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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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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A guest post by LH Member David Whittaker

Iron Men How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, by David Waller.

ironmenWhen considering the Industrial Revolution some of us, although well aware of earlier developments in that we all know about Coalbrookdale but may not know about the rest of the pre-Victorian era. Many tend to think that the most important phase of the Industrial Revolution took place in the Victorian era and associate it with “Railway mania”. They may also assume that most of this activity took place near the coal fields in northern towns. But what came before this? It was a world almost contemporaneous with well-known changing social commentaries of Jane Austin. So, it’s easy to forget that the beginnings of mass production started in the late Georgian era. Furthermore, ask most people, even those who have an interest in Britain’s industrial history, to name a famous engineering innovator. Only a few would name Maudslay. So, who were Henry Maudslay and his men? As Waller says “Amid the truly voluminous literature on the Industrial Revolution with much on the social impact of mechanisation, but surprisingly little about the machines themselves and the men who built them.”  In “Iron Men” Waller endeavours to fill this gap. Much of this activity, perhaps surprisingly, took place in London.

The book starts with an account of an early example of the mass production maritime pulley block-making mill at The Royal Dockyards Portsmouth. In 1800 The Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars required more than a hundred thousand blocks per year. This drove the move to machine manufacture. These block mills were the result on the labour and vision of three men, General Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy’s younger brother), Marc Isambard Brunel and thirdly, the young Henry Maudslay. Maudslay moved on to London to work for Bramah’s locks in Denmark Street, then to set up his own machine shop at 64 Wells Street London, developing new and more accurate “boring machines” all the time. These were not only capable of manufacturing rapidly and consistently to fine limits but were also a thing of aesthetic beauty in their own right. In 1810 Maudslay made the move to Lambeth to build his “Most Complete Factory” The greater space allowed far larger projects to be undertaken. Here were manufactured a wide range of mechanical machines and parts including “Time Balls” as synchronising indicators for ships. The one on Greenwich Observatory is one of these.

Through the following thematic chapters, the author moves on to those associated with Maudslay. Here he covers him working with the Brunels and the Thames Tunnel, noting that Brunel’s tunnelling shield was constructed at the Lambeth factory. Then, on to Manchester and Richard Roberts, via Babbage, the great polymath, designer of cowcatchers and his attempts to build his “Difference Engine”. On to railway locomotive design improvements to Nasmyth’s steam hammer and further transportation developments. Then the standardised Whitworth screws nut and bolts. Ending with locks, labour disputes and fire arms. A fast-paced romp, each fact-filled chapter sprinkled with engineering nuggets. Interestingly, these men were mostly of humble practical backgrounds, often educated via apprenticeship and the rise of the technical schools. They had “bashed metal” and possessed an ability to visualise the various interactions of complex mechanical devices.

Waller also interestingly, in several places, likens this period to the computer technological developments of Silicon Valley.

After all this you are probably wondering what happened to Maudslay’s wonderful factory? Founded in 1810, before the battle of Waterloo the site is now that of Lambeth South tube station. Waller writes  “There is nothing left to remind us of Maudslay’s presence, expect a memorial tablet erected  high on the wall inside the ticket office of the tube station, which you would hardly notice if you did not come looking for it:

“On this site between 1810 and 1900 stood the works of Maudslay, Sons & Field famous for marine and general engineering and as the training place of many engineers of renown”.

“This ought to be hallowed ground for all engineers and aficionados of the Industrial Revolution, as it was for knowledgeable contemporaries.” I agree…

In conclusion, this book is very much for the general reader as well as the industrial history enthusiast. It should fill in many gaps in knowledge how everything is put together

Also it should please those like me who delight in all the “connections”. That web of people, places, things and timelines that somehow fall together to make it happen.

Lastly, one minor gripe which seemed rather ironic considering the subject matter of quality and standardisation. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s contents and it has certainly inspired me to investigate the life and technical innovations of Maudslay and his associates, it was slightly spoilt by the rather small type size and inconsistent quality of the print where it appears that the ink has not fully adhereed properly to the page.


Iron Men: How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, 244pp, by David Waller is published by Anthem Press in hardback and Kindle. ISBN 978-1-78308-544-6

 

 

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Mansions of Misery, A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison by Jerry White.

Book review and guest post by LH Member Jane Young

mansions of misery by jerry whiteMy introduction to the work of Jerry White was some time ago as a history student. The superb Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920 (1980) contributed to two dissertations and later, as a lecturer in social history, it became a perennial staple on the essential reading list.

Mansions of Misery has much in common with Rothschild Buildings in that it is a “microhistory of a small distinctive community” and focuses on individual stories in minutiae, and most entertaining detail. An in depth account of the Marshalsea Prison, the culture of debt, credit and commerce and everyday economy of the commonplace necessities of life and trade in the Capital during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

A study of people as well as an institution; all human life is here. Through the personal accounts of the debtors the incarcerated are given a voice. The looming threat of the Marshalsea is given a resonance and sense of place now almost unimaginable, permeating life in London across all classes. The story of the Marshalsea is also the story of ordinary Londoners and the telling of it results in a fascinating and beautifully written social history of the metropolis.

The research is thorough; moreover a subject that has the potential to be gloomy is made intriguing and immensely readable. A narrative that naturally requires some explanation of the British legal system of the years the Marshalsea was in operation is well executed in a clear and concise manner. Excellent endnotes add interest for the casual reader and make for an invaluable addition to academic reading lists.

The book reveals the Marshalsea during the times made familiar by Hogarth, Smollet and Dickens from the inside: the living arrangements; the hierarchy; the role of the turnkey; relationships among the prisoners; trades that not only served the Marshalsea but were also dependent upon it; the construction and fabric of the building and changes that took place as it evolved from early beginnings until closure in 1842. Within this is contained a picture of London that makes for compelling reading.


Mansions of Misery, a Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison (364 pp) by Prof Jerry White is published by Bodley Head on 6 October 2016 with a cover price of £20.00.

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Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

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eykalisSorry for the lack of posting of late: I’ve been overseas for three weeks. This, at least, enabled me to catch up on some reading, including this assertively-titled work by Matt Brown, which was published very recently.

Most of us who love London are aware that there are many canards out there, some of the most obvious relating to Dick Whittington, for example, or the American hotelier who purchased London Bridge. What Brown has done is to undertake as deep and wide a trawl as possible and deliver from the most obvious to the most obscure, and if you know him personally or from his writings at Londonist, you’ll realise that he’s just the man for the job. The obvious trap in a project of this kind is, of course, to come across as a didactic bore. This is something the author acknowledges in his introduction and then skillfully manages to avoid through lightness of touch and twinkleness of eye: it’s joyous to read and a book that will make you smile frequently.

From a review point of view, the danger here is spoilers. So I will just mention that there are bits which debunk beliefs relating to Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin, Hitler, the Great Fire (topical), Bob Holness, Boris, Napoleon and Boudicca. That’s a tiny percentage of it. There is tons more, nicely arranged thematically into 10 chapters, including an important section which throws a huge bucket of freezing water over the most idiotic trivia fed to tourists.

I think my knowledge of the capital is pretty good on the whole, so it was occasionally disappointing – but in a nice way – to discover that some things I believed turn out to be complete bollocks (nylon, Jeremy Bentham); and other new things (to me) of which I was completely unaware (Green Park and flowers; Jimi’s parakeets). I’m sure you too can look forward to similar triumphs and disasters, and treat those two impostors just the same.

So lots of juicy and factual content, then, but also room for editorialising. There is one item in particular which takes a sideswipe at Victor Meldrews like me who dislike change, in this instance relating to names of areas. It’s a point well made, as is the book itself which is very nicely designed, illustrated, printed and bound.

Well-written, knowledgeable, amusing, authoritative. This is a fine book to own and one which friends will thank you for as a gift. And mean it.

Everything You Know About London is Wrong (192pp) by Matt Brown is published by Batsford with a cover price of £9.99. It can be purchased directly from the publishers www.pavilionbooks.com, in good and some bad bookshops, and on Amazon.

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