Following on from my discovery and subsequent blog post on John “Mad Jack” Mytton – The craziest man in history! I was overjoyed to stumble across another hilarious character of history whilst out on a Charles Dickens Walking Tour on friday.
Everything was going well and then we reached one of the points of the tour, the fabulously old Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street, London. Famously the pub has a sign on the outside proclaiming it was rebuilt in 1667 just after The Great Fire of London along with a plaque illustrating all of the monarchs who have been and gone during the length which the current pub has been operating…. not to mention that much of the pub is much older still.
My lovely American guests from New York were peckish and so with the pub bursting with character, we went inside for a quick lunch. The pub is ram packed with history and has around 7 individual mini bars scattered around several levels with at least two of them under ground in what is thought to the be the cellars of an ancient monastery.
Charles Dickens featured the pub in his writings and was known to visit the place, just one of many characterful pubs in Fleet Street. In fact the chair of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the man who first wrote The Dictionary remains in the pub to this day as he too often frequented the establishment and it is said that Queen Elizabeth I danced for joy around the tree in the courtyard of the pub.
Despite all of this, perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most unique character in the long history of the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub is that of Polly the Parrot who a century ago was famous around the world.
Polly was an African Grey and this species of parrot is bird is renowned for their great skill at mimicking noises. And Polly was a truly exceptional and celebrated talent why by her death at the age of 40 was a genuine celebrity.
Fleet Street is famous for it being the home of the British tabloid press and no doubt there was much in the way of street language uttered within its bowels. No doubt Charles Dickens knew what he was talking about when he wrote about Charles Darnay coming here in A Tale of Two Cities.
The Angus Evening Telegraph in Scotland informed readers that Polly was known for ‘his knowledge of Scottish words which he ejaculated continually and his imitation of the popping of corks’. According to the Hull Daily Mail, Polly said ‘Rats!’ to customers and ‘gave fictitious orders galore’ which no doubt must have upset and amused bar staff and customers in equal measure.
In August 1905 Polly disappeared after his cage was left open and the resulting hunt for the bird was big news. According to the Dundee Courier, “Mr Moore the Cheese landlord was in tears, organising a search party of fleet footed waiters who were to be seen spying among the chimney pots and telegraph wires of Wine Office Court, Kings Head Passage and adjoining streets”. Policemen were offered gold to find Polly dead or alive and return him to the Cheese. Later in the evening just it seemed that Polly at met an untimely demise , a man walking along Farringdon Avenue was asked ‘give me a kiss darling’ to which he replied ‘certainly not’, with the phantom voice then demanding ‘pudding and two veg!’ and ‘Hurry up!’ The man looked closer to see that it was of course Polly, who was caught and and to the relief of everyone, was swiftly returned to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
It is said that Polly became particularly obscene during WW1, with the usual bad language taken to new heights after it heard the graphic and blue language of soldiers on leave from the trenches. Apparently on Aristice Day in 1918 and the pubs around the country were filled with celebrations, Polly imitated so many corks popping from bottles that he fainted! Happily he quickly recovered and once the troops had returned to their day jobs, his language moderated to the merely obscene.
Perhaps Polly’s biggest moment came in 1919 when the daughter of King George V, Princess Mary officially opened the City Women’s Club in the adjacent Wine Office Court. The narrow alley and yard were crammed with people wanting to get a good view including the head waiter of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese who found himself with Polly perched on his wrist. According to an attending journalist from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Princess Mary ‘insisted on being introduced to Polly. It had to be done, but it aged the manager’. The Princess stroked Polly’s head and as the Hull Daily Mail wrote, ‘To her abiding credit Polly did not indulge in that profane kind of chatter for which she is famous’.
Many others came to meet Polly including Charlie Chaplin who whilst enjoying the pubs famous toasted cheese, enjoyed a hearty conversation with Polly who chatted away and even sang him a song.
Sadly at the age of 40, Polly died in 1926 and with her fame being what it was and her pub being in Fleet Street, the event made headlines around the world.
‘Expert of Profanity Dies’ (New York Times)
‘Famous Parrot of Cheshire Cheese is Pneumonia Victim’(North China Star)
‘Passing of Polly’ (Calcutta, India)
‘A Loss to Fleet Street’ (Christchurch, NZ)
‘Parrot that cried “Scotch!” at Ancient Fleet Street Tavern to be Stuffed’ (The Sun, Baltimore)
Polly was indeed stuffed and is still to be found in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and is commemorated by this splendid epitaph penned by G. Rostrevor Hamilton:
‘The pop of corks, the gurgle of wine. Kissing and human speech were mine
Accomplishments that could not save me from the dry and silent grave.
Enough! No maudlin tear be shed: Not all of Polly shall be dead
Though silent, here upon the shelf
I stand – in memory of myself’
It sounds like Polly was such a character and the life and soul of any party with lots of friends and admirers. I find it these minor and less known parts of history to be the most interesting rather than the big themes and subjects.