The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Five

Harp Alley, EC4

Appearances can be deceptive, I find, particularly when you are researching the history of London’s streets. Take Harp Alley, for example. These days it is a small alley on the left hand side of Farringdon Street as you walk northwards, just south of Stonecutter Street and leading on to St Bride Street.

In the seventeenth century and, presumably before, it was a lane which ran alongside some fields down to the river Fleet. A map dating from 1658 and representing, as its grandiloquent title states, “A Delineation of the Cities of London and Westminster and the suburbs thereof” as it was in 1657, produced by Faithorn and Newhart, shows a bridge over the river at the end of the street. This suggests that it was a well-travelled thoroughfare and may account for the reason why, by the standards of London’s alleys, it is rather wide.

John Rocque’s map of London from 1746 gives the street a name, Harp Alley, although other maps designate it as Harp Street and in 1677 reference was made to a Harp Court. It was Rocque’s name, though, that has prevailed, the Harp almost certainly coming from the pub of that name which stood on the corner with Farringdon Street. The alley was cut down to its current length, about half of its former glory, in 1868 when the new St Bride Street was built.

Excavations conducted in 1990 revealed the area’s more gruesome past. Burial pits were uncovered, used specifically for plague victims from around 1610 until the Great Plague, a form of bubonic plague, had petered out in 1666. It also appears to have been used as an overflow burial ground for St Bride’s Church for the period from 1770 to 1849. Some of the bodies were removed to the British Museum.

As well as a graveyard the Alley had its own coinage mint, these springing up when there was a shortage of legal coins, particularly of low value denominations. Cities took it upon themselves to produce their own coins which were accepted as legal tender by local tradespeople. One such tradesman’s token has been unearthed, dating from between 1649 and 1672, bearing the legend “Harpe Alley end at Ditch side”.

At the corner with Farringdon Street can be found the Hoop and Grapes and its beer garden runs alongside the Alley. Built in 1721 it gained notoriety for being the venue for what were known as Fleet weddings. The Marriage Duty Act of 1695 was supposed to have clamped down on what were known as irregular marriages, where the wedding took place away from the couple’s home parish but where banns had been read and/or a licence had been obtained, and clandestine marriages, where banns and a licence had not been obtained, imposing legal penalties on any clergymen who performed such weddings. But there was a loophole.

As Fleet prison and the area around it, including Harp Alley, was within the Liberties of the Fleet, the law did not apply there. A flourishing wedding trade developed, so much so that in the 1740s over half of the marriages in London were held in the Liberties. Whilst most of the weddings were genuine, there were a number conducted for dishonest purposes or where one or both of the couples were already married to someone else. Impecunious vicars, especially those imprisoned for debt, replenished their fortunes by officiating such ceremonies. They even employed touts who scoured the streets looking for couples desperate to tie the knot.

It was not until the Marriage Act of 1753 was passed and came into force on March 25, 1754 that this unusual form of civil ceremony came to an end. The association of the Hoop and Grapes with Fleet Marriages, though, saved it from demolition in the 1990s as the only surviving venue of the practice and it is now a Grade II listed building.

Scratch below London’s surface and it is amazing what you find.

Cheese Of The Week

Chefs, or cooks as I prefer to describe them, seem to be a sensitive lot. Whilst I like a good meal like the rest of us, I think estimates of their skill in the kitchen is a bit overdone. I like to think that if I had spent years knocking up meals, I would be a dab hand at it.

But it is the way of the world that the best need to be recognised as such and in the world of culinary arts, getting three Michelin stars is the highest accolade. But as we used to say in the financial services world, what goes up can also go down.

There has been a bit of a stushie, following the Michelin Guide’s decision last January to downgrade Marc Veryat’s La Maison des Bois, near Grenoble, if you are thinking of going, from three stars to a paltry two. This decision has got Monsieur Veryat stewing.

It is alleged that what got up the Michelin inspector’s nose was the suspicion that Veryat had used Cheddar in a cheese souffle rather than the French stalwarts of Reblochon, Beaufort and Tomme. The combative Veyat accuses the inspector of talking through his serviette and that he had used saffron which gave the French fromage its yellowish hue.

Veryat. claiming that the downgrade was “profoundly offensive” and gave him “a depression”, has put matters in the hands of his lawyer and the case is expected to go before the courts in November. If nothing else, the redoubtable Monsieur Veryat can certainly cook up a storm.

Error Of The Week (7)

One of my bugbears with buffets rather than sit-down jobbies is that you are never quite certain what you are putting into your mouth. Sometimes you can be in for a big surprise as happened to this unnamed Israeli woman in her late sixties, according to an article in the BMJ Case Reports 2019.

Attending a wedding party she tucked in with some gusto into a dip which she thought was avocado. Five minutes later she began to feel a burning sensation in her chest and down her arms. Not wishing to be a party pooper she grinned and bore her discomfort but the following day, still feeling uncomfortable and weak, she went to the quacks.

An ECG revealed that she had suffered what the medics describe as Takutsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome which, in lay man’s terms, causes left ventricular dysfunction, typically in older women, especially after sudden, intense physical or emotional stress.

And what had caused the woman’s stress?

Well, what she had tucked into was a bowl of wasabi paste, made from the hot Japanese root vegetable, which I enjoy but a sparing application seems to be the sensible thing. According to the article, this is the first recorded instance of broken heart syndrome to have been brought on by wasabi so that is something to boast about when the woman next sees her friends.

The moral of the tale, though, is stick to what you know.

What Is The Origin Of (250)?…

Paul Pry

My favourite pub in Worcester is the Paul Pry, a marvellous Victorian boozer with well kept, good quality ales. It was always a pleasure to visit clients in the area because it gave me the excuse to pop in. The character after whom the pub is named is someone who could fairly claim to be someone who went viral in a non-internet world, quite some phenomenon when you come to think of it.

Paul Pry was the comic invention of the English playwright, John Poole, and the three-act play bearing Pry’s name premiered at London’s Haymarket Theatre on September 13, 1825. He was a meddling, interfering character with an overpowering sense of curiosity. His party piece was to leave his umbrella behind, giving him an excuse to return and continue his eavesdropping. He even had a catchphrase; “I hope I don’t intrude”.

It was an overnight sensation. The review in the Globe the day after the premier of Paul Pry concluded with this sentence; “the house was crowded at an early hour, and when at the conclusion of the comedy Mr Pry came forward to “ask just one more question”, viz whether it might be repeated? the long and universal applause which followed, conveyed an answer which must have been equally gratifying to the feelings of the actor, the author, and though last not least, of the manager”.

To give a sense of how quickly Paul Pry not only captured the nation’s imagination but became part of its vernacular you need only look at a court case reported in the Morning Advertiser on November 24, 1825, little more than ten weeks after the play made its debut. Sarah Stevenson was up before the magistrate at the Marlborough Street police court, charged with assaulting Frances Kirkham. The report stated that, “and with the exception of Paul Pry, Miss Kirkman did not believe that there was upon the face of the earth so curious or impertinently inquisitive a being as Sarah Stevenson”. The word on the street, indeed.

The provinces were not impervious to Paul Pry mania, the play touring the country and reaching Worcester’s Theatre Royal on July 13, 1826. By 1829 there was a stagecoach running daily from Worcester to London’s Broad Street named the Paul Pry and in the 1840s a satirical periodical akin to Private Eye called Paul Pry hit the streets of Worcester. It was short-lived but had a picaresque existence, writers being arraigned in court for alleged libel and even horsewhipped. The Paul Pry pub first made an appearance in the annals in 1834.

The take up of the name in Worcester amply illustrates one commentator’s observation that Paul Pry was “first a play and then within weeks virtually every other category of cultural practice.” It had become so established as a synonym for an inquisitive person that Ebenezer Brewer thought fit to include it in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, published in 1870; “An idle, meddlesome fellow, who has no occupation of his own, and is always interfering with other folk’s business – John Poole, Paul Pry (a comedy)”.

Paul Pry was to the nineteenth century what a nosey parker was to the twentieth. We saw the transition last week in the exchange recorded in E Hesse-Kaye’s Eastward Ho! published in Belgravia: A London Magazine in May 1890; “lookey ‘ere, Mr Poll Pry, you’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr Nosey Parker about you”.

Paul Pry rather sank into obscurity but I rather like it as a term for an annoyingly inquisitive person.

Gin O’Clock – Part Seventy Six


It is not just in what goes into the mix that, thanks to the ginaissance, distillers seek to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd but the way they make it. I first came across vacuum distillation when I bought a bottle of Oxley Cold Distilled London Dry Gin and, lo and behold, here’s another.

Based in Ian Hart’s home in Highgate in London the Sacred Micro Distillery has no truck with traditional copper stills and the like, pinning their faith on a vacuum created in a Heath-Robinsonish collection of glassware. The result is range of gins going under the brand name of Sacred. The one I selected from is Sacred Juniper Gin, which has been around since 2011 and what particularly attracted me to it was the description that “it packs as much juniper as you can get in a bottle”.

Let’s deal with the name first. It doesn’t reflect any idolatrous thoughts about the position of gin in the firmament of spirits but, rather, is taken from the Latin name for Hougary frankincense, boswellia Sacra, one of the twelve botanicals which made up the original Sacred Gin which was released in May 2009. Of course, you can always make that connection.

In terms of the botanicals it is a very simple gin, being made from Bulgarian juniper berries, angelica root and orris. Less is often more and the trick is what you do with the botanicals you choose to use. The base spirit is made from English wheat grain and each botanical is distilled separately through three different maceration processes, once with alcohol and the other two with water before being distilled in the glassware under reduced temperatures and under pressure in a vacuum. The process is more complex than this sounds and the final blend to make up the gin which weighs in with an ABV of 43.8% is 95% juniper with the balance being made up by angelica and orris.

The bottle is tall and cylindrical with a long, thin neck and a cork stopper. The labelling is well worth studying as there is more to it than meets the eye. The background colour is purple with Sacred in white against a depiction in gold of iron gates. These are supposed to represent the gates of Highgate cemetery. Look even more closely and you will see birds which represent the Nightingales which populate the woods of Highgate and there are even some laboratory bottles, reflecting Ian Hart’s approach to distilling.

The second label on the front of the bottle provides some information about the spirit, notably that it is “a crystal clear London Dry Gin simply expressed with dominant notes of natural Juniper communis berries”. It also tells me that my bottle is number 903 from batch 16 and that the ABV is 43.8%. The label on the rear gives some more details and a cocktail suggestion, reassuringly stating that it is “distilled with Juniper lovers in mind”.

Of course, the proof of all this is in the drinking. On the nose it has a very intense juniper aroma with a hint of spice and to the taste it is heavily juniper led with hints of citrus bursting through. The aftertaste is long and powerful providing a warm peppery sensation. I never thought I would say this as someone who loves juniper led gins but I think there was a bit too much juniper and not enough to balance it out. This is not a complex gin but if you want to overdose on juniper, this may just be the one for you.

Until the next time, cheers!



Book Corner – September 2019 (4)

Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves – edited by Martin Edwards

I am a fan of Martin Edwards’ archaeological efforts to resuscitate some of the better shorter stories from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. This is the thirteenth such themed anthology. Perhaps it’s a case of thirteen being unlucky for some as I found it the least satisfying of those that I had read.

I guess part of my dissatisfaction lies with the choice of theme. At first blush you would think that this will be a collection of mysteries and crimes set at sea but in order to get to sixteen stories and a satisfying length, Edwards has had to broaden his brief to include swimming pools, hardly depths or waves, methinks, and a couple of stories that are as recent as the 1960s and 70s. Ironically, though, H C Bailey’s story involving his medical detective, Reggie Fortune, called The Swimming Pool, is probably the best of the lot with an excellent twist to it. It will make you think twice before diving into a pool.

One of the most bonkers stories I have read is The Pool of Secrets which was written in 1935 by Gwyn Evans. It has an element of science fiction about it with a robot assisting the investigation and the use of a prototype of what we would now call a drone. The way the murder was committed also has a splash of ingenious eccentricity about it.

The collection starts off with a Conan Doyle story, and one featuring the greatest detective creation, Sherlock Holmes, to boot. It is the sleuth’s first case, The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, but in truth it is one of Doyle’s weakest. There is little in the way of detection or intellectual intuition that Holmes was famous for as the case was solved by a letter. I should have realised at this point that the collection was not going to reach the heights of some of the earlier collections.

That said, there are some gems and highlights along the way. C S Forester, he of the Hornblower series, makes an interesting contribution with The Turning of the Tide which tells of a well-planned murder which went wrong because of a failure to plan for all eventualities or, depending upon your point of view, a spot of bad luck. I found it gripping in more senses than one.

Nautical knowledge solves the mystery in The Thimble River Mystery by Josephine Bell and if seeing a murderer hoist by his own petard is your bag, you will enjoy Andrew Garve’s story, Seasprite. C St John Sprigg’s Four Friends and Death is an amusing and clever take on a poisoning which has gone wrong. Its only connection with the sea is that the poisoning took place on a boat. The most recent story dating to 1975 by Michael Innes, Death by Water, involves a fish out of water that turns a suspected suicide into a murder.

If you are prepared to give Edwards some latitude on his choice of theme and are prepared to navigate your way round some of the weaker contributions, I always approach a R Austin Freeman story with some dread and he rarely fails to disappoint, it is a book worth splashing out on. But if you are looking for an anthology to start out with, there are many better.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty Seven

The amazing conversion of Leo Taxil, a hoax that rocked Catholic France

The Taxil hoax

There’s nothing like a good conspiracy theory and, even better, a sinner who spectacularly renounces his sins. The incredible story of Léo Taxil, the nom de plume of Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès, has these elements and more.

Despite, or perhaps because, being earmarked by his parents for a life as a Catholic priest in France, Taxil developed fervent anti-religious, anti-Catholic views. As a journalist he wrote a series of satires exposing the perceived follies of the Catholic church, his pièce de resistance being the semi-pornographic book, the Secret Loves of Pius IX, published in 1881 and for which he was accused of libel. Then, to the astonishment of many, in 1885 Taxil publicly converted back to Catholicism, renouncing his past indiscretions and swearing to rectify the damage he had brought on the Church through his satirical exposés.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century the Catholic church had had an increasingly fractured relationship with the Freemasons. In 1884 Pope Leo XIII had issued an encyclical entitled Humanum genus in which he set out a Manichaean vision of a struggle between those who served “the kingdom of God” and those who served “the kingdom of Satan”. The Pope’s particular ire was directed at the Masons and gripped by a serious case of conspiracy theory he wrote “the partisans of evil seem to be combining together, and to be struggling with united vehemence, led on or assisted by that strongly organised and widespread association called Freemasons”.

What better way for Taxil to demonstrate his newly found Catholic zeal than to use his investigative skills to penetrate into the deepest recesses of the world of freemasonry. He began to publish a series of pamphlets denouncing the freemasons in the 1890s and in a book on Satanism claimed to have met a woman called Diana Vaughan. Vaughan was no ordinary woman, her memoirs, penned by Taxil, claiming that she had penetrated into the heart of the Palladian Order, a sect of the American Freemason movement. Through their offices she had visited Mars, had seen demons summoned by Masons during their black masses, and gave details of a secret factory in the arctic which produced anti-Church and pro-Satanist propaganda.

No matter how outlandish and bizarre the claims Vaughan made were, they were manna from hell for Pope Leo who promulgated them as evidence of the fact that Satanists were amongst God-fearing folk, determined to frustrate the workings of the Church. Those of an anti-masonic disposition were also prepared to believe Vaughan’s testimony but Masons were not convinced, challenging Taxil to produce this remarkable woman. Bowing to the pressure, Taxil agreed to give a public lecture on April 19, 1897 at which all would be revealed.

In front of a packed house in Paris, including several priests priests, Taxil revealed that he was a serial prankster with a string of elaborate hoaxes to his name. This was the most elaborate and he thanked the Church for allowing the oxygen of publicity to expose the fanatical hatred of masonry amongst the Church establishment. He the produced Diana who was his typist and had gone along with the deception for a laugh.

The audience was in uproar and the police had to be summoned to escort Taxil off the premises to the safety of a nearby café. Taxil soon left Paris and saw out his days in Sceauxin until his death in 1907.

But his legacy lived on. In fundamentalist Catholic circles his work was accepted as proof of a Satanist plot to control the world. After all, we do like a good conspiracy theory, even if it is hogwash.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone