Black abolitionists in Westminster

WESTMINSTER ABBEY IS costly for tourists to enter. Currently (November 2021) the entrance ticket ranges in price from £10 for a child to £24 for a full-price adult ticket. Without doubt, the Abbey is well worth a visit, but if you do not feel like spending so much money, its neighbour, the St Margaret’s Church is also full of interest but charges no entry fee.

Because the present Abbey was once the church attached to a monastery, St Margaret’s was built in the 11th and 12th centuries to provide a place of worship for the (non-ecclesiastical) residents of Westminster. When the residential population of the area declined, it became what it is now, the parish church for The House of Commons. The first church on the site was built in the Romanesque style, but when this deteriorated in the 14th century, it was replaced by the present structure built in the Perpendicular (gothic) style. Since then, like many old churches it has undergone various modifications over the centuries.

Amongst the many fascinating things within the church, which are described in an excellent booklet by Tony Willoughby and James Wilkinson, several things particularly attracted my attention. First of all, several of the windows in the south wall of the church contain superb modern stained glass designed by the painter John Piper (1903-1992) and created by Patrick Reyntiens (1925-2021). The were installed in 1966 to replace Victorian windows that were destroyed during WW2. Piper’s windows alone are a good reason to visit the church.

Another thing that caught my eye is a pair of doors on the north side of the church. These are covered with red leather, each one embossed in gold with a portcullis, surmounted by a crown, the symbol of Parliament. Some of the prayer kneelers are also decorated with this symbol.

Amongst the many tombs and funerary memorials within the church, there is one to the artist Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Born in Prague, he left the city when the Emperor Ferdinand the Second ordered Bohemian nobility to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave the country. A highly prolific and much-admired artist, creator of many works including detailed views of London, he died a poor man in Westminster. His monument is on the north wall.

Amongst the many memorials on the south wall there is an oval plaque commemorating the fact that in 1759, Olaudo Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa) was baptised in the church when he was a slave owned by a sea captain, Michael Henry Pascal. Equiano (c1745-1797) was a black African slave, who gained (purchased) his freedom in 1766. After numerous adventures, which he related in his autobiographical work “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, published in 1789 in London, he became active in the nascent movement to abolish the slave trade. In addition to his book, he wrote a great number of pamphlets and letters to the press.

Whereas I was able to spot the plaque for Equiano with no difficulty, I was unable to see the grave of another abolitionist, also a former slave, Ignatius Sancho (c1729-1780), who was born on a slave ship and is buried in the churchyard of St Margaret. He married a West Indian woman, Anne Osborne, in St Margaret’s, ran a grocery shop in Westminster, acted, composed music, and wrote against slavery using the pseudonym “Africanus”. He was the first black Briton to vote in a parliamentary election. He cast his vote both in 1774 and 1780.

In addition to these two black abolitionists, the church contains memorials to two men who tried to alleviate the suffering of slaves in the Americas, Richard Burn (c1744-1822) and Thomas Southerne (1660-1746). The latter was one of the first writers in English to denounce slavery.

I hope that what I have written above will help to distract you from the idea of visiting only Westminster Abbey and to encourage you to make plenty of time to explore St Margaret’s.  

On the wagon – no longer!

IN THE CENTRE of Warwick, there is a building with superb examples of Victorian decorative terracotta work. High on its façade, in terracotta lettering are the words “coffee” and “tavern” because this edifice began its life as a coffee house back in 1880.

Designed by a Warwick architect Frederick Holyoake Moore (1848-1924), it was constructed for a local manufacturer and philanthropist Thomas Bellamy Dale (1808-1890). He was mayor of Warwick three times and:

“…was a philanthropist in every sense of the word, for his name was connected with the principal benevolent institutions of England, of which he was a generous supporter; as a public man he took a very active part in the sanitary improvements of the borough of Warwick, and in the adoption of the Free Library Act. He was a generous supporter of every useful institution in the town, and, though exceedingly charitable, was most unostentatious in all his benefactions.” (www.mirrormist.com/t_b_dale.htm)

In the 19th century, alcohol consumption was considered to be responsible for the ill-health of poor people and detrimental to their general well-being. Dale built his coffee tavern and hotel to offer an alternative to alcohol and pubs. His establishment had:

“…a bar and coffee room on the ground floor with service rooms at the rear; a bagatelle room, smoke room and committee and club room on the first floor, and rooms for hotel guests on the second floor.” (www.ourwarwickshire.org.uk/content/article/coffee-tavern-warwick).

The place was designed to keep people away from alcohol, “on the wagon”.

Now, all has changed. Today, the building still offers refreshments and hotel rooms, but does something that the late Mr Dale, who encouraged people to become teetotal, would not approve. Customers at what is now named “The Old Coffee Tavern” can now enjoy not only coffee but also a full range of alcoholic drinks. He might be pleased if he knew that when we visited its pleasant lounge decorated with colourful tiled panels, we chose to sip coffee rather than drinks containing an ingredient that did not meet with his approval.

Piling it on along the canal

NEEDING BREAKFAST ON our way from Warwick to visit Baddesley Clinton House, we chose to stop at the Hatton Locks Café, which we had noticed on our road map. What we did not know is that the café is located next to the uppermost of a flight (or series) of 21 canal locks. The locks are situated on a stretch of the Grand Union Canal that was, when it opened in 1799, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which was built to carry locally mined coal for use in power stations and nearby factories (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history/history-features-and-articles/the-history-of-hatton-locks). It became an important transportation link between London and The Midlands.

 The 21 locks are spread along an almost 2 mile stretch of the canal and the towpath along this section of the waterway is popular with cyclists, walkers, and their dogs. Some of the locks are narrow. They were built when the canal was first constructed. Other locks on the flight are far wider. They were built in 1932 and allow two craft to use the lock simultaneously. The newer locks were built at a time when the canal system began to have to compete with motorised road and rail transport.

The café is about 310 yards northwest of a small car park and is reached by walking along the towpath. Near the café, there are some unusual looking tables and benches made of old timber. Most of the timber pieces are planks with a short semi-circular projection at one end. These wooden piles used to be driven into the floor of the canal between parallel wooden blocks that held them straight upright against the walls of the waterway. Their purpose was to prevent the banks of the canal from being eroded by the water flowing past them. Nowadays, they have been replaced by coir matting that serves the same purpose because it is considered to be more eco-friendly that timber. The wooden piles were driven into place by a mechanised hammer system aboard a motorised boat that plied along the canal. One of these boats, now disused, has been preserved near the café.

The locks on the Hatton Flight looked different from the many other canal locks we have seen on our travels around the country. Each lock is flanked by what looks like a pair of tall, stout candles. These things house the mechanisms that control the flow of water into the locks and are operated by canal users equipped with a special handle or windlass that fits onto a projection that is linked to the gearing that operates the valve.

The Hatton Locks Café is a real treat, both visually and gastronomically. Both inside and outside, it is decorated with a profusion of objects, some folkloric, some whimsical, and others related to the life and traditions on the canal. A team of friendly workers produce simple but excellently prepared English breakfast items as well as very acceptable coffees. So good was our breakfast that we made a detour to return to this place on the following morning. Most of the clientele seemed to be locals, many of whom were on friendly terms with the staff. Although we had only been once before on a busy morning, the staff remembered exactly what we ate and drank on the day before. When we are next nearby, we shall certainly visit this wonderful establishment again. On our next visit, we will join the other walkers and stroll past all the 21 locks.

Look no hands!

SPENCER STREET in Royal Leamington Spa has a building with an intriguing façade. It is not so much the brick and stonework on the building that attracted my attention but a stone statue of a woman with a gold-coloured sphere on her head. She is perched above the centre of the façade of the edifice that bears the words “The Bath Assembly Hall” and the date when it was built: 1926.

Designed by Horace G Bradley (1877-1961), it was originally a dance hall with shop premises. It was typical of the type of dance hall that:

“…flourished in the inter-war period of the C20 and survived through to the 1950s and early 1960s. Cultural changes have meant that the great majority have been demolished or considerably altered when adapted for other purposes. This example, with its boisterous classical decoration, expressed inside and out, survives in a highly intact state. Its façade mirrors the decorative style of the interior which has an integrated and fluid plan.” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1391731).

Sadly, I did not have enough time to try to enter it.

Look, no hands!

The statue on top of the building represents Terpsichore, one of the nine Greek Muses. She was the patron of lyric poetry and dancing, so her image was appropriately chosen to adorn a dance hall. Something that interested me about the statue became obvious when I used the zoom on my camera. I noticed that although her hands are close to the sphere on her head, they do not touch it. The gold ball seems to be attached to her head by a single rod. The scantily dressed Muse is depicted looking down on the street far below. Maybe, she is thinking “I can balance the ball on my head, look, no hands.”

Leamington Spa, Heydrich, and the tragedy at Lidice

CLOSE TO WARWICK, there is a town that reminded me both of Brighton on the south coast of England and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) in the Czech Republic. The grandiose architecture, mostly neo-classical, of Leamington Spa reminds me of some parts of Brighton and the area around the town’s spa buildings, both new and old, brought faint recollections of visits I made long ago to the Czech spa town to my mind. What I did not know when we visited Leamington Spa was that it does have a not too distant historical relationship with what was once known as ‘Czechoslovakia’.

Czechoslovak memorial in Leamington Spa

SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the main ‘architects’ of the Holocaust and in 1942 he was the acting Governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the area now known as the Czech Republic. In January 1942, he was Chairman of the Wannsee Conference at which the terrible fate of the Jewish people was decided. On the 27th of May 1942, Heydrich was shot at while driving through Prague. During this attack, a hand grenade, thrown into his open top vehicle, exploded. Heydrich was rushed to hospital but died of his wounds or sepsis resulting from them early in the morning of the 4th of June. His senior, the Chancellor of Germany, the dictator Adolf Hitler, was furious.

The assassination attack was carried out by Czechoslovak men who had been trained in England and then parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The men were volunteers, who were members of the Free Czechoslovak Forces stationed in the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa, where there was a training camp for them. It had been there since 1940. Seven of the Czechoslovak men flew from England in December 1941 and parachuted at various paces over their native land. Two of them, Jozef Gabčík (1912-1942) and Jan Kubiš (1913-1942), carried out the attack in Prague that led to the ending of Heydrich’s life. These two men and the others dropped over Czechoslovakia sacrificed their lives in the struggle to free their country from Nazi tyranny.

In November 2021, we paid a brief visit to Leamington Spa. Amongst its attractions is the pleasant Jephson Gardens, which are close to the spa establishments after which the town gets its name. The Park is named after the physician and philanthropist Henry Jephson (1798-1878), who promoted the superior healing powers of the town’s spring water. An attractive circular neo-classical temple containing a statue of Jephson was erected in his honour in 1849. This stands atop a small mound. Close to it there is another monument, also circular.

The other monument was unveiled in 1968, 50 years after the formation of Czechoslovakia out of the ruins of the failed Austro-Hungarian Empire. The memorial is in the form of a circular fountain. A bowl is supported by a single pillar on which the heraldic emblem of Czechoslovakia can be seen in bas-relief. Something, which at first sight resembles a large mushroom, sprouts upwards from the centre of the bowl. Closer examination of this reveals that it is a sculpture depicting a cluster of open parachutes. On each parachute, there is a name of one of the group of volunteers who parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The monument was designed by John French.

According to a noticeboard close to the Czechoslovak volunteers’ memorial, this small fountain also remembers the thousands of Czechoslovak citizens, who were murdered by the Nazis in reprisal for Heydrich’s death. After numerous arrests were made, two Czech villages suspected of having been involved in the assassination plot, Lidice and Ležáky were literally wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. Their innocent inhabitants were mostly killed, but some were sent to concentration camps. These poor people are remembered in Jephson Park, which is such a lovely place that one would not think that it could possibly be even remotely associated with the human tragedies that followed the death of a monstrous member of the Nazi party.

Buckingham, but not the Palace

A LARGE GOLDEN SWAN with wings outstretched towers over the small town of Buckingham, once the county town of Buckinghamshire (until the 18th century, when Aylesbury took over this role) and now home to a respected private university, with whose founding my late father was to some extent involved. The gold-coloured copper swan surmounts a clock above the roof of an elegant late 18th century building on Market Square. Built in about 1783, this is The Old Town Hall, but not the oldest that the town has known.

The Old Town Hall was built to replace an even older one constructed in 1685 at the instigation of a local Member of Parliament, Sir Ralph Verney (1613-1696), during whose life the Civil War occurred. Initially on the side of the Parliamentarians, he fell out with them and fled abroad for a few years. After King Charles II gained the Throne, Verney returned to England where he served his people and the monarch.

In 1882, the clock was added above the Old Town Hall and upon this was placed the Swan of Buckingham, the borough’s crest. The wrought iron canopy over the main entrance was added early in the 20th century. The façade of the Old Town Hall faces another building, a well-known landmark and tourist attraction in the town, The Old Gaol, built in 1748 with its façade added in 1839.

The Old Town Hall was used for municipal administration until the 1960s when the local government headquarters were established elsewhere in the town. Now, the building is home to a firm of solicitors and the large metal swan high above their offices provides a nice perch for groups of the town’s pigeons.

Costly coffee, Handel, and Hendrix in London’s Mayfair

THERE ARE TWO entrances to Lancashire Court from Mayfair’s Brook Street. One of them, the closest to New Bond Street, is a cobbled lane leading down to a courtyard occupied by the back entrance of the Victoria’s Secret store and the outdoor tables of a restaurant called Hush Mayfair. The tables under delightfully decorated canopies looked enticing, and as we felt the need for some coffee, we sat down to enjoy small macchiatos (maybe more correctly, ‘macchiati’). The coffees were enjoyable but not exceptional. However, the bill that arrived after we had drunk our tiny coffees was far from unexceptional. We were charged just under £13 (US $17.46, INR 1300, or EUROS 15.25) for our two hot drinks. Just in case you are not familiar with the London café scene, today, November 2021, two macchiatos usually cost between £4 and £6.

Lancashire Court is a network of lanes and courtyards located behind the buildings on the southwest corner of the intersection of New Bond Street and Brook Street. It was once a part of London, the Conduit Mead Estate (www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2021/07/05/londons-alleys-lancashire-court-w1/, an informative web page), that followed the course of an old water conduit that ran through the area in a north/south direction (for a map of the district, see: www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/t/largeimage88092.html). From the 1730s until the 1970s, the buildings in Lancashire Court included many workshops, warehouses, and builder’s yards. In 1987, there was a plan to demolish the network of alleys and replace it with a new shopping complex, but this never materialised. Now, the old businesses have been replaced by ‘chic’ establishments including the place where we enjoyed our exorbitantly priced coffees.

Returning to Brook Street, the short section lying between the two entrances to Lancashire Court has two neighbouring houses, numbers 23 and 25, which have importance in the history of music in London. The composer of well-known works such as “The Messiah” and “The Water Music”, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), moved into what is now number 23 in the summer of 1723, and lived there until his death (https://handelhendrix.org/plan-your-visit/whats-here/handel-house/). In Handel’s time, Brook Street was known as ‘Lower Brook Street’. Handel’s home included a Music Room in which as many as 40 people would be accommodated to perform and listen to Handel’s latest creations.

In 1968, 209 years after Handel died, another musician moved into number 25, the house next door to number 23 Brook Street. Like Handel, the occupant of number 25 was a musical innovator. His name was Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). According to a useful website (https://handelhendrix.org/plan-your-visit/whats-here/hendrix-flat/):

“The flat on the upper floors of 23 Brook Street was found by Jimi’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham from an advert in one of the London evening newspapers in June 1968 while he was in New York. He moved in briefly in July before returning to the United States for an extensive tour. He spent some time decorating the flat to his own taste, including purchasing curtains and cushions from the nearby John Lewis department store, as well as ornaments and knickknacks from Portobello Road market and elsewhere. He told Kathy that this was ‘my first real home of my own’.

He returned to Brook Street in January 1969 and almost immediately launched into an exhaustive series of press and media interviews and photo shoots in the flat. On 4 January he made his infamous appearance on the BBC Happening for Lulu TV show, and gave his two Royal Albert Hall concerts in February. In March he was back in New York again and although Kathy remained at Brook Street for a while longer Jimi did not live there again.”

After Hendrix’s girlfriend left the flat, it was used as office space. In 2000, it was taken over by the Handel House Trust. By 2016, both Handel’s House and Hendrix’s flat became open to the public as a museum, which I have yet to visit. Sadly, since the onset of the covid19, the museum, now known as ‘Handel and Hendrix in London’ is only open occasionally and will open fully in March 2023.

The westernmost of the two Brook Street entrances to Lancashire Court is lined with an attractive mural made from ceramic tiles. Created in 2001 by Michael Czerwiǹski (with Ray Howell), it celebrates Handel’s residence in Brook Street. Amongst the many works he composed whilst living there, here is a very small selection of them: the opera “Rodelinda”; “The Messiah” and “Semele”; and “Music for the Royal Fireworks”.

Each of the two musicians of Brook Street did much to change the course of musical history. I wonder what each would have thought of the other, and which of them has the most listeners today. Whatever the answers, their names will live on in people’s minds far longer than that of both the place where we had costly coffee and the currently trendy Victoria Secret high-end but low-cut lingerie store.

Fallen leaves amongst the fallen: Field of Remembrance

I HAVE LIVED in London for well over 60 years, but it was only this November (2021) that I first became aware of, and experienced, something that has been happening annually on the north side of Westminster Abbey since November 1928 (www.poppyfactory.org/about-us/history-timeline/#). For eight days following the Thursday preceding Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the 11th of November, the day on which WW1 ended, the field bounded by Westminster Abbey and its neighbour, the church of St Margaret’s Westminster, is covered with a myriad of mostly tiny wooden memorials hammered into the grass. The memorials are mostly cross-shaped, but some are in the form of crescents, six-pointed stars, and other shapes including some that bear the Sanskrit symbol representing ‘aum’ (or ‘om’). Each of these tiny wooden items commemorates a fallen service person or other victim of war. The shapes of the wooden pieces denote the religion of the person or persons being remembered, be they Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Moslem, Jewish, or of no religion. Many of the wooden memorials have red poppies attached. Oddly, few if any of the Islamic crescents had poppies on them. The small wooden memorials are arranged in groups, according to which service or regiment or organisation the remembered people were members of, or associated with. The whole ‘event’ is organised by The British Legion Poppy Factory. This annual garden of memorials is called The Field of Remembrance.

The Poppy Factory, a charity, was founded in 1922 by Major George Howson (1886-1936) to provide employment for veterans injured during WW1. He bought a site in Richmond (south-west London), where he established a factory to manufacture Remembrance poppies and other related items to be sold to raise money for The British Legion’s Red Poppy Appeal, a charity that supports the Armed Forces community.

Apart from the small wooden memorials, there are many badges and emblems of the groups in which those remembered were members. Looking at these and the small wooden memorials is both fascinating and extremely moving. The fascination lies in the huge variety of regiments and organisations, too many to list, which lost people during military conflicts (and terrorist incidents) since the onset of WW1.

One group of memorials interested me because of their emblem that incorporates a heraldic creature, which has fascinated me for several decades. The creature is the double-headed eagle (‘DHE’), currently used as an emblem by countries including Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, the Indian state of Karnataka, and Russia. The DHE appears on the crests of some of the various regiments of The Royal Dragoon Guards. The Dragoon Guard regiments were first established in the 18th century, in 1746, and consist of mounted infantry. While the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed, it also used the DHE. In 1896, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) of Austria-Hungary was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, some of whose members are remembered in the Field of Remembrance. The emperor allowed the regiment to wear his empire’s emblem (https://web.archive.org/web/20130303033912/http://www.qdg.org.uk/pages/Uniform-1843-Onwards-81.php), the DHE. In addition, the regiment adopted “The Radetzky March” as one of its official march tunes; it is still used today. It was sad that in 1914, Franz Joseph, became the ruler of one of the powers against whom Britain and its allies were fighting. Some of those who fought in the British Royal Dragoon Guard regiments with the DHE on their headwear were killed by allies of the emperor in WW1, who had earlier been appointed their C-in-C. They are commemorated the Field of Remembrance. Judging by the small wooden memorials planted in the Royal Dragoon Guard’s section of the Field of Remembrance, members of at least four religions fell while serving in these regiments. I wondered why the DHE was retained even after Austria-Hungary became one of Britain’s opponents in war.

Returning to the Field of Remembrance as a whole, it is a poignant sight to behold. Although war is both horrific and ugly, this annual memorial is both moving and beautiful. The Field is laid out beneath trees lining its northern edge. Seeing the dead leaves from these trees lying fallen amongst the thousands of tiny memorials to victims of war seemed most apt to me.