January 3, 2012
At the beginning of the 19th century, the port of London was the busiest in the world. Cargoes that had traveled thousands of miles, and survived all the hazards of the sea, piled up on the wharves of Rotherhithe—only for their owners to discover that the slowest, most frustrating portion of their journey often lay ahead of them. Consignments intended for the southern (and most heavily populated) parts of Britain had to be heaved onto creaking ox carts and hauled through the docklands and across London Bridge, which had been built in the 12th century and was as cramped and impractical as its early date implied. By 1820, it had become the center of the world’s largest traffic jam.
It was a situation intolerable to a city with London’s pride, and it was clear that if private enterprise could build another crossing closer to the docks, there would be a tidy profit to be made in tolls. Another bridge was out of the question—it would deny sailing ships access to the Pool of London—and ambitious men turned their thoughts to driving a tunnel beneath the Thames instead. This was not such an obvious idea as it might appear. Although demand for coal was growing fast as the industrial revolution hit high gear, working methods remained primitive. Tunnels were dug by men wielding picks in sputtering candlelight.
No engineers had tunneled under a major river, and the Thames was an especially tricky river. To the north, London was built on a solid bed of clay, ideal tunneling material. To the south and east, however, lay deeper strata of water-bearing sand, gravel and oozing quicksand, all broken up by layers of gravel, silt, petrified trees and the debris of ancient oyster beds. The ground was semi-liquid, and at depth it became highly pressurized, threatening to burst into any construction site.
Today, engineers deal with treacherous ground by pressurizing their workfaces (though that solution still leaves tunnelers vulnerable to the problems that come from working in high-pressure environments, including bone-rot and even the bends). In the early 19th century, such measures were still decades away. The first men to attempt a tunnel beneath the Thames—gangs of Cornish miners brought to London in 1807 by businessmen banded together as the Thames Archway Company—had little to guide them.
The chief engineer of this first tunnel project was a muscular giant named Richard Trevithick, a self-educated man who had progressed from youthful fame as a Cornish wrestler by displaying a dazzling talent for invention. Trevithick had harnessed steam power to drive the first self-propelled engine to run on rails and designed the world’s first high-pressure steam engine. He was convinced that a tunnel could be hacked out under the Thames relatively easily. It did not take long for him to realize he was wrong.
November 8, 2011
In the summer of 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was on top of the world. Paramount Pictures had paid him an unprecedented $3 million over three years to star in 18 silent films, and he’d just signed another million-dollar contract with the studio. The portly comedian’s latest film, Crazy to Marry, was playing in theaters across the country. So his friend Fred Fischbach planned a big party to celebrate, a three-day Labor Day bash at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
But by the end of the week, Fatty Arbuckle was sitting in Cell No. 12 on “felony row” at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, held without bail in the slaying of a 25-year-old actress named Virginia Rappe. Crazy to Marry was quickly pulled from theaters, and a nation was outraged to discover a sordid side to the off-screen lives of Hollywood stars. Behind Arbuckle’s troubles was a mysterious woman named Maude Delmont, a witness for the prosecution who would never be called to testify because police and prosecutors knew her story would not hold up on the stand. Yet what she had to say would be more than enough to ruin Arbuckle’s career.
September 8, 2011
Anyone who has ever listened to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–and that’s a few hundred million people at the last estimate–will know the swirling melody and appealingly nonsensical lyrics of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” one of the most unusual tracks on that most eclectic of albums.
For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair—what a scene
Over men and horses, hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!
But who are these people, these horsemen and acrobats and “somerset turners” of a bygone age? Those who know a bit about the history of the circus in its mid-Victorian heyday–before the coming of the music halls and the cinema stole its audience, at a time when a traveling show could set up in a mid-size town and play for two or three months without exhausting demand–will recognize that John Lennon got his vocabulary right when he wrote those lyrics. “Garters” are banners stretched between poles aloft held by two men; the “trampoline,” in those days, was simply a springboard, and the “somersets” Mr. Henderson undertakes to “throw on solid ground” were somersaults.
While true Beatlemaniacs will know that Mr. Kite and his companions were real performers in a real troupe, however, few will realize that they were associates of what was probably the most successful, and almost certainly the most beloved, “fair” to tour Britain in the mid-Victorian period. And almost none will know that Pablo Fanque–the man who owned the circus—was more than simply an exceptional showman and perhaps the finest horsemen of his day. He was also a black man making his way in an almost uniformly white society, and doing it so successfully that he played to mostly capacity houses for the best part of 30 years.