Nairn's LondonMost London Historians Members will have read Simon Fowler’s article in last month’s newsletter about Ian Nairn. The acerbic, witty, erudite and frequently waspish architecture critic’s celebrated book, Nairn’s London (1966), has very recently been reissued by Penguin.

I first ever heard him mentioned just over a year ago when chatting to someone about City churches. This man mentioned Nairn in that way people sometimes do, assuming you simply must know the fellow. Rather than let it pass I plucked up some courage and enquired weakly: “Who is Ian Nairn?”.  Having been enlightened, I promised myself to find out more… and then did nothing.

Eventually came Simon’s article and finally I bought my copy about a month ago. I am now a Nairn disciple. It’s quite a small book and thus far from comprehensive; but it is eclectic and quite thorough in its own way. All parts of London are covered and all types of buildings or structures are addressed, even the Hammersmith flyover, which Nairn admired without irony: these highways in the air were still new and quite exciting at that time. The content is arranged by area. There is a very large section of black and white photos in the middle of the book. 

Hammersmith Flyover.

Hammersmith Flyover.

My copy already is defaced by pencil and by biro and by highlighting pen, something I don’t lightly do; some pages are a bit damaged from rapid flipping; when I go out, it is in my bag at all times. I reach for it constantly now, to ask myself: “I wonder what Nairn has to say about this?”

Last weekend we visited the strange-looking St Mary’s in Ealing. Nairn: “The architect [S.S. Teulon] on the razzmatazz, out for a day in the suburbs… … Who? What? How? A rag-bag with enough ideas for a dozen churches: and a splendid place for a boggle.” The weekend before, we passed St Mary Woolnoth. “…it transcends originality. It is the mind, afterwards, which asks what on earth two small towers are doing on top of an oblong, columned temple on top of a prodigious rustication”

St Mary's Ealing

St Mary’s Ealing

St Mary Woolnoth

St Mary Woolnoth

On the Albert Memorial:
“…the elephant on one of the corners has a backside just like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his cheque-book.”

On the magnificent Tooting Grenada:
“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this.”

On William Kent’s Horseguards:
“… this is a blatant tourist-trap, neither better nor worse than a Soho strip-tease club.”

Nairn so admires Abbey Mills pumping station, he dubs it “God’s bowels”.

And so on. His writing is highly opinionated, yet hugely engaging; it is often deliciously withering and pithy; it is always interesting. I quickly discovered why the man has such a dedicated fan-base. As Jonathan Meades has noted: “Nairn’s London belongs to no genre save its own. It is a school of one.”

Like all of us, Nairn has his heroes and villains. He adores Hawksmoor, “that old wizard”. But he workships Nash to whom the book is actually dedicated. Others are less lucky. He’s not a fan of Richard Norman Shaw, for example, talking of his “beefy heartlessness.”

Above all, though, Nairn enemies were modern: he detested the increasing ugliness of England’s post-war streetscapes and railed against them and their progenitors: town planners and architects.


Ian Nairn’s first job was as a fighter pilot flying Gloucester Meteors. He resigned his commission and became a self-taught and self-styled architecture critic for the traditional Architectural Review. Immediately controversial and polemical, he soon made a name for himself and built a career as a journalist, critic and TV presenter, working with Pevsner and others. Towards the end of his life Nairn gambled and drank heavily. In 1983 he died from liver failure in the Cromwell Hospital, aged 52 . He was buried in the Westminster Cemetery in Hanwell. It’s not far from me, so the other day I paid him a visit. His grave is modest indeed.

"A Man Without a Mask".

“A Man Without a Mask”.

Do invest some time to watch this excellent documentary on Ian Nairn: The Man who Fought the Planners The Story of Ian Nairn. He had a great love for Northern industrial towns.

Nairn’s London (1966) is re-published by Penguin and available for a tenner or less.

an american president in ealing

Some years before John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848) became 6th President of the United States, he acted as its representative in London between 1815-1817. Instead of organising digs in town, he moved his family into a country house in “Little Ealing” an area in the south of the borough: a road in which I too have lived since 1987. I had no idea until a local history group published a book based on Adams’s diary entries of the period.

An American President in Ealing is an excellent work of local and social history. I was interested to discover that Adams enjoyed walking to and from his office in Craven Street near Charing Cross. Coincidentally, Benjamin Franklin had lived in the the same street over fifty years previously when he had represented the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Adams was quite specific about his walks. He claims that his best time was two hours and 20 minutes, achieved at over 4 miles per hour. He mentions passing Gunnersbury Mansion, Turnham Green, Hyde Park Corner and St James’s Park. Using this information and an 1800 map, I traced a probable route.

John Quincy Adams's probable route from Little Boston House to Craven Street.

John Quincy Adams’s probable route from Little Boston House to Craven Street.

Yesterday morning, armed with our 1800 map, a modern A-Z of London, bananas and water, Fiona and I walked up the road to our starting point, a house on the site of the original Little Boston House. The present owners are clearly aware of the provenance of the site.


A lengthy walk. 9.4 miles according to our GPS app. We did a coffee stop in Chiswick and a banana stop outside the V&A. We also did some unscheduled browsing at Chiswick auctions where I shot this picture. It’s what Hyde Park Corner would have looked like as Adams passed through.

Hyde Park Corner in 1800, the exact time of our map and only a few years prior to Adams's walks.

Hyde Park Corner in 1800, the exact time of our map and only a few years prior to Adams’s walks.

craven streetThrough Admiralty Arch, past Northumberland Avenue (both long after Adams’s time), into the Strand and a final right hand turn into Craven Street. Check watch. Four and a half hours. Almost double the time claimed by the fleet-of-foot future president, then. If we take off say 60 minutes for our stops, our taking photos, our stuck at the lights waiting for the green man (there was a lot of this), we’re still substantially slower than Adams.

He may have taken short-cuts which we avoided, for example through Gunnersbury Park (Would he have had a right of way? I think he must have). Further taking into account our advantages of modern footwear and paved surfaces, Adams must’ve put his head down and gone and quite a lick, very much a fast walk or jog almost.

With achy limbs and feet, our odyssey was wrapped up with several glasses of excellent merlot at the wonderful Gordon’s Wine Bar, a favourite.

gordon's wine bar

Other known walkers from country to town and vice-versa include William Hogarth (Chiswick – Leicester Fields (ie Square)) and Sir John Soane (Ealing to Lincoln’s Inn Fields (i.e. today’s John Soane Museum)). We’ll cover those in due course.


John and Louisa Adams had married in London in 1897. You can see the actual page of the marriage register in the excellent crypt museum at All Hallows by the Tower.

Marriage register at Old Hallows in the Tower. 26 July 1797.

Marriage register at All Hallows by the Tower. 26 July 1797.

An American President in Ealing, the John Quincy Adams Diaries 1815 – 1817 is published by the Little Ealing History Group.

Review of our beadle-led visit to Merchant Taylors’ Hall: a guest post by London Historians Member Steve Cook.

DSC07025cIt was a cold day but a warm welcome from Beadle Kevin McGetrick at Merchant Taylors’ Hall on Friday 16th January. The Hall has occupied the same site on Threadneedle Street since 1397 and – despite the Great Fire and the Blitz – still boasts its original medieval stone walls, most clearly visible in the spectacular double height kitchens (definitely up to modern catering standards but still essentially medieval, complete with a witch’s seat) and again in the crypt of St. Martin Outwich beneath the beadle’s office. On the walls of the reception area are two ‘Pall Clothes’, last used at the time of the Stuarts to cover the coffin at a Master’s funeral. Irreplaceable and therefore priceless, but still insured for £100 thousand apiece.

The Kitchen.

The Kitchen.

Crypt of St Martin Outwich (demolished 1874)

Crypt of St Martin Outwich (demolished 1874)

Funeral pall cloth. Over 400 years old.

Funeral pall cloth. Over 400 years old.

Originally ‘The Fraternity of St John the Baptist’ (the Baptist continues to be the Company’s patron saint) the Company received its first royal charter in 1327 being incorporated by a royal charter of 1408 as ‘The Company of Tailors and Linen-Armourers’. The ‘linen armour’ being the gambersons or padded clothes worn beneath metal armour. ‘The Company of Merchant Taylors’ came into being with the royal charter of 1503 and since 1484 the Company has ranked sixth (normally in odd numbered years) or seventh (in even numbered years) among the Great Twelve, alternating with the Skinners at Easter. Despite their earlier rivalry, we were assured that relationships now are cordial and co-operative. the Hall

Like the company itself, the hall has undergone many changes since its medieval foundation.

The magnificent Dining Hall, Parlour and Drawing Room are part of the post-war reconstruction. The Dining Hall is still the same structure as it was before the Great Fire and the mahogany panelling that conceals the medieval stonework is said to have been obtained immediately after the war – at very reasonable rates – from the Bank of England. (Between them Peter Twist and the Beadle concluded that it is probably the taller than any other livery company’s dining hall!). Despite its height, the hall is overlooked by the King’s Gallery, named for James I who was kept separate from his subjects below, either to save him from the smell of them [vice-versa probably! – Ed], or to protect them from the sight of James trying to eat around his over-sized tongue. Either way, the Gallery was subsequently glazed so that the occupants could see – and be seen by – the diners below.

The Dining Hall from the Kng's Gallery.

The Dining Hall from the Kng’s Gallery.

The 18th-century Chinese wallpaper in the Drawing Room was purchased at auction in 1957, still in its original export boxes! Ingeniously, it isn’t pasted onto the walls but mounted on removable panels.


The Court Room boasts two Company crests, one Catholic, topped by a virgin and child; the other Protestant , topped by the lamb in glory.

The cloister was enclosed as recently as 1927, without apparent detriment to the delightful courtyard it surrounds.


It is thought that there have been no working tailors in membership since the end of the 17th century. The Company is now a social and charitable organisation with a powerful interest in education.

Merchant Taylors’ School, founded in 1561 by Richard Hilles, Master of the Company, now a fee-paying public school educating 800 boys is the best-known foundation; but the Company also has interests in schools in Crosby, Wallingford, Ashwell, Wolverhampton, Foyle and Edinburgh. The charities that currently enjoy support from the Company continue the education theme: Killforce which uses ex-military instructors and largely practical training exercises to help students attain recognised qualifications; Westside School an ‘Alternative Provision Free School’ for young people excluded from a mainstream school or who are at risk of exclusion; support for the bursary programme at Pembroke College Cambridge; and XLP, a Church of England based youth project that works right in the heart of some of the most divided communities in Inner London.

At the end of our tour there was little to do other than thank Kevin, Mike and Augusta; and reflect on the thought that the Company’s motto “Concordia Parvae Res Crescunt” (“In Harmony Small Things Grow”) might just as well apply to London Historians!

Happy Historians

Happy Historians


There are much nicer photos than mine of this event on LH Member Andrea Liu’s Flickr album, here.

Livery Halls are one of our main themes of 2015. The idea is that we’ll visit at least one a month. Next up is Cutlers’ Hall on 24th February. You can book places via Eventbrite here.

The modern Guildhall Art Gallery opened in 1999. It’s a place I’ve always enjoyed visiting, whether on an opportunistic pop-in basis or for special exhibitions. To mark its fifteenth anniversary, the gallery has just undergone a comprehensive rehang and general update which has included a brand new LED lighting system and reclamation of wall space through the installation of false walls in the main upstairs space.

Guildhall Art Gallery, relaunch, 2014. Copyright Sam Roberts, courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery-6

This houses the Victorian paintings which are now rearranged thematically: beauty, faith, leisure, love, work, the home, and so on. More than this, the themes are arranged in pairs in a dichotomous fashion, e.g. Leisure and Work. This may seem quite an obvious thing to do, but a lot of thought has gone into this. A lot. I can’t explain it particularly well, it’s something you have to appreciate with your own eyes, but the result is delightful and gives the viewer a real sense of Victorian lives and living.

The Net Mender by Marianne Stokes, 1901.

The Net Mender by Marianne Stokes, 1901.

Downstairs to the London space, which spans 400 years, the earliest image on display being a portrait of one of the “fire judges” from 1667. This is just one of the 22 originally commissioned. The curators have cleverly arranged the pictures so that each successive image is linked in some way. There are two arrangements which I found especially pleasing. At one end of the main gallery, the wall next to the stairs features five pictures of London’s historic markets, including Smithfield and Billingsgate. And then there are three images which feature old London Bridge, its successor and the two of them together during construction. Below are my not very good snaps, but you get the idea. Lovers of London’s bridges (that’s all of us, right?) cannot but be charmed by this trio.


Old London Bridge, from Southwark with Boats and Figures. date unknown, before 1793, after Samuel Scott.


The Demolition of London Bridge. c1833, by “J.W.S.”


The Opening of London Bridge by William IV, August 1st 1831. 1832 by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield.

The new hang is thoughtful and thought-provoking without being showy or over-clever. Principal Curator Lucia Dudkiewicz and her team have succeeded in breathing new life into an already wonderful collection. £600,000 once every 15 years for this purpose seems to me a canny investment.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is open seven days a week. Entry is free.


The gallery’s special exhibition celebrating the 120th anniversary of Tower Bridge is still running: don’t miss it. Our review.


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.


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