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.      


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.

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.

What Is The Origin Of (252)?…

Believe you me

This phrase has always mystified as it seems to be out of kilter with the normal rules of grammar. It is used to emphasise a piece of information or a statement of opinion, showing the speaker’s passionate belief in its veracity. The normal English sentence construction follows the pattern of subject followed by verb followed by object. It is second nature to us but here we have a verb followed by the subject followed by the object.

The key to understanding this formulation is to realise that believe is what grammarians call an imperative, a command to do something. If we recognise that then we can find a plethora of examples of what seems to be a distorted ordering of words . The Bard of Stratford was no stranger to this stylistic trick. In Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 4, Lord Capulet says, “and bid her, mark you me, on Wednesday next.” Phebe in As You Like It (Act 5, Scene 2) says, “if this be so, why blame you me to love you?” And we cannot overlook the wonderful line from Hamlet that Shakespeare gives to Rosencrantz in Act 4, Scene 2 and which I always look forward to with eager anticipation; “take you me for a sponge, my lord?”    

Of course, you could argue that it was the constraints of the metres with which Shakespeare was working that forced him into such examples of grammatical gymnastics and whilst there may be some truth in that, believe you me, you need to consider the King James’ Bible of 1611. Recognised as representing one of the high points of English literature and freed from the constraints of metre, it too has this formulation for the imperative. In Matthew 14:16 we find, “they need not depart; give ye them to eat”.

The curious thing about our phrase is that it did not appear in print until October 1808 and then on the other side of the pond, the Eye, a Philadelphia magazine. It noted, “now this was wrong, believe you me”. Almost seventy years later, in July 1877, the Catholic World noted “we’ve not come to the worst yet, believe you me”. It was not until the twentieth century that the phrase became really established, long after this formulation of the imperative had died out in other phrases. In the eighteenth-century writers used other phrases where ours may have been used, such as “would you believe it?” (Tobias Smollett in his 1749 translation of Gil Blas) and “believe it or not, as you chuse” (William Cowper in a letter dating to June 1792). It is as if it was not known or available to them.   

Why would that be if the grammatical formulation was commonplace in earlier times and why did it pop up first in America? The answer may lie with the Irish immigrants. A trait amongst older people in Belfast when speaking English was to put a you after an imperative as in “go you away” or “sit you down” and to interject a you between the verb and object, as in “put you it away”. Believe you me was a commonplace idiom there.

It may be the Irish immigrants brought this linguistic oddity over to America with them, a hangover surely of the grammatical formulation that was prevalent in Tudor and Stuart English.   Nina Wilcox Putnam wrote a book in 1919 entitled Believe You Me!, a comic novel which found some popularity at the time and used the language of the characters who graced its pages. Its popularity may have brought the phrase to a wider audience, although my guess is that it was already in use in everyday speech. It is rather like a platypus, a phrase of ancient formulation stranded in a modern world.

Book Corner – October 2019 (2)

Mr Finchley Discovers His England – Victor Canning

I have been musing why the interwar years saw such a prolific outburst of what might be termed escapist literature, particularly detective fiction and comic writing. It may well have been something to do with the absence of alternative popular entertainment, radio was in its infancy and television a distant spot in a cathode ray tube. It might have been a conscious attempt to blot out the horrors of the recent world war, the grim economic realities that were prevailing and the rise of fascism. Who knows? What is for sure is that there is a glut of literature, popular in its time, waiting to be rediscovered.

Victor Canning is best known as a prolific writer of novels and thrillers, he was a wartime friend of Eric Ambler, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, his first book, published in 1934 in the UK and two years later as Mr Finchley’s Holiday, was this rather charming and funny journey of self-discovery. The protagonist, Mr Finchley, in early drafts his name was Mr Pitcheley, is an unmarried, chubby, dyspeptic solicitor’s clerk who had never taken a holiday. The death of his boss and Mr Sprake’s assumption of the reins of power changes all that. Finchley’s dutiful service is rewarded with a three-week holiday.

And where better in the 1930s to spend three weeks than in Margate? Having booked his accommodation at the Kent resort, Mr Finchley sets off for his holiday. But he never gets there. Whiling away some time before catching his train, he is prevailed upon to look after a Bentley. Feeling a little tired, Finchley stretches out in the back of the car and, surprise, surprise, finds that it has been stolen and that he has now been kidnapped by a gang of criminals. And so begins a series of improbable escapades.

To modern eyes there may be too much easy stereotyping, people are labelled lunatics and gypsies, and an underlying moralistic tone in the book, but it is an easy and engaging read. Finchley manages to escape from the clutches of the criminal gang, and realising that his plans to enjoy his holiday in Margate, sets out west, reaching Land’s End before returning home. Along the way, he has adventure after adventure. He encounters many people who in one way or another have fallen on hard times and are living an itinerant lifestyle, including gentlemen of the road aka tramps, artists, travellers and gypsies. To make ends meet he takes a job at a fair and then sells petrol. He takes part in the obligatory game of cricket and towards the end of the book, becomes the innocent party to a smuggling expedition.

What is surprising is the dark undercurrent to life on the road. Finchley is forever being threatened with violence, on occasions threats turn to blows, and is nearly strangled to death. There is a dark side to the bucolic idyll that Canning paints. The humour is gentle and the book, effectively a comedic travelogue, reminded me of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat but, in truth, it is not as funny.

Journeys which transform people’s lives are a modern-day trope, I usually blanche when I hear someone say they have been on a journey, but this is a fair summary of Finchley’s experiences. As Canning wrote, “he still suffered from indigestion. He was still bald. He still loved his pipe. Yet he was different…” There are two more books in the Mr Finchley series which I will probably read at some point. Farrago Books are to be commended for bringing this thirties’ gem back into print.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Eight

Thomas L Jennings (1791 – 1859)

Is there anything more annoying than spilling something down your clothes?

On reflection, plenty but perhaps because my manual dexterity isn’t quite what it used to be, it seems to happen to me with increasing regularity. I’m forever dabbing and rubbing items of clothing, trying to get a food stain out. Depending on the combination of foodstuff and fabric, some stains seem immoveable and the only thing for it is a trip to the dry cleaners.

On such a trip, I pondered; someone must have invented dry cleaning. Who was it?

Step forward, Thomas Jennings.

Born in 1791, a free African American, this was to be an important distinction as his story unfolds, Thomas became an accomplished tailor. So good were his skills that people came from miles around either to have their clothes altered or bespoke apparel made by him. Soon he had amassed sufficient funds to open his own store on New York’s Chapel Street.

People were no less clumsy with their drinks and food then than they are today, but they didn’t have the option of popping down to the dry cleaners.

Their choice was either to get the stain out as best they could and continue wearing the garment or to consign it to the bin, an expensive option. Whilst replacing soiled clothing with new was grist to the mill of Thomas’ tailoring business, he didn’t like to see garments that he had worked on for hours on end discarded before they had reached the end of their natural life.

So, Thomas began to experiment on ways to clean clothing, deploying a range of different solutions and cleaning agents on a wide array of fabrics. Eventually, he hit on a winning combination. After extensive testing, in 1820, he applied for a patent for a process he called “dry scouring”, the forerunner of dry cleaning.

Thomas was awarded a patent (US Patent 3306x) on March 3, 1821, making him the first African American to hold one.

The law at the time did not perceive slaves as citizens of the United States and so they were unable to swear the oath necessary to stake their claim to their invention. This legal impediment did not impact Thomas. He was a free man, after all, and he was able to benefit from his ingenuity.

And benefit he did.

Dry scouring became an extremely popular way to clean badly soiled clothing and Thomas made his fortune. But, alas, we know very little about the particulars of the method Thomas had developed because the US Patent office was destroyed by fire in 1836 and its records went with it. In 1825, Jolly Belin opened what is thought to have been the first commercial dry-cleaning laundry, in Paris, using turpentine.

Perhaps this was Thomas’ process.

The problem with turpentine was that it made the clothes smell but it was not until the 1850s that petroleum-based substances were used to dry clean clothes. These substances were highly inflammable and there were often by-laws in place prohibiting dry cleaning premises to operate in densely populated areas. Clothes were often brought into a shop in the town and then sent to a laundry out in the sticks to be cleaned.

Less dangerous chlorinated solvents were only used after the First World War.

Thomas used his wealth to purchase the freedom of those relatives of his who were still enslaved and then fund the abolitionist movement in the North-Eastern states, becoming, in 1831, assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, held in Philadelphia.

His daughter, Elizabeth, was a chip of the old block.

She was an activist on behalf of the abolitionist movement, like her father, and one day whilst on a New York City streetcar on her way to church she was ordered off. She sued the operators, Third Avenue Railroad Company, on the grounds of discrimination and in 1855 the Brooklyn City Circuit found in her favour.

The very next day, the company desegregated their buses. Her attorney, Charles Arthur, went on to become US President in 1881.