Terminating with extreme prejudice in Victorian times

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good evening, London. It’s June 1st, 2024. Let’s get the London Calling show on the road by pinning up this London news story.

It changed the look of modern British architecture. It dominated the London skyline. Well, it’s place in the history of London architecture is presumably secure. But its other claim to fame – dominating the London skyline. Forget it.

I’m talking of course about the Gherkin. Yes, that’s right, the thrusting pickle in the City of London that looks like a suppository. It’s gradually – well, not very gradually, it’s only taken 10 years – it’s gradually been surrounded and walled off by upstarts, younger, taller modern buildings. At the moment there are just two vantage points along the river from which it can be seen. And those two locations are about to be curtained off as well. If the planners and developers get their way – and they’re on course to do so – any and all riverside views of the Gherkin will be kaput. The dildo will go the way of the dodo – it’ll be erased from the London skyline.

Today’s Random: well, there’s nothing for it but to get the Gherkin into perspective. It’s 180 metres high. The tallest man-made structure in the world is the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, in the UAE. It’s 828 metres high. That’s just over four and a half times the height of the Gherkin.

Ok, here’s the main course. Today’s Ongoing.

And for just a minute, a quick salute to childhood. As mobster Henry Hill says in Goodfellas, “It was a glorious time.”

It still is a glorious time. I happily admit I still have the ravenous curiosity of a child.

Maybe a little bit more discretionary – but not much – about going public with the stuff I wondered about. The historical stuff I wondered about.

The classic example, what did they use before toilet paper was invented. Well, sure enough, I found out. And that’s maybe a podcast one of these days.

But today, since the meteorological summer starts today, June 1st, and since they’re starting to buzz about – we’re going to do flies.

Easy to zap them today. Fly swatters, insecticide, we’ve got a pretty good anti-fly arsenal.

But what did they do about them in yesteryear? In Victorian times, for example?

Well, they had their own arsenal – pretty primitive compared to ours. But you make do with what you’ve got.

The Victorians did battle with flies – terminated with extreme prejudice – in three different ways. First, what they called arsenical paper. Imagine a sheet of paper about the size of a hardcover book. It was impregnated with arsenic. Put some water on a shallow plate, put the arsenical paper in the water, it attracts flies. And does for them. The kid in me – this is disgraceful but I can’t help it – would like to know how long the death throes were. And something I’ve never been able to figure out, if I were a fly buzzing about and I looked down and saw a landing zone that held 20 or so of my comrades that had clearly given up the ghost, I’d have second thoughts about putting down there; I’d give that party a miss. I suppose it’s fair to say that that’s one of the limitations of a brain the size of a pinpoint: you don’t put two and two together quite so readily.

The second method was widely employed in what today we’d call naff caffs. Cheap eating houses. Fit each table up with a carafe three-quarters full of well-sugared water. Tuck into the Victorian equivalent of fries and a burger and be entertained by the sight of dead and drowning flies. You sure you want to time travel? Sure you want to go back to Victorian London and go to a chop house for a hearty meal?

Those two take the bronze and silver medals respectively. The gold goes to the fly paper men.

Those mendicant men in their fly palanquines. Ok, best I could do. But it’s not bad. A palanquine is a litter for a stretched out passenger. A fly man was a walking advertisement for his wares. He was always topped to the north with a crumby old top hat. Wrapped round the top hat – stuck to it – was one of his fly papers. One of his fly papers speckled with hundreds of casualties – dead and dying flies – firmly affixed to it. In effect glued to it. Attracted to the evil concoction the fly man had lathered the paper with, the flies had touched down for a refreshing swig and then couldn’t disengage and get airborne. The airstrip they’d landed on wasn’t just nutritious, it was the Victorian equivalent of superglue. So, yes, the flyman’s top hat was a kind of palanquine. A litter for hundreds of stretched out – and stressed out – passengers. That hat – bestrewn with hundreds of corpses and their fatally wounded fellows – was a walking battlefield. And in case you’re wondering what the olfactory siren song was, the secret sauce, the sticky sauce was a vile concoction of resin, black treacle, glue and oil. Irresistible.


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

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:

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 (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

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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