London History Bulletin – February 15

February 15th, 1971 was D-Day. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

And you thought D-Day was June 6, 1944.

Well, that calls for a scolding. D-Day was June 6, 1944. But what about the D-Day that was February 15th, 1971? Shame on you for missing that one.

Never mind, a little remedial work here and you’re up to speed.

The February 15th, 1971 D-Day was the date of the decimalisation of British currency. It was goodbye shillings and florins and 240 pennies to the pound. 

It’s often insightful – not to say salutary – to see ourselves as foreigners see us.

So the French take on D-Day was we had entered the era of decimalisation “without enthusiasm.”

The London correspondent for Le Figaro added that the British young mastered this “childishly simple” system in no time at all but British adults, used to multiple division by 12s and 20s were finding the decimal system difficult.

France-soir’s London correspondent greeted the change-over with an obvious sigh of relief and explained to French readers the fiendish difficulties of pence, shillings, pounds, guineas and “even sovereigns”, which are worth “three guineas.” On behalf of millions of perplexed foreigners, she declared, “millions of baffled tourists today have their revenge on the British.”

A couple of personal memories. I’m indebted to decimalisation for my first encounter with British humour. It was my first day in London – this was 50 years ago. An American pal and I had gone to see a show. There were a couple of British blokes ahead of us in the ticket queue. One of them said, “how much are the tickets?” His friend said, “50 pence – ten shillings to you.” My friend Daniel translated. He said, “he’s affectionately teasing him that he’s slow on the uptake – two and a half years after decimalisation he still hasn’t figured it out.”

The wonderful King’s Head Pub and Theatre Club put up, for years, a last-ditch stand for the old money. You bought a pint – or a theatre ticket – the prices would be quoted in old money. It went on for years. It was like one of those lone Japanese soldiers holding out in the jungles of Guadacanal 30 years after World War II had ended. And I’m proud to say that last ditch stand was mounted by an American, Dan Crawford from Hoboken, New Jersey. He was the capo at the King’s Head. He was the most wonderful fringe theatre impresario. In his obit, the Times said he should have been knighted for his services to theatre. Mary was in a very successful musical at the King’s Head. Fearless Frank it was called. It was about the late Victorian roue and scoundrel Frank Harris. It opened at the same time Evita opened to vast hoopla in the West End. The Financial Times, bless it, in its review of Fearless Frank, said “the musical that’s just opened in the fringe theatre, the King’s Head on Upper Street in Islington is, bar none, the best musical in London. A very pointed reference to and indeed put-down of the high and mighty Evita. For weeks afterwards, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce were debouching fabulously wealthy City of London stock brokers and bankers outside the King’s Head. Acting on the Financial Times’ advice they’d come to see Mary in the best musical in London.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin. Emanating from – 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 accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won 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. See ya tomorrow.

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