Monday, 29 June 2015

"The Town of Ramsgate" & Execution Dock

No, we haven't left for Kent. 'The Town of Ramsgate' is one of Wapping's famous riverside pubs. It is situated on Wapping High Street. It is a long, narrow pub, sandwiched between Oliver's Wharf and Wapping Old Stairs, which descend to the river. Across the road is the site of the old church of St John's - destroyed in the Blitz, its tower is now part of a block of flats.
Go to the back of the pub and you emerge onto a small riverside terrace, with the rather gruesome sight of a noose hanging above. This is because this is the site of Execution Dock, where maritime related felons were executed up until 1830. It should be noted that the site of the Dock is disputed and there are two other locations along this stretch of the Thames which claim to be it - one of them where the River Police are now based, appropriately enough. Most of those executed were guilty of piracy - the most famous at this location being Captain William Kidd. He was executed in 1701. Prisoners were tied to a post at the foot of the stairs and drowned by the rising tide. It was traditional for the corpse to be left until three tides had washed over it, before the body was tarred and then hung up to deter others.
There has been an inn on this site since the 1460's - the first recorded under the name of 'The Hostel'. In 1533 it became 'The Red Cow' - apparently named after the barmaid.
In 1688, when King James II was forced into exile following the Glorious Revolution, the notorious Judge George Jeffreys - the "Hanging Judge" - was arrested here as he tried to flee London in disguise.
Some stories have him caught on the Old Stairs, others whilst sitting in the pub. He was certainly fond of his drink, as that was what killed him in 1689 whilst he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Judge Jeffreys
He gained his nickname from his actions during the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion (1685). James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II, began a rebellion in the South West of England against his uncle, who was suspected of wishing to reintroduce Catholicism to England. Monmouth's army comprised mostly peasant farmers and artisans and they were defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor. King James' retribution was swift and merciless. Monmouth was beheaded on Tower Green, and is buried in the church of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower (lying close to Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey by the high altar).
Jeffreys presided over hundreds of trials which mostly ended in hangings, and took delight in belittling and insulting the defence attorneys for the accused. Ironically, it was one of those lawyers who spotted him in Wapping.
The present building dates to 1758. The pub became 'Ramsgate Old Town' in 1766, and finally took on its current name in 1811.
The name comes from the fact that the fishermen of Ramsgate in Kent used to land their catches at Wapping Old Stairs, to avoid the taxes imposed further upstream.
It was at Wapping Old Stairs that Captain Bligh first caught sight of The Bounty. It was for sale and he came to inspect it prior to purchasing it for his ill-fated voyage to Tahiti.

Christopher Lee played Judge Jeffreys in one of those lurid euro-horrors he often appeared in - The Bloody Judge - and Wapping Old Stairs feature in the Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang. (The body of a murdered cab driver is fished out of the river here - killed by a homicidal robot ventriloquist dummy and partially eaten by giant rats, bred by a war criminal from the 51st Century. They don't make them like that any more...).

Wapping Old Stairs - no sign of giant rats, or homicidal robot ventriloquist dummies...

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

History With The TARDIS - Marco Polo

As this blog grew out of my other, Who specific, one - TARDIS Musings - I thought it might be time to devise a series of posts that link the two together. The TARDIS has visited many periods of Earth's history over the decades. What was the historical context to those stories? How accurate were they?
We will start way back in 1964 with the story known as Marco Polo - 7 episodes written by John Lucarotti, and directed by Waris Hussein. Lucarotti had written an epic series about Polo for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation a year or so before.
At this time, Doctor Who was intended to have a strong educational remit - helping to popularise History, Geography and Science. As well as learning about Polo and Kublai Khan, we also get to learn about the origins of the word "assassin", how condensation works, the original tale of Aladdin - when he was an old, evil character, rather than a young pantomime hero - and that bamboo explodes in fire, amongst many other things.

The TARDIS materialises in the foothills of the Himalayas, and promptly suffers from a power failure. The time travelers meet Marco Polo who is leading a caravan towards Cathay. There is a young girl heading for an arranged marriage in the party - and a Tartar Warlord named Tegana, supposedly on a peace mission but who really plans to assassinate Kublai Khan. Polo intends to keep the TARDIS and gift it to Kublai Khan so that he will finally be allowed to return home to Venice. They stop at many locations - it is one of the longest Doctor Who stories in narrative terms - before finally arriving in the capital, where Polo saves the Khan's life. He relents and lets the Doctor have the key to the TARDIS back, so the travelers escape onto their next adventure.

The story of Marco Polo is one we think we know very well - the 17 year old Venetian adventurer who traveled east with his father and uncle in 1271. He made himself indispensable to Kublai Khan and was not allowed to return home for more than 20 years.
We know all this from a small book, A Description of the World, published about 20 years after his death. The writer wasn't Polo himself. On returning to Venice in 1298, he found the city at war with Genoa. He was captured by the Genoese and spent a year in prison - sharing his cell with a man named Rusticello di Pisa. It was Rusticello who put the book together.
About 150 different variations of the book exist, and it is believed that a number of the stories attributed to Polo were additions from other sources - other travelers who had visited and traded with China. Some people think that Polo only ever got as far as Mongolia, and all of the Chinese sections are collected from other travelers' tales.
Suspicions arise because he does not mention tea-drinking, the Great Wall, foot-binding or chop-sticks. The main suspicion, however, is that the Chinese do not mention him - despite his spending two decades interacting with the highest levels of government. One of the reasons that the Chinese invented paper was to record their bureaucracy in the minutest detail - yet there is no mention of a Marco Polo. Other western travelers do get written about, and their travels are better documented.
His supporters claim that there are enough elements in the book that do demonstrate that Polo visited China - descriptions of paper money and salt production - for it to be a true account. Other writers omit things which you would expect to be mentioned, and the Great Wall as we know it today was actually built some 200 years after Polo's time. Kublai Khan ruled over a region on either side of the present Great Wall - so would have had no reason to build a barrier across the middle of it.
All agree that the book does include some sections that come from other sources - European and Muslim.
Basically, it is accurate but only up to a point.
Polo died in 1324, and is buried in the church of San Lorenzo in the Castello district of his native city. His will freed a Tartar slave whom he had brought back from his travels.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Going Underground No.1

To take a journey on the London Underground is to take a trip back in time, as this occasional series of posts will demonstrate. We start at the beginning with the first Underground line - the Metropolitan. This opened in 1863 as The Metropolitan Railway, and it originally ran between Paddington in the west to Farringdon in the east, with 7 stations. The work began with the building of a shaft at Euston Road. The first attempt to extend the route north was a failure, and the Metropolitan Railway took over in 1883. Its director, Sir Edward Watkin, had a vision to link Manchester with France, under London and thence on via a Channel Tunnel.
The area to the west of London covered by this line has become the epitome of suburbia, nicknamed 'Metroland'.
We begin our journey out in rural Buckinghamshire, and make our way eastwards into the city.

Chesham: The furthest station from central London, and the furthest north or west you can go. Opened in 1889. Sits on a branch of its own, as a planned extension to Aylesbury failed to materialise. The distance between this station and the next is the longest stretch on the network.
Amersham: At 490 feet above sea level, the highest station on the network. Opened in 1892, it was called Amersham and Chesham Bois for a time. A Grade II listed station, due to its accompanying signal box and water tower. Like Chesham sits on a branch of its own. These two branches join up at...
Chalfont & Latimer: Opened in 1889 as Chalfont Road, the station is in the village of Little Chalfont. It also serves the other Chalfonts - St Giles, St Peter - and the village of Latimer.
Chorleywood: We are now into Hertfordshire. Opened in 1889, briefly renamed Chorley Wood and Chenies.
Rickmansworth: Opened 1887. Until 1961, the furthest out you could travel on electric trains. If you wanted to go further, you had to transfer to a steam train.
Watford: On another branch, with Croxley. Opened 1925. The station is a mile from the town centre, as the local authorities refused to let the line run through Cassiobury Park. This led to low numbers of people using it, as the town had overground rail services into London more centrally located.
Croxley: Opened 1925 as Croxley Green.
Moor Park: Opened 1910 as Sandy Lodge, from the nearby golf course of that name.
Northwood: Opened 1887. The area had yet to be developed and The Times predicted doom for the station, but it is still there.
Northwood Hills: Opened 1933. The name was chosen through a local competition. Ironically, the station lies lower than Northwood.
Pinner: Opened 1885. In the 1930's plans to refurbish the station were challenged by locals who wanted the building to fit with the local architecture. Too much hard work, the station wasn't refurbished until 20 years later. In 2009 a canine passenger became a celebrity for a time. Rufus was a Pyrenean Mountain Dog - about the size of a Shetland pony - and some passengers objected to it travelling with its owner into London every day.
North Harrow: Opened in 1915 as Hooking Green. At this point we have to set off along another branch.
Uxbridge: The current station, designed by the Underground's most accomplished architect - Charles Holden - dates from 1938. It replaced an earlier station some distance away - the old tracks now being used as sidings. The ticket hall has stained glass windows. The station shares with the Piccadilly Line (previously a branch of the District Line). There was competition from a tram link to Shepherds Bush with much lower fares, but the tube was obviously much faster. WS Gilbert - of Gilbert & Sullivan fame - saw a poster for the Tower of London whilst waiting for a train at the old station in 1887, prompting him to write The Yeomen of the Guard.

Hillingdon: Opened in 1923. For a time it was called Hillingdon (Swakeleys). The present building dates from 1992, as the original had to be demolished when the A40 (Western Avenue) was extended.
Ickenham: When trains started to pass Ickenham in 1904, the villagers campaigned for a stop. The railway was reluctant as they felt there would be no demand. However, a Halt was built in 1905. This turned out to be quite popular with day-trippers from London - the locals selling them flowers and teas from their gardens. A full station followed with a booking hut in 1910 and platform extensions in 1922.
Ruislip: Opened 1904.
Ruislip Manor: Like Ickenham, originally just a Halt, opened in 1912, to serve Ruislip Garden City - one of the Metroland suburbs. A recent refurbishment has met with criticism due to poor disabled access to the platforms.
Eastcote: Opened in 1906 as Eastcote Halt.
Rayners Lane: Opened in 1906 as a Halt. The name Rayner come from a local farmer. When it became a full station in 1910, customers called it "Pneumonia Junction" as the platforms were so windy.
West Harrow: Opened in 1913. Fare dodgers please note - does not have ticket barriers. Not that there is anything near the station. We now rejoin the main line into London, with no more branches.
Harrow-on-the-Hill: Opened 1880 as just plain Harrow. Harrow may be on the hill, but the station isn't. The line would have gone closer to the centre of Harrow, but the famous school objected.
Northwick Park: Kenton, on the Bakerloo Line, is so close - and a better service - that even London Underground's Journey Planner suggests you make the walk. Opened 1880 as Northwick Park & Kenton.
Preston Road: Opened as a Halt in 1908, due the shooting range for the London Olympics of that year being nearby.
Wembley Park: Opened 1894. This is the stop you want if going to the stadium and arena. The widest steps of any LU station - to accommodate the multitudes who attend events. Sir Edward Watkin - mentioned above - had yet another one of his visions about this area. He planned a park in which there would be an Eiffel-like Tower. This turned out to be an unfinished folly, and what was built has long since been demolished.

Finchley Road: Opened 1879. The glaciers which covered much of Britain in the last Ice Age stopped just about here - as the engineers discovered when they were digging the tunnel. There is only 2 inches of concrete separating the roof of the tube tunnel and the foundations of the nearby North Star Hotel.
Baker Street: One of the seven oldest London Underground stations, from 1863. Beneath the station was a shooting gallery used in WW2 by Churchill, secret service agents and members of the French Resistance. In August 1973 two bombs were planted in the station, a week apart. Both were defused. In 1925, a locomotive collided with a passenger train just as the signals changed, injuring six.
The station has 10 platforms serving 4 lines. Naturally, outside there is a statue of the street's most famous resident - the Great Detective himself.
Great Portland Street: Opened 1863 as Portland Road. The current building dates to the 1930's, built on a traffic island in the middle of Marylebone Road, and once incorporated a car showroom.
Euston Road: Opened 1863 as Gower Street. As mentioned above, the first shaft of the first line was dug here.
Kings Cross St Pancras: The station gets its name from the two railway termini above it. The biggest station on the network - even bigger now that the Eurostar comes into St Pancras. The two names derive from a pair of statues that used to stand in the area - one to King George IV, and one to the 3rd Century AD boy martyr St Pancras (got his head lopped off by the Romans).
In 1987 the scene of the network's worst non-rail disaster, when a lit cigarette dropped on an escalator leading to the Piccadilly Line started a fire. 31 people died, one of whom has never been identified.
Farringdon: The original 1863 eastern terminus of the line - built here due to the proximity of Smithfield Market. Originally called Farringdon Street, then Farringdon and High Holborn. Animals used to be slaughtered beneath the station. It was built along with a freight route for the livestock - the ramps can still be seen. The route between Kings Cross and Farringdon follows the now culverted River Fleet.
Barbican: An eastward extension opened in 1865 as Aldersgate. In 1897 an anarchist group known as The Dynamiters planted a bomb here which killed one man. This was a revenge attack after one of their number had been imprisoned. It became Barbican in 1968, when the housing development was built. That name derives from a medieval watch tower that formed part of the London Wall.
Moorgate: Opened 1865 as Moorgate Street. Scene of the network's worst rail disaster in 1975 when a train failed to break and collided with the platform. The driver and 42 passengers were killed - the cause of the incident has never been pin-pointed.
Liverpool Street: Named after the rail station, which was named after Lord Liverpool, Prime Minister in the early 1800's. The Underground station opened in 1875, named Bishopsgate.
In WWI 162 people were killed in a daylight bombing raid (by an aircraft rather than a zeppelin). In 1993 the station was badly damaged by an IRA bomb. Then in the 7/7 2005 bombings seven passengers were killed on a train just as it left the station.
Aldgate: The final stop - opened 1876. All change. Mind the Gap!

Before we leave, a quick word about the disused stations - for several were taken out of service over the years. Between Finchley Road and Baker Street, in the St John's Wood area, there were two stations - Marlborough Road and Lords (for the cricket ground). Both were superseded by the nearby Jubilee Line station. Marlborough Road station became a steak house, then a Chinese restaurant, and now houses a power plant for the Metropolitan Line, after the introduction of new rolling stock.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Prince Henry's Room - Heirs & Spares

At No.17 Fleet Street can be seen the rare sight of a pre-Fire of London building within the City of London. Built in 1610 as a tavern called The Prince's Arms, this Jacobean edifice rises over one of the gates into the legal district known as the Temple (the land once being owned by the Knights Templar). Later, it was renamed The Fountain and was a popular haunt of the diarist Samuel Pepys. The rooms held an exhibition devoted to Pepys for many years, though it is now closed to the public apart from special occasions.
During the 19th Century, the rooms played host to Mrs Salmon's Waxworks exhibition, at the front of the building, with the pub continuing to operate to the rear.
The original tavern's name (and the one we know it by today) derives from the occasion of the investiture of James I's eldest son - Henry - as Prince of Wales.
This sickly young man died at the age of 18, and the throne passed instead to his brother Charles when James died.
Charles would in time lead the country into Civil War, something which he would literally lose his head over.

Would history have taken a different course had Henry lived? Looking back through the ages, many of our monarchs were not the ones that were supposed to rule - sometimes for better, other times for worse. Many times it has been the spare who inherits, rather than the heir.
Just look at the current monarchy. There wasn't supposed to be a George VI or Elizabeth II in the 20th Century - nor any future Charles III, William V or George VII. Back in 1936, we should have had Edward VIII, but he got tangled up with a certain American divorcee, and so abdicated to be with her rather than assume the Crown. The Anglican Church and the Government of the day were quite prepared to let this happen as there was an acceptable spare - George - with a nice wife and daughters.

Go right back to the post-Conquest era. William the Conqueror was succeeded by his son - also William. William II (Rufus) had a son, but he died sailing back to England when his ship sank. William rather conveniently caught an arrow using his chest whilst out hunting and before his body had hit the forest floor, his younger brother Henry had ridden off to Winchester to have himself crowned Henry I. Henry was in the hunting party, and foul play cannot be ruled out. He also survived the ship wreck which claimed his nephew and rival. A bit too much coincidence there...
Henry's death would lead to the period known as the Anarchy - the civil war between his daughter Matilda, and her cousin Stephen.
This was only resolved when Stephen was given the throne but agreed to name Matilda's son - the future Henry II - as his heir.
Henry II was plagued by family problems - even going to war against his sons.
The successful one, Richard I (the Lionheart), died without issue, so his younger brother came to the throne - Bad King John.

Edward III's heir was Edward - the Black Prince. He died on campaign, so his young son became king - Richard II. An heir rather than a spare, but might he have been a better king had his father lived? Throughout English history, great kings are often followed by feeble ones.

The Wars of the Roses culminated in the rightful heir (and the spare) being murdered and the old king's spare taking the throne instead - Edward IV's younger brother Richard (III).
His short reign ended with the advent of the Tudor dynasty - one plagued by succession problems.
For a start, Henry VIII was the spare. His older brother George died before he could ascend to the throne. Henry got the throne - and his late brother's wife - which ultimately led to the whole English Reformation and centuries of sectarian strife.
The Crown then passed through all three of Henry's children before the line died out with the middle one - the Virgin Queen - which brings us back to where we started with James and his heir Henry.

Charles II died having fathered many sons. Problem was they were all illegitimate, so the throne went to his younger brother James (II). Despite having a male heir, he was thrown out due to his Catholicism, to be replaced by his daughter, Mary, who was married to William of Orange.
England would rather import Dutch and German monarchs than suffer an English Catholic one.

The current Queen's grandfather, George V, was also a spare. The throne was due to go to Edward VII's oldest son, Prince Edward Albert. He is the one who turns up in Jack the Ripper conspiracies - believed by some to have been the Ripper himself, or that the killings were carried out with government sanction to cover up his liaisons with prostitutes. (He is alleged to have married a commoner, and also have to dallied with male escorts as well - his name was implicated in the Cleveland Street Scandal. This was a high class male brothel where post office boys serviced rich and powerful patrons). Prince Eddy certainly wasn't the Ripper, as he is known to have been out of London, or to have been in the presence of plenty of witnesses, on the occasion of some of the killings.

So there you go. The history of the English monarchy is filled with unintended turnings. The Civil War and the Reformation - all under the watch of the spare. How different might things have been had the intended heir not died - or abdicated - when they did? Even the Royals can't survive terminal illness or accidents, so there is no guarantee that the current line of succession will follow its course.
(Had I written that last sentence a few hundred years ago I could have been hung, drawn and quartered - just envisioning a monarch's death being grounds for treason. Glad it's 2015 and not 1515).

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Temple Bar

The last remaining gatehouse of the City of London, it has not stood in its original location for more than a century. All the other City gates - Roman and Medieval - are now remembered only in street names or districts (such as Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Aldgate, Aldersgate).
Temple Bar marked the western entry point to the City - originally just where Fleet Street meets the Strand. As it was the route to the Royal Palace of Whitehall, Temple Bar became the only place where the monarch could enter the City - having to pause to be invited in by the Lord Mayor. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth I presented the Mayor with a jewel encrusted sword. Ever since, the Mayor offers the monarch the sword when they enter the City on state occasions.
The name Temple derives from its original proximity to the legal district of that name.
Initially, it would have simply been a chain between two wooden posts that could be drawn closed when necessary.
This was then replaced in 1351 with a large wooden arch, which had a prison in the chamber above the roadway.
When this fell into disrepair, King Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build a new arch in stone. We only know of Wren's involvement as his son found the original drawings after his death.
The new arch had four statues set in niches - King James I and his Queen, Anne of Denmark, facing towards the City, and King Charles I and II facing Westminster.
The gate was one of those which used to display the severed heads of traitors. You could hire a spyglass for a penny to get a closer look.

In the mid-19th Century the gate came under threat with the building of the Royal Courts of Justice and with the need to widen the road - due to the increase in traffic on this main east - west route. Rather than demolish it, it was decided to systematically dismantle it, stone by stone - all numbered - and put the pieces in storage near Farringdon Road. Some 10 years later, it was bought by Lady Meux and reassembled on her estate, Theobolds Park, in Hertfordshire. She was an interesting character - a banjo-playing barmaid who married into a wealthy brewing family.
Sadly, over time, the gatehouse fell into disrepair. A campaign was established to bring the gatehouse back to the City of London. In 2004, the official opening ceremony was held for the Temple Bar at its new location - in Paternoster Square in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral.

Today, the original location for the Bar is marked with a monumental plinth topped by a dragon or griffin, in the middle of the road next to the Royal Courts.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Tower Bridge

There is an urban myth that the guy who bought London Bridge back in 1968 thought that he was really getting the distinctive Victorian mock-Gothic bridge that spans the Thames just by the Tower of London. Sadly, it is just a myth. Ever since the version that had all the houses and chapels (and the heads of executed traitors on spikes) on it, London Bridge has been a bit aesthetically boring.
Tower Bridge, built between 1886 and 1894, has also had its fair share of critics - who hated the "mockness" of it.
In the late Victorian period, it was realised that London needed a new bridge to the east of the City. There was a foot tunnel just to the east, but this wasn't sufficient for the needs of the growing dock district.
A competition was held for architects to submit designs - the only real stipulation being that the structure had to admit tall masted vessels to pass through to the Pool of London (the area up river). Very tall bridges were proposed, and swing ones, but eventually one that opened up in the middle was chosen. This caused some controversy, as the designer just happened to be one of the competition judges - Sir Horace Jones. He was chief architect for the City of London.
Sadly, he died before seeing his bridge completed. The bridge was officially opened on 30th June, 1894, by the then Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII).

It is a combined suspension and bascule bridge - the suspensions being the spans on the landward sides. Two steam engines powered the opening mechanisms, with a third being added during the Second World War as a back-up in case the bridge was targeted in a bombing raid. The bridge now hosts an exhibition, where you can see these. Recently, the exhibition added the further attraction of a glass floored section on the high walkways. Unfortunately, within a few days of opening, someone dropped a beer bottle and the supposedly reinforced glass cracked - so I advise caution should you choose to cross...

The openings and closings had to be covered by a complex set of visual and aural signals - both for the traffic on the road and for the vessels that were to pass through. Remember that for many years London suffered from what were known as "pea-soupers" - dense fogs which were a combination of meteorological and pollution effects. These days, if you want the bridge raised, you have to give 24 hours notice.
The central sections only rise as far as is needed for the particular vessel to pass through. If you happen to be the reigning monarch, however, the sections will rise to their fullest extent - no matter what size of craft they are in. The bridge would open to is fullest extent if Her Majesty were to go through in a pedalo, in other words.
The river traffic gets priority at all times, irrespective of road users. In 1997, US President Bill Clinton had his motorcade split in half when the bridge opened. Naturally, the chaps with the stony expressions, regulation dark glasses, and the little wires in their ears were not amused.

The bridge raises at 3.30pm on Sunday, 6th June 2015, to admit a tall masted sailing ship. This was exactly on schedule.
At least Clinton's driver didn't have to do what bus driver Albert Gunter had to do, back in 1952. His double-decker found itself on the bridge as it was opening. He accelerated and the bus leapt a three foot gap. Might not sound like much, but double-deckers are really not supposed to do that sort of thing. He was awarded a whole £10 pounds for his quick thinking.
On a couple of occasions pilots have flown through the gap between the road level and the high walkways without permission. One RAF pilot who did this in a Hawker Hunter was thrown out of the force, denied the opportunity to represent himself at his court martial. Another pilot, of a light aircraft, did the same thing in 1973, but he then flew up to the Lake District where he deliberately crashed and killed himself.
Originally, the metal work on the bridge was a greenish colour (it is now light blue). Back in 1977, for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, it was painted red, white and blue.
The southern approach to the bridge, in Southwark, was Horsleydown Lane. This was widened and is now called Tower Bridge Approach. The road is a major one - part of London's Inner Ring Road - so any prolonged closure causes considerable disruption and congestion. In 2003, a campaigner from Justice 4 Fathers, dressed as Spider-Man, climbed onto the walkway, and the bridge had to be closed for a whole 5 days.