‘At Lancaster’s I inquired for his gun’

Finding a gun shop in central London is a little harder these days than it would have been in 1898. Lancaster’s is definitely no longer there, but thanks to studious research by Adventure Club members Nick and Jon, we’ve located it at 151 New Bond Street W1S.

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It turns out Lancaster’s was a rather historic place, and Lancaster guns are now museum pieces and/or collectors items. The first Mr Lancaster started the business in 1826 and his son went on to become an extremely successful and innovative gunsmith. He’s credited with inventing ‘the oval bore’, and produced large guns for the government that played a part in the Crimean war. When he fell out with the MoD about patents and payment, he ended up working for the Czar in Russia

By the time Carruthers wanders in, Lancaster’s as a shop is already on the way out, but as a brand it was still very much the gun of choice for a certain kind of gentlemen. If you want to buy a classic vintage Lancaster now, you won’t get much change out £15,000. Here’s one that was recently sold at Bonhams (coincidentally situated on New Bond Street).

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This one was owned by the gun writer and archetypal interwar big game hunter and adventurer Elmer Keith. One gets the impression that even by 1903, Lancaster’s was more sought after by Americans than by Brits – perhaps in the same way our translatlantic cousins of today might buy a coat at Burberry or a hamper at Fortnum & Masons on a visit to London.

So where do you go today to get hold of a contemporary ‘Lancaster’s’ shop experience? Well, I’d look no further than the company than ended up taking over Lancaster’s  – Grant & Lang. The company is now Atkin, Grant & Lang and has relocated to Hertfordshire. Ok, so it’s not New Bond Street, but there are still gunsmith workshops there, a shooting range and a rich programme  of events.

agl-shooting-ground-0172-w240For example, only next week the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club ladies are putting on a morning of clay shooting and cake. There’s very little doubt that the modern-day Carruthers and Davies need to visit this place and maybe take a lesson in duck shooting. Perhaps other Adventure Club members would care to join us?

Charles Lancaster Ltd still lives on in spirit, by the way. The limited company is registered to an address in Horsham, and thus associated with a website ostensibly run by a riflesmith called Ronald Wharton. When I tried to contact Ron by email, his wife replied to confirm that her husband and a business partner had indeed acquired the limited company, but very sadly Ron passed away very recently. Not wishing to intrude on Mrs Wharton’s grief, I didn’t pursue the matter much further. Tantalisingly, though, she did happen to mention that a number of Lancaster record books are still in her possession. She writes:

“The books are full of interesting people… Annie Oakley bought several shotguns from Lancasters when she was in London.”

So there it is – Carruthers gets his gun from the same place as Annie got hers. Another musical element to add to our our adventure, that I feel sure Lloyd will enjoy about as much as all those Edwardian musical midi files I’ve been sharing with him.

‘A pound of Raven mixture’

It’s quite a shopping list which Carruthers receives from Davies, a list which in itself is a thumbnail sketch of the single Edwardian gent. Nestled among it is a request for a pound of Raven mixture’, with no further explanation given as to what this curious substance is.

This is one of those moments when you realise that your experience of The Riddle of the Sands from a hundred-year distance is bound to be utterly different to the experience of a contemporary reader – contemporary to the novel itself, that is. From our all-too-knowing vantage point, we see the words ‘Dresden and Berlin’ and we think, with a shudder, of what was about to befall those places; of what horror was going to come between the two brother-nations of Britain and Germany.

On a smaller, less horrible level, what would an Edwardian reader have taken ‘Raven mixture’ to mean? We’d never heard of it, but then Tim had the idea that what Childers was referring to here was Craven mixture, a famous blend of tobacco which, presumably, any contemporary of Childers would have recognised. It was, in other words, a kind of joke.

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Craven was the creation of the Carreras Tobacco Company, a firm which had been founded by a Spanish nobleman, Don José Carreras Ferrer, who had fought alongside the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War (a lot of the information, and the pictures, for this comes from here). The company grew in reputation throughout the 19th century, under the guidance of Don José’s son Don José Joaquin Carreras. One of Carreras’ most distinguished customers was the third Earl of Craven, and Carreras created a special blend just for the Earl, one which quickly became popular across Britain. JM Barrie’s famous essay on smoking – My Lady Nicotine – refers to the ‘Arcadia’ mixture, and some have speculated this is a reference to Craven mixture, as this was known to be Barrie’s preferred tobacco.

One need only put his head in at my door to realize that tobaccoes are of two kinds, the Arcadia and others. No one who smokes the Arcadia would ever attempt to describe its delights, for his pipe would be certain to go out. When he was at school, Jimmy Moggridge smoked a cane chair, and he has since said that from cane to ordinary mixtures was not so noticeable as the change from ordinary mixtures to the Arcadia. I ask no one to believe this, for the confirmed smoker in Arcadia detests arguing with anybody about anything. Were I anxious to prove Jimmy’s statement, I would merely give you the only address at which the Arcadia is to be had. But that I will not do. It would be as rash as proposing a man with whom I am unacquainted for my club. You may not be worthy to smoke the Arcadia Mixture.

So, Craven mixture was famous, and Childers’s Raven mixture seems a fairly obvious bit of paronomasia. But, sadly, you can no longer buy Craven mixture. There is a modern copy of it from McClelland called, with a nod to all this history, Arcadia 221B, which you can buy online. But we didn’t have time for that.

So I made my way to the Segar and Snuff Parlour in the covered market at Covent Garden. Nestled into a corner behind a wooden figure of a Scots guard (with two left feet, I noticed), it’s a glorious little temple to the increasingly lost art of serious smoking. A window full of pipes and arcana, and inside a heady aroma that was reminiscent of the old leather furniture of a gentleman’s club and the smooth wooden surface of a file stock.

Segar and Snuff Parlour

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The manager of the place, Robert Good, listened to my story and though he hadn’t read The Riddle of the Sands, he did know all about Craven mixture, and he informed me that he sold a very close equivalent, called Classic English.

‘What’s in it, then?’ I asked.

‘Virginia,’ he said, and I felt a little disappointed. Pretty common-or-garden stuff, Virginia tobacco. But then he leaned forward. ‘And latakia.’

I asked him to spell it, which he did. And then I asked him what on earth it was.

Latakia tobacco comes, originally, from Syria, and it would have been from there that Childers, Carruthers, Watson and Carreras (not to mention the Earl of Craven) sourced it. In these days of horror in Syria, the leaf comes from Cyprus. It’s mainly used as a condiment ingredient, as it’s potent stuff and can shift the taste of a blend in quite small amounts.

I don’t know the amounts Mr Good mixed it in with the Virginia, but when we tried smoking it (in a pipe secured from Mr Good’s parlour) we were pleasantly surprised by the smooth taste. I’ve seen latakia described as having cool smoking qualities, which fits it very well. The actual tobacco is rich and almost moist, a real revelation to this ex-cigarette smoker who had come to think of tobacco as dry, lifeless and oddly disgusting. Mr Good’s Classic English was nothing of the kind – it was deep brown and red, it had those lovely Edwardian smells, and the smoke it produced didn’t make me cough or retch, despite not having smoked anything for over a decade. It was, in summary, deeply pleasant.

So, I can see why Davies asked for his Raven mixture. With all the excitement to come, he is going to need something smooth, distinguished and cool to keep him relaxed. And, oddly enough, those qualities are all descriptive of Carruthers, too.

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Welcome aboard!

Ahoy! And welcome to The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club.

This is an experiment in reading. Deep reading. Real-world reading. Adventurous reading.

We’re planning to have an adventure by means of a book. The book in question is The Riddle of the Sandsthe first spy novel. It was written in 1903, and it takes place between the dates of September 23 and October 26 in an unspecified year.

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It starts in London, it finishes in Amsterdam, and in between our two heroes, Carruthers and Davies, sail their way from the Baltic to the North Sea, via the Kiel Ship Canal, and uncover an extraordinary plot among the windswept and tide-drenched East Frisian Islands.

A plot they set out to confound, of course.

That’s their adventure. Our adventure is to follow in their footsteps: to visit the same places, in the same timeframe as they did, to try and experience the world through their eyes, to try and make this vivid, extraordinary, riveting book come alive again.

We call it taking a book for a walk. We’d like you to join us.

How? Well, you can read our posts about the first day of the book, September 23rd. They cover a pretty wide swathe – a shooting lodge with extraordinary similarities to James Bond’s childhood home, a visit to the music halls of the Ratcliffe Highway, a search for galvanized rigging screws, even a glimpse inside a gentleman’s club.

Or you could listen to our first weekly podcast, in which we talk about some of these matters, and chat to London’s last ship chandler about his extraordinary shop. Or read our article about it.

And when you’ve done all that, you could join our adventure club, and get updates about new discoveries, and, in six months from now, experience our adventure as we experience it.

As Davies says, in his letter to Carruthers that kicks this whole thing off:

Forgive this hail of directions, but I’ve a sort of feeling that I’m in luck and that you’ll come.

Will you? Adventures are thin on the ground these days. How about joining us in ours?

Welcome aboard!

Carruthers (aka Tim Wright)

Davies (aka Lloyd Shepherd)

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The last ship chandler in London

In the opening chapter of The Riddle of the Sands, Carruthers is shaken from his bored torpor by a letter and a sort-of shopping list. (See September 23):

Bring your gun and a good lot of No. 4’s; and would you mind calling at Lancaster’s and asking for mine, and bringing it too? Bring some oilskins. Better get the eleven-shilling sort, jacket and trousers–not the ‘yachting’ brand; and if you paint bring your gear….

Would you mind bringing me out a prismatic compass, and a pound of Raven Mixture.

Very sorry, but there’s one other thing–a pair of rigging screws from Carey and Neilson’s, size 1 3/8, galvanized.’

That’s not the end of it, either. Carruthers replies by telegram to accept Davies’s offer, and he receives a telegram in reply with an additional item to be acquired: ‘Please bring a No. 3 Rippingille stove.’

The challenge was set. If we wanted to follow in Carruthers’s footsteps, we’d need to hunt down the same list of items. But where can you go shopping for galvinzed rigging screws in London these days?

Our first discovery: the name Carey & Neilson’s seems to be made up, though Carruthers says it is in the Minories, a street in the City of London that runs down to the Tower. There was indeed once a ship chandler there, called J.D. Potter, but it’s now a fast-food restaurant.

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There was also a Nautical Academy in these parts run by Mrs Janet Taylor in the mid-19th century, but after a refreshing cup of tea at Temples we decide not to get distracted by the idea of  a woman running a nautical academy (for now) and stay on mission.

Soon enough it becomes clear to us that ship chandlers are actually a bit of a rarity in London in these days of online shopping. Truth be told, there’s only one remaining dedicated truly nautical chandler left within London. It’s Arthur Beale, on Shaftesbury Avenue at the end of Neal Street.

The shop is 400 years old, and these days its neighbours include The Astrology Shop and Forbidden Planet, two institutions which superstitious sea travellers might have found evocative.

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It seems an odd place to find a ship chandler. The place moved here more than a century ago – before that, it was on the banks of the Fleet River, which these days runs underground, following the line of Farringdon Road. Tim, who makes hidden rivers his business, points out that there is even a tributary of the Fleet which trickled into Bloomsbury, as if following Arthur Beale out towards the West End.

Inside, Arthur Beale is a shrine to the resourceful independence of the sailor. Strange tools with exotic uses are pinned next to gorgeous steel and brass fittings, of a standard of craftsmanship you won’t find in your local DIY shed out on the ring road. You can, in here, imagine that Britain still makes the best ironmongery in the world, though Alasdair Flint, the shop’s proprietor, says that half the stuff they see is not of sufficient quality to stock. I don’t have the heart to ask where it’s all made, fearing the answer is China and not Birmingham.

Alasdair and his partner Gerry Jeatt bought Arthur Beale in April 2014 when the place was on its metaphorical knees. There’s a good deal of Arthur Davies in Alasdair Flint. He’s sailed to Spitsbergen in his 28-foot boat (smaller than the Dulcibella) -a distance of ‘one and a half thousand miles’, as Alasdair puts it, as if a thousand miles was an everyday unit of measurement like an inch or a yard. He has escaped a polar bear in an Arctic fjord. He has climbed into the world’s most northerly volcano. The thing that I like most of all is that he sets off for his nautical adventures from a mooring in Deptford. I can imagine Davies doing much the same.

We present Alasdair with the shopping list Carruthers receives from Davies. He knows of the Rippingille stove, but like us wonders if it would be possible for one man to carry such a monster all the way to Schleswig-Holstein. And he’s puzzled by the size of the 1 3/8 galvanised rigging screws. Is this a 1 3/8 thread – which would be gigantic – or a screw for a rope of 1 3/8 circumference? Thus we learn, indirectly, that rope can be sold by circumference. Alasdair promises he will get back to us.

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Alasdair takes us upstairs to the study, which has an old Shannon filing cabinet at one end and a huge Stormoguide barometer at the other, perched on top of a display case of ropes from ‘Buckingham Bros., Manufacturers of Ropes, Lines, Tarpawlings, Sacks &c’.

Alasdair shows us Shackleton’s signature on an order for ropes, and the invoice for equipment for an attempt on Everest. These little slips of paper are businesslike and unemotional, signed in pencil with appended messages such as ‘please ensure delivery by Thursday week.’

Alongside these relics of Britain’s adventuring past are oddly sad artefacts from a retail world now vanished – an old fax machine which Tim can remember writing about for a magazine in the 1980s, a credit card swiper with the forgotten name of Midland Bank, a drawer stuffed with instruction manuals for dot matrix printers and answer machines.

We leave without buying anything regret it immediately. We should, at least, have come away with a bolt or a hook or a chart, or even oilskins, which we could have sported on our walk down Kingsway to the river, to sniff the salt of the Thames.

It’s not the Arctic, and there are no polar bears, but every adventure needs a beginning, and ours starts here.

Ahoy! – The Riddle of the Sands Pilot Podcast

What better way to celebrate the launch of the The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club than with our first pilot podcast.

In it you’ll hear us – Lloyd and Tim – discuss what we’re up to with this adventure, how you can join in and why The Riddle of the Sands is such a great and inspirational book.

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We focus on the events of the first day in the novel – 23rd September – when a bored Carruthers receives the letter from Davies that triggers the whole adventure. Lloyd talks us through the ‘low music halls’ that Carruthers might have frequented in East London. Tim explains the joys of taking a book on an adventure out into the wilds  (as he’s done previously with R L Stevenson’s Kidnapped) – and the two adventurers together track down the last nautical chandlers in London in search of oilskins, a stove and galvanized rigging screws of a peculiar size.

Call for assistance: Stoves, screws, guns, tobacco and people called Nesta

Here’s a few things we’re hoping to talk about in our second podcast. If you think you can help us, do get in touch – we’d love to talk to you.

  • The Rippingille No 3. We’ve found a few photos of the stove Davies asks for on the web, but we’re particularly interested to talk to someone who’s actually seen one and tried to pick it up. Our main concern is that it looks ruddy heavy – not the kind of thing that Carruthers could take with him in his luggage when he sets off for Flensburg. Do you know how much a Rippingille stove weighed?
  • Galvanised rigging screws. There’s a slight conundrum about the sizing of rigging screws. A screw with a diameter of 1 and 3/8-inches would be huge. Alasdair at Arthur Beale thinks it might refer to the circumference of the rope that passed through the screw. Anyone out there know about the sizing of rigging screws?

    Craven’s Mixture
  • Raven mixture. Davies asks Carruthers to bring out some pipe tobacco. We can’t find any real-life reference to Raven mixture, but we are aware of a very popular brand of the day called Cravens Mixture. Anyone out there got any of this, and want to smoke it with us?
  • Lancaster’s gunshop. there’s no point heading off on a spying adventure without a gun – but where can you find Lancaster’s gunshop these day? Was it a real place? Anyone own a genuine Lancaster gun that we can talk to you about?
  • Cousin Nesta. Nesta writes to Carruthers to taunt him slightly about missing out on the shooting party. We’ve never met anyone called Nesta – and would like to. Get in touch, all you Nestas out there.

‘I was missed at Morven Lodge party’

The fateful letter that Carruthers receives from Davies at the beginning of the book might have been missed entirely, had Carruthers had been off doing what a truly fashionable young man of the era would have doing in September – staying in for a posh country house to shoot game.

The fashion for taking pot shots at pheasant, grouse, snipe, ptarmigan and the rest came right from the top. Edward VII was a keen shooter. It’s reported that on a single day, he and nine other men killed 1300 birds.

Edward VII loved a good shooting party

 

The Edwardian shooting party was rich in rules and rituals as this short extract from .”Manners and Rules of Good Society: or, Solecisms to be Avoided by Member of the Aristocracy” (1888) shows:

“On these off days in September the hostess often gives a garden-party, or takes her guests to one given by a neighbour at some few miles distant, or she holds a stall at a bazaar and persuades her guests to assist her in disposing of her stock, or she induces her party to accompany her to some flower-show in which she takes a local interest; or the host and one or two of the best shots start early after breakfast to shoot with a neighbour, and the remainder of the guests drive over to a picturesque ruin, where they picnic, and return home in time for the eight o’clock dinner.”

A fuller extract can be found here: http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/sport/the-etiquette-of-the-shooting-party/

The party that Carruthers misses out on is called the Morven Lodge party – and, curiously, it’s not a made up place. In 1900, Morven Lodge was at the centre of a very grand country estate in Scotland owned by the marmalade millionaires, the Keiller family. The Keillers actually referred to the place as the ‘Shooting Box’.

Morven Lodge

There is still a fairly luxurious country retreat in situ now called Craigendarroch, but the old Lodge was left to fall into ruin. If you fancy a decent day’s hike, you can still get out there and get a feel for what it might have been like. Here’s a brief guide and some nice pics by some intrepid walkers: http://jcmurray.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/morven-lodge-by-glenfenzie.html

Skyfall

Notice, by the way, how reminiscent this old lodge is of Skyfall – the family home of another classic character from a British spy novel , James Bond. You have to assume this is complete coincidence. It’s nice, nevertheless, to think of Carruthers and Bond sharing a taste for Highland blood sports.

‘A low music-hall in Ratcliffe Highway’

Carruthers has become so bored by London that, some time before September 23, he takes a nocturnal trip to an awful place:

A passing thirst, which I dare say many have shared, for adventures of the fascinating kind described in the New Arabian Nights led me on a few evenings into some shady haunts in Soho and farther eastward; but was finally quenched one sultry Saturday night after an hour’s immersion in the reeking atmosphere of a low music-hall in Ratcliffe Highway, where I sat next a portly female who suffered from the heat, and at frequent intervals refreshed herself and an infant from a bottle of tepid stout.

I fixated on the words ‘Ratcliffe Highway’ when I reread the novel, as this place seems to follow me around. I wrote my first novel, The English Monster, about the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, mainly because I was fascinated with the reputation of this ribbon of street which we now call ‘the Highway’, as if by removing the word Ratcliffe we could rid it of its fearsome reputation. Ratcliffe itself is still there, but it’s an almost forgotten neighbourhood between Shadwell and Limehouse, so much that the best way I can describe its location to you is to put it ‘at the north end of the Rotherhithe Tunnel.’

ratcliffe_highwayIn 1903, the street had recently been named ‘St George’s Street East’ in an earlier attempt to change its dirty reputation. But the fact that Childers calls it ‘Ratcliffe Highway’, not ‘the Ratcliffe Highway’, shows the futility of this effort. The name had become synonymous with the neighbourhood, not the street, and the neighbourhood was not a pleasant one. Here’s Donald Shaw describing his memory of it in the 1860s, though he wrote this in 1908:

The Ratcliff Highway, now St. George’s Street East, alongside the Docks, was a place where crime stalked unmolested, and to thread its deadly length was a foolhardy act that might quail the stoutest heart.

Every square yard was occupied by motley groups; drunken sailors of every nationality in long sea-boots, and deadly knives at every girdle; drunken women with bloated faces, caressing their unsavoury admirers, and here and there constables in pairs by way of moral effect, but powerless – as they well know – if outrage and free fights commenced in real earnest. Behind these outworks of lawlessness were dens of infamy beyond the power of description – sing-song caves and dancing-booths, wine bars and opium dens, where all day and all night Chinamen might be seen in every degree of insensibility from the noxious fumes.

The fact that Carruthers visits this place (after some shady nocturnes in Soho) shows, I think, the extent of his boredom. It’s almost a descent into Hell, and it will be for Davies to offer him a path back up to redemption.

As to which music hall Carruthers visits, it’s almost impossible to say, as there were so very many of them in the neighbourhood of the Highway at this time. Most were pubs with a separate music hall licence; these places would open a room at the back and call it a ‘music hall’, and they came and they went every few years. There were a few Variety Theatres – big, standalone places for music hall entertainment – the most notable of which, to us, is probably Wilton’s, which still stands on Wellclose Square. There is an extraordinary list of all these London theatres at arthurlloyd.co.uk, which is well worth a browse.

So, where did Carruthers go? Well, there are so many possibilities that I have chosen to be fanciful. One of those pubs with a music hall licence was The Jolly Sailor, which was at 182 St George’s Street but is no longer there. In fact, according to pubhistory.com, the last licensee for the Jolly Sailor was listed in 1901 – more grist to the mill for Tim’s theory that the action of Riddle of the Sands takes place in 1898, not 1903, the year in which it was written.

So, why the Jolly Sailor? First, it had a music hall licence about this time. Second, it is actually on Ratcliffe Highway; all the other candidates are in the surrounding streets. Third, and most fancifully, it was upstairs at the Jolly Sailor that the coroner’s inquest into the Ratcliffe Highway murders was held in 1811.

And those are the kind of circular links we cannot resist.

 

‘A pair of rigging screws from Carey and Neilson’s’

Carey and Neilson’s is, we think, an invention of Childers’s. There was until fairly recently a chandler in the Minories – the location Childers gives for Carey and Neilson’s. It was called Potter’s, and it stood there for a hundred years before being taken over, in the 1980s, by Kelvin Hughes. The shop was finally closed for good in 2002.

Potter’s was not really a fully-fledged chandler – it was more of a supplier of charts. But the Minories, the street on which it stood, had a long association with nautical matters. Mrs Janet Taylor’s Nautical Academy opened at number 103 in 1851, and “was much patronised by officers of the Royal Navy and the East India Company”. Mrs Taylor was known as an accomplished astronomer. She published her own stellar and lunar tables, and in the year she opened her academy she exhibited a sextant at the Great Exhibition.

Today, there is only one dedicated ship chandler in the whole of London: Arthur Beale, of Shaftesbury Avenue. We visited the place and chatted with its owner; you can read more about it here.

‘The club was a strange one’

Carruthers talks of having chambers in Pall Mall and dining at a club nearby. His club, however, is closed for the summer.

For the purposes of Adventure Club, we’ve decided that the club is probably the Travellers. According to its own website, the Club was founded, in 1819, ‘for gentlemen who had travelled out of the British Isles to a distance of at least five hundred miles from London in a direct line’. Membership was extended to foreign visitors and diplomats posted to London.

The club was originally envisaged by Lord Castelreagh as a place where gentlemen who had travelled during the years of the Napoleonic Wars – which ended with Waterloo, four years before the opening of the club – might meet and share their intelligence of the world among themselves and with distinguished foreign visitors. The club’s device shows the head of Ulysses, the great Green traveller and strategist of the Trojan war.

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The club’s original location was 12 Waterloo Place but its popularity was such that it soon outgrew the space. It moved initially to 49 Pall Mall, but in 1826 money was raised to lease part of the grounds of Carlton House and Charles Barry, who later designed the Reform Club next door and the Houses of Parliament, was appointed as architect. His building is now at 106 Pall Mall.

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