It was 135 years ago this month that the International Meridian Conference held in Washington, DC, declared the Greenwich meridian to be the prime meridian of the world.

The conference had been held at the request US President Chester A Arthur with the aim of finding a “common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world”.

Pressure to designate such a prime meridian had been building thanks to the need for navigation purposes as well as the need to create uniform train timetables.

Twenty-six nations were represented at the 1884 conference including Great Britain and the US as well as France, Russia, Germany, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire.

The resolution, fixing Greenwich as the Prime Meridian, was passed on 22nd October. The delegations voted 22 in favour to one against. San Domingo, now called the Dominican Republic, voted against while France and Brazil abstained.

As a result of the decision, the International Date Line was drawn up and the world’s 24 time zones were created.

North America and most European nations had aligned their clocks with Greenwich with 10 years.

The official mean time clock at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, is known as the Shepherd Gate Clock.

PICTURE: The Shepherd Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory (Alvesgaspar/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Advertisements

This year marks 125 years since the opening of Tower Bridge.

The bridge, which took eight years to build and was designed by City of London architect Sir Horace Jones in collaboration with engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry, was officially opened on 30th June, 1894, by the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra).

Others among the tens of thousands who turned out to mark the historic event were the Duke of York (later King George V), Lord Mayor of London Sir George Robert Tyler and members of the Bridge House Estates Committee.

A procession of carriages carrying members of the royal family had set out from Marlborough House that morning, stopping at Mansion House on its way to the bridge.

Once there, it drove back and forth across before official proceedings took place in which the Prince of Wales pulled a lever to set in motion the steam-driven machinery which raised the two enormous bascules and allowed a huge flotilla of craft of all shapes and sizes to pass under it.

The event was also marked with a gun salute fired from the Tower of London.

Plaques commemorating the opening can be found at either end of the bridge. The event was also captured in a famous painting by artist William Lionel Wyllie who had attended with his wife. The painting is now held at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Tower Bridge has been running a series of special events to mark the anniversary this year. For more, see www.towerbridge.org.uk.

Tower Bridge today. PICTURE: Charles Postiaux/Unsplash

 

It’s 50 years this month – it was last Thursday, 8th August, in fact – when an iconic photograph featuring the Fab Four on a zebra crossing was taken for cover of the Abbey Road album.

The photograph – which featured (in order) George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon striding across the pedestrian walk in St John’s Wood – was taken by the late Scottish photographer Iain Macmillan.

He apparently climbed onto a ladder in the middle of the street while a policeman held back traffic briefly (there are vehicles driving down the road in the distance in the image).

The entire shoot – which was apparently McCartney’s idea – reportedly took just 10 minutes and saw the band walk across the road six times (the chosen image – said to have been taken at 11:38am – was number five; the only one in which all their legs were in a perfect V shape).

The image carries a particular poignancy for Beatles fans because of the fact that they “officially” broke up less than a year later (the album it featured on, Abbey Road, was released on 26th September, 1969, and was the last recorded by the group even though it was released prior to Let It Be).

As well as being recreated by tourists at the site itself, the image has been reproduced and adapted countless times – including its reproduction on a 64p Royal Mail stamp in 2007 and an adaption involving the Simpsons for a Rolling Stone cover in 2002.

Abbey Road Studios – where the Abbey Road album was recorded – is located just a hop, skip and jump away and has operated a live webcam of the crossing since 2002. (For more on Abbey Road and the origins of its name, see our previous post here).

PICTURE: Via Wikipedia.

This year marks 350 years since London’s now famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, wrote the final entry in what was his private diary.

The final entry was written on 31st May, 1669, and mentions a liaison with one Betty Mitchell, a trip on the Thames to Whitehall where he met with the Duke of York, and an outing with his wife Elizabeth and friends to the The World’s End, a drinking house at the western end of Hyde Park in Knightsbridge.

Pepys had started writing the diary on 1st January, 1660, at the age of just 26, and over the next nine years, its more than a million words covered some of the critical events including the coronation of King Charles II, the Great Plague of 1665 and The Great Fire of 1666.

Many believe that the diary was never intended for a mass readership (although some scholars disagree with this opinion), but, if that was the case, Pepys did take some precautions just in case, using codes for the mistresses he met, for example.

He stopped writing the diary because he assumed he was going blind – he asks in the final sentence for God to help him “prepare all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind”.

You can read Pepys’ final entry and the the complete diary of Pepys online at www.pepysdiary.com.

PICTURE: Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666 © National Portrait Gallery, London (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

This month (we’ve just managed to sneak it in) marks the 330th anniversary of the coronation of joint sovereigns, King William III and Queen Mary II – the first and only time such a coronation has ever happened in England.

The two were crowned in a joint – and glittering – ceremony at Westminster Abbey on 11th April, 1689, following what was known as the “Glorious Revolution” in which they assumed the monarchy after Mary’s father, King James, II fled to the continent following William’s invasion in late 1688.

At the coronation, King William took the abbey’s famous Coronation Chair while a second seat was brought in for the Queen.

William also used the coronation regalia which had been created for King Charles II in 1661 but Mary, a monarch in her own right, needed a new set. Given the time constraints (the ceremony was to take place as soon as possible given the uncertain political climate), she ended up using the repurposed regalia created for her step-mother, second wife and consort of King James II, Mary of Modena, as well as some newly created pieces.

Controversially, the ceremony was presided over by the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, after William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury – his title meant he would usually undertake such a task, refused to be involved thanks to his support of the now deposed King James II.

Earlier that day, the King and Queen had travelled separately from Whitehall to Westminster – him by barge and she by chair – and after being taken into Westminster Hall, processed, surrounded by dignitaries and to the sound of trumpets, to Westminster Abbey where the ceremony took place.

After the coronation, the newly crowned Sovereigns returned to Westminster Hall where a lavish banquet was held.

PICTURE: William III and Mary II  in part of an image by Dutch printmaker Romeyn de Hooghe (c1690) (via Wikipedia)

It’s 53 years ago this month that the World Cup trophy – offiicially known as the Jules Rimet Trophy – was stolen from Methodist Central Hall in Westminster (OK, it’s not a very round figure, but it’s a fascinating story).

The trophy had arrived in the UK in January for the tournament to be held later that year and was mostly kept at FA headquarters at Wembley. But in March, it went on show at a stamp exhibition being held at the hall (pictured).

Despite being kept under (relatively) constant guard in a glass cabinet, the trophy was discovered missing just after 12pm on 20th March (the crime had apparently occurred while the guards were on a break). Scotland Yard immediately set about investigating the theft but to no avail (the FA, meanwhile, secretly commissioned a replica to be made, just in case the trophy couldn’t be recovered).

A couple of days later Joe Mears, chairman of the FA, received an anonymous package. It contained the removable top lining of the trophy and a demand for £15,000 in return for the trophy. An exchange was to be set up involving codes placed in newspaper personal ads.

The FA chairman then worked with Scotland Yard to set up a false exchange. On 24th March, Flying Squad Detective Inspector Leonard Buggy, posing as Mears, met a former soldier who turned out to be Edward Betchley in Battersea Park, showing him a briefcase filled with newspapers covered with a layer of £5 notes. Betchley then accompanied Buggy in a car, ostensibly driving to pick up the trophy, but he got spooked along the way and jumped out.

Betchley was arrested minutes later but refused to reveal the trophy’s whereabouts, claiming he was just the middleman come to collect the ransom (he was later convicted of demanding money with menaces with the intent to steal).

The trophy was actually discovered a week after it was stolen by a collie-cross named Pickles who found it lying near a neighbour’s car outside the Norwood home of his owner, Thames lighterman David Corbett. Pickles – who went on to become something of a celebrity in his own right appearing in TV shows and even a film, The Spy with a Cold Nose – has, of course, since died (his collar is on display in the National Football Museum in Manchester).

The crime has never been officially solved although there were claims last year that late London gangster Sidney Cugullere and his brother Reg were behind it.

England, meanwhile, did go on to beat West Germany 4-2 in the World Cup final that year. Life, meanwhile, didn’t turn out so well for the trophy. It was stolen again in 1983 in Brazil and this time was not recovered.

PICTURE: David Adams

A small air raid shelter designed for people to erect on their properties in preparation for the expected bombing campaigns of World War II, the first of London’s ‘Anderson’ shelters were rolled out 80 years ago in a backyard garden of a house in Islington on 25th February, 1939.

The shelter’s name comes from Sir John Anderson, Lord Privy Seal and the man tasked with the job of overseeing air-raid preparations across the country. As part of that job, he commissioned engineers to come up with an easy-to-construct, affordable shelter that could be used by the population at large.

The resulting arched-roofed structures, designed to be flexible and absorb the impact when bombs hit, were made from six curved sheets of corrugated steel or iron and, at six feet tall, 6.5 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, could house a family of six. They were designed to be buried under four feet of earth in backyards and the roof covered with a minimum of 15 inches of soil.

The shelters were given out for free to lower income families but those with the means had to buy them for £7. Some chose to incorporate them into their gardens and grew vegetables and plants on top and some decorated them – there were even competitions held for the best looking.

By the time bombs started hitting London in the Blitz, more than 1.5 million of the shelters had been built (and a further 2.1 million were erected as the war raged).

It was expected that families would use them every night but the shelters were found to be cold and damp and often flooded which meant many people only used them when air raid sirens sounded (and some not even then – one 1940 survey apparently found only 27 per cent of Londoners used them).

After the war, most were scrapped for the metal but some of the Anderson shelters were repurposed as garden sheds. A small number of them survive across London.

PICTURE: An intact Anderson shelter sits amid devastation in Poplar caused after a land mine fell a few yards away in in 1941. The three people inside were not hurt. Via Imperial War Museum (© IWM (D 5949))

This month marks 50 years since The Beatles’ final public performance – a seemingly impromptu concert which took place on a Savile Row rooftop on a freezing day in 1969 (but was actually held to record the final scenes of a film they were making).

The unannounced concert on 30th January was only 42 minutes long and featured five songs – including Get Back, I’ve Got A Feeling, One After 909, Dig A Pony and Don’t Let Me Down, some of which were played more than once (as well as various other song snippets).

As well as band members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Billy Preston had been brought in as a keyboardist.

The event, described in RollingStone as the band’s first “truly live” performance in more than two years, took place on the roof of the headquarters Apple Corps, then located at 3 Savile Road, which was the corporation the group had founded as an umbrella organisation for its various business ventures including Apple Records.

The performance, which famously ended with John Lennon saying “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition”, was filmed and recorded and 21 minutes of the footage featured in the 1970 documentary, Let It Be.

The Fab Four’s concert was eventually shut down by the Metropolitan Police – located just up the street at number 27 – over noise and traffic issues but no arrests were made (Ringo later wrote about his regret at not being dragged off by them).

 

This month marks the 187 years since the opening of “new” London Bridge – the first bridge built over the Thames in London for more than 600 years.

Designed by John Rennie (who had won a competition, beating the likes of Thomas Telford for the honour), work on the new granite bridge had began in 1825 and was completed in 1831.

It was constructed alongside the medieval bridge which had been first completed in the 13th century and added to over the years since (and was eventually completely demolished after the opening of the ‘new’ bridge).

The ‘new’ bridge, said to have cost £506,000 to construct, was formally opened by King William IV on 1st August, 1831, in an event described by The Times as “the most splendid spectacle that has been witnessed on the Thames for many years”.

The royal party – which included Queen Adelaide – had approached the bridge, lined with flags for the occasion, after setting off from Somerset House amid cheering described as “almost deafening” (to add to cacophony of sound, church bells were rung and cannon fired throughout the day).

Watched by thousands of onlookers (who were entertained by bands at various locations), the royal party had processed their way downstream on the river to the bridge with the royal bargemen wearing new livery specially designed for the occasion. Two parallel lines of rivercraft – including barges and steamers – had gathered along the river to provide a sort of honour guard and ensure they had clear passage.

The royals arrived at the bridge at 4pm and the royal party made their way up red carpeted stairs to the bridge’s City end. Following a short ceremony in which the King was presented by the Lord Mayor of London with the sword and keys to the City of London as well as a specially made gold medal to mark the occasion, their Majesties then walked across from the across the bridge to the Southwark end where entertainments had included the ascension of a hot air balloon.

The King and the royal party then returned to the City end of the bridge to attend a banquet – guests were said to number 1,500 people – held under a pavilion erected atop the new structure.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that food was provided by a coffee house proprietor, a Mr Leech, and was said to include 150 hams and tongues, 370 “dishes of chickens”, and 300 turtles as well as 200 fruit tarts and 300 “ice-creams”.

The King and royal party then returned up the river.

Rennie’s bridge was replaced in the mid-20th century with another bridge which was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973 and rather than being demolished, was sold to US oil magnate Robert P McCulloch who had it dismantled and shipped to Arizona where it was reconstructed at Lake Havasu City where it can now be seen.

A couple of sections of the bridge survive in London – two of its pedestrian alcoves, one of which can be found in Victoria Park in London’s east and the other at King’s College London.

There is a famous painting – Clarkson Stanfield’s, The Opening of New London Bridge, 1 August 1831 – which captures the moment of the bridge’s opening and is part of the Royal Collection.

PICTURES: Top – ‘A View of the New London Bridge as It Appeared on the 1st August 1831, When Opened by His Majesty, King William the 4th’, Unknown artist, Lithograph on paper, Photo © Tate (licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)); Right – The alcove in Victoria Park (Public Domain).

This month marks 38 years since Alexandra Palace, known to many as the ‘People’s Palace’, in north London burned down – for the second time.

The palace – named for Princess Alexandra, wife of the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), and subsequently nicknamed ‘Ally Pally’ – was originally opened in 1873 as an entertainment and recreation centre inspired by the success of the Crystal Palace in London’s south.

But just 16 days later – having already attracted some 120,000-plus visitors – Alexandra Palace burned down when a fire started in the dome. A second palace complex was opened on the site two years later, on 1st May, 1875, and this palace, which a 1900 Act of Parliament declared was to remain forever available for public use, stood until 1980.

It served various purposes over the years including, of course, hosting various musical and threatrical events as well as hosting shooting events during the 1908 Olympics, acting as an internment camp during World War I, and being used as the transmitting centre for BBC radio and television – a role which saw it, in 1936, become the home of the world’s first regular public television service.

On 10th July, 1980 – having been transferred into the ownership of Haringey Council from the Greater London Council six months earlier and now in the early stages of a renovation project, it caught fire during a jazz festival.

Starting behind the venue’s historic Willis Organ in the Great Exhibition Hall, the fire spread through the roof and destroyed about a third of the building including the hall, Banqueting Suite, former roller rink and theatre dressing rooms. Only the Palm Court and area occupied by the BBC – including the theatre and transmitting tower – escaped damage (interestingly, the burnt out shell of the Great Hall featured in the film 1984, representing Victory Square).

The building was subsequently redeveloped and restored and reopened again on 17th March, 1988. Offering a range of recreational facilities including performance spaces, an ice rink, boating lake and animal enclosure, it now operates as a charitable trust administered by the London Borough of Haringey.

Grade II-listed since 1996, the palace is currently undergoing a £27 million restoration and development project which will see a new public space created in the East Court and allow visitor access to a range of historical artefacts, including photographs and early film, for the first time, as well as see the Victorian-era theatre restored.

The theatre will reopen in December but before that – on 1st September – will host the Proms with the BBC Concert Orchestra performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (the event is already sold out). For more, see www.alexandrapalace.com.

PICTURE: Alexandra Palace today (Dun.can (licensed under CC BY 2.0))

This month marks 150 years since the last public hanging in London (and, indeed, in Britain). It took place outside Newgate Prison and involved a Fenian (Irish nationalist) bomber named Michael Barrett.

Barrett had been arrested following the bombing of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in 1867 which, in a botched effort to free another Fenian, Richard O’Sullivan Burke, a number of bystanders were killed. Barrett’s case was a controversial one (he was the only one of six people to stand trial for the crime who was convicted) and his execution apparently postponed twice because of questions over his guilt.

The crowd at the hanging on the morning of 26th May, 1868, was said to be large – a “great surging mass” (indeed, such was the interest that seats in nearby houses were said to have sold for £10) – but described in The Times as “unusually orderly”.

“With the first sound of the bells came a great hungry roar from the crowd outside, and a loud, continued shout of ‘Hats off’, till the whole dense, bareheaded mass stood white and ghastly-looking in the morning sun, and the pressure on the barriers increased so that the girls and women in the front ranks began to scream and struggle to get free,” the newspaper reported.

“Amid such a scene as this, and before such a dense crowd of white faces, Barrett was executed…To neither cheers nor hisses did the culprit make the slightest recognition. He seemed only attentive to what the priest was saying to him, and to be engaged in fervent prayer. The hangman instantly put the cap over his face and the rope round his neck. Then Barrett turning spoke through his cap and asked for the rope to be altered, which the hangman did. In another moment Barrett was a dead man…He died without a struggle. It is worthy of remark that a great cry rose from the crowd as the culprit fell – a cry which was neither an exclamation nor a scream, but it partook in its sound of both.”

The hanging was carried out by William Calcraft, the orphaned son of an Essex farmer who many years earlier had found what was to be an almost life-long calling when, apparently while selling pies at a hanging he was noticed by his predecessor in the job and became his apprentice before taking in the job himself in 1829.

Calcraft, who was known for his use of controversial ‘short drops’ which meant the condemned would slowly strangle to death rather than have their necks broken, was to preside over the last public hanging – of Barrett – as well as the first private hanging inside Newgate – of 18-year-old murderer Alexander Mackay in September, 1868 – before eventually retiring in 1874 and dying shortly after.

Barrett, meanwhile, was buried under the ‘Birdcage Walk’ (also known as ‘Dead Man’s Walk’), the stone corridor which linked the prison with the Old Bailey. His body was transferred to the City of London Cemetery in 1903 as Newgate was demolished. The grave is marked with a plaque commemorating his place in history.

Public hangings were banned just three days after Barrett died when Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868.

PICTURE: Image from an “execution broadside” of Barrett’s hanging in 1868. These were commonly sold at public executions in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Among the gruesome deaths said to have taken place at the Tower of London is that of George, the Duke of Clarence, who, so the story goes, was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine on 18th February, 1478 – 540 years ago this year.

George, who was born on 21st October, 1449, was the younger brother of King Edward IV and older brother of (although he was only king after George’s death) King Richard III.

George, who was made Duke of Clarence and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland soon after the House of York’s King Edward IV’s ascendancy to the throne in 1461 during the volatile period known as the Wars of the Roses, had betrayed his brother King Edward IV at least twice before his death.

The first time came in the late 1460s when he joined with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, in helping the previously deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI back onto the throne. The second time came after his brother Edward has retaken the throne in March, 1471, and the two of them had reconciled. George had sought to wed Mary of Burgundy, but Edward had objected – one of a series of events which apparently led George, whose mental state was said to be deteriorating fast by this point, to once again scheme against the king and eventually saw King Edward IV have him thrown in prison in June, 1477.

The King brought charges – including that he had slandered the King and prepared for rebellion – against George in Parliament in January, 1478, and both houses subsequently passed a bill of attainder with the sentence of death carried out in private (thus perhaps sparing him the humiliation of a public execution?) in the Tower soon after.

The story that he had been drowned in a butt of his favourite malmsey (a sweet wine) in the Bowyer Tower apparently circulated soon after his death – among proponents of the story was William Shakespeare who in Richard III has the duke stabbed and then drowned in a butt of malmsey – and to this day it remains something of a mystery as to whether it actually occurred (although, interestingly, his body when exhumed was not beheaded which was the common means of executing members of the nobility).

It has been suggested that sawn down wine butts were used for baths at the time – which may mean George was drowned in a wine butt, but one he was using to take a bath rather than one which had wine stored in it. It has also been suggested that the reference to a butt of wine refers to a barrel used for storing his body for removal to Tewkesbury where he was buried alongside his wife rather than his actual execution.

PICTURES: Top – The Tower of London where the Duke was executed; Right – A virtual re-enactment of George’s death at the Tower.

 

Celebrations were held last week marking the 100th anniversary of the day on which the Representation of People Act was passed, giving women the vote for the first time (well, that who are aged over 30 and who occupied a house – or were married someone who did).

The bill, passed on 6th February, 1918, also extended voting rights to all men aged over 21 (previously it had been restricted to men who owned property) but it wasn’t until 10 years later than women gained the same right.

A further bill was passed in November, 1918, which gave women the right to stand in elections. So when women first cast their votes in the next general election – held in December of that year – several women stood for seats in the House of Commons.

In the end, only one – the Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin St Patrick’s, Constance Markievicz – was elected but she choose to sit in the Dáil Éireann in Dublin. This meant that the first woman to sit in the House of Commons didn’t do so until December, 1919, when Nancy Astor, elected as the MP for Plymouth Sutton, did so.

PICTURE: Representation of the People Act 1918/Courtesy of Parliamentary Archives

It was 90 years ago this month – 6th and 7th January, 1928 – that the River Thames flooded disastrously in what was the last major flood in central London.

Fourteen people are reported to have died and some 4,000 made homeless when the river burst its banks and spilled over the top of the Thames Embankment. Part of the Chelsea Embankment collapsed.

The flood – which was blamed on a range of factors including a sudden thaw upstream, heavy rain, a tidal surge and the impact of dredging – peaked at about 1.30am on 7th January at a height of 18 foot, three inches (5.56 metres) above ordnance datum.

The city saw extensive flooding on the City of London itself as well as in Southwark and as far upriver as Putney and Hammersmith and downriver in Greenwich and Woolwich as well as beyond.

Most of the deaths occurred when the embankment gave way near Lambeth Bridge and a wall of water swept through the slums on the Westminster side of the bridge with 10 people losing their lives.

Among the buildings flooded were the Tate Gallery at Millbank – where many works including some by JMW Turner were damaged, parts of the Houses of Parliament including Westminster Hall and the House of Commons, numerous Underground stations and Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels. The moat of the Tower of London, dry for 80 years, was filled.

While the flood waters receded by the end of the day, the damage took years to repair with many buildings in Millbank, the worst affected area, demolished. Embankments were raised in the wake of the flooding but it wasn’t until after the North Sea flood of 1953 that authorities took action to build the Thames Barrier (it was eventually completed in 1982).

Above – A marker recording the height of the flood outside Trinity Hospital in Greenwich (the plaque below right records the details).


It’s 40 years ago this month since the Concorde – the ultimate in luxury plane travel – set off for the first flight on what would be – for almost three decades, at least – a regular service between London and New York.

The British Airways service between London’s Heathrow and New York’s JFK airports began on 22nd November, 1977 – the same date as regular services between Paris and New York – after a ban on the Concorde landing in New York was lifted by the US Supreme Court.

The flight came almost two years after the first commercial flights of the Concorde anywhere in the world had started in January, 1976, between London and Bahrain, and Paris and Rio via Dakar.

With the jets flying at a cruising speed of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), the journey from London to New York took an average of three-and-a-half hours (compared with seven to eight hours for a subsonic flight). Concorde still holds the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a civil aircraft – a flight from New York to London on 7th February, 1996, which took just two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

The aircraft – BA had seven in service – seated 100 passengers in two cabins – 40 in the front and 60 in the rear – and a crew of nine. The London to New York service (and the return trip) was particularly popular among celebrities.

The London to New York route hosted the last commercial flight of the Concorde on 24th October, 2003.

The decision to stop flying the Concorde followed a July, 2000, tragedy in which an Air France Concorde had crashed while taking off in Paris, killing 109 people on the plane and four on the ground. Safety concerns had seen the planes grounded for more than a year. And when they did finally take to the skies again in November, 2001, the world had witnessed the September 11 terror attacks – a fact which was said to have led a dramatic drop in passenger numbers.  In the end, it was said to be these declining passenger numbers along with the rising maintenance costs of ageing fleets which led to its demise.

One of the retired British Airways Concordes – it was used for spare parts by BA and never used commercially – and the world’s only surviving Concorde simulator, built in 1974, can be found just outside London at the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey.

There are apparently several supersonic jet passenger planes in development but when – or indeed if – they end up flying the New York to London route remains to be seen.

PICTURES – NOW AND THEN: Top – A Concorde in retirement (Simon Boddy, licensed under CC BY-NC SA 2.0); Below – The British Airways official handover ceremony in 1976 (Steve Fitzgerald under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2).

Literary history was made in London 80 years ago this month – on 21st September, 1937 – when George Allen & Unwin Ltd published JRR Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit.

The initial print run of 1,500, which featured black and white illustrations and a dust jacket designed by Tolkien himself, had sold out by December. It was released in the US the following year and was subsequently republished in the UK was published in numerous new editions.

George Allen & Unwin, which was founded by George Allen in 1871 and became George Allen & Unwin when Stanley Unwin purchased a controlling interest in 1914, went on to publish Tolkien’s follow-up epic, The Lord of the Rings, in the 1950s after Unwin suggested a sequel based on the popularity of the first.

The publishing company, which also published the likes of everyone from Bertrand Russell to Roald Dahl, was based at Ruskin House in Museum Street in Bloomsbury at the time of the publication.

The company now lives on as an Australian company, Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd.

This month marks 300 years since composer George Frideric Handel premiered his composition (and one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world) Water Music – and it was in a rather fitting setting.

The first performance of the composition – which was deliberately created for
playing outdoors (and carrying across water) – took place at about 8pm on 17th July, 1717, aboard a City of London barge in the River Thames.

Some 50 musicians played the piece – using everything from flutes and recorders to trumpets, horns, violins and basses – with Handel himself fulfilling the role of conductor.

The barge was part of a rather grand flotilla which made its way up the river from the Palace of Whitehall to Chelsea, at the centre of which was a royal barge upon which King George I and members of the nobility, including various duchesses, rode.

Numerous other Londoners also turned out to hear the performance aboard all manner of watercraft and the king was apparently so impressed with what he heard that he requested several encores both on the trip to Chelsea and on the return journey.

The story goes that the somewhat unpopular king had apparently requested the concert on the river to upstage his son, the Prince of Wales (and future King George II), who was stealing the limelight by throwing lavish parties (the king and his son were famously at odds and it was therefore no shock when the prince didn’t attend the performance).

There’s another story, meanwhile, that suggested Handel composed the piece to regain the favour of the King which he had apparently lost when, seeking to capitalise on his growing fame, he left his employment as conductor at the court of the then Elector of Hanover (a position George held before he was king) and moved from Germany to London during the reign of Queen Anne (although some claim the future king knew he would one day follow Handel to London and actually approved of his decision to move there).

Water Music, meanwhile, has since become part of popular culture – it’s generally said that most people will recognise at least one part of it – but interestingly, no-one is said to be exactly sure how the music, which is generally broken into three separate suites, should be performed, given that the original score has been lost.

PICTURE: Edouard Hamman’s painting showing Handel (on the left) with King George I aboard a barge on 17th July, 1717. Via Wikipedia

 

London was agog. Gathering at what is now the Theatre Royal in Haymarket on the evening of 16th January, 1749, the city’s inhabitants were ready to experience a most amazing spectacle as a man would not only play a “common walking cane” as if it were any instrument but, apparently shrinking himself, step inside a common, ordinary sized wine bottle placed upon a table.

Spurred on by newspaper advertisements promising a night of “surprising things” (which also included the promise of the performer taking on the likeness of any person, living or dead), it was with great expectation that the crowd, which included the Duke of Cumberland, settled into their seats in the theatre, having willingly paid at least two shillings (and some substantially more) for the privilege of being present.

When the time came for the curtain to rise and nothing happened, there were no doubt some who thought it merely a tactic of the performer to build suspense. But the crowd was getting restless and soon after began booing and stamping their feet in their annoyance.

One of the theatre’s staff then appeared on stage to inform them the performer had not arrived and that all entrance fees would repaid  – his comments were apparently answered by a wit who claimed they would pay double if the magician could enter a pint bottle instead of a quart bottle. Further catcalls followed and before long someone apparently threw a candle, setting the stage curtains on fire. Panic broke out among those in the theatre as people sought to escape but for some rage took over as they realised that they had been the victims of a hoax.

The theatre was destroyed as people tore up the seats and smashed the scenery, carting what they could out into Haymarket where it was burnt in a bonfire. The theatre manager called out the guards but the rioting was largely over by the time they arrived. There were apparently no casualties, apart from the theatre itself, although the Duke of Cumberland did, it was said, lose a jewelled sword.

Apparently a bizarre hoax, attention quickly turned to who was behind it. It was commonly believed that it had been the 2nd Duke of Montagu, a notorious practical joker, who had placed the advertisement in order to win a bet that he could fill a theatre by promising something impossible such as a man being able to step inside a bottle. Yet to this day, the identity of the hoaxer remains something of a mystery and the case went on to be cited in reference to the gullibility of the London populace.

PICTURE: Kbthompson at English Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Yes, this is a rather odd one but it was 140 years ago this month that, on the 10th April, 1877, 14-year-old acrobat Rossa Matilda Pitcher (stage name Zazel), became the world’s first “human cannonball”.

‘Zazel’ was launched into the air by a special ‘cannon’ – invented by Canadian William Leonard Hunt (aka ‘The Great Farini, he was a famous tightrope walker), it used rubber springs to propel the person forward – in an event at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster.

She apparently flew some 6.1 metres before landing in a net.

Zazel later went on to perform in PT Barnum’s circus but sadly, in 1891 she was forced to retire after an accident in New Mexico during which, thanks to a net mishap, she landed badly and broke her back.

It’s worth noting that there is another claimant to the title of first human cannonball – some accounts have the “Australian Marvels”, a couple named Ella Zuila and George Loyal, first performing such an act in Sydney in 1872 (which, if true, would predate Zazel). Guinness World Records, however, has awarded the title to Zazel.

The Royal Aquarium, meanwhile, opened in 1876 in Tothill Street, west of Westminster Abbey, and was demolished in 1903 (we’ll look at its further in an upcoming Lost London post).

PICTURE: Via British Library/Public domain

The ‘blanketeers’ were a group of weavers, mainly from Lancashire, who in March, 1817, controversially intended to march from Manchester to London to petition the Prince Regent (later King George IV). 

One of a series of protests which came amid the economic hardship facing England in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (they would eventually culminate in the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which 11 people died in Manchester), participants in the so-called ‘blanket march’ hoped to bring to the attention of the Prince Regent the poor state of the textile industry in Lancashire,

They were also protesting against the recent suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act (this was done in the wake of the Spa Fields Riots in late 1816 and an attack on the Prince Regent’s coach a couple of months earlier).

About 5,000 weavers gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester – each carrying a blanket on their back, both for sleeping under during the journey (they apparently hoped people would provide shelter along the way) and to identify their association with the textile industry (hence the name ‘blanketeers’).

Thousands more spectators came to see off the men who intended to march in small groups of 10 to avoid accusations of an illegal mass gathering (meetings of more than 50 had been banned). Each group leader would carry a petition tied around his arm.

They didn’t get far. The Riot Act was read and troops sent in – the King’s Dragoon Guards – who initially arrested more than a score of people including key reform movement leaders Samuel Drummond and John Bagguley.

Several hundred men did manage to set off but the cavalry set off in pursuit. Some were taken into custody by police, and most were turned back including some 300 who reached Stockport. But there is a story,  albeit apparently rather a dubious one, that one marcher – some report his name as ‘Abel Couldwell’ – did reach London and handed in his petition.