Today (July 26) in London History – Wacky, Daft, Eccentric London

A tub on the Thames (with a man in it) pulled by four geese; a cart (with a man in it) pulled by eight tom-cats. Welcome to the London of July 26th, 1818. 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 26th, 1818. Just another day that ends in Y. 


So what have we got for you? What have we got for London? What do we have in the way of a despatch from London for you? A despatch from July 26th, 1818.

Well, nothing out of the ordinary. Just a man sailing from Westminster to Waterloo Bridge in a wash-tub.

A wash-tub drawn by four geese.

Then putting ashore at Waterloo, the plan was for the London gentleman to transfer to a vehicle that would make its way to the Royal Coburg Theatre.

The vehicle to be drawn by eight tom-cats, all of them in harnesses that were conjoined and connected to the vehicle. 

The first part of the journey worked a treat. 

But then – the best-laid plans of mousers and their man. Obstructions in the Waterloo Road. Said obstructions were thousands of Londoners who’d turned out to watch the feat, watch the spectacle. 

It was impossible to make any headway. In the words of the Annual Register – my source for the story – “six jolly young watermen shouldered Richard Usher and his stud and bore them in triumph to the theatre.”

Ok, why did this silly story make the cut? There are, after all, other worthier candidates. By way of example, the first public railway in the world opened in London on July 26th, 1803. It ran from Frying Pan Creek – love that name – on the Thames at Wandsworth through Merton, Mitcham and Waddon to Pitlake Meadows in Croydon. The trucks were drawn by horses and mules. Each horse could pull ten wagons. It was a goods line. A world first. A horse-drawn railroad. That’s not bad. But I’ll take a boat that’s a tub pulled by goosepower and a cart pulled by tom-cats every time.

But my personal preferences – my weakness for whimsicality and the bizarre – wouldn’t have been enough to get this one over the line.

No, there were four pretty good factors that tipped the balance.

  1. Like every other Londoner, theatre has been on my mind this past week because it’s just been announced that come autumn London will be getting it first new theatre in 50 years.

And of course the theatre the team of tom cats were pulling their wagon load to would become, in time, one of the most famous and best-loved and important theatres in London. The Old Vic. In its first incarnation it was known as The Royal Coburg. That’s where the team of tom-cats and their conveyance and their conveyance’s passenger were bound for. 

And in fact, the man in the tub on the Thames – a tub drawn by geese – and the same man in his tomcat-drawn vehicle – the whole thing was a publicity stunt for the theatre. 

Second reason for going with the story, I wanted to introduce Richard Usher to the London Walks podcast audience. 

He’s now all but forgotten but I think he shouldn’t be. He’s certainly in my London Hall of Fame. He was born in 1785. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a clown. But also a theatre designer. He was the son of the owner of a so-called “mechanical exhibition” that toured in the north of England and Ireland. 

Like father like son. Richard inherited his father’s talent for constructing curious contrivances. He made his way to London. Caught on at Astley’s Amphitheatre. In no time at all he was a huge hit, a favourite with metropolitan audiences. He became renowned for his annual benefits, as they were called. I get an afternoon or two in the British Library I’m going to try to find out more about Richard Usher’s “annual benefits.” The biographical sketch of our man in the Oxford DNB – the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – just leaves us with this arch tantaliser (I’m quoting): “extraordinary feats were known to take place at Usher’s annual ‘benefits.’”

Third reason this one made the cut: it’s another reminder of that defining character trait of Londoners. Londoners like spectacle. They like the unusual. They like the novel – like seeing something that’s never been seen before. For example, a tub on the Thames with a man in it being pulled by geese. And – a follow-up act to that, a cart, with a man in it being pulled by a team of tom-cats.

And lastly – the fourth reason this one made the cut – is that it mainlines us right into the very essence of the genus Londoner. I get asked, “you live amongst them – what are Londoners like?” I begin to answer that question by comparing them with my stock. Midwestern Americans. What are we like: we’re earnest, maybe a bit stolid, sincere, straight-up, squared-away, well, you get the idea.

Londoners? Well, that Midwestern template is certainly not a photo-fit for Londoners. They’re quick, they’re witty, they’re tack-sharp, they’re anything but plodding, they’re fun, they can be a bit sceptical and guarded.

And I think I know where that comes from. It comes from 2,000 years of living by their wits. This place is not sitting on oil or gold or diamond mines. There are no natural resources of any note in London. No easy pickings from the land. If there are no resources, the people have to be resourceful. And Londoners. 2,000 years of living by their wits have sharpened those wits. They’re a good sort, Londoners. I’m privileged to live amongst them, to be married to one of them. To have fathered three of them. It was all there for the seeing underneath my roof. From the time they were about six years old at least once a week, it was “mum, mum, call the Home Office and have dad deported.”

And on that note…

Oops, almost forgot. A Today in London recommendation. I think in the circs it’s got to be something there on the southbank where Richard Usher put ashore. What looks awfully inviting is An Evening with David Sedaris. The legendary American humourist will be doing his thing at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of this month, July 30th and July 31st. Maybe see you there.

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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