Later than usual, the weather in London is turning. Sometime during the night, the duvet is drawn tighter and the theatre of getting dressed in the morning is a noticeably swifter affair. It's December and although Jack Frost is nipping, 2010 saw the mercury plummet below -15C on the outskirts of London, so there's a marked appreciation that matters could be worse.
London has suffered extraordinary cold snaps over the centuries and the old London Bridge, with its broad starlings caused the river to run sluggishly. Periodically the Thames would freeze and Londoners, being the sensation seekers that they are, took to the ice in celebration. Embanking the Thames in the Victorian Era narrowed the width and increased the depth, tidal range and speed of flow, meaning its unlikely the river will freeze again in central London. Frost Fairs as they came to be known were usually brief, but the first was a drawn out and protracted affair. In order for the river to freeze, it had to be cold. Oh so desperately cold.
The Frost Fair of 1683-4
In December 1563, the Thames froze for a week and huge games of 'foot-ball' broke out on the ice, the kind with few rules and limitless players. Although short-lived, it set the tone for later, bitter winters. Instead of hiding away in misery, London came out to celebrate.
There is some dispute about whether a bridge existed across the Thames during the early Roman occupation, 2,000 years ago. Although evidence of pilings has been uncovered, the 'no bridge' argument contends that these pilings merely supported a pier. However a military pontoon-bridge would require no pilings and when examining the road structure that the Romans introduced, you have to wonder. If they were unable to bridge the Thames at the point where London evolved, why did it evolve there at all? Evidence from the Museum of London suggests that London was not initially a garrison town, but a commerce centre. It expanded based on the activity surrounding it and bridging the Thames, would have only modestly taxed Roman engineers.
Medieval London Bridge
After several later Roman and Anglo-Saxon bridges, all constructed of wood, there was a strong desire for something more permanent and if at all possible - less flammable. Old London Bridge was supposedly completed in 1209 and the first to be constructed from stone (there is some conflict with dates, as a post-dated fire in 1212 was said to have destroyed the 'wooden bridge' entirely). Its design was more causeway than bridge, with twenty arches from the south to north bank. Each arch was different in size and ratio and several segments collapsed during construction, perhaps suggesting the design was continually refined during the construction phase. Alarmingly, it also caught fire several times; likely to have been caused by the scaffolding igniting (which was still constructed of wood).
The bridge was furnished with houses, traders and other functional buildings, along its length on both sides; after permission was granted by King John. The tax levied on businesses - according to his law - would be used to maintain the bridge. In order to withstand the tremendous weight of London Bridge on the soft river bed, each culvert (the arch below the bridge allowing water to flow through) was supported on either side by enormous starlings. These acted as giant 'feet' and allowed the culvert load to be spread, preventing the bridge from sinking into the mud. These starlings also varied in size and became far more substantial than was entirely safe. In the century before demolition they restricted 80% of the tidal ebb and flow of the Thames, which had two immediate consequences. Firstly, water-speed slowed significantly along the Thames, causing it to freeze during harsh winters. The second was that when the tide was on the way out, the culverts became 'white-water' rapids and exceptionally hazardous to navigate. Boats generally stayed up-river of the bridge, or down-river. London Bridge was for "wise men to pass over and for fools to pass under," went the saying. Though "shooting the arches" was attempted by the brave, foolhardy or drunk, often resulting in disaster when the tide retreated.
We know that London was a Roman city, Londinium, but it's also reputed to be an expansion of a much earlier settlement. Sources, especially those who have delved into London Stone, often cite 'Brutus of Troy' as being the legendary founder of London. Legend, being the operative word. Who is this Brutus, how did he get here and why is information about him so sketchy?
Much of what we know about this period, is based on the work of medieval chroniclers, including Jeffery of Monmouth and his 'History of the Kings of Britain' from the 12th century: a mere 2,000 years after the event. So exaggeration and a desire to neatly fill in gaps with dramatic events, beats strongly in Jeffery's veins.
Æneas was a lieutenant of Hector in the Trojan War, and when the city was destroyed (after deployment of the infamous Trojan Horse) he fled to Italy where the settlement he founded (Alba Longa) was later to become Rome (Virgil's: Aneid covers this particular 'history'). His grandson, had direct descendants which were Greek, Latin and Trojan - and he was named Brutus. His mother died in childbirth and he accidentally killed his father in a hunting accident, so was banished for being 'unlucky'. He visited Greece and from there set off in search of new lands. The defeated Trojans, an underclass living poorly in Greece adopted him as their leader and they became collectively known as 'Britons' (after Brutus). They headed past the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar), had a brief contretemps with the French in Gaul (who doesn't?) where they were advised of an island to the north, much more up their street - known as Albion, pretty deserted and a good bet for settlement and subjugation. The date is set some time between 1170-1100 BC.
Before the police force was formally established as a full-time service of paid individuals in 1913 (seems late, but it is a fact), part-timers and private operatives policed the streets of London. Between 1674 and 1829 if you witnessed a crime you were legally obliged to apprehend the perpetrator or at the least report the crime to a justice of the peace. You were also expected to join the "Hue and Cry" in an active pursuit of a suspected felon. I imagine this would be popular if re-introduced. Joining a mob to chase down a perp, before returning to your pint - cheeks flushed with the exercise.
However, during the 18th century the general public became less involved and increasingly private individuals were paid to locate or chase down suspects. Rewards and inducements were also offered, including pardons to accomplices if they turned in their former gang members. Rewards tended to be half the value of the stolen goods and the thief taker crucially, was prepared to cross parish boundaries in order to hunt down their quarry. This produces a romantic notion of a logical and fearless defender of the common good, chasing suspects across the countryside. Unfortunately, that's not what happened.
Thief takers usually became entrepreneurial robbers themselves. They organised the gang of robbers, fenced the stolen goods by handing them back for a reward, then often turned in the robbers for yet more reward. The fee set by authorities on burglary, highwaymen and coiners, was high - £40 per head and £100 extra if the crime was committed within 5 miles of Charing Cross (i.e. well inside London's boundaries). A single capture in London would earn the thief taker the equivalent of 5 years earnings in average employment. Also, and you can't help feeling this aided the cause of corruption - any crime committed by the thief taker during his apprehension, was also pardoned.
The greatest fair in 17th century London, held near Smithfield market - was known to Londoners as Bartholomew Fair. To visit the site during the daytime now, is to enter a different world: light pavement traffic, significant portions of the market permanently shut, the odd scurrying commuter. Bars, pubs and restaurants which skirt the market are busy during peak weekday periods, but are distinctly genteel. The only time when it approaches the atmosphere of its past, is late at night over the weekend. The nearby club, Fabric, ensures a steady stream of activity and incident on the streets if you wander this way after midnight. Revelry, whooping, some shouting may cause a few to seek another route home, but this 'party mood' would be in keeping with the atmosphere of the late 1600s.
Smithfield was always a market, though it initially specialised in cloth at one end and cattle at the other (it still operates as London's chief meat market, though on a more modest scale). During the 14th century jousts and duels were fought here, but there would have been activity in the area stretching back millennia, being as it is within the walls of Roman London. In addition football matches and wrestling were popular diversions, as well as more visceral events such as executions at the gallows or stake. The nearby and appropriately named Cock Lane, was a hotbed of open prostitution and where there was prostitution, drinking and gambling were never far behind.
The cloth market had dwindled by the 17th century but retained the rights to 'the privileges of a fair' through the City of London Corporation (which still adminsters the Square Mile today from The Guildhall). Instead of the humdrum appeal of a '3 day cloth market', it was re-badged as a bumper 14 day festival - Bartholomew Fair. The over-riding purpose was entertainment with an emphasis on 'sensation'. Puppet shows, human freaks, street performers, jugglers and fire breathers, games of dice and thimble. Tents galore were erected for eating in (roast pork was the speciality), for drinking in and above all - for dancing in. The popular cry of the hawkers on the street was "What do you lack? What is it you buy?" Suggesting that anything and all things for the purposes of human pleasure, could be acquired at Bartholomew's Fair.
Any mention of the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London is rarely far behind. Often credited with stamping out the Great Plague of 1665, the fire in truth had little impact. Most plague hot-spots in 1666 lay at the outskirts of the city and by the time of the fire, plague cases were dropping dramatically in London.
The Great Fire of London began just before 2am on the 2nd of September 1666. It sprung from one of the ovens in the bakery of Thomas Farynor (or Farriner) in Pudding Lane. At 2am smoke was detected and an alarm was raised with Farynor's family escaping through an upstairs window. A maid who was too frightened to follow, was the first casualty. Several factors contributed to the fire being uncontained at this early stage. Firstly it was a Sunday, meaning there were no nearby workers on duty at Billingsgate Market. Ordinarily a ready workforce of helpers could have extinguished the fire quickly enough (supplementing the 'Trained Bands' militia who would tackle blazes). The second factor was the late hour, there being very few people around to help and of those that did awaken - many simply returned to bed expecting things would right themselves by morning. The nearby houses caught slowly, but with insufficient manpower to control the blaze the fire crept slowly southwards towards the Thames. The mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth was on the scene but refused to permit buildings to be pulled down to prevent the spread of fire, since they were mostly rented properties. He is quoted as saying "Pish! A woman could piss it out!", when referring to the fire. Hasty words, which were to haunt him later. The fire crossed the road to the Stars Inn Yard where combustible goods were stored, helping the fire to flare dramatically. It was a matter of minutes before its windborne debris caused the nearby unprotected wharves to catch fire. Sheds, manufactories and warehouses containing a panoply of fire-friendly goods were quickly consumed by the flames. Flammable pitch, tar, timber, hemp, hay, hops and barrels of brandy helped the fire to mushroom. Accounts at the time suggest that at this point there was a growing awareness by those nearby, that the fire was now out of all control. Crucially, the fire had also spread along the waterfront preventing those available to help, from accessing the necessary water from the Thames.