Theatreland

06 29 globeToday, I want to tell you about the Globe Theatre, in Southwark. The theatre where William Shakespeare worked and where his plays were performed. It opened in 1599, I don’t know the exact date, but I do know when it burned down and it was on this day in 1613.

The Globe was built to house an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was owned, for the most part, by the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert. But Shakespeare owned a one eighth share in the project. The actors’ previous home in Shoreditch, north of the City, had been one of the first, and certainly the most successful permanent theatres to be built in England since Roman times. I can tell you where it was: between Alice Daridge’s garden and the Earl of Rutland’s oat barn. Just near the Great Horse Pond, next to the common sewer and a slaughterhouse. Not that this really tells you much about it’s geographical location, but it does give you some idea of what it might have been like. It opened in 1576 and was called, simply, ‘The Theatre’. But they had run into problems. The Theatre had been built by Richard and Cuthbert’s father James Burbage and a man named Mr Brayne who was his brother-in-law. After both men died, there was a huge falling-out over who owned what. Added to this, the Theatre was built on land that was leased from a man called Giles Allen. Allen was a staunch Puritan who wasn’t keen on theatre and, when the lease ran out in 1596, he refused to renew it. What’s more, he claimed that the building now belonged to him too.

The Burbages side-stepped the whole problem on the night of December 28th 1598. Giles Allen was away celebrating Christmas at his country residence and the Burbages, along with a carpenter called Peter Street and a few others, probably including Shakespeare, simply stole the building. They assured onlookers that they were renovating it, but in fact, they carted away all the massive oak beams and stored them in the carpenter’s warehouse over the winter. When the weather improved, they used the beams to build themselves a new theatre across the river at Southwark.

The site of the Globe theatre wasn’t great either. It was prone to flooding, especially at high tide and they had to build a sort of raised bank to protect it. Also, one of the other attractions on offer nearby was bear-baiting. We have an account from a Swiss tourist called Thomas Platter, who visited in 1599. He said that he saw twelve bears and a hundred and twenty mastiffs and it absolutely stank because of all the offal that was fed to the dogs. He also went to see a play. It was Julius Caesar and it may have been the first play performed at the Globe. Thomas tells us that the audience could stand and watch from the courtyard for one penny. For two, you could get a seat in the galleries and for three, you could get a cushion as well and a seat where everyone could see you. He describes the actors as lavishly dressed and explains why this was. Lords and knights, he says, tended to bequeath their best clothes to their servants. But they were much too fancy for a servant to wear, so they sold them and actors bought them.

06 29 globe and bear garden

The theatre, as I said, caught fire in 1613. It was during a performance of Henry VIII. It broke out after the firing of a theatrical cannon. Some of the material fired from the cannon reached the thatched roof of the building where it smouldered unheeded for a while. The fire spread inside the thatch and soon the whole roof was on fire. The entire building was burned to the ground in less two hours. It seems no one was hurt though, which was lucky as the theatre could host up to three thousand spectators and there were only two small doors for everyone to get out. According to an eyewitness the only casualty was a man whose breeches caught fire, but it was quickly put out by someone pouring a bottle of ale over them.

The theatre was quickly rebuilt on the same foundations, but this time, they sensibly built it with a tiled roof. The Globe Theatre was in use, apart from periods of closure due to outbreaks of bubonic plague, until all the theatres were closed by down the Puritans in 1642. It was demolished two or three years later. We have a pretty good idea of what the theatre looked like because we have a beautiful reconstruction of it, only 750 ft from where the original stood. It is the first thatched building to have been allowed in London since the Great Fire of 1666.

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Blood

05 09 thomas bloodToday I want to tell you about Thomas Blood. Not only does he have a great name, but on this day in 1671 he made a spirited attempt to steal the crown jewels. Blood was born in Ireland in 1618 and had a colourful history. He had already fought for both sides during the English Civil War and made two unsuccessful attempts, first to kidnap and then to murder the Duke of Ormonde.

A few weeks before the theft, he had visited the Tower of London disguised as a parson and accompanied by a woman posing as his wife. The Crown Jewels could be viewed by anyone on payment of a fee to the custodian of the tower. The Custodian, Talbot Edwards, was 77 years old and new to the job. As the party were about to leave Blood’s ‘wife’ feigned a stomach ailment and the two were ushered upstairs to the Edwards’ family apartment to recover.

Days later, Blood returned to the Tower with a gift for Mrs Edwards, four pairs of white gloves, to thank her for her kindness and hospitality. He proceeded to ingratiate himself with the Edwards family and suggested that his nephew might be a suitable husband for the Edwards’ daughter. He claimed that the young man would, if he married, be eligible for an income of several hundred pounds.

On May 9th, Blood, his ‘nephew’ and two or three others were invited to dine with the Edwards’. They asked if they could, not only see, but perhaps hold…? the jewels. Edwards trustingly obliged and once they were inside the Jewel House, Blood and his accomplices threw a cloak over Edwards, hit him with a mallet, gagged him, tied him up, and stabbed him. Now the problem was how to conceal the jewels while they made their escape. They hammered the crown flat with the mallet, tried to saw the long sceptre in half and someone stuffed the orb down his trousers. Blood and his accomplices had made it all the way through the Tower grounds and as far as the Iron Gate before they were apprehended. Though they had dropped both the sceptre and the crown along the way.

Blood insisted that he would be tried by no one but the King and, oddly, he agreed to this. King Charles II had only recently had the crown jewels replaced, at a cost of £12,185, because the old ones had been destroyed by Cromwell. Charles claimed that the Jewels were worth £100,000 but Blood claimed they were worth much less and offered to sell them back to the King for £6,000. The King not only pardoned him, but granted him land in Ireland worth £500 a year, which didn’t go down too well with the Duke of Ormonde. The reason for the pardon is unclear. It may have been political. Blood had supporters in Ireland who might have caused trouble. Perhaps the King just liked his style. Blood flattered the king by telling that he had originally planned to murder him instead of just stealing his Jewels. But he had seen the king bathing in the Thames and been so in awe of his majesty that he hadn’t been able to go through with it. On the other hand, you may notice a discrepancy between the cost of having the Jewels made and the amount that the king claimed they were worth. The Jewels were insured for £100,00, so maybe he knew about it all along and had arranged to have them stolen. He was rather short of money.

The custodian of the Tower, fortunately recovered from his wounds and also had a brilliant story to tell for the rest of his life. Blood became a court favourite after that. In 1679 though, he was sued for £10,000 by the Duke of Buckingham for insulting remarks he made about his character. But the Duke of Buckingham was certainly not beyond reproach and may have been behind the plan to murder the Duke of Ormonde. Blood was imprisoned and fell into a coma shortly after his release. He died two days later. After he was buried though, he was dug up again, just to check he was really dead. Some thought he had faked his own death in order to get out of paying the Duke.

Through the Roof

03 04 jack sheppardToday I want to tell you about Jack Sheppard, who was born on this day in 1702 in Spitalfields, London. Jack was apprentice to a carpenter, but with only one year of apprenticeship left to serve, he took to a life of crime in 1723. Jack Sheppard was a thief, he was also a notorious gaol-breaker. He escaped from prison four times in 1724. I have to warn you that this story does not end well for Jack. He was eventually hanged at Tyburn.

If you’re wondering what a notorious criminal is doing featuring on ‘Why Today is Brilliant’, it is because his exploits made him something of a folk hero. He was young, good-looking, good natured, never violent and for a while it seemed as though no prison could hold him. I also need to explain a little about the political climate. In 1720, there had been a huge financial crash which is referred to as the South Sea Bubble. Loads of people had lost money and the economy was in ruins. When the whole thing was investigated, it was found that people were making money by selling debt. Politicians had taken huge bribes to allow this to happen. Politicians were disgraced and people were forced to pay back a percentage of their profits, but largely those who were rich to begin with suffered the least. If all this sounds horribly familiar to you, you’ll understand why people had little trust in those in authority and were happy to see someone get the better of them.

Jack really didn’t have an easy start in life. At the age of six he was apprenticed to a cane-chair maker, but his master died. He was sent to another who treated him badly and then, at ten, went to work for his mother’s employer, a draper called William Kneebone, who taught him to read and write and apprenticed him the a carpenter on Wych Street, near Drury Lane. By 1722, things were going better, he was showing a great deal of promise as a carpenter. Jack was small (only 5’4”) and slightly built with pale skin and very large dark eyes. He was quick to smile and had a ready wit. It made him popular in the taverns of Drury Lane and this was really where thing started to go wrong for him.

In a tavern called the Black Lion he met a highwayman called Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake and a character called Jonathan Wild, a criminal who operated on both sides of the law. He also fell in love with drink and a woman called Elizabeth Lyon. His work suffered and he began to steal. First shoplifting and then taking things from the houses where he was working. He gave up his apprenticeship in August 1723 and progressed to burglary. He also moved in with Elizabeth who worked as a prostitute. When Elizabeth was arrested and imprisoned in a small gaol called St Giles Roundhouse, Jack actually broke into the prison and freed her.

In February 1724, he committed a burglary with Elizabeth and his brother Tom. Tom had already been caught stealing once and had been branded on the hand. When he was arrested for a second time, he was afraid he might be hanged and informed on his brother. A warrant was issued for Jack’s arrest. Jonathan Wild (who knew full well Jack was a burglar because one of his men had fenced some of his stolen goods for him) made sure his whereabouts was known and in April, Jack was arrested and imprisoned on the top floor of St Giles Roundhouse. Although he was wearing irons, within three hours he had broken through the timber ceiling of his cell, made a rope from his bedding, climbed out onto the roof and lowered himself to the ground. He had made quite a lot of noise smashing the ceiling and quite a crowd had gathered outside. Jack, still in irons, joined them. He shouted that he could see the escapee in the shadows on the roof then quietly slipped away.

03 04 jack and elizabethIn May he was caught in the act of pickpocketing and this time sent to St Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho. The next day, Elizabeth visited him. She was recognised, arrested and immediately locked up with him. They appeared before a magistrate and were sent to New Prison in Clerkenwell. Within days, they had filed through their manacles and removed a bar from the windows. They made a rope from their bedclothes and lowered themselves into the yard of the building next door. But the building next door was… another prison, Bridewell. Somehow they managed to climb over a twenty-two foot high gate and make good their escape. The event was highly publicised and was all the more remarkable because, as I told you, Jack was rather short and also Elizabeth was rather large.

Jack was becoming a pretty successful burglar and Jonathan Wild wanted to fence his goods for a share of the profits but Jack refused. Instead, he started to work with Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake and together they burgled Jack’s former employer William Kneebone in July. Wild found out about it. He found Elizabeth and plied her with brandy until she gave away Jack’s whereabouts. He was arrested for a third time in Blueskin’s mother’s brandy shop by one of Wild’s henchmen. Jack was imprisoned at Newgate, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. He escaped on the day his death warrant arrived. There was a barred window in his cell through which he was allowed to talk to visitors. He sawed through one of the bars. While he was being visited by Elizabeth and another woman, who had the delightful name of Poll Maggot, they distracted the guards while he removed the bar and climbed out. He escaped dressed in women’s clothes that the two had brought for him.

He evaded Wild’s men, but was arrested again in September by a posse from Newgate and returned to his condemned cell. By now Jack Sheppard was something of a folk hero. He was visited by the great, the good and the merely curious who wanted to take a look at the man who had escaped the law three times. His escape plans were thwarted twice after guards found files and other tools in his cell. Jack was moved to a strong room and put in leg irons that were attached by a chain to two massive staples in the floor. He demonstrated to his gaolers how this was not enough to hold him. He showed them how he could use a small nail to pick the padlock that held him. They bound him more tightly and also handcuffed him.

03 04 jack in chainsMeanwhile, his accomplice Blueskin was being tried in a court next door to the prison for the same crime. Although the evidence given by Wild did not correlate with the evidence he had given at Jack’s trial, Blueskin was convicted anyway. Blueskin was furious and attacked Wild in the courtroom. He slashed at his throat with a pocket knife and Wild was badly injured. There was a complete uproar which soon spread to the prison next door and lasted into the night. Jack Sheppard took advantage of this. He unlocked his handcuffs and removed the chains but couldn’t undo the leg irons. Even so, he still managed to climb up a chimney, but found his way blocked by an iron bar. He removed the bar, climbed back down and used it to break through the ceiling to an unoccupied cell above. From there, and still wearing the leg irons, he managed to break through another six barred doors and into the prison chapel. From here, he got out onto the roof which was sixty feet above the ground. He then went all the was back to his cell to fetch his blankets. He used them to lower himself onto the roof of the adjacent house, which belonged to a turner named William Bird. He broke into the house, walked down the stairs and out into the street. All without disturbing the occupants.

Jack hid out in a cowshed in Tottenham where he was spotted by the barn’s owner. But he managed to persuade him that he had escaped from a completely different prison to which he had been sent for failing to support a bastard son that he didn’t have. He bribed a shoemaker to fetch a blacksmith to free him from his leg irons and told them the same story. Daniel Defoe, the writer of Robinson Crusoe, who was then working as a journalist, got hold of the story and wrote an account of it. He describes how people at Newgate believed the the Devil himself had come to assist Jack in his escape.

Jack was arrested for the fifth and final time only two weeks later after he broke into a pawnbroker’s shop, stealing a black silk suit, a sword, jewellery, watches and a rather fine wig. He spent the rest of the day dressed as a dandy and swanning about town with two of his mistresses. When he was arrested, in the early hours of November 1st, he was blind drunk. This time he was put in a different cell in Newgate, where he could be watched at all times. He was also chained with 300 lbs of iron weights. Such was his fame that his gaolers charge high-society visitors four shillings each to see him. He remained cheerful with everyone and several people wrote to the King, George I, begging that his sentence be commuted to transportation. At his trial he was offered a reduced sentence if he agreed to inform on his accomplices, but he refused. He was sentenced to be hanged.

Jack Sheppard was taken to Tyburn on November 16th. He had planned one more escape, but the pocket knife he had intended to use to cut his ropes on the way to the gallows was found by a prison warder. His final journey seems to have been an oddly merry one. He was drawn in a cart along Holborn and Oxford Street accompanied by the city marshal. As many as two hundred thousand people turned out, to celebrate his life as much as anything. Just to give you an idea, this was around one third of the population of London at the time. The procession halted at the City of Oxford tavern on Oxford Street where he drank a pint of sack (sherry). His ‘official’ autobiography, which was probably ghost written by Defoe, was on sale to the public. He handed a copy out as he mounted the scaffold. He was hoisted and hanged for the prescribed fifteen minutes and then cut down. Being of slight build, it is possible that he wasn’t dead at this point. His friends planned to take his body straight to a doctor in the hope that he could be revived. But the crowd pressed around him in an effort to stop his body being taken for dissection and, sadly, it may have been this that killed him rather than the hanging.

03 04 playbillHis story was quickly adapted for the stage and a play about him opened at Drury Lane only two weeks after his death. Four years later John Gay based his ‘Beggars Opera’ on the story of Jack’s life. It was extremely popular and allowed Gay to recover the money he had lost in the South Sea Bubble. It was performed regularly over the next hundred years and used a century after that by Berholt Brecht and Kurt Weill as a basis for their Threepenny Opera.

Sorry it’s been such a long post today, but I’ve really enjoyed reading about Jack Sheppard. He’s made this rather lacklustre week worthwhile. So thank you for bearing with me. I’d also like to say thank you to my lovely friend Kim over the hills and far away at Witchmountain for mentioning this blog today. Pay her a visit and find out all about her life as a mountain-dwelling artist in Cumbria. Today, I’ll take a leaf out of her book and tell you that I’m listening to ‘Through the Roof n Underground’ by Gogol Bordello.

Night At The Museum

photo credit: daniel torres jr.
photo credit: daniel torres jr.

On this day in 1964, a pair of amateur jewel thieves, Allan Kuhn and Jack Murphy, broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York and got away with stones worth $410,000. The gems were part of the Morgan-Tiffany collection and included the ‘Star of India’, a star sapphire the size of a golf ball. It is one of the largest such stones in the world. Also taken were the Midnight Star Sapphire which is a large violet stone, the DeLong Star Ruby, the Eagle Diamond, several emeralds, two large aquamarines and over a hundred other natural diamonds. Historically speaking, the collection was priceless, but because the premiums were prohibitively high, it was not insured.

Murphy and Kuhn, along with their accomplice Roger Clark, had come to New York from Miami to visit the World’s Fair. They also saw a film, Topkapi, which is about a jewellery theft at a Museum in Istanbul. The prosecution would later suggest that they were inspired by the plot. When they visited the City’s Natural History Museum and saw the gems, they began to hatch their plan. They made frequent visits to the museum and thought they could easily get in by climbing up the outside and getting in through a window.

It does seem to have been remarkably easy. They climbed over an eight-foot fence and up a ladder on the outside of the building. This took them up to the fourth floor, where the Gem Hall was situated. From there, they climbed to the floor above, tied a rope to a pillar and used it to swing down to a window ledge. Every one of the nineteen sash windows of the Gem Hall had been left open. A gap of two inches at the top provided ventilation. It was an easy matter to slide down the window and get in. Using a glass cutter, they emptied a case of diamonds and a case of emeralds. Then, they turned their attention to the case containing the Star of India, the DeLong Ruby and the Midnight Star. Here, the glass cutting went less well and they had to smash their way into the case. It was noisy, but no one seemed to hear. When they lifted the Star of India from its display, they saw a needle pop up. It was the only stone that had been attached to an alarm. When they heard nothing, they assumed it was a silent alarm and left quickly with their haul. In fact the battery on the device had been dead for months and no alarm sounded anywhere.

The theft was not discovered until the following morning. No prints were found, but the men hadn’t been very discreet about their operation. The place where they had been staying was soon found and searched. There, the police found a floor plan of the museum, books about gems and their accomplice Roger Clark. He told them that Murphy and Kuhn had flown to Miami. There was a bit of a fiasco in which they were all arrested, released on bail and then arrested again for a different crime. Then the police were faced with the problem that the men they had under lock and key were the only ones who could help them recover the jewels. Kuhn was allowed to return to Miami under a heavy police escort. The case had been highly publicised and they found themselves struggling to stay one step ahead of the reporters that pursued them everywhere. On January 8th 1965, two bags were recovered from a locker at Miami’s bus station. Inside were the Star of India, the Midnight Star, five emeralds and two aquamarines. The ruby and smaller gems were still missing.

The three men were sentenced to three years on Riker’s Island for their crime. The DeLong Ruby was recovered eight months later, after a $25,000 dollar ransom was paid, from inside the roof on a Miami telephone box. The Eagle Diamond and other smaller stones were never recovered.

Most of the stones taken in the robbery have a well documented provenance, we know where they came from. This is not so with the Star of India. We know that it was mined in Sri Lanka. George Frederick Kunz, who acquired it for the collection, told us that it had a three hundred year history, but he never told us what it was or how he got hold of the stone in the first place. Perhaps October 29th 1964 was not the first time it was stolen.

Gone Girl

08 21 mona lisa 1On this day in 1911 the Mona Lisa was not where she should have been, she was not hanging in the Louvre in Paris. She had been stolen The theft was discovered when an artist called Louis Béroud arrived to make a sketch of Leonardo’s work for a painting he was working on. Confronted with only four iron pegs in the wall where the Mona Lisa once hung, he contacted the guards. They thought that the painting had probably been taken away to be photographed. Several hours later it turned out that the photographers didn’t have her either. The whole gallery was closed for a week whilst the theft was investigated.

08 21 mona lisa 2The poet Apolinnaire was arrested because he had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down. He said he thought it might have been his friend Pablo Picasso. He was brought in for questioning too. The pair were eventually exonerated but no one would know what had become of the painting for the next two years. Surprisingly, before the painting was stolen, it wasn’t that famous. After the theft though, thousand flocked to the Louvre to look at the empty space on the wall. They left notes and flowers. The museum had never been so busy.

08 21 mona lisa thiefEventually the thief turned out to be a former employee of the Louvre called Vincenzo Peruggia. He had gone into the museum during the day, hidden himself in a broom cupboard then come out after the museum was closed and simply helped himself. Peruggia had kept the painting hidden in his apartment for two years and was eventually caught when he tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Italy was his home country and he was fiercely patriotic. He believed that the painting should be returned to it’s native land. He imagined that it had been stolen by Napoleon, which was not true. He was sentenced to one year and fifteen days in jail for his crime. But in Italy, he was hailed as a patriot and released after only seven months.