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Archive for the ‘20th Century’ Category

Review: Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors. A guest post by LH Member Joanna Moncrieff.

insolvent ancestors“A unique introduction to a neglected historical source” is what jumped out at me when I was first given this book to review. That sounded intriguing.

I have recently realised that many of the resources I use for researching my family tree are equally as useful for research for my guided walks and vice versa.

‘Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors’ by Paul Blake is a case in point. This book could definitely be marketed to an entirely different audience as it has a wealth of detailed information about many of London’s debtor prisons with lots of pointers as to where you can find out more.

Although it isn’t specifically about London the main focus is on it and the book is packed with facts and examples of records in relation to the prisons’ history. The background history of each prison is gone into together with how to access its records. Other chapters delve into the history of the various courts and how they operated. Everything you need to know about the history and operation of debtors’ prisons is in this book.

Those of us who are Clerkenwell and Islington Guides and who guide in and around Old Street talk about Whitecross Street debtors’ prison. An in depth history of the prison and how it operated together with examples of research about various inmates gives a real insight into life as a debtor.

In between the sections about what records are available are lots of interesting snippets perfect for tour guides. For example an 1847 report from the Inspectors of Prisons likened the prison at Lancaster Castle to a ‘noisy tavern and tea-garden’.

I was amazed to discover that the National Archives has an account book listing names of beggars and the tiny amounts they collected at the Fleet begging grate from the 1820s. This fact has already been shared by me with guiding colleagues.

But how do you know where to find this information? There are detailed instructions of what records are available and how you can access them. There are tips on what records have the most info and that some records show a key to more detailed records that are available elsewhere. We are also encouraged to use the TNA catalogue to get an idea of what is held in local archives.  The chapter on Newspapers, Periodicals, Journals and Directories includes lots of practical advice about what is available online and how you can find it.

So much work must have gone into this book to collate such a wealth of material and searching tips. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in social history.


Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians (224pp) by Paul Blake is published by Pen & Sword with a cover price of £14.99 but available for less if you shop around. Note: We have linked to National Archives bookshop here because same price as Amazon, they have a fabulous selection and have frequent sales from their online shop. Give them a try!


Joanna Moncrieff is a long-standing Member of London Historians and also a qualified guide for Westminster and Clerkenwell & Islington. Her blog.

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Today is the anniversary of the Coronation of Edward VII, at Westminster Abbey in 1902. Consequently, every year on this day I am reminded of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, but reporting on events of the previous summer. The whole of Chapter VII is about the author’s experience of the Coronation. He observes the parade from Trafalgar Square during the day:

And as it was thus at Trafalgar Square, so was it along the whole line of march—force, overpowering force; myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And that they should be well fed, well clothed, and well armed, and have ships to hurl them to the ends of the earth, the East End of London, and the “East End” of all England, toils and rots and dies.

…  and then spends the evening on the Embankment with the destitute.

On the bench beside me sat two ragged creatures, a man and a woman, nodding and dozing. The woman sat with her arms clasped across the breast, holding tightly, her body in constant play—now dropping forward till it seemed its balance would be overcome and she would fall to the pavement; now inclining to the left, sideways, till her head rested on the man’s shoulder; and now to the right, stretched and strained, till the pain of it awoke her and she sat bolt upright. Whereupon the dropping forward would begin again and go through its cycle till she was aroused by the strain and stretch. …

…  Fifty thousand people must have passed the bench while I sat upon it, and not one, on such a jubilee occasion as the crowning of the King, felt his heart-strings touched sufficiently to come up and say to the woman: “Here’s sixpence; go and get a bed.” But the women, especially the young women, made witty remarks upon the woman nodding, and invariably set their companions laughing.

When describing the Coronation celebrations and its participants, London’s writing drips with seething sarcasm; his writing about the poor is fueled with pure anger. He uses this chapter in particular to highlight the chasm that existed between the well-off — and indeed even ordinary people — and the destitute poor. All of this in the capital city of the wealthiest and most powerful nation which had ever existed: ‘Abyss‘ is laced through with this particular irony, utterly and deliberately without and ounce of subtlety.

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Coronation souvenir. Royal Collection Trust.

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East End tenement. Photo by Jack London.

The People of the Abyss is an important piece of reportage which should be familiar to all historians of modern London. I see it as a sort of progress report between the bookends provided by Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Mayhew, of course, didn’t feel the need to be ’embedded’ as the other two did, but he did have a penchant for impoverishing himself nonetheless – another story. ‘Abyss’ is far more angry than the other two and certainly more ‘left-wing’. All have the virtue of being easy-to-read despite their most harrowing subject matter. I think the explanation for this is that the writers were all journalists who wrote extraordinarily well.


People of the Abyss (1902) by Jack London is available online for free from the Project Guthenberg, here. Scroll down for the Coronation, Chapter VII.

British Pathé footage of the Coronation of Edward VII.

 

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A guest post by Catharine Arnold, historian, author and London Historians member. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter for December 2018. 

RUTHOn 12 July 1955, 500 people massed outside the gates of Holloway Prison, singing and chanting for hours. The governor was forced to call for police reinforcements as the crowd protested against the execution of Ruth Ellis, a nightclub hostess who was due to be hanged at Holloway the very next day for shooting her lover. Ruth had been convicted of murder but a higher court, the court of public opinion, demanded a pardon. Ruth’s death sentence had already provoked outrage. Fifty thousand signed a petition begging for the death penalty on Ruth to be lifted, but it had been rejected by the Home Secretary. Ruth was about to become the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

Ruth had not always been a victim. Indeed, she was a survivor, overcoming child abuse and teenage pregnancy after an affair with a US airman, before finding work as a nightclub hostess in London. In 1950 she married George Ellis, a wealthy dentist she’d met at a club, but Ellis turned out to be a violent alcoholic, possessive and controlling. Leaving her children with her mother, Ruth went back to work. With her glittering ash blonde hair, She soon became the main attraction at the ‘Little Club’ in Mayfair, happy to pose nude for the so-called ‘Camera Club’ even when there was no film in the cameras. Driven and aspirational, Ruth took elocution and etiquette classes. Impressed by Ruth’s ambition, her boss promoted her to manager of another club, Carroll’s. It was here that Ruth met David Blakely, a handsome young racing driver, and fell hopelessly in love. Blakely moved into Ruth’s flat above the club and she was soon bankrolling him to subsidise his racing career. But Blakely swiftly proved to be another violent alcoholic, cheating on her with both women and men, then returning to his upper class fiancée in the county at weekends.

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Ruth and David at Brooklands racetrack.

Ruth and Blakely’s affair was tempestuous, fuelled by alcohol and punctuated by terrible rows. On one occasion Ruth ended up in the Middlesex Hospital with a sprained ankle and a black eye. On another, when she confessed to Blakely that she was pregnant, he hit her so hard she miscarried. At such times, Ruth turned for comfort to an older man, Desmond Cussen, a former Lancaster bomber pilot. Events came to a head on Easter Sunday, 1955. Blakely was spending the holiday weekend with his friend and mechanic, Seaton Findlater, at Tanza Avenue, Hampstead, and ignoring Ruth’s calls. When she arrived there, Blakely refused to see her, even though she could hear him inside, flirting with the nanny. Ruth responded by smashing all the windows in his car. A second visit proved even more humiliating, with Ruth muttering to Cussen that ‘if I had a gun I would kill him!’ The third, and last visit took place on the Sunday. With Cussen at the wheel, Ruth waited for Blakely outside the Magdala pub in South Hill Park. When Blakely emerged, Ruth pulled Cussen’s .38 Smith &Wesson revolver out of her handbag and fired at point blank range, with one stray bullet hitting an elderly lady pedestrian. After emptying the gun into Blakely as he lay on the ground, Ruth said calmly: ‘Call the police.’ She was immediately arrested by an off-duty police officer.

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Ruth with David Blakely.

When Ruth appeared before Mr Justice Havers at Number 1 Court of the Old Bailey on 20 June 1955, she was dressed in an elegant black suit with freshly peroxided hair, looking as if she was just about to open up at Carroll’s. Ignoring her barrister’s advice, Ruth could not have looked less repentant. Another shock came when Ruth’s barrister stated that she would be pleading guilty, on the grounds of Blakely’s brutal abuse. But the biggest shock of all came when Mr Christmas Humphreys, prosecuting, asked:
‘When you fired that revolver at close range, into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?’

‘It is obvious’ Ruth replied, in a calm, audible voice. ‘When I shot him, I intended to kill him.’

The jury took just fourteen minutes to find Ruth guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. This provoked outrage in the press, while Raymond Chandler, that expert on femmes’ fatales, described Ruth’s sentence as ‘the mediaeval savagery of the law’. The judge Cecil Havers filed a personal request for a reprieve. It was ignored. But Ruth had already condemned herself to death, when she squeezed the trigger of that Smith and Wesson. By shooting Blakely, she effectively killed them both.

On 13 July 1955, Ruth wrote to Blakely’s parents, concluding, ‘I have always loved your son, and I will die still loving him.’ Then she put her diamante spectacles down on the table, saying, ‘I won’t need these any more,’ and went to her death. Outside the prison another crowd had gathered, silent this time, waiting for the execution at nine o’clock. When notice of Ruth’s death was posted outside Holloway at 9.18, the angry crowd surged forwards, blocking the road and stopping traffic.

Ruth was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint who later said, ‘She died as brave as any man and she never spoke a single word’.

As with every murder, this case left a painful legacy. Ruth’s estranged husband, George Ellis hanged himself soon afterwards. Ruth’s mother attempted to gas herself and was left with brain damage. Ruth’s son, Andy, who had been supported by Cecil Havers, smashed up his mother’s gravestone and then killed himself. Mr Christmas Humphries paid for his funeral. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, became an alcoholic. A failed singer, she appeared in a cringeworthy chat show interview with Michael Barrymore, before dying of cancer in 2000. Ruth’s story has inspired much speculation and many conspiracy theories, one of which places her at the heart of a Cold War espionage operation because of her friendship with society osteopath Stephen Ward.

In 2003, Ruth’s case was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, but was rejected. Her family continues to campaign for her posthumous pardon.

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Review: Night Raiders by Dr Eloise Moss. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Tony Moore, a former policeman and now police and crime historian.

night raidersThe day I received this book to review in June 2019, Asrit Kapaj, a 43-year-old Albanian, known as the ‘Wimbledon Prowler’, was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after netting a believed £5 million over a ten year period; it is estimated he broke into approximately 200 homes. He is just the most recent in a long line of burglars going back centuries.

The blurb on the back cover suggests Night Raiders charts how burglary has been at the heart of national debates over the meanings of ‘home’, experiences of urban life and social inequality. We are also told elsewhere that it exposes a rich seam of continuity in relation to three areas, the stereotyping of gender roles in the home, gendered forms of criminality and hierarchies of state protection against crime structured by class and wealth.

Reading that you might think it is an academic book but it is much more than that. Using official records, newspaper reports, books, films and television programmes, both fact and fiction, the author has put together a vivid account of the history of burglary, primarily concentrating on the period from 1860 to 1968. Where did the title come from? The term ‘Night Raiders’ was used by an American criminologist to describe a masked man who climbed through windows dressed in black and silently, stole items before melting away into the darkness.

Stories glamorising criminals has a long tradition in Britain, The graphical tales of Robin Hood, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, along with the modern-day, notorious Kray Brothers are prime examples. To this list, add Charles Peace, a burglar who entered homes in the Blackheath and Greenwich areas of London in the late nineteenth-century. Peace was prone to violence if confronted, and was eventually hung for murder. But what makes the book more appealing, is the author’s inclusion of fictional characters such as the Gentleman Thief, A.J. Raffles, a burglar created by Earnest Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who also happened to be an excellent cricketer!

Only a few women have been the instigators of burglary. Up until 1931, when those charged with crime in London ceased to be recorded by gender, only three women were charged with burglary compared to every 120 men. Despite the small number, the author describes the activities of some of these women under the title of the Marvellous Mrs Raffles?

A chapter is devoted to the Cat Burglar, a so-called ‘professional’ among thieves because of his daring. Describing the roofs of houses as a neglected oasis of relatively unprotected access points to homes, the author claims the burglars, rather than the police, were masters of this particular landscape, As a consequence, in the 1930s, the Metropolitan Police sought younger and fitter police recruits to take part in what became a contest between law-enforcers and burglars.

Attempts to design burglar-proof homes brought a new set of visible and invisible defences with the development of technologies, including the aptly named ‘Buzzer-Light Shriek Alarm’. Security companies, some encouraged by insurance companies, were set up to handle much of this growth. From 1950 onwards, Crime Prevention Campaigns organised by the Home Office and the police, with the encouragement and support of insurance companies, were regularly held both in London and nationally.

Finally the author examines the role of spy-burglars in London during the Cold War. They were perpetrated by Russian agents living in London or by British operatives which, on occasions, resulted in escalating tensions between the Soviet and British governments. The bungalow in Ruislip, occupied by Peter and Helen Kruger, who were heavily involved in what became known as the Portland Spy Ring, was a relative fortress, given all its security devices to avoid their detection. Comparisons are drawn between these real events and the fictitious world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and John Le Carre’s George Smiley.

Given that anyone can be the victim of burglary, the book should be of interest to a wide range of readers. It will be of particularly interest to police historians, those who are responsible for designing buildings which make them less vulnerable to burglary, agents who insure property against burglary and those who are interested in fictional burglars such as Raffles.


Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968,  272pp, by Dr Eloise Moss is published by Oxford University Press on 4 July. Cover price £25.

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Review: Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Sally-Anne Thomas. 

ffThis is a wonderful book for anyone interested in history, literature, poetry or publishing. It’s also the result of meticulous record keeping, and told in a series of letters, minutes, memoirs and memos, with the occasional explanatory intervention by the author.

It begins in London with an account of the early life of the firm’s founder, Sir Geoffrey Faber, the writer’s grandfather. He made an uncertain start in terms of a career. Born in 1889, he spent the First World War on the Western Front, wrote some critically acclaimed poetry, was elected as a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and eventually became a director of Strong and Co., a beer manufacturing company in Hampshire. But he had little talent for brewing, and soon lost his job.

By this time he was living in London, married, and with a growing family. He was writing unsuccessful plays and a novel, but was rescued by another fellow of All Souls, Maurice Dwyer who, with his wife Alaina, had an interest in a publishing company called ‘The Scientific Press’, whose primary title was The Nursing Mirror.
In 1924, Geoffrey was installed as Chairman and Managing Director of the firm. The Nursing Mirror was sold.

The early part of the book marks Geoffrey’s battles to move the firm towards a literary path. One of his first appointments was that of the poet, T. S. Eliot, as a literary adviser. Eliot, as you might expect, was good on poetry, but has the distinction of rejecting an early version of George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris and Animal Farm.

There are constant battles within the firm, involving Geoffrey and later his son Tom, an academic and physicist who rescued the company from severe financial problems in the 1970s.

A series of irate letters cover rows between members of the family and with the directors, disagreements with authors, and a series of other problems.

However, this small firm managed to survive the Great Depression, paper shortages in the Second World War, and numerous financial crises subsequently. It remains one of the best-known and respected publishing houses in the world.

If I were to list all the authors who have been published by Faber, I would far exceed the word allowance for this review. But to name just a few, we have Eliot, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, Ezra Pound,. William Golding, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Harold Pinter, Lawrence Durrell, P. D. James, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and Orhan Pamuk. The Faber Finds imprint, established in 2008, makes copyrighted out-of-print books re-available, using print-on-demand technology and includes works by John Betjeman, Angus Wilson, A. J. P. Taylor, H. G Wells, Joyce Cary, Nina Bawden, Jean Genet, Lousis MacNeice, F. R. Leavis, Jacob Bronowski, Jan Morris and Brian Aldiss.

The detailed story ends in 1989. But Toby Faber – who no longer has a hands-on responsibility for the company – makes it clear that much is still to come.

The structure of the book is interesting. Since it involves very little narrative, just the use of historical letters and memos, it can seem a little staccato. But because it’s been expertly collated, the volume flows. It is raw history, fascinating and hugely entertaining. And running through the book is a sense of fun, of how exhilarating and challenging the company was and is.

Faber and Faber marches on. I’m sure there will be another volume soon, followed by one on the two-hundredth anniversary in 2129.


Faber & Faber, The Untold Story (426pp) by Toby Faber was published in May 2019 by Faber & Faber with a cover price of £20.

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NMC Brochure2_blog

This watercolour from 1931 depicts the astonishing building which the Company of Newspaper Makers was hoping to build for its London headquarters. It reminds me a lot of  the Daily Planet building from Superman. Or the apartment block in Ghostbusters. At any rate, the style is firmly anchored in its period.

At 84m it would have been the tallest office block in London, some 30m taller than Charles Holden’s 55 Broadway, completed in 1929 at that time London’s tallest commercial building. St Paul’s, at 111m, remained the tallest overall.

The signature on the image is J J Joass. John James Joass (1868 – 1952) was a Scottish architect practising in London. A close contemporary of Holden’s, his work included Swan & Edgar, Whiteleys and an extension to Chartered Accountants’ Hall in the City.

Very much a latecomer by livery standards, the Newspaper Makers Company was founded in 1931, the same year as this painting. But it only lasted as an independent body for six years when, by Royal Charter, it amalgamated with the Stationers’ Company (1403, Royal Charter 1557, 47th in precedence) in 1937. This must have been something of a come-down for many newspaper makers, considering the company initially rejected the Stationers and Stationers’ Hall as being too small for their purposes,  meetings and banquets. Their launch meeting on 31 December 1931 had been held at the Institute of Journalists and their inaugural banquet was at the Mansion House the following 26 February.

The first question one would rightly ask, is: where in London was this site? At time of writing we don’t know but looking into it! One would imagine on or near Fleet Street. It could be that this proposed livery hall was at that time, simply an aspiration, bearing in mind it was an illustration in what was a launch brochure for the Company which included its constitution.

Had the Newspaper Makers’ fantasy been realised, one can easily picture this skyscraper being a fitting neighbour to old Fleet Street favourites such as the Telegraph Building (1928, now Goldman Sachs) and the Express Building (1932).


Our thanks to the Stationers’ Company for use of this image. 

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We unapologetically re-publish this four year old review of a fifty-three year old book. Originally published in London Historians Members’ newsletter January 2015. By LH Member Simon Fowler.


 

What’s the best guide to London’s buildings?  There’s the superb and very comprehensive English Heritage’s Survey of London and, of course, the appropriate volumes of Pevsner. But might I suggest a 50-year old book by Ian Nairn? First published in 1966, Nairn’s London has recently been republished as a Penguin Classic after many years out of print. And not a moment too soon!

nairn01Ian Nairn (1930-1983) was perhaps Britain’s greatest architectural critic.  According to Owen Hatherley he was “Arguably the finest architectural writer of the Twentieth Century…vivid, sensual descriptions of buildings, a way of writing about architecture that I’d never imagined possible before.” Today he is remembered for several series of iconic TV programmes in the late 1960s and early 1970s: many of which are now available on BBC iPlayer.

But his greatest work is Nairn’s London. In it he describes nearly five hundred buildings, some famous, many obscure and some plain perverse. In the preface Nairn writes that:
This guide is simply my personal list of the best things in London.  I have all the time tried to be rigorous – not any old Wren church or view or pub – and I have tried to get behind conventional aesthetics to an in internal reality of which beauty is only facet. What I am after is character, or personality, or essence.

During the mid and late 1960s there was an explosion of books about the city, many capitalising on the metropolis’s brief notoriety as ‘Swinging London’.  There was even a Good Loo guide. But whereas these guides are almost without exception dated and hackneyed, Nairn’s London remains as fresh as the day it was published. His descriptions match exactly the building, or bring some aspect to the reader’s attention that they might otherwise have overlooked. Best of all he makes you want to go there. Take 12 Langford Place in London NW8 for example:
Sheer horror: a Francis Bacon shriek in these affluent, uncomplicated surroundings at the end of Abbey Road.  It looks like a normal St John’s Wood villa pickled in embalming fluid by some mad doctor. Two very pinched gables and a bay window like the carapace of a science fiction insect. There is something far beyond architectural wildness here, even Victorian wildness. The design radiates malevolence as unforgettably as Iago.

Ian Nairn is remembered for his opposition to modern architecture.  In a February 1966 article for the Observer titled ‘Stop the architects now’ he asserted that: ‘The outstanding and appalling fact about modern British architecture is that it is just not good enough. It is not standing up to use or climate, either in single buildings or the whole environment.”

Yet Nairn’s London is full of entries praising contemporary buildings. Indeed this is one of the book’s great strengths: separating it from other such guides.  Of two blocks of council flats – Waltham House and Dale House in Boundary Road – which were designed by Armstrong and MacManus and built by St Marylebone council in the 1950s, he says:
Plain dealing: an outstanding and far too rare example in London of what honest design and professional self-respect can do with the leanest of programmes.  Just four-storey flats and maisonettes, respectively: just yellow brick, just long-stepped terraces with some planting in front. But all the simple things have been cared for, not fussed over and not made into ‘features’, but treated as straightforwardly as the nineteenth century dock and warehouse men would have. 

Inevitably, some of the buildings here have disappeared.  It would have been nice for example to have walked past Sir Charles’ Reilly’s Lodge Road Power Station of 1904 (and demolished in 1973) which had “all the ornament florid and curling over, everything saying this is a bloody great shed.”

Nairn was a great pubman. Indeed beer destroyed him in the end: he died as a chronic alcoholic of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983. It is perhaps little wonder that there is a postscript on London beer, which is one of the few entries that has dated.  The capital’s pubs are now awash with good beer: something he would have appreciated.

Some of the best entries describe pubs – there are thirty entries – such as the long gone Ward’s Irish House, near Piccadilly Circus: “It is not trying to be Irish, it just is.  A big bare room with a central zinc-topped bar, no concessions to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London.” Or the Red Lion in Duke of York Street close by, which is happily still with us much as the author would have known it: “If I could keep only one pub out of the whole London galaxy, this would be it…It is a place to walk out of ramrod-straight, reinforced by those proud sparkling arabesques.”

Ian Nairn drinking in a pub

It has to be stressed that this is a very personal guide.  The original blurb on the back claimed that: “there has never been a guide like it…[it is] an intensely subjective search for the good things in London.” There are many omissions – the area (and pubs) around Little Venice for example. But it matters not one jot.  As the great modern architectural critic Jonathan Meades notes: “Nairn’s London belongs to no genre except its own, it is of a school of one. The masterwork.”

If you live in London or are fascinated by the capital’s history and buildings then this guide should be on your shelves.

Nairn’s London has been republished by Penguin Books, price £9.99 (ISBN 978-0-141-39615-6).  All the original rather grainy photographs have been included and there is an excellent afterword by the late celebrated architectural critic Gavin Stamp.


See also: Nairn.


For the past three years London Historians has marked Ian Nairn’s birthday (24/08/1930) with a pub crawl through establishments mentioned in the book. This year it’s Saturday 24 August. Watch out for more news on this.  

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