1. LORD ROSEBERY
Who was Rosebery, of Rosebery (just one “r”, of course) Avenue fame? Quite an interesting character, it turns out.
Archibald Primrose, the fifth Earl of Rosebery, was a wealthy Scot who went to Eton and Oxford, and then entered politics. A Liberal, he succeeded Gladstone as Prime Minister for just over a year, in 1894, before losing his post in the 1895 general election. Before that, Rosebery had been the first chairman of the London County Council and Foreign Secretary. If you think Boris is a quirky choice… Rosebery was considered a bit of a disaster on the diplomacy front. It’s clear his interests lay outside politics. He enjoyed sport, shooting, history, collecting.
When he was a student, he bought a racehorse (as you do), defying the university rules. He was given an ultimatum: sell the horse or leave. He chose the latter. He went on to own several racehorses – his best-known thoroughbred, Ladas, enjoyed a star-studded career, including winning the Epsom Derby of 1894 (Rosebery was Prime Minister at the time). Rosebery was reportedly happily married to a Rothschild heiress, but stories abound that he was bisexual and one of his affairs was with his private secretary Francis Douglas, whose younger brother Alfred was “Bosie”, Oscar Wilde’s lover.
2. HOOKE’S DIARY
Bored of Pepys? Clerkenwell is home to the diary of another Restoration man of note: Robert Hooke. His valuable journal, full of scrawled entries and scientific sketches, is kept in the London Metropolitan Archives. And, for those so inclined, it’s recently been made available to scroll through online (link below). Hooke, overshadowed for centuries by such peers as Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, has had something of a renaissance in reputation. Most people know him from their school days for Hooke’s Law about loads on springs.
In his day, he was famous for his groundbreaking book of 1665, Micrographia, which revealed to the masses a new world of life seen under a microscope. The year after that was published, the polymath Hooke was signed up, in his role as a City surveyor, to help Wren redesign London after the Great Fire. He was a great man, overflowing with ideas but he was guarded about them, and was often embroiled in competitive disputes with fellow scientists. For this reason, much of the diary is written in code. Archivist Charlie Turpie warns: “It is not an easy read. It is the memorandum book of a secretive man in a perpetual hurry.”
If you’re hoping to scan it for any juicy bits about his sex life (his niece was his live-in lover), then you’ll be disappointed. Hooke used a symbol to denote when he “did it”.
3. THE LETTER BOOKS
The earliest records of how the City of London was run date from Medieval times.
Written on vellum (naturally), they are the precious Letter Books – so called because they are labelled using, erm, letters rather than numbers. They run from A to Z, with two nicely human “oops, I forgot!” supplementary volumes of &c. and AB, and then from AA to ZZ. They detail all the goings-on of the day. In another “oops!” scenario, the flyleaf of Letter Book E contains an explanation from the 16th century that it was “lost & lackyng of a long seasoun” but luckily found again. Phew.
The books began in 1275 and were in use for centuries. Fifty of them survive today, kept in Clerkenwell’s London Metropolitan Archives. Back when the records started, the City had aldermen and 24 wards – of which Farringdon was one. It was originally the ward of “Lodgate and Neugate” (“Ludgate and Newgate”) but became known as “Farringdon” after its alderman, William de Farndone. The books also include the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which climaxed at Smithfield, where the Mayor of London, William Walworth, killed the protest leader, Wat Tyler.