Category: London

County Hall – once London’s government, now hotels, art and fish

By , April 6, 2010 2:44 am

London’s Local Government

The original plans for London County Hall, from 1909

The original plans for London County Hall, from 1909

Until the late 19th century, “London” was just the “square mile”, or what is now known as “the City”, the area within the Roman and medieval walls.

The rest of what is now Greater London was the City of Westminster, part of other counties, such as Kent, Middlesex and Essex, or  local parishes and boroughs (such as Southwark).

In 1889, the London County Council (LCC) was formed, covering what is now thought of as Inner London (which excludes the City of London itself, independence is maintained there).

In 1965, the body expanded to cover the City’s growth since Victorian times, and was re-named the Greater London Council (GLC).

From 1965 to 1986, the GLC ran many parts of London’s public sphere, co-operating with the local councils.

The LCC's first home, formerly the Metropolitan Board of Works

The LCC's first home, formerly the Metropolitan Board of Works

From 1986 to 2000, London was the only major city in the world not to have its own governing body, instead the city was run by the many local councils which make up the urban area – this caused many problems over matters which affected the whole city, such as management of the river.

The LCC and GLC operated from County Hall, a grand building on the south bank of the River Thames, nearly opposite the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

The site of London County Hall

The land was originally part of St. Mary’s Lambeth, and was called Peddler’s Acre after the varying myths over a peddler who had owned the land and bequeathed it to the church.

From its foundation, the LCC operated from Spring Gardens, a building erected for and used by the Metropolitan Board of Works, whose functions (among others) the LCC inherited when it was set up.

Land was reclaimed from the Thames for the front of the building and the embankment

Land was reclaimed from the Thames for the front of the building and the embankment

The large increase in duties conferred on the LCC by the Local Government Act meant the body soon ran out of room, and looked to buy the land just east of Westminster Bridge, to build its own County Hall.

The London County Council bought the land to built its large new home on, and constructions started in the Edwardian era, before the First World War. They paid £617,032 for the land, in 1904.

The building was mostly finished by 1922, with extra bits added here and there until the late 1950s.

While the foundations were being dug for the Hall a number of interesting Roman artefacts were found, including part of a wall and a Roman boat, which were dug up and transferred to the Museum of London.

London County Hall’s architecture

King George V and Queen Mary opening County Hall in 1922

King George V and Queen Mary opening County Hall in 1922

The design of the new building was the subject of a public competition. The winner, out of 51 applicants, was Ralph Knott. The Hall itself is a grand, enormous building.

It’s built with a huge semi-circle in the centre, and two wings extending out along the river.

The building is built mainly from grey stone, with columns along the front and a green, seemingly leaded, tower or spire above the centre and green leading along the windows where the walls meet the roof.

The main stone used was Portland Stone – a grey-white limestone from Dorset which was a common choice for public buildings in London. St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Buckingham Place, for example, are all built of Portland Stone.

Now – no politicians, but hotels, sharks, and a museum or two

County Hall during the Second World War

County Hall during the Second World War

The Hall is no longer a local government building – it contains two hotels, one pricey and a cheaper option, and some flats, a gym, a couple of restaurants, and tourist attractions.

The London Aquarium is here – this is a good place to take young children fed up with the round of old churches, national buildings and Old Masters!

The variety of sea life here is amazing – with over a million litres of water in the various tanks, this is one of the largest aquaria in Europe. There’s a huge shark tank, and a recreation of a coral reef which is astonishing in its complexity.

The tanks are positioned so that the visitor can walk underneath, then next to, and then above the same tanks, after using stairs, corridors and lifts. The London Aquarium’s website can be found here.

London County Hall, seen from the north bank of the River Thames, by Westminster Bridge

London County Hall, seen from the north bank of the River Thames, by Westminster Bridge

Also in County Hall is the fascinating London Film Museum. This has a mixutre of regular exhibitions and temporary displays, and is well worth a look – the museum’s website is here.

The London Eye is next to County Hall, and has its ground-level offices in County Hall, on the east side of the building.

The Eye has 32 capsules (representing the 32 London boroughs). It’s a beautiful and modern addition to the River Thames’ sky line. Click here for London Eye tickets

The nearest tubes are Waterloo and Westminster.

London County Hall, seen from the River Thames, to the north of the main building

London County Hall, seen from the River Thames

The Frost Fairs: the frozen River Thames in London

By , January 10, 2010 3:43 am

The Frozen Thames in London – an Introduction

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

Between 1400 AD and 1814, the last time it happened, the River Thames in London froze over 26 times. And when it froze solidly, Londoners made the most of it, and the “Frost Fairs” developed.

The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold.

It was also the time known as the “Little Ice Age”, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800 or so.

The huge, medieval bridge, with houses and shops above the numerous archways, is shown in the background of the woodcut to the right of this text, depicted during the Frost Fair of 1683.

The text accompanying the woodcut says:
An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON  During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd

The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower.

The Frozen Thames in the 16th century

The Thames froze over several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall, next to Westminster, to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. Greenwich was one of Henry’s favourite palaces; he married there more than once, and his daughter Elizabeth I was born there later in 1536.

In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, and boys and men played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:

On the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.

On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.

The development of Frost Fairs into full-blown parties

The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608.  It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair  in 1683/1684

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair in 1683/1684

The “Long Freeze” or “Great Freeze” of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began 6 weeks before Christmas, and lasted into February.

Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river.

A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and “chair-pushing” events were also set up.

A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:

A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.

John Evelyn, a diarist, said that:

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water

The mug shown in the picture to the right of this text is tiny, less than 2.5 inches high. Engraved on the base are the words, “Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4″.

It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington.

It is astonishing that something so small and delicate lasted to be put in a museum!

The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair.

Not only rivers, but huge chunks of the North Sea, froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. There is a fascinating article from the New Scientist about this winter, called 1709: The year Europe froze.

A London paper said:

The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.

On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.

The last River Thames Frost Fair

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814.

The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid – an elephant was led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice.

Hoardes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week.

Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:

Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.

The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.

Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.

Since 1814

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

There has, of course, been ice on the River Thames since 1814 – what has not happened since then is the absolute freezing of the water, thick enough to allow lots of activity to take place on the ice.

The photograph to the right of this text shows ice in 1895, with the newly-constructed Tower Bridge in the background.

It looks pretty uneven, and not much fun to walk on!

Speakers’ Corner and Protests in Hyde Park, London

By , December 15, 2009 4:56 am


Map of Hyde Park, showing Speakers' Corner at the north-east corner (top right)

Map of Hyde Park, showing Speakers' Corner at the north-east corner (top right)

Hyde Park is one of the glorious Royal Parks in London.

Together with its neighbouring parks, Kensington Gardens and St. James’ Park, Hyde Park’s 350 acres provide greenery, sports facilities, plants, trees, flowers, birds and space for Londoners and visitors to London.

As well as tennis, golf putting, cycling and skating, there are also boats and rowing boats on the Serpentine.

Hyde Park is also a traditional site of free speech, political protests, and marches, and has been for centuries.

If a major political movement existed in the last 300 years, it held rallies or marches and made speeches in and around Hyde Park.

This post is about those marches and protests, and about “Speakers’ Corner”, at the edge of the park.

Speakers’ Corner

 Hyde Park corner in 1842

Hyde Park corner in 1842

Speakers’ Corner is centred on the area at the far north-east of Hyde Park, near Marble Arch.

It is a place where anyone can stand up on his hind legs and talk about whatever he pleases, providing it does not incite violence, or encourage terrorism/

At any time on a weekend or public holiday, there are several speakers at Speakers’ Corner.

At pretty much any time when it is light, there is likely to be someone giving forth his (and it is usually men, rather than women) views on whatever it is he is exercised by.

Karl Marx, Lenin, George Orwell, and William Morris all spoke frequently at Speakers’ Corner.

People turn up and talk about all sorts of things, although there are also people who attend regularly to heckle.

The Chartists Movement and Hyde Park

A cartoon from Punch about the Chartist demonstration, in which a special constable says, “Now mind, you know – if I kill you, it’s nothing; but if you kill me, by jingo it’s murder”

A cartoon from Punch about the Chartist demonstration, in which a special constable says, “Now mind, you know – if I kill you, it’s nothing; but if you kill me, by jingo it’s murder”

The Chartist Movement did a lot of protesting in Hyde Park.

Chartism was a political movement between 1837 and 1850, and the six main aims of the movement as set out in 1838 were that:

  • (all men over 21 should be able to vote;
  • electoral districts should be the same size in terms of number of people;
  • all voting should be by secret ballot;
  • there should be no need for a person to own property in order to be elected to Parliament;
  • Members of Parliament should be paid so that people other than the independently wealthy could become MPs;
  • Parliament should hold annual elections.

Although derided and disliked by the powers at the time, the Chartist’s aims have all been achieved apart from annual elections.

The Chartist movement used Hyde Park as a point of assembly for many protests on behalf of their campaign.

Riot in Hyde Park, 1855

There was a riot in 1855 when Parliament introduced the Sunday Trading Bill.

This made it unlawful for most goods to be bought or sold on a Sunday, other than fresh food.

It tended to irritate people who worked the other six days of the week and wanted to do their necessary shopping on Sunday.

Karl Marx decided these riots were the beginning of the English Proletariat Revolution; in which he was entirely wrong.

The Reform League and the Hyde Park Railing Affair

Danny Lambert from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park

Danny Lambert from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park

The Reform League was established in 1865, and wanted universal male suffrage and secret ballots for every vote.

There was a huge meeting of supporters of the Reform League in Hyde Park on 23 July 1866.

The Home Secretary declared it to be an illegal meeting and issued a Notice, but the Reform League pressed ahead regardless. The procession started from the Reform League’s headquarters in Adelphi Terrace, and went up Regent Street.

When the group arrived at Hyde Park, the Marble Arch entrance, 1,500 police constables guarded the Park’s gates. The gates were chained and entry to Hyde Park was refused.

Determined to enter the Park, several of the protesters pushed the railings around the gate, and the railings fell in. Protesters launched themselves into Hyde Park despite the efforts of the police to prevent them from doing so.

Two other parts of the demonstration broke into the Park at the same time, one from Knightsbridge, and one from Park Lane.

As well as the protesters themselves, a lot of people who had been standing and watching the protest decided that the closing of Hyde Park was unreasonable and attempted to join in the storming. An estimated 200,000 people managed to get into the Hyde Park.

The police called for army support, and the Horse Guard Blues arrived. The soldiers did not intervene despite the police being stoned by the group.

The meeting was held in Hyde Park as planned, and another meeting was planned for the next evening in Trafalgar Square. The meeting ended peacefully as did the following evening’s meeting in Trafalgar Square.

The “Hyde Park Railings Affair” was reported widely in the press and increased support for the Reform League immensely. Generally, the Reform League was a middle class movement, and violence was strongly discouraged.

The Reform League held another demonstration the following year, on 6th May 1867. The government banned the meeting once again, saying it was illegal, but backed down when the Reform League continued.

The Reform League’s effort culminated in the passing of the Reform Act 1867 which extended the franchise, but did not make voting universal even for the male population.

Under the Parks’ Regulation Act 1872, the granting or denying of permission to hold public protests or meetings was delegated to the Royal Parks Authority.

Speakers’ Corner is the traditional site for such speeches.

Modern protests and marches in Hyde Park

The Countryside Alliance held a big march through London on 1st March 1998, the Countryside March, in which 285,000 people passed through Hyde Park.

This was followed by a Countryside March, the “Liberty and Livelihood March“, on 22nd September 2002, when 408,000 people marched through London including Hyde Park, the largest civil liberties march in modern history.

There was a massive demonstration in 2003 against the war on Iraq, which the Park authorities tried to prevent. They backed down.

The Countryside Alliance, who organised the largest march and protest in modern British history, has a website which can be found here.

Historical fiction: Matthew Shardlake and the dark side of Tudor England

By , December 13, 2009 4:42 am

The good, the bad, and the ugly in historical novels

There is a lot of bad historical fiction around. A good percentage of it is just sex in funny clothes and people saying “forsooth!”, “divers” and “God’s blood”, still in funny clothes.

But good historical fiction is not only an interesting read, it evokes a feel of the time and place, and the undercurrents and emotions of a different time.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, but a good historical novel can be an interesting guide book. I enjoy reading good examples of the genre, mostly those set in England.

King Henry VIII, in about 1540

King Henry VIII, in about 1540

This post is a review of one series of books I can highly recommend – C J Sansom’s 4-book (so far) look at Henry VIII’s London, through the eyes of a lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court still around today.

The series as a whole

I have really enjoyed these books, and bought them as presents for various family members and friends, as well as reading them myself.

They are not only tightly plotted and well characterised, they really evoke a sense of time and place; Tudor London comes to life in all its religious upheaval, poverty, smell and action.

Our hero

The central character of the books is Matthew Shardlake. He is a barrister, who lives in Chancery Lane, and has chambers in Lincoln’s Inn.

He is originally a rural man, from Hertfordshire, an only child, whose mother died when he was young.

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, King Henry VIII's chief minister in the 1530s

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, King Henry VIII's chief minister in the 1530s

He has a hunchback, which alienates him in many ways from a society that sees such physical deformity as bringing bad luck to others.

Matthew was, in his younger days, a keen religious reformer, what we would now call a Protestant.

He’s certainly not perfect – inclined to be melancholy and perhaps over-analytical, but he is a very interesting and credible character.


The first book is set in 1537, 4 years after Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, and the future Elizabeth I was born, and the year after the execution of Anne Boleyn and Henry’s re-marriage to Jane Seymour.

The Reformation was in full swing in the 1530s. By the time this book starts, all the smaller monasteries had been dissolved, and the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, had his sights set on the larger, richer, and more powerful monasteries.

Matthew Shardlake is therefore instructed by Cromwell to visit the monastery of Scarnsea, on the south coast (a fictional town and monastic establishment, clearly near Rye and Winchelsea, and sharing much of the characteristics of the Cinque Ports in general). The previous Royal Commissioner has been murdered, and Matthew’s job is to solve the murder and procure the voluntary surrender of Scarnsea’s monastery to the Crown.

The book is set mostly in the monastery, in the depths of a cold winter.

Dark Fire

Anne of Cleves, who became King Henry VIII's fourth wife in 1540

Anne of Cleves, who became King Henry VIII's fourth wife in 1540

The second book is set 3 years later, in 1540. Thomas Cromwell is at risk of falling from power, after arranging the King’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves. He has been told that dark fire, also known as Greek fire, has been discovered and is desperate to procure this long-lost weapon for Henry VIII.

Cromwell sets Matthew Shardlake on the trail of the dark fire, in return for protecting Matthew’s hapless client, Elizabeth, accused of murdering her young cousin.

For more about the real ancient weapon of Greek Fire, see this article. There is a detailed review of the book in the Guardian, here.


This, the third in the series, is set partly in London, and mostly in York, on the occasion of Henry VIII’s Progress with his new, fifth wife, Catherine Howard. In 1541, following rebellions based in the north of England, Henry went on the grandest Progress of his reign, visiting all sorts of towns, cities, and ports across the country.

Matthew Shardlake is given a post on the Progress, and gets to see his (increasingly grumpy and malevolent) King, and also a secret mission from Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who wants him to keep an eye on an important state prisoner, Edward Broderick.

The dark, ever more dangerous environment of Henry VIII’s later years is very well portrayed in this, as is the King himself.


In the fourth, and so far last, of the series, Matthew Shardlake and Jack Barak, his assistant, are investigating the case of a boy imprisoned in Bedlam (the Royal Bethlehem hospital) for the insane. The boy is suffering from religious visions and anxieties. There is also a serial killer on the loose, getting more violent and aggressive as he kills more often. Shardlake is once again working for the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, whose own position looks shaky as Henry VIII pursues yet another wife.

For a review of Revelation from the Times, see here.

St. Stephen, Walbrook: Mayor of London’s Church, and home of the Samaritans

By , December 6, 2009 3:57 am

Sir Christopher Wren’s 17th century masterpiece, the small church of St. Stephen Walbrook, is the parish church for the Mayor of London. It’s an ancient site – before the mediaeval church there was a Saxon church on the site, which in turn had replaced a Temple of Mithras from the second century AD.

In more recent times, the Samaritans, an organisation offering support and help to those suffering from depression or at risk of suicide, was founded at St Stephen in 1953, as was the international arm, Befrienders Worldwide.

This post is about the four different religious buildings which have been built on this same site, the founding of the Samaritans charity in the Church, and finishes with pictures, taken yesterday, of the breathtakingly beautiful church built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London.

The Roman Temple of Mithras

A statue of Mithras slaying a bull. This sculpture is in the British Museum.

A statue of Mithras slaying a bull. This sculpture is in the British Museum.

During the 400-year Roman occupation, the Temple of Mithras was built on the banks of the Walbrook, a small stream then running through the centre of Londinium. (Like many other London rivers and streams, it now runs in a culvert underground – see this post on the River Fleet for information about London’s largest buried river).

The Mithraic Mysteries / Mysteries of Mithras / Mithraism was a Roman Cult. It had 7 levels of people in the cult, in a type of gnostic progression, and engaged in ritual slaughter of bulls, and ritual meals. Not much else is known about the cult, which was highly secretive, albeit wide-spread throughout the Roman Empire.

After the Fall of Rome, the stones from the Temple seem to have been taken away for other buildings, leaving only the foundations.

These were re-discovered during building work in the 1950s, and are preserved in the courtyard of a rather nasty modernist office block.

The Saxon Church

At some unknown time between the 7th and 10th centuries, a Christian church was built on the site of the Roman temple. This often happened, in order to “hallow” the sites of pagan temples. The Saxon church used the foundations of the Roman Mithras Temple. It is mentioned in records in the late 11 century, when it was given to a monastery.  What it looked like is a mystery.

The Mediaeval Church (15th century)

By the 15th century, the church was too small for the parish’s needs, and it was re-built on the east side of the Walbrook, now a road rather than a river. One of a staggering 100 churches in the City of London, also known as “the square mile”, the mediaeval church was built of flint, and had both a tower and a cloister.

Like much of the City, the Church burned in the Great Fire of London, in 1666.

Christopher Wren and the Rebuilding of the City of London

A portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, by Godfrey Kneller (1711)

A portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, by Godfrey Kneller (1711)

More than three-quarters of the City had been destroyed in the Great Fire. One of those charged with getting London back on its feet as soon as possible was Christopher Wren, the King’s Surveyor.

Wren designed and supervised more than 50 churches, among other buildings both in London and elsewhere. Under the Rebuilding Act 1670, he supervised a vast programme of building work.

St Stephen Walbrook was Wren’s local church – he lived on Walbrook, and was in the parish. The work on the church began in 1672. By 1679, the church was finished, apart from the steeple, built 12 years later.

The Architecture of St Stephen Walbrook

Sir John Sommerson described the church of St Stephen as “the pride of English architecture, and one of the few City churches in which the genius of Wren shines in full splendour”.  Nikolaus Pevsner thought it one of the ten most important buildings in England.

The building was, in effect a series of experiments for the ideas Wren had for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral. The dome was very unusual in English ecclesiastical architecture at the time.

As the building materials were lighter than those used in the much larger St Paul’s, the sense of light and space inside St Stephen Walbook is wonderful.

The location is an extremely hectic one – the Mansion House, the Bank of England, and the City of London Magistrates’ Court are all within sight from Walbrook. And yet, stepping inside the church, there is a simple oasis of calm and beauty.

Music at St Stephen Walbrook

The church is well-known for music recitals. In particular, it has organ recitals on Fridays, at lunch time. For a list of upcoming events, see here.

The Samaritans

This important and valuable charity was founded in 1953 by the then Vicar of St Stephen Walbrook, Chad Varah. He thought there wasn’t enough support for people undergoing a traumatic emotional time, and was particularly moved after burying a 14 year old girl who had thought that the onset of menstruation was a disease, and had killed herself. He wanted to set up what he called a  “999 for the suicidal” (999 being the UK’s emergency number).  What was needed, in Chad Varah’s view, was “a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone”. And so it came to pass.

The phone was set up in the Crypt of St Stephen Walbrook and this, the first telephone helpline in the UK, achieved a great deal of publicity in the press. Volunteers came forward to help man the phone.  The service grew – today, there are 201 branches and 17,000 trained volunteers in the UK and Ireland who answer phone calls, have drop-in centres, and receive emails and texts.  For more information about this important charity, see their website.  The Samaritans also run Befrienders Worldwide, an international service doing much the same work.

Photographs of St Stephen Walbrook today

Guy Fawkes – Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

By , November 5, 2009 11:59 pm

What’s Guy Fawkes’ Night AKA Bonfire Night AKA Fireworks Night all about?

The conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, from a contemporary drawing

The conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, from a contemporary drawing

If you are anywhere in the UK tonight, you are probably either at a Bonfire Night party, a Guy Fawkes’ Night bash, or hearing the cracks and bangs and seeing the stars out of the window from other people’s celebrations.

The gunpowder plot, the failure of which is commemorated every 5th November, was an audacious plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605.

It was the day of the State Opening of Parliament, and the plotters hoped to kill pretty much everyone involved in the government in one fell swoop – King James I, Members of Parliament, and the Lords Spiritual and Temporal (the House of Lords mob).

And now, 400 and more years later, it’s a big, annual event here, still. So this post will tell you all about the history of the gunpowder plot, and how its failure turned into the celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Night. The next post on this blog will be about the celebration of Bonfire Night to this very day.

Guy Fawkes' signature after torture

Guy Fawkes' signature after torture

As a poet wrote (in slightly doggerel form) at the time of the gunpowder plot:

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why  gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

The Gunpowder Plot

Led by Robert Catesby, a group of disgruntled Catholics, who had hoped the accession of James I would lead to greater religious toleration, and had been disappointed in their expectations, had a big idea.

They decided to blow up the government, kill the King at the same time, dispose of most of his family, kidnap his 9 year old daughter, Elizabeth, lead a country-wide rebellion based in the Midlands, and then put Elizabeth on the throne as Queen of England and Scotland.

Elizabeth of Bohemia, intended (by the gunpowder plotters) to be the next Queen of England

Elizabeth of Bohemia, intended (by the gunpowder plotters) to be the next Queen of England

Guy Fawkes was a Roman Catholic who had fought for the (Catholic) Spanish Empire for at least 10 years, known in Spain as Guido Fawkes. He had a lot of experience of blowing things up, and became the man in charge of the Gunpowder Plot attempt to blow up Parliament.

In May 1604, one of the plotters, Thomas Percy, rented rooms next to the House of Lords, intending to tunnel underneath the House and put gunpowder there. The plotters started their excavations, but a nasty outbreak of plague caused the State Opening of Parliament to be put back to 1605.

A cellar under the House of Lords became vacant, and Thomas Percy quickly grabbed the lease and rented it. Guy Fawkes then arranged for 36 barrels of gunpowder to be put in the cellar, covered with firewood (36 barrels of gunpowder blowing up in one go would cause a pretty impressive explosion, by all accounts).

By March 1605, the gunpowder was all in place, and the conspirators moved on to planning the rebellion.

How it all went wrong

As the State Opening drew closer, Guy Fawkes prepared to supervise the explosion, and the rest of the plotters made their way to the Midlands, to start the rebellion once Parliament had been blown to smithereens.

At least some of the plotters were worried about blowing up fellow-Catholics attending the event. At the end of October, an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle, a prominent Catholic, saying, retyre youre self into yowre contee whence yow maye expect the event in safti for … they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament (retire yourself into your county, where you may expect the event in safety, for… they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament).

Lord Monteagle, being a public-spirited sort of chap, brought the letter to the attention of  Robert Cecil, Secretary of State and Earl of Salisbury, who showed it to the King. A search of the Parliament was ordered, and in the early hours of the morning of the 5th November, D-Day, as it were, Thomas Knyvet arrested Guy Fawkes leaving the gunpowder cellar.

The aftermath, torture, and executions

The execution of Guy Fawkes, from a 17th century print. Showing all sorts of cheerful hanging, drawing and quartering

The execution of Guy Fawkes, from a 17th century print. Showing all sorts of cheerful hanging, drawing and quartering

Guy Fawkes gave a false name (Johnson) and was held in the Tower of London. He claimed he had been acting alone, and later under torture gave the names only of plotters already caught.

Torture was only allowed by Royal Warrant or by the order of the Star Chamber, but James I cheerfully gave his written orders for torture to be carried out, writing

“The gentler tortures are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur” (“and thus by steps extended to greater ones, in English”), “and so God speed your good work.”

The Midlands rebellion was attempted, but fizzled out.

The plotters were tried in Westminster Hall, part of the House of Parliament to this day, in a grand public event, on 27th January 1606.

With a certain judicial swiftness, the men were found guilty in the one-day trial, and executed on 30th January in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London (4 men) and the rest, including Fawkes, were hanged drawn and quarted in Westminster on 31st January.

Fawkes managed to evade the really nasty bits of his punishment by jumping as he was hanged, so he wasn’t still alive to have his entrails removed and be chopped into bits.

James I gave a speech to Parliament a few days after the discovery of the plot, in which he described its failure as a miracle, and explained how it had confirmed his belief in the Divine Right of Kings.

It was that belief of the Stuart Kings which lead to all sorts of trouble later in the century, most notably, the regicide of King Charles II and the establishment of the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

And this torture, trial and execution is generally and cheerfully celebrated yearly in England!

The River Fleet – London’s second tidal waterway

By , June 20, 2009 2:58 pm

London’s tidal river? Easy one, it’s the River Thames.

But the Thames isn’t the only one. The River Fleet, now mostly running underground, was a navigable, tidal river, which joins the Thames next to Blackfriars Bridge, and marks the historic boundary between the cities of London and Westminster.

The Fleet’s course isn’t a long one; it rises as  springs in Hampstead, a posh, hilly and leafy area of north London. After about half a mile, it goes underground, and is buried the rest of the way.

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury

Historically, pirates operated on the River Fleet, barges went up and down, watermills were powered by it, and sewage gases exploded.

Visitors to the Royal Courts of Justice or the Temple are likely to walk along Fleet Street, and the newspaper industry as a whole is still known as “Fleet Street”, although the papers mostly moved east out of central London towards Wapping and Canary Wharf in the 1980s.

This article is about the course, history and current state of the River Fleet.

The Course and Geography of the River Fleet

The River Fleet starts life as a  number of springs on Hampstead Heath, an impressive 800-acre area of common land north of central London.  There are two main sources, one on either side of Parliament Hill, both about 350 feet above sea level.

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet

The streams are dammed into a series of ponds, the Highgate Ponds and the Hampstead Ponds. Three are run as year-round swimming pools, one for men, one for women, and one mixed-sex (warning, it’s not that warm on Hampstead Heath in the winter….) The City of London Corporation runs the bathing ponds, and the relevant page on its website can be found here.

From Hampstead, the two streams run downhill, mostly underground in culverts and pipes, through Kentish Town and Camden, joining together south of Camden Town. There are memories of the Fleet River before it went underground, including Fleet Road and Fleet Primary School.

The River Fleet continues south, going under King’s Cross Station in a sewer / pipe, and southwards towards St. Pancras and Bloomsbury. A tributary of the Fleet enters from the west, having started life near Tottenham Court Road, and come past University College, London, and University College Hospital.

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

South of Camden, the first St. Pancras Church was built on the banks of the River Fleet in about 380 AD, and Old St. Pancras Church is still above the current course of the Fleet today.

The Fleet then wriggles its way south, west of Clerkenwell, and along the Farringdon Road.  Another tributary runs underground from near the Barbican, through Smithfield Market (meat and butchery) to join the Fleet at the south of Farringdon Road.

The Fleet’s river valley is quite deep here, a real descent from Snow Hill in the east and Holborn in the west. The Victorian Holborn Viaduct crosses the river valley.  At  the bottom of the valley, over the now-buried river, is the main road going south to Blackfriars.

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Fleet Street, originally a road from Westminster to the City of London via Aldwych, is just to the west of the Fleet, near the River Thames. Until the first bridge was built over the River Fleet here in about 1180 AD, the Fleet could be forded at the easterly end of Fleet Street.

The River Fleet emerges today, as it has done for centuries, near Blackfriars.

There is a great website featuring photographs from all along the River Fleet’s course (overground) which can be found here.

History of the River Fleet

The Roman River Fleet

In Roman times, the River Fleet marked the westerly edge of City of London, and was outside the city walls. It was a navigable, strongly-running river, and powerful enough to run a tidal mill on one of the two small islands on the east side of the Fleet estuary. For a detailed academic article on the archaeological remains of the Roman Fleet, see here.

The Anglo-Saxon River Fleet

In 900 AD, the estuary of the River Fleet, where it joined the River Thames, was approximately 100 yards wide, and shallow and marshy at the edges. It was possible to ford the Fleet here, with care, and at low tide only. The name “Fleet” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, fl?ot, meaning  “tidal inlet”.

The Medieval Fleet

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

As London grew after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD, the River Fleet became very useful for boats and barges.  During the reign of King John, the Knights Hospitaller and St. Batholomew’s Hospital shared a wharf on Fleet Lane, allowing goods and people to be ferried up the Fleet from the Thames.

Further up the Fleet, near Farringdon Road today, there are road names which recall the Fleet’s barges unloading coal from Newcastle, such as Newcastle Lane, Newcastle Close, and Old Seacoal Lane.

Stone for building Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was also ferried up the Fleet.

By the 12th century, people were already complaining that the River Fleet was smelly and polluted. Several tanneries were next to the Fleet, and discharging a nasty cocktail of offal, skin scraps and dog faeces into the river.  Butchers threw unwanted and rotten animal parts in the Fleet, and human sewage and other industry by-products joined them.

In the early 13th century, the Whitefriars (Camelites) who had their base next to the mouth of the Fleet, were complaining that the stench overpowered their incense, even during Mass when there was a lot of incense being burned.

Edward I was attacked by pirates who sailed up the River Fleet – the pirates came second in the fight which followed.

The River Fleet got ever nastier, and became a slum area over time.

The River Fleet in Tudor and Stuart times

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

In 1598, John Stow wrote in his Survey of London that there were five bridges over the Fleet, and said it was, “impassable for boats, by reason of the many encroachments thereon made, by the throwing of offal and other garbage by butchers, saucemen and others, and by reason of the many houses of office standing upon it” (A “house of office” was a toilet or lavatory, here emptying directly into the river).

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren turned the River Fleet into the wider, straighter New Canal, with docks on both side of the river; it was about 30 feet wide. But it stayed horribly smelly, contaminated still with rubbish and sewage, and was pretty unpopular.

Higher up the Fleet, a number of fashionable wells and spas were established, as the water here was clean and uncontaminated. The most popular were Clerk’s Well, Bagnigge Well, and St. Bride’s Well. Although the wells have long-gone, Clerkenwell and Brideswell are places in London to this day.

The Covering of the River Fleet

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

Unloved, smelly, and in the way, the Fleet started to be covered over.  In 1733, the part from Fleet Bridge to Holborn Bridge was covered over, and in 1739, the stretch from Holborn to Ludgate Circus was covered over, and the Fleet Market and the Mansion House built over it.

When the Regent’s Canal was constructed in 1810 – 1815, the Fleet was buried northwards, to Camden Town, and by 1880 the whole river, apart from the few hundred yards from the source springs, was underground in pipes, conduits and the New Canal bed.

In 1846, a build up of sewage and associated gasses caused a massive explosion, and the pipes near King’s Cross blew up, sending a tidal wave of sewage through the streets, demolishing buildings, flooding houses, and ramming a boat on the Thames, near the mouth of the Fleet, into Blackfriars Bridge.

The River Fleet today

Most of the Fleet remains underground. The mouth can be seen near Blackfriars Bridge, at low tide, and the streams and ponds are popular spots on Hampstead Heath.

The truly intrepid (I am not among their number) can, if the proper arrangements are made, explore the pipes and conduits underground through which the River Fleet now flows. An article about people doing just that, underground, can be found here.

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