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London, City of Science 1550-1800, the new gallery at the Science Museum. This is a guest review by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon.

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From Holland Park to Tower Hamlets you cannot go far in London without crossing the path of a notable scientist or passing a place where an important innovation or experiment was made. The Science Museum in South Kensington has long been full of Londony objects, although even London Historians might be forgiven for not realising that.

When I visited recently, the Museum plans, signage and maps had yet to catch up with the opening of the new permanent addition, the ‘Science City 1550-1800’ gallery which is all about London. The new gallery, opposite the not-quite-so-new Clockmakers’ Museum (which relocated here from the Guildhall if you have not kept up with things) is on the second floor. It is, in part, a new and roomier setting for an old friend, the George III collection of scientific instruments, which has returned after a world tour of a couple of years or more. It is supplemented by some of the objects previously secreted in the archive of the Royal Society, rescued from the overflow store, or loaned from elsewhere.

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Astrolabe, check. Mural arc, check. Sextant, check. Orrery, check. The gallery has all the beautiful brass, copper, wood, enamel and (probably) ebony artifacts that you would expect. Though, if you are a stranger to the astrolabe, you are unlikely to appreciate more than its engraving, after a visit here. And I’m afraid I cannot do much to enlighten you either. (I once asked at the Oxford science museum how an astrolabe worked, and I clearly did not look intelligent enough to be granted an answer – though they were quite nice about it.) Now, I am not normally a fan of videos in museums. But here is one that is absolutely appropriate, and worth your time. It shows for a few minutes some of the craft that goes (went) into making these things – gears, mirrors, glass vessels and globes. (By the way, one of the segments was filmed at the Clockworks, West Norwood which is often a participant in Open House in September.)

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In the near future the Science Museum is going to open a temporary exhibition on The Art of Innovation. But it has always been quite possible to treat the Science Museum as a refreshingly different and eclectic art gallery. City of Science continues that strand. There is a portrait of Georgian aeronaut Mrs Letitia Sage, and a view of old Westminster Bridge being constructed with the aid of pile driver developed by (Huguenot?) James Valoue. Bibliophiles will be pleased to glimpse early editions of great works by John Evelyn and Robert Hooke.

And now, welcome to geeks corner. With the opening of this gallery, the Science Museum can boast two different dividing engines on display in different rooms! Just so you know, it’s a kitchen range sized rotating table for marking an accurate scale on a sextant or theodolite. (The one by Troughton long displayed downstairs is the one to see.) However, it was seeing a surveying chain made by celebrated instrument maker Jesse Ramsden and a piece of St Paul’s Cathedral’s original lightning conductor where I found my goosepimples pleasurably elevated. But that might not be the effect on everyone!

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What is in the gallery is admirable. But ‘science’ is a misnomer, and an oversimplification. This is a physical science and technology museum. This gallery offers an informative but blinkered view of science over the period in question. Here, you would not guess that there were advances during this period by Londoners unconnected with, or even disdained by, the Royal Society. Also, physiology (William Harvey?) and natural history (Hans Sloane?) are scarcely represented but for Robert Hooke’s magnified louse and other drawings. But the Natural History Museum is next door.

The unfortunate thing about the Science Museum (and any science museum) is that exhibits which are not pure art may be difficult to enjoy from a standing start. In this case, it may be worth glancing at Wikipedia to refresh your memory on the subject of the Royal Society and its early great names before you visit. Even when such care has been taken over the captions, it would aid understanding to have someone next to you getting excited at times, or making a connection with something more familiar – I think. Science City 1550-1800 is an attractive gallery. I hope it may whet the appetite of history enthusiasts to see more of the Science Museum, but note that it probably will not wow the average child for more than about a second.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, and a volunteer in the archives of both the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts. His tours cover the period from about 1550 to recent times.

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This article, by journalist, author and academic Brian Cathcart, was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from April 2015.


June 18th this year is the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and it will be marked in many events and ceremonies. Of course, on that Sunday in 1815 no one in London had any idea what was happening in Belgium. They didn’t even know that hostilities had broken out. News of the battle did not reach the capital in reliable form until late on Wednesday, but it did so in the most dramatic manner.

The battle was won by the Sunday evening, but the Duke of Wellington did not hurry to inform his government and so his famous Waterloo Dispatch did not leave Brussels until early the following afternoon. Travelling over drenched and battered roads, and no doubt stopping frequently on his way to share his news, the messenger, Major Henry Percy, made slow progress to the coast. Then, embarked upon the sloop HMS Peruvian, he was becalmed at sea. By the time the Kent coast finally came into sight it was late on Wednesday morning and so desperate was Percy to complete his mission that he abandoned ship, stepping into a rowing boat with four sailors who rowed him the last twenty miles to Broadstairs.

In the meantime, London went a little mad. Monday’s evening papers brought word that fighting had begun in Belgium and then early on Tuesday came a report of a great victory for Wellington. A scoop for the Morning Post newspaper, this briefly electrified the population – but it was all a mistake, a distorted and exaggerated account of an indecisive encounter two days before Waterloo.

A ferment of confusion and debate followed, captured vividly by the Morning Herald:

The evening of yesterday [Tuesday 20th] having been fine, and the placards of the many-edition papers having been very profuse of various, if not contradictory, intelligence, groups of people remained to a late hour in the Strand, some arguing for one, some arguing for another construction of the news from Flanders. About the Horse Guards the crowd was greater, and the Park [St James’s] was thronged, all the evening, with people waiting for the dispatches. The feeling was evidently and strongly British, notwithstanding the laborious arts of the Bonapartian journals to produce a contrary spirit.

Wednesday, as the Observer newspaper would recall later, was ‘an interval of painful suspense’. It dawned with London expecting to find the official messenger in town, but Percy was then still a hundred miles off and the unaccountable absence of news deepened fears that the battle must have been lost. Soon unofficial reports of a victory began to trickle in, but people would not trust them, especially as counter-rumours of a defeat were also circulating. (Claims that the banker Nathan Rothschild was the first to know, by the way, are not supported by the evidence.)

Tension mounted as the hours passed. On Wednesday evening the streets were again filled with expectant Londoners, while War Department officials manned their desks for a second night running. At the theatres and the society parties across the West End, one topic dominated. Meanwhile Major Percy was at last making swift progress in his post-chaise and four. Changing horses at Canterbury, Sittingbourne, Rochester and Dartford, he crested Shooters Hill in time to see London in the fading light of dusk. Then soon after 11pm his yellow carriage, with two captured French eagle standards thrusting from its windows, crossed Westminster Bridge into a delirious crowd.

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Major Percy sets out, with Napoleon’s eagles.

With this happy throng in tow, Percy made his way to Downing Street, where he was told that the Cabinet was dining at Lord Harrowby’s in Grosvenor Square. These unfortunate ministers had thus far passed an evening of all but unbearable tension. One account goes:

They dined, they sat. No dispatch came. At length, when the night was far advanced, they broke up. Yet, delayed by a lingering hope that the expected messenger might appear, they stood awhile in a knot conversing on the pavement when suddenly was heard a faint and distant shout. It was the shout of victory! Hurrah! Escorted by a running and vociferous multitude, the Major drove up. He was taken into the house and the dispatch was opened.

Sixteen pages long and written in the most sober terms, the dispatch took time to digest, but eventually delighted ministers were able to announce the news to the crowd outside, who greeted it, according to the Morning Post, with ‘universal and ecstatic cheering’. Now Percy had to report to the Prince Regent, who that night was the dinner guest of a banking family, the Boehms. Carriages were summoned and most of the Cabinet followed Percy’s chaise through the streets, once again trailing a crowd behind. Dorothy Boehm, the hostess, describes their arrival at 16 St James’s Square:

The first quadrille was in the act cf forming and the Prince was walking up to the dais on which his seat was placed, when I saw every one without the slightest sense of decorum rushing to the windows, which had been left wide open because of the excessive sultriness of the weather. The music ceased and the dance was stopped; for we heard nothing but the vociferous shouts of an enormous mob, who had just entered the Square and were running by the side of a post-chaise and four, out of whose windows were hanging three nasty French eagles. In a second the door of the carriage was flung open and, without waiting for the steps to be let down, out sprang Henry Percy – such a dusty figure! – with a flag in each hand, pushing aside everyone who happened to be in his way, darting up stairs, into the ball-room, stepping hastily up to the Regent, dropping on one knee, laying the flags at his feet, and pronouncing the words ‘Victory, Sir! Victory!’

The jubilation was mixed with shock at the casualties, but for the next three days London partied. Some never made it to bed that night and were present next morning to witness the spectacular military display staged in St James’s Park by the Duke of York. Both Houses of Parliament cheered themselves hoarse, while perhaps the most vivid personal recollection comes from the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon:

Sammons, my model and corporal of the Life Guards, came, and we tried to do our duty, but Sammons was in such a fidget about his regiment charging and I myself was in such a heat, I was obliged to let him go. Away he went, and I never saw him till late next day, and he then came drunk with talking. I read the Gazette the last thing before going to bed. I dreamt of it and was fighting all night. I got up in a steam of feeling and read the Gazette again, ordered a Courier for a month, called a confectioner’s, and read all the papers till I was faint.

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Chelsea pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo. Detail, engraving by Burnett after Wilkie.

On Friday and Saturday came the illuminations, with spectacular lantern and candle shows at all the big houses, public buildings and businesses. The St James’s Chronicle wrote:

The streets were thronged with people beyond conception. The whole was one moving crowd, carriages going slowly and forcing their way through the populace. The fair sex were equally numerous with the male. Bands of music paraded the streets until two o’clock. Dustmen, with their bells, kept up a perpetual din. Many persons lost their shoes opposite the Admiralty and Horse Guards. The pickpockets were very busy.


Brian Cathcart is the author of The News from Waterloo: The Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory, published in 2015.

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Review: Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Sally-Anne Thomas. 

ffThis is a wonderful book for anyone interested in history, literature, poetry or publishing. It’s also the result of meticulous record keeping, and told in a series of letters, minutes, memoirs and memos, with the occasional explanatory intervention by the author.

It begins in London with an account of the early life of the firm’s founder, Sir Geoffrey Faber, the writer’s grandfather. He made an uncertain start in terms of a career. Born in 1889, he spent the First World War on the Western Front, wrote some critically acclaimed poetry, was elected as a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and eventually became a director of Strong and Co., a beer manufacturing company in Hampshire. But he had little talent for brewing, and soon lost his job.

By this time he was living in London, married, and with a growing family. He was writing unsuccessful plays and a novel, but was rescued by another fellow of All Souls, Maurice Dwyer who, with his wife Alaina, had an interest in a publishing company called ‘The Scientific Press’, whose primary title was The Nursing Mirror.
In 1924, Geoffrey was installed as Chairman and Managing Director of the firm. The Nursing Mirror was sold.

The early part of the book marks Geoffrey’s battles to move the firm towards a literary path. One of his first appointments was that of the poet, T. S. Eliot, as a literary adviser. Eliot, as you might expect, was good on poetry, but has the distinction of rejecting an early version of George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris and Animal Farm.

There are constant battles within the firm, involving Geoffrey and later his son Tom, an academic and physicist who rescued the company from severe financial problems in the 1970s.

A series of irate letters cover rows between members of the family and with the directors, disagreements with authors, and a series of other problems.

However, this small firm managed to survive the Great Depression, paper shortages in the Second World War, and numerous financial crises subsequently. It remains one of the best-known and respected publishing houses in the world.

If I were to list all the authors who have been published by Faber, I would far exceed the word allowance for this review. But to name just a few, we have Eliot, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, Ezra Pound,. William Golding, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Harold Pinter, Lawrence Durrell, P. D. James, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and Orhan Pamuk. The Faber Finds imprint, established in 2008, makes copyrighted out-of-print books re-available, using print-on-demand technology and includes works by John Betjeman, Angus Wilson, A. J. P. Taylor, H. G Wells, Joyce Cary, Nina Bawden, Jean Genet, Lousis MacNeice, F. R. Leavis, Jacob Bronowski, Jan Morris and Brian Aldiss.

The detailed story ends in 1989. But Toby Faber – who no longer has a hands-on responsibility for the company – makes it clear that much is still to come.

The structure of the book is interesting. Since it involves very little narrative, just the use of historical letters and memos, it can seem a little staccato. But because it’s been expertly collated, the volume flows. It is raw history, fascinating and hugely entertaining. And running through the book is a sense of fun, of how exhilarating and challenging the company was and is.

Faber and Faber marches on. I’m sure there will be another volume soon, followed by one on the two-hundredth anniversary in 2129.


Faber & Faber, The Untold Story (426pp) by Toby Faber was published in May 2019 by Faber & Faber with a cover price of £20.

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Guildhall: City of London. History Guide Companion by Graham Greenglass and Stephen Dinsdale. Guest review by LH Member Mark Ackerman.  

ghThe authors, both LH members and City of London guides, have produced a detailed and comprehensive book on the central area of the City of London and its seat of governance, Guildhall, oddly never ‘the Guildhall’ when used in this context. The introduction says the work’s aim is to provide ‘a history, a guide and a companion’ and it ticks all those boxes admirably.

It is full of fascinating facts and stories and I’m ashamed to say, as a Londoner born and bred, I was ignorant of many of them, so it also serves as an educational tool for the likes of me.

The oldest part of the building we still see today, the Great Hall of the Guildhall itself, was begun by master mason John Croxtone in 1411 and largely completed by 1430. It was probably the third such building on the site, a central area first used in Saxon times as a ‘folkmoot’ where citizens gathered.

Croxtone designed his hall in the English Perpendicular Gothic style and it is the oldest non-ecclesiastical building in the City of London. It owed its cathedral-like appearance to Croxtone’s own master, Henry Yevele, with whom he had worked previously on the rebuilding of Westminster Hall. A pitched timber roof topped off the stone fabric but the building was not finally completed until 1499 with the addition of turrets. It also contained the Mayor’s Court and Court of Aldermen but it was felt necessary, even before final completion, to include two cells to restrain unruly apprentices.

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15C Guildhall. Artist’s impression.

This was a huge and costly construction project for the early fifteenth century with the guilds putting up the money. However, just as today the City is (and is likely to remain) the international centre for many financial dealings, so its earlier counterpart wanted to demonstrate to its continental rivals that it too was a major commercial capital.

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Post-fire Ogilby and Morgan map of the area, 1677.

The Great Fire of 1666 spared the stone fabric of Guildhall but, as Pepys wrote, ‘the horrid, malicious, bloody flame’ destroyed the roof. A ‘temporary’ flat wooden roof replaced it for the next two hundred years until Sir Horace Jones, Surveyor to the City, began renovation work in 1860. As the favoured style of his day was Gothic revivalism, Jones could get to work on a building which had been overlaid with Baroque and neo-classical elements by Wren and others after the Great Fire and, as the authors have it, he set about ‘re-Gothicising’ the edifice.

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Porch, chapel and Blackwell Hall, 1820. 

Today, only the old museum and library buildings remain from Jones’s renovation work and Guildhall Yard would have to wait until after the Second World War for the next major rebuild when Giles Gilbert Scott, of the famous architectural dynasty, began the task he had hoped to start before the war when he had advised on renovations to the area. Now the job was a major rebuild including that of the Great Hall itself, badly damaged in a 1940 air raid. It was repaired by October 1954 and welcomed the new Lord Mayor for his banquet the following month.

Sir Giles’s son Richard continued his father’s work in the ’60s and, as the book states, ‘led the way for a contemporary Guildhall Yard and proposed five new construction projects which externally dominate the Guildhall we see today.’ These were an enlarged yard, a new West Wing office complex, a new library and art gallery and the restoration of the crypts below the hall.

The book offers an excellent résumé of the monuments and statuary both outside and within the Great Hall. Of the latter, many are dedicated to obvious heroes such as Nelson, Wellington and Churchill and it is perhaps no surprise to see Pitt the Younger there, our youngest Prime Minster at the age of only 24. Mercury, representing commerce, stands over him but perhaps the Winged Messenger, who also oversaw good fortune, could have kept better watch during Pitt’s lifetime as the alcoholic gambler racked up debts of £40,000 by the time he died. The government eventually paid these off but it is difficult to see that ever happening now as the amount is the equivalent of £3.5 million today.

Another memorial commemorates former Lord Mayor William Beckford, who twice held the post and was MP for the City of London. The son of a Jamaican plantation and slave owner he himself became one of the wealthiest men in the country through these activities. In fact, it was said of him that ‘to see a slave he could not bear….unless it was his own’ and, given the current anti-Colston campaign, one wonders if the activists will next turn their attention to Beckford. Being less prominent, he may be spared.

The banners of the Great Twelve City Guilds hang below the roof of the Great Hall with the Mercers taking pre-eminence as they had provided the most Lord Mayors when the ranking system was decided upon in 1515 after many disagreements, some of which even resulted in fighting and the deaths of guild members. The Merchant Taylors and Skinners were among the most disputatious, fighting over sixth and seventh place, which probably led to the phrase ‘at sixes and sevens’.

The Great Hall was also used for ‘show’ trials such as that of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen, who was unwillingly manoeuvred into place by her devious father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland. She and her husband were executed for high treason in 1554 with the devious duke, who also coerced her into marrying his son in the first place, soon suffering the same fate.

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Guildhall today. Pic: M Paterson.

The book covers the Lord Mayor’s office in detail and relates how little the true story of Richard Whittington, who held the office four times, has in common with his panto counterpart. But as the fable has it, he did indeed marry an Alice, Alice Fitzwarin, and in reality performed many charitable works including the provision of a large public lavatory, flushed by the Thames. His seventeenth century successor, however, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, would live on in infamy. He it was who, when arriving in Pudding Lane to see the start of the conflagration in 1666, said it was not serious and ‘a maid might piss it out’. He also refused to demolish neighbouring buildings to create a firebreak in case he became personally liable. Pepys described seeing him later that night ‘like a man spent, with a hankercher about his neck’ and bemoaning the fact that he had been up all night although he apparently went back to bed after first being called out. He was an object of public vilification ever after, even while continuing to sit as an MP.

Everything you might wish to know about Guildhall and its environs is here, including chapters on the City parish church, St Lawrence Jewry; the Roman Amphitheatre below the art gallery; the City of London Police Museum and public events held in Guildhall Yard such as the Cart Marking Ceremony every July and the Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Parade in September.

The book has now inspired me to revisit the whole precinct under its expert guidance. It also makes a thoughtful gift for any LH member and for friends and family, and all in good time for the festive season.


GUILDHALL: CITY OF LONDON, A History Guide Companion
Authors: Graham Greenglass and Stephen Dinsdale
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Price: £16.99ISBN: 9781526715418

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16156Book review by LH Member George Goodwin.
The Civil War in London by Robin Rowles
Pen & Sword, £12.99 152pp

As a reviewer it is well to declare an interest. Robin Rowles is both an active member of London Historians and a highly-qualified guide with a love of London’s history that easily communicates itself in conversation, as it did to me when we talked some months ago about the Civil War in London both as a topic in itself and as the subject of this book. So I can be forgiven for approaching the book with rose-tinted glasses.

Robin takes a somewhat old-fashioned approach and the book is none the worse for that. He is impeccable in the way that he credits his sources and the views of his fellow historians, and he ensures that those with only a limited understanding of the causes of the English Civil War have these background factors explained. He then tackles his subject thematically. I have one quibble with the structure of the book, addressed to its editor rather than its author, which is that it might have been better to have had some part of the penultimate chapter ‘London’s brave boys: the trained bands and the defence of London’ as the opening salvo.

There may not have been any fighting in London itself, but that was partly due to the impressive defensive measures taken by the City of London’s Common Council and to the role of the Trained Bands in repulsing the King’s army at the Battle of Turnham Green, then some miles to the west of the twin cities of Westminster and London. As Robin points out, the London units and their extremely effective commander Philip Skippon also played an exceptionally important role in the wider Civil War.

As to the meat of the book, Robin has a real insight into how the City was able to take on much of the machinery of national administration, with its networks of committees in some ways akin to those that would operate in Paris during the French Revolution. Their taking on this role being natural, due to the City’s long-established institutions and the ability of its governing Common Council to give overall direction.

The centuries-old financial importance of the City of London to the Monarchy was symbolised by the longstanding pre-coronation tradition of the monarch being escorted to the Tower through the City gates by the scarlet-clad Mayor and Aldermen of London. With a detailed knowledge of its Livery Companies, Robin shows how the Parliamentarians were able to utilise the City’s long-established means of financing the monarchy in order to back its citizen enemies. He also demonstrates how this change of loyalty had been made a great deal easier through King Charles’s assault on the City’s privileges during the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’ not least through the Crown’s confiscation of the City’s Ulster plantation.

There are some intriguing details in the book to demonstrate that the City was far from universally solid in its support of Parliament, showing that some moderate Royalists were elected as Mayors during the mid-1640s before Charles’ resumption of hostilities in 1648 cut the ground from their feet, that is before Parliament was itself superseded by the army, with Skippon later becoming Cromwell’s Major General for the London area. The exceptional importance of religion in directing men towards either King or Parliament is affirmed and the means by which the Committee for Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry set about their task are well described. Women also have their moments: not least the 1643 march on Parliament by City women, with their demonstration against wartime taxation and higher food prices being met not by the MPs, who were taking cover inside, but by Dragoons, with the fatal consequences persuading seven peers to desert to the King.

Above all, the book takes you through the streets of the City and is good preparation for accompanying Robin on one of his London Civil War walks, which he lists with those on Sherlock Holmes and others on http://www.strollintime.co.uk/walks.htm


George Goodwin FRHistS is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father.

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A guest post by London Historians member Robin Rowles.

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Modern bust of Thos Cromwell, Guildhall.

In September 2016, I was preparing for the annual Sherlock Holmes Society of London annual weekend, when I received an unexpected tweet from publishing firm Pen and Sword. Would I be interested in writing a book about Sherlock Holmes and London? I was very flattered, wow, somebody out there had heard of my Sherlock Holmes walks, but immediately realised this would be a difficult undertaking. Not writing about Sherlock Holmes, that would be relatively easy, but marketing might be trickier, because I knew the market was saturated with books about Sherlock Holmes and London. Not only do I own many of these, I’m also friends with the authors and I know how good their books are. However, thinking quickly, I explained this and said I could write a book about the civil war in London. After some negotiation, the contract was agreed and I got writing.

The book, which was given the working title of A civil war walk around London, was to be an expansion of my walk ‘Civil war connections ‘round St Paul’s and Cheapside’. Like the walk that inspired it, the book is bookended by historical events from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the Restoration. However, as with the walk, it necessarily takes the reader back into the medieval past and forward into the early eighteenth century. As a fellow guide noted, context is important. Similarly, although the book is about London, parts of it step out of London entirely. Namely the chapter describing the evolution of the Trained Bands, the part-time militia, into the London Regiments. After the battles of Edgehill and Turnham Green in the autumn of 1642, London was secured for parliament, politically and militarily. The London Regiments were free to go on campaign. Which they did, to good effect, marching to relieve the Siege of Gloucester in 1643 and buy the embattled parliamentarians a vital breathing space. The royalists were pressing hard and it’s no exaggeration to say the London Regiments saved the day and the parliamentarian war effort.

Returning to London, there was so many stories to tell. The amazing construction of the Lines of Communication, London’s defences, now long dismantled and confined to the history books. The stories of the various City Livery Companies who housed the parliamentarian committees: The Goldsmiths Committee for Compounding Delinquents for instance. This term was originally applied to those who didn’t contribute to the parliamentarian coffers. Later in the war, the Committee expanded its remit and fined captured royalists with property, who ‘compounded’ for release of their estates. The money thus raised helped finance the war-effort. The Guildhall, where the annual elections to Common Council overturned a relatively pro-royalist caucus in December 1641 and voted in parliamentarians. In the wake of this Puritan revolution, it was the City of London that pressed parliament on important matters during the civil war, such as the removal of idolatrous monuments from churches and elsewhere. Possibly the most dramatic example of iconoclasm came in May 1643, when parliament ordered the dismantling of the Cheapside Cross.

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Map showing the Lines of Communication, by George Vertue, 1738.

16156Writing this book was almost like learning to guide again. Every fact was checked several times over, and then rechecked. I am indebted to the curators of British History Online, who kindly gave me permission to quote from various sources, including the Calendar of State Papers, House of Commons Journal, and the House of Lords’ Journal. The City of London generously allowed me to use photos taken in and around Guildhall Yard and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries very kindly gave permission to use an amusing photo of a bust of Charles I, by a ‘No Smoking’ sign. Charles’ father James was seriously anti-smoking and hiked the tobacco duty by 1,000 percent – although he didn’t mind spending the revenue! Quirky anecdotes like this are bread-and-butter for guides building a walk, but when writing a book, I had to dig a little deeper, look a little further, and work a lot harder. Two or three nights and Saturday in the library, quickly morphed into three to four nights, plus Saturday and Sunday. Fifty thousand words, over eight chapters in nine months. However, with a more than a little help from many friends I got there. The Civil War in London: Voices from the City is published by Pen and Sword.


Robin Rowles is a qualified City of London guide lecturer and a long-standing member of London Historians. 

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A guest post by LH Member Brian Cookson. This article was first published in LH Members’ Newsletter of August 2014.


By the early nineteenth century, with the increase in population in west London and improvements in transport from the centre, people who wanted to cross the river from Hammersmith to the Surrey side by road had to make a five mile detour either via Kew or Putney Bridge.

After the usual abortive attempts to construct a river crossing, a group of local people formed the Hammersmith Bridge Company and raised £80,000 with a view to presenting a Bill before Parliament. Despite strong opposition from the proprietors of Kew and Putney Bridges, the Act enabling the building of Hammersmith Bridge, which was to be the first suspension bridge over the River Thames, finally received Royal Assent on 9 June 1824.

The engineer chosen to design Hammersmith Bridge was William Tierney Clark who was the engineer of the nearby West Middlesex waterworks. Clark’s proposed design of a suspension bridge at Hammersmith was attractive as it required the construction of only two river piers and provided a 400 ft. wide navigation path for shipping.

Tierney Clark’s magnum opus was undoubtedly the famous chain bridge over the Danube at Budapest. The bridge was completed in 1849 and survived until its destruction by the retreating German army in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. After the end of the war the bridge was rebuilt according to Tierney Clark’s original design and stands today as a foreign monument to the great engineer.

The choice of a suspension bridge was a daring decision to take, since no successful large-scale suspension bridge had ever been built except for the pioneering Union Bridge over the River Tweed near Berwick, constructed in 1820 by Captain Samuel Brown (1776-1852). Brown supplied the ironwork for Hammersmith Bridge, but it was Tierney Clark who designed it with two massive stone river towers which supported the suspension chains and formed a Tuscan archway through which the road platform ran. Since Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was in the process of constructing a similar suspension bridge over the Menai Straits between Wales and Anglesey at this time, Clark submitted his plan for Telford’s comments. There was considerable mutual respect as well as rivalry between the great engineers of the nineteenth century and so it was not surprising when they asked each other’s advice.

Telford’s Menai Bridge was completed in 1826, one year earlier than Hammersmith Bridge. The Menai Bridge has a central span between the supporting towers of 579 ft. However, the road between the towers and the shore is supported on masonry arches. At Hammersmith the central span between the river towers is 400 ft, but the suspension chains also support the road platforms between the river towers and the river bank. This gives a total length of 688 ft. and allows the claim that Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time it was built.

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Tierney Clark’s Hammersmith Bridge of 1827.

From a practical point of view, the bridge had significant shortcomings. The width of the carriageway was 20 ft. and there were two footpaths of 5 ft. on either side. This was not unreasonable for the traffic conditions at the time, except that where the road went under the thick stone arches its width was reduced to only 14 ft. and at this point it had to provide for both vehicles and pedestrians. Traffic was about to increase substantially not least because of the existence of the bridge itself. It could even be said that the bridge put Hammersmith on the map rather than vice versa.

With the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1855, pressure grew to free all the bridges in its area of toll charges, especially since the upstream bridges from Kew to Staines had already been freed . In 1877 the Metropolis Toll Bridges Act was passed to allow for the MBW to purchase the bridges and abolish the tolls. Hammersmith, Putney and Wandsworth Bridges were all declared toll free on the same day, 26 June 1880.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the MBW which now owned the bridge, was concerned about its safety. He produced a report recommending the complete reconstruction of the bridge superstructure on top of the existing pier foundations, and in 1883 an enabling Act was passed.

The new Hammersmith Bridge, like the old, was designed on the suspension principle but has a much more fanciful appearance than its predecessor. Structurally there are major differences in the use of material. The suspension chains are of steel rather than wrought iron. The river towers, instead of being built of stone, have frames of wrought iron which are clad in ornamental cast iron. Since iron is lighter than the equivalent strength masonry, the towers take up less space and allow a wider opening for river traffic through the arches. As a result, the carriageway under the arches is now 21 ft. wide, instead of 14 ft., and there is room for two 6 ft. footways which are cantilevered and curl round the outside of the towers rather than sharing the carriageway with the road as with the old bridge. On the river banks, instead of the toll gates which had been located there when the old bridge was built, Bazalgette constructed highly decorative abutments which take the suspension chains underground to a depth of 40 ft. where they are firmly anchored.

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The current bridge, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

Unfortunately, the bridge has suffered from problems of wear and tear, and has had to be closed a number of times. Natural deterioration has not been the only danger to which Hammersmith Bridge has been exposed . The IRA has tried to blow it up on no less than three occasions, but with limited success. Not everyone has agreed with the aesthetic merits of this bridge. William Morris, who owned a riverside house in Hammersmith, called it simply ‘this ugly suspension bridge’. However today it stands as a monument to Victorian engineering and design, beloved by the public, and seen by millions as the Oxford and Cambridge boat race crews strain for victory as they pass underneath every year.

See also.


Brian Cookson is the author of Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower and London’s Waterside Walks. He is also a Blue Badge Guide who offers various fascinating guided walks of London.
Find out more on his web page: www.lonwalk.ndirect.co.uk/.

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