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.

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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.

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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.

ImageSavarkar, 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.

ImageGandhi in 1906

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.”

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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.

ImageCover of the Paris Bande Mataram following Madanlal Dhingra’s execution in August 1909

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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

In the 1920s, his partnership with a better-known straight actor named Chesney Allen started to make Bud Flanagan a star.

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.)

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.

The dawn of Creation

January 20, 2012

In 1983, a Glaswegian-born, London-living British Railway employee named Alan McGee founded a music fanzine named Communication Blur, which span off into a fledging record label called Creation.

Having sporadically released records by the likes of Biff Bang Pow!, The X-Men and The Legend! (better known as NME journalist Everett True), McGee started a weekly music night called The Living Room in August 1983. The gigs fulfilled two purposes: the headliners sold tickets, meaning McGee could put the profits back into his record label, and it gave the largely unknown acts he had signed a chance to get some exposure.

The club opened at The Adams Arms (now the Lukin) in Conway Street, in an upstairs room which had been a folk club called Dingles from the mid-1970s. In front of an audience of some 150 people, the Television Personalities headlined the first night, and the gig was reviewed in Groovy Black Shades issue 6 (1983).

The PA was minimal, the lights were either an anglepoise lamp or a slide show depending on the band. And it was so bloody hot!! But there was a very relaxed atmosphere, so relaxed that the first band Miles Landesman were still in the bar when they should have been on ‘stage.’

The first Creation LP (released in August 1984) was a compilation entitled Alive In The Living Room, consisting of recordings made on hand-held recorders from the audience at the Conway Street pub.

The bands recorded at the Adams Arms for the album include The Television Personalities, The Mekons, The  Jasmine Minks, The June Brides, The Legend!, The Pastels and Alternative TV.

After a period as an O’Neills, the pub was renamed The Lukin in the 2009. I had wondered if this was a continuation of the pub’s musical history, and it was named after the American Mark Lukin, the bassist in the Melvins and Mudhoney (he’s practically the only Lukin that comes up on Google.) But after I said I thought it was a “crappy pun name” (as in ‘Look In’), I was emailed by Shaun, the owner. He rightly said if I’d wanted to know where the name came from, I should have just popped in and asked. So the next day, I went along.

From the outside, I’d thought it was a chain pub; I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a charming, large, jam-packed local, and on the Friday I went in, it was heaving with people ordering roasts. Shaun couldn’t have been more welcoming, and he urged me to pop upstairs to see the room where the club had originally been.

To the left is a bar, to the right, a huge fireplace. It’s exactly as it was when the club was running nearly thirty years ago.

Sadly, there’s no chance of it being used for any more live music, Shaun told me – the area is now residential enough to mean complaints about noise. He also let me know that The Lukin is named in honour of his grandfather (Lukin was his surname.)

The Living Room moved from the Adams Arms in 1984 to the upstairs room of The Roebuck (now The Court) at 108 Tottenham Court Road. The new venue already had a small musical footnote associated with it – in July 1965, 18-year-old Davey Jones performed a successful audition for manager Ralph Horton at the pub with his band The Lower Third (two months later, Jones adopted the stage name ‘David Bowie.’)

It was at the Roebuck “in front of 10, possibly 15 people” on the 8th June 1984 that East Kilbride’s The Jesus and Mary Chain performed their debut London gig.

Reminiscing about the night in MOJO, Jim Reid recalled “it was an absolute racket. We’re still having a blazing row while we’re supposed to be playing this song…” Bass player Douglas Hart remembered that “there was a lot of pent-up energy released. Years of frustration. It was total chaos. People just stood and stared.”With the guitars untuned, a broken fuzz pedal creating a horrible noise, the PA emitting ear-splitting shrieks of feedback as it struggled with the volume, and William Reid playing with his back to the audience, the set lasted just ten minutes.

Even though Creation’s co-founder Dick Green later admitted “I’m sure nobody meant it to sound like it sounded,” an awestruck Alan McGee signed the Jesus and Mary Chain to his fledging label immediately.

The Jesus and Mary Chain with (R) Alan McGee in Plymouth, 1985 (photo by Valerie Hicks)

Their first single Upside Down stayed on the UK indie chart for 76 weeks, becoming one of the biggest selling indie singles of the 1980s, and would kickstart McGee’s rapid rise into the big leagues. The Living Room shut up shop sometime late in 1984 as McGee went on to sign a who’s who of British indie acts throughout the next decade, including My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Oasis, Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub and the Super Furry Animals.

The name ‘Creation’ became famous worldwide, but it was in these two Fitzrovia pubs where the label’s rise truly began.

But it’s hard not to feel there’s something daft about changing pub names, which wipe out even the most recent years of history in a single stroke.

The area between Bloomsbury and Euston is a strange part of London. The wide empty roads run between towering buildings set around a series of large, flat, featureless squares. Most are canopied by vast trees. With no shops or businesses along the road, and large silent academic buildings fencing the squares in on both sides, there aren’t often many people around. The squares are consequently unusually (almost eerily) quiet for a central London location.

The people in the squares are so unaccustomed to having company, they often look up as you wander in, stare suspiciously for a while and hesitatingly dip back into their books. Whenever I’ve been into one, there are only ever a couple of solitary UCL students sitting on a distant bench, or a runner briefly diverting through the grass before popping back on the road. Like me, many of them must half-wonder if the squares are private and just be waiting for someone to come over and angrily ask them how they got in and what the hell they think they’re doing. It’s the type of place you half expect to spot George Smiley whiling away the hours waiting for a contact to arrive.

Tavistock Square Gardens are much the same as the neighbouring seven squares, but the large statue of Gandhi in the middle means there are usually one or two Indian students hanging around at the gates, some of whom leave handfuls of fresh flowers at the base. A tree, planted by the then Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1953, grows in the south-east of the square.

But close by the tree there’s something which doesn’t grow.

Long before the area was laid out as squares and terraces at the end of the 1700s, it was known as Southampton Fields. Unlit, undeveloped and on the far edge of seventeenth-century London’s sprawl, it was a popular haunt for lovers who picked plantain, a low growing herb, for it’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities.

The same privacy which attracted lovers also attracted those who had scores to settle away from the bright lights (and the justice) of the town. As the nineteenth century antiquarian John Timbs put it in The Romance of London, “the ground lay waste, and being on the edge of the great town, presented a ready arena for its idle and lawless dangerous classes…They were the resort of depraved persons, chiefly for fighting pitched battles.”

According to legend, two brothers, both soldiers in the Duke of Monmouthshire’s short-lived peasant army, met on the site of the present day Tavistock Square in 1695 to fight a duel. They had both fallen in love with the same woman “who would not declare a preference”, and as she coolly watched, the two brothers “fought so ferociously as to destroy each other; after which, their footsteps, imprinted on the ground in the vengeful struggle, were said to remain, with the indentations produced by their advancing and receding; nor would any grass or vegetation ever grow over these forty footsteps.”

In this unnatural act – brother killing brother – the very ground on which their blood had been spilled is said to have revolted. The scene soon became known as the Field of the Forty Footsteps, a phrase coined by one “Miss Porter and her sister”, who heard the story and used it as the basis for a romantic novel.

The poet Southey visited “The Brothers’ Steps” after a friend recommended he “take a view of those wonderful marks of the Lord’s hatred to duelling.”

We sought for near half an hour in vain…We were almost out of hope, when an honest man, who was at work, directed us to the next ground, adjoining to a pond. There we found what we sought…The steps are of the size of a large human foot, about three inches deep, and lie nearly from north-east to south-west. We counted only seventy-six; but we were not exact in counting. The place where one or both the brothers are supposed to have fallen is still bare of grass. The labourer also showed us the bank where (the tradition is) the wretched woman sat to see the combat.

Of course, with popularity came the reason why the footsteps were so apparent. As stated by A Book For A Rainy Day, the author mentioned that “the fact is, that these steps were so often trodden that it was impossible for the grass to grow.”

In 1800, the author of Commonplace Books, Joseph Moser, claimed the footsteps were built over as the terraces were erected.

June 16, 1800. Went into the fields…and there saw, for the last time, the forty footsteps; the building materials are there, ready to cover them from the sight of man. I counted more than forty, but they might be the footprints of the workmen.

Huge numbers of London books over the centuries have retold the tale – but none of the authors I’ve read actually bothered to see if these footsteps were still in Tavistock Square. So I went with my camera to see if they were.

And you know what?

They are.

I know – it’s silly.

I was looking for patterns. Look at the mud in any park you chose to go into, and you’d find similar shapes. The mind tricks the eye into seeing what it wants to see.

But whatever the real explanation is – mental suggestion, an ancient fraud, or some botanical fungus that kills those particular portions of grass – it sure looks to me like a row of man-sized footprints walking in a straight line exactly where the old books said they’d be.

A Tesco Far, Far Away

January 3, 2012

The vast Tesco in Borehamwood is probably the most famous supermarket in the London area.

Walking into it – and it’s more like walking into a small town than a supermarket – there’s little clue as to its claim to fame. But looking around, there are one or two hints.

On top of the covered walkway leading up from the huge, featureless car park is an unusual weather vane.

And if you look to your left when you reach the doors, there’s a much larger clue.

Before the mammoth Tesco was built, the site formed the backlot of Elstree Studios – the most important film studio in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s and today most famous as the location where the original Star Wars trilogy was filmed.

The image below shows the studios at the time Star Wars was filmed – to the right of the red line is where the Tesco stands today, while on the left is what remains of the studios, all largely untouched.

Opened in 1925 as the First National Studios by American JD Williams (who bought the site when it was informed it was “free of fog”), the 50 acres making up Elstree Studios are actually not located in Elstree, but Borehamwood. At the time, Borehamwood was little more than a few houses and a pub, so the railway station in the centre was named ‘Elstree’ after the better known nearby village (the station’s name eventually changed to Elstree and Borehamwood to reflect the town’s growth.)

In 1929, the first British talkie was produced at the studios – Blackmail, directed by a 30-year-old Alfred Hitchcock. A parallel silent version was also made, which proved more popular at the time, due to a lack of cinemas with the technology to broadcast the soundtrack.

As Elstree Studios – and the five rival studio complexes which sprang up in its wake – brought work to the area, Borehamwood grew into a larger town. It was dubbed the ‘British Hollywood’ during the 1950s and 1960s, when films including The Dam Busters, Look Back in Anger, Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones and Summer Holiday, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Ice Cold In Alex were filmed in the six studios, side by side with a host of hugely successful TV series including The Avengers, Jason King, The Saint, The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).

In the early 1970s, the studio work started to slowly dry up – classic films like The Railway Children and A Clockwork Orange gave way to On The Buses and the Confessions of a Window Cleaner series, and the TV dramas deserted the studios for location shoots, taking a page out of the book of ITV’s hugely popular The Sweeney.

The similarly struggling Hammer production company moved from Bray to Elstree in 1967, and made a series of movies at the studios until they slid into bankruptcy in 1979. Aside from a handful of late classics (such as Quatermass and the Pit and One Million Years BC, remembered more for Raquel Welch’s fur bikini than anything else), the Elstree-vintage Hammer films began to ramp up the gore and nudity as the censors relaxed the code, and they had to compete with more gruesome horror fayre from America and Italy. 1976’s Dennis Wheatley adaptation To The Devil A Daughter was the final Hammer film made at the studios and it largely disappeared without trace at the box office.

The struggling studios were thrown a lifeline in 1975, when George Lucas decided to film Star Wars at Elstree (the first shot of the film was recorded in Studio 8, which is still standing today – when I was there, the ITV show Dancing On Ice was being loaded in.)

It was simply a stroke of good luck out of bad. Fox had little faith in the supposedly ‘dead’ genre of sci-fi, so wanted to hire somewhere cheap for what they thought would undoubtedly be a money-loser. Elstree’s studios were not just big enough to accommodate the massive scale of Lucas’s pre-CGI vision, but they were also empty and available at rock-bottom prices. And it wasn’t just Fox that had no faith in Lucas’s movie being a success – Elstree Studios were offered a flat-fee or a percentage of the profits of the film, and immediately plumped for the flat-fee.

Lucas returned again in 1979 to make The Empire Strikes Back, in 1982 to make Return of the Jedi, and over the years Willow, Labyrinth and the Indiana Jones series (having been taught a lesson about underestimating Lucas’s money-making ability by taking a flat-fee instead of a profit share with Star Wars, the studio amazingly rejected exactly the same offer when he made Raiders of the Lost Ark.) It was the era of the big studio-bound spectacular, and it would mark the high watermark of Elstree’s fortunes.

Lucas’s contribution to the studio’s fortunes are commemorated in the massive George Lucas Stage which was built in 1999, overlooking the Tesco where his movies were made. Popular legend has it that the scenes set on the ice planet of Hoth were filmed where Tesco’s frozen food aisle now sits. Inside, the corridors running between the huge cavernous studios are almost entirely featureless. It’s not exactly a magical place.

In 1978, Kubrick filmed The Shining at Elstree, building the entire Overlook Hotel interior on Stages 3 and 4, with the exterior constructed on the backlot, with mountains of salt standing in for snow. It all now forms part of Tesco’s car park.

In a bizarre piece of trivia, one of the runners on the film was a local boy from Elstree named Simon Cowell, who would go on to international fame twenty years later. Although none of his TV shows were filmed at Elstree, there is now a prominent plaque to Cowell outside – the first film he worked on was The Return of the Saint, so it’s at least tangentially appropriate that his tribute is next to one for Roger Moore.

Despite these bright spots, the productions were sporadic, and the studios went through a number of different owners through the years. The other studios amalgamated, moved or wound-up; today, only Elstree Studios and BBC Elstree (the long-term home of Eastenders) remain.

In 1988, following numerous takeovers and an ongoing decline in revenues, the studios were bought by the property developer Brent Walker, who had dabbled in movies under the Goldcrest name. Under the guise of modernising and compacting the virtually derelict studios, they demolished six of the nine studios and sold the entire (now empty) backlot to Tesco. Despite a pledge to operate the studios for 25 years, Brent Walker ran into financial difficulty and decided to close the doors in 1995.

For three years, they tried to sell off the derelict site for use as a shopping centre, with the main opposition to their plan coming from a local campaign named Save Our Studios, run by the council’s Entertainment Officer Paul Welsh. As a lifelong film buff and Borehamwood resident, Welsh had seen at first hand how the industry failed to preserve or value its own heritage. He told the Elstree Studios website:

I’ve seen things thrown into skips that you could cry about. I’ve seen scripts discarded, props from Star Wars that would cost a fortune now to buy abandoned, documents from Hitchcock’s Blackmail dumped into a skip. In the late sixties they had a library of screen tests that they’d done on actors of the 1930s. Richard Harris, Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, a whole cast of people who’d gone through the studio, and an executive of the time just stopped by and said, ‘what’s the purpose of keeping the junk?’ and they just scrapped it all.

Partly due to the pressure from Walsh, Brent Walker sold the site in 1996 to Hertsmere Borough Council for £1.9million. Since then, the studios have been renovated, and the TV side rejuvenated. Within a decade, the studios were the home of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and the Big Brother house, which moved from East London into a vast sunken water tank at the back of the studios, which was originally constructed for 1955’s Moby Dick.

In recent years, the movies have also returned, with recent productions at Elstree including The King’s Speech, Saving Private Ryan, Batman Begins, The Other Boleyn Girl, Notes on A Scandal, Tomorrow Never Dies and Kick Ass.

The town’s fortunes have always been linked to the rise and fall of the nearby studios, and the long, steady decline in the British film industry over the last forty years have been reflected in the surrounding area. Nowadays, Borehamwood is a long, bleak strip of charity shops, orange-hued greasy spoons, tatty pawn shops and grim, boarded-up frontages.

In 2006, the town attempted to celebrate its unique connection to British cinema history with a series of semi-successful council-led displays. Along the roads are a series of metal information boards dedicated to the stars who worked at the studios.

Chock-a-block with history, they’re placed in large, unkept brick flower beds outside the pubs and 24-hour newsagents. When I was there, no one was paying them any attention at all, and most people looked at me with curious puzzlement when I took my camera out to photograph them.

On the High Street, large banners proclaiming “Made in Elstree” (although technically it should be “Made at Elstree” as the films were all made in Borehamwood) show stills from of the iconic movies made at the studios – hence, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex stares down menacingly at the old people shuffling past the pawnbrokers, Chewbacca growls at the traffic streaming over one of the countless traffic-slowing ramps, and Darth Vader flutters proudly over a branch of Nando’s.

At the railway station is a miniature walk of fame with one star commemorating Harrison Ford – the man who famously referred to the area as “Boring-wood.” A completely lackluster paving slab, it’s a fitting tribute.

In the Tesco itself, the only reminder of its former use is an aisle of Star Wars toys – situated not far from where the film which inspired them was created thirty years before.

At the top of the Duke of York steps outside number 9 Carlton House Terrace, in a small walled-off enclosure and almost hidden behind the jumble of gardener’s paraphernalia wedged beside it, is the country’s only memorial to a Nazi.

There are mitigating circumstances, however – the most important of which being that this Nazi happened to be a dog.

Shortly after John Nash built Carlton House Terrace between 1827-1832, no.9 became the official residence of the Prussian ambassadors. Prussia House, as it became known, housed diplomats for almost a century before the outbreak of World War 1 forced them all out.

In 1920, however, the ambassadors representing Germany’s new Weimar Republic returned to Prussia House – despite occupation in the intervening years by America and the Swiss, the official history of the German Embassy claims that “everything was found in place as the last Ambassador of Imperial Germany, Prince Lichnowsky, had left it on 6 August 1914, including even the cigarettes in the silver case on the Ambassador’s desk.”

The Weimar Republic’s final chargé d’affaires was 51-year-old Leopold von Hoesch (1881-1936), an old-fashioned diplomat who had become the much-admired German ambassador in Paris after stints in Peking and Madrid.

Von Hoesch did much to improve Anglo-German relations throughout the early 1930s and won the admiration of both of the British foreign secretaries he worked alongside, Sir Anthony Eden and John Simon.

But a year after von Hoesch took up his post in London, the Weimar Republic was no more. In 1933, entirely by proxy rather than choice, von Hoesch became a representative of the Third Reich.

In February 1934, von Hoesch’s beloved terrier Giro died (some reports over the years have claimed he was electrocuted in the garden, but no reliable sources are given) and he was buried in the gardens.

His tombstone bore the inscription:

“GIRO”

EIN TREUER BEGLEITER! (A faithful companion!)

LONDON IM FEBRUAR 1934.

HOESCH.

Two years later, the Ambassador himself died in the bedroom of the house from a stroke. He was only 55, his life seemingly shortened by the strain of maintaining the Anglo-German relations that were being routinely and savagely tested by the new National Socialist ruling party with whom he was increasingly despairing of.

In his obituary – written in April 1936, at a time when the Nazis were already a worrying spectre in the pages of the newspapers each day – The Times celebrated von Hoesch’s traditional, cultured manner.

He spoke beautiful English in soft, modulated tones, and the theme of all his speeches was the cultivation of better Anglo-German relations…though a bachelor, von Hoesch entertained hospitably at the Embassy, and with his sincerity and personal charm made many friends among English statesmen. He had a distinguished bearing and was always particularly well dressed.

The British Government, in accordance with international diplomatic protocol, effectively gave him a state funeral on his way to the Dover-bound train from Victoria Station. The cortege was led by Grenadier Guards, British government ministers formed part of the funeral procession, and von Hoesch received a 19-gun salute in St. James’s Park bidding him farewell.

Some startling newsreel footage was taken as the funeral procession made its way down the Mall. At the top of the Duke of York steps, German Embassy staff gave the Nazi salute as von Hoesch’s coffin, wrapped in a swastika flag, headed out of Carlton House Terrace towards Buckingham Palace.

The coffin was taken to Germany on the British destroyer HMS Scout. After the triumphant display in London, not a single representative of the Nazi Party attended von Hoesch’s funeral in Berlin. And the next German ambassador couldn’t have been more different from the soft-spoken, charming von Hoesch.

Joachim von Ribbentrop was a key member of the Nazi regime, and while his time in London was short (he was back in Germany within a year), some of the more intriuging stories associated with his stay have proved impossible to confirm or deny.

It is known that Albert Speer oversaw the modernisation of No.9 Carlton House Terrace, but whether he also created a vast swastika mosaic on one of the floors has never been verified (it supposedly remains there to this day, hidden underneath the carpet.) Completely true is that while in London, Von Ribbentrop’s son Rudolf briefly attended Westminster School, where his classmate was Peter Ustinov.

But back to Giro, the unwilling Nazi (if we can entirely forget he was a dog, Giro was more correctly a member of the Weimar Republic.)

None of articles in The Times during von Hoesch’s life or at the time of his death  mention either the dog or the gravestone. In fact, the first mention of Giro is to be found in a small news item in December 1966.

At the time, builders were excavating a strip of land in front of no.9 Carlton House Terrace to create a deep underground car park which now cuts between the small patch of ground the gravestone is on and the building. A German man walking down the Duke of York steps noticed the gravestone propped up underneath one of the trees and recalled that von Hoesch was the former ambassador.

It seems likely that the gravestone was picked up from the gardens of the house by a builder as the excavations took place. Not wanting to see the little gravestone destroyed, he placed where it now stands today. At some point in the 1990s, the strange kennel with the misty plexiglass plastic front was fitted over the top to protect it from damage.

But however it got there, one thing is certain; wherever Giro’s mortal remains are now, they’re certainly not underneath that stone.

But I can’t help but feel that’s just as well. It means that little tombstone’s not simply a marker of where a dog is buried, but becomes something much bigger. It’s a memorial not just to a dog that was loved by its master, but to von Hoesch himself – and a testament to how love ultimately endures as hate withers.

When Von Ribbentrop looked out of the windows of 9 Carlton House Terrace in 1936, he may have envisaged a day when memorials to the Nazis covered the whole of London.

Hanged for war crimes a decade later, he probably never imagined that the last vestige of the regime he dedicated his life to would be the gravestone of a terrier that was already sitting in his back garden.

The Elephant Man’s Hat

October 23, 2011

Arriving at Whitechapel – the single place in London still most closely associated with events which took place there over a century ago – it’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back in time. Arriving at the Underground station, you step out into a narrow railway shed made of wood and huge steel rivets. The only changes to the station since it opened in 1896 have been cosmetic ones; the structure still looks much the same as it did 115 years ago.

Directly opposite stands the London Hospital, which, like the station is much unchanged. It doesn’t take much – in my case, the sepia setting on my camera – to conjure up the East End of the 1880s (although it didn’t have the prefix ‘Royal’ until 1990, when it celebrated it’s 250th year.)

Even more remarkably, aside from the station and the hospital, the old shops next to the station remain untouched. While the occupants have changed countless times over the century, the fabric – the bricks and mortar – remain the same.

Looking back across the road from the London Hospital, the view is much the same as it would have been in the 1880s, when a Dorset-born surgeon named Frederick Treves (1853-1923) first came to work there as a Lecturer on Anatomy.

It was in this house – No. 259, Whitechapel Road, now the UKAY International Saree Centre, with an immigration service, mini cab office, travel agent and homeopathy clinic in the rooms above – where Treves first saw the man with whom his name would forever be associated.

Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) – better known as The Elephant Man – is, along with Jack The Ripper, one of the men most closely associated with Whitechapel. And in a small museum attached to the hospital in the crypt of St Augustine in Newark Street are the sole handful of items associated with his short life which still exist.

None are more immediately evocative of his unique life than the hat and mask which he supposedly wore on the night he first visited the London Hospital in 1884.

Born in Leicester, “at the age of 5 years”, bony lumps and thick skin started to deformed and enlarge Merrick’s head, face, arms and legs. He was 11 when his mother died (by his own account, she doted on him) and just 12 when he left school and went to work “at Messrs. Freeman’s Cigar Manufacturers, and worked there about two years, but my right hand got too heavy for making cigars, so I had to leave them.”

As Merrick’s physical afflictions became progressively worse, work became harder to find (his father had once sent him out to sell products door to door, with predictable results) and he spent four years in the Leicester Union workhouse. Merrick recalled his time there with dread, and realised the only way to leave was to make a living. He realised that the deformities which prevented him from working were so extreme they could actually be used to his advantage. From the workhouse, he contacted two local showmen, music hall comic Sam Torr and music hall proprietor J. Ellis, with a plan to exhibit himself.

So thought I, I’ll get my living by being exhibited about the country. Knowing Mr. Sam Torr, Gladstone Vaults, Wharf Street, Leicester, went in for Novelties, I wrote to him, he came to see me, and soon arranged matters, recommending me to Mr. Ellis, Bee-hive Inn, Nottingham, from whom I received the greatest kindness and attention.

It was Torr, Ellis and a travelling showman ‘Little George’ Hitchcock who decided to present Merrick as ‘The Elephant Man, Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant’ as they toured around the East Midlands.

Joseph Merrick, 1888

Realising he only had a limited regional circuit to display Merrick on before exhausting the audiences, Torr contacted Tom Norman (1860-1930), a London-based showman who specialised in presenting human oddities like the Skeleton Woman, The Balloon Headed Baby and Mademoiselle Electra (billed as “The Only Electric Lady — A Lady Born Full of Electricity”, she gave people an electric shock while shaking their hands.)

Tom Norman in his later successful career as an auctioneer

Norman specialised in penny gaffs – small rooms where sub-music hall, amateur entertainment turns could be seen for the entrance fee of a penny, which, by the 1880s, had largely fallen out of fashion. He took over Merrick’s management at the end of 1884 – although he was initially so shocked by Merrick’s appearance, he was reluctant to display him, thinking he looked too horrific to be a successful novelty. Thus Merrick came to be displayed in a vacant greengrocer’s at 123 Whitechapel Road (the road number has since been changed to 259.)

To accompany the display, a 3-page pamphlet – The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick – was printed (it is where the above quotes are taken from.) Alongside claiming that his features were the result of his mother being startled by an elephant while pregnant, he added that:

The measurement around my head is 36 inches, there is a large substance of flesh at the back as large as a breakfast cup, the other part in a manner of speaking is like hills and valleys, all lumped together, while the face is such a sight that no one could describe it. The right hand is almost the size and shape of an Elephant’s foreleg, measuring 12 inches round the wrist and 5 inches round one of the fingers; the other hand and arm is no larger than that of a girl ten years of age, although it is well proportioned. My feet and legs are covered with thick lumpy skin, also my body, like that of an Elephant, and almost the same colour, in fact, no one would believe until they saw it, that such a thing could exist.

While he might not have been the sole author of the pamphlet (at the very least, it bears a showman’s hand embellishing the truth), it is a common misconception that Merrick was a cruelly-treated victim of the showmen (which is how he was frequently portrayed later in popular culture, and, indeed, in the memoir of Treves.) Merrick was not just a willing partner in the enterprise, but the man who came up with the plan of exhibiting himself in the first place. He also shared in the profits and had been saving as much as he could in the hope of buying his own house.

In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well — in fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before.

But by 1884, the display of human oddities was becoming unpopular and the Elephant Man display at Whitechapel was shut by the police just a few weeks after it opened.

One of the visitors before it was closed was the 31-year-old Frederick Treves, who had been urged to visit by a younger surgeon friend.

He described first seeing Merrick in his 1922 memoirs The Elephant Man and Other Reminscences (published at the end of his life, they contain numerous errors which many put down to old age, including Treves stating that Merrick’s first name was ‘John’.)

The whole of the front of the shop, with the exception of the door, was hidden by a hanging sheet of canvas on which was the announcement that the Elephant Man was to be seen within and that the price of admission was twopence. Painted on the canvas in primitive colours was a life-size portrait of the Elephant Man. This very crude production depicted a frightful creature that could only have been possible in a nightmare. It was the figure of a man with the characteristics of an elephant. The transfiguration was not far advanced. There was still more of the man than of the beast. This fact—that it was still human—was the most repellent attribute of the creature. There was nothing about it of the pitiableness of the misshapened or the deformed, nothing of the grotesqueness of the freak, but merely the loathsome insinuation of a man being changed into an animal. Some palm trees in the background of the picture suggested a jungle and might have led the imaginative to assume that it was in this wild that the perverted object had roamed.

When I first became aware of this phenomenon the exhibition was closed, but a well-informed boy sought the proprietor in a public house and I was granted a private view on payment of a shilling. The shop was empty and grey with dust. Some old tins and a few shrivelled potatoes occupied a shelf and some vague vegetable refuse the window. The light in the place was dim, being obscured by the painted placard outside. The far end of the shop—where I expect the late proprietor sat at a desk—was cut off by a curtain or rather by a red tablecloth suspended from a cord by a few rings. The room was cold and dank, for it was the month of November. The year, I might say, was 1884. The showman pulled back the curtain and revealed a bent figure crouching on a stool and covered by a brown blanket. In front of it, on a tripod, was a large brick heated by a Bunsen burner. Over this the creature was huddled to warm itself. It never moved when the curtain was drawn back. Locked up in an empty shop and lit by the faint blue light of the gas jet, this hunched-up figure was the embodiment of loneliness. It might have been a captive in a cavern or a wizard watching for unholy manifestations in the ghostly flame. Outside the sun was shining and one could hear the footsteps of the passers-by, a tune whistled by a boy and the companionable hum of traffic in the road.

The showman—speaking as if to a dog—called out harshly: “Stand up!” The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his -feet were bare, he wore a pair of threadbare trousers that had once belonged to some fat gentleman’s dress suit.

Treves arranged with Norman to examine Merrick at the hospital opposite the following day – but there was a problem.

I became at once conscious of a difficulty. The Elephant Man could not show himself in the streets. He would have been mobbed by the crowd and seized by the police. He was, in fact, as secluded from the world as the Man with the Iron Mask. He had, however, a disguise, although it was almost as startling as he was himself. It consisted of a long black cloak which reached to the ground. Whence the cloak had been obtained I cannot imagine. I had only seen such a garment on the stage wrapped about the figure of a Venetian bravo. The recluse was provided with a pair of bag-like slippers in which to hide his deformed feet. On his head was a cap of a kind that never before was seen. It was black like the cloak, had a wide peak, and the general outline of a yachting cap. As the circumference of Merrick’s head was that of a man’s waist, the size of this headgear may be imagined. From the attachment of the peak a grey flannel curtain hung in front of the face. In this mask was cut a wide horizontal slit through which the wearer could look out. This costume, worn by a bent man hobbling along with a stick, is probably the most remarkable and the most uncanny that has as yet been designed. I arranged that Merrick should cross the road in a cab, and to insure his immediate admission to the college I gave him my card.

In Norman’s autobiography, he stated Merrick went to the hospital “two or three” times, but then refused to go any more, feeling “like an animal in a cattle market.”

Following a disastrous tour of Brussels in 1886, where Merrick was abandoned by a promoter who ran off with his money and had to make his own way back to England, he found himself at Liverpool Street Station. Alone, the object of much unwanted curiosity, and fighting to make himself understood to the police, who’d dragged him away to stop the inquisitive crowds gathering around him, he handed over the card Treves had given him two years before.

Treves was contacted and the two men returned to the London Hospital, where Merrick was signed in – his age was given as 26, not 24 – and where he was eventually given permanent quarters. Unable to do much to help him, Treves displayed Merrick to the great and good – as much a showman as Sam Torr or Tom Norman.

Merrick entertained visitors much as did in the vacant greengrocer’s across the road, although now those who came to see him were aristocrats and did their best to hide their horror. He wrote them charming, courteous and childlike letters once they’d gone – the only surviving example known is on display in the museum.

Next to it is a cardboard church which Merrick made for the actress Madge Kendall (1848-1935), who was a prominent supporter and fundraiser for him, although it’s uncertain if they ever actually met (she did, however, send someone along to his room to teach him basket weaving after he’d expressed an interest in learning.)

The German printed paper models were frequent gifts from Merrick, who was able to write and work with his largely undeformed left arm, but again, this is the only one known to survive.

Merrick died in his sleep in his basement room in the East Wing overlooking Bedford Square on the afternoon of 11 April 1890, the result of a dislocated neck caused by the weight of his head. Due to spinal deformities, he had to sleep on his knees with his head forward; on the night he died, he had lain down – Treves wrote in his memoirs that Joseph had always wanted to sleep “like other people.” He was 27.

The coroner at his inquest was Wynne Edwin Baxter, who had come to prominence during the notorious Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Nothing belonging to Baxter is in the museum, but the gloves of pathologist Sir Thomas Openshaw (1856-1929), who identified the piece of kidney sent by the Ripper to Inspector Lusk, are on display, along with his collection of Masonic medals.

The Elephant Man and the Ripper represented the two extremes of humanity in Whitechapel in the 1880s. Both became world famous under their pseudonyms, both are immediately associated with Whitechapel, and both form part of the underbelly of poverty and misfortune in London during the 1880s.

But while Merrick was an ordinary, decent man with a face that made him seem inhuman, the Ripper was his mirror image; a man without a face who came to represent inhumanity. That both should have lived out their very different lives in the same place at the same time is one of London’s strangest stories.

Merrick’s skeleton is kept by the Royal College of Surgeons, but it has never been on public display.

The Royal London Hospital Museum is in the former crypt of St Philip’s Church, Newark Street, Whitechapel, London, E1 2AA. Nearest tube: Whitechapel.

Note: My thanks to Mae for correcting a couple of errors in this piece. Her fascinating site dedicated to Merrick is at http://www.josephcareymerrick.com/

St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley was opened in 1854 to cater for London’s ever-increasing numbers of dead. The city churchyards of Euston, King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, Camden, Islington, Highbury and Kentish Town were full, and to cater for the burials of the council’s citizens, vast out-of-town burial grounds were erected on the outskirts of London.

While St Pancras and Islington followed in the footsteps of Highgate, Nunhead, Kensal Green et al, these were all private enterprises, and this was London’s first publicly-owned cemetery. At 88 acres, it also claims the title of London’s largest.  

For the first time, Londoners found that when they died, they would now be laid to rest in a place they had never lived.

The first Pearly King John Croft is to be found somewhere in the tangle of old headstones and ivy that makes up the oldest part of the cemetery; so too are the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, Cora Crippen (a semi-professional music hall turn who was most probably murdered by her husband John Crippen) and the Cafe de Paris bandleader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, who died when a bomb fell on the club in World War 2 (his ghost is supposed to haunt the venue.)

Even people who had already been buried within the boroughs weren’t safe once the new cemetery opened; many old graves were disinterred and the remains shunted over to the new cemetery. One particularly unpleasant reason for this is trumpeted on a triumphant memorial plaque: Upper Street in Islington was being widened, and the old burial grounds were in the way.

Like most of the large nineteenth-century cemeteries, upkeep of the grounds has been sporadic and often ineffective, and the earliest parts are thick with ivy, beech trees and brambles. One memorial which has been kept clear, however, is that of William French.

Almost nothing is known about French, other than what is written on his memorial. The statue is known as “the Highgate Dog.”

Sacred to the memory of William French, aged 50, who lost his life on July 13th 1896 while saving a dog from drowning in Highgate Ponds. This monument, erected in commeration of his brave deed, was raised by public subscription, and was contributed to by all classes of lovers of dumb animals.