Archive for March, 2013

Review: Shakespeare’s Local

Posted: March 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

shakespeare's local pete brownVisit the George Inn in Southwark and you’ll see copies of this recently-published book in the window. In reviewing this book, I am also reviewing the pub. We say pub, back in history there was clear distinction between ale house (drink only), tavern (food and drink) and inn (drink, food, accommodation). In its day it was par excellence an inn, a place where its functions were at one time or another spectacularly varied: hotel; restaurant; stables; playhouse; hop exchange; warehouse; post office, and much of the time simultaneously.

But today it is very much a pub; a pub which occupies about a quarter of its original real estate, the section which runs along what was the southern side of the old inn. It is down an alley off Borough High Street and you would miss it if you were not seeking it. The first section retains the galleried aspect which once would have run around the whole courtyard. Inside, it is as you might expect, all low ceilings and wooden beams. Plenty of wood. It is divided into small sections: about four bar/lounge bits and a restaurant bit at the far end. The walls are decorated with old photos and etchings of the inn, former denizens and worthies of the local area. There is in a frame a life assurance policy belonging to Charles Dickens. For he drank here, as did Churchill and Attlee.

Because this is a listed building under the aegis of the National Trust, there are no tellies, juke boxes, gambling machines or piped music. This is how it should be and makes for good ambience and conversational environment, almost totally lacking in pubs today. The brewery is Greene King, who don’t make fantastic beer in my opinion, but they do make a George Ale (4%) exclusively for this pub, which is not bad at all. Two pints came in at under £8 (sorry, wasn’t paying attention to my change), which is okay by me for what is supposedly a tourist trap situated in a “yuppie playground” – the author’s description of Borough today.

george in southwark

george in southwark

The George was neither the largest nor most famous of Southwark’s dozen-plus coaching inns (that accolade goes to the now-lost Tabard next door, as featured in Canterbury Tales). But it is the only surviving one, and that is what matters. In any case, it has a terrifically rich history in its own right. Pete Brown, ad industry escapee and award-winning beer writer* has written its biography. As befits the subject matter, he has a breezy style with occasional asides direct to camera. That’s not to say he doesn’t take his subject deadly seriously, he does. Shakepeare’s Local is thoroughly researched, taking forward past attempts by others which were eccentric at best, chief of whom one William Rendle.

The building of which the current George is a remnant, dates from 1676 following two disastrous fires which destroyed its predecessors. This was about half way through its life story taking us back to 15C pre-Tudor times. Brown invites us to ponder the “Trigg’s broom” (or Sugarbabes) question: is something whose fabric has been 100% replaced, still essentially the same thing? Being of romantic mien, he concludes yes, today’s George Inn can indeed be considered the same beast as its medieval great-great-grandparent and intervening iterations.

In this book, we learn what the pub was for, what it did and the people who lived in it, ran it, and crossed its portals. But as a well-rounded history book, we have context, that is to say the inter-relationship between the inn and Southwark, Southwark and London and indeed further afield. How the fortunes of the George and its owners waxed and waned through triumph and disaster; at the height of its success during the short-lived coaching age and rapid decline and redundancy with the coming of the railways and the opening of the magnificent hop exchange nearby (eclipsing all neighbouring inns’ ability to function as hop exchanges themselves); why the George survived (sort of), while all its rivals perished.

Most importantly for me, there are the heroes of this story: the George’s landlords and landladies down the ages. They all had something in common: dedication to and love of their charge, which goes some way to explaining its survival. All remarkable and determined innkeepers, special mention must go to the formidable Agnes Murray who worked at the George from 1871 to 1934, from barmaid to landlady.

Shakespeare’s Local has a few dozen illustrations. Old photos and engraving, but most handy of all – maps and plans. Of these the most remarkable is a re-drawn rendering from the earliest known map of Southwark, dating from 1542. You could line this up with the equivalent from the latest London A to Z and it would make almost perfect sense.

The book is lightly footnoted on the actual pages to which they refer, not at the back. I far prefer this. There is a good bibliography at the back and a detailed and useful timeline. But no index, unfortunately.

An excellent, informative read.

Shakespeare’s Local. Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub (352pp) by Pete Brown (2012, Macmillan) has a cover price of £16.99 but is available for around £11.

* Picture the scene. “So, Brown, what plans do you have for after you’ve left school?” “I wish to be a beer writer, sir.” “Get out.”

george inn southwark

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On the Beach: Vauxhall

Posted: March 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of joining two fellow Members, Victor Keegan and Hannah Renier, on a mooch around the Thames foreshore with the good people from the Thames Discovery Programme (Sunny, Eliott, John, Roger). They are a volunteer archaeology group whose mission is to discover and record as much as possible of the river’s shoreline: it is in constant flux and requires essential and frequent monitoring.

Afterwards we stopped at the local caff for much needed hot coffee and I was introduced to David Coke, co-author of the award-winning book Vauxhall Gardens: A History. I remember seeing this magnificent tome at the Vauxhall Gardens exhibition at the Foundling Museum last year, so it was nice to make the connection. My eyes popped out on cartoony stalks as David produced over a dozen historical maps of the tightly focused stretch of the river we had just explored going back many centuries and then right up until quite recent Ordnance Survey. Fascinating stuff.  David’s web site on Vauxhall Gardens is here.

On our beach stroll itself, Vic Keegan has beaten me to it (of course he has: he’s a Journalist with a capital J) and written this up on his fine blog, London My London. So I’ll simply share some captioned pictures.

If you’re a London Historians Member, we’ll be organising an outing with the Thames Discovery Programme later this year, look out for it on the web site and in your monthly newsletter.


Mooching about the foreshore with the Thames Discovery Programme.


Hardy LH Members, Vic and Hannah, with Ed the Dog.


Wooden moldings for a concrete structure, not yet identified or dated.


One of several bronze age piles thought to have supported a jetty or possibly even a bridge. As featured in the unlamented (by me) Time Team.


Upriver or down, it’s impossible to take a photo of lovely Vauxhall Bridge without an ugly tower stinking up the joint.


Vauxhall Bridge, very pretty. Opened in 1906, it replaced the original bridge of 1816.


One of eight statues representing arts, sciences and manufacturing which decorate the bridge. This one is Pottery. Sculptors Drury and Pomeroy also made Justice on the Old Bailey.


Vauxhall Bridge showing structure from the old paddle steamer jetty from before any bridge existed.


Where lesser know tributary the Effra meets the Thames. Prior to embankement it was a tad upstream from here.


Downstream of the bridge, the Albert Embankment, by the mighty Bazalgette. Serpentine lamposts reflect those on the Middlesex bank opposite.

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A University of Basel archaeological team has discovered one of Egypt’s (and thus the world’s) oldest sundials in the Valley of the Kings. Excavators found the flat limestone piece when clearing the entrance to a tomb near a group of stone huts where workers building the tombs lived during construction. The huts date to the 13th century B.C., and researchers believe the sundial dates to the same period. It may even have been used by the workers to determine how much toiling they had left to do for the day.

It doesn’t look very fancy. The flat surface of the limestone is marked with a black semicircle divided into 12 segments marking what we call for the sake of convenience “hours” even though they didn’t have the fixed length that our hours have. Each section is approximately 15 degrees wide but they’re fairly roughly drawn. There’s a hole where the lines meet in the middle of the baseline which is where a tool — a wooden or metal rod — would be inserted to cast the time-keeping shadow over the limestone. Small dots have been added at the top middle of each segment to mark the half hour.

The 12 sections divide the daylight between sunrise and sunset. Obviously that period is shorter in the winter, so winter hours were shorter than summer hours. Until more precise clocks became widespread in the Renaissance, variable hours continued to be used in Europe.
As much as it looks like something intended more for the proletariat than the aristocracy, it’s entirely possible that the sundial could have come from the wall of a royal tomb.

The division of the sun path into hours also played a crucial role in the so-called netherworld guides that were drawn onto the walls of the royal tombs. These guides are illustrated texts that chronologically describe the nightly progression of the sun-god through the underworld. Thus, the sun dial could also have served to further visualize this phenomenon.

The oldest Egyptian shadow clocks date to around 1500 B.C. The earliest surviving sundial dates to the reign of Thutmosis III (1479 – 1425 B.C.) and is in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. It’s an L-shaped stone engraved with the pharaoh’s name. On the short of the side of the L is a hole where a plumb bob would hang to do the shadowing while the long side is marked with five circles to tell the time. As far as we know, this is the oldest portable timepiece.

Turn of the century Egyptologists thought that Egyptian obelisks were used to tell time from the length and angle of their shadows, but recent scholarship disputes that theory. There is nothing in the copious engravings on their sides that has anything to do with time marking. The idea that they were massive timepieces is probably a result of their being used as sundials centuries later when they were looted and taken to Europe by the Romans and Napoleon’s troops.

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Picture of the Week #217

Posted: March 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

Remains of Leicester’s Building at Kenilworth Castle. Photo May 1998.

Fate, Hope

Posted: March 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

This being the title of the new exhibition at the Foundling Museum.

The Curator looked at me slightly oddly when I remarked that in the general scheme of things, the tokens were more important in the museum than the paintings, rooms, furniture and all the rest of it. But I think she saw where I was coming from. And I think it’s true.

The tokens are what this exhibition is all about. What are they? When babies and toddlers were left at the Foundling Hospital, the parent (in most cases the mother), left an object that would later be used as an identifier if the child was re-claimed. Most often it was a piece of jewellery – a ring, earring, hairclip, string of beads. Sometimes the parent couldn’t even manage that: there’s a hazelnut here, and there a shell. Each item was attached to the checking-in document for the child, the Billet Page. Sometimes the parent would leave a note or letter. I’m always struck how many of these people at the poorest and bottom rung were literate. Not just literate, but having absolutely beautiful handwriting in many cases.

Childs ring token mid eighteenth century. Copyright Foundling Museum London

Child’s ring token mid eighteenth century. © Foundling Museum London

Hazelnut date unknown. Copyright Foundling Museum London

Hazelnut, date unknown. © Foundling Museum London

Virtually all the billet pages for the Foundling Hospital have survived and are kept at the Metropolitan Archives. During the Victorian period, the officers of the Hospital decided to separate and store all the old tokens. From an academic perspective, this was a very bad move. For the past decade or so a small team of researchers has been re-uniting token with billet page, and therefore child and possibly even parent.

Fate, Hope & Charity is an exhibition which is all about this particular work in progress. So we have a good several dozen tokens on display and the stories behind them. They are all deeply fascinating. One is about William Hunter the famous surgeon. In 1767, he promised the well-to-do family of an unmarried and pregnant daughter that he would take care of matters. In the event, she had twins, and Hunter dropped them both off at the hospital, signed them in and left playing cards as tokens. The other is about Margaret Larney, who was arrested and incarcerated at Newgate Prison for “coining” (shaving or clipping of silver or gold coins), technically treason and a capital offence. Because she was pregnant, she had a stay of execution. However, once he child was born, it and an elder brother were deposited at the Foundling and Margaret was burned at the stake at Tyburn. Horrid.

Exhibitions about the foundlings are always deeply poignant and sad. But we must always remind ourselves of the prevailing conditions for the poorest in society and their children in the 18C and 19C. The hospital should always be celebrated for the work it did.

Token for Kings Experimental Philosophy lecture mid eighteenth century. Copyright Foundling Museum London

Token for Kings Experimental Philosophy lecture mid eighteenth century. © Foundling Museum London

Padlock token mid eighteenth century. Copyright Foundling Museum London

Padlock token, mid eighteenth century. © Foundling Museum London

Like all of the Foundling Museum’s special exhibitions, Fate, Hope & Charity is wonderfully researched and beautifully staged. It runs until the 19 May. Entrance is included in the entry price, which is £7.50. Concessions apply.

Other Foundling Museum Posts
Foundlings, Families and Fledgling Charities
Threads of Feeling Online
A Well-Spent Afternoon
Tread Softly…
Received, a Blank Child

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Published on March 14th, 2013 | by Sevaan Franks


A newly deciphered Egyptian text which dates back 1,200 years says that Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek to identify him because he was always changing shape.

Written in the Coptic language, the ancient text tells of Pontius Pilate, the judge who authorized Jesus’ crucifixion, having dinner with Jesus before his crucifixion and offering to sacrifice his own son in the place of Jesus. It also explains why Judas used a kiss, specifically, to betray Jesus — because Jesus had the ability to change shape, according to the text — and it puts the day of the arrest of Jesus on Tuesday evening rather than Thursday evening, something that contravenes the Easter timeline.

The discovery of the text doesn’t mean these events happened, but rather that some people living at the time appear to have believed in them, said Roelof van den Broek, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who published the translation in the book “Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem on the Life and the Passion of Christ” (Brill, 2013).

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Story: Owen Jarus, LiveScience | Photo: Renata Sedmakova, Shutterstock

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Published on March 8th, 2013 | by Sevaan Franks


A DNA sample taken from a 33,000-year-old canine skull found in Siberia has been found to be a closer match to a modern dog’s DNA than to a wolves.

The researchers then compared the genetic sequences from the Altai specimen with gene sequences from 72 modern dogs of 70 different breeds, 30 wolves, four coyotes and 35 prehistoric canid species from the Americas.

They found that the Altai canid is more closely related to modern domestic dogs than to modern wolves, as its skull shape had previously suggested. That means that the Altai canid was an ancient dog, not an ancient wolf — though it had likely diverged from the wolf line relatively recently, the researchers report today (March 6) in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Story: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience | Photo: Ovodov ND, Crockford SJ, Kuzmin YV, Higham TFG, Hodgins GWL

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