Archive for July, 2014

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.

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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

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 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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