Today (February 12) in London History – coincidence, beheading, vileness & lying in state

We’ll break step with this one. Instead of a single event, this podcast looks at four remarkable events that took place on February 12th.


How do you choose?

In the end I decided not to choose, decided to give each of them an airing out.

Starting with the best known one. A teenage girl having her head chopped off. Lady Jane Grey, queen for all of nine days and paying for it with the loss of her life. She was beheaded at the Tower of London on February 12, 1554. You want a recommendation. Look at Delaroche’s painting of that blindfolded teenage girl being assisted to lay her head upon the block for the executioner. The man assisting her is John Brydges, the first Baron Chandos. He was the Lieutenant of the Tower. The painting is in the National Gallery, not a stone’s throw away from Chandos Street. That painting, once seen, never forgotten. And for that matter, once you look at that painting, Chandos Street will never look the same again either. 

Moving on, the next one’s another one of those weird London coincidences. If I were partial to astrology – which I emphatically am not – I’m sure I’d be able to convince myself that it was all a matter of the moon being in hard aspect to somebody’s pluto and in consequence… well, you know what I mean.

But anyway, we’ve got something of a London coincidence on February 12th. A Savoy coincidence as it happens. And talk about a long lineage. The Savoy Hotel and Theatre can trace its line back to February 12th, 1246. Do they mark the occasion, I wonder? Is there a Savoy birthday party? Do they even know?

Anyway, let’s chug on back to 1246 and take a little peep at what’s going down, what’s being set in train. And, yes, we have to backpedal even further. To 1189. The year the Earl of Leicester built a mansion on the site. Come 1246 – February 12th, 1246 – Peter, the Earl of Richmond, wakes up to a very pleasant surprise. His niece, Eleanor, King Henry III’s Queen, has pulled a few strings and persuaded her husband the King to give the mansion to Uncle Peter. It’s an impressive house – a mansion – but Peter, the Earl of Richmond, dreams bigger than a mere mansion. He has the mansion pulled down – this is some years later – and in its stead, he builds a palace. And if you’ve got yourself a new palace, well, you need a new title to go with it. So, in the way of these things, Peter, the Earl of Richmond, is made the Count of Savoy and 800 years later the name is still with us. It’s survived and thrived. It’s the name of one of London’s swishest hotels. And the name of the theatre that’s attached to it, almost like a guest house.

So that takes care of the 13th century – for our coincidence we have to whoosh forward to, sure enough,  February 12th, 1990. You’ve probably guessed. Fire broke out in the witching hours. Flames shot 50 feet into the air. By morning the roof had collapsed, the gorgeous seats were blackened twisted metal frames. I suppose you could say they caught a break. The safety curtain did its job. So the stage, dressing rooms and backstage areas were preserved but nothing remained of the gorgeous 1929 auditorium.

That’s the second course for this Today in London History podcast.

Third course sees us heading upstream – just a little way upstream – and heading up time’s stream. Paddling through a lot of water under the dam. 120 years worth. Yes, we’re tying up at 1870. At Parliament. Now, look, let me introduce this one by saying it shocked me. I’m not exaggerating. What have I fished out of the London stream of time? Ok, I’ll let you in on a little trade secret here. This project is a little bit like panning for gold. Historical gold. Some of the waters and sludge I’m sifting and winnowing are old newspapers. It’s the only way to find a lot of this stuff. Much of it didn’t make it into the history books. Anyway, this one – the one that shocked me – was a February 12th, 1870 newspaper account reporting on that shocking development: women being admitted into the House of Commons. The newspaper tells us women were allowed in “on the utmost sufferance, extended even to the point of suffering on their part. They were relegated to the “ventilator’ of the old House, which had a richly ornamented lattice screen. The women forced off bits of brasswork in order to open up adequate peepholes.”

Whoa. That’s a definition of second class citizenship if there ever was one.

Ok, and for our third item today, I thought we’d go next door. To Westminster Hall. We’ve leapt forward in time 82 years. It’s February 12, 1952. 

The body of King George VI is lying in state in Westminster Hall. For three days, beginning today, February 12th. So his subjects can pay their respects. Taking survey of those scenes, you cannot but respect – indeed, stand in awe – of the bare facts and figures, the distances, the head-counts, etc. And reading sifting through all of this I was of course aware – we all are – that these scenes will in all likelihood be re-enacted before this decade is out. So I wanted to take them on board. Store them up. For what’s coming. To help get it into perspective. Here are the eloquent facts of that 1952 lying in state. The weather for the most part was atrocious over the course of those three days. It was cold. It rained. There was sleet. In those conditions, night and day, thousands of Londoners and their fellow citizens waited patiently in queues sometimes more than four miles long. The doors opened at 8 am on February 12. Thousands of people had been waiting since before dawn on that first morning. The original intention was to close the doors at 10 pm. That was extended to 11 pm. Come 11 pm the end of the queue was still 200 yards south of Lambeth Bridge. So it was decided to allow those then in the queue to continue, but not to allow anyone else to join the back of the queue. The doors in fact were not closed until 1.45 am, by which time 76,426 people had passed through the Hall. The next day, February 13th, the queue was even longer. It was announced that the public would be allowed to join the queue up until midnight. The doors were not closed until 3.20 am. On February 13th over 108,000 people filed past the King’s coffin. On the last day, February 14th, it was announced that the doors would be kept open until 6 am the following morning. The final count, over 300,000 people. It was of course a sight – the ancient hall with its famous double-hammer beam roof, the catafalque supporting the coffin, the Honour Guard made up of officers from the Household troops, the Gentlemen at Arms, and Yeomen of the guard – with swords, axes and partizans reversed – it was of course a sight the good people in that four-mile long queue would never forget.

Good night from London.

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