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

 

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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

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.

The-London-Gazette

An official public record of the British Government, The London Gazette, initially known as The Oxford Gazette, was first published on 7th November, 1665. 

But its publication didn’t take place in London – rather it was in Oxford (hence its being initially named – The Oxford Gazette) where King Charles II, having fled London due to the plague, ordered the publication to be printed at the University Press.

There’s several reasons behind its publication – one is that courtiers were apparently so worried about the plaque they didn’t even want to touch newspapers from London for fears of contagion of the plaque. But there was also a need, amid the swirl of rumours, gossip and sensationalism found in other publications, for a reputable publication of record (not the least because the introduction of censorship a few years before had suppressed other publications).

Published for the first couple of months under its Oxford masthead, it wasn’t until the following year – on 5th February, 1666 – that the gazette was first published in London (issue 24) after the royal court’s return.

The gazette had unparalleled access to government information – including reports from foreign embassies about what was happening abroad (important when news from overseas was limited), and official reports, including those ‘Mentioned in despatches’ from the War Office and Ministry of Defence.

Adopting the same model, official government gazettes followed in the coming years in Edinburgh (1699) and Dublin (1706 – later The Belfast Gazette). All three, from 1889, were published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Today, The Gazette is published by The Stationary Office (TSO), on behalf of The National Archives (and is now online as well as in print).

Initially published only a couple of days a week, it is now published every weekday except on Bank Holidays.

Notable events published in The London Gazette include the Great Fire of London in 1665 (issue 85), the founding of the Bank of England in 1694 (issue 2982), the burial of Sir Isaac Newton in 1727 (issue 6569), the announcement of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 (issue 11690), the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo in a “Gazette Extraordinary” in 1815 (issue 17028), and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (Supplement 40020).

You can see The London Gazette today and back issues as well as to order commemorative editions, head to www.thegazette.co.uk.

St-Michael's-CornhillCredited as “the man who invented Christmas”, Victorian author Charles Dickens’ featured Christmas celebrations in many of his works – but none more so than in his famous story, A Christmas Carol.

Published 172 years ago this December, the five part morality tale centres on the miserly Londoner Ebenezer Scrooge who, following several ghostly visitations by the likes of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, becomes a changed man and recaptures the essence of what Christmas is all about.

The book – whose characters (said to have been partly based on people he knew in real life) also include the abused clerk Bob Cratchit and his ever positive youngest son, Tiny Tim – is based in London.

Among key locations mentioned in the book is Scrooge’s counting house, said to have been located in a courtyard off Cornhill (it’s been suggested this is Newman’s Court, thanks to a reference to a church tower, believed to be St Michael’s Cornhill – pictured), the home of Scrooge (it has been speculated this was located in Lime Street), and the home in Camden Town where the Cratchits celebrate their Christmas (perhaps based on one of Dickens’ childhood homes in Bayham Street). City of London institutions like the home of the Lord Mayor, Mansion House, and the Royal Exchange are also mentioned.

The book, which apparently only took Dickens six weeks to write while he was living at 1 Devonshire Terrace in Marylebone, was first published on 19th December, 1843, by London-based firm Chapman & Hall. Based at 186 Strand, they published many of Dickens’ works – everything from The Old Curiosity Shop to Martin Chuzzlewit – along with those of authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

A Christmas Carol‘s first print run of 6,000 sold out any Christmas Eve that same year and sales continued to be strong into the following year. Despite its warm reception by critics and popularity among the public, the book’s profits were somewhat disappointing for Dickens who had hoped to pay off his debts (he also lost out when he took on some pirates who printed their own version two months after its publication; having hauled them to court Dickens was apparently left to pay costs when they declared bankruptcy).

Dickens would later give some public readings of the book, most notably as a benefit for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children (his last public reading of the book took place at St James’s Hall in London on 15th March, 1870, just three months before his death).

The book, which has apparently never been out of print, went on to become something of a Christmas classic and has been adapted into various films, theatre productions, radio plays and TV shows (one of our favourites is The Muppet Christmas Carol, dating from 1992).

William-Wallace-big

This year marks the 710th anniversary of the execution of Scottish rebel William Wallace in Smithfield so we thought we’d take a quick look at the circumstances of that event – made famous in recent times through the movie Braveheart.

William-WallaceFor some eight years, Wallace had been a thorn in the side of the King Edward I, promoting active resistance to his rule in Scotland after Edward forced the abdication and usurption of the crown of John Balliol.

Following a crushing defeat at the Battle of Falkirk on 22nd July, 1298, however, Wallace went to France where he attempted to gain French support for rebellion in Scotland but the effort proved ultimately futile and Wallace, back in Britain but refusing to submit to English rule, remained on the run.

At least until he was captured on 5th August, 1305, by Sir John Monteith, who had been made Sheriff of Dumbarton by King Edward I, at Robroyston near Glasgow.

Taken to Carlisle, he was bound hand and foot before being taken south to London in chains.

Wallace’s trial took place on 23rd August that year at Westminster Hall and, despite his protestations that he couldn’t be guilty of treason having never sworn loyalty to the English Crown, a guilty verdict was handed down along with the sentence of a traitor’s death – being hung, drawn and quartered.

Taken to the Tower of London, Wallace was stripped naked and then strapped to a wooden hurdle which was dragged by two horses through the streets via Aldgate to The Elms at Smithfield where he was hanged on a gallows.

Cut down while yet living, he was disembowelled and castrated and his entrails burnt. Wallace was then decapitated and his body cut into quarters which were sent to Berwick, Newcastle, Stirling and Perth as a warning against treason. His tarred head, meanwhile, was put on a pike and set above London Bridge.

A memorial to Wallace can now be found on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital at West Smithfield (pictured – for more on that, see our earlier post here).

It was on 9th May, 2015, 800 years ago this year that, in the lead-up to the creation of the Magna Carta in June, King John issued a charter granting the City of London the right to freely elect its own mayor.

The charter, which was issued at the Temple – King John’s power base to the west of the City (for more on it, see our earlier post here), was a fairly blatant bid to keep the support of the city.

King-John-CharterKnown simply as the King John Charter, it stated that the barons of the city, “may choose to themselves every year a mayor, who to us may be faithful, discreet, and fit for government of the city, so as, when he shall be chosen, to be presented unto us, or our justice if we shall not be present”.

In return, the mayor was required to be presented to the monarch to take an oath of loyalty each year – a practice commemorated in the Lord Mayor’s Show each November.

The charter, which has a particularly good impression of the king’s seal, is currently on display in the City of London’s newly opened Heritage Gallery, located at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

The event was one of a series leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta in June. Only 10 days after King John issued the charter to the City of London, rebel barons, who have previously taken Bedford, marched on the city to demand their rights and arrived their before the Earl of Salisbury (whom John had ordered to occupy the city).

Aldgate was apparently opened to them by some supporters within the city and the forces of the rebel barons went on to attack the home of royalists as well as those of Jews along with a Jewish burial ground in Barbican – the latter because Jewish moneylenders had lent money to the king.

They later besieged the Tower of London and while they couldn’t take the fortress, their seizure of the city was enough to help force the king to open negotiations late in the month, asking the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langdon, on 27th May  to arrange truce (which, while it was apparently not observed terribly well, did help pave the path to the Magna Carta).

The exhibition at the Heritage Gallery runs until 4th June. For more information, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visiting-the-city/attractions-museums-and-galleries/guildhall-art-gallery-and-roman-amphitheatre/Pages/Heritage-Gallery.aspx.

PICTURE: City of London: London Metropolitan Archives

The annual Crufts dog show has been making headlines around the world recently (sadly not all for good reasons), so we thought it was a good chance to take a look back at where it all began.

While the event is this year being held in Birmingham, the first Cruft’s Show was actually held in London in the late 1800s.

Crufts-catalogueCharles Cruft – the show’s founder – had left college in 1876 and instead of joining the family’s jewellery business, had taken up employment in Holborn with James Spratt’s business selling ‘dog cakes’ (aka dog biscuits).

While he started off as an office boy, he was soon promoted to travelling salesman and he was soon travelling across Europe. So impressed were his customers that in 1878, just two years after leaving school, he was invited to organise the promotion of the canine section of the Paris Exhibition.

Eight years later in 1886, back in England, he took up the role of managing the Allied Terrier Club Show at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster.

The first show bearing the Crufts name – known then as ‘Cruft’s Great Dog Show’ – followed five years later in 1891 (although this was actually called Cruft’s Seventh Great Dog Show thanks to his involvement with the earlier shows).

Held at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington (now a Grade II-listed building) on 11th, 12th and 13th February, the show boasted 2,437 entries spanning 36 different dog breeds.

Among the entries in 1891 were six Pomeranians owned by Queen Victoria – one of them, Gena, placed equal first (apparently the judges didn’t want to mark down the monarch’s dogs!)

It’s not the only landmark Crufts event held in London. In 1948, with Charles Cruft having died 10 years earlier his widow Emma handed over control of the show to the Kennel Club. The first show under the club’s auspices was held at Olympia with 84 different breeds entered (there are now around 200 entered annually). In 1979 the show moved to Earl’s Court before eventually, in 1991, moving to Birmingham.

For more on Crufts, see www.crufts.org.uk

It was in 1265, 750 years ago this month, that a parliament convened by English rebel leader Simon de Montfort, took place in Westminster Hall (exterior pictured below).

The French-born De Montfort, who led a group of rebel barons, was riding high after defeating King Henry III at the Battle of Lewes on 14th May, 1264. While he ruled in the king’s name through a council – having captured both the king and his son Prince Edward, the monarch was no more than a figurehead. De Montfort was effectively the man in charge. Westminster-Hall

In a bid to solidify his hold on the country, he summoned not only the barons and clergy but knights representing counties to a parliament along with – for the first time – representatives from major towns and boroughs like York, Lincoln and the Cinque Ports (the representatives were known as burgesses).

It’s this latter move which led this three month-long parliament to be described as the first English parliament and which has led de Montfort to be described by some as the founder of the House of Commons.

Presided over by King Henry III, the parliament was held in Westminster Hall in London – a city loyal to de Montfort’s cause. It dealt with a range of political matters including the enforcement of a series of government reforms known as the Provisions of Westminster which had been aimed at strengthening baronial rights and the role of courts.

Prince Edward (later King Edward I) managed to escape from de Montfort’s clutches later in 1265 and led forces against de Montfort. The rebel leader was killed at the Battle of Evesham on 4th August, 1265.

The UK Parliament is marking the 750th anniversary of De Montfort’s Parliament with a series of events (along with the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta) – check out www.parliament.uk/2015 for more.

For some it sounds like a dream come true but what is known as the London Beer Flood of 17th October, 1814, was a very real tragedy, leaving eight dead in its wake.

PorterThe flood of more than a million litres of fermenting porter – a dark beer (pictured) – occurred when corrosion caused one of the metal hoops around a three storey high vat to give way inside the Horse Shoe Brewery.

The force of the vat’s collapse – which took place late in the afternoon – caused further vats to rupture and the resulting wave of beer reportedly stood as tall as 15 foot high as it smashed into neighbouring buildings.

Standing at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street in central London, the brewery was located in the midst of the St Giles Rookery – a overcrowded slum filled with flimsy structures. This meant the damage was considerable and while many buildings were at least partially damaged, the worst hit were a pair of homes which were apparently completely destroyed.

Among the dead were four women and a three-year-old boy who were attending a wake for a child in a nearby basement and a four-year-old girl and her mother who were having tea in their house.

While an enterprising watchman apparently charged voyeurs to see the ruins of the vat, it is believed that reports mobs ran amok getting drunk on the spilt beer have no basis in fact.

The brewers, Henry Meux & Co, were subsequently taken to court but, with the incident ruled an “Act of God”, no-one could be held accountable (in fact, the brewers were refunded duties they had paid on the lost beer). The brewery itself was finally demolished in 1922 and the Dominion Theatre now stands on the part of the site.

The nearby Holborn Whippet pub now commemorates the event with a special brew.

PICTURE: Michal Zacharzewski/www.freeimages.com

Tyburn-TreeThe site of public executions for hundreds of years, it’s generally accepted that at about 9am on 3rd November, 1783, John Austin became the last person to be hanged there (for more on the history of executions at Tyburn – and in particular the massive gallows known as the Tyburn Tree – see our previous post here).

Austin had been convicted of being a highwayman – specifically for inflicting “robbery with violence” upon labourer John Spicer, two weeks before during which Austin had attacked Spicer, beating and cutting him, “in a cruel manner”.

As he stood on the cart beneath the gallows (a mobile gallows had been in use since 1759 when the Elizabethan-era Tyburn Tree was dismantled), Austin’s last words were somewhat predictable – he requested that the crowd pray for his “departing soul”, that they would heed his example and that Jesus would have “mercy upon my poor soul”.

His death, it is said, was “hard”. As the cart was moved off, the halter around his neck apparently slipped “to the back part of his head” and instead of his neck being broken, Austin slowly choked to death.

The decision to cease executions at Tyburn (near where Marble Arch now stands) and move them to outside Newgate Prison was apparently due to complaints. These came from both City traders who felt the condemned person’s three mile procession from Newgate to Tyburn disrupted making money and the fashionable who sought to live in the city’s outlying western areas like Marylebone and who didn’t want to see the unruly mob that typically accompanied  outside their front doors. Such groups had long been lobbying for the practice to come to an end.

For more on the history of Tyburn see Robert Bard’s Tyburn: The Story of London’s Gallows.