royal hospital chelseaIf you watched the moving Remembrance concert at Albert Hall on Saturday evening you will have seen the contingent of Chelsea Pensioners prominently featured. This is one of their busiest times of year, understandably. But you see small numbers of them out and about at other great occasions and if you’re ever in Chelsea, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter them simply out for a walk.

I had walked past their home – the impeccably symmetrical Royal Hospital Chelsea – many times, usually on my way to the National Army Museum nearby. With three sets of imposing gates out front, I had no idea that the place was open to members of the public. But it very much is (see below for details). During the summer I joined a group of our friends from the Westminster Guide Lecturers Association for a wonderful tour of the complex. Led by the excellent Michael Allen, who features in these pictures.

The moving spirit behind the Royal Hospital was Charles II, inspired during his exile by Les Invalides in Paris. With a waft of the royal hand, Sir Christopher Wren – with quite enough on his plate thanks very much – was contracted to design our very own version, using 66  acres of land originally acquired by James I in Chelsea, then of course pretty much countryside. Unsurprisingly, he did a fantastic job, which is more or less unchanged to this day.

In Wren’s day and from medieval times, the word hospital had a much wider meaning than today, being a derivation of “hospitality” rather than more narrowly a place for sick people, although it did generally imply a charitable function. There are usually around 300 in-pensioners (colloquially: “Chelsea pensioners”). As these terms imply, for a place in the Royal Hospital,  you must be over 65 and surrender your army pension in return for total accommodation and provision. You must be able to look after yourself in day-to-day normal routine and until very recently, you had to be male. There is a tiny handful of female pensioners. (In a ballot, the overwhelming vote by the pensioners in favour of staying all-male was overruled.). Generally, inmates are from “other ranks”. The only officers who may apply will have spent 12 years or more in the ranks. Pensioners retain the rank they left the forces with, hence you will see badges of rank on the tunics of some.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Figure Court. Accommodation in the wings ot the left and right. Great Hall and Chapel immediately left and right of the main portico and tower.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Statue of Charles II in classical garb, by Grinling Gibbons. Gilded for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. I’m not convinced such a great idea.

Royal Chelsea Hospital

Central cupola.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The Great Hall, where the pensioners take their meals.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The chapel.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Extremely rare example of a Royal Mail letter box with two slots, for when the gate is locked.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

The public cafe does excellent cream teas.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

Warriors on mobility scooters. Old soldiers are less steady on their pins than once they were.

In addition to what you see in these pictures, the Royal Hospital also has an excellent museum and shop, the entrance to which is the Wellington room, featuring portraits or the Iron Duke himself, Her Majesty, a superb diorama of the Royal Hospital in the 18C and a panorama of the battle of Waterloo painted in 1820.

You may visit the places here described for free if you’re on your own or in a small group. Groups of 10 or more must make a group booking which comes with a Chelsea pensioner guide. Or you can join an existing group booking if you want the tour. These occur twice a day. Details and opening times here.

For more of our images from the Royal Hospital Chelsea, see our Flickr account here.

join london historians british legion specialIf you’d care to join London Historians between now and Friday midnight, we’ll donate £10 for each new Member to the Royal British Legion.

Last year when I watched the official opening of the Bomber Command memorial, a Lancaster from the Memorial Flight opened her bomb bay and dropped many thousands of poppies. I gathered some up and have been wondering what to do with them every since. Well, now I know, we’ll include one with your joining pack. That’s to say the first twelve, because that’s how many I have.

Applies to Individual Membership (£39) and Joint Membership (£49). Joint Membership counts as £20 to Royal British Legion, so we’re passing on the full £10 differential.

Join London Historians.

Update 12 November: We have five new Members on this now, welcome and thank you one and all, so £50 so far for Royal British Legion. Also, I had a bit of a tidy-up and in fact we have 15 Bomber Command poppies, not 12 as previously stated.

Bomber Command Memorial Flight

Georgians Revealed

George I, by Kneller, c1714.

George I, by Kneller, c1714.

Review: Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain.
The British Library

The Georgian period (patron saint: D Cruickshank) has overtaken the Tudor (patron saint: D Starkey) in recent times and if you’re still not with the programme, as they say, then this is the show that’ll help you catch up toot sweet.

The trigger for the show is the tricentenary next year of the birth of the Georgian dynasty, in 1714. The settlement of 1701 meant that the Elector of Hanover leapfrogged over 50 Catholic pretenders to become King George I on the death of Queen Anne, the last Protestant Stuart.

But the four Georges – whose portraits appear right at the start of this show – are simple date markers who take no further part in proceedings. This exhibition, characterising the period,  is all about the emerging middle classes, increasing in in both wealth and in numbers, who become firmly established for the first time. And for the first time we have a new set of people outside the nobility who have a lot of leisure time as well as the financial means to fill it.

In the service of this came a massive explosion of printed matter, some genres emerging for the first time: newspapers, periodicals, novels, satire, children’s literature, self-help books, fashion magazines, travel guides, maps, treatises. Increasingly, trade was done on credit, honour and promise (often with disastrous consequences), so instead of bullion, there emerged cheques, promisary notes, shares, bonds, chits, and so forth. There are some rather nice examples from Hoare & Co, posh bankers.

Cute. One of a selection of tiny children's books. They are matchbox sized.

Cute. One of a selection of tiny children’s books. They are matchbox sized.

The British Library has items such as these in abundance and this being their show, these objects are the mainstay. Even the ones that contemporaries may have thought mundane are beautiful in their own right. Although the Georgian period embraced simplicity in, say, architecture, in print they were very showy. Most of the items on show feature elaborate and beautifully executed engravings accompanied by highly elaborate text. This is most typified by frontispieces which are a riot of typefaces, often a dozen and more.

The Georgians were interested – obsessed even – in taste, manners, deportment, fashion. They talked about it, read about it, wrote about it. They were consumers of new kinds of food, decor, luxury goods. They pursued hobbies and sport. They were interested botany and gardening and travel. They liked to visit gardens and country houses and towns in the provinces. All of this had to be written down, codified and published, to make sure it was done right. I particularly liked a section featuring the Compleat Tutor… series of self improvement books, very much the …For Dummies of the Georgian period.

The big guns of the period are represented and in general no big surprises. In architecture, for example, it’s Adam, Soane and Nash. The Soane section is particularly nicely done with a very large hand drawn representation in ink of Adam’s Alelphi, so a two for one there. Our favourite Georgian piss-takers – Hogarth, Gillray, Cruikshank – are judiciously and sparingly used. The choice of Hogarth’s “Country Dancing” from the Analysis of Beauty is inspired, I really did giggle.

Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Detail. Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth, 1753. Trustees of the British Museum.

Gilray sneers at lower born tourists. 1800. So funny, though.

Gillray sneers at lower born tourists. 1800. So funny, though.

There are dozens else. Pugilism, the Turf. Cock throwing. Heard of that? At fairs, punters threw sticks and stones at a tethered chicken. The winning shot won the dead chicken. A beautiful series of four large scale maps of Kensington turnpike featuring all the shops and fancy houses from Knightsbridge through Kensington High Street. Beautiful. Pleasure gardens, theatres and opera. Dancing. Picnics, philanthropy. One of the heroes of this blog: Philip Astley, the circus guy.

I have written mainly about the print: it dominates. But there is a strong supporting cast comprising household items, clothes, shoes, accessories and ephemera. Most pleasing for me: Jeremy Bentham‘s violin. He’s another son of London we admire.

Jeremy Bentham's violin, c1969. Museum of London.

Jeremy Bentham’s violin, c1769. Museum of London.

Overall, the show is inevitably very London-centric. Therefore the big London room at the end with the entire floor being a large Georgian map of London is somewhat superfluous, but fun nonetheless and great for us London Historians.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain runs from 8 November until 11 March 2014 at the British Library. Tickets £9, usual concessions apply. All information here.

The Hanging Pub

The Magpie and Stump in Old Bailey was famously a venue where – if you could afford it – you could get your kicks on a Monday morning watching the hanging outside Newgate Prison opposite. Although its building is now modern, the new licencee has refurbished the place to remind us of its macabre past. Here, beer historian Martyn Cornell ponders how far back we can trace this historical tavern.

A guest post by Martyn Cornell.

My library of pub books only seems to have a few brief mentions of the Magpie and Stump and none gives a definite age, though we can certainly push it back to nearly 300 years old at least. City of London Pubs (Richards and Curl, 1973) says it changed its name to the King of Denmark “[w]hen James I married Anne, a daughter of King Christian IV”, changing it back to the Magpie and Stump only after “many years elapsed”. If correct, this would mean the pub was around in 1589, which was when the marriage took place. There are a couple of problems here, though: Anne was the daughter of Frederick II, not Christian IV, who was her brother (though he WAS king of Denmark at the time of his sister’s marriage to James), and while James was, of course, heir presumptive to Elizabeth I in 1589, I’m not sure a pub in London would name itself after the royal brother-in-law of the ruler of a rival kingdom.

However, after James succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne, Christian IV came to visit his sister and brother-in-law, in 1606, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised that the pub was renamed then: though according to this book  even before Christian’s visit, the Danes and their king had a reputation in England for being heavy drinkers. If the pub wasn’t actually renamed at the time of Charles IV’s visit to London, which seems perfectly possible, it seems just as likely it would have been renamed at some slightly earlier time around after a well-known heavy drinker with strong family links to the new king of England.

Whatever the true story here, the pub appears as “the Magpie” in the Vade Mecum for Maltworms, the rhyming “good pub guide” probably written by Edward “Ned” Ward and published around 1718, with the entry revealing that the inn sign showed the bird sitting on a stump, so it is definitely that old, at least, albeit under a shorter version of today’s name: The scan shows that it appears to have been a hangout of supporters of the (long-vanished) Commonwealth, as well as the “thieves, thieftakers and turnkeys” you might expect from its position by the prison, that the landlord’s name was “Sk–ck” (Skeock would be my guess – a rare North East of England/Scottish surname), and that the house tipple was Twopenny, which was a type of pale ale.

magpie and stump

Its politics look to be confirmed by a mention in Larwood and Hotten’s History of Signboards, which says that the Magpie and Stump “was the sign of one of the Whig pothouses in the Old Bailey during the riots of 1715″, that is, the Mug-House riots between supporters of the Hanoverians and the Stuarts, something confirmed by this entry from Chamber’s Book of Days  which again says the pub was just “the Magpie” in the early 18th century: presumably “and stump” was added because of what the inn sign showed.

HE Popham’s The Taverns In the Town (1937) says the Magpie and Stump at that time “bears a sign telling that it has been established over two hundred years”, which appears to have been an under-estimate even then. It also gives the story of “the gentry” hiring rooms at the pub to watch the public hangings that took place at Newgate Prison from 1783 to 1868. The Old Inns of London (Stanley, 1957) pretty much rehashes what Popham says.


Martyn Cornell, who is a journalist and award-winning author, is one of our leading authorities on the history of British beer, the subject of his book, Amber, Gold and Black (2010). He also has an excellent blog: Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile.

dick whittingtonWe all know the rags to riches story of Dick Whittington, his cat and his rise to become Lord Mayor of London. Also, we’ve heard or read about the great Victorian philanthropists such as Angela Burdett-Coutts, George Peabody, Andrew Carnegie. Octavia Hill. But Dick Whittington didn’t invent philanthropy in London and nor was the Victorian period an isolated beacon in a long dark history of nobody giving a damn. No, the City has a long tradition of benefactors through the ages and the act of founding, supporting, endowing has constantly taken place.

A new exhibition opening today at the ancient Charterhouse demonstrates this clearly. The institution itself is a perfect exemplar, for in 1611, business mogul Thomas Sutton made provision for a home there for 80 poor men (the “Brothers”) and a school for 40 poor children, both institutions which survive to this day. Daniel Defoe called it “the greatest gift that was ever given for charity, by any one man, public or private, in this nation.”

tomb of thomas sutton

The tomb of Thomas Sutton (1532 – 1611), chapel, Charterhouse.

Philanthropy: the City Story tells us of much besides. How the maintenance of old London Bridge from the very beginning in the early 13th century was underpinned by charity from the City, hence the Bridge House Estates, the umbrella body which has that role to this day, and much else besides; the story of Thomas Coram and his Foundling hospital; schools and hospitals for the less wealthy; food relief. And so on.

But while acts of charity themselves and philanthropy have been continuous, the types of people and institutions who undertaken them have constantly changed and especially so since the Tudor hey-day of Gresham and Sutton. With the growth of non-conformity, so grew an incredibly strong tradition of charity, Quakerism being an outstanding example. Similarly, over the years, London’s Jewish community – particularly as concentrated in East London – benefitted from the more successful among their numbers. But while much evolves, there are constants, the most obvious manifestation being our Livery companies, Corporate benefactors in the Middle Ages as today.

Angela Burdett-Coutts

Angela Burdett-Coutts

Christ's scholar. Christ's School in Newgate Street was a charity school on which many others were modelled.

Christ’s scholar. Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street was a charity school on which many others were modelled.

But should there be a need for well-off people look after the less fortunate? Some would argue that in a “decent” society there shouldn’t be that requirement. It’s an ancient debate and it is not shirked here. Outgoing Lord Mayor, alderman Roger Gifford, notes that philanthropy is not entirely selfless, calling it in the City context “enlightened self-interest”, pointing out that the City’s success goes hand-in-hand with investment in community matters. Do you agree?

"£.s.d. The Religion of England". 1870. Many 19C Victorian radicals and reformers didn't believe society's problems could be solved with philanthropy.

“£.s.d. The Religion of England”. 1870. Many 19C Victorian radicals and reformers didn’t believe society’s problems could be solved with philanthropy.

The other Big Question the show asks, directing it mainly at ambitious young professionals in the Square Mile: where are tomorrow’s philanthropists and where are they going to steer philanthropy in the years, decades, centuries into the future? Indeed Philanthropy: The City Story is merely an early step in a longer term project that will continue to develop these themes. In parallel, the Charterhouse will be used increasingly frequently until it will be open to the public with a new museum sometime in 2016. Fabulous news.

An engaging show, rich in history. Crucially, a quite rare opportunity to visit the Charterhouse and in particular its exquisite ancient chapel containing the tomb of Thomas Sutton. But the run is quite short, don’t miss out. There is also a series of free evening talks and debates associated with the exhibition.

philanthropy, the city storyPhilanthropy: The City Story opens today (30 October) and runs until 30 November. It is open Wednesday to Sunday from noon till 5pm. Entrance is free. The exhibition is a partnership between the Charterhouse, Museum of London, the City of London Corporation’s charity City Bridge Trust and City Philanthropy.

London philanthropy hot-spots map.

The Vatican XI

As is the British way, most of this part of England is heavily skiving or otherwise having fun today and blaming it on what nowadays is called a “weather event”. Why should I miss out? This frivilous post has nothing to do with London, but does with history. Sort of. So please indulge me, or just skip this post.

Innocent X

Pope Innocent X by Velazquez (1650).

Last week we heard on the news that the Vatican has started its own cricket team.

Fondly recalling my undergraduate days at Royal Holloway it got me to thinking about my perfect Vatican XI. Deeply ensconced as I once was in Medieval Europe, the Crusades etc, some popes of note loomed large. Here goes.

My Vatican XI

1 Leo I (440 – 461) – Turned Attila and his Huns back at the very gates of Rome. Who better to open the batting?
2 John Paul II (1978 – 2005) – Steady bat, long time at the crease. Crowd-pleasing.
3 Gregory VII - (1073 – 1085) Hildebrand. Fearless, gregarious, extroverted. After a period or papal vulnerability, stamped the church’s authority over the Holy Roman empire in the person of the emperor Henry IV. Perfect for Number 3.
4 Adrian IV (772 – 795) (c) – as the only English pope, has to be skipper. Also 24 years in the middle a cracking innings for those times.
5 Nicholas V (1447 – 1455)
6 Pius II (1458 – 1464)
Near contemporaries, these highly cultured gentlemen were the first of the humanist popes who sponsored the rivival of ancient art, architecture and philosophy. So very stylish with bat in hand, though always vulnerable, not unlike David Gower, one imagines. Nicholas was in post when Constantinople finally fell to the Turks. Lacked the authority to do anything about it.
7 Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) (w)
Not a pope but one of the leading theologians in church history.  And smart, despite his nickname of Dumb Ox, owing to his bulk. So a large and deceptively nimble presence behind the stumps. And just the chap to come in after a bit of a middle-order collapse.
8 Julius II (1503 – 1513)
9 Innocent X (1644 – 1655)
10 Urban VIII (1623 – 1644)
Pace attack. These three no-nonsense, aggressive pontiffs perfect to keep the opposition on the back foot.  Led by Julius II, “the warrior pope”, he spent most of his reign pillaging Italy at the head of his mercenary troops. Constantly at war too with Michelangelo whom he got to paint the Sistine chapel. Innocent X. Check the Velazquez portrait (above), that’s all you need to know. Urban VIII. Patron of Bernini and scourge of Galileo. Famously melted priceless bronze decorations to make cannons. Over 20 years in the job so good man to wag the tail when needed.
11 Alexander VI (1492 – 1503) The Borgia pope, avaricious, sneaky, tricky, full of guile and deception, but enjoyed his fun too. Perfect spin bowler attributes.

Scorer: Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) Not a pope, but a firebrand Dominican preacher who held both religious and laity to account for slack moral practices – usuary, sumptuary, gambling, promiscuity, etc. Inspirational and popular till the fun-loving Florentines got bored with his puritanism and burned him in the town square. But good at keeping score, one imagines.

So there you have it. If I were back at boarding school playing pencil cricket instead of doing prep, this would be – in my opinion – a formidible Vatican XI.

List of popes.

Hat-tip to LH Member Deborah Metters @rosamundi for egging on this tomfoolery.

Guest Post. On the 10th anniversary of Concorde’s final commercial flight, David Long muses on the magic of our magnificent, lost Speedbird.

Concorde“I’ve flown Concorde.” Actually I’ve flown in a Spitfire – a rare two-seater, which is much more unusual – but somehow people relate more to the Concorde experience and even now, 10 years after this shimmering white exemplar of Anglo-French cooperation was canned, those few brief words will still bring a conversation to a sudden green-eyed halt.

For years, right until the very end, its unmistakable profile coming into Heathrow still made people look up – not just tourists, but Londoners too who must have seen it nearly every day – and as a child I remember the conductor at an outdoor concert at Kenwood or maybe Crystal Palace stopping the performance mid-symphony and gesturing for the orchestra to stand and applaud as the magnificent creation passed over.

Generally speaking most of us very quickly get used to anything new, but Concorde was always different. For nearly 30 years it really was one of the sights of London, and it belonged to London in a way that no other aircraft could possibly have done. (On the contrary: who in West London doesn’t literally hate the Boeings and Airbuses crashing into their consciousness at 6am every morning?)

Even people with no interest in aircraft loved Concorde, and in the face of the dreadful disaster in Paris, the far-reaching effects of 9/11, and a growing environmental awareness, most wanted it to continue flying even though for the overwhelming majority the chance of ever climbing aboard was never more than zero.


Admittedly our passion for it sometimes blinds us to the fact that when it all started Concorde wasn’t alone in racing for the stars. The Soviets actually entered service a few months earlier with the similar-looking (and slightly faster) Tupolev Tu-144. But rushed into production for propaganda purposes the shine very quickly came off ‘Concordski’ when one crashed at an airshow (also in Paris as it happens). The Americans took a run at it too, with the much larger Boeing SST – intended to upstage Concorde, it was designed to fly at three times the speed of sound instead of just the two – but the Senate refused to back Nixon as the price spiralled out of control and eventually the one completed fuselage was auctioned off for a mere $31,000

That left only Concorde. Not that it ever made much sense either, financially, although mentioning this now seems vulgar and in decidedly poor taste. Some things, we like to think, are simply above price although there’s no escaping the reality that the original budget of £150 million reached something like two billion of public money before the ‘planes were sold to what is now BA for a mere £1 apiece.

But then there are so many ways in which Concorde made little sense. That graceful, slim shape, for example, meant it was far more cramped than even the cheapest charter. (And this despite the fact that, in flight, it stretched by nearly 10 inches as its surface temperature rises to 100°C+) It was also a good deal noisier than conventional aircraft. Inside, I mean. From outside it was in a whole new league altogether with a signature sonic boom that would have shattered windows more than 60 miles away had it ever broken the sound barrier over land.

And as for the fuel consumption of its four gigantic Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 engines, famously the most powerful jet engines in commercial service? Well, let’s just say that given that they were already slurping 5,638 gallons an hour in the early 1970s – when OPEC started holding the world to ransom with increased prices for crude oil – the ability to fly at twice the speed of sound wasn’t the only miraculous thing about Concorde’s continued existence.

But balancing all of this, and flying at an apparently effortless 1,340mph, few then or now could deny that Concorde was beautiful. Really, really breathtakingly beautiful. It was also, inarguably, such a technological tour de force – the result of more than five million test-flight miles, much of it at Mach speeds – that it quickly came to symbolise European technical achievement and pride in a way which today – post-Dome, post-Eurotunnel, and in the midst of Crossrail – is impossible to imagine. The authorities weren’t blind to its symbolic value either, and when the US finally cleared Concorde to land in America two were sent over, carefully timed to land simultaneously and to taxi up to the terminal in a perfectly orchestrated delta-winged ballet of elegant, nose-drooping, synchronous showing-off.


From then on passengers on both sides of the Atlantic welcomed the chance to slice hours off their journeys: London to New York took less than three and a half hours, roughly half the normal time and surprisingly only 20 minutes more than if Boeing’s rival SST had made it to Mach 3. But, while not quite just a rich man’s toy, the example of Concorde certainly demonstrated that supersonic travel was never going to be for the masses – or at least not any time soon.

By the mid-1980s the hundred passengers on each flight had to cough up £2,200 apiece for a cheap-day return to New York and eventually you could more or less treble this for a fare which made First Class look a snip. The flights were therefore mostly full of corporate grandes fromages, show-biz types and the odd professional sportsmen. (Some of the former did it on a regular basis, like the oil exec. who according to BA was clocking up an average of three supersonic flights a week until the bitter end.)

To such people the time saved was clearly worth the money: the five-hour time difference between the UK and US meant in effect they arrived before they had taken off. But to those down on the ground it is, even now, much harder to say quite what Concorde represented or why 10 years on its loss is still keenly felt. But perhaps some things are never meant fully to be understood, and the truth might just be that Concorde really was that special.


London HIstorians member David Long is a journalist and author of many books, mostly relating to London and its history. His latest – Bizarre London – has just been published.

On this blog, see also.


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