“Lions in the cockpit” – What Happened in London on July 15th, 1966

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

We have three lions in the cockpit.

All right, the control tower operator replied, put them in your tank.

Ok, the control tower in question was in Brussels but this one counts because the plane, a Swiss chartered cargo jet, was flying from Frankfurt to London. It took several minutes to convince the Brussels Control Tower the story was true. The pilot, understandably enough, was seeking permission to make an emergency landing. The lion cage was at the back of the fuselage. The lions got out. The pilot heard sniffing behind him. When he looked over his shoulder he saw two lions coming toward him. When the plane came in to land two of the three lions, Olaf and Percy, got aggressive. The co-pilot grabbed a hatchet to fend them off. He was badly scratched in the leg. Some landing, some flight, some passengers.

For the record, Percy and Olaf and their better-behaved companion were on their way to Lord Bath’s zoo at Longleat.

Anyway, that’s our approach and landing to our July day in question, July 15th, 1966.

The big story was of course the World Cup.

All eyes that day were on Liverpool, where Brazil beat Hungary 2-nil. Both goals were free kicks, one of them scored by the GOAT – to use that fine American acronym – the Greatest Of All Time – Pele.

Other news – well, it was the summer of the mini-skirt and push-button telephones and LBJ in the White House and Harold Wilson in Number 10 Downing Street. And, yes, the monstrous Viet Nam War.

Nothing about the World Cup on the front page of the Times, though. It led with financial news. Bad financial news for this country. New Pressure on the Pound – Wave of Selling on the Stock Markets.

The other big, front-page story was American. The headline klaxoned National Guard called out in Chicago.

Followed by – and this kind of language would not be used today – 30 Negroes held on suspicion of ‘plotting treason.’

And that connects – after a fashion – with the London story I want to focus on. But I’m going to save that for last. Let’s find out a bit more about what was going on in London on this July day in 1966.

675 cases of gin were stolen in Kennington.

A federation of thousands of shops gave a thumbs down to credit cards. They said, we’re not accepting them. Talk about the commercial equivalent of Custer’s Last Stand.

Kidnap bandits in Marylebone got £2,500.

And London was agog at an American artist who paints entirely with a spray gun.

There were Nazi songs and fights at a bookshop in Kennington.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra won its fight to retain the prefix ‘royal’.

Telephone subscribers in the Chiswick area had a losing battle on their hands. They were told they would have to wait 18 months for connexion – the exchange had reached saturation point.

There was a whinge about British Rail’s time-pieces. The Times thundered “If the clocks at King’s Cross show 6 pm it is all Lombard Street to a China orange that the one above St Pancras station across the road will register something different.” Love that expression ‘all Lombard Street to a China orange.’ And there was a report on

“a comprehensive exhibition of the stamps and postal history of Britain from 1661 to the present time that opened today, July 15th, 1966 in the crypt of Guildhall. 1661 because that was when Henry Bishop introduced the first postal marking. Singing the exhibition’s praises, the Times said, ‘it’s not just postal history, it’s social history.’

And there was a wonderful piece on firefighting equipment.

A piece that Illustrates perfectly why this podcast series is meat and drink to me. I’m learning things. This detail, for example, “Fire brigades existed in ancient Rome but not until 1698 do we hear of firemen in England, when the Hand-in-Hand, a London insurance office, appointed firemen from among the Thames watermen. Since the thirteenth century, Thames watermen have come under control the Watermen’s Company, whose delightful eighteenth-century hall, with pilastered facade, in St Mary-at-Hill, contains many fascinating relics. Early in the eighteenth century, individual insurance companies began forming their own brigades, with their own fire manuals and other equipment. They marked the buildings which they insured with their fire marks or fire plates, at first of moulded lead, later of stamped metal blazoned in colours with their crests or marks. ‘The Fire Mark Circle’ is the society for collectors of these attractive items. At first the companies only fought fires in buildings bearing their marks, but in 1832 the London Fire-Engines establishment was formed by an amalgamation of 30 insurance companies.

Well, I’ll definitely come back to this one. It’s a gold mine of information about early firefighting equipment, all the way back to the early 14th century. Stay tuned.

And that brings us to a brave man, a London hero: Asquith Camile Xavier. Mr Xavier was 45 years old. He was born in Dominica, in the Windward Islands, in the British West Indies. He emigrated to Britain in 1958. He’d been talked into coming over by British Railways recruiters. He began work at Marylebone Station the day after his arrival. He worked first as a carriage cleaner and a porter. In the Spring of 1959 he was promoted to guard. Opportunities were restricted at Marylebone. Several mainline services had been closed and the workforce cut. But there were opportunities – new openings – at Euston Station, thanks to the electrification of the west coast main line.

Mr Xavier applied for a job as a guard. He was turned down because of the colour of his skin. They were blunt about it. Asquith Xavier was told the Local Department Committee (LDC) of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) at Euston was ‘not prepared to accept on promotion the transfer of coloured staff to Euston.’ Asquith Xavier appealed the vile decision. Enter a second hero. James Prendergast, the Assistant Secretary of the NUR’s North West London District Council. He appealed to the union’s national leadership. He got no response from the national leadership. After six weeks he went to the press. The Euston colour bar—and the apparent connivance of both local management and men in its operation—received critical coverage in much of the national daily press in July 1966. Questions were raised in parliament. That did the trick. On July 15th, 1966 managers at Euston Station overturned the ban on black workers. That didn’t end the vileness. Asquith Xavier received anonymous letters warning that ‘when you get to Euston you will wish you had never come.’ Letters like that were the least of it. Mr. Xavier was threatened with having his throat cut. Vile. Cowardly. Hideous. Unspeakable. Pick your adjective. Asquith Xavier was a brave man. He reported to work at Euston on August 15th. The threats against his person weren’t just cowardly and vile, they were hollow. As for the people running the show, although they were, admittedly, hesitant, indeed frightened and timid, the powers that be did the right thing. Not least because they were even more afraid of what was going on on the other side of the Atlantic. The racial violence that the United States was convulsed with in the mid-sixties.

The minister of state, Alice Bacon, warned ‘Unless we can ensure that coloured people, especially those born and educated here, are able to get the work and the promotion to supervisory positions to which their qualifications entitle them, we may well find ourselves facing all the implications of an American-type situation in which an indigenous minority group is discriminated against solely on grounds of colour.’ At Euston station there’s a plaque paying tribute to Asquith Camile Xavier. You might look for it. It’s the British equivalent of the commemorative plaque that marks the spot on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Ala., where Rosa Parks waited for the bus that changed history.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely –

to front our walks with distinguished


By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs,

Oscar winners (people who’ve won

the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)… well,

you get the idea. As that travel writer

famously put it, “if this were a golf

tournament, every name on the

Leader Board would be a London

Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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