London History Bulletin – February 16

The February 16th London History Bulletin takes a look at Belisha Beacons.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The rule of thumb in London is the words – the names – outlive the thing itself.

That expression, “rule of thumb”, is a perfect case in point. We get the expression from an Elizabethan law that said if a man was going to beat his wife with a stick the stick couldn’t be wider than the width of his thumb. Courtship advice for women c. 1590, ask to see his thumbs before you do anything else.

But seriously, yes, names outlive the physical thing. Place names especially. Knightsbridge, for example. The bridge is long gone. The knights are long gone. The name lives on. Ditto Piccadilly. When was the last time you saw a Piccadill? But the name is likely to be around as long as London is. You go on the Old Palace Quarter walk, if the guide doesn’t explain that name, ask them to.

Similarly, Ludgate. And Newgate. Bishopsgate, etc. The gates are long gone the names live on. 

In this instance though, the name is fading, pretty much gone now. The thing lives on.

Belisha Beacons. There’s our name.

The beacons are still very much with us. The name recedes ever further into the past. 

So what’s a Belisha Beacon?

Think of pedestrian crossings. They’re called Zebra crossings because they’re marked with black and white stripes. The crossing itself – those black-and-white stripes – that’s its horizontal plane. But Zebra crossings also have a vertical. It’s that flashing, amber-coloured globe lamp atop the black-and-white striped pole – striped like a zebra – that stands on either side of the zebra crossing.

And that flashing amber-coloured globe lamp is called a Belisha Beacon. 

It’s easy to understand why it’s there. The zebra markings on the street won’t be visible to the motorist until he’s almost at the crossing. But he can see that flashing globe lamp way up ahead. And zebra-striping the pole that also proclaims, “there’s a zebra crossing here, look out for pedestrians.”

So why the name and why today, February 16th?

The alliteration will of course have been a factor. Belisha-Beacons. Those two letter Bs – two plosives – they’re the auditory equivalent of two flashes of that amber lamp.

The main reason though is that the Belisha Beacons were named after Leslie Hore Belisha, the Minister of Transport, who, in 1934, thought they’d be a good idea for pedestrian crossings and made them happen.

And today because Leslie Hore Belisha died on this day in 1957. He died in Rheims, where he was leading a British parliamentary delegation. 

He was a consummate Londoner. His story was remarkable in so many respects. I’m thinking his biography might get a podcast one day, perhaps on his birthday. He was born on September 7th, 1893. 

But maybe just one story to give you a bit of the tang of the man. Perhaps I should say boy. Because when he was a schoolboy he had his sights set on a political career. To which end, he memorised many of the speeches of the great 18th-century political orator Edmund Burke and he would declaim them in preparation for Westminster duty at the despatch box.

And now it’s announcement time. 

I’ve hit the wall. This is the 418th consecutive Today in London History podcast I’ve put out. The series started on December 26th, 2021. And here we are more than halfway through February 2023. And as of today, I’m getting out of the straitjacket. Going forward I’m not going to do one of these without fail every single day. From now on they’ll be intermittent. I’ll do them according to the mood I’m in and the other irons I’ve got in the fire on any given day – rather than their schedule being dictated to by this relentless diurnal rhythm. 

And in any case there are other London matters I want to podcast that don’t always lend themselves to the “on this day” formula. 

So we’ll see what tomorrow brings. Who knows, maybe something from Kensington, where I’m guiding this afternoon. 

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for February 16th. 

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 next time.

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