Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Blind Beggar, Whitechapel

One of London's most famous pubs, The Blind Beggar sits on Whitechapel High Street. There has been a hostelry on this site since 1654. The present building dates from 1894.
The pub belonged to Manns Albion Brewery - the first to produce Brown Ale.
I used to frequent the pub myself when I lived and worked in the area. It is best known for its association with those notorious East End gangsters - the Kray Twins. Indeed, when I was there I often saw their old associate 'Mad' Frankie Fraser at the bar, accompanied by a couple of minders. (He died in November 2014. He spent 42 of his 90 years in prison).
On the evening of March 9th, 1966, George Cornell was drinking in the saloon bar. He was a member of a rival gang - the South London based Richardsons. Ronnie Kray was drinking in another pub nearby and heard that Cornell was here. Ronnie promptly arrived and shot him dead. Despite there being a number of witnesses to the killing, no-one recognised Ronnie at the identification parade the next day, after he had been arrested on suspicion for the crime. Naturally, the witnesses would all have been looking the other way... The Krays did not fall until 1968. Interestingly, the Kray twins were once imprisoned in the Tower of London - two of the last people to be locked up there. This was back in their National Service days - something which they did not want to do, and no-one was going to tell them anything different.

The pub was owned for a time by England footballing hero Bobby Moore.
Back in 1865 William Booth preached for the first time on the street outside the pub - pressing his nose to the window as he urged abstinence on its patrons. This event ultimately led to the formation of the East London Christian Mission, and hence to the Salvation Army. There's a statue of Booth nearby on Mile End Road. The hand is frequently stolen and then replaced.

The pub's name comes from a legend about Henry de Montfort - son of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester. Henry was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, along with his father. Simon was leading the rebel barons against Henry III. His son - the future Edward I - led the king's forces. The legend maintained that Henry had only been badly wounded and blinded in the battle. He was nursed back to health and became a beggar at Bethnal Green - which is just up the road from the pub.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Glasgow Necropolis (and the Gorbals Vampire)...

As promised a couple of weeks ago, here is a look at the Glasgow Necropolis (city of the dead) which sits on the hill to the east of Glasgow Cathedral - accessible via a bridge over the Molindinar Burn (now a busy road). The entrance to the bridge lies to the right of the cathedral as you face the front facade.
Before crossing the bridge, there are three monuments to note - a very poignant one, often covered in teddy bears and the like, dedicated to still-born babies; one to the fallen of the Korean War; and one to Glaswegian recipients of the Victoria Cross.
The bridge is known as the "Bridge of Sighs", as funeral processions obviously had to pass over it in order to reach the Necropolis.

Prior to the establishment of the cemetery in 1832, the hill had been the location for a Jewish burial ground, and the statue of the firebrand Protestant reformer John Knox was already glowering atop the column which dominates the skyline (erected in 1825). After the Pere Lachaise cemetery was built in Paris, demand for similar reached Britain. However, burial of the dead was the responsibility of local parish churches. Trouble was, in Glasgow, that fewer and fewer people were attending church. The business-minded Victorians also wanted to make a business out of death - burial for profit. A new Act of Parliament came in, in 1832, that permitted private enterprises to buy land and set up cemeteries - charging for plots, and extra for the biggest and most prominent ones. Glasgow was one of the first off the block in the whole of the UK, and the Necropolis was already open for business by 1833.

The site covers some 37 acres. The larger and more ornate tombs are clustered around the top of the hill,  huddled round the Knox monument, and on the side of the hill overlooking the cathedral. As you go lower down the slopes - especially the side facing away from the cathedral - the graves are marked more with simpler headstones. There are a small number of graves of soldiers which fall under the auspices of the Commonwealth Graves Commission. Most of the fancier tombs mark the final resting places of mercantile individuals and their families, though there are a number of physicians here as well (Glasgow Royal Infirmary being nearby).

On the lower level of the slope, if you take the left hand path once you cross the bridge, you will see the grave of William Miller - the "Laureate of the Nursery". He wrote the popular children's rhyme about Wee Willie Winkie.

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Upstairs, doonstairs, in his nicht goon,
Tirling at the windae, crying at the lock,
"Are the weans in bed yet, it's gone 10 o'clock"...

"Tirling" is an old Scots word for tapping. I am sure you can work out the rest. Miller first published this in 1841.
A couple more pictures of the Necropolis, before I tell you a tale from the other Glasgow Necropolis - the Southern one over the river Clyde in the Gorbals district.

This is the tomb of the actor-manager John Henry Alexander, of the Glasgow Theatre Royal. It depicts the proscenium arch of a theatre.

The Gorbals Vampire...
The Southern Necropolis in the Gorbals, just south of the Clyde, was established in 1840. It sits on a flat piece of land and is marked by fewer large and grandiose tombs than its northern cousin.
In 1954, it became the location for a bizarre urban myth. A policeman patrolling on the evening of 23rd of September was alerted to a commotion in the cemetery and came upon hundreds of children - aged between 4 and 14. Many were armed with knives and makeshift cudgels. (This is Glasgow, after all...) When asked why they were there, these budding Van Helsings replied that they had come to destroy the "Vampire with the iron teeth". A story about this fiend had spread like wild fire through the schools of the area. Some of the kids had traveled for up to an hour to get here, so the tale had gone far and wide. Children continued to turn up, armed, for a couple more nights.
The authorities put this whole incident down to the influence of American horror comics, which were popular at the time. The publishers of these checked and found no reference to any specific iron-toothed vampire. However, conservative political do-gooders, the church, and the anti-anything-American Glaswegian communists all joined forces to campaign against these macabre but harmless publications and force their banning.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The House by the Thames

Sandwiched between Shakespeare's Globe and Tate Modern, on a stretch of river front known as Cardinal's Wharf, sit three rare survivors of 18th Century architecture in Bankside, Southwark. One of the houses - the tall white one - has even had a whole book written about it: The House By The Thames, by Gillian Tindall (p/b edition Random House 2007). The book doesn't just deal with the occupants of the house, it covers the whole history of this part of London. Much of it deals with the Watermen - the black cab drivers of their day. Before the river was embanked, there were numerous water stairs along it. Some survive, even if only in name. At each, Watermen would be waiting to ferry passengers either along the river or, more likely, across it. Remember that for much of its history London only had one bridge across the Thames.
The house in question is No.49. There is a plaque on the wall which claims that Sir Christopher Wren lived here whilst St Paul's Cathedral - directly opposite on the north side of the river - was being rebuilt following the Great Fire. The plaque also claims that Catherine of Aragon sheltered here on first arriving in London in 1502.
Sadly, neither event can be substantiated. No.49 was built around 1710, when St Paul's was finished, so Wren could not have been living there during the works. He did stay in the area - probably in a house that would have sat where Tate Modern now stands. When that house was demolished, a plaque was fixed to a wall near the then power station. The plaque was subsequently lost, and the one on the front of No.49 was made up in the mid 20th Century. Catherine of Aragon may well have first come ashore here or hereabouts, but this sounds unlikely. There are more likely places along the Thames than this.

The middle house, (No.51) with the yellow door, has a hanging sign describing it as The Deanery. This would refer to it belonging to the Dean of Southwark Cathedral - the church of Saint Mary Overy or St Saviour's as it has been known variously over the centuries - I'll be posting on it soon. The house is also known as the Provost's Lodgings. It was built in 1712. The Cathedral put it up for sale in 2011, with an asking price of £6 million. It is a prime location after all... It wasn't always so. The basement of No.49 used to be infested with rats, and the power station emitted a constant humming noise. The third house in the row (No. 52, closest to Tate Modern) is actually not a separate dwelling - it and No.51 were turned into a single house in 1957.
The Dean of Southwark used to complain that he had a perfect view - of the wrong cathedral.

In between No's 49 and 51 is the entrance to Cardinal Cap Alley. This is no longer a public thoroughfare, although this has been contested over the years. The Cardinal's Cap was a pub on the site of No.49, which gets a mention in Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2. This area was notorious for its brothels, or stews - see my earlier post about the "Winchester Geese".
Just to the right of this row, where Tate Modern now stands, would have been the home of Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre who staged many of Shakespeare's plays. He is buried in Southwark Cathedral (as is Shakespeare's brother Edmund - also an actor, died on New Year's Eve 1607).
Of course the current Globe Theatre is not built on the exact site of its earlier incarnation. There was a Globe Alley (later Globe Court) marked on maps a little further to the east and well back from the river. Behind these houses lies the site of another form of popular entertainment of yesteryear - bear baiting pits. Henslowe invested in these as well.

We all know that the Tate Modern art gallery is housed in an old power station. Before this was built, the site belonged to the Phoenix Gas Works. Go further back to the 1700's, when these houses were still new, and there was a park called Pye Garden, as well as a glass-making factory.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

St. Bartholomew The Great

Tucked away beyond a gateway at West Smithfield lies the church of St. Bartholomew The Great. It is London's oldest church. It was originally part of an Augustinian Priory built in 1123. Its founder was Rahere, a favourite of King Henry I. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome where he fell seriously ill. He vowed to set up a hospital for the poor back in London if he survived. About to return to England on regaining his health he had a vision of St. Bartholomew, who told him to build his hospital in Smithfield.
The Priory was dissolved by that later Henry - the VIIIth - in 1539. Part of the building was demolished but the choir and sanctuary were retained for use as a parish church. It briefly reverted to being a Dominican house under Mary, then went back to a parish church under Elizabeth I.

The church survived the Great Fire of 1666, as well as bombing by Zeppelins in 1917 and by the Luftwaffe in WW2. A major restoration took place at the end of the 19th Century to return it to its medieval appearance.
Rahere is buried by the high altar and, of course, his hospital remains in the immediate vicinity - surviving numerous attempts by unfriendly governments to close it down.

One interesting grave slab to be seen is that of Jonathan Thornell (d. 1757). His was one of those trades which were once common but are now quite rare - a hair merchant. These merchants bought human hair for the making of wigs.
You can look round the church for a modest fee when services aren't running. There is a rather nice cloister cafe. The church has a very good music programme, and is also home to a theatre company. They're doing Shakespeare's Richard II and Marlowe's Edward II this summer.

The gateway entrance to the church.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The George Inn, Southwark.

The only surviving galleried coaching inn left in London. (There is a modern reconstruction at St. Katherine's Dock by the Tower). These establishments, usually consisting of three ranges of buildings - one of which was the stable-block - were once huddled along all of the main routes in and out of London. The George served travellers between London and Kent and the south coast.
I will let the sign on the gate, just off Borough High Street (east side), explain the details.

There are a number of yards along this stretch of road whose names hint at other similar inns now long gone - White Hart, Tabard, King's Head and Mermaid - all within a few hundred yards of each other. Bishopsgate (near Liverpool Street Station) had a similar stretch of coaching inns - some also frequented by Shakespeare when he travelled between Stratford and London.
In the same vicinity as The George, on Newcomen Street there is a fine old Victorian pub called The King's Arms. The current building of 1890 replaced an earlier one dating from 1760. George III's arms are above the door. That's the monarch who, in his diary for 4th July 1776, wrote "Nothing important happened today"...

The White Hart in Southwark gets a mention in Henry VI - Part 2, as it was used as a base by Jack Cade - leader of the Kentish rebels in 1450, during the period known as the Wars of the Roses. Cade's rebellion was crushed and he fled to the south coast. He was mortally wounded during his capture at Lewes, Sussex, and died before he could be put on trial back in London. His corpse still underwent the traditional penalty for traitors - being hung, drawn and quartered.

The White Hart. The George would have had a similar layout.
In the days when Highwaymen were common, individual travellers would gather at coaching inns in order to then travel on in a group, often with an armed escort. Highwaymen do still exist today, though they are now called Traffic Wardens.
Another view of The George - taken before I went inside to check out the quality of their ales...

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Glasgow Cathedral and Saint Mungo

The first of my posts to venture outside London relates to the Second City of Empire - Glasgow. (Birmingham and Liverpool both claim that title, it should be noted. Naturally, I am biased...). Strictly speaking Glasgow Cathedral is not a cathedral at all, as it hasn't been the seat of a bishop for many years.
Begun in the first half of the 12th Century, in the reign of David I, at the top of the High Street, it is also known as the High Kirk of Glasgow, St. Kentigern's or St. Mungo's Cathedrals (Kentigern and Mungo are different names for the same person - Glasgow's patron saint. He is buried in the lower church which sits beneath the main body of the cathedral).

Glasgow University was founded in its precincts in 1451. (It moved across the road a decade later, before finally settling in its current location in the West End on Gilmorehill).
Before the Reformation it was the seat of first the Bishop of Glasgow and then the Archbishop of Glasgow. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow now has his seat at St. Andrew's Cathedral, and Glasgow Cathedral is now a Presbyterian place of worship.
Architecturally, the building is Gothic. As you wander round the exterior, you will see that much of the stone work is still blackened as a result of the city's industrial past.

The exterior of the chapel known as the Blacader Aisle.

In the main body of the cathedral are many monuments to Scotland's military past - be they Scottish regiments or individual soldiers. There is a wealth of stained glass throughout - some relating to the St Mungo, and others to Glasgow's industrial and mercantile past. These are Victorian or later.

Some views of the nave, aisle and choir.

Off the west side of the cathedral is the Blacader Aisle, a small white-painted chapel. It was constructed around 1500 by Archbishop Blacader (also spelt as Blackadder).

The lower church was built in the 13th Century. At one point, after the Reformation, three separate congregations met in the cathedral. The Outer High in the nave, the Inner High in the Quire (Choir) and the Barony in the lower church. It is in the lower church that St. Mungo's tomb can be seen.

Down here is a monument to some Covenanters - Protestant martyrs of the reign of Charles II and his brother James (VII of Scotland and II of Great Britain).

If you wander around the graveyard of the cathedral one word stands out more than any other on the weathered tombstones - Merchant - as befits a mercantile city. Many more businessmen and their families are buried in the nearby Necropolis (subject of another post to come). The cathedral sits very close to the city's Royal Infirmary, so there are a few physicks as well.

That's the Necropolis on the hill in the background.

Glasgow is the only mediaeval cathedral in Scotland to have survived physically intact since the Reformation. It is owned by the Crown, and managed by Historic-Scotland.

The city's coat of arms features a bird, a fish, a tree and a bell. These relate to four miracles that the 6th Century Saint Mungo is supposed to have been responsible for. There is a verse to go with them:

Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam

The bird refers to a robin which he is supposed to have brought back to life after it was killed by some of his school friends. The tree refers to him restarting a fire that had gone out (when he was supposed to be tending it) using a hazel branch. The bell was brought back to Glasgow by Mungo from Rome, which was used in services for the dead. (The original was lost and a copy made in 1640). The fish relates to his most famous miracle, when he helped Queen Languoreth of Strathclyde who had been accused of adultery. She was alleged by her husband, King Riderich, of having given her lover her ring, and he demanded to see it. In reality, Riderich had stolen it and thrown it into the Clyde. Languoreth turned to Mungo for help. He sent his companions out to catch a fish and the ring was found in the salmon they landed and returned to the Queen. It should be noted that very similar tales have been attributed to a number of saints.
Mungo was born in Fife, supposedly of royal birth (his mother was thrown into the sea by her father after she became pregnant after being raped). She did not drown, so her father cast her adrift instead in a coracle which came to rest in Fife.
Mungo was a contemporary of Saint David (patron saint of Wales) with whom he stayed for a time. He did not die a martyr's death. Rather, in old age, he expired in his bath.
Scots author J K Rowling named the wizards' hospital after him in her Harry Potter books.