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Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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A guest post by Joe Gingell.

In May 1940 the British Government ordered the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and infirm to French Morocco to convert Gibraltar into a fully-fledged fortress, which Hitler was planning to capture.

NPG x166829; Sir Kenelm Everard Lane Creighton by Walter Stoneman

Commodore Creighton. National Portrait Gallery.

Soon after the arrival of the evacuees in French Morocco, France fell. As a result of this and the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran, the Gibraltar evacuees were ordered to leave French Morocco within 24 hours. Coinciding with the expulsion of the Gibraltar evacuees, 15,000 French troops were arriving at Casablanca on British cargo ships from the UK. The French authorities threatened to impound these ships unless they took away the Gibraltarian evacuees. Commodore Creighton (later Rear-Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton) pleaded for the cleaning and replenishment of the ships but the request was refused and evacuees were forced on board by French troops.

The British Government did not want the evacuees to return to Gibraltar. Nonetheless, Commodore Creighton ignored the instructions from the Admiralty and sailed to Gibraltar with all the evacuees. But on arrival these evacuees were not allowed to disembark. Again Commodore Creighton insisted that the ships had to be cleaned and replenished. By then both the Italian and Vichy French air forces were bombing Gibraltar. Eventually alterations were made to the holds of the ships sailing into the Atlantic, with no medical facilities with hardly any life-saving equipment. After six days all provisions were inedible. Babies were born and some elderly people died in the journey. To avoid the menace of German U-boats, the convoy had to circumnavigate the Atlantic taking 16 days to reach England, specifically London.

Commodore Creighton in his book Convoy Commodore said that “if the convoy with Gibraltar evacuees had been attacked, it could have resulted in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.”

The evacuees arrived in London in August 1940, shortly before the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. About 13,000 of them lived in the capital during the war enduring all four years of bombing with some inevitable casualties.

I was one of those children evacuated to London. By 1944 I was already six and have vivid memories of the bombing of our evacuation centre, the Whitelands College in Putney. While in central London, I still remember my mother, my two brothers and I lying on the floor of the room at the York Hotel as a result of the explosion from a flying bomb which killed a Gibraltar evacuee. By end of July 1944 half of the evacuees had been repatriated. The remaining half were to live for four years in camps in Northern Ireland to await their gradual return home. Many of these evacuees had to wait for as long as ten years from the beginning of the war to rejoining their families in Gibraltar.

During the war Gibraltar became extremely vital, particularly, during Operation Torch. Some historians have qualified Gibraltar’s importance to the extent that, without Gibraltar, Britain would have lost the war. In the fortress scenario there was no place for non-combatant civilians who co-operated fully with a forced evacuation. Very little seems to be known about the story of the Gibraltar evacuees in London.


If you wish to read the book and find out the full story you can download it from the Gibraltar National Archives.

 

Evacuees at Dr Barnardo's

Evacuees at Dr. Barnardo’s.

EVACUEES AT WEMBLEY

Evacuees at Wembley.

EVACUEES AT WHITLANDS COLLEGE

Evacuees at Whitland College.

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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.

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Or know about. I contend that you can’t begin to understand London’s history properly without a pretty decent knowledge of its geography too, and how it’s changed over time. The answer, of course, lies in maps.

There have been many, but here – up until the end of the 19C – are the most notable, milestones if you will (with a few other items thrown in, e.g. Visscher, Tallis).

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Tudor London by Braun and Hogenberg

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Mid 18C London by John Rocque

c1560 Ralph Agas (attr. disputed)

1572 Braun and Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum

1593 John Norden. Maps of the Cities of London and Westminster

1616 Claes Visscher (1586 – 1652)   A Panorama of London

1667 Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 – 1677), City of London after the Fire, and more

1676 John Ogilby (1600 – 1676) and William Morgan (d 1690), City of London

1682 William Morgan, London &c Actually Survey’d, London and Westminster

1746 John Rocque (1706 – 1762) A plan of the cities of London and Westminster, and borough of Southwark.

1762 House numbering introduced.

1799 Richard Horwood (1757 – 1803), PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK and PARTS adjoining Shewing every HOUSE

1827 Christopher (1786-1855) and John  Greenwood  (d 1840) Map of London.

1840 John Tallis (1817 – 1876), London Street Views

1898 Edward Stanford (1827 – 1904), Stanford’s Map of the County of London.

My list is just scratching the surface. There are dozens – possibly hundreds – of omissions, not least speciality maps relating to bombs, insurance, poverty, temperance, religion etc., And then there are the panoramas. Pure joy.


Recommended Reading/Owning
The Times Atlas of London (2012)
London, a History in Maps (2012)  by Peter Barber
Mapping London, Making Sense of the City (2007) by Simon Foxell


Recommended Sites
Locating London’s Past
Mapco
Motco
Stanfords


My final tip. Join the London Topographical Society.

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A guest blog post by London Historians member the artist Liam O’Farrell who describes a London Historians tour of  Smithfield Market in August this year. 

The tour I attended was for Smithfield Market and St John’s. The St John’s Gate visit was just as interesting though for the sake of this blog I have just featured Smithfield Market, and the painting of Smithfield Market.

Arriving at Smithfield Market
The Market opens at 2am would you believe? This is far too early for a visit for even the most intrepid tourist that said we were all still mustered outside Barbican Station at 7.00. I am not a morning person at all though thankfully Peter Twist is, and got us all up and rolling in no time at all.

About Peter Twist (London Historians member)
Peter is a qualified as a City of London Guide since 2012. You may recognise him from the recent groundbreaking Channel 4 show, The Audience. He is a retired Metropolitan Police Senior Officer and brings a wealth of life experience and good humour to bear upon his guided walks.

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Peter Twist leading a group around Smithfield, here at the modern poultry market.

About Smithfield Market
Once on site Peter took us over the history of the market. A livestock market occupied the area as early as the 10th century. That said, it was always a bit of a butchers’ yard as this was where London performed its most gruesome executions. Here in 1305 William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered after upsetting Edward I. Wat Tyler too met his end here in an equally revolting fashion after leading the ‘peasants revolt’. You can add to this the protestant martyrs and lord knows how many others.

Thankfully public executions have long since come to an end, and the site we have here today was opened in 1868. It was designed by The City Architect, Sir Horace Jones. In true Victorian style he saw the new meat market as a cathedral of meat complete with its own grand avenue. No expense was spared over its ornamental cast iron, glass, stone and red brick features. Time has proven that from did follow function though the form is certainly impressive.

Once the talk on the history and the outer buildings were complete we passed through the cast giant cast iron doors into the main part of the market. These doors weigh 15 tons each, yet they are so well balanced that you can open them with one finger.

The painting of Smithfield Market
As Peter took us around the market I busied myself in making written notes and drawings around the site, and inside too. The view I finally chose was the three quarter view showing the majestic sweep of Horace Jones’ design with the towers on each corner.

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I produced a small watercolour on site to add to my notes and produced a larger one back in the studio. A print of Liam’s painting will be one of London Historians’ December prizes, see forthcoming newsletter for details.

Inside Smithfield Market

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Once you are inside the market you can really see the advantages of a tour guide as opposed to a guide book. Over the years Peter has got to know many of the market traders and they are more than willing to share stories and traditions of the market.

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Biffo.

The self-styled ‘Biffo’ is more than willing to hold court, and told us that if someone is getting married they are likely to be stripped and covered in flour below the market clock.

He recalled when he first joined workers would fight each other for the best jobs. It was a heavily unionised, hard man’s world. Not a place for a sensitive artist!

In the old days things could seriously get out of hand between the traders to such an extent that the market still has its own police station and police force too. The current police force no longer have powers of arrest, though they can occasionally still be called on to sort out disputes.

The traders and workers traditionally have almost all been white, male, Londoners. These days the market is much more cosmopolitan with even the occasional woman. Biffo said that without the foreign workers willing to do the punishing hours the market would simply die.

Peter took us around the whole site and despite the tough reputation of the market it has a very friendly atmosphere and all the traders were very willing to chat to you about their work and their families’ history of the market.

Visitors are often surprised to know that the market is not totally wholesale. There is no minimum spend and some real bargains can be had. It is not all traditional goods either, as on a few days a month even seagulls eggs can be purchased.

Once the tour was complete we were all pretty hungry and were ready for a big English breakfast at one of the traditional cafes on the square. I stuffed myself!

Tours
I can really recommend this tour. There is a real advantage in having someone on the inside to guide you around the real nooks and crannies of the market. It really made the tour work, and that’s coming from someone who hates mornings!

The City Guides offer a walking tour of Smithfield Market. Tours take place once a month, starting at 7am and lasting an hour and a half. Booking is essential.

Liam O’Farrell
Liam is an extremely talented painter and illustrator who specialises in landscape and cityscape scenes, many of which are on London subjects. His web site.

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A guest post by London Historians Member, Rob Smith.

November 2016 is the 200th Anniversary of the Spa Fields Riots, a series of demonstrations in favour of parliamentary reform and against taxation that were held on open ground called Spa Fields in Islington, part of which is still a public park today. The Riots were another of the many steps on the way to universal suffrage, but also an example of the ideological splits and personality clashes that will be familiar among protest groups and political movements.

The Times December 3rd 1812

The Times December 3rd 1812

 

The Battle of Waterloo may have ended the Napoleonic Wars but it did not end the discontent the wars had created across Britain. The cost of the wars had been horrendous and taxation had increased to pay for them. The export market for the luxury goods produced by skilled craftsmen had dried up, while the belt tightening going on in Britain’s country houses meant that the market inside Britain was smaller too. George III, now elderly and infirm, left the Prince Regent’s extravagant spending go unchecked, making the monarchy unpopular on the streets of London. The assassination of Spencer Percival meant that the Earl of Liverpool was Prime Minister, effectively the 5th choice man for the job. A rapidly rising population, uncontrolled urbanisation, uncertainty caused by the industrial revolution and higher food prices all added to make, what should have been a time of triumph for Britain, a time of turmoil.

Opposition to war with France had started back in 1789 when the London Revolution Society were addressed by Richard Price at the Crown and Anchor on the Strand, with a call for support for the French Revolution, an end to the British monarchy and parliamentary reform. During the years of war, legislation like the Treasonable Practices Act of 1795 aimed to prevent literature critical of the war. In 1799 reform groups like The London Corresponding Society were banned, and those attempting to sell Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” were imprisoned for selling a dangerous book.

One such was Thomas Spence – one of the more radical revolutionaries in London in the Napoleonic war period. Spence demanded the end of the monarchy, aristocracy and landlords and common ownership of all land. He wanted votes for all, including women, an end to child labour and other cruelties to children, and an end to the war with France. He also called for reform of the English Language, with the introduction of phonetic spelling, which would make learning to read easier for those without access to education. When Spence died in 1814 his followers vowed to continue his work as the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.

In 1816 three Spenceans – Arthur Thistlewood, James Watson and Thomas Preston, decided the time was ripe for action. If they could gather together a large enough group of supporters, the chance to bring about the revolution they had hoped for was finally here. But how to draw the crowd? Thistlewood wrote to two of the best known speakers in the land, William Cobbett (later known for his book Rural Rides) and Henry Hunt. Cobbett refused to attend and warned Hunt not to get involved either, but eventually Hunt agreed to speak at the meeting on November 15th 1816 at Spa Fields in Clerkenwell. Hunt was certainly experienced at talking to huge rallies. Appearances in Birmingham, Blackburn, Stockport and Nottingham that year had drawn audiences of up to 80,000 – earning him the nickname Orator Hunt. The day was set for a huge rally in London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

At that time Spa Fields was much larger than the small park it is today, stretching beyond Sadler’s Wells and was one of Clerkenwell’s many places of recreation. A crowd of over 10,000 gathered, forcing Hunt to address them from the upstairs window of the Merlin’s Cave pub (now commemorated by Merlin Street). The crowd was swollen by people returning from a public hanging at Newgate prison. Hunt spoke about the poverty British workers were living in, despite being the most industrious in the world. The cause of this was taxation, taxation to pay for a standing army occupying France and an army in Britain to stop the populace demanding its rights. According to Hunt, the British worker had not wanted the war, it had been brought about by the MPs in the rotten boroughs that represented a minority of landowners. Therefore the only cure was parliamentary reform.

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A petition was drawn up and signatures collected, demanding the Prince Regent provide relief for the poor and put together proposals for parliamentary reform. In the end Hunt was refused permission to deliver the petition, and a second meeting was called for December 2nd. Meanwhile Preston had been grumbling about Hunt – a country gentleman – taking the lead role in the movement. Would it not be more appropriate that a London artisan like himself took the lead?

The authorities had not been idle either. A man named John Castle had infiltrated the Spenceans. On the day of the second demonstration, Castle waylaid Hunt in Cheapside, allowing Watson to address the crowd outside the Spa Fields Cake shop, comparing the Tower of London to the Bastille. By the time Hunt, who was opposed to the use of force, arrived, Watson was leading a crowd behind the revolutionary tricolour on the way to meet with Preston and Thistlewood at the Mulberry Tree Tavern. A group split off to raid a gun shop in Snow Hill, during which raid the owner was shot and wounded.

The breakaway rioters then moved to the Royal Exchange on which they opened fire. Militia soldiers returning in kind. Rioters also broke into Fleet Street and smashed windows in Somerset House. Others made for Newgate Prison, while Thistlewood headed for the Tower of London where he made a speech to the soldiers, demanding they lay down their arms. They refused and with the protests breaking up, order was restored. Most of the people had stayed at Spa Fields listening to Hunt give a long-winded self congratulatory speech. It had not been the general uprising Thistlewood, Watson and Preston had been hoping for.

The next day arrests were made and the organisers charged with sedition. Amazingly though, after a defence by Sir Charles Wetherell, Thistlewood, Watson and Preston were all acquitted, on the basis that government spy John Castle had acted as an agent provocateur.

The movement was now firmly split into reform and revolutionary camps. Hunt continued to push for reform of Parliament, standing as an MP, and addressing the crowd at the ill-fated meeting in Manchester known as Peterloo. Thistlewood became involved in the 1920 Cato Street Conspiracy, a plot to kill the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He was hanged for treason when the plot was discovered.

The Spa Fields Riots were interesting as they show that the road to parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage was a long one, with many false starts and incremental progressions along the way. The reforms the protesters were demanding did not come about until many years later, but they might not have come about at all without protest. The riots are also interesting because they show how any cause can be riven with splits, something anyone who has been involved with politics will be familiar with.

Spa Fields Today

Spa Fields Today


Islington Museum has an exhibition called Commit Outrage to commemorate the riots, and there will be two free walks led by Rob Smith and Philip Nelkon talking about them.

Saturday 26th November 2016 11am
Led by Rob Smith

Saturday 3rd December 2016 11am
Led by Philip Nelkon

Where: Meet in the foyer of The Islington Museum
14:45h, St John St, London, EC1V 4NB
Duration: 1 hour

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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!

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