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Archive for November, 2018

Book review of Bus Fare: Collected Writings on London’s Most Loved Means of Transport, edited by Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr.  (Slogan: Tourists take the Tube; Londoners take the bus).


busfare2The first thing I did with this new anthology was to scan the Contents pages for anything by HV Morton. Happily there is: a piece from 1936 in which the reporter interviews a WW1 veteran who had chucked in a promising army career to drive buses and be closer to his family. Morton, at the height of his powers, delivers a touching piece where he captures the voice of this Londoner as only he could.

Next stop, Henry Mayhew. Tick. Other literary giants between the covers of this excellent hardback include Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford. And a poem by Kipling: perfect.

Contemporary writers include Will Self, who explains why Stockwell Bus Garage is London’s most important building, and elsewhere describes the denizens of that garage’s staff canteen; Peter Watts talks about the retired ladies who travelled every bus route in London and also a piece about the ‘Boris Bus’. London Historians stalwart Matt Brown has a brace of items, one of which explains how most of our buses came to be mostly red. There are articles by former London Transport Museum virtuosi Sam Mullins (The Bus During World War 1) and Oliver Green (London Buses in Wartime). Oh, look! There is Christian Wolmar (a great supporter of London Historians, just saying) on privatisation; and Iain Sinclair, most amusingly on the modern bus driver’s lot. Editors Elborough and Kerr both chip in with items of their own.

But the book kicks off with an excellent essay by Nick Rennison on the man who introduced the London omnibus (and indeed the word ‘omnibus’ in this context) from Paris: the marvellous George Shillibeer. A former midshipman and trained coachbuilder, Shillibeer spent some time in post-Napoleonic Paris before introducing French public transport innovations to London. His first route was from Marylebone to Bank using two buses. Unfortunately, his business wilted under the pressure of instant competition and dishonest staff, leading him to two desperate spells in gaol, first for debt and then later for brandy smuggling. These are the bare bones of a fascinating life. (My own meagre effort on Shillibeer is here.)

Horse buses were ubiquitous on the streets of London in no time, providing easy fodder for journalists and satirists. The early pages of this book provide plenty of fascinating comment from the Morning Chronicle (Dickens), Punch, The Times etc. Laws, rules and regulations by necessity sprang up early on. And just as with the Tube virtually from Day One in 1863, there was much amusing comment on etiquette.

Elsewhere there is copious thoughtful, whimsical, nostalgic writing about bus travel in London. The book is, after all, a love letter to this vehicle in all its forms. The Routemaster, of course, looms large.  In this vein are the images, which are particularly well selected, complementing the text perfectly. Photos, paintings, posters, timetables, portraits. There’s a 1980 picture of co-editor Joe Kerr himself in his conductor’s uniform on the back platform of a Routemaster; harrowing images of buses caught up in the Blitz; the ‘Windrush generation’, whose very presence in London was in no small measure due to staff shortages on public transport; my favourite, though, is probably King George V raising his shiny silk topper to the No 8 to Willesden.

This is a terrific anthology which no one would begrudge tearing the paper off on Christmas morning. But it is so much more than that. Anyone with the vaguest interest in public transport or the social history of modern London, or – most of all – fine writing, will love this book.


Bus Fare, 351pp  hardcover, is published by the Automobile Association with a cover price of £14.99.

 

 

 

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A guest post by LH Member Catharine Arnold. This article was previously published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of November 2014.

Playwright Ben Jonson [1572-1637], scholar of Westminster School, soldier and one time bricklayer, a trade he hated, is best known for his satires Bartholomew Fair and Volpone. As a dramatist, Jonson was Shakespeare’s greatest rival, and he was fortunate to survive the knockabout world of the London stage, as this anecdote illustrates.

By 1598, Ben Jonson’s dramatic talents ensured that he was much valued by his acting company, the Admiral’s Men, which performed at the Rose. While Francis Meres recorded that Jonson was considered ‘the best for tragedy’, Jonson’s satirical skills were also in the ascendant and he would see a positive reception for his comedy, Every Man in His Humour. This was in spite of the debacle of his previous play, The Isle of Dogs, a political lampoon regarded as so contentious by the authorities that the theatre was raided on the first night and Jonson and his comrades thrown into jail. However, as Jonson’s star rose, so another actor’s reputation sank. Gabriel Spenser, Jonson’s cellmate in the Marshalsea after the disastrous production of The Isle of Dogs had joined him in the Admiral’s Men but a bitter feud had developed between the pair, and plummeted to new depths over the following year. As the 26-year-old Jonson scaled the professional heights, the unpopular Spenser sank deeper into drink and developed an implacable hatred of Jonson. Unpopular among the actors, Spenser had a reputation as a troublemaker, and worse.

Two years earlier, on 3 December, 1596, Spenser had been present at the house of Richard East, along with a man named James Feake, between five and six in the afternoon. According to witnesses ‘insulting words had passed’ between Spenser and Feake. Feake had seized a copper candlestick which he threatened to throw at Spenser, whereupon Spenser seized his sword and stabbed Feake in the right eye, penetrating the brain and inflicting a mortal wound. Poor Feake ‘languished and lived in languor at Holywell Street’ for three days before he died. Despite being accused of murder, Spenser was not executed, or required to forfeit any goods. Perhaps the three days between the fight and Feake’s death gave Spenser the opportunity to assemble friendly witnesses to testify that Feake had provoked him. It was a violent age and men such as Spenser did not hesitate to resort to their weapons if the opportunity demanded it. But Nemesis came for Gabriel Spenser two years later.

On the evening of 22 September 1598, Ben Jonson encountered Spenser in Hoxton Fields in Shoreditch, just around the corner from the Curtain Theatre. The men quarrelled and Spenser challenged Jonson to a duel. Fighting came naturally to both men. Jonson had been a soldier, but as an actor Spenser had trained for fight scenes. All Englishmen had the right to bear arms, and fencing was regarded as a vital accomplishment and an extension of one’s masculinity, as indicated in these lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I bruised my shin th’ other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence.’ Elizabethan youths flocked to the fencing schools, and swordplay was an everyday occurrence in Elizabethan London, part of the throbbing violent pulse of the times.

ben johnson duel

Fighting for his life. Sword fighting in the late Tudor style. Jonson’s weapon is considerably shorter than that of his assailant, Gabriel Spenser.

So here stood Jonson, the provoked, and Spenser, the provoker, with weapons drawn, about to fight to the death. The protagonists were equally matched in terms of skill, but as the younger man, Jonson had the advantage. The fight between Jonson and Spenser must have been as theatrical as any performed on stage. Once violence is imaginatively re-created, it gains its own momentum. Did this skirmish start as a drunken taunt, a play-fight between two hot-headed hell-raisers? In terms of weapons, it was scarcely a fair fight. Spenser’s sword was ten inches longer and it was only the fact that Spenser had been drinking all day that gave Jonson the advantage. As Spenser staggered about waving his sword, Jonson swiped back at him and, within minutes, Spenser was dead at his feet.

Although he maintained that Spenser had struck first, wounding him in the arm, Jonson was charged with ‘feloniously and wilfully’ slaying Gabriel Spenser’ with ‘a certain sword of iron and steel called a rapier, of the price of three shillings, which he then and there had and held drawn in his right hand.’ According to witnesses, Jonson inflicted a six inch wound to Spenser’s right side which killed him instantly. Despite claiming to have been acting in self-defence, Jonson was arrested and taken to Newgate, charged with murder. For all his genius, it looked as if Jonson’s final performance was to be upon the scaffold at Tyburn. But Jonson had one trump card left. As a former pupil at Westminster School, he possessed one item which nobody could take away from him, and that was his education. Jonson’s life was saved by a legal loophole which permitted the literate man to escape sentence ‘by benefit of clergy’ on the grounds that any man with a working knowledge of Latin was a cleric and therefore immune to secular law. The ‘Benefit of Clergy’ posed no difficulty for Jonson, who was required to do nothing more than recite an extract from Psalm 51 which began Miserere Mei or ‘Have mercy upon me, O Lord.’ This stratagem saved so many prisoners from the gallows that it became known as ‘the neck verse’. Jonson emerged from Newgate with an ‘x’ branded on his thumb to prevent him claiming benefit of clergy a second time. This was a lasting reminder of his imprisonment, but he had at least escaped with his life.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, was horrified by this turn of events. On 26 September 1598, he wrote: ‘I have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabriel, for he is slain in Hogsden Fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer.’ Jonson, no doubt, would have been hurteth greatly to be referred to as a bricklayer, the trade which he so despised.

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The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley. Review by LH Member Laurence Scales

71DGRy7bKQLI come to know the King’s Cross area from association with the London Canal Museum. Visits to the railway lands on foot were long confined to a bend of the Regent’s Canal. Cement dust in the eye and sounds of pile drivers were all the senses could grasp of the transformation of a vast region beyond blank hoardings. Old maps told of expanses of urban land lost to long dead trade.

The wilderness of gas holders and derelict coal yards between King’s Cross station and St Pancras is yet something to be missed. It is now a destination for cultural happenings other than spraying tags on walls and fly tipping. There is a new architectural showpiece in the repurposed coal drops and a north south axis for flaneurs. So, a new book about this area is timely. Peter Darley, known from the Camden Railway Heritage Trust and his writing about the equivalent hinterland north of Euston, has authored a very attractive one, packed with fascinating photographs and local artists’ evocative renditions of brick, bent iron and weeds. There are many old maps too but I found myself seeking clearer versions on-line.

E1 Gasholder Triplets, 1997, taken from Goods Way

The Gasholder Triplets in 1997, taken from Goods Way, Angela Inglis (courtesy of Rob Inglis).

8.2 Credit to Pope-Parkhouse Archive copy

The York Road entrance to the goods yard, c1900” (courtesy of Pope/Parkhouse archive).

4.2 BW192-3-2-2-28-137

Granary Warehouse showing two barges entering the Granary via the central tunnels, and horse-drawn carts lined up against the southern wall to receive sacks of grain via chutes, ILN 28 May 1853 (courtesy of Canal and River Trust).

This is really several different books in one. First, the railway station with attendant sheds was a world of its own, with only whistles and smoke escaping. Darley provides plenty of detail for the railway enthusiast. Then there is another world of the carmen and horses swarming around the goods yard at all hours with their coal and grain sacks, herring and potatoes. Included is an account of Jack Atcheler’s knacker’s yard adjacent. The industrial archaeologist is shown horse ramps and hydraulic capstans. As you grab sushi from Waitrose you can learn what manner of trade you might have encountered under that awning years before.

There too are the lost years of planning wrangles, the nature park and Google. This is a rich record and souvenir, not a flowing narrative. In the flip of a page we turn from Streetwalkers to Freightliner Operations. There is so much going on in the area, part now of the Knowledge Quarter, that it cannot all find a home even in Darley’s comprehensive book. I missed mention of the skip garden, inspiring community project and welcome antidote to Prêt partout.

Next time I am in the British Library reading room I shall reflect on the fact that I sit on old Somers Town goods yard. And what may take me to ferret in the library is Darley’s intriguing reference to the unloading in 1937, in another goods yard, of a putrefied whale.


The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley, Softback, 215 pages, lavishly illustrated, The History Press, £20.

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London’s Docklands: An Illustrated History by Geoff Marshall, 168 pages, fully illustrated. The History Press, £20. Guest review by LH Member Roger Williams. 

61CVrv8LqnL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Ten years on from his illustrated guide to London’s Docklands, Geoff Marshall has come up with a fresh look at the docks’ history in a large format paperback packed with photographs, many of how things look today, with a 22-page section in colour.

This is a practical volume, with a clear map, designed to help navigate the streets as they relate to both existing buildings and and long-gone docks. Panels labelled ‘What is there to see?’ lead among other places to the Great Eastern slipway on the Isle of Dogs and to the shelter for labourers waiting for their ‘call on’ by Greenland Dock gates.

The first four chapters deal with the history of the port of London from Roman times to the opening of the King George V Dock in 1921, creating the largest concentration of impounded water in the world, and to the regeneration that followed the decline. Chapters then go from dock to dock, followed by themed chapters that cover industry, shipbuilding, railways and canals, famous voyages, churches and pubs. The high points of history, the dock strikes, the Tooley Street fire and the Silvertown explosion, are explained.

A Blue Badge Guide, a London Historians member and a former research chemist, Geoff Marshall has clearly pounded the streets. Thorough in his fact finding, he gives details of how sugar is still refined by Tate & Lyle at Silvertown, and how the French government bought 16,000 tons of Peak Freans biscuits from the Bermondsey factory in 1871, for a hungry population emerging from the Siege of Paris.

Other tidbits are the origin of the name Horsleydown as the place where King John’s horse decided to lie down, while total immersion baptisms at this point on the river gave their name to Dipping Alley. Some dockside occupations are familiar, others not. There are, for example, the Bank Rangers who policed Surrey Canal and ‘Blondins’, deal porters who knew how to balance planks of wood when unloading them.

The speed of change in Docklands that began several decades ago has not halted. Archaeology may benefit from developments, with finds such as the porcelain manufactory at Limehouse, but as residential blocks go up around Canary Wharf, encroaching on the remaining water, and industrial buildings around Bow Creek and Orchard Place fall beneath the dead hand of high-rises that take no account of their riverside advantages, it is important not to lose sight of a whole culture that once energised the river. Geoff Marshall’s book is a great asset in ensuring that this does not happen.

– Roger Williams

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