Coffee on a coffin, pig-swinging, and other extraordinary facts from London’s history
What inspired your love of history?
Well it’s got the word ‘story’ in it, and I love stories. It also gives you, as a writer, the opportunity to evoke lost worlds in a vivid and unforgettable way and to enter into alien worldviews. We share the DNA of our forbears, we grapple with the same issues here, on the very same very same planet, but under a completely different mindset, and in altered environments. And it’s these juxtapositions that, for me, give history an uncanny, hallucinogenic quality worthy of the finest sci-fi.
Why is London fascinating?
Its energy, its diversity, its swingeing contrast of old and new. The way you can find a perfectly preserved Georgian house next to a brooding council estate; a fragment of the Roman walls smack bang in the hullabaloo of the City. The way it’s peppered with portals into historical worlds, the way it makes time travellers of us all, however unwitting. That, and the fact I grew up in Amersham, at the end of the Metropolitan Line. People call it a satellite commuter town and I could feel the pull of London from a very young age…
London: A Travel Guide Through Time looks at six extraordinary periods in London’s history. What is your most surprising fact from each of those periods?
Medieval London (c. 1390, population: c. 40,000) Anchorites and anchoresses. These were people who, in an effort to become more spiritually pure, left their families, abandoned all worldly pleasures, and opted to spend the rest of their lives walled up in a tiny, airless cell — no bigger than 6ft by 8ft — with a log for a pillow. Unlike hermits, they could never leave, not even when they died (they were buried underneath). There were around a dozen ‘ankerholds’ in late medieval London, protruding from churches all over the city, and their occupants were revered by parishioners as fortune-tellers, sages, and, in a pre-banking age, safety deposit boxes.
Shakespearean London (c. 1603, population: c. 200,000) According to foreigners’ reports, virtually everyone in Shakespearean London was a chain-smoker. The ‘holy herb’ was hailed as a miracle cure for cancer, depression, and insomnia and little children at school were taught how to smoke a pipe at breakfast. Shakespeare and his fellow wits embraced tobacco as a catalyst for creativity that would heat up the cold, moist chambers of the brain and inspire brilliant ideas — they were the first generation of chain-smoking intellectuals. In 1614, there were 7,000 tobacco houses all over the city — more than ale-houses and taverns combined.
Plague-Struck London (1665, population: c. 380,000) Pig-swinging competitions. Every week, outside the Cat and Mutton ale-house in Hackney, Londoners like to seize a pig from London Fields, grease its tail, and take it in turns to swing it around their heads. Whoever swung it the furthest won a gold-rimmed steeple hat. This tradition persisted into the early 19th century. (The pub is still there today).
Early Georgian London (1716, population: 575,000) You could talk to strangers in coffeehouses. There were around 3,000 all over the city; each one was different (the Latin Coffeehouse, the Floating Coffeehouse, the Jamaica Coffeehouse etc.) and unlike in today’s Starbucks and Costas you could being a conversation with anyone you liked just by asking “What News Have You?” (or “Quid Novi” if you were in the Latin Coffeehouse). The coffee itself mind — or “bitter Mohammedan gruel”, as it was known — was vile beyond measure.
Late Victorian London (1884, population: 4m) Porn. We tend to think of the Victorians as a prudish species but behind the Strand, between the churches of St Clement Danes and St Mary-Le-Strand, you’d find what newspapers variously labelled ‘a foul sink of iniquity’, ‘a place where dirt and darkness make mortal compact’ and even ‘the vilest street in the civilized world’. This was Holywell Street, where you could buy every type of illegal porn imaginable (both written and photographic). In 1901, it was obliterated to make way for the soulless Aldwych development and the only sign of it today is a statue of a frowning Gladstone, all clenched fists, staring down what was once the street.
1950s London: Before I wrote the chapter, I bought into the whole idea of 1950s London as drab, dreary, bomb-churned place. But in Soho, things were beginning to pick up. If you went to Meard Street, you’d find Le Macabre Coffee House. Its motto: ‘your coffee on a coffin’. And for good reason: customers sat on shiny black coffins, ashing into candlelit skulls, and listening to funereal music on the jukebox. There’s no trace of it today, though near its old doorway you can find an antique street sign saying ‘This is Meard Street, 1732’.
Which is your favourite period?
That would have to be the early Georgian period. People always ask me — if I could travel back to any year in London’s history, where would I go? The answer’s easy: 1716. I’ve written about this before. You’d find a city on the cusp of the modern world with luxury retail, coffee houses and a booming newspaper industry but also one that harked back to its medieval past with religious zealotry, furious window-smashing mobs, and a justice system so savage that ten-year old boys could be happily hanged for stealing so much as a periwig or measure of cloth. The aesthetic juxtapositions would be no less striking, either — harmonious brick facades cheek by jowl with sprawling, timber-framed houses, brand new squares of spiffing townhouses like Hanover Square contrasted against disgraceful slums in the East End.
Your top must-see historic London hangouts?
I’m not quite sure what an historic hangout is — sounds great though. But in terms of historic sights:
- Simpson’s Tavern, Ball Court, Cornhill — where better to enjoy a hearty steak than in the cosy snug of an antique chop house? This is one the City’s finest. The waiters are charming too. The black pudding is especially good. Black Pudding has recently been recommended as a superfood!
- Dennis Severs’ House at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields, reeling you into the lost world of the Huguenot silk weavers who made a new life for themselves in London after religious bigotry drove them out of their native France.
- The Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, immersing you in 500 years of domestic interiors in a former alms-house.
- Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square. Just off Fleet Street, this immaculately preserved townhouse was home to the gouty lexicographer and his beloved muse, Hodge the cat. It is preserved today as a museum, and beguiling it is too.
- Wilton’s Music Hall: the oldest surviving music hall in Britain, tucked away in a dark alleyway in what was once a salty seadog suburb. I was honoured to give a talk here once.
Your Unreal City Audio tour explores the 17th century coffee house. Why did coffee, not tea, make Britain powerful?
Yes! If you like either coffee or London or history, you should come on our acclaimed Coffeehouse Tour. It’s the only event in the world serving free shots of 17th century style coffee! But onto the actual answer…
Well, for a start, coffee packs in much more caffeine. And up until the mid-17th century, most people were either slightly — or very — drunk all day long because you couldn’t drink the polluted river water. Most people drank weak ale or beer. So the arrival of caffeine triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time in their history. Secondly, although tea arrived at the same time as coffee, it was much more expensive until the era of Dr Johnson a century on, drunk mainly by aristocratic women at home.
The 17th century and early 18th century coffeehouse, however, maximised the interaction between customers forging a creative and convivial environment. It facilitated the exchange of information and ideas, powering the rise of the stock markets, insurance and auctioneering (at Jonathan’s, Lloyd’s and Garraway’s respectively) giving Britain the wherewithal to flex her colonial muscle and emerge as an entrepôt of global trade. And it was to be drunk of course “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”.
London: A Travel Guide Through Time was Londonist’s Book of the Month, and has been acclaimed by bestselling author Liza Picard as ‘a must for anyone interested in London’s history’ and by William Hague as ‘an excellent and vivid work of history’.