01London has always attracted the weird and wonderful. Throughout its history, the city has known countless oddballs and fruitcakes. In the eighteenth century foreign visitors to the capital were often surprised by the frank, if not rude attitude of its population. Society celebrated eccentrics and social rebels. It ridiculed affectation. Hypocrisy was considered an evil. That seems to be a lasting legacy. Cities in general tend to breed conformity, but that encourages single individuals to stand out and be unusual. The passion to be different supplies the air and breath that are essential to the vitality of London life. Loonies are the lungs of an urban culture.

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One such characters was an Irish immigrant into London by the name of James Salter. He had formerly been a barber and a valet to Hans Sloane, before opening a coffee house at no. 59 Cheyne Walk, at the corner of Lawrence Street, in 1697. By 1715 he had moved his coffee house to the west side of Danvers Street, and then in 1718 to its final location at the newly-built no. 18 Cheyne Walk, close to Sloane’s manor house which stood at numbers 19-26 (the mansion was demolished in 1760). He named his Chelsea establishment Don Saltero’s Coffee House. The owner (most likely with a passion for Italian opera) was famous for his punch, he could play the fiddle, and would shave, bleed and draw teeth. He was an Irishman of all trades. Part of the attraction of the coffee house was the display of a large collection of unusual objects and curiosities.

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The modern museum was preceded by what was known as a cabinet of curiosities. These sixteenth century cabinets were gathered by collectors with different social backgrounds and their contents varied according to the means and interests of the owners: physicians collected anatomical specimens; merchants bought rarities from far-flung trading posts; artists gathered prints, drawings and casts of ancient sculpture. By the turn of the seventeenth century collecting became increasingly an obsession of the wealthy and the well-connected. They were hoarding objects into vast personal collections. Starfish, forked carrots, monkey teeth, alligator skins, phosphorescent minerals, Indian canoes, and unicorn tails were acquired eagerly and indiscriminately. Critical taxonomy was rarely in evidence. The curiosity cabinet performed an educational function, facilitating the dissemination of knowledge. Unlike the museum, the curiosity cabinet was not intended for a public audience, but rather for the educated few. The coffee house museum functioned as an intermediate. The collection was there to attract the paying public into the establishment. It was a business venture in which the craving for coffee was linked to the growing urban passion for collecting curiosities and exotics. The experiment proved tremendously popular.

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Saltero’s soon was frequented by Chelsea’s wealthy and fashionable residents, having received a special notice in the Tatler of June 1709. It was a favourite meeting-place for men like Hans Sloane, Richard Mead, and Nathaniel Oldham. As one of the local sights, the house was visited by antiquarian Ralph Thoresby in 1723 and by Benjamin Franklin about 1724. It also features in a passage of Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina (1778).

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Items on display at the coffee house were donated by Hans Sloane, John Munden, Richard Steele and other Chelsea residents. Salter’s museum was an assemblage of oddities, including a petrified crab from China; medals of William Laud, Gustavus Adolphus, and the seven bishops who resisted James II’s declaration of indulgence; William the Conqueror’s flaming sword; Henry VIII’s coat of mail; Job’s tears (of which anodyne necklaces were made); a bowl and ninepins in a box the size of a pea; Madagascar lances; and last but not least: a hat which had belonged to the sister of Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid.

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The curiosities were placed in glass cases in the front room of the first floor. Weapons, skeletons, and fishes covered the walls and ceiling. A poetical autobiography and account of his ‘Museum Coffee House’ appeared in the British Apollo and in Mist’s Journal (22 June 1723). Salter also published A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Don Saltero’s Coffee House in Chelsea which he offered for sale to his customers (no less than forty-eight extant editions range from 1729 to 1795). This Irishman ran a roaring business. Salter died in 1728 and his daughter went on to run the premises as a tavern until 1758. It continued to attract considerable custom, but in 1799 the collection was sold in 121 lots at auction and dispersed.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the coffee house was described as a ‘quiet tavern’, and in 1867 the property was converted into a private residence. Salter’s ‘Chelsea Knackatory’ was not the only establishment that attracted a curious audience with his exhibition of rarities. He had in fact a rival which is evident from another published catalogue entitled A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Adams’s, at the Royal Swan, in Kingsland-road, leading from Shoreditch Church, 1756. This catalogue lists some 500 rarities, including African artefacts. Visitors to the Royal Swan would be entertained by the sight of Walter Raleigh’s tobacco pipe; the Vicar of Bray’s clogs; an engine to shell green peas with; a set of teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; Wat Tyler’s spurs; Adam’s key of the fore and back door to the Garden of Eden, etc. There was fierce rivalry amongst the proprietors of coffee house museums to catch the public’s ear, eye and purse.

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Cheyne Walk, known as the ‘village of palaces’, is named after the Cheyne family who owned an estate on the site. They were Lords of the Manor of Chelsea from 1660 to 1712. The first houses to be built in the Walk were a row of grand Queen Anne houses. At its creation Cheyne Walk was a desirable place to live and remained so to this very day. It can list a long line of famous residents, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (no. 3); novelists George Eliot (no. 4) and Henry James (no. 21); painter James McNeill Whistler (at various times at nos. 21, 72, 96, and 101); author and social critic Thomas Carlyle (no. 24); Dracula’s creator Bram Stoker (no. 27); Hungarian film producer and Jewish refugee Max Schach (no. 35); pop stars Mick Jagger and Marian Faithful (no. 48); novelist Elizabeth Gaskel (no. 93); engineer Marc Brunel (no. 98); prophet Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf of the Moravian Church (no. 99/100); Anglo-French poet Hillaire Belloc (no. 104); and painter J.M.W. Turner (no. 119).

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The life of poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti is an extraordinary success tale in the history of migration. His father, the scholar, poet and revolutionary Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti, was born on 28 February 1783 in Vasto, Kingdom of Naples. The original family name was Della Guardia. Probably the diminutive Rossetti was given to a red-haired ancestor and, for reasons unknown, stuck. The son of a blacksmith, he made an impressive early career. In 1807 he was librettist at the San Carlo opera house in Naples and was later appointed curator of ancient marbles and bronzes in the Capodimonte Museum. His political poetry caused him trouble. As a member of the revolutionary society Carbonari in Naples, he directed his anger against Ferdinand II who had revoked the Constitution in 1821. Gabriele was sentenced to death. He escaped to England via Malta in 1824 never to see his homeland again. In 1826 he married Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori, the daughter of another Italian man of letters, Gaetano Polidori, Tuscan by birth but Londoner by adoption. The couple lived at no. 38 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia.

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It was here that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born. The Rossetti children, all born in London, would make a massive impact on British cultural and artistic life. Gabriele was appointed Professor of Italian at King’s College London in 1831, a post he held until 1847.
09 D.G. Rossetti moved into Tudor House at no. 16 Cheyne Walk soon after the death in February 1862 of his wife, the Pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth Siddall, from an overdose of laudanum. He spent several bohemian years at the place. It was here that he began collecting a menagerie of exotic animals and developed a passion for hoarding antique furniture, blue-and-white china, and vast amounts of bric-a-brac. His former lover and model Fanny Cornforth became housekeeper of the male-dominated daily life at Tudor House.

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Rossetti shared the place with Algernon Charles Swinburne, the ‘demoniac boy’ of poetry. The latter contributed to the dissolute state of the place by drinking past excess to unconsciousness and getting into physical arguments with guests. Whistler, who lived nearby, was a regular visitor. Henry Treffry Dunn, who was Rossetti’s studio assistant and secretary between 1867 and 1880, has left a written account of life in Chelsea in his Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle (Cheyne Walk Life). Dunn illustrated the book himself and his watercolours of Tudor House give a unique and intimate glimpse into the artist’s home – a Chelsea knackatory of chaos and creativity.

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01aVigo Street (originally Vigo Lane) is a short street running between Regent Street and the junction of Burlington Gardens and Savile Row. It is named after the Anglo-Dutch naval victory over the French and Spanish in the 1702 Battle of Vigo Bay, northern Spain, during the opening years of the War of the Spanish Succession. The street has strong literary connections. Publishers John Lane and Elkin Mathews were in partnership in Vigo Street. Together they – notoriously – published The Yellow Book (volumes one and two) in 1894.

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Later they founded The Bodley Head and continued to publish the work until it ceased in 1897. When the partnership ended, both publishers continued to have premises in Vigo Street. Mathews published the first editions of a number of important literary works, including Yeats’s The Wind among the Reeds in 1899 and James Joyce’s Chamber Music in 1907.

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The story of Penguin Books is well-known – in part at least. Its creator Allen Lane had learned the book trade at The Bodley Head, no. 8 Vigo Street, where he was employed by his uncle John. He became a director of the firm when John Lane died in 1925 and was appointed chairman in 1930 while still in his twenties. In 1934, returning from a weekend in Devon, he was upset to find nothing in the Exeter station bookstall that was worth reading on his journey back to London. He decided to re-publish quality titles in cheap paperbacks and settled for the name Penguin Books.

The covers were to be green for detective stories, orange for fiction, and blue for non-fiction, with the title in plain lettering on a broad white band across the middle. He adopted an alternative approach to typography and cover design by appointing Jan Tschichold (born Johannes Tzschichhold on 2 April 1902 at Leipzig) as his typographer.

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After Hitler’s election in Germany, all designers had to register with the Ministry of Culture. Soon after Johannes had taken up a teaching post at the Munich school for German master printers, he was denounced as a ‘cultural bolshevist’. He and his family were placed in ‘protective custody’, but they escaped to Basel where he worked as a freelance typographer. He stayed in Switzerland for most of his life and became a master of his art.

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Between 1947 and 1949 he lived at the Old Mill House, Mill Road, West Drayton, working on the typographical re-design of Penguin Books by imposing on its printers high standards of design and page make-up, consistent with mass production. He was also an accomplished designer of type. Sabon (1966/7) remains to this day one of the most popular typefaces for bookwork. Allen Lane’s venture proved successful. On New Year’s Day 1936 he created Penguin Books as a separate company. In 1950 a leader in The Times saluted him for making up for the loss of Empire by using the English language and classy paperbacks to spread British influence worldwide in a form that was less objectionable, but just as powerful as the earlier imperialism. To any non-British observer such statements remain incomprehensible, because in reality the creation of Penguin and the wider flourishing of post-war publishing in Britain was a truly cosmopolitan affair through the active participation of refugees from the Continent.

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Typographer Hans Schmoller was born on 9 April 1916 in Berlin into a Jewish family. His father was an eminent paediatrician and a pioneer of infant welfare clinics. Having finished his early education in 1933, he intended to study art history but university entry was banned for Jews. Instead he began an apprenticeship as compositor in the Jewish book-printing firm of Siegfried Scholem. From October 1937 to February 1938 he attended a course at the Monotype Technical School, London. Knowing that he could not return to Germany (both his parents died in concentration camps), he accepted a job at the Evangelical Missionary Society in Basutoland (now Lesotho) as manager of its press. He established a reputation as a fine designer and typographer throughout South Africa where he was co-founder of the Imprint Society for the Advancement of the Graphic Arts. He was interned from July 1940 to April 1942 as an enemy alien.

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He moved to London in 1947 where he was appointed manager of the bindery and assistant to Oliver Simon at The Curwen Press, Plaistow. There he designed many handsome catalogues and book jackets. In 1949 he replaced Jan Tschichold as typographer at Penguin Books and acted as head of production from 1956. From 1960 to his retirement in 1967 he was a director of the company. During his Penguin years Schmoller played a crucial role in post-war British typography. Some of his outstanding achievements include Buildings of England (written by the historian Nikolaus Pevsner, himself a Jewish immigrant) and The Complete Pelican Shakespeare.

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London in the 1950s liberated British artists. The Bohemian underworlds of Fitzrovia and Soho were brimming over with ideas and movements: Neo-Romanticism, Social Realism, Pop Art, the Kitchen Sink School, Abstract Expressionism and others. Soho symbolised the energy of a city in intellectual and artistic ferment after the shell-shock of war. In the midst of it all were large numbers of displaced refugee intellectuals and artists who were desperate to build up a new career and identity.

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London turned into a cosmopolitan melting pot. Situated on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street, Café Torino was a favoured spot for many of the political and art sects prevalent in London in the mid-1950s. Its marble-topped tables were home to exiled Spanish Republicans, anarchists and communists plotting the overthrow of Franco. To them the house was known as the ‘Madrid’. Above all, it stood as a testament to the enduring influence of cafés on the creative life of post-war Britain. Cafés like Torino were part of the birth of British ‘cool’. Torino had been run by the Italian Minella family since before the war. Officially it was a restaurant serving pizza, spaghetti and risotto, but clients could talk for hours over a small cup of coffee without being disturbed. One of its regulars was Germano Facetti.

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Graphic designer Facetti was born on 5 May 1926 in Milan. He was arrested in 1943 by the Germans as a member of the resistance and for putting up anti-Fascist posters. He was deported to the labour camp of Mauthausen, Austria, which he survived. There he met Lodovico di Belgiojoso who later invited him to join his BBPR architectural partnertship in Milan (another partner Gianluigi Banfi had died in the camp). He moved to London in 1952 where he took evening classes in typography at the Central School of Art & Design. By the late 1950s he was art director at Aldus Books, Fitzrovia, and working as an interior designer. His planning for the Poetry Bookshop in Soho motivated Allen Lane, director of Penguin, to hire his services in 1960.

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Facetti was instrumental in re-designing the Penguin line, in particular Penguin Classics, introducing photo-typesetting, the ‘Romek Marber grid’, offset-litho printing, and photography to their paperback covers, that set the benchmark for exemplary design in the publishing world. He helped establish the Design and Art Directors Association in London in 1963. Working at Penguin until 1972 (when he returned to Milan), his book covers gave an unmatched visual impact to a series of paperbacks that would make a lasting impact on British cultural life.

Romek Marber was born in Poland on 25 October 1925 into a Jewish family. In 1939, he was deported to the Bochnia ghetto. In 1942, Marber was saved from being sent to the Belzec death camp by Gerhard Kurzbach (a commander who is credited with saving many Jews). He eventually arrived in Britain in 1946. He followed a course in Commercial Art at St Martin’s School of Art in the early 1950s and attended the Royal College of Art in 1953.

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During the late 1950s, his work for The Economist impressed Penguin’s art director Germano Facetti who, in 1961, commissioned him to design covers for Simeon Potter’s Our Language and Language in the Modern World. Facetti has taken credit for the re-styling of Penguin books during that decade, but the essential new look of modern Penguins was the work of Romek Marber. Facetti asked Marber to submit a proposal for a new cover approach for the Penguin Crime series. His arrangement was adopted for much of the rest of the Penguin line giving that publisher its distinctive visual unity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Marber retired in 1989, becoming a Professor Emeritus of Middlesex University.

A German ‘cultural bolshevist’, an Italian communist, a German and a Polish Jew – these refugees created the iconic look of a famous publishing institution. Penguin was (and remains) a great British team in the premier league of culture – most of its star players had been foreigners.

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Jeweller and watchmaker Mosheh Oved was born in 1885 in Russian Poland. He settled in London around 1902 where he became involved in the jewellery trade and founded his own shop, Cameo Corner (originally Good’s Cameo Corner). Cameo Corner was the principal centre for the sale of jewellery in London for the first half of the twentieth century. It was located first at no. 1 New Oxford Street and after the Second World War in Museum Street – always within easy reach of the British Museum.

 

1987-294Mosheh Oved (alias Edward Good) was a well-known figure in London’s Jewish community and a founder member of the Ben Uri Jewish Art Society. He designed and made his own jewellery and metalwork, and was also interested in sculpture; he was a friend of Jacob Epstein, whose work he collected. He wrote several books on aspects of his life and Jewry in Europe, and especially a series of memoirs, assembled in a single volume Visions and Jewels published first in Hebrew, then in an English translation (1952).

His wife Sah Oved was born Gwendolyn Ethel Rendle in 1900. She served her apprenticeship with the Arts and Crafts jeweller John Paul Cooper until 1923 and subsequently created some of the most original and striking jewellery designs before the Second World War. In 1961 a collection of her jewellery designs was shown in the First International Jewellery Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Mosheh had died three years previously.

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Gauden Road (Clapham)
Chess player Vera Menchik was born on 16 February 1906 in Moscow. Her father was Bohemian and the manager of several estates owned by the nobility in Russia. His English wife Olga worked a governess. After the Revolution her father lost his livelihood.

The marriage broke down and in the autumn of 1921 Olga and her two daughters returned to Hastings to live with her mother. Vera joined the Hastings Chess Club in March 1923. In January 1926 she won the first Girls’ Open Championship at the Imperial Club in London with her younger sister Olga coming third. She won the first Women’s World Championship in 1927 and successfully defended her title six times in every other championship held during her lifetime (losing only one game). She was a member of the West London Chess Club.

In 1944 Vera still held the title of women’s world champion. On 27 June of that year Vera, Olga, and their mother were killed in a German bomb attack which destroyed their home at no. 47 Gauden Road, Clapham. The trophy for the winning team in the Women’s Chess Olympiad is now known as the Vera Menchik Cup.

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01Thames Street (City of London) 01 A shibboleth is a linguistic identity marker. It is a phrase (or custom) that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. Its functions as a password and excludes those that do not ‘belong’. A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider. In ancient Hebrew dialects the word meant ear (of grain or corn).
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The book of Judges (chapter xii: 1-15) describes the battle between two Semitic tribes in which the Ephraimites are defeated by the Gileadites. The victorious soldiers set up a blockade across the Jordan River to prevent fleeing enemies to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no sh sound in their language, pronounced the word with an s. They were thereby unmasked and killed. It is a way of ethnic cleansing that has become all too familiar. Time and again, during armed ethnic conflicts language is a tool for persecution and brutality. In the late 1970s during riots in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese forces at makeshift roadblocks stopped cars and forced passengers to say a phrase or two. Physically, they could not distinguish between Sinhalese and Tamils. But they could tell by word choice, accent, and intonation. Anyone who spoke in an identifiably Tamil manner was hauled out of the car and beaten up. Such examples are as numerous as they are disturbing.

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The word ‘mob’ is derived from the Latin phrase mobile vulgus (the fickle crowd). It had its origin at the period of the Exclusion Crisis when the nation became divided into party and faction, Whig versus Tory. Elections for parliament, and other public meetings, resulted inevitably in riots, fights and other disturbances. Initially the word ‘the mobile’ circulated. It was soon shortened to ‘mob’. The term gradually entered the language that Londoners used to describe disorder over the next few decades. Many objected to the influx of new ‘slang’ abbreviations but most of such words took root relatively quickly. The protests of those who like Swift objected to the neologism and insisted on the older word ‘rabble’ were ignored. Justices of the peace did not use the term to refer to riots in their Court of Quarter Sessions records until the first decade of the eighteenth century.

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The connotation of ‘party political’ unrest may be a relatively recent one, but rioting had long been a facet of urban life. Londoners were used to disorder in the metropolis. The first manifestation of mob violence in the capital was caused by the imposition of the poll tax in 1381. The revolt took place in the dark aftermath of the Black Death epidemic of the late 1340s which had devastating socio-economic consequences both in rural and urban parts of the country. Rioters rebelled against the landowning classes and the incompetent government of Richard II. They murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer of England, numerous lawyers and royal servants, and laid siege to the Tower of London. This, the Peasant’s Revolt, began in the Essex village of Fobbing in May 1381 with the arrival of a Royal tax commissioner, John Bampton, enquiring into evasion of the new tax. Unrest spread quickly through the county and then into Kent. On 7 June Wat Tyler joined the uprising in Maidstone and assumed leadership of the Kentish rebels. He marched his men into London. They left a trail of destruction behind them, including the burning of Savoy Palace, home of the hated, the fourth son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault who took his name from his godfather, John, Duke of Brabant, one of Edward’s allies in the Low Countries. Gaunt is a corrupted form of Ghent. Bringing the riot under control proved difficult and the rebellion soon appeared to be out of control. A horde of drunken men went in search of immigrants and a massacre took place in the neighbourhood of St Martin’s Vintry.

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The revolt turned out to be a lynch party long before the word ‘lynching’ was entered into the dictionary. The spirit of rebellion lasted all summer. The violence in London was related by the anonymous author of the Anonimalle Chronicle 1333 to 1381 who has left the following record: ‘whoever could catch any Fleming or other aliens of any nation, might cut off their heads; and so they did accordingly … they went to the church of St Martin’s in the Vintry, and found therein thirty-five Flemings, whom they dragged outside and beheaded in the streets .On that day there were beheaded 140 or 160 persons. Then they took their way to the places of Lombards and other aliens, and broke into their houses, and robbed them of all their goods that they could discover’. Jack Straw was a leading figure in the London riots who was later executed for his involvement. In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale Geoffrey Chaucer (whose father lived locally) refers to the massacre of Flemings by Straw and his gang:

Jack Straw and all his followers in their brawl

Were never half so shrill, for all their noise,

When they were murdering those Flemish boys.

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One of the victims was an illegitimate wine merchant, financier and royal advisor Richard Lyons who was of Flemish descent. He was beheaded in Cheapside on 14 June 1381. His head was carry round the city on a pole. At his death he held lands in Essex, Kent, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire, as well as London property which included a large house in Thames Street, a narrow riverside street in Vintry, which contained grand residences of courtiers and merchants. The street represented money, authority and foreign influence. Dozens of Flemings were dragged from their dwellings and the sanctuary of city churches, beheaded, and their bodies left to rot. Nobody was spared during that violent outburst, except those who could plainly pronounce the shibboleth ‘bread and cheese’. If their speech sounded anything like ‘brot and cawse’, off went their heads, as a sure mark they were Flemish. Language has been a controversial aspect of the immigration debate from the outset.

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Another eye witness was an immigrant. Historian and poet Jean Froissart was born at Valenciennes, Hainault, towards the end of 1337. This county was then part of the Low Countries in the western tip of the Holy Roman Empire (now in France). Around 1360 he was employed by Philippa of Hainault, Queen Consort of Edward III, as court poet and historian. In his Chronicles he depicts the London rebellion describing Wat Tyler as a ‘tiler of houses, an ungracious patron’. A lavishly illustrated edition of the Chronicles was commissioned by Louis of Gruuthuuse, a nobleman within the Burgundian court and bibliophile from Bruges, who was awarded the title of Earl of Winchester by Edward IV in 1472. The four volumes contain 112 miniatures of various sizes painted by some of the best Brugeois artists of the day, including splendid images of Richard II meeting the rebels, and the murder of Wat Tyler, in the style of Flemish illuminator Loiset Liédet. The London cityscape figures splendidly in the background of both scenes. After the death of Queen Philippa at Windsor Castle in August 1369 Froissart returned to the Continent. It is a bitter irony that one of the bloodiest moments in London’s history helped to bring about what is arguably the most superbly illustrated book about the capital.

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The site of Tyburn Tree at the junction of Edgware Road and Oxford Street was for over 700 years a place of execution. Until 1783 Tyburn served as London’s primary place of hanging, burning and gibbeting. Public displays of executions were once a vital part of the criminal justice system which relied upon fear of retribution.

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The main purpose of severe penalties for even relatively minor crimes was that they would serve as a deterrent. After re-development in the mid-1800s the area became known as Tyburnia. It was laid out with grand squares and cream stuccoed terraces. Thackeray described this residential district as ‘the most respectable district of the habitable globe’. Not a place one would expect political radicalism to manifest itself – and yet, it did.

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On a left-hand corner in Westbourne Terrace one of the last of the original detached houses still stands (now turned into flats). The splendid mansion is named Orsett House. On the evening of 10 April 1861, the property was ablaze with light from thousands of gas-jets, and packed with celebrating Russians, Poles and other émigrés from the Slav nations, as well as a few English radical thinkers, and fellow exiles such as Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini and French socialist Louis Blanc.

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It was a grand occasion to celebrate the Emancipation Reform under Alexander II which effectively abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire. Over the portico of the house two banners flew in the wind with messages of The Free Russian Press on one, and Freedom of the Russian Peasant on the other. Host and organiser of this red hot European party was Alexander Herzen, the first self-proclaimed Russian socialist and the most significant of all the activists who spent years of political exile in nineteenth century London.

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Herzen was born in 1812 in Moscow at a time that the city was being evacuated in the wake of the defeat by Napoleon’s armies. He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner and a German woman whom his father had met while in diplomatic service. In 1829 Herzen entered the University of Moscow to study natural sciences and became the leader of a small group of radical students. In 1834, he and his closest colleague, the poet Nikolai Ogarev, were arrested. He spent six years in prison. In January 1847 Herzen left Russia for Paris with his entourage (wife, three children, his mother, a tutor, and two female dependents) and most of his capital – hardly a stereotype case of revolutionary exile. None of them would see Russia again.

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After the disillusion of the failed 1848 revolution, Herzen moved to London and lived in the capital for some twelve years, first alone, and then with his family, accompanied by the German writer Malwida von Meysenbug, who acted as housekeeper and governess to his children from 1853. Malwida Rivalier von Meysenbug is an intriguing person in her own right. She was born on 28 October 1816 at Kassel in Hesse. Her father, Carl Rivalier descended from a family of French Huguenots and was the principal minister for two Archdukes of Hesse-Kassel. He was granted the vacant Meysenbug title and was later raised into the Habsburg aristocracy. The ninth of ten children, she broke with her family because of her political convictions. She was an avowed democrat and supported demands for constitutionalism in the German states. During the years preceding the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Malwida was more radical than many male revolutionaries in that she advocated equal opportunity for women in education and employment. When Meysenbug moved to Berlin she was placed under police surveillance for mixing in ‘suspicious’ company. Forewarned in May 1852 of her impending arrest she fled by way of Hamburg to London where she became a prominent member of the refugee community. She supported herself by writing romantic novels and short stories with underlying themes of egalitarian utopian societies. More significant are her Memoiren eines Idealistin, the first volume of which she published anonymously in 1869 (followed by two subsequent parts in 1875 and 1876).

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Throughout his stay in the capital, Herzen moved around between dozens of addresses, before settling at Orsett House in November 1860. His life in London was conducted mainly in Russian circles, but he remained a private figure who concentrated on intellectual and propaganda work. In the spring of 1853 he established the ‘Free Russian Press in London: to our Brothers in Russia’. Its printing press was initially housed alongside that of Democratic Poland published by the Polish Democratic Society at no. 38 Regent Square. The arrangement with this society of fellow exiles lasted almost eighteen months, until December 1854 when it was feared that the bailiffs might move in. The Free Russian Press moved to no. 82 Judd Street (in 1857 the office moved to no. 2 in the same street). It was here that the work of the Press took off. In 1855, he published the first volume of Poliarnaia zvezda (The Polar Star). Much of the first volume was written by Herzen himself, although it also contained letters by Michelet, Proudhon, Mazzini, and Hugo, and the correspondence between Belinsky and Gogol.
In April 1856 his former comrade Nikolai Ogarev arrived in London and joined Herzen in working on the Press. It was at no. 2 Judd Street that the Free Russian Press built its reputation with the publication of the weekly newspaper Kolokol (The Bell) which ran from 1865 to 1867 with a circulation of up to 2,500 copies.

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During Herzen’s residence at Westbourne Terrace numerous compatriots travelled to London to visit him, including Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nekrasov, Bakunin, Vasily Botkin, and others. On Sundays, Orsett House was the place to be. The family remained at the residence until June 1863, and then moved out again, this time to Elmfield House, Teddington. Herzen’s inability to settle in exile reflects the restlessness of his mind. He finally left England in 1864. Herzen is the author of a set of magnificent memoirs entitled My Past and Thoughts which are an irreplaceable time document for the European socio-political developments of the day. His presence in London does not take up a prominent part in these memoirs. What the metropolis offered him was anonymity. To him, London was ‘adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude’. This suggestion implies a paradox of political exile: by its very condition it denies the here and now, it looks forward by always looking back, escaping into an almost Confucian dream. Exile and nostalgia are not synonymous, but they stem from similar experiences. They are stories of loss and memory. Nostalgic memory may bring some solace, but the sigh of separation from place, language and culture is forever present. This pain hits exile and newcomer alike. It weighs heavier on the former who lives in anticipation of an imminent return home. The exile is – psychologically at least – banished for the short term. He hates the past, despises the present, and dreams of the days ahead. He seeks consolation in futurity. Utopia is a dissociation from the here and now. Living in the present in order to effect social change is a more difficult task. Herzen was well aware of the challenge and this realisation gives his memoirs their lasting relevance.

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One of the major thoroughfares of the City of London, Cannon Street runs parallel to the Thames from St Paul’s Churchyard in the west to Eastcheap in the east. The street owes its name to one particular local industry. Cannon Street is a corruption of Candlewick Street which relates to the candle makers and wax chandlers who conducted their trade there in the Middle Ages. The name was gradually corrupted into Cannon Street. Pepys already uses the name in his diary. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Cannon Street was home to the Steelyard or ‘Stalhof’, the trading base of the Hanseatic League in London.

London: The Steelyard, Depot of the Hanseatic Merchants

During the high and late Middle Ages the majority of strangers in London were individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I had signed the Carta Mercatoria (Charter of the Merchants), an agreement in which rights were granted to foreign merchants in return for dues and levies. Under its terms overseas traders were free to come and go, import and export; they enjoyed freedom from city and road tolls; and were allowed to enforce contracts and settle disputes. Freedom of trade was inevitably accompanied by freedom of movement. Although attempts were made to regulate migration, many strangers settled in London and were able to pursue their business careers without too many obstacles. In 1334, in exchange for financial assistance, Edward III replaced the general grant of rights to foreign merchants with a particular charter granted specifically to the influential Hanseatic League. This trading company was formed by merchants from several Northern European cities including Bruges, Lübeck, Hamburg, Groningen, Danzig, Copenhagen, Bremen, and Novgorod. The merchants in the League met on a regular basis to make trading agreements and to work out issues of common (often political) interest.

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The Hanse formulated many of our notions of commerce, economic association, the importance of free trade, and the role of the nation state. In its heyday, some seventy cities were regular League members and around one hundred more acted as passive associates without decision-making power. Its London branch occupied a walled area on the north bank of the Thames, just south of London Bridge. It was in effect a separate community, independent of the City of London, and governed by its own code of laws. It was called the Steelyard, either in reference to the great steel beam used for weighing goods, or to the extensive courtyard where products were traded from stalls. The yard was not dissolved until the German cities of Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg sold their common property in 1853.

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Hans Holbein the younger was born in 1497/8 in Augsburg. His father had settled in that city in 1494 and presumably both his sons Ambrosius and Hans took their places in his workshop where he produced large altarpieces. By 1515 Hans and his brother appear to have migrated to Basel. This date is established by the survival of a copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, in which the margins are illustrated in pen and ink by Holbein and his brother. He was active in the city not only as a painter of portraits, religious pictures, and wall paintings, but also as a designer of woodcuts, engravings, and stained glass. Holbein’s earliest surviving dated paintings are the portraits of Jacob Meyer, ‘burgomeister’ of Basel, and that of his wife, both painted in 1516. He was appointed town painter in 1518/19. He may have painted relatively few portraits at the time, but the images he produced of his friend Erasmus in 1523 were prove of his prodigious talent.

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The lure of a lucrative Royal post tempted Holbein to travel to England in 1526. Erasmus had many close contacts there and they helped him to find immediate patronage. His arrival effectively brought the stylistic Renaissance in painting from the Continent to England. He was commissioned to paint a series of portraits, including those of clergyman William Warham (patron of Erasmus), astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer, and of course that of his own patron Thomas More. Holbein’s first visit to England lasted only two years. He left London in 1528 for Basel, but the violent upheavals of the Reformation encouraged a swift return to in 1531/2. He stayed in London until his death in 1543. These were turbulent years in English history too, both politically and socially. During Holbein’s second spell in England, Thomas More resigned from office. Unable to depend on More’s influence to obtain commissions, he found employment amongst fellow countrymen, the German business community in London. Holbein created eight portraits of Steelyard merchants.

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The first of those was a portrait commissioned by Georg Giese, titled ‘Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze’ (1532). This detailed composition may have been intended as a show piece to elicit further Steelyard commissions. A plaque depicted over the sitter’s head identifies him as a person and states his age. He is holding a letter he had received from his brother, written in Middle Low German. The portrait generally thought to have followed that of Georg Giese is that of Hans of Antwerp, which is dated 26 July 1532. This sitter resided in London from 1515 to as late as 1547 and was married to an English woman. He was employed as a jeweller by Thomas Cromwell and associated with the London Steelyard, combining the activities of goldsmith and merchant. Since Hans of Antwerp spent most of his life in London, it seems unlikely that this portrait was sent abroad, which may account for its early entry into the Royal Collection (first recorded in 1639).

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In 1536, Holbein was appointed as painter to the court of Henry VIII. Thereafter, he devoted most of his time to Royal commissions. He is known to have been living in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in Aldgate in 1541 and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever worked at Whitehall Palace. In addition to his role as painter to Henry VIII, Holbein created the portraits of many of the king’s courtiers, as well as those of other prominent figures living in London. A number of painted portraits survive, mostly unsigned, but there are a far greater number of preparatory drawings for them, the vast majority of which (more than eighty) are today in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. Holbein’s surviving portraits and drawings provide an unparalleled depiction of the men and women of the Tudor court, including a striking image of Henry VIII.

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During Holbein’s stay in London the nature of immigration was changing. The Steelyard community had been a class of powerful merchants, influential but aloof, rich but reclusive. Members were welcomed in the highest circles, but did not mix with Londoners in their day to day business. In the course of the century however immigration moved on from a transient presence of merchants to a permanent settlement of an artisan class whose members mainly came from the Low Countries. This change in itself brought about substantial economic benefits to London and the Southeast, but the presence of a large number of strangers also created tension and occasional outbreaks of anti-alien violence. As far as immigration is concerned, Holbein’s portraits represents an earlier, more static state of affairs in the capital.

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