Aldgate Priory – the medieval ruins inside a 21st century office block.

Two weeks ago I was wondering round the streets of Whitechapel and Aldgate looking for a rather secret churchyard that I had passed by many times but never assumed I could get inside.  Typically, the gate which is often open, was firmly locked on my visit so I couldn’t get in.  However whilst determinedly trying every alleyway and doorway on 4 streets to ensure I had tried every single possible way in, I came across a ruin.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.47.28.png

Would you expect a 1000 year old ruin in this modern office block?

I’ve come across lots of ruins in my time and had actually seen a glimpse of this before, in a then derelict modern office block which I had assumed to be some old ruin but nothing particularly ancient, at least not my local standards.

Whilst on my search for he illusive churchyard, I noticed the lights on the building to be on and so having no doubt set off a number of alarms and motion sensors whilst trying to enter various neighbouring doorways I thought it couldn’t hurt to try and go inside.  To my surprise the security guard was very friendly and let me in.

There are several ruins I’ve found within London buildings from the old Roman wall and colosseum to the medieval Clarkenwell to the newly open Temple of Mithras and Roman Basilica but they are still rare enough to raise an eyebrow or two.

To my surprise I had stumbled across a medieval Priory that though ruined 500 years ago, was now protected and encased within a 21st century office.


Surely an almost unique office environment?



There were limits of where I was allowed to explore and going underground was that limit.


The building has new tenants moving in and with it being lit up, many more people will be able to see the arches, from the outside at least.


I was standing in the midst of Holy Trinity Priory, Aldgate.  It was the first religious house to be established inside the walls (albeit only just) of London after the Norman Conquest.  Created in at the behest of Empress Matilda in 1107–8; one of the earliest Augustinian houses to be established in England and the first to be dissolved.

The formidable Empress Matilda

The formidable Empress Matilda

I was ever so thrilled to get to see these ruins close up and felt something of a nincompoop for not putting all the clues together for the surrounding streets are full of them but I hadn’t presumed to put them all together, at least not in the correct fashion.

15th-century heraldic version of the Shield of the Trinity which would have been similar to that of the Aldgate Priory.

15th-century heraldic version of the Shield of the Trinity which would have been similar to that of the Aldgate Priory.

By 1200 the precinct north of Leadenhall Street and just inside Aldgate was filled with imposing stone buildings, including a large and architecturally impressive church which was the burial place of two of the children of King Stephen in the middle of the 12th century.

King Stephen

King Stephen

London’s first mayor, Henry FitzAilwin, was buried in the entrance to the chapter house. In the 16th century the monastery was owned by the Duke of Norfolk, second only to Queen Elizabeth in power, who was executed in 1572 for his part in plots surrounding Mary Queen of Scots.

The priory was dissolved in February 1532 when it was given back to King Henry VIII.  The buildings and land associated with the priory were given, or sold, to prominent courtiers and City merchants.


View of the ruins of part of the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, City of London, 1824.

Painting of the ruins of Aldgate Priory around 1810 by Robert Blemmell Schnebbelie

Mitre Street itself follows roughly the line of the nave of the priory church, while Mitre Square corresponds roughly to the former cloister and later came to prominence as a terrible murder location with Jack The Ripper.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.37.57.png

Mitre Street follows the knave of the old Priory Church whilst Mitre Square on the right is where the Cloisters were.

Even the pub at the far end of Mitre Square is called The Trinity Bell and you can see the bells on the sign below.


I hope you liked my latest piece of urban exploration.  It’s amazing what you can discover right under your nose.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The original 9 principles of the police

There had been many attempts at upholding law and order over the centuries.  Groups of  Night Watchmen and organisations such as the Bow Street Runners came and went, doing the best they could  but the concept of a professional police did not come to light until 1829 when Robert Peel became the Home Secretary.


Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary and later two times Prime Minister.

It was Sir Robert Peel who was responsible for creating the first modern professional police force in the world in the shape of the Metropolitan Police in London.   Having a police force wasn’t as universally accepted as might be thought thought today and was rather analogous with people having their guns taken away in America.

The reason for this is primarily France who had long had a network of secret and overtly political police since the 18th century and as Britain had long been fighting France, the idea that we might want to live in a similar society was quite ghastly.

Therefore Robert Peel drew up nine principles of police to ensure public support.

The nine principles were as follows:

  1. To deter crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
  3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
  4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
  5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
  6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
  7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary, of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
  9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
PC Thomas Joseph Powell circa 1890

PC Thomas Joseph Powell circa 1890

These principles have been described as being “unique in history and throughout the world, because it derived, not from fear, but almost exclusively from public co-operation with the police, induced by them designedly by behaviour which secures and maintains for them the approval, respect and affection of the public.”

Sir Robert Peel must have been onto something as his concept and ideals spread throughout the Commonwealth and across the democratic world.  In deed even in corrupt or dictatorships, the idea of having a police force is ingrained in society where it is vital for various reasons for the military not to directly oppress their own people.

It was such a revolutionary idea that for a while the term ‘Police’ didn’t take hold.  Clearly not military but not an ordinary civilian,  those in uniform were known as ‘Peelers’ in honour of their founder.  This term fell out of favour to be replaced by Bobby which is a friendly version of Robert and one which is often used in television and films today.


Two modern day police in a uniform extremely similar to their 19th century forebears. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald.

Most people learn at school that police are your friends and nearly everyone of my tourists remarks on how friendly, helpful and polite they are.  In fact in Britain there is something of a joke about the simpler and lower key the police are, the most trustworthy and good they are whilst those countries with police that look rather like soldiers or militarised police are likely to be less pleasant or professional which no doubt partly goes someway as to why police and the public are very happy that as a rule, we don’t have armed police.

This statue of Sir Robert Peel is in Parliament Square, opposite Parliament and home of many a demonstration.

This statue of Sir Robert Peel is in Parliament Square, opposite Parliament and home of many a demonstration.

In fact even the policeman who stands outside 10 Downing Street where the Prime Minister made the news today in a way that might not happen in some countries when he helped out Larry the Cat.


Posted in Heritage, history, Life, News | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thomas Coram in Boston

Last week I took time out from touring to visit two temporary exhibitions at institutions that have very worthy reasons for visiting and yet understandably might not feature high on the list for foreign visitors.  Namely the Kristallnacht exhibition at the Weiner Library  and a special exhibition on Thomas Coram at the Foundling Hospital.

Thomas Coram is one of the most forward thinking men I know of in the 17th Century and if you’re not familiar with him or the his wonderful work in London then you might like to read my 2016 post

It’s not often that I write updates on posts if only because usually history doesn’t change too much and I like to write definitively on a subject rather than drag it out but having written about Thomas Coram in London, I thought it might be interesting to look at the big impact that he made during his years in the colonies in what is now the United States.

The prayer book below is one of the highlights of the exhibition and is given by the very first modern speak of the House of Commons who himself was of mighty high standards and integrity against all the odds.

This prayer book was given to Thomas Coram by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Arthur Onslow Esquire.

This prayer book was given to Thomas Coram by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Arthur Onslow Esquire.

Thomas Coram spent 10 years in America and they were to have a profound influence on his life. He seems to have relished being free of the restrictions of English society and inspired by the opportunities the new country offered him.

Whatever Thomas gained from the colonies, he gave so much more. Thomas Coram had an important influence on America in the shape of vigorous campaigning for the rights of minority groups. He also left a direct legacy of books aimed at encouraging the spread of Anglicanism.

As many people did when they sailed from London, Thomas Coram settled in Boston which is where he met his future wife in the form of Eunice Waite.  Eunice was the daughter of an established Boston family that too originally heralded from England.

She was a Congregationalist which was an Anglican church that believed in running its own affairs without too much interference from overseas.  Despite their different churches, it wasn’t enough to stop true love and Eunice and Thomas Coram were very happily married for 40 years, until her death after a long period of poor health.


Thomas Coram got on especially well with Sir William Phips, a fellow shipwright and the first royally-appointed governor of Massachusetts. Phips had arrived in Boston to take up his post as governor in May 1691, when the city was in the grip of hysteria over witchcraft and the legal system could not cope with the numbers of people accused.

It wasn’t long until  Thomas Coram chose to move slightly out of Boston and he decided to settle down in a little place called Taunton where he worked on establishing a  shipbuilding business because  the deep water there meant that he could build large ships.

You can still see his shipyards today which are now Taunton Yacht Club.  Given it is unlikely I will ever get to Boston, I found the place on Google Street View.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 11.34.17.png

Taunton Yacht Club, once the shipyards of Thomas Coram.

Religion was very important to the people of the time in both England and the colonies and many of those who had settled in  Taunton townspeople had left England to establish a community in which they all followed the same religious principles. As is the case in some corners of the world today, anyone who was not of the same religious sect was viewed with distrust. Being a brusk Yorkshire seafarer, Thomas Coram was very outspoken and his new neighbours did not welcome his fierce loyalty to the British Crown, nor his robust Anglicanism.

For his part, Thomas Coram found many colonists a little uncouth and hoped that the inhabitants one day ‘should be more civilised than they now are.’

Religious differences between Thomas and his neighbours soon surfaced. These were played out in the courts where seemingly trivial issues quickly escalated; claims and counter-claims were made; violence was often threatened and sometimes used against Coram. He frequently had to go to the Boston courts to receive a fair hearing as local magistrates, out of fear of their neighbours and/or personal enmity toward Coram, invariably ruled against him.

His various disputes with the people of Taunton came to a head when a mob attacked his home. Coram left Taunton knowing that any legal rulings in his favour from the Boston courts about unfulfilled contracts would not be enforced by the local Taunton officials; further the claims lodged against him by local people for debts might well result in him being imprisoned.

Sadly Thomas Coram returned to England where London benefitted greatly but his house in Taunton is still standing, just across the road from his old shipyards  at 2130 Water Street. It is privately owned so you can’t just pop in but it hasn’t changed greatly since his time.

The American home of Thomas Coram.

The American home of Thomas Coram.

Thomas Coram’s legacy in Taunton is in the shipyard he established and the contribution he made towards the town’s Anglican and now Episcopal church.   The Episcopal church was established after the American War of Independence as separate from, but allied to the Church of England when it likely was politically unacceptable to have a church named after a country you fought against.

All along the waterfront where Thomas Coram and his friend John Hathaway had worked, became a centre of ship building and trading ships with trade to Britain, the Caribbean and South America in particular and it became a separate town in its own right, Dighton.

Not only did he leave the church 59 acres of land but also a large collection of books and the town ended up having a strong Christian tradition of many denominations but particularly Episcopalian or as would be known elsewhere, Anglican.  The patron saint of the church is Saint Thomas, partly in honour of Mr. Coram.

Thomas Coram also worked along with a friend to create the colony and later state of South Carolina for the ‘necessitous poor’ as well in the campaign to create a colony in Georgia.

Statue of Thomas Coram

Statue of Thomas Coram who established The Foundling Hospital.

As a trustee of the scheme, Coram worked hard to make Georgia a success. He raised funds and attended meetings regularly about its progress. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees over their refusal to allow women equal rights of inheritance. This was deterring people from coming to settle in the colony and it offended Coram’s sense of fair play. Later, when the rules were amended, Egmont, a fellow trustee, wrote in his diary that, ‘Captain Coram, who was violent for female succession was much pleased with the intended act.’ Coram was also against slavery and at the same meeting, the trustees reaffirmed their refusal to allow slavery in the colony.

Thomas Coram also worked hard at promoting and supporting native Americans, with whom he lived and worked when in America. He was especially concerned that native American girls were educated. This reflected a key theme in his plans for the Foundling Hospital in London in that girls as well as boys received an education; the general view at the time was that education was not as important for females. When two Mohicans came to London to apply to the king for redress after their people had been defrauded of their land, Coram took up their case and argued fiercely for them and their rights.

Even on his return to London, Coram took a great interest in furthering the wellbeing of the colonies and he corresponded frequently with Jeremiah Belcher, Governor of Massachusetts from 1730 discussing developments in each other’s countries.  Coram often promoted Belcher’s interests and position as Governor in London.

In his latter years he also worked with the Congregational puritans in Boston who were trying to widen their appeal and relax their philosophy.

Being such a passionate believe in education it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Thomas Coram sent a gift of 24 text books to be used by professors and tutors of divinity at Harvard and influenced a Bostonian to preach to and educate native Americans Later, Coram learned from a Boston newspaper sent to him by his sister-in-law that Colman had ordained three missionaries to preach to the native Americans. Once he learned of the programme, Coram sent over several chests of books and encouraged other forward thinking Londoners to do the same.


If you enjoyed reading about Thomas Coram then you might like my 2017 post on possibly the most forward-thinking person I am aware of, Jeremy Bentham who despite being several centuries in age, you can still pop by and meet at UCL.

Posted in history, London, Religion and Faith | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Introducing The Tulip – Londons slightly erotic looking skyscraper

It says something about how much development is occurring in London and also for the longevity of my blog that my 2014 post entitled Looking Up At London is now thoroughly out of date.  I’ve written other blogs about the massive reconstruction, just one of the top of my head was the post on Battersea which I wrote in July entitled Rebuilding Battersea From The Ground Up.

There is more construction in London than not just the whole of Britain put together but all of Europe too, both above and below ground and the last few months I’ve enjoyed seeing the topping out of my favourite skyscraper of 2018, The Scalpel.


The Scalpel nearing completion in June 2018

I found this one quite fascinating to see go up due to the platforms midway up the building from which cranes are put in place.   I’m guessing because of the angular nature of the building, it would be impractical to have a regular super-size crane reaching up from the surface.


The Scalpel nearing completion in June 2018

The distinctive angles as well as looking unique, aim to allow much more light down to the street below compared to regular square or rectangular buildings.

The heights and shapes of the buildings are also due to the ancient streets below, airports  and certain viewing angles of historic buildings which are inshrined in law as being the right of every London to see without interruption.


The completed Scalpel, fittingly just a 3 minutes walk from where Jack The Ripper used his sharp knife.

One of the unique aspects of London is how it merges the ancient with the space-age.  Whereas Rome is all old and Dubai is all new, it is quite easy to find buildings centuries or even millennia apart, in the same photo.

All the new buildings in Britain and London in particular have to look distinctive to avoid it being all rectangular boxes like so many other cities and they all have very official and grand sounding names though to Londoners they have more friendly names such as The Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Deathstar, Shard or another new building from this year, the Kim Kardashian on account of its particular shape which looks great for a building but somewhat peculiar for a human being.  450 towers were given permission to be built in 2016 and 500 in 2017 alone.

To add to the number, a new building was announced last week, to be known as The Tulip. At 1,0000ft or 305m will become the tallest building in the City of London though not London itself.

Designed by architects Foster + Partners and proposed for a site next to 30 St Mary Axe or The Gherkin as many know it,  the structure would be just four metres shorter than The Shard on the south side of London Bridge, officially the highest building in the UK.


How the Tulip will squeeze into the City.

Unveiling the plans, the firm said the building is aimed at being a tourist and educational attraction, as well as office space with a key feature being the learning facility at the top of the tower.  This will allow 20,000 free places per year for London’s  school children to see London from above and “bring to life the city’s history and dynamism”. There are also plans internally for glass slides and gondola pod rides.


Looking across the Thames to The Shard.

The developers involved in the planning proposal said construction would begin in 2020 and could be finished by 2025, if permission is granted by the City of London Corporation.

A publicly accessible rooftop garden is also proposed at a revamped Gherkin site and the architects have promised a “minimal“ building footprint will be made possible by high-performance glass and integrated photovoltaic cells. Foster + Partners said the building’s eventual weight would be “equivalent to 80 fully loaded Airbus A380s on a footprint that is half the size of a single plane”.

“The Tulip is in the spirit of London as a progressive, forward-thinking city,” said Norman Foster, founder of Foster + Partners.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 18.56.29

The Square Mile as it is today.

TheTulip will feature glass-floored internal bridges and visitors will be able to ride in glass pods rotating slowly on tracks on the exterior. It is expected to attract one million visitors a year.

Although The Tulip’s summit will be a few feet lower than the peak of the Shard, the tallest building in the capital, the designs suggest its viewing platform will be higher than the 800 ft View from the Shard. Visitors will reach the top in double-decker lifts.


The City of London to the bottom and right, Aldgate to the top and Whitechapel to the left.

The Tulip will be only one foot taller than architect Eric Parry’s proposed  1 Undershaft nearby. That building was at the absolute height limit for Square Mile towers because of City Airport flight paths, but a thick new layer of tarmac on the runway means The Tulip can pip it. A dozen meetings have been held with City planners with discussions to date described as “fruitful and exciting”.

As many skyscrapers as are being built in the old Roman city, there are even more in districts such as the Docklands and much further out towards the suburbs.

One thing is for certain, if following construction The Tulip is the only name given to this building then I shall eat my hat!

What do you think of the mix between the ancient and modern.  Do you have a favourite London building?  If so, let me know!

Posted in Architecture, Cool Britannia, Life, London, News | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Words that are becoming extinct

Like many of us, I am a big fan of and user of words.  One of my most popular blog posts is 102 great words that aren’t in English but should be102 great words that aren’t in English but should be.

I’m also a fan of etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history and one of my books is about the origins of idioms.


Edward Allhusen must have a similar interest as he has catalogued a book full of words that are falling out of favour and have supposedly endangered and have or very soon will be out of every day usage.

A hangover was once known as a bout of ‘crapulence’ while an irresistible craving for alcohol was referred to as ‘dipsomania’.

A ‘caterwaul’ was a burst of inconsiderate high-pitched screaming, to ‘condiddle’ was to steal and an ‘amanuensis’ was a literary assistant who took dictation.

An awkward youth experiencing a difficult transition from childhood to adulthood was a ‘hobbledehoy’.

A gullible person used to be called a ‘juggins’ whilst someone who attached undeserved importance to a matter was ‘pettifogging’.

A bossy woman was a ‘harridan’ and one prone to flirtation was a ‘fizgig’.

I was a little surprised to see many of the words are actually ones that I use either frequently or has my default word for a given situation.  For example a large nose would be a ‘conk’, to depart quickly was ‘to vamoose’.

A grovelling servant was a ‘lickspittle’ and I’m surprised that this has fallen my the wayside as I use it all the time, if not about actual servants.

Acts of stupidity saw individuals labelled as being an ‘ignoramus’ and ‘nincompoop’.  I had no idea that these were out of fashion.  And if there is a more contemporary words for  ‘higgledy-piggledy’ then I want to know, not that I would adopt its usage.  Perhaps not many things are higgledy-piggledy anymore and are all logical and ordered.  If so, how sad!

The book goes on to describe indecisive people as to ‘shilly-shally’, while a loud exclamation of surprise was termed a ‘gadzook’.   I just used Shilly-Shally this week relating to our Prime Minister and her Brexit tactics.

A working class woman with promiscuous habits was commonly referred to as a ‘trollop’, while causing an uproar was creating a ‘rumpus’.  Again, there is a lady who often walks past my house who I call (inside my own 4 walls of course) as being a trollop and a rumpus is so much more fun to use than most alternatives.

As well as listing endangered words, Mr Allhusen has also highlighted how the meaning of words has evolved over the past two and a half centuries.

He studied the seminal 1755 book by Samuel Johnson, ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ to see which words have survived to this day and how their meanings have changed.

In that edition, he was intrigued to find the term ‘betrump’, which was defined as to deceive, to cheat or to evade by guile.  I’m sure it is nothing personal against the President.

The meaning of other words have changed completely – now associated with cricket, the word ‘innings’ once meant land reclaimed from the sea.

Defenestrate – early 17th century; the act of throwing someone out of the window

Vamoose – mid 19th century, from Spanish ‘vamos’; to depart in a quick manner

Crapulence – from the Latin word crapula meaning ‘intoxication’; an old-fashioned term for a hangover

Lickspittle – dating from 1741; a grovelling servant

Dipsomania – mid 19th century, from the Greek word dipso, meaning ‘thirst’ – an irresistible craving for an alcoholic drink

Conk – unknown origin, but usage started around the First World War; a large nose

Hobbledehoy – mid 16th century, of unknown origin; an awkward youth experiencing a difficult transition from childhood to adulthood

Juggins – late 19th century, perhaps from the surname Juggins; a gullible person

Harridan – late 17th century, perhaps from the French word haridelle, or ‘old horse’; an old-fashioned term for a particularly bossy woman

Ignoramus – late 16th century, from Latin, literally ‘we do not know’; meaning a stupid person

Fizgig – early 16th century, probably from ‘fizz’ and ‘gig’, an old word meaning ‘flighty girl’; a person who is extremely flirtatious

Shilly-shally – mid 18th century, re-purposing of ‘shall I?’; an indecisive person

Gadzook – late 17th century: alteration of ‘God’s hooks’; a loud exclamation of surprise

Rumpus – mid 18th century; to create an uproar

Trollop – early 17th century: perhaps related to ‘trull’, which is German for prostitute; a working class woman with promiscuous habits

Pettifogging – late 16th century, someone who attached undeserved importance to a matter

Betrump – unknown origin; means to deceive, to cheat or to evade by guile

Nincompoop – late 17th century, similar to the French word nicodème, meaning simpleton; a foolish or stupid person

Incidentally, I just came across an interesting bit of about a word this morning. Apparently ‘cob’ in cobweb is a very old, and now forgotten English word for spider. The Old English word for spider was atorcoppe, with ator meaning ‘poison’ and coppemeaning ‘head’ – that’s the same ‘coppe’ probably gave us the word corncob (‘head of corn’). In Middle English the word spider (originally spydyr ‘the spinner’) became the more popular word, but cobweb was still retained to refer to the home it makes.  Now that ‘cob’ has no clear meaning, it’s no surprise that over the last couple of hundred years people have started to use spiderweb. The web used to be a more generic word for netting – if you know anyone with the name Webster their name used to denote people who worked as weavers.

Given that I still use old worlds like shilly-shally, trollop, higgledy-piggedly and nincompoop, it will probably come as no surprise that I only ever use the word ‘cobweb’ rather than spiderweb but I must admit, I did not know the precise reason… or if I did then I had forgotten it!

Betrumped, The Surprising History of 3,000 Long Lost, Exotic and Endangered Words, by Edward Allhusen, is published by Amberley and costs £14.99.


Posted in Culture, Heritage, history, Life | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The famous farting lamp of London

Last week I wrote on The Great Stink of 1868.  By chance todays post is on a related subject.  Many people will be aware that in the Victorian age, much of London was lit with gas lamps and in deed several places still are.   Less well known is that some of these lamps were powered by the gas from human sewage.

The Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp was invented in the late 19th century by the Birmingham inventor Joseph Webb. In London the lamps were used for two main reasons; firstly to burn off the smells and germs from London’s sewer system, and secondly as a low cost, low maintenance way to keep London lit up at night.


Part of the original patent for the sewer lamps.

Methane was collected by a small dome in the roof of the sewer, with the gas then being diverted into the lamp on the street above. The lamp remained lit 24/7, powered at least partly by an almost unlimited amount of waste.

Intriguingly, the effluence from the sewers was not actually concentrated enough to fully power the lamps. Instead, the lamps were “dual powered” by ordinary town gas supplies which heated the filament up to around 700 degrees F. This heat then drew the methane and other gases from the sewer system, in turn ventilating up to three quarters of a mile of pipe!

There is just one of these lamps still fully functioning in London and it is in a very swanky park of London, next to one of the finest hotels in London, The Savoy.  The map below is at least partly powered by the waste that their guests produce.

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 07.44.11.png

The final working sewage lamp in London in Farting, I mean Carting Lane.

There aren’t any accurate details of how many of these lamps were produced as a fire in 1925 at the Webb Lamp Company some time ago destroyed all records but hundreds and likely thousands were installed.

Just off The Strand is a relatively unvisited street called Carting Lane.  We are very lucky to still have this lamp as just a few years ago, a reversing lorry accidentally knocked over the lamp.  Thankfully it was subsequently restored by engineers from Thames Gas and is now protected by Westminster Council.

The lamps were invented in the 1890s by a Birmingham man Joseph Webb. Within ten years of their arrival in the lamps became spread across the London to London and then the world.  Old sewers were often wonky and pockets of gas could collect that would lead to deadly explosions and these lamps were a clever way to eliminate that problem and provide almost free lighting to the murky streets above.

Rather morbidly, a number of these lamps were used to ventilate the septic tanks and also the Post Mortem Rooms in various large hospitals in provincial towns such as Southend and also on the large city hospitals such as the  six such lamps installed on the apex of the glass roof of the Pathological Block of  Whitechapel’s London Hospital in 1900.

A sewer lamp in Whitley Bay, Newcastle.

A sewer lamp in Whitley Bay, Newcastle.

As technologies and operating procedures changed and electricity came to dominate things, naturally the use of the lamps began to fall by the wayside with the damage of WW2 not helping matters.  Though as a boy in my local seaside town of Whitley Bay there were still many of these lamps around in the 1970’s and 80’s, brightly painted in that the seaside mood would not be spoilt by the concept of burning gas from human waste.    In Sheffield some lamps remain and they continue to serve the original purpose of ventilating the sewers.

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 08.18.27.png

An old sewage lamp in Rural Lane, Sheffield.

The lamps went to some British Commonwealth countries though in Canada, a separate flame burner had to be installed just under the surface of the lamp to ensure the freezing winters didn’t block the ventilation pipe.


Posted in history, Life, London, Science and Engineering | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get to visit an incredible new exhibition at the British Library all about the Anglo-Saxons.  Despite going past the building almost every day for 25 years, I’ve never been in it before (I avidly visited the old building) and it is one of if not the largest book repository in the world with over 150 million books and  manuscripts in English, Latin and related languages.  It even holds some of my books too!

Much more interesting than these though are the treasures that I went to see.  The period after the Romans has long been characterised as the Dark Ages and though I personally knew this was not the case, even I was shocked at just what an educated, cultured and sophisticated lot my ancestors were.


This exhibition is here until February 2019 and houses 200 of the finest books and book-related treasures from Anglo-Saxon England.  It’s not often that I get overwhelmed by history.  I can only remember it happening twice, once in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where years of pent-up enthusiasm gradually waned, hour after hour of looking at Egyptian treasures.  Any one of which would be a work of such fantastic standing it would demand to be studied for hours but as part of a huge museum, eventually came just another treasure.

Similarly when visiting the WW1 cemeteries in France and Belgium and seeing hundreds of thousands of graves.  All incredibly special and important and in many ways unique but when taken together, incredibly powerful and overwhelming.

This exhibition wisely restricted itself to 180 treasures covering the broad period of Anglo-Saxon England which culminated with the Norman Conquest of 1066 which was dreadful in so many ways.

Nevertheless the feeling when visiting the exhibition was one of being incredibly taken-aback, of outright wonder and amazement as well as increasingly a feeling of incredulity that anyone might have thought the Anglo-Saxons to be anything other than amongst the most enlightened of people.  Obviously the Norman propaganda machine has a lot to answer for but the fight back starts here!

Photos aren’t allowed in the exhibition so here are just some of the treasures which you can see and whose photos are available in the public domain.


The Alfred Jewel

In the photo above you have The Alfred Jewel.  It is an æstel which is inlaid enamel with gold and depicts King Alfred The Great.  Alfred is the only king denoted as being ‘Great’ and was a great believer in ‘books’ and education for the common people.  An æstel is a long rod with which you might point at the text of a book such as The Holy Bible to avoid touching the script.  Similar to a Yad which Jewish people use when reading The Torah.

The piece dates to about 880AD and was found in a  Somerset field in 1693.  As well as being a great man of words, King Alfred was a man of action and was pivotal in finally freeing our lands from the Vikings.

This item also gives me an unexpected chance to link to my post on the letter æ 


The Spong Man

This ceramic item is known as The Spong Man. It was found in Norfolk in the largest Anglo-Saxon cemetery yet unearthed and dates from the 6th Century. It is 14cm in height (about 5.5 inches) and is actually the top of a large ceramic urn. One can spend forever contemplating what it is the character is thinking about.   These days we have simple corks or screw lids but those wrongly labelled as being in the Dark Ages had these instead.

What makes it even more interesting is that it highlights how people of the time were happy to cremate their dead which earlier Roman Christians clearly were against and demonstrates the new ideas of  our Jute, Angles and Saxons forebears; originally brought in by the Romans in the 3rd century to strengthen defences and yet like many other places, gradually took over their new homes… one way or the other.


Belt Buckle

The incredible item above is a gold belt-buckle, found in the famous Sutton Hoo hoard in Suffolk in the 1930s.  Its beautiful and ornate decorations can’t be truly appreciated unless seen in person.


The Lindisfarne Illuminated Manuscripts

The Illuminated Manuscripts were the one thing I was hoping to see.  They are from the island of Lindisfarne or Hply Island, just off the coast of Northumberland near the Scottish border and were a long-time hotbed for early Christians until famously being the scene of the very first Viking attack.

The manuscript is breathtakingly beautiful and I could have spent all day looking at it. Apart from its intrinsic value as a remarkable survival of an ancient and astonishingly beautiful work of art, the manuscript displays a unique combination of artistic styles that reflects a crucial period in England’s history.

Christianity first came to Britain under the Romans, but subsequent waves of invasion by non-Christian Saxons, Angles, and Vikings drove the faith to the fringes of the British Isles. The country was gradually re-converted from 597, after St Augustine arrived from Rome to convert the pagan ‘Angles into angels’.

Religious differences between the indigenous ‘Celtic’ Church and the new ‘Roman’ Church were settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664. In the manuscript, native Celtic and Anglo-Saxon elements blend with Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions to create a sublimely unified artistic vision of the cultural melting pot of Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, and others like it, helped define the growing sense of ‘Englishness’ which was strong enough to survive the Norman Conquest of 1066 and forge the nation that exists today.


The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book, often known as the Doomsday Book is one of the most famous books in the world.  It is a complete record from 1086 that William The Conqueror used to catalogue everything the two-thirds of England that he had firm control over.  Of course it is a Norman book but the reason it is here is that England was the only country sophisticated enough to have an administration to keep such incredible details and the administration was an aspect Anglo-Saxon civilisation, again showing how wrong it is to label these people as somehow backwards or ignorant.  There are still countries in the world today that don’t have such accurate records and this book is 950 years old.

The Domesday book is a treasure for historians but also gives some insight as to why England was such a desirable target for invasion for more than a millennia as well as indicating that as our reputation today still says, we are sticklers for doing things properly and by the book!


The Codex Amiatinus

Written in the monastic scriptorium in the 7th Century, the Codex Amiatinus was one of three single volume Bibles made at Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Made by monks under the direction of Abbot Ceolfrith, they started the project in AD692.

The oldest complete Latin Bible in existence, it was rare to make a single volume Bible as they usually contained a small number of books like the four gospels.

“It is one of the most important copies of the Bible in the world and one of the most important manuscripts made in the British Isles and associated with Venerable Bede and Wearmouth-Jarrow.

“Bible means library and the Codex Amiatinus was making a statement.  Three copies of the Codex Amiatinus were produced in Latin calligraphy at the monastery.

Two stayed at Wearmouth and Jarrow and in AD716, the third left for Rome with Abbot Ceolfrith and his followers where it was intended to be given to Pope Gregory II as a gift.

Abbot Ceolfrith died on route in France, but his dream was fulfilled and the book was taken by some of his followers on to Rome.

Some years later, it was rediscovered in the monastery of San Salvatore in Italy before being moved to the Laurential Library in Florence where it can be found today.

The other two copies have been lost and for a millennia it was assumed that due to the fabulous sophistication and beauty of the book that it had to be Italian.   Then in the 19th century it was found out the dedication page had been altered and it was in fact from Northumbria.  It was a conscious effort to show the world that whatever Rome could do, Northumbria could do it bigger and better.

The Codex Amiatinus weighs more than 34kg (75lbs) and each page is made from vellum which would have came from hundreds of calf hides.

You might remember in July when I went to walk Hadrians Wall that I visited the wonderful St Pauls Monastery in Jarrow, home of the oldest stained glass window in the world and home of amongst many other people, the famous Venerable Bede.  Bede is no doubt behind the Codex Amiatinus and I never dreamed that I would ever see not just one but several of his great and ancient works.


The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Well, I’ve gone 6 years with this blog and only mentioned the Venerable Bede sparingly and here I am mentioning him twice in the same post.  I’m sure that someone, somewhere has a whole blog on Bede.  This book is another incredibly valuable treasure and was completed in 731 AD. The work tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity.

Bede’s account is the chief source of information about English history from the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597 until 731. But Bede begins his history much earlier, with Julius Caesar’s invasion of England in 55 BCE. Bede used several other sources in compiling his own account, each of which he acknowledged.

After briefly summarising Christianity in Roman Britain, Bede describes St Augustine’s mission, which brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. The work describes the subsequent attempts to convert the different kingdoms of Britain, including Mercia, Sussex and Northumbria.

Bede (b. c. 672, d. 735) was born in Northumbria, and at the age of seven entered the monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow near Newcastle, where he spent all of his adult life. He was also famous for the works he wrote on the interpretation of Scripture, on the natural world and on how to calculate the date of Easter.




The first page of Beowulf

Before I end up writing a guide to the entire collection, I will finish with the epic of Beowulf.  It is said by many to be the oldest story in the English language.  It is certainly the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest. More than 3,000 lines long, Beowulf relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.

Beowulf survives in a single medieval manuscript. The manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing the scribes’ handwriting. Some scholars have suggested that the manuscript was made at the end of the 10th century, others in the early decades of the 11th, perhaps as late as the reign of King Cnut, who ruled England from 1016 until 1035.

Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed but it seems this copy is at least 1,000 years old.

One of the wonderful things about this exhibition was being able to see the incredible books on which our civilisation is based upon and spend time reading, if not usually comprehending the texts upon the pages.  Certainly even if you can’t read Latin (which I can’t) or aren’t very good at working out Old English (which I am if I can read the writing), then you can still appreciate the beauty and magnificence of the books and the other treasures.

I will definitely have to revisit the exhibition again before it closes in February for it was too much to take in and appreciate.  I’m ever so glad and surprised to have the opportunity to have seen these great objects once but I don’t think to see them twice in a  life-time would be overkill.

I hope you enjoyed this rather special blog-post and might encourage people to see the Anglo-Saxons lived in anything but the Dark Ages.

Posted in Culture, Heritage, history, Life, Religion and Faith | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments