Today (August 7) in London History – Bank Holidays, Best CV Ever & Teaching a Dog to Read

The first ever Bank Holiday was August 7, 1871. So on the anniversary of that first Bank Holiday, our Today in London History podcast tells the tale: Bank Holidays and the remarkable man who midwived them.


London Calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Personal note here. And, yes, very American note. It finally happened. Madly, I likened this Today in London History podcast series to Joe DiMaggio’s famous batting streak. Cultural Translation here for any Brits: Joe DiMaggio was a famous American baseball player for the New York Yankees. Famous not just for baseball, I hasten to add. Joe DiMaggio was Mr Marilyn Monroe for a little while – yes, he was married to the iconic blonde bombshell for nine months. 

And of course there’s that haunting reference to him in the Simon and Garfunkel song Mrs Robinson: Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs Robinson?

Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey

Hey, hey, hey

But anyway, the daft thought I had was, this is beginning to feel like my own personal Joe DiMaggio batting streak. “This” being this Today in London History podcast series. It started as a whim on December 26th. That first one was, I thought, probably a one-off. Or possibly the first of an occasional series. And then they just kept on happening, kept on rolling out. Day after day. I can’t remember exactly when – it was maybe a month or so into it – but the thought eventually crossed my mind, I wonder if I can keep this up for a year? And well, today is August 7th, so this is the 225th consecutive Today in London History podcast I’ve turned out since Boxing Day. 

Boxing Day said with some emphasis for reasons that will be clear a little bit later on. 

So 225 of them – that’s not a bad run, if I say so myself – and, yes, I’m thinking now I just might make it all the way through to Christmas Day, complete the circuit, do the full year’s worth, 365 of them.

So, in the circumstances, a day or two ago, it was probably inevitable I had that daft Joe DiMaggio thought: said to myself,  “you know something, I’ve got my own Joe DiMaggio streak going here.”

 Joltin’ Joe – the Yankee Clipper – is most famous in the annals of baseball for his 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Translation: DiMaggio recorded at least one hit in 56 consecutive baseball games.

It’s regarded as baseball’s greatest and most unbreakable record.

But to come to the point for today, August 7th – no question but it’s been a grind turning these out – but there are days – a lot of them, actually – when I’m elated that this monkey got on my back. Elated because of the stuff I find out – the discoveries I make. 

It’s partly because I’m just nosy. I walk by a London house it’s par for the course for me to be eaten up with curiosity: ask questions like, “I wonder who lives here, wonder what’s gone on in this house, wonder how big this house is, wonder if they’ve got much in the way of a garden out back, etc.”

Now partly that’s just my natural inquisitiveness. But part of it is also professional – if it’s a house or a street in a neighbourhood that I guide. A really important London Walks mantra is: blue plaque guiding is not good guiding, it’s amateurish in the extreme. It’s not London Walks guiding. You have to go beyond the blue plaque – we pride ourselves on consistently hitting that much higher standard. It’s embarrassing to walk along a street with a group and the only house you stop in front of is the one with the blue plaque. That sort of guiding makes me cringe. How is it that people in that group aren’t going to be saying themselves “if I’d come along here by myself I would have seen this – how is it I’m paying this guy to show me the achingly obvious?”

So, yes, we go beyond the blue plaque.

And that brings me to Eaton Place in Belgravia. I guide it on my Belgravia Pub Walk. I’ve got several pretty good face cards I can play there. For example, the assassination in front of one of those houses. And its immediate aftermath: namely one of the assassins having a wooden leg that slowed their getaway and led to their capture (and execution a couple of months later). Black humour, Keystone Kops that would seem to be. But there’s nothing funny about it. That assassination was the Sarajevo-like moment in the spiral toward civil war in Ireland. And the dominoes just keep coming our way. In short, the past shapes the present. The fact of the matter is, that assassination is still playing out in the politics of Britain and Ireland – so standing in front of the house where that happened, 100 years ago this past June, like it or not we’re at the epicentre of a force field that is still affecting our lives today.

After that, some comic relief is called for. So I of course then wheel out that great story about Joan Collins’ stay in Eaton Place.  And Upstairs Downstairs gets a mention. As does Thomas Cubbitt – London’s Master Builder – he built those houses. And Cubbitt’s the cue for shedding some light on what drew Belgravia into existence and why it was such a latecomer to London and how Cubbitt solved the building conundrum there. All good stuff.

But now – thanks to this podcast series – I’ve got another cherry for Eaton Place. We’re going to take a good look at 29 Eaton Place. Thanks to this podcast project I now know that 29 Eaton Place is a 17 room house. And I know that in 1911 it was occupied by a widow of independent means. And that she had a cook, a lady’s maid, three housemaids, a butler, and two footmen. All very Eaton Place, very Belgravia.

But the main attraction – now – compliments of this Today in London History Podcast series – is that the man who gave us Bank Holidays was born at 29 Eaton Place.

And today – August 7th, 1871 – was the first ever Bank Holiday. 

The great progenitor of Bank Holidays was Sir John Lubbock, fourth Baronet and first Baron Avebury.

That Bank Holiday was the first secular holiday in British history. It was popularly called St Lubbock’s Day in his honour. 

Lubbock was one of those remarkable Victorians. 

What a feast of a biography. As a child Lubbock was tutored in Natural History by none other than Charles Darwin. He went to Eton for four years – and that was the extent of his formal education.

He came from a long line of very successful London bankers. But his father was no ordinary banker – in his spare time the old man was a successful amateur mathematician and astronomer. And a good friend of Charles Darwin – ergo the natural history tutoring connection.

When his father died in 1865, Lubbock took over as head of the family bank, a position he filled until his death, nearly 50 years later.

From the 1850s onward Lubbock divided his time evenly between banking, politics, and scientific and popular writing. He was the first president of the Institute of London Bankers. He was a member of Darwin’s inner circle. He was a member of the Royal Institution, the Geological Society, the Royal Society and the X Club. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. The X Club X Club (act. 1864–1892), was a private dining club made up of nine eminent London men of science. It met monthly in the social ‘season’ from October to June.

He was president of the Ethnological Society. He did important anthropological and archaeological work. He coined the distinction between palaeolithic and neolithic man. He did important work on the social behaviour of insects. He was president of the London Chamber of Commerce. He was Chairman of the London County Council. He was the Vice Chancellor of London University. He was an advocate of voting reform – he founded the Proportional Representation Society.

He was an MP for 40 years. First for Maidstone, in 1870, and then for the Borough of London University. 

It’s a measure of how capable the man was – and how respected he was – that he drafted the Bank Holiday Bill and steered it through, brought it to fruition in his very early days as an MP.

He was generally outspoken on Labour issues. He was a reformer. He championed early-closing bills. 

In 1873 he pushed through a bill to preserve ancient monuments. When he was named to the peerage in 1900 he chose the title Avebury after the ancient druidical site he’d long fought to save from being “destroyed for the profit of a few pounds.”

Was there ever a CV to rival Sir John Lubbock’s? And we haven’t got to the end of it. Just you wait.

I am just in awe of those Victorians. They bestrode the earth like colossi. How did they do it? Where did they get the energy from? Talk about multitasking.

Two final points. I mentioned that the very first Today in London History podcast went out on Boxing Day, 2021. Boxing Day is of course a Bank Holiday. Connection made?

And the other thing, I said we haven’t yet got to the end of Sir John Lubbock’s CV. Here’s the final item on that CV. This is the other one that I’m always going to remember – along with his coming up with the idea of and ushering in Bank Holidays – Sir John Lubbock tried to teach his pet poodle how to read.

And for a Today in London recommendation? Well, this podcast began with a personal note – all that Joe DiMaggio stuff – so let’s end it on another personal note. The recommendation – this will take you a little way out of London, but not far – the recommendation is go to the village of Down in Kent and visit Darwin’s House. I remember my visit there so well, remember it so fondly. It was many years ago. It was, I think, Mary’s and my first date. We got to Darwin’s house just a few minutes before it closed. The attendant was a grizzled old man. He was obviously feeling very end-of-termish because that day was his last day on the job. And sure enough, he pushed the boat out a bit for that last visitor on his watch, that young American and his English girlfriend. About ten minutes before closing, he asked me, “would you like to sit in Darwin’s chair?” I of course said “yes”. So the rope came down and there I perched, in Darwin’s chair. A chair that I daresay Sir John Lubbock will have sat beside and perhaps even occupied from time to time. But the old boy – the attendant – wasn’t finished. He had one more question for me. “Would you like to try some of Darwin’s snuff?” Well, you know the answer to that. I was a snuff virgin and I lost my virginity sniffing up some of Charles Darwin’s snuff. When there’s good snuff good stuff happens. Sometimes. It certainly did for me that day in 1974.

Fade out now, on the thought that memories make us rich. 

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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all.  See ya tomorrow.

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