Today (August 20) in London History – the death of God

God died, in London, on August 20, 1858. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Over there, that’s where God died.

It was August 20th, 1858.

I actually say that – and point out the building – when I guide the Old Palace Quarter walk. 

How’s the saying go, you can get the boy out of the country but you can’t get the country out of the boy.

I grew up in Nowheresville small-town Wisconsin. Came to London 50 years ago. And I’m just as star-struck as I was that autumn day back in 1973 when I first rolled up here. Correction, not just as star-struck. Even more star-struck.

Five decades on and thousands of times on from the first time I walked across London Bridge I still get the same thrill. The train of thought will be something like, “this isn’t his London Bridge, but Shakespeare’s London Bridge was pretty near here – somewhere right here is where Shakespeare walked across the Thames to the Globe Theatre. That’s the Thames down there. The Thames. Liquid History. And just there, that’s the Tower of London. The Tower of London that Shakespeare knew, the Tower of London that was the stage for several of the most gruesome scenes in his oeuvre.

In that same vein, the thrill – to say nothing of deep satisfaction – I get when I rein one of my Literary London groups in at the northeastern corner of Kingsway, right where it meets Russell Square, and say to them, “ok, right here, where we’re standing, one of the two most important moments in the 20th century took place right here.” And no, I’m afraid I’m not going to give away all the family silver – you’ll have to go on the walk to find out what that “heavens cracked open” moment was. “The heaven’s cracked open” – that’s how the key player put it when he recalled what happened on that corner.

For the record, the other “most important moment in the 20th century” – you can flip a coin over which one of the two should take precedence – took place in the prime minister’s office in the House of Commons. 

Anyway, we’re on Piccadilly on the Old Palace Quarter walk and it’s simultaneously a time instant in 2022 or 2023 or 2024, etc. and August 20th, 1858. And we’re looking across at Burlington House. Looking in to a dusty, book-lined room in the Linnean Society there. Just over seven weeks previously – on July 1st – two papers had been read out in that room. One was by Alfred Russel Wallace. The other was by Charles Darwin. That double paper was the mortal wound to God. Today, August 20th, it was published in the Journal of the Proceedings in the Linnean Society. Published under the title On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by means of selection’

That publication, on this day, was the moment breath became air for the mortally wounded Deity. Nothing left but to close the eyelids.

The moment God died. It happened in London on August 20th, 1858. 

Now I’m girding my loins for the howls of outrage from believers. I’ve prepared, in advance, four responses. The first line of defence is, “you may be right.” 

Second line is directed at all of us, believers and non-believers. It’s a little something from Shakespeare. Hamlet’s remark to Horatio. A sounding, I think, from way inside the depths of the mystery. Hamlet says, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Third line, Darwin (and Russell) and the cutting of that thread of life there in Linnean Society in London on this day in 1858 – a death foretold in that other good book, the good book called earth and its millions of years old fossils and geological records – that death got me personally out of a bad place. 

This day – August 20th – is the anniversary of the worst river accident of the 20th century. The 1989 sinking of the pleasure craft Marchioness just below Southwark bridge. A God-ordained universe where something like that is allowed to happen isn’t up to the job. I didn’t want to have to write a full podcast about what happened on that moonlit night. The death of God there in that room on Piccadilly on this day in1858 was the out I needed.

Finally, 4th line of defence – lay down a smokescreen. Divert attention. If at all possible distract – with facts.

Thought it might be fun to look at the charts, the league standings. The Atheism Chart. And the Believers Chart. Sure enough, it’s those Godless communists – former East Germans – who are at the top of the Atheism chart. 52 per cent of them don’t believe in God. The Czech Republic is in second place, but well back. 40 per cent of them are non-believers. Secular France – French who aren’t Muslims in other words – is 23.3 per cent.

As for the other chart, the believers chart. The Philippines at 83.6 per cent has a commanding lead. Though Chile at 79.4 per cent might be within striking distance. Israel is 65.5 per cent. Poland is 62 per cent. The US is 60.6 per cent. Ireland – Catholic Ireland – is only 43.2 per cent. 

Britain is 25 per cent. Bringing up the rear, those Godless non-communists, the Japanese. 4 per cent of them believe in God.

And a Today in London recommendation – well, has to be the Linnean Society’s Treasure Tour. They resume on September 1st. What’s not to like about the way they trail it:

Bombproof vaults, a cavernous library and shelves upon shelves of natural history treasures. Walk with us on this behind-the-scenes tour.

Hey, they might even take you to the room where the deed was done. 

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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