Today (December 1) in London History – Stars & Stripes Day in London

December 1st is by my reckoning American Day in London. This Today in London History podcast explains why.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s December 1st. American London Day. You heard right. I didn’t say July 4th. I said today, December 1st. And I don’t mind telling you, I’m pretty pleased with this one. It was a revelation to me.

Didn’t have a clue about it. It was a find, a discovery. 

And, yes, it’s just one of those many-hued coincidences. But no less pleasing for that. 

So this one’s going to be a menage.

We’ve got several December 1st American events in London. I’ll run ‘em by you. Start with the minnows and work up to the big catch. 

And if – for argument’s sake – you want a British counterweight, well, here you go. Sherlock Holmes made his first-ever appearance – debuted – on December 1st. That was in 1887. The book was of course A Study in Scarlet.

To get the show on the road let’s go to Hayes Lane, Bromley on December 1st, 1987. The guy is one Terry Harris. A Souf Londoner. The year before Terry was on holiday in Florida. He was bowled over by – fell in love with – the very American, exuberant, over-the-top light shows and Christmas decorations on American homes.

“I’m taking some of that home,” said Terry. He brought back three 3-foot-high white angels. That was the nucleus of his collection. Eventually, it was a 40-foot-strong cast of giant Christmas characters. Deploying that arsenal – well, it’s almost an understatement to say that Terry, came all over American at his house in Hayes Lane, in Bromley. You wanted to look for an authentic American Christmas that’s where you headed to. And thousands of people did. Every year. Went to Hayes Lane Bromley to see Christmas Light Show USA. Light-up day was December 1st. And right through to New Year’s Day Terry’s house and garden was ablaze with lit-up reindeer, angels, toy soldiers, singing Christmas trees and Terry’s personal favourite – a giant Santa on a 7-foot long sledge. 

American Christmas comes to London, what’s not to like about that?

Well, it turns out there was something not to like about it. For some of the neighbours at any rate. They complained that Terry’s American Christmas lightshow was a nuisance. A neighbour said, “their over-the-top decorations cause a hazard. The traffic at both ends of Hayes Road has reached mind-boggling proportions.” Terry and wife Rita hit back. They said, “people who complain are Scrooges, haven’t they got better things to worry about?”

Well, that was a quarter of a century ago. I’d like to know what happened to Terry and Rita and their American Christmas light show. Was there a grand finale and is it now just a historical memory, Haven’t been able to find out. If anyone knows, well, I’d love to hear from you.

Anyway, Hard act to follow. And no question but the next one’s pretty tame, pretty sober in comparison with those goings-on down in Bromley.

But at least we’ve got the consolation of being in one of the smartest venues in London. It’s December 1st, 1969. We’re at the Savoy. It’s the occasion of the first annual Jeffersonian dinner, a meal that could have been served by Jefferson himself. Thomas Jefferson would have been pleased as punch that a small group of 20th-century Americans in London took it upon themselves to honour him as much for his dedicated epicureanism as for some of his other achievements. Oh, you know, the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of the University of Virginia… well, you get the idea.

And who’d beg to differ with those 20th-century Jeffersonians? At his dinner table in the White House Thomas Jefferson was said to combine republican simplicity with epicurean delicacy. His epicureanism sprang from his belief that man was “destined for society” and that “the best way to help his disposition is with good food, good wine, and the fruits of the benevolent Creator.”

A quick aside here: I think it testifies to the state we’re in in this country that I’m uneasy about this bit of reportage this year, uneasy about it because of the tsunami of stories about millions of Britons going hungry. I never thought when I came here 50 years ago that a time would come in the UK when that Oliver Twist moment – “please, Sir, I want some more” – that hungry little boy asking for some more gruel – I never thought that Oliver Twist moment would rise up from its 19th-century grave and be abroad again, be abroad in modern England, be stalking the halls of the modern United Kingdom.

Moving on, December 1st is also American Day in London because of what happened at St, Paul’s on December 1st, 1963. Just over a week after his assassination, thousands of British people crowded toward the cathedral to honour the memory of President Kennedy. 3,000 found room inside. 

In attendance, members of the royal family, representatives of other nations, members of both Houses of Parliament. The address was given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He said the late president was “one who touched something universal in the human heart. Thinking of him we all see so vividly what we admire in a human life, and what are the great causes we care about. The man: brave to the point of heroism as his actions in wartime showed, youthful beyond the age when youthfulness always lasts, tenacious when there could be no compromise, infinitely patient when the human touch could win conciliation. There was the man. And the causes – how they, too, touch the mind and conscience as well as the heart: peace, freedom, the service of prosperous nations to nations where there is poverty and hunger, the partnership of every race in civil rights.”

In relation to that last point, it’s surely appropriate to mention that it was on December 1st, 1955 that Rosa Parks, in violation of segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger and was arrested, sparking a 381-day bus boycott led by Martin Luther King. 

Back in London, and finally, it was on December 1st, 1919 that the American Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. She glided into history wearing severe black-and-white and a Tudor-style black hat. She sat between Prime Minister Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, both of whom were wearing the front bench “uniform” of frock coats. That evening she gave a resplendent dinner party at the House to the Prime Minister and influential MPs.

She’s always good copy, Nancy Astor. If you’re a guide, you love to meet up with her on your walks. She was sharp-tongued, delightfully so. There’s that tale of Nancy Cunard confronting her when she arrived in England, “I suppose you’ve come over here to get one of our husbands.”

To which Nancy Astor replied, “If you knew the trouble I’ve had getting rid of mine, you’d know I don’t want yours.”

That famous contretemps with Winston Churchill, though – I think he outpointed her. For the record, Churchill detested the entry of women into the House of Commons. Anyway, the story always bears repeating. He’d done something that she wasn’t best pleased about. She said, “Winston, if I was married to you I’d put poison in your coffee.”

He replied, “Nancy, if I was married to you I’d drink it.”

And on that note, time for a Today in London recommendation. Nancy Astor’s wonderful house in St James’s Square is today the Naval & Military Club. Popularly known as the In and Out Club. My recommendation would be, keep an eye on it. From time to time they host an art exhibition there that’s open to the public. And as a matter of fact, they’ve got one going on right now. Ends in the New Year, January 2023. But just generally if one comes up when you’re here, carpe diem – go and see it. Getting on the other side of that closed door – getting across that threshold – getting into the Naval & Military Club – getting into Nancy Astor’s magnificent old house in St James’s Square… that’s a big Win.

And were it to come to pass on December 1st, well, what a perfect way to mark American Day in London. And sure enough, it has to come to pass. So go online – the Naval and Military Club – make a booking, see some exciting contemporary art and get yourself some bragging rights: “I got into Nancy Astor’s house.”

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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