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.

A Moment in London’s History – The martyrdom of St Alphege…

This month marks the 1010th anniversary of the murder of Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by Vikings in Greenwich.

St Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, is asked for advice in this early 15th century manuscript from Paris.

Alphege, also known as Ælfheah and Alfege, had been kidnapped from Canterbury during a Viking raid in September, 1011. Alphege’s captors were said to have been seeking a huge sum for his ransom – some 3,000 gold marks, reports the monk Osbern – but that, knowing such a sum would bring starvation upon the people under his care, he refused to allow himself to be ransomed – for money or anything else – and this drew the anger of his captors.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one day, seven months after his kidnapping – on 19th April, 1012, the Vikings were drunk and, had the elderly archbishop brought before their assembly. Then, in an act of execution, they began throwing ox bones and heads at the unfortunate archbishop before one of them struck him on the back of the head with the butt of an axe, killing him.

According to tradition, the murder took place on the site of St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich. A contemporary account also tells that a Viking lord named Thorkell the Tall, a Christian convert, had tried to save the archbishop’s life – offering everything he owned except his ship in exchange for the cleric’s life – but failed (interestingly, so appalled was Thorkell at the murder that he switched sides and fought for the English king Ethelred the Unready following Alphege’s death). There is also an account that the fatal blow was actually delivered by a Christian converted named Thrum as an act of mercy.

Alphege’s body was recovered and he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1023, the body was moved by King Cnut to Canterbury in a gesture of goodwill to the English. The first Archbishop of Canterbury to meet such a violent end, he was canonised in 1078.

There is a memorial stone to the saint set in the floor in front of the altar in the Greenwich church.

A Moment in London’s History – The ‘Cock Lane Ghost’ appears…

It’s 260 years ago this month that a supposed poltergeist known as the ‘Cock Lane Ghost’ was at the centre of an infamous scandal.

There had been several reports of strange sounds and spectral appearances at the property prior to January, 1762, but it was the events which took place that month which were to elevate the hauntings to the national stage.

Cock Lane, shown in Charles Mackay’s 1852 work ‘Haunted Houses’. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia

It was in that month that Elizabeth Parsons, the 11-year-old daughter of Richard Parsons, the officiating clerk at St Sepulchre Church, reported hearing knockings and scratchings while she was lying in bed. Her father, Richard Parsons, the officiating clerk at nearby St Sepulchre, enlisted the aid of John Moore, assistant preacher at St Sepulchre and a Methodist, to find their cause and the two concluded that the spirit haunting the house was that of Fanny Lynes, who had formerly lived in the property before apparently dying of smallpox in early February, 1760.

The two men devised a system for communicating with the spirit based on knocks and based on the answers they received, concluded that Lynes had not died of smallpox but actually been poisoned with arsenic by her lover (and brother-in-law) William Kent.

Kent had been married to Fanny’s sister Elizabeth and after her death, he had lived with Lynes as man and wife despite prohibitions on them being married due to their status as in-laws. Parsons, who was their landlord at the time, had taken a loan from Kent while they were living at the property but subsequently refused to pay it back leading Kent to successfully sue him for its recovery.

It was against that backdrop – and earlier reports that the ghost of Fanny’s sister Elizabeth had haunted the property after her death – that the story of ‘Scratching Fanny’ began to spread and led to crowds gathering in Cock Lane to witness the phenomena. Writer Horace Walpole was among them – he attended along with Prince Edward, the Duke of York and Albany, and, apart from not hearing the ghost (he was told it would appear the next morning at 7am), noted that the local alehouses were doing a great trade.

Such was the case’s fame that the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Fludyer, ordered an investigation – among those who was involved was famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson. They concluded that the girl had been making the noises herself (Dr Johnson went on to write an account of it which was published in The Gentlemen’s Magazine). Further investigations were held – Fanny’s body even exhumed – and Elizabeth was later seen concealing a small piece of wood (apparently to make the sounds), subsequently confessing that her father had put her up to it.

Kent, however, was determined to clear his name and Moore, along with Parsons, Parson’s wife Elizabeth, Mary Frazer, a relative of Parsons, and a tradesman Richard James, were all subsequently charged with conspiracy to take Kent’s life by alleging he had murdered Frances. The trial, which took place at Guildhall before Lord Chief Justice William Murray, on 10th July, 1762, saw guilty verdicts returned for all five defendants. Moore and Richards agreed to pay Kent a sum of more than £500 but the others refused and so in February the following year they were sentenced – Parsons to three turns in the pillory and two years imprisonment, his wife Elizabeth to a year in prison and Frazer to six months hard labour in Bridewell.

The case, which also caused controversy between the new Methodists and Anglicans over the issue of ghosts, was widely referred to in literature of the time including by satirical poet Charles Churchill in his work The Ghost. It was also referenced by William Hogarth in his prints and Victorian author Charles Dickens even alluded to the story in A Tale of Two Cities.

A Moment in London’s History – Crystal Palace burns…

The Crystal Palace fire in 1936. PICTURE: Unknown author (via Wikipedia)

This month marks 85 years since the Crystal Palace in London’s south was destroyed in a fire.

The Joseph Paxton-designed building had originally been located in what is now Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and, following the end of the exhibition, had been dismantled and relocated to Sydenham.

When the fire in broke out on the night of 30th November, 1936, two night watchmen tried to put it out. Sir Henry Buckland, the building’s general manager, was out walking his dog with his daughter Crystal (named, apparently after the building) when he spotted the flames and called the fire brigade.

They arrived at about 8pm but the fire, fanned by a wind, was soon out of control and so further aid as summoned with hundreds of firefighters and some 88 engines attending the scene. It has been said the blaze could be seen across eight counties.

A crowd of spectators – said to number as high as 100,000 – arrived to watch what was apparently a rather spectacular sight (special trains were apparently put on to transport people from towns in Kent and private airplanes were spotted overhead). Police, some on horseback, did their best to keep the crowds away but had limited success given the numbers who turned out (Winston Churchill, among those watching the building burn, is said to have remarked: “This is the end of an age” while Sir Henry told reporters later that the palace would “live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world”).

By morning, the building was reduced to bits of twisted metal and ash but thankfully no lives were lost in the conflagration. The cause, however, remained a mystery – there was speculation it had been started by a stray cigarette butt or had been deliberately lit by a disgruntled worker. Television pioneer John Logie Baird, who had a workshop in the building, believed it could have been started by a leaking gas cylinder in his workshop.

Two water towers, located at either end of the building, survived the blaze but were later demolished. Among the few remains of the building which did survive the blaze is the subway located under Crystal Palace Parade. The park which surrounded the building remains home to the famous ‘Crystal Palace dinosaurs’.

A Moment in London’s History – The coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte…

Equestrian statue of King George III in Cockspur Street. PICTURE: David Nicholls
(licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

This month marks 260 years since King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz were crowned King and Queen of the Kingdom of Great Britain at a ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

Only 23-years-old at the time, King George III had ascended to the throne before following the death of his grandfather, King George II, in October, 1760. He and his wife, then Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had married in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace just two weeks prior to the coronation on 8th September, 1761 (they had met earlier the same day).

The royal couple started the day of the coronation – 22nd September – at St James’s Palace and were carried in sedan chairs to Westminster Hall, arriving at about 11am. They then processed on foot through crowds from the hall to Westminster Abbey (the crowds were said to be such that numerous carriages had collided with each other in the bid to reach the abbey). There, they proceeded to a special platform built in the abbey for the occasion.

Commencing at about 3pm, the coronation ceremony began. In an elaborate ceremony overseen by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Secker, the new King was then crowned (Zadok the Priest, which George Frideric Handel had written for the coronation of King George II, was the anthem at the new king’s request). A simpler ceremony followed in which Charlotte was crowned Queen Consort.

The whole affair reportedly lasted more than six hours, so long that some guests are said to have tucked into snacks while watching.

A feast was subsequently held in Westminster Hall during which the King’s Champion, wearing full armour, rode into the hall and threw down a gauntlet challenging any who questioned the King’s legitimacy to step up (none did). During the feast, spectators in the galleries above let down baskets and handkerchiefs for their better placed friends below to fill with food.

The King and Queen departed the feat at about 10pm followed by guests. After they’d vacated the premises, the doors were then opened for the public to come in and to finish off the food.

A Moment in London’s History – The opening of Royal Albert Hall…

Crowds gathered at the Opening of Royal Albert Hall, on 29th March, 1871, as seems in the Illustrated London News, on the 8th April, 1871.

Next week sees the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary concert taking place, one of a number of events to mark the anniversary of the hall’s opening.

This spectacular building in South Kensington was officially opened on 29th March, 1871, as The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences (the opening was actually brought forward from 1st May – 20th anniversary of the opening of the Great Exhibition – at the request of Queen Victoria).

The Queen had laid the foundation stone in 1867 and the work on the building, the creation of which was partly funded by profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851, was complete by the end of 1870 (at least its structure – much of the interior decoration was apparently added later).

An image of the interior of the hall during the opening ceremony on 29th March. 1871. The illustration originally appeared in The Graphic. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia.

Queen Victoria and members of the Royal Family left Buckingham Palace in a line of state carriages for the event at noon escorted by the Royal Horse Guards Blue. Large crowds lined the route of her passage and a guard of honour composed of the Grenadiers stood opposite the entrance.

On arriving, the Queen was met by the Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), members of the building committee and some of those who has served as commissioners of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Queen processed to a dais inside the building’ auditorium where some 8,000 dignitaries and invited guests waited in the audience. But she was apparently too overcome by memories of her late husband – Prince Albert, after whom the building as named – to give a speech. So it was the Prince who did so, although the Queen did reportedly add her own comments, saying according to an account in The Guardian: “I cannot but express my great admiration for this beautiful building, and my earnest wishes for its complete success.”

A battery of artillery performed a salute in nearby Hyde Park after which the Queen and Royal Family took their seats in the Royal Box to watch the musical program that followed. The Queen then returned to Buckingham Palace.

Interestingly, the first concert at the hall, held to test acoustics, actually took place month earlier on 25th February for an audience of some 7,000 people made up of those who had worked on the building and their families as well as officials and various invited members of the public.

A Moment in London’s History – The coronation of King Edward IV…

It’s 560 years ago this month that the Yorkist King Edward IV was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is king-edward-iv.jpg
King Edward IV by Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1540 (NPG 3542). PICTURE: Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Only three months earlier, on 4th March, 1461, the 19-year-old Edward had been declared King at Westminster in London. He had then gone on to defeat the Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Towton in North Yorkshire during a snowstorm on 29th March, said to have been the bloodiest single day battle ever fought on English soil with an estimated 28,000 men dying.

While his coronation was first set for July, ongoing trouble from the Lancastrians saw him bring the date forward (his predecessor, Henry VI, was in exile at the time).

Edward arrived at the Tower of London on Friday, 26th June, and then retired to Lambeth for the night. The following day – Saturday, 27th June – he crossed London Bridge and made his state entrance into the City.

Accompanied by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen and some 400 of the elite citizens of the City, Edward, said to be an impressive figure at six foot, four inches tall, then processed through the City streets to the Tower of London.

Once at the Tower, he created some 28 new Knights of the Bath, including his younger brothers George and Richard. They then rode ahead of him as he rode through the streets to Westminster.

The following morning, Sunday, 28th June, Edward went to Westminster Abbey where he was crowned King. Thomas Bourchier, the Archbishop of Canterbury, presided over the ceremony, assisted by William Booth, the Archbishop of York.

After the coronation, a banquet was held in Westminster Hall with the King sitting under a cloth of gold. One of the highlights was apparently the moment when Sir Thomas Dymoke, the King’s champion, rode into the hall in full armour. Flinging down his mail gauntlet, he is said to have challenged anyone who disputed Edward’s right to be king to do battle with him. No-one took up the offer.

A further banquet was held the following day at the Bishop of London’s Palace – in honour of his brother George who was created Duke of Clarence, and on the Tuesday, King Edward, wearing his crown, attended St Paul’s Cathedral.

Edward’s first reign ended in 1470 when on 30th October, he was forced into exile and King Henry VI. But it was only to be for a brief period – Edward IV reclaimed the throne on 11th April, 1471, defeating the Lancastrians in a decisive battle at Barnet on 14th April (April marked the 550th anniversary of that battle).

A Moment in London’s History – The “execution” of Oliver Cromwell…

It was 360 years ago late last month that the body of Oliver Cromwell, one time Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, was, having previously been exhumed from his grave in Westminster Abbey, hanged from a gallows at Tyburn before being beheaded.

Cromwell had died two years previously on 3rd September, 1658, at the age of 59. It’s thought he died of septicaemia brought on by a urinary infection (although the death of his favourite daughter Elizabeth a month before is also believed to have been a significant factor in his own demise).

He (and his daughter) were buried in an elaborate funeral ceremony in a newly created vault in King Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey.

Cromwell’s son Richard had succeeded him as Lord Protector but he was forced to resign in May, 1659, and divisions among the Commonwealth’s leadership soon saw Parliament restored and the monarchy restored under King Charles II in 1660.

In late January, 1661, on Parliament’s order, Cromwell’s body as well as those of John Bradshaw, President of the High Court of Justice for the trial of King Charles I, and Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law and a general in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War, were all exhumed from their graves.

A contemporary engraving of the execution of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia.

The bodies of Cromwell and Ireton were taken to the Red Lion Inn in Holborn where they lay under guard overnight and were joined by that of Bradshaw the following day.

That morning – the 30th January, a date which coincided with the 12th anniversary of the execution of King Charles I in 1649 – the shrouded bodies in various states of decomposition and laying in open coffins were dragged on a sledge to gallows at Tyburn were they were publicly hanged.

The bodies remained on the gallows until sunset when they were removed and beheaded (Cromwell’s beheading apparently took eight blows). The bodies were believed to have been subsequently thrown into a common grave at Tyburn (although there’s all sorts of speculation surrounding the fate of Cromwell’s – indeed some believe his body had already been removed from Westminster Abbey before the exhumation took place and that it was the body of someone else which was hanged and beheaded).

The decapitated heads, however, were kept. They were placed on 20 foot long spikes at Westminster Hall for public display (Samuel Pepys was among those who saw them).

In 1685, however, the spike holding Cromwell’s head broke in a storm. Cromwell’s head is said to have ended up in the possession of a soldier who took it and hid it in his chimney (a reward was offered but searches were unsuccessful). The fate of the head then remains somewhat clouded but in 1710 it was being displayed in the London museum of Swiss-French collector Claudius Du Puy.

It subsequently passed through various hands until it was eventually bought by Dr Josiah Henry Wilkinson in the early 19th century. It remained in the possession of his family until, following tests which concluded it was indeed Cromwell’s head, it was offered to Sydney Sussex College, Cromwell alma mater, where, in 1960, it was buried in a secret location.

A Moment in London’s History – The opening of the Royal Exchange…

This month marks the 450th anniversary of the opening of London’s Royal Exchange, a complex created to act as a commercial centre in the City of London.

The Royal Exchange in London as built by Thomas Gresham by Wenceslaus Hollar (etching, probably mid 17th century) NPG D25432 © National Portrait Gallery, London (licensed under Creative Commons)

The exchange was built on the orders – and with the funds – of the merchant Sir Thomas Gresham at a site on the junction of Cornhill and Threadneedle streets which was – and still is – jointly owned by the City of London Corporation and the Worshipful Company of Mercers.

Drawing inspiration from the Antwerp Bourse, credited as the oldest financial exchange in the world (and where Sir Thomas had served as an agent of the crown), the Royal Exchange was built in ranges around a central courtyard and designed by an architect from Antwerp.

It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I on 23rd January, 1571. The Queen, who was lodging in Somerset House at the time, reportedly took a detailed look at the premises – which had apparently been completed a few years earlier.

At the close of her visit, she awarded the exchange the use of the word ‘Royal’ in its title (an honour announced by a herald and with the sound of a trumpet). She also granted it a license to sell alcohol and other luxury goods.

Earlier in the day, the Queen had dined at Sir Thomas’ own house in Bishopsgate. She was later to return to Somerset House.

Gresham’s original building – to which two floors of retail had been added in 1660, creating what is said to have been England’s first shopping mall – was sadly destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

It was replaced by a second complex, this time designed by Edward Jarman, in 1669, but this too succumbed to fire, this time on 10th January, 1838. The building which now stands on the site – and is now an upmarket retail centre – was designed by Sir William Tite and was opened by another Queen, Victoria, in 1844.

Gresham’s contribution is remembered by the building’s weathervane which features a golden grasshopper – an insect featured on Sir Thomas’ crest.

A Moment in London’s History – The “Petticoat Duel”…

The “Petticoat Duel” was so-called because this late 18th century duel apparently took place between two women – Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs Elphinstone.

An engraving of “The Petticoat Duellists” for Carlton House Magazine.

The story goes that the duel, which reportedly took place in 1792, came about after, during a social visit to Lady Braddock’s home, Mrs Elphinstone suggested the aforementioned lady was much older than her 30-odd years. It was clearly a sensitive subject and Lady Braddock demanded satisfaction via a duel.

The two women met in Hyde Park and initially exchanged pistol shots, the only casualty being Lady Braddock’s hat. Swords were then drawn and the women crossed blades until Mrs Elphinstone received a minor wound to her arm.

Following her wounding, Mrs Elphinstone wisely decided to apologise to Lady Braddock for doubting her age (she apparently wrote a lengthy apology later on) and the women put down their weapons. Crisis averted.

Despite the many times the story of the “Petticoat Duel” has been repeated, however, there’s some considerable doubt over whether it actually took place.

The key source appears to be an article in a 1792 edition of Carlton House Magazine and it has been suggested that “Lady Almeria Braddock” may be an invented character perhaps based partly on Georgian actress George Anne Bellamy.

So we apologise for any who have felt misled, for this “moment” may actually be no more than a creative writer’s story. But, whether true or not, it does make for an interesting tale.

A Moment in London’s History…First air raid of the London Blitz…

It was on 7th September, 1940, that the German bombers raided London in what was to be the first of 57 consecutive nights of bombings and the start of the air attacks on the city known as the Blitz (short for ‘Blitzkrieg’ meaning ‘lightning war’ in German).

Almost 350 German bombers, escorted by more than 600 Messerschmitt fighters, were involved in the raid on what became known as “Black Saturday”.

This first wave of bombing, which ended just after 6pm on what had been a hot day, largely targeted London’s docks in attempt to destroy the city’s infrastructure and industrial sites including the munitions factories of the Woolwich Arsenal, gasworks at Beckton, West Ham power station and oil storage tanks at Thameshaven.

A second wave, which lasted eight hours and involved another 400 bombers, arrived from 8pm striking Millwall, commercial docks at Tilbury and Thameshaven, and the heavily populated slums of the East End in localities including Silvertown, Canning Town, East Ham, Poplar, Stratford, Wapping, and Whitechapel.

Hundreds of tons of bombs were dropped in the raids during which some 448 of London’s civilians were killed and 1,600 injured. Some of the fires started in the bombing burned for five days with the flames visible for miles.

While the attack was the first day of the Blitz, it was actually the 60th day of the Battle of Britain in which the German Luftwaffe had targeted air fields, oil installations and other war-related infrastructure.

While Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had gone on radio on the day of the raid, describing it as an “historic hour, in which for the first time the German Luftwaffe has struck at the heart of the enemy”, the strategy shift – to target London instead of the air defence-related installations – proved to be what Hugh Dowding, chief of Fighter Command described as a “mistake”, giving the defences time to rebuild.

But at the time, the attack on London was believed at the time to herald the start of a full invasion. It’s known that as the Luftwaffe attacked the East End, the military chiefs of staff were meeting in Whitehall – at 8pm that night, just as the second wave of planes was starting to bomb the city, they issued the code word ‘Cromwell’ which indicated that invasion was imminent and defending troops need to prepare.

The planned invasion – Operation Sea Lion – never eventuated but the Blitz was to continue until May the following year.

PICTURE: The London docks ablaze during the Blitz on 7th September, 1940. Palls of smoke rise in the docks beyond the Tower of London with the Surrey Docks to the right of the bridge and the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs in the distance. PICTURE: © Port of London Authority Collection / Museum of London. For more on the ‘Docklands at War’, head to www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands/permanent-galleries/docklands-war.

A Moment in London’s History…The Mayflower leaves London

This year marks 400 since the Mayflower set off from Plymouth in England’s south to Massachusetts in North America.

But what isn’t as well known is that the ship was hired in London and so it is from London – commonly believed to be from Rotherhithe on the south bank of the Thames – that the ship set off for Plymouth to pick up its passengers and supplies.

The Mayflower departed from London in mid July, 1620, and was already in Plymouth by the time another ship, the Speedwell, arrived from Delfshaven in the Netherlands in late July. The two ships would depart Plymouth for their journey across the Atlantic Ocean on 5th August (although the Speedwell proved less than seaworthy and so, after a couple of aborted attempts, the Mayflower eventually proceeded alone).

Rotherhithe was home to many of the 30 crew of the Mayflower including Captain Christopher Jones.

As a result, there’s numerous memorials to the voyage in the area, including, most famously, the pub, The Mayflower, which is said to overlook the site from where the ship sailed (pictured above). There’s also a statue  of Jones himself in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin where he was buried in an unmarked grave – he died soon after returning from America.

A series of events, including the Mayflower 400 London Lectures, had been planned to commemorate the event this year but are currently suspended. We’ll keep you informed.

Exploring London’s 100 most popular posts of all time! – Numbers 68 and 67…

The next two entries in our countdown…

68. A Moment in London’s History – Peace Day Parade, 1919…

67. 10 (more) fictional character addresses in London – 2. 27a Wimpole Street…

A Moment in London’s History – London celebrates VE Day…

It was 75 years ago this month – 8th May, 1945 – that Londoners poured out onto the city’s streets in celebration of the end of World War II.

Some celebrations had already started in London on 7th May as news of the unconditional surrender of all German troops to the Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower in the French city of Reims on 7th May became known.

But Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared 8th May a national holiday and, in response, vast crowds turned out on the streets to celebrate with bunting, flags and fireworks. Church bells were rung and services of thanksgiving held including at St Paul’s Cathedral where 10 consecutive services, each attended by thousands, took place.

British girls, of the Picture Division of the London Office of War Information dance in the street with American soldiers during the “VE Day” celebration in London. This scene took place outside the building of the US Army Pictorial Division has its offices. PICTURE: © IWM EA 65796

At 3pm, Churchill made a national radio broadcast from 10 Downing Street. He told listeners that while “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing”, they should “not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead” a reference to the ongoing war with Japan (the radio broadcast, incidentally, is being re-run on the BBC on 8th May this year to mark the anniversary).

Churchill then proceeded to Parliament where he formally reported the end of the war in Europe to Parliament before leading a procession of members to St Margaret’s Church for a service of thanksgiving. He later appeared on the balcony of the Ministry of Health building in Whitehall to address the teeming crowds below, telling them “This is your victory” to which they roared back that it was his.

Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall on the day he broadcast to the nation that the war with Germany had been won, 8 May 1945. PICTURE: Horton W G (Major) (Photographer),
War Office official photographer/© IWM H 41849

Meanwhile, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, initially accompanied by their two daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace several times to wave to the cheering crowds. The King and Queen, who were at one point joined by Churchill, were still waving when their daughters secretly – and now rather famously – left the palace and joined the crowds outside in what Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, described as “one of the most memorable moments” of her life. The King also gave a radio address from the palace during which he paid tribute to all those who had died in the conflict.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret joined by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, London on VE Day. PICTURE: © IWM MH 21835

While celebrations took place across London, hotspots included Whitehall, outside Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus, where by midnight there were an estimated 50,000 people singing and dancing. Licensing hours were extended in pubs and dance halls staying open to midnight.

A mass of civilians and servicemen crowding around Piccadilly Circus, London. PICTURE: Poznak Murray, United States Army Signal Corps official photographerIWM EA 65879

One of the most iconic images of the day was a photograph of two sailors standing in one of the fountains at Trafalgar Square with two women, revealed, thanks to research by the Imperial War Museum to be Cynthia Covello and Joyce Digney who had travelled to join the celebrations from Surrey.

Two British sailors and their girlfriends wading in the fountains in Trafalgar Square on VE Day. PICTURE: Massecar T G, United States Army Signal Corps photographer/© IWM EA 65799

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum, London.

 

A Moment in London’s History…The escape of Ranulf Flambard…

There’s been about 40 successful escapes from the Tower of London over the centuries but the first recorded one was of Ranulf Flambard. 

Flambard, the bishop of Durham, was the chief minister of King Willam Rufus (William II) (and, among other things, oversaw the construction of the inner wall around the White Tower at the Tower of London, the first stone bridge in London and Westminster Hall).

When William died in 1100, William’s younger brother Henry became king. William’s rule had been increasingly harsh and characterised by corruption and when Henry assumed the throne, Flambard was made a scapegoat for the previous administration’s failings. He was arrested on 15th August, 1100, and imprisoned on charges of embezzlement in the White Tower.

Flambard managed to escape on 3rd February, 1101. The story goes that he had lulled his guards into getting drunk by bringing in a barrel of wine for them to drink and then climbed out of a window and down a rope, which he’d had smuggled into the tower in the wine. It’s also said that the man charged with his care, William de Mandeville, allowed the escape.

Flambard subsequently escaped England to Normandy where he incited Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy (and elder brother of Henry), to attempt an invasion of England.

The invasion was unsuccessful but the warring brothers reconciled and Flambard was restored to royal favour. He regained his bishopric, although he never again served as chief minister.

PICTURE: Amy-Leigh Barnard/Unsplash

A Moment in London’s History – The National Trust acquires Eastbury Manor House…

This month (12th January to be exact) marks 125 years since the National Trust was founded by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. So we’re taking a quick look at another, somewhat related, milestone – the acquisition of the Trust’s first London property.

Located in Barking, Eastbury Manor House, initially known as Eastbury Hall, was built between 1560 and 1573 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) for Clement Sisley on land which once belonged to Barking Abbey.

The H-shaped house and surrounding estate remained in the family until 1629 after which it passed through the hands of a number of well-to-do families, gradually falling into disrepair.

By the early 19th century, decay had led to one of the property’s unique octagonal stair turrets being pulled down and wooden flooring and fireplaces removed. The ground floor was being used as a stable and dairy.

The property struggled on into the early 20th century when it was threatened with demolition. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, recognising its significance as a rare example of mid-16th century brick built gentry house, lobbied for it to be saved and, working alongside the National Trust, ran a campaign to raise funds for its acquisition.

The house – and surrounding gardens – were acquired by the Trust for the nation in 1918 and then, in 1934, leased to Barking Borough Council. The following year the property became the home of Barking Museum.

It was awarded Grade I-listed status in 1954 and is now managed by the Borough of Barking and Dagenham. A restoration program in recent years has seen the addition of a permanent exhibition on the property’s history.

WHERE: Eastbury Manor House, Eastbury Square, Barking (nearest Tube station is Upney); WHEN: From 13th  February, 10am to 4pm Thursdays and Fridays and, from 22nd March, 11am to 4pm Sundays; COST: £5.20 adults/£2.60 children and concessions/£9.30 family (LBBD residents, SPAB and National Trust members free); WEBSITE: www.eastburymanorhouse.org.uk.

PICTURE: David Nicholls (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

A Moment in London’s History…The election of Nancy Astor

This marks the 100th anniversary – last month in fact – of the entry of the first woman to the British Parliament.

Nancy Astor, who won the seat of Plymouth Sutton on 15th November, 1919, took her seat in Parliament two weeks later on 1st December, about a year after women won the right to stand as an MP.

Astor, whose husband, Waldorf Astor, had previously occupied her seat (but whose seat became vacant when he was elevated to the House of Lords following the death of his father, Viscount Astor), was the first to take her seat in the House of Commons but not the first elected.

That honour goes to Constance Markiewicz, who won for Sinn Fein in 1918 – while she was detained in Holloway Prison – and who never took her seat in the House of Commons.

The American-born Astor met with a somewhat hostile reception from some – Winston Churchill famously told her MPs had hoped to “freeze her out”.

She delivered her maiden speech on 24th February, 1920, warning the MPs that given some women aged over 30 could now vote, they intended to use it and “use it wisely”.

Astor ended up winning seven elections and, despite being seen increasingly as a figure of controversy in part because of her support – along with her husbands and their associates – of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement with Germany in the lead-up to World War II, remained MP for Plymouth Sutton until 1945.

She decided not to stand again based on the advice of the Conservative Party – who saw her increasingly as a liability, and her husband.

PICTURE: A Blue Plaque commemorating Nancy Astor on a property at 4 St James’s Square, St James’s (Leo Reynolds (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/image cropped)

A Moment in London’s History…Greenwich is established as the prime meridian for all nations…

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)

A Moment in London’s History – An iconic image of Abbey Road is taken…

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.

A Moment in London’s History – Samuel Pepys writes the last entry in his diary…

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)