History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
Removal of the Exhibition to the present building—Sleeping "figures" —History of the Portman Rooms—The Cato Street Conspiracy—Baron Grant's staircase.
AFTER fifty prosperous years at the old Baker Street Rooms—now known as the Portman Rooms—it became necessary that Madame Tussaud's should find more commodious premises to meet the growing popularity of the Exhibition.
The removal to the present well-known red building was made in July, 1884, and the change took about a week, during which the staff put in very long hours. So strenuous a time was it that some of them could hardly keep their eyes open towards the end of this transition period.
There were considerably more than four hundred figures, not to mention countless other things, to transfer; and the models were cloaked for conveyance, as the idea could not be entertained of portraits of royalties, celebrities, and notorieties being carried uncovered and exposed to the vulgar gaze.
The wrapping of the images in sheets led to an amusing incident after they had been removed. Before they could be properly arranged and a fitting place as-signed to each, the exhibits were placed in their coverings on the floor. This fact, it appeared, suggested to tired members of the staff a way by which they might be able to snatch a little rest.
Missing some of the men, my suspicions were directed to the prostrate exhibits, and I proceeded to prod the sheeted figures, with the result that here and there my attentions called forth manifestations of life. The weary helpers had laid themselves down to sleep among the models, hoping not to be disturbed. Although time was pressing, they were permitted to continue a few hours' well-earned rest with their pack-sheet cloaks around them.
Few of our visitors on the closing night were aware of the forthcoming change-over, and it was only when the band, after playing the last bar of the National Anthem, struck up "Auld Lang Syne" that the visitors realised what it all signified. There was a touch of pathos in the farewell scenes, and for the next week Madame Tussaud's Exhibition was not included among the sights of London.
When the old rooms in Baker Street were taken over for hospital uses in the war, my mind reverted to an historic coincidence of considerable military interest.
More than a hundred years ago what is now the Baker Street Carriage Bazaar formed the barracks and stabling of the Royal Life Guards. The place was then known as the King Street Barracks. Old in-habitants of the neighbourhood used to tell me that a regiment of the Guards marched from these quarters on their way to the field of Waterloo.
A little way off was the Portman Street Barracks, from which Captain Fitzclarence set out to arrest Arthur Thistlewood and his confederates in connection with the Cato Street Conspiracy—one of the most desperate and foolhardy episodes in modern English history.
Thistlewood and other members of the Spencean Society—which might almost be described as the prototype of latter-day Bolshevism—conceived the mad idea that they could capture, among other strongholds, the Bank of England, the Mansion House, the Tower of London, and Coutts's Bank; but they found that the public sympathy on which they counted did not exist. Thistlewood was thrown into gaol for treasonable utterances, and instead of imprisonment bringing him to his right senses, he became more fanatical than ever.
The crowning act of infamy on the part of this nineteenth-century "Guy Fawkes" and his followers was to hatch a plot for the assassination of Ministers at a Cabinet dinner in Lord Harrowby's house, Grosvenor Square. The conspirators took a loft over a stable in Cato Street, Marylebone, where they accumulated arms, bombs, and hand-grenades, vainly imagining that the police knew nothing of their movements, whereas the authorities were only waiting the right moment for action.
Thistlewood and his gang of desperadoes were arrested in the act of arming themselves for the wholesale assassination of the heads of the Government. In the scuffle Thistlewood killed a police-officer with his sword. The ringleader and four others, named Brunt, Davidson, Ings, and Tidd, were executed on the evidence of one of their own associates, who told the court that it was intended, in the first instance, to set fire to the King Street Barracks and either take the Life Guardsmen prisoners or kill them as they sat in their mess-room. This mess-room, fifteen years later, was occupied by Madame Tussaud's Exhibition.
Few, if any, of the thousands of persons who mount and descend the marble staircase which adorns the entrance-hall of Madame Tussaud's are aware that it originally formed part of a lordly pleasure house which was erected by the late Baron Grant on the site of what was one of the vilest slums (then known as "The Rookery") in Kensington.
Who was Baron Grant?
The late Baron was born in Dublin in 183o. His real name, it appears, was Gottheimer. His parents were poor, and he had a hard upbringing. By dint, however, of industry, the sharpness of his wits and his great aptitude for business, he acquired wealth and a reputation in the City of London.
At the age of thirty-five he was elected M. P. for Kidderminster, standing as a Liberal-Conservative and defeating Lord Annaly, who was at that time a Lord of the Treasury. In 1868 he was appointed a Deputy-Lieutenant of the Tower Hamlets, and in the same year the King of Italy conferred upon him the hereditary dignity of Baron and appointed him a Commander of the Order of St. Maurice and Lazare.
These distinctions were well deserved by the then Mr. Grant for the services he had rendered in connection with the completion of the famous Victor Emmanuel Gallery in Milan, though in one of the burlesques of the period the decoration was scathingly referred to in the following couplet:
Kings can titles give, but honour can't,
At the height of his prosperity Baron Grant built his princely mansion at Kensington Gore. It was never occupied, except for one night, when the "bachelors of London"—in other words, the smart young men of London Society—hired the house from the Baron's creditors and gave a ball of exceptional splendour.
The Baron was unable to pay the contractor, and the mansion, known as "Grant's Folly," was pulled down because no one could afford to buy or rent it. The magnificent marble staircase, which cost £i i,000, was bought by Madame Tussaud's for £i,000, and placed in our Exhibition.
The beautiful iron railings and gates of the "Folly" were purchased for the Sandown Park Club, where, I understand, they may still be seen.
Baron Grant was a keen collector of works of art, and once obtained the honour of being voted the thanks of the House of Commons for presenting a picture to the National Gallery.
It came about in this way :
On the 8th of May, 1874, a very valuable portrait of Sir Walter Scott was put up to auction at Christie's, and was eventually secured by Baron Grant for 800 guineas. The same evening Sir Stafford Northcote, the Leader of the House, was asked by a private member why the Government had not purchased so fine a work of art for the nation. He replied that the Treasury had no funds available for the outlay. Thereupon the Baron rose and stated that he had already written offering the picture to the Trustees of the National Gallery.
Sir Stafford immediately proposed a vote of thanks, and this was carried with much enthusiasm.
Eight hundred guineas, however, was far from being the largest sum which the Baron spent on a single picture. He gave £10,000 for Landseer's "Otter Hunt," and the value of his collection may be judged from the fact that it realised £106,000 when the inevitable crash came and his art treasures passed under the hammer to pay his creditors.
The great benefaction for which Baron Grant will always be remembered is the gift of Leicester Square to the Metropolis at a cost to him of upwards of £30,000. For years this Square had been dilapidated and a disgrace to London, with a huge hoarding round it. Baron Grant secured, by purchase, all the rights of the owners. He then planted the gardens, and erected in the centre the statue of Shakespeare by Sig-nor Fontana. This was, at the time, the only statue of the world's greatest dramatist existing out of doors in his own country. The liberal donor also placed in the Square busts of celebrated men who had lived in the neighbourhood. These included Sir Isaac Newton, John Hunter, William Hogarth, and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
This act of munificence did not bring the Baron the popularity he so much desired, for after the princely gift was presented by him to the Metropolitan Board of Works on the 2nd of July, 1874, the following verses were freely sold at the opening ceremony :
Of course, you've heard the news that Baron Grant,
But will the world forget these flowers of Grant's
It was this same public-spirited though erratic "plunger" in stocks and shares who, in February, 1875, widened, at his own cost, the road leading to Kensington House, so as to avoid the curve which was dangerous to carriages when driving in. It was an approach that Queen Victoria frequently used.