Our visit in perfect weather to the Crossrail archaeology site at Liverpool Street yesterday. It’s just north of the old London wall at Moorfields, near where Bedlam #2 was sited, making it London suburbia in ancient and medieval times. In a previous phase, the team have discovered human remains of thousands here and nearby in recent months, far more than would have come from the Bethlehem Hospital and probably more than can be explained away as plague pits. More research and analysis is required, which will take some years in all.

The sometimes notorious Bethlehem Hospital in Moorfields by Robert Hooke.

The sometimes notorious Bethlehem Hospital in Moorfields by Robert Hooke.

But right now they are down to the 1C/2C Roman layer next to an old road and a tributary of the Walbrook river. A very marshy area historically which the Romans, naturally, succeeded in draining. We were shown close-up a variety of objects – some unidentifiable at the moment – which have been discovered in the previous several days. I find it quite moving to hold things which have been hidden from us for nearly two millenia, things which because they are freshly excavated seem to connect us more directly with long-dead Londoners, our predecessors. You get far more of a buzz, I think, examining these items before they have been properly cleaned, identified, “museumified”. That’s why I enjoy mudlarking.

Our thanks to Marit Leenstra from Crossrail who generously gave her time to open up the site and tell us all about the project, which will draw to a close in the coming months. There are scheduled public viewings if you’d like to have a go. Details here.

There is further information and events relating to the Crossrail project here.

Here are some pictures from our visit.


crossrail archaeology

crossrail archaeology

The dig. Crossrail archaeologists.

crossrail archaeology

Marit does show and tell.

crossrail archaeology

Excavated last Monday. Possibly 1C, more analysis required.

crossrail archaeology

Copper coin showing head of Emperor Antoninus Pius (r 138 – 161 AD), one of the so-called “Good Emperors”.

crossrail archaeology

Finds on display 1.

crossrail archaeology

Finds on display 2

crossrail archaeology

Finds on display 3


A guest post by London Historians Member, Jane Young.

Geffrye Union board250For anyone that is familiar with the Geffrye Museum it will be no surprise to find another skillfully executed exhibition there which displays the usual beautifully finished attention to detail that the Geffrye does so well.

Included in the exhibition are some spectacular original paintings. The centrepiece used for the exhibition literature, ‘The Pinch of Poverty’ by Thomas Benjamin Kennington 1891 is exquisite and Gustave Doré’s ‘A Poor House’ 1869 simply magnificent to mention just two of many.

Geffrye Daffodils500

The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1891. (detail)

It is very refreshing to find that the curator has not restricted the exhibition to the tried and trusted method of using exclusively the East End of London as the only exemplar of all that denotes slums and poverty within this period. As a result the exhibition is well balanced, covering all of London from Bloomsbury to Greenwich and Deptford along with the lesser known ‘Potteries’ of Notting Dale in the west, one of the blackest spots to be found on the Booth Map.

All aspects of the conditions of life on the streets are illustrated, in addition to abject poverty and destitution, the human side of what it meant to be homeless is explored with documents, photographs and everyday objects, showing the camaraderie and humour amongst real people and their accounts of the time. Incorporating lodging houses and charity the response to social intervention and paternalism is demonstrated.

Geffrye Corridor photo500

Accommodation available to the homeless was spartan indeed. Interior of a workhouse.


Geffrye photo500

Street poor queueing.

Opened in 1914 in the buildings and grounds of almshouses built two centuries earlier in 1714 by the Ironmongers Company, the Geffrye is well worth a visit at any time if you do not already know it. For those travelling any distance to see the exhibition it might be useful to note that the restored almshouse which is open for visitors on certain days is superb and a good reason to time a visit to coincide with the open days. Also the permanent collection, which transports you through four centuries of detailed domestic interiors and houses further beautiful original paintings; an herb garden; garden reading room and beautiful grounds and gardens within the setting of the original almshouses; a little oasis off the Kingsland Road where it is very easy to forget you are in 21st Century East London.

‘Homes of the Homeless’ manages to achieve that rare thing, an exhibition which has in no way been ‘dumbed down’ but is still perfectly accessible and understandable for children too. Engaging and thoughtfully constructed it succeeds in having appeal for a wide audience. Now open and running until 12 July 2015 with a very reasonable admission price of £5. In conjunction with this runs a display in collaboration with the New Horizon Youth Centre: ‘Home and hope: Young people’s experience of homelessness today’ raising awareness of the contemporary experience of homelessness.

Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London runs until 12 July. 

A guest post by London Historians Member, Sue Sinton Smith.

kemal chunchieDuring the early 20th Century Canning Town had the highest multicultural population in the country. Kamal Chunchie, born in Ceylon, came to England to fight with the Middlesex Regiment during the First World War. After the war he settled in Canning Town and, appalled at the discrimination experienced by black and Asian people, decided to establish somewhere they could socialise as well as to get advice. Chunchie rented a former Chinese boarding house which had hosted opium dens in the basement and moved in with his family. He wanted somewhere Black and Asian people could feel safe and learn, as well as hear the word of God. Chunchie, born a Muslim but converted during the War, was ordained as a Minister in the Methodist Church. He spoke eight languages and sometimes preached in six different languages at the same service! The church wanted to send him abroad as a missionary but he refused as he felt, like Dr Barnardo, that there was so much to be done here.

The Institute was funded by the Methodist Church, supplemented by donations from friends and Chunchie himself. It was open from nine in the morning till 10 at night and had a billiard room, a newspaper and writing room and a prayer room. It provided food and shelter to seamen and gave out food and clothes parcels to poor families and provided Christmas dinners, as well as running outings to the seaside.

Sadly it was not to last. After just five years, the building was demolished to make way for the new road to the docks in 1930. Chunchie might have been able to re-establish the Institute in another building but by this point funding had been withdrawn by the Methodist Church. This could have been due to Chunchie’s lifestyle. He was a smoker, drinker and gambler and didn’t feel his position as minister meant he should compromise his enjoyment. He carried on travelling around the country, preaching and raising money for the people he supported, unable to move into a new building before his death in 1953.


1. Eastside Community Heritage, 2010

2. Kamal Chunchie and Coloured Men’s Institute, The Newham Story

Mission accomplished. As explained in the previous post, the final public opening (until 2018) of Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing last Saturday rendered imperative my long-delayed Sir John Soane walk from Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Ealing. Soane bought Pitzhanger in 1800, re-built it until 1804, then sold it in 1810. Below is an 1800 map and the current route from Google. It is very little changed, the Oxford Street-Bayswater Road – Uxbridge Road axis being a major westerly trunk road today as then.


I love the idea of doing long walks. It’s good exercise for a start if you can tolerate the traffic pollution (I can). It is essential to give the historian a sense of what life was like before trains and buses. There were carriages, of course, but even successful men like Soane, John Quincy Adams and William Hogarth often chose to take a bracing walk between town and country, or vice-versa. Most of all, you see things that you never would by car or by bus and, obviously, on the Underground. Apart from the map work, I do very little research beforehand. The surprises are all the better that way. There were lots. I particularly enjoyed seeing two Passmore Edwards libraries, in Shepherd’s Bush and Acton (my admiration for the Edwardians and all their works increases every time I explore like this). It was nice properly to inspect the old milestone in Ealing rather than to squint at it stuck in a traffic jam. Below are some photos. Check the much larger set on Flickr here. Next we’ll do a Hogarth walk from Leicester Square to Chiswick.

My thanks to fellow London Historians member Deborah Metters (@rosamundi) for her excellent company on this odyssey.

The site of the Tyburn scaffold. Apparently.

The site of the Tyburn scaffold. Apparently.

Passmore Edwards Public Library, Acton.

Passmore Edwards Public Library, Acton.

1832 milestone, Ealing Common.

1832 milestone, Ealing Common.

Footsteps of Soane

pitzhanger manor


The architect John Soane purchased Pitzhanger Manor from his own mentor George Dance the Younger as a country house for his family. He bashed down most of it and built a new one more to his liking. It’s a wonderful building which I love visiting. It has recently closed for major Lottery Grant refurbishment and will remain so until 2018. Except for tomorrow, when it will open to the public for the last time and when we will be allowed to access areas where we’re not normally allowed. So don’t miss the opportunity.

Soane was known to enjoy walking from his town house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (today’s Sir John Soane Museum) to Pitzhanger, some 8 miles, I reckon. Tomorrow I plan to re-enact that, starting at about 10am. If you fancy joining me, please send me an email asap. We’ll stop at the Churchill Arms in Kensington Church Street and go to the Red Lion, Ealing afterwards.

My previous “long walk”.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library 13 March to 1 September 2015.

DSC07630Did you know that in 1941 Churchill and his war cabinet discussed presenting the USA with an original copy of Magna Carta as some sort of sweetener to induce them to enter WW2? The document in question wasn’t even in their gift, belonging as it still does to Lincoln Cathedral. Desperate stuff, in retrospect, but perfectly true.

The documents pertaining to this incident are on show in the 20C part of this new exhibition on Magna Carta at the British Library. The show, of course, commemorates the 800th anniversary of that totemic, world-famous historical document. It is the biggest such show ever staged.

Magna Carta, British Library

On show too are many other documents of similar or even greater moment.

As you’d expect we have original copies of Magna Carta from 1215, two of them: the Canterbury, which is virtually illegible except with specialist laboratory science viewing instruments; and the London. Missing are the Lincoln and the Salisbury which were united with the others in London for about a nano-second last month. But this matters little, for in addition we have several dozen other historical rights documents which – it can be argued – are as or more important than Magna Carta itself. These include the American Declaration of Independence, in Jefferson’s own hand; and the original American Bill of Rights. These have a security guard on them at all times, quite probably a condition of the loan from across the Pond. On show is also our own original Bill of Rights from 1689. But re-wind to the 13th century and there are rights documents which pre-date Magna Carta and ones which over the next 100 years or so re-new and reaffirm the bargain between the English monarch and the free men of his Realm, of whom there were relatively few early on.

But the important thing is that these deals led to more and more important, egilatarian and ultimately democratic agreements between the rulers and the ruled. Magna Carta, which was more properly known at the time as the Articles of the Barons on the Charter of Runnymede (“Carta de Ronemede”) led to the Forest Charter of 1225, the 1297 Statute Roll and the 1311 Ordinances of Edward II.

Inexorably on through the English Bill of Rights, American Independence, women’s suffrage, universal suffrage, colonial independence movements and to the 21st Century and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The exhibition proceeds through all of  these which are represented though a collection of well-chosen objects from swords to cartoons to commemorative teapots.

George Cruikshank, ‘Liberty Suspended’, 1817 © British Museum_500

George Cruikshank, ‘Liberty Suspended’, 1817 © British Museum

Votes for Women, 1911, British Library.

Votes for Women, 1911, British Library.

Many of our favourite freedom-fighters, politicians, martyrs and charlatans are represented here. Mine – John Wilkes – was, of course, all of these things. He certainly invoked Magna Carta in his time of need.

John Wilkes

John Wilkes

The structure is essentially a game of two halves. Magna Carta in its own time and the key players who seem almost like pantomime characters to us now: King John, the French King Philip Augustus, the great medieval pope Innocent III,  archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, noteworthy troublemaker Simon de Montfort. But this was no panto. Supported by beautiful illuminated books from the Royal Collection and elsewhere, along with body parts of the King, seals, tally sticks, clerical vestments, this part of the show gives us the why and the how, the political and social landscape: the context. And it does it brilliantly.

A first draft of Magna Carta, known as the Articles of the Barons © British Library

A first draft of Magna Carta, known as the Articles of the Barons © British Library

King John hunting a stag with hounds, 14th century. British Library.

King John hunting a stag with hounds, 14th century. British Library.

The second half gives us, as we have noted above, the effects and influences of Magna Carta in the centuries following, down to to-day: how Magna Carta burst its own banks, so to speak. For as we are shown, Magna Carta was almost immediately quashed by Pope Innocent III, making it redundant. And while it has been superceded by greater acts and charters, all but three of its own clauses have been repealed. But what clauses they are. They involve the exclusive rights and privileges of the Church; the exclusive rights and privileges of the City of London; and most importantly of all the right of any free man not to be arrested without reason or to be tried except by his own peers.

Finally, though, the show includes unobtrusive (ie via headphones) video of academics and politicians giving contextual commentary. I’m usually wary of this sort of thing, but these are very good indeed.

Magna Carta London copy, 2015. British Library.

Magna Carta London copy, 1215. British Library.

Great Seal of King John, 1203 © Eton College Archives

Great Seal of King John, 1203 © Eton College Archives

This is a substantial show, a thoughtful show, the equal of the heady topic it represents and brilliantly executed. Standard ticket price is £12 and worth every penny. I’m delighted that under 18s go free, for these are important matters for young minds to know about and to think about.

It’s not the end of March yet and I may already have seen the London exhibition of 2015.

Check out the British Library’s special web space for Magna Carta 800. You can book your tickets from there too.



Review: Vanished City

Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighbourhoods by Tom Bolton

Vanished City by Tom BoltonOr Tales from Topographical Streetscapes. This excellent little book is a real scales-from-the-eyes job: full of interesting stuff you didn’t know, but should. I say little, but to be clear, while its physical form is a 4″x5″ handy pocket-size, the book is 253 pages of rich, multi-layered yet economical text and a pleasure to read.

Arranged in 10 chapters of about 25 pages apiece, the author tells us the story of pockets of London whose names, buildings, streets and populations have utterly transmogrified. Each has a different tale: Clare Market and its surrounding streets were swept away in the name of progress and replaced by the semi-circular, cosmopolitan, 20C Aldwych, a name meaningless to Londoners for a millennium; yet Cripplegate was obliterated by the Luftwaffe: the Barbican district took a full 40 years to rise from its ashes; Ratcliff and old Limehouse both withered on the vine with the decline London’s docklands and maritime industries; and so on. For completeness we also have Horsleydown, Norton Folgate, Old St Pancras, Agar Town, Streatham Spa, Wellclose and White City, the last of which has meaning to most of us, fading as it has within our living memories.

Each story is fascinating and complicated; the author does a great job of assembling, arranging and delivering his material as an excellent narrative.

You can tell by by his apposite use of quotations and the occasional casual yet pertinent commentary that he is familiar with not only the streetscapes of which he writes, but also other giants past and present. Ian Nairn and Iain Sinclair but a couple of favourites from our own times. But there is also plenty of Stype, Pepys, Thornbury and other wise old anoraks of the past.  All are used in a pertinent yet unforced manner which adds to the reading pleasure. So it’s clear that Vanished City is not – like so many – scaffolded in dusty research: Tom Bolton knows his stuff too.

The book is nicely illustrated by photos in both colour and black-and-white by the author and S.F. Said. There are unburdonsome footnotes at the end of each chapter and a good bibliography at the back of the book. But no index. This I can live with, but the one thing that the book lacks, I feel, is a wee map to go with each chapter. The text is necessarily very geographically specific, so I found myself having to refer to my London A to Z while reading.

No other criticisms: thoroughly recommended.

Vanished City (253pp) is published by Strange Attractor Press with a cover price of £11.99 but available for less.

London Historians members will be interested to know that a signed copy of this book is the prize draw in your March newsletter, out Monday.


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