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Randy Voo

A few weeks ago I posted a piece called Original Skin during which I bemoaned the area around the Houses of Parliament, mainly due to the tourists that congregate around there. Having just returned from a visit to Norway, I found myself doing all the things that so infuriated me in Westminster. "Oh, there's a statue of some bloke, I'll just take a quick snap for the collection. Not particularly bothered who he is, but there's a seagull sitting on his head LOL!"

So, while digesting my slice of humble pie I revisited the area in which I slightly mocked the hordes that congregate around the red phone boxes on the side of Parliament Square, a Mecca for snap happy visitors who can incorporate the iconic kiosk with a view of Parliament. The reason for this is because when I was on my travels, I started to re-read a book of Victorian Slang and came across the term that I've used in the title of this piece.

Before I shed light on it's meaning I need to do the set up. The area in the picture above borders Parliament Square. In this aerial view the red dot marks the position of the second phone box you can see in the street scene. The building in the aerial view with the large rotunda at it's centre houses the Treasury Building and also Revenue and Customs, today it goes by the name of GOGGS (Government Offices Great George Street). It was designed by the Scottish Architect John Brydon following a competition in 1898; the design was derived from Inigo Jones’ earlier design for a new Whitehall Palace. Before work started, the area looked rather different, as shown in the map below, the red dot denoting today's site of the phone box again.

As you can see King Street was obliterated by the new building and totally dissapeared, and with it the area known as Randy Voo.

This strangely named area had at it's epicentre the pub highlighted on the map, the Mitre & Dove, pictured here on the right just before demolition.

In the 1870s when a large percentage of the world map was still coloured pink to denote the Empire, the British Army numbered just under 100,000 men. It is well documented that the life of the humble soldier at this time was no picnic and many who had taken the Queen's shilling found life so hard that they deserted. In 1876 alone the Army recorded nearly 8,000 deserters, a staggering 8.5% of it's total strength. The Army obviously had a problem here, and at these rates their standing force would have rapidly become depleted to a level that was unable to police the Empire.

The result was that the focus was put onto recruitment to try and bridge the gap. The number of Recruiting Sergeants was increased, as was the monetary incentive paid to them for each recruit. For each successfully recruited man, the Sergeant would earn himself one Guinea (one pound and one shilling). At the time the average annual income was around £40, so the Sergeants were on to quiet a good thing if they could average a new recruit every week. However, the lure of even greater rewards drove them on to bend the rules.

In the case of recruitment in Westminster the Mitre & Dove pub was the Sergeants place of business. Prospective recruits were lured off of the streets, taken to the pub and plied with drink while the recruiters painted a rosy picture of Army life. A smart uniform, three square meals a day, the admiration of pretty girls and a regular income in excess of any manual job that could be had in London. Once the recruit had drunk more than was good for them it was an easy and short step to get them to sign up. The shilling piece was handed over to seal the contract and the unfortunate and rather drunk new recruit was hastily bundled off to the nearest barracks with the Sergeant a pound up on the deal. That's the reason why the monetary incentive was set at a Guinea.

Some Sergeants went further. Should the candidate refuse to sign, then he would be bought another drink to show that there were no hard feelings and the shilling would be surreptitiously dropped into the beer. Once finished, the shilling at the bottom of the tankard was in the eyes of the Sergeant good enough to affirm consent and the man was deemed to have signed up.

Keen to maximise their income most Sergeants employed civilians known as Fetchers to bring in men from further afield with the civilian agent getting a small percentage of each Guinea earned. These fetchers would scour the streets and then bring the men back to the Mitre & Dove where they would rendezvous with the waiting Sergeants, and that is how the area got it's name. As with most foreign words it is the British and especially the London way to try and anglicise it, add a little parade ground patois and the rendezvous becomes (By the right... wait for it) the Randy Voo

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