The destination for history

A curious history of London


London offered up many ideas when I started to write The A-Z of Curious London. It seemed there were mountains of material to choose from, a plethora of heinous crimes, murders scandals, ghost stories and bizarre historical events.

Research taught me things I did not previously know, for example that King Henry VIII had a passion for shoes (he once ordered more than 60 pairs to last him six months) and how King’s Bench Prison in Southwark was described as ‘the most desirable place of incarceration in London’ in 1828.

One of my favourite stories is about Edward Jones, the 14 year old who broke into Buckingham Palace, sat on Queen Victoria’s throne, rummaged in her private apartments, hid under the sofa, ate food from the kitchen and stole her underwear. Shocking enough if he’d done it once, but ‘Boy Jones’ as he was known to the police, broke in three times. 

Another interesting one looks at the 16th century goings on at ‘Rag Fair’:

‘Picture the scene. Seething masses, a cacophony of noise, raucous vendors, overpowering stench, thieves, vagabonds.’ This was Rosemary Lane, commonly called Rag Fair, mentioned in Pope’s Dunciad as ‘a place near the Tower of London, where old clothes and frippery are sold.’ Much of the clothing sold in this rough Whitechapel market had been stolen, most of the rest were fusty rags. Many who came to the fair in the hope of getting a halfpenny bargain were dressed in tatters. Prostitutes plied their trade at Rag Fair too, sashaying among the crowds carrying baskets of pancakes and dumplings, offering oysters and sex for sale.

People also came here to buy old wigs. Most were sold by Sir Jeffrey Dunstan, (c. 1759-96), a tiny knock-kneed man who supplied dealers with second-hand wigs. In those days, it was common to hear sea-faring persons or others exposed to the cold exclaim, ‘Well, winter’s at hand and I must go to Rosemary-lane and have a dip for a wig.’ This ‘dipping for wigs’ was nothing more than putting your hand into a large barrel and pulling one up; if you liked it you paid your shilling, if not, you dipped again, and paid sixpence more, and so on.

In 1753 an observer described the ‘dunghills of old shreds’ offered for sale, but, there was another side to the story. A newspaper reported that a woman bought a pair of breeches for 7d and found 11 gold guineas and a £30 note hidden in the lining. ‘What a find, an absolute fortune in those days!’ 

By Gilly Pickup


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books