Today (July 3) in London History – Disaster & Dickens

Exactly 700 years ago today 52 Londoners were crushed to death. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale. And this one’s a double bill because July 3rd, 1833 has a great Dickens connection.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

V.S. Pritchett once said, “London deifies its past.” Turns what went before into Gods and worships them. Or at least pays homage to them. 

A short-hand version of the same thing is the phrase, London Remembers. Every statue, every monument, every memorial, every holiday… to say nothing of almost every London place name is London remembering. Indeed, it’s what this podcast is: London remembering.

And the remembering we’re going to do today, July 3rd, well, it’s a double bill.

One of them’s very old. July 3rd, 1322. So seven hundred years ago to the day. All but forgotten. But we’re not going to forget. I’m going to give those dying embers a stir – blow some oxygen their way.

52 people may have been crushed to death at the gate of the Black Friars on July 3rd, 1322 – but they’re not utterly lost in the black hole of time if we remember them. It was, yes, a London catastrophe. A London catastrophe perhaps best grasped by facing up to the numbers. The population of London at the time was about 80,000 people. One one hundredth of its population today. 52 people crushed to death in a city of 80,000 people – put that into 2022 terms that would be well over 5,000 Londoners crushed to death outside that gate in Blackfriars. It was daybreak. A huge crowd had assembled at the gate of the Black Friars priory. They were seeking alms. 52 of them – men, women, and children – were crushed to death. Our remembering them in 2022 – it’s a kind of kiss of life. I hope. 

Now let’s jump forward to July 3rd, 1833. Opening Day for the new Hungerford Market Building. I went for this one like a seal going for a fish. Went for it because of the Charles Dickens connection. In 1824, when Dickens was 12 years, he was put to work in the blacking factory. 12 hours a day, six days a week. A twelve-year-old kid. Pasting labels on bottles of shoe black. Warrens Blacking Factory it was called. It was at 30 Hungerford Stairs. Right there, at Hungerford Market in other words. There’s no question but those few months in the Blacking Factory was the single most important, traumatic and formative experience of Dickens’ entire life. It marked him forever. He never got over it. So I’m particularly interested in the dates here. Dickens was there in 1824. Nine years later old, clapped out, rundown, dirty, dishevelled Hungerford Market gets a new building. Now guess what I’ve found. An 1829 newspaper article describing the old market. 1829, that’s five years after Dickens was there. So what we’ve got here is, in effect, a contemporary account of the Hungerford Market that Dickens knew during his time at Warrens Blacking Factory.

Here’s what that little boy saw, heard, smelt, experienced.

Here are a few phrasal brushstrokes:

repels rather than attracts

Nothing but a collection of wretched-looking huts whose exterior gives no promise of cleanliness with. 

Filth and dirt lying in heaps at every turning.

Masses of rotten vegetables and other putrid matters allowed to accumulate.

The appearance of great disorder in the transactions carried.

The use, often, by low persons, of language sufficient to offend the ears even of those who are not too fastidiously nice. 

Small, inconvenient sheds.

Well, I think we get the idea.

And to make a final connection – this business of making sense of London – of guiding it – it’s all about making connections – we can bear in mind that Covent Garden was to get its new market structure – the one that’s still there today – just a year after the Times ran the piece I’ve just quoted from. And what’s more – finding this out really pleased me – the architect who did the neo-classical Covent Garden Market structure, Charles Fowler, just a couple of years did the new Hungerford Market building. For the record, though, it didn’t enjoy anything like the success its Covent Garden cousin did. It revived trade for a while. And it got a boost from the opening, in 1845, of the Hungerford Suspension Bridge. Which is still there of course. Completely modernised a few years ago – that bridge is one of the gems of London.  But Hungerford Market – attractive, new improved Hungerford Market wasn’t long for this world. It was demolished in 1860. The movers and shakers there had bigger fish to fry – namely the imminent arrival of the railway and Charing Cross station. 

And a Today in London recommendation. Ok, you’re down that way. I’d say pay a visit to the Ben Franklin House museum on Craven Street.

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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