Today (August 12) in London History – It’s a Wicked Place, the 12th of August

What is it about August 12th? It’s harvested a bumper crop of, well, bad happenings. This Today in London History podcast tackles the subject head-on.


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Story time. History time.

Hate to tell you but it’s got a bad feel to it, August 12th. 

The epidemic of flies. The opera singer dying in the Fleet prison. Castlereagh slitting his throat with a penknife. That journalist admitting that his language wasn’t perfect when he reported that the government had “sexed up” its weapons dossier on Iraq. 

They’re all badges of horror or shame hanging from the branches of August 12th. That epidemic of flies, for example. The streets were so covered with them that people’s feet made as full an impression on them as upon thick snow. The opera singer was Teresa Cornelys. Figures in our Soho Walk. Casanova had been her lover. He fathered a child on her. For years she was right at the pinnacle of London Society. A country house in Hammersmith as well as Carlisle House in Soho Square. “Three secretaries, thirty-two servants, six horses, a mute and a lady companion.” And then it all went pear-shaped. She wasn’t a good businesswoman. In and out of debt and debtors prison again and again. Reduced to selling assess’ milk in Knightsbridge. Died in Fleet prison. Breast cancer. It was said

that “in stepping into the carriage to go to prison, she struck her breast against the door and that brought on the breast cancer.

As for journalist Andrew Gilligan and the “sexed up” weapons dossier. Well, that one’s our time. Bush’s and Blair’s ghastly “war of choice” and weapons inspector Dr David Kelly’s extremely suspicious suicide. Yes, we move on. But not entirely. It’s been nearly 20 years now but it’s still with us. If I can put it this way, it’s like a boil on the body politic. That phrase “sexed up” and/or Gilligan’s name and/or Dr Kelly’s suicide it’ll lance the ugly thing every time and there’s always pus in it. 

I’ve got an admittedly far-fetched, pretty fanciful theory about why August 12th is jinxed. It’s the day everybody leaves town. The great exodus. The beau monde head up north to their country estates. It’s the start of the pheasant shooting season. And if a place is drained of a lot of its life – well, there’s something grim, something moribund about that. Less life is more death. Or at least more death-like. That’s why when the children were evacuated during World War II London must have felt that much more like the valley of the shadow of death. My thoughts wander into those dark groves I always end up in Oran, the French Algerian city in Camus’ great novel The Plague. Lots of terrible moments in that novel. Opening the way it does with that terrible infestation of dead and dying rats.

But for me the most terrifying moment is that scene at the opera. 

Plague is abroad. It’s stalking the city. It’s in the poorer quarters. The one sanctuary for the well-heeled – the one place they can repair to and forget about the plague for a couple of hours – is the opera. And, well, one of the performers starts behaving erratically. In the end he staggers toward the audience and dies in front of them. The sense is of mounting apprehension becoming fear becoming terror. The audience get up slowly at first and start to get out of there. And then they stampede. It’s one of the most powerful moments in 20th-century literature. There’s no escaping the plague. It’s washed up onto their personal foreshores. It’s got to them. They’re next. Well, a significant chunk of the life of a town getting up and leaving all at once that’s got a weird feeling about it, you could be fooled into thinking something pretty nasty is abroad.

So maybe that’s the mainspring of August 12th – maybe that’s why August 12th ain’t pretty in terms of its history.

I think what we’ll do is put the main spot on one of those August 12th events. Castlereagh’s suicide. 

It took place on August 12th, 1822. In North Cray. In Kent. That was just outside of London then. It’s London today, the London borough of Bexley.

So who was Castlereagh?

His full name was Robert Stewart, the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry. He’s come down to us in history as Viscount Castlereagh. Had he lived he almost certainly would have become Prime Minister. At the time of his death – he was 53 – he was Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons. 

You want to spruce that up a little bit think of him as the pistol-packing foreign secretary. Yes, after the Cato Conspiracy was rumbled Castlereagh, like a western gunslinger, was double-holstered. Until shortly before his suicide, at any rate. The Cato Street conspiracy was a plot to wipe out the British government – the entire cabinet – at one fell swoop. So those pistols weren’t a boy playing with toys, flaunting his macho, showing off. Castlereagh doubtless would have been in full agreement with that NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, who fulminated, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Actually two good guys with guns probably got off lucky. Castlereagh fought a duel with future prime minister George Canning. Cocked pistols at dawn on Putney Heath. The only shot that hit home was Castlereagh’s second. It hit Canning in the leg. Canning managed to shoot a button off Castlereagh’s coat. I find it hard to imagine the trajectory of that ball. Did Canning bend it like Beckham? Was it a boomerang bullet. If so, maybe just as well it hit that button.

Three final points about Castlereagh. A son of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy he was a main player in the 1801 Act of Union that united Great Britain and Ireland. 

He was also a key figure in the toppling of Napoleon. 

And his name will forever be associated for his role in the Peterloo Massacre. Peterloo was the bloodiest political event of the 19th century on English soil. It was so named because cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000 people at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The demonstrators were clamouring for parliamentary reform. The cavalry charged killed 15 of the demonstrators. Castlereagh was a spokesman for the harsh repressive measures of political repression that followed that black day in English history. In response, the romantic poet Shelley mounted his own cavalry charge against Castlereagh. Shelley’s famous poem The Masque of Anarchy contains the most vicious lines in the history of British political satire.

I met Murder on the way—

He had a mask like Castlereagh—.

Castlereagh’s own end – on August 12th, 1822 – he basically lost his mind. There was talk of various homosexual vagaries. One of them allegedly related to blackmail, after a chance encounter with a hostile transvestite male who deliberately attempted to compromise him. It’s all speculation. We don’t know. We do know his wife and his doctor removed his pistols and his razors. And his doctor was more or less in constant attendance. Not quite constant enough. Castlereagh found a pen knife and cut his throat in his dressing room at his country retreat in North Cray Place. The London borough of Bexley today. 

And how’s this for a poignant fade out. Like the last note of the nightingale, that plaintive anthem receding past the near meadows, over the still stream, up the hillside; and now ’tis buried deep in the next valley glades. Here’s that last resonant note.

  Castlereagh’s house today is known as Loring Hall. It’s a private mental health care facility.

Nothing more to say except, well, let’s gird our loins and get through the rest of August 12th. Get it behind us. Whaddaya say.

And for a today in London recommendation. 

I think the Monday or Saturday Westminster Abbey Tour. After all, Castlereagh is buried there. Next to Pitt.  Paraphrasing Shelley, there lies Murder, next to the Dude who gave us the income tax. 

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 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. See ya tomorrow.

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