Today (June 21) in London History – the Day of Days

June 21st is the Day of Days in London History.  On June 21st, 1675 the first stone of St Paul’s Cathedral was laid. And on June 21st, 1948 the Windrush arrived at Tilbury Dock. 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.


June 21st. Summer Solstice. We look back. We look ahead. Such an important date in London’s history.

We can start with 1675. On June 21st 1675 Thomas Strong, a master mason, laid the first stone for Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, London’s much-loved St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Leap forward – it’s a giant stride – nearly 300 years. June 21st 1648 to be exact – the Windrush arrives at Tillbury Docks. On board, some 450 West Indians. The very first of the large scale African and Asian immigrations. The beginning of a process that would make London one of the most racially diverse cities in the western world. Make it a rainbow city. A rainbow city not just racially but culturally, culinarilly, musically, artistically, socially, linguistically. Give it its buzz, its feel, much of its excitement and appeal. Make it what it is.

And sure enough, there’s a fine poem – well a stanza in a fine poem – that brilliantly connects those two June 21st significant moments in London’s history. It’s the final stanza – the payoff stanza – in Ruthven Todd’s poem These Are Facts. Goes like this:

People are more than places, more than pride;

A million photographs record the works of Wren;

A city remains a city on credit from the tide

That flows among its rocks, a sea of men. 

Or to use a famous image from an even greater poet, John Donne, London is like a compass. The two London June 21st “events” I’m featuring in this podcast fit that compass model. St. Paul’s is the fixed foot of the compass, London’s people – in this case the Windrush generation – are the moveable foot. 

So since a city remains a city on credit from the tide that flows among its rocks, a sea of men and women (and children) let’s close this podcast out by finding out a bit more about new Londoners, those people who came on the Windrush and became part of the sea that flows among the rocks.

And as long as we’re at it, find out a bit more about the Windrush itself. It had been a German passenger liner and cruise ship named the MV Monte Rosa. During the war it was repurposed as a German troopship. At the end of the war it was seized as a prize – to the victor go the fruits – and renamed the Empire Windrush, to give it its full name. 

Alas, it went to a watery grave. Not six years after its famous voyage from the Caribbean to London it caught fire in the Mediterranean and sank, with the loss of four crew.

On its June 1948 voyage to London it carried 1,027 passengers and six stowaways. The passengers were from Trinidad, Kingston, Tampico, Havana and Bermuda. Most of them were British, scattered by the war and returning home. 492 were Jamaicans who had come to Britain to find work, and although few people on the ship or ashore realised it, it was an historic moment as they started coming ashore. There were of course several thousand West Indians in Britain in 1948. Some were First and Second World War Servicemen who had stayed on; others were students, doctors, diplomats, businessmen and their families. But immigration in its formal sense – groups of people arriving in some uncertainty – began on that grey June morning at Tilbury. 

The poet Ruthven Todd’s line about a sea of men was in this instance spot on. Only 20 of the Windrush Jamaicans were women. Each of the immigrants had paid £28 and 10 shillings for their passage – that would have been a sizeable outlay for most of them. About 120 of the Jamaicans were ex-RAF servicemen who had been home on leave after spending the war in Britain. The rest of the 492 described themselves as students, mechanics, welders, carpenters, barbers, tailors, chemists, machinists, boxers, cooks, musicians, and agricultural workers. There were also three policemen, six artists, a complete band, and a man who described himself as “retired.” The one who gets my vote, though, was George Marshall, who described himself as “a rain forcer.” He came ashore as a torrential storm broke.  That first night the RAF looked after its people. Another 130 or so had friends or relatives to go to. The remaining 242 did not know what they were going to do. But they weren’t worried. They had read and heard that Britain needed men to help rebuild, and they were sure there would be a place for them. The place for them that first night was at the Clapham South Deep Shelter, the mile-long underground shelter still used in 1948 by servicemen, foreign workers and students needing temporary accommodation. 

But let’s end with a contemporary account. It’s pretty flinty. Not exactly warmly welcoming. But because it’s contemporary it’s, well, mood music. Gives you an idea of the “feel” of the reception.

 It’s from the Daily Express, so that should in itself help you to get the measure of the thing, assuming you’ve got a feel for the register of London newspapers. Here’s the article. 

 And the other thing is read the recollections of some of those Windrush generation people. It wasn’t easy for them, They were very brave. Vince Reid, for example, recalled that “you couldnt get any olace to rent. I mean, you had usually notices about “o Rish” and not even “No Blacks” but ‘No – and yes, here, Vince Reid uses the N-word. Really foul. Despicable. I’m not English, I’m a. Yank – a Yank who’s lived here for half a century – but I read stuff like that, I think, “come on London, tell me you’re ashamed of that. The heartening thing is, 1) it wouldn’t happen now. London’s better nature has cut out, zapped, most of those cancer cells. And 2) I’m pretty sure London did hang down its head in shame. That was a healthy, necessary response. One part of the London equivalent of what in South Africa they called the truth and reconciliation project.

Ok, this narrative track has very much moved from 1948 to 2022. Delivered us right to the Today in London doorstep. The recommendation has to be a visit to The Migration Museum. What’s not to like about a museum that, in its words, “explores how the movement of people to and from Britain across the ages has made us who we are – as individuals and as a nation.”


Ok, here’s a little something extra.

I’m just back from a walk. Led my group out of their hotel. There, five yards away, in front of a sandwich place, three Asian girls were seated at a table. One of them was sobbing. A policeman was in attendance. As we went by he said to them, “do you remember which table you were at?”

Here’s what happened. This is just a surmise but as surmises go it’s a lock. They were at a table. One of them – the one who was sobbing – had laid her phone on the table. Somebody had snatched it and was gone, out the door, just like that. The policeman wanted to know which table it was so he could check if there was any cctv footage of the incident.

So the first stop with my group was a little bit of London street savvy. “Be careful how you use your phone. Don’t tempt London thieves.” I said to them, “basically, you are prey. You’re the wildebeest, the London thief is the lion or the leopard. The wildebeest that isn’t paying attention – gets careless – is the wildebeest that ends up as the lion’s dinner. You’re on the pavement, you’ve got zero awareness of what’s around you, you’re looking at your phone, concentrating on the screen, if you’re unlucky somebody will be there looking for you, looking precisely that sort of behaviour. And your phone will be snatched out of your hand in no time at all. It’s just common sense, really. Make that phone call, check out that online box office, whatever in a place where you’re not an easy mark. I don’t even carry mine in my hand. It’s in an inside buttoned pocket. It happens a lot. It’s not just the loss of an expensive gadget – there are plenty of reports now of them delving into the contents of the stolen phone, making payments with it, withdrawing money with it, etc. That’s a sizeable chunk of tsauris – that good old Yiddish word that means trouble – none of us needs.

And just like that, I’ve just introduced a new, occasional strand to this podcast. A London tips and heads-up strand. Some of them will be stuff like this: how to do London without being done. Others will be bits of London savvy. How to do London better. There won’t be one every edition. They’ll be occasionals. But there’ll be quite a few of them. Watch this space.


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. Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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