Bishopsgate (London)

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Bishopsgate was anciently divided into Bishopsgate Street Within (i.e. within the walls of London) and Bishopsgate Street Without, and derives its name from an ancient gate in the city walls which is attributed to Erkenwald, elected Bishop of London in 675. Throughout its history this street in Camden has been one of the City’s main commercial centres. A specific nineteenth century addition to the history of city- and streetscapes is the dimension of industrial and commercial activity. This, the age in which religion was replaced by economics, opened up an urban imagery of ports, docks, industrial sites, smoke stacks, factories and shop fronts in painting, poetry and fiction.

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Walter Riddle may not be a household name in the annals of English painting, but the Guildhall Art Gallery holds a few interesting canvases by him. One of these paintings, created in 1872, is entitled ‘Bishopsgate in 1871’. The image shows a busy commercial street with in the centre the warehouse of Moore & Moore, pianoforte manufacturers. The firm started production in London in 1837 and was taken over by the Kemble group in 1933. Whatever the quality of their pianos may have been, the firm was part of a lively history of making musical instruments in the capital.

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Having arrived from Switzerland in 1718 as a simple journeyman joiner, Burkat Shudi set up his own workshop as a harpsichord maker in 1728. It was the foundation of the famous business now known as John Broadwood & Sons. Some time in the 1720s Burkat Shudi became apprenticed to Hermann Tabel, a Fleming who had learned the art of harpsichord making in the famous Antwerp house of the Ruckers dynasty of instrument makers. He was the first person who built harpsichords in London where he resided between 1680 and 1720. Little is known about Tabel, but a harpsichord made by him is in the possession of Helena, Countess of Radnor, and bears the inscription ‘Hermannus Tabel fecit Londini, 1721’. Another London pupil of Tabel was the German immigrant Jacob Kirkman, who set up a rival workshop producing harpsichords of equal quality to those of Shudi. Later, both Broadwood and Kirkman became leading manufacturers of pianos (between 1771 and 1851 no fewer than 103,750 pianos were produced by Broadwood, one of the main London employers at the time).

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The piano was first demonstrated in London by the multi-talented Charles Dibdin (composer, singer, actor, novelist), who is most famous for his sea songs. Between the acts of a performance of The Beggar’s Opera at Covent Garden, on 16 May 1767, he accompanied Miss Bricklet on the ‘new pianoforte’. Dibden lived in Arlington Road, Camden Town, and it was there that the piano industry blossomed. Camden was a suitable centre for its manufacture. Transport conditions by water and rail were ideal. By the middle of the century, London had over two hundred piano making firms, three quarters of them north of the river. Some firms made instruments on a mass production system, as Collard & Collard (originally established as Longman & Broderip in 1767) did in their famous circular factory in Oval Road. Others were merely small assembly shops. Besides manufacturers there were part makers, such as piano key makers; wrench pin makers; hammer coverers; truss carvers; gilders; marquetry workers; veneer, timber and ivory suppliers; makers of piano castors; piano stool makers, piano-back makers; piano tuners and others. All these professionals found a living in and around Bishopsgate.

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The London Tavern was once situated at the western side of Bishopsgate Street. The house was destroyed during a terrifying blaze that took place on 7 November 1765. The fire broke out at a peruque-maker’s shop opposite. The flames were carried by a high wind across the street to the property immediately adjoining the tavern, quickly spreading to other streets. Fifty houses and buildings were destroyed or damaged. The new London Tavern was designed by architect Richard Jupp and re-opened in September 1768. The size of the place was phenomenal. The dining room, known as the ‘Pillar Room’ for its Corinthian columns, was decorated with medallions and garlands. At the top of the building there was a ballroom that extended over the full length of the structure which, if laid out as a banqueting area, offered room to hundreds of people. The walls were covered with paintings. The cellars occupied the whole basement of the building. They were filled with barrels of porter, pipes of port, and butts of sherry. At any time some 1,200 bottles of champagne were kept in store, in addition to six or seven hundred bottles of claret and ‘floods’ of other wines. The original purpose of the tavern was not so much to create a venue for feasting, but to offer space for public meetings.

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In 1817, Robert Owen was determined to publicize his conversion from philanthropic cotton prince to socialist campaigner. He spent much of his time in London organizing public meetings. On 14 August he made his most notable address before an audience of hundreds of politicians, intellectuals, and followers at the London Tavern. The new religion of terrestrial paradise was promised in the tavern. In 1848, the London Chest Hospital was founded here at a meeting held by a group of nineteen City merchants and philanthropic bankers (which at the time was not a contradiction in terms), thirteen of whom were Quakers. Tuberculosis or consumption was then the major endemic killing disease, accounting for twenty per cent of all fatal illnesses. Charles Dickens presided here at the 1851 annual dinner for the General Theatrical Fund. Especially during the spring season meetings were numerous and these often concluded with a sumptuous dinner and entertainment. The London Tavern employed an army of sixty to seventy servants at any time. The majority of City companies held there banquets there; there were la large number of annual balls; Masonic Lodges met in the London Tavern, etc. Business was booming.

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The London Tavern holds a niche in the history of English late eighteenth century music. Dublin-born John Field was the eldest son of violinist Robert Field. He studied first with his father and his grandfather, John Field, a church organist. In 1793, the family moved to London where John Field entered an apprenticeship for seven years with Muzio Clementi, the Italian composer, pianist, and publisher who had settled in the capital. John’s first public appearance in England took place at the London Tavern on 12 December 1793, when he played a ‘Lesson on the new Grand Piano Forte’ at a benefit concert under the patronage of the Prince of Wales. In return for his instruction, Field had to work as a salesman-demonstrator in Clementi’s piano warehouse (the latter had created a successful association with the Collard family under the name of Clementi & Company; Munzio retired in 1815 after which the firm was called Collard & Collard). Field’s early talent as a composer was put to use by his Clementi who published several of young John’s piano pieces anonymously. Field’s professional career as a composer was launched on 7 February 1799 with the performance of his Piano Concerto No. 1 at the King’s Theatre. His apprenticeship expired shortly thereafter, and for the next two years he was in great demand as a concert pianist. Field’s Opus 1 Piano Sonatas was published in 1801. It was dedicated to Clementi. Field’s creation of the ‘Nocturne’ as a genre is his substantial contribution to music. Having experimented with titles such as Pastorale, Serenade, and Romance, he settled on the name when Nocturne No. 1 was published in 1812. In conception and style, Field anticipated Chopin by nearly two decades. Liszt, Mendelssohn, and other composers were influenced by the Nocturnes. These pieces strengthened the Romantic belief that music is the language of emotion that begins where words fail. They were the first ‘songs without words’. Celestial music for piano found its first expression in the London Tavern.

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A successful undertaking as the London Tavern depended heavily on master chefs and cooks. And management hired the best. John Farley is a figure about whom little is known apart from his best-selling book, The London Art of Cookery published in 1783 (it went into twelve editions by 1811). His claim to fame rests on this book, although ninety per cent of the text was compiled – ‘stolen’ – from two culinary best-sellers of the eighteenth century, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) and Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769). In 1792 Farley was listed as being cook at the London Tavern.

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What about the food at the famous tavern? The house was above all appreciated for its turtle soup. There were a number of London outlets where turtles were presented as a speciality. Of specific interest in this context is the Ship and Turtle tavern in Leadenhall Street. It has been claimed that the house dated back to 1377. The tavern was the meeting place of numerous Masonic lodges and a sought-after venue for corporation and companies’ livery dinners. Inevitably, management prided itself upon the quality of its turtle soup. Another house was the Queens Arms Tavern at St Paul’s Churchyard which was popular with City politicians and booksellers. Great numbers of turtles of differing sizes were being dressed at the tavern. In 1787, the New, Complete and Universal Body, or System, of Natural History describes three turtles being prepared at the tavern, ‘two of which together did not weigh three ounces, and the other exceeded nine hundred pounds in weight’. The London Tavern however enjoyed a supreme reputation when it came to turtles.

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For a long time turtle had been considered synonymous with filth. The word ‘tortoise’ (tartarus) means ‘resident of hell’. Turtle was not considered fit for food. The shell however was used for medicinal purposes and promoted as an aphrodisiac. At sea it was a different matter altogether. During the seventeenth century, the edibility of the giant sea turtle had been exploited by mariners and whalers. Turtles were stored on deck and would remain alive for up to a year without feeding, thus providing fresh meat for long voyages. During the nineteenth century however turtle meat developed into a delicacy wreaking havoc on the species from which it has never fully recovered. Soup was made from the green cartilage that lines the shell of the turtle. These reptiles were kept in massive tanks, which occupied a whole vault. Gastronomical wisdom at the time dictated that turtles will live well in cellars for three months as long as they were kept in the same water in which they had been transported. Changing the water would lessen the weight of the turtle and affect is flavour. An estimated 15,000 turtles were imported to London yearly. When, as a consequence, the turtle became rarer as a species, soup prices shot up dramatically to a level of imported luxuries like truffles or caviar today.

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Mock turtle soup was introduced by the early 1800s. This was a consommé with a calf’s head and maybe a calf’s foot, hooves or tail, and root vegetables like turnips and carrots. The non-muscular meat was used to imitate that of the turtle. This is why the John Tenniel’s illustration of ‘Alice with the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon’ in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is depicted as a collection of creatures that make up the ingredients of mock turtle soup. The illustration shows the Mock Turtle with the body of a turtle, and the head, hooves, and tail of a calf. ’Turtle Soup’, as sung by the Mock Turtle in the story, makes it clear that special pots were created for this soup:

Beautiful soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!

A turtle soup tureen could hold up to six litres of soup in its body. Interestingly, ‘Mockturtlesuppe’ is a traditional meal in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). In 1714 the House of Hanover had succeeded the House of Stuart as monarchs of Great Britain and Ireland. Up to 1837 the Kingdom of Hanover and Britain were joined in a personal union, thus sharing the same person as their respective head of state. The union was ended when different succession laws resulted in Queen Victoria ascending the British throne and her uncle Ernest Augustus that of Hanover. During that period of close contact both the recipe and the name for the dish were transported from England to the northern part of Germany. Did mock turtle soup enhance the mutual understanding of the two nations? It certainly is a challenging question for socio-political researchers to answer. History is a lady with a wicked sense of humour.

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