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London attracts US visitors, hosts rich American history

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

London attracts many thousands of visitors from the United States every year. Like other tourists from all over the world they stand in their droves in front of all the famous attractions, taking pictures of Big Ben, the Tower of London and Parliament. They wait for Tower Bridge to rise and for the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Perhaps then they go on to one of London's several other royal palaces that also attract crowds too. There is Clarence House, once home to the late Queen Mother, Kensington Palace where Princess Diana lived and St. James' Palace.

It's this latter place I am concerned with. I wonder how many of your fellow countrymen, standing, taking pictures and recording videos of the entrance to the palace have thought to look back over their shoulder to see a unique piece of American history?

If they did they would see an ordinary inner London Street with many tall grey buildings, stores, heavy traffic and a dearth of parking places. One or two of the buildings do stand out from the almost uniform concrete grayness. Close at hand on the right is a three storey building made of dark brown brick with a long, black painted storefront.

The sign above the windows announces in gold paint that this is number three, St. James Street, the home of Berry Brothers and Rudd, wine merchants. This establishment is in itself famous for being in business for nearly four hundred years and for being at the same place for the last three hundred. Connoisseurs of Scotch may even recognize the name as belonging to the creators and makers of Cutty Sark whiskey.

Worthy of note as this store is, the discerning traveler will walk to the end of the property where he will find a dark, arched alleyway barely wide enough to permit two people to stand side by side. This is Pickering Place and it holds a building virtually unique in the world. At one time the premises were used as a brothel and gambling den but the wine merchants soon found better tenants. Attached to the brickwork on the right, just inside the alleyway is a brass plate which gives away its secret. It reads "Texas Legation. In this building was the legation for the ministers from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St James 1842-1845"

This is one of only three embassies opened by the Republic of Texas between its independence from Mexico and its absorption into the United States. That independence of course was gained in 1836 after the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto. Fearful that Mexico would build up its forces after its defeat and then try to get its lost territory back, the fledgling government of Texas began to look around for international support. France was only too happy to oblige in September 1839 and Britain recognized the republic shortly afterwards.

Texas replied by opening legations in London and in Paris, partly for the reason just mentioned and perhaps to also nudge the United States government who they knew would be concerned that the European nations could send troops to an independent Texas, adjacent to the U.S. southern border.

This was not such a wild idea. In 1845, when Texas started to negotiate to join the United States, Britain wanted the republic to maintain its independence and made an offer to help maintain the integrity of its borders with both Mexico and the United States. The offer was not taken up however and when Texas joined the Union the embassies in both London and Paris were shut down.

The Ambassador appointed to London by Sam Houston was Dr. Ashbel Smith, who was a medical doctor who served as the Texas Republic's last Secretary of State. Despite his high office it appears that Doctor Smith may have been forgetful and left owing Berry Brothers and Rudd $160.00.

This sum was finally repaid in 1986, on the 150th anniversary of Texas independence when twenty-five Texans, dressed as frontiersmen, entered the wine shop and presented them with the exact amount in Republic of Texas notes.

I'm not sure if the bills were paid at the Paris embassy but today the building which once housed it is a tourist hotel called the Hotel de Vendome. It can be found at # 1, Place Vendôme in Paris. Outside is an engraved stone marker that denotes its former use as an embassy.

If any of you do happen to visit London and decide to take a look at the Texas Legation you might like to continue the experience and get a small taste of home. Near Trafalgar Square is a restaurant called the "Texas Embassy Cantina" that serves Tex-Mex food . Interestingly, by eating there you will be enjoying another little piece of history because the building where the restaurant is situated was once the headquarters of the White Star Line and it was from here that the loss of the Titanic was announced.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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