The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred

Royal Mint Street, E1

Running from its junction with Mansell Street at its western end and merging into Cable Street in the east, Royal Mint Street was so named in 1850 in (belated) recognition of the Royal Mint which had moved into the Tower Hill area in 1810. Methinks it was a rather belated attempt to refresh the reputation which, under its previous name, Rosemary Lane, had developed a certain reputation. I may return to the Mint another time but I will focus attention on other aspects of the street’s history.

From the beginning of the 18th century Rosemary Lane hosted a Rag Fair where Alexander Pope noted in footnotes to his satirical poem, Dunciad, published in 1728, “old cloaths and frippery are sold”. A contemporary commentator added more colour to the area by noting that “much of the clothing that was sold there was stolen; the market was also the final destination of all cast-off rags, in an epoch notorious for its careless habits and for seldom or never changing its linen”. Such was its reputation that in 1733, when a draper in Great Turnstile in Holborn noticed that he had lost 43 pairs of stockings, he immediately sent a boy to Mr Hancock’s in Rosemary Lane to look for them.

Its great rival was the market in Petticoat Lane but it had some advantages, namely being a wider and airier street, with taller buildings and the added attraction of a gin house. One of the attractions of the stalls, apart from cheap second-hand clothing, was that you were never quite sure what you would find within the garments. This snippet from the Public Advertiser from February 17, 1756 makes this point as well as shedding some light on how the transactions were conducted. A woman by the name of “Mary Jenkins, a dealer in old clothes in Rag Fair, was selling a pair of breeches to a poor woman for seven pence and a pint of beer. While the two were drinking together at a public house, the purchaser unripped the clothes and found eleven gold Queen Anne guineas quilted in the waistband and a £30 bank-note, dated 1729, of which she did not learn the value until she had sold it for a gallon of twopenny purl” (warm beer flavoured with something bitter). A case of caveat venditor.    

There was some dispute amongst the authorities around the turn of the 19th century as to whether the Rag Fair was simply a marketplace for old tat. Thomas Pennant in his Of London, published in 1790, talked of tubs in which customers paid a penny to dip their hands to pull out a wig and that someone could clothe themselves for little or nothing. Joseph Nightingale, in his London and Middlesex from 1815, vehemently refuted Pennant’s account, recording that “the houses in Rosemary Lane, or the so called Rag Fair, are mostly occupied by wholesale dealers in clothes, who used to export them to our colonies, and to South America. In several Exchanges, or large covered buildings, fitted up with counters, &c. there are good shops, and the annual circulation of money in the purliens of this place, is really astonishing, considering the articles sold, although their cheapness bears no kind of proportion to Mr. Pennant’s conjectures”     

Whoever was right at the time, by the middle of the century it was characterised by disorder and tawdriness. Henry Mayhew gave us a vivid illustration of life in the street in his London Labour and London Poor, published in 1861. He reported that it was “chiefly inhabited by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpers, &c., as well as the slop-workers and “sweaters” employed in the Minories”. He went on to give a detailed description of the bric-a-brac on sale and the disorder to be found on the streets. “Some of the wares are spread on the ground, on wrappers, or pieces of matting or carpet; and some, as the pots, are occasionally placed on straw. The cotton prints are often heaped on the ground, where are also ranges or heaps of boots and shoes, and piles of old clothes, or hats or umbrellas. Other trades place their goods on stalls or barrows, or over an old chair or clothes-horse. And amidst all this motley display the buyers and sellers smoke, and shout, and doze, and bargain, and wrangle, and eat, and drink tea and coffee, and sometimes beer”.     

The fair lasted until 1911. I shall return to this street to talk about some of the colourful characters who lived on it.

The Tale Of Charles Dickens’ Turkey

‘Twas the day before Christmas and the novelist, Charles Dickens, was waiting with great expectations for a 30-lb turkey that his tour manager, George Dolby, had promised to send him. But it didn’t arrive. Dickens dashed off a frantic note to Dolby; “WHERE IS THAT TURKEY? IT HAS NOT ARRIVED!!!!!!!!!!” What promised to be the best of times turned out to be the worst of times.

The bird did not arrive. Entrusted to the tender care of the railway companies it was making its way from Hereford to Dickens’ home in Kent when, somewhere on the Great Western Railway (GWR) line between Gloucester and Reading, the wooden horse box in which it was stored, a sort of goods carriage, caught fire, possibly caused by an errant spark from the engine.

Suffice it to say, Dickens’ turkey was well and truly cooked and GWR considered it to be too badly damaged to present to the novelist. Instead the meat was sold off to the needy at sixpence a portion.

Dickens did receive a letter of apology from GWR and an offer of compensation.

The incident, which has just come to light as a result of some correspondence unearthed at the National Railway Museum in York, happened in 1869. Dickens died in June the following year and so was deprived of turkey on what turned out to be his last Christmas. Hard times, indeed.

Quite what he ate instead is anybody’s guess.

Season’s greetings to you all. The next post is scheduled for Monday December 30th.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Two

Paul Kammerer and the Midwife Toad

We tend to think that Charles Darwin was single-handedly responsible for developing the theory of evolution but he was not working in a vacuum. An important and controversial contribution was made by the French naturalist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who posited a theory that acquired characteristics were passed down through the generations. He thought that giraffes originally had short necks and legs but, in order to get to the succulent upper leaves, had to develop the long legs and necks they have today. Lamarck though that if a parent had a limp, their child would also inherit one.

Lamarckism fell out of fashion but the Austrian scientist, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), spent part of his career trying to establish whether there was anything in it. He chose to concentrate on the Midwife Toad which, unlike most toads, does not mate in water and so lacks the black, scaly bumps on their back feet, known as nuptial pads, which allows other male toads to hang on to their partners as they mate. If he forced Midwife Toads to mate underwater, he wondered, would they too grow those bumps? If they did, Lamarck might have been on to something.

After getting his toads to mate underwater, Kammerer discovered, after a few generations, that the males were beginning to develop black nuptial pads, which were then inherited by their offspring. If his findings stacked up, there may have been something in Lemarckism after all. In 1923 and 1924 Kammerer travelled extensively across the United States and Britain, giving lectures and writing about his experiments. In 1924, he published The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, claiming that his experiments and results showed that Lemarck was right.

Kammerer split the scientific community. His findings were enthusiastically embraced by Soviet Russia, the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics fitting into the prevailing Marxist philosophy, so much so that Kammerer was appointed as director of a laboratory in Moscow’s Communist Academy in 1926. Other scientists, though, were not so sure.

In 1926 an American scientist, Gladwyn K Noble, curator of Reptiles at the Museum of Natural History in New York, travelled over to Vienna to see for himself. By this time Kammerer was in Moscow and so a colleague showed him the one preserved toad that was left from the experiments and photographs taken while the research was ongoing. Noble claimed that the specimen was a fake, the nuptial pads being nothing more than swellings caused by the injection of black Indian ink.    

Noble published a letter in the journal, Nature, on August 7 1926, claiming that Kammerer had faked the results of his experiments. In a letter to the Soviet Academy of Science written in September 1926, Kammerer admitted the hoax, but claimed that he was not responsible for faking the exhibit Noble had seen and had no idea who had done it or why. With his academic and professional career ruined, Kammerer’s body was found, on September 23, 1926, at the top of an Austrian mountain in Puchberg am Schneeberg with a gun shot wound to his head and a pistol by his side.

Kammerer’s case has become a notorious example of academic hoaxing but more recent developments in genetic research suggest that he might not be the villain he has been made out to be. In 1942 scientists began to understand a phenomenon called epigenetics whereby circumstances or the environment can make changes to the way gene information expresses itself without changing the genetic code itself. Those changes can be passed on to offspring.

A famous example of epigenetics in practice was to be seen during the famine that hit occupied Netherlands in the winter of 1944/5. Malnourished, pregnant women gave birth to children with a higher incidence of mental problems and a tendency to become obese than normal. Some of these traits were passed on to the women’s grandchildren. And a midwife toad has been found in the wild with nuptial pads.

Perhaps the remaining specimen had been faked but the results of Kammerer’s experiments were as he portrayed them. If so, he will have the last laugh.        

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

Christmas Crackers (5)

Here, allegedly, are the best contemporary Christmas cracker jokes. Make of them what you will.   

  • Why does Donald Trump have his Christmas dinner on a plastic plate? – He doesn’t get on with china.
  • Why is Parliament like ancient Bethlehem? – It takes a miracle to find three wise men there.
  • Christmas dinner is a lot like Brexit. Half the family were told they needed to make room for Turkey, so opted to leave Brussels.
  • Why has Santa been banned from sooty chimneys? – Carbon footprints.
  • What is Coleen Rooney’s favourite game to play over the festive period? – Guess Who.
  • Why doesn’t Jeremy Corbyn ever visit Santa? – Because he struggles in the poles.
  • Why is Greta Thunberg boycotting parsnips and carrots at Christmas? – Because she’s a swede dish campaigner.
  • What’s the difference between Rudolph’s nose and David Cameron’s autobiography? – Only one will be red at Christmas.
  • What do you call a snowman who goes on Love Island? – A melt.
  • What is Olivia Colman’s favourite part of a turkey? – The Crown.

Christmas Tip Of The Week (3)

Pulling a Christmas cracker is one of those rituals that has performed before you can sink your teeth into the sumptuous feast that has been set before you, that has taken hours to prepare and is getting steadily colder. Personally, I’m not bothered whether I win a paper hat and plastic toy together with the right to read a corny gag out, but some are more competitive. Did you know that there are some techniques which can maximise your chances of getting the larger portion of the cracker?

According to defence technology experts, QinetiQ, here are some handy tips to ensure that you win every time:

  • Ensure that the end of the cracker you are holding is lower than the other person’s so that it is tilting towards you;
  • Use a firm, two-handed grip
  • Pull slowly and steadily rather than deploying a hard yank. Yanking can compromise your section of the cracker;
  • Don’t twist the cracker.

Easy really. I hope it works.

My etiquette expert informs me that the correct time to pull a cracker is either after the main course has been completed or after the pudding has been eaten. Makes sense but then a Christmas dinner wouldn’t be the same without silly hats.