Today (January 30) in London History – Death’s Day

I’ve had an epiphany about January 30th. Namely that it’s London’s Day of the Dead. This podcast goes there…


I will show you fear in a handful of dust…

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

A line – and then nine lines – from near the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. 

Regarded by many as the greatest poem of the 20th century. 

One of the seminal poems of the 20th century.

When I looked at this date – January 30th – it was almost inevitable that those lines would come to mind. 

It’s one of those days, January 30th. It’s death’s day.

So here we go. 

It was on January 30th, 1649 that King Charles I was executed. Beheaded.

It was on January 30th, 1661 that Oliver Cromwell was ritually executed. He’d been dead for two years. His corpse was exhumed. And hanged, drawn and quartered. And, yes, beheaded. The head was put on a stake on the roof of Westminster Hall. When I guide the Hall I sometimes sense that the head is still up there, looking balefully down on the statue. The statue because, yes, it’s a statue of Oliver Cromwell. Looking balefully down on the statue and I think glowering over at the bust – the head, if you prefer – of Charles I in its niche over the door on the east side of St Margaret’s Westminster. Needless to say, it was no coincidence that the exhumation and ritual execution took place on January 30th. 

It was January 30th, 1965 that Winston Churchill’s funeral took place in London. His body had lain in state at Westminster Hall. His statue eternally looks across at that not quite final resting place. It’s a full house, thoughts of Churchill’s life and death and times and funeral. Not least, the thought of those cranes on the banks of the Thames, bowing in salute when the funeral barge floated by.  

It was on January 30th, 1928 that Field Marshal Douglas Haig died. Giving the lie to the famous lines that found their way into American General Douglas Macarthur’s 1951 speech to Congress, Old Soldiers Never Die, they just fade away.

General Haig was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. 

There’s a very fine equestrian statue of him halfway up Whitehall, right in front of Horse Guards. 

So there he is, splendid-looking fellow on his fine horse. And looking at that statue, whatever you want to make of that line about old soldiers never dying, young soldiers certainly do die. It is literally impossible – psychologically impossible – for me to walk up Whitehall, look at that statue, and not see, in my mind’s eye, the never-ending death march. Well, it always seems like it’s never-ending. I’m thinking of the War Graves Commission, in 1931, trying to give people an idea of the scale of the losses, reporting that were the dead of the empire to form up in Trafalgar Square, and march, four abreast, down Whitehall, past their Field Marshal, past the cenotaph, to Parliament Square, it would take that ghostly column four and half days to overtake and march past the man who led them.

The other thing I can never get out of my head about that old soldier – his troops, trying to survive in filthy, muddy, rat-infested, corpse-ridden trenches called him and his fellow commanding officers, Chateau Generals. I don’t need to explain that term. And there’s just one other thing. Sticks in my craw, this. A year or so after the war was over His Majesty’s Government awarded Field Marshal Haig with a £100,000 payout. That’d be the equivalent of nearly half a million pounds today. Anyway, one goes on learning. I feel like I’m training for a marathon, trying to put out one of these every day for a year. But mein gott, mein gott, am I ever learning a lot from the task I’ve set myself. Very glad to have learned today – as part of my digging, something my guide-trenching tool unearthed – very glad to have learned that Field Marshal Haig’s house – it was there that he died – was 21 Prince’s Gate. just a few doors along from the house that’s bespangled with a pair of blue plaques, one to J.P. Morgan and one to the future president of the United States, JFK. 

Switching metaphors – and getting back to Churchill for a minute, not least because the Haig house is not far from the Kensington house where Winston Churchill lived and died 

Today’s trawl has also netted the fact that the Churchill’s, father and son, passed over the bourne from which no traveller returns on the same day – January 24th. Randolph Churchill – Winston Churchill’s father – was 45 when he died on January 24th, 1895. Winston Churchill was 90 when he died on January 24th, 1965. Winston Churchill’s last words: “I’m so bored.” 

And you’ll be wondering, were their funerals on the same day? On this day, London’s Day of the Dead – January 30th. No, they weren’t.  

Winston Churchill’s was a state funeral. Took longer to organise. 

Two days longer. His father’s funeral was on January 28. Winston Churchill’s – as per the T.S. Eliot supplied keynote of this day – “I had not thought death had undone so many – yes, Winston Churchill’s funeral was this day, January 30th 1965. 

And another didn’t know that London location scrap I’ve picked up from this forage – Randolph Churchill died at 50 Grosvenor Square. Straight into the Random Access Memory between my ears that one goes.

Finally, let’s head right into the unknown. King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, General Haig, Winston Churchill, Randolph Churchill…they’re all familiar constellations in our cultural firmament.

Not so, Urban Broughton, who also died on what I’ve started to think of as London’s Day of Dead. January 30th. Like Randolph Churchill, Urban Broughton died in Mayfair, at 37 Park Street. The year was 1929. And who was Urban Broughton? And why resurrect him? He was an English Civil engineer and MP. He married an American heiress. He was about to be made a peer of the realm when Death stopped by for him. He had done the State some service – especially during the Great War. He’d published a pamphlet – The British Empire at War – aimed at encouraging the United States to get into the fray. 

Nothing all that special so far. But then we get this. When he died his Barony was awarded to his son. And a couple of months later the King proclaimed that “Cara Leland Broughton, widow of Urban Hanlon Broughton, may henceforth enjoy the same style and title as if her husband…had survived and received the title and dignity of Baron Fairhaven”.

Later that same year, Lady Fairhaven and her sons bought the historic Runnymede Meadow and presented it to the National Trust “to preserve forever the site where Magna Carta was signed.” And into the bargain, honour of the memory Urban Hanlon Broughton, husband of Lady Fairhaven and father of Lord Fairhaven.  Having your colours nailed to the Magna Carta mast, that’s not bad going. 

And so, with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine, we take our leave of London’s Day of the Dead. January 30th. 

A crowd has flowed over the bridge of this podcast. Maybe in remembering a few of these undone Londoners we’ve undone – by just a glimmer, just a momentary spark in the black void – what death had undone. Seen fear in a handful of dust and not flinched. Kept faith that under the brown fog of a winter dawn, tomorrow’s another day. 

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