Hood Winks | bah-humbug Londoners
Our usual set of did-you-know cool Clerkenwell claims to fame. This time, involving horses, post-mortems and the Olympics
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
To us, a “filling station” is somewhere we can top up the car (and, boy, do we miss the Texaco that was on Clerkenwell Road). To the Victorians, it was, unsurprisingly, something different, though not completely – it was somewhere they could “top up” the horses. In other words, a water trough. There are many water troughs to be seen still around London, not least the one in the middle of Clerkenwell Green. Clerkenwell boasted quite a few, thanks to the number of animals being herded through the area to Smithfield.
These troughs came about as a result of a soaring population (and its delightful by-product, pollution), combined with a lack of water regulation. Water sources in the city were dirty, to say the least, and cholera and other diseases were rife. Most people would stick to drinking beer instead. The animals weren’t lucky enough to have that option.
In 1852, the Metropolis Water Act was finally introduced, banning the sewage-ridden water of the Thames from being used as a domestic supply (yuck). Then, in 1859, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was formed, promising to be “the only agency for providing free supplies of water for man and beast in the streets of London”. That same year, it opened the UK’s first drinking fountain, a granite niche, complete with shell motif, decorative columns and cups attached by chains, set into the boundary wall of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, near Smithfield. A huge crowd turned up to the event, it was of such importance, and soon after the fountain was reckoned to be used by 7,000 people a day.
In the decade that followed, 140 drinking fountains and 153 water troughs sprung up across the city. Londoners owe the association, which still exists today, though by the shorter name of The Drinking Fountain Association, a big cheers.
ROLL OUT THE BARREL
Clerkenwell boasts not only Britain’s first modern clown – Grimaldi – but also Britain’s first modern strongman: Thomas Topham, after whom Topham Street, off Farringdon Road, is named. Like Grimaldi, he was ahead of his time, achieving fame for his talents long before any competition came along.
Topham, who was born in Islington in 1710, started his career as a carpenter’s apprentice; he then ran a pub in Marylebone. This he did badly, it is told, so he decided to pull in the punters by performing muscle feats while they took their ale. He soon garnered a reputation and started doing displays to the public at large. He may not have had 10 ton trucks to pull but he found plenty of other, ingenious 18th century ways in which to show off his strength. His first stunt, in 1733, took place in Clerkenwell: he pulled against a horse by lying on his back with his feet against a wall at Moorfields. The following year, he performed at nearby Stationers’ Hall, during which he lay between two chairs and invited five men to stand on him. All while keeping a glass of wine steady in his hand.
“The British Samson”, as he became known, could also twist a poker around his arm, lift a six-foot oak table with his teeth and bend a pewter dish “as a man rolls up a sheet of paper”. To celebrate an obscure British naval victory, he famously lifted, via a harness around his neck, three hogsheads of water weighing nearly a ton. But one of his best tricks was to heave a horse over a turnpike gate. That’s some length to go to simply to avoid paying the toll.
If you’re not one of those bah-humbug Londoners and you’re actually looking forward to the Olympics this summer, there’s a chance you’ll end up watching some of the table tennis. You may remember Boris Johnson’s speech at the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics about the game. He declared, embarrassing the nation in signature fashion, that Ping-Pong was invented in England, not China, as it’s often believed, and it was called Wiff-Waff.
Well, he was right, but also wrong. It was indeed invented over here – it’s generally thought to have been an 1880s parlour game played by aristos, who improvised with a dining table, books for bats and a champagne cork. But it is a former Clerkenwell company that lays the most official claim to having invented the game, as it was the first to trademark it, in 1901. Jaques of London, which was based on Hatton Garden until World War II, called it Gossima, though it was known colloquially as Ping-Pong, on account of the noise the ball made in play.
As for Wiff-Waff, Jaques says it was devised by a rival firm, many years later. Did Boris back down? “I stand by my assertion,” he insisted, with more than a whiff, or pong, of mayoral pride.
It’s so romantic to us these days, the idea of getting around by horse and carriage. No roaring noise, no choking fumes. But horsedrawn travel came with all sorts of drawbacks – and not just the spread-on-your-roses kind. Horses often fell over, particularly when it rained, their iron shoes slipping on the roads.
Thus there was much debate in Victorian days over road surfaces. None of the options seemed to tick all three boxes of being quiet, safe and hard-wearing. Up until about 1839, the favoured material was granite – “as was done in the streets of Pompeii” it was often stated at the time. A strange brag, indeed, considering that the streets of Pompeii weren’t much use to anyone after AD 79.
Granite, while durable, was deafeningly noisy. Asphalt and Tarmac were already being experimented with but the horses didn’t like them, and the road materials we know today didn’t really take off until horse power of a different sort arrived in the early 1900s. So wood, set out in paving blocks, was trialled.
The first wooden road was laid in Clerkenwell, outside the Old Bailey in 1839 – and, fittingly, the last surviving example of a wooden road in London is also here. It forms part of Chequer Street, near Whitecross Street.
An 1878 study calculated that a horse could travel an average of 2,939 miles on wood before falling over, while only 686 miles on asphalt. But wood soon fell out of favour (and when it was ripped up all over London, caused public frenzies, people grabbing as much as they could for their fires). Its main downsides were that it was hard to clean and it, erm, tended to absorb smells. Which is why it was Tarmac that came up smelling of roses in the end.
You wouldn’t know it now, full of bike racks that it is, but that seemingly pointless spot at the Smithfield end of St John Street where the road widens was once the hopeful beginning or the gruesome end for Clerkenwellites.
With all manner of vice being prevalent in EC1 in the early 17th century, it was thought that some visible signs of law and order were required. So stocks were erected in St John Street, followed by Hick’s Hall, in that wide part of the street, in 1612. It was funded by a Sir Baptist Hicks, who’d made his fortune lending money to Scottish noblemen who had come to England with James I.
Hick’s Hall was a sessions house for the area’s magistrates. Among those put on trial here were the men who signed the death warrant of Charles I. They were up against, according to Samuel Pepys, a fearsome set of judges: “Such a bench of noblemen as hath not been ever seen in England.” Their bark was clearly worse than their bite, however, as in the end only a handful of the 29 of them sentenced to death were actually executed.
As if this weren’t enough for what must have been a small building to handle (the road’s not that wide, is it?), it was also laden with geographical significance. It was traditionally considered to stand at the start of the Great North Road, the main route out of London, and so it became the point from which all distances north were measured. This practice continued even after the building had gone – it was closed in 1782 and demolished, and the judges moved into the much grander Middlesex Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green.
It’s perhaps fitting that the carnivore’s favourite, St John, chose to set up so close to where the hall once stood. The hall was also known for its butchery skills… It had an annexe where the corpses of criminals were dissected.