The Streets Of London – Part Forty One


Redcross Way, SE1

If you walk down Southwark Bridge Road away from the river, turn left into Union Street, then the second road on your right is a rather unprepossessing street, Redcross Way. My attention was taken by some railings, a plaque and some tributes which had seen better days. What I had come across was a relic of the final resting place of many of the poor of Southwark, Cross Bones Graveyard.

Outside of the boundaries of the City of London the area beyond the south bank of the Thames, what we now know as Bankside and Southwark, had a rather racy reputation. There was only one bridge across the river at the time, the old London Bridge, and so those coming from the south into London or setting out on their journey from London had to travel through the district. Pretty much everything that was banned or disapproved by the City elders was to be found in abundance sarf of the river. The area was noted for its dangerous taverns, licentiousness including theatrical performances, blood sports and prostitution.

The many sex workers to be found in mediaeval Southwark were known as Winchester geese because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester who owned much of the land in the area. The first printed reference to the graveyard is as the last resting place for these poor women and is to be found in John Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1598. He reported, “I have heard ancient men of good credit report that these single women were forbidden the rights of the Church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground, called the single woman’s churchyard, appointed for them, far from the parish church”.

Whether Stow is an ancient man of good credit is not clear but his account of the origins of this graveyard has been given credence over the centuries. But it is clear whether from its origin or at another point of time the graveyard was used to bury people other than sex workers and particularly those who fell within the boundaries of the parish of St Saviour. Some 15,000 were said to be buried there.

Excavations carried out by the Museum of London in 1992 on 148 graves, dating from between 1800 and 1853, showed that two-thirds of the bodies were of children under the age of five, 11% under the age of one. Of the adults there the majority were women over the age of 36. Causes of death included smallpox, scurvy, rickets and tuberculosis. The dig also showed that the graveyard was particularly overcrowded with bodies piled atop of each other.

And it was overcrowding that saw the closure of the graveyard. Closure came in 1853 because, according to contemporaries, it was “completely overcharged with dead” and further burials were considered “inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency”.

Attempts were made to reuse the site for building purposes and even as a site for a fairground but these met with fierce opposition from the local residents. However, once the remains of the graveyard were transported to Brookwood warehouses and other commercial buildings were erected on the site. The building of the Jubilee line required an archaeological dig of the area and an electricity substation was built on the land. The railings and plaque are pretty much all that remains of this once overcrowded graveyard.

Out The Window – Part Three


The Prague defenestrations (2)

The more famous of the Bohemian defenestrations occurred on 23rd May 1618 and had catastrophic consequences for the lives of millions in Middle Europe.

Religion was again at the centre of the dispute. Bohemia had been allowed certain religious freedoms and the majority of the population had adopted Protestantism, a right granted to them by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in 1609 in his Letter of Majesty. But by 1618 the Catholic Counter-Reformation was in full swing and attempts were made to close two Protestant churches being built on royal land, at Broumov and Hrob. The Protestants claimed this was a violation of the Letter of Majesty.

The leaders of the Protestant camp met with the principal Catholic hard-liners, Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum, Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice and Philip Fabricius in an attempt to ascertain who had persuaded the king, Matthias, to rescind the earlier commitments. When the three admitted that it was they, the Protestant leader, Count von Thurn, is reported to have said to them, “you are enemies of us and of our religion, have desired to deprive us of our Letter of Majesty, have horribly plagued your Protestant subjects…have tried to force them to adopt your religion against their wills or have had them expelled for this reason”.

Recognising he had the upper hand, von Thurn turned to the crowd assembled around Prague Castle and said, “were we to keep these men alive, then we would lose the Letter of Majesty and our religion…for there can be no justice to be gained from or by them”. With no more ado the three Catholics were snatched and flung out of the window.

Miraculously, though, all three survived their seventy-one foot fall from the third storey window. Catholic sources suggested that they were saved by angels or by the intercession of the Virgin Mary who caught them in mid fall. Protestant sources, perhaps in retaliation to the fanciful stories of divine intervention, claimed that they landed in a pile of dung. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes. But Fabricius, later ennobled, took the title of Baron Hohenfall, baron of high fall, showing that he at least could see the funny side of his ill-treatment.

The immediate effect of the defenestration was that the Catholics and Protestants started preparing for war. The death of Matthias in 1619 saw the election of Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor but the Protestants deposed him and installed Frederick V as king of Bohemia, a move which did their ability to summon international support no favours. When the inevitable battle came, on 8th November 1620, the so-called Battle of White Mountain, the Catholics prevailed, Frederick was restored to his throne and after weeks of plundering and pillaging, twenty-seven nobles were executed in the town square and the heads of twelve were impaled on iron hooks and hung from the Bridge Tower pour encourager les autres.

Protestant outrage in turn proved to be the spark that unleashed the bloody carnage that was the Thirty Year War.

There was a third defenestration, as recently as 10th March 1948. The body of Jan Masaryk was found lying underneath the bathroom window of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The official explanation was suicide but the Prague police, in 2004, concluded on the basis of forensic evidence that Masaryk had indeed been thrown out of the window. There were no angels or piles of dung to save him.

Zoos Of The Week


I haven’t been to a zoo in a long while. The truth is I find them a tad depressing and a bit boring, especially now as it is infra-dig to wander around in an animal onesie. Still, I found a couple of ways this week in which visitors sought to enhance their zoo visiting experience.

At Santiago zoo 20 year old Franco Luis Ferrada Roman in an apparent suicide bid broke into the lion enclosure, took off his clothes and started to provoke the beasts. Unsurprisingly, the lions attacked him and he was badly mauled. In Copenhagen style the zoo keepers shot the two lions dead in front of a crowd of onlookers, there being no fast-acting tranquilisers available that could have been used. Roman is critically ill in hospital. He might have been more successful in his bid if his name was Christian, methinks.

And then at the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, an intoxicated man called Makesh decided to jump into the lions’ enclosure, as you do, to shake one by the hand. Perhaps lions don’t like drunks because they did not attack him, finding a nearby keeper with some food more attractive. Makesh had his collar felt by park security and was held for questioning when he sobered up.

Zoos have certainly livened up since last time I went to one.

Taxi Of The Week


I’ve been to the Cornish coastal village of Port Isaac once. The streets were so narrow, the traffic so dense and the car parks so full that all TOWT and I could do was join the stately procession in one end and out the other, whilst fearing for the integrity of my paintwork.

Perhaps I should have taken a cab. One company there has got itself into a bit of bother through its use of the helpful legend “take the Port Isaac Shuttle Service”. A by-stander took umbrage at the rather witty use of the company’s acronym and reported it to the Cornwall County Council who, as all humourless bureaucrats do, ordered owner, Louise Houston, to scrap the offending signage.

Shame really but I look forward to them waging war on the more offensive grocer’s apostrophe which litters the county.

Talking of matters littoral, I have found the most compelling reason to leave the EU. This week I read that Britain’s beaches are the dirtiest in the EU. Of course, if we weren’t in the EU, they wouldn’t be. “Fix our beaches in an instant, vote Brexit”. Over to you, Nigel.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Seven


Aiken Drum

Today’s rhyme is more of a regional favourite, coming from north of the border. It is quite long, by nursery rhyme standards at least, and is relatively recent in origin, the first version appearing in print in 1820 by James Hogg in Jacobite Reliques. It goes as follows, “there was a man lived in the moon/ lived in the moon, lived in the moon/ there was a man lived in the moon/ and his name was Aiken Drum”. This is then followed by a chorus, “and he played upon a ladle,/ a ladle, a ladle/ and he played upon a ladle/ and his name was Aiken Drum”.

Subsequent verses follow the same formula but explore Aiken Drum’s body parts and clothing. So in verse two his hat is made of good cream cheese, in verse three his coat was made of good roast beef, his buttons are made of penny loaves in verse four and his breeches are made from haggis bags in the final verse, the only ostensible reference to its Scottish origin.

This rhyme seems little more, at least at first glance, than an entertaining way of teaching the wee bairn about clothing and the names of parts of the body. Aiken Drum, for it is he, is the man in the moon, the facial pattern made by the dark patches of the lunar seas contrasted against the lighter highlands of the moon which are visible at full moon and are familiar to children across the world.0

Hogg printed the rhyme in his collection of songs and poems associated with the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1715 when James Stuart, the Old Pretender, tried to seize the crown. Specifically Aiken Drum is attributed to a Jacobite song about the rather inconclusive battle that was Sheriffmuir.

Sir Walter Scott, the arch romanticiser of Highland lore, makes a fairly oblique reference to the rhyme in the Antiquary which was published in 1816. When enquiring about the perceived Roman origins of what he takes to be a fort, the protagonist is put right by a beggar. It was built by the beggar and some of his friends for “auld Aiken Drum’s bridal” and one of the masons carved the shape of a ladle on to one of the stones as a joke at the groom’s expense. If nothing else, this can only be a reference to the chorus of our rhyme and suggests that it was sufficiently well known, even before its first printed appearance, for the reader to understand the reference.

Aiken Drum is the name ascribed to the Brounie o Bledenoch in William Nicholson’s poem of the same name published in 1825. A brounie was a small creature, with a wrinkled face, curly brown hair and who wore a brown mantle and hood. Is Aiken Drum a reference to the British fairy folk mythology. Tempting as it may be to be seduced by this line of enquiry, there is nothing in the rhyme to suggest that that is a correct interpretation.

Aiken is Scots for oak and drum for hill, words that are resonant of the countryside and strength. Hogg’s Jacobite Reliques includes another reference to Aiken Drum, although the two words are elided. “Ken you know how a Whig can fight/ Aikendrum, Aikendrum?”  Perhaps all we need to conclude is that Aiken Drum is a generic name for a Highlander or, perhaps, a Highland rebel.

And quite what tune you could get out of a ladle, a spoon used for serving broth, is anyone’s guess but was sure to be a blessed relief from the caterwauling of the wretched bagpipes!”

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty Four


Louis le Prince (1841 – 1890)

The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame is Metz born Louis le Prince, the forgotten founding father of what is now the multi-billion dollar film business.

Our hero in his youth spent time in the studio of his father’s friend, Louis Daguerre, from whom he received lessons in rudimentary photography and chemistry. He went on to take a post-graduate degree in chemistry at Leipzig University. Moving to Leeds in 1866 to join a firm of brass founders called Whiteley’s and marrying his boss’ daughter, Elizabeth, le Prince and his wife earned some renown for fixing photographs on to metal and pottery and some examples of their work, including portraits of Queen Victoria and William Gladstone were sealed in a time capsule and placed in the foundations of Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames.

Moving to the United States, le Prince pursued his interest in developing a camera capable of shooting moving pictures. In 1888 he was granted a dual-patent on a device which contained 16 lenses and was capable of taking moving pictures and projecting the results. It was not altogether successful, though, because each lens captured the image from a slightly different angle and the result was rather jumpy.

Undeterred, le Prince returned to Leeds and built a single lens camera which on 14th October 1888 he used to film the world’s first motion picture, now known as the Roundhay Garden Scene and then went on to record scenes of trams, horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians crossing Leeds bridge. A blue plaque today marks the spot where he had set up his camera. The films were soon shown at what would be the world’s first picture show, in Leeds.

But, as is the way with our inductees, le Prince was never able to enjoy his success. In September 1890 he was due to travel to the States to give a public demonstration of his invention and decided, whilst in France, to visit his brother in Dijon. He boarded the train but was not there when it arrived in Paris, nor was his luggage. He was never seen again and was officially declared dead in 1897. A search of Parisian police archives in 2003 revealed a picture of a drowned man dating to 1890 which looked uncannily like le Prince.

Inevitably, there are a number of theories as to what happened to him. One theory, espoused by his grandson, was that the business was in financial difficulties but, au contraire, it seemed that it was profitable and le Prince had high hopes for his camera. Another is that he eloped because he was gay and feared being outed. Another theory is that he was murdered by his brother, who was the last person to see him alive.

The most intriguing theory, though, involves the Steve Jobs of his time, Thomas Edison. Perhaps le Prince was assassinated? Not long after le Prince’s disappearance, Edison tried to assert his claim that he had invented cinematography and thus was entitled to reap the rewards of the invention. This claim was disputed in the American courts by the American Mutoscopy Company. Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, was due to be called as a witness to demonstrate his father’s two cameras but was never called and the case was decided in Edison’s favour, a decision which was overturned a year later.

But the damage had been done. Edison was able to pass himself off as the inventor of cinematography and le Prince’s contribution was not officially recognised until 1930. Adolphe, too, died in mysterious circumstances in 1892, having been found dead on a duck shoot.

Louis, for your contribution to cinematography, you are a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

Book Corner – May 2016 (2)


The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L Sayers

Written in 1934 this is the ninth of Sayers’ novels to feature the amateur sleuth and all round good egg, Lord Peter Wimsey. Naturally, the hero can turn his hand at pretty much anything and when he is stranded on New Year’s Eve following a car accident at the fenland village of Fenchurch St Paul he is more than happy as an experienced campanologist to stand in for the indisposed Will Thoday in a nine hour peal of bells.

As a child and teenager Sayers lived on the edge of the Fens at a place called Bluntisham-cum-Earith where her father was the local rector. Whether it was a traumatic childhood I don’t know but she paints a rather bleak picture of the Fens. The book opens in a snowstorm and ends with a cataclysmic flood of biblical proportions. Fenchurch St Paul is populated by characters straight out of the central casting department for English rustic life – an amiable but absent-minded vicar and his practical wife, various rustics ranging from the simple-minded to the old and gnarled and landed gentry on the cusp of financial ruin.

But it is bells which loom large and loud through the book. The nine tailors refers to the country custom of announcing a death in the community by tolling the bells, known as telling or, in some dialects, a tailor. Three bells meant a child, six a woman and nine a man and then the bell tolled at half-minute intervals for each year that the deceased had lived. So nine tailors maketh a man. And each section of the book and each chapter take as their leitmotif excerpts from bell-ringing manuals, the vicar is obsessed with bell ringing patterns and the inevitable encrypted letter uses as its key a campanology run. But you do not need to be a bell ringer to enjoy the book and the technical guff is not so overpowering as to leave you as a reader ready to give up.

The story intertwines two mysteries – the rather Trollopian disappearance of some valuable emeralds and the discovery of an unknown, badly defaced, handless body in Lady Thorpe’s grave. The unravelling of the mysteries takes Wimsey and the ever faithful Bunter to London and France as well as the Fens. But the crimes and the unravelling of them are really just the middle of a rather larger sandwich. The first part is a rather languid introduction to the village with not a body or a whiff of murder in sight and the fourth is taken up with a flood which gives Wimsey the insight to explain how Deacon died.

The flood is rather telegraphed by long sections on the drainage work being done locally, the soundness (or otherwise) of sluice gates and the doubts of the locals as to the efficacy of the flood improvements – sounds familiar. And the identity of Deacon’s killer is given away by the reference and quotation from Sermet’s the Rosamonde, “the bronze monster had struck him dead” at the top of the relevant chapter and its revelation is the result of happenstance rather than deductive brilliance. I will never look at bells in the same way again.

Minor quibbles all. On the whole I found this a well-paced, engaging read and can see why it is considered to be one of Sayers’ finest.