Tag Archives: John Evelyn

Whales and whaling in London (John Evelyn, 1658)

2 - Skeleton of North Atlantic Right Whale believed to be that described by Evelyn, discovered at Bay Wharf in Greenwich in 2010

On this day in 1658 John Evelyn wrote in his diary:

“A large whale has been taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it … .  … [A]fter  a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood … by two tunnels, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.  Its length was fifty-eight foote, height sixteen, black skin’d like coach-leather, very small eyes, great taile, and onely two small finns, a picked snout, and a mouth so wide that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but suck’d the slime onely as thro’ a grate of … whale-bone, the throate yet so narrow as would not have admitted the least of fishes … ”.

Throughout history, whales have not infrequently ended up accidentally stranded in London  as Evelyn describes, the most recent case being in 2006.

From the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards, whales were also deliberately hunted out at sea, and brought back to ports such as London, Yarmouth, Hull and York   to be sold, their oil for lighting and for  lubrication (and their bones for the manufacture of corsets).  The London whaling industry was dominated initially by the Muscovy Company, and subsequently  by its semi-independent subsidiary, the Greenland Company.  By the turn of the  seventeenth and  eighteenth centuries, its fortunes had begun to decline as it found itself for the most part out-competed by a Dutch whaling industry better equipped with specially strengthened ships capable not only of “bay whaling” but also of  “ice whaling” far out at sea, on the edge of the Arctic ice fields.  Nonetheless, whaling expeditions continued to be conducted out of London until the early nineteenth century.  The last was  in 1835.

The demolition of the Cheapside Cross (John Evelyn, 1643)

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On this day in 1643, John Evelyn wrote in his diary:

“I went from Wotton to London, where I saw the furious and zealous people demolish that stately Cross in Cheapside”.

A series of so-called Eleanor crosses were put up in the late thirteenth century by the then king, Edward I, in memory of his late wife, Eleanor of Castile (*).  There were two in London, one on Cheapside, and another at Charing Cross.  Both were destroyed by Parliamentarians during the Civil War, by which time they had come to be seen as symbols of royal oppression.  The one at Charing Cross was replaced by a replica in the Victorian period.

(*) Eleanor had died on a pilgrimage in the East Midlands in 1290, and Edward had then arranged for her body to be brought back to London for burial in Westminster Abbey, and for a cross to be put up at each of the twelve sites at which the cortege had to make  an overnight stop on the way.

Perestroika – and Peter the Great

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On this day in 1557, the first Russian Embassy opened in London, and on this same day exactly one year later, a Russian trade mission arrived in London, bringing with it many sable skins.

On a more-or-less related note, the entry in John Evelyn’s diary for February 6th, 1698 records that:

“The Czar Emp: of Moscovy [Peter the Great], having a mind to see the Building of Ships, hired my house at Says Court [*], & made it his Court & palace, lying & remaining in it … ”.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, the Czar, who had something of a  reputation for drunken riotous living, was far from a model guest.   He  proceeded to comprehensively  trash Evelyn’s house – knocking a hole in the wall to allow easier access to the shipyard, breaking over three hundred windows, twenty pictures and  fifty chairs, ruining all the paintwork, curtains and bedding, covering all the floors with ink and grease, and in all causing £150 worth of damage!  Worse, he destroyed Evelyn’s pride and joy, the “impregnable” hedge  in his garden, “four hundred foot in length, nine Foot high, and five in diameter … [that] mocks at the rudest assaults of the Weather, Beasts or Hedge-breakers” – making a great play of being repeatedly pushed through it in a wheelbarrow!

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The Czar’s visit is also recalled by a  statue on the west bank of Deptford Creek, by a plaque on the site of the Friends’ Meeting House on Deptford High Street, by “Czar Street” in Deptford, and by “Muscovy Street” just off Great Tower Street in the City – near the long-lost pub he drank so much in that the landlord  renamed it “The Czar of Muscovy” in his honour!

(*) Sir Richard Browne’s Sayers Court in Deptford, which Evelyn moved into after he married Browne’s daughter in 1652.  The house was demolished in 1728-29, and a workhouse put up in its place.  Part of the estate was later acquired by the Admiralty for use as its Victualling Yard (now defunct).

The execution of Charles I

The execution of Charles I

On this day in 1649, Charles I was executed for treason outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall  …

It was a freezing cold day, so he put on an extra shirt,  that no-one might see him shiver, and think him scared (“the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear [and] I would have no such imputation”).  Eventually, after what must have been a harrowing wait, at 2pm, he delivered an almost inaudible address to the crowd, and at the end proclaimed  “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world”.  He then made a silent prayer,  laid his head upon the block, and had it stricken from his body.  Whereupon, according to an eye-witness account by one Philip Henry, “there was such a Grone given by the Thousands there present, as I never heard before & desire I may never hear again”.  The usually ubiquitous John Evelyn was pointedly not among those who bore witness to the event, writing in his diary: “The Villanie of the Rebells proceeding now so far as to Trie, Condemne, & Murder our excellent King … struck me with such horror that I kept the day of his Martyrdom a fast, & would not be present, at that execrable wickednesse … ”.

 

“Iniquities at Charing Cross” (John Evelyn, 1660)

Cook

On this day in 1660, John Evelyn  wrote in his diary:

“Scot, Scroop, Cook and Jones suffered for reward of their iniquities at Charing Cross, in sight of the place where they put to death their natural prince, and in the presence of the King his son … .  I saw not the execution, but met their quarters, mangled, and cut, and reeking, as they were brought from the gallows in baskets on the hurdle.  Oh, the miraculous providence of God!”.

Thomas Scot, Adrian Scroop and John Jones were signatories to the death warrant of Charles I hunted down and executed by Charles II.   John Cook (pictured) was the chief prosecutor at Charles I’s trial.  Shortly before his execution, he wrote: “We fought for the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom”.

 

Deptford

Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Deptford  was first recorded in 1293 as Depeford, meaning deep ford (across the River Ravensbourne, a tributary of the Thames).

The ford, and the trackway leading to and from it, had almost certainly been in existence in the pre-Roman period, and became incorporated into Watling Street in the Roman.

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By Medieval times, a small village had sprung up here, on what had by then become part of the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury, and it was  referred to in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, written in 1400.  The Battle of Deptford Bridge was fought here in 1497.

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In later post-Medieval times, the former village  grew into a sizeable town, with strong and lasting links to the Royal Navy, and to maritime trade (including the iniquitous slave trade).  One of the Royal Naval Dockyards was built here in 1513, Trinity House in 1514 (the first master being Captain Thomas Spert of the “Mary Rose”), and the East India Company Yard in 1607.

In 1549, a mock naval battle was staged here for the entertainment of Edward VI; in 1581, Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake here aboard his ship the “Golden Hind(e)”, recently returned from its successful circumnavigation of the globe; and in 1698 the Russian Czar Peter the Great stayed in John Evelyn’s house here in order to study the shipyards.

The area’s comparative prosperity began to decline in the eighteenth century, after the seventeenth-century rebuilding of Chatham Dockyard, which was more accessible to ocean-going shipping, being situated in the Thames estuary, some twenty-five miles further downriver.

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The decline continued into the nineteenth century, as evidenced by William Booth’s “Poverty Maps”, and was accelerated by the bombing of the Blitz of the Second World War in the twentieth, but is now in the process of being reversed by regeneration.

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Deptford was historically part of the county of Kent, but since 1965 has been officially part of Greater London.

Church of St Nicholas

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The church of St Nicholas was originally built at least as long ago as the twelfth century, and subsequently rebuilt in the fourteenth or fifteenth century and again, partly through the benefaction of the East India Company,  in the late seventeenth,  around 1697, only to be badly damaged in the Blitz of the twentieth.  The fourteenth- or fifteenth- century tower still stands.

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The poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe – he of the “mighty line” – is buried in the churchyard, having been murdered in a  nearby tavern in 1593.  There are also a number of surviving post-Medieval memorials in the interior, including those to Sir Richard Browne of Sayers Court (d. 1604), who was John Evelyn’s father-in-law, and to other members of both Browne’s and Evelyn’s families; and to Jonas Shish (d. 1680) and his sons  Michael (d. 1685) and John (d. 1686), all of them Master Shipwrights.  And a late seventeenth-century carved wooden panel of “Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones” that has been attributed to Grinling Gibbons, who is known to have once lived and worked nearby.

Nicholas is the patron saint not only of children but also of mariners and fishermen (and of those wrongly condemned).