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This review is a guest post by London Historians Member Hannah Renier. 

London-BridgeDorian Gerhold’s London Bridge and its Houses, 1209-1761 is a handsome illustrated volume based on extraordinary scholarship. An interest in any aspect of London before 1761 will be enriched by this book because the bridge (for almost its entire life the only one) was so intrinsically a part of Londoners’ lives.

You may already know the 1969 scale model of it, a wonderful, but static, exhibit in St Magnus the Martyr Church. Gerhold’s book offers a more dynamic view in which some of the details assumed by historians in 1969 have been revised. Here the bridge, its many inhabitants, and the events that affected it, come alive through time, thanks to diagrams, plans, plates, details from well-known images and imaginative coloured reconstructions.

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Gatefold spread pp 2-3 is a pre-1590 image from Samuel Pepys’s Library.

Peter de Colechurch and Henry Yevele were the first in a long parade of Masters employed to direct works on the bridge throughout its life. Diagrams show us exactly how, in the last decades of the twelfth century, mediaeval Londoners began to construct a bridge 283 metres long over a fierce tidal river – a feat as astonishing as today’s Tideway Tunnel project. Supplied only with manpower and horsepower, picks and shovels, winches and buckets, iron-tipped piles, tons of rubble, stone and timber, and determination, they made a populated landmark that endured, with maintenance and repair, for more than 550 years.

Almost everything on and around London Bridge changed in that time, and Gerhold has had access to the Bridge House and Common Council records among others. Copious details about the buildings, their interiors, the people who lived there and the rentals they paid are available from 1460 until the bridge’s final years, and a less complete record exists back to 1358. Essentially this was a roadway above the water from north to south, supported on 19 brick and stone piers which stood on starlings – these being east-to-west rubble-filled caissons up to fifty feet long, firmly lodged in the riverbed. As first built, it catered for commerce, religion and defence. At the north (City) end there was a convivial open space and plenty of room for upmarket shops, with modest living accommodation above, to line your path as you crossed the Thames. Near the middle stood more shops and a fine large chapel dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. At the south (Southwark) end, from which any threat to the City was likely to come, the shops were cheaper and narrower. Heading north from Southwark you, or your horse and cart, would have to pass under a stone gateway with a portcullis, cross a military ground, and traverse a drawbridge.

With the centuries, much of this changed. The monks of the chapel had been responsible for managing London Bridge when it opened, but they agreed before sixty years had passed to cede control and income from tolls and rents to the committee of Bridge House, an entity of the City of London which owned the Southwark abutment (the wide land-based approach).

During the Reformation, the chapel was destroyed. It was eventually replaced by a large shop, warehouse and accommodation. Stocks and a cage for offenders were installed at the Southwark end. There was a licensed lady apple-seller there in Tudor times: apples for hurling, probably. At the Stone Gate, wrongdoers’ decapitated heads were displayed on poles from 1577 until 1684, says Gerhold, who likes to be accurate (other sources suggest there were heads after that). The timber-framed shops became taller, wider, deeper and more numerous; most were more than four storeys high. Waterwheels were constructed in 1590 next to the north end, to supply piped water to local houses. At the south, waterwheels drove a corn mill as well as a water supply. There were communal latrines at the north and south abutments, although the one on the City side eventually crashed into the river (while in use).

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Representative spreads from this richly-illustrated book.

With time and less civil disorder, the portcullis and the drawbridge became redundant. Commerce took precedence, and more shops were built east and west of the military ground. The road was gradually, and piecemeal, widened, although pinch-points remained. It was no ordinary road, open to the sky along its length; from the thirteenth century for at least four hundred years cross-buildings (oversails) were popular. These were rooms that spanned the entire street from house to opposing house above the traffic.

So that this ‘bridge’ would not thereby become a tunnel over the river, cross-building was permitted only at alternate houses and from the first storey upwards. This left a height clearance of under ten and a half feet – not a lot for a laden cart. From the seventeenth century new crossbuilds had to spring from the second storey. Imagine sleeping high above the Thames with a gale whipping up the current, your house-timbers groaning and your trade sign screeching. People felt safer with an oversail that would peg their vulnerable homes to both sides of the road. For the houses, with their shopfronts, were not built on top of the road – they had only a toehold on it, and their main rooms overhung the river. This was never a cantilever arrangement. Instead they were supported on, and from, the piers by massive timber hammer-beams, or stone arches.

Dorian Gerhold names the traders and makers who lived above their shops at different times, and shows how the wares they sold changed over the centuries from warlike: bows and arrows made on site and sold – to luxury:imported silks and muslins, and books. Very few alehouses were permitted (rowdiness), and pastrycooks were discouraged (fire). But the seventeenth-century bridge’s coffee houses, promising well-informed discussions of culture and politics, became popular with City men.

The shopkeepers and their families had privies, cellars (often inside the piers), counting houses, garrets and ‘water rooms’ supplied with winches and buckets to draw water from the teeming gullets under the arches. Almost all their chimneys, hearths and kitchens were high above the river. Some houses had ‘walking leads’, which this reader imagines as lead paths behind the roof balustrades, perfect for an evening stroll and a view up or down river. For a long time, the ‘House of Many Windows’ straddled the road facing south; a frontage that was almost entirely crown glass must have twinkled magnificently at sunrise and sunset. The drawbridge building, with houses at either side, was eventually replaced by the spectacularly colourful late-Tudor Nonsuch House.

The bridge was threatened throughout its existence by the tidal tumult between its arches, bitter winters with the frozen Thames expanding, and riot and revolt. Also disease: the Black Death depleted it of traders, although those who remained took the opportunity to take on neighbouring empty properties. Fire was the biggest threat of all. The massive Southwark conflagration of 1212/1213 destroyed buildings as far north as the Chapel. Most of the City end burned in 1633. The Great Fire of 1666 rushed down Fish Street Hill and Pepys watched it destroying more bridge buildings at the north end. Afterwards, London Bridge houses were exempted from the new no-timber-building rule, so nobody was surprised when in 1725 there was another big blaze.

London prospered nonetheless, and so did the 500 or so bridge-dwellers. Their tapestries, looking-glasses, tables, pictures and furnishings are documented house by house. This may make the book sound so detail-heavy as to be a mere compendium of lists, which it isn’t ¬– the drier facts and figures are tabled in appendices.

Towards the end (which may have begun with the great overhaul and sloppy rebuild of 1683-96), maintenance began to fail and corners were cut. The enormous timbers that supported the original bridge were perhaps no longer available or too expensive, but somehow regulation was relaxed with predictable results. New, poorly supported houses threatened to topple. At this time, in the early 1700s, bridges with buildings – which in the thirteenth century had been fashionable in northern Europe – were understandably considered rather a nuisance. The commercial world was in a hurry and immigrants from all over the kingdom were pouring into London. Traffic bottlenecks were bad for trade. And nearby bridges finally defeated Bridge House’s monopoly: Westminster in 1750, Blackfriars in 1769, Waterloo in 1815.

George Dance produced an ominous report on the high cost of repairing London Bridge. The City’s solution was house clearance. Despite protests from their inhabitants, the bridge houses were demolished, the piers cut down, an arch removed and the road widened to 45 feet. That happened between 1757 and 1761. Afterwards London Bridge was not itself. It had lost its world-class sparkle in exchange for improvements which were incomplete. It now provided clear passage for carts and carriages, but the remaining arches continued to obstruct river traffic.

Following the British victory at Waterloo, money was found and a wholly new London Bridge commissioned. In the 1820s work began on John Rennie’s sturdy and serviceable design. It was completed, a few pulls of the oars upstream, by 1831. The London Bridge, Old London Bridge which had been opened in 1209 on the site of many previous timber bridges, was demolished. It ‘vanished without leaving any visible trace’. It had been, as this book shows, one of the liveliest parts of London.


London Bridge and its Houses c1209 – 1761 (168pp) by Dorian Gerhold is London Topographical Society Publication No. 182, 2019. It is priced at £21 for LTS members*, £28 for non-members. Plus postage.

* Note that LTS members automatically get one copy of the annual book free of charge as part of their membership.

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Guest post by LH Member David Brown. Book review of the recently-published Palaces of Pleasure by Lee Jackson. 

PoPPalaces of Pleasure is the most recent book written by Lee Jackson, who is well-known to London history enthusiasts for the Dictionary of Victorian London website, and for his previous book Dirty Old London (Yale, 2014, our review here), a good history of sanitation in London. The subtitle of the book “From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment” lays out the ambition of the author to cover a broad range of entertainments.

The volume provides a very enjoyable read, showing how people in the 1800s spent their free time.

After an introduction, the first three chapters look at how the public house transformed into Gin Palaces, covering the evolution of club and music rooms, and in turn creating the Music Halls. Further chapters investigate dancing rooms, academies and the brief flowering of dancing casinos. Chapters on pleasure gardens and exhibitions are included. Two final chapters cover the seaside and the emergence of football as an entertainment. The conclusion brings together many of the themes and explains why there was such an extraordinary growth in mass entertainment in the Victorian period.

Throughout, the book takes a look at the entrepreneurs that emerged, and how they had to navigate the perils of newspaper sensationalism, the impact of legislation, the temperance movement and the role of the magistrate in shaping the entertainment world. One theme is how the pleasures of the everyday man were seen as threatening and in need of suppression and regulation, whilst the pleasures of the aristocrats and the well-off rarely rated the same view. While in the early period these activities were mainly male, another theme in the book explores how women were perceived, challenges some of the myths around prostitution, and demonstrates how everyday Victorian women increasingly took part in leisure activities.

The author ranges widely, and although most of the places talked about are in London, he also contrasts examples from outside London and particularly in the North of England to show broader trends. Some of the chapters include good case studies (like Samuel Thompson’s wine and spirits business on Holborn Hill and Charles Morton’s famous Canterbury Hall).

Each chapter has a detailed set of end notes. The author uses a wide range of sources (particularly strong on the press), and provides a good bibliography and index. I’d have liked to see more pictures and ideally in the sections of the book that they relate to- here the illustrations included are limited in quantity (26, mostly half page, bound together in the centre of the book).

This is a book that could benefit every London Historian who is interested in 19th Century London. It’s full of anecdotes and facts that will delight the reader. Thoroughly recommended.


Palaces of Pleasure, From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment (320 pp, hardback) by Lee Jackson is published by Yale University Press with a cover price of £15.99.

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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: Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson, by Margarette Lincoln. 

What is the opposite of a spoiler, I wonder? Some six months late, I am able to announce our Book of the Year for 2018. It is this one.  I had already established this at the time but felt a bit daft to broadcast the fact having failed to publish a review. I have therefore now read it twice – no hardship, I can assure you.

This book describes the unsung heroes, heroines – and villains too – who rarely felt the bite of salt water whip across their cheek, but nonetheless played a vital role in keeping Britain’s fleets afloat in the vital period when this country gained hegemony of the oceans.

As the title suggests, this era is characterised by almost constant warfare by both land and sea, but particularly the latter. Great Britain’s only significant reverse was the loss of the American colonies while enjoying great gains in the sub-continent and further afield. War ran in parallel with massive gains in exploration and trade. The end of our period, covered in the final chapter, sees the arrival of steam and the construction of London’s first deep water docks, changing fundamentally East London’s relationship with large shipping until the arrival of containerisation in the 1980s ended it forever.

Trading in War puts the spotlight on the maritime parishes of London, upriver of the City: Wapping, Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Deptford, Greenwich. These communities built, maintained, provisioned and indeed broke up the ships of both the Royal Navy, mainly stationed in Deptford, and the nation’s merchant fleet (increasingly dominated at this time by the East India Company).

The conditions and well-being of these communities, as the author demonstrates, were affected to a huge extent by war, hence the title. The two main wars in our period were, of course, war against the American colonies and various wars against France after the Revolution to 1815. Through the chapters, the author closely examines the lives of all strata of maritime society on the Thames, men and women, rich and poor. These societies were by definition, largely artisnal: shipwrights, carpenters, rope makers, sail makers, caulkers and so on.

The busiest shipyards in the biggest port in the world offered a myriad opportunity for all. Wealth for the owners; employment for the local populace; and rich pickings for smugglers, pilferers and fences, particularly on high-duty goods. Stakes were high and criminals bold: customs men often met with extreme violence and even death. The author has used the wonderful Old Bailey Online to shed light on this criminality. It is interesting to note that women played a significant part.

Indeed, Margarette Lincoln has taken particular care to address the lives of women in these districts. A huge number, as you might expect in maritime communities, had to cope without their husbands. But it wasn’t just sailors’ wives. Many were widows, whose knowledge of their late  husbands’ work enabled them to keep family businesses not only running, but thriving. The Navy Board, in particular, increasingly recognised the inherent value of these women and wisely let them get on with it. But also, there was a supporting community spirit and, in at least one case, even from a rival shipyard. The imperative to churn out ships in time of constant national emergency was paramount.

I’m sure, like me, you will enjoy in particular, the pen-portraits of various individuals in this story. Benjamin Slade, the Navy Board’s purveyor in Deptford. His job was to procure every piece of material that went into a ship, from the anchor to the topsail. The best quality for the best cost he had to do a balancing act between shipwright and Navy. Mary and Elizabeth Slade, spinster sisters who ran a habidashery business in Deptford and lived to a great age. Some of their properties have survived to this day. Betsy Bligh, the wife of the famous sea captain, whose sensible management of his affairs at home underpinned his success such as it was and hedged against his tribulations. Her efforts at last remembered here. Frances Barnard, widow of the shipbuilder William Barnard. Following his death in 1795, she continued to run his business just as he had done: for the Navy Board, seamless continuity was the first priority.

I can but scratch the surface here. The author explores many other important areas: the rise of organised labour and the use of strike action, in effect proto-trade unionism; theatres, boxing and other entertainment in the maritime communities, including debating societies (the Government wasn’t keen!).

Then there are the interesting snippets. Did you know? Many ships were 499 tons or less to avoid the obligation by law of carrying a surgeon and priest; an average East Indiaman was only good for up to four voyages before being scrapped (this surprised me) – copper bottoming could extend a ship’s life by 50%; a ship’s owner or manager was known as its ‘husband’; a large ship would typically take three to four years to build. There is much more.

This book paints a detailed and very human picture of London’s maritime communities over a couple of generations at a time when Great Britain became the dominating world power. In sprite of the nation’s success and growing wealth and self-confidence, it highlights, in particular, the hard and precarious existence of all levels of society in the maritime parishes. It is a beautifully well-rounded work of history and deservedly our Book of the Year for 2018. I trust that is some compensation for not scooping the Woolfson Prize a few weeks ago!

 


Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson (292pp), by Margarette Lincoln, is published by Yale University Press, 2018.

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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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A guest post by LH Member Julian Woodford.
Review: Orphans of Empire by Helen Berry.

orphans of empireThe spirit of William Hogarth runs vividly through Orphans of Empire, Professor Helen Berry’s latest book, which explores the story of what happened to the orphaned or abandoned children of London’s Foundling Hospital. Before reading it, I knew that the hospital was the brainchild of the shipwright, sea captain and philanthropist Thomas Coram. I knew too from Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Hogarth that the artist had been Coram’s friend and an enthusiastic and active patron of the hospital. But I hadn’t realised just how firmly the Foundling Hospital story was seated in Hogarthian London until I read Berry’s fascinating account, which draws heavily on Hogarth’s work for its illustrations and for two of its principal chapter headings.

I am somewhat red-faced to admit that I had never managed to visit the Foundling Museum, tucked in the north-east corner of Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Square, next door to Virginia Woolf’s former residence and adjacent to the former site of Coram’s hospital. So it was a treat to follow Helen Berry’s directions, taking the road less travelled by the throngs of British Museum or Covent Garden-bound tourists leaving the Underground at Russell Square and instead heading, via Brunswick Square and its giant plane tree, to Coram’s Fields. The Foundling Museum, with its poignant collection of foundling tokens and its impressive recreation of the hospital’s Court Room, (not to mention several stunning Hogarth originals, including Thomas Coram’s lifesize portrait and ‘The March to Finchley’) is a humbling yet hugely rewarding experience, but I can state wholeheartedly that its enjoyment is magnified several-fold by the contemporaneous reading of Professor Berry’s book.

Berry’s account interweaves two themes. She is not the first historian to articulate the broad general history of Thomas Coram and his Foundling Hospital in the context of the eighteenth-century charitable movement among London’s governing elite. But she has broken new ground in exploring the rich seam of the Foundling Hospital archive (seventeen double-decker buses-worth of shelving, as Berry points out). This has enabled her to supplement the institutional story with snippets from the remarkable diary of George King, a foundling who went on to experience life as an apprentice in the City of London before running away to sea, fighting at Trafalgar and teaching in South Carolina before ending his days as he had begun them, institutionalised in London as a Naval Pensioner and as clerk to the Greenwich Hospital. As Berry touchingly puts it, the ‘single precious thread’ of King’s diary, punctuated by the ‘smaller broken whispers’ of other former foundlings, has allowed her to illuminate how Britain’s imperial progress shaped the fates of some of the poorest in society.

Orphans of Empire’s many highlights include Berry’s moving and vivid description of the grief of young mothers as they handed over their new-born babies to the hospital, almost certainly never to see them again. Throughout the book, Berry knits together a most interesting recap of the persistent central role played by the orphan/foundling in myth and literature, from Moses to Romulus and Remus, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Her statistical analysis hammers home the sheer scale of failure of eighteenth-century society and parochial government to provide social support for children. Survivors like George King were lucky: two-thirds of the almost 15,000 children admitted to the hospital between 1756-1760 died while in its care, a mortality rate that sometimes rose to as high as 90%. And I was intrigued to learn that several of the hospital’s main benefactors, including Thomas Coram and Hogarth themselves, along with Georg Friedrich Handel, were each themselves childless and that this lack may have been a driving force of their philanthropy.

My only disappointment in this otherwise excellent book is some careless editing. I became confused by the interchangeable use of the terms ‘General Reception’ and ‘General Admission’ (compounded by distinct index entries) to describe the failed experiment in 1756-1760 when parliamentary funding led to the hospital becoming a national, rather than just a London-based, concern and which led to an explosion in demand that almost overwhelmed the institution’s ability to cope. In a similar vein, the statistical analysis of admission numbers and mortality could have been presented more coherently in a single place instead of being scattered throughout, with some resulting unnoticed editorial duplication (pages 58, 97).

This small gripe is not enough to spoil an enlightening account of one of the peripheral but important byways of Britain’s imperial history. Helen Berry’s use of detailed archival research to amplify and vivify the tale of a famous London institution is instructive and exemplary. Orphans of Empire is a super book, nicely produced, with good black & white illustrations, clear endnotes and indexing, and I recommend it to all London Historians.

Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings. By HELEN BERRY. pp. xv + 364 + 20 illustrations within text, indexed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. £20.00, but available for less. ISBN 978-0-19-875848-8. Hardback. Published 11 April.

This book is London Historians members’ book competition for March 2019.


The Foundling Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, admission £10 for adults.


Julian Woodford is a historian and author of The Boss of Bethnal Green, Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London. @HistoryLondon

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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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