Sin City London

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time. Streets ahead.

PRO – the acronym that’s become the SOP – Standard Operating Procedure – for the London Walks podcast. PRO. P for Pin. The news story that I pin up to get the show on the road. R for Random – Random a quirky factoid that’s caught my fancy. And O for Ongoing.The main order of business – London. London today, yesterday, tomorrow, forever.

So our pin today, February 16th, our news story, has to be the by-election results. Crushing defeats for the Conservatives in what had been safe seats for them. Seats that in bygone days the opposition wouldn’t have deemed target seats because they were no-hopers for them, the opposition.

Ok, now let’s do a quick UK Politics 101 lesson for any Americans who are listening. The lovely lady in Fort Worth, Texas, for example, who told me she listens to the London Walks podcast when she’s doing the housework.

And let’s introduce this with a snatch of dialogue.

Goes like this.

“Where y’all from?” asked a teenage student in St Louis, Missouri.


“Oh, ya.” A moment’s hesitation, then: “Isn’t that that itsy-bitsy little country – near France?”

“What do you know about it?”

“Let me think. Buckingham. Buckingham something.”

Then, triumphantly: “Buckingham Palace.”

Think about that for a minute. Just over a century ago this was the premier country in the world. Presided over the largest empire the world had ever known. A century and change later it’s a small country that’s barely on the radar of a young American from the Midwest.

I mention that because I suspect a lot of foreigners know precious little about the political set-up in this country. So here’s Politics 101. It’s popularly known as the First Past the Post System. The idiom is from horse racing. The horse that crosses the finish line first – that passes the post first – wins the race.

Now if there are ten horses in the race – ten candidates vying to win the election – the Conservative candidate, for example, might get less than half of the votes. Get, say, 43 percent of the vote. But he or she is still elected because the 57 percent majority is divided between nine other candidates. 43 percent – even though it’s a minority of the votes – is more votes than any other candidate got. It’s first past the post. In a lot of other countries, there are two votes. In the preliminary election there might be ten candidates. That first election effectively sifts and winnows. There’ll be a second election – a run-off election – between the two candidates who got the most votes. The candidates who came first and second in the first vote. And in that second election, the 57 percent majority, given a choice between the conservative who polled 43 percent in the first election and the opposition candidate who led the rest of the pack, might well, in the main, vote for the opposition candidate. It’s called proportional representation. And it guarantees that the candidate who got a majority of the votes wins the seat. The British system makes for very strong governments that were often swept into office on the strength of a minority vote. 43 percent of the popular leading to, for example, an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons.

Well, what’s happened here – in addition to the Conservative party having been in the driver’s seat so long that they’ve pretty much worn out their welcome – what’s happened here is that a new, very right-wing party has come out of the woodwork. And while they’re only getting maybe ten percent of the vote, that’s a significant number, because most of those votes have been wrested from the Conservative party. So the Conservatives are getting a taste – a very strong taste – of what has derailed the opposition for many years. Before they just had a minority of the electorate voting for them. But it was a unified minority. That’s no longer the case. This new right-wing party – the Reform Party – has shredded that large unified minority.

We’ll see how it all comes out in the wash – the General Election and all of that – but it’s certainly interesting, even to someone like me, who for the most part is pretty apolitical.

Nobody’s mentioned this – I keep wondering when it’s going to break the surface – but it seems to me entirely possible that if things continue on this rail the Conservative Party could go the way of the Whigs. The Whigs were the other important political party in the nineteenth century. And they just disappeared. Well, if that 43 percent of the electorate that’s always been a lock for the Conservatives is now going to be run through a slicing machine that’ll divide that block into 33 percent for the traditional Conservative Party and 10 percent for the upstart, the Reform Party, it’s entirely possible that what’s been almost a birthright for the Conservatives – namely winning election after election – could be no more. Tempted to say hoist by their own petard. Namely the peculiarities of the UK’s electoral system, which up until now has been the Conservatives’ 12th man, to use that American football idiom. And if the traditional Conservative party is unelectable for a generation or more, well, could it go the way of the Whig Party?

Ok, let’s move on to today’s Random. I was just listening to Radio 4, the daily thought for the day. I don’t know who he was but the Thought for the Day invitee for today began his little talk by saying, “If you can see the hills, it’s going to rain. If you can’t see them, it’s already raining.”

It’s that same stuck record. Half a century I’ve been here and I cannot for the life of me figure this one out. How is it that these Brits have managed to persuade themselves that it’s always raining here. And they’re always banging on about it’s always raining. Even though it almost never rains. At least in London.

I’ve finally cracked under the strain. Had my fill. Decided to try to do the impossible. Slay this dragon. I’ve girded my loins and plunged into the battle. The Lone Ranger, trying to hack my way through this unending cultural labyrinth to have at the Minotaur. My opening salvo was a podcast about the London Weather. How wrong-headed the nonstop, wall-to-wall doom and gloom is about the London weather, how it’s always raining. When in fact it almost never rains. It looks like it’s going to rain but it rarely does. To use that choice Antip and British vulgarism, dealing with this climate is a piece of piss.

Anyway, I’ve just opened a second front. When people book a London Walk there’s a London Weather Tutorial on the confirmation notice they receive. It goes like this:

London is one of the driest cities on earth. Rome, Rhodes, Jerusalem, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Cordoba, Balboa get more rainfall than London. (The rain in London falls mainly in Spain. Ok, Sevilla gets a teensy bit less rain than London. The take on Sevilla and rain is “rainfall in Sevilla isn’t abundant and it’s concentrated. In Sevilla (and North America) rain = rain. In London rain = damp; or at worst, a piffling mizzle. Bottom line: don’t let the rain bogeyman call the shots. He’s all hat and no cattle. Ok, we get the occasional de minimus mizzle but it’s easily seen off with a brolly.

And there, in one short paragraph, you have the reason why in 44 years of guiding London Walks, I’ve never once taken an umbrella. It doesn’t rain on my walks.

And so we move on to the Ongoing. PRO, P for Pin, R for Random, O for Ongoing. Ongoing being the main course – our continuing engagement with London.

A great London Walk is like an heirloom watch. They might require the odd tweak over time. Or maybe they don’t require it, but they get it. That’s as natural as day following night. It’s natural because you keep learning more about London.

So the great London Walk that’s getting a tweak – at least when I guide it – is Friday’s Old Palace Quarter Walk.

Please give a warm welcome to Mother Needham. For 44 years she wasn’t in the cast list of the Old Palace Quarter walk. She is now. Mother Needham was the most famous bawd – brothel keeper – in London history. And I’ve just discovered that her most celebrated brothel was at Park Place, off St James’s Street. That was in the 1720s. And what a discovery that was. Location, location, location. Park Place is just up from St James’s Palace. It’s just over the way from White’s, the oldest and most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London. Today Park Place couldn’t be more sedate, genteel and refined. It’s the home of the Royal Overseas League and a very lah dee dah restaurant and Pratt’s, a younger but also very exclusive club. Pratt’s will be my obverse. I’ll explain that in a minute. Pratt’s is currently owned by William Cavendish, the Earl of Burlington. And the thing to know about Pratt’s is that all its male staff members are referred to as George. That’s to avoid confusion. But Pratt’s – well, not Pratt’s but parts of the building it’s housed in – was there when Mother Needham was there. It’s heritage listed, that building. And it’s dripping heritage. The vintage parts of the building date back to the 16th century. It was owned for a time by the Duke of Devonshire.

Anyway, the fun question – well, one fun question – is, do any of the present refined, genteel occupants have even the foggiest that their street once houses the most notorious brothel in London history?

And you can see why Mother Needham set up shop there. The location couldn’t have been more high-end. There was money there. And lots of upper-class randy young bucks. Young and not so young.

We’re going to meet Mother Needham when I guide that walk because she figures prominently in the first plate of William Hogarth’s series of satirical etchings, The Harlot’s Progress. She can be seen greeting the lovely, innocent, fresh young country girl, Moll Hackabout, who’s just arrived in London. Innocent but not for long when Mother Needham leads her astray. In which connection, that surname – Needham. It’s spelled N-e-e-d-h-a-m – need ham – but pronounced Needem. It’s the right name, isn’t it. Need ‘em. Need them. Notorious bawd and procuress that she was, Mother Needham needed a constant supply of attractive fresh young female flesh for her enterprise.

But the spelling – h-a-m – ham is also right because the girls were just so many pieces of meat.

Anyway, my walkers will be meeting, will be face to face with Mother Needham, because I’ll show them a reproduction of that famous Hogarth plate. And for the obverse side, well back to Pratt’s Club for a second. Turns out the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster was a member and his cartoons often featured the armchair and stuffed fish in the member’s lounge. So, yes, thanks to Osbert Lancaster’s cartoons my walkers will get a glimpse behind the closed doors of Pratt’s. Pratt’s and the Royal Overseas League and the most notorious bawd in Sin City, that’s a heady mix.

But let’s close this out with two more discoveries. It’s just a cameo role Mother Needham gets on that walk. A quick hello and a quick goodbye. Hogarth immortalised her in that first plate of A Harlot’s Progress but she didn’t live to see that happen. Hogarth hadn’t finished the plate when she died on May 3rd, 1731. I’d be the last one to be judgmental but maybe her death – well,  she had it coming. She was a nasty piece of work. She was ruthless with the girls who worked for her. They were forced to hire their dresses from her and if they were unable to pay the exorbitant rentals, she would force them to take more customers or have them committed to debtors’ prison until they came across. Once the women were too old or too ill to attract customers she threw them out. She’d be friendly and inviting and engaging when she met the newly arrived innocent young country girls but once she got them under her roof the mask came off – picture a nasty 18th-century female version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, “Here’s Jenny.”

Basically, her vicious character and vile practices caught up with her. Park Place neighbours were complaining – I’m quoting here – “there’s a notorious disorderly house in our neighbourhood.”

Mother Needham was arrested and locked up. She was convicted of keeping a disorderly house; she was fined; and sentenced to stand twice in the pillory. On April 30th she was taken to the pillory for the first time. Interestingly enough, the pillory chosen for her was near Park Place. That’s another London character trait: topographical punishment. A huge crowd gathered to see her pilloried. She was pelted so furiously it was thought she would die before her punishment was completed. In fact, there was one fatality. The crowd was so large that one boy fell on an iron fencing rail while trying to get a better look and was killed.

It’s very interesting that she was pilloried. That was the punishment that was normally reserved for shopkeepers and tradesmen who’d engaged in fraudulent practices or bilked or cheated their customers. Well, after a fashion, Mother Needham was engaged in trade and she was certainly fraudulent in many important respects so I suppose it stood to reason that she’d be pilloried. Anyway, round one of her punishment was so severe that she expressed great fear at having to go through it again. And in fact, she died the day before she was scheduled to have to face the London mob venting its fury on her, pelting her with

with rotten food, mud, offal, dead animals, and animal excrement in the second installment of her pillory sentence.

But the story doesn’t quite end there.

There’s one more big red chip I can push out onto the gaming table here. Look closely at the Hogarth engraving. Do you see him? There he is, lounging in the door behind Mother Needham. That’s her most famous customer. Francis Charteris. He was known as the Rape-Master General.

And sure enough, he’s the ancestor of Martin Charteris, Queen Elizabeth’s longest-serving and favourite private secretary. Actually, he was her private secretary when she was Princess Elizabeth. And you all know him because he was the person who in Kenya broke the news to the Princess that her father George VI had died and she was queen.

So the Queen’s favourite private secretary’s ancestor was the Rape-Master General, Mother Needham’s best customer. London Walks, it’s all about making connections.

You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.m

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:

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 a 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.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks Aristocracy of Talent – its All-Star team of guides – includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (including a Cambridge University paleontologist),

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre 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 walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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