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 The show, of course, commemorates the 800th anniversary of that totemic, world-famous historical document.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.


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.



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