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

I’ve received many notifications the past week or two from dear friends, via LinkedIn, to congratulate me on my “work anniversary”. I must apologise to them for LinkedIn’s impertinance and, I suppose, thank them too for acquiescing to the bot. (book title? album title?)

But at least is served to remind me that London Historians has been going for four years. Already. So I’ve spent a little  (a lot) time going through photos of our events over this period. I’m struck by actually how many there have been: about a hundred, I reckon. But also, it’s reminded me that in London Historians we do actually have a jolly good time. Most of all, though, I’m humbled by the number of wonderful people who have “got” the London Historians thing, and backed us by becoming Members. That is what this is all about.

Rather than create another album on Flickr of grand palaces, livery companies, historic bridges and so on, I’ve made one that focuses on our Members. Each image has a caption about the event featured. Although we started in August 2010, these begin early in 2011 because it took us some months to get a little Membership going. We’re now over 500, if you’re asking.

The full album on Flickr is here.

By way of introduction, I’ve chosen one for each year to put here, but do go and see the full set which I think goes some way to answering the question: What are London Historians like? And if you fancy joining our gang, that’d be terrific. You can do so here.

London Historians Launch Party

16 March 2011. Scene from our official launch party at Georgian Group HQ, Fitzroy Square.

10 March. Tour of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain's oldest business.

10 March 2012. Tour of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain’s oldest business.

16 April. In a bascule chamber beneath Tower Bridge.

16 April 2013 . In a bascule chamber beneath Tower Bridge.

12 June. Checking out the King's Topographical Collection (K-TOP) at the British Librar with Head of Maps, Peter Barber.

12 June 2014. Checking out the King’s Topographical Collection (K-TOP) at the British Librar with Head of Maps, Peter Barber.


gresham grasshopper

The Gresham family badge: a grasshopper.

Elizabeth I’s most well-known favourites were bellicose types like Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Ralegh or Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, whose head in the end was too hot for his own impatient, impetuous shoulders. They smote the queen’s enemies and filled her coffers using fire and sword.

Far more considered and cerebral ways of benefiting the Exchequer were employed by an altogether lesser-known servant: Sir Thomas Gresham (1518/9 – 1579). From a family of Norfolk merchants, this London-born entrepreneur gave the City not one but two great institutions: the Royal Exchange and Gresham College.

Gresham achieved better results than most by more peaceful means.

His upbringing was a privileged one. He was the younger son of Sir Richard Gresham, a successful merchant and Lord Mayor of London 1537. Born at his father’s house in Milk Lane in 1518/9, Thomas’s boyhood remains obscure but he spent some years at Gonville Hall, Cambridge, where he didn’t complete his degree but instead was apprenticed in the mercer’s trade under his uncle, John Gresham. Young Thomas spent much of the seven year apprenticeship on the continent, learning French and Flemish, building on his family’s network of trade contacts and indeed taking on much of the work. He soon caught the eye of royal agents – including Thomas Cromwell – who began putting royal work his way.

sir thomas gresham

A self-confident Thomas Gresham in his mid-20s. Gresham Collage.

This marked the start of service under four Tudor monarchs which saw its apeothis under Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth herself. Gresham’s skill, acumen and a studied disinterest in religion and politics gave him a cloak of immunity during the religious tumult of these reigns. He was the perfect servant for an avaricious and thrifty monarch such as Elizabeth.

Gresham spent his best business years from the late 1540s to the mid 1650s working both on the family’s account and as a royal agent, mainly in the Netherlands, occasionally Spain. In the Gresham interest he acted as both merchant and agent in the cloth trade and also the universal staple of guns and ammunition (“harness”). As the royal agent, his aim was to reduce the royal debt in Antwerp to from around £250,000 to zero. By anticipating interest rates in an extremely volatile market and negotiating the best deals (better than the Habsburgs themselves were able to secure) with bankers, brokers, underwriters, etc., by 1565 Gresham had reduced the Royal foreign debt to a mere £20,000. It was during this period, in 1559, that Gresham became Sir Thomas, before departing on a diplomatic mission.

While all this was going on, domestically Thomas was thriving too, having inherited family estates after his father’s death in 1549 and through an advantageous marriage to Anne Read, the widow of William Read, a wealthy fellow mercer and family friend. So at home in England, in addition to his ongoing mercer’s business, Gresham had considerable holdings in Norfolk, Suffolk and within the City of London.

Although Gresham had illegitimate progeny, his son Richard died in 1564, leaving him with no heir. Like most of the great philanthropists, he pondered his legacy and how best to use his fortune. First, he addressed something that he and his father both hankered after for London so that it could properly better its European rivals: a bourse, or exchange. So he bought up many properties in the Cornhill area, demolished them and built the first Royal Exchange, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1571.

thomas gresham, royal exchange, london

Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange. Thanks to Liz Lloyd for image.

Today. The third Royal Exchange on the same site, by William Tite. It's now populated by fancy goods shops, coffee bars and over-officious security guards.

The third Royal Exchange in Cornhill, by William Tite. It’s now populated by fancy goods shops, coffee bars and over-officious security guards.

He financed eight almshouses at the rear of his house in Bishopsgate, a common and popular type of endowment during this period.

Finally, and crucially, he wished for London to have a prestigious seat of learning like Oxford and Cambridge. It was unthinkable that the City should lack such an institution. So he left provision for Gresham College to have a premises and funding for seven professors, each to deliver a lecture once a week in Latin and English. The chairs were, and are: Astronomy; Divinity; Geometry (i.e. Mathematics); Law; Music; Physic; Rhetoric. An eighth chair – Commerce – was added in 1985.

The College has had various homes over the centuries. Since 1991 it has resided at Barnard’s Inn in Holborn, formerly the Mercers’ School. The mediaeval Barnard’s Inn Hall is the gorgeous centrepiece of the complex where Gresham College holds many of its free lectures. There are over 100 of these every year, both at the college and the Museum of London. I can’t recommend them too highly. Full programme for 2014-15 is here. And, superbly, all lectures are recorded, there is a huge back-catalogue of worthy material to enjoy.

Gresham College

The first Gresham College and former home of Sir Thomas. Image: Gresham College.

Gresham College

Entrance to Gresham College in Holborn.

Barnard's Inn Hall, Gresham College

Barnard’s Inn Hall.

It is London Historians’ massive privilege to be holding our inaugural annual lecture at Barnard’s Inn Hall on 4 September. Adrian Tinniswood will be talking about Sir Christopher Wren who was once the Gresham Professor of Astronomy. Unfortunately, if you haven’t a ticket yet, it is fully-booked.

Gresham College website
Wikipedia on Sir Thomas Gresham
Wikipedia on Gresham College
Excerpts from Gresham’s Will

A Brief History of Gresham College (1997) by Richard Charteris and David Vermont
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription site), where the writer is overall quite mean about Gresham’s achievements!

Gresham College.

Gresham College.

Greshamiana 1: Victorian  period statue above Holborn Viaduct.

Greshamiana 1: Victorian period statue above Holborn Viaduct.

Sir Thomas Gresham

Greshamiana 2: Stained glass panel depicting Gresham Arms in an office building in Basinghall Street. Gresham’s family home was once in the same street.

Many of our Members are qualified London guides. In recent years several have entered and qualified for the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association who are now recruiting for the 2014/15 intake. Course director and LH Member John Finn writes:

“Take your enthusiasm for London’s history onto the streets themselves by training as a walking tour guide. And if you are a guide already, here’s a chance to extend your local London knowledge, and enjoy a chance to refresh your guiding skills. Applications are now open for the Clerkenwell and Islington tour guiding course, held at the University of Westminster in Marylebone Road, starting in September. Several London Historians Members have joined the course in previous years and are now qualified, badged tour guides.

The course is taught to accredited academic standards by experienced lecturers and guides and reward you with a Diploma of Special Study in Tour Guiding. Last year the course received an award from the Association for Tourism in Higher Education. The course is hosted by the University’s Faculty of Architecture & the Built Environment, which is also home to the Centre for Tourism Research.

The emphasis throughout the course is on developing the skills to design and deliver walking tours that engage the audience with a compelling, well-researched narrative.

Clerkenwell is sometimes described as London’s medieval suburb and takes in one thousand years of history, including St John’s Gate (the site for our interior guiding training) and Charterhouse. By contrast, Islington’s history is one of Tudor villages, enlarged with elegant Georgian terraces, and then swallowed up by Victorian housing development – a typical London story. All of which provides a chance to explore architecture, social history and the lives of famous and infamous.

Admission to the course will be by interview in August and September. Apply or find out more by visiting the course website, and download the course flyer.”



Review: Tiger Woman, My Story – Betty May (1929) New Edition July 2014

A guest post by LH Member, Jane Young

tigerwomanThis is a strange little memoir. Certainly more memoir than autobiography as it is quite likely that many aspects of this lady’s life that must have gone hand in hand with the events described have been left out.

It is written in a sensationalist tone and intended to shock. Which when published in 1929 it undoubtedly would have achieved. The self-congratulatory narrative does absolutely nothing to warm the reader to the writer whom it is difficult to not dislike intensely by the end of the book.

Having said that, it is however an interesting account of low life in the early twentieth century. Set largely in London but also travelling to the West Country, Paris and Sicily the colourful descriptions of all that is sordid are executed with skill, alongside attention to detail in noting domestic interiors, clothes and food, all with the unmatched accuracy of a sharp mercenary eye. Betty May measures success by her expertise in sponging and ability to have others pay for her, which though unsurprising given the childhood described therein, still remains a distasteful tale.

Nonetheless there is the impression that even in this supposedly frank rendition she is playing some sort of self serving part as is made clear in the introduction:
“I am going to tell my story in the same sort of way I have lived my life”

You are left with a prevailing sadness and still wondering who the real Betty May was. The book is not a joy to read but is an odd little piece of social history and thus worth reading for that alone.

Tiger Woman My Story has been republished to coincide with a new musical portraying the life of Betty May which has excellent credentials and very good reviews:
A percentage from the sale of this book goes towards supporting the production, therefore a foreword explaining the impetus for publication would have been a worthwhile inclusion.

Guest Post.
London Historians Member, Walter Jahn, writes about our walking tour of the industrial Lea valley, Saturday 19 July.

Who would have thought a walk from Stratford through the industrial area around the river Lea would be enticing to anyone on a hot and sunny Saturday? Thanks to our guide Rob Smith, it was. Did you know, for instance, that there is an impressive cathedral to be seen in this area?

London Historians

Starting off at Stratford Railway Station we turned into Burford Road passing the grand building of the former “Great Eastern Railway Print Works”. The railway works and depot in Stratford was a major industry since 1840, manufacturing over 1600 locomotives until the 1920s.

Walking along, or rather on top of the old Victorian main sewage pipes we gazed with awe at the “Cathedral of Sewage”, more precisely, the Byzantine style “Abbey Mills Pumping Station”. A rather spectacular building for pumping sewage to a higher level!

Abbey Mills pumping station

Crossing the Three Mills Wall River we reached the 18th century House Mill, the world’s largest tidal mill. We were welcomed by the volunteers of the The River Lea Tidal Mill Trust and first had a good rest at the Miller’s House Café.

Although the present mill was built in 1776, the Domesday Book of 1086 already records eight mills in the area. In medieval times it was known as Three Mills, providing flour for bakeries supplying bread to the City of London.
The guided tour showed us the timber framed House Mill building from top to bottom and how it operated. The heart of the mill is four water wheels, driven by the tidal water flow, originating from the Thames estuary. The water wheels set in motion a well-engineered 18th century grain milling process. Gear wheels and a transmission belt operate a hoist for transporting the grain sacks up to the top floor and to run the millstones. The solid timber work of the building and structures for the milling process is impressive. The milled grain was mainly sent to the adjacent distillery for making gin, which was hugely popular with Londoners, reaching a pinnacle with the Gin Craze during early 18th century followed by the Victorian-era Gin Palaces. The Mill ceased milling after bombing of the site in 1941 during WWII.
The Trust is doing a formidable job in maintaining the site and aspires to get the machinery working again and produce hydroelectricity.

Three Mills, House Mill

Three Mills, House Mill

Our walk continued passing the classical cast-iron columns of the Imperial Gas Company’s gas holders built in the 1870’s. The gas works are at the site of the former and early 19th century rocket factory of William Congreve. Did you know, that rockets were deployed in the Napoleonic Wars?

Beckton Gas Works

One of the reasons why industries settled on “the other side” of the river Lea was the higher tolerance for industrial pollution in Essex.

Finally, we reached Bow Creek at the Lea estuary, the site of the former Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company known for building the first iron-clad battleship, the HMS Warrior, launched in 1856 and now at Portsmouth.

River Lea


London Historians

 A guest post by London Historians Member, Roger Williams

The City of London’s premier guild is the Mercers’, and their Hall lies off Cheapside where it was established in 1517 and rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. The Hall that was destroyed in wartime bombing had been upgraded in 1874, but the Wren-era building is not entirely lost. You still can still see its rich 1676 facade by visiting the seaside resort of Swanage in Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck. This was incorporated into the Town Hall where, beside the balcony on the upper storey, a tablet reads: ‘Old front of Mercers’ Hall designed by Sir Christopher Wren’, though others prefer to believe it was actually the work of Edward Jarman and John Oliver.

swanage town hall

 Swanage Town Hall

This handsome slice of London was brought here by George Burt, a Swanage mason and nephew of John Mowlem, whose local construction business Burt helped develop. Their trade began in local Purbeck stone, shipped to their London quays in Pimlico and Little Venice. Homeward-bound vessels would make ballast of plunder from their construction sites, which Burt used to make the village of quarriers and fishermen a sought-after resort.

The clock tower that once stood at the end of the Westminster Bridge, for instance, now looks down on boats bobbing in Swanage harbour near two 16ft Ionic columns in Prince Albert Gardens from an unknown provenance in London. Mowlem also developed Queen Victoria Street and Billingsgate Fish Market, and was involved in the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange and the Houses of Parliament.

clock tower

 Clock tower

Choice pieces were saved by Burt for Purbeck House, the residence he built for himself, now a hotel, which the Hutchins family have been running since 1997. Here on the croquet lawn are pillars from Billingsgate Market and statues from the Royal Exchange, one rumoured to be of Sir Thomas Gresham. A ‘temple’ at the back of the lawn has Doric columns from a toll-house that stood on Westminster Bridge and floor tiles from the lobby of the Houses of Parliament. An arch that stood in Hyde Park Corner, with the head of Neptune carved by Burt and his brother F.A. Burt, is another trophy in the hotel grounds where ceramic medallions dot outer walls.

billingsgate pillar

 Billingsgate Market column

tennis court




A bastion on the southeast corner of the hotel has door furniture from Montague House in Bloomsbury, booty from the expanded British Museum. A copy of a chunk of the Parthenon frieze is embedded in the wall above a fancy ticket booth in the stable yard entrance where there are bollards from Millbank prison. Indoors are some fine Arts and Craft touches, and a copy of the Roman tessellated pavement uncovered during Mowlem’s work in Queen Victoria Street, which Italian craftsmen took three years to re-create.


 Parthenon frieze copy

Around this sunny seaside town several items stand out: a stone market arcade, bollards from St Martins, lamp stands from Hanover Square, which have all given the resort a grand, if curious, air. Burt’s business made him a wealthy patron of the town, and he was elected a Sherriff in the City of London. When the Dorset writer Thomas Hardy visited the “King of Swanage”, he found “he had a good profile but was rougher in speech than expected after all these years in London”.
The Mowlem company prospered throughout the 20th century and was involved in major projects, such as Bush House, Battersea Power Station, The NatWest Tower and London City Airport. It was bought out by Carillon in 2006.


 Stone market arcade


Roger Williams is the author of Temples of London (2014).




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