32 Different Words For Weaver

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Hogarth’s ‘Noon’ (1738) depicting Huguenots leaving church. (www.york.ac.uk/history-of-art/virtual-exhibition/31.html)

Anyone who always thought the Inuit language contained 30 different words for snow would have been disillusioned by the episode of ‘QI’ in which Stephen Fry debunked the myth.

In fact Eskimos have four words for snow, Fry claimed, but 32 words for this that and the other – or demonstrative pronouns.

Linguistic misapprehensions are everywhere in family history, especially when researching immigrant ancestors such as Huguenots. This body of folk were refugees from religious persecution, chiefly in France, where Protestantism was declared illegal by the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.

A steady stream of Calvinist Protestants from Normandy arrived in London, and especially the Spitalfields area just outside the City walls. They brought with them silk weaving skills the Crown had vainly sought to develop for almost a century.

Like incomers around Brick Lane to follow, they also brought the enforced migrant’s determination to preserve their language and culture.

Among the earliest roots they put down around Spitalfields were French Protestant churches, whose records happily survive. When considered, even the simplest entries (mostly in French) in the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials of one – La Patente, ‘Eglise Française de Crispin Street en Spitlefields de Londres’ – provide an insight into the kind of world these French Londoners occupied.

Language must have been an everyday challenge. Older family members who lived for decades in London still spoke and wrote wills only in their native tongue.

And the evidence is there in La Patente’s records, between 1689 and 1785, which contain dozens of varied spellings for ‘weaver’ – the profession of most Huguenots in their congregation.

The English word weaver derives from the Old English ‘wefan’, whereas the French would use ‘ouvrier en soie’ (ie ‘labourer in silk’), or ‘tisserand’. La Patente records 32 different and quite obvious attempts to marry the lingos of loved-ones and locals phonetically, as follows:

Oeuure. Oiuire. Oiure. Oivre. Ouaiure. Ouayure. Oueure. Ouiure. Ouive. Ouuoir. Ouure. Oweure. Oyure. Oywer. Vaiure. Veawre. Waiure. Wevure. Weaure. Woaure. Weaver. Woavre. Weavre. Woeure. Weure. Woiure. Weuer. Woive. Wever. Wouire. Wevre. Woyure.

La Patente’s registers also contain a multitude of franglais attempts at place names which provide further insight into the bilingual soundscape occupied by the Huguenots.

For example ‘Flower de Luce Street’ – that’s Fleur-de-Lis Street, Shoreditch, to you and me, guv. ‘Cloberout’ appears to be a stab at what English barrow boys would call Club Row.

The staff at CofE ceremonies would encounter the same issue in reverse. In the St Matthew’s Shoreditch parish register of 15 Jan 1759 the curate has penned the name ‘Mary Magdalene Dushmain’ in a marriage form.

One can imagine his impatience as the young lady (my first cousin eight times removed), keen to preserve her mother’s tongue, explained, perhaps a few times, how the surname was spelled. Perhaps she didn’t really care as long as it sounded right; perhaps it was to no avail anyway.

As it was, her signature reveals her personal preference for spelling the surname ‘Duchemin’ – though even she signs her middle name ‘Magdalin’.

Juggling names in mid-to-late-1800s Censuses often provokes similar amusement at the situation when some middle class enumerator questioned slum-dwelling Victorian ancestors in Hackney or Islington as small, grubby Ellens/Helens cavorted round the room.

I’ve frequently had to work out whether ‘Etty’ is the pet-name for a little Esther, or a Hetty stripped hof hits ‘aitch’, Dick Van Dyke style.

My favourite translation, though, was by a general factotum working on the 1911 Census forms. The return for the boarding house of Elizabeth Hanson in humble Huddersfield happens to have captured wild-eyed US escapologist Harry Houdini during his European tour.

By now householders were expected to fill in their own forms, and from the change in handwriting it seems the landlady asked Harry to complete parts for himself and wife Beatrice.

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Mysteriarch or Music Hall board-treader?

In the ‘Personal Occupation’ column Houdini boldly wrote ‘Mysteriarch’ – a description some might find pretentious.

Our British government clerk was one of them, sniffily adding: ‘Music Hall Artist.’

If you have Huguenot ancestors take a look at the Huguenot Society website: http://www.huguenotsociety.org.uk/family.html.

A Hitler In Highgate

When a plump, middle-aged Irish woman appeared before the beak at Highgate Police Court, Archway Road, to plead hardship over a £9 13s 10d debt on 20 January 1939, hers was just one of many cases of rates arrears heard that day.

We can, however, only imagine the reaction of the magistrate and others in the courtroom when she gave her name as ‘Mrs Hitler.’

During her two minute hearing she may even have mentioned an individual closely related to the Austrian dictator already tearing Europe apart: her son, William Patrick Hitler.

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Mrs Hitler inside 26 Priory Gardens, 1939. Lovely cup of tea.

Adolf’s nephew Willy, born at Toxteth, Liverpool, in March 1911, was the product of the union of Dubliner Brigid Dowling and Alois Hitler. Not that he is mentioned in ‘Mein Kampf’ – Alois, seven years older than Adolf, was the black sheep of the family, with several convictions for theft as a youth.

What a family.

The unlikely match of Brigid and Alois met at the Dublin Horse Fair in 1909. She was a teenage farmer’s daughter, he a chancer, nine years her senior, waiting on guests at the Shelbourne Hotel.

They eloped and married in June 1910 at St Marylebone in London but settled in Liverpool, where they appear on the 1911 Census at 102 Upper Stanhope Street.

Alois was then serving teas at Lyon’s, but was deported two years later, according to a 1942 CIA dossier, for being a souteneur – a pimp, to you and me. The couple separated after Alois returned to Germany, reportedly selling razor blades.

The small matter of the Great War then prevented any reconciliation, and in any case Alois faked his own death and remarried, bigamously. Brigid spoke up for her estranged husband in court when his behaviour caught up with him in 1923.

Six years later Willy began visiting his father in Germany and meeting uncle Adolf during his infamous rise to power.

‘We had cakes and whipped cream, Hitler’s favourite dessert,’ Willy observed of one visit.

‘I was struck by his intensity, his feminine gestures. There was dandruff on his coat.’

During the 1930s Alois was running a restaurant frequented by SA and SS men on Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, with an enthusiasm for trading off his step-brother’s voluminous public profile.

Thanks to him, Brigid and Willy had acquired Austrian citizenship and in 1937 they were granted an audience in Munich with Chancellor of Germany himself, bookended by SS guards.

Through his uncle’s patronage Willy had found work in a bank, car showroom and local brewery. But he was barred from repatriating money to his mother, who remained in London, taking a lodger to make ends meet. In 1938 she was living at 26 Priory Gardens, off Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate, where Willy would briefly join her.

Naturally the newspapers of the free world lapped up tidbits from Adolf’s peculiar lost tribe. In the shadow of war, she happily described that audience with her now notorious brother-in-law.

‘To both of them he spoke kindly,’ reported the Daily Express, from her parlour. ‘Mrs Hitler heard the Führer’s voice for the first time. She heard it again last week on her radio when Hitler talked about the Czechs in angry tones.

‘Mrs Hitler went out the next day to Hornsey Borough Council ARP station, and got her gas mask.’

‘Nowadays it’s a bit embarrassing being Mrs Hitler,’ she added. ‘Mind you, I’ve nothing to say against the Nazis as I’ve found them. The Führer is well-disposed towards my son Willy, his nephew, but says he must cultivate self-reliance and stand on his own feet.’ (Advice, it might be noted, the Daily Express leader writer wholeheartedly endorsed the same day.)

A year later Willy had returned to England too – the CIA file alleges he felt slighted by Adolf – and the Hitlers were still living at Priory Gardens, according to the immigration form completed on their arrival in New York in early March 1939.

Back in January Brigid had promised the magistrate she would clear her debt in six weeks. Now, through the infamy of her brother-in-law, she could afford to pay it many, many times over.

Other parts of the US immigration form prove how spectacularly this Irish farmer’s girl had played the media. Her contact in the USA was given as ‘Mr William Morris, Radio City, NYC’ – the world’s leading talent agency.

Having made splash headlines around the world in 1938 with their connection to the Führer and insider knowledge of his private life, Brigid and Willy had been invited over on a lecture tour of the States, or maybe to be hostess in a nightclub. Something.

It was claimed Brigid had been engaged, too, as a ‘technical consultant’ and actress in a mooted Hollywood film about Hitler, ‘The Mad Dog Of Europe’, which writer Al Rosen had been hawking around for six years.

(Rosen later alleged the plot for ‘Mad Dog’ had been co-opted into the 1940 movie ‘The Mortal Storm’, starring James Stewart. It is often cited as the film that led to all MGM films being banned in Nazi Germany.)

Brigid also clutched the manuscript of an opportunistic memoir she hoped to have published: ‘My Brother-In-Law Adolf’. When the book eventually hit the shelves – a whole 40 years later – it was widely derided as ‘unreliable’.

Not the least reasons were that she claimed to have started Adolf’s love of astrology and designed his famous moustache look. Her book is also the main source of the myth that the Führer visited the city of the Beatles in 1912 or 1913.

Willy had more luck finding an outlet for his views in print, the unambiguously-titled article ‘Why I Hate My Uncle’ appearing in Look magazine in 1938. He eventually fought for the US Army against his uncle, changed his surname to Stuart-Houston and had a family of his own. Hitler’s nephew died in 1987 in New York, 18 years after his mother.

The CIA report on Adolf Hitler: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/CIAHitler.pdf

Why I Hate My Uncle by Willy Hitler: http://www.naderlibrary.com/nazi.whyihatemyuncle.htm

Hope and Trembling: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Fraternity: soldiers mixing during the Christmas truce, 1914.

Conditions on the Western Front were as bad as they had ever been during the first Christmas of the First World War in 1914. The bitter cold had iced the top layer of mud, though once a boot broke through the crust it might sink a foot or more in sludge. The carnage and suffering on both sides remained inhumane.

Christians believe this is a time of the year for miracles. Yet the spontaneous truce that took place, sporadic and temporary, was all too human.

An evocative letter about the fleeting respite, dated Boxing Day, 26 December 1914, was sent by a British soldier to his family in East Finchley and published in London’s Evening News four days later.

‘I’ll tell you about a thing that I couldn’t imagine happening until it did,’ he wrote. ‘We have actually met the Germans half-way between our trenches and exchanged cigarettes, buttons &c.!

‘On Christmas Eve we were shouting across to each other, “A Merry Christmas” &c., and they shouted back “Don’t shoot till New Year’s Day!” and all that.

‘On Christmas morning it was a bit foggy, and as there was no shooting we got out at the back and had a game of rounders. Getting tired of this, we got out the front and started wandering over to the Germans.

‘When the mist had cleared a bit we saw that the Germans were doing the same thing, of course unarmed. We got so close that five of us and five of them met and had a talk – they nearly all talked English.

‘After dinner nearly all our boys went out, and we found the Germans had also turned up in force. The result was a huge mixed crowd of men, swopping buttons, cigarettes, &c.  Then some German officers came up and actually took our photos, all sitting on the ground.

‘I wouldn’t have missed the experience of yesterday for the most gorgeous Christmas dinner in England.’

Another British officer reported similar events. ‘At 11pm on December 24 there was absolute peace, bar a little sniping and a few rounds from a machine gun, then no more. “The King” was sung, then you heard, “To-morrow is Christmas: if you don’t fight, we won’t”; and the answer came back: “All right!”

‘One officer met a Bavarian, smoked a cigarette and had a talk with him about half-way between the lines. Then a few men fraternised in the same way, and really to-day peace has existed.

‘Men have been talking together, and they had a football match with a bully beef tin, and one man went over and a cut a German’s hair.’

It is clear the 1914 Christmas truce was observed to varying degrees along the Western Front, and perhaps according to who faced whom across No Man’s Land.

Shivering with his comrades in the French trenches near the forest of Argonne was a tenor from the Paris Opera. As a nearby village church bell announced the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, he began singing the carol ‘Minuit, Chrétiens, C’est l’Heure Solenelle’, with its line, ‘the world trembles with hope on this night’.

The Germans a few hundred yards away joined the singer’s compatriots in rapt silence at the beauty of his voice. When he finished it was the thunder of applause from both sides that resounded over fields more used to ugly slaughter.

‘A quarter of an hour later,’ reported the Daily Mirror published on New Year’s Day, ‘a furious fusillade was in progress, and before the night was over the French had carried the enemy’s first lines.’

A second lieutenant in one victorious French section then addressed his men: ‘Now we’re going to celebrate Christmas Eve!’ Minutes later ‘they were feasting off oysters, cold chicken and champagne’ that had been prepared before the attack.

Thomas Britton – Music Pioneer. For The Fancy Of It

Thomas Britton (1644-1714) – concert host, charcoal vendor, alchemist, book hoarder.

At the end of Jerusalem Passage that tiptoes into Aylesbury Street, adjacent to Clerkenwell Green, there is an easily overlooked green plaque bearing the words: ‘Here stood the house of Thomas Britton (1644-1714) the musical coalman’.

The London Borough of Islington’s words act like a thumbnail to a far richer and more fascinating story. For Britton was no less than the first Londoner to stage a regular musical club night. And the capital’s unique nightlife may have developed in an entirely different way without his influential blueprint.

A native of Higham Ferrers, Huntingdonshire, Britton had arrived in London as apprentice to a coal merchant and, like so many rustics before and since, fell in love with the cultural riches offered by the Clerkenwell area, staying to set up on his own account.

At early light each day he was a dust-covered small-coal (charcoal) merchant. But once the sacks were put away he availed himself of antiquarian book and music shops around the neighbourhood and sought out stimulating company.

With his sprightly intellect and fascination for life, science and culture he befriended some of the brightest minds of the day and insinuated his way into higher social echelons at a time of snobbery and exclusion.

Portraits of him – and there were, impressively, several – rarely fail to include a coal bag in the background, as well as his singular library and collection of organs and viols.

It was when he started his regular Thursday evening music sessions that his status as a class-morphing hipster of the late Stuart era was assured.

Neighbour, publican and Clerkenwell chronicler Ned Ward composed the following doggerel for Britton:

Upon Thursday’s Repair

To my Palace, and there

Hobble up Stair by Stair;

But I pray ye take Care

That you break not your Shins by a Stumble,

And without e’er a Souse,

Paid to me or my Spouse,

Sit as still as a Mouse

At the Top of my House,

And there you shall hear how we fumble.

Britton’s club was held in a room ‘very long and narrow’ with ‘a ceiling so low that a tall man could but just stand upright.’ It was just above the filthy rudiments of his coal yard, and reached by a narrow, risky outside staircase. Still, the performers who turned up to play with him included no lesser lights than George Friderik Handel and Dr Pepusch, arranger of Gay’s famous ‘Beggar’s Opera’.

The audience, forking out one penny for a saucer of coffee, was equally stellar. The near-contemporary historian of English music, John Hawkins, inquired about the concerts and relayed what he knew: ‘Britton’s mansion, despicable as it may seem, attracted to it as polite an audience as ever the opera did; and a lady of the first rank in this kingdom, the duchess of Queensbury, now living, one of the most celebrated beauties of her time, may yet remember that in the pleasure which she manifested at hearing Mr Britton’s concert, she seemed to have forgotten the difficulty with which she ascended the steps that led to it.’

The site of Thomas Britton's yard, dwelling and music sessions.

Visiting Leeds merchant Ralph Thoresby, in his ‘Diary’ entry for 5 June 1712 related, ‘In our way home called at Mr Britton’s, the noted small-coal man, where we heard a noble concert of music, vocal and instrumental, the best in town, which for many years past he has had weekly for his own entertainment, and of the gentry & c., gratis, to which most foreigners of distinction, for the fancy of it, occasionally went.’

This was a club as cool as any modern Hoxton basement, a must-see for the most discerning tourist, and the hottest ticket in town.

There was yet more to Renaissance man Tom Britton, however. He practised chemistry experiments and had a bewildering array of interests, curiosities and, perhaps, hang-ups – as came to light following his death in 1714.

Britton shuffled off this mortal coil when a practical joke went horribly wrong. A local blacksmith who practiced ventriloquism was induced to throw his voice, pretending to be a supernatural messenger and scaring poor Tom literally to death.

Tom’s widow eventually put his hoard up for sale on 24 January 1715 at St Paul’s Coffee House. The catalogue makes absorbing reading.

Apart from scores indicative of his unusually pluralist music taste, there were several self-diagnosis health books, ‘The Art Of Speaking And Gesture’ and Howell’s ‘Vertue Of Tobacco And Coffee’.

The list also included tomes on physics, chemistry, exploration, bees, Merlin, polygamy, ancient leaders, the gunpowder plot, Judaism, Islam, non-conformism, Rosicrucianism and a tract on ‘The Liberty Of Conscience’.

He owned several volumes by philosopher and ghost hunter Joseph Glanvill, investigations of black magic, ‘A Cat May Look Upon A King’ and a pamphlet, ‘The Hog’s Faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker, Born At Wirkham And Bewitched In Her Mother’s Womb’.

Then comes a surprise: what might represent a c17th rake’s porn stash. Here we find ‘The Secret Mysteries Of Man’s Procreation’, Cleveland’s ‘Rustic Rampant’, the novel ‘The Fair One Stark Naked’, ‘Young Lovers Guide’, ‘Comforts Of Whoring’, ‘Rowland On Farting’ and ‘Petre On Venereal Disease’. Oh and, perhaps understandably, a guide to divorce law.

Among the hundreds of books in this fantastically revealing collection, lovingly compiled by one of London’s great cultural pioneers, there was just one book on coal. And that, my friends, is a proper Londoner’s work/life balance.

The ‘Affair of the Three Cranes,’ 1640

John Glanvill (1586-61), Speaker and King's Serjeant

‘Here’s a Health to the confusion and destruction of my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury’

Roughly where the Sarastro restaurant’s vivid flower baskets brighten up a corner of Drury Lane and Kemble Street is the site of a forgotten
London hostelry.

Here, in the mid c17th, were the premises of the Three Cranes, namesake of the far more noteworthy hostelry in Vintry so beloved of Ben Johnson and Samuel Pepys.

Theatreland’s Three Cranes was shorter-lived and less celebrated, but it did scandalise its way into the State Papers Domestic in 1640. If that year wasn’t Charles I’s first choice as ‘annus horribilis,’ it would certainly make it to boot camp.

Two years before standards were raised in the Civil War, he was despised and strapless, and forced to recall Parliament for the first time in 11 years in order to pass laws to raise cash. There were two Parliaments that year: the Short and the Long. My ancestor, Tavistock-born senior judge John Glanvill, was MP for Bristol and Speaker during the Short Parliament.

He was a pragmatist who had vehemently opposed Charles’s excessive tax-raising but was equally distrustful of the Puritans and their objectives. As Speaker – and the King’s Serjeant, a key legal adviser – he walked a political tightrope while England quarrelled its way towards death and destruction.

What he may not have needed at that juncture was for his tearaway son, John the younger, to stir the political ferment further for him. Yet that is exactly what young John did, and the scene of his misdemeanour was the Three Cranes, not far from the Chancery Lane residence of the Glanvills.

Young John was 21 and studying law at nearby Lincoln’s Inn – his father’s alma mater. He was out drinking with fellow trainees at the inn on 3 July 1640 when a row broke out with several ‘mechanicks’ in the employ of the influential Earl of Northumberland. The incident led to injury, theft, dampness, and a hearing at Whitehall in front of the king and his council.

Events are detailed in a surviving account of the inquiry a fortnight later. The king and his advisers were told how John and his pals had imbibed plenty of sweet Canary wine, then intimidated, fought and finally ‘pumped’ (ie half-drowned under a water pump) the Earl’s retainers. John himself was heard outrageously to raise a toast against ‘my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury’ – the controversial and hated Archbishop William Laud.

With England on the brink, Laud and Northumberland were not people to cross. The Earl – Sir Francis Windenbank, MP for Oxford University, King’s councillor, Roman Catholic sympathiser and conspirator – had Charles’s ear (and possibly even both).

Archbishop of Canterbury Laud was a friend and confidant of ‘the subtle whirly Windebank’ and Charles Stuart, and behind several anti-Puritan purges. Clearly Glanvill senior would have been desperate to avoid being dragged into a political scandal at such a time.

Serjeant Glanvill’s son was in dynamic company. Among his group were Winston Churchill (father of the first Duke of Marlborough, ancestor of the cigar-smoking World War II hero), Robert Warcup (called to the bar five years later, elected MP for Southwark under Cromwell in 1654), and an unnamed ‘tall blacke man’, also from Lincoln’s Inn.

Several of those involved gave evidence. Interpretation of events, all too familiar to today’s pub-goers, centred around the spilling of a drink and who did what in the melee that ensued.

Northumberland’s ‘picture-drawer’, Stephen Hosier, claimed that his friend John Skelton had reacted angrily to a glass of wine thrown over his head by one of the legal trainees at a nearby table. When a second glass of liquor ‘lighted upon’ his colleague William Rochester Hosier said he demanded an apology, at which ‘two or three of them fell upon’ and beat him.

He then alleged that, thus subdued, he was helpless as Glanvill ordered a bottle of Canary and, filling a glass, raised the controversial toast: ‘Here’s a Health to the confusion and destruction of my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury’, which went round.

Hosier and his pals felt compelled to join in the anti-Canterbury toast, ‘for, if they had refused it, they verily beleeve they would have knockt them down with the wine potts, or done them some other mischief’.

Most of Northumberland’s men sloped off, but Hosier claimed he was grabbed again, robbed him of his cloak and handed it to the vintner’s wife, relived of its contents, including a £300 bill.

The trainee lawyers took him out into the street to a nearby water pump and forced under the water stream, to perform the toast again. The black man was said to have cried that had the Earl himself been there they would have pumped him too.

Then they all ‘fell on [Hosier] and beat him, soe as he never was since he was borne, for which he hath kept his bed divers days since, and is yet very sore.’

The physical aggression was one scandal; the public denigration of the king’s allies and the head of the church quite another, especially for Glanvill’s father.

The young men of Lincoln’s Inn offered eloquent defence, deflecting all charges. The second glass had been thrown as a result of Skelton using ‘unseemely language’ and holding a pot to Churchill’s face. The cloak was not stolen or plundered.

Yes, they fell upon Hosier to begin with as a result of his group’s aggression, but had no idea that he was the Earl of Northumberland’s man. The water pumping and beating were nothing to do with them.

Then to the awkward issue of abusing the Archbishop:

‘As to the healthe charg’d to be dranke by mee,’ attested Glanvill junior, ‘I doe and shall deny forever. If trewe, I doe acknowledge that to have soe farre forgot myself as yet I could expect any remition for soe great an offence, having herde my father seriously accknoweledge his Grace’s extraordinary favors to him.’

The deference shown may have worked. The inquiry accepted most of the Lincoln’s Inn version, reprimanded the trainees, but discharged them. Presumably the outcome was a great relief to the King’s Serjeant.

However, soon after war broke out in 1642, Glanvill senior would be imprisoned at the Tower of London as a follower of the king.

Son John was not too damaged by the incident. He was called to the bar in 1647 and attained fame and wealth as a lawyer, marrying well and dying, aged 70, in 1688.

Further reading: State Papers, Domestic, Charles I, vol. 460, no. 24; ‘The Black Books of Lincoln’s Inn’ (1897), http://www.archive.org/details/blackbookrecord01lincuoft.

The Secret Life Of Earl’s Court

Sadly, we now know London will bid farewell to the art deco façade of Earl’s Court after the 2012 Olympic Games. How many people are aware, though, that this corner of west London was making an exhibition of itself long before C. Howard Crane’s iconic building opened its doors in 1937?

In the late c19th the site on which Earl’s Court stands was compromised by railway sidings: scrubby, industrial, and fit only for the improvisations of showground entrepreneur John Robinson Whitley. Whitley put the area on the map by setting up a semi-permanent Wild West Show there, along with a forerunner to the London Eye – an observation wheel – and water features.

Annie Oakley rehearsing for the Wild West show at Earl's Court, 1892

By 1900, now managed by Wallace Jones, the covered Exhibition and Grounds (‘buildings warmed throughout’) were staging respectable trade shows, including a predecessor of the famous boat show, where craftsmen could be watched while they constructed canoes, skiffs and ‘American motor launches.’

The pleasure park was also home to military bands and firework displays, as well as ‘the most comfortable [skating] rink in London.’

Sadly, history barely records an ambitious novelty that came to the site one summer a hundred years ago. The innovation appears to have been the brainchild of the Grounds’ new proprietor, J. Calvin Brown.

Brown bought Earl’s Court’s in 1910, determined to return it to its former glory as an amusement park. This would be no superficial tweak: he closed the space down while regenerating its charms. And he brought to bear all his experiences at other leisure centres – from White City in London to the Magic City on the banks of the Seine in Paris.

He knew he needed an exceptionally brilliant new attraction as the ultimate centrepiece at the relaunched venue. And once he had found it he told the world and, well, the excitement and anticipation was barely controllable.

‘Two minutes after the Derby is run at Epsom,’ enthused the Daily Express in April 1911, ‘the race will be repeated at Earl’s Court Exhibition on the wonderful mechanical racecourse that is being built there… ’

Sorry, did you say ‘mechanical racecourse’? The sport of kings as a fairground ride?

‘This miniature Sandown Park, with its nine mechanically-operated horses, starting gate, and realistic environment, will be the rage of London during the summer,’ cheered the Express.

The plan was that each major event in the horse-racing calendar would be re-enacted mechanically at Earl’s Court, with jockeys of both sexes mounted on the petrified thoroughbreds.

This was quite a large installation – the same size as a water chute at the same venue – with 100 yards of track on a downward slope to produce momentum after the gate was lifted.

‘Then the equestrian ability of the riders will be brought into play by a very ingenious rocking motion which almost perfectly simulates the action of a racehorse. The most vigorous rider will win the race.’

Of course Brown filled the rest of the space with fairground rides with wonderful names such as ‘Squeezers’, ‘Joy Wheels’ and ‘Dragon’s Gorge’. But it was the brilliant new mechanical racecourse that would have ‘a more sporting element attached to it than the usual side-show,’ concluded the Express.

That was the plan. Sadly, there is no further mention of horses, mechanical or otherwise. Summer 1911 advertisements for the pleasure park highlight instead a herd of performing (but non-competing) elephants. What went wrong? Did the installation suffer a Devon Loch-style disaster at the last minute? Was it even built?

What we do know is that Brown’s leisure radar was not entirely wonky. Another Englishman, J.W. Cawdry, had licensed a much larger, weaving metal track with six wooden horses to George Tilyou, impresario of the Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, USA, back in 1897. Perhaps Brown had seen it for himself.

That ride successfully entertained the New York public for over seven decades before closure. Which, by sad coincidence, brings us back to the doomed Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre that Londoners know today.

The Glanvills Buy A Sewing Machine (1861)

Persons unknown outside Glanvill & Sons (on the right) on Jerusalem Passage, 1890s.

Among the pleasures of tracing a distant cousin, Nigel Glanvill, a few years ago was the astonishing collection of family photos and letters in his possession. He kindly loaned me the entire pile and working through it I have felt like an amnesiac rediscovering my past, albeit of my Victorian ancestors.

The Glanvill family moved from Ashburton in Devon, via Exeter, to Clerkenwell, Middlesex, in the 1850s. They brought with them their trades – tailoring and bootmaking – as well as a determination to make more of their lives.

The patriarch was my three-times great-grandfather, Thomas Glanvill (1803-1867), a tailor and part-time Methodist zealot who according to one of the letters would ‘on Sundays mount a horse and be away preaching’ around rural Devon. He had been widowed in 1844, so the burden of looking after his younger children on the Sabbath fell to his increasingly resentful older sons.

His extended absences and the demands on his kids were balanced by excellent baking skills. According to his grandson Fred, his homemade steak and kidney puddings were easily the equal of ‘the fancy varieties at Simpsons or the Cheshire Cheese’ in the Big Smoke.

However, it may have been the invitation to start a Methodist ministry – as well as splendid pastries – in a new locality that attracted Thomas to a momentous move.

London, made more accessible by the railway reaching Exeter in 1844, also offered the prospect of a busier trade and social life for his grown-up children. Thomas took the plunge and moved his family to Clerkenwell, an area renowned for small workshops and cheap labour, just north of the old City wall.

It was from his new master tailoring premises at 11 Jerusalem Passage that Thomas wrote several times to his younger brother Richard, a haberdasher who had remained in Ashburton. Most of this correspondence – all randomly perforated by embers from the pipe of his brother as he read them – consists of religious ranting and Thomas’s battles to resist temptation while surrounded by sin.

One letter, however, dated 1861, speaks in wonderment of the kind of invention that would help his family flourish in the capital: one of the new ‘sewing machines’ that had been in mass production for just a few years.

‘Tom [his oldest son] hath bought a Sewing Machine for £8 10s [around £450 today],’ he marvelled. ‘He finds some difficulty with it at present. It is such a complicated piece of machinery that without a regular course of instruction it is not easily learnt.

‘I am sure it will require six months good practice to be anything like a master of it. However, it will go ahead and no mistake.

‘You can sew the seams in a pair of trousers, stitch the falls, put in the pockets, and make the linings in a quarter of an hour, after it is baisted.

‘There is silk and thread sold on purpose, but you cannot use double thread nor do anything but backstitch, but as fine or as coarse as you like.

‘My work has been very slack of late for three months and I believe every trade is complaining of the same. Notwithstanding I am very thankful indeed that it was so ordered in God’s providence for me to come to London.’

Thomas died in 1867 aged 64, but having mastered the new tailoring device, Glanvill & Sons survived for a further sixty years at 11 Jerusalem Passage.

Thomas Glanvill’s 1861 letter (pdf)