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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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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A guest post by LH Member Jill Browne, who runs the blog, London Heritage Hotspots.

imagesBook Review: Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, by Coll Thrush. (Yale University Press, 2016)

Indigenous London is a readable scholarly examination of a two-way street that for centuries has been treated as one-way only.

The book is based on the stories of individuals who were taken to London from their homelands over the past 500 years or so. Typically what we read in history books is, “Mr. Great Explorer brought three Natives back with him and he went on to do great and wonderful things.” Nothing more about the three.

Coll Thrush, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, takes us with the three (actually, more like 50), instead of with Mr. Great Explorer.

His operating definition of “Indigenous” and the finite number of people Thrush has been able to feature limit what would otherwise be an unmanageable scope of work. The book deals with people from Canada, the United States, Hawaii (before becoming part of the USA), Australia, and New Zealand.

This book has three parts.

The main text is academic, examining the cross-pollination of cultures, one person at a time. Indigenous people travel to London. They observe and are observed. While they are being studied, they learn. Their preconceptions of how English people live are wiped away and they try to understand what’s really going on. They may be the cream of London society, or be ignored and sidelined. Finally, if they’re lucky enough to survive, they might get to go home and tell their stories, just like Marco Polo told his.

In the meantime, bit by bit, the Londoners form an impression of what Hawaiians are like, or Inuit, or any visitors. It’s an imperfect impression, based on close study of a few individuals, but it’s more enlightening than a second- or third-hand account.

Eventually, the Indigenous people and the English might come to a common understanding of each other’s culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a happy outcome for everybody.

The English want to take over and sooner or later the Indigenous people recognize the threat and want to stop it.

Some of the Indigenous travelers are diplomats. Thrush makes the point that often, historically and today, Indigenous people want to deal directly with the person with whom they have a treaty: the Queen. They do not want irrelevant colonial offices and provincial administrations set up to subordinate them.

The book has been praised for taking a new approach to Indigenous history, and it probably has already inspired more scholars to carry on with close examinations of individual lives. Where will it lead? Are we about to see new angles on old legends about the Old World meeting the New?

The two non-academic parts to the book are shorter and quite different from each other.

Between the academic chapters, Thrush includes interludes of free-form poems, which I quite enjoyed. My brain had to work hard in the academic parts (and by no means am I equipped to fully understand them). Then, the author flipped things around and let his and my creativity have a turn. It was an interesting technique and the more I think about it, the more I think it adds to the overall reading experience.

Finally, the third part, which is by far the shortest, may be the only part some readers will want to look at. This is the Appendix of self-guided walking tours of parts of London relevant to the stories and examples used in the academic text. It would be interesting to start there and use the index to pull out as much information as you might want about one of the tours. It’s definitely worth a look for people who like London history.

Bottom line: This book has earned accolades from academics. As a general reader I fear that much of the author’s argument was lost on me but I was able to appreciate the facts and evidence he has compiled and indexed. The creative interludes were a nice sizzle on the steak. For the non-specialist like I am, I would say, don’t ignore this book. Start with the walking tours and from there, use the index to choose excerpts that attract you. The book is rich in information that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.


Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, 310pp, by Coll Thrush is published by Yale University Press. Available for £22.50.


A signed copy of this book is London Historians member book prize for March 2017. 

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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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