Tuesday 19 July 2011

The House of St. Barnabas, Soho - A Visit

I had the pleasure today of a personal tour round the House of St. Barnabas, Soho, a large Georgian house on the corner of Greek Street. The house dates to the 1740s, with its interior, replete with extravagant Rococo plasterwork, completed in 1754, built for highly prosperous slave-owners, the Beckford family. It has Grade 1 listing, which means, apparently, that even the noticeboard outside cannot be amended with a new telephone number, without the approval of Westminster City Council. It is, I suspect, rather hard work to run a Grade 1 listed building. On top of that, those of you familiar with Soho will know that the square is immediately adjacent to the Crossrail station being built at Tottenham Court Road. 'Is the actual station directly below the house?' I asked, foolishly. 'Yes,' said Peter Bignell, who showed me around, 'it's the size of four football pitches'. Consequently, a theodolite is carefully placed, a couple of storeys up, on the other side of Soho Square, trained on the building. If the house moves during the night - as old buildings often do, even without the excuse of a railway station appearing directly beneath them - the good people at Crossrail will get to hear about it.
    You may wonder what I am doing nosying around a Georgian property. The answer is twofold: first, in the Victoria era, this was the headquarters of the Metropolitan Board of Works until 1862. Hence, it was here that Joseph Bazalgette first laid out his plans for his new system of sewers and the Thames Embankment, amongst other things - and I got to see the room which was his office. Second, it is widely assumed that this was the model for Dr. Manette's house in A Tale of Two Cities. Here's the passage:

A quainter corner than the corner where the Doctor lived, was not to be found in London. There was no way through it, and the front windows of the Doctor's lodgings commanded a pleasant little vista of street that had a congenial air of retirement on it. There were few buildings then, north of the Oxford-road, and forest-trees flourished, and wild flowers grew, and the hawthorn blossomed, in the now vanished fields. As a consequence, country airs circulated in Soho with vigorous freedom, instead of languishing into the parish like stray paupers without a settlement; and there was many a good south wall, not far off, on which the peaches ripened in their season.
     The summer light struck into the corner brilliantly in the earlier part of the day; but, when the streets grew hot, the corner was in shadow, though not in shadow so remote but that you could see beyond it into a glare of brightness. It was a cool spot, staid but cheerful, a wonderful place for echoes, and a very harbour from the raging streets.
     There ought to have been a tranquil bark in such an anchorage, and there was. The Doctor occupied two floors of a large stiff house, where several callings purported to be pursued by day, but whereof little was audible any day, and which was shunned by all of them at night. In a building at the back, attainable by a courtyard where a plane-tree rustled its green leaves, church-organs claimed to be made, and silver to be chased, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall of the front hall—as if he had beaten himself precious, and menaced a similar conversion of all visitors. Very little of these trades, or of a lonely lodger rumoured to live up-stairs, or of a dim coach-trimming maker asserted to have a counting-house below, was ever heard or seen. Occasionally, a stray workman putting his coat on, traversed the hall, or a stranger peered about there, or a distant clink was heard across the courtyard, or a thump from the golden giant. These, however, were only the exceptions required to prove the rule that the sparrows in the plane-tree behind the house, and the echoes in the corner before it, had their own way from Sunday morning unto Saturday night.


Dickens was, of course, writing an historical novel and we don't have to assume he had just one house in mind; but certainly the garden of the house, together with its surviving plane trees is a good fit - there are few gardens of any kind in the area. Likewise, No.2 Rose Street used to have this old sign on its wall (the 'golden arm starting out of the wall' above), now replaced with a replica version. For this reason, Rose Street was renamed Manette Street, after Dickens's character, by London County Council in 1895 (nb. it is the road which runs alongside the Pillars of Hercules pub). This was the main reason for my visit: I am currently writing a walking guide to Dickens's London, so it was great to have a look round.

      What happened after MBW left? In 1862 the house was bought by 'The House of Charity',  established by Dr. Henry Monro, a doctor from Bethlem Hospital. He also campaigned vigorously for the improvement of the conditions of the insane, but the 'House of Charity' was essentially a shelter for the destitute 'deserving' poor, men who had lost their jobs and had no money to pay for lodgings for themselves or their dependents. It provided accommodation for entire families; and, as with most Victorian charities, preached the gospel at the same time, in this case Anglo-Catholic 'Tractarianism' (don't ask me to explain the differences between the Victorians' viciously sectarian religious affiliations; I have not a clue). For this purpose, a remarkable compact Romanesque chapel was built in the garden (and can be glimpsed from Manette Street).

     The house has been owned by the Charity ever since 1862. Now the organisation focuses on getting the homeless into employment through a range of Life Skills Programmes. Can you get to see this remarkable building, with 250 years of Soho history trapped inside? There are no fixed tours, but it is available for hire - for corporate events, wedding receptions and parties. This is the charity's principal source of income, so if you're looking for somewhere exciting to entertain folk in Soho, there can't be many better ways of spending your money. Here's the charity's website, if you want to give them a ring.

Saturday 9 July 2011

The Potato Thrower

A great Victorian street-performer, recorded by James Greenwood:

As witness the performer who, for many years now, has been exhibiting in the streets of London, the tools of his craft being a bag of large-sized raw potatoes. The man is beyond middle age, and his head is bald, or nearly so; and all over his cranium, from the forehead to the base of his skull, are bumps unknown to the phrenologist. There are blue bumps, and bumps of a faded greenish hue, and bumps red and inflamed, and his bald sconce looks as though it had been out in a rain of spent bullets. It is not so, however; it has only been exposed to a downpour of raw potatoes. He is well known, and as soon as he puts his bag down, and divests himself of his coat, is quickly surrounded by a ring of spectators.
    "Here I am again,! he says, with a grin, as he takes off his can and exposes his mottled skull; "here is the old man once more, and he's not dead yet. You'll see a treat to-day, for my taters are bigger than ever they were before, and, what's more, they're 'Yorkshire reds,' the hardest tater that grows. I shall do it once too often, there's no mistake about that; but I've served the public faithful for five years and more, and I ain't going to funk over it now. Here you are: here's a tater that weighs half a pound if it weighs an ounce. Chuck threepence in the ring, and up it goes."
    And threepence is "chucked into the ring, and up it does go- high above the houses; and the man with the mottled head folds his arms like Ajax defying the lightning, and gazes skywards, prepared for the descending missile; and presently it strikes him with a sounding thud, and is smashed into a dozen pieces with the concussion, and bespatters his visage with the pulp.
    "Now chuck fourpence in," says the exhibitor, wiping his eyes, "and we'll see what we can do with a tater just as large again."
    I don't know whether, on compulsion, I would rather witness the pretty sight, or stand by and see another modern street performer making a fiery meal of strands of blazing tarred rope, daintily picked from a torch with a three- pronged fork; or that other stirring spectacle of the man who lies on the flat of his back, while another places large stones on the prostrate one's chest, and cracks them with a sledge-hammer.
    It is a subject for curious reflection, what is the private life of individuals of that class last alluded to? They of course have private lives, or it would not be worth while to endure the risks and inconveniences that pertain to their public existence. Take the potato-thrower. Has he a wife and children at home waiting for him in the evening? Has the partner of his joys and sorrows always ready, by the time her husband returns, some nice comforting fomentation for his bruised head? And does he take his evening pipe and listen to the prattle of his little ones with his unlucky head bandaged in a poultice? Can he bear, after the many terrific smashes the cruel vegetable has dealt him in the course of the day, to sit down to a dish of potatoes for his supper? And does his wife, the meal concluded, count up the pence he has had "chucked" into the ring? And does she - can she - is it in human nature that she can then take the bag and go to market to replenish it with Yorkshire reds, "the hardest tater that grows?"

Friday 1 July 2011

How Tall are You?

Another aspect of the eternal struggle between the sexes, from the often frankly entirely-invented-by-the-journalist London Journal of 1904:


"Put half an inch extra on the heel," accompanied an order to a shoemaker from a gentleman customer. "Ah," remarked the shoemaker, "there are so many tall girls nowadays that the average height of men must be raised. Up to a few years ago the lowest heel was the rage, but now the heel is decidedly higher-  I figure it between half and three-quarters of an inch. It is all the growth of recent years. It isn't fashion, either, for you'll not find the high heel among tall men. It's only among the little fellows who try to add to their height by ever so little. But even half an inch counts in a man's height. A few years ago a man of 5ft. 6in. was seldom overtopped by a lady. Now the man of 5ft. 8in. is not infrequently looked down on.
    "Per contra," continued the philosophical shoemaker, "we have lady customers now to whom we cater with low heels. The tall girl differs from a man in not being proud of her height. She knows a little girl is more likely to be esteemed affectionate and loving by the man than is a tall girl. So she tries to get down to the loving level.
    "Then again, they know that the little girls have more chances of securing beaux, for the tall girl must restrict her hopes to the average size or tall men. Short men do not like to go out with girls several inches taller, and so fall back on the petite. So, where men are having their heels made extra high, girls and women are having theirs lowered. Hence also the flat hat."