The millions of tourists who come to London each year have no doubt where ‘Theatreland’ lies. ‘The West End’ is synonymous with the London stage, with dozens of playhouses clustered around Shaftesbury Avenue, Drury Lane and the Strand.

Yet as we’ve argued in these pages before, the East End of London has every claim to be the cradle of London theatre. The eponymous ‘Theatre’ and the ‘Curtain’, early homes to Shakespeare, and the first English theatres proper, were in Shoreditch. And, in the 19th century, with the rise of the Yiddish theatres and the early music halls, the East End was the lively hub of London dramatic life… if not always of the most respectable kind. You could get away with stuff on the East End stage that the West End would tut at: but that didn’t stop the toffs coming down to watch.

It was this position, just east of respectability, that allowed one of the greatest-ever talents in English theatre to flourish. David Garrick would go on to reinvent English acting and become famed around the English speaking world, but it was at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate that he made his starring debut on October 9, 1741.

The Garric family had arrived in Spitalfields in 1685. Note the pre-Anglicised spelling. Garrick’s grandfather (also David) had fled the chaos following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Garrics, as Protestant Huguenots, faced persecution and possible death. Along with thousands of others they decamped to London, and changed their surname. By the time of David junior’s birth, in 1717, they were living in Hereford, and then Lichfield, where he went to the grammar school.

Now comes the first lucky chance in the young David’s life. After leaving Lichfield Grammar, he enrolled in Edial Hall School, run by an impoverished local scholar named Samuel Johnson. Johnson, the brilliant son of a Lichfield bookseller, had already been forced to come down from Oxford, unable to pay his fees, and was scratching a living stitching books for his father. In desperation he decided to set up his own school, to teach young men Latin and Greek.

Johnson was brilliant but no businessman. His school closed after a year, having attracted precisely three pupils (including David and his younger brother George). But Johnson, in his mid-twenties, had become firm friends with Garrick, a few years younger, and the pair elected to move to London to seek (if not their fortune) then a more interesting existence than the backwoods of Staffordshire. They would be friends for life.

In 1737, Garrick and another brother Peter set up a wine import business in the Strand, though with David pouring his energies into amateur dramatics (he had made his debut as an 11-year-old Sgt Kite in a school production of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer), and watching plays at the nearby Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. His attempts to join the company were rebuffed, though: he would have to enter theatre by the back door. Henry Giffard, a customer of his wine business, was running his own theatre in the East End.

And so in 1741, visitors to the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in Aldgate would have seen the young Garrick in a succession of bit parts, quickly progressing to understudying the lead role in Richard III.

It was a pivotal time in London theatre. Most playhouses in London had been shut down, under the draconian licensing acts brought forward by Prime Minister Robert Walpole (largely aimed at quashing satire and criticism of the Government). Those few that remained open were severely limited in the plays they might stage (the beginning of the Lord Chancellor’s censorship of the theatre which would last until the 1960s). The effective banning of new plays was perhaps indirectly responsible for a renewed interest in Shakespeare’s plays, from a century and a half before.

But if the landscape of drama was altering, then the night the man playing Richard did the 1741 equivalent of phoning in sick changed theatre forever. Garrick eagerly stepped up, but his performance of the villainous Richard was nothing like the Shakespeare the London audiences were used to. Rather than sonorously and loudly declaiming the lines, in exaggerated actorly style, Garrick gave a naturalistic performance of light shade, using mannerisms, gestures, body movements … and adjusting the volume to suit the text.

He was a sensation (though not to everyone’s taste), and Goodman’s Fields was soon having to put on extra shows as audiences flocked from around London and further afield to see this reinvention of acting. But that created a problem for the theatre. Giffard had flown under the radar by billing his shows ‘musical entertainments’ and playing down the dramatic side. This though was impossible for the authorities to miss, especially as Horace Walpole, son of the prime minister was in the audience on occasions, writing ‘There was a dozen dukes a night at Goodman’s Fields.’

Garrick had also caught the eye of Charles Fleetwood, manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, who delivered a cruel double blow to the East End theatre: stealing their leading man and forcing the closure Goodman’s Fields. Within three years, Garrick, now a huge star, would take over the licence of Drury Lane from Fleetwood and run it himself.

He was the London stage’s biggest star, a manager, a businessman, and an able restorer of Shakespeare’s plays — removing some of the worst bowdlerisation that had taken place over the previous century and a half and reviving some of the rarely performed plays. He also played a major role in transforming Shakespeare from popular writer into our ‘national’ playwright and poet — a position he’s held ever since. And for 30 years, he expertly balanced high art with popular taste, keeping the punters flowing through the doors of the Theatre Royal. West End theatre as we know it was born — but its gestation was in the East End of London.


Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch

Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch

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William West — unwitting Jack the Ripper suspect

It was the end of a long day for William West as he left the offices of the Worker’s Friend newspaper in Whitechapel, with the street lamps barely penetrating the unlit Dutfield’s Yard.

Woolf Wess

Woolf Wess

A normal day for the young immigrant. But In those early hours of 30 September 1888 he would unwittingly find himself caught up in the Whitechapel Murders. We’ll never know for sure whether he stumbled across the body of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of the serial killer who would become notorious as ‘Jack the Ripper’, or simply passed on oblivious, but West would be called as the first witness in the inquest of the unfortunate ‘Long Liz’. For West, a passionate socialist who would run like a thread through the Jewish workers’ movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, this had a double terror. The 27-year-old had arrived in Whitechapel in the late 1870s, fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms in Lithuania, and bearing his birth name, Woolf Wess. Stumbling upon the victim of a murder would be horrific enough, but Woolf would have been well aware that many in the press and public alike were already trying to associate the Whitechapel Murders with the large Jewish community in Whitechapel, with increasingly hysterical theories of religious ritual killings. West was ‘the most modest of men’ according to that leading light of East End socialism Rudolf Rocker, but like so many of his fellows, he had undergone an extraordinary journey to end up in Whitechapel. He was born in Vilkmerge in Russia (now Ulkomar in Lithuania) in 1861, the son of a master baker, and was apprenticed at 12 to a shoemaker. At 20, he was working as a factory machinist in the Russian town of Dvinsk (now Daugavpils in Latvia) but desperately looking for a way to escape. A choice of horrors awaited: death in one of the pogroms sweeping Eastern Europe or military services in the Tsar’s army. So, in 1881 he was smuggled onto a boat to London.


Arbeter Fraynd newspaper

A skilled shoemaker, machinist and baker, he easily found work in Whitechapel, but was appalled by the conditions of work and the exploitation of his fellow immigrants. He was also a hard worker and a fast learner, quickly gaining fluent English, alongside Russian, German and Yiddish. He put his energies into organising and directing the men and women he worked among. In 1885, he co-founded the International Workingmen’s Educational Club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), just south of the Commercial Road, and helped start the Arbeter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend), translating news and radical views into the Yiddish that was the everyday language of Jewish Whitechapel. Questioning at the inquest focused heavily on West’s movements, and the comings and goings at the newspaper and club, but he gave no mention of seeing Stride let alone stumbling across the body. The coroner wanted to know how many members the club had (70 or 80, working men of any nationality could join). He asked about its politics (it was political, a socialist club). How did members get involved? (they were seconded by other members). Did ‘low women’ frequent the area? (he had seen them on occasion). And William Wess (as he was called at the inquest) was questioned in minute detail about the topography of the club, the yard and their surroundings and about his own journey home (the few minutes walk to his lodgings on Cannon Street Road). West had nothing to fear in the end, and neither — soberingly — did the murderer. The killer was never brought to justice and it’s highly improbable we’ll ever know his true identity. The young socialist, duty done, would go on to be a lynchpin of East End radicalism. In 1889 he served as secretary of the strike committee during the East End tailors strike, alongside Charles Mowbray and John Turner. And in 1891, the increasingly popular orator set out on a speaking tour of England, alongside stalwarts of London socialism Kropotkin, Malatesta and Yanovsky. He became a skilled typesetter, working on the new Freedom newspaper, and drew on another of his talents, learned at his master baker father’s side, to set up a co-operative bakery in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields.

Old Dvinsk

Old Dvinsk

During the 1890s, Wess founded and became secretary of the East London Workers Unions; then served as secretary of the International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers’ Trade Union, and the United Ladies and Mantle Makers’ Association. Then, in the early 1900s, he seems to have stepped back from union work, taking a job as a book-keeper in a tobacco factory and sharing a house in Leyton with his friend Tom Keell (the manager of Freedom) and his wife Lillian. It all fell apart when William and Lillian ran off together and by 1906 they were back in Whitechapel, setting up the Arbeiter Fraint club in Jubilee Street. Lillian even tried to set up an Anarchist Society school in the area, but with little success. And in June 1906, William served on the tailors’ strike committee alongside Rudolf Rocker. To the end of his life, West remained enmeshed in the politics of the Left, joining the Labour party in the 1930s, while running the London Freedom Group. He died in May 1946 at 84. But one strange postscript remains. Years later, a ‘friend of a friend of West’ later reported that on that long ago night in 1888, the spooked printer had discovered Stride’s body, but moved it further away from the offices of the newspaper and the club, lest members be implicated in the killing. Truth — or yet another fantasy in the ever-murkier world of ‘Ripperology’? We’ll never know.

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Peter Shore — Labour’s forgotten prophet

Governments and faces change, the decades roll by, but one thing is ever present in British politics … the ‘will we, won’t we’ stay in Europe. Forty something years ago it was President De Gaulle saying ‘non’ after years of British vacillation about joining. Today it’s party leaders saying ‘perhaps’ on a referendum, some day, maybe. Yet for three decades, an East End MP was warning of the perils of Europe.


Peter Shore

Peter Shore

Today his name is all but forgotten. Healey, Wilson, Jenkins, Foot and Benn — all still familiar names to anyone with a passing interest in the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies, before Margaret Thatcher banished the Red side of the house to a generation of oblivion. But Shore?

Yet Peter Shore was a mainstay of Labour cabinets and shadow cabinets over three decades and was in the running to become Labour leader after Jim Callaghan resigned. He was also, as many readers will recall, MP for the Stepney constituency (in its various guises) for 33 years, surviving general elections, boundary changes and — latterly — a brutal campaign to have him deselected. Yet he was never meant to be an MP at all.

Shore was born in Yarmouth in 1924, the son of a merchant navy captain, then educated at Quarry Bank grammar school in Liverpool. It was a solid middle class start — he would win a place at Cambridge — but the poverty he saw in pre-War Liverpool made a deep impact. After his war service in the RAF, he joined the Labour party, quickly establishing himself as one of the brightest minds, first heading up the party’s research department, then becoming responsible for party policy, from 1959.

Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson

Shore was to the left of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, and his open wearing of CND badges around Labour HQ didn’t endear him to his boss. But when Gaitskell died, tragically, unexpectedly, in 1963, Harold Wilson became party leader and increasingly relied on Shore for ideas. And when Stepney MP Walter ‘Stoker’ Edwards (a Whitechapel docker and the first serving naval rating to be elected to parliament) announced his retirement, Shore was swiftly parachuted in to the safe Labour seat. Edwards, poignantly, would die on the day of the 1964 general election.

The intellectual Shore was a very different type of politician, but fiercely protective of British jobs. He supported nationalisation, prices and incomes policies, import controls and national planning. As trade secretary ten years later he would even oppose Freddie Laker’s Skytrain, arguing that it would undermine British Airways. “It is easy enough to put on a private bus service from Marble Arch to Westminster and make it pay, but one knows very well that this will be done only at the expense of London Transport,” he declared. He would later call the Thatcher government’s programme of privatisation “public asset stripping”.

Today, it seems impossibly controlling, but Shore believed there were huge dangers in liberating banks and multinational businesses from tight control. One Conservative journalist said that “Peter Shore was the only possible Labour party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear”.

Denis Healey

Denis Healey


But it was for his opposition to the Common Market he is best remembered. The battle over ‘Europe’ creates some strange alliances, and historical positions shift. It was Tory prime minister Edward Heath who had taken Britain into Europe in 1972, while the Labour Party (at least below Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet level) were largely opposed. And so it was that in 1975, Stepney MP Peter Shore found himself on the ‘No’ side, campaigning to leave the Common Market alongside Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, but with the tacit backing of much of the Labour membership. Also campaigning were ‘rivers of blood’ Tory veteran Enoch Powell (by now out of the Conservative Party and become an Ulster Unionist MP), the Communist Party and the National Front.

On the ‘Yes’ side meanwhile, were the Labour big guns of Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, plus most of the parliamentary Conservative Party … including its newly elected leader Margaret Thatcher.

He challenged, unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership — in the end it went to Michael Foot. But increasingly battles were fought closer to home, with the Stepney party fighting to deselect their MP — support for the Falklands War and opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament were just two positions that enraged local activists. And having doggedly held his seat during Labour’s 18 wilderness years, Shore called it a day just as the party approached power once more. With the 1997 election nearing, the veteran MP — now in his seventies and wearied by repeated attempts to oust him from his seat — gave it up. The redrawn constituency was won by Labour’s Oona King.

There’s a strange postscript to Baron Shore of Stepney’s dogged fight against Europe (the concept rather than the place, that is). This year, Shore’s widow Liz, now 85, defected from the Labour party to stand for UKIP in Cornwall, alongside her daughter and son-in-law. The Shores are still battling Europe then … though not in a way the ‘lost prophet’ of the Labour party might have hoped.

The obituaries for Shore in 2001 were less than generous. He was described as “sticking intelligently to the wrong guns for as long as anyone can remember”; when he was made head of the short-lived Economic Affairs Department, that post was described by Tory Iain Macleod as “a mink-lined kennel for Wilson’s favourite poodle”; Denis Healey described him as “Harold’s lapdog”; even Wilson himself said he had over-promoted Shore and that he was “not up to it”. And one writer reminds us that, having jousted for the Labour leadership in the mid-seventies he was, just a few years later, voted “12th most effective backbencher”.

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell

Perhaps the truth was that Shore was just too honest and never very good (or remotely interested) in playing the power game. One of the guns he stuck to was an immovable support for the Solidarnosc union (not universally popular in the Labour party). The passage of time, however, has a way of rewriting history. If Peter Shore wasn’t always right, the Stepney MP wasn’t entirely wrong either.


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Give my regards to Broad Street

Broad St/east london history/9sep13

‘Give my regards to Broad Street,’ instructed Paul McCartney in his eponymous 1984 movie. But where on earth is Broad Street?

Paul and Ringo in Give My Regards To Broad Street

Paul and Ringo in Give My Regards To Broad Street

In the closing minutes of the film, the erstwhile Beatle is filmed wandering along the dilapidated and crumbling platforms and through the rotting ticket halls of a station of the same name, pausing only to give a cheery smile to a down-and-out swigging from a bottle and bunking down in the station for the night — sure in the knowledge that he is unlikely to be disturbed in his drunken slumber by any passengers.

Most people who saw the film probably assumed Broad Street was a fiction. Everyone that is bar the handful of Londoners who were still using what had once been one of the East End’s first great railway terminal … but was now a decaying, and almost forgotten white elephant.

give my regards to broad street cover

give my regards to broad street cover

Once it had linked the East End docks with the industrial heartland of the West Midlands, and brought many thousands of commuters from East London into the City each day. By 1984 only a handful of Londoners were still using Broad Street. It had become the lost London terminus. Today, few East Enders below the age of 50 will even be aware that beneath the footprint of the giant Broadgate development lies Liverpool Street’s lost twin.


The terminus came about with the extension of the North London Railway, which despite the name was the East End’s own big player in the railway boom of the mid 19th century, having its headquarters and engine sheds at Bow (and latterly at Devons Road). In 1865, the ambitious company cleared a huge patch of City land west of Bishopsgate and built seven platforms, adding an eight in 1891 and a ninth in 1913. What had initially been conceived as a goods service, taking imports from the docks at Wapping and Limehouse to the factories of Birmingham had been expanded to take passengers. The terminus had two booking offices, one for the North London Railway, a second for the London and North Western.

For a period, the Great Northern Railway used Broad Street too, supplementing its Kings Cross terminal a few miles west. A century and a half before cross-London services came back to the capital (with Crossrail being the most recent), Broad Street had overcome the nonsense whereby passengers would take a train into London, but then have to cross the city by other means before embarking once more at a terminus on the other side.

Broad Street Station 1898

Broad Street Station 1898

The reason was that there were no other means. No tubes and no trams, and horribly congested London streets that nobody would want to traverse with luggage. For a while, Broad Street was the undisputed giant of East London termini. Its ailing neighbour Bishopsgate would soon be converted into a goods terminal (it would close in 1964 after a fire and finally be demolished in 2003 to make way for the new Shoreditch station). And the Liverpool Street station that replaced it (built on the site of the old Bedlam asylum), wouldn’t be built until 1874.


From that year, the two termini squatted side by side. Broad Street was enormously successful. What had started as a spin-off from the freight business was, by 1902, a passenger station handling 27 million individual journeys each year. A train arrived at, or departed from, the station every minute.


But as quickly as it had caught on, the station went into decline. the North London Line lost most of its passengers to the expansion of the bus, tram and Tube network and the station became increasingly poorly used. And on September 8, 1915 the station was a victim of the most devastating air raid yet on the City, as ace German pilot Heinrich Matty targeted the financial district of London. A bomb hit a bus outside the station, killing the conductor and a number of passengers, and more explosives hit Norton Folgate, just to the north of the terminus, taking out several of the tracks.

The Blitz of World War II was worse, with a number of stations leading in to the terminal bombed into closure. The loss of Shoreditch, Victoria Park and the entire branch line out to Poplar effectively cut off the life blood of Broad Street. In 1950 the main part of the station was closed, as were all but two lines. East Enders, loyal to their terminus, were still dribbling in each day, but in ever declining numbers.

Those who remember the London of the 60s and 70s will remember a town still pocked with bombsites a quarter of a century after the War. It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that the rebuilding of London began in earnest. John Betjeman, poet laureate and lover of London railways and suburbia, visited the station in 1973, regarded the half-removed roof, and mourned the giant’s decline.

“Standing on the empty concourse at Broad Street today, one has a feeling of its former greatness. Incongruous and ridiculous, in red brick with pavement-light windows is a streamlined booking office for the few passengers who use this potentially popular line. May God save the Old North London!”

But God wasn’t interested, and neither were the old British Railways. By the time McCartney chose the station for the denouement of his 1984 movie, no doubt more attracted by the possibility of a punning title rather than from any great knowledge of London railways, just 300 people were using Broad Street each day. Of course that did make filming (at night in this case) all the easier.

Broad Street 1981

Broad Street 1981

The unkind might have suggested that was approximately the number that saw the movie at the cinema, though the picture did yield the ageing moptop one great song, ‘No More Lonely Nights’, performed as he wanders nostalgically around the near-derelict station (you can check it out on youtube). In 1986 Broad Street, which had narrowly arrived the Beeching axe in the early 60s, was finally closed. A different, more aggressive and more commercial era had been born. As the wrecking balls departed, the builders moved in, to create the new Broadgate complex, of offices, shops, restaurants and squares, where City workers would sip coffee while wielding a curious new invention: the mobile phone — Broadgate was the acme of 80s London. Broad Street meanwhile had vanished without a trace.

Video from driver’s cab of train travelling into Broad Street in the 1970s:

Full movie of Give My Regards To Broad Street: (footage of McCartney walking around the station cuts in at 1hr 35mins

Railway map of London 1899


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Cigar makers of the East End of London

The trading vessels that set off for the New World, for Asia, and for the West and East Indies from the 16th century onward, brought back a number of goods, without which it’s impossible to imagine the London of today. No morning tea or coffee? No sugar with which to sweeten it? And where would Londoners be without the potato… a London without chip shops is a baleful prospect. But none of the new crops that came into Wapping seemed to catch on quite so quickly as tobacco. victorian caricatureThe first bales are said to have been landed from Virginia in 1586, and the first pipe of the stuff is supposed to have been smoked at the Pied Bull pub in Islington (though presumably somebody must have stopped for a smoke en route from Wapping to north London). Less than 30 years later there were some 7000 tobacconists in London, and despite the attempts of the tobacco-hating James I to tax the stuff out of existence (he described it as “a custome loathesome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine” in his famed 1604 essay A Counterblaste To Tobacco), Londoners couldn’t get enough. Literally. James had his ministers limit the Virginia planters to exports of no more than 100lb of the stuff a year. Just like modern governments, the monarch expressed a loathing of the drug while happily pocketing the excise duty. By the middle of the 1600s the health benefits of the weed were being proclaimed (a brilliant fiction that persisted into the middle of the 20th century), with Spitalfields apothecaries selling tobacco and prescribing it as a protection during the Great Plague that carried off around 100,000 of the estimated 460,000 Londoners in 1665. And despite the miserable failure of tobacco as a medicine, Londoners kept smoking, munching and sniffing the stuff (with chewing tobacco and snuff just as popular as pipe tobacco). Wapping, Whitechapel and Spitalfields tobacconists in the 1700s were identified by the large wooden figure of a black Indian (native American) with a crown and kilt of tobacco leaves. So lucrative was the trade that top artists were employed to produce cards and shop bills, with the young Hogarth turning his brush to tobacco adverts. As the centuries wore on the fashions changed. By the 19th century cigars and, increasingly cigarettes, were gaining popularity in London. The size of the trade is evidenced by the construction of Tobacco Dock at Wapping. And the great quantity of unrefined tobacco now being brought in to the Pool of London from Virginia and elsewhere was matched by the vigorous attempts of gangs such as the River Pirates and Heavy Horsemen  (not to mention many working on the docks) to liberate the stuff. So a bonded warehouse, with tight security needed to be built. The warehouses were part of the massive London Docks, begun on the marshes of Wapping in 1801 by John Rennie and opened four years later. And alongside grew up the East End cigar and cigarette industry. The East End has a plethora of trades that have come and gone. Lace-making, brewing, tanning and a host of other stink industries are now (largely) history, but the tobacco industry is almost forgotten. Maurice Zeegen, writing in 2003 of his own family firm, charted a fascinating and largely forgotten group of East End incomers, who made the business their own. “After the Huguenots [who settled in numbers after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1598] and before the East European Jews [who arrived en masse from the late 19th century] the Spitalfields area was settled by significant numbers of poor Jews from, predominantly, Amsterdam. They were known as ‘Chuts’, thought to be a take on the sound of the immigrants’ word for ‘good’ in Dutch.” tobacco dock And while the Huguenots were renowned for their lace-making skills, and the 19th century arrivals would be (to a large degree) employed in the garment trades, the profession pursued by many of these people was cigar-making. Many small workshops and factories were established in Bethnal Green, Whitechapel and Spitalfields, among them was the cigar factory of Zeegen Brothers, situated in Chicksand Street, off Brick Lane. Maurice, great-grandson of one of the founders of the factory, writes of his family business surviving into the 1920s before being absorbed into the Godfrey Phillips cigarette company [itself also founded by a Dutch family], based in Jerome Street, Whitechapel. The 1911 History of the County of Middlesex (the area east of the City wall, in those days, belonging to the now defunct county) suggested that the tobacco industry was still a huge employer in what is now the East End. “The manufacture of tobacco is carried on very largely in East London and Hackney, which contain 76 factories for the production of tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, and snuff. In all London there are about 180 factories in this trade, and in the whole of England, the metropolis included, there are about four hundred and thirty, so that in the number of its tobacco factories East London occupies a conspicuous position.” The number of factories (some major operations such as the Carreras works in Camden, which would eventually relocate to Basildon in Essex, others small workshops with a handful of employees) was remarkable enough. But there were numerous small workshops too, employing pieceworkers to treat the tobacco, roll cigars and produce pipe and plug tobacco. The tobacco industry in the East End was thus very like its natural counterpart, the matchmaking industry, where for every giant Fairfield works (Bryant and May’s factory in Bow’s Fairfield Road, which is now the Bow Quarter, but was once the largest ‘manufactory’ in Europe) there were thousands making phosphorous matches in tiny workshops (even in their own homes), and suffering the horror of ‘phossy jaw’ as a result. The raw tobacco would be ‘liquored’ and ‘stripped’, then the leaf handed over to ‘stovers,’ who first placed it on a steam-pan to separate the fibres, and then on a fire-pan to make it fit for keeping and to improve its smoking quality. The final process was that of ‘cooling,’ where a current of cold air is passed through it to drive off the moisture. The cigars the East Enders made were known, reasonably enough, as ‘British cigars’ in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the quality — if variable — was often surprisingly good. Cuban cigars were the acme of smoking excellence of course, but were expensive. Reports of the time compare the best of the East End cigars as ‘infinitely superior’ to the fake Havanas flooding into the London Docks from Belgium and, by the early 1900s, Mexico. The huge cottage industry began to falter under the attack of cheap imports from the Americas and, in the early 20th century, from the new fashion for Egyptian cigarettes, as cigar smoking declined. Ironically it was the massive popularity of smoking in the 20th century that saw off the small East End firms. Adoption of the drug was driven by the big corporations who could afford to advertise their products and drive cigarettes from a minority pursuit to a habit pursued by most adults. Now it was all about the brand, and the East End cigarette factories died off one by one.     Cigar makers of the East End/east end life/9sep13   pics: the Jerome St factory; Tobacco dock; victorian caricature;

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From gas to electricity in the East End of London

Last week we looked at the ‘gas wars’ that intermittently flared across London as Victorian businessmen sought, Klondike-style, to stake their claim in a business that would pay off for generations to come. But even as the gaslights flickered on in the new terraces of Bow, Bethnal Green and Stepney, a new form of power was waiting to take its place. Just as the canals would swiftly be supplanted by the railways, so electricity would replace gas as the lighting of choice in the home. old-gasworks-at-dusk-haggerston-1675376

But in the early 1800s, another idea began to grasp the imagination of London entrepreneurs. This was a town built around a river — maybe the river could provide the energy it needed? The new docks and railways required huge amounts of power and during the 1800s the London Hydraulic Power Company (LHPC) began to supply it, with steam-driven power station forcing water at high-pressure all around the capital. It sounds like something from a modern steampunk novel, but by the mid-1800s, much of the dock and railway infrastructure of the East End was running on water power, with the liquid drawn straight from the Thames.

Many of the hydraulic power companies in other parts of Britain were also the providers of the new clean drinking water that cities were demanding — especially as the links between dirty water and cholera became clear. But the LHPC was purely a generating business, and by the late 1800s it had built a huge network of customers, fed by its nearly 200 miles of pipes.

The biggest users of these hydraulic power networks even had their own accumulator towers, where the power supplied to them (in the form of vast quantities of water) could be stored until needed. These tall brick structures replaced the earlier towers, some of which had been 90 metres high, and used a more efficient system of weights. When power was required, a controlled release of weights would push down on the water, generated the energy required to power cranes or train.

Once they were everywhere in the East End. Today, many of the buildings have been demolished and some are simply being allowed to rot. Head east of Tower Bridge, to the junction of Mansell Street and Royal Mint Street, and you’ll see a brick rectangle with faded lettering. Look harder and you may be able to discern ‘London Midland & Scottish Railway City Goods Station and Bonded Stores’. This was once the route of the London & Blackwall Railway, which ran from Minories to Blackwall and the London Docks, and the Minories accumulator tower lay on its route. Minories was a shortlived railway station, opening in 1814 and closing 14 years later when Fenchurch Street was built.

The London & Blackwall Railway is long gone too, eventually being subsumed into the larger LM&S (hence the lettering) and then into British Rail. But the route and the Victorian viaducts of the L&BR, long redundant, were pressed back into use by the new DLR from the late 1980s. Follow the old London & Blackwall Railway and you end up at Blackwall station (now on the DLR) and a rather better preserved example. Before the development of ‘Docklands’ in the 1980s, the area around Blackwall Way was dominated by the Poplar Dock Company, which boasted a complex network of railway goods sheds and a hydraulic power network. The only thing that remains of the development today is the accumulator tower and pump house, saved by commerce (the Victorians would probably approve). It’s now a Majestic Wine warehouse, so you can combine a little architectural history with restocking the drinks cabinet.

But perhaps the most impressive example of the great age of London hydraulic power is the sole LHPC power station to survive with all its machinery intact. You can pay a visit to this one too — and enjoy your lunch at the same time. The Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, on Wapping Wall, was opened by the LHPC in 1890, powered by steam when it opened and converting to electrical turbines in latter years. And from Wapping (and the LHPC’s other hydraulic stations at Pimlico, Rotherhithe, Blackfriars and the Regents Canal) ran an extraordinary 200 miles of pipework around the capital.

The company even bought the Tower Subway, which was first the conduit of a shortlived underground railway and then a foot tunnel beneath the Thames, before that too was forced out of business by the opening of the toll-free Tower Bridge in 1894. The tunnel was now used to run LHPC pipes. At its peak, the Wapping station was forcing water around London at 800 pounds per square inch, not just powering trains and cranes, but raising theatre curtains and even powering the dumb waiters at the Savoy. Remarkably, the system lasted until 1977, when the Wapping station was the last of the five to close.

That was the end of hydraulic power in London, though today it seems a remarkably green alternative to burning coal and gas — one thing London has plenty of, is water.

Map of sites mentioned:

London’s Lost Power Stations and Gasworks by Ben Pedroche, published by the History Press,, £14.99



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Dash for water in 19th century East End of London

Over the last two weeks we looked at the dash to power the growing East End of the 19th century. But even more than heat and light, the one thing the new homes, factories, warehouses and docks needed was a regular supply of water — ideally clean, but failing that simply wet would do. Things began in civilised fashion, but a battle developed worthy of Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown. The water, and the war, got very murky indeed.

Abbey Mills Pumping station

Abbey Mills pumping station

In early modern London people were drawing their water from street pumps, as they had for centuries, and it created huge problems. You had to go to the pump and frequently the pump was broken. Joining a queue of several hundred others was time-consuming (and didn’t work at all if you needed water for your tannery or brewery. So the early companies developed a system of drawing water from the Thames by waterwheel, perhaps driven by real horse power, and then dribbled down via gravity and wooden pipes. Getting a sufficient angle of drop to supply every house that wanted water was impossible — and the system of wooden pipes, crudely lashed together, meant a huge amount of the water was wasted. The answer would be iron pipes (early experiments with stone proving unwieldy, expensive and leaky) and steam power to create a greater head of water.

The water companies, while boasting that their products would be ‘clear, sparkling and brilliant’, took a remarkably relaxed attitude when it wasn’t — presumably realistic about what could be achieved with water drawn direct from the Thames and delivered by simple gravity, without filtration to the thirsty people of London. Ralph Dodd, engineer and serial former of London water companies (he would launch and be ousted from no fewer than three, including the East London Water Works), wrote in 1805 that ‘Thames water being kept in wooden vessels, after a few months, often becomes apparently putrid and produces a disagreeable smell. But even when drunk in this state it never produces sickness; therefore it is evident no harm or ill occurs to persons whose resolution, notwithstanding its offensive smell, induces them to drink it.’

Engineer James Pitt of Coventry Street similarly testified in 1810 that the Chelsea Company’s water was ‘thicker’ and ‘considerably inferior’ to its rivals but that complaints were few and health problems were non-existent. This of course was more than 40 years before his observations of cholera outbreaks around the Broad Street pump in Soho led John Snow to put the facts together and surmise that dirty water posed serious threats to human health — but even the scientifically naive might have twigged that drinking water that was ‘thick’, ‘putrid’ and with a ‘disagreeable smell’ might be a problem. But no matter — there were pipes to be driven and houses to be served and nothing would stop the increasingly aggressive actions of the water companies.

By the turn of the 19th century London’s population was growing rapidly. In 1776 there were 700,000 of us, by 1801 957,000. And the biggest growth was in the new residential suburbs and the poorer areas around the booming Pool of London. Shadwell and Wapping got new docks in the decade after 1799, and as well as water for the factories and warehouses, the new inhabitants needed something reasonably safe to drink (the fact that for centuries people had hydrated themselves with beer and weakened ‘near beer’ suggested they knew only too well the dangers and unpleasantness of drinking untreated water). Stepney, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green all required more piped water.

And Londoners had changed their habits. The early 19th cockney might appear somewhat malodorous to our 21st century noses, habituated to toothpaste, daily showers and the great smell of Lynx, but compared to their grandparents they were pristine. The Wapping docks were increasingly unloading new, cheap and easily washable cottons from the East — they needed to be washed and kept reasonably white. The WC, invented in the 16th century, was now becoming a feature of the posher East End homes, inhabited by the merchants, dockmasters and warehouse owners; some of them even had fixed baths. By 1809, such fripperies were sufficiently numerous for the East London Waterworks Co to set a system of fixed charges.

But in the meantime a land grab was underway. Geordie engineer Ralph Dodd had already founded and been ejected from the first two water companies he founded (the West Middlesex and the South London) when his partners found his enthusiasm and vision weren’t matched by expertise (or indeed any training). Undeterred Dodd pushed forward with his big project, the East London Waterworks Company. The original plan saw a reservoir at Old Ford on the Lea, sited to fill up with the action of the tide, and with water ‘after sufficiently settling and filter’d to be forced through iron pipes to a summit reservoir’.

The ace salesman Ralph quickly signed up Brick Lane brewers Truman, Hanbury and Co as a customer (he also pointed to the 15,000 unserved houses in Bethnal Green, Hackney, Bow, Stepney and Mile End). Until now, the water companies had stayed off each other’s patches, but the London Dock Company had waterworks at West Ham and Shadwell, and would be dwarfed by the new operation. Despite their opposition, the Bill to allow the new company became law, and it quickly bought out the LDC, paying £130,000 for the two works. To those was added a grand new works at Old Ford. By June 1809 12.5 miles of iron pipes had been laid, snaking out through Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Spitalfields and, crucially, encroaching on the turf of the existing New River Company (NRC).

Things began to get nasty. Water companies would find their mains unaccountably blocked, smashed or simply dug up as rival pipe was laid. There would be battles between workmen for the rival companies, each trying to get their mains in place. But customers weren’t even safe from their own suppliers. It was the ‘turncocks’ job to turn on the water to supply customers (usually at fixed times in the week). Many could be cheaply bribed to deliver more or less, or to cut off a competitor.

We’re frequently told today that competition delivers a good price to the customer and it worked — after a fashion. In February 1812, a Mr Leary was paying £10 a year for supply to his 20 houses in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, but informed the New River Company that the East London had offered a better deal. The NRC duly slashed its price to £8. But in 1813, the East London refused to supply houses unless their owners agreed to deal with them exclusively. And in 1815, it imperiously cut off four houses in Bethnal Green because the owner had changed to the New River for 14 tenements he owned in Whitechapel.

And shady practice went to the very top of the companies. Despite a ban on trading in the company’s shares (the trustees had prudently wished to avoid speculation and the creation of ‘bubbles’) the directors of the East London were indulging in it anyway by 1810, as well as paying themselves handsome dividends from their not-yet-profitable enterprise — these were men who could have made a fine career in banking a couple of hundred years later.

Water needed cleaning up. By the second half of the 19th century, new waterworks were being built above the tideway of the Thames and the Lea — it was apparent that drawing water from a site hard by the tanneries, breweries and effluent outpipes of Wapping and Blackwall was a health risk. Now water would be filtered effectively. And the Metropolis Water Act of 1902 set up municipal water boards, slashing prices (down to £5 a household in 1945) and making a reliable supply something East Enders simply took for granted. Hosepipe bans permitting, London had clean water on tap.

Further Reading: London’s Water Ways by John Graham-Leigh, published by Francis Boutle, ISBN 1903427029, £8.99



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Whitechapel painter John Hoppner

John Hoppner self portrait

John Hoppner self portrait

He was a Whitechapel boy who rose to become George III’s favourite painter … so liked by the King that gossips suggested he was his illegitimate son. And yet today, John Hoppner is completely forgotten, while near contemporary Royal Academicians such as Reynolds, Stubbs, Gainsborough and Turner are still known to modern Britons. John Hoppner was born in Whitechapel on April 4, 1758, the son of German parents. Germans had been settling in London in increasing numbers since a German prince had been invited to become King of the recently created Great Britain in 1714. By now, George I’s great-grandson, George III was on the throne. He, unlike George’s I and II, had been born in England and spoke English as his first language. But through the Anglicisation of the House of Hanover was well underway, there was still a powerful German influence at the Court of St James. Until the reign of William IV, in 1830, the official Court Orchestra was still composed exclusively of German musicians. And many of the servants and attendants at Court were German too, Hoppner’s mother among them. The young John became a chorister at the Royal Chapel, though quickly moved towards painting rather than music. In 1775 he began his studies at the Royal Academy, taking the silver medal for life drawing and, in 1782, the gold medal for historical painting, with a rendering of King Lear. Ironic considering his patron, to paint a monarch

Lord Nelson by John Hoppner

Lord Nelson by John Hoppner

who goes mad in later life, but there were other concerns. Whisperers at the Court were wondering just why John was so popular with the King… was he his secret son? Irony again. For though George was astonishingly fecund — his Queen Charlotte would give birth to 15 children, including two future Kings of Great Britain — he was one of the few of his line who didn’t have mistresses or illegitimate children. His interest in John seems to have been simple kindness. Hoppner yearned to be a landscape painter. Reynolds was a powerful influence, with his painterly, windswept woodland scenes. But Hoppner, though good, was no Reynolds and — crucially — portraits were where the money and commissions were. A newly minted member of the gentry, a war hero, even a successful actress might pay to have their own likeness made, but wouldn’t pay for scenic landscapes. Even the popular Classical subjects, considered ‘high’ art by the cognoscenti, were rare, though he did produce the fare expected of a serious painter of the time — a Sleeping Venus, Cupid and Psyche, and Jupiter and Io. Critics are sniffy about aspects of Hoppner, the chief criticism being that he couldn’t actually draw very well. What he did have was a remarkable grasp of colouration, one lesson he had learned from Reynolds. And most important of all to the jobbing painter, he was supremely well connected — much business flowed from the Court. And so he

Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner

Frankland Sisters by John Hoppner

produced paintings of Lord Nelson, of the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of York, Sir Walter Scott and the Duke of Wellington. He also painted Peter Dollond, the great lensmaker and son of the Spitalfields’ Huguenot family, whose name lives on in the opticians chain Dollond and Aitchison. But while the German from Whitechapel had an impeccable pedigree for a servant of the King, he had an unfortunate impediment: his mother-in-law, Patience Wright. Born into a New York, vegetarian Quaker family, she had turned her hobby (moulding faces from dough, wax and putty to amuse her three children) into a job, winning commissions to sculpt portraits in tinted wax. In a surreal twist, her New York wax museum burned down, and she moved to England, where she became another favourite of George III. She created wax sculptures of the Royal Family and nobility and for a while the King tolerated her blunt speaking as an eccentricity. Her daughter Phoebe had married Hoppner and the family seemed comfortably ensconced in London society and the Court. But with George fighting a desperate battle to hold onto this American colonies, Patience’s loud support for American independence was winning her no friends. Rumour had it that she was a spy for the cause, sending information gleaned at Court on how the British were preparing for war. If she was a spy, she wasn’t a very discreet one, and she soon found herself cast aside. It must have been a painful embarrassment for Hoppner, steadily building his business at the Court. Worse still, he now had a rival, in Thomas Lawrence. Nine years younger than Hoppner, the prodigious Lawrence had won a commission to paint the Queen when he was

Peter Dollond by John Hoppner

Peter Dollond by John Hoppner

just 21, and soon became the new favourite of the Prince of Wales. Reputations can soar and dive quickly in the art world, and by the early years of the new century, the once-lauded Hoppner’s name was in serious decline: while critics had once praised his brilliant colouration, they now mocked his shaky draughtsmanship. His eclipse, almost certainly, was hastened by his increasing distance from the Court that had earlier made him rich. Lawrence, meanwhile, was now acknowledged as the greatest, and most famous portrait painter in England. Hoppner would die in 1810, at just 51 of liver disease, after years of ill health, leaving a wife and five children. Lawrence would live till 1830 … and become President of the Royal Academy

Hoppner's Miss Mary Jane Linwood

Hoppner’s Miss Mary Jane Linwood

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Thomas Rainsborough, the Levellers and the English Civil War

Roundheads versus Cavaliers, Parliament versus Royalty. In the popular mind the English Civil War is a simple conflict of two clearly opposing factions, which will end with the beheading of one king — and unfold a decade later with the return of his son to the throne. But the series of battles that would play out during the First and Second English Civil Wars in the

Thomas Rainsborough

Thomas Rainsborough

1640s were anything but clear cut. And while the Parliamentarians were bitterly opposed to the high-handed rule Charles I they were almost equally divided among themselves. The bitter factional disputes would play out with the killing of Thomas Rainsborough on October 30, 1648. The sword that slew the Leveller leader was in the hand of a Cavalier soldier — but was it Oliver Cromwell himself who directed the blade?

The unveiling of a plaque by Tony Benn in St John’s Churchyard a week or two back is an attempt to bring Rainsborough back into the public consciousness. Benn, a hero of the left, and a thorn in the side of his own leaders (though it might be pushing it rather to equate Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan with Cromwell) could certainly identify with the satisfyingly awkward Rainsborough. He would certainly applaud the Levellers (who elected ‘agitators’ from among their ranks) and their attacks on the House of Lords and inherited power, as well as their demand for their ‘natural, God-given rights’.

Rainsborough had been born in 1610, the son of a prominent, though not an aristocratic family. He was the son of William Rainsborough, a Vice-Admiral in command of his own vessel in the Royal Navy, as well as a Member of Parliament and the King’s Ambassador to Morocco. For William’s exploits in battling white slavery in Morocco, he was offered an hereditary knighthood by Charles I in 1642, but turned it down (accepting a life peerage instead). It was a combination of the military with politics his sons (William Rainsborowe and Thomas) would follow.

Thomas proved himself to be a talented and flexible military man. He was already in the navy before the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642, and during the conflict, as Parliament turned against the King, he was put in command of the Swallow and other English warships. By May 1645, he had transferred to the New Model Army, fighting at the Battle of Naseby (a devastating defeat for the Cavaliers), at Bristol, Berkeley Castle and the Siege of Droitwich.


Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

In January 1647 became the MP for Droitwich. He was a voice for the Roundheads, but also a dissenter in their midst. Leaders of the Parliamentary side, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton wanted freedom from Royal tyranny but they certainly didn’t want communism, and Rainsborough’s espousal of the ideas of the Ranters and Levellers were altogether too revolutionary. The Ranters were a religious sect believing that God was in every creature: rejecting centralised organisation, they were seen as a threat not just to the established Church but to the fabric of society. The Levellers meanwhile argued that the king (or whoever should replace him) must be elected by all the people (well, men at least). Universal suffrage and the dismantling of the structures of society and government weren’t in Cromwell’s plan — in the latter years of the Commonwealth (1649-1660), he would became a king in all but name.

So Rainsborough’s addresses at the Levellers’ Putney Debates were concerning to his leaders such as Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax — especially when the soldier attempted to serve a copy of the Leveller tract Agreement of the People on his general, at the Corkbush Field rendezvous of 1647. Fairfax brushed him aside and arranged a transfer well away from the cockpit of London politics. The first plan was to put him back in the Navy as a Vice-Admiral, but his Leveller beliefs elicited a mutiny among his men. So Rainsborough was sent to assist the Roundhead cause at the Siege of Pontefract Castle. Again he found opposition, with the Parliamentary commander in Yorkshire, Sir Henry Cholmley, refusing to accept his authority. While the arguments continued, Thomas and his men were billeted in Doncaster, and it was there he met his death. Not on the field or at sea: four royalists had managed to get into the fortified billet and kidnap him. In the struggle, one ran through Rainsborough with his sword.

How had they got to him? The bitter suspicion was that Cromwell et al had arranged the killing. Certainly, without

King Charles I

King Charles I

Rainsborough, the Levellers’ influence waned during the Second Civil War. 3000 mourners paraded through London wearing the green ribbons and rosemary branches of the movement, but the impetus for a truly revolutionary England had gone. King Cromwell would soon ascend the throne. The whole story, if slightly buffed and beautified for modern eyes, can be seen in ‘The Devil’s Whore’, a movie released a few years back, starring Michael Fassbender as Rainsborough and Dominic West as Cromwell. Peter Capaldi plays Charles I, though without ‘Thick of It’ profanities.

Rainsborough’s remains lie somewhere in St John’s Churchyard — though until the unveiling of the plaque on May 12, you wouldn’t have found a clearly marked spot. The site, though lovely, is slightly surreal: a graveyard without stones, accompanying a tower without a church. The graveyard is neatly turfed over, while what remains of the old tombstones are serried along the walls of the plot. St John’s itself was lost to enemy bombing during World War 2: the husk was demolished and new apartments were built around the tower.



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Bow dye

Bow Dye/east end life/27may13

Renaissance man, polymath, uomo universale — there are many ways to describe the remarkable Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel. He was a multi-talented Dutchman who came to London as a guest of James I to share his extraordinarily eclectic scientific knowlege. In the 1660s he had invented the first working submarine, he devised revolutionary microscopes and telescopes, invented an air conditiong system, the first working thermometer, even a chicken incubator — yet he would die almost penniless, the landlord of an East End pub. And among the eccentric and brilliant Cornelis’s grand plans and myriad inventions it was a happy accident, at a windowsill in Bow, that made his family’s fortune.

Drebbel had been born in Alkmaar, in what would become the Netherlands, in 1572, the son of a farmer. He could certainly read and write, and studied Latin, but he had no university education. The scientific genius that would emerge was of a more practical colour — Cornelis learned by experimentation, and he was tireless. Leaving school, he was sent to Haarlem as an apprentice to the famed engraver and painter Hendrick Goltzius and it was here his interest in chemistry was born. Goltzius was an enthusiastic experimenter in alchemy, that medieval mix of the scientific and the mystical, whose grail was the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, for the Elixir of Life, and for the elements that would turn base metals to gold.

Easy for our modern minds to dismiss such stuff as a naive belief in superstition and magic, but the alchemists were on to something. They knew that elements could, seemingly magically, transform themselves — water could freeze solid or boil into nothing, acids could eat strong metals. Alchemy, in fact, would set modern chemistry in motion. By the 1590s, Drebbel’s interests were expanding furiously. In 1600, his nascent studies in engineering saw him being employed by the burghers of Middelburg, in the southern Netherlands, to build their town a fountain. While there he met Hans Lippershey, who was working in the growing science of optics, making spectacles and telescopes — Drebbel eagerly learned his skills. He became obsessed with inventions: the old age of alchemy and mysticism was giving way to a new world of experiment and science.

And it was this that attracted the attention of James I, who had recently succeeded to the throne of England. This ‘wisest fool in Christendom’ perhaps also straddled the medieval and modern, being simultaneously an enthusiastic burner of witches and a fan of the new sciences. The Scottish king, a poet and scholar, and rather beleaguered in his new London court, was keen to gather the brightest of the age around him, and collected explorers, theologians, economists and alchemists around him at court. Drebbel was invited to join him in 1604. He settled, with wife and family, in the Middlesex village of Bow, and set to work impressing the king.

While at court he demonstrated his perpetual motion machine, which told the time, date and season. Its fame spread across Europe, and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II invited Cornelis to Prague to demonstrate its (dubious) efficacy. He became famous for his invention, in 1621, of a microscope with two convex lenses. He wrote a seminal work on the nature of the chemical elements (the move from alchemy to chemistry again). And he was devising his own compounds, including mercury fulminate, which would become used in explosives in the years to come. He demonstrated an air-conditioned room to the king and his courtiers (it was so cold they had to swiftly depart). And, practical as ever, he invented a chicken incubator with a mercury thermostat to keep it at a constant temperature — setting a template for the development of modern, reliable thermometers.

But now Drebbel started on a new project. James was looking for new weapons for his growing navy — with the new Great Britain’s imperial expansion, the navy was becoming far more important than the land army. He would devise various bombs for James and his successor Charles I, but even more boldly, he was to make the first navigable submarine. Gravesend naval man William Bourne had drawn plans for such a craft in the 1570s, and in between 1620 and 1624, Drebbel drew on those plans to build three working models, each bigger than the last. The last of them had six oars and carried 16 passengers (including James, who thus became the first monarch to travel underwater). Thousands of Londoners lined the banks of the Thames, as the vessel travelled from Westminster to Greenwich and back, staying underwater for some three hours.

But how did he do it? Argument still rages as to how ‘submarine’ the craft was — it was perhaps more a semi-submersible. But many accounts of the day have Drebbel putting his alchemical knowledge into practice, burning potassium nitrate within the submarine to generate oxygen (and simultaneously absorb carbon dioxide build up). If so, he had anticipated the ‘rebreather’, invented by Fleuss in the 1870s, by 250 years.

And yet … with all his brilliant inventions, Drebbel was never able to secure the patronage and money he needed, and by the late 1620s was near poverty, running a London alehouse and drawing up plans (never implemented) for draining the Lincolnshire fens. He was still conducting his experiments though and so it was that, while developing a coloured liquid for one of his thermometers, he accidentally dripped a solution of aqua regia (nitro-hydrochloric acid) on his tin window sill. The resultant colour, was a brilliant scarlet, much brighter and longer lasting than the existing carmines used in fabric dying. Cornelis had just a few more years to live, but his daughters Anna and Catharina and sons-in-law Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler established a dye works in Bow, with the colour of ‘Bow Dye’ a closely guarded family secret. Nobody could prise it from them, and the brilliant scarlet of Bow Dye became the fashionable toast of Europe. Cornelis died almost penniless … but his descendants made their fortunes.


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