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).

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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.

 

The practice of sending Christmas cards really began in the Victoria era and it was in London, in 1843, that the first commercial Christmas cards are widely said to have been designed and printed.

first-christmas-cardThe idea had come from Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who, overwhelmed with the volume of correspondence he was receiving, conceived it as answer to his problem, allowing him to send Christmas greetings to a wide group of people – all at once.

He asked his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley, to design the card and an edition of 1,000 were printed by Jobbins of Warwick Court in Holborn.

The hand-coloured card, published by Summerley’s Home Treasury Office in Old Bond Street, showed a family gathered for a Christmas celebration with two side images showing people engaged in charitable acts and a message, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’. Designed as a single flat card (not foldable like they are today), it came complete with ‘To’ and ‘From’ spaces for the sender to fill in.

The cards which Sir Henry didn’t need for his personal use were placed on sale for a shilling each but it was a fairly steep price and that – and the fact that the image of people drinking at the festive season apparently roused the ire of temperance campaigners, helped to ensure the cards weren’t an immediate success.

Nonetheless, further cards were produced in the following years and within a couple of decades, they were being mass produced.

One of Sir Henry’s original cards was reportedly sold at an auction in 2013 for £22,000.

royal-national-theatreIt was 40 years ago this year that South Bank landmark, The National Theatre, was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.

The National Theatre company had been founded 13 years before (although the concept was first proposed more than 100 years before) and was, until 1976, based at the Old Vic close to Waterloo Station.

The new (now Grade II*-listed) premises (which was originally also to house an opera house, although this plan was later dropped) was designed by architects Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softly and the structural engineers Flint & Neill. To this day the brutalist design provokes some strong opinions (Prince Charles once described it as “a way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”).

It contains three auditoriums: the Olivier (named for acting great Sir Laurence Olivier), the Lyttelton (named for Oliver Lyttelton, Lord Chandos, first chairman of the National Theatre) and the Dorfman (known as the Cottesloe until 2014, it was originally named for Lord Cottesloe, chairman of the South Bank board which oversaw the building of the theatre, before being renamed after businessman and philanthropist Lloyd Dorfman) and were opened progressively between 1976 and 1977.

While the first performances began to be held in the Lyttelton theatre from March, the complex was only officially opened by the Queen on 25th October with parts of the building still unfinished. Sir Laurence Olivier gives a speech of welcome in the auditorium which bears his name – it is his only appearance on the complex’s stages.

In 1988, the complex was granted the title Royal by the Queen – hence it’s officially the Royal National Theatre – in honour of the company’s 25th birthday.

More than 1,000 people now work on the five acre site which as well as the theatres, features rehearsal rooms, workshops where sets and scenes are created and painted and costumes and props are made.

Since it was founded, the National Theatre has presented more than 800 productions to an audience numbering well into the millions.

For more, see www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

PICTURE: Aurelien Guichard/CC BY-SA 2.0)

fireOf course, the Great Fire of London in 1666 is only one of numerous fires which have occurred in London (although it was no doubt the greatest in terms of destruction). But among others was a fire in 1212 which has been described as London’s worst in terms of the death toll which some have put as high as 3,000 (although it’s generally believed it’s unlikely to have been that high).

The fire, which only came some 77 years after another great conflagration destroyed a stretch of the city reaching from Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1135, began in Southwark on 10th July (hence it’s also known as the Great Fire of Southwark). Crossing London Bridge, it went on to destroy a large part of the City itself.

As well as destroying buildings on London Bridge including houses and the chapel (the structure itself, having recently been rebuilt in stone, survived somewhat intact although it only remained in partial use for some time afterward), also destroyed the Southwark church known as St Mary Overie (precursor to today’s Southwark Cathedral) as well as many buildings around Borough High Street.

There were apparently numerous deaths – the story goes that many of them occurred when a mass of people poured onto London Bridge from the City as they attempted to cross to Southwark to help put out the fire (or perhaps just gawk at it).

They were trapped in the middle of the bridge when, with the south end was already ablaze, the north end caught fire from sparks. As well as suffering fatally from the effects of flames and smoke, people were apparently crushed in panic and others were pushed off the bridge to drown in the River Thames (along with some of the boat crews who tried to rescue them).

And, just as the Great Fire of 1666, the fire of 1212 did result in some building reforms including the placement of a ban on the use of thatch for rooves.

great-tea-raceIt’s 150 years ago this month that the ‘Great Tea Race’  of 1866 ended in London with the clipper ship Taeping taking the honours followed just 28 minutes later by the Ariel.

The race, which had started in China, was part of a tradition for ships carrying cargoes of tea from the east to engage in a race to be the first to dock in London – and quite a lucrative one, for it was common for the first ship to arrive to receive a premium of at least 10 per cent (although 1866 was apparently the last time this was offered).

At least 57 ships apparently sailed in the 1866-67 ‘tea season’, departing for Britain from a range of ports including Shanghai, Canton and Hong Kong. But it was the fastest which gathered the most attention – these chosen clippers set sail for Britain from the Min River, downriver from Foochow (now Fuzhou), in late May, 1866.

As well as the Taeping, launched in 1863 and captained by Donald MacKinnon, and the Ariel, launched only the previous year and captained by John Keay, other favourites in the 1866 race included Fiery CrossSerica and Taitsing.

The race was followed breathlessly in the London press although details were limited – largely due to the time it took for the news to reach London – as the ships set a course which took them through Indonesia via the Sunda Strait and around the southern tip of Africa and up via the Atlantic to the UK.

The Taeping, the race winner, reached London Docks at 9.47pm on 6th September while Ariel arrived at the East India Dock at 10.15pm. The Serica, meanwhile, reached West India Docks at 11.30pm. (It wasn’t to be too unfortunate for the runner-up – Captains McKinnon and Keay had apparently agreed to split the premium of 10 shillings a ton).

Amazingly, this means the three ships – which had all left China on the same tide – had sailed more than 14,000 miles in a race of 99 days yet had managed to dock with just two hours between them.

PICTURE: The Ariel and Taeping, by Jack Spurling (1926)/Wikimedia Commons

It’s the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London ands we thought we’d take a quick look at what happened in the aftermath.

The-MonumentWith much of the city razed in the four day fire of early September, 1666, attention quickly turned to the rebuilding of the City and within just a few days, proposals began coming in for the recreation – and transformation – of London.

Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and Robert Hooke were among those who put forward new designs for the city along with the likes of one Richard Newcourt, whose proposed rigid grid featuring churches set in squares wasn’t adopted for London but was eventually for the streets of Philadelphia in what is now the United States of America.

None of these plans – Wren’s vision had apparently been inspired by the Gardens of Versailles while Evelyn’s was an Italianate city with wide piazzas – were eventually adopted, however, thanks largely to the difficulty in working out who owned which properties in the city (people had more on their mind, such as survival perhaps).

In October, 1666, King Charles II – who had encouraged many of those left homeless to move out of the City out of fears that a rebellion was in the offing – joined with the City authorities in appointing six commissioners to regulate the rebuilding (a key factor in which was the mandatory use of brick in place of wood).

Their actions were supported by a couple of parliamentary acts – drawn up to regulate the rebuilding and allow for the opening and widening of roads, among other things – and the establishment of specially convened Fire Courts to deal with property disputes (owners had to clear roadways of debris and establish their rights of ownership before they could start reconstruction).

Rebuilding was, not surprisingly, to take years – after all, almost 400 acres had been burned within the City walls and 63 acres outside them with more than 80 churches, 44 livery halls and more than 13,000 houses among the casualties. And it was patchy with new buildings standing alongside empty blocks awaiting reconstruction.

Construction of the many grand public buildings destroyed in the fire, such as St Paul’s Cathedral, would also take years (the cathedral, Wren’s Baroque masterpiece, wasn’t completed until 1711).

PICTURE: The Monument, which commemorates the Great Fire of London, is among the works of Sir Christopher Wren (for more on the Monument, see our earlier post here).

With the recent change at 10 Downing Street – David Cameron out/Theresa May in – we thought it a good time to look back at when the man considered Britain’s first PM moved in.

10_Downing_StreetSir Robert Walpole, commonly considered Britain’s first Prime Minister although he was never formally known by that title, was actually First Lord of the Treasury when in early 1730s King George II presented him with the terrace house at 10 Downing Street, off Whitehall, and the large mansion behind it (in fact the title of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ can still be seen inscribed on the brass letter-box on the property’s front door).

Sir Robert accepted the king’s gift, but only on condition that it be made available to all future First Lords of the Treasury  And he didn’t move in until 22nd September, 1735, having had architect William Kent join the terrace house with the mansion behind it before doing so.

Kent had joined the houses on two levels with the main entrance facing onto Downing Street instead of Horse Guards. The Walpoles would live at the back of the new house where Kent had created a series of grand rooms – suitable for receiving honoured guests – and had built an unusual three sided staircase which remains a star sight of the building today.

Walpole used the ground floor of the new property for business and set-up his study in what is now the Cabinet Room. Lady Walpole used the upstairs room now known as the White Drawing Room as her sitting room and what is now called the Terracotta Room (although the name of this room changes with the colour scheme) as the dining room.

Among those who attended 10 Downing Street during the Walpole’s residency were luminaries such as Queen Caroline (wife of King George II) as well as prominent politicians, writers and military figures.

The Walpoles left in 1742 and it was more than 20 years later before another First Lord of the Treasury moved in.

For more on 10 Downing Street (including its earlier history), check out our previous entries here and here.

PICTURE: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC/ Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

FirefightersIt was 75 years ago this year – on the night of 10th/11th May, 1941 – that the German Luftwaffe launched an unprecedented attacked on London, an event that has since become known as the ‘Longest Night’ (it’s also been referred to as ‘The Hardest Night’).

Air raid sirens echoed across the city as the first bombs fells at about 11pm and by the following morning, some 1,436 Londoners had been killed and more than that number injured while more than 11,000 houses had been destroyed along and landmark buildings including the Palace of Westminster (the Commons Chamber was entirely destroyed and the roof of Westminster Hall was set alight), Waterloo Station, the British Museum and the Old Bailey were, in some cases substantially, damaged.

The Royal Air Force Museum records that some 571 sorties were flown by German air crews over the course of the night and morning, dropping 711 tons of high explosive bombs and more than 86,000 incendiaries. The planes were helped in their mission – ordered in retaliation for RAF bombings of German cities – by the full moon reflecting off the river below.

The London Fire Brigade recorded more than 2,100 fires in the city and together these caused more than 700 acres of the urban environment, more than double that of the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the costs of the destruction were also estimated at more than double that of the Great Fire – some £20 million).

Fighter Command sent some 326 aircraft into the fight that night, not all of them over London, and, according to the RAF Museum, the Luftwaffe officially lost 12 aircraft (although others put the figure at more than 30).

By the time the all-clear siren sounded just before 6am on 11th May, it was clear the raid – which turned out to be the last major raid of The Blitz – had been the most damaging ever undertaken upon the city.

Along with the landmarks mentioned above, other prominent buildings which suffered in the attack include Westminster Abbey, St Clement Danes (the official chapel of the Royal Air Force, it was rebuilt but still bears the scars of the attack), and the Queen’s Hall.

Pictured above is a statue of firefighters in action in London during the Blitz, taken from the National Firefighters Memorial near St Paul’s Cathedral – for more on that, see our earlier post here.

For more on The Longest Night, see Gavin Mortimer’s The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz: The Worst Night of the London Blitz.

17-Bruton-StreetQueen Elizabeth II, the oldest British monarch, celebrates her 90th birthday later this month and, although we’ve run a piece on the Queen’s birth before, we thought it only fitting to take a second look at what proved to be a momentous birth.

The then Princess Elizabeth (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary) was born at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair – the London home of her maternal grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (they also owned Glamis Castle in Scotland) – at 2.40am on 21st April, 1926.

She was apparently delivered by Caesarian section and the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, was in attendance to ensure everything was above board (the custom, which has since been dropped, was apparently adopted after what was known as the ‘Warming Pan Scandal’ when, following the birth of Prince James Francis Edward, son of King James II and Queen Mary of Modena, in June, 1688, rumours spread that the baby had been stillborn and replaced by an imposter brought into the chamber inside a warming pan).

The first child of the Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Bertie) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), she was third in line to the throne at her birth but thanks to the abdication of King Edward VIII, became her father’s heir.

The event apparently drew a crowd to the property (although none could yet suspect how important this princess was to become) and among the well-wishers who visited the newborn that afternoon were her paternal grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, who had apparently been woken at 4am to be informed of the birth of their second grandchild.

The property was to be Princess Elizabeth’s home for the first few months of her life (named after her mother, paternal great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra, and paternal grandmother, Queen Mary, she was christened in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace five weeks after her birth).

The home of her birth and a neighbouring townhouse have both since been demolished and replaced by an office building. A plaque commemorating it as the Queen’s birthplace was installed in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Year of 1977 and another to mark the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

The Queen’s birthday will be officially commemorated in June.

PICTURE: Via London Remembers