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Category Archives: The Cruel Capital

Lord Camelford: Gentleman Thug (Part One)

They say “Money doesn’t buy class.

This was certainly true of Thomas Pit, the 2nd Baron of Camelford; an obnoxious figure from the late 18th century who by all accounts was a thug, a bully and, as those at the time described him, a “desperate bruiser. 

Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford

Pitt was born in Cornwall in 1775. His father, also called Thomas, owned property on Hanover Square and was a career politician who eventually gained a peerage to the House of Lords. 

The young Pitt was educated at Charterhouse School (which was then located close to Smithfield Market but has since moved to Surrey) but he soon grew bored of education and, against his father’s wishes, decided instead to pursue a career in the Royal Navy.

Aged just 16, Pitt signed up to join the crew of the HMS Discovery which had been tasked with exploring America’s Pacific coast. 

HMS Victory by Mark Mysers (from Blue World Web Museum)

During the long voyage Pitt proved to be quite a handful.

As well as smashing a delicate navigational device he also slept on duty, dabbled in illicit trade and pursued amorous liaisons with native islanders; activities which were strictly forbidden. 

For these misdemeanours the ship’s Captain, George Vancouver (after who the Canadian city is named), had Pitt flogged and was eventually forced to have him placed in irons.

Although harsh, such punishments were not unusual at the time and what appeared to infuriate Pitt most was the fact he was made to sit shackled alongside his more ‘common’ shipmates. 

A portrait by an unknown artist of a figure believed to be Captain George Vancouver (image: Wikipedia)

Unable to cope with such ruthless authority, Pitt was discharged whilst docked in Hawaii and had no other choice but to find his own way home.

Whilst away, his father died meaning the peerage was passed on; an inheritance which ensured the young tearaway was officially a Lord by the time he finally made it back to London. 

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In 1795 Captain Vancouver also returned to London. His expedition had been utterly gruelling- out of 153 men, only 6 had made it back.

Vancouver settled in Petersham, south-west London where he hoped to enjoy the view from Richmond Hill and pursue the quiet life: a simple desire which was soon blighted when Thomas Pitt discovered his old commander was back in town. 

The view from Richmond Hill (Google Street View)

Hellbent on revenge, the newly made Lord sent a letter to his former tormentor which was packed with insults and challenged him to a duel; a bout which he hoped would “Give him satisfaction for his injuries.

When Vancouver refused, Pitt vowed to track him down in person, finally succeeding in September 1796 when he cornered his nemesis on Conduit Street (which branches off of Regent Street )and administered a ferocious beating with a cane.

The attack, which became popular gossip in London after being satirised in a cartoon, left an already weakened Vancouver in very poor health and he passed away soon after.

Pitt however faced no repercussions, largely due to his privileged connections. 

‘The Caning on Conduit Street’: A satirical view of Lord Camelford’s attack on Captain Vancouver.

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Following this encounter, Pitt continued to exude a violent nature which struck fear in many Londoners.

He was especially fond of roaming the streets in search of potential crooks and troublemakers to rough up; a pastime known as ‘Boxing the Watch’.

In one incident he battered a tollgate keeper black and blue after claiming to have been given counterfeit pennies in change- a trifling sum for a man of such wealth. 

Pitt’s fearsome reputation was further bolstered by his dog, ‘Trusty’; a bull-terrier brutalised into becoming a champion fighting dog.

During his career, Trusty endured 104 bouts and remained unbeaten. Pitt later gifted his prized pet to ‘Fighting Jim Belcher’; the celebrated bare-knuckle boxer, explaining that “The only unconquered man was the only fit master for the only unconquered dog.”

Fortunately, it appears Trusty received kinder treatment from Jim and was able to live out his days in the Jolly Brewers, a former Wardour Street pub taken over by the boxer in his retirement. 

Portrait of Jim Belcher (by Benjamin Marshall), the boxer to who Lord Camelford gifted his dog ‘Trusty’- who can be seen in the background (image: Tate Gallery)

For Thomas Pitt, the 2nd Baron of Camelford however there would be a great deal more violence, controversy and murder to follow…

To be continued…

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Two Minutes to Midnight

Since 1947, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have maintained the ‘Domesday Clock’; a symbolic timepiece whose minute hand is tweaked back and forth in the moments before midnight as a visual metaphor for illustrating how close they believe the world is to a civilisation ending catastrophe; primarily nuclear war.

The Domesday Clock (image: abc news)

On the 25th January 2018 the clock was moved forward to stand at just two minutes to midnight; the closest it’s been since 1953 when both the USA and then USSR acquired the hydrogen bomb.

Two Minutes to Midnight… (image: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)

According to The Bulletin, the reason for this recent, alarming advance is due to the complete failure of world leaders to address current threats to humanity; something no doubt inflamed by the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S President, Donald Trump’s penchant for bragging about America’s nuclear arsenal.

Tensions have also been strained further in recent weeks with Hawaii and Japan suffering false missile alerts.

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In the early 1980s when the globe was still gripped by the Cold War, the Domesday Clock also stood perilously close to midnight, nudging 11.57pm in 1984.

Around this time, the BBC produced several documentaries looking at the potential consequences of nuclear war which, despite looking decidedly dated to today’s audiences, now seem as relevant ever in the current climate.

The first was a Panorama documentary entitled ‘If the Bomb Drops‘, which aired in March 1980 and was presented by a young Jeremy Paxman who took to the streets of Shepherds Bush to ask people what they’d do in the event of hearing sirens sound the Four Minute Warning; the famous time in which it was estimated the public would be warned of an incoming nuclear attack.

The no-nonsense cockneys interviewed by Paxman summed up the futility of preparing for such an event (please click below to view):

Later in the documentary Paxman takes to to the air in a helicopter to describe the impact a 1 megaton nuclear device would have if detonated high above the Houses of Parliament (please click below to view)…

‘If the Bomb Drops’ also featured a terrifying sneak-peak of the government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ public information films.

Produced by the now defunct Richard Taylor Cartoons -who were once based on Great Portland Street and are perhaps better known for creating the far more charming ‘Crystal Tipps and Alistair‘ these films were top secret at the time and Panorama achieved quite a coup in obtaining them.

In the event of an international crisis that looked set to trigger a war, it was intended that the UK’s TV stations would go off air and be replaced by the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service– on which these short films, of which there are 20, would be played on a continual loop.

Although Paxman rather chillingly predicts that these films “Won’t be seen again until nuclear war is imminent”, they are all now available on Youtube and unsurprisingly make very unsettling viewing.

Particularly eerie is the jarred, electronic jingle which concludes each segment; a product of the former BBC Radiophonic Workshop who were based at the Maida Vale Studios on Delaware Road and are best known for creating the theme tune to Dr Who

BBC Maida Vale Studios (image: Google Streetview)

Considering this link with the Time Lord, it may come as no surprise to hear that the attack warning itself (which was intended to alert the British public had a nuclear launch been detected in the 1970s/80s) is rumoured to have featured flashing lights and ‘Dalek‘ sounds. This chilling recording remains unseen to this day.

To view the entire catalogue of the Protect and Survive films- which includes advice on how to recognise warnings, how to construct a shelter and even how to dispose of the dead- please click below….

 

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It didn’t take the BBC long to put out another documentary presenting the dire consequences of nuclear war.

In the summer of 1982, the science strand, QED broadcast ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ which, narrated in the stern tones of Ludovic Kennedy, speculated on what fate would befall London if a nuclear warhead was detonated 1 mile above St Paul’s Cathedral.

According to the documentary, this would involve:

The vaporisation of St Paul’s mighty gold cross:

The annihilation of priceless artworks:

Cabs and double deckers set ablaze:

The combustion of homes as far aways as Battersea:

The charring of meat in Lidgates Butchers, Holland Park (used by QED as a grim metaphor for the impact on human flesh):

The total destruction of buildings under pulverising blast-waves:

A tidal wave of deadly flying glass (demonstrated here on the skin of an unfortunate pumpkin):

And some pretty scary fashion choices!

Modelled here by Joy and Eric, a Finsbury Park couple who attempted to build various nuclear shelters for the documentary.

Joking aside, ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ is very scary stuff- particularly the doom-laden end sequence in which famous London locations are depicted as ruins in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

To watch the entire episode of this QED documentary, please click below:

‘A Guide to Armageddon’ was produced by Essex born Mick Jackson who, shortly after, drew upon the experience to direct the 1984 drama, ‘Threads’ which was written by Barry Hines (author of ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ which had been adapted as the heart-breaking 1969 film, ‘Kes’) and portrayed the consequences of a nuclear war as experienced by the people of Sheffield.

Threads is arguably one of the most disturbing dramas ever broadcast by the BBC and can be viewed here in its entirety- although please be aware, viewer discretion is highly advised.

Here’s hoping the Domesday Clock ticks back soon…

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The Gunpowder Plot

November 5th as we all know marks Bonfire Night; a chilly festival of sparklers and fireworks commemorating the moment when a conspiracy to blow up Parliament was foiled at the last minute.

But how exactly did the Gunpowder Plot come about?

The plot’s roots originated during the reign of Elizabeth I; a time when persecution of Catholics had steadily risen, with fines, imprisonment and execution meted out to those who practiced the faith.

Queen Elizabeth I (image: BBC)

When King James I came to the throne in 1603, Catholics were hopeful he’d be more sympathetic- after all, his mother, Mary Queen of Scots had herself been Catholic. This optimism vanished however as James continued to enforce Elizabeth’s policies and banished all priests from the country.

King James I (portrait by John de Critz)

Infuriated by these events was Robert Catesby, a 32 year old Catholic who’d sheltered priests at his home in Uxbridge since the 1590s. In February 1604, he met with two similarly disillusioned young men- Thomas Wintour and John Wright- at another property he owned in Lambeth. It was here that Catesby first proposed the idea of assassinating the king with explosives.

Robert Catesby’s home in Lambeth

Agreeing to the plan, Wintour travelled to Europe to seek support. In Flanders he met and recruited 34 year old Yorkshireman, Guy Fawkes (aka ‘Guido’); an explosives expert and mercenary fighting for the Spanish army.

Guy Fawkes, illustrated by George Cruikshank

In May 1604, Guy Fawkes came to London and met the plot’s ringleaders at the Duck and Drake inn on The Strand where an oath of secrecy was sworn. In all, there would be 13 collaborators.

An early illustration depicting a number of the Gunpowder Plotters

Later that year, another of the group- Thomas Percy- blagged a job as a royal bodyguard and acquired a house close to the House or Lords from which the conspirators began digging a tunnel. Guy Fawkes, under the rather unimaginative alias, ‘John Johnson’, posed as Percy’s servant, meaning he was at liberty to wander around Parliament.

Parliament in the 1600s

In March 1605, a golden opportunity arose when a vault directly beneath the House of Lords became available to rent.

The laborious tunnelling was abandoned and Guy Fawkes began transferring the gunpowder (which had been stashed across the river in Catesby’s home) directly into the cellar. There was no need to rush. Due to an outbreak of plague, the opening of Parliament- at which King James would be in attendance- had been delayed until November 5th 1605.

The plot began to unravel in late October when Lord Monteagle, whilst dining in Hoxton, received an anonymous letter- most probably from his brother-in-law, Francis Tresham who was one of the plotters- warning him to avoid Parliament’s opening due to the threat of a “terrible blowe.”

19th century illustration of Francis Tresham

With suspicions raised, Monteagle passed the letter to the king who ordered Parliament to be searched.

Lord Monteagle

On the morning of November 4th, Guy Fawkes was spotted and questioned, but dismissed when he claimed he was merely a servant going about his business.

Still sceptical however, guards returned to Parliament in the early hours of November 5th where, once again, they discovered Guy Fawkes- this time equipped with a lantern, matches and fuses, and also dressed in a cloak and riding spurs for a hasty getaway. The plot has been rumbled.

The capture of Guy Fawkes

After his arrest, Guy Fawkes was hauled to the Tower of London where he was subjected to horrendous torture.

The Tower of London, 1600s

It took him three days to crack and name his fellow conspirators who’d fled along Watling Street (now the A5) towards the midlands.

Guy Fawkes’ signature…before and after torture

Armed with this information, the king’s men swiftly hunted them down. Catesby and Percy died in a shootout in Staffordshire, after which their heads were jabbed upon spikes outside Parliament.

Eight of the surviving plotters were found guilty of treason and consequently sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.

The first four executions took place outside St Paul’s Cathedral on the 30th January 1606 and the second batch- including that of Guy Fawkes- were held the following day in Old Palace Yard, between Parliament and Westminster Abbey. 

Old Palace Yard

After taking the noose Guy Fawkes suddenly leapt from the scaffold, snapping his neck for an instant death; thus sparing himself the horror of being disembowelled whilst still alive. His head was later drenched in tar and displayed on a spike above the gateway to London Bridge.

Francis Tresham meanwhile died from poisoning whilst imprisoned- a small mercy for the warning he’d supposedly given…

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