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Brawl or nothing? Bevan and Sir John in St James’s

In this week’s virtual ramble, Diary meets the man behind Centre Point’s concrete fountains, sees a pig fly over the Thames, and recalls the day a Labour legend was on the wrong end of some ungentlemanly conduct

10 July, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Aneurin Bevan clashed with John Fox-Strangways at the the 300-year-old White’s Club in St James’s

WE parted company last week outside the Berners Street home of Little Lord Fauntleroy. So let us step forth and continue our virtual tour of the streets of our borough.

We pause at the Sanderson Hotel a few doors down to admire a place that took design seriously. In its courtyard are friezes by émigré Jupp Dernbach-Mayen, who arrived in London in the 1930s. A Roman Catholic, he left Nazi Germany as he hated Hitler, and being an artist, was fearful for his safety.

As well as producing the mosaics that grace the Sanderson, he was responsible for the Modernist concrete-cast fountains that were at the foot of Centre Point in Tottenham Court Road.

Despite being listed, they were removed 10 years ago to build a new tube entrance – and lay forgotten for a time in a Wembley car park. Thankfully, they have been restored at the Architectural Association’s Devon headquarters.

Jupp’s mosaics are joined by stained glass windows by painter John Piper, whose soaring panel covers up the hotel’s lift shaft.

Now we move south, and cross Oxford Street into Wardour Street.

Much has been said of how pleasant car-free roads were during lockdown, and as the city shakes awake, what can we learn? Let us consider how London was 100 years ago, before the domination of the petrol engine. There were at least 300,000 working horses, and with them came blacksmiths, vets and feed sellers, while the market gardeners had a ready supply of manure. So how about we bring back the horse?

This brings us to Wardour Street chemist Cecil Bishop, a horse lover who got tangled up with gambler Daniel Dawson.

Dawson met Bishop at his Soho apothecary, and spoke of a friend’s ride who had been given a tonic that made the nag’s feet swell. It meant a bailiff could not ride him away in lieu of unpaid debts – and soon wore off.

After making up a mixture, Dawson returned and said it had not been strong enough: instead the naive Bishop gave Dawson a phial of arsenic and suggested dashing it in the water trough of the horse he hoped to nobble.

Having tested it on Lord Darlington’s horse Reuben at the Brighton Races in 1808, he tried his luck at Newmarket – but was caught, following the death of six racers.

From Wardour Street, we cut west towards Piccadilly, to briefly pause outside the 300-year-old White’s Club, St James’s, that used to be the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party, and where Prince Charles held his stag do before marrying Diana in 1981.

It was on these steps that, in 1951, some very ungentlemanly conduct took place. Labour legend Aneurin Bevan had been invited to dine by the Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir John Slessor.

Bevan had previously riled Tories in a speech, stating “no amount of cajolery… can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”

The Standard’s Londoner’s Diary editor Tudor Jenkins recalled: “Few men were disliked so much at that time by the sons of the rich. The news of his visit quickly spread to neighbouring clubs.”

Mr John Fox-Strangways, supping champers at Brooks’s directly opposite, decided to march over and land a haymaker on the politician.

“Bevan, Sir John told me, acted with great restraint,” recalled Jenkins.

Sir John was less easy-going. He laid a complaint against Fox-Strangways, who was also a member of White’s. The club apologised and his assailant was forced to resign.

We shall now dash down St James’s and across Pall Mall, as Diary fancies finishing this walk by the river.
Pall Mall’s name comes from Italian: palla a maglio, which means “ball to mallet”. Charles II was a fan of such a game (think croquet) that he had a Pall Mall Alley built, even redirecting traffic so the dust created would not interfere.

Eventually, the avenue became known as a shady place to promenade – and Mall became a word used to describe a public space.

We come out of St James’s opposite King Charles Street, home to the George Gilbert Scott (the father of the Scott of red telephone box fame) who designed the Foreign Office’s HQ, full of his crazy Victoriana.From here we catch a glimpse of Old Father Thames – and we will cast our minds back to the day a pig flew past this spot.

Lt Col JTC Moore-Brabazon served in the Royal Flying Corps and then became a very right-wing MP whose Conservative tastes stretched to being the last member of the House to insist on wearing a top hat into the chamber.

Before the First World War, he was mad about flying – and became the first in Britain to achieve a powered flight (an achievement he pulled off on the Isle of Sheppey in 1909). In the same year, he won a prize of £1,000 to be the first Englishman to fly a mile.

While doing this feat of derring-do, he steered his plane along the old river, dipping his wings in salute to the bankside crowds who had come along with the faint hope of watching this unpleasant man get wet.

He took a pig along for publicity, strapping the unfortunate porker into a wicker basket tied on to a wing strut.

And with that sizzling yarn, we will leave you for another week of staying in/going out, doing the hokey-cokey and turning about.

Stay safe, stay well.

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