Today (April 7) in London History – the race, the prams, the babies, the bomb

Two for the price of one today. Two extraordinary April 7 events: the mother and pram race and the 2,000 lb German bomb. They’re the subject of this episode of the Today in London History podcast.


Here we go again. Overture time.

Welcome to London.

Welcome to London Walks.

Welcome to the London Walks Podcast.

This one’s our daily Today in London History podcast. 

On it – just as we do on our walking tours – we make the new familiar and the familiar new. Take you to places you wouldn’t have found on your own, show you things wouldn’t have seen, tell you stuff you didn’t know.

Here’s the game plan. 

Preparatory to heading back into London History we check in at a little reception area called This Day in London. When we check in we give you a little going away present – a London tip, a London recommendation. For when you come back. If you want you can think of this Today in London tip I’m throwing you as as the grappling iron and safety rope back from Today in London History. And yup, right now, you’re in that reception area. So here’s your Today in London recommendation.

And sure enough, this one’s another no brainer.

The Life Through a Royal Lens Special Exhibition at Kensington Palace. 

It went right to the top of my To Do list because on one and the same day it was strongly recommended to me by – quite independently of one another – a very switched on walker – a tourist, a lovely lass from Los Angeles – and by Anna, one of our very best guides who, into the bargain, is a specialist on London’s palaces and things royal generally. 

The exhibition has just opened and it’s a Summer 2022 bloom only. It ends on October 30th.

What Anna and Christine had to say about it sealed the deal for me – but the Historic Royal Palace’s trailer for the exhibition is equally enticing. It says the exhibItion explores the Royal Family through photography. It brings together some of the most iconic images ever taken of the Royal Family. 

For almost 200 years the medium of photography has created an unprecedented intimacy between Sovereign and subjects. The new display explores the British Royal Family’s enduring relationship with the camera; from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s patronage of photography during its infancy to lesser-known intimate family portraits, spanning from the 19th century right up until the present day.

Ok, let’s get to work on London Walks’ exploration of Today in London History. 

Weird and wonderful, those adjectives are like a magnet and an iron filing – they’re attracted to one another. They readily pair. Not sure why – apart from the alliteration – but they do. 

It’s a lazy, off-the-peg description. Its hand shot up into the air when I said all right Adjective Class, who wants to take ownership of this first Today in London History item. And sure, it would have been easy to say to the two of them, “ok, it’s all yours, I’ll bill The Mother and Pram Brighton Race as weird and wonderful.” It would have been easy. And it would have been wrong. That race was weird but it wasn’t wonderful. 

But it’s there – like a sore thumb in London’s past – it’s part of London’s history – so it’s made it into this march past. 

It took place on April 7th, 1923. 

It was exactly what it said on the tin. A Mother and Pram Race – from London to Brighton. With the baby in the Pram. 

The race started at 5.30 in the morning in London. There were four  – or depending on how you’re counting, eight – entrants. It was won by 40-year-old Mrs Lily Groom of Eastbourne. A mother of five, she pushed her baby carriage with her two-year-old child in it a distance of 52 miles in twelve hours and twenty minutes. She collapsed on arrival in Brighton. British Pathe News covered the race. By all means take a look at that short clip. And the still photograph, also Googleable, of the start of the race.That event, that day, April 7th, 1923, those people are receding ever further into the past, toward oblivion – as, one day, we will also – and those images stop that past from being utterly lost as it speeds on its way ever further from us. It’s moving to see those British mums and their outsize, ungainly prams and the British bobbies in their old uniforms and funny helmets. And indeed the huge crowd in Brighton that turned out to watch the mums and their babies complete their 5- mile walking race, complete it in the middle of a huge phalanx of coppers who’d surrounded them to help them make their way through that huge crowd of onlookers.

Those crossing the finish line scenes are scenes of triumph but that’s tempered by the knowledge that the race took its toll.

The victorious Mrs Lily Groom wasn’t the only contestant who hit the wall, so to speak. Another woman had to be removed by ambulance to the Brighton Infirmary. A four-month-old baby was a third casualty. It had been in the perambulator for 14 hours. Examined by the police surgeon on reaching the Aquarium in Brighton – the finish line – the baby was said to be in a very exhausted condition. And its hands and feet were cold. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was on the case in no time. Before the week was out it applied to the Brighton justices for summonses against Mrs Edwards, who’d taken part in the race with her baby, and her husband, the race promoter. The charge sheet was exposing a child, in a manner prejudicial to health, and for causing, procuring, and abetting in the offence.”

The Edwards’ day in court was a family affair. Their 11-year-old son took the stand and said his mother was not exhausted after the ‘race.’

And Mrs Edwards herself told the jury that she sometimes walked 30 miles in a day and on occasion 60 miles in two days.

The jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty but added that they strongly recommended that no further contests of the kind should be held. 

Fast forward 36 years, there was something that happened on another April 7th that gave pause – that teased me out of thought (Keats’ phrase again).

This was April 7th, 1959. 

As it happens, it was Budget Day in the House of Commons. But all of that was upstaged by something that happened nearby, just over the river, on the South Bank. Construction workers were excavating at the site of the Shell Petroleum Company’s new headquarters near Waterloo Station and the Festival Hall. They hit something. Something remarkable. Something that stopped them in their tracks. An unexploded 2000-lb. German bomb. It just rolled out from its resting place – it had lain there for about 15 years. Lurked there until the drag line of an excavator dislodged it. A Royal Engineers bomb disposal squad was sent for. Tube and railway services near the site were immediately shut down. Imagine being a London commuter in 1959 and being blown up by a World War II bomb. The Luftwaffe’s final bombing raid. The bomb disposal squad got to work. Got to work with the most basic of tools. A hammer and chisel. They tried to remove the base plate. I shudder every time I think about that bomb disposal specialist hammering away at a chisel, trying to drive it in far enough to prise away the base plate of a 2,000 lb bomb. I shudder – and I’m lost in awe and admiration. That sort of courage and cool – that’s not everyday stuff. In the event, there was no budging the plate. So they decided to remove the beast. They got it down to the coast, took it out to sea – took it back partway in the direction from which it came – and exploded it. As for the politicians and the budget – their hour in the spotlight was exploded. They were upstaged, their moment of glory instant history. History in that dismissive American sense of the word. 

The 2,000 lb. German bomb made the running. What a lot of questions it raised. When was it dropped? Why didn’t it explode then? How in the world did something that big go so deep into the London earth that it lay there – in central London –undisturbed and undiscovered for many years? Indeed, was there ever any danger of movement in the ground – construction work, a passing train or Tube – detonating it?

And extraordinary the way World War II – which had ended 14 years previously – still wasn’t over, still was making itself felt. 

I remember being in the prison in Dublin where they executed the leaders of the Easter 1916 uprising and the guide saying to us, “Ireland has had too much history.” I can think of other places that have also had too much history. It’s an interesting question, how much history is too much history. I think London’s been fortunate in its history ration. It’s had a lot of history – but so far, not too much.

Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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