Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Streets of Old Westminster: From Thorney Island to Parliament Square

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and walking northward along Millbank from Vauxhall Bridge towards Parliament Square, crosses an invisible line, somewhere between Millbank Toer (the tallest building along the route) and Thames House (the headquarters of the domestic security service, MI5), marking the southern edge of Thorney Island. Thorney island was an eyot or ait: an island formed by the deposition of sediments, often at the confluence of two rivers, in this case the Thames and the Tyburn, the latter flowing south from Hampstead through what is now Saint James's Park.

Thorney Island. Photo:

Bush Eyot, on the River Thames in Berkshire, gives an impression of what Thorney Island might have looked like before it was built upon. Photo: Nancy (licensed under CCA). 

There are records of a church having been built on the island as early as the Seventh Century AD, by Mellitus, Bishop of London, an Italian Benedictine who came to England as part of the mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great, under Saint Augustine, to Christianise the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square, and Westminster Abbey all stand on what was once Thorney Island, chosen by the later Anglo-Saxon Kings as the royal centre of London, some distance to the west (and, importantly, upstream) from the bustling (and frequently noisy and malodorous) commercial port and City.

Conjectural reconstruction of Thorney Island in the reign of King Henry VIII, with the Palace of Westminster (foreground), Westminster Hall (centre), Westminster Abbey (top), and Saint Margaret's Church (to the right of the abbey). H.J. Brewer, 1884 (image is in the Public Domain).

Almost opposite the Sovereign's Entrance to the House of Lords is the Jewel Tower, built in the Fourteenth Century, on the orders of King Edward III. As its name suggests, it was intended to house valuable items of Royal regalia. Its foundations, as revealed by archaeologists, testify to its original position on the shores of a tidal islet, prone to flooding.

The Jewel Tower. Photo: lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

The foundations of the Jewel Tower, with oak sleepers resting on elm piles. Photo: Tracey and Doug (licensed under CCA).

The Palace of Westminster that we see today was built by the Nineteenth Century architects, Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, following a disastrous fire in 1834. The first palace on the site, however, was built by King Edward the Confessor, in the Eleventh Century, its position on an island presumably providing an element of security. Among the earliest elements to survive is Westminster Hall, built in 1097, and then the largest hall in Europe. Its wooden roof was commissioned by King Richard II, in 1393, from the Royal Carpenter, Hugh Herland. The hall, which saw (among many others) the trials of Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and King Charles I; together with other parts of the Parliamentary Estate, can be visited by the public when Parliament is in Recess.

Parliament Square from the London Eye, showing the Elizabeth Tower of the Palace of Westminster (left), Saint Margaret's Church (centre left), and Westminster Abbey (centre). Photo: Tebbetts (image is in the Public Domain).

Westminster Hall in 1808, by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Pugin (image is in the Public Domain).

Penny of King Edward the Confessor. Photo: Rasiel Suarez (licensed under CCA). 

Parliament Square, in its current form, was laid out in 1868. Around it are statues of prominent statesmen (Churchill, Palmerston, Disraeli, Sir George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi), and, the most recent addition, the Womens' Suffrage campaigner, Millicent Fawcett.

Parliament Square. Photo: wjh31 (image is in the Public Domain).

Statue of Millicent Fawcett, Parliament Square. Photo: Garry Knight (licensed under CCA).

On the west side of Parliament Square is the Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall, built between 1912 and 1913; and, on the south side, Saint Margaret's Church (established in the Twelfth Century but rebuilt in the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Centuries); and Westminster Abbey, the burial place of English monarchs throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, and the scene of coronations from the time of William the Conqueror down to the present day.

At the same time as he was building the first Royal Palace on Thorney Island, King Edward the Confessor re-modeled the old Benedictine monastery, established by Bishop Mellitus, into a Royal Church, in which he, and his wife, Edith, would ultimately be buried. The number of monks increased dramatically over the following decades, with the "Abbey of Saint Peter" (its official title throughout the Middle Ages) becoming one of the great landowners of England by the time of the Domesday survey of 1087. Much of the City of Westminster is built on land that once belonged to the monks, supplying them with wool and leather for their clothing; meat, cheese, fruit, and vegetables to eat; and milk and ale to drink (the abbey had, by this stage, been taken within the pan-European Cluniac family, whose monks, often with close aristocratic and royal connections, ate and drank very well).

The body of King Edward the Confessor being carried to the Abbey of Saint Peter, from the Bayeux Tapestry (image is in the Public Domain).

Most of the abbey that we see today dates from the rebuilding that began under King Henry III, in 1245, although each successive generation, including our own, has made its mark on the fabric of the building.

The Figures of Twentieth Century Martyrs, above the West Door of Westminster Abbey. Photo: Dnalor_01 (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Streets of Old Westminster: Millbank - the North Bank of the Thames

A visitor to London, having explored the Borough of Lambeth, and arrived back at Vauxhall Bridge, can cross the bridge into the western end of the City of Westminster. The street that now bears the name of Millbank (after a Medieval tidal mill, owned by the Benedictine monks of Saint Peter's, otherwise known as Westminster Abbey) follows the northern (or "Middlesex") bank of the River Thames, between Chelsea and the Houses of Parliament. The modern view, as one walks across the bridge, is dominated by the Neoclassical facade of the Tate Britain art gallery.

Tate Britain. Photo: Adrian Pingstone (image is in the Public Domain). 

Those who have been following these perambulations from the outset may have realised, by now, that we are traveling around Greater London somewhat in the manner of Henri Matisse's "Snail" (a work, incidentally, that I first saw, as a teenager, in this gallery, but which now hangs in the Tate Modern), having visited the City of London, crossed the river into Southwark and Lambeth, and now crossing it once again to visit Westminster.

"Snail," by Henri Matisse, 1953, Tate Modern (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols).

We have already encountered the sugar magnate, Henry Tate, at his one-time home in Streatham, and it was he who gave his name to the art gallery, having paid for its construction. The gallery opened to the public in 1897, an is now linked by a shuttle-boat service to its sister-gallery at Bankside, a great way to see the waterfronts of the Thames in the boroughs that we have been exploring. In Atterbury Street, on the side of the gallery, can be seen the scars of German bombing raids in 1940 and 1941.

Bomb damage on the wall of Tate Britain. Photo: (licensed under GNU).

Both the gallery, and the adjacent Chelsea College of Art and Design (previously the headquarters of the Royal Army Medical Corps) were built on the site of a earlier prison. In fact, there had been a prison camp in the marshes here since the time of the Battle of Worcester (1651), with defeated Royalists being held here by Parliamentary forces prior to being sent for hard labour in Britain's overseas colonies. By the time that Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diary, this had been abandoned, and he records "Tothill Fields" as "a low, marshy locality," suitable for shooting snipe (not a bird that one commonly sees in the area today).

Chelsea College of Art and Design, built in 1907 as the headquarters of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Photo: Entangle (licensed under CCA).

Ordnance Survey Map of 1912 (image is in the Public Domain).

The more famous Millbank Prison, which functioned from 1816 to 1890, and which was demolished prior to the construction of the gallery and college, was closely associated with the transportation of convicts to Australia, since it was here that most of the prisoners were held before being loaded into barges and taken downstream to the ships that would carry them away. Although much of the literature (both fictional and non-fictional) inspired by these journeys have emphasised the hardships endured by the convicts (which were certainly real enough), it was intended, at least in part, as a more humane alternative to the gallows.

"Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking their leave of their lovers, who are going to Botany Bay," by Robert Sayer, 1792. National Library of Australia (image is in the Public Domain).

The prison itself was originally conceived by the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1747-1832), as part of a utopian scheme for the management, and ultimate reform, of offenders, but his panopticon design (intended to ensure surveillance of prisoners at all times, at minimum expense) proved to be impractical, and was never actually built. Instead, the prison became a byword for squalor and contagion, and few voices were raised to lament its demolition.

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (image is in the Public Domain).

Bentham's "Panopticon" design, 1791 (image is in the Public Domain).

Plan of Millbank Prison, as actually built, G.P. Holford, 1828 (image is in the Public Domain).

Millbank Prison, 1829, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (image is in the Public Domain).

The burial ground at Millbank Prison, 1862 (image is in the Public Domain).

Today, the path that follows the north bank of the Thames, as we walk towards Parliament Square, is pleasantly shaded by plane trees on the river-side; with the offices of government departments and political parties on the other side of the road; and little evidence remaining of those who passed this way en route for the most uncertain of futures.

Millbank Tower from Vauxhall. Photo: Iridescenti (licensed under GNU).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 10 - "A Journal of the Plague Year," by Daniel Defoe.

In 1663, news first reached London of a plague that had been devastating the city of Amsterdam. The extensive trade links between England (especially London) and the Netherlands (most significantly Amsterdam) made it more or less inevitable that the sickness would, in time, make its way to these shores. The plague (both bubonic and pneumonic) was no stranger to Londoners: there had been periodic outbreaks over a period of more than three centuries, the most serious, by far, being the "Black Death" of 1347-8, which wiped out somewhere between a third and a half of the population of England, and set the ground for fundamental social and economic change.

The Great Plague of London, 1665 (image is in the Public Domain).

The most recent strain of the plague reached London in the autumn and winter of 1664-5, and raged through the summer of the latter year. Many of the City's wealthier citizens fled into the countryside; as did King Charles II and his court, settling first in Salisbury, and later in Oxford. There was only a limited window of time in which such escape was possible: as soon as the news of the plague spread to the rural districts, the people of the countryside became unwilling to accommodate their urban neighbours, or even allow them to pass. 

The Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Lawrence, and most of the Aldermen, had, in any case, opted to remain, and to oversee the City's defences against the unseen killer. Between the, they saw to it that the dead were buried; that regular "Bills of Mortality" were published; and that those known to be suffering from the disease were quarantined in their homes to prevent the spread of contagion.

Bill of Mortality (image is in the Public Domain).

Bill of Mortality (image is in the Public Domain).

A Plague Doctor (image is in the Public Domain): the "beak" held aromatic plants, believed to stave off contagion. Seventeenth Century doctors could, in fact, do nothing to help patients suffering from the plague, although they could, and did, record the progress of the disease in such a way as to improve the understanding of the process of infection.  

Ultimately, the disease would kill around 100,000 people (roughly a quarter of London's population), and it would disappear almost as suddenly as it had fallen upon the City. The role of the following year's Great Fire of London in destroying what remained of the disease has probably been over-stated: it seems, rather, that he disease had simply completed its life-cycle. The over-land trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world with the Far East, and along which the plague seems originally to have spread into Europe, were, by this time, in decline, replaced by the maritime routes around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean, that were being opened up by Portuguese and Dutch navigators.

Daniel Defoe's book, A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, has often been seen as a work of non-fiction reportage. It is written in the first person, and appears to be a detailed eyewitness account, but can hardly be so, since Defoe had been just five years old in 1665. The account is credited to "H.F." (possibly Defoe's Uncle, Henry Foe, on whose reminiscences the author may have relied). Although Defoe has sometimes been cited as the first English novelist (John Bunyan and Aphra Behn arguably have stronger claims), those making this suggestion have generally had in mind Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Recently however, A Journal of the Plague Year has itself been reconsidered as a novel (and, indeed, a historical novel, since it was written fifty-seven years after the events that it describes took place. Writers of Defoe's generation had yet to agree on a clear definition of what a novel actually was, but this account, though clearly rooted in detailed empirical research, has a number of the features that we might recognise as typical of the novel, including characters (though not many of them), and dialogue (though not very much of it). As such, it gives a fascinating insight, not only into London life during the Great Plague, but also into the embryology of the historical novel in English.

Daniel Defoe, possibly after Sir Godfrey Kneller, National Maritime Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods that were brought home from their Turkey fleet; others said that it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again."

London in 1665, by Wenceslas Hollar (image is in the Public Domain).

" ... now the weather set in hot, an from the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner, and the bills rose high; the articles of the fever, spotted fever, and teeth began to swell; for all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at he thoughts of it ...  I lived without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel Bars on the left hand or north side of the street; and as the distemper had not reached to that side of the city, our neighbourhood continued very easy. But at the other end of the town their consternation was very great: and the richer sort of people ... thronged out of town with their families and servants ... this was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, and ... it filed me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the city, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it."

"I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till he beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet ...

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 9 - "Nothing Like the Sun," by Anthony Burgess

The golden age of English theatre spanned the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. It was overwhelmingly a London phenomenon (although productions did tour, especially when the plague was raging in the City), and is not really matched in any of the other major cities of Europe, where the main cultural achievements of the late Renaissance were in the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. We have already looked at this in relation to Christopher Marlowe, but his career was cut short by murder, and his reputation, in modern times, has been eclipsed by that of his longer-lived contemporary, William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare, by John Taylor, 1610 (The Chandos Portrait). Image: National Portrait Gallery (Public Domain).

Unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare did not have the advantage of a university education (he might, perhaps, have taken a degree at Oxford, had his family not fallen upon hard times, the result of ill-advised business risks taken by his father). Shakespeare probably arrived in London some time between 1585 and 1592, and joined an acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who staged productions at The Theatre in Shoreditch. He soon began writing, as well as acting, attracting the jealousy of rival playwrights. Robert Greene (when did we last see a play of his performed?) wrote, in 1592, that " ... there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum is in his own conceit the only shake-scene in a country."

Coat of arms procured by Shakespeare for his father, 1596. Image: College of Heralds (Public Domain).

The Theatre had been built by James Burbage, the father of the actor, Richard, who played the leading roles in many of Shakespeare's plays, but the lease on the land expired in 1599, and the actors, assisted by a carpenter, dismantled the theatre, and transported the timber, beam by beam, across the Thames. Their new theatre, The Globe, opened in 1599, and it was here that several of Shakespeare's plays, including Julius Caesar and Henry V, were first performed.

The Globe in 1647, by Wenceslaus Hollar (image is in the Public Domain).

The reconstructed "Shakespeare's Globe," opened in 1997. Photo: ChrisO (licensed under GNU).

The original location of The Globe. Image: Old Moonraker (licensed under CCA).

Conjectural reconstruction of The Globe, by Walter Hodges (1958). Image: Folger Shakespeare Library (licensed under CCA). 

Shakespeare's true home was always in Stratford-upon-Avon (in London he lived in rented rooms), and he retired there in 1613, dying three years later. In 1642 the theatres, including The Globe, were closed by Parliamentary decree, marking the end of the London theatre's golden age.

Anthony Burgess's novel, Nothing Like the Sun, follows Shakespeare's perambulations between Stratford and London, and explores his personal and professional relationships, including his romantic entanglements with both women and men (of the private life of the historical Shakespeare we actually know very little, although there are good reasons for believing that he may have been, in modern terms, bisexual). The novel presents a vivid picture both of Shakespeare's (imagined) character, and of the London through which he walked.

Long View of London, by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647 (image is in the Public Domain). 

Panorama of London, by Claes Visscher, 1616. Image: Library of Congress (Public Domain).

"Far from the river now. North of the divers fair and large builded houses for merchants and suchlike. North even of the City Wall and the fair summer houses north of the wall. Good air in Shoreditch. The Theatre a finer playhouse than The Rose. Burbage as good a man of business any day as Henslowe and an old player too, though, from what I see, of no great skill. But now, his son promises, this Richard. He may yet go further than Alleyn. Is that Giles Alleyn from whom old Burbage got the land of Ned's kin? It may be so. In '76 it was. A lease of twenty-one years. A mere patch with rank grass and dog-turds, even a man's bones they say. A skull grinning up at the surveyors. And now a fair playhouse. Twenty-one years, let me see. To '98, which is but four more. Will this Alleyn renew? Were I he I would not. But it is the men more than the playhouse, sure. The Lord Chamberlain's Men."

"Let me take a breath, let me take a swig, for, my heart, she is coming. She is about to make her entrance. It was while he was walking off Bishopsgate - Houndsditch, Camomile Street, St Helen's Place, St Helen's Church - that he saw her. She stepped from her own coach outside a house near St Helen's, escorted by her unveiled maid. But, in the fresh fall wind, her veil lifted an instant; he saw. He saw a face the sun had blessed to gold ... They were rehearsing Romeo at the Theatre when, in a break or brief ale-intermission, he asked old James Burbage ... 'There be many tales touching her origins. Her own story is (or they say so) that she was brought back as an infant from the East Indies by Sir Francis Drake himself, in the Golden Hind that lies at Deptford now. It is said that both her father and mother were a sort of noble Moors of those parts and were killed by Drake's men in a fight they had there, then she was left all alone and weeping and so, in pity, was brought to England to be in a manner adopted.'"

Saint Helen's, Bishopsgate, where Shakespeare was, for a time, a parishioner. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU). 

Richard Burbage:

"They have relented: we may play again.
Gain, though - what gain? Only the Rose hath gained
With three new petals that to us be thorns.
Spencer and Shaa and pestilential Ben
Have navigated the rough Marshal's sea
And are three masts now for the Admiral."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Streatham - The Road South

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having visited Brixton, can take any one of several buses (159, 133, 333, 118) southwards to Streatham Hill. The railway station here opened in 1856, as part of the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway, the arrival of which made this area of south London more attractive to London's burgeoning population of commuters. Even before this, however, horse-drawn omnibuses had opened up Streatham to residential development; and, going back to the Eighteenth Century, it was a place to which Londoners came to "take the waters" from local springs; and where the wealthy built their mansions, away from the smoke and noise of the City, yet close enough to commute on horseback, or by carriage.

The current A23 (Streatham Hill, which becomes Streatham High Road as we move south) was a minor Roman Road connecting London to Portslade (now part of Brighton and Hove) on the south coast. In the Seventeenth Century, it was "improved" as a coaching route running through Croydon and East Grinstead to Lewes and the port of Newhaven. England's first supermarket (Express Dairies Premier Supermarket) opened here in 1951.

The stables of the Red House Coaching Inn, Streatham, by William West Neve, 1884. Image: Praefectus Fabum (licensed under CCA).

Streatham Public Library. Photo: Matthew Black (licensed under CCA).

Streatham High Road in 1895 (image is in the Public Domain).

Bomb damage in Streatham, caused by a German Zeppelin raid in September, 1916. Photo: Imperial War Museum, HO 101 (image is in the Public Domain).

To the east of the road, two churches stand opposite one another. Saint Leonard's dates back to Saxon times (Estreham is mentioned as a village in the Domesday Book of 1086, its sheep producing wool to make habits for the monks of Bec-Helloun Abbey in Normandy), but only the Fifteenth Century tower predates 1831. The second, taller, church is the Roman Catholic Church of the English Martyrs, opened in 1893, to serve the large community of Irish origin, many of whom worked on the railways which their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had helped to build.

Saint Leonard's Church. Photo: Robert Cutts (licensed under CCA).

The interior of Saint Leonard's Church. Photo Stephen Craven (licensed under CCA). 

Continuing south along the road, and passing Streatham railway station on the right, we come to Streatham Common, one of the many green spaces that make the London suburbs a pleasant place to live. Most of its mature trees were planted in the late Nineteenth Century. Overlooking the common is Park Hill House (not accessible to the public): it was built, in 1830, by the banker and silver-merchant, William Leaf; but was home, from 1851 to 1899, to the sugar-merchant and philanthropist, Sir Henry Tate. Born in Liverpool, the son of a Unitarian minister, Tate was a self-made man, who endowed not only Streatham's and Brixton's public libraries, but also the Tate Gallery, Liverpool Royal Infirmary, Liverpool University, and the University of London's Bedford College for women.

Streatham Common. Photo: Noel Foster (licensed under CCA).

Autumn on Streatham Common. Photo: Nicky Johns (licensed under CCA).

Park Hill House, Streatham (image is in the Public Domain).

Sir Henry Tate, by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1897. Image: Tate Britain (Public Domain).

We have now completed our exploration of the Borough of Lambeth. From outside Streatham railway station, one can take a bus (159, 133, or 118) back to Brixton, and then the Victoria Line to Vauxhall, walking across Vauxhall Bridge into the City of Westminster.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.