Secrets – June
Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser- known stories from EC1.
1: MICHAEL FAGAN
Remember him? He was the man who broke into the Queen’s bedroom, back in 1982. Though that was more than three decades ago now, his breach of royal security is still one of the worst in recent history.
Fagan was born in Clerkenwell; he went to school at the now-named SS Peter & Paul Catholic Primary School on the Goswell Road. His dad, a steel erector, apparently also had an expertise in “breaking in” – he liked safes.
At around 7am on 9 July, Fagan scaled the 14-foot Buck Palace walls, clambered up a drainpipe and entered the Queen’s private apartments through a window. (He was barefoot, as he’d lost his shoes along the way.) He quickly found the Queen’s bedroom. When she woke to find him there, he asked for a cigarette and she scampered “orff” to find a footman – who then took him to a pantry for a drink. True etiquette never fails.
This wasn’t Fagan’s first attempt. He’d managed to break in to the palace a month previously, spending most of the night there, wandering around, drinking wine, eating cheese crackers, peeing on Corgi food and trying out thrones.
Why did he do it? Who knows.
2: TRIAL OF THE PYX
The Goldsmiths’ Company is a force in Clerkenwell, thanks to its craft centre in Britton Street. And every spring the company has a very important job to do – to check that the coins we all use are up to scratch. The procedure, which has been carried out every year since the 1200s, is called the Trial of the Pyx and it has all the grandeur and quirkiness that such a name suggests.
The Royal Mint sends the Goldsmiths’ Assay Office, near St Paul’s, thousands of coins – a selection from every batch produced that year – for testing. Are they of the correct metal, the correct weight and size?
For the metal test, wavy-edged plates of gold, silver, platinum and copper-nickel are used as benchmarks – these are known as “trial plates”. The chests in which the coins arrive are the “pyx”, named after the Pyx Chamber in Westminster Abbey.
Fitting for a trial, there’s a jury and a verdict. The proceedings are presided over by the Queen’s Remembrancer, who wears formal legal attire and a tricorn hat. The worst sentence the jury can award? Presumably, a melting.
3: LOUIS WAIN
You’ll recognise the work of the Clerkenwell – born Victorian artist Louis Wain. He liked to draw cats. Cats doing human things, such as playing cricket, sitting around a table and singing in a choir.
The drawings are not to modern taste but they were very popular at the time. Wain prolifically produced prints, illustrations, greetings cards, annuals, children’s books, you name it. It was through his wife’s relationship with her pet cat Peter that it all came about. When she was dying of breast cancer, she found Peter, and Wain’s drawings of him, a comfort.
Despite his success, poor Wain was not wealthy, or lucky. He was born with a cleft lip. His father died when he was 20, leaving him to support his mother and five sisters (none of whom left home). He shocked society when he married, as his wife was 10 years his senior, and her death came not long afterwards.
Later in life, his style became more abstract: cats with huge eyes on psychedelic backgrounds. One theory is that he became a schizophrenic after picking up the parasite toxoplasma gondii, from cat faeces. He spent the last years of his life in mental institutes. Of his work, HG Wells said: “English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”