Saturday, 31 March 2012

Charles Dickens, Mayfair and Little America

From the evidence of his writings, Charles Dickens did not like Mayfair. More precisely, he did not like what, socially, it represented. Given that Dickens was prone to write more about what he disapproved of in life, than about what he approved of (no doubt that approach made business sense) it is no shock that Mayfair, when picked on, got the great man’s treatment.

That Dickens wrote about Mayfair at all may surprise some. Ask a question of what scene comes into your head when you hear the phrase “Dickens’ London”, and many will conjure up Fagin in his den (off Saffron Hill on the edge of the old City of London) or in the condemned cell of Newgate Prison (now the site of the Old Bailey) on the night before his execution.

But there are Mayfair references in Dickens’ work, and they centre on the Grosvenor Square area.

Way after Dickens’ time, the area became known as London’s Little America, based on it being General Dwight D Eisenhower’s London headquarters during World War II. The headquarters building was on the north side of the Square and the Square was nicknamed Eisenhower Platz.

However, the US connection started much earlier, and before Dickens’ birth. John Adams lived on the north-east corner of the Square from 1785 to 1788, and established the first American Mission to the Court of St James’s (still the official seat of British monarchy) in 1785.

From 1938 to 1960 the US Embassy was on the east side of the Square; it then moved to the new monolithic building on the west side, although the connection will be lost when the Embassy moves south of the river to Nine Elms.

Signs of the US connection still abound in an around the Square. Here are a few examples:

President Franklin D Roosevelt
The pigeon diminishes the gravitas

The Eagle Squadron Memorial
240 US pilots volunteered in 1940, joining 16 British pilots in the Squadron

The 9/11 Memorial
A metal girder from the twin towers is buried underneath

President Ronald Reagan
Unveiled  4th July 2011 to commemorate his role in ending the Cold War

So what of the Dickens theme? Mayfair figures in his perspective, and his reference in Nicholas Nickelby to “the aristocratic gravity of Grosvenor Square and Hanover Square”, demonstrates that he understands its social status. However, the tone of his feelings towards Mayfair is revealed better by lines from Little Dorrit, where he describes:

“...the great streets of melancholic stateliness, and the little streets that try to be as stately and succeed in being more melancholy, of which there is a labyrinth near Park Lane [one block away to the west].”

Subtly uncomplimentary, you might say.

The tone continues, with the area appearing in various parts of the Little Dorrit story:

"In the back streets of Mayfair are the mews properties – denoting stables with living accommodation, and at the top end of one of these lives Mr Tite Barnacle in Mews Street, Grosvenor Square: “not absolutely Grosvenor Square, but it was very near it”.

Dickens goes on to paint a picture of the street:

“It was a hideous little street of dead walls, stables and dunghills, with lofts over coach-houses inhabited by coachmen’s families.”

Today the picture is different, a Mayfair mews property with stable now garage being a desirable location.

Brook's Mews

Back to the main streets.  Just around the corner is Brook Street. Here, Mrs Skewton in Dombey & Son borrows a property from a “stately relative” for “nuptial purposes”, that is to make a “handsome appearance” and encourage the wealthy but socially inferior Mr Dombey (whose own house was sited by Dickens slightly further north in Bryanston Square) to marry her daughter Edith. The marriage went ahead, but with unhappy consequences.

Finally we come to Mr William Dorrit, who on release from the Marshalsea Prison was taken to stay in “an hotel in Brook Street, Grosvenor Square.”

Was the hotel Claridge's?

Claridge's Hotel

The dates indicate it was certainly a possibility. The first part of Little Dorrit was published in 1855. In 1854 William and Marianne Claridge bought the five adjacent houses in Brook Street known as the Mivarts hotel. The hotel became known as Claridge’s, late Mivart’s, until Mivart’s death in 1856.

The photo above shows that refurbishment works at today’s Claridge’s are under way. To finish, a bizarre further photo of the hotel.

Claridge's - an alternative perspective

Almost the House of Mirrors at the end of a seaside pier? The answer is a chrome or similar facade (nothing downmarket here) to the works hoarding. The hotel signage shows through, and the distorted image mirrors houses on the opposite side of the road.

The author is a City of London Guide, City of Westminster Guide, and former law firm partner, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. On Thursday 5th April he is running a walk Inside & Outside the Law. See tabs for further details.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

A Prosperous Lawyer, and a Red House and Red Lion Connection

James Beale was a prosperous solicitor, with a town house in London’s Holland Park and a country house at Standen in Sussex, built in 1892-4 and now owned by the National Trust.

Standen - rear of property

A posh lawyer from a London firm? Not quite. Mr Beale ran the London office of Beale & Co, a firm with its home in Birmingham and founded in the 1820s. Remarkably, the Beale name lives on today in the firm of Hadgkiss, Hughes & Beale, with offices in the Birmingham suburbs of Acocks Green and Moseley.

The firm addresses the needs of individuals and small businesses. However, the chances of a partner today in this type of practice being able to generate funds to buy a 21 bedroom country retreat designed by one of the name architects of the time, are perhaps remote.

Impressive the property certainly is - a glorious example of Arts & Crafts architecture, designed by Philip Webb.

Standen - front - a family-friendly environment

Standen has an Arts & Crafts style, denoted by factors including:

• Building materials sourced locally
• Some, at least of the interior design is evident from the external shape of the building (contrast Georgian terraces with their enigma of uniformity)).

The interior you see today is carefully furnished and ornamented to reflect the life of the large Beale family (seven childen) in the 1920s.

Cultural activity at the piano

And at the snooker table

The family rocking horse

The drawing room - each to their own pursuits

The ladies retired after breakfast to the morning room - restrained decor?

A murky light in the dining room, but Standen was an early house to have electricity,
and max light bulb wattage was c.25W

With 21 bedrooms and only two bathrooms.....

The architect’s connections are revealed by this shot of wallpaper in the house.

Philip Webb was a close friend of William Morris, and they met when both were working in the Oxford office of George Edmund Street. The law connection is not lost, as Street’s most significant achievement is the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand.

Together they became members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, alongside characters such as the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones.

The influence and work of Morris is present throughout Standen. Webb also designed Morris’s own home in Bexleyheath, South-East London, The Red House (another National Trust property) although Morris only lived there for some five years.

And the other red? This is Red Lion Square near Holborn in central London, the offices of the firm that started in 1861 as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. (with Webb as one of the partners) but that latterly became the simpler Morris & Co.

The building for the Morris firm, 8 Red Lion Square, has since given way to an unprepossessing bar, but further along on the same side of the square is a building where Morris, Rossetti and Burne-Jones lived at various points in the 1850s.

A Pre-Raphaelite Enclave, with plaque

in 1851
Poet and Painter
and from 1850 to 1859
Poet and Artist

The name of Morris & Co lives on, and in London its fabrics and wallpapers can be bought from stockists including Harrods, Peter Jones and John Lewis.

Probably William Morris’s most famous quotation is:

 “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”

The Beale family seem to have gone a long way towards meeting this challenge; whether many of the rest of us could go as far is another matter.

The author is a City of London and City of Westminster guide, and former law firm partner, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. On Thursday 5th April he is running a tour London Inside & Outside the Law. See tabs for details.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Close Shaves and Toilet Requisites in EC2

You’re a chap out in the City and you feel a real need for......a haircut. Perhaps you’re also keen to underline your Square Mile credentials, so any ordinary barber would not do.

If you were in the West End you would have plenty choice, out of which possibly George Trumper in Curzon Street or Jermyn Street might be considered the pick.

A City contender, certainly on shop front appearance, is F Flittner of 86 Moorgate.

As can be seen, it declares its origins as being from 1904, and in its Google entry it promotes itself as being “The City of Londons (sic) most established and traditional Barber Shop”.

There is a small slip through the absence of an apostrophe in a possessive pronoun. This is forgivable in a Google entry, but perhaps less forgivable is the use of “Gentlemens Hairdressing” in the shop front – if you’ve been going since 1904, you must have been through some period of English education when punctuation was taught.

There is then the mystery of the inner sanctum – shelves full up with products, and no peeking in space as the remaining glass is obscured by curtains.

But the Services section of the website explains the offerings, provided by “six experience (sic) professional staff”, who are available throughout the day.

“Shampoo’s (sic) [yes, there is a theme here]
Beard trims
Full range of Cuts, from basic cuts to modern styles

Additional Services
Wet shaves with hot towels if requested

Also check out the soundtrack loop – a dreamy 1920s sounding theme that is quite pleasant until you have spent more than a couple of minutes on the site, by which time for me it was doing head in time.

And Flittner does offer Toilet Requisites.

Meeting a gentleman's needs

However, closer scrutiny indicates exactly what products are available.


So no bleaches or loo brushes there.

But the hyperbole does remind me of having a Saturday haircut as a lad and hearing the barber asking adult customers if they wanted something for the weekend. It took me a while to learn that this did not mean toilet requisites.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A Tale of Two Cities - Manchester and London Victorian Gothic Splendour

 A proud City commissioned this building – Manchester Town Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse and completed in 1877.

Manchester Town Hall, fronted by Albert Square

The civic authority, Manchester Corporation, asked for a building that was “equal, if not superior, to any similar building in the country at any cost which may be reasonably required.” I like the note of prudence at the end.

To show off a building of this scale, you need decent open space in front of it, and this is provided by Albert Square - see photo.

The Town Hall is dominated by an 85 metre high bell tower, with a clock bell weighing over 8 tons, named Great Abel after the Lord Mayor who commissioned the project, Abel Heywood.

Manchester Town Hall Interior

The Neo Gothic style continues in the interior, with rib vaulted ceilings that could pass for a 13th century English cathedral.

Already mentioned is the address of Albert Square, and admiring the building is the Prince himself.

Albert Memorial, Albert Square

The Memorial, looking silhouettish in my photo, gives the immediate impression of a mini version of the better known memorial facing London’s Albert Hall. Sculpted by Matthew Noble and installed fairly soon after the death of Queen Victoria’s consort, as a tribute from the people of Manchester, it was of course in place some time before the Town Hall itself was constructed (there was a previous Town Hall, but in a different location in the City).

Alfred Waterhouse won the open design competition from a total entry of 137 proposals.

London architectural connection? Well, think Natural History Museum in South Kensington and
The Prudential Assurance HQ in Holborn Bars, both designed by Waterhouse, and with the internal square of the latter today bearing his name.

And back to the North West of England. Waterhouse was a local lad made good, being born to Quaker Liverpool parents and doing his articles (professional training) in Manchester.

Finally the City of Manchester mirrors London in its cultural diversity, so here is an example from the current Irish Festival:

Victorian Neo Gothic and memorabilia from Dublin. Whatever!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Oliver Goldsmith,The National Theatre, and a splash of Charles Dickens

The programme for the current National Theatre production of She Stoops to Conquer (piece by Frank Delaney) describes Goldsmith as “born with a grossly protruding forehead and upper lip, while his chin receded like a man aghast”.

The River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, looking across to the National Theatre

In today’s society, Goldsmith might have masked the latter feature with a tell-tale growth of beard, but that was not an option in his day – born 1728 or 1730 and died 1774 - and so he resorted to the personality traits of wit and affability, coupled with  literary talent, to make his mark on the world.

She Stoops to Conquer premiered at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1773, only a year before Goldsmith’s death, and was an immediate commercial success. It tells the story of Charles Marlow and George Hastings, two London dandies, who travel to the country to pursue their love interests and become embroiled over a night in a story of mistaken identities that ultimately resolves itself in joy and happiness all round.

One of the indicators of the play’s enduring popularity is that it has become established as a school text for GCSE study.

It’s recorded that the Covent Garden Theatre was destroyed in 1808. There are some indications that it stood on what is now the site of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, although the evidence I’ve seen is not conclusive.

Although the National does its share of including "name" performers – also on the repertoire of the present company is Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors with Lenny Henry in the lead role – one of the joys of seeing a show there is confidence in the strength of the company without having to look for an obvious star. Reviews of She Stoops, including 4* from the Guardian and the same from The Daily Telegraph, support the strength of this theory.

If there was one stand-out in the performance I saw, it was Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardcastle, the hyper and often hysterical mother of Kate Hardcastle, the object of Charles Marlow’s desires, with her elongated vowels that produced a rustic version of the voices in that cultural TV masterpiece, The Only Way is Essex. But also David Fynn delivered a fine Tony Lumpkin in a role that might have gone to James Corden not that long back (and, of course, Corden’s emergence was assisted by playing in the National production of Alan Bennett’s
The History Boys in 2004, and in the subsequent film).

Also Katherine Kelly impressed greatly as Kate Hardcastle. It’s a shame that when you check out her record and see she was doing Royal Shakespeare Company work in 2004/5, that there was any popular wonderment as to whether she could hack an NT lead role after playing a barmaid in Coronation Street.

What about The Temple connection, though? If you asked the question which literary figure do you most associate with that enclave of barristers, the Inns of Court, you would likely get the answer Charles Dickens. And by all accounts Dickens was influenced by Goldsmith in his choice of characters and scenes.

However, Goldsmith also has his right to be acknowledged in the world of lawyers, as he lived in various parts of The Temple from 1764 onwards, and indeed died there and is buried there in the graveyard of The Temple Church.

The graveyard of Temple Church

From this connection come the name of the adjacent barristers’ set, Goldsmith Chambers, which prides itself on associations stretching back to the 19th century.

Goldsmith Building, containing Goldsmith Chambers
Moreover, in his time as a doyen of London arts society Goldsmith gave dinners in his apparently extravagantly furnished chambers, then in Brick Court, for luminaries Dr Samuel Johnson (best known for his Dictionary of the English Language) and Dr Thomas Arne (best known as the composer of Rule Britannia).

What might be seen as one attribute uniting Goldsmith and Dickens is power of observation. Goldsmith’s essay, On National Prejudices, opens:

“ As I am one of that sauntering tribe of mortals, who spend the greatest part of their time in taverns, coffee houses, and other places of public resort, I have thereby an opportunity of observing an infinite variety of characters, which, to a person of a contemplative turn, is a much higher entertainment than a view of all the curiosities of art and nature.”

Dickens might possibly have spent more time than Goldsmith in pounding the pavements in search of subject-matter, but there is something of both of them in the quotation.

The author is a City of London and City of Westminster Guide, and former law firm partner, who does guided walks in the City and in Westminster. For further information see tabs. On Thursday 5th April he is doing a Legal London walk.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Foxes Discovered in the City

The creatures are well-known in London suburbs, rummaging in dustbins and making a special contribution to the destabilisation of garden sheds through burying under them to make a home.

But as the picture shows, they are also in the City. Indeed, they are not recent arrivals, and the photo shows that they have been there since 1868.

OK – they are not real foxes, and although the shop bears the name Fox, it doesn’t sell fox fur or indeed any other component of a fox’s body. The Fox brand sells umbrellas.

Words chosen carefully, as you are struggling to see any umbrellas in the window. What you can see is shoes, and to the left is a placard saying “Author”. So maybe a famous author about shoes is coming for a book-signing?

No. Author is a brand of shoes (Jimmy Choo fans please do not sigh – there is an ordinary world out there that has not ascended yet to the stratospheric heights of high shoe fashion).

And the business has taken over from the Fox umbrella sales business, and is now the 118 London Wall branch of the chain, as can be seen by the closer photo.

Having said that, a detailed look at the first photo shows that Author are happy to make the Fox connection – take a squint again at the placard.

In fact, the new product line has only a minimal impact on the shop front. For a moment, and from a distance, you might even think that a charity shop had come to land, although that statement, if put seriously, would be a disservice to Author and may belie some clever thinking of linking the two brands to produce an appearance that the eye will not dismiss in the way it dismisses another bland city centre chain outlet.

A further angle is that there may be planning restrictions protecting the Fox signage. I have not yet investigated this.

Research indicates that the business did indeed start in 1868 when Thomas Fox opened a shop in nearby Fore Street, that location continuing to trade until World War II bombing saw it relocate to London Wall.

Incidentally, Fore Street was the site of the first bomb dropped on the City of London in World War II, and it remains a strange bywater of a City of London street, although there are redevelopment plans for the area.

The Fox business proclaims proudly that its customers include Hackett, Harrods and Turnbull & Asser in the UK, Mitsukoshi, Segan and Togo in Japan, and Paul Stuart, Rain and Shine and Barneys in New York.  There are also entertainment connections – the John Steed umbrellas in the Avengers TV series and the gadget umbrellas in the James Bond films

However, the direct retail sales business now seems to be carried on online, with manufacturing done in Croydon, South London. promises a new e-commerce site, to open in spring 2012.

In the City of London edition of The Buildings of England, Pevsner  (p565) describes the “excellent Modern front of 1937” and praises the black Vitrolite, the stainless steel [foxes] and the neon [sign]. If the dark Vitrolite glass seems familiar to Londoners, it is the same material used in, for example, the cladding of the old Daily Express building in Fleet Street.

But it is the umbrellas that are the champions – solid, stylish.......and a real pain if you lose one.

The author is a City of London, City of Westminster and National Trust Guide, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. For further information see tabs.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Inside & Outside the Law - Service, Silks and Waiting at Table

Serving proceedings on another party can be tricky if you can’t track the person down. City law firm Stephenson Harwood has found a way round this. Why not use Facebook?

Acting for defendant TFS Derivatives in a claim from AKO Capital for alleged unpaid commissions, it secured permission from the High Court in London to serve notice on Fabio de Biase by Facebook message, to join Mr de Biase as a defendant in the proceedings.

Old Square, Lincoln's Inn

Communication of the age. Keeping tabs on someone’s residential address can be problematic. But your Facebook account remains you wherever you happen to be located.

What seemed to be material here was identifying the person in the Facebook photo and establishing that the account is active.

It looks a straightforward factual exercise. However, in a world where spoof accounts can be set up and where social media sites do not seek verification of identity of the account-holder, don’t underestimate the room for arguments in future cases.

This is the season of Silks, meaning the time of the year when a select number of barristers are elevated to become Q.Cs (Queens’ Counsel) – and that title will remain until we have a King as monarch.

The appointment allows the barrister to wear a silk gown, rather than a woollen gown, in court. But this cosmetic, or rather sartorial, accoutrement, is the least of the benefits of achieving the promotion. A QC gets access to the most prestigious cases, and with them the juiciest fees.

For 2012 88 Q.Cs were appointed out of 214 applicants. 44 women applied, and 23 were successful. 15 of the applicants were classified as non-white, and out of them 6 succeeded.

So how does the appointments system work? The suspicious would imagine a series of cosy chats in Pall Mall clubs, and might be surprised to hear that the process is conducted by an independent Selection Panel.

The process also has the aura of HR about it, with the foundation being a competency-based assessment framework. Aspiring silks are advised to start preparing four years in advance – success depends in part on the number of quality cases in which you have appeared. There are even specialist consultants on hand to coach applicants.

More port, m’learned friend?

Finally, pity the Top 10 firm whose access programme for children from Inner City state schools had an uncomfortable blip.

A student arriving at the firm for a week’s work experience placement got lost and was found wandering the corridors by a temporary catering manager. The catering manager thought that the young lady was in the building to do some waitressing, and packed her off to one of the meeting rooms to set up tea and biscuits.

The mortified firm apologised profusely for some “crossed wires that were very rapidly uncrossed”.

The author is a qualified City of London, City of Westminster and National Trust Guide, and a former law firm partner, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. See tabs for details. On Thursday, 5th April he is running London Inside & Outside the Law, a tour of Legal London, starting at 3pm. To book and to find out starting point, contact Colin at