Archive for August, 2012

It’s a bit late in the day for a wee review on this, for it’s been on for two months already, and finishes on 23 September. But I managed to get there last weekend and was so bowled over by it that I’d urge you not to miss it. On show at the Guildhall Art Gallery (a favourite of mine already), the exhibition comprises selected treasure from a wide selection of the City of London’s 100-plus Livery Companies. These are items which live behind closed doors in Livery halls and which we the general public rarely get to see. The range in eclectic and all the bits are pleasing in their own way. So we have portraits of worthies – typically masters – office holders’ regalia, furniture and decorative objects, commemorative and celebratory pieces. Just to mention one item at random, a taxidermed ram’s head which serves as a snuff-box. One of my favourites has to be a display object for the 1851 Great Exhibition by the Cutlers’ Company which comprises 1,851 blades, all fanned out. See picture below. We have a coat and badge from the Watermen’s Company, the prize of Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race from 1903 which I wrote about recently. The piece de resistance, however, is undoubtedly Holbein’s group portrait of Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, lent to the show by that particular Company.

Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker Guildhall Art Gallery

Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, panel, by Hans Holbein. Collection of Company of Barbers.

Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker

Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons (detail), panel, by Hans Holbein. Collection of Company of Barbers.

Butchers Bakers Candlestick Makers.

Cutlers Blade Tree, 1851, made by apprentices of John Weiss and Sons. © Mr G Bond.

Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker Guildhall Art Gallery

Doggett’s Coat and Badge prize from 1903. Collection of Company of Watermen.

Butcher, Baker and Candlestick Maker: 850 Years of Livery Company Treasures runs until 23 September. Entrance is £5, £3 concessions and Free to Art Fund members and other select groups. More information here. 

On leaving the gallery, we were accosted by a steward who told us that the Great Hall in the Guildhall was open if we’d care to take a look. We did care to take a look and had it completely to ourselves. Not sure if it’s open to the public every Sunday, but what a treat.

The great hall. London Guildhall.

The Great Hall. London Guildhall.

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Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed the now-former Member of Parliament for Corby to the post of Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead after she resigned her seat via a letter to her friend the First Lord of the Treasury.

I love these ancient titles of our rulers: modernisation must be resisted. But why was it necessary for Louise Mensch to become the Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead? Well, we still cling to the idea that the job of being an MP is a serious business and should be taken seriously by candidates and sitting MPs both. You are expected to remain in your seat unless death do you part. You may only resign at a General Election. Constituents may decide for you, of course. The only way otherwise to resign mid-term is to become disbarred through being given a sinecure which is a “paid office of the Crown”. The Stewardship of Northstead is one such and many an MP who has needed or wanted to leave the Commons has held this peculiar post for a huge variety of reasons. Recent post-holders include Boris Johnson (left Henley to stand for Mayor of London), Gerry Adams (wished to run for Irish Parliament), Peter Mandleson (to join European Commission) and Matthew Parris (to become a TV and newspaper pundit). Other notables: Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, Anthony Eden.

There is a list of past Stewards here. A very interesting read.

Louise Mensch leaves Parliament.

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House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door by Melanie Backe-Hansen

house histories melanie backe-hansenA bit late on this one, a book which was published quite some months ago at the least. The reason for this is that the houses featured are country-wide and not just in London. But I get a bit silly about such things, sometimes, and in fact, there are loads of London properties featured in this book, 45 out of the 100, to be precise. They are all dwellings which the author has investigated in her former role as in-house historian to the posh estate agents, Chesterton Humberts.

The Introduction – the “Your Front Door” bit if you will – tells us how to source primary documents to investigate a dwelling, tips which probably apply to other types of building too. What they are, where to look. Many these days are available on-line of course, but you’ll always have to hit the libraries, local archives and museums to do in-depth sleuthing.

We then get straight into the properties themselves and there is a huge variety – from quite modest cottages to country manors. Each is given two or three pages, is image rich (photos, documents, records and best of all, old map sections), and is given interesting break-out sections such as Architectural Highlights, nearby shops and industries. Best of all for the through-the-keyhole prurient, which is all of us, are former notable residents. So we have Disraeli, Somerset Maugham, Pitt the Elder and others. Similarly, the properties bear the dabs of some of our best known architects – Soane, Norman Shaw, Gropius to name just a few.

house histories

Hardly any of these properties are famous as such (Harrods Depository anyone?) which is the strength of the book, almost the point of it, actually. But I’m sure you’ll recognise a fair number of the urban ones at least. For me it was the pretty row of brick houses on the Talgarth Road near Earl’s Court with the enormous upper windows. I’ve driven past them hundreds of times. Turns out they were conceived and purpose-built as artists’ studios in 1891. As I suspected, then, but it’s nice to have one’s guesses confirmed. And being a former denizen of the neighbourhood, I enjoyed reading about the 18C post office in old Chiswick, that’s to say the bit near the Thames and Hogarth’s House rather than what people today call Chiswick around Turnham Green.

This is a dip-into book, a present book, a thoroughly enjoyable book on all sorts of levels. Well researched and written, beautifully illustrated and produced.

House Histories, the Secrets Behind Your Front Door (240pp) by Melanie Backe-Hansen is published by the History Press with a cover price of £16.99 but available for less.

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supreme court logoA few months ago I was in Parliament Square with a bit of time to kill. So I wandered into the Supreme Court. Because apart from the airport-style security screening, you just can. Having cased the joint, I thought it might be nice to do a group visit. And so last Tuesday, we did.

The neo-Gothic style building is newer than it looks, even for neo-G, having been built in 1913. Architect: James Gibson. Its original purpose was the Middlesex Guildhall and as a denizen of Brentford, it’s this aspect which particularly interests me. What many don’t realise – even today – is that Middlesex no longer exists as a legal entity, since it and all its functions were swallowed up by the new Greater London Council in 1965. But in days gone by, all of London north of the Thames and west of the River Lea was Middlesex* (hence Middlesex Station – Surrey Station in the Boat Race, etc.)  The little county was small of size, big of population, a quite relatively powerful entity with a proud history.

the supreme court middlesex guildhall

middlesex regiment

Memorial for soldiers of Middlesex and Middlesex Regiment who lost their lives in World War One.

middlesex regiment

Pendant celebrating the Middlesex Regiment at the Battle of Albuhera (1811) during the Peninsular War.

So you will find in the building lots of references to Middlesex history, in particular portraits of local worthies (There are two portraits of Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland – one by Reynolds, the other by Gainsborough). In the foyer there is a war memorial of the Middlesex Regiment.  And in the basement display there are quite a few historical objects from the lamented county’s past. But not forgetting the building’s additional past business as a law court, there are portraits of legal notables too, very pleasing to see the Blind Beak of Bow Street, John Fielding.

john fielding

John Fielding

But all that’s in the past. The Supreme Court was set up in late 2009 to take over the functions previously carried out by the Law Lords in Parliament. This building was chosen because it was still close to the seat of Parliament while giving some separation from the House which was in many senses remote from the public. Unlike all other courts, cases here are filmed and broadcast live. There are twelve Justices who normally hear and judge cases in panels of five, although seven and nine are occasionally used for more complicated or important cases. The justices do not wear robes or wigs except on ceremonial occasions. From the time of the Act in 2005 to set up the Supreme Court and its actual opening four years later, the building had to be extensively renovated. Eight courtrooms needed to be combined and reduced to three; a quite large library and caffeteria-restaurant were introduced. This was extremely controversial and widely unpopular. Having not seen the “before”, it’s difficult for me to comment, but I would say what we have today is a pleasing blend of the old and the new –  this coming from a usually reactionary fuddy-duddy.

supreme court

Court Room 1. Beautiful medieval style carved wood ceiling decor with art nouveau style lanterns.

supreme court

Not quite so good. Modern Court Room 2. Carpet design by Sir Peter Blake. The blue flower, incidentally, is a flax, representing Northern Ireland.

supreme court

London Historians, hearing all about Court Room 3. Large portrait is Duke of Northumberland by Joshua Reynolds.

supreme court

The Library.

You can visit the Supreme Court any time during its stated opening hours for free. Access to the court rooms will depend on whether the court is in session, so the best time to visit is on a Friday when it is not. If you wish to have a guided tour as group like we did, they charge a very reasonable £5. I’d like to thank our guide,  Simon Josiffe, who imparted great knowledge and hospitality.

* Here’s a thing I’ve often wondered. We have Sussex, Essex, Wessex and Middlesex. Why no Norsex, Nossex or similar? Anyone have a theory, or even the actual answer? Please comment.

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A guest post by John Washman. will crooks mp

My awareness and appreciation of Will Crooks (1852 – 1921) has steadily grown over the years. Imagine a large jigsaw puzzle. Over the years I’ve stumbled across bits and pieces of information relating to Crooks, but it wasn’t until I read this book that all of the pieces of that puzzle finally came together.

Being an East Ender myself, I had often heard the name of Will Crooks mentioned, especially from the older generation (mostly with great reverence). I’ve lived in quite a few areas of London, and on both sides of the river. For a time I lived in Poplar too where I had to walk past the Will Crooks estate to and from work every day. Obviously I knew the estate was named after the man, but at that time I was still young and I didn’t put any more thought into it. Although I had always been interested in history, it wasn’t until later in life when I started to develop a greater interest in the history of London itself that I was surprised by just how often the name Will Crooks kept popping up.

The author of ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a way’ is right to subtitle of this book, ‘The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP’, but because quite frankly it is ‘remarkable’. The book itself I might add, I found remarkable too. The fact that some of the subject matter is quite serious and heavy at times in describing the depressing social conditions of the time, the author manages to convey quite nicely how Will Crooks’ never ending optimism, his happy nature and his genuine love of his fellow man, especially the poor and needy carried him through the many challenges he faced in improving the lives of ordinary working people.

As a 9 year old boy in London’s East End, Crooks was sent to the Poplar Workhouse when his family was plunged into poverty, an event that he described as being etched into his soul. This might have killed any desire in most people to help their fellow man, but when Crooks became a man, he became chairman of the very board that years earlier had been responsible for sending him to the workhouse. He then began reforming and humanizing the Poplar Workhouse, reforms that would then spread throughout Britain’s workhouse system. The book does a very good job of detailing Crooks’ childhood experiences so the reader can see how those experiences shaped the man, the life he led and his policies.

Will Crooks did much, not just for London, but for the nation as a whole.

  • He first came to prominence as one of the leaders of the great dock strike of 1889; an episode which nearly cost him his life.
  • He was the first ever Labour Mayor in London.
  • He became only the fourth ever Labour MP.
  • He was a Privy Counsillor to King George V.
  • As part of the London County Council, he gave Londoners the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and the Woolwich Foot tunnel. He even had one of the Woolwich Ferries later named after him.
  • He dealt a killer blow against Baby Farming in London, one of the darker sides of Victorian Britain after the nation was outraged by the Amelia Dyer baby murders.
  • He fought for, and won many social reforms.
  • He fought for ten years for the introduction of our National Old Age Pension scheme.
  • He was mainly responsible for unemployment becoming a government responsibility.
  • He was calling for a minimum wage in parliament 86 years before Tony Blair’s government first introduced one.

There are so many other achievements and episodes related to his name that I could list, but I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil the book, which by the way is written in novel format and makes for a super easy read. I’m surprised Will Crooks isn’t more widely known today and that he has become a bit of a forgotten figure. Hopefully this book will open people’s eyes to one of the East End’s and London’s finest sons. Although the main point of the book is Will Crooks, it also covers the social conditions of the times and how those conditions affected the birth of the British Labour Party and ultimately our welfare state, but don’t be put off of reading this book if you are not a fan of the Labour party, as the book is so much more than a political biography and I’m sure readers of any political leaning will enjoy reading this simply inspiring story.

Where there’s a Will, there’s a way: The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP  (212 pp) by Jim Crooks is available in both paperback (list price £8.99) and Kindle (list price £3.35) editions.

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At least a quarter of our members are on Twitter, that is to say about 1% of our whole Twitter following. I always get a buzz when two Tweeters meet each other for the first time at one of our events and you see eyes light up in recognition of often a lengthy 149 character friendship.

We have authors, novelists, tour guides, archivists, librarians, academics, bloggers, cartoonists, musicians, journalists, students, publishers, buildings experts, heritage professionals, ghost writers, programmers, genealogists and regular Joes like me who just love their history.

I never seem to have time to do the Friday #FF thing, and besides there is always the risk of missing people out. So here’s a list of London Historians members, please #FF them. And let me know if you’re a member and I’ve missed you out.

@Adeteal @adetinniswood @AndrewMaginley @angiplamb @annecarwardine @audreycollins23 @avail @beccasams @bilaeva @bobbyatbath @carolineld @christianwolmar @ClaudiaFunder @ColinWalkLondon @dgbdgb @DrFrond @dustshoveller @EHChalus @EJBrand @emmajolly @essiefox @foratata @gberserker @gentlemansykes @GeorgianGent @gudge75 @guidediane @HalcyonVA @historybeagle @househistorian @importanttrivia @janeslondon @KateMayfield @katemorant @keatsbabe @kimawhitaker @kingdomhorse @kirstyriddiford @lancashirelady @leohollis @linzherdscats @London_darkside @londonginclub @londonhistorian @londonleben @londonphile @londonstone @lucyinglis @lukemouland @mad10 @MathewJLyons @mattfromlondon @mishjholman @missusrachie @missysun @MmeGuillotine @neil_fraser_ @OiLondon @patrickbaty @PaulDaveyCreate @PeteBSW1 @Peter_Watts @quackwriter @rachel_gibbons @reuseisbest @rob_s_smith @RobertElms @rosamundi @rosemarymorgan @ruthlynas @Sarah_McCabe_ @Sjgray86 @sketchesbyboz @slangular @specvernac @the_sugar_girls @thefrolick @thehowlingsea @TraceLarkhall @TwoRoadsBooks @vickeegan @walkingthepast @walkthelinesLDN @wallstroker @wearyhousewife @wwalks

Altogether, now! #FF them all, #FF them all, the long and the short and the tall… Etc.

Update 9 August: Thank to Calum in comments for suggesting I put everyone on a list within Twitter. Now done, and here.

Totally coincidentally, @wwalks wrote an excellent introduction to Twitter on her blog only yesterday. So, if you’d like to get more out of it, or are thinking of getting on Twitter for the first time, I recommend you have a read of it.

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A guest post by London Historians member Ursula Jeffries.

A contemporary described William Caxton as a man ‘by no means dull nor benumbed by sloth’. This faint praise scarcely does justice to the man who introduced printing to England but then this whole era has somehow failed to inspire the excitement or interest that the Tudor period enjoys. It may be because Edward IV never received the accolade of having his own Shakespeare play or that the awful confusion wrought by the Wars of the Roses (with the consequent devastation to life, land and literature) makes it hard to find a clear focus. 1066 and all that, always a worthy source of information, claims that kings became less and less memorable, sometimes even getting in the wrong order. It also provides a useful questionnaire requiring you to advise Warwick the Kingmaker whether you have ever been King before and, if so, state how many times and ‘also whether deposed, beheaded or died of surfeit’.

This decade does indeed have a new king (Edward), the former king (Henry VI) and then the new king back again. No wonder that Caxton trod a perilous patronage tightrope as he changed the face of English literature and even the English language. The official line was that Henry died in 1471 in the Tower of London ‘of pure displeasure and melancholy’ although a violent fate is much more likely. Edward was ruthless and politically successful but he also collected and commissioned illuminated vernacular texts and it was his sister Margaret who encouraged and funded the first book ever to be printed in English in late 1474. As Caxton writes “All the books of this story…thus emprunted, as ye see here were begun in one day and finished in one day”.

battle of barnet, 1471

Regime change: Battle of Barnet, 1471, from a contemporary manuscript.

Caxton returned from business in Europe and established a printing press in his rented premises ‘at the sign of the Red Pale’ at Westminster from 1476 . London was still a walled city surrounded by small villages and with just one bridge and the occasional outbreak of plague but it was an active business, adminstrative and ecclesiastical centre. The fourth cathedral of St Paul was at this pre-Reformation time still regarded as an important and architecturally stunning building with its spire and ‘parvis’ where the lawyers met. Dunbar wrote: I warn thee com not there but thy purse may sweat, [unless] thou have the peny redy to tak to.

This was the decade that saw the last private battle on British soil (Nibley Green) and the death of Malory whose ‘Morte d’Arthur’ was to inspire a whole dynasty of legend and story. Edward was wheeling and dealing first to recommence the Hundred Years War with the Treaty of London in 1474 and then through political cunning to change sides with the Treaty of Picquiny in 1475. Thus he failed to become king of half of France but was bought off by Louis XI (known as the universal spider) and came back with a lump sum of 75,000 crowns, a pension of 50,000 crowns per annum and a dowry for his daughter. Meanwhile the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474 established the Hanseatic League in the Steelyard (commemorated by a plaque at Cannon Street) with all that meant for foreign trade.

‘While jesting with aldermen, or dallying with his mistresses, or idling over the new pages from the printing press of Westminster, Edward was silently laying the foundations of absolute rule.’ In this one sentence a late nineteenth century historian (the Rev Green) helps to explain the power of the Tudor era. Alchemy was an obsession; the population of England was only 3 million; printing was so new there was scarcely a vocabulary to describe it but this decade, in all of its colourful detail, can claim a special place in London’s history.

See also related post, The Battle of Barnet.

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