Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘history’

Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

Read Full Post »

When Middlesex had two members of parliament these seats were fought for at often boisterous elections which took place at the Butts in Brentford, today a tranquil estate comprising handsome town houses, a nunnery, the old Boatman’s Institute and other features of interest. Tucked away in a cul-de-sac nearby is an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful old books. Here is the home, office and HQ of long-standing London Historians member Hawk Norton, a talented book dealer who specialises in old London books.

I visit Hawk frequently for a coffee, a natter and to wallow in and marvel at his latest acquisitions. I’ve bought some real treasures from the bottom end of his price list: first editions of all H.V. Morton’s London output from the inter-war period: wonderful; a first edition of Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn’s 1966 masterpiece; other bits and pieces. I’ve held in my own hands a first edition of John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London. Holy Grail stuff.

At any given time, Hawk has over 3,500 books in his collection. Not only that, but also maps, illustrations and other London historical ephemera. All are for sale at great prices, universally under the market rate. Hawk numbers some of London’s leading and great historians among his customers.

hawks-books-2-a4-72lpi

hawks-books-a4-72lpi

hawks-maps-a4-72lpi

You’ll make somebody very happy this Christmas with something from Hawk’s list, especially if that somebody is you! Get his latest catalogue (PDF format) by emailing him on hawk@btinternet.com. He welcomes visitors by appointment.

Read Full Post »

Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

Read Full Post »

Quite recently I read Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson, A Biography (2008). There was a lovely episode involving a convoluted prank which James Boswell conspired to play on his friend. It featured the firebrand John Wilkes (1725 – 1797), one of my all-time favourite Londoners. As an establishment Tory, Johnson (1709 – 1784) had a poor opinion of the radical Wilkes, whom he had never met; he felt Wilkes to be no more than “a criminal from a gaol”. Equally dismissive, Wilkes viewed the lexicographer as “a slave of the state.” Boswell thought it would be a rum caper to engineer a situation whereby the two men unavoidably bumped into each other socially – a challenge, given their different circles.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

He set the trap with the help of a mutual friend of all the parties, Charles Dilly. Dilly was a publisher who liked to entertain at his home in the Poultry, which had become something of an informal literary hub. Both men were invited to dinner on the evening of 15 May 1776 without the other’s knowledge.

On the evening itself, on discovering Wilkes was in the room, Johnson sulkily sat down with a book. But Wilkes – as charming as Johnson was grumpy – sat next to the older man and made a big fuss over him. Johnson’s resistance evaporated almost immediately and the two great men spent the evening in sparkling and warm conversation.

Boswell didn’t mind a bit that sparks didn’t fly. It was just a mischievous experiment and he was no doubt pleased that for once his friend failed to dominate the room.

Read Full Post »

Today we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Heathrow Airport, officially opened for commercial air travel on 31 May 1946. Initially, it was rather prosaically named London Airport, only becoming officially Heathrow sometime later, to many of us simply LHR. London Airport took over the role as London’s main airport from Croydon Aerodrome which had operated in that capacity since 1920.

But the origins of Heathrow as an airport go back to the early days of aviation. West London had been the base for military aircraft manufacturers such as Sopwith (later Hawker) in Kingston and Fairey in Hayes. Such was the craze for aviation in the early decades of the 20th Century that airstrips were common in London suburbia in places like Hendon, Croydon, Northolt … and a hamlet near Hounslow Heath called Heathrow. That now lost village existed from medieval times roughly where Terminal 3 is today.

Fairey Aviation, led by Sir Richard Fairey, having been evicted from Northolt by the Air Ministry in the late 1920s, bought land and developed a three runway aerodrome in the Heathrow area during the 1930s. It was variously known as Harmondsworth Aerodrome, Great West Aerodrome and Heathrow Aerodrome. But in 1944, under emergency powers, the government once again evicted Fairey from their home – without compensation. Hard to credit their grim luck. Not knowing what to do with it after the war, the aerodrome was turned over to civilian use. Result: London Airport.

LHR55

Aerial image of LHR in the mid-1950s.

The following 10 years, the airport became very busy indeed, and yet it took until the mid-1950s for permanent terminals to be built: Terminal 1 Britannic (later Terminal 2, recently demolished and rebuilt); and Terminal 2 Oceanic (later Terminal 3 we still know, albeit re-developed). Terminal 1 was added in 1969, and that’s the way things stayed until Terminal 4 was opened in 1986 on the South Perimeter, the first passenger Terminal outside the central terminal complex. Terminal 5 opened near the West Perimeter in 2008. Terminal 1 is now awaiting demolition while the development of a modern expanded Terminal 2 continues. In addition to all of this there has been a long-term cargo area on the South Perimeter.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

The stars of any airport, of course, are the aircraft. Today the skies and runways are dominated by the giants birds of Boeing and Airbus. But we look back, perhaps ruefully, to the days when Britain played a more active role with our Viscounts, BAC 1-11s, Comets, VC10s. Best, fastest and most beautiful of all of course was much-loved and much missed Concorde, lost to us forever at the turn of this century. Most of all, LHR was her home. And while British Airways is such in name only a member of this or that “alliance”, some of us rue the passing of BEA, BOAC, British Midland, British Caledonian and so on. Especially those, like me, who worked at LHR years ago and today still live under her flight path. From where I’m writing this I look out the window where aircraft fly by every minute all day long: I love them all.

Happy birthday, Heathrow!


Excellent Crown Film Unit footage of the construction of early Heathrow.
Heathrow Airport history timeline on Wikipedia.

Read Full Post »

curtain theatre 200Last week, as guests of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), we visited one of their current explorations, that of the old Elizabethan playhouse, the Curtain Theatre. The opportunity for access comes about prior to a new developement on the site for retail and office complex to be called, appropriately, The Stage.

The Curtain ran from 1577 to 1627 in Shoreditch, initially under the proprietorship of Richard Burbage. Like its counterparts in Southwark – the Globe and the Rose – the theatre was sited outside the walls of the City of London, which held restrictive laws against public entertainment of this sort.

One for the team’s key findings is that the theatre was a rectangular building of approximately 22m by 30m, and not polygonal as previously thought. As is usual in virtually any excavation in London, many historic artifacts have been unearthed. One of particular interest in this instance is the remains of a bird whistle, in this case probably for theatrical sound effects rather than a child’s toy. There are numerous references to bird song, for example, in Romeo and Juliet, for example: “That birds would sing and think it were not night. ”

DSC03092b500

DSC03095b500

DSC03096b500

DSC03099b500

DSC03090b500

Although selling out fast, there are still places left on the public tours of the site, which are taking place on Fridays, full details of these are listed on the MOLA web site.

This visit is quite typical of a wide variety of Events undertaken by London Historians, most of which are nowadays Members only affairs. Join us!

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Last Monday, London Historians enjoyed a long-anticipated lunch and tour at Ironmongers’ Hall. It was superb. This was On the staircase, I immediately recognised an object which I remember from some years ago. It is “The Estridge”, a wooden carving from 1629 on the occasion of the Lord Mayor’s pageant for Sir James Campbell, three times Master of the Company (1615, 1623, 1640). That’s some old bird. The connection with ironmongery is that back in the day, it was thought that ostriches were able to eat and digest iron, hence the horseshoe in the animal’s beak. If you went to the superb Royal River exhibition at the Maritime Museum, Greenwich, you will have seen this same ostrich on display, on loan from the Company.

estridge, ostrich, ironmongers' hall

Three years ago, in Greenwich.

Three years ago, in Greenwich.

You can see a gallery of pictures from our visit to the Ironmongers’ Hall here and here.

More on ill-conceived myths relating to animals.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »