only took just over forty years for Marseille’s population to reach its pre-plague level.

One interesting side note. An archaeological excavation in 1998 uncovered a mass grave of plague victims dating to 1722. The skull of a 15 year-old boy revealed that an autopsy had been performed on his body – the first known example of this procedure. It appears that the autopsy followed the methodology described in a medical text-book published fourteen years earlier.