Secrets – May/June
Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser- known stories from EC1.
1. EDGAR WALLACE
King Kong lives on in the film world, with Kong: Skull Island being just the latest release, and King Kong lives on, believe it or not, in Clerkenwell. In among the bus fumes, card shops and swirling litter of Ludgate Circus, there’s a large plaque. It’s attached to Ludgate House, on the corner of Fleet Street, and it honours Edgar Wallace, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. Wallace wrote poems, non-fiction, plays, short stories and, mostly, crime novels. About 200 of them, in fact – 12 alone in just one year! They all had brilliantly pulpy names, such as The Daffodil Mystery and The Door with Seven Locks.
He also wrote screenplays for more than 100 films, including King Kong (1933). Wallace died midway through drafting it but it is for this that he is principally known. He came up with that Empire State Building scene. Wallace is remembered on Fleet Street because that is where his remarkable ascent from London poverty to Hollywood millions started. He was born illegitimately and fostered by the family of a Billingsgate porter. He left school at 11 and started selling newspapers on Ludgate Circus. Later, he became a reporter during the Boer War. His articles weren’t always, er, watertight – hence probably the move into fiction. But when he died, in 1932, the flags on Fleet Street flew half-mast and the bells of St Bride’s tolled.
2. THE LOTTERY
Do you play the Lottery? The first ever recorded lottery in the UK was drawn in our area – in St Paul’s churchyard, during the reign of Elizabeth I, on 11 January 1569. It was run from the cathedral’s West Door and 40,000 “tickets” were available, costing 10 shillings each (incidentally, a 10 shilling coin was made of gold and called an “angel”). As the nickname suggests, it was an amount that was literally out of reach for most of the population.
The first prize was a hoard worth £5,000, made up of coins, plate metals, tapestries and linen. An element of it was also priceless – guaranteed immunity from the law (excepting the crimes of murder, felony, piracy and treason). As with the Lottery today, some of the funds raised were put towards public works – namely repairing harbours and building ships and such like, as the aim of this particular lottery was to help boost the country’s maritime influence.
It was John Major who launched the National Lottery as we know it today, in 1994. The first draw was on 19 November that year, with Noel Edmonds presiding over the TV proceedings. The biggest winners to date are Scottish couple Colin and Chris Weir who scooped £161,653,000 in July 2011.
3. OLD BAILEY
The Old Bailey is, quite justly, all imposing grandeur: architectural architraves, painted murals, stone staircases, domed ceilings, polished floors. But one of its most notable features is just two inches long. It’s a shard of glass, stuck randomly in a wall at the top of the main stairs. It’s been left exactly where it landed in 1973 after a Provisional IRA car bomb blew up outside. One person was killed and 200 people were injured.
It’s a reminder of the attack but also of the fact that the building has had many incarnations over the centuries. It’s suffered from fire – the Great Fire burnt down the original medieval courthouse – and disease; the Italianate design that arose in its place had an open side, to let in fresh air in a bid to prevent “gaol fever” (typhus). It may have achieved the latter but it did also let in the British weather (and the baying crowds) so in 1737 it was enclosed again – which led to a typhoid outbreak, in 1750, that killed 60 people, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. Then there was the Blitz… The current building dates from 1902 and had a £37 million refurbishment just a few years ago. Along with the shard of glass there is also preserved a section of Roman wall and a knocker from Newgate prison, which originally stood on the site.