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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Oh dear, I should have done this ahead of Christmas to help solve gift dilemmas. Never mind.

best books 2017
With notable increases both in membership and activities, book reading and reviewing suffered this year more than in 2016, which was very much a vintage year for London history books, I feel. But more of our members are stepping up to do reviews, an activity we’ll do our best to nurture in 2018 and beyond.

Short-listed are Peter Stone’s excellent The History of the Port of London; and Indigenous London by Coll Thrush whose early chapters knitted perfectly with this year’s Pocahontas 400th anniversary.

But our winner of London Historians book of the year is The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes, a wonderfully-balanced introduction to these very different Restoration diarists who were nonetheless best of friends. There is plenty here even for those who know these gentlemen well.

These and other good books which passed our desk during the year are here.

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A guest post by LH Member Roger Williams. 

Review:  The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
By Peter Stone

51FqDHqHplL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_It is flattering when a publisher asks out of the blue if you would care to write a book. That’s what happened to London Historian member Peter Stone, when his posts about the city on his The History of London website caught the eye of Pen & Sword History Press.

The subject he chose was the port of London because, he says, as a Londoner born in the East End, he wanted to know more about it, and there were few comprehensive books on the subject. The result is The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations, a 250-page book with 16 photographs, half a dozen prints and a dozen clear, specially-drawn maps that tell the story of the port from Roman Londinium to DP World London Gateway.

Medieval London is particularly well researched. This was a time when wine was the biggest import, and the Vintners Company established a 400-year monopoly. Trade was wrapped up in rules and regulations, even stipulating where foreigners could stay ashore. In the early 12th Century crews of foreign ships, when approaching London Bridge, we learn, were required to sing the Kirie Eleison to show they were not pagan pirates.

Elizabethan times saw a great expansion is shipping. Legal quays were established along the City’s foreshore, which held a monopoly on the landing of imports for 250 years. Suffrance wharfs on the south bank were later added to handle the increased volume of cargo brought mainly by charter companies like the East India Company that held monopolies on trade in great swathes of the world.

The first wet dock was in Rotherhithe. Howland Wet Dock was initially designed to shelter ships en route to London, but it also served the whaling fleets, whose messy business was kept away from the city. By 1800 an estimated 8,500 vessels could be seen between six miles below London Bridge and two miles above it. Import and export docks were sorely needed and they developed with great rapidity –– London, West India, East India, St Katharine’s, the Surrey Docks complex and the Royal Docks. An aerial photograph from 1957 shows their enormous extent.

With quotations from Pepys to Millicent Rose, the book is good on social history, on the lives of all those involved in the docks that by 1900 supported 20,000 full-time jobs and half as many casual ones. Ben Tillett, the unions and the everyday lives of dock workers are evoked, and the role of the Port of London Authority fully explained. There is the development of the villages from the City to the Isle of Dogs, from the time when Stepney was a village with a dock at Ratcliffe to today, when everything has slipped way down the river. But Tilbury, it is heartening to read, is still active, exporting engines from Ford at a rate of two vessels a day and importing a quarter of a million vehicles a year. Petroleum, steel, timber and sugar are still important imports, while DP World London Gateway, which covers an area twice the size of the City of London, can handle the largest vessels in the world,

The story of London’s ports is the story of the city, and, with a final chapter that looks to the future, Peter Stone has given the port of London a fulsome and highly readable biography.


The History of the Port of London — the Vast Emporium of All Nations
by Peter Stone is published by Pen & Sword History with a cover price of £19.99.


Review by Roger Williams. His latest book is ‘Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries’, Bristol Book Publishing, £7

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Review: The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes.

the-curious-world-of-samuel-pepys-and-john-evelynLondoner Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) is the most famous proper diarist in the English language. Those who appreciate a little of London history will know too his fellow practitioner and great friend John Evelyn (1620 – 1706).

Pepys kept his diary for just 10 years until 1669 when he felt it was affecting his eyesight. Evelyn was far more prodigious, noting down his daily thoughts from 1660 until his death in 1706. We find that others – notably Robert Hooke – also enjoyed the pastime, a genre embraced with much enthusiasm from the mid 17th century onwards. Unlike Pepys, Evelyn retrospectively updated and adjusted his diaries over time, which may seem to us now to be a bit cheaty. Pepys, perhaps, didn’t see his daily jottings as a legacy issue. How ironic.

The two men had much in common. They were both active members and supporters of the new Royal Society; they were keen collectors of books; they had friends and acquaintances in common such as Hooke, Boyle, Wren and others of that golden generation. In short they belonged to group of men whom we might describe as curious gentlemen of affairs. That’s how they would have seen themselves and how others saw them too, and not always approvingly.

But at the same time, they were very different. Pepys became a widower and had no children; Evelyn had a successful and long marriage with many offspring (although most did not survive childhood). Their attitude to women generally was entirely different. Pepys, though well-connected, was not as wealthy as Evelyn and had to make his fortune through successful public service. Most importantly, though, Pepys’s character was as earthy as Evelyn’s was high-minded. The former was addicted to theatre, music and entertainment generally whereas his friend’s obsession was primarily horticulture. Pepys experienced prison; Evelyn not. Evelyn’s world view was shaped by his continental travels as a young man; Pepys lacked this benefit. And so on.

Looking through the prism of  the interests and experiences of these two men, we can build a detailed and fascinating picture what life was like for the educated elite in Restoration London. That is idea underpinning this book. It is not really about Pepys and Evelyn so much as about their curious world and hence the title.

The early chapters talk about the political and social environment inhabited by our protagonists. We are introduced to their friends, their family and others who shaped their lives. It’s good to be reminded of the origin of the word cabal and the genesis of Whigs and Tories.

As later chapters examine in further detail, this was a remarkable period of firsts. Formalised scientific enquiry through the Royal Society; the introduction of tea, coffee and chocolate; the rise of the coffee houses (it was interesting find out that coffee had taken hold in Oxford some good ten years before London); the craze for imported foreign manufactures – furniture, linen, crockery, etc; shopping malls!

These are wonderfully developed, but for me there are two stand-out chapters. The first – Chapter 6, Pleasure in All Things, is mainly about Pepys. It addresses the Restoration theatre of Kelligrew and Davenant with appearances, of course, by Margaret Hughes (another first) and Nell Gwynn. Pepys’s love of music introduces us to how that was written, performed, consumed and distributed at the time.

The other is the book’s final chapter – The Affection Which We Have to Books – which brings us full circle for both men: their love of books. This is one of the author’s specialities and it shines. Pepys’s library (now at Magdalene College, Cambridge) numbered some 3,000 titles while Evelyn’s was even larger at around 4,000 – both enormous by the standards of the day. Respectively, as you would expect, they tell us much about their owners who assembled them, housed them and catalogued them in distinctly different ways, also reflecting their personalities. The contemporary London book trade – agents, vendors, booksellers, stationers, auctioneers – an enormous topic, here wonderfully described. For me, this was one of the most fascinating sections of the book. One among many.

I can’t remember a history book as richly illustrated as this. There are fully 48 pages of colour plates in three sections. Virtually every topic covered in the text has an image to match – portraits, maps, engravings, landscapes, fabrics, toys, panoramas, landscapes, furniture and on and on. All generously captioned.

This is a wonderful introduction to the Restoration London scene through the lives of two if its most significant players. Thoroughly researched, organised and presented, I loved every page and recommend it unreservedly.


The Curious World or Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (282pp) by Margaret Willes is published by Yale with a cover price of £20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cover-1-525x700London Historians member Victor Keegan has a new anthology of poetry out. Unlike its predecessors, this one focuses entirely on London. Entitled London My London, it comprises 84 poems. They are autobiographical, philisophical, whimsical, sometimes political and often funny. I like the deliberate anachronism in this one.

Lundenwic
We learn of ancient Greece and Rome
But not of history nearer home
If in time travel I had wandered down
To live my life in Lundenwic town
There’d be no one but Saxons there
From Fleet Street to Trafalgar Square. 

I quote this one in full as a neat and typical example that I could transcribe easily! Other topics include the Underground, cigarette cards, Tate Modern, graffiti, Tooting, the Walbrook River, St Mary’s Woolnoth [a favourite!], the Thames estuary, Sir Henry Havelock, and on an on. Oh, and fellow poet Ben Jonson.

Stand-up Poet
Oh, rare Ben Jonson,

As should be known
by every London cabbie,
He lies buried standing up
in Westminster Abbey.

Read what Vic himself has to say about this work here and here.
The anthology costs a mere fiver in paperback or £3.99 Kindle edition both at Amazon.

 

 

 

 

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A guest post by LH Member Claudia Elliott. 

REVIEW: Marriages Are Made In Bond Street – True Stories From a 1940s Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson.

marriagesbondstreetLooking for a husband or wife is no easy task and, in spring 1939, two enterprising chums, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to make it their business. They opened the first match-making agency, situated in a tiny office above a hairdressing salon in Bond Street.

Instead of waiting for Cupid’s arrow to strike at a society ball or in the Lyons Corner House, potential sweethearts could queue up the stairs to the Marriage Bureau, where a secretary would take down their particulars and vet their suitability as partners.

During the inter-war years, social class was still much to the fore, and status was the number one concern. Candidates were graded as ‘Gentish’, ‘Near Lady’ or ‘Much Better Than Some’.

Most were looking for solid, steady partners who could provide a home and security. No requests for ‘partners in crime’ or ‘soulmates who enjoy drinking red wine by a roaring fire’ here.

As it was unusual for young women to be running a business, let alone one of this nature, the two 24-year-old proprietors run up against spluttering moral indignation from various quarters.

War breaks out and with it the pressure to find a bride or groom increased. One memorable passage concerns a disfigured soldier who takes his partially sighted date to The Players Theatre in Albemarle Street for a magical evening of Victorian song and mushroom pie.

Over time, the business of match-making became more socially acceptable and Heather Jenner became a minor celebrity featured in newspapers.

Author and London Historians member Penrose Halson rattles through the tale in an entertainingly droll fashion. She was the owner of Katharine Allen Marriage Bureau, which merged with Heather Jenner’s business in 1986. Heather Jenner’s archive provided the stories for this book.

Quirky gems are to be found in the notes on candidates’ requirements –

“Sensible but not stodgy. Not living in or near Southport.”
“Interested in ballet or opera or both but not the Bloomsbury type that haunts both.”

Men tended to be preoccupied with appearance, often stating a preference for virginal bombshells who were willing to keep house and travel with their husband’s job.

The interviewer’s comments about candidates could be merciless – “Scarecrow, spectre, long thin face and body, glasses. But pleasant.”

The jaunty toodle-pipness and sentimentality is a little overdone in places but in all this book is great fun, as well as a valuable document of social life in the 1940s. And the Marriage Bureau worked – thousands of its clients were wed after their introductions in Bond Street.

The speediest success story comes from the couple who sent the following telegram: “Met at lunch STOP Engaged at dinner STOP Thank you.”

Marriages Are Made In Bond Street – True Stories From a 1940s Marriage Bureau (357pp) by Penrose Halson is published by Macmillan available in both hardback and paperback.


Claudia Elliott
https://claudiaelliott.contently.com/
Twitter: @Claudia_Elliott

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Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

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Guest post by London Historians Member Caroline Swan.

main_9781445661117_1It’s a fairly common occurrence for builders to uncover disused burial grounds in London; it can feel as though the entire city is built on top of a vast graveyard. Many visitors and Londoners alike are fascinated by London’s multitude of burial grounds and London’s Hidden Burial Grounds will no doubt be of interest to those who have wondered where Londoners were laid to rest in the centuries before edge-of-town cemeteries and cremations became the norm.

Rather than focusing on London’s famous suburban Victorian cemeteries, such as Highgate and Kensal Green, Robert Bard and Adrian Miles take the reader on a journey through central London’s lost burial grounds, little patches of ground that today serve as parks or playgrounds, or have disappeared altogether. The authors clearly covered many miles whilst researching this book, visiting the featured sites and taking photographs, many of which are featured (in colour) in the book, alongside historic images and some wonderful photographs from the archives of Museum of London Archaeology.

This book draws extensively on two key nineteenth-century sources: Gatherings from Graveyards by George Alfred Walker (1839) and The London Burial Grounds by Isabella Holmes (1896). Both of these figures had an interest in improving the health of Londoners – Walker, a surgeon, wanted to see inner-city graveyards shut, as he was concerned that overcrowded burial grounds were the cause of high levels of disease and mortality in the areas surrounding them, while Holmes campaigned for disused cemeteries to be transformed into parks and playgrounds for the use of people with little access to outside space.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds is divided into three main sections: “Plague Pits and Pest Fields,” “London’s Worst Nineteenth Century Burial Grounds,” and “Disused and Hidden Jewish Burial Grounds.” The chapter on plague pits and pesthouse grounds looks at sites from both of London’s famous plague outbreaks, in 1349 and 1665, as well as other sites of mass graves such as workhouse burying grounds. These sites are generally indistinguishable as burial grounds today – one of the featured burial grounds is now beneath a multi-story car park in Soho. Many of the Jewish burial grounds featured in the book’s final chapter are also hidden, but behind high walls and locked gates in unassuming corners of the East End.

The main part of the book is dedicated to the huge number of little churchyards and urban burial grounds that began to disappear during the nineteenth century. Many of the burial grounds used in London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were profit-making ventures run by often unscrupulous owners who crammed thousands of bodies into spaces that were nowhere near big enough. George Alfred Walker’s investigations helped to uncover the horrific practices going on in many of these places; the famous scandals of Spa Fields and the Enon Chapel are recounted here, along with accounts of churchyards literally overflowing with the dead. Bard and Walker also include an account of a woman thought to have died of cholera who, not actually dead, broke out of her coffin en route to burial in Southwark. The horrors of these overcrowded graveyards makes for grim but compelling reading – it is hard to imagine the sights and smells that Londoners must have been confronted with when visiting any of these places.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds sheds light on the often-overlooked history of burials in London before the advent of the “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries and their successors, and makes for a great guide to central London’s forgotten cemeteries. It is superbly illustrated with colour photographs, while an extensive bibliography includes a wide range of titles for further reading. The use of archaeological reports adds another dimension to the story, providing physical evidence to back up the often-lurid Victorian accounts of overcrowded, squalid burial grounds. All in all, it makes one grateful that the persistence of the likes of George Alfred Walker paid off and that the people of London are no longer forced to bury their loved ones in such dreadful places.

London’s Hidden Burial Grounds by Robert Bard & Adrian Miles, is published by Amberley, 2017. Cover price is £14.99.

 

 

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