Catherine the Great and the extravagant earl

MANY MARKET PLACES in English and Scottish towns have what is called a ‘market cross’. These are often elaborate and ornate structures. One definition of such a building is (according to Wikipedia): “… a structure used to mark a market square in market towns”. Some of them include crosses (of the Christian variety), others do not. A market cross can range in design from a simple cross or obelisk to a significant structure, sometimes serving as a covered shelter.

The market cross in Swaffham, Norfolk, is in the form of a circular shelter topped with a lead covered dome supported by eight plain columns with Doric capitals. The dome is surmounted by a statue of the Roman goddess of corn and agriculture, Ceres. She is depicted holding in her left hand a cornucopia filled with vegetables, and in her right a bundle of heads of corn. This market cross with its statue that harks back to pre-Christian religion does not contain or otherwise display the cross associated with Christianity.

The market cross is a distinctive and attractive feature in the centre of Swaffham’s large, triangular marketplace. Also known as the Butter Cross, it was designed by a Mr Wyatt, who might possibly have been the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), who specialised in both neo-classical and gothic revival styles. It was completed in 1783 for the politician George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1730-1791), grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745), who became Britain’s first prime minister. George Walpole, founder of The Swaffham Coursing Club (i.e., hare coursing) in 1776, the first such club in England, was extremely extravagant. To raise money, this decadent and bankrupt fellow sold his grandfather’s collection of 204 old master paintings, which used to hang in Houghton Hall (Norfolk), to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1778. The sale was arranged by James Christie, founder of Christie’s auction house and raised £40,555. Seventy of these paintings were returned briefly to Houghton Hall for a temporary exhibition held there in 2013 (www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/%E2%84%964-2013-41/walpole-paintings-houghton-hall-brief-homecoming).  

According to a brief history of Swaffham by David C Butler, the market cross in Swaffham was known as the Butter Cross because trading in butter was carried out beneath its dome. In the 18th century, large amounts of locally produced butter were sent to London, where it and other butter from the district was known as ‘Cambridge Butter’.

Restored in 1984, the eye-catching domed structure is, according to David Butler, now a designated scheduled ancient monument. However, it appears to have been ‘de-scheduled’ and re-designated as a ‘listed building’ (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1269570). I am unsure what to make of this, but that need not bother you should you happen to pass through Swaffham, the childhood home of Howard Carter, the discoverer of the grave of Tutankhamun, and the birthplace of Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (1842-1921), a hero of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882. Should you wish to sit and contemplate the decadent earl’s contribution to Swaffham, I suggest you have a refreshment at an outside table next to a café named after the Ancient Egyptian king discovered by Carter.

Kit Kat in Hampstead

KIT KAT CONFECTIONERY BARS are familiar to many people and I enjoy eating them occasionally. The ‘Kit Kat’ and ‘Kit Cat’ tradenames were registered by the Rowntree’s confectionery company in 1911, but the first chocolates bearing this name only appeared in 1920. Had you wanted to eat a Kit Kat in the early 18th century London, you would not have been served a chocolate item but a type of mutton pie. The Kit Kat mutton pie was the creation of Christopher Catling (aka ‘Katt’ and ‘Cat’), who had a pie house in Shire Lane near Temple Bar, which used to stand near the present-day Royal Courts of Justice on London’s Strand.

When walking in Hampstead Village recently, we saw something I had never noticed before during at least 60 years of visiting the area. It was wording above the doorway of a house on the corner of Heath Street and the much narrower Holly Bush Steps. The words are: “Kit Cat House” and (below them) “A.D. 1745”. Above one of the ground floor windows, that which is nearest to Heath Street but on the wall facing Holly Bush Steps, there are some painted letters, which I will discuss later.

The Kit Cat Club (also sometimes spelled as ‘Kit Kat’) was an 18th century club whose members were of the Whig political persuasion. Members included  literary men such as William Congreve, John Locke, Sir John Vanbrugh, and Joseph Addison; and politicians including Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Burlington, Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, The Earl of Stanhope, Viscount Cobham, Abraham Stanyan and Sir Robert Walpole, who was Prime Minister between 1721 and 1742. The painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was yet another member. He painted portraits of 48 members of the club, which are now kept in the National portrait Gallery.

The club is commonly believed to be named after Christopher Catling and his mutton pies, but this is not known for certain. The club’s meetings were held at first in Catling’s tavern in Shire Lane (which no longer exists). Then, they were held at the Fountain Tavern on the Strand, which stood where today stands Simpsons on the Strand, and then later at purpose-built premises at Barn Elms (between Barnes and Fulham). In summer, the members met at the Upper Flask in Hampstead.

The Upper Flask, which was demolished long ago, was a pub located on the corner of East Heath Road and Heath Mount, that is on the south corner of East Heath Road and Heath Street, about 190 yards north of the present Kit Cat House on Holly Bush Steps. It was on the site of the now closed Queen Mary’s Maternity Home that received patients between 1919 and 1975.

Edward Walford, writing in his encyclopaedic “Old and New London” (volume 5, published in 1878), noted:

“The ‘Upper Flask’ was at one time called ‘Upper Bowling-green House,’ from its possessing a very good bowling green …  when the Kit-Kat Club was in its glory, its members were accustomed to transfer their meetings in summer time to this tavern, whose walls – if walls have ears – must have listened to some rare and racy conversations … Mr Howitt in his ‘Northern Heights of London’ gives a view of the house as it appeared when that work was published (1869). The author states that the members of the Kit-Kat Club used ‘to sip their ale under the old mulberry tree, which still flourishes, though now bound together by iron bands, and showing signs of great age…’”

During the later year’s of the Club’s existence, in the first quarter of the 18th century, some of those members who sipped ale under this tree included the poets Shelley and Keats, who lived in Hampstead. Another member, who enjoyed meetings at the Upper Flask, the poet and physician Richard Blackmore (1654-1729), penned these lines about them in his poem “The Kit-Kats” (published in 1708):

“Or when, Apollo-like, thou’st pleased to lead

Thy sons to feast on Hampstead’s airy head:

Hampstead, that, towering in superior sky,

Now with Parnassus does in honour vie.”

So, the Kit Cat Club had an association with Hampstead, but was there any connection between the Club and the house on Holly Bush Steps, which bears the date 1745? The house was built in about 1800 (https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/item/IOE01/15805/21), which is after the period between 1696 and 1720, when the Club was active (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/73609). It is also after the date above the door, ‘1745’.

An old postcard, published sometime between 1903 and 1930, reveals that the house was once a shop belonging to ‘Francis’. This was J Francis of number 1 Holly Bush Steps. What J Francis sold is not certain but above the whitewash that covers the wall of the ground floor, the remains of an old painted sign can be seen on the brickwork. It reads:

“Libraries” and also “S ?? D”, the two question marks represent letters that have disappeared.  Other letters below the word ‘libraries’ have also gone. I wonder whether it once read ‘Libraries bought and sold’. Interesting as this is, it does not explain to me why the house is so named or the significance of the date 1745. So far, and this might be purely coincidental, the only connection I have found is that Robert Walpole, a member of the Kit Cat Club, died in 1745. However, I am not at all sure that this is why the date appears below the name above the door of the house on Holly Bush Steps.

I enjoy chance findings like that which I noticed in Hampstead and investigating their histories. I am not sure that I am much the wiser about the naming on the house on Holly Bush Steps, but whilst trying to find out about it, I have learnt a little more about the history of Hampstead, a part of London that was important to me during my childhood and which I continue to enjoy visiting. And as for Kit Kats, I would prefer that you offer me the chocolate version, rather than the mutton one.