Trivia About London Trivia

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 25 months ago
Trivia About London Trivia

There have been countless books written about London trivia. Shops have shelves full of the likes of The Little Book of London, I Never Knew That About London, The London Compendium and Walk the Lines.

And here's a bit for you: We think 2016 could be the 300th anniversary of the first book of London trivia.

So to mark the occasion we've compiled extracts from London fact books from the last three centuries.

Photo by Sean Batten in the Londonist Flickr pool

Trivia: or the Art of Walking the Streets of London

That's the title of a long poem penned by John Gay in 1716, which can well lay claim to being the first London trivia book. A long moan giving the sights, sounds, smells and annoyances of London in his time, here's some of his rhyming advice:

On looking where you are going

Let constant Vigilance thy Footsteps guide,

And wary Circumspection guard thy Side;

Then shalt thou walk unharm'd the dang'rous Night,

Nor need th' officious Link-Boy's smoaky Light.

Thou never wilt attempt to cross the Road,

Where Alehouse Benches rest the Porter's Load,

Grievous to heedless Shins; No Barrow's Wheel,

That bruises oft' the Truant School-Boy's Heel,

Behind thee rolling, with insidious Pace,

Shall mark thy Stocking with a miry Trace.

Let not thy vent'rous Steps approach too nigh,

Where gaping wide, low steepy Cellars lie;

Should thy Shoe wrench aside, down, down you fall,

And overturn the scolding Huckster's Stall,

The scolding Huckster shall not o'er thee moan,

But Pence exact for Nuts and Pears o'erthrown.

Old Humphrey’s Walks in London and Its Neighbourhood

Old Humphrey was really George Mogridge, a Japanner (varnisher) who fell on hard times and came to London to write for the Religious Tract Society. His bland witterings, published around 1843, peppered with verses from the Bible, are unarguably trivia.

St Paul's
Photo by vilartoni from the Londonist Flickr pool.

St Paul's

The most gigantic, the most elevated, the most celebrated, and by far the most conspicuous building in London, is a fit edifice to be visited by a perambulator… I remember to have heard an anecdote about the motto "Resurgam" [“I shall rise again”] on the south front. It is said, that when Sir Christopher Wren was undecided about the motto he should choose, he had occasion for something to put under a stone that was about to be placed in a certain position, when a workman brought him a piece of an old tomb-stone, on which was graven the word Resurgam. This word was instantly adopted as the required motto. Whether this story be true or not, a more appropriate motto could scarcely have been found.

George Mogridge.

The Museum at the India House

We like to think that perhaps still lurking in the Natural History Museum is this plank perforated by a piscine point.

With what force must the sword-fish have darted forward through the briny deep to pierce the ship's timber to this extent! Whatever was the cause of quarrel, the finny combatant had cause to rue its displeasure. The loss of its formidable weapon must have been irreparable.

John Timbs's Curiosities of London (1854)

John Timbs - one of London's most prolific trivia hunters.

John Timbs (1801–1875) is perhaps our trivia king. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says: "Timbs's works, which run to more than 150 volumes, are compilations of interesting facts gathered from every conceivable quarter, and relating to the most varied subjects."

An Alchemist

There died in his chamber, in Barnard's Inn, Holborn, Peter Woulfe, the eminent chemist… According to Mr Brande, Woulfe was "the last true believer in alchemy." He was a tall, thin man; and his last moments were remarkable. In a long journey by coach, he took cold; 'inflammation of the lungs followed, but he strenuously resisted all medical advice. 'By his desire, his laundress shut up his chamber, and left him. She returned at midnight when Woulfe was still alive; next morning, however, she found him dead… He had an heroic remedy for illness, which was a journey to Edinburgh and back by the mail-coach; and a cold taken on one of these expeditions terminated in inflammation of the lungs, of which he died.

London Docks

Near the north-east corner of the Queen's Warehouse, a guide-post, inscribed "To the Kiln," directs you to "the Queen's Pipe," or chimney of the furnace… In this kiln are burnt all such goods as do not fetch the amount of their duties and the Customs' charges: tea, having once set the chimney of the kiln on fire, is rarely burnt; and the wine and spirits are emptied into the Docks.

The huge mass of fire in the furnace is fed night and day with condemned goods: on one occasion, 900 Austrian mutton-hams were burnt; on another, 45,000 pairs of French gloves; and silks and satins, tobacco and cigars, are here consumed in vast quantities: the ashes being sold by the ton as manure, for killing insects, and to soap-boilers and chemical manufacturers. Nails and other pieces of iron, sifted from the ashes, are prized for their toughness in making gun-barrels; gold and silver, the remains of plate, watches, and jewellery thrown into the furnace, are also found in the ashes.

Old and New London: A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places (1873)

George Walter Thornbury started this multi-volume work and Thomas Walford finished it.

The Custom House Sales

A gentleman had imported a mummy from Egypt, and the officers of Customs were not a little puzzled by this non-enumerated article. These remains of mortality, muscles and sinews, pickled and preserved three thousand years ago, could not be deemed a raw material, and therefore, upon deliberation, it was determined to tax them as a manufactured article.

A somewhat similar case, relating to an importation of ice from Norway, was mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords in 1842. A doubt was started what duty it ought to pay, and the point was referred from the Custom House to the Treasury, and from the Treasury to the Board of Trade; and it was ultimately decided that the ice might be introduced on the payment of the duty on dry goods; but as one of the speakers remarked, "The ice was dissolved before the question was solved."

An illustration of the church of All Hallows the Great in 1784, from Old and New London.

King's Cross

Somewhere near this Golgotha was a piece of waste ground, where half the brewers of the metropolis shot their grains and hop-husks. It became a great resort for young acrobats and clowns (especially on Sunday mornings), who could here tumble and throw "flip-flaps" to their hearts' content, without fear of fracture or sprain.

Last Updated 22 June 2016