Posts by David Sopel

John Wilkes – cross eyed politician and reformer

John Wilkes – cross eyed politician and reformer

By in Famous Londoners

Standing almost unnoticed amongst the new office buildings crowding the City today, is a statue of a very interesting London figure, who certainly didn’t go unnoticed during his lifetime.   John Wilkes was born in nearby Clerkenwell in 1725, the son of a successful distiller and when only 18 years old, married a wealthy heiress 10 years his senior, which not only gave him considerable wealth but also the Manor of Aylesbury, thus enabling him to become one of the landed gentry. He was not however the ideal husband. Despite being famously ugly (and cross eyed to boot) he can be best described in those early years as a Rake – womanising and spending most of his time at the Hell Fire Club, an elitist club where ‘persons of quality’ could go who wished to take part in socially immoral acts! However Wilkes soon grew bored of his life of pleasure and decided to go into politics, becoming the MP for Aylesbury and fast developing a reputation as a radical. He was not afraid to be outspoken, setting up a newspaper called the North Briton, where he criticised King George III on his choice of Prime Minister.     Arrested and charged with seditious libel, Wilkes only avoided prosecution because of MP’s privilege and soon became popular amongst ordinary people as a champion of liberty. He was also a well known wit, and in one heated exchange between himself and the 4th Earl of Sandwich who said to him:   “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox” Wilkes famously replied: That depends my Lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress”   But Wilkes had made powerful enemies. He was challenged to a duel by one of the Kings supporters and was shot in the stomach. Wounded, he fled to Paris for his own safety. Five years later he returned to London and assumed a new name in an attempt to lay low and not attract attention. But the quiet life was not for John Wilkes and soon he was championing workers rights and standing for Parliament again, this time in the constituency of Middlesex. The authorities...

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The German Gymnasium

The German Gymnasium

By in London's historic buildings

If you’re planning on catching a train from either Kings Cross or St. Pancras (maybe the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9 3/4 or the Eurostar to Paris) just take a few minutes to stop before your journey, go out and stand between the two stations and take a look at another wonderful Victorian building that stands proudly on its own, just before the new Kings Cross complex to the north of you. Today the building houses a swanky new restaurant with dining on two floors, but originally The German Gymnasium was exactly that, a gymnasium for German gymnasts! It was the first purpose built gymnasium in England and was constructed in 1864 for £6000 with money from the German community living in the city. It was used for the indoor events of the first Olympic Games held in London in 1866 and continued to be used as an Olympic venue until 1908. At some time before the second World War it fell into disuse until a recent million pound renovation restored the Grade II listed building to its former glory, with its wonderful broad-spanned, laminated timber roof and impressive staircases. I went there recently with my family for my daughters birthday and we sat in the restaurant upstairs, while the slightly cheaper bistro is downstairs. The restaurant certainly makes for a great occasion and I can personally recommend the...

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Apsley House – Home of the Duke of Wellington

Apsley House – Home of the Duke of Wellington

By in A day in the life of a London cabbie

One of the first things that London taxi drivers have to learn when doing the ‘knowledge’, the exhaustive test they have to pass before they can drive the famous London black cab, is where to find Apsley House, the ancestral home of the Duke of Wellington, which has the honour of having the address – No 1 London. It can be found on the north side of Hyde Park Corner and gained the nickname No 1 London in the ‘old days’, because it was the first building encountered when entering London through the toll gates from the village of Knightsbridge. Today Hyde Park Corner is one of the busiest roundabouts in London and most tourists tend to gravitate towards the centre of the roundabout where Wellington Arch can be found. But those brave enough to cross the road to visit Apsley House will be richly rewarded. The house was the London residence of the 1st Duke of Wellington, he who attained stardom and celebrity status for defeating Napolean at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The upper part of the building is still occupied by the 8th Duke and his family but the ground and first floors are open to the public as a museum and art gallery and is possibly the best preserved Aristocratic Town House from the period. For anyone interested in the Battle of Waterloo and the titanic struggle between Napoleon and the Duke, they will be fascinated by the story that these majestic rooms tell. Erected on the site of an old tavern called the Hercules Pillars, Apsley House was originally built in 1771 for the then Lord Chancellor Lord Aspley by the celebrated Architect of the time, Robert Adam. The House then fell into the hands of Sir Authur Wellesley who after getting into financial difficulties, sold it to his more famous brother, who had by now been given the title of the Duke of Wellington and needed a London base to pursue his new career in politics. The Duke was obviously and justifiably very proud of his achievement at Waterloo that he furnished and decorated the house as a testament to his victory over Napoleon and today a walk through its rooms is  like witnessing his personal triumph. From the grand entrance hall to the Museum room, where Wellington kept all...

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Twinings Tea Shop

Twinings Tea Shop

By in A day in the life of a London cabbie

You can be forgiven for passing by one of London’s oldest and most famous shops without even noticing it. Twinings Tea Shop, located at 216 The Strand, is sandwiched between two modern buildings and is a throwback to an age when tea making and drinking was an art to be savoured! Although now justifiably famous for its tea, Twinings originally started life as Tom’s Coffee House, one of the many coffee shops that populated the City of London in the 17th century. Coffee houses in those days were almost exclusively for city gents, who would discuss business affairs and conduct their business. Merchants from the same trades would congregate in certain coffee shops and competition was fierce. Thomas Twining,  having originally come to London from Gloucestershire to carry on the family business of weaving,  saw that an opportunity existed in importing exotic products from the new world that included tea. He saw his opportunity and in 1706 purchased Tom’s Coffee house and began to sell tea as well as coffee. Tea was becoming fashionable with the upper classes and wealthy people flocked to his shop in the Strand. Soon he began to establish a reputation and selling as much dry tea as wet tea, and to local coffee shops. Tea in those days was heavily taxed and only the wealthy could afford it. High class ladies, denied by convention of entering the man’s world of a coffee shop, would wait outside Twinings while a man servant would go in and buy the increasingly fashionable to drink tea. High Tea taxes were eventually dropped and in 1837 when Queen Victoria granted Twinings a Royal Warrant as supplier of teas to the Royal Household, the name of Twinings became famous the world over. Twinings carries the distinction of having the oldest Company logo in the world in continuous use and being the City’s longest paying ratepayer, having occupied the same premises on the Strand since 1706. For tea lovers a visit to Twinings is a must. They only sell dry tea to take away but they do offer tea tastings on request and have a small museum at the back of the shop which charts the story of this famous business, still owned today...

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Samuel Johnson – London’s greatest cheerleader

Samuel Johnson – London’s greatest cheerleader

By in Famous Londoners

No self respecting blog about London can fail to include Dr Johnson, who was responsible for the most quoted ‘quote’ of all about our great city…. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford” Samuel Johnson was an English writer and critic, and one of the most famous literary figures of the 18th century. Next to William Shakespeare, he is probably the most quoted of all English writers.                 His best-known work is his ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ which took him 9 years to write, finally published in 1755. Some of the definitions used by Johnson in the dictionary give a clue to the man’s forthright and controversial personality. DULL:  To make dictionaries is dull work OATS:  A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people. Johnson had moved to London in 1737 and it’s fair to say, promptly fell in love with the city. He was a regular at many of the drinking establishments in the area, including the well known Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street. An evening there  must have been entertaining! “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.”   Samuel Johnson lived in a house just off Fleet Street, between 1748-1759, where he wrote his famous Dictionary. Though the success of the dictionary bought Johnson fame, he was always in trouble for money. At one time he was arrested for an outstanding debt of £5.16  In 1763, he met James Boswell, a young Scottish lawyer, who wrote the  ‘Life of Johnson’ (published in 1791) which did much to spread Johnson’s name. “If you are idle, be not solitary. If you are solitary, be not idle”               Who would be the equivalent of Samuel Johnson today? He was a Satirist & Diarist, quick witted and famous for his pithy quotes. Today he would probably be an author, broadcaster and blogger. His tweets would have been memorable!   “One of the disadvantages of wine, is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts!”...

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