Books of 2014

played in londonA huge outpouring of London History books this year, as ever. Here is a shortlist of our favourites. Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne by Nigel Pickford tells the story of an audacious drive-by assassination in the Haymarket in 1682. Scheming, intrigue, marriage- and power-broking in late-Stuart England. Men of Letters by Duncan Barrett tells of the exploits of the Post Office Rifles during World War One. Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson is all about squalor and filth among the living and even the dead in 19C London and how the Victorians attempted to combat a huge catalogue of blights, with only partial success. You will love all of these books, no question.

But our book of the year for 2014 is Played in London: charting the heritage of a city at play by Simon Inglis. Quite simply an exceptional work of social and architectural history. Deeply researched, superbly written, beautifully designed and printed with hundreds of photos, illustrations and maps. Our review.

Past winners
2011: Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun
2012: Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly
2013: Beastly London by Hannah Velten

All our reviews for 2014.
Book round-up for 2013.

London Historians at Broadcasting House

On Saturday a group of our Members enjoyed a guided tour of Broadcasting House. Roughly speaking the complex is horseshoe-shaped, comprising the original Portland stone art deco building we all know, which opened in 1932; the new eight storey wing next door which was added in 2006, and after his death named after the popular disk jockey John Peel; and the semicircular central structure which yokes the two wings together. The piazza in the middle is also an art installation which has world cities and significant sites written in paving slabs and arranged in what seems at first sight in random groups. It was nice to see a group comprising Damascus, Jerusalem, Constantinople. To the left is a Cafe Nero with no signage, in case BBC cameras unwittingly give the chain free advertising.


BBC guides Jamie and Rich then gave us a superb guided mooch around this huge complex, touching much history. But first, from a gallery above, we observed BBC’s huge global news operation at work in what is probably the world’s biggest newsroom, certainly Europe’s. (without furnishing any evidence, China claims it has a bigger one). This is the backdrop you always see when watching live news on telly. The carpet of the part that’s on-air is red: no scratching, nose-picking, snogging etc. in this area, please.

Mindful of who we were, our excellent guides dwelled on the historic parts of the old building: 1930s art deco glory of the reception area and the lifts (“once the fastest in London, now probably the slowest”); the original green room where now is displayed a – to be kind – rather strange tapestry given the BBC by the people of France in gratitude for wartime broadcasts; ancient microphones; the legendary BBC Radio Theatre, to this day constantly used.

London Historians tour of BBC Broadcasting House London

London Historians tour of BBC Broadcasting House London

The art deco lift with ancient Beeb logo and 21C control panel. Tardis-like, in a way.


London Historians tour of BBC Broadcasting House London

Lord Reith, as in Reithian values.

George V radio broadcast 1934

Publicity shot of King George V’s Christmas broadcast, 1934…

King George V Christmas Broadcast 1934

… the actual microphones.

We finished our event in the studio where they record radio drama. Five London Historians volunteers took to the mics while another joined Rich in the sound effects department. Here’s a snippet of what we recorded. Not too bad at all: LH Member Steve would have put the shivers up Hitchcock himself.

London Historians tour of BBC Broadcasting House London

Radio drama. We took to it like ducks to water.

My favourite story of the day was about the actor and BBC announcer Bruce Belfrage. On the evening of 15 October 1940, this gentleman was reading the nine o’clock News, when a delayed time fuse bomb – which had penetrated the building some hours previously – exploded with great ferocity. Some ten seconds or so later after the rumbles had finally faded, Belfrage continued where he had left off without comment or fuss. In the National Portrait Gallery’s image below he is English sangfroid personified. After his shift he repaired straight to a local pub, the George. And after our tour, so did we.

Bruce Belfrage

Bruce Belfrage  © National Portrait Gallery, London

You can book a tour of Broadcasting House here.

More photos from our outing on Flickr here.

Black Friday

sealOkay, let’s jump on the bandwagon. Instead of getting bruised in the ribs by the sharp elbows of the hordes of Christmas shoppers, why not stay right where you are and purchase your loved one(s) a year’s Membership to London Historians? Or a present to yourself even. We all do that, don’t we?

Here’s the scoop.
First go to our Join page here. Join them to London Historians using their details. Email me separately to let me know what message to put on the card and whether we should send the welcome pack directly to them or to you so you can do the grand handover (furnish your address that being the case). Also, we’ll only send their welcome email and initial Member’s monthly newsletter after 25 December.

That’s it. But please do this by 3rd December so we can get the Member card made up and turned around in time. Any questions, please email me or call on 07980 623 750. 

If you’re an existing Member reading this, you’ll know that you can do this with a £10 discount per November Members’ newsletter.

London Historians, Membership

London Historians welcome pack includes personalised Member card and the popular wax-sealed envelope.

Carbuncle For Sale

I was taking a stroll down to Brentford High Road yesterday and noticed that the old cop shop is for sale: it’s been closed for years. A typically charmless 60s commercial building, purpose-built for the boys in blue, it replaced the rather fetching Vestry Hall of 1900. The hall was designed by local architect Nowell Parr, many of whose pretty buildings (mainly Fullers pubs!) still decorate Brentford, Ealing and Chiswick. The old hall could host meetings and talks of over 600 attendees and also housed Brentford County Court. But in 1963, the bulldozers and wrecking-ball moved in. Progress!

I hope to do more on Nowell Parr in the near future. Meantime, enquiries regarding the lovely police station should be directed to Messrs Frank Knight.


nowell parr, vestry hall


wellington by lawrence

Wellington by Thos. Lawrence

This day in 1852, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was laid to rest in St Paul’s, having died on 14 September, aged 83. Nearly half a century after Nelson’s ceremony and almost four decades of relative peace across land and sea following Waterloo, Wellington’s state funeral was the most extraordinary street procession that Londoners could remember. It even caused the Lord Mayor’s parade to be cancelled for the only time ever.

Prior to tranquil semi-retirement in Kent, the Iron Duke had become a deeply unpopular politician and Prime Minister. During a period characterised by Reform, Wellington – deeply conservative – set is face against the inexorable tide of popular emancipation. He genuinely felt that the existing settlement could not be further perfected and famously was stoned in his house and in his carriage. Even the equestrian statue of the hero of Waterloo for the Wellington Arch had been laughed at by the public and mocked in the newspapers.

But now all was forgiven and forgotten as over a million lined the route of Wellington’s funeral cortege which ran through the City to St Paul’s. It seemed to extend forever; in its midst was the extraordinary 12 ton, six wheeled funeral car. One can only imagine the racket it made over London’s old cobbles. The car has survived and is at Stratfield-Saye House.

wellington funeral cortege

Duke of Wellington, funeral

Contemporary post card of Duke of Wellington’s funeral car.

To get some idea of the sheer size of this parade, have a look at the British Library’s full-length colour diagram.

Daguereotype, Wellington, 1844

1844 daguerreotype of Wellington

The preparation of St Paul’s took six weeks. Scaffold-borne tiered seating increased its capacity to over 13,000 as the cathedral was festooned in black crepe. The service was delayed by an hour owing to the slow progress of the vast cortege through the streets of London. Eventually, the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the crypt of the cathedral where it remains to this day in a Cornish porphyry sarcophagus.

A most extraordinary eye-witness account of Wellington’s funeral was recorded in 1940. An elderly retired magistrate, Frederick Mead, recalls attending the event as a young boy accompanied by his parents.

Apsley House
Stratfield-Saye House
St Paul’s
The Victorian Web

finally, Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington. Not Tennyson’s finest hour, I’m thinking!

A guest post by London Historians Member, Laurence Scales

It is said that J.M.W. Turner’s painting was influenced by the work of meteorologist Luke Howard (1772-1864) who, by classifying the clouds into species such as cirrus (fibrous) and cumulus (heaped), drew public attention to their forms.

The formative experience in Howard’s life was perhaps the Laki haze of 1783, result of a substantially greater Icelandic eruption than Eyjafjallajökull which recently grounded Europe’s aircraft. It blanketed much of the northern hemisphere and perturbed the weather for many months, bringing famine and remarkable electrical storms. Being a Quaker was for him no escape route from the dire schooling of the time which consisted mainly of Latin and flogging. He became a pharmacist. At least the Latin would come in useful for naming clouds.

Perhaps to make up for an appalling education, he became a member of a philosophical society, the Askesian, which met in the City at Plough Court. It was here that he read his influential paper ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ in 1802. Modification meant identifying different modes or states. (He had no delusion of changing the weather.) He was not the first to attempt a classification, but his was the system that stuck. He included in his observations the atmospheric conditions when each type was likely to appear, and how they were likely to transform.

He maintained his interest in meteorology and for years he kept readings of pressure, temperature, rainfall, evaporation and wind direction.  At the end of the Frost Fair of 1814 on the Thames he noted rather delightfully that:

‘We are happy to see the lately perturbed bosom of Father Thames resume its former serenity. The busy oar is now plied with its wonted alacrity, and the sons of Commerce are pursuing their avocations with re doubled energy.’

He died at Bruce Grove, Tottenham, in a house which now stands with a blue plaque, but derelict.

Unlike the great art galleries and sculptural collections it can sometimes seem that the Science Museum is lacking in humanity. But to me the objects in its collection are heavily invested with humanity. One such is Luke Howard’s own recording barometer which can be seen there beside the George III collection.

The text of ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ is here.

By Laurence Scales, www.laurenceswalks.co.uk @LWalksLondon

A guest post by London Historians Member Richard Tincknell.

What do these two things have in common? Well, the answer is very simple: Wimbledon Theatre.

The Wimbledon Theatre was designed in the Renaissance style by Cecil Massey and Roy Young. With a tower in one corner topped by a dome on top of which stands the Roman goddess Laetitia (goddess of gaiety) standing on top of a globe. The theatre opened under the management of JB Mulholland on Boxing Day 1926 to the Pantomime Jack & Jill. The pantomime tradition would become a regular feature each year and has even been broadcast from here on numerous occasions.

Wimbledon Theatre, 1914

Wimbledon Theatre, 1914. Image: The Theatres Trust.

The theatre was very popular in the inter war period with acts like Gracie Fields, Sybil Thorndike, Ivor Novello and Noel Coward all performing. In 1945 comedy duo Laurel and Hardy performed for one week and Marlene Dietrich had her last ever UK performance here in 1975.

Novello, Coward, Laurel, Hardy, Dietrich.

Novello, Coward, Laurel, Hardy, Dietrich.

The theatre fell into servere financial difficulties around 2003 and was forced to close but through discussions with various local councillors, producers and companies a deal was reached with Ambassador Theatre Group. This is when the name changed to the New Wimbledon Theatre. It has since gone on to host large touring productions.

What is little known though is the secret that lies beneath.

A Victorian style Turkish bath. Unfortunately there is very little written about the baths. Although considering that they could be accessed through the theatre itself via a several doorways off the lobby we can assume that the main use was intended mainly for male theatre workers and actors as there were no female toilet facilities. Also, we do not know whether members of the public were permitted to use these facilities as there was no mention in advertisements or otherwise of it in the local directories. One local paper at the time thought that the opening was very interesting in the way that the heating from the baths could be transferred into the theatre itself.

There are Turkish baths on part of the site occupied by the theatre and as a series of ducts from the hot rooms have been arranged connecting with gratings in the floors and walls of the theatre, so that in the event of the climate playing one of their sudden pranks with which it afflicts us, the temperature can be raised from 40 to 60 degrees in 15 minutes. (Wimbledon and District Gazette 24 Dec 1910)

As Malcolm Shifrin says on his web site www.victorianturkishbath.org (This is a brilliant place to go for those seeking to understand the venue better.): “Contemporary theatregoers must have hoped that the Turkish bath was empty of sweating bathers while the theatre temperature was being raised in this manner.”

When the theatre closed in 1938 the baths stopped too and remained closed when the theatre eventually re-opened after the war. The current usage is as a nightclub with access via the former shops on the Broadway.


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