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Archive for December, 2016

Best London History Books of the Year 2016

For various reasons this year I didn’t get around to as much reading as I usually manage so have probably done someone an injustice of omission. However, our shortlist of favourite books of the year is as follows:

Benjamin Franklin in London by George Goodwin
Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton
Curiocity by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose
Mansions of Misery by Jerry White
The Boss of Bethnal Green by Julian Woodford

Our winner of London Historians Book of the Year for 2016 is Curiocity by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose. Unconventional format compared with “regular” titles, but so utterly brilliant, we couldn’t not. Thank you Henry and Matt, and congratulations to everyone for such outstanding work.

Previous winners:
2011 Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun
2012 Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly
2013 Beastly London by Hannah Velten
2014 Played in London by Simon Inglis
2015 The Street of Wonderful Possibilities by Devon Cox

A tad late, but there are still four shopping days left till Christmas. Any one of these will get you brownie points on Sunday morning. Merry Christmas.

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Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.


The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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curiocity

This delightful recent book by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose defies genre. One could call it a trivia book but that would do it a severe disservice. It is that, in its way, but it is so much more. I suppose we might call it a miscellany. Hand on heart, the delay of this review is simply owing to the difficulty I’ve had to define or describe it.

First of all, it is a lovely object. Large, but not coffee-table large, it is neither hard back or soft cover. It is dressed rather in crimson cloth-covered boards which are ever so slightly flexible. It is jam-packed with illustrations and entirely unblighted by photographs. Colourful and beautifully laid out, using Johnston Sans (“London’s typeface”, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year) and Caslon – both London typefaces of impeccable pedigree. Much credit to the designers and illustrators. Oh, and it smells nice too!

So what’s it about? Those of you familiar with the Curiocity maps (“London Unfolded”) which have been published by Eliot over the past five years or so won’t be surprised that the book is underpinned by a series of unusual illustrated maps of London.

crowdformations

Crowdformations.

The authors have arranged their material in chapters alphabetically but intelligently avoided allowing this to be a burden (D = Dust; J = Juvenalia). Each chapter has a two-page hand-drawn map or topographical illustration, beautifully made and full of visual puns. One is reminded of MacDonald Gill‘s interwar theatre and tube posters (“Wonderground” etc.). Hanging from these chapter titles, like beautiful mobiles, there are sections which contain typically three to six morsels of quirky and interesting information. Think QI, but more interesting than that; think Steve Wright’s factoids, but more meaty than that; think Quote…Unquote, but more engaging than that. And all about London. How to describe? Picking something out as a bit of a Blake fan, for example, we have STRAND > GORGONOOZA (Blake’s Spiritual Fourfold London, this is the Map for the chapter)> St James’s Piccadilly > info how Blake was baptised in the eponymous church in the Grinling Gibbons font. The whole is wrapped up with a Philip Pullman quote about Blake. Multiply this by dozens of similarly structured sections and you have a delicious tome of rare worth.

archipelago

The Thames Archipelago.

sleepeasy

Sleepeasy … Speakeasy.

momentomori

Memento Mori … Memorials.

I adore this intelligent, thoughtful book, Curiocity. It has character; it has a sense of humour; it is conversational and sensational. Definitely one of my all-time favourite books about London and most certainly shortlisted for our Book of the Year. Be you the giver or recipient, it’s a Christmas present guaranteed to delight.


Curocity: In Pursuit of London (452pp) is published by Particular Books (Penguin / Random House) with a cover price of £30 but available for less. Worth every penny either way.

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Relatively unflattering, yet Nelson's favourite, portrait of Emma.

Relatively unflattering – yet Nelson’s favourite – portrait of Emma.

The Emma Hamilton story has taken many twists and turns since her own day. Her reputation was widely traduced during her lifetime. Worse was to come during the Victorian era when our national heroes had to be seen and remembered as flawless paragons: Emma was further dismissed as one who lured a helpless Nelson to her bed. Matters improved in the 20th Century when she was represented more sympathetically by Vivien Leigh (1940) and Glenda Jackson (1973). The discovery and attendant research of many private letters about ten years ago shone more light. But still, as far as she is known at all, Emma remains simply Nelson’s mistress.

Her memory deserves better and I believe a new exhibition in Greenwich does her proper justice.

To start life as a poor girl from Cheshire and end up married to the leading connoisseur of the age and rubbing shoulders with European royalty was a massive achievement. Yes, good looks were essential to take her along that road. But equally, it took intelligence, determination and hard work to secure her place at William Hamilton’s side in 1790s Naples. This she did by educating herself in everything and more that a well-born woman would know in the spheres of language, art, science, music.  If it weren’t for the mores and the snobbery of the age, the Nelson and post-Nelson years for her would surely have been less tragic.

Yet while she did so well and achieved so much in her extraordinary life, to any observer Emma Hamilton’s story is also a heartbreaking one. Having moved to London as a teenager and based in notorious Covent Garden, Emma worked in domestic service for local families and leading thespians. Her beauty ensured additional work as an artists’ model. But falling pregnant to a typical Georgian swell with the almost comical toff name of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, she then fell under the wing and into the bed of Charles Greville. Although she saw her daughter occasionally, the girl was taken care of by others, and they led separate lives. Later on, when Greville himself sought and advantageous marriage, he virtually sold Emma on to his uncle, the aging Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples. Emma had no idea the Greville would not be following. She was distraught. Nonetheless, she knuckled down and made a singular success of her new situation.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) tells this story brilliantly. And fairly. Comprising a wonderful mix of objects, the exhibition is nonetheless dominated by portraiture, most of which is from the NMM’s own collection (it has the second largest portrait collection after the National Portrait Gallery itself). Emma was captured by many painters, illustrators and cartoonists great and small. Most prolific among these was George Romney whose portraits are the most accomplished simply because he knew her the best and was clearly smitten. She was also still young. But Joshua Reynolds had a go, as did Thomas Lawrence – not one of his best but interesting to see for comparison. Rowlandson and Gilray had their fun with her, notably the latter, who was uncompromisingly vicious. But funny, to be fair.

Emma as la Penserosa by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1792. © The Abercorn Heirloom Settlement Trustees

Emma as la Penserosa by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1792. © The Abercorn Heirloom Settlement Trustees

Dido in despair by James Gilray. The departing fleet in the background. © National Maritime Museum

Dido in despair by James Gilray. The departing fleet in the background. © National Maritime Museum

It is the Romney portraits which dominate the first half of the show and probably what one takes away. It is good that this show raises his profile, deservedly so. To what extent his Emmas are idealised is difficult to say. Certainly she was a huge celebrity model in her time, in the modern sense, pretty much. This, combined with her obsessive self-improvement, puts one in mind of Marilyn Monroe. Their fame and vulnerable position at society’s top table strike one as eerily similar.

 

The postergirl image of this exhibition. Emma as Circe by George Romney c.1782 © Tate.

The poster girl image of this exhibition. Emma as Circe by George Romney c.1782 © Tate.

The exhibition includes many other personal objects such as tea sets, frocks, jewellery, Nelson’s hair and dress coat. These are interesting, but it’s the sizeable collection of letters between our leading players in Emma’s life which give weight and balance to the whole and make it truly personal. There are also great examples of books which give a good flavour of the times. I was pleased to see copies by moralistic Georgian do-gooders Jonas Hanway (“the most boring man in London” (!)) and Mrs Trimmer.

This show succeeds on many levels. First, it gives a very balanced assessment of Emma Hamilton’s life. Although titled Seduction and Celebrity (you have to catch the punters’ eye), it nonetheless emphasises her achievement, and that is most important. It sets her place properly in the historical and social context of women’s place in late Georgian society, reminding us of the essential weakness of their position and their lot.

But if I were to describe it in a word, I would say: lavish! Beautifully designed, lit and presented. Looking back at NMM shows of recent years such as Royal River (2012) and Pepys, (2015) this is something NMM does particularly well. This Emma Hamilton show is easily the equal of those superb exhibitions.

Highly recommended.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity runs at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 17 April 2017. Tickets are £12.60 (adults, concessions apply).

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When Middlesex had two members of parliament these seats were fought for at often boisterous elections which took place at the Butts in Brentford, today a tranquil estate comprising handsome town houses, a nunnery, the old Boatman’s Institute and other features of interest. Tucked away in a cul-de-sac nearby is an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful old books. Here is the home, office and HQ of long-standing London Historians member Hawk Norton, a talented book dealer who specialises in old London books.

I visit Hawk frequently for a coffee, a natter and to wallow in and marvel at his latest acquisitions. I’ve bought some real treasures from the bottom end of his price list: first editions of all H.V. Morton’s London output from the inter-war period: wonderful; a first edition of Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn’s 1966 masterpiece; other bits and pieces. I’ve held in my own hands a first edition of John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London. Holy Grail stuff.

At any given time, Hawk has over 3,500 books in his collection. Not only that, but also maps, illustrations and other London historical ephemera. All are for sale at great prices, universally under the market rate. Hawk numbers some of London’s leading and great historians among his customers.

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hawks-books-a4-72lpi

hawks-maps-a4-72lpi

You’ll make somebody very happy this Christmas with something from Hawk’s list, especially if that somebody is you! Get his latest catalogue (PDF format) by emailing him on hawk@btinternet.com. He welcomes visitors by appointment.

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