Can a building qualify as an overlooked Londoner? On this website it can. Take for example no.40 Leicester Square, which is currently festooned with hoardings and scaffolding. Next year, if all goes to plan, it will open as a luxury hotel. Formerly it was a cinema, which opened in 1930 as the Leicester Square Theatre, and was renamed the Odeon Leicester Square in 1988. And before that? Well, there lies a good story, and a rather surprising one. Beginning in the year 1847 it is a story of philanthropists, a prince consort, and a poor man with no known name.
Before it was converted into a theatre, no.40 had been home to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The building, which stood at the south west corner of the square, was an imposing edifice boasting four floors with rows of arched windows. The Society had moved there from Harpur Street in Bloomsbury in 1922, helped in no small measure by the politician and newspaper proprietor Waldorf Astor, who sank ten thousand pounds into the project. Previous occupants included public notaries, officers of the Grand Lodge of Mark Masters, and members of the dental profession. But in its original incarnation—and here begins our story—no.40 Leicester Square had been a soup kitchen.
HOW CHANGED THE COUNTENANCE!
The soup kitchen that is soon to be reborn as a luxury hotel was founded in response to two catastrophic events. The first was the Irish potato blight of 1846, and the second was a poor wheat harvest. As food prices went up, large numbers of people descended into poverty and destitution.
The impact on the workhouses was dramatic. Starving paupers lamented the heartlessness of the relieving officers who refused them relief. The relieving officers denounced the violence that they were subjected to by desperate paupers. In the City of London the windows of the Mansion House were repeatedly smashed by protesters, and, when eventually these were covered with protective wire meshing, the smashers attacked the nearby banking houses. In two months alone the offices of Messrs Smith Payne and Smith suffered seventy pounds of damage to its plate glass, and on one occasion a stone hurled through one of its windows struck an employee on the chest.
The soup kitchen at no.40 Leicester Square was opened in January 1847 in the basement of the offices of the National Philanthropic Association, which features in another of my posts. Before long soup and bread were being distributed to thousands of desperate Londoners. These were not only the indigenous poor but also the vast number of immigrants who had fled death by starvation in Ireland. The winter was bitter, with plunging temperatures and heavy falls of snow.
The first General Report, issued by the committee of the soup kitchen in 1850, recalled the harrowing scenes in graphic detail:
With what ravenous appetites did these forlorn, emaciated creatures, devour the long-awaited meal of bread and soup!—the only one, perhaps, which, during the last twenty-four or forty-eight hours, these unfortunates were able to procure!—How changed the countenance, when the appetite had been appeased!—before,—a hungry, wolfish, and half maniacal stare;—afterwards,—a restored, pleasing, and grateful expression:—whilst the poor little infants,—previously screeching and sobbing in their mothers’ arms,—became quiet, cheerful, even sportive, around the necks of their natural, but helpless protectors!—The scenes of pleasure and of pain which the distributor of food,—even of a basin of soup,—is enabled to witness, are beyond the powers of imagination, or language to describe!
A BASIN OF GOOD SOUP
In the winter of 1848 Prince Albert made an official visit to the soup kitchen, which by then had extended its operation to Ham Yard, just off Windmill Street. He looked oddly out of place in morning dress and top hat, but he obliged by tasting the soup, and he said kind words about its quality. He also commented on the importance of such establishments—“a basin of good soup and a piece of bread might keep a poor creature from starving”—and his endorsement must have pleased the two gentlemen—Charles Cochrane and Benjamin Bond Cabbell—who escorted him on his tour.
Cochrane and Bond Cabbell were President and Treasurer respectively of the National Philanthropic Association, which had been founded in March 1842. Cochrane had also set up the Poor Man’s Guardian Society—1846—in order to alleviate the terrible consequences of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which he saw all around him on the streets of the capital. To promote the work of the Society, and to record examples of extreme deprivation, he published a weekly journal, and it is here that we find the story of the gentleman with no known name.
KINDLY QUESTIONING AND …
The gentlemen in question was a regular visitor to the soup kitchen. But he came there—or so it was thought—not to eat but to observe. He was clearly an intellectual—a man “of great talents and well known as a popular lecturer”—and his object in visiting the establishment was to witness at first hand the sufferings of the poor. He sounds like a Chartist—a William Lovett or a Henry Hetherington—and we at London Overlooked have made strenuous efforts to identify him. Alas, we have failed.
Be that as it may, we know that he went about his work with energy, asking the patrons of the soup kitchen about their living conditions. They saw no reason not to comply, for he had a friendly manner, and he enjoyed a reputation as a tireless campaigner on behalf of the poor. They answered his questions without demur.
And we have a fair idea of what he would have been told, for the 1850 General Report gave many examples of the tragedies taking place out of sight and out of mind on the margins of society. Some of these accounts contain details so distressing that it has been decided not to reprint them here. Others are perhaps less harrowing, but still instructive, and a typical example is the case of the six railway “navigators” who came to grief early in 1848.
These workmen were tried at the Middlesex Sessions for stealing a loaf of bread. In the view of Mr Walesby, the judge, the theft was barely criminal. The loaf was worth 3½d., and the men were close to starvation. They were caught because they had eaten the loaf in front of the very shop they had stolen it from. The jury recommended mercy, and Walesby himself recognised the poignant irony that “six powerful men” should be driven by hunger to commit a “paltry robbery” in a city where riches and luxury abounded. But the law was the law, and the wretched navvies were given a sentence of one month with hard labour at the House of Correction in Coldbath Fields.
… QUESTIONED KINDLY
Such no doubt were the stories that our Chartist listened to, and jotted down, over and over. But as time went on the staff working in the soup kitchen noticed something unusual in his behaviour. As well as asking questions, and listening to the answers, he was, like the Prince Consort, tasting the soup. Unlike the Prince Consort, however, he tasted the soup a great deal, and on one occasion he positively gulped it down. And it was at this point that the melancholy fact that he too was starving suddenly became plain.
Now it was his turn to answer some questions. These were of course kindly meant, and from the responses that he gave it was evident that he was almost penniless. However, being a man of honour, with a horror of indebtedness, he would rather spend what little he had on rent than on food.
In Cochrane’s journal—it was called The Poor Man’s Guardian—the point was made that men and women of all backgrounds resorted to the soup kitchen. “There is scarcely a grade in society,” declared the writer, who may well have been Cochrane himself, “to which some of the applicants do not belong”. And so those queuing for relief, some with jugs to take soup home to hungry families, were variously unemployed servants and labourers, and every type of tradesman, and governesses and well-bred widows, and even surgeons and writers and clergymen.
But the story ends sadly, for the poor fellow with no known name soon died. The good people at the soup kitchen had found their way to arranging permanent relief for him, but he had lived a hard life, and his many deprivations had left him exhausted. He has no obituary other than the story in the Guardian, where it is recorded that “an early period was shortly after put to his severe suffering.”
CHRISTMAS IN HAM YARD
If Cochrane and Bond Cabbell are the obvious heroes of no.40 Leicester Square, there are many others who deserve at least a mention. The great and the good provided financial support in the form of subscriptions, and the Army and Navy Club in St James’s Square and Messrs Fortnum and Mason of Piccadilly gave generous gifts of food. Several individuals also contributed, one of whom, a licensed victualler with a business in Great Windmill Street, sent six days’ supply of the best celery, turnips, carrots and leeks. Mr Slater, a gas fitter of Denmark Street, installed lighting at his own expense. Mr Mather, a builder of King Street, off Regent Street, presented a tablet commemorating the visit of Prince Albert.
But as footnotes to this rather melancholy history go, the following little anecdote about Alexis Benoît Soyer, the celebrated chef, is perhaps the most curious. Soyer was famous for masterminding gargantuan banquets for a distinguished clientele. At the same time, though, he did splendid charity work, and the soup that so pleased Prince Albert on that winter’s morning in Leicester Square was of his devising. His aim was to provide affordable nourishment, and his recipe weighed in at a mere three farthings a quart.
The great Soyer was a passionate advocate for culinary reform, and it is worth mentioning in passing that in 1847 he organised famine relief in Ireland, and that in 1855 he worked alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. Here, though, it is his tireless efforts on behalf of the Leicester Square and Ham Yard operation that need to be recorded. He offered his services free of charge, and his food was accompanied by entertainment in the form of a band playing waltzes and polkas and other jolly tunes. Elsewhere he raised money by organising a grand ball at Willis’s Rooms in St James’s. The well-heeled guests danced to the music of the ever popular Louis-Antoine Jullien, and watched the maître-de-cuisine demonstrate new techniques for cooking with gas.
But even these beneficent arrangements were dwarfed by the remarkable Christmas feast of 1851. The venue was Ham Yard, and Soyer’s guests were twenty-two thousand of the poorest of the London poor. What an uplifting note on which to end! And the bill of fare? Well, no summary could do it justice, and so it is given in full below, exactly as Soyer immortalised it in the memoirs that he published in 1859:
BILL OF FARE FOR THE POOR
9,000 pounds roast and baked meat
178 beef pies
50 hare pies
60 rabbit pies
50 pork and mutton pies
Each pie weighing from 10 to 30 pounds; one of them, the “monster pie”, weighing 60 pounds
20 roast geese
3,300 pounds of potatoes
5,000 pints of porter
5,000 pounds of plum pudding
6,000 half-quartern loaves
1 cask of biscuits
18 bushels of Spanish nuts
18 bushels of chestnuts
6 boxes of oranges
3,000 two-ounce packages of tea
3,000 three-ounce packets of coffee
5,000 half-pounds of sugar
One whole ox, roasted by gas—supplied by the Western Gas Company, under the gratuitous superintendence of Mr Inspector Davies of that establishment
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