Today (June 18) in London History – Doodlebugs & Life Insurance

For the June 18th Today in London History podcast – Doodlebugs and Life Insurance.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

How’s this for a title:

Other people intent on doing the dirty on you. Shafting you. Doing you harm. And the struggle that ensues. That’s certainly a story. In every single instance it’s personal history. And if history is a coral reef, instances of this kind of thing are some of the individual corals that make up that reef. 

Anyway, I had two tales shortlisted for today – June 18th – and in the end I couldn’t decide between them. So I’m going to give you both.

Oh and the sub-headings beneath that title: Other people trying to do the dirty on you – the subheadings are Bombs and Insurance.

Bombs first. Bombs away. It’s June 18th, 1944. London had had over four years of Blitz-free skies. That famous saying, “London can take it” – well, London had taken it. Had come through. The Blitz was history.

Except it wasn’t. And when it reared its ugly head in June 1944 it was piloted aeroplanes – it was flying bombs, rockets, V1s, Doodlebugs, robots. Nomenclature-wise, you can take your pick. You wanna go with the one Londoners mostly used, plump for Doodlebugs. That was the slang name for cheap cars. The V1 rockets made a spluttering sound. Sort of like the coughing and spluttering sound of a crummy engine labouring away in a cheap car.  Ergo the name. Anyway, Hitler trying to do harm to other people – the evil filth he was throwing at London, it answered to all of those names. But Doodlebugs maybe best fit the bill – partly because in that name you can hear Londoners giving the damn things the bird, hear their contempt. 

It had started on June 12th. That flying bomb, one ton of explosives launched from a site near Dunkirk – hit Bethnal Green. It killed six people.

But let’s hear from someone who was there. Who lived through it.

This is Vere Hodgson. She was 43 years old. She helped to run a local charity in Notting Hill. She’d been in the diary-keeping habit from the time she was a child. She’s likeable. Straight up. Tells it like it is.

Here’s her diary entry for today, June 18th, 1944.

Sunday, 18th. These last three days have been one long Air Raid Alert, and we have had little sleep. Must get some tonight if I am to work in the day. So I have decided to come and bed down on the Sanctuary sofa. It is on the ground floor. I do not mind the guns, but the shrapnel danger through my skylight in the flat makes me hop out of bed to the door.

These Robot pLanes go on after daybreak, which the old raids never did. I could hear the wretched thing travelling overhead at 6 a.m. They did not fall on us – but they fell on someone. Our guns barked out and spat and fussed until they had gone. They travel quickly and on Thursday night were low over Kensington. In fact, every one of us was perfectly convinced the thing was exactly three inches above the roof. 

Nothing is said on the wireless or in the papers except… Southern England! That is us – and we are all fed-up. Monday was our fire-watch. Mrs Hoare light-heartedly remarked, ‘I don’t think there will be any more air-raids.’ And in my heart I agreed with her. But not a bit of it! Hitler has still got a sting in his Nasty Tail. At 4 am we were amazed to be roused by a Warning. We all got up. In 20 minutes All Clear. Just as I had bedded down another went. I sat on the steps. It was just getting light. Mr Bendall reported to the Street Leader.

    In the morning much discussion, for no one knew about Robot Planes. Cannot remember all the events of Thursday night. We had little sleep. I was in my flat – something trundled across the sky. In the morning nothing on the wireless, and we felt injured – as we needed the sympathy of our friends! On and off all day we had Warnings and gunfire. One Robot fell in Tooley Street in the City. One of the women from our Printing Works rang up to say at Eltham they had had a terrible night – all her windows and doors blown out.”

Any conclusions to draw from Vere Hodgson’s diary entry? Yes, I think if we read between the lines there’s maybe some British understatement percolating away in there, to say nothing of that national characteristic best summed up in the phrase, “stiff upper lip.” There’s no question but brief as it was, the onslaught of the doodlebugs must have felt like Apocalypse Now had London in its sights. Come July, for example, 20,000 London houses a day were destroyed by V1 attacks. And then it ended. Thanks to the advance of the British, American and Canadian armies in France. They overran – seized – the main V1 launch sites. And not before time.

I said I’d shortlisted two entrants for June 18th. For the other one we go back to June 18th, 1583. One William Gibbons – he’s a London salter – is sold the world’s first insurance policy. It was arranged for him by a London alderman, name of Richard Martin. It’s a life insurance policy. Twelve months term, premium of eight percent. And as luck would have it, William Gibbons shuffled off his mortal coil on May 29, 1584. His relatives wanted their payout from the policy. They were astonished to discover that the 12 month policy – issued on June 18th – had expired. 

Why? Well, it was obvious, wasn’t it. Or so the insurers said. A month is only 28 days long.  In the end the relatives got their payout but they had to go to court to get it. 

Insurance. People pay you –– they buy something from you –– and if you can find a way of not giving them what they think they’ve bought –– well, it’s money coming for nothing going out. World’s greatest business. Anyway, the good ship Insurance was launched. And if you think that how you start is how you continue, well, depending on how you see these things that was an auspicious – or perhaps inauspicious? start for the insurance business. Started in London. Still going strong in London.

Also going strong in London – yes, here comes your Today in London recommendation – anyway, also going strong in London Casa Manolo, that fine little chain of Spanish restaurants. Four in total. The one in Putney will be doing a live Flamenco Show at 8 pm on June 23. So there’s something wildly different for you to do. And how London is that, keeping in mind London’s lusty appetite for spectacle and novelty. You will have to book, though. I’ll put the number on at the very end of the transcript of this podcast. Said transcript will be there on this podcast’s entry on

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 distinguished, 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 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, 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.

Casa Manolo phone number (for the June 23 live Flamenco Show) is 020 3185 2071

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *