Weird & Wonderful London 6



This grim-looking shot is not a corpse but something that used to be such a common sight around Hyde Park that a friend and I once made a short film about them – the escape artists of London would be put in sacks, hung from poles in chains and set fire to, then wriggle free, right until the mid-1980s. Some had swords shoved into them. They appeared on Tower Hill, in Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square as well. The US escapologist David Blaine tried to go without food for weeks in a glass box hanging over the Thames, in a kind of misplaced homage to the escape artists of London, but Londoners didn’t take kindly to his arrogant attitude and flew hamburgers past him hanging from drones.

This isn’t a rioting prison mob but visitors waiting to get into St Bart’s hospital in Smithfield (right by the meat market – handy), which only allowed visitors on Wednesday afternoons. Vendors set themselves up to sell fruit and drinks to the crowd. The hospital was founded in 1123, and has never closed. It’s still there and will doubtless be around for its thousand-year anniversary. The early Scottish Nationalist Sir William Wallace, ‘Braveheart’, was executed near the gate in 1305.

What’s this, a fairground? A pleasure steamer? No, it’s the Bank of England all lit up to celebrate King George V’s and Queen Mary’s coronation. Not possible, you say? That means you’ve figured out it was 1911, and this was one of the first times ‘the new electric light’ had been used to decorate a building. Loyal readers will know that the plot of ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’ hinges on such a moment.

In the early 1920s people were still recognisably ‘types’ – you could draw them in a cartoon and they would be instantly categorised as ‘jolly farmer’ or ‘cheeky milkman’. Now this would be regarded as stereotyping, which is why we have to call fat people ‘body-positive’. These two plods in City of London helmets (with the ridge) are seeing across the road an archetypal old lady who appears to have stepped from a ‘Punch’ cartoon. Perhaps we could have modern archetypes now; ‘The cheery coked-up hedge fund manager’ or ‘The zero-hours contract delivery driver’.

Here’s an even earlier archetype: Parcelforce, circa 1883. Three immaculately dressed postmen in fashionable frock-coats and peaked hats, making careful deliveries. There were eight posts a day in London, at a time when you could also hire a private train whenever you needed to get somewhere fast. The one on the left looks like Ben Wishaw in ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. I’m still waiting for the moustache to make a comeback.

14 comments on “Weird & Wonderful London 6”

  1. Andrew Holme says:

    Not forgetting ‘The reluctant but my country needs me Conservative Leader candidate.’

  2. Jo W says:

    Moustaches? Yukkkkk

  3. Brooke says:

    It requires two able-bodied men to assist one senior lady to cross a London street?
    Parcelforce, the prototype for Amazon prime.

  4. snowy says:

    “Constable, why exactly have you nicked the Duchess of Kent?”

    “Sorry Sarge, she kept grabbing my truncheon and demanding to widdle in my helmet.”

  5. Ken Mann says:

    The “Transcribe Bentham” project recently released Jeremy Bentham’s paper on what such a thing as a police force might look like and how it would be organised. It is from 1820. He considers what the size of the Met area would need to be and it matches modern London uncannily well, suggesting that the invention of trains and cars hasn’t made much difference. He even recognises the mysterious geographic significance of South Mimms. One day I hope to visit North Mimms just to check that it isn’t a legend (and the De Havilland museum is nearby)

  6. Brian Evans says:

    I think I remember escape artists performing in Leicester Square outside the Empire Cinema.

    I certainly remember then as a child in the late fifties and sixties at the Pier Head in Liverpool.

    “The hospital was founded in 1123, and has never closed”- sounds like the Windmill as seen in “Mrs Henderson Presents”

  7. J F Norris says:

    You may facetiously be longing for the return of mustaches, but I am longing for a permanent end to the hillbilly beard fad. I’m sick of looking at young unkempt men who resemble Benjamin Harrison and Ulysses S Grant in hipster drag.

  8. snowy says:

    Ken which bit is that in? A quick search only turns up his collaboration with Patrick Colquhoun and a slightly oblique reference to his idea for the “provision of identifying marks for all subjects
    of the state”, [most likely everyone to be tattooed at birth with a number].

  9. Malcolm McKay says:

    To J F Norris – please let’s not be beardist.

    I’m in my 70s and I’ve had a beard and moustache since I was in my teens. In fact I was once criticised for this by a very young person in a place where I was working and I responded “I beg your pardon!! this beard is older than you are young lady!!!”

  10. Anji Doyle says:

    I love a good beard as long as it is well kept. Even the longer ones

  11. Carl Clegg says:

    I’d love to zip back to the 1890’s to watch a few Vaudeville shows. There’s no modern equivalent for up and coming acts except for those that wish to humiliate themselves on ‘talent’ shows.

  12. John Griffin says:

    I’d like to zip back to WW2, my step-father said it was the only time he felt truly alive. Nice to catch Al Bowlly the night before………the blackout ‘romances’ my step-nan enjoyed……

  13. Ian Luck says:

    The Blackout. Romances there probably were, alongside the pedestrians knocked down and killed by cars, trucks, and buses, whose headlights barely illuminated their front bumper, let alone the road ahead. The petty crime that was hidden by the night, even more so in the blackout. The not so petty crime – the muggings, assaults, rapes, and people like Gordon Cummings killing women with, of all things, an old fashioned tin opener.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    The picture of the three Postmen Patrick:
    “And this conveyance – I take it that it is full of Her Majesty’s Mail?”
    “Gaw blimey, guv, yer ‘avin a larf, int ‘cha?” (This clichéd Cockney canting banter went on for some time, with each Postman getting his two penn’orth in)
    “Well, gentlemen, what IS in your cart, pray tell?”
    (Sniff, clears throat; noisy eructation of a ‘Prairie Oyster’ on to the paving stones):
    “It’s bleedin’ ‘Apologies, you were elsewhere, your parcel is residing at the sorting office. Should you wish to take receipt of it, please visit during normal office hours’ cards, innit?
    “Exactly as I had thought. Good day, gentlemen. Do not attempt to toil too assiduously, will you?”

    That was part of an abandoned chapter for ‘Diary Of A Nobody’, by George and Weedon Grossmith, entitled ‘Lupin Pooter Joins A Very Peculiar Sort Of Club In Soho’. Punch magazine refused to publish it on the grounds of it being ‘An affront to decency itself’. A reply to that note, by a Mr Crowley, from Scotland, urged Punch to ‘Grow up and publish – some people want to have a good time, all the time.’ A tourist, with a Prussian sounding name, a Mr Sacher-Masoch, asked the editor of Punch if he knew which club was being referred to, as it sounded ‘Just his sort of thing’. The editor of Punch told the Kraut to ‘Go forth and multiply’. The rest of the chapter disappeared, but was seen, briefly, in, of all places, Australia, torn neatly into squares, and hanging from a nail in a ‘Dunny’ at the rear of the Governor’s residence.

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