Fun London Facts - Week #1
I'll undoubtedly regret this, but I've set myself the challenge of posting a fun London fact every day for the whole of 2023. That's 365 facts! (I know you knew that).
I'm posting them over on Twitter and Instagram each day, then every week I'll do a round up here. So here are my fun London facts for the first week.
On the 23rd October 1843, the 14 stonemasons who built Nelson’s Column had a dinner party at the top before the statue of Horatio Nelson was hoisted up.
When Sam Wanamaker was raising funds for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in the 1990s, he was reliant on private donations, with each individual or organisation rewarded with their name engraved on a paving stone around the theatre. John Cleese phoned up and said “If you spell Michael Palin’s name wrong, I’ll give you double.” And so it is, that next to John Cleese is the larger paving stone of 'Michael Pallin'.
William Fortnum was a footman for Queen Anne in the early 18th century. One of his jobs was to replenish the palace candles each evening, but the Queen apparently insisted on new candles each day. William sold on the used candles, making a tidy profit which he used to set up his grocery shop with Hugh Fortnum in 1707. This is why candles are a motif in Fortnum & Mason today.
Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) is the only person in Westminster Abbey buried standing up. The reason? By the end of his life he’d spunked most of his money, so before he died, negotiated a deal to be buried standing up. It took up less space and was therefore much cheaper. Clever chap.
The famous bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column are anatomically incorrect. Lions can’t actually sit with their back legs like this. Edwin Landseer who made them was a Victorian water-colour painter and had never made a sculpture in his life. He based the back of them on his own dogs.
Rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and German born composer George Frideric Handel were nextdoor neighbours …albeit 200 years apart. Handel moved to Brook Street, Mayfair in 1723 and spent 40-years living there. In 1970, Hendrix moved in with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham to the top floor room at 23 Brook Street. When Hendrix learned of his famous old neighbour he went out and bought ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ and ‘Messiah’ which incidentally Handel wrote next door.
The two buildings have been transformed in to the rather brilliant Handel & Hendrix in London museum. It’s currently closed for refurbishment, re-opening in May 2023. Well worth a visit.
Built by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, The Monument is a monument to the Great Fire of London in 1666. Completed in 1677 it stands 202ft tall because if it were to fall eastwards (which it hasn’t yet) the top of it would touch the spot where the fire started in Thomas Farrinor’s bakery on Pudding Lane, 202 feet away.
Handel & Hendrix in London
German born composer, George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) and American guitarist and all round rock legend, Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970) were next door neighbours in London …albeit 200 years apart.
The two musical greats lived at 23 and 25 Brook Street respectively; two Georgian Mayfair houses, which when Handel moved in to No. 25 in 1723 at the age of 38, was brand spanking new. Hendrix and girlfriend Kathy Etchingham occupied a bedroom and had the use of a kitchen at No. 23 Brook Street, between July 1968 and March 1969.
Hendrix’s bedroom has recently been restored from photo shoots that took place in the room and input from Etchingham herself. It can now be visited as a companion piece to Handel’s house next door, where the composer lived and worked.
I decided to visit Handel’s house first, a typical 5 floor Georgian town house. There weren’t many visitors so was able to bend the ear of the incredibly helpful attendant who enthusiastically showed me how Handel’s staircase was widened to allow for his harpsichord to be carried up and down. Hendrix’s staircase however remained unaltered.
I began in Handel’s composition room. He was a pretty speedy composer, and could knock off an entire opera in 40 days, then start another straight afterwards, His Oratorio, ‘Messiah’ was written in just 24 days.
I then headed to the exhibition space (next door) which puts Handel’s life in to a bit of context and explains a bit about the London that Handel would have known and the places he regularly visited. Incidentally, he was very much involved with Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, another small London museum, well worth a visit. The house on Brook Street was of course close to the theatres around Covent Garden, the developing area of Soho and the Royal family at St James’s Palace. Just like today, Handel had a plethora of coffee houses on his doorstep …and gin palaces.
Handel basically turned his dining room in to a music room and rehearsal space, which the museum use for the same purpose today giving recitals, open rehearsals and even have a current composer in residence.
It is thought that Handel died in his bedroom. The attendant there explained that the bed was short, not because Handel was particularly diminutive, but because people apparently slept sitting up, as it was believed to aid digestion.
I was a massive Hendrix fan when I was a kid and it was obvious from visiting the museum that there are far more fervent Hendrix fans than myself.
The bedroom itself is just that, a room. It is festooned with paraphernalia from the swinging sixties, and the only original item from when Hendrix and Etchingham lived there, is an oval mirror. Still, it’s a faithful recreation and really captures the feel of how it would have been, even if not …the smell.
The room next door is a small museum which as you’d expect charts Hendrix’s journey from a U.S Army paratrooper to session musician for Little Richard (amongst others), a move to London, the formation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience to become what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame describe as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music” …all within a decade.
Hendrix died in September 1970 (not at this flat) at the age of 27.
Handel and Hendrix in London is a must for music lovers and especially for Jimi Hendrix aficionados visiting London. I couldn’t help but wonder what Jimi would have thought about a flat he rented for a short period in London becoming a shrine to himself, but I think it’s great that both these two very different musicians have not only been able to bridge the gap between their two very different genres, but also the centuries. London, for me, is a city where 2000 years of history constantly rub shoulders, which Handel & Hendrix in London opitimises.
It is fitting also that upon learning that Handel had lived next door, Hendrix went with Kathy Etchingham to the One Stop Record Shop on South Moulton Street and bought Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and ‘Water Music’ on vinyl.
You can find Handel & Hendrix in London at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, W1K 4HB. It is open Monday to Saturday (11am – 6pm). Last admission 5pm.
The Foundling Museum
There are many small museums in London that aren’t on every visitor’s radar, and for that matter, many a Londoner. One such museum is The Foundling Museum.
This unique little museum’s story begins back in the early 18th century with a sailor named Thomas Coram, who after a life’s work in the New World of America, had ostensibly returned to London to enjoy a nice quiet retirement. This as you can imagine, was not to be the case. Upon returning to the capital, Coram was appalled by the number of destitute and dying children that literally littered the streets. Not one to rest on his laurels, Coram took it upon himself to rectify the situation and spent the next 17 years campaigning for the establishment of a Foundling Hospital; a place where these children could be brought, cared for and equipped with the necessary tools to see them through adult life and create what was termed 'useful citizens'.
On October 17th, 1739, King George II signed a charter to establish a hospital for the ‘maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’. Realising that the fashion for charity and benevolence amongst wealthy aristocrats could greatly help his cause, Coram teamed up with two unlikely champions; the artist and satirist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel who between them donated paintings and conducted benefit concerts in an effort to raise much needed funds. The Foundling Hospital, thanks to Hogarth became London’s first public art gallery.
In 1741, Coram fell out with his own board of governors and ceased his involvement with the hospital, ironically the same year that it received its first foundlings, but he did however succeed in setting up a charitable foundation which is still going strong today.
The hospital itself was moved out of London in 1926 and finally closed in 1954 after 250 years of operation having cared for over 25,000 children. Changing its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, the charity continues to help children, young people and their families.
The museum, as you would expect, details the fascinating history of the Foundling Hospital and the children who passed through its doors. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, prints and manuscripts as well as a room dedicated to Handel, but perhaps the most poignant items are the foundling tokens. Children brought to the hospital were given new names, so parents or those who deposited the child were required to bring with them a small token, something unique that could be kept safely locked away and only retrieved should a parent wish to re-claim their child. It was a very simple form of identification, but gives an incredibly personal insight in to the lives of those people who deposited children at the Foundling Hospital and how little they had in terms of material possessions. In a way, each child is reduced to a coin, a pin, a thimble or a theatre ticket stub, yet means so much more.
If you’d like to find out more about Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital, then the Foundling Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, and you’ll find it just next to the Brunswick Centre and not surprisingly Coram Fields. The nearest Underground station is Russell Square. In an attempt to create 'useful citizens' many of the boys brought to the hospital joined the military. The Foundling Hospital currently have an exhibition entitled Foundlings at War: Military Bands.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.