Tag Archives: Bleak House

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Two

Chichester Rents, WC2

I am rarely impressed by modern architecture, but I was walking northwards up Chancery Lane, on the left-hand side just beyond Carey Street, I came across a glass and steel structure which I can only describe as an overbridge, linking two buildings across an alleyway. Each storey of this steel and glass construction is angled but at a different angle from the storey below or above, making for an interesting and striking feature, as well as providing additional space. There is a thoroughfare below, presumably less airier than it once was, with an intriguing name, Chichester Rents. What was that all about?

In mediaeval times Bishops were in the habit of acquiring land in the City of London for their headquarters when they, and their considerable retinue, were up in the metropolis on official business. In around 1226 the then Bishop of Chichester, Ralph de Neville, acquired some land in the Chancery Lane area for his London residence. What was unusual about the plot was that it was dissected by Chancery Lane, the mansion being built on the west side and a garden planted on the eastern side, the area now occupied in part by Chichester Rents.   

By 1422, though, the Bishops of Chichester had got fed up with their gaff and rented it out to apprentices of Common Law at nearby Lincoln’s Inn. The name of this alley is presumed to derive from the fact that it was rented out by the Bishopric of Chichester. Their lordships occupied a number of residences in the City of London and Westminster, including a house in Tothill Street (1508) and one at what is now known as the parish od St Andrew by the Wardrobe, near St Paul’s (1533).

Save for the name, nothing remains of the mansion or the gardens and we can only speculate as to their fate. The 16th century saw the area around Chancery Lane transformed with many more buildings being constructed and, perhaps, the land was redeveloped. When the alley that bears the name of Chichester Rents was developed is also shrouded in mystery. It does appear, though, in outline, but not named, in John Ogilby and William Morgan’s invaluable large-scale map (100 feet per inch) of the City as Rebuilt by 1676, produced that year.

The Chancery Lane underwent three major redevelopments, in the 18th century, towards the latter part of the 19th century and in the 1980s. At least the last redevelopment had the good sense to retain a few of the facades of the Victorian building phase and with a bit of imagination we can get a sense of what it may have looked like at the time.

At either side of the entrance to Chichester Rents stood two pubs. On the southern end stood The Old Ship Tavern and Chop House, which Charles Dickens took as his model for the Sol’s Arms in his novel, Bleak House. Sadly, it is now a Pret a Manger sandwich bar and coffee shop. The building at the northern end looks more like a pub, it once was The Three Tuns, shouting its final last orders in 1987, and is now, too, a coffee shop.

These days the alley is rather anonymous but its name reveals a fascinating facet of London’s history and its crown a fine of modern architecture at its best.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Three

Ali Ahmed’s Treasures of the Desert

The development of trade and the expansion of the British Empire meant that the world was a smaller place in Victorian times. As a consequence there was a certain mystique about things oriental and this gave the practitioner of the art of quackery a fertile source to tap into. One such was the curious tale of Ali Ahmed and his cough pills.

Ahmed was said to be of Persian origin but had to flee to Aleppo where he flourished “between the years of the Herah 420 to 488.” There he discovered many wonderful secrets which he passed on to his family on his death bed. They were discovered by “an excellent and philanthropic Englishman” who (natch) considered it his duty to make them available to the folks at home. And so, within the fourteenth instalment of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House containing chapters 43 to 46 was to be found an eight page advertising supplement extolling the virtues of Ahmed’s cough pills.

The advertising copy gave a bit of local colour by way of background, claiming that the pills were so famous in Aleppo that anyone running furiously was said to have “ran as though he were running for the celebrated cough pills.” The supplement was decorated with swirls and squiggles, perhaps to mimic Arabic calligraphy, and featured a couplet which roughly translated read, “Men of all ages, four score years or nigh/ run to the mart old Ali Ahmed’s Pills to buy.” Then there were testimonials, from a man in Damascus and another in Bangkok who vouched that a course of Ahmed’s pills was enough to cure the cough that had plagued Prince Choo Fan of Siam whereas all other medicaments had failed. There was even a specially carved bust of Ahmed on display at the depot in St Bride’s Avenue, off London’s Fleet Street, where the pills could be procured in boxes of varying sizes with prices ranging from thirteen and a half old pennies to 10 shillings and sixpence.

The advert went on to warn against the noxious compounds developed by the European medical profession. Instead of strychnine and morphine, Ahmed’s drugs were “simple and pure; the mountainside furnishes him with herbs and roots and the plains are bountiful in bulbs.” The drugs were described as “the kindest gifts of nature to suffering humanity.” What not to like?

In addition to the Pectoral Antiphthisis Pill which was designed to fight off colds, coughs and consumption, there were two other remedies available from the Ahmed range. The Sphairopeptic Pill was designed to deal with liver and digestive complaints whilst the Antiseptic Malagma was a type of plaster to be used on ulcers and wounds and to deal with gangrene.

So what was in them and did they work? The Pectoral Pills, according to Cooley’s Cyclopaedia, contained myrrh, squills (which can be toxic in large doses but acts as an expectorant), ipecacuanha (another expectorant), white soft soap, aniseed oil and treacle whilst the Sphairopeptic Pills contained aloes, colocynth pulp, rhubarb, myrrh, scammony (yet another expectorant), ipecacuanha, cardamom seeds, soft soap, oil of juniper and treacle. The presence of the Central American ipecacuanha seems to give the lie to the claim that these were Ahmed’s original recipes. The Malagma consisted of a calico strip smeared with a mix of lead plaster, a sort of thickened turpentine, salad oil and beeswax.

As to efficacy, the expectorants may have helped but Punch suggested at the time that it was only by following the lifestyle adopted by Ahmed that they may have induced them to work. So probably not, then.