Thursday, February 28, 2013

Covent Garden

Today's Covent Garden is a very different place to where my 3x great grandfather George Ruthven used to pound his beat in 1810.  Or is it?

Once a 'convent' garden, the Italianate development was the brain child of the Earl of Bedford in the 17th century. Initially home to the rich and influential, by 1670 a number of sheds and stalls selling fruit and veg had pitched up along the south side of the square and the demographics of the area promptly changed.

At the end of the 18th century it was better known for its brothels. Samuel Derrick, failed actor and smelly poet, compiled Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies: Or, Man of Pleasure's Kalender.  Originally thought to have been the work of John Harrison, head waiter at the Shakespeare's Head, it is now believed that Harrison merely loaned his name to the best seller, earning a commission for so doing.

In 1810 seventeen year old George Thomas Joseph Ruthven joined his father and elder brother as an officer in the Bow Street peace keeping force. The first Runners were paid a retainer of 11s 6d a week plus expenses and the majority continued to maintain a second job, although not always on the right side of the law.

George's father Archibald retired in 1812 and by 1816 the brothers's career paths had diverged.  Elder brother Archibald slipped into the seedier side of 19th century police work. He began setting up known offenders to commit crimes, then taking not only a share of the proceeds but the reward for an arrest as well - until he was arrested as part of the clean up campaign.

Meanwhile George went on to gain public acclaim and an international reputation and was named as being one of a dozen elite officers who served under the Bow Street magistrate Sir Richard Birnie between 1821 and 1832.  During 30 years' service George travelled extensively, across the British Isles and overseas; the crimes he investigated ranged from pick-pocketing to murder. But the case that was to bring him to national recognition and put him firmly in the history books was the Cato Street Conspiracy.

The market hall tourists visit today was built in 1830.  By then George had graduated from Bow Street Runner to detective. But when Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police force merged with the Runners in 1839 George decided to retire. He became landlord of the One Tun Inn in Chandos Street, Covent Garden. It was here that he died, aged 51, in March 1844. He is buried in the churchyard at St Paul's, Covent Garden.

The life and times of my ancestor George Ruthven continue to fascinate me.  His extraordinary career and colourful personal life were apparently unknown to later generations of the family. Unfortunately both my mother and my aunt had died long before I made any of these discoveries.

It has been some time since I have made the pilgrimage to Covent Garden but having recently read the magnificent Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch I wanted to revisit the area in which my ancestor spent most of his working life.

Mullins and Westley Ltd., tobacconists shop inside Covent Garden

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

St Paul's, Covent Garden where George is buried and where Constable Peter Grant meets the only witness to a gruesome crime, the long dead Nicholas Wallpenny.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Vic

Fans of live music will be looking anxiously at popular venue The Vic as news broke this week that it is up for sale. Licensees David Young and Anna Spawson have decided to call it a day after eight successful and extremely busy years.

The Old Town pub on the corner of Victoria Road and Union Row was built in 1845 and quickly proved popular with the punters.  In 1847 landlady Emma Pike was prosecuted for opening after hours at what was then a humble beerhouse.

In 1867 the property was rebuilt and let to Oxfordshire brewer Clinch & Co of Witney on a yearly basis. By 1907 the pub was known as the Victoria Inn where Mark Applegate was behind the bar.  Later owned by Wadley Brothers of the Sun Brewery, Highworth the pub was acquired by Trowbridge brewers Ushers when they took over Wadleys in 1918.

David and Anna told the Advertiser that business is booming, which is part of the problem.  After eight hectic years the couple are in need of a break, although David still hopes to have some involvement when the new owners take over, helping with promotions and as a sound engineer.

Gigs and events continue as advertised.  This weekend - 16th and 17th February - sees the appearance of two tribute bands.  Tonight Kings Ov Leon will be playing and tomorrow it's the turn of Kate Bush Tribute - Never Forever.  On 20th February Wacky Wednesday presents the Annual Vic Karaoke competition Heat 2. For more information visit the website on 

The 1950s photo shows the Man With A Stick in action beneath the gaze of a less than interested bystander.  For more about the famous Man With A Stick visit and for the full series of photographs see Swindon Local Studies Collection.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

National Libraries Day - Part Two

National Libraries Day celebrations didn't end on Saturday.  Well not at Penhill Library they didn't where youngsters got down and sticky making musical instruments.

With glitter as far as the eye could see and more lentils then you could shake a stick at, the children transformed the humble Pringle pot into a shaker ahead of yet another fun day on Friday.

Neil Mercer will be joining the budding musicians at Penhill 11-12 on Friday for a nursery rhyme mash up. Don't be put off if you missed out on making a shaker, there are plenty of instruments to go around.

Monday, February 11, 2013

National Libraries Day 2013

Keith, the friendly face of Penhill Library

As the Swindon Advertiser broke the sorry news of library cuts across the town, what were the staff up to? Despite the demoralising process of restructuring, the third time in as many years, library staff rolled up their sleeves and treated visitors to a super National Libraries Day.

Among the treats on offer at Central Library were mulled wine and music and for the youngsters storytime included a visit from Phil Voller from Wings over Wiltshire who brought along a special guest - an owl!

At Liden Library the lucky winners of February's prize draw will be treated to a meal for two at the Liden Arms while craft materials are on offer to young prize winners.

And at Penhill, Neighbourhood Library Manager Leah pulled out all the stops to celebrate the day.  Her project to record local reminiscences included a contribution from two local residents who shared their memories of more than 50 years of borrowing books at Penhill Library.  Retired library assistant Rita introduced Beatrice who she joined to the Penhill branch as an eleven year old girl.

Visitors were treated to a slideshow of Penhill under construction in the 1950s.  Unique Ordnance Survey photographs show a man with a stick recording various points across the newly built streets where cows still graze in the background.

So how did you celebrate National Libraries Day?

Penhill Library 40th celebrations

A Man With A Stick 

Neighbourhood Library Manager Leah gets to grips with a Man With A Stick

Rita (l)  retired library assistant, and Beatrice (r) the little girl she joined to Penhill Library as an  eleven year old

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Coleshill Model Farm

Innovation was the order of the day at Coleshill when work began on revamping the Earl of Radnor’s home farm. 

The previous farmstead had already received the seal of approval from radical politician William Cobbett, who brought rural poverty to the attention of 19th century parliament.

“I saw also at Coleshill, the most complete farmyard that I ever saw, and I believe there is in all England, many and complete as English farm yards are,” Cobbett wrote on a fact finding ride across southern  England in 1826.

“And here, too, there is no misery amongst those who do the work,” Cobbett noted when he stopped off to view the Locust trees the Earl of Radnor had brought from him twenty years previously.  “Here all are comfortable; gaunt hunger here stares no man in the face.”

The idea of this efficient, split level farmstead came from the Earl of Radnor’s land agent but it was architect George Lamb who designed the ground breaking farmstead.  Building work on the Coleshill Home Farm was begun by William Pedley, a Highworth carpenter, builder and bricklayer.  With a thirty week window in which to complete the project the unfortunate Mr Pedley failed, losing both the contract and his business in the process and another builder was called in to complete the work.

Built in 1854, the 300 acre model farm at Coleshill implemented innovative design and labour saving devices during a period of agricultural prosperity.   The energy saving design of the model farm made the best use of gravity and included a tramway to distribute feed around the various buildings and manure to the midden. 

The farm buildings were designed for mixed farming – grain, root crops, cattle, pigs and sheep. An enthusiastic pig breeder, the design of the piggery was of particular importance to the Earl.  Well ventilated with louvered windows to minimise disease, the pigs' accommodation at Coleshill was second to none.  Lambs were fattened in stalls with wooden slatted floors, a method which came back into fashion again 100 years later.

The centre piece of the farmstead was the granary with a mixing room below where the roots and straw were chopped and the grain crushed by steam powered machinery and then fed into stores by a chute system.  Built from local Cotswold rubble, the building sported guttering, drain pipes and labour saving sliding doors. 

Ernest Cook, grandson of probably the best known and earliest travel agent, Thomas Cook, bought the estate at Coleshill and Buscot from the Pleydell-Bouverie family in 1946 leaving it to the National Trust on his death in 1955.

Production on the farm ended in the 1970s but the farmstead remains intact, an example of a 19th century revolution in agricultural practices which paved the way for modern methods. 

A survey of Wiltshire’s historic farmsteads is being conducted by the Wiltshire Buildings Record project based at the History Centre in Chippenham.   Volunteers record details of the farmsteads through the use of photography, sketches and historical research, a copy of which is presented to the farmer on completion. Visit the website on for more information.

Coleshill Mill


The granary

State of the art pigstyes

Farm wagon

Cottage on the estate - possibly a former gatehouse

20th century prize winning Coleshill Saddleback pigs