Today (July 20) in London History – A Day of Infamy

It’s a mixed bag, July 20th, in London History. It’s a date that’s served up some very good things for London. And two really hideous ones. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

July 20th. In many ways a really good date for London. 

Well, would be a really good date – a red letter day – but for the most god-awful shadow forever hanging over it.

I’m thinking about the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings on July 20th, 1982. 

All the good stuff that came London’s way on this July 20th or that July 20th – really positive stuff, feel-good stuff, life-enhancing stuff – but then’s there’s that 1982 black border eternally running round that high summer date. 

The good stuff: well, July 20th, for some reason is a date that important pieces of London furniture pitch up. 

Pieces of London furniture that make up our London, modern London. Two notable transport examples. On July 20th, 1837 the London and Birmingham Railway opened for business from Euston Square. The first trains went to Boxmoor in Hertfordshire. A year on the line would be open all the way to Birmingham. There was a lot of opposition and problems to be overcome. Farmers said the railways contaminated the land, made it impossible to let. And for good measure turned the sheep’s wool black. The line had to cross the Regent’s Canal. How that was surmounted is a story in itself. And the railway people had to bore a spectacular 1,200-foot-long tunnel underneath the Eton College estate near Primrose Hill. Then four years later, 1841, Fenchurch Street Railway Station – the first station to be built inside the City of London – opened on July 20th. 

Then come July 20th, 1877 London gets it spectacular new Billingsgate fish market.

I sometimes think of each date in this series as a different key on a keychain. And I for the most part like taking each date’s keychain out with me when its day comes round. “This happened on this day in such and such a year…today’s the anniversary of…”. That sort of thing. It’s mostly pretty agreeable. But July 20th – despite having trains and fancy new market buildings – well, as I said, it’s got a key I can hardly bear to look at, a key attached to the ring with a sombre black ribbon, a key that you press it against the heart of London burns, hurts.

Yes, those two IRA bombs. In Hyde Park and Regent’s Park. On this day, July 20th, 1982. They killed, in Hyde Park, four young guardsmen and seven horses. Many people were injured. The Household Cavalry were riding through Hyde Park, on their way to Horse Guards Parade and the changing of the guard ceremony when the bomb – it was hidden in a blue Austin Morris – was detonated.  And wounded many tourists. Then two hours a bomb planted under the bandstand in Regent’s Park was detonated. 30 soldier musicians – members of the Royal Green Jackets – were performing on that bandstand. Seven of them were killed.

I didn’t register it at the time – who knew who she was then – but the commander of the Household Cavalry was Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Parker Bowles. He was the husband of Camilla Parker Bowles, who now of course is the Duchess of Cornwall. 

In an interview, Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, he’s 82 now, said the attack was the saddest moment of his military life.

On this subject of bombs, a bomb went off in Germany on July 20th, 1944. It was intended to kill Adolph Hitler. If only it had – and the bombs in Hyde Park and Regent’s Park 38 years later had not gone off. I admit, it’s a make-believe, to be-wished-for, child’s eye view of the world but sometimes when I’m thinking about history and coincidences and parallels I go counter-factual. And wish things had turned out differently.

But maybe one more July 20th Today in London history tale. This one’s bracing. I like it a lot. 

On July 20th, 1933 30,000 Jewish Londoners marched from the East End of London to Hyde Park to protest against the persecution of Jews in Germany. They marched from Stepney Green to Marble Arch. It took nearly an hour for the procession to pass through the gates into the park. It was the biggest Jewish demonstration in England’s history. And that huge number – 30,000 – became 50,000 when they got to Hyde Park. 20,000 sympathisers – their fellow Londoners – mostly non-Jewish – were there in Hyde Park, to meet the marchers, join forces with them.

It’s a now largely forgotten demonstration. It shouldn’t be. What happened on that July 20th was London at its best. An event, an occasion that makes you really proud of London and Londoners. Proud to be a Londoner.

And a Today in London recommendation. For sure. The Regent’s Park Music Festival on the bandstand on Saturday afternoon, July 23rd. And if you can’t make the 23rd, well it’s on every Saturday through September 18th. And on the August Bank Holiday Monday.

And a connection: The composer George Lloyd wrote Royal Parks for Brass two years after the bombing. The second movement of which, In Memoriam, is dedicated to the bandsmen who died. Many bands feature this piece in the playing selections. 

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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