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Strange and Unusual: Interview with London Peculiar’s Julia Forte

16 January 2012 Emma Wright

“I think, particularly living in London, we are surrounded by so much fascinating history it becomes engrained in our lives without us even being truly aware of it... I think Londoners and people who have chosen to live in London are curious folk and from my experience seem to really enjoy knowing a bit more about our city, its oldness and its peculiarities.”

London Peculiar’s Julia Forte has hunted far and wide for London’s most interesting, original and curious paraphernalia. For sale via her website and from her framing workshop in Soho, are original historical prints, maps, posters, design icons, books and curios- all created in or connected to London. She has also recently launched London’s first map of peculiarities for those brave enough to venture beyond the beaten tourist track.


London Calling: Julia; tell us about London Peculiar and how it all began.
Julia Forte: London Peculiar is a shop which sells unusual old London things. About 6 years ago I became fascinated with London maps, which led to a love for all things London, early underground maps, gin bottles- anything. Hunting high and low for them I realised there was no one place to go for London stuff. One thing led to another and London Peculiar was born. Finally you can go somewhere and buy a piece of London history. Whether it be underground maps from the early 1900s, old gin bottles, or a gunpowder flask from the 1800s everything we have is original and a little peculiar.


LC: What is involved in the daily running of LP?
JF: Hunting for things takes up a lot of my time. Once I find something it obviously needs to be verified, logged, and listed on the site with details and images, which can take a long time. I research each item online and it’s very easy to get distracted by other things I may come across. I may also deliberate for a very long time about whether I want to part from it or keep it. It can be difficult to choose sometimes.


LC: What are the challenges you face and what is most rewarding about running London Peculiar?
JF: It’s quite challenging dating some items. I may find something  which has no provenance and learning about how to tell the age of paper has come in very handy and something I never thought I’d understand. I’m not an historian, I just love old stuff... so becoming a bit of an anorak about old things came as a surprise to me, which tells me anyone can learn and enjoy these things!

I am very aware of scrutiny by historians. Getting all the details right about something that may be three or four hundred years old can be a bit scary. Sometimes I stumble across a gem of an item, (most recent is the Old Bailey Chronicles from the 1700s) or writing on a piece of paper which is tucked in an old book from a couple of hundred years ago, which can be very exciting. Most rewarding is handling things that have been handled, owned or cherished by Londoners from the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries.


LC: Could you describe your most peculiar finds to us?
JF: I came by an Execution Broadside a few years ago from 1827, certainly not the oldest thing in our collection but quite rare to buy. The Victorians witnessed many executions and it was a macabre source of entertainment. During the 1800s thousands of people would turn up for the execution of notorious criminals. Broadsides were printed and posted around town describing the life, trial, execution and dying behaviour of the people executed at Newgate. This poster, I think, is a fascinating if peculiar relic from a time when members of the public seemingly enjoyed watching other people’s execution.

Since finding that little gem I have found a number of strange items relating to executions. Books such as the Newgate calendar and the Old Bailey Chronicles from the 1700s were published detailing the most notorious criminals and their executions, including illustrations of either the murder or the execution itself. Ducking, the stocks, burning at the stake, they are all here and quite gruesome. I didn’t know until reading these books that people would die from being in the stocks! One article reads; ’The crowd threw potatoes, turnips and cabbages and within half an hour the criminal was dead.’ How shocking! These books were intended as a deterrent to other budding criminals.


LC: What keeps you busy other than hunting the peculiar?
JF: Researching my new map is keeping me pretty busy. I also have a Thames foreshore license. I’ve found some amazing coins, tokens and clay pipes from the 1600s on the Thames foreshore. It’s very addictive. And for my sins I run a bar in Soho, I guess you’d call it my day job (although it’s at night!).


LC: Why do you think we’re all so interested in the peculiar?
JF: I think, particularly living in London, we are surrounded by so much fascinating history it becomes ingrained in our lives without us even being truly aware of it. A lot of it is quite peculiar too. I think Londoners and people who have chosen to live in London are curious folk and from my experience seem to really enjoy knowing a bit more about our city, its oldness and it peculiarities.


LC: Do you have any advice for fellow peculiarity hunters?
JF: I would always say try and get provenance for anything you buy. Paper things are very easy to fake and there are a lot of reproductions out there. If you can afford to buy original items, they will always be better and of course more valuable in the long run, you also have the comfort of knowing you have the real thing. We bought some Baldwin’s herbal posters some time ago and knowing we have the original 1800s posters which people copy for postcards is very satisfying.


LC: What are you working on next?
JF: After completing my very first map (of London peculiars) I am now working on my next. Researching it is taking a very long time and it takes on an organic life of its own and doesn’t let you stop... things just pop up that you didn’t know about and you have to add them, so I have to learn to call a halt and let it be printed. I hope it will be completed soon.


If this has whetted your appetite, you could do far worse than venture forth and visit the official London Peculiar website and store here.

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