Today (April 29) in London History – A London Potpourri

A varied menu for today’s Today in London History podcast.


Never a dull moment on April 29th.

Not in London, at any rate.

April 29th in London is sort of like those old American television variety shows. The Johnny Carson Tonight show, for example. Or even further back, the Ed Sullivan Show. 

By way of example, a rare sighting of three grampuses – dolphins – on the Thames on April 29th, 1890. The dolphins came up with the morning tide. Disported themselves off Battersea Park. Tide turned and having done London the dolphins headed back downstream to the briny deep, the ocean blue. The word had got round town in no time so sure enough a vast number of Londoners – as always, loving a show – that London weakness for the novel – had rushed down to the Embankment and the bridges to watch the fun. Apparently the big fellas were about 12 feet long and they came to the surface about once a minute, showing off their high dorsal fin and a good part of their bodies.

And speaking of wildlife, well, you have to give the ark in the park a mention on April 29th. The Ark in the Park is of course the London Zoo and today’s its birthday. Yes, that’s right, the London Zoo opened on April 29th, 1826. 

And there was a big bash for the centenary in 1926. 

And thinking about it, well, the bi-centenary is just ahead of us now. We’ll see what they lay on for that.

Good London point here – a point I make on my Hampstead Walk – the London Zoo is in Regent’s Park and those magnificent Nash terraces are in the shape of a horseshoe fitted round the park. On the east side, the west side and the south side. But not the north side. It’s open. They intentionally kept the north side open to preserve the view up to the green hills of Hampstead. And, sure enough, the north side of Regent’s Park is where the zoo is. Question is, the zoo’s inhabitants, the animals – in their cages, in their confinement – did those green remembered hills of Hampstead have some sort of meaning to them? Did they look longingly at them? Up there, That’s Freedom’s land, heaven, paradise, that sort of thing.

And let’s make another knight’s move on the London chessboard. Hop along to April 29th, 1970. Again, we’re up Hampstead way. 25 Hoop Lane, Golders Green to be exact. On this day something special is going to happen at 25 Hoop Lane. An ordinary north London house is going to become a temple. The Archbishop of Canterbury – so London this – is the guest of honour at the opening of the first Hindu temple and spiritual centre in England and Europe. As Hegel might have put it, thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In short, an afternoon, a gathering, a weaving together of mutual Christian and Hindu beliefs, the one looking back to a central unique event, the literal manifestation of God through Jesus, and the other accepting God in a multitude of diverse manifestations.

You think about it, that’s a pretty good working definition of London: this city is central and unique (central in the place it holds in all of our hearts) and at the same time, it, London, is a multitude of diverse manifestations.

Diverse manifestations indeed. It’s April 29th, 1947 and the curtain rises on what will be called “Chicago scenes in London Streets.” 

An armed robbery in a jeweller’s shop in Charlotte Street, near Tottenham Court Road. Two men enter the shop brandishing revolvers. Outside, the third member of the gang, the driver, behind the wheel of the getaway car.

Bravely – perhaps foolishly – the manager of the shop and his assistants close with the raiders. They break away. Flee the shop. Run down the street. It gets a big keystone kops here – the getaway driver can’t get the car started. He abandons the car and takes off. And just like that, the scene transitions from farce to tragedy. A motorcyclist tries to head them off. They shoot him dead. The victim was a man named Alec de Antiquis. He was the father of six children, aged 3 to 13. He was a small businessman. Ran a garage. 

Also for the record, that was the second time in 12 hours that lawbreakers in that neighbourhood were packing and used their weapons. At 3 am a police constable disturbed shop-breakers in East Castle Street in Fitzrovia – just a hundred yards or so from the Charlotte Street incident. They fired three shots at the police constable. Fortunately he wasn’t hit but in the words of the newspaper account, the bullets “starred” a shop window. Gunfire twice in 12 hours on the streets of central London – that had the press posing the question, “are we becoming Chicago.” And indeed Scotland Yard admitted – I’m quoting now – “the increase in armed robberies has been causing concern to Scotland Yard for some time.”

I have to admit, this 1947 item had special resonance for me, David – not because I’m an American – but because of the announcement a day or two ago that guns have overtaken car accidents as the biggest killer of children and teenagers in the U.S.

For the record, arrests were made in the case. The would-be robbers who became murderers were very young men. 20 and 23 years old. They were found guilty and hanged. Their accomplice – the driver of the getaway car – was just 17. He was – in the legal parlance of the day – detained at His Majesty’s Pleasure. A terrible waste of four lives.

Put me in mind of Marge Gunderson, the heavily pregnant sheriff in the Coen brothers’ wondeful film Fargo. What she says to the man of few words, the blonde, teak-for-brains sociopath after she’s captured him and is driving him back to the police station. 

“So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

I’m not going to bring this in on the grim note of those wasted London lives. No, let’s head back 11 years – April 29th, 2011. Prince William marries Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey. Happy anniversary you two.

And for today – and indeed this podcast’s Today in London Recommendation – if you’re over Kensington way be sure to stop by Japan House. Today’s Greenery Day. The beginning of a succession of holidays known as Golden Week. It was the birthday of Emperor Hirohito but it’s now been set aside for the appreciation and preservation of Japan’s natural environment. Japan House is a bit of Japan in London. In this most cosmopolitan of cities.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And don’t just take it from us.

Take it from that American convention of walking tour guides a few years ago. As they put it:

 “London Walks is the premier walking tour company in the entire world.” The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The muzzle-loading velocity of the guiding. In the words of that American filmmaker, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, with London Walks, uniquely, you get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, historians, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. 

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that note, see ya tomorrow. 

Nothing else to add, except Good Londoning, one and all. And so glad you’re back. You were sorely missed.

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