London History Bulletin – January 1

An important – and intriguing – piece of London infrastructure pitched up on January 1, 1864. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

January 1st – it’s beginnings, isn’t it.

It’s 160 years later – well, 159, it was New Year’s Day 1864 – and all this is ancient history, completely forgotten. Southwark Street’s taken for granted. It’s been there forever. Or so it seems.

But of course it hasn’t been. 160 years ago it wasn’t there. And then it was there. A New Year’s Day present for Londoners. And all things considered, pretty useful, pretty welcome. After all, it was the missing link between Blackfriars Road to the west and Borough High Street and London Bridge station to the east. Before Southwark Street pitched up Londoners coming over Blackfriars Bridge and wanting to get to London Bridge station had to vector all the way down to where Blackfriars Road met Borough High and then vector back up Borough High Street to the station. It was jolly inconvenient. A model-piece of road making was how the Telegraph described it.

Now look, it was just a piece of infrastructure – it wasn’t sensational the way a major disaster is – you know, the old newspaper apophthegm, 

“if it bleeds it leads” – but don’t gainsay infrastructure. Well-designed infrastructure is the difference maker, it doesn’t just make a city efficient, it makes it liveable. 

But even if you take an infrastructure is for engineers attitude, there are a couple of choice takeaways to the Southwark Street tale. It was the first street created under the aegis of the Metropolitan Board of Works. I go there I always pay the little thought toll. In the jukebox of my mind I put on that briefest of records, The Metropolitan Board of Works did this.

There’s mileage – the mileage of understanding – to be had from getting the card called the Metropolitan Board of Works into play. My riff usually runs – this place (Greater London) is ungovernable. In the last century and a half it’s had four different forms of local government: the Metropolitan Board of Works, the London County Council, the GLC (the Greater London Council) and what we’ve got today, the GLA, the Greater London Authority. To get that into perspective, you might like to bear in mind that in that same period of time, New York City has had just one form of local government.

So that’s one takeaway.

The other – and this intrigues me – they didn’t just push a street through from Borough High Street to Blackfriars Road, under that new street they built a 6-foot high tunnel underneath it. And the reason for that? In the words of the Telegraph, the subway has been made with the purpose of removing all necessity of disturbance to the thoroughfare in the not unfrequent event of anything going wrong with the gas, or the water, or the drainage, or the underground wires of the telegraph. They would never have to tear up the street to get down there and make the repairs. The work would be carried out from the tunnel. How cool is that? I had no idea. And now what I’m chomping at the bit to know is, is the tunnel still there?

The Telegraph was certainly taken with it. It said, “this subterranean promenade has the charm of novelty as well as retirement from the commonplace bustle above ground. 

And, so, yes, ringing the changes when I’m down that way, I’m always wondering, “hey subway promenade, are you still down there?”

Final note, your appreciation of London – your understanding of it – is always enriched if you can, at least to some extent, see it through the eyes of those who lived here long before we got the tap on shoulder to have our turn on the dance floor. 

In relation to Southwark Street – the Metropolitan Board of Works’ very first street – the Telegraph tells it like it was: “supposing the oldest inhabitant of the neighbourhood to have been taking a two years’ run in foreign parts, and to have been brought back blindfold, he would, on having his vision freed, be puzzled exceedingly in the endeavour to make out where he was. 

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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