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Dirty Old London by Lee JacksonDirty Old London: the Victorian Fight Against Filth by Lee Jackson.

In 1850, 13 years into Victoria’s reign, London’s population had doubled over the previous 50 years, to over two million people. By the end of her reign in 1901 it had trebled again to over 6 million. The waste products of such an immediate post-industrial popluation explosion – faeces and urine of course (ex-both human and beastly), soot, smoke, grime, mud, food, corpses, general filth – can barely be imagined by the Londoner of today. This new book takes a very decent stab at helping us to do so.

Next time you see some dog shit on the pavement or and overflowing public waste bin or some illegal fly-tipping, count yourself lucky: our eyes and noses have never experienced the assault on the senses as endured by our Victorian ancestors.

In the eaerly 19th Century, the modern world had taken London by surprise; the difficulty was that the metropolis was still run largely by essentially medieval institutions: the vestries. Added to this, local paving boards, local sewer commissions, and dozens of other bodies with position and status and agendas to protect. Localism was such as that your ardent libertarian of today could only dream of. The book describes the gradual transformation from vestrydom to “municipal socialism” by the end of our period. Many of the problems had been solved or alleviated, some had not.

For the “big” problems, the solution was to move the waste out of town: sewage through Bazalgette’s massive bores and pumping stations; corpses to new suburban burial grounds; the livestock market from Smithfield to Islington; and so on. Smog, soot, slums, personal hygiene needed different approaches.

All the solutions described in the book were hard-won and driven by campaigning reformers for which the period is characterised. Most of us have heard of the likes of Edwin Chadwick (who inevitably looms large throughout), Lord Shaftsbury and Octavia Hill; this book casts the spotlight of dozens of others, MPs, doctors, engineers, churchmen and the new (then) Medical Officers of Health, fuelling the rise of statistics. All these individuals and their groups influenced, cajoled, shamed and lobbied Parliament into passing dozens of improving Acts from outlawing the use of climbing boys (chimney sweep helpers) to providing public loos for women.

"Important Meeting of Smoke Makers" from Punch Magazine addressing the Smoke Nuisance Abatement Bill.

“Important Meeting of Smoke Makers” from Punch Magazine addressing the Smoke Nuisance Abatement Bill of 1853.

Some of the well-meaning provisions of these Acts worked or partially worked, others did not. For there were entrenched attitudes and vested interests which were hard to budge. Many felt that poor people weren’t interested in being clean, for example. Damaging too were outdated beliefs dogmatically adhered to, such as miasma theory, a blind alley which took decades to back out of.

The story that Jackson has taken on is complex. He has organised each filth difficulty into its own chapter, some of which have witty titles (e.g. Vile Bodies for corpse disposal). Each, therefore reads as an independent essay in its own right. The author has marshalled his material superbly and written economically but with total authority, so that the academic and the layman will read Filthy Old London with equal pleasure. Yes, pleasure: odd, so you would think, given the subject matter. But there is much humour here and worthy trivia too: did you know that the illuminated signage on the first public toilets in London were not Ladies or Gentlemen, Men or Women, but HALT? Fabulous. But on a more macabre note, I was amazed to learn that parishes would often surreptitiously place the corpse of a poor baby in someone else’s coffin as a free service. Basic humanity in a cruel existence.

There are two sections of images comprising 40 photos, cartoons, illustrations, plans and portraits which are very generously captioned. At the back of the book there are a full 50 pages of Notes, Bibliography and Index. In short, a history book just how I like it.

This much-needed treatment is one of the best London history books I’ve read this year : I recommend it to all social historians and London historians alike and doff my hat to Mr Lee Jackson.

Dirty Old London: the Victorian Fight Against Filth (293pp) by Lee Jackson is published by Yale with a cover price of £20 although available for less (e.g. £13.60 at time of writing).

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Lee Jackson is a writer, author and blogger specialising in Victorian London. He is a frequent tweeter as @victorianlondon.

 

 

A guest post by WW1 aficionado and London Historians Member, James Norwood. 

men of letters, duncan barrettThe 100th anniversary of the Great War, the First World War, the “war to end all wars,” or if you are on Twitter #WW1 has not unexpectedly given rise to a significant increase in publications to mark the event. This is good news for someone who has been studying the global conflict that shaped the twentieth century since he was 6 years of age, and has publically stated that he will attempt to read 100 books on the war during the period 2014-2018.

The new batch of works now appears to go even further than before in terms of questioning long held truisms and reassessing previously lauded histories of the conflict. Even A.J.P. Taylor’s seminal work The First World War (1963) and Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (1962) have been taken to task in recent times, just as they too in their time helped redress what had until then been pretty much patriotic and propagandist versions of events. What’s more, many of the new works go far beyond general histories to offer fleeting glimpses into, and in many cases, very specific history of areas not covered before. One such work is Men of Letters, the latest book by Londoner Duncan Barrett, subtitled “The Post Office Heroes who fought the Great War”,  it’s somewhat of a departure back in time from his previous WW2-centric efforts The Sugar Girls (2012), and GI Brides (2014), both co-authored with Nuala Calvi.

Not a complete stranger to the topic, having previously edited the memoirs of First World War pacifist saboteur, Ronald Skirth in The Reluctant Tommy (2010), and through his own family association with the Western Front: Barrett’s great-great uncle, Eric Layton, was amongst the many thousands killed at High Wood in September 1916. Layton’s former employer, the Metropolitan Gas Company, later honoured their dead with a special memorial service, just as the Post Office did for year after year until living memories of the events dwindled  and finally passed.

Of course, although men (and women) from all walks of life and all kinds of employment joined in and did their bit, few were able to serve side-by-side with their own colleagues in their very own battalion as did the Post Office Rifles (POR) or to trade their civilian employment for its wartime alternative within the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS). And herein lies the incredible potential for a story of this kind.

100 years on from the start of hostilities on the Western Front, few young people today in Britain are even familiar with the term “GPO.” The new normal that is the Internet, email, and instant text messaging has simply replaced the need for the most personal part of the postal service – the letter. And now, following recent privatisation, one of the last great civil institutions of the World (not just the UK) has itself ceased to be. So what? Progress was unkind to Kodak, and Uber cares little for the humble taxi, but in 1914 the Post Office was the world’s largest employer with more than a quarter of a million people on its payroll. This in itself presents an opportunity to tell a story of real interest.

However, if that’s what I expected as I set about the book that was not at all what I got. In fact, following a short prologue, by the end of chapter one we are already on our way to France and the trenches with the POR, and it is their story, the story of the POR that the book is principally about. There is minimal coverage of the REPS and a single, somewhat disjointed chapter, only very remotely linked to the main subject of the POR that tackles the matter of the women back home who were eventually required to fill the void. Once you understand what the book is actually going to be about, which takes a while, then you are able to focus on that and allow yourself to be carried along by Barrett’s highly accessible and easygoing style.

The potential of the subject matter could have provided greater scope for a more encompassing tale beyond the exploits of just the POR as they move from campaign to campaign throughout the war in what is essentially a battalion history presented in a more narrative form. For instance, several recent works on the war that have met with considerable acclaim begin with inordinate preambles on the background to the actual subject that is to be treated.

For example, Mark Thompson’s The White War goes into tedious detail about Italian culture and politics in the years leading up to the War, but it’s ultimately necessary. Christopher Clark’s hugely successful The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914 goes into almost monotonous analysis of pre-war Serbian history, which was enough to almost make one give up, before it actually picks up the action proper; and Ian Senior’s Home Before The Leaves Fall devotes the first third of the book to analysis of the French and German pre-war plans before we even get to 1914. In all cases these are ultimately justified as the reader now carries an in-depth understanding of why things happened and why they unfolded the way they did, as well as a greater attachment to the subject matter at hand. One can’t help thinking that a more in-depth analysis of the world’s largest employer in the decades and years leading to the war would have helped this work too.

As already noted, Men of Letters is an account of the Post Office Rifles battalion on the Western Front in France and Belgium, told via a quick-paced yet always interesting narrative, interspersed with individual stories and letters reproduced from a number of principal characters whose stories feature throughout. This is not an uncommon storytelling style when it comes to the Great War. For all the stories that will never be known, there are so many personal and group stories that are known, and that have been preserved for posterity, through sterling work by the likes of the Imperial War Museum in London. One of the earliest to forge this method of Great War storytelling was Lyn MacDonald, although it was probably perfected by writers such as Peter Hart and Nigel Steel who through books like Passchendaele, The Sacrificial Ground; Jutland 1916; and Aces Falling, The War Above the Trenches, 1918 have introduced so many to the horror and camaraderie of the First World War through the lives and words of those who were there.

For his part, Barrett chooses in the main to relay the story in his own words based on his meticulous research and relies less on first hand accounts than say Hart or Steel and in many ways this is to be lauded. That said, one never seems to truly feel as close to the real life characters in Men of Letters perhaps because one hears less from the characters themselves. It was only at the very end of the work that I actually felt moved by the narrative, and this is not because the contents are not moving, they are, I just simply didn’t know enough about the central figures or connect with them empathetically. Barrett’s practice of reproducing every name in full, every time makes personal connection harder. For example, by page 263 we still see “Letter from Captain Home Peel to his wife Gwendolen,” when “Home Peel to Gwendolen” might have sufficed. Even the constant refrain “the men from the post office rifles,” leaves the reader on the outside, whereas the odd “the rifles,” or “the posties,” might have helped. It’s perhaps a small and fastidious point but this is a story about a specific group, a Band of Brothers if you will, and so anything to help the reader form a closer bond would I feel have improved the overall effect.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of Barrett’s work is the interspersing of interesting war facts, many of which I’m happy to say were new to me as well. His treatment of how British troops first dealt with the horrors of a gas attack is simply fascinating, and the short piece on the development of the “sharpshooter” or as they later became known – snipers – is simply enthralling. There are so many of these precious little stories within the story – and not all are combat related – that combined make this book not just fascinating but a truly educational read, and I would recommend it on that level alone to both new WW1 readers and long term students alike.

It’s also good to see statements like “The Germans had been doing it since the start of the war,” which time and again shows how the “wicked Hun” were actually for the most part the truly innovative ones during the conflict. The Tank aside, anecdotally treated by Barrett as well, the Allies were slow to learn, although ultimately able to adopt, and if not perfect, then to simply outgun the Germans as the war wore on.

Without wanting to give away too much of the central story itself, one of the more intriguing and in many ways poignant themes that come to light is that amongst the officer class (very few of whom were actually Post Office men) we see the normality of jostling for position and vying for promotion, even from those who loathed the war and the army, with an almost peacetime vigor, and this from men whose life expectancy (at least for new Subalterns) was measured in weeks not months.

For my part, I would have liked to see the employment of an even more intimate approach through a deeper connection with the central characters, and a more thorough work around the Post Office itself during the Great War as a whole. That said, Men of Letters works on a number of levels and very effectively captures the lives of a group of people, men who served in the POR and with a nod to the women who took their place back home.

In what is essentially a fairly short work, Barrett’s use of an easy-going and highly accessible narrative style makes the read eminently worthwhile.
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James Norwood, according to his Twitter profile is a (somewhat) opinionated business software industry veteran, enthusiastic public speaker, aspiring historian, and (part-time) cycling junkie. Originally from Birmingham, he still calls Chiswick home even though he has resided in California for the past 15 years. An inaugural member of London Historians, he maintains the unenviable record of having only attended three LH events to-date.

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Men of Letters (336pp) by Duncan Barrett is published in paperback by AA  Publishing and is available for £8.99.

Hogarth’s London

This blog has gone all Hogarthian of late. And with good reason. One of the greatest of all Londoners, we commemorate the 250th anniversary of his death, which occurred on the evening of 25/26 October, 1764 at his town house in Leicester Fields.

The Cartoon Museum (one of our favourites) gets into the spirit of things with this exhibition which opens today. It features 50 engravings covering a period of over 40 years.

All our favourites are there, as you’d expect: Gin Lane, Beer Street, Rake’s Progress and so on. You also get the opportunity to check out lesser known items, such as Four Times of Day, which I particularly enjoyed, and very early stuff like The South Sea Bubble from 1721, astounding work from the 24 year old engraver. I was very happy also to see the judges and their wigs, an image guaranteed to make you smile every time.

The south sea bubble, william hogarth

The South Sea Bubble (1721)

When viewing Hogarth’s work, we tend to focus – as we are supposed to – on the people: 18C Londoners (mainly) in all their appallingness. What this show does is to point out the actual locations where all the action takes place, something most of us perhaps don’t think about that much. In some cases it’s obvious, such as the Tyburn  gallows featuring the Idle ‘Prentice. Other places less so, Cheapside for the Industrious ‘Prentice, a thoroughfare which also features in The Harlot’s Progress. The South Sea Bubble, mentioned above, is at the foot of the Monument. I always thought the March to Finchley (a personal favourite: the original painting is in the Foundling Museum) was in Finchley. Not so: it is set in Tottenham Court Road. There is also Covent Garden, St James’s, Charing Cross, Sadler’s Wells, St Giles (of course), and more.

The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

So a romp through the streets of London with William Hogarth. It’s an angle which works splendidly in this thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable exhibition. Many of the pieces on show are loaned by the excellent William Hogarth Trust, one of the show’s sponsors, also responsible for Hogarth’s House in Chiswick, which I urge you to visit: it’s free.

Hogarth’s London runs from 22 October to 18 January 2015 at the Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street (very close to the British Museum). It’s free with your entry ticket of £7. Art Fund Members free. London Historians Members £1 discount. No, they don’t give you a pound if you belong to both.

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Finally, here’s a suggestion for you to celebrate William Hogarth this Saturday. First visit this exhibition at the Cartoon Museum. Then jump on the Tube to Turnham Green. Walk past Hogarth’s statue on Chiswick High Road and doff your hat, metephorically if necessary. Continue on to Hogarth’s House (open 12:00 – 17:00), about a 15 minute walk and check out the man’s “country” home where he lived for the last 15 years of his life. Gape at the strange Hogarth flyover as you pass by! Expore the house and enjoy The Small Self as mentioned in the previous blog post by Val Bott. Then have a bite in one of Chiswick’s many pubs and restaurants and return to St Nicholas Church (around the corner from Hogarth’s House) for 18:45 for wreath-laying at the Hogarth family tomb and a celebration of Hogarth’s life, featuring period music by Handel, Arne and others, including songs and ballads, the Beggar’s Opera etc. £10 entry. All details here.

A guest post by London Historians Member, Val Bott.

the painter and his pug by william hogarthWilliam Hogarth died 250 years ago on 26 October 1764. He spent Thursday, 24 October working on his engraving plate of The Bench at Chiswick but, too unwell to work on the 25th, he was taken to his town house in Leicester Fields while his wife remained at Chiswick. On going to bed, he was taken suddenly very ill and died a couple of hours later in the arms of his wife’s cousin, Mary Lewis, who had helped run the print business for years. He was buried at St Nicholas Church by the Thames at Chiswick, where later a fine memorial was erected with an epitaph by David Garrick.

That week a piece in the the London Evening Post commented that in Hogarth were happily united ‘the utmost force of human genius, an incomparable understanding, an inflexible integrity and a most benevolent heart. No man was better acquainted with the human passions, nor endeavoured to make them more subservient to the reformation of the world than this inimitable artist. His works will continue to be held in the highest estimation, so long as sense, genius and virtue shall remain among us’.

Hogarth's tomb in St Nicholas Churchyard, Chiswick, on the banks of the Thames.

Hogarth’s tomb in St Nicholas churchyard, Chiswick, on the banks of the Thames.

Hogarth was a Londoner through and through, depicting daily life in clear reality and with affection, while mocking those of whom he disapproved. A brilliant engraver and a fine self-taught painter, he produced memorable images which we love today. With an astute business sense he sold his prints by subscription and protected them from piracy through his successful campaign for the first artists’ Copyright Act. He was a generous man and his love for animals and children is evident in his work. A philanthropist, he was a governor of the Foundling Hospital, he oversaw the wet-nurses who cared for foundling babies in Chiswick and, with his wife Jane, fostered foundling children. When financially secure he acquired his much-loved second home a Chiswick which is now a museum about the Hogarths, their Chiswick friends and neighbours, and other past residents of the house. The walls are hung with his most important prints, depicting London as the backdrop to his famous series of modern moral subjects, but also at the theatre, in the crowd at Southwark Fair, in the streets in Four Times of Day.

Hogarth's House

Hogarth’s House.

The William Hogarth Trust has worked with Hogarth’s House this year to produce a new exhibition, The Small Self, which has just opened. Supported by a grant from the J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, it was devised by trustees Chrissy Blake and Jason Bowyer, who sent out sixty foot-square artists’ boards with an invitation to use these to submit a self portrait in homage to Hogarth. Fifty-three self-portraits have arrived, from the Trust’s patron, Sir Peter Blake, Royal Academicians William Bowyer, Anthony Green, Ken Howard and Humphrey Ocean, cartoonists Steve Bell and Martin Rowson, designers Cath Kidston and Toni Marshall, writers such as Jaqueline Wilson and Mike McCartney, performers including Harry Hill, Holly Johnson, Jim Moir and Joanna Lumley and members of the New English Art Club. This exhibition is testimony to a strong continuing enthusiasm for Hogarth; a beautiful little catalogue illustrating them all is on sale at £6.95.

Self portraits. Sir Peter Hall and Bowyer.

Self portraits. Sir Peter Blake and Jason Bowyer.

On the evening of 25 October the Trust and the Friends of St Nicholas will be mounting a special commemoration at Chiswick’s St Nicholas Church. Ars Eloquentiae will perform music Hogarth would have known (with some audience participation!) and Rosalind Knight, Lars Tharp and others will be reading 18th century texts to celebrate Hogarth’s life and work. Admission is £10, refreshments will be available and there will be a souvenir programme on sale. The event is supported by the J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust, Hounslow Council and Fleet Tutors.

On 22 October The Cartoon Museum opens Hogarth’s London, a must for London Historians. It draws together a range of prints (including a number on loan from Hogarth’s House) to celebrate his love of the capital city and to reveal the vitality and the suffering of life here 250 years ago.

The Small Self continues until 11 January 2015, 12 noon to 17.00 Tuesday to Sunday, admission free.
Hogarth’s London continues until 18 January 2015, 10.30 to 17.30 Monday to Saturday, Sunday 12 noon to 17.30, at 35 Little Russell St, London WC1A 2HH. There is an admission charge – full details at cartoonmuseum.org.

Disaster in Harrow

A guest post by London Historians Member, Simon Fowler, who remembers London’s worst railway crash. 

harrowplaque200Today marks the anniversary of London (and England’s) worst railway disaster and one of only three accidents in the United Kingdom in which more one hundred people lost their lives. In total, 112 people died and more than 300 were injured. It was also an exceptionally rare three train collision.

The accident took place at Harrow and Wealdstone station in north London at exactly 8.19am on 8 October 1952. It was a very foggy morning. The 7:31am Tring to Euston local passenger train stopped at Harrow and Wealdstone station, seven minutes late due to the fog. It had switched to the fast line just before the station to keep the slow lines to the south clear for empty stock movements. Carrying approximately 800 passengers, the train was much fuller than normal, as the previous service had been cancelled.

At 8.19 am, just as the guard was walking back to his brake van after checking doors on the last two carriages, the train was struck from behind by the night express from Perth travelling between 50 and 60mph.

The Perth sleeper train consisted of 46242 City of Glasgow with eleven carriages and some 85 passengers. Because of fog and other delays it was running approximately eighty minutes late.

A second or two after the first collision the 8am express from Euston to Liverpool and Manchester with its fifteen carriages and 200 passengers hauled by 45637 Windward Islands and 46202 Princess Anne, came through on the adjacent fast line in the opposite direction at about 60mph. The leading locomotive struck the City of Glasgow and came off the track.

Sixteen carriages were destroyed, of which thirteen were concertinaed together under the station footbridge.

Harrow_and_Wealdstone_train_crash500

The subsequent safety report found that the sleeper train had passed a caution signal and two danger signals before colliding with the local train. Why this occurred will never be known as the driver Jones and fireman Turnock on the footplate of the City of Glasgow – both experienced footplate crew – were killed in the crash. It is likely that the driver was concerned to make up time as the train was running very late and he and the firemen missed the warning signals in the fog.

A subsequent Metropolitan Police report praised the response from the emergency services. Co-ordination on the spot was hampered, however, by the lack of communications equipment. There was only one walkie-talkie that, in the end, was not used. And the only telephone was a walk away.

An exotic element was the arrival of medical personnel from the neighbouring American base at Ruislip. One sergeant from Boston commented on the behaviour of the injured: ‘The British don’t cry’.

The accident had two effects. Firstly it accelerated the introduction of the Automatic Warning System that told drivers that they had passed an adverse signal, although because of the cost its arrival on many lines was very slow. And the crash confirmed the strength of the new all steel carriages British Railways had begun to introduce as they were less severely damaged (and protected passengers better) than the older pre-war wood and steel carriages.

Because the accident happened on the outskirts of London there was huge media interest. As a result, unlike most other railway accidents, it is well documented photographically.

Find out more in Simon Fowler’s Railway Disasters (Pen & Sword, 2013 ISBN ISBN: 9781845631581)

A guest post by London Historians Member, Christopher West.

DSC03440blogEntering the Docks from Tower Bridge Road, you will see the cast-iron grey Tuscan Columns which adorn International House- these were saved from the original Hardwick warehouses built for the Telford Docks, opening in 1828. Walk along the new waterside pathway and notice the original wall, complete with mooring rope rings, looking up at the grey columns and at the nearby historical Thames Barges.

Back in the 10th century, King Edgar gave this land to a group of knights who traded here, then in c 1147 the Royal Hospital of St Katharine was founded, on the orders of Queen Matilda, by the then proprietor, an Augustinian Priory at Aldgate, governed by a Master, three Brothers and three Sisters. Later, a Church was added and a community that became known as St Katharine’s Precinct developed. Some of the land was sold to allow the Tower Of London to build the East side of its moat and the precinct developed its own orchards, school, court, prison, factories, breweries and various types of housing. It had a ‘dokke’ at least from the 14th century.

Medieval Church of St Katharine by the Tower. Image by Jane Young.

Medieval Church of St Katharine by the Tower. Image by Jane Young.

Sadly and controversially, the ancient Royal Hospital, Church and more than four thousand people were removed in 1825, to make way for the new Telford Docks, which was built in a record three years, opening in 1825, trading in luxury items from all over the world. The Royal Hospital and Church were relocated at Regent’s Park, together with splendidly preserved relics, which are still in use at today’s Royal Foundation Of St Katharine at Limehouse. Throughout its history, Royal patronage has remained (usually the Queen) and today’s Master was appointed by the current Queen, continuing the tradition which has survived since the 12th century.

Builders Taylor Woodrow renovated the Docks, following the closure in 1968, first having to clear war damage and demolish derelict buildings. When pulling down the brick walls of a late 18th century warehouse, a grand wooden framework was discovered, so it was moved 70 metres and became the basis for today’s Dickens Inn. Modern offices were built in place of the Hardwick warehouses, including Commodity Quay, which housed two thousand commodity traders and Reuters News Agency. Ivory House (1852) was turned into luxury flats and numerous others were added surrounding the East Dock. Various shops and restaurants were built, creating the ‘Yacht Haven’, eventually becoming the sparkling Marina that we know and cherish. Still on show today are the Telford Bridge, numerous sculptures by Paula Haughney, (representing luxury items such as turtle shells, herbs, spices and exotic feathers), Wendy Taylor’s famous Timepiece and various other treasures.

Dickens Inn at St Katharine Docks

Dickens Inn at St Katharine Docks

Starbucks Coffee Shop is on the site of the ancient Hospital. It was built as the Coronarium, an all denomination chapel, again featuring original Tuscan Columns; unfortunately, after 19 years of use, it was closed, to reopen as a coffee shop. The mural in the window depicts a sketch of the intended new Docks c 1823.

Today, St Katharine Docks hosts boats from all over the World, as well as historical vessels which include the Royal Barge Gloriana, Havengore, which carried Churchill’s body in State, Flamant Rose, which belonged to Edith Piaf and the majestic Thames Barges.

Christopher West has written a book, The Story Of St Katharine’s, which chronicles the area from the tenth century to today.  He can be contacted on thestoryofstk@outlook.com.

St Katharine Dock today.

St Katharine Docks today.

St Katharine Dock today.

St Katharine Docks today.

St Katharine Dock today, view upriver.

St Katharine Docks today, view upriver.

Played in London

played in londonReview: Played in London: Charting the heritage of a city at play by Simon Inglis.

I’ve met the author of this book once or twice, the last occasion at an event just over a year ago. He told me about his book and why it was taking a bit of a while, essentially to do with the sheer amount of research required. And sure enough, the research that has gone into this book is staggering*. It is a massive topic, for sure, but with a copy in my hands, now I really understand. Played in London is the size and weight of a medium telephone directory (remember those?), is beautifully laid out in four column format and illustrated with nearly 1000 photos, illustrations and maps. In short, it’s a quality object.

The obvious place to start is with the sports themselves. There are fourteen chapters devoted to individual sports, with appropriate space allocated depending on popularity, so 34 pages for football down to around eight or ten for some of the others. And it’s those others which fascinate and tell us much about the public taste. The final two chapters cover greyhound racing (three tracks remaining today out of 30+) and speedway (including cycle speedway) – now disappeared. Both of these were massive in their time, that is to say mid-20C. The oldest sport, as one might expect, is probably archery. There is a wonderful 1594 map of the archery ranges in Finsbury fields – over 180 of them. Throughout, the author’s meticulous research throws up wonderful detail and trivia. If you wished to play every hole of golf in London, expect to walk 301 miles (or in my case, twice that). We are introduced to heroes of each sport, not just the players, but legendary managers, administrators and visionaries. There are many pictures of their blue plaques. Most pleasing for the historian, I think, are the illustrations – so evocative. Old team photos, of course, but advertisements, old tickets, match programmes, maps, mementoes, paraphernalia plus an abundance of museum pieces which leave you wondering: how on earth did they manage to strike that with that?

Spread from chapter on cricket.

Spread from chapter on cricket.

The book dedicates nine chapters to sporting organisations and buildings. So membership clubs, gymnasiums, swimming pools, billiard halls and most interesting for me, company sports and social clubs, which seem today to be from another age. Which of course they are. Unlike today, where organisations simply subsidise staff membership to some ghastly chain of gyms, in the late 19th and most of the 20th Centuries they were more likely to have their own in-house clubs with playing fields and facilities, or at the very least, shared ones: the civil service and various branches thereof, the Prudential, Debenhams, the Southern Suburban Gas Company, famously the Thames Iron Works which transmogrified into West Ham United. And many others. There is a map on page 132 showing 51 separate facilities in an area of South East London alone. Many of their clubhouses and pavilions were gorgeous.

Spread from chapter on company sports clubs

Spread from chapter on company sports clubs

Finally, my favourite thing about the book and one senses the topic which is the author’s also: architecture. It’s something that either we take for granted or that those with little interest in sport hardly notice. I for one shall henceforth pay more attention. Stadia and their grandstands; clubhouses and their pavilions; purpose built snooker halls, indoor baths and lidos. There is a complete chapter dedicated to grandstands. Stay with me on this, it’s an eye-opener and deeply interesting. I always thought cantilevered grandstands were a modern thing. We have a photo of a pair of beautiful structures from Northolt Park Racecourse from 1929, now long swept away with the racecourse itself. I can’t help thinking that because sport is such a social thing that these buildings were designed with more love than most, and indeed many a pavilion was done free of charge by a sports-loving architect who happened to be a club member.

This is a wonderful book. Yes, it relates the history of sport as it should. But it really succeeds in nailing the heritage in its title: it invokes nostalgia really powerfully. London sports fans will love this book, of that there is no doubt. Sports loving architects will adore it. And I would go so far to say that even historians without any interest in sports at all will enjoy Played in London. It’s that good.

Played in London (360pp) by Simon Inglis is published on 28 August 2014 by English Heritage with a cover price of £25, but available for less.

* Additional research by Jackie Spreckley

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