Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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Simeon Investigates Covent Garden

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Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) was beyond excited to receive a letter from Treasure Trails with a number of clues to solve a mysterious murder in the heart of London. Famous detective novelist Lotta Twist (fictional but don’t tell Simeon!) has died under baffling circumstances and it was up to Simeon, with a little help from his friends, to work out which suspect was the murderer and what weapon they used.

After hunting high and low between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, Simeon solved the mystery but, along the way, he discovered many exciting streets and buildings. Of course, the biggest and most popular of all was Covent Garden’s central square, London’s main theatre and entertainment area. The Covent Garden Piazza is full of luxury shops, street entertainers, market stalls and hundreds of excited tourists; and amongst them, was a little wide-eyed detective, Simeon.

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Apple Market, Covent Garden Market traders inside Inigo Jones’ “handsomest barn in England”.

Covent Garden is the name of a district in the capital that stretches from St Martin’s Lane near Trafalgar Square and Drury Lane, towards Camden. Although it is now a popular shopping and tourist area, it used to be famous for the former fruit-and-vegetable market in the central square. Simeon was intrigued to discover the market stalls selling homemade wares was still known as Apple Market.

The history of Covent Garden dates back to 400 AD when the area near St Martin’s-in-the Fields was used as a Roman gravesite. Excavations have also suggested that there were Anglo-Saxon settlements nearby. From around 600 AD, the land stretching from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych was a trading town called Lundenwic, however, during the reign of the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great (c.847-899), the boundaries of the capital were shifted and the town was abandoned, eventually becoming a field.

A document dating from 1200 AD states that the land became the property of the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of St Peter, now known as Westminster Abbey. Over the next century, a square garden, approximately 40 acres long, was gradually established, combining orchards, meadows, pastures and arable land. Adopting the Anglo-French word for a religious community, the quadrangle became known as “a garden called Covent Garden”. The name has stuck ever since.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, meant the land belonging to Westminster Abbey, including Covent Garden, became the possession of King Henry VIII (1491-1547). Just over a decade later, however, Henry’s son Edward VI (1537-53) granted the land to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (1485-1555). The Russell family, who were eventually elevated to the Dukes of Bedford, held the land until 1918.

The land, including Covent Garden, did not remain farmland under the Russell family’s ownership. In 1630, Francis Russell, the 4th Earl, commissioned the English architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) to build a church (St Paul’s Church) and houses around a large square. Initially, these houses attracted the wealthy, however, they lost their appeal after a market was set up in the square, coffee houses and taverns were opened, and prostitutes moved in.

As a result, due to the seedy establishments, Covent Garden became known as a red-light district and gentlemen had a wide choice of brothels to visit in the area. Things improved after a more permanent trading centre was built in 1830. Later, in 1913, the 11th Duke of Bedford, Herbrand Russell (1858-1940) agreed to sell his estate to the MP Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley (1863-1937) for £2 million. Not long after, it was sold in 1918 to the Beecham family for £250,000.

The Beecham family, the proprietors of Beecham Estates and Pills Limited, managed the properties around Covent Garden until 1924 when they gradually began to sell them off. By 1962, the main bulk of the district, including the market place became the property of the newly founded Covent Garden Authority at a cost of £3,925,000. Since then, redevelopments have been undertaken and the main market building was opened as the shopping centre it is today in 1980.

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Simeon was intrigued to discover the original rules, orders and bye-laws of the market on the wall of one of the tunnels leading into the centre of the market place. Despite the warnings of various penalties, it appears the rules are no longer enforced.

Notice is hereby given that in persuance of the Act of Parliament passed in the ninth year of the Reign of King George the fourth entitled “An Act for the Improvement and Regulation of Covent Garden Market” the several Rules, Orders and Byelawes hereunder written have been constituted, provided and ordained for the purpose in the said Act mentioned. Dated this 22nd Day of May 1924

Simeon thought it rather naughty of the stallholders to disobey the rules that were clearly stated on the wooden sign. “No Fruit, Flowers, Vegetables, Roots, Herbs or other thing shall be placed, pitched, exposed for sale, or sold in any part of the said Market on a Sunday.” Well, that’s a 40 shilling penalty everyone should be paying, deemed Simeon in disgust.

“No person shall sleep or lie down on any Stand, Footpath or Gangway in the said Market or on the said Terrace or Steps leading thereto.” Just as well Simeon did not need a nap, otherwise, that would have cost him five shillings.

“No person shall carry, use or have any lighted Candle or other Light except in a Lanthern …” Try telling that to the fire juggler!

Of course, these rules were written when the market sold fruit and vegetables and not the hand-crafted commodities of today. Covent Garden now boasts some of the best luxury clothes shops in London, including Chanel, Mulberry UK and Sass & Belle. There are also independent stores, such as Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop, which sells creative, theatrical and educational toys that nurture storytelling.

Opposite the Covent Garden piazza is Jubilee Hall, which contains Jubilee Market, the only market in London to be wholly owned by traders. The market opened in 1904 and was later taken over by the traders in order to save the building from bankruptcy. Along with the rest of Covent Garden, Jubilee Hall was renovated in 1985 and reopened by Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) on 5th August 1987.

The stalls in Jubilee Market change from day-to-day. On Mondays, the market offers a whole range of antiques. Sold by professional antique dealers, collectables can be found from every era and style, including Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, fine china and old books. From Tuesday until Friday, the market describes itself as a General Market. During this period, traders can sell anything they wish and shoppers can find bargains on plants, greeting cards, beauty products, clothes and souvenirs.

The weekends at Jubilee Market are devoted to the arts and crafts. Traders show off their creative skills and sell their art to the public. The term “Art” in this case is rather broad and visitors can expect to find anything from hand-painted items, jewellery and fashion to metal sculptures, fossils and minerals.

Whilst the market place is the main attraction, Simeon’s murder mystery trail took him up and down streets and alleyways that were just as exciting. As well as solving clues, Simeon discovered many interesting things about Covent Garden, including statues, noteworthy buildings and famous people associated with the area.

One of the first buildings that caught Simeon’s attention looked at first to be a regular sandwich shop: Pret a Manger. The building’s history, or rather the site’s history, on the other hand, is much more noteworthy. A green, circular plaque situated on the upper level of the building reveals that this was the site of the Old Slaughters Coffee House. Whilst the plaque and present building are in Cranbourne Street, the original address of the coffee house was 77 St Martin’s Lane. The building was destroyed when Cranbourne Street was built in 1843.

The Old Slaughters Coffee House was opened by Thomas Slaughter in 1692. It was frequented by game players who would meet to partake in chess, draughts and whist amongst other things. For a time, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), the American polymath and founding father of the United States, was one of the establishment’s regular players. It was also popular with artists, including, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Louis-François Roubillac (1702-62). The English dramatist Henry Fielding (1707-54) was another regular patron of the coffee shop. Incidentally, Fielding lived in the area and came up with the idea of the Bow Street Runners, an early form of the Police Force. Eventually, Britain’s first Police Station was opened on Bow Street and manned by Robert Peel (1788-1850).

The coffee shop’s claim to fame is for its use as a meeting house for discussions that resulted in the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later the RSPCA) in 1824. The meeting was organised by the Reverend Arthur Broome (1779-1837) and chaired by the MP Sir Thomas Foxwell Buxton (1786-1845). Amongst the eight attendees was William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who was also responsible for the abolition of the slave trade.

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Almost opposite the site of the Old Slaughters Coffee House is a memorial to the writer and playwright Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Unveiled by her grandson Matthew Prichard amongst others on 18th November 2012, the book-shaped sculpture by Ben Twiston-Davies celebrates the 60th anniversary and 25,000 London performances of Christie’s play The Mousetrap.

The memorial provides a brief biography of Agatha Christie née Miller who was born on 15th September 1890 in Torquay, Devon. She was educated at home, which helped to develop her lifelong passion for writing and reading. She also developed an interest in poisons, which secured her with a position as pharmaceutical dispenser during the First World War. This, in turn, provided her with considerable knowledge to use in her novels.

Agatha married her first husband, Archibald “Archie” (1889-1962) on Christmas Eve 1914 in Bristol whilst he was on leave from the army. In 1919, their only child Rosalind Margaret Hicks was born – the future mother of Matthew Prichard and unveiler of this statue. Unfortunately, Agatha and Archie’s marriage was not to last after he fell in love with another woman. In 1930, however, Christie met Max Mallowan (1904-78) who she subsequently married.

Due to being an archaeologist, Mallowan was required to travel extensively, particularly in the Middle East. Christie accompanied her husband and the places she visited became the settings for some of her murder mysteries.

At the time the memorial was erected, Agatha Christie’s books had sold over two billion copies in 100 languages. She is famous for her characters Hercule Poirot, the all-knowing Belgian detective, and Miss Jane Marple, the all-seeing village spinster. The Mousetrap, amongst many other plays and books, shot to fame during Christie’s lifetime making her one of the most successful and best-loved writers of all time. Agatha Christie was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1971, five years before she died on 12th January 1976.

Almost immediately around the corner from Agatha Christie’s memorial is the St Martin’s Theatre where The Mousetrap has been performed continually since March 1974. Having moved there from the Ambassadors Theatre on Charing Cross Road, the play is now the longest-running production in the world.

Opposite the theatre is another building Simeon found of interest. Situated in a narrow, slightly triangular building is The Ivy, a restaurant popular with celebrities and theatregoers. It was opened as an Italian cafe in 1917 by Abele Giandolini “Monsieur Abel”. Over the years, it has become the haunt of many famous names, including, Laurence Olivier (1907-89), Vivien Leigh (1913-67), Marlene Dietrich (1901-92), Terence Rattigan (1911-77) and Noël Coward (1899-1973).

In 1950, The Ivy was sold to Bernard Walsh who made it part of a chain of fish restaurants. The establishment changed hands twice more before closing in 1989. Fortunately, it was saved from permanent closure by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin who renovated the building and reopened it the following year. Today, The Ivy is owned by multi-millionaire Richard Caring (b.1948).

The Ivy can seat up to 100 guests at a time, plus a further 60 in the private dining area on the first floor. No mobile phones or cameras are allowed in the building and there is a strict dress code. Simeon, wearing absolutely nothing, decided not to try his luck in securing a table for lunch.

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There are many other pubs and restaurants around Covent Garden and, if Simeon had been a drinker, his murder mystery trail could easily have turned into a pub crawl! According to Trip Advisor, some of the best bars and pubs in the area are The Kings Arms, Mr Fogg’s Tavern (named after the fictional explorer Phileas Fogg), Crown and Anchor, Lady of the Grapes and The Long Acre Bar & Kitchen. Some of these establishments are easy to find, whereas others are hidden away in the city’s courtyards and backstreets.

The Lamb and Flag (formerly The Coopers Arms) was established on Rose Street in 1833. Despite being small and out of the way, the pub earned a reputation for staging bare-knuckle prize fights, earning it the nickname “The Bucket of Blood”. The covered alleyway (mind your head!) to the side of the building also has a sinister history. It was here that the English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) was attacked by thugs in 1679. It is believed the 2nd Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot (1647-80) was responsible for hiring the thugs. There had been a long-standing conflict between the two men.

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Simeon enjoyed investigating all the little alleyways and discovering where they led. Whilst trying to solve a mystery, Simeon also unearthed other mysteries, for example, Monty Python’s house. Simeon’s first question was, “Why did a python named Monty have a house in Neal’s Yard?” His second question, after establishing that Monty Python is a British surreal comedy group who created the sketch comedy television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “How can ‘Monty Python’ have a plaque stating that the filmmaker ‘lived here 1976-1987’?”

The answer: Rather than commemorating a person as the plaque implies, it is indicating the location of the Monty Python studios in Neal’s Yard. This is where the British surreal comedy group created their BBC sketch show, which first aired on 5th October 1969. Broadcast until 1974, the series was written and performed by a group of six people known as “the Pythons”: Graham Chapman (1941-89), John Cleese (b.1939), Terry Gilliam (b.1940), Eric Idle (b.1943), Terry Jones (b.1942), and Michael Palin (b.1943). The show pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time, influencing British comedy of the future.

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As well as being part of Covent Garden, Neal’s Yard and the surrounding streets are also known as Seven Dials. This is a junction where seven streets converge, forming a circular space at the centre. The land originally belonged to the estate of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, however, in the 1690s Thomas Neale (1641-99) designed a new layout consisting of six residential roads to replace the open farmland. Although the plan was for six roads, Neale added in a seventh road in order to own and lease out more properties. This area was used as the setting for Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery (1929).

“The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…”
– Charles Dickens

In the centre of Seven Dials is a sundial column, however, because the original plan was for six roads, there are only six faces or dials. The column itself is said to be the gnomon (the piece that casts the shadow) of the seventh dial. The original column was built by the stonemason Edward Pierce who based the design on a Doric column. Today, a replica sits in its place. The column itself is 20 feet high, however, it is sat on top of an 8-foot plinth, making it appear even taller.

Intrigued about the sundial, Simeon was pleased to discover a plaque on the wall of a nearby pub containing instructions for using the dial to tell the time. “The Sundials show local apparent solar time. To convert this to Greenwich Mean Time (G.M.T) use the graph below. Find today’s date and add or deduct the number of minutes shown (+ or – on the graph) to the time showing on the sundials to obtain G.M.T. ” Each of the faces is accurate to within ten seconds. It is impossible to get a totally accurate reading because the sundial is positioned to the west of Greenwich, thus making it 3.048 seconds behind G.M.T.

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There is so much more to discover around Covent Garden and Simeon, being only a little gibbon, had only enough energy to walk up and down a few of the streets. Nonetheless, there are a couple more highlights Simeon wishes to mention. The first is a beautiful statue of a ballerina opposite the Royal Opera House.

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Also situated near the Royal Ballet School, Young Dancer by Italian-born British sculptor Enzo Plazzotta (1921-81) is a statue of a ballerina sitting on a stool while lacing up her shoes. Plazzotta is remembered for his fascination with movement and portraying this with bronze. Although this particular model is not in the process of moving, ballet and dance were Plazzotta’s favourite subjects. This statue was unveiled in 1988, seven years after the artist’s death. There are a number of other sculptures by Plazzotta around the capital, including, Crucifixion outside Westminster Abbey, Jéte (a ballet movement) near the Tate Modern, a homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in Belgrave Square, and Camargue Horses near the Barbican.

Whilst Simeon enjoyed posing with the young dancer, his favourite thing about his trail through Covent Garden was knowing he was walking in the footsteps of famous and important people of the past. Many names have already been mentioned, however, before he reached the Covent Garden Market, Simeon found one more person to add to his list.

Along Henrietta Street above what is now the designer men’s shoe and clothes shop Oliver Sweeney, is where the novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) stayed between 1813 and 14. In 1813, Jane’s older brother Henry lost his wife Eliza after a long and debilitating illness. After her death, Henry moved into the rooms above Tilson’s Bank on Henrietta Street, which is where Jane and her niece Fanny Knight visited him.

While she was visiting her brother, Jane took the opportunity to do some shopping, writing to her sister, “I hope that I shall find some poplin at Layton and Shear’s that will tempt me to buy it. If I do it shall be sent to Chawton, as half will be for you; for I depend upon your being so kind as to accept it . . . It will be a great pleasure to me. Don’t say a word. I only wish you could choose it too. I shall send twenty yards.” The shop she mentioned was also on Henrietta Street. Today, a plaque marks the apartments in which she stayed.

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Where’s Simeon?

Simeon (and friends) thoroughly enjoyed the murder mystery trail around Covent Garden set by Treasure Trails. This was not the first trail the little gibbon has completed, nor will it be the last. The trails allow you to solve fictional murders or find buried treasure, at the same time as discovering the hidden secrets of cities and towns around the United Kingdom. There are over 1000 trails to choose from that provide a fun way to explore all parts of the country.

Simeon has learnt that Convent Garden is not only a market but a whole district. He found hidden alleyways, beautiful statues, impressive buildings and interesting historical facts but, most importantly, he caught the killer. Simeon highly recommends Treasure Trails and cannot wait to go on his next adventure. I wonder where that will be?

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Catch up with Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp

For more information about Treasure Trails and the areas they cover, please visit their website.