Elements of EC1

Three stories from Smithfield this time, involving fire, ice and earthy tongues.

Did you know that Clerkenwell has its very own Golden Balls? He lives in Cock Lane. In a large niche of a building on the corner of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street, to be precise. He is, famously, the Golden Boy of Pye Corner: a gilded statue of a cherub representing the end of the Great Fire in 1666. He marks the literal end, too, as he was placed on the spot where the fire stopped spreading – in our direction, anyway.

He’s a chubby, curly-haired, stuckup looking boy, with his arms folded. You’re not meant to think he’s cute. He’s a warning sign; since the fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane and fizzled out at what was once known as Pye (Pie) Corner, the theory was that it was a punishment from God for the gluttony of the age, as the long inscription beneath the boy explains. (To be honest, he isn’t that fat by today’s standards, and the name “Pie Corner” is thought to have derived from a magpie on a sign of a nearby tavern.)

The site where he stands used to be The Fortune of War pub. It had a reputation all of its own; it was the main “resting place” for the wares of the local body snatchers. Bodies would be kept there for the surgeons from St Barts hospital opposite to come and appraise them. Some more facts about the infamous pub. In 1761, its tenant, Thomas Andrews, was sentenced to death for sodomy – but he was later pardoned by George III. It gets a mention in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the Pet Shop Boys song The Resurrectionist.

During the war, some of the madder mad professors in the The Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (aka the Dept of Wheezers and Dodgers) dreamt of making aircraft carriers from ice. Ice was plentiful and unsinkable – but it had its obvious drawbacks… This did not stop them. They combined it with wood pulp and came up with a new material they called Pykrete, named after one of their team, genius “ideas man” Geoffrey Pyke.

Pykrete was supposedly tougher than steel. It was reported that a one-inch column of the stuff could support a car. It wasn’t bad at resisting bullets, either. A series of top-secret experiments were launched in Clerkenwell, at Smithfield’s underground cold stores, which had the freezers for the job. The project was called Habbakuk (misspelled), after the Biblical prophet Habakkuk. The plan was ambitious, to say the least. HMS Habbakuk was to be a monstrous vessel. Built from 40-foot blocks of ice, it would be 2,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. It would weigh 2 million tons and be able to carry 200 Spitfires. The onboard refrigeration systems could be used to spray the enemy with ultra-cold water, literally freezing them in their tracks.

The story goes that Churchill was in his bath at Chequers when an excited Lord Mountbatten introduced him to the scheme by rushing in and dropping a chunk of Pykrete into the water. He backed it. While the scientists headed to the Rockies to build a test model, Churchill took the idea to the 1943 Quebec Conference. That was the end of it, however; the war took its own course and the politicians and brains had their attentions directed elsewhere. The test model, abandoned in the Rockies, apparently took a year to melt.

To decipher the latest terms in the modern lingo, a teenager in the family is always extremely helpful. Failing that, a slang dictionary. In the 16th century, there was obviously no such thing. But, according to lexicographer Jonathon Green, an attempt was made back then to record the contemporary jargon, and it was inspired by Smithfield.

The man responsible was the printer Robert Copland. He learnt his trade from his master Wynkyn de Worde (great name), who in turn had learnt his from William Caxton. Copland is known for being the first printer, in 1534, to use the comma in black letter type (the virgule, or slash, was the norm in medieval manuscripts). It is in his book The Hye Way to the Spytell-Hous that Copland prints his slang words. A spytell house was where the poor, crippled and diseased, and phonies, went for charity and in this case, St Barts is believed to be the setting. In the text, Copland and the spytell house porter discuss the lowly types who enter (or who are barred from entering…).

You can picture the scene. Among the 51 phrases used are: apple squire (pimp), bousy (drunk), dell (young female tramp on her way to becoming a whore), prancer (horse thief), to dock (to deflower, to have sex), nabcheat (hat), to peck (to eat). Boozy, peckish – it’s not hard to see where our language has travelled since then. Most of the phrases Copland lists involve sex. Perfect for looking up in a dictionary.

With thanks to Spitalfields Life, www.spitalfieldslife.com