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Flu pandemic? What a drag!

On this week’s virtual ramble, Diary recalls the West End’s ‘Battle of The Romeos’, drops in for a drink at the Champion, and is suspicious of a reporter’s remedy

28 August, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Thomas Hosmer Shepherd’s take on Middlesex Hospital. Image: The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick

GREETINGS, my friends! We left each other last Friday outside the site of the former Middlesex Hospital in Mortimer Street, and it is here we resume our perambulations around Westminster.

The Midd played an important role in trying to save Londoners during the 1918 flu pandemic: in one October weekend, 60 people collapsed in nearby streets and were rushed there by ambulance. The hospital’s chief medical officer at the time was quoted as complaining that he was “merely directing the traffic”, sending victims to the emergency wards – intensive care units – or the mortuary. Writing BID – Brought In Dead – became a horribly routine entry in his notes.

How to tackle the flu became, as today, the stuff of claim and counter claim. The Times, which said “the visits of the raiding Goths to London were but a summer shower compared with the deluge of germs we have just received,” was not shy to offer possible remedies.

Its health reporter suggested wearing “a piece of cut gauze over the mouth and nose”. Such good advice was offset by his claim that smoking would see off the deadly virus. It proved a wildly popular piece of advice, as it prompted many shop floors to drop their No Smoking rule. He added that drinking port and Burgundy offered relief and protection, too.

From here, we pop along to Riding House Street, so named after the barracks of the Horse Grenadier Guards, who had stables there in the 1700s. The Grenadiers were a fierce bunch, chosen for their muscular frames – they had plenty of equipment to carry as they lobbed hand grenades from their charges.

Of the many titled officers, let us pause and remember James O’Hara, 2nd Baron Tyrawley, who in April 1743, after a long and bloody career on the battlegrounds of The War of The Spanish Succession, was made a colonel of the 2nd Troop. While stationed at Riding House Street, the married colonel had an affair with an actress called Mrs Bellamy. Their daughter, George Anne Bellamy (the birth certificate was meant to read Georgiana but the clerk messed it up) followed her mother on to the stage. She got her break when impresario Mr Rich of the Covent Garden Theatre heard her reciting passages from Othello to his daughters.
And Shakespeare would play a crucial role in catapulting her to fame.

In 1750 she won what became known as the “Battle of The Romeos”: during a 12-day period both the Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatres put on competing productions of the Bard’s tragic Verona-based love story.

Bellamy was cast opposite David Garrick, while Drury Lane boasted Spranger Barry and Susannah Cibber. Critics said the 19-year-old was “young and beautiful, more physically appropriate for Juliet and more pleasing in the first half of the play”.

Captain Matthew Webb

She had chutzpah, too: when overlooked for the role of Cordelia, she printed leaflets claiming the role had been stolen from her.

She added that if the audience wanted her to perform, they should make their feelings clear when the curtain rose.

Her hapless rival, Miss Wilford, had no choice but to exit stage left as the crowd bayed for Bellamy.

Next, we head south to Wells Street, whose name derives from George Wells, a brick-maker who owned fields in the neighbourhood.

It boasts the Champion pub, a Victorian boozer dating from 1860, and is Grade II-listed for its charming interior.

Its windows feature stained glass depicting heroes from the period – cricketer WG Grace, nurse Florence Nightingale, explorer David Livingstone and mountaineer Edward Whymper among others – but despite their look, they are recent additions.

Commissioned by the Sam Smith brewery, they actually date from the 1990s and are created by artist Ann Sotheran.

Among those figures filling the boozer with coloured light is one Captain Matthew Webb: Webb became famous for diving overboard to rescue a seaman who had toppled into the Atlantic. Feted as a hero, he was the first man to swim the English Channel and is considered to have popularised swimming.

Sadly, his taste for derring do and the publicity it garnered ended in unpleasant circumstances. He decided his next stunt would be to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel. His body was never recovered.

Our final stop for this week is Adam and Eve Court, which runs parallel to Wells Street, and it here we will recall the tale of master swordsman, pugilist and showman James Figg.

Born in 1695, Figg could today be considered as a mixed martial artist: he fought with sword, cudgel and his meaty fists. He became a heavyweight bare knuckle champion, and is thought to be the father of modern boxing. He was painted by his friend Hogarth and hung out with the Prince of Wales.

In Adam and Eve Court, he set up a fighting school and hosted displays of brutishness including sword fights and cock fighting.

In 1725 Figg battered a challenger whose size and weight had made him the favourite – but who hadn’t reckoned on Figg’s skill and bravery. The crowd was not happy, and started to riot. Figg slipped away as the brawling mob got out of hand, and retired for a cup of cocoa his lodgings opposite.

As the noise outside grew, he heard a furious knocking on his door. Assuming it was the mob coming to take revenge for his victory on the man they had backed, he leapt up, clutching his sword.

Instead, it was his landlord, wearing his nightshirt, who politely suggested in light of the evening’s events Figg might like to find himself new place to stay.

He did – directly across the narrow Adam and Eve Court. He built a hall attached to his new home, and used it as a school for swordsman, proclaiming he was a “Master of ye Noble Science of Defence.”

And on that slash-and-thrust of a tale, we will part company for another week. Stay well, stay safe.


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