Movin’ on up

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After four years in our home we’re moving to a brand new site hosted on this side of the Atlantic, and we didn’t need Pickfords to do the heavy lifting, even though it has been hard at times.

The sparkling new site has as its theme London Live – appropriate for a blog about our capital – which a look that I hope gives more of an impression from the inside my cab.

http://www.cabbieblog.com/ has more animation; and provides easily accessible content; videos and your gratefully received comments have greater visibility.

The new site has allowed me to play with a new ‘boys’ toy’ these last few weeks, even though it has been a steep learning curve developing the site. That is the reason some recent posts have been more truncated.

At the time of writing I haven’t been able to migrate your RSS notifications, and so if we are still to keep in touch (if only to exchange Christmas cards) click on this link to update your RSS feed. Or if you prefer email notifications sign up at the new site.

Thank you all for your support, comments (supportive or not), bookmarks, tweets, Facebook and all the other social media thingies.

It has been my pleasure to share with you my London and a truly humbling journey I’ve travelled with over a third of a million hits.

Thank you and Be Lucky.

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A close shave

Sweeny Todd

For many years I’ve thought of Sweeny Todd as an urban myth, alongside Robin Hood and King Arthur, but a book by the late Peter Haining Sweeny Todd: The Real Story of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has gone some way to dispel that belief, although it must be said that many academics dispute his findings. He asserts that the 25th January 2012 marks the 210th anniversary of Todd’s hanging for crimes which if true would make him Britain’s most prolific serial killer.

His abused early life would match the profile for the makings of a psychopath. Todd was born on 26th October 1756 in Brick Lane to a mother who for a living wound silk in Spitalfields and a drunken father employed as a silk weaver and who would regularly beat his son and wife. Spoilt by the mother who as he later related “would make quite a pet of me”, kissing him and calling him a pretty boy. As he grew up hating his life at home Todd would visit the nearby Tower of London where instruments of torture were displayed to discourage miscreants.

In the harsh winter of 1768 both his parents seem to have succumbed to gin, the cold or both and disappeared from the records and from Todd’s life.

Two years later at the age of 14 Todd entered Newgate Prison for an unrecorded crime and was to spend five years within its walls working with a man called Plummer the prison’s barber. As his assistant Todd would soap the condemned men’s chins for shaving before they walked to the gallows. A tough life in Newgate for on one occasion he was left for dead after a beating for pilfering from a murderer.

On his release in 1775 semi-literate Todd had acquired new skills which he intended to put to good use. He set himself up as a street corner barber and within five years had opened a barbers shop near Hyde Park corner.

Violence surrounded him, his shop was within walking distance of the gibbet at Tyburn which was to be the principal place of execution in London for the next three years until Tyburn’s gallows were decommissioned in 1783 when Newgate was used as London’s principal place of execution as Todd would later discover. He hated his parents and abused his wife he had in short all the makings of a modern-day serial killer.

In December 1784 an annual news chronicle reported a story: “A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’s throat from ear to ear and absconded.” Todd would recount later after his arrest “My first ‘un was a young gent at Hyde Park Corner. Slit him from ear to ear, I did.”

He next appeared at 186 Fleet Street (now home to the Dundee Courier) in a dilapidated shop adjacent to St. Dunstan’s Church, just yards from Bell Yard, the two locations were connected by a series of tunnels beneath the church. Paying £125 for the lease he set himself up as a barber surgeon, with a red and white striped pole representing the bandages and blood of his profession, and above the shop a yellow painted sign reading “Sweeny Todd, Barber”. In the windows were jars displaying rotten teeth showcasing his prowess at extraction.

London’s first newspaper the Daily Courant then located in Crane Court just a few yards up Fleet Street from Todd’s barber shop reported the murder on 14th April 1785 of a young gentleman who had been seen in conversation with a man dressed as a barber stating “The two men came to an argument, and of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing and was seen no more.”

Four other murders near his shop have been attributed to Todd, an apprentice who was carrying money for his master, a pawnbroker, a share dealer and a petty crook. Not wishing to be caught in the street committing his foul deeds he had now devised a way of dispatching his victims within the confines of his shop. Probably inspired by a waxworks exhibition in Fleet Street which featured revolving machinery which made the waxworks kick out to frighten visitors, his chair was positioned either side of a moveable square of floorboards. The only evidence of its use is of victim Thomas Shadwell, a watchman at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in the form of an incomplete document written by the victim’s son.

He now needed a means of disposing of his victims and a young widow called Mrs Lovett who had a penchant for strong, violent men and owned baker’s shop nearby fitted the bill. As with serial killers he repeated his method; after murdering he would take clothing and valuables and then would strip the body and carry the body parts in a box through the tunnels beneath St. Dunstan’s Church where Mrs Lovett would use the remains as filling for her meat pies.

In a city, which by the standards of today we would find nauseating, the stench of rotting bodies in the area prompted the Daily Courant to report: “The dreadful charnel house sort of smell would make itself most painfully and disagreeably apparent.”

Enter Richard Blunt of the newly formed Bow Street Runners being suspicious of Todd told his men to watch the shop and on several occasions he visited the barber’s himself and was shaved, but always had a companion.

It was when they entered the tunnels they found the evidence they needed of his crimes. His Blunt’s party entered a disused family vault to find the recent remains of human bodies and following a trail of footprints found themselves at the back of Lovett’s underground cookhouse. Later returning to Todd’s barber shop when he was out evidence of found including the valuables stolen from his victims before being turned into pies.

Lovett killed herself with poison before coming to trial, but in the Christmas of 1801 London witnessed “one of the trials of the age”. Todd was charged at the Old Bailey with a single murder that of Francis Thornhill, who had on his person before disappearing a string of pearls worth £16,000 intended for a young woman in London. He entered Todd’s shop to be shaved never to be seen again, Todd later pawned them for £1,000.

The Attorney General told the court that clothing from 160 people had been found in the shop, and a leg bone found in the church vaults belong to Thornhill. A surgeon, Sylvester Steers, who had treated Thornhill for a leg fracture, recognised the bone as his patient’s.

The jury took just 5 minutes to reach their guilty verdict. Sweeny Todd was not hanged at Tyburn but was taken from his cell in Newgate on the morning of 25th January 1802 and hanged in front of a crowd of thousands. He was 46 years old. After hanging for an hour his body was carried to the Royal College of Surgeons and ironically was butchered for the benefit of medical science.

The case of Britain’s most prolific killer inspired The Strong of Pearls, a serial published in a weekly magazine in 1846, it was dramatised by George Dibdin Pitt in 1842, in what is regarded as the first true life drama, and it has been the basis for numerous books, plays and films, and inspired Stephen Sondheim for write a musical. The term Sweeny has in turn become cockney rhyming slang for the Metropolitan police’s Flying Squad which then became a long running television drama The Sweeny 1975-82.

If today you wish for a close shave here are Esquire’s top London barbers.

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Lost for words

Doctor Samuel Johnson must have found this when, after working for nine years from a little house in Gough Square, in 1755 he published the world’s first major English dictionary.

Researchers on the BBC’s Planet Word interviewed 2,000 people and discovered that the English language is continually evolving. Many new words have been invented some of which some are just abbreviations the result of “text speak”, while equally many are falling from favour. So as a last Hurrah the text below includes the top 20 which have fallen from favour, and some in the most at risk category.

It was spiffing to receive felicitations from Melissa at Smitten by Britain which lauded praise on me concerning some bally guest post written by yours truly concerning the tomfoolery we Londoners engage in just to hail a cab.

Some of that posts readers might have thought that I was writing balderdash for no raconteur am I like that cad Stephen Fry, but verily it is arcane to many Americans the polite way that we, in London, hail a cab compared with the rumbuncious way they do so in New York.

Not wishing to appear a laggard in the world of social media I’ve found that tweeting @CabbieBlog a swell way to engage with a wider audience regaling them of the dopsy-daisy world of the cabbie. But while I didn’t trouser any dosh writing about the shenanigans of driving a cab for Smitten by Britain, so I want to quash that diabolical idea that I received some remuneration while engaging with the myriad of Colonial Cousins we have across the water.

Now our language is betwixt writing long and complicated words and the abbreviated text speak now used on Twitter when sending salutations to each other across Cyberspace. For experts have found that texting has smitten many words from our lexicon.

Cripes text speak has now become the norm for many even in their verbal language, such as lol (laughing out loud), jel (jealous) and soz (sorry), the malaise when communicating with one’s betrothed via a mobile phone using just 140 characters makes many Old English words , well . . . knackered.

The survey found that almost three-quarters believe longer words have become outdated since social networking became de rigueur, and the English grammar of P. G. Wodehouse is obsolete. Although not all Twitterers have abandoned their belief in good English, only last week I was taken to task for my bad grammar whilst using the allotted 140 characters, and all that in the same week that the bookseller Waterstone’s dropped its apostrophe. So here are the top 20 forgotten words:

1. Bally: A British word from 1885 which is a euphemism for bloody

2. Laggard: An 18th Century word to describe someone who lags behind or responds slowly

3. Felicitations: From the noun of action felicitate, you would use this word to express congratulations

4. Rambunctious: Boisterous or unruly, the word is believed to have originated in 1830

5. Verily: From Middle English simply means true or in truth

6. Salutations: A welcome greeting

7. Betwixt: Originated before 950, and means neither the one nor the other

8. Lauded: From the Latin laudare, to praise

9. Arcane: Known or understood by very few

10. Raconteur: A person skilled in telling stories, originated in the 19th Century, from the French verb, raconter, to tell

11. Cad: An ill-bred man, originates from 19 Century, derived from the word Caddie

12. Betrothed: The person to whom one is engaged

13. Cripes: Twentieth Century slang for an expression of surprise, euphemistic for ‘Christ!’

14. Malaise: A vague or unfocused feeling of mental uneasiness

15. Quash: To put down or suppress completely; quell

16. Swell: Originates before 900 from the Middle English verb swellen, meanings include the verb to inflate and an adjective which describes if something is excellent

17. Balderdash: From the 1590s it was originally a jumbled mix of liquors (milk and beer, beer and wine, etc.), before being transferred in 1670s to ‘senseless jumble of words’

18. Smite: To strike, deal a blow

19. Spiffing: From the word spiff, meaning well-dressed, means superb

20. Tomfoolery: Foolish behaviour

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Suicidal bakers

The MonumentTopped by what looks like a flaming Christmas pudding, this, the tallest isolated stone column in the world, stands 202ft high and although obscured by office buildings, the Shard being the latest, can still offer commanding views of The City. If you have the energy, and it must be said, the courage to ascend its 311 steps the view is spectacular from the top of London’s Monument.

You climb up inside the column with just a thin, worn handrail to prevent your rapid descent until you arrive at the viewing platform. This was once a favourite spot for people wishing to commit suicide who had a head for heights. There must be something about kneading dough, or the fact that as a result of a nearby baker’s oven the City was consumed by fire, that has made this ledge the launch pad of choice for suicidal bakers. Six unfortunates have committed suicide by jumping from the top of the Monument and three had associations with baking; John Cradock in 1788; a man named Leander in 1810; and Margaret Moyes a daughter of a baker in 1839. This knead to end one’s life stopped in 1842 when a cage was inserted over the platform.

James Boswell – Dr. Johnson’s biographer – came here in 1762 to climb to what was then the highest viewpoint in London. Half-way up he suffered a panic attack, but he persevered and made it to the top, where he found it “horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and all its spires”.

Poor Boswell didn’t have the incentive that you now have of receiving a certificate for your efforts when you reach terra firma. But as you receive the proof of completing your ascent at the bottom of the column, there is no check of your bravery in having reached the very top.

The Monument stands on the site of St. Margaret’s Church in Fish Street, the first church lost to the Great Fire of London; the column stands 202ft high and 202ft from the seat of the fire in Pudding Lane which in 1666 destroyed four-fifths of the City.

It was designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke who had wanted to use its hollow centre to suspend a pendulum for scientific experiments, but the vibrations from the heavy traffic on Fish Hill made the conditions unsuitable. During the construction they also used it as a fixed telescope, again with unsatisfactory results.

The architects originally wanted to surmount the column with a phoenix (embodying the motto of London (of which we, alas seldom use): “Resurgem” – “I am reborn”, this was abandoned in favour of a colossal statue of King Charles II. But the Monarch pointed to the fact that he didn’t start the fire, so why should he be plonked on top of the monument which commemorates its origins. So a golden flaming Christmas pudding it was.

Lastly, one curious incident happened during the Blitz. On 9th September 1940 one of the first heavy high-explosive bombs to fall on the City landed in King William Street, almost exactly 202ft from the Monument the same distance to the west as our culprit bakery was to the north.

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When I were a nipper

Nippy-Waitress

When I were a nipper at about this time of year we would go up West to see the annual pantomime at the London Palladium. In the early 1950s the Palladium would always have its annual feast of comedy characters in drag: Frankie Howard; Richard Hearne (Mr Pastry); Max Bygraves; and my all time favourite Norman Wisdom.

But the highlight of the trip was not an early introduction into the world of theatre, but the gastronomical delight that preceded the show – a trip to a Lyons Tea Room or Lyons Corner Houses. In the days when Lyons had aspirations beyond a Mr Kipling bakewell tart these vast emporiums dominated the casual dining market in London.

The first Lyons teashop opened in Piccadilly in 1894, the premises are still a cafe and now called Ponti’s where you can still see the original stucco ceiling of the original teashop. The Lyons teashops became so popular that in the 1950s there were seven along Oxford Street alone and 250 nationally, but it was their Corner Houses which were the most impressive. In total London had three: one on the junction with Tottenham Court Road and Hanway Street; a second at Coventry Street and Rupert Street; the third at the intersection of Strand and Craven Street.

They were huge, the entire ground floor was taken up as a food hall were Mum would buy such luxury goods as coleslaw or Parmesan cheese. Above were three or four levels of restaurants each with their own decorative style with an orchestra playing throughout the day.

But the best was the waitresses in their maid like black dresses, with white aprons and tiara type hats. Originally called “Gladys” by 1926 it was felt that name was old fashioned and suggestions included “Sybil-at-your-service”, Miss Nimble”, Miss Natty”, “Busy Betty” and “Dextrous Doris”, but they eventually were referred to as Nippies because of their ability to move speedily around the diners tables and often no doubt trying to avoid the advances of middle-aged men, although it was reported by Picture Post that every year 800-900 Nippies got married to customers “met on duty” and the publication wrote that being a Nippy was good training for becoming a housewife.

The Corner Houses also had hairdressers, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies and a food delivery service. These were also pioneers of self-service dining, and an amusing anecdote by John Hall tells of the Lyons Corner House in the Strand which offered a fixed price meal, with the attraction of being able to fit as much as you could on your tray for the one price. Unfortunately the tray was on a conveyor belt moving down the counter quicker than you could stack it with food.

Two other Corner Houses were managed under the Maison Lyons brand one at Marble Arch and the other in Shaftsbury Avenue called The Trocodero, which during the war was given over to American troops and known as Rainbow Corner, it can’t have been a coincidence
that the Windmill with its proud boast “We Never Close” which offered male entertainment was opposite.

In a world just recovering from a devastating war with much a London laid to rubble by the bombing and sweet rationing still in force, high tea was a luxury but sadly the last teashop closed in 1981. Now the good news is that Lyons style tea houses are set to return. Headed by a former operations chief at Starbucks, but don’t let that put you off, using the Lyons teashop brand the first opened in Bluewater shopping centre and female members of the CabbieBlog were among the first to sample the delight of finger sandwiches, scones and cakes: And their opinion? Brilliant.

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Money to burn

Building Battersea

It is arguably Londoner’s favourite industrial building and best viewed when travelling along the road of the rich and famous – Cheyne Walk. There on the opposite bank of the Thames is “The Temple of Power” as it was then dubbed when constructed in the 1930s.

Battersea Power Station, the largest brick built building in Europe – even if it does not have a roof – was constructed in two halves, both identical from the outside and comprising two individual power stations. Battersea A Power Station was built first with Battersea B Power Station to its east constructed later in the 1950s. The two stations were built to an identical design, providing when finished the well known four-chimney layout. The station ceased generating electricity in 1983, but over the past 50 years it has become one of the best known landmarks in London and is Grade II* listed.

Two years ago we had rather hoped, or at least I did, that Real Estate Opportunities had a viable plan to “save” Battersea and develop the site with the mix of retail units and the ubiquitous riverside residential units.

They have gone the same way as other developers with money to burn – at least in 1940 when they literally ran the boilers on bundles of used notes the power station produced electricity and not just hot air.

In the 1980s Alton Towers owner John Broome wanted to turn the building into a giant fun fair, even booking Mrs. Thatcher to cut the ribbon. His dreams went up in smoke selling his £350 investment for £10 million to Taiwanese property tycoons, but their dreams of developing its prime riverside location also went down the Swanee – or the Thames.

BatterseaEven using it for a photo shoot has been eventful. A pink pig tethered to Battersea’s chimneys for Pink Floyd’s album Animals broke its moorings and soared 5,000 feet disrupting air traffic approaching Heathrow, the pig eventually landing in a field in Kent. At King’s Cross the stark beauty of industrial heritage has been recognised by many who argue that an English Heritage listed Victorian gasometer become a centre piece of a new park being constructed. Could we not use Battersea Power Station as a centrepiece of a new park?

The old girl was earned a dignified retirement, not a single day’s production of electricity was lost during the war and at one time the generators were supplying one fifth of London’s power, she has earned her place in the sun.

So instead of the latest wiz-bang idea to make a buck by turning it into a 60,000-seater stadium for Chelsea FC (how can that be with Chelsea on the opposite bank?), let Battersea Power Station be a park, a quiet place for reflection and a chance to remember when we had an Empire and coal was King, while instead of buying France’s power we could actually keep the home fires burning and the lights turned on using electricity produced at Battersea.

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London’s top secret tower

If I had written this post 18 years ago it is quite possible that MI5 would want to talk to me. It’s hardly the stuff of John le Carré but from the day it was built until Kate Howie MP, speaking in Parliament on 19th February 1993 spilt the beans by announcing to the public, and I quote:

Hon. Members have given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret. An example that has not been mentioned, but which is so trivial that it is worth mentioning, is the absence of the British Telecom tower from Ordnance Survey maps. I hope that I am covered by parliamentary privilege
when I reveal that the British Telecom tower does exist and that its address is
60 Cleveland Street, London (Hansard col.632).

The 621 foot high BT Tower was Britain’s most poorly kept secret. Londoners were expected to not notice its presence, in fact for many years it did not appear on any map as its location was protected by the Official Secrets Act, even the taking and storing photographs of the building was forbidden.

In a further secret twist Londoners seem to have been unaware of the changes that have recently been undertaken above their heads as engineers removed the 31 microwave dishes, once used to transmit top secret data across a nationwide network of similar towers. Right up until the 1980s, the microwave network was responsible for transmitting television signals and other data – some of it military. The arrangement comprised of a link of transmitters, stretched across the United Kingdom from north to south; with towers similar to the London GPO erected in Birmingham (at Snow Hill) and Manchester (in Heaton Park).

Being extremely secure, the system was also known by the codename, “Backbone” and, in the event of a nuclear attack, the resilient network would have provided vital communications for the government.

The tower is mostly circular because the designers noted that the only buildings that survived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were round, with the shape allowing the enormous blast wave to surge round them. But considering the searing heat and 500mph blast wave unleashed by a nuclear weapon, it is doubtful that any buildings (or indeed people) would have been left standing.

The tower was conceived in the 1950s when broadband microwave technology seemed the best way serve the growing communication needs of the nation. It was designed to exchange microwave radio signals with other similar towers in locations such as Birmingham, Bristol and Portsmouth. Built in a yard off an existing telephone exchange, it was quite a neat engineering feat. A borehole survey revealed the hard chalk suitable for supporting foundations was 174 feet down, too far to be practically used. Instead an 88 foot square concrete “raft” was placed some 26 feet below street level, supporting a seven metre tall flat topped concrete pyramid, which in turn supported a hollow concrete shaft that forms the core of the tower. Even in 100mph winds it will not sway more than 7.4 inches. Swaying isn’t good for microwave transmission especially in a nuclear holocaust.

In 1962 the GPO Tower (as it was then known) overtook St. Pauls Cathedral as London’s tallest building, that title was briefly snatched away by the newly constructed Millbank Tower which took less time to build, but was regained when completed. It held that record until 1980 when the NatWest Tower (now renamed Tower 42) rose above the City skyline.

Known formerly as the General Post Office Tower its presence (or at least its purpose) might have remained a secret but for the fact of a restaurant which revolved every 22 minutes on the 34th floor which was operated by the holiday camp king Billy Butin. By 1971 the tower had been visited by over 5 million people, it only closed in 1980 amid security fears after a bomb had exploded in the gent’s toilet one night causing extensive damage which took two years to repair.

In defiance of the prohibitions placed upon acknowledging its presence it has appeared in BBC’s Doctor Who the War Machines which curiously does have a “D” Notice slapped on it as the YouTube clip has now been withdrawn by the BBC. The tower has been a popular backdrop to science fiction films among others V for Vendetta, The Fog, The New Avengers episode Sleeper, The Day of the Triffids and Harry Potter flies over it in a Ford Anglia. But the all time favourite the tower is featured in the most famous scene in The Goodies when it is toppled over by Twinkle the Giant Kitten in the episode Kitten Kong.

London’s secret tower is based upon an original post by Charlie on Cold War London.

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