Today (June 12) in London History – Calcutta on Thames

This Today in London History podcast surveys what happened in London in the second week of June, 1869 as set out on June 12, 1869 in a London newspaper.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s June 12th. Let’s do something a little different today. 

Were I to play a straight bat this podcast would probably be about what happened on June 12th, 1381. Namely the gathering storm of the Peasants’ Rebellion. Wat Tyler and 100,000 Kent rebels camped on Blackheath. They’d set out from Canterbury on June 11th. Covered the 70 miles in two days. 

And its being a pincer movement, because the Essex Men had laid siege to East London. They were camping at Mile End. Easy to imagine the stark terror of the 1381 “one per cent.”

Or maybe the opening of the Rotherhithe Tunnel on this day, June 12th in 1908.

Or 25 years ago exactly – June 12th,  1997 – the opening, on the Bankside, of the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. 

O, for a muse of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

Those were the first words spoken on the stage of the rebuilt Globe Theatre. It’s the start of the prologue of Henry V. The first play to be performed in the most extraordinary theatre in London.

Those words were, if you will, the bottle of champagne being broken against the bow of the newly launched Good Ship Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

All good bits of London history. Good tales.

But just this once we’re going to hare off in a different direction.

I want you to imagine that it’s June 12, 1869. And you’re a Londoner. And you’ve just brought home this week’s edition of the Illustrated London News. You’ve got your cup of tea on the side table. You’re comfortably seated. And you open the paper to the little section that you always read first. The section is titled Metropolitan News. It’s a short summary of what’s gone on in your town, London, this past week.

And here it is, this is what was going on in London – this is how London looked and felt – in the second week of June in the year 1869.

We read first about the annual dinner of the Friends of the Newspaper Press Fund. Subscriptions totalled £700.

Next the ILN informs us that the number of paupers in the metropolis on the last day of the fourth week of May was 130,714.

Six fewer than the number on the corresponding day of the previous year, which was 130,720. So there was some progress. The progress of a snail. At that rate it’ll take nearly 22,000 years for the streets of London to be pauper-free. 

And you want to get that into perspective, 130,000 paupers means that about three and a half per cent of the population of London were indigent – were paupers – in 1869. Translate that into today’s population figures, London would be a city occupied by a 300,000-strong army – an army of paupers. Or another way of looking at it, the official estimate of homeless people in London so far this year, 2022, is 2,714 individuals. So you multiply every homeless person you see today by 100 you’d have the figure for 1869. You walk along the Strand today you maybe see 20 homeless people. In 1869 that figure of 20 would have been 2,000. Welcome to Calcutta on Thames. Yes, the wonders of mid-Victorian London, the greatest city in the world. It’s a sight to behold, isn’t it. 

And worth bearing in mind there’s another army biding its time. The army of servants in mid-Victorian London. They’re earning a pittance plus their board and keep. Certainly not earning enough to put anything aside. Once they’re worn-out – old and infirm – they’re dismissed. They lose their situation. They replace the ranks of the paupers who succumbed – euphemistic way of putting it – the previous year. 

Well, that entry in the Metropolitan News section is the ghost at the banquet, the elephant on the patio. Throws into harsh relief everything else set out before us in that column. Which we’re going to do now. We’re going to read on. 

We learn that Prince Teck, the new president of the Royal Botanic Society, has issued cards of invitation to a reception and special fete at the gardens in Regent’s Park. 

We learn that the Royal Geographical Society will be hosting a talk on The Exploration of the Lower Course of the Limpopo River.

We learn that a terrible fire on Pentonville Hill claimed the lives of two young women and a child. It was caused by the accidental breaking of a bottle of paraffin oil.

We learn that a certain Mr William Allingham has suggested the new bridge at Blackfriars be called the Shakespeare Bridge. Because the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatres stood in this part of London, one on each side of the river. I wish his suggestion had been adopted. Walking across the Shakespeare Bridge, that appeals to me.

We learn that the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs were at a Pall Mall gallery to present to the bishop of London a portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury to be placed in Fulham Palace. 

We learn that the Society of Arts met to table suggestions for improving the cab system of the metropolis. 

We learn of a meeting of the Royal National Life Boat Institution. 

We learn about the annual meeting of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. You have to wonder, did they give any thought to those 130,714 London paupers – and whether education in the principles of the Established Church would comfort them. 

We learn that 140 peers met at the Duke of Marlborough’s, where they decided to vote for the rejection of the Irish Church measure on the second reading.

Ok, that’s enough. I edited the section slightly. Shortened it. I think the main takeaway is that stark figure of 130,000 paupers. And over against that, well, it’s very clear that life was very good, very comfortable for a lot of those paupers’ fellow Londoners. 

A city of contrasts. A short paragraph about 130,000 paupers followed immediately by a short paragraph about a Prince issuing invitations to a reception and fete in the gardens at Regent’s Park.

Welcome to the London of 1869. And indeed, welcome to the London of 2022.

And today’s Today in London recommendation, mmm – how about if we go and see something at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Julius Caesar, for example. Or Much Ado About Nothing. 

Ok, sign-off time. I’m going to lead in to this by putting the matter at hand – enlisting the services of a great guide – in sailing terms. Why would you sail without rudder, compass or ballast? Similarly, if you want to get to know London, why would you sail without a great guide?

Ok, 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 can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

None of this is 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 blockbuster 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 what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. 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 we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to London, a Cambridge University Paleontologist, the former Editor on Independent Television News, Guide of the Year Award winners… 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. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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