This Week in London – Month-long Thames celebration kicks off; glass vessels saved after Beirut’s port explosion; and, Chiswick House…in LEGO…

• Totally Thames – London’s month-long celebration of its river – kicks off Friday with a programme featuring more than 100 events across a range of locations. Highlights this year include Reflections, an illuminated flotilla of more than 150 boats that will process down the Thames to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee on 24th September; River of Hope, an installation of 200 silk flags created by young people across the UK and Commonwealth at the National Maritime Museum; and, of course, the Great River Race, London’s great river marathon on 10th September involving some 330 boats and crews from across the world. There’s also talks, walks, exhibitions and art and, of course, the chance to meet some mudlarks. For more, including the full programme of events, see https://thamesfestivaltrust.org.

Roman beaker, 1st century AD, The Archaeological Museum at the 
American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Eight ancient glass vessels, newly conserved after being damaged in the 2020 Beirut port explosion, have gone on show at the British Museum. Painstakingly pieced back together and conserved at the conservation laboratories at the British Museum, the vessels were among 72 from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods which were damaged when a case fell over in Beirut’s AUB Museum. Six of the vessels at the British Museum date from the 1st century BC, a period which saw glass production revolutionised in Lebanon, while two others date to the late Byzantine – early Islamic periods, and may have been imported to Lebanon from neighbouring glass manufacturing centres in Syria or Egypt. The vessels can be seen in Room 3 as part of the Asahi Shimbun Display Shattered glass of Beirut until 23rd October before their return to Lebanon in late Autumn. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

• Chiswick House LEGO model. A brick model of Chiswick House is on show at the property in London’s west. The model, which uses 50,000 bricks and took two years to build, illustrates the dramatic architectural changes that Chiswick House has undergone in its 300-year history including the addition of two wings which were demolished in the late 18th century. On show until 31st October. Admission charge applies. For more, see https://chiswickhouseandgardens.org.uk/event/chiswick-house-lego-brick-model/.

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A Moment in London’s History – The Great Fire of Southwark…

Think of fire in relation to London and the events of 1666 no doubt spring to mind. But London has had several other large fires in its history (with a much higher loss of life), including during the reign of King John in July, 1212.

The fire started in Southwark around 10th July and the blaze destroyed most of the buildings lining Borough High Street along with the church of St Mary Overie (also known as Our Lady of the Canons and now the site of Southwark Cathedral) before reaching London Bridge.

PICTURE: Guido Jansen/Unsplash

The wind carried embers across the river and ignited buildings on the northern end before the fire spread into the City of London itself (building on the bridge had been authorised by King John so the rents could be used to help pay for the bridge’s maintenance).

Many people died on the bridge after they – and those making their way south across the bridge to aid people in Southwark (or perhaps just to gawk) – were caught between the fires at either end, with some having apparently drowned after jumping off the bridge into the Thames (indeed, it’s said that some of the crews of boats sent to rescue them ended up drowning themselves after the vessels were overwhelmed).

Antiquarian John Stow, writing in the early 17th century, stated that more than 3,000 people died in the fire – leading some later writers to describe the disaster as “arguably the greatest tragedy London has ever seen”.

But many believe this figure is far too high for a population then estimated at some 50,000. The oldest surviving account of the fire – Liber de Antiquis Legibus (“Book of Ancient Laws”) which was written in 1274 and mentions the burning of St Mary Overie and the bridge, as well as the Chapel of St Thomas á Becket built upon it – doesn’t mention a death toll.

London Bridge itself survived the fire thanks to its recent stone construction but for some years afterward it was only partly usable. King John then raised additional taxes to help rebuild destroyed structures while the City’s first mayor, Henry Fitz Ailwyn, subsequently apparently joined with other officials in creating some regulations surrounding construction with fire safety in mind.

The cause of the fire remains unknown.

London Explained – Mudlarks…

Modern mudlarks at Queenhithe on the River Thames. PICTURE: Geoff Henson (licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Spotted along the Thames foreshore when the tide is low, the term ‘mudlark’ is used to describe someone who scavenges for lost or discarded objects in the mud along the Thames river banks.

In the 18th and 19th century, mudlarks were among London’s poorest who eked out a living by selling items – lumps of coal, pieces of rope, precious metals – found on the river’s banks. They were often the young or the elderly and the working conditions, which included navigating through the raw sewage and other noxious waste which ended up on the foreshore, were horrendous.

Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew, who writes in his seminal and expansive series of reports – London Labour and the London Poor – described how mudlarks were so-named because of their need at times to wade up to their waists in mud to retrieve items.

By the 20th century, the practice appears to have somewhat died out. But in more recent years, the term mudlark has been applied to hobbyists, including those using metal detectors, to search along the Thames foreshore during the hours when the tides allow. Since the mid-1970s, The Society of Thames Mudlarks has provided some organisational structure for those involved but membership in this body is limited.

A permit from the Port of London Authority is required for modern mudlarking. As the authority’s website states: “Anyone searching the tidal Thames foreshore from Teddington to the Thames Barrier – in any way for any reason – must hold a current and relevant foreshore permit from the Port of London Authority. This includes all searching, metal detecting, ‘beachcombing’, scraping and digging”.

Finds of potential archaeological interest must be reported to the Museum of London (and human remains, of course, to police). Mudlarks are also encourage to report finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Mudlark finds. PICTURE: Neil Cummings (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Objects found include everything from clay pipes, bits of pottery, buttons, bones and pins through to more precious items such as coins, rings and even daggers and swords.

Lara Maiklem, author of the 2019 book Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames, is among the most well-known of the modern mudlarks. As detailed in his book, her finds have included everything from a Roman amphora stopper to medieval roof tiles, a bearded man from a late 16th century Bellarmine jug and an 18th century shoe pattern.

Where’s London’s oldest…(still operational) ferry service?

There’s a couple of contenders for this title – the ferry service at Woolwich and that at Hampton.

Ferry services linking the north bank of the Thames at Woolwich North to the south bank at Woolwich have operated on the Thames since at least the 14th century.

The Woolwich Ferry’s northern terminal. PICTURE: Matt Buck (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

While they were previously commercial operations, in 1889 a free passenger and vehicle ferry service started operation. By the early 1960s increasing demand saw the paddle steamers retired and the ferry service upgraded to a roll-on/roll-off model. The Woolwich Ferry service, which has been run by numerous authorities over the past century, is currently run by Transport for London.

Another contender for the title of London’s oldest (still operational) ferry service is the Hampton Ferry, a pedestrian service, which operates on the Thames about a mile west of Hampton Court Bridge between Hampton on the north bank and Hurst Park, Molesey, the south bank.

The Hampton Ferry. PICTURE: diamond geezer (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The ferry service, which was first used by fishermen and agricultural workers, dates back to 1514 and was incorporated by statute, making it one of the oldest British companies. The ferry, which costs £2 for a single crossing, operates seasonally from April to October.

This Week in London – Marble Hill revived; Harry Kane at the Museum of London; and, golden books at the British Library…

Marble Hill in London’s west reopens on Saturday following a restoration and the reinstatement of a lost pleasure garden. Once home to King George II’s mistress Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, Marble Hill is a rare example of a home built by and for a woman in Georgian England and is one of the last survivors of the many 18th century villas that once fronted the Thames in the area. Marble Hill was built as a country retreat from London’s crowds and among those entertained here were poet Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, John Gay and Jonathan Swift. English Heritage has invested £3 million into a major transformation of the house and 66 acres of riverside parkland which also used a £5 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and The National Community Lottery Fund. This has included the reinstatement of a pleasure garden – an “Arcadian landscape” which was inspired by sketches made by Pope – with the opening up of previously inaccessible woodland areas, the reinstallation of paths and the replanting of avenues of trees that led from the house to the river. Howard’s ninepin bowling alley has been restored and an 18th-century garden grotto has been excavated and returned to its 18th-century appearance. Inside the house, English Heritage has re-instated the paint scheme that existed during Howard’s lifetime in several interior spaces, including the Great Room, conserved the fine collection of early Georgian paintings which includes portraits of Howard’s circle and re-created furniture including an intricate carved peacock motif table and luxurious crimson silk wall hangings in her dressing room. The new display has reframed Howar’s beyond being simply the King’s mistress by also exploring her abusive first marriage and the role deafness played in her life as well as her rise in Georgian society and the social circles she captivated. Entry to the house is free. For more, head to www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/marble-hill-house/.

Harry Kane of England celebrates after scoring their side’s second goal during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Round of 16 match between England and Germany at Wembley Stadium on 29th June, 2021 in London, England. PICTURE: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images.

England football captain Harry Kane is the subject of a new exhibition opening at the Museum of London on Saturday. Harry Kane: I want to play football features sporting memorabilia including the shirt Kane, who grew up in Chingford, East London, wore on his debut for England where he scored against Lithuania just 79 seconds after coming on the pitch, Kane’s MBE which was awarded to him in March 2019 for ‘services to sport’ and the 2018 World Cup Golden Boot (Kane being one of only two British players to receive a Golden Boot at a World Cup competition, where he was named Man of the Match three times) as well as family photos. The display also includes a changing room space where visitors can listen to Kane’s pre-match playlist and an interactive area where visitors can learn more about who has inspired Harry and share their own hopes and dreams. A programme of activities for families and children will run alongside the free display. Runs until December. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

The use of gold in embellishing and enhancing the written word across cultures, faiths and through time is the subject of a new exhibition opening at the British Library. Gold, which opens Friday, showcases some of the most luxurious illuminated manuscripts, gold-tooled books, sacred texts and scrolls from the British Library’s collection with objects on display including the Harley Golden Gospels, the Lotus Sutra and a treaty in Malayalam, beautifully inscribed on a long strip of gold itself. Admission charge applies. Runs until 2nd October. For more, see www.bl.uk.

Send all items to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

LondonLife – Hammersmith terrace…

PICTURE: Victor Huang/iStockphoto.

A row of terraced houses overlooking the Thames in Hammersmith.

LondonLife – Climbing the rigging…

PICTURES: @NathanTurner

Visitors to the Cutty Sark now have the opportunity to climb the ship’s rigging for the first time since the ship arrived in Greenwich in 1954. The ‘Rig Climb Experience’, which was launched last weekend, sees those bold enough to do so stepping up from the main deck onto the ship’s ratlines, climbing up its shrouds and traversing one of the ship’s lower yardarms  to reach the tops platform where they’ll be able to take in magnificent views over Greenwich and The Thames. One of the fastest tea clippers of its day, the Cutty Sark – which was built in Dumbarton in 1869 – had more than 11 miles of rigging, 32 sails with an original sail area of 32,000 square feet, and a 152 foot main mast. Prices start at £41 for adults and £26 for children for a ‘Standard Rig Climb’ and £51 for adults and £36 for children for the Rig Climb Experience Plus. For more, head to www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark.

10 historic stairways in London – 7. Wapping Old Stairs…

This Thames-side set of stairs gives access to the River Thames from Wapping High Street and is one of few survivors of what was once numerous “watermen’s stairs”.

PICTURE: Fin Fahey (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Grade II-listed stairs, which are accessed from the top via a narrow passage bearing their names which runs down the side of the Town of Ramsgate pub, were once used to reach boats to carry passengers across the Thames or offload cargo.

The worn stone stairs at Wapping Old Stairs, which the Historic England says may be of earlier origin than the 18th century, are unusual in that there’s two sets of stairs – one set back behind the other.

The stairs have made numerous appearances in pop culture including in an episode of Dr Who and in a rhyme published in the early 19th century.

Many believe the stairs were the location of Execution Dock, where pirates, smugglers and mutineers were executed by hanging including the notorious Captain William Kidd (but there are alternate theories about where the stairs were located).

Other surviving watermen’s stairs go by the names of Alderman Stairs, Pelican Stairs and King Henry’s Stairs (also known as Execution Dock Stairs, thanks to its being another site posited as the location of Execution Dock.)

LondonLife – Bridges over the Thames…

PICTURE: Lisa van Vliet/Unsplash

The Hungerford Bridge, flanked by the two Golden Jubilee Bridges, and the north-west bank of the Thames.

LondonLife – Illuminated workers, Thameside…

PICTURE: Robin Canfield/Unsplash

LondonLife – Parliamentary silhouette…

Looking across the River Thames alongside Westminster Bridge. PICTURE: Mark Haupt/Unsplash

LondonLife – Foggy morning on the Lea, East London…

PICTURE: Dan Poulton/Unsplash

Lost London – Prison hulks on the Thames…

Floating prisons known as ‘hulks’ were a regular site on the Thames in London between the late 18th century and mid-19th century, used to house convicts awaiting transportation to British penal colonies including in what is now Australia.

The ‘hulks’ were actually decommissioned warships, dismasted and repurposed for the purpose of housing prisoners.

The Warrior’ converted into a prison hulk off Woolwich. PICTURE: Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 21st February, 1846.

The decision to use the former warships – some of which had a storied history – for such a purpose was initially seen as a temporary measure to ease overcrowding in the jails with an Act of Parliament in 1776 only authorising their use for two years.

But, despite rising concerns over conditions on the hulks, they remained in use until 1857 when the act finally expired for good. Some 8,000 convicts were housed upon them in the first 20 years alone.

The hulks were initially moored off Woolwich – the former East Indiaman Justitia and a former French Navy frigate Censor were among the first – and the convicts aboard them put to use working to improve the river and at Woolwich Arsenal and nearby docks. The hulks were also later positioned at sites including Limehouse and Deptford (and the idea of using hulks was also exported to colonies in Australia and the Caribbean).

The hulks were initially operated by private individuals under a government contract but from 1802 they were placed under the supervision of the Inspector of Hulks. Aaron Graham was first to hold the post while his successor John Capper, who was appointed Superintendent of Prisons and the Hulk Establishment in 1814, oversaw numerous reforms of the system. During Capper’s tenure, the use of private contractors was later phased out with the government assuming direct responsibility for the hulks.

Some hulks – like positioned at Limehouse – were used as “receiving hulks” where prisoners were initially sent for several days where they were inspected and issued clothing, blankets, and a mess kit. They were then sent to “convict hulks” where they were assigned to a mess and a work gang for the long-term. Other hulks were to serve specific purposes such as being a “hospital hulk” (there was also a hulk off Kent, the Bellerophon, which was specifically designated for boys).

Conditions on board the vessels were indeed appalling and disease spread quickly with mortality rates of 30 per cent not uncommon. Prisoners were kept chained when aboard and floggings handed out as punishment for any offences. Food and clothing were of poor quality.

Despite this, the hulks continued to be seen as a convenient means of housing convicts and, in 1841, there were still more than 3,500 convicts on board hulks in England. It was said that one ship – a second vessel named Justitia – housed as many as 700 convicts alone.

Following several government inquiries into the hulks and the construction of more prisons on land, the hulks were gradually decommissioned. But altogether, between  1776 and 1884, the British Government had converted more than 150 ships into hulks in both the UK and the colonies.

LondonLife – Low tide on the Thames…

PICTURE: Gavin Allanwood/Unsplash

Treasures of London – The pelicans of St James’s Park…

Pelicans were first introduced to St James’s Park in 1664 when a pair of the rather large birds were presented as a gift from the Russian Ambassador to King Charles II. They’ve been there ever since.

Pelicans in St James’s Park in 2015. PICTURE: Philippa Willitts (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

More than 40 pelicans have apparently made their home at the park over the years. Past pelicans have included the solitary Daphne – nicknamed the ‘Lady of the Lake’, she lived alone at the park in the early 1970s as well as Astra and Khan, who came from Astrakhan in Russia and were presented by the Russian Ambassador in 1977. There’s also been a Louis, who came from Louisiana in 1982, and Vaclav and Rusalka, who were a gift from Prague Zoo in 1995.

There are currently six members of the ‘scoop’ or ‘squadron’ (just two of the collective nouns used for pelicans) in the park. They include Isla and Tiffany – gifted from Prague in 2013 – and Gargi (gifted in 1996 after he was found in a Southend garden) as well as newer arrivals, brothers Sun and Moon, and a female named Star, all of whom came from Prague Zoo in 2019. Five are Eastern Whites and one is a South American White.

The pelicans are fed fresh fish each day between 2:30pm and 3pm, next to Duck Island Cottage, and while they are free to go where they wish, they rarely go far from the almost 57 acre park. But they did make headlines for eating a pigeon in 2006.

Royal Parks are offering a walking tour of St James’s Park which ends with watching the daily feeding on 5th November. Head here for details.

Treasures of London – Traitor’s Gate…

PICTURES: David Adams

Built by King Edward I in the 13th century as a water gate to provide access from the Tower of London to the River Thames, the name ‘Traitor’s Gate’ came to be applied to this portal in Tudor times in relation to those accused of treason who were brought into the tower under its arch.

The double gateway is part of St Thomas’s Tower, which was designed by a Master James of St George, and behind it is a pool which was used to feed water to a cistern on the roof of the White Tower. While the gate was originally built to give access directly to the river, Traitor’s Gate now sits behind a wharf which runs along the river bank (and where can be seen the bricked up entrance says ‘Entry to the Traitor’s Gate’ – this was bricked up in the 19th century when embankment works were carried out)

Sir Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh and even the future Queen Elizabeth I (when a princess) were among those who were brought in by barge through the Traitor’s Gate (their journey would have led them under London Bridge where the heads of executed prisoners were on display). Whether Henry VIII’s disgraced Queen Anne Boleyn entered the tower through the gate remains a matter of some dispute.

This Week in London – Totally Thames turns 25; Muppeteer Jim Henson honoured; and, Beerfest-Lite…

One Night Light Show by Leo Villareall as part of Totally Thames. PICTURE: Totally Thames.

Totally Thames, the annual month-long celebration of London’s river, is celebrating its 25th iteration this month. Highlights this year include Leo Villareal’s Illuminated River which lights up the Thames every night (along with a special three-day celebration including guided tours, talks, sketching workshops and a one-off illumination event on 23rd September) as well as the chance to explore the foreshore with ‘Mudlarking’ at St Paul’s Cathedral, take a deep dive into the history of dockside communities with ‘The Islanders’ and see river-themed art from children across the globe
come together at the National Maritime Museum in Rivers of the World. More than 80 events are included in the programme which runs until the end of the night. For more, see https://thamesfestivaltrust.org/whats-on.

• Muppet creator Jim Henson was honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former Hampstead home this week. Henson lived in the home at 50 Downshire Hill between 1979 and 1982 and continued to use it as his base until his death in 1990. It stands opposite the former ‘Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’, where creatures from fantasy films including The Dark CrystalThe Storyteller and Labyrinth were created. Henson’s son Brian,  chairman of the board at The Jim Henson Company, said it was an honour to have the property recognised, “knowing that he so admired and respected the talent in London, and that this is the place he called home when creating some of his most memorable productions.” For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.

Beerfest-Lite takes place in Guildhall Yard in the City of London today. The event , which runs from noon to 9pm – features beers from the Meantime, Windsor and Eaton, Hook Norton and Shepherd Neame breweries and a street vendor menu including paella, hot dogs, souvlaki and Caribbean dishes as well as a jazz performance from the Alvar Tree Frogs and Bavarian Oompah band Würst Brass. For more, see www.citybeerfest.org.

Send all inclusions to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

LondonLife – Kayaking at Canary Wharf…

PICTURE: Evgeny Klimenchenko/Unsplash

10 London hills – 10. Richmond Hill…

The famous and protected view looking south-west from Richmond Hill across The Thames and Glover’s Island. PICTURE: flicksmores (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For the final in this series we head out west to Richmond Hill which takes its name from the palace which once stood nearby.

At the summit of the hill, which stands about 50 metres (165 feet) high, stands the gate to Richmond Park while the steeper western slopes drop down to Petersham Meadows by the River Thames.

What was the village of Richmond – now incorporated into greater London – sits partly on the slopes of the hill. It and the hill take their names from a palace, established here in the early 16th century by King Henry VII as a replacement for Sheen (Shene) Palace which had been destroyed in a fire in 1499. The King named the new building Richmond Palace, in honour of the earldom of Richmond in Yorkshire, one of his titles.

Richmond Hill is famed for its views – they include the only view in England protected by an Act of Parliament (passed in 1902). It looks to the south-west over Petersham to the Thames, taking in Glover’s Island, and reaching as far as Windsor and has been immortalised in works by the likes of artists JMW Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds as well as by author Sir Walter Scott.

Richmond Hill features many fine 18th century homes including Wick House (built for Joshua Reynolds in 1771) and the westward slopes boast the Terrace Walk and Terrace Gardens, both of which are Grade II* listed, while the massive bulk of the former Royal Star and Garter Home for disabled ex-servicemen (now apartments) can be seen close to the summit.

Other famous residents on the hill have included Rolling Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood and actress Celia Johnson while scenes for the film, The Hours, were shot on The Terrace.

Looking at Richmond Hill from the Petersham meadows; to the left is the Petersham Hotel, to the right, the former Star and Garter Home. PICTURE: Maxwell Hamilton (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

LondonLife – The Shard under a mackerel sky…

PICTURE: Bex Walton/licensed under CC BY 2.0)