London History Bulletin – January 29

Sex, birth, scandal and possibly death – the stuff of the London History Bulletin for January 29th


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Amid all the usual, conventional, forelock-tugging hoopla surrounding the birth of Prince George a few years ago, the satirical magazine Private Eye headlined the story, “Woman Gives Birth.” Very Private Eye, that. It was its way of breaking step, cocking a snook, taking the mickey, saying, ‘gimme a break, c’mon, get real people.’ That’s one pennant run up the flag pole of the January 29th London History Bulletin. Another one is a piece of advice I was given by a grizzled old veteran guide right after I started guiding 43 years ago. It was the best piece of advice I was ever given. He said, “if you see their eyes start to glaze over, just talk about sex or death and you’ll have them back instantly.” And the corollary of that is “talk about sex and death and it doubles the impact.”

And sure enough we’ve got a woman gives birth tale that comes accompanied with sex and possibly death for today’s – the January 29th – London History Bulletin.

It’s January 29th, 1801. The location is a house at 23 Piccadilly. And ho hum, a woman gives birth. 

Big deal, right. 

Changes it though, when you up the ante by saying it was a married woman and the father of the child wasn’t the woman’s husband. And for good measure add that the father of the child was the greatest naval hero in the history of this sea-faring nature. That he only had one arm and one eye. How prurient are those physical details, especially the one-arm business. Everybody will have wondered about the physical act of their love-making. And it doesn’t stop there. The three of them – cuckolded husband, wife and her one-armed naval hero lover were all living together under the same roof. The naval hero had left his wife’s lodgings – their marriage finally ended – and moved in with hi heavily pregnant lover and her husband. It’s almost irresistible, isn’t it. The Private Eye of the day was the output of some of the most gifted caricaturists in this country’s long and illustrious canter in that vicious, cocking a snook art form. Especially James Gillray. His caricatures showed Admiral Nelson – yes, it was he –  as a seducer, Sir William Hamilton (he was the elderly husband) as a cuckold, and his wife, the woman in question, Emma Hamilton, as an obese nymphomaniac.

So, plenty of sex to the woman gives birth cocked snook. Zero chance of any eyes being glazed over there. But you top up the tale with a dash of death. Emma Hamilton gave birth to twins. One of whom is believed to have died and may have been stillborn.

Or – this gets even more sensational – it may have been a rumoured death. There’s been a school of thought – 220 years later historians are still debating the matter – there’s been a school of thought that both of those baby girls were healthy, that Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, could only cope with one newborn, and she sent the other one to a foundling hospital in Holborn. I think it’s nonsense. But I’m not every historian. There are historians who hold out for the verity of the she dispatched the other baby girl to a foundling hospital rumour. And that to the mix and not only were eyes not glazed over in 1801 – they’re not even glazed over in 2023. The hares that one starts. If it’s true, What a Sophie’s Choice moment that was for the glamorous Mrs Hamilton. And what happened to the foundling hospital infant? It’s arresting stuff. Anyway, the next time you’re out Piccadilly way, maybe cast your mind back to what happened there on January 29th, 1801. I’ll make a prediction: you won’t be able to not cast your mind back to that drama. That’s the impact sex and death – rumoured or otherwise – has on glazed eyes.

And shall we make this one a gallimaufry? How about a bit more on the circus show of the Thai language – the wonders of it. You’ve listened to either or both of the two podcasts that preceded this one you’ll know about the operational character of word creation in Thai. So for today’s entry we have the Thai word for Zebra. It’s made up of horse plus stripe. Marry the Thai word for horse to the Thai word for stripe and of course you’ve got zebra.

And we can make this even more a gallimaufry with a quick announcement. London Walks guides, they’re an extremely talented, creative bunch of people. 

And that’s by way of directing your gaze toward top-drawer Blue Badge guide Rick Jones’ new walk The Rugby Tour. Subtitled To Accompany the Six Nations Tournament. It’s got an anniversary. Rick’s produced it because of the anniversary. It’s the bicentenary of the football match when William Webb Ellis, a scholar at Rugby School, ‘with a fine disregard for the rules, picked up the ball and ran with it’, thereby creating the new game. It starts on February 3rd at 2 pm from Temple Underground Station. There’ll be five more bites at the cherry. On February 17th, February 24th, March 3rd, March 10th and March 17th. All at 2 pm. From Temple Tube. Just put rugby tour into the little search engine on

And to describe Rick Jones as a top drawer Blue Badge guide doesn’t begin to do him justice. Rick Jones is the distinguished London arts critic, Secretary of the Critics Circle, etc. And he’s got form, Rugby-wise. He played one match – as he laughingly admits – one match only for Harlequin, the top flight professional rugby union club. If you’re shaking your head in wonder and murmuring “these high powered guides, how does London Walks do it?” Well, you should be.

And it’s our secret how we do it. A secret that I reveal toward the end of this podcast.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 29th. 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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