Category Archives: History

A bit of historical background and historic events

Going to ‘town’ | A guide to Jane Austen’s London

Find out where Jane Austen stayed, shopped and socialised during her many visits to London.

Jane Austen
(1870 engraving based on sketch by Cassandra Austen)

Jane Austen (1775-1817) spent most of her years living in Hampshire and Bath, but visited London frequently throughout her adult life. Her favourite brother Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850) lived in the capital for a lot of his life, while publishing houses were another incentive for the author to visit London.

As well as being a frequent visitor to London, the city also served as inspiration for Austen’s novels. Some of her wealthier characters had homes in the capital, while it often poses as a location for many scandalous scenes. Who can forget Lydia Bennet and Mr Wickham eloping to London and being made to marry in a City church? Or Marianne Dashwood realising Mr Willoughby is engaged to another woman while in the capital with her sister Elinor? While London is full of adventure for some of Austen’s characters, one in particular wasn’t so fond. In ‘Emma’, the title character’s father Henry Woodhouse laments London’s pollution, declaring: “The truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.”

Guide to Jane Austen’s London haunts

Find out where Jane Austen lodged, socialised and shopped during her frequent visits to London.

  • Cork Street

Jane and her brothers are believed to have slept at an inn on Cork Street in Mayfair on her first visit to London in 1796. Cork Street was a short walk from White Horse Cellar on Piccadilly (the present site of the Burlington Arcade) – where Jane was likely to have disembarked as it was a popular coach drop-off for travellers from the south and west of England.

– Cork Street, Mayfair, W1S. Nearest station: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park.

  • 64 Sloane Street

Jane’s older brother Henry and his wife Eliza moved from nearby Brompton (where they lived in 1808) to Sloane Street by the time Jane visited in 1811. Henry was a banker at the time so could entertain his sibling with parties and trips to the theatre. Jane returned for another visit in 1813. Today, the building is Grade II listed and is home to an investment bank, with its façade dating back to a redevelopment by Fairfax Wade in the late 19th century. The original house inside dates back to 1780.

– 64 Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, SW1X 9SH. Nearest station: Knightsbridge or Sloane Square.

  • 10 Henrietta Street

Jane lived with her brother at Henrietta Street during summer 1813 and March 1814. In 1813, Henry was devastated by the death of his wife Eliza. Soon after her passing, Henry moved to rooms above Tilson’s bank on Henrietta Street. Jane and their niece Fanny Knight visited him there in the spring of 1814.

– 10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 8PS. Nearest station: Covent Garden or Charing Cross.

  • 23 Hans Place

Henry moved round the corner from Sloane Street to Hans Place in 1814 – a year after his wife Eliza died. Jane stayed at the house during her visits in 1814 and October-December 1815. Jane was fond of the building and the square’s garden. The author travelled to London in 1815 while she was preparing her novel ‘Emma’ for publication. While there, her brother became seriously ill so Jane remained in the city to nurse him back to health. It is believed this was Jane’s last visit to ‘town’, as she died in Hampshire 19 months later. Today, No.23 has been redeveloped, but No.s 15, 33 and 34, as well as the garden from the original period, still exist. A blue plaque commemorates Jane’s time at the residence.

– Hans Place, Knightsbridge, SW1X. Nearest station: Knightsbridge.

  • Carlton House

During her visit to London is 1815, Jane was invited to the Prince Regent’s (the future King George IV) library at Carlton House by the royal librarian James Stanier Clarke (1766–1834). The latter suggested Jane dedicate ‘Emma’ to the prince, and despite her disdain for the royal, she was in no position to refuse. Carlton House was demolished the following decade, with Carlton House Terrace being erected on the site in the 1820s.

– Carlton House Terrace, St James, SW1Y 5AH. Nearest stations: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.

Buy some tea like Jane in Twining’s flagship in the Strand

  • Twining’s flagship store

The oldest tea shop in London has been trading on Strand for over 300 years. The Austen family, including Jane, visited the shop to buy their tea. Jane wrote in her diary that her mother Cassandra (1739-1827) had asked her to pick up some Twining’s tea to bring back west. She also refers to the price of tea going up in a March 1814 letter to her sister Cassandra (1773-1845), written from Henrietta Street.

– 216 Strand, Aldwych, WC2R 1AP. Nearest station: Temple. For more information, visit the Twining’s website.

  • Astley’s Amphitheatre

Jane was entertained at Astley’s Amphitheatre during a trip to London and referenced the location in ‘Emma’. The performance venue was opened by Philip Astley in 1773 and is considered the first modern circus ring. Although the Amphitheatre is long gone, a plaque on the site remains today. It makes an appearance in ‘Emma’, as the location of Robert Martin and Harriet Smith’s reconciliation and subsequent engagement.

– Cornwall Road, Waterloo, SE1 8TW. Nearest station: Waterloo. Read the rest of this entry

Little Dorrit, Dickens and debt | The remains of Marshalsea prison in Borough

Discover the history of one of London’s most famous prisons, where Charles Dickens’ father John was jailed.

Marshalsea wall Borough © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The remains of Marshalsea Prison in Borough

Up until the late 19th century, there were dozens of prisons in central London. While a few, such as The Clink or the Tower of London – are still standing (albeit without prisoners), most have been long demolished. One of these lost London prisons may have been closed for over 170 years, but its name has been immortalised thanks to Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

The Marshalsea prison stood in Southwark for nearly 500 years. The Marshalsea originally opened at what is now 161 Borough High Street in 1373. The name is adapted from the old English word “marshalcy” which means “the office, rank, position of a Marshal”. In its early years, it housed men accused of crimes at sea, as well as other ‘land’ crimes. Among the famous prisoners of Marshalsea included the playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), who was imprisoned in 1597 for his “lewd” play The Isle of Dogs, which caused much offence and was suppressed by order of Queen Elizabeth I. Prior to prison reform in the 19th century, prisons were run for private profit. Prisoners had to pay for rent, food and clothes and furnish their own cells. A community sprung up within Marshalsea, with shops and restaurants being run by prisoners.

By the late 16th century, the prison was already in bad condition, but it wasn’t until 1799 the government decided it was time to rebuild. The new Marshalsea was rebuilt 130 yards at the current site of 211 Borough High street, costing £8,000. When it opened in 1811, it was split into two sections – one for debtors and another for mariners under court marshal. By the 18th and 19th century, debt was responsible for nearly half of England’s prison population. Usually, those in debt only spent a few months in the prison. Conditions were cramped and unpleasant, with sometimes up to four people sharing a cell measuring 10ft 10in by 8ft high.

Marshalsea wall © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Most of Marshalsea Prison was demolished in 1870

Read the rest of this entry

Discovering the World War II shelter-turned-memorial at Stockwell

The history of the colourful pillbox memorial on a Stockwell traffic island.

Stockwell War Shelter © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Stockwell deep-level shelter has been turned into a war memorial

Around the country, many a traffic island is home to a war memorial. However, one particular south London island has a rather more colourful tribute to the war dead in an unusual format. In fact, this memorial started life as an important space to shelter Londoners from the Nazi bombs during World War II.

At the junction of Clapham Road and South Lambeth Road, just moments from Stockwell tube station, is the Stockwell War Memorial. The memorial is in two parts – the oldest of the two is dedicated to the fallen of World War I, while the more recent one was built during the World War II.

Stockwell War Shelter © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Poppies cover the pillbox entrance shaft

In the early part of the Second World War, some civilians and government officials were concerned the available shelters weren’t quite robust enough to withstand the bombing. Time was of the essence so a plan to build deep-level shelters underneath existing tube stations was deemed the speediest and most cost-effective option. Originally 10 shelters were planned, but in the end only eight were constructed. Building began in 1941, and by 1942 they were complete. The shelters were mostly located by Northern line stations, including Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common, Camden Town, Belsize Park, Goodge Street and Clapham South, with another near the Central line station Chancery Lane.

The Stockwell deep-level shelter is located below Stockwell station and features two parallel tunnels, measuring 16ft in diameter and split horizontally with upper and lower levels. The shelters were accessed by two, pillbox-shaped entrance shafts – one being the war memorial on Stockwell’s traffic island, and the other on Studley Road. The tunnels would have fit hundreds of beds to accommodate Londoners overnight, while there were further spaces for toilets, medical assistance and ventilation. The Stockwell shelter was completed in September 1942, but was initially used by the government until it opened to the public in 1944. With the war finishing a year later, it fortunately didn’t get much use. After V-day, the Stockwell shelter was briefly used to house military personnel.

For decades, the shelter remained an ugly eyesore on the South Lambeth Road. However, Brian Barnes and Myra Harris turned it into a war memorial in 1999. Brainstorming with schoolchildren at nearby Stockwell Park School, the images were inspired by local history. Among the famous faces pictured include actor Sir Roger Moore – who grew up in Stockwell – and artist Vincent Van Gogh, who briefly lived in nearby Hackford Road during 1873-74. It also depicts the MV Empire Windrush ship, which brought Caribbean emigrants to Britain, with many settling in Brixton and the surrounding areas. Some new arrivals ending up sleeping in a makeshift hostel in the Clapham South deep-level shelter until they found more long-term accommodation.

The mural was expanded in June 2001 with the addition of war hero and special agent Violette Szabo (1921-1945), who spent her teen years living in Stockwell. The top of the mural features a quote from Robert Laurence Binyon’s (1869-1943) poem ‘For the Fallen’, originally published in September 1914.

  • The Stockwell War Memorial can be found on the roundabout at the junction of South Lambeth Road and Clapham Road, Stockwell, SW8 1UG. Nearest station: Stockwell.

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Hold fire! The story behind the cannon bollard on Bankside

Is this bollard really a captured French cannon from the Battle of Trafalgar?

Bankside bollards © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The old cannon bollards of Bankside

While most of London’s street furniture has a purpose, you’d be surprised how many items have a special story or history behind them. Some items of street furniture – especially from the Victorian era – are often very attractive, such as the ‘Dolphin’ street lamps on the Thames embankments, or water fountains. However, when it comes to bollards, more often than not, they are pretty unremarkable. Bollards vary in design, from plain Georgian ones to modern electronic ones which can be lowered automatically on command.

Since at least the 17th century, bollards originated primarily as posts on a ship or dock for mooring boats. As mariners and shipyard workers would have easy access to old cannons, they would use them as bollards half-buried in the ground. The shaft would be blocked with either dirt or a large cannonball.

Bankside bollards © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

It’s unlikely this cannon was salvaged from the Battle of Trafalgar

Today, most of the cannon bollards around London have been replaced with more modern offerings, although a few still remain. While today, a pier exists on Bankside for the Thames Clippers river boat service, in previous centuries, the Thames would have been heaving with boats and there would be a constant demand for mooring bollards. One of these original bollards on Bankside has sparked much debate about where it originated from.

Located a few metres from Southwark Bridge on Bankside, is a weathered black bollard, which has been linked to the Battle of Trafalgar. The story goes that after Nelson’s fleet defeated the French in 1805, the victors stripped the French boats. Although the Brits were able to reuse a lot of the French ships’ contents, the cannons were apparently too large to be retrofitted on British Ships. It was claimed the British decided to reuse the French cannons as street bollards in London as a way to flaunt their victory. Read the rest of this entry

Two Temple Place | A look inside a unique Neo-Gothic office built for the world’s richest man

The history behind this Victorian office, now home to exhibition and events spaces.

Two Temple Place exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Two Temple Place looks over the Victoria Embankment and River Thames

Standing on the eastern edge of the City of Westminster is a striking neo-Gothic building. Overlooking the River Thames and the Victoria Embankment is Two Temple Place. Although today the building is an events space and exhibition venue, it started life as an office for the world’s richest man.

The Great Hall gallery is supported by ebony columns

William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) was an American attorney, publisher, philanthropist and politician. After an initial career in law and politics, Astor inherited his father John Jacob Astor III’s fortune in 1890, making him exceptionally wealthy. The same year, he financed the building of the original Waldorf Hotel in New York City, which opened in 1893 and stood for 36 years before being demolished to make way for the Empire State Building.

Astor cut short his life in the Big Apple following a family feud and relocated to Britain in 1891. In addition to falling out with his aunt Caroline Astor, he also believed England would be safer for his children against the threat of kidnap. He bought a plot of land in legal district of Temple and commissioned Gothic Revival architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897) to build him a London office. Although intended as an office, Astor also wanted residential space. As Two Temple Place was being built, Astor bought the Buckingham estate Cliveden for his family to live in. He later expanded his property portfolio with Hever Castle in Kent in 1903, as well as bank-rolling the building of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in London’s Aldwych.

Two Temple Place Great Hall © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The hammerbeam roof is made of Spanish mahogany

Two Temple Place entrance © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

William Silver Frith’s lamppost sculptures of cherubs holding telephones

Originally named the Astor Estate Office, it was completed in 1895. Two Temple Place is a two-storey building, with a Gothic-Elizabethan-style exterior made of Portland stone. Among the rooms included were the great hall, library and strong room with two fortified safes to protect Astor’s riches. English sculptor Nathaniel Hitch (1845–1938) created ornate features, including gargoyles, on the exterior, while a golden likeness of Christopher Columbus’ ship La Santa Maria – which he used to sail to America – was erected as a weathervane. British sculptor William Silver Frith (1850–1924) made the ornamental lamppost sculptures of cherubs holding early telephones at the portico front entrance. The communicative angels celebrate the fact that Two Temple Place was one of the first houses in the capital to have a working telephone.

With such a fortune at Astor’s disposal, there was no expense spared on the entirety of the building project. The rooms were all decked out in wood-panelling, giving it an ‘olde world’ feel. English metal worker J Starkie Gardner (1844-1930) created ornate metalwork for the interior and exterior of the building. Meanwhile, the Astor family’s interior decorator John Dibblee Crace (1838-1919) took inspiration from the French Renaissance for the furnishings. Astor was a huge fan of symbolism and wanted the building to link the old world with the new world. Around 54 characters from history and fiction are depicted in carvings in the entrance hall or on the gilded frieze in the Great Hall, including Marie Antoinette, Pocahontas, Anne Boleyn, Niccolò Machiavelli, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra, Macbeth, Othello, and characters from The Three Musketeers – Astor’s favourite book. One of the building’s main attractions is the grand, oak staircase. Standing on the inlaid marble floor, you look up to see wood carvings, a square gallery and a square-domed, stained glass ceiling supported by ebony Corinthian columns. Read the rest of this entry

Baroque and art nouveau collide at Old Finsbury Town Hall

The history behind the Old Finsbury Town Hall.

The Great Hall in Old Finsbury Town Hall

Finsbury Town Hall exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The red brick façade facing Rosebery Avenue

Around the capital, there are many town halls no longer being used for the purpose for which they were originally intended. For example, Bethnal Green Town Hall is now a five-star hotel, Battersea Town Hall has been reborn as the Battersea Arts Centre, while Deptford Town Hall is now part of Goldsmiths University campus. A string of town halls were built in the late 19th century and early 20th century as civic responsibility increased and the population boomed. When the London Metropolitan boroughs were established in 1900, the boundaries of London were considerably smaller than they are today (with most current London boroughs in zones 4-6 excluded).

One Victorian town hall still standing, but no longer in use as a local government building, is Old Finsbury Town Hall in Clerkenwell. Located on Rosebery Avenue, it is built on the site of Clerkenwell Vestry Hall. The Vestry Hall was originally the Spa Fields watch house, which was built in 1813-1814. Designed by the New River Company’s surveyor W.C. Mylne, the watch house was a two-storey building on the junction of Garnault Place and Rosoman Street. The building included two prison cells, a commissioners’ boardroom and a yard for holding stray cattle. It then became a local police station following the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, later becoming a meeting hall in 1856.

The art nouveau canopy entrance on Rosebery Avenue

By the late 19th century, the Vestry Hall was much maligned and too small to host local meetings. Finsbury was being redeveloped with slum housing being demolished and the building of a new road named Rosebery Avenue. English architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930) – famous for designing the Victoria & Albert Museum and Admiralty Arch – was appointed to judge a competition for designs for replace the Clerkenwell Vestry in 1892-3. A design by rising architect Charles Evans-Vaughan (1857-1900) beat out a dozen or so others, with Charles Dearing of Islington winning the £14,724 13s contract to build it. Evans-Vaughan is also responsible for designing the Bridge House Farm Estate in Brockley, south-east London and the Welsh church in Falmouth Road, Southwark. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1887, but sadly died in his 40s of typhoid fever just three years later.

The existing Old Finsbury Town Hall you see today was built in two stages. The first part of the building was erected between 1894-1895 and was named Clerkenwell Vestry Hall, adjoining the early 19th century Vestry Hall. It was inaugurated in summer 1895 by Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929). The Earl was Prime Minister at the time of opening and the inspiration for Rosebery Avenue, which was named in tribute to him for being the first chairman of the London County Council (LCC). The new Vestry Hall entrance was on the new Rosebery Avenue and featured the stunning iron and stained glass, art nouveau canopy. The new building was designed in the fashionable ‘contemporary free style’ of the time, with a mix of Flemish Renaissance, Baroque and art nouveau influences. The façade features Red Ibstock brick and Ancaster stone dressing, Portland stone, tiled gabled roofs and a clock and weathervane.

Read the rest of this entry

Shopping in Style – Part 6 | The lost Lowther Arcade on the Strand

A late Georgian shopping arcade became a toy mecca for Victorian children until its demolition in 1902.

The Strand 1901 © Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

The Lowther Arcade (left) in 1901 – a year before its demolition
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The West End has been a shopping destination for Londoners and tourists for over two centuries. Along with popular thoroughfares like Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street, there is also a selection of shopping arcades, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the elements. Today, two of the capital’s existing shopping arcades are over 200 years old. However, one Georgian shopping arcade barely survived into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. This post is a long-delayed addition to Metro Girl’s Shopping in Style series, which explores the history of London’s shopping arcades.

After the success of the capital’s first two shopping arcades – the Royal Opera and Burlington, plans were made for another arcade on Strand. Lowther Arcade was designed by architect Witherden Young and built by William Herbert in 1830 (see Young’s architectural plans). It was named after William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (1787-1872), who was Chief Commissioner of the Woods and Forests from 1828-1830. Lowther Arcade ran from the Strand to Adelaide Street and was 245 foot long, 20 foot wide and 30 foot high. The arcade featured 24 small shops, with two storeys above the shop level. The arcade was designed in a Greco-Italian style and was topped by a series of glass domes, flooding the aisle with light. Its classical design complemented the eastern end of Strand (No.s 430-449), which had been redeveloped by Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) in 1830. Although shorter in length, Lowther Arcade was often referred to as the ‘twin’ of the Burlington Arcade in Mayfair. Just like the Burlington, the Lowther management also employed a Beadle to maintain order.

An 1883 illustration of the Lowther Arcade shops
(From “London Town” by Felix Leigh, illustrated by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton on Wikimedia Commons)

After opening, Lowther Arcade quickly won over Londoners with its architecture and atmosphere. In his 1834 book National History and Views of London and Its Environs, Volumes 1-2, Charles Frederick Partington wrote: “The Lowther Arcade is decidedly the most elegant establishment of this description erected in the metropolis… When we compare the costly and elegant bijoutrie exhibited for sale, it will be found the dealers lose nothing by comparison with those celebrated in the Arabian Nights and other works of eastern fiction.”

At the north end of the arcade was the Adelaide Gallery, a forerunner to the Science Museum. Opened by American inventor Jacob Perkins (1766-1849), it didn’t prove that successful and was replaced by an amusement hall in the 1840s. It then became home to Signor Brigaldi’s Italian Marionettes in 1852, and during another period was used as a music hall. Read the rest of this entry

The story behind Fleet Street’s boldest art deco façade | The Express Building

Discover the history of this 1930s London office block, which was once home to Britain’s biggest newspaper.

The Daily Express Building is one of the boldest Art Deco structures in the capital

Along Fleet Street is a bold Art Deco building, which stands out amongst its more muted, grey neighbours. No. 120-129 is a Modernist remainder of the street’s journalism heyday in the early 20th century. Until 30 years ago, the building was home to the Daily Express newspaper. Founded in 1900 by Sir Arthur Pearson (1866-1921), the Express was originally printed in Manchester before moving to Fleet Street in the early 1930s.

The newspaper’s name remains on the building

The bold black and glass building was constructed from 1930-1932 to a design by architects Herbert O. Ellis and W.L. Clarke. The duo were commissioned by the Express’s then owner, William Maxwell Aitken, Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1960) to extend the existing newspaper buildings towards Fleet Street. Their original designs featured a steel-framed structure, clad in Portland Stone. However, the narrowness of the plot and Aitken’s requirements for room to have printing presses in the basement, meant their first proposal was canned. Aitken then brought in London-born architect and engineer, Sir Evan Owen Williams (1890-1969) to improve the plans. Although he started out as an aircraft designer, Williams won fame with his buildings for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 (including being the engineer for the old Wembley Stadium) and later designed the Dorchester Hotel, the Boots factory in Nottingham, the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre and the first section of the M1 motorway. Williams redesigned the building’s exterior, with black Vitrolite panels and chromium strips replacing the Portland stone façade. Meanwhile, Robert Atkinson (1883-1952) designed the ground floor entrance, with a chrome canopy and the Daily Express spelt out in Art Deco lettering. Atkinson’s striking lobby features two plaster reliefs – ‘Britain’ and ‘Empire’ – by British sculptor Eric Aumonier (1899-1974). as well as silver and gilt decorative features and a grand oval staircase. The finished building is widely considered one of the best examples of Streamline Moderne architecture in the capital.

The building certainly stands out on Fleet Street

The building was joined by neighbouring Aitken House to the east in the mid 1970s, erected on the site of some smaller Victorian buildings. It was clad in similar black panels to the original Daily Express building so the two buildings looked like one huge building on Fleet Street (see a photo in 1990). While the extra office space was needed for Daily and Sunday Express staff, Aitken House ruined the shape and symmetry of the original 1930s design.

In March 1972, the Express building was Grade II* listed because of its Art Deco features, as well as its concrete frame structure. After over 50 years on Fleet Street, the Express group followed in the footsteps of many other newspapers and departed the building in 1989.

By 2000, the building was entirely refurbished and neighbouring Aitken House was demolished. John Robertson Architects restored the original building, including the façade and glazing, as well as replicated and reinstated the lost Art Deco features of the lobby. Investment bank Goldman Sachs leased the building until 2019. It will be interesting to see which tenants move in next…

  • The Express Building, 120-129 Fleet Street, City of London, EC4. Nearest stations: City Thameslink or Temple.

Discover the history of the Daily Telegraph building on Fleet Street.

Find out the story of No.186 Fleet Street.

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The Swan & Edgar building in Piccadilly Circus | One of London’s lost department stores

The history of the Swan & Edgar department store in Piccadilly Circus.

The former Swan & Edgar building at Piccadilly Circus

The decline of the department store is a frequently mentioned casualty of the ever-changing retail industry. A host of department stores in London have been closed down over the decades, with the buildings left behind leaving little trace of the retail giants which one inhabited them. Once household names such as Pontings, Pratts, Bourne & Hollingsworth, and Gamages, have been consigned to the history books. Among these lost London department stores was Swan & Edgar, whose flagship building still exists, looming large over Piccadilly Circus.

Cumbrian-born William Edgar (1791-1869) met George Swan (d.1821) in the early 19th century. At the time, Edgar was running a haberdashery stall in St James Market, while Swan had a shop on Ludgate Hill in the City of London. They went into business together in Ludgate Hill, before moving to 20 Piccadilly in 1812. Business was soon booming and they made over £80,000 in their first year. Nine years later, Swan sadly died, but his business partner Edgar honoured his memory by continuing to trade in their joint name. Swan & Edgar moved to 49 Regent Street in 1841. By 1848, business was going so well, the store expanded to numbers 45-51 Regent Street and the corner of Piccadilly Circus.

Edgar ended up outliving with business partner by over four decades, passing away in 1869. He lived the last two decades of his life with his wife Frances and their five children at Eagle House on Clapham Common’s South Side. The Georgian building was mostly demolished after Frances’ death in 1889, although parts of the south wing exist today as mews housing. The couple are buried in one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries: West Norwood Cemetery in south London.

Swan & Edgar 1909 Wikimedia Commons

The Victorian Swan & Edgar store in 1909
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Although both founders had died, their names continued to live on through the department store as it continued trading. An 1883 advert boasted the huge range of articles offered for sale, billing the store as “wholesale and retail silk mercers, drapers, furriers/ Mantle and costume makers and seal skin merchants/ Novelty and economy in dress/ All articles of fashion of the latest styles and reliable quality”. The department store’s popularity was boosted by the opening of the nearby Piccadilly Circus tube station in 1906 and became a popular meeting place for friends and lovers to rendezvous. In December 1901, the managing director Walter Morford (who had been in the role since 1895), ended up in trouble with the police over the store. People complained his moving window displays were causing congestion on the pavement, with sometimes hundreds of people blocking the pavement to look at the action. Morford ignored several police summons, complaining he had spent over £100 on designing the windows to attract customers. Read the rest of this entry

Hoxton Hall | Step inside one of the East End’s surviving Victorian music halls

Hoxton Hall has been entertaining Londoners for over 150 years

Long before TV and cinemas captivated Brits, music halls were a popular form of entertainment. Starting in the 1830s, music halls originally began cropping up in taverns and coffee houses. Landlords started putting on a variety of entertainment for the punters, along with providing them with food and drink. By the 1850s, these variety shows had become so popular, many theatres and pubs were knocked down and replaced with music halls. Hoxton had several popular music halls, including The Eagle on Shepherdess Walk and the Britannia Theatre on Hoxton Street, both of which no longer exist today. At the peak of the entertainment genre’s popularity, there were an estimated 375 music halls in the capital. Performers such as Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno and Little Tich became household names and were in high demand by music halls owners to top their bills.

Hoxton Hall railings © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The original railings

Although most Victorian music halls are long gone, there is one that is still being used for entertainment today. Hoxton Hall in Hoxton Road was originally erected by builder James Mortimer in 1863. The building followed the traditional music hall design, with balconies on three sides overlooking the stage and open floor. Today, the galleries of seating feature the original iron railings and are supported by cast iron columns. Although more modest in size than many music halls at the time, Hoxton Hall is unique for being purpose-built as a music hall as many were converted from pubs. Originally, Mortimer gave his own name to the building – Mortimer Hall – which opened on 7 November 1863. On the opening night bill were singers and conjurers. However, Mortimer didn’t want his hall to just entertain, he also wanted to educate locals with lectures. Unfortunately for Mortimer, his education program wasn’t quite so popular and by 1865 the building was being used by a waste paper merchant.

In 1866, music hall manager James McDonald Jnr bought Mortimer Hall and renamed it McDonald’s Music Hall. He knew what the people of London wanted and offered affordable entertainment for the working classes, including music, circus and performing dogs. Business was booming and McDonald was able to extend the hall in 1867, raising the ceiling and adding a new upper balcony. However, by 1871, McDonald lost his license following police complaints so it was sold. The subsequent owners applied for a new license in 1876, but were refused.

Two tiers of seating overlooking the stage and ground floor

Philanthropist William Isaac Palmer (1824–1893) bought the hall in 1879 for the use of the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Mission, a sobriety movement. Today, Palmer is honoured with the Palmer Room at the hall. The building became home to the Girls Guild for Good Life, a group founded by Sarah Rae, wife of the secretary of the Blue Ribbon Temperance Society. In contrast to its bawdry music hall origins, the hall was being used to educate working class girls with cooking, dressmaking and elocution classes in a bid to warn them away from the ‘sinful’ hobbies of gambling and drinking. The hall was also used for talks and events to encourage temperance by the Blue Ribbon Mission. Read the rest of this entry