The Fleet Revisited

Over the past few years, I have made several attempts to film the River Fleet as it passes under a storm grate on Saffron Hill. You can see one of these attempts in an earlier blog post about the subterranean waterway. The Fleet is one of London’s “lost” rivers, a once-important tributary of the Thames that was covered over and incorporated into the sewer system in the 1800s.

My most recent attempt has proven successful, yielding clear footage. You can watch the video at YouTube, or below.

Dog and Duck Punch

In the 1920s, Arthur Machen and his wife, Purefoy, were renowned for the garden parties that they hosted at their home in St John’s Wood, in north London. At these gatherings Machen served a libation of his own concoction, called Dog and Duck punch. The Fleet Street journalist D.B. Wyndham Lewis recalled it in his memoirs years later as a “golden, harmless, seductive, suave, crystalline compound, drunk in beakers,” that “crept up quietly and sandbagged you from behind, without warning.” To illustrate this last point Lewis offered the cautionary tale of “an eminent American critic” who had been discussing New England philosophy with other guests when suddenly he began to gnash his teeth and wail, “She was a tigress but my God I tamed her!” Lewis concluded that “the Dog and Duck punch had got to him.”

Machen named the potion after a lawn game, also of his own invention, played around a D-shaped green in his garden. He explained the game in an essay for The Lyons Mail, subsequently collected in the 1924 volume, Dog and Duck. The rules are so convoluted that one can easily imagine hilarity ensuing after a few too many cups of the eponymous punch. In a collection of letters between Machen and his friend Montgomery Evans, which they edited, Sue Strong Hassler and Donald M. Hassler offer the gist of the game: “one rolled a battered tennis ball from the gate entrance” of the garden “toward the duck which was at the top of the D. Success was measured by the progress of the dog-ball.” Lewis described it as “subtle and maddening,” like the punch.

So what exactly was in the drink that Machen served to his guests? The recipe was, apparently, a closely guarded secret. Biographer Wesley D. Sweetser identified it as a dry martini, but that is not quite correct. Lewis speculated, with tongue in cheek, that:

But for the impinging of the war on Arthur Machen’s 80th birthday, the distinguished strewer of pearls before the public should have been compelled to reveal to the world at last the secret of Dog and Duck punch, which made the stars to reel so often round his guests on summer evenings in St John’s Wood some years ago…The secret formula pronounced while brewing the punch would probably be familiar to those who know the Code of Hammurabi. It was noted that its victims invariably came back next week for more.

Machen revealed the recipe to Montgomery Evans in a list of cocktails that he included with a letter dated January 16, 1925. Machen wrote:

Dog and Duck Punch, No. 1
3 bottles of Sauternes, Graves, or Barsac
½ bottle of Gin
Be careful NOT to use Chablis or any of the white Burgundies in place of the Bordeaux wine

If this resembled a martini it would have been an exceptionally “wet” one. The wine—”the sweeter the better,” he told Colin Summerford—would have been the dominant flavor. By December of 1925, Machen wrote, in another letter to Evans, that “people come around on Saturday night and drink Dog and Duck Punch (No. 2).” This variation, he later explained to Summerford, was the same as the first “but with the addition of any small Burgundy or Bordeaux. The quantities have never been measured; they are ascertained in mixing and follow the taste of the mixer. Or, as one has said: ‘Dog and Duck Punch is an essentially fluid conception.'”

This essay was published in the Spring 2018 issue of Faunus: The Journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. Subscribe here.

Fall of the Hardy Tree

In the 1860s, Thomas Hardy was a young architect employed to oversee the removal of graves from St Pancras Old Church in the London Borough of Camden. This project was undertaken to make room for the tracks of the Midland Railway. The future author of Far from the Madding Crowd stacked several dozens of tombstones around the base of a young ash tree which subsequently grew up around them, partially absorbing some into its root system.

Today, the Camden New Journal reports that the historic Hardy Tree has fallen:

Camden Council had warned in the summer that the tree had been weakened by a heavy storm and would almost certainly fall at some stage. It had been fenced off for some time.

In a statement in July, a Town Hall spokesperson said: “We are looking at ways to commemorate this tree, and its story, when it does eventually fall. The council recognises the importance of the veteran Hardy Tree, both for our local communities and nationally, which is why we’ve taken measures over the last eight years to manage this stage of its lifecycle, keeping it safe for visitors.”

I imagine that any commemoration of the tree must necessarily include the preservation of the headstones in situ. Photographer Simon Lamrock has posted images of the aftermath on Twitter.

Uncertain Bells

I have tried to record any new developments regarding the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry since that ancient and venerable London manufactory closed in 2018. Last year the situation seemed grim, indeed. But now the plan to redevelop the site into a modern hotel has fallen through. The Gentle Author reports:

A new chapter opens in the ongoing saga of the historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry as the American developers put the building up for sale. When their option lapsed to buy the land at the rear of the foundry, where they had planned to build their tower of hotel rooms with a swimming pool on the top, we knew that the ill-conceived bell-themed boutique hotel scheme was dead and it was only a matter of time before this outcome arrived.

Shame on all those who killed the world’s most famous bell foundry that operated in Whitechapel for five hundred years from the reign of Elizabeth I to the reign of Elizabeth II, where the Liberty Bell and Big Ben were cast.

The Gentle Author proposes a plan to restore the factory to working order:

The challenge now for the London Bell Foundry is to acquire the building in Whitechapel and reopen it as a fully-working foundry, employing a marriage of new and old technology, establishing the foundry as an international centre for the culture and science of bell-founding, and maximising the educational potential, through apprenticeships for local people and work with schools and colleges in East London.

The same plan would have been instituted by the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust, which had tried unsuccessfully to buy the foundry back from the developers in 2018. Hopefully a successful bid can be made now.

Views of The Grange

Seven photographs depicting the home of Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, taken in 1887 by Frederick Hollyer, will be auctioned at Christie’s later this month. The artist and his family moved into The Grange, an 18th century house in West Kensington, London, twenty year earlier. Views include the exterior, drawing room, dining room; garden studio, and daughter Margaret’s bedroom. The lot, which is being sold by descendants, is estimated between one and two thousand pounds.

White Horse

But thou, Goddess, farewell, and turn thy steeds to the Ocean stream,
And I will endure my misery still, even as I have borne it.
Farewell, bright-faced Selene; and farewell too, ye stars,
That follow the slow-moving chariot of the tranquil Night.

—Theocritus, Idylls.

Pictured above: head of a chariot horse belonging to the moon-goddess Selene, designed by Pheidias in marble, once situated on the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens, now at the British Museum.

A Tower Raven

An apocryphal but well-known story tells of a prophesy: if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Kingdom will fall. Out of an abundance of caution a flock of the birds are kept in residence.

Pictured above: a raven perched on a surviving portion of London Wall (the Roman defensive works that surrounded third-century Londinium) beside the White Tower.

A Spitalfields Tour

The Gentle Author is crowdfunding a walking tour of Spitalfields in East London. It draws from the centuries of cultural history documented on his blog, Spitalfields Life. The tour would challenge a market cynically dominated by Jack the Ripper. The Gentle Author writes,

I am appalled that educational institutions send classes of students and school children on the exploitative serial killer tours which display autopsy photographs of women in the street, indulging in ghoulish humour at the expense of these victims.

Instead, I am offering visitors the opportunity to meet a member of the local community and learn something of the infinite variety of life that has evolved in London’s first suburb over two millennia. For the past two years, I have been developing and road-testing THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS which I plan to launch this spring.

A donation of £100 or more includes two complimentary tickets.

The Snow Queen

The image above is taken from a print in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it is described as: “photograph of man making a snow sculpture resembling Queen Victoria, unknown photographer, ca. 1890.” The sculptor is quite talented. Can he be identified?

The only account of Her Majesty sculpted in snow that I could find was in The Harmsworth London Magazine from December of 1901. An article describes the “young art students of Brussels…moulding statues in the snow.” The previous year “some twenty-six different statues were on show at the Royal Park in Brussels.” The entries were judged and “the moulder of the statue of the late Queen Victoria was awarded a prize.”

Ratcliffe Highway Revisited

In Victoriana, I describe a piece of ink-black satire written by the Romanticist, Thomas De Quincey, entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”

“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.

The entire chapter, “Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre,” can be read here on the blog.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders took place two hundred and ten years ago this month. At Spitalfields Life, The Gentle Author has a serialized account of the events running roughly coterminously with the 1811 dates. So far he has published three chapters: “The Death Of A Linen Draper,” “Horrid Murder,” and “The Burial of the Victims.”