Today (June 7) in London History – la plus changer le meme de chose

On June 7, 1372 the London authorities banished a baker from London because he had leprosy. This Today in London History podcast tells tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Funny thing about London history. It keeps coming round. It often manages at one and the same time to be strange and remote but also strangely familiar. To put it in art terms, London history often has a cubism quality and feel to it.

If there’s a literary analogue, surely it’s Clarence’s great speech in Shakespeare’s Richard III. It’s his unreeling for us – and for himself – his uncanny, really frightening dream. It’s Clarence’s dream about drowning. And of course it’s a premonition dream – his brother, Gloucester, the future Richard III, is going to have his brother killed. He has a couple of roughs drown him in a butt of malmsey, a barrel of wine. The dream has that weird, dream-like, familiar but unfamiliar, Cubist quality – especially the instantly recognisable things he sees in “the tumbling billows of the main” – they’re somehow simultaneously familiar and strange, remote. London history, the way it keeps coming round, hits that same register. Again and again.

Here, to start with, is the Clarence speech. 

CLARENCE: O, I have passed a miserable night,

So full of fearful dreams, of ugly sights,

That, as I am a Christian faithful man,

I would not spend another such night

Though ’twere to buy a world of happy days–

So full of dismal terror was the time.

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower

And was embarked to cross the Bergundy,

And in my company my brother Gloucester,

Who from my cabin tempted me to walk

Upon the hatches: thence we looked toward England

And cited up a thousand heavy times,

During the wars of York and Lancaster,

That had befall’n us. As we paced along

Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,

Methought that Gloucester stumblèd, and in falling

Struck me (that thought to stay him) overboard

Into the tumbling billows of the main.

O Lord! methought what pain it was to drown!

What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!

What sights of ugly death within mine eyes!

Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wracks;

A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon;

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvaluèd jewels,

All scatt’red in the bottom of the sea:

Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in the holes

Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept

(As ’twere in scorn of eyes) reflecting gems,

That wooed the slimy bottom of the deep

And mocked the dead bones that lay scatt’red by.

I passed (methought) the melancholy flood,

With that sour ferryman which poets write of,

Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.

The first that there did greet my stranger soul

Was my great father-in-law, renownèd Warwick,

Who spake aloud, ‘What scourge for perjury

Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?’

And so he vanished. Then came wand’ring by

A shadow like an angel, with bright hair

Dabbled in blood, and he shrieked aloud,

‘Clarence is come — false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,

That stabbed me in the field by Tewkesbury:

Seize on him, Furies, take him unto torment!’

With that (methoughts) a legion of foul fiends

Environed me, and howlèd in mine ears

Such hideous cries that with the very noise

I, trembling, waked, and for a season after

Could not believe but that I was in hell,

Such terrible impression made my dream.

Now let’s see this “same but different” – “strange and remote but familiar” patterning of London History.

See it if you will as beads on a necklace. You know, “Look at this bead” – we’ve been here before, “this same one, or almost the same one, put in an appearance however many years ago.” And the really weird thing, it’s often on the same day, or at least the same time of the year.  You begin to wonder if these events are subliminal, perhaps triggered by “a certain slant of light” that’s only here, well, once a year. 

So, yes, let’s work with today’s date: June 7th.

Clearly it was human agency that was steering this first one but it still must have been so weird for the people on the receiving end of it. I’m talking about June 6th, 1946 and BBC Television resuming normal transmission after World War II with the same Mickey Mouse cartoon that had been showing when the service was shut down in September 1939.

Or the hoo hah the other day about Boris Johnson being booed outside St Paul’s Cathedral. We’ve been there before – 22 years ago – to the day – Tony Blair was heckled by the Women’s Institute during a speech he gave at their conference.

And those of us who can remember it – being a single drop in an ocean of millions of people who lined the streets to watch the Queen’s Silver Jubilee procession on June 7, 1977 – our universal response to that will be, how can that possibly have been 45 years ago. 

But for our centrepiece here, let’s go way back. To June 7th, 1372. Let’s hear a London voice that’s speaking 650 years ago. The source for this is a document called The City of London Letter Book. 

It records the Expulsion of a Leper. A law had been passed 26 years previously that banished lepers from the city. The law was brutally forthright. Lepers were banished to prevent them from contaminating others “by the contagion of their polluted breath…by carnal intercourse with women in stews and other secret places.”

Where were they banished to? Well, suburban leper hospitals. St James’ Palace today occupies the site of what had been a mediaeval hospital for 14 maiden lepers. The hospitals were called Lazarus Houses. They were always situated by crossroads – which meant a steady procession of passersby for the lepers to beg from. Well, 1346 – or 1372 – a long time ago. Or is it? I’m thinking of the street people – the beggars – who are always outside London Tube and Railway Stations, asking for help. Reaching out to us – “can you spare any change?” Asking for alms. And of course what makes it really disquieting – and I’m embarrassed to be writing this – is that sometimes these people are middle class. They’re where they are because of an extremely bad run of luck. That makes them closer to us. It’s embarrassing to feel that way because the implication is that it’s somehow more acceptable for unskilled people – people with little or no formal education – to be homeless. Goes without saying it isn’t. But it just seems to be the way a lot of us are wired. I wish it weren’t so. I mention this because the banned leper we’re about to meet – John Mayne – was a baker. His extremely bad run of luck was to catch leprosy.

Here’s the passage – here’s that voice from June 7th, 1372.

And a Today in London recommendation. I’d say get thee back to the Museum of London. The Mediaeval Collection. Let’s hear it from the Museum itself.

The medieval collections are one of the most celebrated elements of the Museum of London’s overall holdings because of their breadth, depth and quality. They are strongest in ordinary domestic objects, and provide a cross-section of the things in everyday use in medieval England.

For those of us who are bean counters, the collection runs to about 12,000 items. Devote a minute to each of them it’d take you two weeks of non-stop viewing to see it all.

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.

It’s not rocket science: whether you’re an employer or a consumer, 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.


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