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LORD DRONE’S MIGHTY FLEET STREET ORGAN,

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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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SLEAZE IN THE CHEESE

Horse dung wasn’t the only filth in Georgian Fleet Street

WHEREVER the Georgians went in the street that was to become one of the most famous in the world, they couldn’t get away from it. From Ludgate Hill to the back alleys, and on to Covent Garden, SEX was knocking on Fleet Street’s door.


We can all picture in our mind’s eye the historic figures of Dr Samuel Johnson and his friends James Boswell and Joshua Reynolds plodding down Fleet Street that was always awash with wet horse manure centuries ago. Things got so bad in Fleet Street that they cut gutters into the middle of the pavements to try and wash the stuff away. But no one bothered to wash away the sex trade. As one publication shows.


The three men’s boots often smelled of dung, it is said, as they settled down to their steak and kidney pies stuffed with oysters, mushrooms and larks washed down with port and wine in the bawdiness of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub and Chop House (once the haunt of us Drone hacks for our Christmas parties). And once, probably a brothel, they knew about.


For us there was no smell of dung of course, just the scent of ale and the beautiful smell of our lady hacks’ Christmas perfumes as they joined in the bread roll wars between subs and reporters across the Front Line of the ancient staircase leading to the dining rooms on different levels. No discrimination there, everyone joined in.


Johnson and his cronies however personified Fleet Street 18th century style. It was an era that sat on the edge of two Georgian societies. A time when men of great learning were writing books like Johnson; newspapers and periodicals were being born in the Street, and scientists and explorers were bringing us a new world that would soon explode into an industrial revolution.


But at this time of great poverty and debauchery one major publishing venture was making rich men of its owners. The publication was Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, one of the first franchises in Britain. It became a bestseller of the 18th century, growing from 8,000 copies a year to an unconfirmed and staggering 250,000, in an age when most publications could only ever dream of such figures. It was a publication without rules and spared no blushes.


Even Johnson’s haunt, The Cheese, if he really did go there, was waist deep in porn as depicted on some fireplace tiles unearthed during renovations. Some historians now say that Johnson, a recovering alcoholic, who went long periods not imbibing at all, never went there because he objected to its being a brothel and frowned on such things. Views differ. But from what I have read, he went there. The newspapers said so. And the Harris List was available to share or buy.


The List was an annual directory of prostitutes in the area from 1760 to 1794 and sold in Fleet Street for two shillings and sixpence. It featured hundreds of ladies’ names; services rendered; street addresses, prices, biographical information and even reviews of their temperaments. It was printed at Temple Exchange Passage, Fleet Street.


Phillis of Tavistock Court is: “a fine crummy, plump-made dame” specialising in elderly gentlemen and Miss Corbett of Bridges Street has skin “with a whiteness of new fallen snow”, while Miss Thames of Bow Street is “too lusty and fat, but her limbs are exquisitely well turn’d.”

Meanwhile, Miss Rickson of 14 Titchfield Street has a description: “Her having breasts with rapture lies … and love every wish supplies.” She was apparently fond of  ‘the sport’ to excess and, by her own account had “never been blessed with a satisfying meal of manhood”.


The average price for a visit to such ladies ranged from five shillings to a whopping £10, forty times as much for the in-demand Miss Johnson who hung around the Dog and Duck in Willow Walk, and whose “dairy hills of delight are beautifully prominent, firm and elastic!”


The first version of Harris’s List was published by the struggling poet, hack writer and actor Samuel Derrick, who soon didn’t struggle any longer. The ‘Harris’ of its title was the infamous Covent Garden pimp, Jack Harris who operated from The Shakespeare’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden and kept a handwritten list of names and addresses for punters. Derrick paid him for it.


The List became an enormously successful franchise, surviving Derrick’s death in 1769 and passing through a series of hands disguised behind the pseudonym H. Ranger. Even respected publications of the time carried adverts for it.

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LEST WE FORGET …

I NEVER met the legendary Vincent Mulchrone of the Daily Mail but knew of him, of course. One of the doyens of British journalism, he died tragically young of leukaemia, aged 54, in 1977.


As I am so fiercely patriotic in these times of crumbling and fragmented Britain, it is his words I turn to sometimes when so many young Brits tell the Press they would never fight for their country, no matter what.


And every time I hear this new generation decry Winston Churchill, or see pictures of thugs defacing his statue, I remember Mulchrone’s wonderful colour piece on the great man lying in State, as people came to pay tribute.


It begins: “Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people. Dark and quiet as the night-time Thames itself, it flows through Westminster Hall, eddying about the foot of the rock called Churchill.”

Beautiful.

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HER MAJESTY REGRETS …

THE year before The Queen died, in September 2022, aged 96, she was apparently asked by The Oldie magazine, one of my favourite publications (second to The Daily Drone, of course my Lord), to be their Oldie of the Year … but refused because she felt so young.


What a wonderful way to say No …. and how sad that she didn’t go on to feel so young for much longer. It is a lovely tale and I wonder if she would have ever got around to accepting the award had she lived.


The award, known as Tooty, has been around for 29 years (getting old itself now) and celebrates those who have made a special contribution to public life but without, in the words of founding Editor Richard Ingrams, losing the “undoubted snap in their celery.”


Previous winners are a mixture of Oscar stars; Nobel laureates; care nurses and athletes. And it is now so prestigious that the Princess of Wales handed out the prizes last year.


The guest list always reads like an Oscars ceremony. Queen Camilla; the Duke of Kent; Hugh Bonneville; Timothy West and Prunella Scales among them. And the host was that old stalwart of just about everything in television Gyles Brandreth. He even gets on Gogglebox these days.


Gyles has now revealed the Queen’s reply to the magazine’s offer to her. Polite and to the point, it came from Tom Laing-Baker, Asst. Private Secretary to the Queen and says:


The Duke of Edinburgh was Oldie of the Year in 1911. In typical style, he accepted the award by saying: “I much appreciate your invitation to receive an Oldie of the Year award. There is nothing like it for morale to be reminded that the years are passing – ever more quickly – and that bits are beginning to drop off the ancient frame. But it is nice to be remembered at all.”


The Royal Family, incidentally, have always been close to Gyles, especially the duke.

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ROMANTIC ADVICE FROM THE MASTER

I AM the proud keeper of iconic Express Editor Arthur Christiansen’s glass case … the message cabinet he posted all his directives and bollockings on throughout his 1933 to 1957 reign, leaving other editors to follow his lead. Few did.


But the glass case became an iconic symbol of his tenure. Nick Lloyd used it to post appointments … and Lord Drone used it to slip in bogus messages and wind up a long line of incumbents to the chair, who made no difference to the newspaper at all as it went down, much loved, but drained of continuous investment.


Now it hangs in my study with the last note from Editor Nick … the appointment of Bruce Turner as Production Editor 40 years ago. It is like it was, a creamy yellowing cabinet, scratched and weary, that has soaked up nearly a century of nicotine and sticky fingers.


A glass door, opened with a metal key, displays a green beige background where notes are stuck in on a drawing pin. I wondered if I should paint it, do it up, get it done up. But somehow that would spoil the image and memories. Everyone would remember it this way.


Instead, I looked up some of the messages Christiansen wrote and was surprised when I discovered the range of subjects. Here are a couple, signed by him:


Yesterday in a story about a broken romance we referred to the girl’s occupation as that of a bottler in a lemonade factory. We used to have a rule that we did not refer to the occupations of people in lowly stations when romance or broken romance was involved. It is a good rule and should be revived. (3 March 1953) Christiansen.


With the arrival of June weather, we should try to make the paper suit the optimism of the masses. Never forget that the Daily Express is noted for its tonic effect. And while on this subject, it might be well to restate the three-fold rule for our title:

1. Never set the police on anybody.
2. Never cry down the pleasures of the people.
3. Remember our own habits and frailties when disposed to be critical of others. (4 June 1951) Christiansen.

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FROM BUSES TO GOLF BUGGIES


I WAS interested to read in the Express last week how Russian troops were using golf carts from China (500 of them) on the front line in Ukraine. Not for the first time has public transport been used for such war efforts. Take public ferries from Hull in the Falklands conflict.


Even in the First World War, my Great Uncle Harry (on my mother’s side), was a sergeant major, gunned down in the blood-soaked fields at the Battle of the Somme and sent home. Not to be deterred from doing his patriotic duty, he signed up at London’s Mortlake Bus Garage to drive our lads to the Front Line in an Old Bill Bus … nicknamed after the wartime cartoon soldier drawn to boost our soldiers’ morale.


More than 900 of them were painted khaki and each one took 24 Tommies with full kit including rifles across Belgium and France. Some had top decks fitted with pigeon lofts for birds to fly messages down the line. 


Uncle Harry told my grandfather our lads did more damage to the buses with their rifles and back kits, than the Germans. Their barrels smashed so many windows as they moved around, that they had to be boarded up.


An Old Bill bus is now on show in the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. For years it was on the Remembrance Day Parade. Immediately after the war the Old Bill buses were used for charity work and busmen’s funerals. Orphaned children were often taken to the seaside in them.


“Down the orifice Harry, if you please.” 


TERRY MANNERS


25 March 2024