The Bomb and What Happened in London on July 16th, 1945

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s a textbook example of what this podcast series is all about.

Our modus operandi, our springboard, is the biggest story of the day, wherever it’s taking place. And then from that we head to London, see what was going on in London on that same day.

Our date is July 16th, 1945. The two big stories of the day are happening a long way from London.

In New Mexico the world enters the atomic age. The first atom bomb is detonated on July 16th, 1945 at a desert site not far from the Los Alamos laboratory where it was built.

For the record, Britain was a junior partner in that project. One of the important scientists was the English mathematical physicist William George Penney. Penney was an authority on blast waves. One of his first tasks at Los Alamos had been to give a lecture to his fellow boffins on the science of bomb damage. Rudolf Peirels, a German-born British physicist, recalled the occasion. “His presentation was in a scientific, matter-of-fact style, with his usual brightly smiling face; many of the Americans had not been exposed to such a detailed and realistic discussion of casualties and he was nicknamed ‘the smiling killer.’”

Less than a month later Penney was on a plane that shadowed the mission to Nagasaki. He described watching the city disappear in dust and smoke. “All of us were in a state of emotional shock. We realised that a new age had begun and that possibly we had all made some contribution to raising a monster that would consume us all.”

None of those tremors of that first ever atom bomb blast reached as far as London on that same day.

London had other bomb blasts to deal with.

Much of the news was about how the city – and the country – was licking its wounds, beginning the long slow progress of healing and reconstruction.

So for example, The News Chronicle reported on the progress being made on the restoration of the House of Commons. It ran a photograph, taken on July 16th, 1945, that showed the great walls of the House of Commons, which had been destroyed in an air raid on May 10th, 1941. The News Chronicle photograph showed the still-standing walls of the Mother of Parliaments being demolished and the site cleared for the reconstruction of the House.

The House of Commons wasn’t the only house that was in a bad way. There was an acute housing shortage caused by the thousands of tons of bombs that had been dropped on London – and elsewhere – during the war. There were many adverse consequences of that, one of which was serious social tensions and enmity.

In a word, profiteering and what it gave rise to.

A union official for railwaymen railed at the haves. In a speech to his fellow members on July 16th, he said, “the country reeks with slumdom. In their mad race for wealth the owners of land and the big industrialists have shown a criminal disregard for the well-being of people. Many owners of property have taken advantage of the plight of the homeless and the bombed-out people to raise rents to a disgusting degree so that wages which should be spent on food and clothing are going on swollen rents.”

And hardship and shortages – well, that creates what social scientists call a behavioural sink. An instance that was reported on that July day in 1945: Bent Docklands workers were stealing parcels that were on their way to soldiers in the Far East. The newspaper story of the day was about the police crackdown that had just got underway. A voice from the ranks who’d just returned from Burma said, ‘The docklands thieves are more slimy than the snakes we have out in the jungle and they should be dealt with the same way.”

And yet more news about the stricken city and its efforts to get back to its feet. One of the papers reported, “Demobilisation of builders, underground miners, teachers, fish trades workers, policemen and industrial specialists started on this day [July 16th 1945]. And with it a Ministry of Labour campaign to release within the next three months every Service man and woman considered vital to reconstruction.”

All of that is pretty dogged. It’s hardly make-your-day stuff.

But there was one ‘reconstruction’ item that must have brought a bit of cheer.

It was summed up in a Times headline: Golf Begins Again. We learn from the Times story that in just over a week the country would be treated to the first proper, professional golf tournament since the war began.

There had been a few exhibition matches during the war but they were a poor second to the real thing. The Times quoted golfing great Bobby Jones, “there is golf and tournament golf.” Well, tournament golf was just up ahead for war-torn Britain.

It’s fate and the accident of birth, isn’t it. Drawing straws. What was just up ahead for this country was a professional golf tournament. What was just up ahead for Hiroshima and Nagasaki was… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

There was one other tiny story in the Chronicle but I’m censoring it. It was beyond cruel, beyond horrifying. I can’t bring myself to set it out here. I suppose if someone wants to make its acquaintance, you can email me at London Walks.

Now as it happens, there was one other big international story that day. The coverage of which tellingly spoke – like just about everything else in the papers that day – tellingly spoke to how hard times were here, how badly wounded this country was.

On July 16th Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman and their delegations arrived in Potsdam for the Big Three series of meetings that would decide the destinies of Europe for years to come. The third party of the Big Three – Joseph Stalin was already in Potsdam, awaiting their arrival.

But the single most telling thing about the coverage was the detailed reports of the provisions that were being put in place for the summit.

The papers regaled – if regaled’s the word – their readers with a catalogue of fresh fruit, melons, and choice steaks. A vast drinks cupboard of whisky, gin, bourbon, vodka, Moselle and Rhine wines. Tales of Linen, antique silver and fine glassware. Of 20 lawnmowers, 100 ice tongs, 150 alarm clocks, 10,000 sheets, 100 cases of soap, an ice plant solely for icing drinks.

It’s almost Oliver Twist. Hungry Britons – just about getting by on porridge and old clothes – reading about the wonders of those kitchens in Potsdam, the groaning tables at which Churchill and Truman and Stalin and their accompanying delegations would be feasting.

It’s an Oliver Twist moment, a “please sir, I want some more” moment.

And that’s a look at the world – and especially at London – on this day, July 16th, just a lifetime ago, 78 years ago.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. 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 distinguished


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

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.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

Royal Shakespeare Company 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 Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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