The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Six

Great Turnstile, WC1

Often, I find with London’s streets that the derivation of their names is nothing other than the bleedin’ obvious but that the point of interesting lies in the why and what went on there. Take Great Turnstile, for example. This street, little more than an alley in truth, is to be found on the south side of High Holborn, leading to the northern end of Lincoln’s Inn’s Fields. There is also a Little Turnstile, just before Holborn tube station, again on the south side of High Holborn and, to complete the set, next door New Turnstile.

It will probably come as no surprise that Great Turnstile got its name from a turnstile sited there and was intended to stop cattle grazing in the fields of Lincoln’s Inn wandering into Holborn. Records dating to 1522 give what is now Great Turnstile the name of Turngatlane and it is probable that buildings were not erected in the vicinity until after 1545. One of the earliest and more reliable maps of London, the woodcut map of London from 1560 known as the Agas map but almost certainly not the work of the surveyor, Ralph Agas, shows two turnstiles in situ.

A plan of the area between the two turnstiles dating from around 1590 shows there was a row of houses along the stretch together with an orchard. Although this conjures up a picture of a bucolic idyll, muck and stench was never far away. The Survey of Crown Lands from 1650 refers to a property which was adjacent to Little Turnstile and records that it was built on land “heretofore a ditch or common sewer and filled upp”. The New Turnstile, as befits its name, was a Johnny-come-lately, built in 1685, and probably took its name from the streets around it rather than because it was an acting as a new and improved cattle prevention measure.

From the seventeenth century the Turnstiles played their part in the flourishing London book trade. One such publisher was George Hutton who set up shop at the “Sign of the Sun within the Turning Stile at Holborne” in the 1630s. John Bagford had a shoe shop in Great Turnstile but he was also branched out to be a bookseller and a collector. He amassed two collections, one of ballads and the other of title pages of books. The latter collection led William Blades to call Bagford a “wicked old biblioclast”, a wonderful term for the shocking crime of defacing and breaking up books. Whether Bagford was a biblioclast has never been conclusively established. No 10 Great Turnstile, for much of the twentieth century, was the home of the New Statesman magazine.   

Great Turnstile was also known for the manufacture of scientific instruments. The father of civil engineering, James Smeaton, set up shop in the eighteenth century to make what were termed at the time philosophical instruments, a path followed in 1854 by the incumbent of Number 3, Great Turnstile, one William Ford Stanley. He produced drawing instruments initially from wood but when he turned his attention to aluminium, his instruments were so accurate that his business flourished. Within a decade Stanley had several factories in the area and a total of three shops on the street, becoming along the way the largest instrument maker in the world. In 1914 the journal American Machinist called his first shop a landmark in engineering.

These days Great Turnstile is a rather anonymous collection of modern office blocks and barely hints at its more colourful past. At least the name lives on.      


Pet Of The Week (2)

Here’s a cautionary tale.

American woman, Tina Springer, was travelling in a car as a passenger with her seven-month-old Labrador Retriever by the name of Molly. The puppy was a bit frisky on the journey and managed to land on a .22-caliber pistol, which happened to be in the car.

Unfortunately, the pistol was loaded and went off, injuring Tina in the thigh. She is expected to recover from her injuries.

There is a moral in this story somewhere, either don’t have a pet or don’t leave a loaded pistol lying around. I will leave it to you to decide which.   

Surgical News Of The Week (2)

When I feel a bit down, I find a story about a medical disaster peps me up no end.

At the recent Cheltenham Literary Festival, Samer Nashef, a cardiac surgeon at Cambridge’s Papworth Hospital was regaling his audience with details of what should have been a perfectly straightforward coronary bypass. Unfortunately, the aorta ruptured.

Needing access to another artery, he settled on the patient’s groin and with an assistant pushing on the damaged aorta to stem the blood loss, cut the skin. There was some blood loss from that area and so to patch things up down there, Nashef decided to cauterise the spot.

To his dismay, the solution used to prepare the area hadn’t dried and the application of a flame meant that the patient’s private area went up in flames. They were able to extinguish the fire using drapes.

Mercifully, the patient, an 80-year-old man, was none the worse for his ordeal but he did wonder why, as well as a repaired heart, he had come out of the theatre with a full Brazilian.       

What Is The Origin Of (253)?…

Black as Newgate’s knocker

In these desperately politically correct days it is a brave person who wades into a discussion of shade and colour but there are times when you are compelled to describe the darkness of something. There are a number of similes in the standard formulation of as x as y you can use that will not make your hearer blanche but if you looking for something a little recherché, why not consider as black as Newgate’s knocker?  

There are two possible origins for this phrase, although they both may flow from the same source, Newgate prison, upon whose site the Old Bailey now stands. It was rebuilt five times before it was finally closed in 1902 and demolished two years later. Newgate had a fearsome reputation, housing criminals and debtors and from 1783 it was a place of execution, initially the felons were dispatched from a platform outside the gaol but later the executions were held indoors.

The knocker on the front door would be a symbol of terror. It had to be used to summon a guard who would then admit the prisoner to what was a noisy, foul, fetid cesspit of humanity. Whether the knocker was black is open to some debate. Its association with the grim fate awaiting prisoners and death would be enough to ascribe dark characteristics to do it. There is, however, a black door knocker, said to be the original, mounted on a block of wood from the prison which is used as a gavel at ceremonial dinners held in the Lord Mayor’s and Sheriff’s Dining Room at the Central Criminal Court.

References to the Newgate knocker began to appear in the mid eighteenth century, it has a pleasing alliteration, after all. In James Hoey’s The Batchelor; or, Speculations of Jeoffry Wagstaffe, Esq of 1769 it is used to describe something aged and tough, a figurative reference to the prison regime but one easy to understand; “Dear Jack, I wish your old dad would tip off, that you might come once more: damn it, he’s as old as the knocker of Newgate, but I think as tough as a gad”. A gad was an iron bar.

I associate the 18th century with ridiculous, over the top fashions worn by the upper classes but the lower orders, particularly fashionable young men and especially costermongers, were not impervious to the siren call of fashion. The Kentish Gazette in July 1781 described a Mr Julep who had given up a full-bottomed grizzle wig for a “spruce club stiled a Newgate Knocker”. This hair-do involved a lock of hair being twisted from the temple on either side of the head back towards the ear, making a shape rather like the figure six.

It was a relatively long-lived fashion, references to it can be found dating to the middle of the next century. To be flash, according to one lad interviewed by Henry Mayhew for his London Labour and the London Poor of 1851, the hair “ought to be long in front, and done in figure-six curls or twisted back to the ear Newgate knocker style”. John Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words of 1859 helpfully commented that “the shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate”. Two years later a correspondent to the Illustrated Times of London described a mob as “bull-necked, heavy-jawed, and with the hair dressed after a fashion known among its patrons as the Newgate knocker style”.

There is no direct association of the hair style to the colour black. Of course, many sporting the style would have black hair but the simile seems to be of a later date. The Cornishman in March 1881 helpfully included a column which investigated the oddities of dialects from around the country. It described “as black as Newgate knocker” as “a Cockney phrase”. I suspect that the origin is the knocker on Newgate prison which as well as spawning this rather colourful but later simile but also gave its name to a popular hairstyle. There is no reason to think that the hairstyle gave rise to the phrase.

Gin O’Clock – Part Seventy Nine

When I stop to consider how much I have spent on gin over the years, to paraphrase P. G. Wodehouse, I become white and shaken, like a dry martini. I blame my classical education. As a child I suffered from asthma. Whilst researching ancient herbalism I came across Pedanius Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica from around 70CE, in which he described the Romans using juniper berries steeped in wine as a way of warding off chest complaints. I started drinking gin and my asthma disappeared. Coincidence? I think not.

It is a misconception to think that what I call the ginaissance, the astonishing return to popularity of gin and the explosion in the number of distillers over the last decade, is a purely British phenomenon. Whilst the UK’s consumption of gin, in revenue terms, accounts for a quarter of the global total and it now exports more gin than it does beef, the spirit is increasing in popularity around the world with the market expected to grow by 4.4% per annum over the next five years. As in the UK there are distilleries popping up around the world, seeking to introduce their take on the spirit and to challenge the hegemony of the big distillers. Vancouver in British Columbia is no different.

Granville Island, on the other side of False Creek from downtown Vancouver, is a vibrant place to visit. Think of Borough market with arts facilities and shops. It is also home to The Liberty Distillery. Their name reflects the opportunity that changes in the law in British Columbia gave artisan distillers to strut their stuff, much as it did in the UK.

The bar area affords an excellent view of the two copper pot stills, 140 and 220 litres respectively in capacity and with a direct steam heating system, and the labyrinth of pipework which makes the production of the spirit possible. Liberty had four gins on offer and I decided I had to try them all, courtesy of their Gin Flight, a sample tray.

First up was Endeavour Gin which, I was told, used an organic triple-distilled, British Columbia wheat spirit as its base. Ten botanicals, all selected for their oil content, were then infused into the base during the re-distillation process. My personal preference in a gin is one that is heavily juniper led and this one really hit the spot. When I held the glass to my nose the aroma was an enticing mix of juniper, citrus, and floral elements. I was not disappointed with the taste, a hit of juniper to begin with followed by hints of citrus and pepper. The aftertaste was long and lingering with definite hints of liquorice and spiced pepper. It made for a smooth, intriguing drink whether tasted neat or with a mixer and at a moreish 45% ABV was a definite hit with me.

I have also developed a taste for Old Tom gins but Endeavour Old Tom Gin comes with a bit of a twist. Taking the Endeavour gin as its starting point it undergoes a further maceration process with an additional five botanicals and is then laid to rest for a few months in 220-litre French Oak barrels. The result is that instead of the sweeter note that I tend to associate with Old Toms it has a woody, almost whisky-like taste. Liberty say it is a gin for whisky drinkers. I say each should stick to their own.

A temptation some small distillers cannot resist is to throw as many botanicals into the mix as they can, a strange form of alchemy. Whilst it shows a degree of skill to come up with something drinkable, the toper is left wondering whether it was worth all the effort. Often, I feel with gins, less is more. Endeavour Origins uses 25 local botanicals which are slowly infused into the mix. It was surprisingly smooth drink with a complex interplay of sweetness and spice above a solid juniper base with a lingering, slightly minty aftertaste.

It takes a lot to convince me of the merits of flavoured gins. The fourth Liberty offering was Endeavour Pink Gin, which uses 18 botanicals in an organic wheat spirit. The botanicals are specifically chosen to give the spirit a natural rosy hue. On the nose it had intense floral notes and in the mouth was surprisingly powerful, it comes in at 47% ABV, with the juniper providing a solid base against which the more floral notes can shine. I was pleasantly surprised by this one.

The only downside is that, as I write, Liberty gins are not available in the UK. There is surely an opportunity for an enterprising wholesaler there or, alternatively, an excuse for a trip to Vancouver.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – October 2019 (3)

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

If you have been following these book reviews with even a scintilla of interest, you would have worked out that I am a fan of Wilkie Collins. This is his fourth book, originally serialised in 1856 in Charles Dickens’ publication, Household Words, and in book form the same year. Whilst even his most fervent advocates would not place it amongst his best, some rather churlishly call it the last of his apprentice novels before he wrote his acclaimed masterpiece, The Woman in White, it is a lovely story and a book which has endured in popularity.

The secret, the contents of which are disclosed to the reader early on but not to all the characters, is to do with the true identity of the leading protagonist of the story, Rosamond Treverton. The dying Mrs Treverton entrusted her maid, the scatty and possibly deranged Sarah Leeson, with a letter containing a deathbed confession to pass on to her husband, Captain Treverton. Sarah can’t bring herself to do it and hides the letter in the Myrtle Room, a room in a deserted wing of a Cornish gothic house, Porthgenna Tower. The story concerns the unravelling of the secret, the impact of which could affect the fortunes of some of the protagonists. I will not spoil the story as it is entertaining.

Along the way we meet a wonderful array of characters. Some are there purely for comedic effect like the dyspeptic Mr Phippens who would not be out of place in the pages of a Dickens’ novel. When a little girl is offered an extra slice of bread and marmalade at breakfast, the martyr to his intestines warns, “think of Mr Phippen’s clogged apparatus – and say No thank you next time”. Then at Porthgenna Tower we meet the comedy duo, the butler, Mr Munder, who “has a great reputation for wisdom without the trouble of saying or doing anything to deserve it” and his side-kick, the housekeeper, Mrs Pentreath. The misanthropic Andrew Treverton, the self-styled Timon of London, and his servant, Shrowl, are wonderfully drawn and add a layer of gothic horror to the tale, even if the former’s Damascene conversion at the end is a little out of character and a tad melodramatic for my taste.

Collins’ portrayal of Sarah Leeson’s uncle, Uncle Joseph, engaging. As is his wont Collins introduces a character with a disability, Leonard Franklin, Rosamond’s husband, is blind, and by Victorian standards his portrayal is sympathetic and free from any cloying sentimentality. Although a relatively minor character, he is Rosamond’s rock and fount of all knowledge, she wishing at one point that she could give him her eyes as he is cleverer than she.

Collins’ strength, though, is his understanding and portrayal of female characters. Sarah Leeson is melancholy and tormented with good reason and her character is portrayed with feeling. It would have been too easy to make her into a figure of evil but the writer shows great understanding of the crisis of conscience that made her act in the way she did, notwithstanding the consequences. The pairing of Rosamond with her blind husband is inspired. It means that standard Victorian portrayal of the dynamics of a marriage where the man is the protector and the woman the weak dependent is turned on its head.

The book is written in an engaging style and the reader is anxious to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. As with most sensation novels of the period the plot turns on coincidences, many of which are so far-fetched as to defy credulity. But you have to ride with it, suspend belief and keep going. If you do, you will find you have read an entertaining novel, the popularity of which through the ages is not difficult to understand.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty Eight

The English Mercurie hoax

Newspapers are such a staple of out everyday life that it is difficult to imagine a time when you had a source of news at your fingertips, whether reliable or not is, of course, a matter of debate, and access to trenchant and thought-provoking commentaries on the current state of affairs. But there was a time when we existed without newspapers and, indeed, before the advent of the printing press, they would have been an impossibility.

These days it is generally accepted that the Mercurius Gallobelgicus, which was produced in Cologne from 1594, written in Latin and consequently widely distributed around Europe, was the first newspaper in the world, as we would understand the term. But the eminent Scottish antiquarian, George Chalmers, thought he had a scoop when he revealed to his readers in his Life of Thomas Ruddiman, published in 1794, that the German rag was a Johnny-come-lately, pipped to the post by the English Mercurie. In a burst of patriotic pride, perhaps unusual in a Scotsman, he wrote, “it may gratify our national pride to be told, that mankind are indebted to the wisdom of Elizabeth, and the prudence of Burleigh, for the first newspaper”.       

It is not clear how Chalmers got wind of it, although a manuscript copy and some printed versions had been bequeathed to the British Museum in 1766 by a Dr Birch along with other documents, more on whom anon. And what a marvellous organ it was. It wasn’t full of the daily trivia, minor crimes, scandals, political debates, that we associate with newspapers today. No, it had bigger fish to fry.

With a dateline of Whitehall, July 23, 1588 complete with gothic nameplate, faded typeface and spellings from the era of early modern English, and consisting of four pages, it contained three reports concerning the failed Spanish armada. It started off with the spotting of the Spanish fleet off Plymouth and then the actions of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Martin Frobisher, crucially misspelt as Forbisher. It numbered the Spanish fleet at 150 and detailed the ships which had been captured by English action. A further report, from Ostend dated July 27, told of the serried ranks of Spanish soldiers, some 30,000 foot soldiers and 1,800 cavalry in all, massed on the coast ready to follow up the successful Spanish fleet.  It ended with a report dated July 23 of an audience held by good Queen Bess with dignitaries of the City of London.

For forty-five years Chalmers’s patriotic claim that this was the first newspaper was the accepted truth. But Thomas Watt was not convinced. Finding the original manuscript in the bowels of the British Museum in 1839 he examined it with interest. He noticed that the writing was identical to that in letters penned to Dr Birch by Philip Yorke, the second Earl of Hardwicke. The manuscript had been corrected in the hand of Dr Birch. There were other inconsistencies, particularly in relation to typeface used and spellings. Watt concluded it was a hoax perpetrated by Yorke and Birch and others.

It is not known why they went to the trouble of perpetrating an elaborate hoax, perhaps it was a literary challenge or just a bit of harmless fun. Even though it was debunked as a fake, even today some authorities unwittingly quote from it . A recent example was Channel 4 in their Elizabeth’s Pirates series. Students of hoaxes, perhaps they should be called hoaxperts, will know that there is nothing more dangerous than a group of English aristocrats in the eighteenth century with time on their hands.         

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone, finalist in the Non Fiction: Business/Sales/Economics category of the Independent Author Network Book of the Year awards 2019.