1 London’s first artificial ice rink
The Glaciarium opened in 1842 at the Baker Street Bazaar near Portman Square. The backdrop was ski chalets and snow-capped mountains, the ‘ice’ was churned-up hogs’ lard and sulphur. On hot days it smelt of cheese. It closed in 1844.
2 The clown and the geese
In 1884, a clown called Barry was watched by a huge crowd as he sailed down the Thames from Vauxhall to Westminster in a washtub pulled by four geese.
3 One-legged cricket
In 1796, Montpelier Gardens in Walworth hosted a cricket match between eleven one-armed Greenwich pensioners and eleven one-legged Greenwich pensioners. Interest was so great that a fence was broken and spectators fell through a stable roof. The match was drawn, but the one-legged team won a replay, earning themselves 1,000 guineas.
4 London’s first public museum
This was opened in a coffee house near Chelsea Old Church in 1695 by James Salter, a former servant of Hans Sloane, the man whose collection later formed the British Museum. Sloane reputedly handed Salter – renamed Don Saltero – some of the less important of his 80,000 objects, including a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and a bonnet that belonged to Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister (it actually came from Bedford).
5 The Peace of 1814
On Monday August 1, 1814, London celebrated the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte with a series of festivities. It began with a balloon ascent at Green Park; the balloon was captured by the winds and sent towards the Estuary until the ballooneer cut a hole and landed on Mucking Marshes near Tilbury. Next came a miniature Battle of the Nile on the Serpentine, followed by a firework display in Green Park, for which John Nash had designed a new pagoda. Sadly this caught fire, killing two people. The crowd applauded, assuming it was all part of the fun.
All these came from Pleasures of London, a book available at the Museum of London bookshop for £30. It is my new favourite London book. It should have been published in 1992, but was delayed repeatedly and by the time it was published by the London Topographical Society in 2009 the authors, Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, had both died.
What the pair had created was an endlessly browsable book on all the fads and fancies that have occupied Londoners leisure since the Dark Ages, from Frost Fairs to black-faced minstrels, lidos to the Great Exhibition. There are brilliant throwaways – such as those mentioned above – as well as short but thorough looks at things like music halls, pleasure gardens (which I still don’t get the point of), museums and the origins of sports like cricket, football and boxing.