Today (January 1) in London History – Pole Position

And for our New Year’s Day Today in London History podcast, a dark horse: the consecration of St. Mary le Strand. Chosen for reasons the podcast makes clear. Happy New Year, everybody!


London Calling.

Happy New Year. It’s January 1st, 2022.

So what about this day in London history?

We’re spoiled for choice. Let’s meet a few of the entrants.

It was on January 1, 1785 that a newspaper called the Daily Universal Register was founded. Three years later to the day – January 1, 1788 – they renamed the rag. Called it The Times. 233 years later – or depending on how you’re counting – 236 years later, that paper’s still very much with us. 

Next up, January 1, 1801. The Acts of Union between Great Britain and Ireland came into force. 

Coming right down to now – well, nearly now – on January 1, 1962 Decca Records blew it. Spectacularly. They declined to sign the Beatles because guitar groups were “on their way out.”

Even closer to now – and very much the ghost at the banquet given the waters the Brexit ideologues have taken us into – on this day, January 1, 1973 Britain entered the Common Market, later named the European Union. If you’re following these things – if you can bear to follow them – the anniversary’s going to be even more resonant today because today’s the day Brexit gets even more real. What’s that mean? UK import rules take effect today, January 1, 2022. Happy New Year everybody: the much-delayed checks and paperwork go live today. A red-letter day that perhaps should be described as the red tape day. Importers have to make a full customs declaration on goods entering the UK from the EU or other countries. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. And maybe remember who did this to you come the next time you cast your vote.

But those are just four of the usual suspects we’ve rounded up. The one that I thought was going to take the honours was Samuel Pepys’ diary. It got underway on this day – January 1, 1660. It’s the most important diary ever penned in this country. Pepys kept it for a decade. And what a decade to have a ring-side seat, to be well connected – as Pepys was – and keep a diary. The Restoration, the execution of the regicides, the great plague, the great fire, frost fairs on the Thames, the Anglo-Dutch wars, the Restoration of theatres, the beginning of the West End of London…what a ride. And Pepys told the tale.

It’s the most wonderful diary. He’s so honest about himself and his situation. He’s aspirational. Wants to get on and does get on. Counts his shekels and tells us how well off he is. He’s a bottom pincher par excellence. The diary sets sail with him opening his life up to view, right down to a mention of his wife’s menstrual cycle. He tells us who he’s hanging out with and what their situation is – one of them’s just lost an infant but is “pretty merry” Pepys says. Tells us what they ate, tells us about the music they listened to and the card games they played. Then we hear about the state of the country. It was in a bad way. Unmistakable parallels with where we are 360 years later. That in itself nearly clinched the deal. I was going to read that very first entry and draw the obvious inferences.

Didn’t happen, though. In the end, I went for a January 1st event that was most in keeping with the London Walks ethos. Our business – like Sherlock Holmes’ business – is to know things that other people don’t know. 

Wordsworth put it perfectly in that Lucy poem of his that I never get tired of. The poem entitled, She dwelt among the untrodden ways. So rather than the usual suspects – the obvious candidates – the Times and the Acts of Union and Decca Records blowing it and Samuel Pepys’ diary – I plumped for, as Wordsworth puts it, a violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.

And I know we had a church dedication just a couple of days ago – the dedication of Westminster Abbey – but I’m going to double down on that in this podcast. Our date is January 1, 1724. The event is the consecration of St. Mary le Strand, the first of the planned 50 new London churches to be finished. In the event only 12 of the 50 were completed. Designed by James Gibbs, St. Mary le Strand is the western-most of the pair of island churches at the eastern end of the Strand. The other one’s St. Clement Danes. They’re called island churches because they’re located on islands in the middle of the famous old London Street, the Strand. The Strand flows around those two churches – St. Mary le Strand and St. Clement Danes – the way the Seine flows around the Ile de la Cité – the Notre Dame island in Paris. For the record, at the western end of the Strand – the Trafalgar Square end – there’s another famous, much-loved James Gibbs church – St Martin in the Fields. So Gibbs’ creations effectively bookend arguably the most famous street in London. 

In my case, there’s another compelling reason for the consecration of St. Mary le Strand getting my vote for the place of honour on this day – January 1st – in London History. You could say the Charles Dickens story gets started at St. Mary le Strand – because Dickens’ parents got married there in 1809. The church stands across the street from the Strand’s last great riverside mansion – Somerset House. Dickens’s father, John Dickens, worked at Somerset House in the Naval Pay Office. He formed a friendship with a young colleague named Thomas Barrow. One day Thomas Barrow took his new friend John Dickens home to meet his family. As it happened Thomas Barrow had a sister named Elizabeth…and well, one thing led to another. John and Elizabeth Dickens were Charles Dickens’ parents and they tied the knot at St. Mary le Strand.

There are two other things that fascinate me about the church and its London position generally, You come out of St. Mary le Strand, turn left and cross the Strand and there you are, in the mighty courtyard of mighty Somerset House. It’s the one bit of London that could pass for St. Petersburg. Couldn’t be grander. But if you come out of St. Mary Le Strand and turn right – well, today what’s right there is India House and Australia House and Bush House. All very grand. But before about 120 years ago what was there was a street called Wych Street. It was full of old gabled sixteenth and seventeenth-century houses. People said it was the most picturesque street in London. Decidedly Dickensian. But a world apart from the grandeur and fabled wealth of Somerset House. There they were – Somerset House and Wych Street, looking at one another. Disdain written all over Somerset House. Glowering resentment exuding from Wych Street. Deeply mistrustful of one another, any way you cut it. And St. Mary le Strand was like a referee trying to separate them. That opposition at such close quarters, that fascinates me, I think about it every time I’m down there. 

And finally, the cherry on the sundae. I picture the island as a vessel. The church is the superstructure of the vessel. And then we come to the vessel’s mainmast. It stood just outside the church. 

That main mast was the Strand Maypole – the most celebrated Maypole in London. The first one had gone up in the early sixteenth century. That first one was about 100 feet tall.  Its successor did some more growing – it was 135 feet tall. They were erections to be reckoned with. Nelson’s column is not much higher. It was a regular custom in the merry month of May to cover it with flowers and dance around it. Needless to say, the Puritans destroyed it in 1644. 

Come the Restoration some young bucks put up another one. A local preacher – a killjoy – inveighed against it. He preached that it was “a relique of the shamefull worship of the strumpet Flora in Rome.” In the end, his wife Elizabeth, assisted by other like-minded, strait-laced local ladies took a saw to it.

That viagragated the pro-Maypole faction. In due course the new, improved, 135 foot Maypole went up.  And went merrily about its business for the rest of the 17th century. Ok, it decayed. But sure enough it was replaced with a new one in 1713. 

And then finally, come the completion of St. Mary le Strand – it was completed in 1717 but not consecrated until January 1, 1724 – anyway, come the completion of St. Mary le Strand enter the great Sir Isaac Newton. He buys the Maypole, ships it to Wanstead, and turns it into a support for a huge telescope. A telescope that made extremely important observations of Jupiter and Saturn.

St. Mary le Strand, what a show, what a carry on. It gets my vote for the – dare I say it – pole position on this day in London History. New Year’s Day. January 1st.

Happy New Year everybody. From us. From London Walks. From London. 

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