Today (January 27) in London History – Intensifying London

Four very special feathers in London’s January 27th hat.


London calling on January 27th. 

Busy day for us. We’re really making the rounds today. To start with, birthday celebrations. And that’s by way of saying, I hope you’re all listening to some Mozart. Today’s his birthday. Mozart was born on January 27th, 1756. So our first stop is Mozart’s bi-centenary. January 27th, 1956. Happy Birthday, Wolfgang. 

And London is doing him proud. At the Royal Opera House they’re marking the occasion with a production of The Magic Flute. And at Sadler’s Wells it’s Don Giovanni.

And the Mozart is just Act I. 

For Act II we’ve got to rappel down three centuries of the London mountain. To January 27th, 1571. Important day for London. Good Queen Bess – Queen Elizabeth I is going to open the Royal Exchange. Open it and name it. It wasn’t the Royal Exchange until that day when she, on the spur of the moment – dubbed it so. 

Quick bit of background history. One Sir Richard Gresham – he was the patriarch of the Gresham family – Sir Richard Gresham was a wealthy and prominent London merchant in Henry VIII’s day. For the record, he was also a Lord Mayor of London. Anyway, Sir Richard Gresham’s mercantile interests had taken him to Antwerp. He was very impressed with their new bourse there – it was a well-appointed gathering place where merchants and customers in Antwerp could come together and do business. Sir Richard Gresham thought London should take a leaf out of Antwerp’s book – have its own Bourse. Have a handsome, fixed establishment where merchants could assemble and transact business. In that important regard, London wasn’t in the same league as Antwerp. 

Writing about Lombard Street, John Stow tells us “the merchants and tradesman, English as well as strangers, for their general making of bargains, contracts and commerce…did usually meet twice every day, at mid-day and in the evening. But these meetings were unpleasant and troublesome, by reason of walking and talking in an open narrow street…being there constrained either to endure all extremes of weather – heat and cold, snow and rain; or else to shelter themselves in shops.”

No question about it, they were making a better fist of it in Antwerp with their bourse. 

The best-laid plans of mice and men, though. Sir Richard Gresham wasn’t able to bring it off. That would have to wait a generation – wait for his son, Sir Thomas Gresham. But it happened. The son got the project over the line and on this day – January 27, 1571 – Queen Elizabeth, came to London to open the brand new, the first ever London bourse. Red-letter day for London. Let’s get a ringside seat. Bells were ringing in every part of the City. In the words of a contemporary account, “the Queen’s Majesty, attended with her nobility, came from her house at the Strand, called Somerset House, and entered the city by Temple Bar, through Fleet Street, Cheap and so by the north side of the Bourse to Sir Thomas Gresham’s house in Bishopsgate Street, where she dined. After dinner her Majesty returning through Cornhill, entered the Bourse on the south side.” Good Queen Bess liked what she saw, because “after she had viewed the whole, she caused it by herald and trumpet, to be proclaimed the Royal Exchange.

And here’s a takeaway for you. Today’s Royal Exchange – it’s right there in front of us on any of our walks that start at Bank Station – is the third one on the site.

 Like all of them, it’s surmounted by Sir Thomas Gresham’s crest, his family symbol. A golden grasshopper. Be sure to look out for it when you’re there. It’s a nice story. Sir Thomas Gresham adopted the grasshopper as his personal crest – his symbol – because when he was an infant, a grasshopper saved his life. His parents had mislaid their baby son. Put baby Thomas down in some tall grass and forgot where they’d left him. They were looking frantically for him, couldn’t find him. A nearby grasshopper started chirruping furiously. It drew the attention of the parents. They went toward the sound and there was their baby. Lovely London tale.

But there’s more in the London… January 27th cupboard.

We have to take our leave of 1571 and head back up this way. All the way up to 1949. A long way in time but not far geographically. We’re going to head just a couple of hundred yards west to St Paul’s cathedral. To a memorial service for Tommy Handley, the greatest British radio comedian of his generation. In the words of his biographer, Tommy Handley was as unique in radio comedy as Charlie Chaplin was in silent film.

Handley and his comedy partner Ronald Frankau – Mr. Murgatroyd and Mr Winterbottom – two minds without a single thought – were unmissable listening for millions of Britons throughout the war. They worked wonders for the morale of the country. Which is why we’re in a huge crowd of mourners outside St Paul’s on January 27th, 1949 – we’re there to say goodbye to the greatest British radio comedian of his generation. Here’s a tip. Watch the British Pathe silent newsreel of the crowd outside the memorial service. You can bring it up in a trice by Googling Tommy Handley Memorial Service. Only 298 people have watched it in the eight years it’s been up on Youtube. That’s a pity – that little four-minute film – especially its opening sequence, close-ups of faces in that huge crowd – will teach you more about that generation of Brits – the greatest generation, to use the American phrase – than you’ll get from a lifetime of modern films and a library of books about the subject.

Ok, one more stop. And we’re really going to take wing with this one. 

It’s January 27th, 1967. Halfway round the world – in Sidney, his one stopover – solo yachtsman Francis Chichester is, as of today, Sir Francis Chichester. He’s just been knighted. He’ll resume his round-the-world voyage the day after tomorrow. In four months, when he’s back in London, having completed his globe-encircling solo voyage, he and the Queen will come together in Greenwich where she’ll dub him with Sir Francis Drake’s sword. The pensioner who became a hero of the British people and achieved worldwide fame, Sir Francis Chichester. Another feather in the cap for this day, January 27th.

Let’s give the last word to Sir Francis. Somebody asked him, “Why did he do it?” “Because” he replied – “it intensifies life.” I like that a lot. Just a tiny droplet of that is, I think, applicable to London Walks. A London Walk intensifies London.

Be nice to think that maybe some of these podcasts do that as well.

And if you want one moment that anneals those two – welds them together – Intensifying Life and intensifying London – well, no question about it, it’s when we stop in front of Sir Francis Chichester’s House on the Old Palace Quarter walk. 

Good night.  From London.   

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