Today (June 5) in London History – The Newsreel

For this edition – June 5th – of the Today in London History podcast I’ve put together a June 5th in London History ‘newsreel’.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s going to be a little different.

More akin to a newsreel than the formula I usually follow in this Today in London History series.

(Though, yes, were you to put the whole series together – all 365 days of the series – that’s assuming I manage to complete this marathon – well, you’d have a Wurlitzer of a London History newsreel.)

But first things first. What’s a newsreel? You have to have been around for a half a century or more to have much acquaintance at all with newsreels. And doubtless there are plenty of under 50s who are completely unfamiliar with the term.

So, yes, what’s a newsreel. Ask and thou shalt receive. Here’s your Wiki definition: “A newsreel is a form of short documentary film, containing news stories and items of topical interest, that was prevalent between the 1910s and the mid-1970s. Typically presented in a cinema, newsreels were a source of current affairs, information, and entertainment for millions of moviegoers.”

Anyway, I thought I’d do this one like a newsreel because all four of these tales appeal to me. A couple of them are good fits with the big show of the moment, the Platinum Jubilee festivities and especially a couple of the droplets from its splash. But I also like them because they’re thought-provoking – they prompt questions – and they both sharpen focus and tell me things I didn’t know.

So here they are, here’s your May 5th in London History newsreel… in no particular order.

  1. One of the tabloids today has a headline that reads “Her Maj Almost Upstaged by Cheeky Louis.” And, yes, I know, you have to hold your nose at that grotesque, faux familiarity but that’s not the point here. The point is all the interest that little boy attracted yesterday. His antics in the carriage – getting carried away and waving excessively and his “big” sister having to lay down the law to him – and then later, that shot up on the famous Buckingham Palace balcony. Everybody who saw that will have thought, “hello, I’m looking at, in a single frame, four generations of monarchs.” And observing that dignified, elderly lady up there, I suddenly wondered what these occasions were like for her out at the other end of her life. So I found out. Did a little digging. 

No surprise, this – but it turns out that royal children were equally good press 90 years ago. I’m looking at a weekly that covered the Royal Tournament, and the next day, Trooping the Colour in 1931. Figuring prominently in that coverage was an adorable little Princess. Named Elizabeth. Of course they had no idea at the time that she would be Queen one day. Had they known that would have magnified the already considerable interest in her no end. They ran four close-ups and captioned them as follows: Pleasure, Wonder, Rapture and Applause.

And, sure enough, the little girl saluted the guard of honour. What most jumped out at me, though, was the caption, Watching Every Movement. This was at the Royal Tournament. But of course it was echoed 91 years later – yesterday – when the commentators dwelt on the Queen’s exacting inspection of the guard. “She’s inspecting them very carefully – she knows better than anyone else what to look for.” Well, I doubt that, but as Ernest Hemingway once said, “isn’t it pretty to think so.”

2. I looked at a slightly earlier – June 5th, 1920 as it happens – Trooping the Colour. The headline was very arresting. “Khaki for the Last Time? The Trooping of the Colour.” Well I never. I’m guessing the full ceremonial uniform just didn’t feel right – those blood-red coats, that riot of colour – in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. That must have not felt right. The infinitely more sombre and serious notes of the soldiers’ real uniforms – the khaki uniforms they’d fought in and hundreds of thousands of their colleagues had died in – in 1920 that was the right way to do it. There was no pretend about their soldiering – prettifying it, toy soldiering it just wasn’t on. 

3. Moving the telescope a ways across the London firmament, on June 5th, 1930 the London Zoo tried something different. For the first time ever they stayed open late. Didn’t close until 11 pm. The ILN – Illustrated London News – headlined the story: “Midnight Sun for Polar Bears.”

Again, one is reminded of Londoners’ craving for the novel and for spectacle. The late-night opening filled the bill. The gardens were illuminated by searchlights as well as the regular lights. The avenues were decked with strings of colour lamps. A military band played. Apparently, the polar bears, being white, were particularly effective in the floodlighting. Our reporter said the animals behaved quite normally, perhaps mistaking the bright light for their native midnight sun.”

Yes, it brings it to mind, doesn’t it. “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life for there is in London all that life can afford.” Including Polar Bears and the Midnight Sun.

4. Final story on our June 5th London History newsreel – on June 5th 1923 London set about five days of celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of St Bartholomews Hospital. The oldest hospital in the United Kingdom and the second oldest hospital in Europe. Basically, they re-enacted scenes from its early history – everything from Bartholomew Fair to Rahere to Henry VIII to coaching days. One of these days I’ll come back to Rahere in particular – it’s a wonderful story. 

But – final point here – this one certainly raises a question. The 800th anniversary was 1923 and London did it proud. The 900th anniversary is next year. You can’t help but wonder – are they going to do it proud next year. 


And the winner is The Bart’s Hospital Museum. That’s the Today in London Recommendation. It’s well worth a visit. Be worth it just to see the Grand Staircase with its two magnificent Hogarth paintings. The satisfying historical detail here is that he used patients for models. So what you’re getting in those two paintings is a representative selection of the maladies that the hospital was doing its best to treat at the time, the 18th century. Indeed, right up until the 19th century those paintings were used as teaching aids. First year students were frog marched over to that staircase and told to perform a diagnosis. “What’s he got? What’s she got? What’s wrong with him? How would you treat it?” London. It’s fun isn’t it? Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

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