Today (May 31) in London History – the British Bastille

May 31st, 1929 was the end of the workhouse – this Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.


May 31st, 1929.

It’s been described as a micro bungee jumping feeling. Bungee jumping but for a very short distance. The feeling you get when you go over a bump in a road and your stomach caroms up or down – I’m not sure which, but it sure feels weird.

The ride we’ve been on the last few years in Blighty – if you want to ascribe to it a physical sensation, that’s the one that comes to mind. And maybe it’s not just here, maybe it’s pretty much everywhere. Everywhere all the time. Certainly it must have felt that way in 1929.

That’s our year for this podcast. Our date is May 31st. But before we hit that particular speed bump let’s just for a minute try and get a feel for where people that year had been – and where they were going. Though they didn’t know they were going there. Obviously up ahead – October 24th – was the Wall Street stock market crash and here comes the depression. And earlier in the year – yes, February 14 – there was the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Al Capone eliminating some of his rivals. And you’ve got that razor gang in Sidney fighting the Battle of Blood Alley. And you’ve got Mussolini and Stalin tightening their grip on their countries. Stalin exiling Trotsky to Mexico. Some of the stuff that was happening brings to mind Yeats’ great lines in The Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world; The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It must have felt as though things were hurtling out of control. But what was it that was trying to be born? Was it a Rosemary’s baby? Or something altogether different? Things that happened in 1929 that were reassuring, that said “what’s coming is going to be all right.” There was a 13-year-old genius violinist named Yehudi Menuhin who played his first public concert in 1929. That was at the Albert Hall. Mother Teresa began her work in India in 1929. The Belgian comic book hero TinTin arrived in 1929. As did Popeye. As did the Academy Awards. As did colour television. As did the Kellog-Briand Pact – it renounced war as an instrument of foreign policy. And the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the United Kingdom announced that women are persons.

And the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York. And Bingo burst on the scene. It was a Bungee jump of a year. It can only have been giddy for those who lived through it. There was a general election on this day, May 31st. It was called the “flapper election” because it was the first in which women aged 21-29 had the right to vote. It returned a hung parliament. 

And then we come to the American singer and dancer Paul Robeson, arguably the most gifted entertainer of the 20th century. He appeared in Jerome Kern’s Show Boat in London and introduced ‘Ol Man River’ to British audiences. It was a huge success, he was a huge success. Audiences loved him. And then – the bump in the road – he was invited to a party in his honour in at the Savoy Hotel. He was refused entry to the Savoy Grill because he was a person of colour.

“Was it a rough beast – or was it something else – that was coming their way, its hour come round at last. A better world trying to be born. Or something really foul and evil trying to hold it back?

Anyway, the May 31st general election – the flapper election – and the hung parliament – is not what we’ve picked out with the spotlight on this day in history. It’s something else entirely. May 31st 1929 was the end of the workhouse in Great Britain. The last meetings of the Poor Law Guardians rook place on May 31st, 1929. And just like that the workhouse passed into history. The workhouse that for a century had been to the British imagination – well, the imagination of all but the super-wealthy – what the Bastille had been to the French mind in the 18th century. On my Kensington walk I show people an 1865 photograph of Kensington High Street. In the photograph you can see five men, each of whom is holding a broom. They’re crossing sweeps. To get the full impact of that photograph my walkers need to know two things: 1) the Kensington Workhouse was only a couple of hundred yards from where those men are standing. The very idea of it will have preyed upon their minds every single day. And 2) workhouse, it’s just a word to us – it wasn’t a word to those men and their families. They will have known, for example, that the food allowance for convicted murderers serving 20 year sentences in a Victorian prison was twice that of the food allowance for workhouse inmates. The Workhouse guiding principle was make the conditions in the workhouse so appalling that people will do anything to stay out of it.

And that brings me to a passage that I always quote. It’s a contemporary account of the pressures those men were under. Hand on heart confession here, when I found this passage, the first time I read it, I had tears streaming down my face.

The passage goes like this:

A halting stage on the road to the workhouse. Men no longer able to work at their regular trade. Worn out servants. Partially disabled men. Men partially deaf, failing eyesight. Subject to fits. One-legged men. One-armed men. Men with weak intellect. In fact, social wreckage of every description found a harbour of refuge in this work and kept at it as long as possible in order to avoid going into the house.”

The “house” is of course shorthand for “the workhouse” – and there’s something chilling about that ready familiarity, horrible as it is it’s as well known to them as the veins on their hands.

C’est tout for this day in London history. 

A recommendation for Today in London. How about this? There’s a production of Henry V at Temple Church. runs until Saturday, June 4th. Hearing those words, seeing that great play in that historic old church – the oldest part is 1185 – well, that’ll take care, however temporarily, of your giddiness, quell that speed bump sensation. A good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon— or rather the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly.

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 multi-award-winning walking tour company. London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The London Walking tour company that, uniquely, fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that journalist 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: Guides who 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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