London With Its Pants Down


There are a number of terrific books about London’s underbelly, but the two I’ve enjoyed most in a very long time are these, ‘Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics’ and ‘High Buildings, Low Morals’ by Rob Baker. The former title comes from a quote by Oscar Wilde, the latter from Noel Coward.

Rob is a fellow blogger who runs the ‘Another Nickel in the Machine’ website, which unearths wonderful stories about London elite and lowlife from the past. For a site with an American title it’s probably the most delightfully obscure London-centric site in the world. It’s been a couple of years since Rob’s last compendium. This time around he’s looking at, among other things, ‘those’ headless Polaroids of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (there was a modern opera based on that scandal called ‘Powder Her Face’ by Thomas Adès), the bizarre Oz magazine trial, the Eton schoolboys scandal, Cynthia Payne and her luncheon voucher brothel (I sat next to her at dinner once and there was something eerily dead behind that perpetual smile), Lord Boothby and Ronnie Kray, Jessie Matthews in Soho and the Nazi wreath left at the Cenotaph.

One of the brilliant things Rob does is allow his nose for a good story to lead him laterally across the city’s history, so that we make connections that fill in missing bits of our knowledge. Considering London is probably the richest anecdotal city in the world, it’s shocking that quite so much of the past is being dismissed as something that belongs exclusively to the world of books. But all London life is here within these covers, and in reading these tales we see very quickly how past mistakes are endless repeated, especially on the side of a biased press who now exactly what they’re doing and will continue to bit as their power wanes.

I hope Ron creates many more such volumes because he’s proof that people do care enough to write intelligently about London history, and the detailed stories here will make your jaw drop. This is pretty ‘Deep English’ stuff but that only makes the telling more enjoyable. Of course, it does help if you know who Dickie Henderson is. You can find his photo behind the bar in the Cross Keys, Covent Garden. The crooner also used to be at the deranged Windsor Castle pub off the Edgware Road, but they’ve shamefully closed that amazing boozer. Photo below;


16 comments on “London With Its Pants Down”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I’m old enough to remember Dickie Henderson. His ‘trademark’ was the ability to perform lethal looking pratfalls for any occasion.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    A really good introduction to the seamier, more interesting side of London is a book by the singer from that none-more-London band, Madness. ‘Suggs And The City’ is an amiable amble through the capital with a good companion. Chapters featuring Rag & Bone men, London’s first chip shop, long-gone second hand clothes shops, tours of areas, tales of ‘characters’, like Daniel Farson, and Norman Balon, Italian cafés, how to get in to venues gratis, all that sort of thing. It’s a damn good read.

  3. Jan says:

    I can remember years ago being told that during and after WW2 there was a particular road up in Paddington up towards the Harrow Road side not Edgware Road that became during that period just about the busiest red light area outside central London. The place being absolutely awash with punters and whores. This road became so notoriously linked with prostitution the council actually stepped in and renamed it and it was very heavily policed in order to eradicate the problem. Dunno either the Old or new name of the road but was probably near some British or American wartime barracks (temporary or permanent) to ensure a steady local supply of punters .

    Dreadful that they have closed the “Windsor Castle” down smashing pub that was. Didn’t even know that had gone. Why’s that one closed then? Think it was Wendy Richards the actress from Easterenders and “Are you being served” who used to pop in there during the evenings for a g+t or two. Pretty much left in peace by the locals. I’ve spent a good few hours skiving in there on Fridays and Saturdays when I should have been working nearby.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    The Windsor Castle was one of several pubs built for the English ‘Navvies’ (short for ‘Navigationals), who were digging the London canals. The Dublin Castle was for Irish Navvies, and I believe that there was an Edinburgh Castle, and a Cardiff Castle, for Scots, and Welsh workers. All four pubs spaced well apart, to minimise there being huge and violent booze filled pay day paggas erupting. These did happen prior to this, and deaths did occur, with hordes of navvies attacking each other with picks and shovels.


    DRINKER: (Slowly) Bit lively tonight, Les.
    LANDLORD (Wiping gore off of the bar) Friday. Payday. And the kids are on holiday. Another?
    DRINKER: (Proffering pint pot) Why not?

  5. Jan says:

    Sounds like your average saturday evening in the Castle!

    Had heard before about them being navvies pubs the Castles. Up in the north there are the remains of “navvy towns” in various places around the Pennines and the W coast. Temporary almost Klondike type “goldrush” towns. Archeologists have been examining them for the past few years. The navvies were well swizzed by their employers who paid them in coinage tokens specifically minted by the employers to buy food and booze in their own overpriced shops. Not accepted elsewhere obviously. These were mighty men the canal constructors – someone worked out they needed between 7,000-12,000 calories a day just to just keep going.

    My dad’s dad’s dad (Ok my great grandfather) travelled down from a little place not far from Newcastle to work on the construction of the Manchester Ship canal. The last major canal to be constructed in the UK the Ship. It never quite found its place really but might finally do so now with this vast container harbour being constructed near Paticroft Greater Manchester.

    Must admit I find the pubs actually on the waterways very very interesting. I was in the Chilterns for a few days last week and walked a stretch of the Wendover arm of the Grand Union. Travelled on different stretches of the G.U. before doing day cruises on canal barges. There’s loads of pubs at intervals along the canals. Thought “The Crystal Palace” in Tring was lovely. There’s a really unusual pub on the turf lock on the Exeter canal actually constructed on and island in the canal right beside the turf lock. Thirsty work the work of the bargees obviously. Filled in the time at the locks as well I suppose.

    If you ever want a 100% safe way to experience Notting Hill Carnival get on the canal barge cruise from Horsendon Hill near Greenford in Middlesex which saunters along the Grand Union through Wembley, Alperton and Harlesden along through West London and parks up not far from the flyover. This is @ a high point on the canal looking down on the carnival route. Really good view no massive crowd jostling just the music, beautiful costumes non of the aggravation.
    The company do Carnival specials. Many beers on board.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    What a great idea, Jan! Sounds like a perfect holiday if crowds get to you.
    There is an area south of Glasgow called Old Monkhouse. It’s been plowed over and rebuilt since my grandfather was born there but there are remains of the coal mining community it once was. It was serviced by a canal which is now cut off and dry but you can see where it went and on the bank there is a brick inn (with license attached) called The Waterman. When we were walking along the canal remains the inn had a for sale sign and I really thought seriously about inquiring as to details. There is an excellent museum nearby with wonderful iron gates and at least one of the original miner’s houses.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    That should be Old Monkland. I knew it didn’t look right but I’ve been up all night and my brain isn’t working.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Old Monkhouse was a very funny comedian. Sorry, Bob Monkhouse. Sadly, he died of cancer, several years ago. He had always raised money for various charities, and it was a bit startling to see, about a year after his death, posters for, I believe, Cancer Research UK, featuring a picture of him, and the caption: “I’m Bob Monkhouse, and I’m dead now.” That’s powerful, attention-grabbing stuff. I wonder if any other country would dare to have such a campaign?

  9. Jan says:

    Helen canal. boat holidays are really very popular here in the UK. Surprisingly so really.

    Any farmer who’s land abutts a dredged and working canal has a great income strand storing canal touring boats over the winter months. Some have built additional “barns” for this very purpose.

    If I hadn’t needed to work I would have seriously considered spending 5 or so Years of my early retirement pottering around the country by canal barge. This once essential transport system has transitioned very well into a tourist transport system.

    Country pubs by the locks, a steady slow pace of transportation and a wonderful experience of old industries and amazing scenery. Whats not to like? All this basically being down to an Army of volunteers who rebuilt flights of locks and dug out the old canals truly marvellous work.

    Except in parts of some British cities – South London for example where old canals were turned into Rail routes. Now you can’t do much about that!

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve always liked the idea of a canal boat, preferably pulled by a horse (I like horses), as a quiet relaxed way of traveling. We see lots of ads over here for canal holidays in Europe, but I’ve seen the boats moored near Chris and the occasional one on British tv and it just makes me want to potter.
    Funny (peculiar) about that Bob Monkhouse thing. I agree that it’s an ad that would really get to you and now I’ve reminded his fans again.
    All these lovely things that people really enjoy and which are maintained by “an army of volunteers”. Steam trains and canal boats and local museums and vintage cars and morris dancing (well, some people) and all sorts of other minor interests. Let’s hear it for the volunteers, may their numbers never grow less!

  11. Jan says:

    The Kennett and Avon Canal up near Tiverton would do you H. Theres an aquaduct – a little know Brunel aquaduct carrying the canal across a railway line. The Railway which became defunct years and years ago may well be reinstated. Again volunteer power has much to do with this. Anything to do with railways attracts multitudes of gents of all ages. But a particular steam engine sort!

    If I get time I will send some pics to Mr Fowls of this Canal to forward on to you. Originally built to transport lime some lime kilns are sited in Tiverton near the canal. Still horse drawn canal boats operate there it’s a wonderful day out in high summer.

    Unbelievably there was a plan to link up a series of canal ways the Exeter canal (Exmouth to Exeter )being one and this being another together with two more canals to form a channel through from north to south Devon to prevent ships having to complete the long dangerous navigation around Cornwall. Lands End is a rough old sail.

    Needless to say this never happened, some financial chicanery made local investors and large companies alike lose faith in the project. So the additional canals were never completed.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Oooh! Brunel, aquaducts, canals, and railways; be still my beating heart. The pictures would be really welcome as Ken has fallen and shattered his femur so he’ll be immobilised for quite a while and all distractions will be welcome.

  13. Jan says:

    Not long home from work will get pics to Mr F tomorrow

  14. SimonB says:

    At this point I can say (a) that’s another two books on my wishlist and (b) I can highly recommend “The Bookshop That Floated Away” by Sarah Henshaw – she bought a barge and turned it into a bookshop…

  15. Helen Martin says:

    I’ll look into that one, Simon.

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    I don’t know if they still do them, but there were maps showing the canal routes that had all the canal side pubs on them, and those within striking distance. It was a fun time when I used to do the canal trips, except for the chemical toilet.

    In Manchester there was an odd pub called Tommy Ducks, it had underwear decorating the place, quite a few coronation Street stars went there. One weekend planning permission was put in (or the that the preservation order was not renewed and was to be renewed the next day), which of course would not be looked at until the Monday, and the place was knocked down over night, it became a car park, it’s now a Premier Inn. At least the brewery received a hefty fine.


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