Today (June 20) in London History – That “houseboat”

A Thames Waterman invented the “houseboat” in 1787 – or so the New Town and Country Magazine claimed in its June 20th issue of that year. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

There was no resisting this one. It’s just so quirky. And I’ll ‘fess up, what I also like about it is it’s a find. I love it that London Walks is bringing something to you that was last seen 235 years ago. I’m serious about that. I mean, who else but London Walks would be looking at the June 20, 1787 issue of New Town and Country Magazine. 

I mean I’ve got a shelf-load of books that are essentially almanacks of London history – and yes, I draw on them for some of these Today in London History entries. But they, for the most part, list just the big stuff, standard fare. I’m dead keen, when possible, to find stuff that’s not in any readily-to-hand book about London chronology. We like it that people say, “you get stuff from London Walks you don’t get anywhere else.” And the corollary to this is I’ll be passing this tidbit onto Robert and other guides who start walks from Embankment Station and, if they want, they’ll be able to Wow their walkers with a fun tale that might begin like this: 

“Ok, just here is York Gate and if we’d been standing here 235 years ago we would have been looking at the York Buildings Waterworks with its famous tower and just there, in the river, something that was revolutionary, something that had never been seen in England before…”

And then Robert and Co. go on to cite the contents of the article in that June 20th, 1787 issue of the New Town and Country Magazine that I’m going to set out for you here, now. 

All of that, by the way, is also very London Walks. We’re collegiate here. We find out great stuff we share it with our colleagues. 80 London Walks sharing stuff with their colleagues and thus ultimately with our walkers, that’s some cherry-picking.

Ok, here’s the find. Word for word.

“A waterman, whose name is Holmes, and who has acquired some property, to show his disgust against our rulers and the accumulation of taxes, has hit upon a singular expedient. He has disposed of a small freehold which he possessed in the vicinity of the Thames, and purchased a West country barge, in which, with his wife and large family of children, he resides in the most comfortable manner. He thus prides himself on eluding all taxes, and changes his situation as the weather or other circumstances makes this or that situation more agreeable. He at present is moored off York-buildings, where the neatness of his floating habitations, the respectable appearance of his wife and children, and the facetious character of the man himself, attract no small number of curious visitors.”

You want to assign a date – and a place – to the invention of the “houseboat” 

well, you could do worse than round it off to June 20th, 1787 

and X marks the spot there on the Thames where, for example, Robert and his walkers embark on the first leg of their Thames Sightseeing, Brunel’s River Cruise tour. Certainly that tiny bulb is in place in the lightboard in my mind now and will without fail light up, however momentarily, when I’m at Embankment Station, “yup, this may well have been the birthplace of the house-boat.”

Extraordinary as well to think of the events on the world stage that effectively bookended that extraordinary event going on in London – the invention of the houseboat. 

I mean, just a month earlier, right when Holmes the London waterman was getting his family’s new, floating domicile shipshape, a convention in Philadelphia chaired by a certain George Washington was meeting to frame a constitution. And then just a few days on from the no small number of curious visitors in London beholding this extraodinary development in the affairs of humankind – a houseboat – there was a matter of some moment in Paris. A legislative body in the French capital demanded the summoning of the estates general. In other words, the French Revolution was heating up. 

Wonder where that first houseboat had got to by then – and what Holmes the Waterman and his Mrs and his large family of children would have made of those tidings, if anything.

And on that note, here’s your Today in London recommendation. Well, one for you to put in your diary today – and act on on Sunday, July 3rd. It’s Art Fair Day – part of the Hampstead Summer Festival. Dovetails perfectly with my Sunday morning Hampstead Walk. So, yes, let’s go on what the New York Times called the crown jewel in the London Walks programme – the Hampstead Village and Hampstead Heath walk in the morning. Grab a bite to eat and head down to the verdurous grounds of Keats House for the Art Fair. Wandering around on that beautiful green lawn looking at art on the very spot where Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale, well, that charms magic casements…

Was there ever a summer day better spent than that?

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, distinguished 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. GoodLondoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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