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Stephen Selby, Antiquarian

May 5, 2011
by the gentle author

Stephen Selby lives in a wonderfully rambling flat above Broadway Market which – as he will be sure to inform you – was once an ancient trackway continuing down through Columbia Rd and cutting a swathe across the grid of more recent East End streets. And where it crosses the Hackney Rd – he will add – was the Nag’s Head, a coaching inn that was the haunt of Dick Turpin, the notorious highwayman. Thus, from the moment you begin a conversation with Stephen, you are swept up into his beguiling vision of London that romances the familiar city to become an undiscovered landscape of myth and legend. And some of the stories he has to tell – especially of the founding of London as New Troy by Aeneas’ grandson Brutus three thousand years ago – are quite mind-boggling.

Chain-smoking, sporting snazzy red braces, surrounded by old maps, classical texts, pale brocade sofas, bottles of malt whisky and half-eaten packets of cream crackers, sits the debonair and courteous Stephen Selby – who worked in advertising in New York in the sixties and today is Chairman of the Broadway Market Traders’ Association – who recently unravelled the story of the Hackney hoard – and who now devotes himself to reading the ancient historians in their original Latin and Greek as part of his ongoing investigation into the lost prehistory of London. “I was looking for prehistoric London, so I looked up ‘Prehistoric London’ as a matter  of course and I came across Elizabeth Gordon’s 1914 book ‘Prehistoric London, Its Mounds & Circles’,” admitted Stephen, and such is his passion for what this book has to say that he would only give me an interview once I had read it.

“What amazed me was the wide picture of our prehistory that exists and has been around for centuries, yet for the last three hundred and fifty years much of these legends were eradicated,” he told me, with emphatic enthusiasm,  showing me – as illustration – a map of London dated 1582 with the inscription, “This ancient and famous City of London was founded by Brutus the Trojan.” Stephen is disappointed that since the foundation of the Royal Society, modern historians set themselves apart from legend and myth though an insistence upon verifiable fact, thereby denying the possibility that legend might contain a version of historical truth which has its own validity. Yet to Stephen’s delight, Elizabeth Gordon worked in the opposite direction, making sense of legend as history and it has inspired him to continue her work a century later.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century, created the most widely read account of how, after the Greeks burnt Troy, Brutus rounded up dispossessed Trojans and led them to Britain – the country to which he gave his name – where he founded London as New Troy upon a marshy river valley which resembled Troy. Stephen has been seeking surviving evidence of Brutus and his dynasty that might confirm the veracity of the story. His first discovery was the etymology of Watling St which he believes derives from the Latin “Vates” meaning priest (as in “Vatican”), and his second discovery was that, like Troy, the ancient landscape of London was once scattered with mounds, erased by the modern city yet recorded upon old maps. Holywell Mound (at the junction of Curtain Rd and Great Eastern St) and Whitechapel Mound (upon the current site of the Royal London Hospital) were two in the East End, both of enigmatic origin and both removed in the eighteenth century.

According to Elizabeth Gordon, four mounds in London were of special significance to King Brutus -“Upon the two natural eminences of the Llandin and the Penton, the eyes of Brutus must have rested when he made the choice of his capital, while the two smaller artificial mounds of the White Mound and Tothill may have been erected by the Trojan King as trade increased under his rule.” Llandin (from which London took its name) that we know as Parliament Hill, was the centre of political activity, Penton (at Pentonville) was the centre of worship and observation of the stars, the White Mound (where the Tower of London now stands) was the place of royal burial and Tothill (located at Westminster) was a religious sanctuary. Elizabeth Gordon also tells us that Brutus’ descendant Molmutius laid out the roads, a task completed by his son Bellinus (who gave his name to Billingsgate Market) – especially fascinating to Stephen, eager to suggest that the straight roads usually credited to the Romans might be of greater age, and the mounds could have been instrumental in laying out their courses.

Stephen delights to draw upon old maps, extending straight trackways and linking the mysterious mounds to create a web of connecting coloured lines that hint at a greater scheme without revealing its significance, teasing and fascinating him equally. “The mystery of history,” as he terms it, his eyes misting just a little in captivated amusement as he takes a contemplative puff upon yet another of his Pall Mall cigarettes.

Down below, hipsters were perched like crows in a line sipping coffees in Broadway Market, whilst secluded up above in his Georgian green study Stephen Selby, the antiquarian and classical scholar, was reading Herodotus in Greek, consulting his Homeric dictionary and dreaming of an epic ancient world, as on a page of his old schoolboy atlas he traced the line that the Scythians travelled in their exodus from China across Asia to settle in Scotland – a journey evidenced, he assured me, by the tartan clad mummies of Urumchi in Xinjiang.

What is the significance of the Spitalfields Triangle? A perfect equilateral triangle links the sites of the former Whitechapel Mount and Holywell Mount, and St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London, shown here on John Roque’s map of 1746. (Click to enlarge)

Mount Terrace in Whitechapel is the only visible evidence today of the ancient mound that once stood here before the Royal London Hospital was built in the eighteenth century.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. May 5, 2011

    You two have become inteernational treasures. With great civility and charm you both delight your grateful reader.

  2. Herry Lawford permalink
    May 5, 2011

    Always fascinating; this even more so!

  3. Anne permalink
    May 5, 2011

    Vates has the same origin as Wotan, and wednesday.


  4. May 5, 2011

    Incredible, fascinating stuff. Has Stephen written up his research and theories? I would love to read more. (Although, I confess, I’m rather sceptical of the triangle’s significance. You could no doubt find hundreds of similar relationships around the city.)

  5. CornishCockney permalink
    May 5, 2011

    Fascinating! Just becasue Roman history is pretty much the earliest surviving written record of the area, doesn’t mean it’s the start of London, or is indeed a correct account! I’d love to learn more on this subject.

  6. September 19, 2011

    Well I never, such fascinating theories hopefully they can be backed up with true facts

  7. Paul permalink
    April 1, 2015

    “modern historians set themselves apart from legend and myth though an insistence upon verifiable fact”
    Ah, yes. Those inconvenient facts. There you are, speculating about lines on an old map whilst halfway down your second bottle of red when someone punctures your argument with a fact. Like Pytheas of Massalia writing about ‘Nesoi Brettaniai’ two hundred and fifty years before the birth of Brutus.
    Stephen’s a lovely old card and a lush, but I always wondered if he was actually just getting a rise out of being a contrarian. Once told me climate change wasn’t happening and all those scientists were wrong and He, scotch in one hand fag in the other, knew differently.

  8. John Rowe permalink
    April 26, 2016

    Not just “modern historians” Gerald of Wales, William of Newburgh, and Polydore Virgil to give a few examples thought Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing a load of crap with his idea of Brutus founding Britain and then London.

  9. John Rowe permalink
    May 19, 2016

    On thinking about Geoffrey of Monmouth I don’t think he was writing history as we know it but providing a manual for good kingship in difficult times and legitimising the Empress Matilda as sovereign, the whole wrapped up in a story designed to appeal to the Anglo-Normans.

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