A London Story

Surbiton – the Queen of the London Suburbs

In the 1830s, when the railway was starting to expand across Britain, it made its way towards the south west of London and was to be developed into and beyond Kingston.  But the town was concerned that the railway would have a negative impact on the coaching trade, and so the council refused the train line. Kingston New Town or Kingston-on-Railway was created, on a farm south of Kingston – ‘southern homestead’ (Surbiton)- to take on the Victorian railway – the main line between London and Southampton and the south west.

Today the Surbiton Station is a beautiful art deco building, but the original station opened in 1838 and with investment of land and money from Coutts & Co, Surbiton fast became a fashionable and desirable place to live.  It became independent of Kingston in 1855 and gained its London borough status in 1936.

Surbiton has been recognised on the small and big screen and was referred to in:

–          The 1972 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus

–          The 1963 James Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

–          A 2012 episode of EastEnders

More notably Surbiton Station has appeared in:

–          A scene of the 2009 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Blood Prince

–          The first episode of the 1989 ITV TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Clapham Cook

–          The much loved 1970s BBC sit-com, The Good Life was of course also set in Surbiton

The famous guitarist and singer-songwriter Eric Clapton bought one of his first guitars from Bells in Surbiton (which is no longer) and many other celebrity figures lived in Surbiton, even if only briefly. I have listed only a few:

–          Alfred Bestall (1892-1986) – author and illustrator of Rupert Bear

–          Donald Wood settled in Surbiton in 1977 after fleeing apartheid South Africa

–          Helen Sharman – first Briton in space and the first woman to visit Mir space station

–          George Best – footballer and pundit

–          David Essex – singer

–          Thomas Hardy – author (while working on Far from the Maddening Crowd)

–          Roy Hodgson – football manager

–          John McCririck – horse racing pundit

–          Andy Parsons – comedian

The name Surbiton comes from the Old English for south buritum or granary, and there is evidence of a settlement in this area from the late 1100s, but today Surbiton is celebrated as the ‘Queen on the London suburbs’.


Anyone for a Chelsea Bun?

Probably the most famous thing to come out of Chelsea is the Chelsea Bun.  The buns are filled with dried mixed fruit and cinnamon sprinkle and the sugary glaze give them a distinct flavour and character.


The Old Chelsea Bun House

The bun was first created in the 18th century in a Chelsea bakery call The Old Chelsea Bun House, which was owned by ‘Captain Bun’ or Mr Hand, and his wife. The shop was a favourite of the royal family and when the last Hand son died in 1839, the shop was reverted to the Crown and all the contents within the shop were auctioned off.

Almost two centuries later, Chelsea Buns are still enjoyed around the world, in children’s lunch boxes, school tuck shops, bakeries and in tea houses.

Why not try to make some Chelsea Buns?  The BBC Food wesite has a lovely recipe here.





Dogs & Canaries

The Canary Wharf Tower was until recently (when it was overtaken by the Shard), the tallest building in London, and is named after a quay that was owned by a company that traded with the Canary Islands. Interestingly enough, the Canaries are named after dogs – canes is Latin for dogs – that lived on the islands.
The Docklands, which is the area the Canary Wharf Tower is situated in, is also known as the Isle of Dogs, and this may be because it was the site of King Henry VIII’s hunting kennels.
I love it when history is all connected….!
Image:  www.iwasin.blogspot.com



Tally Tax

The amount of tax a person in London paid during the Middle Ages was recorded on a tally stick. Notches were made on the stick for every payment and the stick was then split lengthways, in half. The one half was left with the government as a record – an early tax receipt. The government’s halves were kept in the Palace of Westminster, and as you can imagine they piled up over the centuries.

Finally, in 1834, someone suggested that maybe they get rid of them, so they were burnt in a furnace under the House of Lords…but the furnace was overloaded and the fire spread rapidly. Sadly the fire destroyed most of the Palace and some very valuable, historical documents (such as the warrant for the execution of Charles I).

Turner immortalised the event in his painting ‘The Burning of the Houses of Parliament’ and a stunned spectator described it as “Certainly the grandest thing we have ever witnessed”!


Quaking London

Earthquakes were recorded in London in 1247, 1275, 1382, 1439, 1626 and 1750. In 1580 the last significant quake struck, which originated in the Strait of Dover. This tremor was so large that people watched in fear as two men who were sitting on cannons at Tower Hill, were thrown to the ground. The church bells in the City were all set off, a pinnacle fell off Westminster Abbey, two children died when a chimney stack collapsed and Thomas Grey, a City cobbler was crushed by falling masonry in Newgate Street.

London is overdue a major earthquake and according to Dr Roger Musson, of the British Geological Survey, a quake measuring 6.0 on the Richter Scale could be caused by a slip in a fault line running from Dover to the Rhine region of Germany. Even though London is not on a fault line a quake can strike at any time.  “All we can say is that something that has happened twice can, and probably will, happen three times.”

Now that the city is far more densely inhabited, fatalities would be higher and damage more extensive.
Scary stuff!

Image: http://www.clubdepensadoresuniversales.blogspot.co.uk

Cabbie Rules

It is, in fact, illegal to hail a cab while it is in motion – you should go to a rank or a ‘place appointed’
A cabby is supposed to ask each passenger if they have a ‘notifiable disease such as smallpox or the plague’, as it is illegal to carry a sufferer.
It is also illegal for a cabby to carry a a rabid dog or a corpse, so it really is in the best interests of the cabby to ensure his passenger is not going to die in the cab.
It is also the cabby’s responsibility, not the passenger’s, to ensure nothing has been left in the vehicle.
The law required a cabby to carry a bale of hay on the roof of the cab to feed the horse. This law was only repealed in 1976. It is also no longer required to carry a bag of oats.
As a cabby was not allowed to leave his cab on the public highway, the driver was however allowed to urinate in public. He was required to urinate on the rear wheel of the vehicle, with his right hand placed on it. It is not clear how this law would’ve applied to women cabbies…..

London Time Capsule

Cleopatra’s needle, which stands on the banks of the River Thames is one of a pair that was erected in 1500BC, and stood in front of the temple of Heliopolis in Egypt, where Moses was born. It was offered by the Viceroy of Egypt to the British people in 1819 as ‘a worthy memorial of our distinguished countrymen Nelson and Abercromby’, after Nelson’s victory over the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Due to an unfortunate chain of events, it took 70 years for it to finally arrive in London and sadly gained the distinction of being the first London monument to be hit in an air attack in World War I.  A bomb exploded near the plinth and one of the lions suffered shrapnel damage (which you can still see today).

But this monument holds a historic secret …. in its plinth is a time capsule which holds items such as Imperial weights and measures, four Bibles in different languages, a railway guide with timetables of the day and copies of newspapers from 1879, which was the year it was erected on the Embankment. It is also said to contain cigars, a gentleman’s lounge suit, the complete outfit a fashionable lady of the day would’ve worn, magazines of the day, popular childrens’ toys, a razor, twelve photographs of the most beautiful famous women of the time and a complete set of currency used throughout the Commonwealth ranging from a farthing to five pounds.

I often wonder what we would put in a time capsule to tell future genrations what we were about….!