Today (July 13) in London History – Buckingham Palace & Ruth Ellis

Buckingham House sloughed off its old skin today, July 13th, 1837, became Buckingham Palace. And Ruth Ellis, the last woman executed in Britain, was hanged on this day in 1955. This Today in London History podcast goes there.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Good morning, London.

Channelling my inner Robin Williams. That felt good, let’s give it another go.


July 13th. One of those days in London history. It was like a historical scrum. Piled high with history. 

Without even trying, I’ve got 17 names on my dance card. Ok, 17 events. And that’s just what I netted at a single, first pass. Yes, switching my metaphors here. Sometimes with this exercise that first pass just brings up one or two cod flopping around there on the processing deck. But this trawl, almost more than I can count.

But I’m not going to do a run-through – we’re not going to inspect every fish.

Maybe just a pair – which of course is double the number you normally get. But this is one of those days – Good Morning, London and all of that Robin Williams schtick. So here we go. It’s July 13, 1837 and somebody’s moving house. Moving into her new house. The somebody is Queen Victoria and today she’s taking up residence in her new, just completed palace: Buckingham Palace. You’re down there today, taking in the Changing of the Guard, you could do worse than casually mentioning to the greener than green tourist standing next to you, “Gosh, to think that it was 185 years ago to this day that it’s life as a palace began. This was moving day: Queen Victoria’s first day in the newly completed Buckingham Palace. Cost a nearly a million pounds to convert it from Buckingham House to Buckingham Palace. Wonder if she went out on the balcony that first day.” A remark like that, casually thrown off, should do a decent job of roughing up said greener than green tourist. Guarantee you he or she will be quoting you later in the today – you’ll be all over their Facebook Feed. What a hoot. 

Second item. Another woman. Poor Ruth Ellis. They hanged her today. 

At Holloway Prison. In London. 

She was 28, the youngest woman executed in 20th-century Britain. 

When they sentenced Ruth Ellis to death she just said, “Thanks.”

Her crime: she’d shot and killed her lover, David Blakely, outside the Magnolia Pub in South Hampstead.  Pub’s still there. 

David Blakely was a scoundrel. He made a habit of giving Ruth terrible beatings. Pretty much every man in Ruth Ellis’s life – including her father – was an evil bastard. Think of the men in the Ridley Scott film Thelma and Louise and how they mistreat those two women. The men in Ruth Ellis’s life were cut from the same cloth. Every time I see that great – and harrowing – film I think,  “had she got to America, Ruth Ellis would be in the back seat of that T-bird convertible, joining the pact the Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis characters make to courageously and defiantly drive off the edge of the cliff and plummet to their deaths rather than be taken by that legion of heavily armed policemen who’ve run them down like hunted deer. 

Ruth Ellis was executioner Albert Pierrepoint’s 16th and last female client. What did he get for his services: 15 guineas. And maybe something else.  He said, “she was the bravest woman I ever hanged.” His biographers say hanging Ruth Ellis was a turning point for Pierrepoint. Changed his mind about capital punishment. He said, “I do not now believe any one of the hundreds of executions has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”

And on that sobering note, a Today in London recommendation. On one of these fine summer days maybe head on up to South Hampstead. Go to the Magnolia. Have a cool one. When you come out look for the bullet holes in the exterior wall of the pub. And look, take that tiny vignette with a grain of salt. They’re not the genuine article. Someone took a hammer and chisel to the wall. It’s a bit of make-believe. They’re ersatz. But does it matter that they’re not real? I don’t think so. And then make your way to the Heath. Sit on the western bank of Number 4 pond. And daydream about one of those magnificent houses across the water. One with a rooftop terrace. Looking out over the water. Looking out over the Heath. Looking west, so every day you get the setting sun. And not forgetting the swans on the pond. And if you want a dip, the bathing ponds are close at hand.

Those folks, they’ve done it – they’ve won the lottery of London living spaces. 

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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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