Authors: John Healy
It was April 1984. I was hailed in the street by a man who wanted me to drive him to an address in St James's Square. When we arrived at the destination, my customer paid the fare and went on his way. I started to leave the Square but my movement was blocked by a chanting crowd of dissident Libyans who were opposed to the dictatorial rule of Colonel Gadaffi. They had gathered just across the road from their embassy and were blocking my exit. A young policewoman cleared a way for me and I was off out into Lower Regent Street with my âFor Hire' light blazing away in order to attract my next customer.
Later I heard on the radio that an automatic gun had sprayed a volley of bullets from the window of the embassy. Around thirteen Libyan protesters were wounded and one policewoman was shot dead. This was the very same lady who had freed me from the Square minutes earlier. I was in the line of fire ten minutes before that murder. It just goes to show that you never know when your time is up.
This poor woman was only doing her job. She was WPC Yvonne Fletcher and thanks to Gadaffi's thugs, she lost her young life. The killer and his henchmen walked free to fly back to Libya. Now, after the 2011 uprising in Libya, the British government might get their hands on the gunman who shot this brave young WPC. Disgraceful behaviour by these people who I call âthug killer' diplomats.
I wanted to become a black cab driver for many years. When I was working as a television engineer in the West End, I realised this was a great ambition of mine, so to make my dream come true I went on to do âThe Knowledge'. Apparently, this qualification is equal to a degree. To do The Knowledge entails riding a moped around London Town, the City of London and to a lesser extent the Metropolitan area of Greater London. The latter covers a thirty-five mile radius from Charing Cross.
One must commit to memory all the street names, the history and any landmarks encountered on your daily route. It took me the full four years to obtain my highly-prized green badge but I was in no hurry because I was in full time employment as a TV engineer.
One young man I met on The Knowledge had a photographic memory. He completed the task in just two years and decided to have a celebratory holiday â I think he went to Spain. While he was away he was run over and killed by a taxi cab. What an ironic thing to happen.
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You must wear your badge all the time when driving the cab. If for any reason the driver ever has to appear in court, the law states that the badge must be worn in the dock. Oliver Cromwell was the first person to license the cab trade in 1654. A law dating back 300 years to Cromwell's time stated that a carriage driver had to have a bale of hay in the boot of his vehicle to prevent cruelty to his hungry horse, which would have been out working
all day without food. Cromwell's law was certainly good for the poor old nags. The authorities kept that old law on the statute book. It was repealed about ten years ago. The police used that ancient law to stop any cab driver that they wanted to talk to, and would say âWhere's your bale of hay?' Of course, as there was never any hay in modern cabs they could then legitimately search the cab and talk to the suspect driver. What a way to treat cab drivers. We are the Knights of the Road. Sometimes the law really is an ass.
Incidentally, while I was doing the knowledge, I fell off the moped three times, but all I hurt was my pride.
Our next stop on my mythical tour is The City of London, which is divided from Greater London by an old Roman wall called London Wall. Within it lies the Golden Mile, which is the financial centre where fortunes are made and lost with the press of a button. (The latter seldom happens).
There were many gates into the City of London. They were built by the Romans, but sadly they have all disappeared now, swallowed up by âprogress'. Some bits of London Wall, though, still exist to this day. The Romans built London, constructing a great city in 443
that they named Londinium, but they abandoned it in the early fifth century. Apparently Rome was attacked by both Goths and Germanic tribes at the end of the fourth century so the legions all went home to defend their own land, leaving behind them a thriving City that continued to prosper.
Construction workers are still digging up lots of old Roman artefacts including well-preserved tombs and graves. If a new building is to be constructed in the City of London, builders have to allow archaeologists time to start a dig. They get at least one month to unearth the many valuable ancient treasures lying beneath their feet, otherwise all these precious items would be lost forever. The builders are never very happy about this but there is nothing they can do about it. This is the law, although the archaeologists are hard-pressed to find all there is to be found before the cranes and the pile drivers move in.
A team of archaeologists got very excited recently when they unearthed a complete Roman mosaic floor â a rare find, although not as good as when they discovered the remains of a complete
Roman gladiatorial arena within the confines of the beautiful and extremely ornate Guildhall. I believe it was in pretty good condition. One day on my lunch break I parked my cab just outside the hoarding that had been placed around the discovered arena. Peering through the small public viewing window I swear I could almost hear the roar of the tribunes, the centurions and the baying crowd of Romans egging on their champions with their thumbs up or down. One to kill, one to save. How about that! It was a weird and strange experience I had that particular day. Incidentally, a few years ago the Museum of London discovered that the thumbs down sign was not to kill the defeated fighter but to save him, and the thumbs up was permission to kill the unfortunate loser, so films like
got it all wrong.
A good friend of mine who was a construction worker in the City told me that about twenty or thirty years ago they dug up a skull on a new Cheapside building site. The police were promptly called and after detailed examination the forensics team proclaimed that the skull was that of a 2,000-year-old Roman, obviously well preserved. Alas, the rest of the bones were never discovered.
I love the name Cheapside. There are others such as Milk Street, Silk Street, Bread Street, Wood Street, Poultry, Cloth Street, New Change, Old Change . . . I could fill a whole chapter with these beautiful names but I must press on.
Years ago, a radio programme called The Goon Show indicated that they had just dug up a skull. Harry Secombe said: âIt must be a woman.'
âHow do you know?' asked one of the other Goons. âWell the mouth is still open,' said Harry. I think it's quite funny, but these days it would be viewed as ânot politically correct' by the dogooders.
I had just dropped a fare off at the Tower of London and was driving The Hack back along Lower Thames Street. It was then that I noticed a crowd gathering on the corner of Pudding Lane and Monument Street. Curiosity made me swing the cab over to have a nose. There is a plaque on a wall in Pudding Lane stating that the Great Fire of London started here in a baker's shop in 1666. The Monument was built close by to commemorate the Great Fire and celebrate the rebuilding of the City, although this obelisk is not on the exact spot where the fire started.
The assembly of people that day consisted of The Lord Mayor of the City of London, the Worshipful Company of Bakers and lots of dignitaries. The press were also present. I noticed a very small red fire engine dating from the late eighteenth century parked nearby. I asked what was going on and was told that the Worshipful Company of Bakers was here to officially apologise to the Lord Mayor for starting the fire and destroying a major part of London.
The apology was duly accepted. Alas, it was 300 years too late. When asked, âWhy the fire engine?' the Lord Mayor replied, âWe still do not trust you bakers.' There was hilarious laughter all round and it made the evening television news and the next day's newspapers.
A thought that often crosses my mind is whether the Great Fire was deliberately started in order to eliminate all traces of the Great Plague in 1664. At its height this horror claimed up to 7,000 souls per week in London alone, although this doesn't sound a lot compared with the worldwide âflu pandemic in 1918 which took well over 50
million lives. In London, the Great Plague was caused by rodents that came ashore from foreign trading ships. These rats were infested with fleas which carried the bubonic plague. The Great Fire would have destroyed any remaining rats that carried the diseased fleas but whoever started it did not realise how severe the fire was going to be and it got totally out of control.
The Great Fire destroyed the beautiful old wooden shops and dwelling houses that stretched from one side of the old London Bridge to the other. There are many old paintings in museums depicting this ancient wooden bridge, bustling with everyday life. It's such a shame to have lost such a historic bridge.
In time, a stone bridge was built to replace London Bridge. Years later it was sold to an American businessman. Apparently the Yank thought he was buying Tower Bridge, which is a much more elaborate piece of engineering. The one he purchased was dismantled, stone by stone, and shipped to the Nevada Desert where it was reassembled. It turned out to be a very successful tourist attraction but it wasn't quite what he thought he was getting!
Underneath the present London Bridge in Upper Thames Street there is a church by the name of St Michael Paternoster Royal, associated with the pantomime character Dick Whittington, thought to be Sir Richard Whittington, who lived from 1354 to 1423. I read some years ago that his coffin was moved around a bit when a German doodlebug fell near the church, lost all its markings and is now mixed up with about ten other similar caskets within the church. Sir Richard is believed to have been a poor boy when he first came to London expecting to find the streets paved in gold. Down in spirit, he was leaving the City via Highgate Hill when he is supposed to have heard the sound of Bow Bells telling him to return to London. This he did, and became Lord Mayor of London, not once, not twice but three times. The authorities erected a stone statue of his cat on Highgate Hill, supposedly on the spot where he heard the bells. His story is so loved that is has been immortalised in the pantomime
, beloved by children at Christmas time.
My cab journeys were always leading me back to London Bridge, and a funny thing happened to me once when I was on the taxi rank there. Things were very slow for some reason or other, until the moment my passenger door was suddenly opened by a drunk. He got in by one door and left by the other door almost immediately. He then came to my window and gave me a fifty pence piece, and said âThank you very much' before staggering off. The other cabbies and I roared with laughter. That's what too much drink can do to a person. It was the quickest fare that I ever had, I went nowhere and did not even start my engine. But I did get the massive fare of fifty pence.
I felt well pleased when my next fare turned out to be the great actress and now a Member of Parliament, Glenda Jackson. She asked to be taken to the House and I had an awful longing to say âYour house or mine?' but I resisted.
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Near to London Bridge is Lambeth Palace, a beautiful red brick building, and stuck onto one side is a church called St Mary-at-Lambeth. It is associated with Admiral William Bligh of
(1754 to 1817), who lived round the corner in Lambeth Road and is buried in a large tomb in the rear garden of the church. Some of the Tradescant family, who were botanists, are also buried in this churchyard. They had links with
because the ship sailed on a hunt for breadfruits, but the crew mutinied and that put a temporary halt to their search. There is a large blue plaque on the Lambeth Road house dedicated to Bligh.
The church has had a garden museum for many years, and there is a superb herb garden to the rear. The museum has the actual desk that belonged to Gertrude Jekyll (1843 to 1932), author of fifteen books on Victorian gardening. This lady was extremely famous as a landscape gardener and designed gardens all over the world. There is also a fascinating collection of extremely unusual garden implements dating back hundreds of years and a collection of strange gravestones. One says, âHere lies Thomas Crisp who died of the thunder and lightning whilst standing at his window.' The church is really worth a visit, at least for an hour or so. All a visitor has to do is to donate a couple of pounds for the upkeep of this rare and unusual building.
Mounted on the outside front wall to the left of the main door of St Mary's is a very large, thick black slate measuring about four feet by three feet. It's an extremely bigoted plaque, even for that time. The bold, heavy, hand-carved wording on this huge slate that dates from the seventeenth century, says that one Bryan Turbervile bequeathed one hundred pounds for the betterment of the local community. It then goes on to say, âNone to be put to chimney-sweepers, watermen or fishermen and no Roman Catholic to enjoy any benefit thereof.' What do you think of that? Is this an early example of discrimination? It's certainly unacceptable prejudice by one person against his fellow man and sadly still exists today.
A short drive down the Lambeth Road we find the famous Lambeth Walk, as immortalised by the song, âDoing the Lambeth Walk'. It is not what it used to be. Now all you will find are lots of dowdy flats, but if you stop and close your eyes for a moment you can imagine the ghosts of yesteryear, the old music hall soloist giving a rapturous rendering of âDoing the Lambeth Walk', and the whole audience from the stalls to the balcony singing at the top of their voices. What a vision!
I now drive away from Saint Mary's and cross nearby Lambeth Bridge, turning left along Millbank and heading towards Tate Britain. In the 1800s, Millbank Prison stood on this site. Most
of the inmates were awaiting deportation to the colonies â places like Australia. Some had merely stolen a loaf of bread, a silk scarf or committed an even more trivial offence. A large percentage of the deportees did not ever survive the journey as they died from starvation, dysentery, disease, sea sickness, rape, severe beatings or for some other horrible reason.
Across the road and to the right, there is a small pillbox monument to the aforementioned deportees. It is a little larger than the average dustbin. It is made of stone and there is a plaque on the side giving all the information appertaining to these poor souls.