Category Archives: History

Ally Pally

Dominating the north west London skyline, Alexandra Palace and its Park stands on ground that once was Tottenham Wood, a vestige of the Great Forest of Middlesex whose deforestation began in earnest in the early thirteenth century. One of the last refuges for boars, stags, and wild bulls in the area, by the time it was enclosed to allow King James I to indulge his passion for hunting, its 4,666 trees covered 388 acres, according to the Earl of Dudley’s survey in 1619.

Unable to withstand the pincer attack from the growing demand for fertile, agricultural land and timber for construction, when it was auctioned as a manorial estate in 1769, 367 acres had been cleared and cultivated and by 1843 just thirty-nine perches of the original Wood remained. The land, now known as Tottenham Wood Farm, was put up for sale in 1856 when its owner, Thomas Rhodes, Cecil Rhodes’ great uncle, died.

One person who had grand designs for the area was designer and architect, Owen Jones. As a Superintendent of Works at the Great Exhibition of 1851, he had responsibility for decorating Paxton’s cast iron and glass palace and for arranging the exhibits inside. He went on to design its décor and layout when it was moved to Sydenham.

There is an old proverb “you shall as easily remove Tottenham Wood”, meaning that something was unachievable, which seems remarkably apposite when considering the early attempts to redevelop the area. Fired by the success of the Crystal Palace south of the river, Owen’s dream was to construct a “Palace of the People” for the enjoyment of north Londoners. Tottenham Wood Farm seemed an ideal location, but despite submitting detailed plans in 1858, his initiative failed to attract support. The North London Park & Land Co’s attempt four years later to create a park and a housing development on the land also came to naught.

The Alexandra Park Company Ltd did, though, succeed in acquiring around 220 acres to build sports and recreational facilities for the area’s burgeoning population. A Tudor-style banqueting hall, later known as The Blandford Hall, was the first major structure to be built there, in 1864, and from 1868 the Park was the home of what for over a century was London’s only racecourse. It was deeply unpopular with jockeys because its layout required horses to run around a tight circle known as “The Frying Pan” and then along a sloping straight. Many riders and horses were injured.

Nevertheless, it was a hit with the public, meetings regularly attracting crowds of up to 30,000. Some visitors were less than savoury. The Scotsman on April 4, 1921, reported on a Peaky Blinders style clash on the course, the latest in a “feud between a Midland gang and another set of men”, with two hospitalised and one arrest. The last meeting was held on September 8, 1970, in front of 2,749 spectators, the course being unable to meet the stiffer safety requirements prevailing at the time. 

Work started on “The Palace of the People”, the centrepiece of the park and the manifestation of Jones’ vision, in 1864. Designed by Alfred Meeson, its construction recycled much of the material used to build the International Exhibition held in Kensington in 1862. Even so, financial difficulties blighted the project, and it took nine years to complete the Palace. Its long-anticipated opening, on May 24, 1873, Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday, was celebrated with concerts, recitals, and fireworks.

Lost Word Of The Day (41)

An uncle once advised me to become an undertaker, not because I had a suitably dour demeanour, but because you could be certain never to be out of work. Being too squeamish, I never fancied being a pollinctor, a person who prepared a dead body for burning, embalming, by washing and anointing, a direct import from the Latin noun. It was used by William Birnie in his The Blame of Kirk-buriall tending to perswade Cemeteriall Civilitie published in 1606. Whether it was a peculiarly Scottish usage, Ah dinnae ken.

Instead, I contented myself with laying out financial statements and insurance policies.

The May Bug – Britain’s Locust

Once so common and deemed a major agricultural pest, cockchafer numbers sometimes reached biblical proportions, as in Ireland in 1688. “When towards evening or sunset, they would arise, disperse and fly about, with a strange humming noise, much like the beating of drums at some distance; and in such vast incredible numbers, that they darkened the air for the space of two or three miles square”, the naturalist Thomas Molyneux observed. “The grinding of leaves in the mouths of this vast multitude altogether, made a sound very much resembling the sawing of timber”.

France was regularly ravaged by cockchafers. In 1320 the authorities in Avignon hit on a novel method of controlling them, summoning them to court and ordering them, on pain of death, to leave. Unsurprisingly, the stubborn cockchafers ignored the court’s strictures. In 1775 a farmer near Blois employed children and the poor to collect and destroy them, paying a bounty of two liards a hundred, and in a few days, they had collected fourteen thousand.

The Reverend Bingley noted, in Animal Biography (1813), that in 18th century Norfolk cockchafers were so rife that one farmer had collected eighty bushels of them and “the grubs had done so much injury that the court [of Norwich], in compassion to the poor fellow’s misfortune, allowed him twenty-five pounds”.

Well into the twentieth century the arrival of cockchafers en masse was a moment of marvel and dread for farmers and gardeners alike, as The Manchester Guardian’s Country Diary for May 31, 1922, graphically illustrates. Their North Oxfordshire correspondent wrote that “every evening the garden hums with cockchafers”, finding “something pleasantly poetical about their droning, plundering flight”. However, there was a sting in the tail. “They have great appetite and if this season suits their families as well as last would seem to have done, they bid fair to be as thick next year as Egypt’s locusts and will strip the trees; another reason for enjoying to the full this lovely verdure while it is here”.

With such an abundance of grubs and beetles, inevitably their culinary potential was explored. Molyneux recorded that the “poorer sort of Irish native had a way of dressing [cockchafer larvae] and lived upon them as food”. In France, according to Henri Miot’s Les Insectes Utiles (1870), handfuls of freshly harvested cockchafer grubs, seasoned with salt and pepper, rolled in a mix of flour and fine bread crumbs, and wrapped in liberally buttered baking paper or foil, were baked on the hot ashes of a wood fire or in the oven for twenty minutes. “On opening the envelope”, he wrote, “a very appetising odour exhales, which disposes one favourably to the delicacy, which will be more appreciated than snails, and will be declared one of the finest delicacies ever tasted”.

The French Society of Cultivators, keen to establish whether an unbiased palate would eat anything, decided, according to The Food Journal (1871), to experiment on cockchafer larvae. Steeped live in vinegar for twenty-four hours, they were then dipped in a light batter made of egg, milk, and flour, and fried until golden brown. Served hot and crisp, at the Society’s banquet held at the Café Corazza in the Palais Royal in Paris, “two were placed on each plate, and it is boastfully recorded that those who ate one ate the other. But more; there were eighty guests and 200 worms, so perhaps some might have had three”.

Approximately thirty adult cockchafers, with their legs and wings removed, fried in butter and then cooked in a chicken or veal broth, made a single serving of a soup, said to taste like crab. Strained and eaten as a bouillon, it was served with slices of veal liver or dove breasts and croutons. 

Instead of eating adult cockchafers, children have for over two millennia used them as a seasonal toy. A long piece of thread was tied to one of its legs, which the child held while the beetle was thrown into the air, making it into a sort of kite. As the cockchafer tried to escape, its flight pattern made a pleasing spiral shape.

Cockchafer populations plummeted in the mid-20th century thanks to the industrial scale usage of agricultural pesticides, but since restrictions were imposed, numbers are slowly recovering. The cockchafer, with its loud buzzing and that eerie thud on the window, is once more becoming feature of our late Spring evening soundscape.

Lost Word Of The Day (40)

One of my (many) bugbears and enough to make me want to throw the TV controller at the secreen is the invasion of multiple into the English English language, when several or a more specific number would easily do. It is sloppiness, taking the easy way out when a more precise enumeration would give more sense to whatever is being described.

Of course, it does require there to be precise descriptors for each number. Perhaps it is time to revive words such as decuple, meaning groups of ten, or sedecuple, used in the 18th century to describe sixteen or sixteenfold. And don’t get me started on the use of the preposition “of” after myriad.

Lost Word Of The Day (39)

With between ten and twelve per cent of the world’s population being left-handed, it is appropriate that they should have their own International Day. August 13th, since you have asked. Left-handedness has long been associated in this right-hand dominated world with awkwardness, clumsiness, and misfortune.

Scaevity, a noun from the 17th century, brought these prejudices together into one word. Meaning not only left-handed but also unlucky. It was derived from the Latin adjective, scaevus, which had the same connotations. Unluckily for scaevity, it has long fallen out of use.