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Tag Archives: Westminster

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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Portcullis Precursors: Westminster’s Forgotten Designs…

Standing in the shadow of the Elizabeth Tower (home of course to the world-famous bell, Big Ben) is Portcullis House, a large annexe providing offices and facilities for Members of Parliament.

Portcullis House (image: Wikipedia)

Portcullis House (image: Wikipedia)

Opened in 2001 at a cost of £260 million, Portcullis House is certainly a tough looking building, designed with a high degree of security in mind. It is also perched directly above Westminster tube station, allowing commuters to view the office block’s hefty foundations as they glide up and down the escalators.

Westminster tube station, deep beneath Portcullis House (image: building.co.uk)

Westminster tube station, deep beneath Portcullis House (image: building.co.uk)

Although Portcullis House was commissioned in 1992 the need for extra room at the Houses of Parliament had been recognised twenty years earlier.

The site of Portcullis House in 1928 (image: Wikipedia)

Looking towards the site of Portcullis House in 1928 (image: Wikipedia)

In light of this, a competition was held in the early 1970s seeking designs for a parliamentary add-on.

246 entries were submitted and the winner was Robin Spence- nephew of Sir Basil Spence, the architect noted for his work on projects such as Coventry Cathedral and London’s Hyde Park Barracks.

Along with essentials such as an assembly hall, offices and a large library, Spence’s design also included a roof garden, sleeping cubicles… and, to spoil MPs further, a swimming pool, sauna and ‘travellator’ moving walk way link.

The building would also have been raised on columns, allowing for the provision of a public forum area below. The estimated cost of the project was £7 million….

Mock up of Spence's winning design (image: London Illustrated News)

Mock up of Spence’s winning design (image: London Illustrated News)

Although Robin Spence won £8,000 for his work, his design never came to fruition.

Spence's design as it would have appeared from Parliament Square (image: London Illustrated News)

Spence’s design as it would have appeared from Parliament Square (image: London Illustrated News)

His entry, along with those of the runners-up, were published in the Illustrated London News, in April 1972 providing a fascinating insight into a Westminster that never was…what do you think of the designs?

Second place:

A design incorporating vertical towers as a nod towards the original Parliament building’s architecture.

Second place Parliament annexe design

Second place Parliament annexe design

Third place:

A box-like structure which would have incorporated bronze glass windows.

Third design for the annexe

Third design for the annexe

Joint-third place

An ultra-modern vision made up of interpenetrated floors.

Joint third design for the annexe

Joint third design for the annexe

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Cabbie’s Curios: The Markets That Never Were…

Ever since Roman times, markets have been an integral part of London’s fabric. Many have come, lots have gone, some have switched location altogether whilst others have evolved and reinvented themselves as lively tourist destinations.

Beriwck Street Market in Soho.

Beriwck Street Market in Soho.

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Back in 1893, the London County Council’s Public Control Department commissioned a report into the capital’s 138 markets examining their size, income, impact on the local area and so on.

Report Cover

Intriguingly, the report singled out three markets in particular- all of which lay in what were then impoverished areas- suggesting that they should be drastically expanded with large, purpose built premises containing both stall space and other amenities for the benefit of the public.

The document contained sketches of these proposals… none of which were ever put into practice.

Had the schemes been embraced, the districts in which they stood would have been greatly altered and would no doubt appear very different today.

Here is a brief glimpse, therefore of a London that never was…

Leather Lane Market

Leather Lane runs parallel to Hatton Garden; London’s famous jewellery quarter.

A quiet Leather Lane today (image: Google Streetview).

A quiet Leather Lane today (image: Google Streetview).

Although leather goods were indeed sold here, it is believed that the name derives from ‘leveroune’; the French term for greyhound and probably the name of a once local tavern. (Nowadays, the word is spelt ‘levrier’).

An 18th century Greyhound (image: Christies).

An 18th century Greyhound (image: Christies).

According to the 1893 report, the market held on Leather Lane has “existed from time immemorial” and that the area was “a poor and densely populated district” inhabited by residents who are “chiefly of the labouring class.”

"The eviction of poor Irish families" from Leather Lane, Illustrated London News, January 1892.

“The eviction of poor Irish families” from Leather Lane, Illustrated London News, January 1892.

The report also described Leather Lane market as being severely overcrowded; “serious inconvenience is caused to the vehicular and general traffic, which on Saturday becomes entirely blocked… At midday in the fruit season the market is densely packed with work-people, lads and girls.”

In order to eradicate this congestion and also to “improve the dwellings of the poor”, the report suggested that a huge, purpose built hall be constructed to accommodate the market.

Floor plan of the proposed Leather Market.

Floor plan of the proposed Leather Market.

Had it materialized, the market hall would have been circular with ample space for stalls, washing facilities and even a playground on the roof!

The proposed building for Leather Lane.

The proposed building for Leather Lane.

At the centre of the market there would have been a bandstand, below which would have been a “coffee tavern.”

Where the market would have stood...

Where the market would have stood…

Although this grand version never made it off the page, Leather Lane Market survives to this day, albeit on a far smaller scale than its Victorian heyday.

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Strutton Ground Market

Established in the 1860s and located moments away from Westminster Abbey, Strutton Ground Market runs along a narrow lane linking Victoria Street to Horseferry Road.

Strutton Ground (image: Google Streetview).

Strutton Ground (image: Google Streetview).

The name derives from ‘Stourton House’; a mansion once based in the area which belonged to the Lord Dacre of the South.

The County Council’s report stated that Strutton Ground was part of “an old district, very thickly populated, the residents, exclusive of the shop-keepers, consisting chiefly of artizans, labourers and the poorer class.”

As with the proposals for Leather Lane, the report envisioned a large market hall with a bandstand, coffee shop and roof-top playground. The exterior was a rather different design though; a bold, rectangular block:

Strutton Ground Market

The proposed dome and floor plan for Strutton Ground market.

The proposed dome and floor plan for Strutton Ground market.

Where the market would have stood if built.

Where the market would have stood if built.

As with Leather Lane, these plans were never used. The market on Strutton Ground continued without development and still operates today. It is especially popular with workers from the many nearby offices.

Strutton Ground market today (Image: Geograph).

Strutton Ground market today (Image: Geograph).

Clare Market

Clare Market began operating in the 17th century and took its name from the Earl of Clare, John Holles who owned the land.

Location of the former Clare Market.

Location of the former Clare Market.

The 1890s report described the area served by Clare Market as being “very densely populated… chiefly occupied by the poorest class of people who are crowded into courts, alleys and lodging houses.”

Clare Market, The Illustrated London News, September 1891.

Clare Market, The Illustrated London News, September 1891.

With trade at Clare Market in steep decline, the report’s proposal was not as grand as those dedicated to Leather Lane and Strutton Ground, simply consisting of a basic floor plan.

However, like the other two proposals, running water, a bandstand, coffee tavern and overhead playground were all key components which it was hoped would go some way to alleviating poverty in the area if implemented.

The 1890s proposed floor plan for Clare Market.

The 1890s proposed floor plan for Clare Market.

Although the report stated that “the Strand Board of Works is of opinion that the market should be allowed to remain”, Clare Market and its surrounding slums were swept away just seven years later, replaced by the grandiose Kingsway and Aldwych development.

Construction of the Kingsway scheme, 1905 (image from 'Woman and her Sphere' site).

Construction of the Kingsway scheme, 1905 (image from ‘Woman and her Sphere’ site).

Today, the spot is now home to the London School of Economics, thus linking Clare Market to financial markets rather than those of the costermonger. 

The street known as Clare Market today, now occupied by the London School of Economics.

The street known as Clare Market today, now occupied by the London School of Economics (image: Google Streetview).