Today in London History Bulletin (December 29)

Central London erupted in late December, 1928. This Today in London History Bulletin takes up the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Here’s some food for thought for you. The London we know stands on a pie crust. The ground under many main thoroughfares is so congested that when new pipes have to be laid down, there is considerable difficulty in finding space for the newcomer.

That was the case a century ago. You can imagine how much worse it is today.

Let’s do a little bit of mapping. Dowsing. Get a feel for what’s down there. 

As a rule the big gas and water mains are placed under the roadway, in some places twelve and fifteen feet below the surface. The lighting and telephone cables – this was in the 1920s, there’ll be more now – the lighting and telephone cables were usually placed under the footways.

And that’s without mentioning the big beasts down there: the Tube tunnels and the great main sewers, which are large enough for men to walk about in. London’s arteries, veins, capillaries – graphically they’re a kind of subterranean, Big Bang viewed in slow-motion. 

One of the poems I did on Wednesday’s London in Poetry walk was Patrick Hicks’ Riding the Tube. The fourth and fifth stanzas of that delightful poem read as follows:

the abandoned      objects

on these trains      is a tunnelling

between lost        and found:

cell phones, an urn of ashes, a false eye, breast implants, a jug of bull’s sperm, umbrellas, 2 human heads, a ventriloquist’s dummy, teeth, a vasectomy kit, lecture notes on John Donne, bitten apples, empty wallets, divorce papers, blood,

Basically it’s a catalogue of some of the stuff that’s been left on the tube and found. It’s so London, that catalogue. It’s London in its plentitude and multifariousness and variety and randomness. That’s London.

Well, you can do a catalogue for what’s just on the other side of the walls of the tunnels the Tube Lines run through. Here’s just a sampling. This is from a hundred years ago. What was there a hundred years ago will have been added to, topped up, considerably since then. Here’s that 1920s catalogue. Main sewer,  secondary gas main, hydraulic main, surface water drain, water main, gas, high voltage power cables, electric lighting cables, telephone and telegraph cables (that telegraph cables dates it, doesn’t it), High Pressure Gas main, Network of Supply Pipes to Buildings and Drains to Main Sewer. 

But let’s just take the gas pipes, there are thousands of miles of them. Of all sizes. From the great iron mains some five feet in diameter to the smallest service pipe. 

And why are we taking this brief survey of subterranean London – and in particular the gas pipes – on December 29th? Because of the commission that started meeting today, December 29th, 1928 at County Hall, that’s why. And why is that Commission meeting? Because of the gas explosions and fires that occurred a week ago, that’s why.

Basically central London erupted. Well, a sizeable patch of central London erupted. London’s artificial subterranean Vesuvius – its gas works between Kingsway and Shaftesbury Avenue erupted. A series of explosions. And resultant fires. People were injured, Roadways were ripped open, properties were damaged, traffic was dislocated, business was interrupted. It was like being bombed. But the bombs weren’t coming from the skies, they were coming from under London. Underneath the pie crust. Imagine walking along High Holborn and suddenly the pavement in front of you explodes upwards. The cartoons always picture urban dwellers having the misfortune to be walking innocently along a city street and a person – or a safe – falls on them from many storeys up above. Well, what happened in this instance reversed that urban cliche. The catastrophe came from underfoot, not overhead.

The Commission’s job was to find out what happened and why it happened. And remedy it – put it right – make sure it would never happen again. 

And that’s your Bulletin for Today in London History. 

Your takeaway – you’re out for a stroll in London, you’re walking on a pie crust. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in 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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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