Today (August 29) in London History – “our Lord is a shoving leopard”

We go a little bit off the beaten path today. Though the figure this Today in London History podcast is about was a Londoner bred and borne.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

So many ways of putting this. Here’s a baker’s dozen for starters. Take your pick. 

My toys, my rules.

Or: because I felt like it, that’s why.

Or: because it’s there (you know, like Everest)

Or: today I’m going to throw you a Googly. For any Americans out there, Googly is a cricket term. Broadly speaking, a Googly is the cricket equivalent of a baseball screwball. A bowled ball – a pitch in American baseball parlance – that breaks in the opposite direction to which you expect it to break. 

Or: because he was a Londoner to start with.

Or: I’m going to push the envelope today.

Or: Because he’s good copy.

Or: I’m going to play a wild card today.

Or: because he was an Albino.

Or: because he was born in London, spent his working life in Oxford and is buried in Grasmere. Grasmere is Wordsworth’s village in the Lake District. And how cool is that?

Or: Because we – London Walks – do a day trip to Oxford.

Or: because the London house he was born and grew up in is still there. I found it today.

Or: because at the end I can Frank Sinatra this. I did it my way. 

Well, that’s the idea expressed thirteen different ways.

That’s enough teasers, enough of a drum roll. 

Time to close with our subject.

His name is William Archibald Spooner. We’re doing him today for any or all of the reasons above. But also because he died today, August 29, 1930. He died in Oxford.

Born in London on July 22nd 1844. In Chapel Street in Mayfair. As I said, I found his house today. He was the son of a barrister. Won an Open Scholarship to New College, Oxford. He was the first scholar in the college’s history to be elected other than from Winchester College.

And that was it; from 1862 until his dying day Spooner’s life was bound up with that of New College, as scholar, fellow, tutor, and warden, and after his retirement in 1924 as an honorary fellow. He was a key figure in transforming it from the Wykehamist backwater that it had been in the first half of the century into one of the three or four largest and most important colleges in Oxford.

His students doted on him. Because of his white hair and cherubic face they called him The Child. He married a formidable woman. His wife was known as the Madonna.

But really we remember him – and treasure him – because of the verbal slips he was prone to that are now known as Spoonerisms. A Spoonerism occurs when the sounds of two words are transposed. For example, a pack of lies comes out as a lack of pies. Or, I have in my bosom a half-warmed fish. When of course he meant to say, I have in my bosom a half-formed wish.

Or, raising a toast to Her Highness Queen Victoria, “Three cheers for our queer old dean.

Or you have hissed my mystery lectures and were caught fighting a liar in the quad. Should have been of course You have missed my history lectures and were caught lighting a fire in the quad. Or our Lord is a shoving Leopard.

His admonishment to a student who had wasted two terms came out as you have tasted two worms. “The Child” was also apparently given to committing physical Spoonerisms – such as pouring claret over some salt he’d spilt on the tablecloth or apologising to a party of visitors for the darkness of a staircase before switching off all the lights. 

It’s said that he once stopped a colleague and enquired, “Was it you or your brother who was killed in the Great War?”

How does that Jewish cemetery custom go – leaving a small stone at the grave of a loved one? We there now with William Archibald Spooner? No, I don’t think so. Not quite yet. There’s something else that needs to be said, needs to be remembered before we do that.

It’s this. William Archibald Spooner insisted that a plaque be mounted in the chapel to commemorate three German members of the college who died in the war. There was opposition of course, to which Spooner replied, They too are members of the college and they too have given their lives for their country. A gesture that inevitably brings to mind that haunting line from Wilfred Owen’s great world war I poem, Strange Meeting: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”

Rest in peace, William Spooner.

A Today in London recommendation. Let’s make it, for once, a Today in Oxford recommendation. Well, strictly speaking Today in Oxford & the Cotswolds. Simon will be running three more of those trips this summer: on August 31st, September 14th and September 28th. It’s a great day out. Should go straight to the top of your Must Do List.

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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