Walk down any street in London circa 1870 and a man without a beard would have been the rare exception. The capital, and the nation, was gripped by a beard obsession, as Victorian males aped the soldiers returning from the Crimean War, the first generation permitted to wear whiskers by the British Army.
Prior to the outbreak of war with Russia, a full face of hair was strictly prohibited for military men, but the freezing temperatures on the Crimean peninsula necessitated a change of heart. To stave off the chill, soldiers at Sevastopol and Balaclava started cultivating beards, and the Great British public followed with gusto.
Plus ça change. Leap forward 150 years and the streets of the capital are once again awash with beards: the essential street accessory for the male half of the millennium generation. So in these pogonophilic times, it seems timely to remember the great London beards of the past, as sported by its greatest writers, scientists and thinkers.
If grandfatherly beards are your thing, it’s hard to improve on the snow-white stunner cultivated by father of evolution, Charles Darwin. The renowned evolutionary scientist was actually beardless in earlier life, including during his famous voyage on HMS Beagle, and only sprouted whiskers in 1866, reportedly to diminish the effects of eczema.
Nevertheless, this explosion of facial hair coincided with the rise of popular photography, and that famous portrait of an elderly Darwin peering sternly over a thick hedge of white beard became the definitive image of the great Victorian. Today, he proudly leads the honour roll of great London beards.
This is how you’ll see Darwin represented in gleaming white marble on the imposing stairway at the end of Hintze Hall in the Natural History Museum. The 2.2 tonne sculpture by Sir Joseph Boehm was unveiled in 1885, but it hopscotched around the museum before being returned to its original location in 2008.
While you are here, you can spot many specimens personally collected by Darwin dotted around the museum, particularly in the ornithology gallery and the hi-tech Darwin Centre, accessible on behind-the-scenes tours.
Few beards have gripped the sporting world quite like the bushy bristles of WG Grace, cricket legend and Victorian extraordinaire. The great amateur cricketer – amateur, only in the sense of not being employed to play cricket full-time – clocked up an impressive 44 seasons of first-class cricket, scoring the first ever test century, and lining his pockets handsomely in the process. He was also a famous grandstander, marching out ahead of the teams he captained, like a Roman general, to open the innings.
Grace was born near Bristol and lived much of his life in Gloucestershire, but he spent his final decades in a now-demolished house on Lawrie Rd in Sydenham, earning him a place on the roll call of London beards. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of ways to connect with the legendary cricketer in the capital.
Drop into the National Portrait Gallery to see Grace immortalised in paint, sepia print and lithography, or check out the trophies and portraits at the Kia Oval, where the cricketing hero played the first test match on British soil in 1880. Finish off with a pint at The Champion in Fitzrovia, below a stained glass portrait of Grace at the wicket.
Thanks to the iconic portrait photos taken by photographer George Gardner Rockwood during Charles Dickens’ 1867-68 tour of America, the great Victorian writer is forever associated with the ‘doorknocker beard’ – a theatrical creation, based on the classic goatee but splayed into a disorderly straggle at the chin. Dickens began his experimentation with facial hair two decades earlier on a separate tour of the states, but it was the 67-68 expedition that marked out the writer as one of the iconic London beards.
London overflows with Dickens locations, so start the tour at the Dickens Museum, set in the writer’s former home at 48 Doughty St in Bloomsbury, lovingly maintained in much the same condition as when Dickens lived here in the late 1830s. In these elegant Victorian rooms, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick Papers.
A short hop east, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was a location for much of the legal wrangling in Bleak House. On the north side of the quadrangle is glorious Sir John Soane’s Museum, with no direct Dickens collection, but an eclectic hoard of salvaged architectural trimmings, amassed by another great 19th-century Londoner, Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England. Just south on Fleet Street, the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese pub was a popular drinking spot for Dickens, and he alluded to it in A Tale of Two Cities.
The world’s most famous revolutionary was born in Germany, and fired up with reformist zeal in Paris, Brussels and Cologne, but Karl Marx wrote some of his most famous works in London, where he also nurtured one of the world’s most famous beards. Much aped by lecturers in politics and social theory today, Marx’s signature beard and moustaches appear in all 15 surviving photographs of the father of socialism.
Marx died in 1883 – just a year after Charles Darwin – and was buried in the eastern part of Highgate Cemetery, a short hop from Hampstead Heath. The influential reformer was originally interred rather modestly, in the same grave as his wife – something he would no doubt have approved of. But in 1956, Marx was reburied beneath a huge stone bust by socialist sculptor Laurence Bradshaw, paid for by the Communist Party.
In these divided times, with Parliament gridlocked between warring Brexit parties, there would probably be quite a lot of sympathy if a modern-day Guy Fawkes rolled gunpowder into the basement to bring the whole edifice crashing down. Indeed, Guy Fawkes’ face and signature beard can be seen widely in central London thanks to the masks worn by anti-establishment protestors – inspired by the illustrations in David Lloyd and Alan Moore’s cult graphic novel, V for Vendetta.
Sadly, the House of Lords that Guy Fawkes tried unsuccessfully to destroy in 1605 is no longer there. The Palace of Westminster was ravaged by fire in 1834, and replaced in 1840 with the Gothic Revival structure depicted on a million sauce bottles and tourist postcards. But it’s still worth a visit to the Houses of Parliament to soak up the theatrical pomp and ceremony that still unpins much of British democracy.
Guy Fawkes was executed just yards from the building that he tried to raze in Old Palace Yard, the open area dividing the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Abbey. Contrary to popular legend, however, the leader of the gunpowder plot escaped being hung, drawn and quartered by jumping from the steps to the scaffold and breaking his neck. His lifeless corpse was later torn apart as a warning to other would-be conspirators.
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