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Guest Post by BK
26th May 1732: it is a fine Spring evening in London. William Hogarth and some friends are enjoying a convivial evening in The Bedford Arms, a tavern on the South side of the Covent Garden Piazza. Six weeks earlier Hogarth had achieved his first public triumph with the publication of The Harlot’s Progress and the conversation flowed as the punch bowl rapidly emptied. One topic appears to have been the rubbishing of The Grand Tour whereby young English noblemen could spend months or even years touring Europe to acquaint themselves with Continental, Roman and Greek civilisation and manners. Hogarth, a patriotic Londoner, thoroughly disapproved of such things. As midnight approached the friends decided that it would be great fun for them to hold their own Grand Tour. They rushed to their homes, picked up a spare shirt each and set off on The Five Day’s Peregrinations Around The Isle Of Sheppey Of William Hogarth and His Fellow Pilgrims, Scott, Tothall, Thornhill, and Forrest.
The troupe walked along, singing merrily, to Billingsgate where they hired a boat to take them to Gravesend. When they reached Cuckolds’ Point they set up a chorus of ‘St John-at-Deptford Pishoken’, a reference that has baffled musicologists ever since, and then settled down to eat ‘hung beef and biscuit, and drank right Hollands ( Dutch gin)’.
At Gravesend, they had breakfast of coffee, toast and butter and set out to explore the town where they visited The New Church and The Market. St George’s, the parish church of Gravesend, was consecrated in 1510. Unfortunately a great fire destroyed most of Gravesend including the church and 110 houses in 1727. Funding for a new church was obtained from The Commission For Building Fifty New Churches, a self-explanatory body set up in 1710 to use money from the duties on coal imported into The Port of London. Although The Commission never achieved its aim it did fund a number of churches including St Paul’s Deptford and St Alfege’s Greenwich. St George’s Gravesend was completed in 1731, hence the reference to The New Church. Although the party spent a good deal of time on their journey looking at graves and epitaphs, they make no mention of Pocahontas, presumably that local industry hadn’t started yet.
The lads then set off to walk to Rochester. They admired The Cathedral and The Castle, from where they saw ‘some of the noblest ships in the world’. On the High Street they visited The Six Poor Travellers House, an almshouse set up by a bequest from a local businessman, Richard Webb, to provide a night’s accommodation, entertainment and four pence for up to six poor travellers. The four pence was important because under the Poor Law of 1576 anybody who did not possess that amount could be declared a vagrant, whipped and returned to their home parish. Further along the High Street they passed the Guildhall and Hogarth amused himself by playing hopscotch In the colonnade.
They had lunch at The Crown Inn at the end of the High Street. ‘A dish of soles and flounders with crab sauce, a calf’s heart stuffed and roasted, the liver fried and the other appurtenances minced, a leg of mutton roasted and some green peas, all very good and well dressed, with good beer and excellent port.’ In the afternoon, they walked that off by walking around Chatham, visiting the dockyard and inspecting several naval vessels. They found some space to buy and eat shrimps before returning to The Crown for further refreshment and then bed.
Next day they set out to walk up the Hoo peninsula in order to catch a boat at Grain. They visited the church at Frendsbury and then at Upnor they visited the castle, then still fully manned, and dined on cockles that they bought from a blind couple in a little cock-boat. Pressing on to Hoo they amused themselves by bombarding each other with water, sticks, pebbles and hog’s dung. Throughout the trip the gang indulge in sorts of all bawdy and scatalogical behaviour that would now probably seem hooliganish. Apparently, the more refined figure of Horace Walpole was shocked to learn of their behaviour but Thackeray later defended them saying ‘These are the manners and pleasures of Hogarth, of his time very likely, of men not very refined, but honest and merry. it is a brave London citizen, with John Bull habits, prejudices and pleasures’.
They visited the church at Hoo and then walked on to Stoke where they also saw the church before stopping at the Nags Head where they had had dinner, drank punch and retired to bed, but had a bad night’s sleep, being badly bitten by gnats from the nearby marshland.
In the morning they had milk and toast for breakfast and walked on stopping at The Chequers for salt pork, bread, butter and buns and good malt liquor. At Grain they found a boatman who they hired to carry them over the river to Sheppey.
After a rough crossing they were landed at Sheerness and walked along the beach to Queenborough which is described as ‘but one street, clean and well-paved’ but very little sign of life. They visited the ‘low and ill-built’ church and the Town Hall or Clock House and then went to stay at The Red Lion, aka The Swan. They could find no meat to eat and so had to make do with lobsters, bacon and eggs.
Walking around town in the evening they wre surprised to meet several pretty women who they fell into conversation with, they then went back to The Red Lion where they enjoyed ‘several cans of good flip’ and got into a singing contest with a group of lobster fishermen from Harwich. Apparently the lobstermen’s singing was much better than our boys who could only offer St John at Deptford and Pishoken again.
Next morning they walked up the hill to visit Minster, where again they walked around the church and graveyard to admire the local monuments and inscriptions. Then, after dining at The George (now known as The Prince Of Waterloo, The Prince Of Waterloo is a hereditary title given to all Dukes Of Wellington by the Dutch government) they walked back to Sheerness and hired a boat to take them to Gravesend. It was a rough voyage and they kept their spirits up with yet more singing of St John Pishoken, along the Thames their boat was accompanied by a school of porpoise. At Gravesend they ‘supped and drank good wine’, slept and then set off next morning with ‘a bottle of good wine, pipes, tobacco and a match’.
They disembarked at a landing by Somerset House on The Strand and walked up to the Bedford Arms ‘in the same good humour we left it’.
The two million people who still watch the 1960s/70s hit Dad’s Army must be waiting with trepidation for the new film. The remake will need to be really good to live up to expectations, forty years on and there is still an Appreciation Society. What worked well in the original series was that we all knew the outcome of the war and the futility of Captain Mainwaring’s preparations. Back in 1940 the prospect of invasion was a real and present danger. Shooters Hill was one of the main arterial routes into London from the south coast and the 26th Battalion of the Home Guard had a crucial role in preparing for the defence of the city.
London’s preparations comprised of concentric rings of anti-tank defences and pillboxes in and around the city known as Stop Lines. Shooters Hill was in the middle Stop Line. From the top of Shooters Hill an invading army would have clear views of their prize and more importantly it would be within range of their heavy artillery. Remains of these defensive structures can still be found in the local area. In Oxleas woods strange concrete plinths and boxes are still visible which were part of the Stop Line defences.
Close to the former Police Station on Eltham Common, deep within overgrown brambles, is the remains of a spigot mortar, an anti-tank gun, used by the Home Guard. From this vantage point they would have a clear firing line on any invaders coming down the hill.
The proximity of the Royal Arsenal made this area vulnerable to aerial attacks and the Air Ministry bought land in the Kidbrooke area for the manufacture of barrage balloons. The balloons defended London against low flying aeroplanes.
Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, Air Minister, visited Kidbooke in 1939 as part of the recruitment drive for 5,000 men, aged over 35, to join the Balloon Service. The Home Guard was made up of the young, elderly and those in reserved occupations.
Hitler did have a plan, Operation Sea Lion for the invasion of Britain which included 6 divisions landing on the Kent coast around Ramsgate, Bexhill and Folkestone. If this had proceeded I think we can be confident that the local Home Guard were well prepared and wouldn’t be shouting “Don’t Panic”.
Forty years ago eating out was a rare event for most families. It was a period when most families cooked meals from scratch; girls still learnt domestic science, boys did if they went to a progressive school but more usually did woodwork. The Kentish Independent, which covered the Woolwich area, had pages of job advertisements mainly skilled ones at that. Fitters, capstan setters, skilled machinists, junior reporters and photographers all needed in the local area. In the days before “out-sourcing” cleaners and semi-skilled workers could start a career in the local Civil Service. Skilled workers could earn £56 for a 40 hour week, unskilled workers £31.73. Then on the 19th September 1974 the advertisment for staff for the shortly to be opening McDonalds appeared. No experience required and pay was 65p per hour plus free meals. A weekly wage of £26 was considerably lower than most other local jobs.
In the same newspaper, which had converted from broadsheet to tabloid three weeks earlier, was an article, “What is left of the Old Town?” lamenting the demolition of lovely old pubs like The Ship in Half Moon Lane, The Anchor and The Crown and Cushion to make way for concrete skyscrapers. Yes, modernity was coming to Woolwich.
On 12th October 1974 McDonalds opened their first restaurant in the UK in Powis Street Woolwich. The grand opening was attended by the Mayor, Len Squirrel and DJ Ed Stewart better known as “Stewpot”. Top of the menu was the All Star Meal consisting of hamburger, French fires, and a triple thick shake at a cost of 48p. Relatively expensive by today’s standards. Paul Preston, from Ohio, became the first manager of the launchpad store. The Woolwich store was so influential, a month later, boxer Henry Cooper launched his autobiography from there.
Fast forward forty years. Well the store is still there but the footfall in Powis Street has fallen. Locals still lament the loss of the old town and the development of even more ugly high buildings. Skilled jobs in manufacturing have long gone. Fast food chains have flourished with commensurate low paid jobs. Paul Preston is now President and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s UK. The UK has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe and over in the US world figures Bill Clinton and Bill Gates are advocating for the reintroduction of domestic science into the school curriculum.
Somewhere in Penhall Road Charlton there is a small replica of a London tramcar buried. A sign of remembrance for these much loved vehicles part of the London street scene since 1861. Rather than phasing out trams there was a final date – Last Tram Week 2nd July 1952. Tramway abandonment became a common phrase at the time as one Eltham resident explained to the Kentish Independent:
“In my opinion tramway abandonment is not a good policy, for no other vehicle can really replace a tram.”
He was not alone in this view, The Light Railway Transport League (formed 1939) proposed the retention of the London Tramway System modernising the transit system and better maintenance of the tramlines. The London Transport Executive refused to listen to the proposals and the tramway system was closed in its entirety. South East London would have been a very different place if the League’s proposals were accepted. The No 40 tramway ran from Plumstead Common to The Embankment and the No 46 from General Gordon Square to Cannon Street: commuter heaven. Woolwich would wait another fifty five years before they had a replacement rapid rail transit system.
Trams were to be replaced by buses which were thought to be more flexible and had the much lauded “internal combustion engine” as in 1952 no one had remotely thought of Peak Oil.
Londoners, were clearly fond of the trams. Thousands of people made sentimental last journeys collecting the last tickets as souvenirs. A crowd of 10-15,000 people waited at New Cross to see the last No 40 arrive at 12.29. A tram from Abbey Wood stopped at the Maybloom Club for a presentation to the driver and the conductor. The club had an extension until midnight and then the band turned out to play on the tram as it made its way to the breakers yard in Charlton. The Pearly Kings, not much seen on the streets of London now, were in on the act as well. They were busy in pubs and cafes across London making a “Farewell to the Trams” collection.
Whilst looking through some archival material about Charlton I came across this strange account of the Husbands’ Hostel in Picture Post December 1940. It did strike me as bizarre, a home for men left alone when their wives and children had been evacuated. It was opened by two sisters Mrs Davie and Nurse Conway who thought of the idea whilst sheltering from an air raid. Men and boys who were in reserve occupations needed practical support. They came up with the idea of providing board and lodgings for them. John West, a docker, was there with his 13 year old son who was a tea boy on the docks. Cyril Chambers a munitions worker at the Royal Arsenal moved into the home when his wife and baby were evacuated to Northampton.
The home catered for 24 men and was in a Large Georgian House 233 Charlton Lane. Close to Woolwich it was ideal for munitions workers and dockers who would walk through the foot tunnel. The house is no longer there.
John Davis, a rigger of heavy tackle on the docks described his journey into the home:
“When my missus went, her father cooked for me. The poor old boy did his best, but it wasn’t like the wife. Now I’ve had him looked after and I came on here.”
The service included a comfortable bed, hot breakfast, packed lunch plus bread, cheese and cocoa for supper. The cost was 24/6d (twelve pence) per week. It made me think how difficult it would be for lone men working in the docks or the Royal Arsenal. First, they worked very long hours and shift work. There were no take-aways, fridges or microwaves so cooking a meal after a long back breaking shift would be a dismal prospect. Standard shopping hours (9 until 5) would also present a challenge as would the long queues created by rationing. So perhaps not as bizarre as I first thought.
The Hostel was supported by the Red Cross and Greenwich Council. Mrs Davie who was much appreciated by the men for her fine needlework skills particularly darning socks had this to say:
“What I can’t understand is why there aren’t more places like this”
This remained the only one in the country and clearly appreciated by the men who lived there.
It’s hard now to imagine the joy of the people of Charlton, Plumstead and Woolwich when the Woolwich Free Ferry opened 23rd March 1889. Contemporary accounts describe the thousands of people who flocked to Woolwich for the opening ceremony and festivities. The headline in the Kentish Independent was:
Magnificent Day at Woolwich – a day never to be forgotten.
Yet, 130 years on from when the Metropolitan Board obtained Parliamentary Powers to establish the Free Ferry (1884); the future of it is uncertain. The TFL River Action Plan confirms that it has the greatest volume of passengers than all the other means of river transport yet in its consultation on River Crossings it is proposing to re-site it to Gallions Reach with no assurances that it will remain free.
In the C19th the people of Woolwich, Plumstead and Charlton campaigned for over ten years for a free ferry as a necessity for this part of East London. The crossings from Lambeth, Waterloo and upstream as far as Staines were all free. The people in East London were taxed heavily in order to subsidise the western gentry who crossed the bridges, from the city upstream, untolled. Transport in South East London was by ancient wherries and the railway steamers. On 18th October 1880 a Public Meeting in Woolwich Town Hall passed a resolution for the development of a Free Ferry.
The development of the ferry was not without setbacks. Disaster struck 11th March 1889 when a fire broke out on the South Pier. A tar barrel accidentally overturned. The fire brigade from Shooters Hill were called but they would take at least 20 minutes to get to the pier. The heroes of the day were the Warspite Boys who spotted the smoke and used their initiative to take the Marine Society’s launch,which had a fire engine on board, from Charlton to help. The Warspite was a training ship for orphaned boys that was originally kept on the Thames by Warspite Road.
On the opening day the Warspite Boys lined the road to the pier and were given a half-a-crown (twelve and a half pence) for their support in putting out the fire. Workers from the Royal Arsenal and Royal Woolwich Dockyards were granted an hour off work to attend the opening ceremony. Two hundred police, 30 mounted, lined the streets when Lord Roseberry, first Chairman of the London County Council, arrived to open the ferry. The barometer was high, there was a gentle breeze from the West and Hare Street was beautified. Venetian masts of crimson cloth and ornamental crowns decorated the streets. Five hundred masts were erected to fly 20,000 banners and flags.
Captain Young set sail from the North Pier and Captain Giles from the South to a salute of guns from North Woolwich. The two ferries were Gordon and Duncan and the journey across the river took three and a half minutes.
On that day over 25,000 persons travelled on the ferry. There was an official banquet for 200 people and street parties for the townspeople. The revelry went on through the night. The Kentish Independent describes the day as:
“A day the like of which few localities have upon their records.”
TFL are planning a further consultation on the future of Woolwich Free Ferry in 2014.
Guest Post by BK
A song called Cuckolds All In A Row was popular with Cavaliers as a dig against the London Roundheads. A contemporary ballad records a pleasure boat trip downriver to Greenwich.
‘And when they reach Cuckold’s Point they make a gallant show.
Their wives bid the Musick play Cuckolds All In A Row.’
Cuckold’s Point features in the play Eastward Hoe by Ben Jonson. This scene sums up much of our discussion.
Enter SLITGUT with a pair of ox-horns, discovering Cuckold’s Haven.
Slit. All hail, fair haven of married men only! for there are none but married men cuckolds. For my part, I presume not to arrive here but in my master’s behalf, a poor butcher of Eastcheap, who sends me to set up, in honor of Saint Luke, these necessary ensigns of his homage. And up I got this morning, thus early, to get up to the top of this famous tree, that is all fruit and no leaves, to advance this crest of my master’s occupation. Up then! — Heaven and Saint Luke bless me, that I be not blown into the Thames as I climb, with this furious tempest.
The theme of Eastward Hoe; two youths, one is industrious and prospers, the other is lazy and falls on hard times was taken up by Hogarth in his series of engravings Industry and Idleness. In Plate 5 the idle apprentice is sent to sea. He is being rowed out to his boat around Cuckold’s point; although the antler pole has been replaced by a gibbet. The boy can clearly be seen making the sign of the horn as a gesture of contempt for his new masters.
Horn’s, and their ribald associations, became the main theme of the Charlton Horn Fair. A large crowd from all over London and Kent would gather at Cuckold’s Point to parade to Charlton. Many would dress as characters from the founding legend, The King, the miller or his wife. Cross-dressing of the sexes was common; and the wearing of horns was, more or less, ubiquitous. A contemporary account of the parade states:
“at Horn Fair, a party of humorists of both sexes (query, of either sex) cornuted in all the variety of bull-feather fashion, after perambulating round Cuckold’s Point, startled the little quiet village of Charlton on St. Luke’s Day, shouting their emulation, and blowing voluntaries on rams’ horns, in honour of their patron saint.”
When the parade reached the fair, which was held on The Common in front of Charlton House, things got even more riotous. Daniel Defoe wrote:
Charleton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz’d well govern’d nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.
The Maryon-Wilson family who lived at Charlton House enclosed the common to be part of their private estate in the early 1800s. A group of enterprising publicans then moved the fair to land on the outskirts of the village; rather like Blackheath Fair in an earlier post. And, like its near neighbour, the Horn Fair fell victim to the new morality of the 1871 Fairs Act and closed in 1873.
The Horn Fair was revived; with the awful title of Horn Fayre, in 1973 in a more family friendly format. Recently, an attempt was also made to recreate the parade from Cuckold’s Point but I don’t think it happened this year. Even more prosaically; Cuckold’s Point is now The Canary Wharf Hilton Hotel.
Guest Post by BK
October 18 is St Luke’s Day in the Christian Calendar. Charlton parish church is dedicated to St Luke and so the Charlton Horn Fair has been held on this day since medieval times.
Popular mythology has it that the fair was founded in the reign of King John (1199-1216). The King was out hunting when he came across the attractive wife of the local miller. He was about to seduce her when the miller returned home and made to kill the King who managed to save himself by revealing his identity. He then offered the miller the lordship of all the land between Charlton and the bend in the River Thames at Rotherhithe. He also gave permission for a fair to be held on St Luke’s Day. The bend in the river has since been known as Cuckold’s Point. A more prosaic explanation for the name of the fair is that in Christian art St Luke is usually associated with a horned ox.
A cuckold is a man whose wife has been unfaithful. It is derived from the cuckoo which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. It has been a very potent source of ribaldry and insults throughout Europe since the Middle Ages and has traditionally been associated with animal horns or antlers. The stag will give up his flock of hind to the victor if defeated in a fight. A man whose wife had been seduced by another was said to ‘have the horn’or ‘be wearing the horn’. There was even a hand gesture called the sign of the horn. The index and little fingers are extended and the middle pair folded. The hand may then be held to the forehead. This was a very insulting gesture and still is in places like Southern Italy. Although in Britain references to ‘the horn’ now tend to be more priapic and less insulting.
Cuckold’s Point marks the point where the river narrows and the rougher waters of the Thames Estuary turn into the calm of The Pool Of London and so also became known as Cuckold’s Haven. It was marked by a tall pole on which were mounted rams horns or deer antlers and this became a landmark that travellers looked out for. It was also said that it reminded returning sailors what their wives had been up to whilst they had been away. The pole and its decorations were maintained by the Guild of London butchers.
Cuckold’s Haven became an obvious metaphor and it figures frequently in popular English literature and many a husband finds himself stranded there. More of this in Part 2
October 11 is the date of the Blackheath Fair.
Fairs for the sale of local goods and livestock, granted by Royal Charter, have been held since medieval times. They were so popular informal fairs developed as well. Some for the old agricultural reasons; but they also became more well-known for drinking, revelry and side-shows; the exhibitions of “freaks” were particularly popular. Among these was the fair on Blackheath.
The first fair was held on the traditional May Day in 1683. John Evelyn reported:-
“ I went to Blackheath to see the new faire, being the first, procured by Lord Dartmouth. This was the first day, pretended for the sale of cattle, but I think, in truth, to enrich the new tavern at the bowlinggreene, erected by Snape, his Majesty’s farrier, a man full of projects. There appeared nothing but an innumerable assembly of drinking people from London, pedlars, &c; and I suppose it is too neere London to be of any greate use to the country.”
Such was the popularity of the fair that when the calendar changed in 1752 it was held twice yearly on May 12-14 and Oct 11-13. This arrangement continued until 1772 when the fair was held only on May 12 and Oct 11 when it was described as a “hog and pleasure fair”.
Victorian moralists became very concerned at the drunkenness and debauchery at these fairs and in 1871 the Fairs Act was passed. It enabled any local council to petition the Home Secretary to close a fair. It stated:
“Whereas certain of the fairs held in England and Wales are unnecessary, are the cause of grievous immorality, and are very injurious to the inhabitants of the towns in which such fairs are held, and it is therefore expedient to make provision to facilitate the abolition of such fairs.”
So, in 1872 Blackheath Fair, along with others at Greenwich and Charlton were reported by the authorities and closed.
Blackheath Fair also has a footnote in another part of British folklore. It was the site of the first sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack. He was first sighted in London jumping out at lone pedestrians, usually young ladies and sometimes attempting to molest them. When startled or pursued he would escape by making giant leaps and jump over high walls. Some reports said he had had a large black cloak. Others mentioned fire from the eyes or mouth.
In 1837 Jack appeared to a servant girl called Polly Adams and two other ladies on the outskirts of Blackheath Fair. Polly reported that he ripped off her bodice with his iron-tipped fingers before running off with a series of giant bounds.
In 1838 The Lord Mayor Of London mentioned this and other reported attacks and a national outcry ensued with vigilante groups scouring the country for Jack. Many sightings were reported but Jack was always able to escape by clearing a high wall or a river.
The last sighting seems to have been in Liverpool on 1888. But the urban myth lives on and there are similar characters reported in many countries. My own parents were frightened by stories of Spring Heeled Jack in the 1930s.