Secrets September

St Barts is not only the oldest hospital in Britain but it also boasts London’s only statue of Henry VIII. 

Though he stands in typical pose – all shoulders and codpiece, and wearing both a cap and a crown – above the grand entrance gate on West Smithfield, the backstory to the tribute is a bit of a sour one. 

The hospital was founded, by Henry I’s favourite courtier, Rahere, in 1123, on the site of the St Bartholomew priory complex, which included the church of St Bartholomew the Great. It took in many of the city’s sick and poor, kept them supplied with food and ale, and even provided them with new shoes from its own tannery. When it came to wanting to dissolve the monasteries in 1534, Henry was all set to close it down.

The aldermen of the City, fearing that the hospital’s unsavoury intake would be turfed out onto the streets, petitioned the king to turn Barts over to their care. He finally agreed, on the basis that the hospital became known as the “House of the Poore in West Smithfield, in the Suburbs of the City of London, of King Henry VIII’s Foundation”. Hmm, now you know why it’s called just “Barts”.

Next year, the children’s television show Fireman Sam will be 30 years old. Though it’s set in the fictional Welsh village of Pontypandy, the inspiration for it came from Clerkenwell. 

Back in the Eighties, a few years before the programme launched, its co-creator, Dave Jones, worked as a fireman at the now- defunct Clerkenwell Fire Station at Mount Pleasant, which closed in 2014. After leaving, he started a mail-order company selling figurines. Hearing a radio interview one day with Mike Young, the man behind the cartoon SuperTed, Jones plucked up the courage to ring the BBC.

He finally got through to Young and persuaded him to give his idea for a series a go. It was his daughter who chose the name “Sam”. Rob Lee, the programme’s artist and screenwriter, once told The Guardian in an interview: “The naughty boy, Norman, was unashamedly derived from Dennis the Menace, and the touchstone for Dilys Price was Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street.” He added that several lives had been saved as a result of the programme. “Kids have put out shed fires or rescued their brothers or sisters because of what they’ve seen on the show. How good is that?”

Riots and Clerkenwell are bedfellows – there’s been a long history of protest in the area. But capitalism, fascists, even gin taxes aren’t so titillating a reason for revolt as brothels. 

The Bawdy House Riots of 1668 started on Easter Monday, in Poplar, where a group of men robbed and attempted to destroy some houses of ill repute. The following day, a crowd of several hundred descended on brothels in Moorfields, Smithfield and Holborn – the main red-light districts. The next day, thousands went on the rampage in Moorfields again. The rioters were armed with iron bars and such, and aimed literally to tear down the establishments. Assaults on brothels weren’t uncommon. In the early half of the 17th century, it became a sort of tradition for apprentices to attack brothels and theatres on Shrove Tuesday, to remove key sources of temptation during Lent.

The Bawdy House Riots, however, were on a totally different scale, and resulted in four men being punished by hanging. Pepys commented in his diary, on Wednesday 25 March, 1668: “It was said how these idle fellows… did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall.” That Whitehall bawdy house being, of course, Charles II’s own court.