Knives to Grind!

I was sitting quietly at home last weekend when I heard an unusual sound. A man’s voice, quite far away, in a plaintive, sing-song cry. Two rising notes, A, C. A few seconds later it came again, nearer and louder, slightly different words this time but the same two notes.

By this time, I had worked out what it was. An itinerant knife grinder was making his way up my street and every 15 seconds or so he would announce his calling in the ancient way, alternating several stock phrases but always to the same two-note call: “Knives-to-Grind”, “Grind-ing”, “Sharpening-Knives”, “Sharpe-ning”. It was rather beautiful, but haunting. Listen for yourself (it is quite faint to begin with but gets louder after c.30 secs) :

‘Knives to Grind!’

The Knife Grinder has been a presence on London’s streets for hundreds of years, and his cry certainly pre-dates the Civil War. The first pictorial reference I can find, of a grinder with his treadle-operated grindstone, is from 1655, in the splendidly illustrated The Cryes of London with their Severall Notes:

Detail of Knife Grinder from ‘The Cryes of London, with their Severall Notes… (1655) (image courtesy British Museum)

Here are several other later images,

Knives or Cisers to Grind, by Marcellus Laroon, 1688


The Enraged Musician, by William Hogarth 1741

Detail of Knife Grinder from Hogarth’s ‘The Enraged Musician’ 1741

Knives, Scissors and Razors to Grind, by Francis Wheatley, c.1792 (courtesy Bishopsgate Library)

Knives to Grind, by William Marshall Craig 1801

Knives or Scissers to Grind, by Thomas Rowlandson, c.1804

Knives to Grind, by Andrew Tuer 1876 (courtesy Spitalfields Life)

The Knife Grinder

The rich grind the poor, is a saying of old

The merchant, the tradesman, we need not be told

Whether Pagan, Mahometan, Christian you be

There are grinders of all sorts, of ev’ry degree

Master Grinders enough at the helm you may find

Tho’ I’m but a journeyman – Knives to Grind!

(The Myrtle & Vine, or Complete Vocal Library (Vol. II). C. H Wilson, 1803)

If you would like to learn more about the Cries of London, there are many fascinating posts at the Spitalfields Life blog, where you can also obtain The Gentle Author’s Cries of London book on the subject.

The Gentle Author’s Cries of London

Gobbets of the Week #32

It is now a month since The Boss of Bethnal Green was published, and for the first time there seems some space to reflect. The weeks have flown by. The book seems to be selling – there have been exciting sightings in far-flung bookshops and some lovely emails from people who have read it.


There have been two hugely enjoyable launch parties, I’ve made a small publicity video, been interviewed on the radio by Robert Elms (link here, from 38.00) and given talks to diverse audiences at Waterstones Piccadilly, the East End History Society and the Society Club. On top of that I have written pieces for Spitalfields Life and London Historians. And importantly, I found time to dust off the blog and make it shipshape for all the activity I’m intending to deliver over the coming months.

So it’s been a very busy year. I’m now going to unwind a bit and let it all sink in. I have one more big event to do – the lunchtime lecture at the National Portrait Gallery on 15th December (do please sign up!) and then I’m going to drop down a few gears until the New Year.

With that, here are my favourite 10 gobbets of London history this week:

  1. The big news in the last couple of days has been the shock announcement of the closure of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. See link to the Guardian. It has brought forth the republication of some eulogistic pieces:
  2. …from Spitalfields Life…
  3. …from Peter Watts, on The Great Wen…
  4. …and from the Foundry’s own website, an account of its history.


    Image courtesy Spitalfields Life

  5. Another nice pair of gobbets: from the London Historians blog, a post on specialist London book dealer Hawk Norton
  6. …and a marvellous piece by Hawk himself on Victorian Childrens’ Books.
  7. With the definite arrival of winter weather, The Gentle Author was as usual spot on with his George Cruikshank’s London in Winter.
  8. From ‘Exploring London’: Where’s London’s oldest…public clock (with a minute hand)? I particularly liked this, because my photo of said clock (see below) was used in Dominic Reid’s lovely book on the Lord Mayor’s Show last year).giants-at-st-dunstan-in-the-west
  9. Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps are now online in a new interactive version. See also this explanatory article from Londonist.
  10. How did Finchley’s Tally Ho Corner get its name?

The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London is published by Spitalfields Books and available to buy here.


Gobbets of the week #31

It’s been a year since I did a ‘gobbets of the week’ post. I’ve been busy working on my book The Boss of Bethnal Green, which was published on 3 November by Spitalfields Life Books. Now that’s done, I’ll be posting more regularly here on a range of topics and definitely including some ‘gobbets’ posts.

So, here are links to the top 10 gobbets of London history I liked this week:

1. At Syd’s Coffee Stall. The Gentle Author visits an East End institution: “Ev’rybody knows Syd’s. Git a bus dahn Shoreditch Church and you can’t miss it. Sticks aht like a sixpence in a sweep’s ear,”

2. The Prospect of Whitby and Shadwell Basin. Another great post by A London Inheritance.

3. Remembering the Spa Fields Riots, from London Historians.

4. Leaving Victorian London, by Peter Watts.

5. Donald Trump: the View from London’s Streets. By Londonist.

6. 13 Secrets of Waterloo Bridge

7. London Tube Map Quiz, from Diamond Geezer.

8. 12 Maps of Alternative Londons

9. The best places to drink tea in London.

10. And finally: a plug for The Boss. The story of James Hadfield’s Pistol: a gun that almost killed a King, and started an English Revolution.