January 23, 2013
The thing I love most about London’s history is how it often pops up in the most mundane of settings.
Just after Christmas, I set out to close a Co-Op bank account that I’ve not used for years. The nearest branch to me is in Islington, just opposite Angel tube station. Look, I’m aware neither of those are the most dynamic opening sentences, but bear with me. I did say the setting was going to be mundane.
It’s one of the more perplexing names in the tube network – why did they go for Angel? Why not Islington,or Upper Street, or something a bit more geographically helpful?
The answer is that it’s one of five tube stations named after a pub (the others are Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak and Swiss Cottage) and when the Angel tube station opened in 1901, the Angel Inn was still thriving on the corner of the High Street – much as it had done since the fifteenth century.
But within twenty years of the tube station taking its name, the Angel Inn was closed. Today, the tube station is the only reminder that it was ever there.
According to Henry C. Shelley’s The Inns and Taverns of Old London (1909):
The Angel dates back to before 1665, for in that year of plague in London a citizen broke out of his house in the city and sought refuge here. He was refused admission, but was taken in at another inn and found dead in the morning. In the seventeenth century and later, as old pictures testify, the inn presented the usual features of a large old country hostelry. As such the courtyard is depicted by Hogarth in his print of the Stage Coach. Its career has been uneventful in the main.
Its career may have been largely uneventful, but the inn survived for generations and the galleried interior was immortalised by some of the most celebrated English artists of the day: not just Hogarth in The Stage Coach: Country Inn Yard (1747)…
…but later by Thomas Rowlandson (in Outside the Angel Inn, Islington)…
…and Charles Dickens, who called the Angel “the place London begins in earnest” in Oliver Twist.
Despite an 1819 rebuild as the area rapidly transformed from a rural to an urban one (some of its land was sold off to realise some healthy profits), the Angel Inn was eventually demolished in the dying years of the nineteenth century.
In 1899, they rebuilt the old pub as an ornate, six-storey, terracotta-brick building which still stands today.
Renamed the Angel Hotel, the new building was intended to do justice to what the brewers described (with some marketing hyperbole) as “the widest-known hostelry in the world.” The ground floor was faced in polished Norwegian granite; carved stone cherubs look out from the higher eaves; a mahogany and green-marble staircase led from the bar to a smoking room upstairs; and crowning the entire heap sat a grand baroque cupola, which quickly became one of Islington’s landmarks.
But within twenty years, the Angel Hotel had closed – its grand, high-Victorian design swiftly looked out of date and unfashionable, and the building’s three-hundred year history as an inn came to an end in 1921. The brewery sold the building to the Lyons catering empire, most famous for their vast Corner House restaurants which dominated the West End in the post-war period.
Staffed by waitresses affectionately known as ‘nippies’, the Corner Houses were more like department stores than tearooms, with several restaurants, numerous floors and hundreds of staff. In the 1950s, the company could boast it was serving over a hundred million meals a year to the British public.
The Angel Cafe Restaurant was opened in February 1922 as a grand, two-storey restaurant – large, but not on the same scale as the massive centrally located Corner Houses. The novelist Arnold Bennett came for lunch in 1924, and wrote that he preferred the “brightness and space” of the Lyons house to “the old Angel’s dark stuffiness.”
It lasted until 1959, when the Lyons company sold the building to the Council. Road widening schemes had been constantly mooted throughout the century (one estimate claims the corner was subject to seventy individual road-widening schemes from 1890 until the 1970s) and with a compulsory purchase order about to come into effect on the building, Lyons sold the site to the council a few years before they would have had to.
The decision was made easier for the company due to the increasing cost in the upkeep of the now shabby building – a slow and steady decline in Lyon’s trade from the end of the Second World War onwards meant the company were already feeling the downturn in fortunes which would see them go under in the 1970s.
The building was leased to the University of London’s Geology department until 1968, and then spent a number of years empty until the council finally abandoned their road widening schemes. Having escaped demolition by the skin of its teeth, it is now listed and has been fitted for bank use since 1979.
And that’s where we come in, with me popping in to close a bank account in the Co-Op, who occupy it today.
And that’s when I noticed this inside the front entrance.
The huge gold plaque commemorates the day in 1925 when the building was still the Angel Cafe Restaurant, and Victor Watson stopped by for lunch.
Watson was the managing director of Waddingtons, a firm of printers from Leeds who in the 1930s had started to branch out into card and board games. In 1935, the company sent a game they’d devised called Lexicon to the Parker Brothers in America, hoping they might agree to produce it in the States. In return, the Parker Brothers sent them one of their board games that had not yet gone into production: Monopoly.
Following a weekend of play, Victor’s son Norman urged his father to quickly snap up the rights, and three days after Victor had received the game, Waddingtons obtained the licence to produce and market Monopoly outside of the United States.
Watson felt that for the game to be a success in the United Kingdom, the American locations on the board needed to be replaced, so he and his secretary, Marjory Phillips, travelled to London for a day to work out which street names they would put on the board.
By all accounts, Victor and Marjory’s single day in London was a hectic one – Victor later admitted he’d slipped up by putting ‘Marlborough Street’ on the board when it should have been Great Marlborough Street – but in a short period of time, they managed to pick a broadly accurate selection of roads to represent the varying values across the board.
One of the only known facts about their day out (which would turn out to be a very lucrative one for the Waddington’s company) was that Victor and Marjory sat in the Angel Cafe Restaurant in the afternoon and reviewed their work.
And whether it was to celebrate completing their job, or just because he liked the name, Victor decided to include ‘The Angel, Islington’ on the board. Unlike all the other property squares, it’s the only one which isn’t a street, but a specific building.
You can find this plaque, unveiled in 2003 by Victor’s grandson (who is also called Victor and is also the managing director of Waddingtons), just as you walk into the Co-Op bank at 1 High Street, Islington.
A couple of doors away, there’s a Wetherspoon’s which has taken the name The Angel, but don’t be fooled. This Angel can only trace its history back to 1998.
October 19, 2012
As a child growing up in nearby Hatch End, the gravestone of John Port was always a highlight of a visit to St Mary’s Church in Harrow On The Hill.
On the afternoon of 7 August 1838, Port was a guard on the London to Birmingham train and as it travelled through Harrow, he slipped and fell while walking between the carriages to check tickets. Both his legs were severed as the train went over him and he died later that day from massive blood loss.
The coroner’s inquest found that:
the unfortunate deceased started with the Denbigh Hall five o-clock train on Tuesday last from the station at Euston grove, and having arrived within a mile and a quarter of Harrow, as was the usual custom, he dismounted from his seat for the purpose of collecting from the passengers what is termed the ‘excess fares.’ … In the performance of this duty the deceased was engaged on Tuesday, which compelled him to pass from one carriage to the other by the steps, and when in the act of placing his foot on one of them, at the time the train was proceeding at upwards of thirty miles an hour, his foot slipped between the wheels, which as they successivley passed over, dragged his legs in, crushing them inch by inch up to one of his knees and above the other.
His tombstone bears a gruesome poetic account of the incident.
- TO THE MEMORY OF
- THOMAS PORT
- SON OF JOHN PORT OF BURTON UPON TRENT
- IN THE COUNTY OF STAFFORD, HAT MANUFACTURER,
- WHO NEAR THIS TOWN HAD BOTH HIS LEGS
- SEVERED FROM HIS BODY BY THE RAILWAY TRAIN.
- WITH THE GREATEST FORTITUDE HE BORE A
- SECOND AMPUTATION BY THE SURGEONS, AND
- DIED FROM LOSS OF BLOOD.
- AUGUST 7TH 1838 AGED 33 YEARS.
- Bright rose the morn and vig’rous’ rose poor Port.
- Gay on the Train he used his wonted sport:
- Ere noon arrived his mangled form they bore,
- With pain distorted and o’erwhelmed with gore:
- When evening came to close the fatal day,
- A mutilated corpse the sufferer lay.
Over the years, the headstone has eroded to the point of near illegibility, despite being Grade II listed in 1983.
Port’s death came only eight years after the first ever British rail fatality, that of William Huskisson MP, who died in similar circumstances.
At the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool railway, he “lost his balance in clambering into the carriage and fell back upon the rails in front of the Dart, the advancing engine” which then ran over his leg, severing it. Huskisson died of blood loss, having “lingered in great agony for nine hours.”
Surprisingly, there is also a memorial nearby for another transport-fatality pioneer.
Two minutes stroll down the hill, on the corner of Grove Hill, is a plaque commemorating the first car driver ever to die in a road accident.
The driver, Mr E.R. Sewell had been demonstrating the vehicle, a Daimler Wagonette, to 63-year-old Major James Stanley Richer, Department Head at the Army & Navy Stores, with the view to a possible purchase for the company.As they drove down the hill at 14mph, a wheel shed it’s rim. Both Sewell and Richer were thrown from the car onto the road.
Sewell died instantly, and when Major Richer died four days after the accident without regaining consciousness, it became a dubious double-first – the first death of a driver in Britain, followed by the first death of a passenger in a car
The dubious accolade of being the first person to be killed by a car in Britain goes to Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon who on 17 August 1896 was run over by a Roger-Benz car while attending a folk dancing festival at Crystal Palace.
The driver was going at 4 mph (described by witness as “a reckless pace”), and at Mrs Driscoll’s inquest, Coroner William Percy Morrison said he hoped that “such a thing would never happen again.” He was also the first to apply the term ‘accident’ to violence caused by speed.
Since then, some 30 million people have lost their lives in car accidents, but a woman from Croydon is the name which appears at the very top of the list.
October 19, 2012
Just to the right of the doorway of St Mary’s Church, at the summit of Harrow On The Hill, is a small memorial tablet dedicated to Allegra, daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont.
The lack of detail on the stone hides one of the most poignant, saddest tales in literary history.
Born in Bath in January 1817, Allegra Byron was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), the teenage stepsister of the writer Mary Shelley.
She had relentlessly pursued Byron, and despite thinking her “foolish”, the combination of her advances and his weakness for women was too much: “I never loved her nor pretended to love her—but a man is a man–& if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night—there is but one way.”
Byron in 1822
When the child was born, Byron was in Venice, and showed little interest in ‘the little being’ who had been named Alba in his absence. The child’s birth coincided with a time when Byron was at his most dissolute: a time, according to Edna O’Brien in Byron in Love, he was “bargaining with mothers and father for their daughters, brazenly naming his conquests from contessas to cobblers’ wives and claiming to have ‘tooled’ with two hundred women of one sort or another.”
Considering his lifestyle, his decision to have the child sent to him when she was a year old seems positively bizarre. The penniless Claire believed their daughter would be guaranteed a better future with her famous father, and sent him “my child because I love her too well to keep her.” Although she could not have realised it, she would never see her daughter again.
None of her many heartbroken, pleading letters to Byron would ever be answered and worse, his deep-rooted animosity for Claire was passed on to his child.
Byron had decided to “acknowledge and breed” his daughter, albeit in a conditional way – he gave her the surname Biron to distinguish her from his legitimate daughter and renamed her Allegra (its meaning of ‘cheerful, brisk’ couldn’t be a less accurate premonition of the child’s fate.) The first meeting between father and infant daughter was not promising: “My bastard came three days ago,” he wrote. “Heathy – noisy – & capricious.”
Within months, Byron had tired of Allegra and placed her in the care of the British Consul-General Richard Belgrave Hoppner and his wife, neither of whom were very fond of the child. When they left Venice, Allegra was passed on to their servant Antonio and then to the wife of the Danish Consul, “by which time she showed the remoteness of an abandoned child.”
At the same time, Byron was indulging in any romantic encounter which came his way, contracting myriad sexually transmitted diseases and writing his vast blasphemous and bawdy work Don Juan, published anonymously in 1819.
Byron’s feelings for his banished daughter veered between irritation and repulsion. Sent to a convent for her perceived attitude – at three years old, he said she was “obstinate as a mule and ravenous as a vulture” – Byron received a letter from Allegra.
My dear Papa – it being fair time I should so much like a visit from my Papa as I have many desires to satisfy; will you please your Allegra who loves you so?
The abbess of the convent included her own note inviting Byron to come to see Allegra before he left for Pisa and assuring him “how much she is loved.” On the back of this letter, Byron wrote: “Sincere enough, but not very flattering – for she wants to see me because ‘it is the fair’ to get some paternal Gingerbread – I suppose.”
Byron never responded to Allegra’s letter and never visited the child during the thirteen months she was in the convent.
In 1822, as Claire begged to see her daughter again – “I can no longer resist the internal inexplicable feeling which haunts me that I shall never see her anymore. I entreat you to destroy this feeling by allowing me to see her” – Byron sent Allegra even further away, to the Capuchin convent in distant Bagnacavallo.
Shelley and Byron had become friends after Claire had introduced them (their friendship quickly shattered due to Byron’s debauched behaviour), and the poet visited Allegra (who was effectively his niece) at the convent. Bringing her a gold chain as a present, he found the ‘shy and serious’ child expressing the wish that she would one day be visited by her mother or father. Claire was so desparate to see her daughter that she considered kidnapping her, or forging a letter in Byron’s hand directing her to be returned to England.
Sadly, any plans she was devising came too late. During the summer, Byron received word that Allegra had been “ill, dangerously ill” and as he half-heartedly arranged for her to conveyed to a doctor, she died “of a convulsive catarrhal attack” (most likely either typhus or malaria.)
She was just five years old, and had spent the last four of those effectively alone.
Whether it was genuine grief, or deep, unassailable guilt regarding the way he’d acted during his daughter’s short life, Byron was devastated by the news about the detested child he’d completely abandoned. When he was first told:
A mortal paleness spread over his face, his strength failed him and he sunk into a seat…He remained immovable in the same attitude for an hour and no consolation seemed to reach his ears, let alone his heart.
It was a “stunning and unexpected” blow, Byron told Shelley, but he refused to publicly admit his feelings or conduct towards Allegra had been anything but perfect.
Three years after Allegra died, however, he told the Countess of Blessington that her death had filled him with retrospective grief:
Let the object of affection be snatched away by death, and how is all the pain ever inflicted upon them avenged! The same imagination that led us to slight or overlook their sufferings, now that they are forever lost to us, magnifies their estimable qualities … How did I feel this when my daughter, Allegra, died! While she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her.
Having never visited the convent while she was alive, Byron made a pilgrimage to it after her death, and gave what remained of her clothes for a statue to be erected on the grounds.
Allegra’s tiny body was sent back to England – “the body is embarked – in what ship – I know not’ – and a ghoulish rumour circulated that the child was sent back to England in two parts to save money. Whilst untrue, it’s existence hints as just how depraved the people of England believed Byron to be.
In fact, Byron lavished more attention on Allegra’s corpse than he ever had while she was breathing. She was conveyed from the London Wharf in a fine hearse and mourning coach, drawn by horses festooned with feathers and velvet; her destination was St Mary’s Church on Harrow-on-the-Hill.
The church was chosen as Byron spent many boyhood hours in the churchyard while a schoolboy at Harrow between 1801-1805, and it inspired his 1807 poem Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow.
He knew exactly where he wanted her to be laid. “There is,” he wrote in May 1822, “a spot in the church’yard’, near the footpath, on the brow of the hill looking towards Windsor, and a tomb under a large tree (bearing the name of Peachie, or Peachey), where I used to sit for hours and hours when a boy. This was my favourite spot; but as I wish to erect a tablet to her memory, the body had better be deposited in the ‘church’.”
Byron composed a eulogy to be carved on a marble tablet inside the church door, commemorating “the memory of Allegra, daughter of George Gordon Lord Byron” and quoting a verse from Samuel: “I shall go to her but she shall not return to me.”
But the Rector of Harrow, the Revd John William Cunningham, and the churchwardens considered Byron so immoral, they refused the stone, citing Allegra’s illegitimacy which was compounded by the identification of the father’s name (it’s also likely Byron’s imfamous immorality helped sway their decision.) As such, Allegra was buried in an unmarked plot outside the door of the South Porch.
It was only in 1980 that a memorial tablet was erected on the side of the church near to the place she was interred.
Following Byron’s death from a fever in Greece, his remains were returned to England and a squabble broke out as to where he would be buried – his reputation was such that no one wanted him.
Westminster Abbey refused him burial, as did St Mary’s Church, something which Byron acknowledly sadly at the time of Allegra’s death.
The spot he had chosen for her grave, he wrote in a letter to his publisher John Murray, was the very one “where I once hoped to have laid my own.”
Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph Denis Odevaere (c.1826)
September 23, 2012
On the SOAS campus in Bloomsbury is a small plaque unlike any other in London.
The building in Thornhaugh Street is the only one in London to bear a sign apologising for being built.
On the front, facing towards Russell Square, a plaque reads: “The University of London hereby records its sincere apologies that the plans of this building were settled without due consultation with the Russell family and their trustees and therefore without their approval of its design.”
UCL erected the building in 1988 as the Brunei Gallery – an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies which operates as “an exciting venue in Central London…[hosting] a programme of changing contemporary and historival exhibitions from Asia, Africa and the Middle East”. On top is a Japanese roof garden.
All very unobjectionable, you might imagine. You’d be wrong.
The University is on land which is managed by the Bedford Estates, a trust which benefits the descendents of the aristocrats who bought up the vast empty fields of what would become Bloomsbury three centuries ago.
In 1669, the huge Bloomsbury Estate came into the ownership of the Russell family through marriage. Their land stretched from present-day Euston Road to the north, Tottenham Court Road in the east, and all the way down to Covent Garden to the south – a nice accompaniment to Woburn Abbey, which had been gifted to them by Henry VIII following the dissolution of the monasteries. The Russell family, who were given the title of Duke of Bedford shortly after they came into possession of the land, remain the owners of much of the area to this day.
Piecemeal building schemes continued throughout the centuries, but in 1893, the 11th Duke, Herbrand Russell (1858-1937), felt political and popular feeling was turning against the owners of the large London estates, living as they were in a manner which was entirely alien (and alienating) to most of the population. Worried that their visibility and proximity to the masses might make them vulnerable, he made the decision to sell the majority of the family estate to developers, although many of the pre-exisiting developments remained in the family’s vast property portfolio.
Herbrand Russell was for many years the President of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, and was credited with saving the native Chinese milu (or Pere David deer) from extinction by breeding them in Woburn Abbey, but his grandson, the 13th Duke, John Russell could find little positive to say about him: “a selfish, forbidding man, with a highly developed sense of public duty and ducal responsibility, he lived a cold, aloof existence, isolated from the outside world by a mass of servants, sycophants and an eleven-mile wall.”
One of the many institutions who bought land from the family in the 1920s was the University of London, in an era which saw the tone of the neighbourhood shift from the residential to the academic.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Georgian houses were taken over by publishing companies, who converted the decent-sized rooms into individual offices. On the other side of the road from the Brunei Gallery are the former offices of Faber and Faber, a blue plaque dedicated to one-time employee TS Eliot upon the wall.
While the Russell family have long been unable to prevent the British Museum and the University encroaching into their estate, as educational institutions were given the legal right to compulsarily purchase land when they needed to expand, one of the conditions of sale was that the Bedford Estate retained the right of approval on buildings which fronted onto certain viewpoints.
And one of the viewpoints they have approval on is when buildings – just like the Brunei Gallery – face onto Russell Square.
The Bedford Estates were consulted in the early days of the SOAS project, but, in their words, “the university slightly pre-empted the issue”, and the design was fixed without the consent of the Estate. Thus, when the University set about leasing the new building to SOAS, the apologetic plaque was demanded by the Bedford Estate, who specified the exact wording, size and materials to be used.
Underneath the apologetic notice is a plaque noting that the actual design of the building was never really an issue: it won a Civic Trust Award 1988. The Trust awards “do not simply reward good design, but also take into account the way in which schemes relate to their settings and to the people they serve.”
Essentially, the only reason the plaque is there is as a point of principle.
The current Duke of Bedford is the 15th, who succeeded to the title in 2004. Today’s Bedford Estate consists mainly of “residential property converted to office and small hotel use and private residential property.” It also includes lock-up garages and a number of squares, both public and private.
That list rather downplays the scale of his empire which the Sunday Times estimated in 2011 had given him a fortune of over half a billion pounds.
And, since 1988, a prime view of London’s sorriest building.
August 15, 2012
Hiding away on one of the leafy streets midway up Highgate Hill sits India House.
Bearing a blue plaque on the wall to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, there is little about 65 Cromwell Avenue that suggests it has the dubious claim of being the home of one of the first foreign terrorist cells to establish itself on on English soil.
Between 1905 and 1910, the house operated as an informal but hugely influential Indian nationalist organization. Fighting for Indian freedom from British Imperialism, India House was regarded as the one of the most revolutionary and radical centres of Indian nationalism outside India during the British Empire. Valentine Choril, the then-editor of the Times, even labelled the unassuming Victorian pile in a quiet, well-off side street “the most dangerous organization outside India.”
In the late 1890s, an Oxford-educated Indian named Shyamji Krishnavarma Bhansali (commonly known as S K Varma, 1857-1939) returned to England from India, where he had become increasingly resentful of British rule. He purchased a house in Muswell Hill with a view to establishing a base for an international Indian independence movement – one in the very heart of enemy territory.
His aim was to promote nationalist views amongst Indian students studying in Britain and Varma was visited at the house by a vast number of social thinkers and revolutionaries, including Lenin and Gandhi (then working as a lawyer.)
In 1905, Varma published his first issue of his anti-colonist newspaper The Indian Sociologist and inaugurated a new organisation called “The Indian Home Rule Society”.
1909 edition of The Indian Sociologist
The first meeting laid out the society’s aims: securing home rule for India, carrying on propaganda in England to achieve it, and spreading information about freedom and national unity in India. He followed the dictum of the philosopher Herbert Spencer (most famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest”, he is buried in nearby Highgate Cemetery): “Resistance to aggression is not simply justified, but imperative.”
In the same year, Varma purchased 65 Cromwell Avenue to be used as a hostel for 25 Indian students.
While ostensibly accommodation for students who were often racially discriminated against by other landlords, Varma’s underlying intention was to create a new generation of Indian radical patriots. It was formally inaugurated as India House by HM Hyndman, a Scottish Socialist, on 1 July 1905.
Varma may have been the driving force behind the foundation, but the activities which took place inside the house are most closely associated with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), described as an “Indian patriot and philospher” on the blue plaque.
Savarkar, considered the central icon of modern Hindu nationalist political parties, lived at the house from 1906 to 1909, and together with the other men now regarded as the founding fathers of Indian communism and Hindu nationalism – men like VN Chatterjee, Lala Har Daval and VSS Aiyer – he started radical student societies and produced publications calling for complete Indian independence by revolutionary means.
Still only in his early twenties in his time in Highgate, Savarkar was a fiery young law student from Pune, whose fierce and incendiary nationalism was not shared by all of the students in the house.
Gandhi made another visit to the organization (his first to India House) in October 1906, and it has been suggested that Savarkar’s militant views about revolutionary violence (and the consequences resulting from those practices) may have influenced Gandhi’s subsequent nonviolent philosophy.
By 1906, the organization was starting to attract the attention of the British authorities. An editorial in the Times suggested Varma should be prosecuted for preaching “disloyal sentiments” to the Indian students staying in Cromwell Avenue. Following police visits to both the house and the printers of The Indian Sociologist in 1907, and fearing arrest was imminent, Varma fled to France, and Savarkar took over the operation of India House.
With Savarkar in charge, India House became swiftly radicalized. Sunday night meetings took place, where Savarkar selected topics for lectures ranging from the philosophy of revolution to bomb-making and assassination techniques. Badges – known as Mutiny Buttons – were produced commemorating the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the Indians who had died were referred to as ‘martyrs.’ The outbuilding of India House was converted to a “war workshop” where chemistry students attempted to produce explosives and manufacture bombs, while the printing press turned out “seditious” literature, including bomb-making manuals and pamphlets promoting violence toward Europeans in India.
Savarkar was at the heart of the scheme, spending a great deal of time in the explosives workshop and emerging on some evenings, according to a fellow revolutionary, “with telltale yellow stains of Picric acid on his hands”. The residents of India House practiced shooting at a range in Tottenham Court Road and rehearsed the assassinations they planned to carry out.
In 1909, Savarkar published The Indian War of Independence, which was considered so inflammatory that the British Library removed it from their catalogue to prevent Indian students from accessing it. As Savarkar’s speeches grew increasingly strident – he called for revolution, widespread violence, and the murder of all Englishmen in India – Scotland Yard placed India House under surveillance, and started to send undercover officers to meetings.
Even so, they totally underestimated the true danger that was slowly fermenting.
In July 1909, a member of India House named Madan Lal Dhingra assasinated Sir WH Curzon – an Indian army officer with close ties to the secretary of state of India, Lord Hamilton. Two years before, The Indian Sociologist had named Curzon as one of the “old unrepentant foes of India who have fattened on the misery of the Indian peasant every (sic) since they began their career.”
A student at the University of London and the son of a wealthy Hindu doctor, Dhingra shot Curzon at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington at an event organized by the National Indian Association.
Wearing a sky-blue turban in the Punjabi style and a smart suit, a necktie and dark glasses, Dhingra filled up his coat pockets with a revolver, two pistols and two knives.
Dhingra reached the party at eight. He went around talking to people there for some time. It was past ten when political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India Curzon Wyllie and his wife arrived. Their arrival added zest to the merriment. It was about eleven when the proceeding ended. Wyllie got down from the dais. Then there was some music. Wyllie was moving around talking to people informally.
Dhingra fired five shots right at his face, four of which hit their target. Cowasji Lalkaka, a Parsee doctor who tried to save Sir Curzon, died of Madan Lal’s sixth and seventh bullets, which the latter fired because Lalkaka had caught hold of him.
He was hanged at Pentonville the following month. But Indian intelligence sources suggested that the assassination was Savarkar’s brainchild, and that further actions were planned in Britain as well as India.
The Metropolitan police were unable to bring a prosecution against Savarkar, since he had an alibi for the night, but over the following year, police and political sources brought pressure on the residents of India House to leave England. Many moved to Paris (in the footsteps of Varma) where the Paris Indian Society gradually took India House’s place as the centre of Indian nationalism on the continent.
The police brought strong pressure on India House and began gathering intelligence on Indian students in London. These, along with threats to their careers, robbed India House of its student support base. It slowly began to disassemble, and the residence was treated “akin to a leper’s home” by the Indian students in the city.
In March 1910, Savarkar was arrested upon his return to London from Paris where he had briefly fled to. He was put in Brixton prison, charged with sedition and abetment to murder and deported back to India. He was freed in 1924 after serving 14 years, and turned to politics.
He established the Hindu Mahasabha and working throughout the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s towards Indian independence from British rule: pro-Hindu, pro-Indian self-rule, and largely anti-violence.
Savarkar was one of the pivotal people in the independence movement, but disagreed with those around him: He did not like the Muslim Jinna – he believed the Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus were two different races – and he disapproved of Gandhi’s hunger strike in 1942.
Following independence, the murder of Gandhi in 1948 by Nathuram Godse – the editor of a newspaper that held Mahasabha views – led to reprisals against Hindus, and Savarker’s house was attacked. In May 1948, he was arrested with nine other men and was accused of being behind Gandhi’s assassination. A witness stated to the court that Savarker had sent two of his men a mission to assassinate Gandhi and Prime Minister Nehru, charging them to “be successful and to return.”
In February 1949, Savarkar was the only one of the nine men to be released without charge – two (including Godse) were executed, five transported for life and one turned King’s evidence. He largely retired after the trial, and died in 1966 at the age of 83.
Over the years, Savarkar has been viewed as both patriot and terrorist, but his slow ascent to respectability has no better marker than the blue plaque on the side of the house that the British establishment once drove him from.
But that’s nothing compared to his veneration in parts of India. In December 2010, an exact brick-by-brick replica of the Highgate house was built in Savarker’s birthplace of Mandvi-Kutch, Gujurat. Set in 52 acres, the replica house contains a children’s play area, statues and a fountain.
The only thing it lacks is the blue plaque.
UPDATE: Thanks to Nicole for the following clarification: “The museum in Gujerat which includes an exact replica of India House was built to commemorate SK Varma, who founded it, rather than Savarkar.”
June 22, 2012
Chaim Reeven Weintrop was born at 12 Hanbury Street (just off the Commerical Road) on the 14th October 1896 to Polish-born Jewish parents “who had been in the country for years [but] could hardly be understood when speaking English.”
The Registrar chose to anglicise the name, alien-to-his-ears, to ‘Robert Winthrop’ – but it was under a third name that the boy would one day gain national stardom.
Leaving the poverty of the East End at 14, as a stowaway on a ship bound for America, Winthrop slowly wriggled his way into the vaudeville circuit as a low-ranking black-face comic. He toured America, Australia and South Africa (with limited success) before returning to Britain to enlist at the start of the First World War.
Winthrop’s better-known stage name was supposedly chosen after he endured bullying from a vicious sergeant. As soon as he was demobbed, he is supposed to have told the superior officer that one day, he’d make his name a joke and everyone would laugh when they heard it. The sergeant’s name was Flanagan. If the story’s true, he certainly succeeded.
Dressed in a moth-eaten fur coat while Allen looked dapper and smart, Bud composed their signature song Underneath the Arches, had a hit with the timeless Run Rabbit Run, coined his yelped catchphrase “Oi!” (which he shouted to cover up any words he fluffed on delivery, and was immediately echoed by the orchestra) and his popularity with the Royal Family paved the way for the Royal Variety performances.
Flanagan backstage at a Crazy Gang show with guest Charlie Chaplin
The duo’s numerous live shows with fellow double-acts Nervo and Knox, Noughton and Gold and solo act ‘Monsewer’ Eddie Gray saw them billed as the Crazy Gang – a kind of dream team of comedy – and their shows repeatedly sold out West End theatres for two-year-long runs from 1937 until the late 1950s (their final performance was in 1961.)
Sadly, not a lot of footage of them exists and the films they made are hard to find, but this clip from 1937’s O-Kay For Sound shows them in their later prime, and brings home how much Morecambe and Wise and the Carry On teams owe to the Crazy Gang. The business with the hat being accidentally knocked off time and time again just doesn’t age.
Flanagan remained a huge favourite until his death in 1968. Perhaps his best-known legacy today is the last job he performed in his final days: singing (in his melancholic nasal London twang) the theme tune for Dad’s Army, ‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler’ – a song which doesn’t date from the war, but was especially written for the TV show in the style of Flanagan’s war-time ditties (you can relive it here.)
Flanagan was cremated at Golder’s Green where he has a plaque – and his death was such a national event that his funeral was filmed by British Pathe. At 58 seconds in, Chesney Allen arrives – ironically, their working partnership was ended by Allen’s ill-health, although he would go on to outlive Flanagan by 14 years.
But unlike many of the performers of his generation, who were nostalgic for the London of their youth, Flanagan (who for a good stretch of years was the single most recognisable comedian in the country) looked back on where he’d come from later in life not with rose-tinted spectacles and rags-to-riches-nostalgia, but a mix of bitter amusement and abject disgust.
In his 1961 autobiography My Crazy Life, Flanagan was surprisingly frank about his feelings towards Hanbury Street.
At the time of his birth, the area was synonymous (and a century later, it could be argued it still is) with the murders perpetrated by Jack The Ripper.
In 1888, the body of one of the victims, Annie Chapman, was discovered in the backyard of no.29. Discovered in the early hours of the morning, the enterprising neighbours in the road of dosshouses had opened their doors by the middle of the day, charging admission for a better view of the bloodstain in the yard. Supposedly a bit of a party atmosphere began, with sightseers making a day of it and the pubs doing a roaring trade as the rubberneckers went back and forth.
Choosing that anecdote to set the scene, an aging Flanagan vividly painted a picture of his childhood home:
Hanbury Street crawled rather than ran from Commercial Street, where Spitalfields Market stood at one end, to Vallance Road, an artery that spewed itself into Whitechapel Road at the other. On one corner stood Godfrey Phillips; tobacco factory, with its large, ugly enamel signs, black on yellow, advertising “B.D.V” – Best Dark Virginia. It took up the whole block of the first turning, a narrow lane with little houses and a small sweet shop. This was known as Corbett’s Court. There is today a luxury block of flats in Kensington with the same name. I smiled as my memory went back to the Corbett’s Court I knew. The only luxury about it wa the rent of houses – 3s. 6d. a week.
On the next corner was a barber’s shop and a tobacconist’s which my father owned. Next door to us was a kosher restaurant with wonderful smells of hot salt beef and other spicy dishes, then came the only Jewish blacksmith I ever met. His name was Libovitch, a fine black-bearded man, strong as an ox. From seven in the morning until ten at night, Saturdays excepted, you could hear the sound of hammer on anvil all over the street. Horses from the local brewery, Truman, Hanbury and Buxton, were lined up outside his place waiting to be shod.
Then came another court; all alleys and mean streets. Adjoining was Olivenstein, the umbrella man, a fruiterer, a grocer, and then Wilkes Street. On one side of it was a row of neat little houses and on the other the brewery, taking up streets and streets, sprawling all over the district. On the corner of Wilkes Street stood The Weaver’s Arms, a public house owned by a Mrs Sarah Cooney, a great friend of Marie Lloyd. She stood out like a tree in a desert of Jews. It wasn’t a couple of hundred yards from Commercial Street, with its busy fruit market and rattling horse trams.
Stapleton’s Repository, where horses were bought and sold, eas next door to a fried fish shop, Number 14 Hanbury Street, where I was born. Next door was Rosenthal, tailors and trimming merchants, then a billiard saloon; after that a moneylender’s house where once lived the Burdett-Coutts.
Hanbury Street was a patchwork of small shops, pubs, church halls, Salvation Army hostels, doss houses, cap factories and sweat shops where tailors with red-rimmed eyes sewed by gas-mantlelight. It was typical of the Jewish quarter in the ‘90s. The houses were clean inside, but the exteriors were shoddy. The street was narrow and ill-lit. The whole of the East End in those days was sinister…
It was a very tough neighbourhood; in fact, it was Jack the Ripper’s slay ground. They tell a story of a man walking along Hanbury Street when a heap of rubbish fell on his head. He looked up and there was a kid leaning out of his window laughing like hell. The man shook his fist and shouted, “Come down, you little bastard, and I’ll kill you.” The kid laughed and said, “Come down? I can’t even walk yet.” That gives you some idea of the district…
Ours was a district where the weak went to the wall, and you had to keep your eyes open. When my father opened his fried fish shop, the salt cans were chained to each table – and to the counter.
Flanagan performed for the first time as a child in his father’s shop in 1908, demonstrating a magic act.
When the fish shop was closed on a Sunday, I let the kids in for a farthing, charged the older ones a ha’penny and gave them a show. Mothers would bring the children, and soon there was a sprinkling of grown-ups. I was making a local name until one Sunday, a big rat came out of nowhere and evil-eyed the audience. There were screams, and before you could say abracadabra, the place had emptied. It not only did me harm, but word soon spread, “There are rats in the fish shop”, which was not surprising as we were next to a horse repository, with its hay and oats. There wasn’t a morning when the traps had fewer than three or four big ones. I used to watch in fascinated horror as they drowned in a deep tub of water.
A blue plaque to Flanagan is on the front of the house, and two doors away is Poppies, a thriving fish and chip shop (which, while old, is not the one Flanagan’s father ran. Let me stress, it’s 100% worth a visit though. Delicious.)
May 21, 2012
In May 2012, a new Banksy wall painting in Turnpike Lane was excitedly reported by the world’s media. Depicting a child making Jubilee bunting, the trail of flags were removed after less than 24 hours.
Now that the debate as to whether graffiti is art is long over, a new problem has arisen with street art: it’s easy to ruin it.
While many of Banksy’s pieces have been covered with plexiglass by the owners of the buildings they appear on, countless works have been destroyed.
There’s all manners of ways in which London is deprived of these pieces of public art.
In September 2011, the work above appeared on the side of Luti Fagbenle’s post-production company, Portobello Post, in Portobello Road – Banksy painted it on a Sunday morning, having erected scaffolding so he could work unseen while the Portobello Market was in full swing. After protecting it with plexiglass, Fagbenle put the piece up for auction on eBay, saying “‘I could never justify owning a piece of art worth that much.”
With a Buy It Now price of £1,000,000, it attracted a high bid of £208,100 (and an additional £5000 to remove it from the wall, and consequently repair the hole left behind.)
Less professional attempts have also been made to remove pieces for sale: Lily Evans wrote an article for Vice Magazine about her disastrous attempt to retrieve a famous rat which ended in the complete destruction of the piece.
Similarly, some pieces have been removed not for profit, but by local councils, keen not to have their workplaces despoiled.
In October 2008, Westminister City Council demanded the removal of a huge mural painted on a building part-occupied by the Royal Mail sorting office on Newman Street.
While the Council said the owner of the building was free to do what he liked with the three-storey high-image – sell it or exhibit it elsewhere – they demanded it be removed from the site.
Deputy leader of the council Robert Davis said keeping the mural would mean “condoning” graffiti. “I take the view that this is graffiti and if you condone this then what is the difference between this and all the other graffiti you see scrawled across the city? If you condone this then you condone graffiti all over London.”
Westminster Council couldn’t have taken a more opposing view to Camden, who had long spoken of their admiration for Banksy’s maid, which had been stencilled on a wall belonging to the Roundhouse close to Chalk Farm Road.
But on the night the Hawley Arms and Lock Market caught fire in February 2008, the Camden New Journal reported “another Camden icon was being destroyed.”
The maid was obliterated with white paint.
The whitewash attack in Regent’s Park Road was made under cover of darkness, with a sarcastic calling card wishing “All the Best – Vida” left spray-painted at the scene.
The actions of the mysterious “Vida” fly in the face of an unspoken law practised by council officials, which has seen Banksy’s street art preserved, even retouched, while all other artistic offerings on the same wall – the most recent a life-sized wooden mantelpiece – are swiftly removed.
Beyind saving, the council commissioned a large mural from the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra to replace it.
The needless defacing of Banksy’s works has never been more apparent than in Archway, where one of his most famous stencils of Charles Manson hitching a ride to ‘Anywhere’ had stood opposite the McDonalds on Junction Road since 2005.
One of the oldest of Banksy’s large-scale works, by the time I took these photos in 2009, the image was weather-worn and some additional graffiti had appeared.
But in 2010, Banksy was accused of altering a twenty-five-year-old tag by Robbo (described by the Guardian as “one of the founding fathers of the London graffiti scene) on the Regents Canal.
By now hugely successful, Banksy eliminated much of the original with the addition of a workman pasting the tag up like wallpaper.
Insulted by Banksy’s actions, Robbo (now dubbed King Robbo) returned to re-alter the altered tag. In an interview with the Sabotage Times, Robbo said he did it himself, scooting across the canal in a wetsuit on an inflatable lilo.
He broke a graff code of conduct and for a lawless community we have a lot of laws, so I had to come back. What people don’t realise is that he’d already gone over loads of my stuff before and I hadn’t bothered retaliating but this time it was just so deliberate, so cowardly. If you’ve got the hump about something, you send a message and discuss it like gentlemen, you don’t wipe out a piece of graffiti history.
As the war of words on walls started to grow, Team Robbo set about altering many of Banksy’s works in North London. Following alterations to works in Camden Town, the Archway hitchhiker’s sign was changed from ‘Anywhere’ to ‘Going Nowhere.’
The alteration to the sign was quickly buffed out (presumably by the Council) and the original figure was left holding a blank sign for a couple of months.
But in November 2011, supposedly irritated by the respect accorded to Banksy by the authorities while their own efforts had been cleaned away, someone from Team Robbo decided to entirely obliterate the Hitchhiker with white paint.
A ‘spokesman’ told the Islington Times:
Regarding the Archway piece, Team Robbo and Team Banksy are still ‘at war’ and, unfortunately, there is sometimes collateral damage to innocent artworks. It has become increasingly hard for us to verify whether or not a specific artwork has been attacked or damaged in crossfire. Furthermore, many writers outside the Team Robbo crew in London are involved in covert actions.
After six months, the decision was taken to clean the work off the wall entirely.
All that remains after five years is a pale, ghostly outline of the Banksy.
Team Robbo have occassionally tagged the Archway area – here’s their hesitant contribution from a nearby building site next to the Whittington and Cat pub which appeared in the last couple of months.
May 15, 2012
UPDATE July 2014: The Baker Street bombshell – as detailed below – has been removed. It’s whereabouts are now unknown.
On the eastbound Hammersmith, Circle and District line platform at Baker Street is something you don’t usually want to be in close proximity to when you’re stuck underground.
A foot long World War 2-era shell.
Sitting beside the beautiful (and recently restored) marble memorial to the railwaymen who lost their lives in the First World War, the shell was donated by the engineering company Vickers for use as a Railway Benevolent Institution collection box.
It may seem a slightly bizarre gesture on Vickers’ part, as the engineering company’s name is more closely associated with the production of arms than with charity. The Vickers machine gun was the British Empire’s weapon of choice for half a century, and the company was one of the most significant British manufacturers of guns, tanks and aerial bombers during both of the World Wars.
But while most closely associated with armaments, Vickers was also a more general engineering firm, and during the 1920s, the company (by this time known as the Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company) built twenty electric trains to run on the Metropolitan Line, which then terminated at Baker Steet.
Each train bore a plaque on the side bearing the name of a real or fictional person associated with an area along the Met Line (Lord Byron was chosen for Train No.4 as he was educated at Harrow; Train No.8 was called Sherlock Holmes, for his Baker St address.)
The Vickers trains were used until 1962, when the line was extended and the rolling stock updated. Train No. 5 – named John Hampden, after the politician who played a central role for the Parliamentary cause during the Civil War – is now on display in the London Transport Museum.
Clearly their connection with the Met Line led to Vickers making this altruistic gesture, but I can find almost no additional information about it. I don’t know where the shell came from, whether it’s a British or a German make, or whether it was ever live and ready to blow, but it’s a safe assumption to presume it was erected in the years immediately after WW2.
Incidentally, the Railway Benevolent Institution, set up in 1858, is still going strong under the name The Railway Benefit Fund. They contacted me in June 2014 to say they were unaware of the shell’s existence, and informed me that when they went to see it, the bombshell had been removed.
And it’s worth a closer look at the beautiful carving by Charles W. Clark on the top of the WW1 memorial of a lion crushing a serpent beneath its paw.
February 20, 2012
At the top of Pinner’s medieval high street, shielded from sight by the L’Orient restaurant, sits the 14th century St John’s Church.
In the small graveyard that skirts the church (sadly, it was entirely refurbished in flint in 1880, so little of the ancient building remains) is a unique wedge-shaped memorial.
Halfway up, a coffin seems to protrude, an end jutting out of each side, as if it’s been picked up and hurled through the centre of the triangular monument.
It was remarked upon by Charles Harper in 1902, in his book Cycle Rides Around London.
An odd tomb, in the shape of a tower, is to be seen in the churchyard. Now thickly overgrown with ivy, it is a picturesque object, but the peculiarity of it is that the body of the person “buried” here a certain William London, in 1809 is contained in a stone-encased coffin, projecting from the tower, half-way up. The end of the coffin bears an epitaph, which, however, affords no clue to this freak.
Legends, that may or may not be well founded, tell that the descendants of William London, a Scotch merchant, retain the property bequeathed by him so long as he remains “above ground.” This tower is supported on arches filled in with ornamental ironwork, on which appear the mysterious words, “BYDE-MY TYME.” The inquisitive stranger naturally wants to know what he is waiting for, but the mystery is insoluble.
The strange tomb was erected by acclaimed landscape gardener and prolific horticultural author John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) to the memory of his parents William (d. 1810) and Agnes (died 1841.)
Loudon’s major work was Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum (1838), a guide to every species of shrub and tree growing in Britain, complete with their history, the conditions they favoured and illustrations drawn from life. It took Loudon eight years from start until the publication of the final part.
During that time, he developed the influential concept of ‘gardenesque’ planting – whereby plants were placed in such a way that they formed pleasing patterns, and gardens became a clear product of the gardener’s art, rather than trying to mimic nature.
Along with designing Derby’s arboretum (which inspired the Botanical Gardens at Kew), Loudon was also employed by private companies building large, suburban cemeteries to replace the overcrowded city churchyards – a period which coincides with the erection of the memorial to his parents.
Loudon designed cemeteries in Bath, Cambridge and Southampton, and his ideas for public spaces, which he expounded upon in 1843’s On the Laying Out, Planting and managing of Cemeteries, were adopted by Abney Park and the City of London cemeteries. John Claudius did not live for long after the strange monument was erected: he died in 1843 of lung cancer, virtually penniless despite his lifetime of work, and while memorialised on one end of his monument, was buried at Kensal Green.
“Villagers have come up with many theories over the centuries as to its origin and purpose,” wrote James Bond in the local Harrow magazine Limited Edition back in the 1990s. “One legend which will not rest in peace is that the monument is a device to ensure that a legacy considers to be paid to the church – as long as the dearly departed were left above ground.”
It seems unlikely the church would go to such lengths to swindle a dead man’s family out of their full inheritance, and most likely it was simply a rather literal case, even in death, of social climbing (something still alive and well in Pinner today.)
John Claudius Loudon’s unusual monument, completely out of scale with its surroundings, was probably built to signify his parents were above the rest of those buried in the churchyard, and nearer to their God…than thee.
The unique monument was Grade II listed in 1983.
February 20, 2012
“One of the most interesting cases of haunting in London is or was associated with the mummy cases of a high priestess of the Temple of Amen-Ra,” begins the entry in Peter Underwood’s Haunted London (1974.)
It does seem indisputable that from the time the mummy case passed into the possession of an Englishman in Egypt about 1860 a strange series of fatalities followed its journey and even when it resided in the Mummy Room at the British Museum, sudden death haunted those who handled the 3,500-year-old relic from Luxor.
Ah, nothing stirs the hackles on the back of an Englishman’s neck than the tale of the Mummy’s curse.
Although it’s not marked at such, the most famous cursed mummy case of all has stood for much of the last century in the First Egyptian Room at the British Museum.
The yarn begins with an Oxford graduate, published author, horse breeder and amateur archaeologist named Thomas Douglas Murray (1841-1911), who had been visiting Cairo since 1866. Sometime around 1889, he and two colleagues were shown a remarkably well-preserved mummy case by an Arab, supposedly excavated in the 1880s. The hieroglyphics described the owner as a high priestess of Amen-Ra.
Murray and his friends drew lots to determine which of them would buy it – Murray won, completed the sale and the case was packed up and on its way to his home in London the same evening.
A few days later, Murray’s shotgun exploded while he was duck-shooting on the Nile. Tremendous headwinds hampered his progress back from Thebes to Cairo to seek medical treatment, meaning it was ten days before he could get medical attention. By that time, gangrene had set in and Murray’s arm had to be amputated.
On the return journey to Cairo, one of his companions died, while, according to Montague Summers’ Witchcraft and Black Magic, “the most distressing news was awaiting another member of the expedition. Two servants who had handled the mummy case, perhaps without sufficient respect, both died within a twelvemonth, whilst a far swifter fate overtook a third who had made some jesting sally.”
Back in the hall of his London home at 34 Portland Place, Murray found the mummy case unpacked.
At once, he found the object chilling and ominous, the formerly beautiful face on the board now seeming full of malevolence.
One source claims that Madame Blavatsky, the clairvoyant founder of Theospophy, “detected an evil influence” from the case when she visited the house.
A journalist profiling Murray asked to borrow the board, and Murray found himself relieved when it left his house. Misfortune struck the journalist while it was in her possession – her mother fell downstairs and died, her fiancé called off their relationship, her dogs went mad and she became ill. She told her lawyer that she believed the mummy case was unsettling her, so it was returned to Murray.
Rattled, he gave it to his friend, Mr Wheeler, “who very shortly experienced several sad reverses, and died not long afterwards broken-hearted. He had given the case to a married sister living near London, and from the day it entered her house this lady was pursued by troubles and sorrows which it is hardly necessary to detail.”
Wheeler’s sister took the case to be photographed at a studio in Baker Street, and to her horror, “when the plate was developed, although the negative had not been touched in any way, it was seen that there looked out the face of a living Egyptian woman whose eyes stared furiously with an expression of singular malevolence. In the course of a few weeks the photographer died suddenly and in most mysterious circumstances.” It was said that when a later owner of one of the photographs brought it into his home, every piece of glass in his home shattered.
The lady who had taken possession of the case happened to meet Murray, “and naturally poured out to him her pitiful story. He urged her to get rid of the case immediately, whereupon it was offered to and accepted by the British Museum.”
An Egyptologist who acted as the middleman in the handover had the case sent to his house so he could study the hieroglyphics – he died shortly after, his servant saying his master hadn’t slept since the day the coffin was brought into the house.
The carrier who brought the case to the British Museum died within a week, and it was rumoured that anyone who tried to photograph or sketch the mummy case would be struck down. Another photographer who had taken an image capturing the terrifying face of a woman shot himself after presenting it to Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum.
Wallis Budge was reportedly so concerned with the number of stories he had heard – numerous staff reported unexplained hammering noises and raucous sobs coming from the case – he began to wonder if the priestess was unhappy with her position and presentation in the Museum. He arranged for the mummy to be installed in a display case of its own adorned with a laudatory notice. It was said the disturbances largely ebbed away once this was done – although night cleaning staff continued to report ghostly appearances and overwhelming feelings of terror emanating from the case in the decades to come.
Wallis Budge, who had translated the Egyptian Book of the Dead, was even quoted as saying, enigmatically, “Never print what I saw in my lifetime, but the mummy case of Princess Amen-Ra caused the war.”
Nor did Murray’s problems stop when he had rid himself of the case – he was reportedly lost a large part of his fortune over the following years and died in 1912.
But like any good ghost story, the truth is both more prosaic and harder to locate than the myth.
Douglas Murray was indeed at the heart of the tale of the Cursed Mummy Case – but he was neither the intrepid traveller nor the reliable witness he might have seemed.
In 1889, Murray was part of a large movement of people becoming interested in the paranormal. At a time when séances, table tapping and communicating with the other side were terrifically en vogue, he was not unusual. But like many of the spiritualists at the time, his desire to find the existence of an afterlife came at the expense of the truth.
At some point prior to his dabblings with the mummy board, Murray had heard a popular story about an Englishwoman who had brought a mummy from Egypt which was displayed in her drawing room. The next morning, everything in the room was found smashed into pieces. She moved the mummy and the same thing happened again. When it was taken up to the attic, all night long the sound of heavy footsteps going up and down the stairs were heard, accompanied by strange flickering lights. The following morning, all the servants resigned. It was a story that captured Murray’s imagination.
When Mr A.F. Wheeler presented to the British Museum “the inner mummy case of a Princess of Amen and a member of the college of Amen-Ra at Thebes” on behalf of Mrs Warwick Hunt of Holland Park in 1890, Murray contacted the museum to ask if he could hold a séance in the Egyptian Room with his colleague, the journalist WT Stead (who wrote one of the first articles about the ‘curse’).
WT Stead (1849-1912)
The men had studied the coffin lid, and “felt the expression on the face of the cover was that of a living soul in torment.” As recounted by Budge, “they wished to hold a séance in a room and to perform certain experiments with the object of removing the anguish and misery from the eyes of the coffin-lid.”
Murray was turned down, but the papers reported the story (most likely through Stead’s contacts), mixing together the abortive séance, the creaky old ghost story, the coffin lid and Douglas Murray into a composite nonsense tale that’s survived for a century.
In some ways, Stead gave the whole story credence – one of the forefathers of modern investigative journalism, he was famously jailed following his landmark investigation into child prostitution, when he arranged the ‘purchase’ of a 13-year-old to prove that the trade existed.
Combative, creative and a pacificist frequently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Stead became increasingly interested in spiritualism during the 1890s, claiming he was receiving messages from the dead. He believed he had a spirit guide, in the form of an American temperance campaigner named Julia Ames, who he had met shortly before her death. His absorption in spiritualism began to dominate his writings, and marginalised what had once been a massive influential talent.
In 1912, Stead inadvertently added a further dimension to the tale – he was one of the victims onboard the Titanic.
After the ship struck the iceberg, Stead helped several women and children into the lifeboats, in an act “typical of his generosity, courage, and humanity.” After all the boats had gone, Stead went into the 1st Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen sitting in a leather chair and reading a book. He had been due to take part in a Peace Congress at Carnegie Hall at the special invitation of President Taft; it was said that had he survived, he would have received Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
Stead’s death led to a resurgence of rumours about the case when one survivor related he had told the story of the mummy’s curse onboard.
It was claimed the British Museum had reached the end of their tether with the unexplained goings-on, and had sold the board to an American museum – the case was being exported on the doomed ship’s maiden voyage and the curse had caused the sinking. One version of the story had the board being salvaged after the disaster, and continuing to cause mayhem as it travelled to new owners in Canada, being responsible for the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the St Lawrence River.
The truth was actually far less elaborate: the case was on display in the British Museum, just as it always had been.
When I contacted the British Museum, I received an email back from Dr Julie Anderson, the Assistant Keeper in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, who enclosed a leaflet about the ‘Unlucky Mummy.’
The painted and gessoed (the coating which prepares the wood for painting) inner coffin lid made to cover the mummy of a woman was discovered in Thebes, dating to the 21st or early 22nd Dynasty (c.950-900 BC.) Standing 162cm tall, little is known of the coffin’s owner, other than the fine work on the board suggests she was a person of high rank, although the mummy associated with the board is believed to have been left in Egypt. Ascribing her royal status, or claiming she was a priestess (as Budge did) is simply supposition based on a reading of the high quality of the board, a conclusion which today’s experts tend to disagree with.
The board has been on continuous display in the British Museum since 1890 – it has only left on a handful of occasions, when moved for safekeeping during the two World Wars and in 1990, when it formed part of a temporary exhibition in Australia.
The New York Times debunked the story as early as 1923, saying “the public proceeded to identify the Priestess of Amen-Ra with the crockery-smashing mummy of the suburban drawing room. People have written from so far afield as New Zealand and Algiers enclosing money to place lilies at the foot of the coffin lid. The money has been acknowledged, but it has been put to the much more prosaic use of the general upkeep of the museum.”
In 1934, Wallis Budge even issued a statement saying the British Museum had never possessed a mummy, coffin or cover that had been involved in any unusual events. He stated the case had never been sold by the terrified Museum, had never been on the Titanic and had never left the museum at any point since its arrival (aside from a brief period when it was stored in the basement during the First World War).
That said, Wallis Budge died in the same year he made his statement, so if he was hiding the truth, perhaps the vengeful mummy had one last burst of malevolence left…
One source claimed every part of Douglas Murray’s story was entirely fabricated, but in truth, he did seem to have some part in handling the board before it ended up in the British Museum’s collection. Some sources claim he bought the lid from an American millionaire collector of antiquities named James Carnegie, the patron of the famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who may have discovered it at a dig in the late 1880s.
Carnegie may have sold the coffin lid to Douglas Murray in Cairo in 1910 (the popular ‘curse’ rumour being he died of cancer before the Englishman’s cheque even cleared.) Quite how the case ended up passing from Murray into the hands of Mrs Hunt is unexplained.
But he real mystery is why did Douglas Murray promote the story of a curse?
He was in his forties, established and seemingly had no need to promote himself. By the time his story was known, the mummy had already been bequeathed to the Museum so he wouldn’t even have financially benefitted from its unique back-story.
It seems most likely that his Spiritualist beliefs led him to claim the coffin he had bought was in some way haunted. If it was an attempt to capture the imaginations of those who did not believe in the paranormal, he succeeded in a way he could never have envisaged; over 120 years later, his ghost story is still doing the rounds.
Thomas Douglas Murray died in 1912, his will founding a scholarship in Egyptology which still exists at UCL (a legacy which contradicts the claim he was bankrupt at the end of his life, part of the ongoing curse.) Aside from having his name attached to one of the country’s most enduring ghost stories, Douglas Murray was also the man who first brought the Pekinese Spaniel to Britain.
Today, the Mummy-board EA 22542 has just been returned from loan, but has not yet been returned to display. It will soon be back in its usual place: Gallery 62, case 21.
My thanks to Dr Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (Curator) of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the The British Museum for additional information.