'Ouvert Jour & Nuit' ... as they say in St Giles. I spotted this tremendous ghost sign right at the heart of London only yesterday, when loitering with intent with an old friend in and around St Giles-in-the-Fields. It's on a gable wall overlooking the churchyard, obscured by a tree and probably only visible at all when the leaves have fallen.
The sign is for the 'Continental Garage' - and I guess the splash of French is just to show a touch of sophistication, though there was a Francophone community in nearby Soho right down to the Second World War. At some stage, the sign has been altered to read 'Prince's Garage'., but the earlier rendition remains more legible.
This splendid sign was new to me - but is of course known to ghost sign aficionados. There's more about it, and a photo taken eight years ago when the sign was a touch clearer, on this specialist blog. And there are some images on Flickr, this one from 2009.
The church and this garage front the rather sad stub that is all that's left of St Giles High Street, on its truncated run from High Holborn to Denmark Street. This was once a rookery, as was Seven Dials nearby ... in popular song and literature, the roughs of St Giles was often set against the toffs of fashionable St James. This song sheet from the 1860s is from the British Library's online collection and in a similar vein Douglas Jerrold wrote the 1851 potboiler St Giles and St James, now available online.
But when it comes to churches, give me St Giles - and its immediate environs, Flitcroft Street and the community gardens behind - any day. Such an overlooked treasure and so close to Tottenham Court Road tube.
The church was designed by Henry Flitcroft in the 1730s, and merits the two full pages it gets in Pevsner. It's truly magnificent, with a three-sided gallery, crowded with wonderful memorials, not the least of which is a blue plaque to George Odger, the mid-Victorian radical labour leader, moved from St Giles High Street when Odger's old home was cleared forty years ago.
This area was a stronghold of O'Brienite artisan radicalism - followers of the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien - in the second half of the nineteenth century. The O'Brienites met at the Eclectic Hall just yards away on Denmark Street, better known as Tin Pan Alley, where a handful of late seventeenth century houses still survive (though whether the music industry will cling on here is much less certain).
Denmark Street has another claim on the interests of historians of radicalism. The hugely influential Indian Progressive Writers' Association was founded by Sajjad Zaheer, Mulk Raj Anand and others in the basement of the Nanking restaurant on Denmark Street. I haven't worked out where exactly it was - but I'm working on it. .
A really wonderful and exciting acquisition, a bound volume of 'The Working Man' for 1862-63, one of the most notable and radical political papers in the fairly bleak period between the decline of Chartism and the upsurge in radicalism prompted by the Reform League in the mid-1860s and then the example of the Paris Commune.
'The Working Man' was socialist and internationalist, and bears the imprint of the followers of Bronterre O'Brien - about whom we have written before (he died in 1864 and is buried in Abney Park in Stoke Newington).
And this particular book is very special - it was the personal copy of George E. Harris, the secretary of the group of working class radicals who published the monthly paper. His signature is on the front end paper (you can see that below, the ink is faint but it reads 'Geo E. Harris / 1862') - and he has annotated some of the pages.
Harris was a bookseller with premises off Edgware Road, and a key figure in London ultra-radicalism: a socialist, O'Brienite, internationalist, individualist and one of a group of O'Brien-influenced radicals who later worked alongside Karl Marx in the International Working Men's Association (the First International), both delighting Marx by their class-based militancy and infuriating him by what he regarded as their 'crotchets' and eccentricities.
Alongside Harris in the committee which published 'The Working Man' were Ambrose Caston Cuddon, an important if somewhat obscure libertarian leftist, and Charles Murray, a key lieutenant of O'Brien whose political career stretched from Chartism to the Social Democratic Federation of the 1880s.
'The Working Man' made a particular fuss about the visit to London of the revolutionary and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, 'Brother Bakunin', who was to be Marx's great rival in the First International.
At a few places, Harris has added his initials in the margins, indicating that at an anonymous letter or article was his handiwork - here's an example, a letter in response to criticism of Bakunin.
The volume includes eleven monthly issues for 1862, January to November (alas, missing a few pages, apparently a collation error) - and added in is a poorly printed issue for May 1863. This seems to be the complete run of this series of 'The Working Man'. The title reappeared, much in the same spirit, in 1866-7. A gem!
In the post today, I received this rather wonderful book - published in 1885 by the noted, and distinctly quarrelsome, radical Martin Boon.
Yes, it's an odd volume - both volumes together would have been well beyond my pocket.
Boon is a hugely interesting figure in the annals of radicalism. He was born in 1840 in Clerkenwell, greatly influenced by the Chartist Bronterre O'Brien, active alongside Karl Marx in the First International and a lively and quixotic campaigner above all for land and currency reform. There was also a distinct puritan streak to his views - he disapproved both of lasciviousness and of contraception.
In 1874, Martin Boon - who had campaigned actively against emigration - emigrated. To South Africa. There he made himself hugely unpopular by tilting at just about every windmill he could find - Boers, Jews, and black South Africans all came under his withering gaze. He wrote prolifically about the place, and didn't find all that much positive to relate. This book concludes: 'I HAVE NOT WRITTEN TO PLEASE, BUT TO REFORM.' He certainly didn't please, getting himself involved in a succession of court cases and public rows.
Boon played a part in the development of the goldfields in the Transvaal. He died there - apparently taking his own life by jumping into a mine shaft - on December 27th 1888. I realised with a start that today is the 125th anniversary of his death. For all his idiosyncracies and often intemperate views, he deserves remembrance.
Martin James Boon, 1840-1888: land nationaliser, currency reformer, radical propagandist and pamphleteer, settler in and chronicler of South Africa.
Of all the Chartist leaders, James Bronterre O'Brien is the one that most captures my imagination - it's the splendid name, of course, and also the corruscating polemic, his interest in the French Revolution, his role in propaganda and political journalism.
And there's the remarkable following he attracted, particularly among radical artisans in central London, which kept his name and ideas alive for a generation after his death in 1864. The O'Brienites, indeed, contributed abundantly to the socialist revival in London in the late 1880s.
I was delighted to pick up this Bronterre O'Brien pamphlet from 1851, in the dog days of Chartism - quite pricey, but a choice item. The final page carries a note about O'Brien's health - for years he was chronically ill, and but for his poor health he may well have achieved a still greater political legacy. He is buried in Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington, and I've posted photos of his grave elsewhere on this site.
Nag's Head, Holloway Road
It wasn't intended as a New Year wander. If the No. 4 had been running a regular service, I wouldn't have walked anything like as far. But today - part flaneur, part keep fit resolution - I hiked the whole distance from Dartmouth Park in north London to Dalston Junction. Do come with me!
The light was wonderful - a bright winter sun. I'd never seen the Nag's Head looking quite so bright. It hasn't been a pub for the past seven years, and hasn't been the 'Nag's Head' for a great deal longer - but it still appears on bus routes, and gives its name to the neighbourhood.
A little further down Holloway Road I passed a solitary, sad reminder of the wonderful Jones Brothers department store - Waitrose now stands on most of the site. Jones Brothers was much loved across north London. John Lewis stubbornly refused to listen to a lively local campaign demanding that the store be saved.
It closed in 1990. Holloway Road has never been the same since it went.
This is Arsenal territory, and in case anyone should forget, there on Holloway Road is a pub named after the club's greatest manager, at least until Arsene Wenger came along. 'The Herbert Chapman'.
Earlier Chapman had managed Huddersfield Town (my boyhood team) during their golden spell in the 1920s. He is regarded as one of the greatest team managers, and a great moderniser of the game of football.
The notice in the pub window saying 'Home Fans Only' seems a touch unnecessary. But I suppose any Spurs or Chelsea fans intruding into this Gunners' pub can't say they hadn't been warned.
A few yards further down, a left turn, and there it is - the Emirates stadium. The home of a club which knows, and values, its history - as you can tell from the museum, the statues, the billboards.
From there, cutting across Highbury, along Clissold Park, to Stoke Newington. And as perhaps befits the old stamping ground of the Angry Brigade, one of the first things I spot is the skull and crossbones flying high. Can anyone explain why?
On the far side of the park, the crenellated old pumping station, now a climbing centre, stands out. I seem to remember that the IRA once hid a cache of weapons in the filter beds which fed the water pumps. The site was long ago cleared and is now a housing estate.
Clissold House, in Clissold Park
The park has many delights, the greatest being the colonnaded Clissold House - built in the 1790s for a Quaker merchant and anti-slavery campaigner (this is Hackney after all). A little further along Stoke Newington Church Street is the old church, in part mid-16th century and hugely more elegant than the other St Mary's across the road.
I had planned to treat myself to lunch at one of the trendy Church Street cafes, but hundreds of others had the same idea. So I ploughed on to the Victorian valhalla at the eastern end of the street - Abney Park cemetery. It's best known for the grave of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. But another tomb demands at least as much attention.
The two photos on the left show the last resting place of the Chartist leader and thinker, James Bronterre O'Brien. His remarkable followers, the O'Brienites, were key figures in London radicalism for a full quarter century after their leader's death in 1864. The inscription, spruced up in the 1980s but faithful to the original, reads rather sombrely: 'His life was grand, his death was sad and drear'.
On to Stoke Newington High Street - heading south, past the excellent bookshop, and now amid an array of Turkish kebab shops. Above one is the most enticing shadow sign I've seen in a long while. Enough to prompt me to pop into the cafe, and have a chicken with honey and mustard ('no kebabs', I was told, 'haven't had a chance to marinate the meat because of the holidays'!)
Stoke Newington Road
By the time I had eaten, the light was beginning to fade. I hurried on south, past Alexander Baron's Foulden Road, stopping to admire the strange juxtaposition of places of worship just across the road. A small, homely old Baptist church, probably with a largely Caribbean congregation - overshadowed by the mosque and halal grocery next door, a converted cinema decked out with eye catching blue tiles.
As Stoke Newington shades into Dalston, and Stoke Newington Road becomes Kingsland High Street, African shops, stalls and bookstores become more evident. Ridley Road market, once one of Oswald Mosley's rallying points, is part African, part Caribbean, part Pakistani. I had never seen Punjabi run fish stalls before (traditional Punjabi cuisine is not in the least piscatorial) - but Ridley Road has quite a few.
Just a little further south to Dalston Junction, on to Balls Pond Road - and my walk's over. I hop on to a 38 to the Angel, and then take the Northern line back home. Close to three hours of wandering, I reckon. Thanks for your company.
Of all the old central London localities, St Giles has been squeezed into almost nothing. St Giles High Street - it still exists, indeed there's a solitary 'Borough of Holborn' street sign - is so anonymous, you need to have done the knowledge to know where it is. But St Giles is worth the search.
Within the shadow of Centrepoint, St Giles in the Fields is one of the most marvellous of London's old parish churches. Built in 1734, with a fine, and well maintained, Palladian interior.
Head out of the gates towards the northern end of Shaftesbury Avenue, and you find two of the city most atmospheric retailers. I am not sure who shops there, but I am so glad that someone is sustaining these venerable institutions.
James Smith and Sons ('established 1830'), umbrella makers and sellers, has about the best traditional shop front in London. A hundred yards away, Arthur Beale ('established four centuries'), yacht chandlers, claims even more ancient antecedents.
Head the other way, and you are on Denmark Street - the original Tin Pan Alley, and still a slightly disreputable mix of music shops, instrument repairers, and seedy-looking clubs. I sometimes stroll along Denmark Place, alongside the entrance to the '12 bar club'. This was where London's OBrienities - followers of the Chartist and socialist Bronterre O'Brien - met in the 1870s and 80s.
St Giles was a stronghold of artisan radicalism. And there's a vestige of that in the church - an LCC blue plaque for George Odger, a working man radical. A sign below explains: 'The George Odger plaque, formerly on 18 St Giles High Street, was placed here in 1874'. The novelist Henry James stumbled across his funeral procession, and wrote kindly of it.
If you stroll along the side of the church, you come across central London's most hidden oasis. Flitcroft Street takes you past the renovated Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, along a passage, and to Phoenix Gardens. This is simply the best designed small garden in London. It's looked after, well looked after, by a local private charity. The photo gives a sense of the place - and this is just three minutes from Oxford Street.
Phoenix Gardens boasts that it has the only frogs in the West End. Well, perhaps. It is sadly about the last of the communatarian ventures started in Covent Garden and Seven Dials a generation ago. Perhaps the last vestige of the old St Giles radicalism. But it's still there!
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