The rise and fall of the Priory of Clerkenwell: from religious institution to pub visited by Dickens

17 Jul

St John’s Gate, a red-brick structure faced with ragstone near the centre of Clerkenwell, north London, has had a number of interesting uses over the past 500 years. In the early 18th century it housed a coffee shop, run the father of William Hogarth, the artist. Latin was reputably the only language that customers and staff were allowed to speak. Then it was a the house and printing works of Edward Cave, who founded the Gentleman’s Magazine and employed Dr Samuel Johnson to write reports. Later still, it was home to a pub, the Old Jerusalem Tavern and was visited by Charles Dickens.

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St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, (built 1504)

The gatehouse was originally built, in 1504, as the southern entrance to the Priory of Clerkenwell, a large religious complex forming the English home of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. As I wrote last week, the organisation founded of a hospital to care for sick Christian pilgrims in 11th century Jerusalem who had travelled there on the Crusades. But given the Priory of Clerkenwell was set up in 1144 and closed in 1540 as part of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, St John’s Gate was built relatively late on in the site’s life as a religious institution. Now it acts as the entrance and shop for the museum charting the history of the Order – through various artefacts collected by the Order since its foundation – and St John Ambulance.

Today, the Crypt in the otherwise more modern Priory Church is the only surviving part of the original 12th century structure (and is indeed one of just a few remaining fragments of Norman London fabric). Descending the narrow flight of stairs to these rooms is very atmospheric, aided by the use of soft lighting. In the north chapel, visitors can see the skeletal effigy from the tomb of William Weston, Prior of England in 1540 when Henry VIII’s Dissolution Act went through parliament. But unlike those in other religious institutions he was not pensioned off as he is said to have had a heart attack and died on the very day that the legislation was passed. There are a number of other interesting artefacts from the Order’s history in this space, including a tomb sculpture portraying a knight in full armour and a rescued Norman font that for a number of years was used as a cattle trough in Wiltshire.

The outline of the original round 12th century nave can be seen marked out in white cobbles in St John’s Square, just in front of The Modern Pantry. Most of the church structure seen today was built in the 16th century, with much modification in the years that followed. Unfortunately however it was badly damaged by the Blitz in 1941 and so a new façade and porch needed to be added in 1960. Inside, banners on the north wall represent establishments of the Order around the world, which stretch as far afield as South Africa and Australia. Paintings on the wall are mainly of the Knights of Malta and were donated by Sir Victor Houlton, one time Governor of Malta.

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Priory Church, Order of St John, Clerkenwell


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Inside Priory Church

But, when it was a functioning Priory, the church was just one part of this busy religious complex, with dormitories, two large halls, a refectory, buttery, counting house and kitchens, plus land for growing fruit and vegetables and space for keeping animals. Accounts reveal that in 1338 there 75 people in total living at the site, including a Prior of England and a commander, the latter overseeing the smooth functioning of the estate.

Like other religious institutions in England, it was heavily damaged during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, with a fire reported to have burned for seven days and nights. The Prior of England, Robert Hales, who lived at the Priory was responsible for the Poll Tax, hence the anger expressed by the rebels. But the complex was re-built and by the early 16th century the Prior who had completed the work was described as “He made of it a palace.”

Following Dissolution, the old Priory became a storehouse used by Henry VIII and in the late 16th century part of the complex was the home of the official office responsible for providing performance licenses for plays from Shakespeare and his contemporaries. St John’s Gate was, as has already been discussed, used at various times as a coffee shop, printers and pub. Clerkenwell has changed enormously in the years following Dissolution, with much of the land belonging to the old Priory being built on and used by businesses and homes. The Priory church itself became a second parish church for Clerkenwell, before being passed back to the Order of St John when the area’s population fell in the 1930s.

The Order still survives and has its international headquarters in Rome, its home since the Knights were kicked out of Malta by Napolean in 1798 (see my blog last week for more details). In England, the modern Order of St John was given a Royal Charter in 1888 by Queen Victoria, recognising the effort that had gone into setting up St John Ambulance in 1877. That charity, which continues the work began in industrial Britain in providing first aid training services to the public, today has its UK headquarters next to the museum. The Order’s church is still used, including for inauguration services for new members, and can be visited on a guided tour. Weddings and other functions regularly make use of the splendidly lavish rooms connected to St John’s Gate, such as the late Gothic-style Chapter House, with drinks and canapes also served in the peaceful setting of the recently renovated Cloister Garden.

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Coloured cobbles showing line of original Priory Church

My year following in the footsteps of the Knights of St John – from Clerkenwell to Jerusalem (via Rhodes and Malta)

10 Jul

Head out to the theatre, a sports match or even a village fete and chances are that lurking in the background will be a dedicated band of volunteers ready to leap into action if a member of public falls ill. For the most part they’ll be seen dancing along to show songs, cheering on their team or, when the British summer permits, basking in the sun and getting a tan. But when the occasion calls, the volunteers from St John Ambulance – who can range in age from teenagers to pensioners – make use of their first aid skills, and with their quick thinking could mean the difference between life and death until full medical help arrives.

Like many British institutions, the charity was founded in the 19th century during a period of rapid industrialisation. Workplaces could be dangerous places, but when workers had accidents there was generally little in the way of medical help available for them. One group decided to do something to help and in 1877 set up St John Ambulance, providing classes across the country for training ordinary people in first aid so that accident victims could be treated quickly. Some ten years later William Church Brasier, a bookseller from Margate, gave training for people to deliver rapid treatment at public events.

But the history of the charity goes much further back than the Victorian era; it originates from the foundation of a hospital to care for sick Christian pilgrims in 11th century Jerusalem. The organisation that administered the institution – it would become known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (and also known as the Knights Hospitallers) – wouldn’t however remain in the Middle East forever. And over the last year or so, I’ve found myself (somewhat unintentionally) following in the Knights’ footsteps as they moved their headquarters from the Holy Land to the Greek island of Rhodes and then Malta. The Order grew extremely powerful and at one time held over 17,000 estates across Europe and the Middle East.

My journey began last year when I went to the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell, north London, for the first time. It was here that a Priory was set up in the 1140s as the English headquarters for the organisation. While the majority of the site has been sold off for building projects over the years, part of the original Priory Church of St John (a marvellous 12th century Crypt) survives. The actual museum is partly housed in St John’s Gate which dates from 1504, just a few decades before the institution was closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and was the southern entrance to what was once a vast religious complex.

Jerusalem has seen many changes in power over the last thousand years, but I was still able to visit the Church of St John the Baptist, partly hidden from view by homes, in the Christian Quarter of the old city. It was here that by monks, under the guidance of Brother Gerard, had established a hospital, using the walls of an earlier church, to care for pilgrims who had travelled to the Holy Land on the Crusades. Knights wounded in the siege of Jerusalem in 1099 were cared for in this building and, in the years that followed, the hospital was given donations of land and money to support its work looking after pilgrims. But it cared for anyone, regardless of their faith or race and catered for different dietary requirements.

The fact that the order assumed a military, defensive role in the Holy Land, once the city was re-taken by the Christians in 1099 explains why they became known as the Knights Hospitallers. Its headquarters was at what is now called the Church of St John the Baptist until 1187, when Jerusalem was lost by the Christians to the Muslims under the leadership of Saladin. The building itself was abandoned before being reclaimed, probably by Greek Orthodox priests, although it was said in the 16th century to have been used as a mosque. But apart from the modern facade with its two small bell towers, the overall fabric of the Church of St John the Baptist has remained mostly unchanged for almost one thousand years.

When Jerusalem fell in 1187, the Order moved its headquarters to Acre in modern day Lebanon. That too was taken by the Muslim forces in 1291 and so the Knights retreated to lands in Cyprus for 18 years, running vast estates and sugar factories. But they were to have a much more lasting impact on Rhodes, which they held from 1309 until 1522 when Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the island for the Turks. During the 200 years the Knights held Rhodes they built fortresses, auberges and a hospital, evolving from running a land-based army to the medieval period’s most powerful naval fighting force. The strategic position of island was important as it meant they remained close to the Holy Land, a launch pad that they hoped would day help them re-conquer Jerusalem for the Christians.

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Street of the Knights, Rhodes

Traces of the Order’s contribution to the development of Rhodes can be best seen in the cobbled streets of the country’s capital, Rhodes Town. Medieval walls, built in the mid-14th century on a previous line, and re-constructed after an infamous siege by the Ottomans in 1480, provide shelter for a fine harbour enclose old city which is now filled with restaurants and shops (plus some very good museums and galleries) frequented by tourists. The 15th century Grand Master’s Palace, which was partly destroyed by an ammunition explosion but was later re-stored as a holiday residence for the King of Italy, stands at the top of the most important streets during the Order’s occupation of the island; the Street of the Knights. Here the Knights had their inns or lodgings, each representing the seven countries or tongues that they came from (most of the Knights were French, providing considerable influence on the architecture of Rhodes).

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Defensive walls, Rhodes Town

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Fortified harbour, Rhodes Town

Malta, which they held a little longer than Rhodes, from 1530 to 1798, became just as much their own fiefdom. Following an unsuccessful siege by Suleiman in 1565, the Knights built a new capital city, Valetta, named after their Grand Master, on an uninhabited island (a gilded bronze and silver portrait bust of Grand Master Jean de la Valette, c1565, is on display in the museum in Clerkenwell). The stakes had been high for the battle, with Queen Elizabeth I declaring: “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what follow to the rest of Christendom.” For Suleiman it remained an important target, with advisers telling him: “So long as Malta remains in the hands of the Knights, so long will every relief from Constantinople to Tripoli run the danger of being taken or destroyed – this cursed rock is like a barrier interposed between your possessions.” But he was of course never successful in this.

The founder of Valetta decreed that it should be “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. Many would agree that much of the elegance of this compact city, surrounded by water on three sides, remains today. Valetta is packed with history, to the extent that when Unesco named it a world Heritage Site it suggested that it is “one of the most concentrated historic areas of the world”. It was the first planned city in Europe, designed with straight streets to allow circulating sea breezes to keep the people cool. Impressive fortifications (chiefly to protect against the threat from the Turks) were completed in just five years and are still very much a feature of Valetta today.


Sacra Infermeria, Valetta, Malta

Aside from the Grand Master’s Palace (now the seat of Malta’s parliament and residence of Malta’s president), perhaps one of the most impressive buildings that can be visited from the era of the Knights is the Sacra Infermeria, a vast 16th century hospital constructed to cater for up to 300 patients at a time. Surgeons were reputed to have performed advanced operations alongside more routine amputations and the treatment of other wounds. The main, long hall and surrounding rooms are still used today for a host of functions (when I visited staff were setting up for the Miss Malta final) and guided tours are offered.

Napoleon was determined to take Malta and, shortly before succeeding in 1798, said: “We (the French) shall be masters of the Mediterranean.” When the island was lost, the Knights were homeless. Eventually the Pope provide some land for them in Rome, where the Order retains its headquarters to this day. But since 1798 the Knights have had no military role, focusing instead on charitable and humanitarian activities in more than 40 countries around the world. The Order, which today has about 20,000 members around the world, runs an eye hospital in Jerusalem that is open to all, and has outreach clinics in Gaza, Hebron and Anabta. And of course it is behind the highly successful St John Ambulance.

Next Thursday: I continue to chart the fascinating history of the Knights of St John by revealing the rise and fall of the Priory of Clerkenwell

Back to back living in the city of ‘a thousand trades’ – taking a fresh look at Birmingham’s past

3 Jul

Birmingham grew rapidly in the 19th century as wave upon wave of immigrants arrived in the workshop of the world. In 1801 the population of the city was around 70,000, but by the end of the century it had more than 500,000. Many found work in the metal trades, where the opportunities were wide-ranging producing everything from buckles and buttons to jewellery and corkscrews. Such was the diversity of employment, Birmingham had been described as the “city of a thousand trades” by the poet Robert Southey.

Considering that for much of its history Birmingham was officially little more than a village, this growth was extraordinary. It rose to become the second largest population centre in England over the course of the Victorian period – and was officially made a city in 1889. But while Birmingham officially remains in number two spot behind London, its arch rival Manchester seems to steals most of the headlines these days (the BBC being just one of many organisations to move many of its employees up north, rather than the Midlands). Visiting the city as a child, my overriding impression of the centre was that it was one giant shopping complex (the Bullring) with the surrounding area dominated by ugly concrete buildings.

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Birmingham Town Hall

Returning to Birmingham this year, while a lot of the hastily-constructed post war architecture remains, it seems things are changing for the better. The new £180m library – the largest such regional establishment in Europe with over 100m books – opened in 2013 and has already won a number of awards. Demolition work will soon begin of Paradise Circus, a gloomy development centred around a building that previously housed the city’s central library and where only a food courtyard remains. Judging by artists’ impressions, the offices, hotels, restaurants and shops that will replace it, will be a considerable improvement. Once complete, the area stretching from the fine town hall and city museum to the new library will provide numerous connected open spaces for visitors and residents to stroll and take in Birmingham’s civic pride.

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On the way out – Paradise Circus – home to Birmingham’s library until last year

Perhaps then, more than ever before, with all the change it’s time to take a fresh look at Birmingham – and the way that it’s past has shaped the city today.

Birmingham’s story, which is wonderfully told in newly refurbished galleries in the city’s main museum, really starts in 1166 when Peter de Birmingham, paid the king for the right to hold a weekly market. As Lord of the manor, he received the rent from traders coming into the village to sell their crafts and other wares. The market also persuaded more to live here permanently (there were around 1,500 people here by 1300).

Between 1550 and 1700 Birmingham’s population grew from 1,500 to 11,500, becoming the fifth largest town in England. The fact that it was only officially a village, and therefore free from restrictive guilds, was particularly significant in this period of rapid expansion. Non-conformists weren’t allowed to practice their religion within five miles of an official town, so Birmingham became particularly attractive for Quakers, including Sampson Lloyd who settled and founded Lloyd’s Bank.

As we saw in my blog last week, there were grew to be some very large premises in Birmingham (Boulton and Watt claimed to have some one thousand employees by the 1770s). But even in the 19th century when the factory system became firmly established, in general many still performed outwork in their own homes. As well as becoming famous across the world for items such as buttons, it also produced large quantities of sporting and military guns, some of which were used in the transatlantic slave trade (Birmingham also supplied knives and shackles for the trade, receiving sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco in return).

With Birmingham’s growth, the pressure on housing became immense and greedy private landlords sought to squeeze as many properties as possible in the smallest possible space. Building back to back housing, essentially terraced houses one room deep sharing a back wall with another row of houses and built onto a courtyard, was seen as the best possible model. For most working people in Birmingham, where there were 20,000 such courts at peak, along with other cities in the Midlands and North of England, this was where they would have lived in the 19th and (some) of the 20th century.

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Back to back living at court 15

But while they were cheap to build and therefore highly profitable for landlords, they weren’t by many accounts very pleasant places to live, as Robert Rawlinson, writing in 1849, describes: “Many of the courts are closed in on all sides; the privies and cesspools are crowded against the houses, and there is a deficiency of light and ventilation.” And from the 1870s pressure grew to rid Birmingham of the centre’s ‘rookeries’, as Joseph Chamberlain protested at a Town Council meeting.

“We bring up a population in the dank, dark, dreary courts and alleys, such as are to be found throughout the area which we have selected; we surround them with noxious influences of every kind, and place them under conditions in which the observance of even ordinary decency is impossible; and what is the result? What can we expect of such a thing?”

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Court 15 today

While it took time, slowly but surely Birmingham’s housing stock was replaced (by 1933 40,000 newly built council homes had been built). In the process most of the back to backs were demolished. But, thankfully, not all. Just one court in Birmingham – Court 15 – in the heart of what is now the city’s Chinatown survives. Although the properties on a corner plot of Hurst Street and Inge Street were condemned for domestic use in 1966, they were saved because they continued to be occupied by businesses – a variety of little shops. In 2001, following several years of deterioration for the houses, the last of the traders moved out and the development was handed over to the National Trust.

Following three years of considerable renovation work (there were holes in the roof and the facades were crumbling), volunteer guides now give visitors fascinating tours around the homes in Court 15. Of the 11 houses, some are now National Trust holiday lets while others are used for a gift shop and an exhibition on back to backs (another is now a 1930s sweet shop). But four have been set-out to evoke different time periods – the 1840s, the 1870s, the 1930s and the 1970s – bringing to life what it would have been like to live – and work – in Birmingham for years gone by.

While the National Trust normally manages properties that were once owned by the rich and famous, the past residents of Court 15 were simply ordinary people. Inside we see the small space that large families would be crammed into; the parlours downstairs where the cooking and living took place, or the bedrooms upstairs where three or more were crammed into a small bed. To bring in more money, sometimes portions of rooms were sublet to lodgers – the only privacy, if any, being a curtain. Of course over time, more mod cons were added like electricity and plumbed in water. But you still couldn’t get away from the fact some of these properties (Court 15 was built in a number of stages from the 1802, and only became back to backs in the 1830s) were poorly built, so could get extremely cold in the winter.

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The guide that showed me around was a real character; the fact that he was a volunteer and not a paid employee gave him the liberty to go off whatever script he had been given. One of his frequent complaints was that interiors were too plush for the time periods being depicted. “These sheets seem too clean to me,” he said of the bedding in the second house. “Would they really have eaten oysters?” he queried in one of the parlours. Perhaps this is just being picky however, as visiting these homes provided an interesting insight into the past.

Inevitably with space at such a premium inside the homes, much time would be spent in the courtyard that the 11 houses shared. The two brew-houses (the term used in Birmingham for wash-houses), which contained what was cold a washing copper (an early form of washing machine) and were used on a rota through, survive. As does one of the Victorian privies, where with no sewage pipe to take the waste away, human excrement would have festered in buckets until the effluent was taken away each week by ‘night-soil’ men. It’s amazing that, with what was such a distinctive smell, children would have wanted to play outside, but they did.

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Even before Court 15 was condemned for domestic used in 1966, the 11 properties were places of work. And the National Trust has set-out the four ‘show’ properties to reflect this. Lawrence Levy who arrived here in the 1840s was a watchmaker and is likely to have had his workshop in his house; his tools are laid out on a wooden bench by the window. In the next house, depicting the 1870s, lived Herbert Oldfield and his family. He was glassmaker, but not a ‘mainstream’ one – he made glass eyes for customers who had lost their real eyes for customers who had lost their real eyes in an accident. These then were the ordinary folk of Birmingham, the city of ‘a thousand trades’, and thanks to the fact that Court 15 has been saved at least some of their stories can still be told.

Soho and steam – how Boulton and Watt’s Birmingham partnership gave birth to modern Britain

26 Jun

“I shall never forget Mr Boulton’s expression to me: ‘I sell here Sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER’,” wrote James Boswell of his visit to Soho Manufactory. Just a few miles from the centre of modern Birmingham, the diarist and author had come in 1776 to see the new steam engines that Boulton was producing with James Watt. Whilst they weren’t the first such machines to be made, they were the most efficient. The technology that Watt had originally invented in Scotland – and was now further developing at Soho – not only made the pair very rich, but was instrumental in making Britain the world’s first industrial nation.

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Soho House – Boulton’s residence

All that remains today of what was, at its greatest extent, a 200 acre estate at Soho is Soho House, a fine Georgian detached property where Boulton lived for many years. The house, which has been restored to its 18th century appearance and is now managed by Birmingham city council’s museum service, is set in only a small garden with a tearoom and visitors’ centre in a separate building. If you miss the small brown sign denoting ‘Soho House’, you could easily miss the turn off from one of the main routes into Birmingham for this gem hidden down a side street. When I visited on a Sunday afternoon in late May, the handful of visitors seemed to be outnumbered by the friendly volunteer room attendants.

Boulton was of course right to recognise the importance of power – and new ways of generating it – as it was in considerable demand in the 18th century. For some time mine owners had used steam engines to pump water out from deep coal seams, allowing new sources of ‘black gold’ to be reached. But now others were also crying out for more efficient power – manufacturers, including owners of textile mills, breweries and iron works all wanted to reduce costs and produce goods that could be sold to consumers on much larger scales. The resulting efficiencies from the engines sold by Boulton and Watt helped entrepreneurs to bring a range of wares into the reaches of both the new middle and working classes.

When Watt first came to Soho in 1775 with the patent for a steam engine (first obtained in 1769), Boulton had wanted one of the devices for Soho Manufactory, to pump water to a wheel powering the machinery that rolled and polished metals. Boulton was at that stage a successful industrialist who was selling his wares all over the world. Josiah Wedgwood, said in 1767 he was “…the most complete Manufacturer in metals in England.” And the place where Boulton lived and worked – Birmingham – was becoming one of the most innovative places in the country with residents registering over three times as many patents as those of any other British town or city between 1760 and 1850.

Born in 1728, Boulton started work in his father’s buckle and button making business in Snow Hill around the age of 16 or 17. But when he inherited the family business in 1759 he had bigger ambitions and after two years acquired the lease for 13 acres of land on the outskirts of Birmingham (he would eventually own 200 acres). Business boomed, as he added steel jewellery, Sheffield plate tableware, clocks and much more besides to the range of what he already manufactured, and by 1770 the Soho Manufactory was said to be employing some one thousand workers. He later built the Soho Mint, the first steam-powered mint in the world and won a lucrative contract to supply the government with copper coins.

On the steam engine side of the business, progress was initially slow and for some time Watt’s engine did little more than what Thomas Newcomen’s existing invention already did – pump water out of mines. In 1781 Boulton conveyed his frustration in a letter to Watt. “The people in London, Manchester and Birmingham are steam mill mad. I don’t mean to hurry you but I think in the course of a month of two, we should determine to take out a patent for certain methods of producing rotative motion from…. the fire engine…. There is no other Cornwall to be found, and the most likely line for the consumption of our engines is the application of them to mills which is certainly an extensive field.” Progress was of course made, the break-through coming in 1789 when Peter Drinkwater ordered an eight-horsepower machine for his Manchester cotton mill. Soho Foundary was constructed in the 1790s to build and supply large cast parts for in-demand steam engines.

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Model of Soho estate at its greatest extent – Soho House is in the top left hand corner

Boulton and his second wife, Ann, moved into Soho House in 1766, five years after acquiring the property as part of the deal for the adjoining land (where he set-up his Soho Manufactory). The industrialist spent huge sums transforming the home and bringing it up-to-date, creating rooms for all the fossils he had collected from around the world, space to conduct scientific experiments, an extensive library and he had a telescope on the roof. He brought the famous London interior designer Cornelius Dixon and furniture maker James Newton to help make it a fashionable gentleman’s residence. Before the 18th century only aristocrats would have had properties as exquisite as this.

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Inside Soho House

He entertained some of the brightest brains of the day at Soho House, including members of the Lunar Society, a group of prominent scientists and industrialists, including Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Josiah Wedgwood, who met at each other’s homes to discuss their latest scientific ideas.

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Boulton’s study – inside Soho House

Boulton died in 1809 and, although his son carried on manufacturing at Soho, in 1862 Soho Manufactory and other buildings were demolished. The land sold off for the private Victorian housing near the property. Soho House itself has since had a number of uses, including a vicarage, private school for girls, a hotel and a police hostel. In 1990 Birmingham City Council acquired the property and began the process of returning it to its former glory, giving visitors a glimpse of what it must have been like when Boulton and his family lived there in the 18th century.

And while there’s a small garden remaining behind Soho House, the land attached to it stretches for little more than an acre, a far cry from the 200 acres when Bolton was alive. In the visitors’ centre attached to the home a scale model shows just how expansive the estate was with its landscaped gardens, various workshops, lakes and a tearoom serving tourists who came to marvel at what was being produced (and visit the showroom displaying some of Boulton’s best wares).

The partnership between Boulton and Watt was one of the most successful – if not the most successful – partnerships of the industrial age. Together they sold the design for over 450 steams engines which were installed the world over, reaching plantations as far afield as the West Indies. But this was so much more than about just marketing a best-selling machine. Creating a more efficient type of engine – that for the first time had applications beyond simply pumping water out of flooded mines – fundamentally changed the landscape of Britain. Manufacturers were longer reliant on the power from fast-flowing rivers, so factories moved to towns and cities, coal-fields and iron making districts. This was the birth of the Britain that we live in today.

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Boulton, Watt and Murdoch – Birmingham’s greatest industrialists. Tribute in Broad Street, Birmingham

How Kenwood House played a role in ending slavery – the partnership between Belle and the 1st Earl of Mansfield

19 Jun

In 1807 an Act of Parliament abolished the trading of slaves in the British Empire. While not ending slavery itself (that would come in 1833 following further legislation), it was a remarkable achievement in bringing to a conclusion a shameful trade. Some estimate that between 1662 and 1807 some three and a half million Africans were transported as slaves, in appalling cramped, unhygienic conditions, on British-built ships to be sold to work on plantations in the New World. But while credit has been quite rightly placed on William Wilberforce’s tireless campaign in parliament, there were many in truth many involved, and many stages, leading to the historic act of abolition.

Much can be made of judgements laid down by the 1st Earl of Mansfield, as the Lord Chief Justice. Most famously perhaps, in the Somerset case of 1772, he declared that slavery was unsupported by common law in England and Wales. The judgement prevented Charles Stewart shipping a slave, James Somerset, he had brought with him to in England in 1769 back to Jamaica where he was destined be sold. In England, Somerset had escaped and the ruling said the imprisonment following his re-capture was unlawful. In a decision that would have angered many businessmen in Britain who made profits out of slavery, Mansfield was clear with his views on the trade:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

In another case, Mansfield investigated the 1781 Zong massacre in which some 142 African had been killed and he ruled that there had been a drowning of human “cargo”. The insurers of the Liverpool owned ship had refused to pay out for the loss after the slaves had been thrown over-board because it was running low on potable drinking water. Given the circumstances Mansfield said the claim was illegitimate and the resulting negative publicity helped to raise awareness of the terrible conditions of the so-called ‘Middle Passage’ amongst the public, supporting the abolitionists’ campaign.

Some have argued that Mansfield was heavily influenced by his great niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised at his country retreat on the edge of Hampstead Heath, Kenwood House. Visitors to the Lord Chief Justice’s home said he “show the greatest attention to everything she said.” As the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain, Sir John Lindsay, and a black slave called Maria Belle, she was very aware of the shameful trade.

With Belle – a brilliant film telling Dido’s story, with the Zong case taking place in the background – having just opened at the cinema, it seemed an opportune time to visit Kenwood House at the weekend. The fine, white-brick property, set on the edge of Hampstead Heath has only fairly recently re-opened to visitors following extensive renovation work. Originally constructed in the 17th century (although later completely re-constructed) it passed through a succession of owners before it was bought by Mansfield (born William Murray) for £4,000 in 1754. And in 1767 he engaged the architect Robert Adam to remodel the house to reflect his increasing status and wealth.

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Kenwood House

Over the course of 15 years, Adams built the new Great Room and added a fine library, as well as making a number of other improvements to other parts of the property. The author of a 1782 guide to London was clearly impressed with what we now call Kenwood: “Cane Wood, the superb villa of the Earl of Mansfield…. The house is magnificent and the garden front, which is very extensive, is much admired.” Mansfield didn’t have his own children, but the renovations would have been appreciated by two girls – Dido and her cousin – he and his wife had agreed to look after at Kenwood.

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Although the circumstances of Dido’s birth are somewhat sketchy, it is likely she was born in 176, having been conceived during a voyage to Jamaica when her father was captaining a frigate called Trent. Her mother moved to Florida, where she was given some land, sometime after 1774 and as a single parent who spent a considerable time at sea, Sir John entrusted her to her great uncle. The film tells of her growing up at Kenwood with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, the pair depicted in a wonderful painting. In the 18th century, this sort of artwork, showing a mixed-raced women which her white relation was rare. Sadly the original is no longer hanging in north London.

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Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray painted at Kenwood House. Sadly the original is no longer in north London

Walking around Kenwood today, it’s clear that the house with its grand, spacious rooms and fine gardens would have been perfect for entertaining. In the company of his wife, Lady Elizabeth Finch, Mansfield was said to be a good host, possessing “the happy and engaging art…. of putting the company in good humour with themselves: I am convinced they naturally liked him the more for his seeming to like them so well.” King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte were said to be have regularly visited Kenwood, along with a host of lawyers, politicians and artists.

But one person that was kept away from the lavish functions was Dido, who was depicted in the film as being in an unfortunate position in that she was too lowly to dine with guests, but too elevated to eat with the servants. Here was an educated and literate lady who, because of the colour of her skin and background, was forced by social protocol to find her own way in the world. Still, Mansfield must have been fond of her because he left her £500 in his will and an annual allowance of £100. And, in real life, Dido married John Davinier, a senior servant, with whom she had at least three sons with (in the film he was portrayed as an enlightened vicar’s son who was campaigning for abolition).

While modern forms of slavery still sadly exist today, Dido and Mansfield together made an enormous contribution in shaping the course of history. Kenwood House, where they lived, therefore plays an important role in the story of abolition.

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How Soho has moved up in the world – the transition from seedy sex shops to smart restaurants and boutique hotels

12 Jun

I’m drinking a well-brewed latte in a new plush London hotel. Not that much of a usual event given the number of such luxurious establishments in our capital you might say; from the Dorchester in Mayfair to the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park they are stayed in and enjoyed by visitors all over the world.  The 91-room Ham Yard hotel, which includes a 188-seat cinema, an original Fifties four-lane bowling alley imported from Texas and a spa, is just another to add to London’s long list. Two of the levels are underground, creating one and a half acres of space under street level.

The most surprising factor in this story, however, is that the Ham Yard is built in what was once one of the seediest parts of Soho, itself one of the capital’s worst districts, sandwiched between Leicester Square and Oxford Street. In this south west corner, drug taking and prostitution was rife – for many years it was London’s red like district. The Blitz didn’t help Soho and the £100m hotel has in fact been built on the district’s last underdeveloped bomb site.

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The Ham Yard hotel – built on the last undeveloped World War Two bomb site

Ham Yard’s arrival here, and the story of the streets that surround it, are reminders of the riches to rags to riches tale that the area as a whole has gone through over the years. Soho was originally a hunting ground (the rallying call being SoHo!, hence the name), but as people sought to escape the polluted and cramped City in the 17th century some of London’s first squares were founded in these parts. But despite efforts of the wealthy landowners like the Earls of Leicester and Portland to make Soho a fashionable place, it was soon eclipsed by the likes of Mayfair and Bloomsbury.

As London’s elite headed further west, Soho attracted considerable immigration, including the Huguenots from 1688, fleeing Catholic France and later the Irish escaping famine. They brought their own fashions and tastes, a factor explaining the array of interesting cafes, restaurants, bars and diverse denominations of churches (the French Church in Soho Square was founded by the Huguenots in the 17th century). But in the process the area became run-down. Any respectable families that remained during the transition had moved away. Located between the wealthy City on one side and powerful Westminster on the other, Soho became quite seedy, with prostitutes plying their trade in and around the pubs, music halls and theatres.

Thomas Beames, whose comments I’ve included in earlier blogs, visited (an area now known as Ingestre Place, and not from the Ham Yard hotel) in 1852 and didn’t have the best words to say about the place:

“There is a mouldy, smoky, dilapidated air about the whole; some of the houses have evidently sunk much; others are closed up with shutters, the windows, in many cases, broken or mended with paper; some houses marine store shops, others inhabited by sweeps and costermongers; the usual number of idlers lounging about, so that should you stop a minute to make inquiries, a crowd of suspicious looking characters would assemble, many youths among them whose age averages from fifteen to twenty; the passages between opposite houses narrow, the pavement covered with decayed vegetable matter; Irish, the vernacular language of the inhabitants.”

In the centre of the buildings he explored, Beames found a two-storey shed said to have housed up to 30 cows (and, at the time of his visit, some pigs). The animals were “hoisted up in a sort of box like those used for the conveyance of horses by railroads” to the upper levels. Beames considered the impact the smell would have had on local residents:

“The stench arising from this packing of unwieldy animals in so small a space, and the near neighbourhood of the pigs, may be conceived. The houses in Husband Street flanked this cow-house, and their back windows looked out upon it. Between these dwellings of the poor and the place we have described were a series of excessively small, narrow, uneven yards not to appearance five feet in breadth, and this was the only open space allotted them.

“In summer, the smell from the cow-house must have been carried into every open window in the tenements described: if Husband Street on the south was thus affected, it will be asked how the dwellers on the north in Cock Court fared, small as the intervening space between the cow- house and this northern boundary is?”

The Berwick Street Rookery was just one of six that he visited for his 1852 book, The Rookeries of London. While he made a point of saying that the houses were not as crowded, squalid and miserable as those in St Giles or Saffron Hill, conditions were still bad:

“The rooms are miserably small; mere closets, very dilapidated, quite unfit for human habitation, scarcely safe, below the level of the ground, with hardly any ventilation; until lately miserably, if at all, drained, their back parts very close in consequence of the cow-house we have described; so that the atmosphere is rendered still more fetid by the rank odour continually emitted from the animals confined.”

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Ingestre Court – built following World War Two in the heart of the area that Beames described

Here lived chimney- sweepers, day labourers and food sellers. Beames noted that the latter replenished their tin cans with vegetables from stores under houses. Other cellars were “over-flowing” with rags which “at certain seasons, are carted away and sent to the paper makers.” He added:

“You are struck with the curious appearance of some of the lower windows in these houses,- old bonnets, veils, articles of dress, faded indeed, shorn of much of their original splendour, are exposed as if to tempt those who pass by; these are unlicensed pawn shops, where women deposit their wearing apparel, and with the money thus obtained gratify their passion for drinking at the next public house.”

As with the other Rookeries he surveyed, two or three of the houses were harboured by thieves. It was also at times a dangerous place with Beames noting that “inquests are common in this locality – many persons die by violence. Not long since, three women of the town were residing here, two of them sisters; the youngest died of concussion of the brain arising from a blow she had received from one of her companions in a scuffle.”

But Beames ended his write-up on a positive note, describing a plan to demolish the properties on the site and build new lodging. The fact that change did soon come to the district can be seen today in Ingestre Place, so named after Lord Ingestre (who became the 19th Earl of Shrewsbury), on what was Husband Street and New Street. Artisan’s lodgings were built in the 1850s and St James’s Dwellings was built for single women in 1886.

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Sign on the door of a private house – a fitting reminder that prostitution used to be a problem in Soho

Fast-forward to the 20th century and Soho, the birthplace of rock and roll, remained seedy. Some streets were lined with little more than sex shops and striptease shows. While these institutions have not completely disappeared, they are less common – many far more discerning businesses have moved into the area in recent years. Smart restaurants and bars attract customers from areas of town that once wouldn’t dream of risking their lives in the dangerous streets of Soho.

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Lively Soho

Did the industrial revolution really have a negative impact on working people’s lives?

5 Jun

William Blake’s reference to ‘dark satanic mills’ in his Jerusalem poem, conjures up negative connotations of the industrial revolution and the impact it had on the lives of ordinary people. Workers toiled away for long hours in dirty factories, with little time for leisure, contemporary commentators suggested. Machines controlled employees’ daily lives and destroyed family life. And there were clear winners and losers – the owners of factories and the workers respectively. This was capitalism at its very worst.

Aside from Blake’s poem (which some say wasn’t even referring to the industrial revolution at all, but instead the Orthodox churches of the establishment), there’s a plethora of literature and journalism describing life for so-called ordinary people in the 19th century. Perhaps best known was the work of Frederich Engels who drew on two years’ observation of living conditions in Manchester in the early 1840s to produce the left-leaning The Condition of the Working Class in England. Others, like Arnold Toynbee, who came up with the term “industrial revolution” in the 1880s (describing it as a “disastrous and terrible event”), highlighted how creating vast wealth for a few was leading to the masses being degraded.But was this negative take on the industrial revolution the reality for all?

I’ve just finished reading Emma Griffin’s excellent book Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, which has recently come out in paperback. While previous accounts of the period have been from contemporary writers (coming with their own agendas and prejudices) relying a narrow range of original sources and statistics, Griffin conducted a thorough analysis of 350 working class autobiographies. Surprisingly, while the authors wrote about many of the difficulties that life brought for them, they were in many cases quite upbeat. For some wages increased and there was more of a certainty of work as they moved from working in purely cottage-based industries and farms and into factories and bigger communities.

It was perhaps appropriate that I started reading Griffin’s account on my recent visit to the Derwent Valley (see my blog from last week) in Derbyshire as for historians this was where the factory-system and a new kind of industrial community was born. Walking around the former mill buildings and village in Cromford, it was clear that life would have been tough for many, but workers did have good quality housing. The fact that the late 18th century houses in North Street are still standing and lived in today is evidence that they were well-built.

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North Street in Cromford – the first planned industrial housing in the world

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Allotments behind North Street in Cromford

The top-floor of these properties had a number of windows so that the adult males in families had plenty of light so they could work as weavers while wives and children earned salaries in Arkwright’s mills nearby. Behind the properties were allotments allowing householders to grow their own fruit and vegetables. And at the end of North Street was a school, paid for by Arkwright (partly to fulfil obligations resulting from new factory and education Acts), providing the children who worked in his mills some form of education.

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Arkwright’s school in Cromford

Long hours were a reality, but contemporary accounts suggest that Arkwright was a paternalistic employer. He provided a form of sick pay long before it was a statutory requirement, for example. Indeed his obituary published by the Derby Mercury Erasmus Darwin was very positive about the industrialist. His system of spinning “by giving perpetual employment to many thousand families has increased the population, and been productive of greater commercial advantages to the country, and contributed to more the general benefit of mankind, in so short a space of time, than any other single effort of human ingenuity.”

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Arkwright’s mill complex in Cromford

Griffin’s book also shares positive aspects of the life during the industrial revolution, while being realistic about the realities of industrial work. This new way of working brought more certainty of both the level and earnings. People writing in the autobiographies were largely positive comments about pay, as Griffin noted:

“The industrial revolution increased the amount of work available, for the skilled and unskilled, for the young and old. More work. It may not sound exciting, but for those suffering from chronic unemployment, a full-time job was a thing of enormous value. More work meant higher incomes, and for a family living close to the breadline this was very good news indeed.”

This shift also brought a plethora of new jobs including working in warehouses, repairing machines and keeping accounts i.e. beyond just making things. And outside the factory, the associated rise of larger communities also brought work opportunities, such as in shops and entertainment venues. Many benefitted from this effect of economies of scale.

In other professions, opportunities were opened up to wider society. For example Griffin found that in the early 19th century tailors and shoemakers were more likely to learn their skills outside costly apprenticeships. They therefore no longer needed to pay expensive premiums to employers and be tied to binding contracts, but could learn on the job.

Of course, it’s important not to generalise, a point that Griffin makes throughout her book. Experiences varied in different industries and in regions. And while for men, the industrial revolution brought new, better paid opportunities, the experiences of children and women was not as positive. Children started work at a much younger age, working in mines or using their nimble fingers to operate specific machines in factories. Women didn’t have better working experiences either, as Griffin notes:

“Despite all the economic upheavals that we know occurred between the late 18th and mid 19th centuries, the profile of women’s work hardly shifted at all. With the exception of the factory districts, which did offer a distinctive new form of employment, most women remained employed in the same old sectors, very often doing much the same work as their mothers and grandmothers.”

This point of variation is something that I’ve noted as I’ve visited other early industrial communities in Britain. For example, while Arkwright may have been seen as a paternalistic employer, not all were regarded as the same. Titus Salt, who built Saltaire on the outskirts Bradford, was a hard task master. Living conditions were much better than workers had experienced in the slums they left; but they paid for the privilege. And just as Salt kept all the rent, he also profited from the spending of all shops in the village that he owned. In reality, it’s not possible to have one view of the industrial revolution.


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