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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