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A guest post by LH Member Caroline Shenton. This article first appeared in London Historians Newsletter of August 2014. The paperback edition of her book, Mr Barry’s War, has just been published.

Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) is best-known as the architect of the new Houses of Parliament.  With the designer AWN Pugin (1812-1852) he created the most iconic building in London, familiar to millions the world over as a symbol of Britain and democracy.  It was a labour of love.  Barry was a Londoner through-and-through: he was born, married, worked and died in London and, apart from three years on the Grand Tour as a young man, he lived there all his life.  So where were the houses he inhabited in the city whose skyline he, more than anyone else, influenced by means of the biggest Houses of all?  And can these buildings tell us something about a brilliant man who was discreet and private while he lived, and who remains an enigmatic character since he destroyed many of his personal papers before he died?

Barry was the ninth of eleven children of Walter Barry, a government Stationery Office supplier.  He was born and grew up at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the northern side of New Palace Yard, Westminster.  Some fifty years later Barry would construct the famous Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster, to Pugin’s design, almost adjacent to his birthplace, which stood in its shadow until 1867.

The redbrick Georgian terraces of Bridge Street can be seen immediately to the right of the Palace in this 1860 picture in the Parliamentary Works of Art Collection (WOA 1164)

Barry was christened at St Margaret’s Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, just a few steps from home. In the final decade of his life he also designed and oversaw the construction of a new Westminster Bridge.  For the most of his life then, Charles Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, old and new.

When he returned to England in 1820 after travelling through Europe, the Levant and Egypt, he set up a home and office at 39 Ely Place, on the edge of Hatton Garden.  Today this is a gated road containing residential buildings and legal chambers, but until the end of the eighteenth century it had been the Bishop of Ely’s Palace.  It was sold off and redeveloped in 1772 and so Barry had chosen to live on a site with plenty of medieval resonance – including the gothic church of St Etheldreda – but in a house which by then was fifty years old and on the edge of a slum: definitely a first-time buyer’s option.  Two years later he married Sarah Rowsell, daughter of a stationer friend of his father’s whose sister was already married to his brother. Sarah had patiently waited for him to return from his travels and then for a year or two after his return before he had enough money to support them – again a sign of his good sense and prudence.

This is Ely Place today.  No 39 does not survive, having been destroyed by bombing
during World War II which hit the end of the terrace.  We can assume it looked very like this though.

The Barrys continued living at Ely Place until 1827, when they moved to 27  Foley Place with their two sons – Charles jnr (b. 1823) and Alfred (b. 1826).  In the previous seven years Charles had made a name for himself with projects in Brighton and Manchester and the young family’s move to the West End indicates his growing prosperity, and the fact that he was starting to socialise in fashionable Whig circles including members of the Devonshire House set.  Today Foley Place has become Langham Street in Fitzrovia – and is just a stone’s throw from the RIBA on Portland Place, an institute of which Barry was a founding member and whose library today holds significant collections of his papers and architectural plans.

Over the next thirteen years Barry won a series of brilliant competitions and commissions to design and build the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall (1829); the Birmingham Grammar School (1833); Trentham House, Staffordshire (1834); the Reform Club in Pall Mall (1837); Highclere Castle, Berkshire better known as “Downton Abbey” (1838); and Trafalgar Square (1840), among many others.  In 1840 Sarah Barry laid the foundation stone of the new Houses of Parliament, her husband’s most famous building, and that year the family (now including eight children and three servants) moved to a spacious mid-Georgian townhouse at 32 Great George St in Westminster – in fact, a continuation of Bridge Street where Barry had been born.  This was not only to accommodate his large family better but also so that Barry could be as close as possible to the site of his ‘great work’ which was now growing into the air just a few hundred yards away.  Great George Street was at that time a residential quarter favoured by politicians, civil engineers and railway contractors.  At one point this included Samuel Morton Peto, whose firm had the building contract for superstructure of the new Palace of Westminster, and at number 23 lived and worked James Walker, the famous civil engineer who took over Thomas Telford’s practice and whose firm built the river wall and embankment for the Houses of Parliament in the late 1830s. Across the road from the Barry household was the original National Portrait Gallery, run by the Scharf family of topographical artists, and so this neighbourhood nicely encapsulates the main themes of Barry’s career.  These houses no longer exist but a vestige of those times remain as 1 Great George Street is now home to the Institution of Civil Engineers.

At the very end of his life, Barry moved to the semi-rural delights of 29 Clapham Common North, to a grand mansion called ‘The Elms’.  Exhausted and fatally stressed by some 25 years of work on the new Houses of Parliament, he perhaps felt the need to at last relax in comfort and enjoy the semi-rural delights of the Common where sheep still grazed.  He died just a few months later, in May 1860, of a massive heart attack.  His funeral cortège set out from The Elms on 22 May and led to Westminster Abbey, where Barry was buried under a brass depicting the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster, which the great architect regarded as his masterpiece.  Today, no 29 is part of Trinity Hospice, which has occupied the building since 1899.


 


Caroline Shenton  was formerly Director of the Parliamentary Archives and is now a freelance writer, historian and heritage consultant. Her latest book Mr Barry’s War. Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the great fire of 1834   was a book of the year for BBC History Magazine and The Daily Telegraph. Follow her on twitter @dustshoveller or read her blog on Parliamentary history at www.carolineshenton.co.uk.

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A guest post by London Historians member Robin Rowles.

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Modern bust of Thos Cromwell, Guildhall.

In September 2016, I was preparing for the annual Sherlock Holmes Society of London annual weekend, when I received an unexpected tweet from publishing firm Pen and Sword. Would I be interested in writing a book about Sherlock Holmes and London? I was very flattered, wow, somebody out there had heard of my Sherlock Holmes walks, but immediately realised this would be a difficult undertaking. Not writing about Sherlock Holmes, that would be relatively easy, but marketing might be trickier, because I knew the market was saturated with books about Sherlock Holmes and London. Not only do I own many of these, I’m also friends with the authors and I know how good their books are. However, thinking quickly, I explained this and said I could write a book about the civil war in London. After some negotiation, the contract was agreed and I got writing.

The book, which was given the working title of A civil war walk around London, was to be an expansion of my walk ‘Civil war connections ‘round St Paul’s and Cheapside’. Like the walk that inspired it, the book is bookended by historical events from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the Restoration. However, as with the walk, it necessarily takes the reader back into the medieval past and forward into the early eighteenth century. As a fellow guide noted, context is important. Similarly, although the book is about London, parts of it step out of London entirely. Namely the chapter describing the evolution of the Trained Bands, the part-time militia, into the London Regiments. After the battles of Edgehill and Turnham Green in the autumn of 1642, London was secured for parliament, politically and militarily. The London Regiments were free to go on campaign. Which they did, to good effect, marching to relieve the Siege of Gloucester in 1643 and buy the embattled parliamentarians a vital breathing space. The royalists were pressing hard and it’s no exaggeration to say the London Regiments saved the day and the parliamentarian war effort.

Returning to London, there was so many stories to tell. The amazing construction of the Lines of Communication, London’s defences, now long dismantled and confined to the history books. The stories of the various City Livery Companies who housed the parliamentarian committees: The Goldsmiths Committee for Compounding Delinquents for instance. This term was originally applied to those who didn’t contribute to the parliamentarian coffers. Later in the war, the Committee expanded its remit and fined captured royalists with property, who ‘compounded’ for release of their estates. The money thus raised helped finance the war-effort. The Guildhall, where the annual elections to Common Council overturned a relatively pro-royalist caucus in December 1641 and voted in parliamentarians. In the wake of this Puritan revolution, it was the City of London that pressed parliament on important matters during the civil war, such as the removal of idolatrous monuments from churches and elsewhere. Possibly the most dramatic example of iconoclasm came in May 1643, when parliament ordered the dismantling of the Cheapside Cross.

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Map showing the Lines of Communication, by George Vertue, 1738.

16156Writing this book was almost like learning to guide again. Every fact was checked several times over, and then rechecked. I am indebted to the curators of British History Online, who kindly gave me permission to quote from various sources, including the Calendar of State Papers, House of Commons Journal, and the House of Lords’ Journal. The City of London generously allowed me to use photos taken in and around Guildhall Yard and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries very kindly gave permission to use an amusing photo of a bust of Charles I, by a ‘No Smoking’ sign. Charles’ father James was seriously anti-smoking and hiked the tobacco duty by 1,000 percent – although he didn’t mind spending the revenue! Quirky anecdotes like this are bread-and-butter for guides building a walk, but when writing a book, I had to dig a little deeper, look a little further, and work a lot harder. Two or three nights and Saturday in the library, quickly morphed into three to four nights, plus Saturday and Sunday. Fifty thousand words, over eight chapters in nine months. However, with a more than a little help from many friends I got there. The Civil War in London: Voices from the City is published by Pen and Sword.


Robin Rowles is a qualified City of London guide lecturer and a long-standing member of London Historians. 

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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

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London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

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Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

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South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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A guest post by LH Member Ross MacFarlane. First published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

As incidents of Victorian London go, “The Great Stink” of June 1858 must be one of the most familiar: the merest mention of the words brings to mind cartoons of filthy water (such as the one shown, below) and, most famous of all, the disruption of debates in the Houses of Commons due to the stench wafting in from the river.

But away from Westminster, what was the experience like for other Londoners? Was the Great Stink as bad downriver as it was in Parliament? Here’s a description of Rotherhithe from June 1858, sweltering in the summer heat:

Rotherhithe, in common with all other Metropolitan riverside parishes, has suffered considerable inconvenience during the just elapsed month from the stenches arising from the filthy state of the Thames water. Perhaps in the annals of mankind such a thing was never before known, as that the whole stream of a large river for a distance of seven or eight miles should be in a state of putrid fermentation. The cause of the putrescency, and of the blackish-green colour of the water, is admitted by all to be the hot weather acting upon the ninety millions of gallons of sewage which discharge themselves daily into the Thames. Now, by sewage, must be understood, not merely house and land drainage, but also drainage from bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries, and above all from gas factories, the last, the most filthy of all, and the most likely to cause corruption of the water. Should any person doubt this assertion, let him compare the foul black and stinking liquid of a sewer which passes by a gas work, with that of a sewer which receives only house and land drainage…

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If you were any doubt about the effect of such proximity to the Thames during this period, this writer leaves you with little doubt how trying life was:
“It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition as the river at present offers to our senses…”

The author of this graphic account was not a noted author nor a campaigning journalist but Dr William Murdoch, then Medical Officer of Health for Rotherhithe, and his account of the summer stench of 1858 comes from his Report on the health of the area he submitted to the Parish of Rotherhithe for that year. It’s also one of the many accounts of life in London revealed through the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972.

Launched in late 2013, London’s Pulse brings together more than 5500 annual reports from Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) covering the City of London, 32 present-day London boroughs, their predecessors, as well reports from the London County Council and the Port of London.

The reports have been photographed cover-to-cover and turned into text using Optical Character Recognition. Along with the full text, around 275 000 tables have been extracted from the reports as individual files (downloadable as text, HTML, XML and CSV). All this data – as well as images of each page of every report – can be downloaded, freely, from London’s Pulse.

The website also includes contextualising essays from Dr Becky Taylor of Birkbeck and a detailed timeline, placing the reports amongst the forest of legislation which altered the responsibilities of MoHs.

Briefly summarised by Dr Andrea Tanner, MoHs duties – as required by law – “were to inspect and report from time to time on the sanitary condition of their district, to enquire into the existence of disease and into increases in the death rate, to explain the likely causes of disease in their area and to recommend measures to counteract ill-health”.

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As such, analysing MoH reports allows us firstly to trace responses to the major infectious diseases of the 19th century, showing how disease outbreaks could quickly spread but yet, over time, how rates of morality gradually fell across the capital and such maladies as typhoid, smallpox and diphtheria gradually retreated from our streets.

At the same time, the responsibilities of MoHs increased: from their introduction following legislation in the 1840s and 1850s, the scope of their attention widened: from homes, to factories, to ports, to schools; to bakehouses, to dairies and to slaughterhouses – all would come under the gaze of the MoH and their growing staff of sanitation officials, school nurses and environmental officials. The amount of access obtained by the MoH and their staff to these differing kinds of properties illustrates why these reports tell us so much about the lives (and deaths) of previous generations of Londoners.

As such, the reports show just how much information can nominally come under the heading of “medical”: these reports have been used in the past for studies on such wildly differing topics as food and food safety; maternity and child welfare; health promotion; housing; pollution; manufacturing; shops and offices; sanitation; social care; civil liberties; demography; engineering and meteorological conditions. With the greater amount of access provided by London’s Pulse, we hope even more research topics may be added to this list – to take two examples, the London Sound Survey website has started to use the website to uncover what these reports can tell us about London’s attitude towards noise and the Municipal Dreams blog has incorporated data from London’s Pulse into its detailed accounts of the activities of municipal reformers.

As strong as these reports are as evidence, there are of course just one source on London’s health from the 19th century onwards. Given the local level these reports operate on, much supporting material for them can be found at London’s local studies libraries and archives and to promote London’s Pulse and flag up such material, the Wellcome Library held events earlier this year in association with local libraries and archives in Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Camden.

Preparing for these events only emphasised the breadth of London life observed by the MoHs. To take the context of London’s response to the First World War, through London’s Pulse you can see illustrations of how manufacture was affected, the effects of the housing shortage, attacks by Zeppelins and even discussion over whether gunfire on the Western Front was behind the increase in rainfall in south East England in 1915 and 1916…

But at the heart of the reports on London’s Pulse are the responses by MoHs and their staff to the health of their local populations. What comes through most of all from the reports is the MoHs attention to detail: their diligent reporting and statistical accounting of the well-being of their local area. Whether it’s in their intense detection into the exact site of a disease outbreak or even in risking injury when illegal traders respond angrily to their investigation of adulterated foodstuffs; MoHs and their staff respond to the challenges they face with a stoic sense of duty. With London’s Pulse we can look at London life through their eyes and see the problems these relatively unsung figures responded to and how they helped alter our city for the better.


London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972 


Ross MacFarlane
Ross MacFarlane is Research Development Lead at Wellcome Collection, where he is heavily involved in promoting the Wellcome’s library collections. He has researched, lectured and written on such topics as the history of early recorded sound, freak shows and notions of urban folklore in Edwardian London. He has led guided walks around London on the occult past of Bloomsbury and on the intersection of medicine, science and trade in Greenwich and Deptford. As an archivist, he has worked at a number of London institutions including King’s College, Tate Britain, the Royal Society and the Reform Club. Whilst doing so he has handled a mermaid, discovered a lost alchemy manuscript written by Isaac Newton and found out almost too much about Henry Wellcome.

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“the liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country” ~ John Wilkes

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Wilkes by Hogarth.

In the immediate wake of the defeat of Leveson 2 in the House of Commons, it’s an appropriate historical coincidence that today is the 250th Anniversary of the St George’s Field Massacre, which occurred on 10 May 1768.

It resulted from the trial of John Wilkes for seditious libel for anti-government items – some pornographic – published in his magazine, the North Briton, in particular the notorious issue Number 45 from 1763.

During the trial a pro-Wilkes crowd assembled in St George’s Field in Southwark, swelling to an estimated 15,000 in number. The Riot Act was read and troops were called in. They opened fire on the throng, resulting in the deaths of at least six protesters with many more injured.

Wilkes paid his fine, did his time and decided to become an MP.

Spurned multiple times by Parliament, he instead built a successful political career in the City, eventually becoming Lord Mayor. It was here that he did his best work for press freedom. In 1771, several newspapers reported on the proceedings of Parliament. This was strictly against the law. In February, Parliament tried to arrest the printers of two newspapers in particular – the Middlesex Journal and the Gazetteer. Wilkes afforded them protection within the City. The Government, probably realising the effort to be futile, never really opposed Parliamentary reporting after this.

It was a key moment in the history of freedom of the press in this country. So let’s remember those who died on this day 250 years ago and reflect that freedom of the press was hard won.

 

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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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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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