Another London Quote: I Needed to Share the Odd Details

London: The Biography - Peter Ackroyd

I griped a bit about the book but now realize that I didn't really share any reasons as to why I'm reading it. Here's a bit of the kind of info that I'm drawn to - and it gives you a sense of the details Ackroyd likes to share:


p 164-5:


"As long as the city has existed there have been entertainers and entertainments, from the street ventriloquists who cast their voices into their hands to the "man with the telescope" who for twopence would allow you to look at the heavens on a summer's night. Performers balanced on the weathercock of St. Paul's steeple; there were midnight dog shows and duels of rats; there were street jugglers and street conjurors, complete with pipes and drum; there were performing bears and performing monkeys dragged through the streets of London upon long ropes. In the late eighteenth century a pedlar exhibited a hare dancing upon a tambourine, while another entertainer displayed "a curious mask of bees on his head and face."...


...There have always been wonders and curiosities. John Stow recorded the minute skills of a blacksmith who exhibited a padlock, key and chain which could be fastened around the neck of a performing flea; John Evelyn reported seeing "the Hairy Woman" whose eyebrows covered her forehead, as well as a Dutch boy who displayed the words "Deus Meus" and "Elohim" on each iris. In the reign of George II, it was announced that "from eight in the morning til nine at night, at the end of the great booth on Blackheath, a West of England woman 38 years of age, alive, with two heads, one above the other... She has had the honor to be seen by Sir Hans Sloane, and several of the Royal Society. Gentlemen and ladies may see her at their own houses as they please." The advertisement has been taken from a pamphlet entitled Merrie England in the Olden Time. So the unfortunate creature was taken to the London houses of the rich to be inspected at closer hand. ...As Trinculo says upon first confronting Caliban, on that enchanted island strangely recalling London, "when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian."


It's going to be a while before I lose the mental image of a rabbit dancing on a tambourine and a man wearing a mask of bees.


The treatment of so-called "freak show" workers has a long (sad) history - sometimes, if the workers weren't exploited by managers, they could actually make money, save it up, go on to have a better life outside the business. But what they had to put up with to earn that wage... If you are interested in the stories of such folk with LOTS of historical sources referenced, I recommend any/all of the following by author Jan Bondeson:


  • A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities
  • The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History
  • The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels


Bondeson focuses a bit more on the medical conditions and the science history, but the human stories are well described.