Category Archives: Culture

Denmark Street: Britain’s Answer to Tin Pan Alley

I spent last weekend in London which, ironically, is why I didn’t have time to write about London last week. Fortunately, I kept myself very busy up there, and as such have a number of things I can discuss in more detail. One of the mornings was taken up on a walk around Covent Garden and St Giles. While on this walk – taken from a guidebook – I found myself in Denmark Street. I’d known the name, but I didn’t know much about it, so I endeavored to do a little research.

The 108-foot long street may look unremarkable from a geographical position. At the southern end of Camden, with no tube station to call its own, and traffic only permitted in one direction, one could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t worth mentioning. Originally situated on the grounds St Giles Hospital, a leper house, opened in the 12th century by Matilda, the wife of Henry I, was here. Having passed through several hands since then, during the reign of James II the area was developed and the street named for Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne.

The area around Denmark Street was known as the rookery, an accidental slum. Home to plague, pestilence, many brothels and those who enjoyed a drink or eleven, the street gained a negative reputation. By the end of the 1800s, it had been mostly cleared up, but remains one of the very few London streets to still have “17th century terraced facades on both sides”. It held a number of residents who are still known to us today including Dr John Purcell (a doctor specialising in “the vapours”), painter Johann Zoffany, and Jacobite Sir John Murray who made his home here until a day where he was carried off by some strange men. That may be a story for another time. In the early 1800s, the street became one for businesses and offices to set up, and it then attracted Augustus Siebe, who invented the diving helmet. A blue plaque in the street acknowledges him.

But Denmark Street doesn’t begin forming its later reputation until 1911 when Lawrence Wright, a music publisher settled in and founded the journal for musicians Melody Maker. By the end of the 1950s, the street had become known as Britain’s “Tin Pan Alley”, and was full of music publishers, writers, singers, recording artists and anything else connected with the industry. Singers in the 50s starting taking songs from those writing in Denmark Street, and Lionel Bart, who went on to write Oliver! started working in the industry here.

In the 1950s, however, artists had started writing their own songs, and didn’t need writers anymore, so the street went out of fashion for a while, at which point it changed tack and started opening recording studios instead. Songs ranging from “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” to “You Really Got Me” started to come out of Denmark Street and once it was seen as the place you had to be if you wanted to make it in music.

One of Denmark Street’s familiar faces, the late David Bowie

Once the Rolling Stones had settled in to record there, a panoply of stars made their way to the street. Reg Dwight had started working at a music publisher in 1963, and seven years later he had changed his name and given the world “Your Song“. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others all found work here and it became one of the coolest places in London. But it wasn’t just music producers here. In the seventies, guitar shops and a comic book store were installed on the street.

In 1980, disaster struck the street. Several unlicensed nightclubs were running in the street, and with badly maintained fire exits. When John Thompson, a local criminal was ejected one night in August that year, he returned and ignited the ground floor of one of the buildings housing a nightclub. Thirty-seven people were killed, and Thompson spent the rest of his life in prison. Another criminal is also associated with the street – the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. He worked at a job centre in the street and is notable for one Christmas bringing in a large cooking pot to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, this was the very pot in which he had boiled the heads of his victims. A charming man.

In 1992, the last music publisher moved out of the street, and now the street is almost nothing but instrument shops. The owner of Andy’s Guitars, Andy Preston has tried to have the area rebranded as “Music Land”.

The whole area has been declared a Conservation Area, and the street itself has eight listed buildings, all Grade II, and while there are often talks of the place being redeveloped, there are protests from the current occupants about that who insist that it should retain its original character. To this day, the street will be known by those into music as an important location. Several of the shops specialise in guitars, but others sell sheet music, DVDs, and other instruments. The basement of number 22 is still a recording studio, and has been since 1954.

Although, as anyone can tell you, I am not particularly musically inclined, but even I could sense the importance of the place as I walked down it. It’s so small, and I’ve probably been through it many times before, but I’ve never really acknowledged its significance. Anyone with a love of music should pay a visit, just to say they’ve walked in the footsteps of the greats. May they forever live in, in Denmark Street.

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Inside the Horniman Museum

My favourite museum in the city is the Natural History Museum; always has been and probably always will be. My friend Claire again accompanied me this week for my London jaunt, and while we had originally planned to go to Kensington, we decided spontaneously that morning to go somewhere else instead. Thus, the Natural History Museum isn’t the focus of this week’s post. The Horniman Museum, however, is.

Situated not far from Forest Hill train station, the museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman in 1901. He was an avid collector, and after years of travelling had amassed around 30,000 items, mostly anthropological artefacts, examples of natural history, and slightly more unusually, musical instruments.

He's not hungry; he's stuffed.

He’s not hungry; he’s stuffed.

The natural history cases are particularly marvellous, although some of the taxidermy is perhaps slightly unnerving. (If you visit, look for the rockhopper penguin and you’ll know what I mean.) Standing proud in the centre of the room on an enormous iceberg is a behemoth of a walrus. It’s a real one, now stuffed, and it’s been on display for over a century. However, when it was mounted, few people had ever seen a walrus alive, so this particular model is, shall we say, “overstuffed”. Walruses are far wrinklier than this in real life, but his popularity is assured, being a mascot to the museum in the way that Dippy and the blue whale are to the Natural History Museum.

Around him are many cases containing examples of many mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates. They are mostly arranged by species and family – for example, whole cases are given over solely to different species of ducks or parrots, but some work in other ways. One, for example, shows the many different ways that animals have learnt to defend themselves, lining up creatures with spikes, horns, toxic bites or noxious tastes together. One notable exhibit has the head of a wolf surrounded by the heads of various breeds of dog such as a bloodhound, bulldog and collie, showing how selective breeding has changed dogs into so many different appearances.

Personally, my favourite creatures in here are a bittern with a serious case of “resting bitch face”, two skunks, the okapi and the family of musquash (also known as muskrats). There’s plenty else to see in this room alone, though. Almost every species of primate seems to be present and there are comparative skeletons of all the great apes, including a human one, making the similarities look even more striking.

Downstairs is a small aquarium which splits off into tanks showing several different biomes, from a typical British pond to coastal seas and rainforest swamps. It’s small and you have to pay extra to go in, but it’s worth taking a look around. It’s home to dogfish, jellyfish, rays and rather a lot of frogs.

I'd but a joke about being horny here, but I'm not that crude.

I’d but a joke about being horny here, but I’m not that crude.

Another room is called the African Worlds Gallery. I confess that Claire and I didn’t spend too long in here because of an unnecessarily loud school party (we’re too old for that nonsense) so I can’t give you too much detail about it. From what I did see, it was a lot of photos, costumes and artefacts from all over Africa, displaying great examples of the people and culture of this often misunderstood continent. If I go back again, I shall check out this exhibition in more detail.

The final part of the museum’s interior is perhaps the oddest, dedicated as it is to thousands of musical instruments. Contained here are examples of everything you could ever imagine from pianos to mouth organs, violins to bagpipes, xylophones to flutes. Whether you pluck it, blow it, bang it, shake it or tap it, there’s one of it here. We got excited at the prospect of the primary school favourite, the recorder, turning up and weren’t disappointed. The museum has several, including an enormous bass recorder that would certainly make school assemblies a bit more interesting.

I’m not musically inclined, but seeing all these together is rather astounding. Humans have been making music for as long as we’ve been talking, probably longer, and the wide variety of instruments we’ve created for the purpose is nothing short of breath-taking.

Can't keep up with these Joneses.

Can’t keep up with these Joneses.

Our visit to the Horniman Museum was rounded off by a stroll through the beautiful gardens. It was a gloriously clear day and from the bandstand just above the museum itself you can see right across London, taking in Battersea Power Station, the Shard and the other nearby skyscrapers and St Paul’s, which looks miniscule from this far away. There are also specialist gardens here, one for food and one for medicinal plants, all labelled to tell you what they do. Most spectacularly of all though is the Grade II listed conservatory that sits just behind the museum. It dates back to 1894 and used to be at the Horniman’s Croydon family home, but was moved to the museum in the 1980s. It is beautiful in the extreme, ornately crafted and makes your average conservatory look pathetic in comparasion.

The Horniman Museum is a reminder than London is packed full of museums that most people don’t bother to go to, or even know about. The three in Kensington get all the glory, but one of the purposes of this blog is to show people places off the beaten track and find treasures like this that they may not normally see. I daresay there will be many more museums to come, so watch this space.