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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.

© London Met Archives 28160 Frost Fair low_500

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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“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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This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from January 2014. 
By Hawk Norton. 

‘Tis prophecied in the Revelation, that the Whore of Babylon shall be destroyed with fire and sword and what do you know, but this is the time of her ruin, and that we are the men that must help to pull her down?’
John Rogers, 1657

‘A thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief.’
Samuel Pepys, 1661

In 1648, the bloody civil wars, which had caused the deaths of around 250,000 English men and women, seemed to have ended. In December the ‘Long Parliament’ was purged by Colonel Pride and replaced by the ‘Rump Parliament’, enabling the trial and execution of King Charles I. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church were abolished and England became a republic. After a successful campaign in Ireland and the defeats of Scottish Royalists at Dunbar and Charles II at Worcester, by 1651 power lay firmly in the hands of Oliver Cromwell and the other leaders of the 70,000 strong New Model Army.

Spurred on by these events, radical social, political and economic reforms had been proposed by fledgling left wing groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers: the people’s sacrifice in the wars surely merited some reward. In a heated debate with Cromwell at St Mary’s, Putney in 1647, the Leveller, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough had declared: ‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.’ But as a member of the incumbent ruling elite, Cromwell was never going to accede to their revolutionary demands. As these early radical groups were suppressed, one of their number lamented: ‘It seems now, except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom he hath no right in this kingdom.’

The period also saw a huge surge in the popularity of radical religious sects. The bible was available to all to be read, interpreted and freely debated and free from the stranglehold of the repressive machinery of the church, the presses poured forth a flood of pamphlets espousing every form of radical religious belief. Many of these sects (and two thirds of preachers in the New Model army) were millenarians, believing in the imminent arrival of the Fifth Monarchy (in succession to the Assyrian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman). As foretold by the Books of Daniel and Revelation, Christ would return to inaugurate a thousand year rule of the saints over an age of peace, prosperity and see an end to priests, lawyers and landlords. This millennium would be followed by the third coming of Christ and the Day of Judgement.

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A plethora of 17C non-conformist sects.

The most radical of these sects were the Fifth Monarchy Men whose leaders’ analysis of the biblical prophecies led them to believe in an imminent final showdown between Christ and the anti-Christ (the pope). Among their most prominent spokesmen were fanatical preachers such as John Rogers, Christopher Feake and Vavasor Powell who regularly delivered lengthy and passionate sermons to capacity congregations at London churches, and pamphleteers, such as William Aspinwall and John Spittlehouse, who carried their beliefs to a wider audience. With Feake declaring that in the millennium there would be ‘no difference betwixt high and low, the greatest and the poorest beggar’, their cause was naturally most popular with the lower orders, many of whom were disappointed and angry at the suppression of the Levellers. However, unlike the Levellers, the Fifth Monarchists had no interest in extending parliamentary franchise, or in democracy at all for that matter, and espousing a dictatorship of the godly which they believed would rapidly spread to cover the whole world, were the ultimate Puritan killjoys.

Strongest in London, at the height of its popularity, supporters of the movement probably numbered around 10,000 countrywide with a far smaller hard core whose fanaticism bordered on lunacy. From the government’s point of view, the most important consideration was the level of support within the now dominant institution in the land: the New Model Army. Their supporters included several men of senior rank such as Major-General Harrison, who had delivered Charles I to Parliament to stand trial and, at Cromwell’s behest, evicted the ‘Rump’.

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Major-General Harrison.

On March 29th, 1652, ‘Mirk Monday’, a solar eclipse, resulted in the country being thrown into total darkness, an extraordinary event which added to many people’s expectations of the fulfilment of the Fifth Monarchists’ prophecies.

At first they had supported Cromwell, especially when he had dismissed the self interested Rump. It was replaced with a new assembly of 140 elders, ‘faithful, fearing God and hating covetousness’, nominated by Independent church congregations throughout the country. Though only holding a minority representation, the Fifth Monarchists welcomed this assembly, believing it able to prepare the Commonwealth for the return and rule of Christ. But the ‘Barebone’s Parliament’, named after one of its most prominent members, Praise-God Bairbon, was plagued by confrontation between the moderate majority and the tireless efforts of the radical minority, led by the Fifth Monarchists, to push for wider and faster reform. The Speaker and forty of the moderates lost their nerve and walked out, returning power to Cromwell.

He and the leaders of the army agreed on a new constitution, the ‘Instrument of Government’, creating a Protectorate under Cromwell as Lord Protector. The Fifth Monarchists were bitterly disappointed and Cromwell, now ‘king in all but name’, had completely lost their trust. Feake described him as ‘the dissemblingest perjured villain in the world’ while Rogers prayed to ‘hasten the time when all absolute power shall be devolved into the hand of Christ; when we shall have no Lord Protector but our Lord Jesus’.

Cromwell’s intelligence service, under John Thurloe, was probably the most effective in Europe and monitoring the activities of subversives included sending agents to attend Fifth Monarchist services to relay the content of their sermons back to the government. Favouring liberty of conscience in religion, Cromwell demonstrated remarkable tolerance towards the Fifth Monarchists but, amid rumours of an imminent armed uprising, he was ultimately left with no alternative but to take action. Army officers such as Major-Generals Harrison and Overton were deprived of their commissions and imprisoned, along with Feake, Rogers and various other preachers, for inciting revolt. Cromwell was prepared to release them on the promise of good behaviour, but was met with defiance so had no option but to prolong their captivity. Deprived of its most prominent leaders and effective orators, support for the sect began to dwindle.

The new Parliament was dissolved within five months, having attempted to limit the powers of the Protector, and rapidly gave way to military rule. A Royalist uprising in March, 1656, though easily quashed, resulted in Cromwell dividing the country into eleven military districts to be controlled by Major-Generals, responsible only to Cromwell and his council, enabling him to exert tighter control and keep a close watch on the, now diverse, opponents to his rule. Most alarming to the Fifth Monarchists were rumours that he was planning to take the title of king.

Feake and Rogers were eventually released from captivity in December, 1656. A manifesto entitled ‘A Standard Set Up’ was published outlining their grievances and the nature of the new form of government they proposed. All ‘civil and honest men’ were promised protection and there would be no fixed salaries for ministers of religion, no tithes, no excise and no taxes at all in peacetime. Impressment of men for the armed forces would be abolished and all soldiers who still retained their ‘simplicity and integrity’ were summoned to break away from ‘the apostate and backsliding army’ and enlist under the banner of the Lord Jesus.

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A typical pamphlet of the Fifth Monarchists.

In Swann Alley off Coleman Street, a congregation of about eighty Fifth Monarchist fanatics under the leadership of Thomas Venner, began to plan an armed insurrection. On the afternoon of April 9th, 1657, they assembled at a house in Shoreditch with the intention of rendezvousing with other Fifth Monarchist groups on Mile End Green at 9.00pm. But loose tongues had alerted Thurloe to the plot and a troop of horse was dispatched to surround the house where twenty of the conspirators were arrested. A search revealed several hampers of arms and ammunition and ten more were discovered at Swann Alley. The rebels who had evaded arrest planned another uprising for the end of the month but again tip-offs led to their capture. Surprisingly, the conspirators were never brought to trial, but Venner and two others were held in the Tower until the end of the Protectorate.

Cromwell died on September 3rd, 1658, the anniversary of his victories at Dunbar and Worcester. Such a coincidence, combined with the ferocious storm that occurred that night, led many to believe that he had sold his soul to the devil in return for absolute power. The Fifth Monarchists had already made plans to mount a coup on his death to be led by Major-Generals Harrison and Lambert. These came to nought and he was peacefully succeeded as Protector by his son, Richard. Lacking the capabilities of his father and the respect of the army, ‘Tumbledown Dick’ was swiftly nudged aside. Against the background of a political vacuum, a bad harvest, rising prices, arrears in soldiers’ pay and rioting in London, it became clear that the best means of avoiding a total breakdown of order would be the restoration of the monarchy.

To enable his restoration, Charles agreed to the ‘Declaration of Breda’, elements of which included a general pardon to all of his subjects apart from those that Parliament should see fit to exempt, religious freedom for all that didn’t threaten the peace of the kingdom, and payment of soldiers’ arrears and their acceptance into the king’s service. The declaration paved the way for the King’s triumphant return to London on May 29th, 1660, his 30th birthday. He was welcomed at Blackheath by the lord mayor and 120,000 of his subjects and escorted to Whitehall Palace.

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Charles II’s triumphant return to London.

Charles soon sought vengeance on the fifty-nine regicides who had signed his father’s death warrant. These included two Fifth Monarchists, Harrison and John Carew, who were arrested, tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to death. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on October 13th, 1660: ‘I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looked as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that had now judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again. Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded in White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the King at Charing Cross.’

John Rogers had fled to Holland before the Restoration, but Thomas Venner and his co-conspirators had been released, in an act of clemency by Richard Cromwell, in February, 1659. They had immediately resumed their Fifth Monarchist activities, still using Swann Alley as their base and now the Restoration stirred them to plan a second uprising. They produced a pamphlet entitled ‘A Door of Hope or A Call and Declaration for the gathering together of the first ripe Fruits unto the Standard of our Lord KING JESUS’. This was similar to their previous manifesto but embellished with references to the new king, describing him as ‘a profest enemy, a rebel and traytor to Christ’ and warning of the danger of England being conquered by ‘Popery’.

Warned of an imminent rebellion, the Government arrested several suspects and began conducting searches. Aware that the net was closing, on the following Sunday, January 6th, Venner assembled his supporters at the meeting-house in Swann Alley and told them that the time of the Fifth Monarchy had arrived. That evening Venner led about sixty well armed men down Cheapside shouting ‘King Jesus, and the heads upon the gate!’ (in reference to the exhibited heads of the executed regicides). They broke into St. Paul’s intending to use the cathedral as a fortress and posted sentries at the doors. When one of them demanded of a passer-by who he was for and received the reply, ‘King Charles’, the sentry declared that he was for King Jesus and shot him dead.

Receiving news of the disturbance, the City authorities sent a company of the trained bands to suppress it but the ferocity of the rebels’ resistance quickly drove them back. Venner now marched his men through the City to Bishopsgate from where they crossed Moorfields, marched along Chiswell Street, and re-entered the City at Cripplegate. Rumours of the imminent arrival of a troop of horse caused them to retreat to Beech Lane where, encountering further opposition, they marched north to Hampstead and eventually took shelter for the night in Ken Wood, Highgate, a locality that had long held support for their cause.

On Wednesday January 9th, Venner led about fifty men back to the City, unopposed. Arriving at the Compter Prison on the north side of Poultry they demanded the release of the prisoners but by now the alarm had been raised and they found themselves confronted by another detachment of trained bands. These were repulsed but the arrival of reinforcements forced a retreat along Bishopsgate Street and into Cheapside where they met up with another group of insurgents that had set out from near London Bridge ‘well-accoutred both for musquets, blunderbusses, carbines and halberds, with buff-coats and helmets, both back and brest being thus completely armed’. Turning into Wood Street a furious fight ensued with two more companies of trained bands until the arrival of a detachment of Life Guards forced the rebels to make a fighting retreat towards Cripplegate. By now, two of their leaders had been killed and Venner himself was seriously wounded and they broke up into small groups to attempt an escape. By the time 1,200 further reinforcements arrived from Whitehall they had already been overpowered.

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One of the Fifth Monarchists’ leaders, Thomas Venner.

There are several contemporary accounts of the uprising. The differences between them, particularly in the estimates of the numbers involved, clearly demonstrate the level of chaos and confusion it had caused. Pepys wrote in his diary on January 10th: ‘These Fanatiques that have routed all the train-bands that they met with, put the king’s life-guards to the run, killed about twenty men, broke through the City-gates twice; and all this in the day time, when all the City was in armes; are not in all above 31. Whereas we did believe them (because they were seen up and down in every place almost in the City, and had been in Highgate two or three days, and in several other places) to be at least 500. A thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief.’

On January 17th, Venner and another nineteen prisoners pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and high treason at Justice Hall in the Old Bailey. Four were acquitted by the jury but the others were found guilty and sentenced to death. On January 19th, Venner and Roger Hodgkin were drawn on a sledge by two companies of trained bands from Newgate Prison to Swann Alley where, having warned the crowd of the approaching time ‘when other judgement would be’, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. As with the regicides, parts of their bodies were displayed on the City gates and their heads mounted on poles on London Bridge. The other condemned men were hanged at various locations in the city and other leading Fifth Monarchists, though having taken no part in the uprising, were rounded up and imprisoned.

Despite these severe punishments and a Royal proclamation banning all unauthorised public meetings, pockets of Fifth Monarchist activity continued for some time, particularly in south east London. But the restoration of the monarchy had also brought the restoration of the Anglican church. The bishops were back, and all members of clergy were required to swear allegiance to the new state church and take an oath of non-resistance. The Five Mile Act barred dissenting ministers from living within five miles of a town. The Bishop of London, declared that ‘Those who will not be governed as men, by reason and persuasion, shall be governed as beasts, by power and force.’

The popularity of fanatical religous sects rapidly declined and though there would be sporadic rumours of further Fifth Monarchist uprisings for several years to come, beset by informers and agents provocateurs, the movement gradually disintegrated, its leaders either executed, dying in captivity, or going to ground. The best demonstration of the extent of their decline is surely the lack of any attempt to utilise the Great Fire of 1666, a year bearing the number of the Beast, as a rallying point for their cause. Yet in 1671, when a cow broke into New Palace Yard, Westminster, amidst the chaos, the cry went up that ‘the Fifth Monarchy Men were up and come to cut the throats of the lawyers’, and in 1684, 5,000 mourners attended the funeral of one of their leaders.

The Fifth Monarchists were very much a product of their time: a period of great turbulence and enormous destruction accompanied by unprecedented religious freedom in an age of superstition. Their biggest problem was that the dour fanaticism with which they pursued their cause, not only lost them the support of many who might otherwise have been attracted to their millenarian doctrine, but also left their leadership totally bereft of the political credibility necessary to achieve anything without the divine intervention which they undoubtedly expected. With the restoration of the monarchy, the general feeling in London must surely have been that if Christ wasn’t going to return at least the King had, and after years of suffering, soul searching and uncertainty, it was time to fall back in line and to lighten up and live a little.


All images used in the above article are scanned from the author’s private collection.

Hawk Norton is a collector of antiquarian and second-hand books, all of which are about London and its history. His remarkable library comprises over 4,000 titles dating back 400 years. All are now for sale at well under market prices. For a price list, email Hawk at hawk@btinternet.com

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in our time

I am a massive fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 most Thursdays at 9am. There are various ways you can search it, but as a service to our readers, here is a list of the London-related ones.

Aphra Behn
Annie Besant
Athelstan

Thomas Becket
Bedlam
The Black Death
The Bluestockings
The Book of Common Prayer
Boudica
Robert Boyle
Brunel
Fanny Burney

Caxton and the Printing Press
Chaucer

Mrs Dalloway
The Death of Elizabeth I
Dickens
The Domesday Book

The East India Company
Englishness
The Enlightenment in Britain

Michael Faraday
The [Great] Fire of London
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The Gin Craze
The Great Exhibition of 1851

William Hazlitt
Octavia Hill
Holbein at the Tudor Court
Robert Hooke

[Samuel] Johnson

London

Marlowe
Milton

The Novel

Titus Oates and His ‘Popish Plot’

The Peasants’ Revolt
Pocahontas
[Alexander] Pope
The Putney Debates

The Restoration
The Royal Society

The Scriblerus Club
Seventeenth Century Print Culture
The  South Sea Bubble
Suffragism

The Trial of Charles I
The Tudor State

Utilitarianism

Oscar Wilde
Mary Wollstonecraft


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A guest post by John Bennett.

On the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936, this piece examines two different eras of the East End’s turbulent history which have sealed its reputation for challenging extremist right-wing ideologies: the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the 1930s and clashes with the National Front in the 1970s.

The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936 showed the political loyalties of the East End tested considerably. Despite Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists extolling a protectionist view of multiculturalism, the privations of the recession of the 1930s had made the ideology popular in the area, even counting some Jews as supporters. Nonetheless, racially motivated violence against Jews had become common, particularly in Shoreditch and Hoxton. Mosley’s decision to march through the East End was understood to be a provocative flashpoint and East Enders of all creeds set up barriers around Cable Street to stop the procession. The result was messy: the BUF were redirected away from the east, but the disorder created by the creation of barriers led to pitched battles between protestors and police. It appears no fascists were actually involved in the disturbances but the protestors had won the day and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ has since been seen as a successful of example of the people rising up against what they saw as a threat to the cohesiveness of their community.

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Battle of Cable Street memorial mural. 

The East End was at a low ebb in the 1970s. A major housing crisis in Tower Hamlets had been exacerbated in many people’s eyes by the large influx of Bengalis to the area following the civil war in Bangladesh. Accusations of housing queue-jumping and squatting only inflamed resentment of the newcomers. Far right groups such as the National Front found a willing audience in the area, bolstered by skinhead youth groups looking for an identity. Throughout the mid 1970s, violence against Asians and their property became commonplace, resulting in the racist murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel in May 1978. This more than any other incident galvanised the Bengali community to take action, forming their own ‘vigilante groups’ to nip violence in the bud and campaign for police intervention which, on the face of it, had been severely lacking up to that point. Vandalism and physical attacks by NF supporters in Brick Lane in June 1978 (‘the battle of Brick Lane’, as the local press dubbed it) created a backlash by the Asian community to stymie the attacks as they happened, resulting in a stronger police presence and the street’s own police station.

Although fascist groups would once again raise their heads briefly in the early 1990s, the events of the late 1970s would see the subsequent rapid decline of right-wing activity in the East End, thanks to a more successful cohesion of community and law-enforcement and a more established Asian population.


John Bennett’s book Mob Town, A History of Crime and Disorder in the East End was published last month by Yale.

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A guest post by Dr Wolfram Latsch.

The next time you find yourself on Leadenhall Street heading towards Aldgate, walk past Billiter Street and stay on the right side of the road. At No. 50 you will notice a narrow passageway. This is Fenchurch Buildings, and it connects Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets. On Roque’s 1746 map of London this part of the passageway is called Sugarloaf Court. In the first half of the eighteenth century, you would have a view, on your right, of African House, the headquarters of the Royal African Company of England (RAC), which traded slaves across the Atlantic between 1660 and 1752.

In 1703, a sixteen year-old boy named James Phipps was signed up at African House to become a writer — an entry-level position — in the service of the RAC. He came from a prominent family of clothiers in Wiltshire. Phipps lived on the Gold Coast for twenty years, a remarkable longevity for a European living in Africa before the age of tropical medicine. He died at Cape Coast Castle, the African headquarters of the RAC, in 1723. He had risen to the position of governor and captain-general, becoming the highest-ranking RAC official in Africa, before being removed from his post among accusations of embezzlement and abuse of power.

James Phipps left his estate to his wife Catherine and their four children. Catherine Phipps was the daughter of an African woman and a Dutch soldier from Elmina, a fort not far from Cape Coast. James and Catherine’s children — Bridget, Susan, Henrietta and Thomas — were all of mixed race – they were ‘mulattos’ in the parlance of the time. In his will, James Phipps wanted Catherine to move to England to be with their children. This was an unusual request, since most white men did not think of their African partners as legal wives. James would provide generously for Catherine if she agreed to move: his estate was worth at least 1.7 million pounds in today’s money. But she refused to leave Africa and died in 1738, a prominent and independent businesswoman (and slave-owner) known at Cape Coast simply as ‘Mrs. Phipps’.

Had Catherine Phipps agreed to leave her home, she would probably have moved to London, and anyone with an interest in black British history would today know her name. Black women were a rarity in England in the early eighteenth century and independently wealthy black women were entirely unknown. As it is, Catherine Phipps is one of a very small number of eighteenth-century African women known to us by name.

James and Catherine’s daughters Bridget and Susan had left Africa around 1715 when they were maybe ten years old, to be educated in England, initially at the boarding school of a Mrs. Smith in Battersea. In May 1730, Bridget married Chauncy Townsend of Austin Friars, a London merchant and mining adventurer (and later an MP) in the Fleet Prison, a preferred location for clandestine marriages. Chauncy and Bridget Townsend had twelve children, including James, who was born in London and baptized at St Christopher-le-Stocks in February 1737.

James Townsend was first elected to parliament in 1767. In 1769 he was elected alderman of the City of London for Bishopsgate ward and sheriff of London, becoming one of the leaders of the Whig party in London. Townsend played a key role in the intrigue surrounding the electoral campaigns of the radical journalist John Wilkes in Middlesex and the City, turning from a supporter of Wilkes to one of his fiercest opponents. Townsend was elected Lord Mayor in 1772 in spite of Wilkes’s coming first in the polls, an event that created political turmoil in the City. A mob incensed by Townsend’s coup attacked Guildhall during the ball on Lord Mayor’s Day, and Townsend’s arms were erased from the church of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

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James Townsend (center) as alderman of the City of London (1769)
Source: National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19402

Today Townsend is known, if at all, for the part he played in the drama of Wilkes’s bid for the mayoralty. Local historians and visitors may also know Townsend as an owner of the estate that is now Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey. He died there in 1787 and was buried nearby at Old Church Tottenham in the mausoleum of his wife’s family, the Coleraines. Her inheritance had made him a wealthy man.

James Townsend was the descendant of a black woman from the Gold Coast, the grandson of a ‘mulatto’ and one-eighth African, the first black MP and the first black Lord Mayor of London. This part of his family’s history was either unknown, or it went unnoticed, or it was ignored. His story may prompt an interest in the unacknowledged and often forgotten black ancestry of many London families and their complicated connections to the Atlantic slave trade.


Dr. Wolfram Latsch teaches economics and international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. A version of this article was published in Notes & Queries, December 2016, as ‘A Black Lord Mayor of London in the Eighteenth Century?’

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hs240We were extremely saddened earlier this week to lose a Founder Member and great supporter of London Historians, Helen Szamuely.  Following a year or so of a serious medical condition which she kept mostly to herself, Helen died peacefully early on Wednesday morning, aged 66, which is no age at all.

We had less that two days previously just published an excellent article by Helen in our Members’ newsletter for April. It was about Count Alexander Benckendorff, a Russian diplomat, who a hundred years ago became the first and only layman to be buried in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.

Helen was born in Moscow to Hungarian and Russian parents during the Soviet period. She spent some of her early years in Hungary where her parents’ flat in Budapest was something of a magnet for intellectual dissidents. They witnessed directly the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising. Arriving in England aged 14, she spent the rest of her life in Britain standing up for liberty, self-determination and related causes.

Helen achieved a First in History and Russian at University of Leeds, going on to obtain her DPhil at Oxford.

Dr Samuely was a writer for many magazines, blogs, newsletters, mainly on topics of history, politics and literature. Among the lucky publications of her output are included the New Statesman, History Today and, of course, ourselves – London Historians.

Helen was brave, funny, clever, argumentative, incisive, wonderful company and a true friend. Fiercely independent, she possessed a razor-sharp intellect which some found daunting while others – like me – found exhilarating. When you engaged with her – particularly in matters of politics and history – it was best to bring your A game.

Helen enjoyed cooking, loved cats and for some reason represented herself on social media as a machine-gun toting squirrel which somehow seemed wholly appropriate. She was a keen consumer of detective fiction. Unsurprisingly, Helen was an avid scholar of Russian literature, particularly poetry, much of which she translated into English. She was an active supporter of Pushkin House in London.

I recommend you look up Helen on Facebook and read the entries from the past five days more fully to appreciate the great esteem in which she was held.

Helen supported London Historians frequently with her presence at our events, unannounced if not unexpected. She wrote some wonderful articles for our Members’ newsletter, mainly about Russians in London – exiles, diplomats, artists and Tsars. We shall republish these in the coming weeks for a wider audience to enjoy.

Helen is a great loss to not only to us at London Historians, but all her friends in many, many walks of life. Most of all, though, to daughter Katharine to whom we extend our deepest condolences.

Dr Helen Szamuely. Born 25.06.1950, Moscow. Died 05.04.2017, London.

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