Today (April 25) in London History – ANZAC Day and Log-rolling on the Thames

Up and at ‘em.

Up and at ‘em because it’s April April 25th and April 25th is a day about going places.

For starters, It’s ANZAC Day.

For anyone who doesn’t know ANZAC is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The activities and ceremonies on the day mark the ill-fated landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915, the day the ANZACs entered the war. 

ANZAC Day marks the April 25th, 1915 landing but its remit also commemorates the service and sacrifice generally of Australians and New Zealanders who have fought and died for their country.

The first ANZAC Day was held a year to the day after the Gallipoli landings. Thousands of Australian New Zealand soldiers marched through London that April day in 1916. That first march forged the ANZAC Day ceremonies, which include getting over a lot of London ground. Starting with a dawn service – it’s at 5 am – at Hyde Park Corner. Other highlights include a service at Westminster Abbey and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph.

So, yes, “going places” – in this instance going places in London – seems to be baked into the make-up the date. 

Another prime example of the get-up-and-go inherent in April 25th –  this one was April 25th,1859 – and halfway to down under and broadly in the same neck of the woods as Gallipoli – it was on this day in April in 1859 that construction got underway for the Suez Canal. 

My April 25th for this podcast though isn’t the one in 1859 or for that matter, those two ANZAC dates – 1915 and 1916. Instead, I’m going to get us squarely home – get us firmly in London – and focus on the 1903 model. But as long as we’re heading to 1903 let’s start with a gv, a general view, a wide shot. Do that and you discover that movement seems to be the order of the day for those times. In short, widen the parameters to that year, well, you’ve got still more canal movement afoot: the Panama Canal.  And the theme is sounded again in London getting its first motor taxis in 1903. And for that matter 1903 is the year Detroit becomes the motor capital of the world. And indeed, at the end of the year, Orville and Wilbur Wright are going someplace. They make a successful flight in an aeroplane with a petrol engine.

So, yes, going places.

But Detroit, Panama, Kitty Hawke, North Carolina, the Suez…that’s the big picture. Our concern is with London. So let’s head down to London’s river on April 25th, 1903. Tom Barton, who’s a Londoner – he was born and grew up in Putney – is going someplace on the River Thames. Going someplace in some style. Going someplace in an eye-catching fashion. Going someplace to the accompaniment of applause and cheers from thousands of his fellow Londoners lining the banks of the Thames.

Tom Barton, you see, is the self-styled world champion log roller. And today, April 25th, 1903, Tom Barton took his log out for a spin on the Thames.

 He rolled his craft – if you can call it a craft – from Kew Bridge to Putney. (I have been saying it throughout the run of this Today in London History series but it bears repeating – London’s seen it all.)

Here are the vital statistics. Kew Bridge to Putney is a distance of five and a half miles. It took Tom Barton two hours and forty-five minutes.

And his vehicle – his craft – wasn’t just any old log. Its specs: It was just over nine feet long. It weighed nineteen pounds. It was twelve inches in diameter. And here it comes: Tom Barton’s log was composed of nine Bovril tins soldered one to another. (What’s Bovril you might well be asking if you’re listening in New Hampshire or Bangkok. Or Rome. Or Ethiopia. Bovril is a thick, salty meat extract paste – similar to a yeast extract. One of those British food specialities people either love or hate.)

The demonstration of log rolling expertise and finesse was of course an early version of what today would be called product placement. Or if you prefer, sponsorship.

And if you’re wondering – as I was – why a young man from Putney  – a young man with iron nerve and the agility of a cat – was not just adept at but was the world champion of the favourite sport of Canadien lumberjacks – well, turns out Tom Barton spent a good part of his life amongst Canadian lumbermen and they showed him the ropes.

Londoner Tom Barton didn’t just get proficient at it. He got better at it than anybody else in the world. Those huge London crowds lining the banks of the Thames were treated to the log-rolling equivalent of a high-wire act. Putting himself through his paces, Tom Barton adopted any of a number of positions on his craft: standing, sitting, lying prostrate.

He could balance a chair on the “log.” He’d call for a table, a cigar and a huge bottle of Bovril and regale himself in a lordly fashion.

For good measure, he’d stand on the chair and wave flags.

The flag-waving Londoner standing on a chair on a log on the Thames quipped, “nothing to it, it’s much easier than falling off a log.”

Bears repeating: London, it’s seen it all. 

And the London Walks recommendation for April 25th? Pretty obvious this one. Up and at ‘em. Rise and shine and head off to Hyde Park Corner for that dawn service. Hearing the Last Post – followed by Reville – at dawn at Hyde Park Corner. That’s special. 

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