Today (November 10) in London History – Joan Bull

Meet the fab Joan Bull. She pitched up on this day exactly 100 years ago – November 10th, 1922. 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.

I really like moments like this. Performing introductions. Introducing you to somebody fascinating, somebody brand new, somebody you’ve never heard of. 

But somebody whose acquaintance you’re going to be very glad to have made.

Meet Joan Bull, ladies and gentlemen.

Now there will be perhaps a frisson, a hint of recognition because you have heard of John Bull.

John Bull, in the words of that great Master of Ceremonies, Mr Wiki, John Bull is a national personification of the United Kingdom in general and England in particular, especially in political cartoons and similar graphic works. He’s usually depicted as a stout, middle-aged, country-dwelling, jolly and matter-of-fact man. John Bull goes back a ways. He originated in satirical works of the early 18th century and came to stand for “English liberty” in opposition to revolutionaries. I’m tempted to say he’s the English Uncle Sam. But the differences are significant. Unlike Uncle Sam, John Bull is not a figure of authority. He’s not possessed of patriarchal power nor heroic defiance. On the contrary, John Bull is a sensible English yeoman who prefers his small beer and domestic peace. He’s downright, he’s matter-of-fact, he’s a boon companion. If you’re John Bull’s friend, he’s got your back.

Well, that’s John Bull and, yes, pretty much everybody knows and loves John Bull. 

But we’re here to meet Joan Bull, and she’s not well known at all. Not these days at any rate.

And what better day to meet her – because Joan first pitched up on this day, exactly a hundred years ago. November 10th, 1922. 

In our first glimpse of her she was Mrs J. Bull, a buxom, middle-aged housewife.

And where did we meet her a hundred years ago? Well, the sea-shell Mrs J. Bull arrived on was a page in the Star newspaper. Her creator – apart of course from the great run of enlightened British femaledom who served as the collective model for her– was the famous cartoonist and caricaturist, David Low. 

David Low was born in New Zealand but he was of good British Isles stock. His father’s family had emigrated to New Zealand from Fife in Scotland. And his mother’s side from Dublin. His most famous creation was of course Colonel Blimp. His World War II cartoons – showing Britain and Churchill standing up against Nazi tyranny – were deservedly famous. And infamous in Berlin. Hitler hated them so much that he had Low’s name put on his – excuse the expression – shitlist. About a thousand Britons who were going to be rounded up and dealt with summarily when the Nazis got here.

I personally like everything about David Low. And guiding-wise I like him a lot, not least because his studio was at 13A Heath Street, right at the end of my Hampstead walk. The thought of jackboots kicking in that door and charging up the stairs to his studio to manhandle that gentle, pipe-smoking, near-sighted artist, well, if you want a crystallisation of why that screaming little Austrian misfit had to be stopped – indeed, terminated with extreme prejudice – there you have one.

But back to Mrs J. Bull – she was a work in progress. She makes her second appearance five months later. This time she’s middle-aged, double-chinned and wearing a Britannia helmet. The very embodiment of patriotic domesticity.

It’s a lovely thing, every woman’s – and indeed, every man’s dream – Mrs J. Bull gets younger and more attractive with the passage of time. By the end of the decade, she’s really fetching. She’s a cloche-hatted, short-skirted, high-heeled Miss 1929. Or, depending on her wardrobe preferences for any given day, Joan might be sporting a top hat, a union jack dress and boots. She champions flapper fashions against the old fogies. She speaks up for birth control and against restrictive clothing. But she’s not too knowing. With her shrewd, pert intelligence, she’s perfectly capable of appearing a little bit innocent, a little bit wide-eyed, a little bit incredulous – in short, a package guaranteed to run rings around the male sex – even unto infuriating them when that was what was called for. 

Joan Bull was, in short, the fictitious embodiment of enfranchised women. She symbolized British women aged between 21 and 30 who obtained the vote in 1928 overcoming the opposition, the diehard dimwits. Those diehard dimwits, clear precursors, as it happens, of Low’s Colonel Blimp. 

But, alas, Joan had her day in the sun. Come the 1930s there were more pressing issues for cartoonists to get to grips with. She does make one final return in 1946. Wearing slacks, sandals and a union jack brassiere.

After that, when David Low needed a national symbol he played it safer – reverted to the traditional and less contentious female archetype of Britannia.

And a Today in London recommendation. Come on my favourite London Walk of all. Old Hampstead Village. We’ll look up at David Low’s studio. Imagine him up there doing justice to wide-eyed, open-minded, sceptical Joan Bull and the fun she has seeing off the ranks of diehard dimwits thinking – if you can call it thinking – thinking they know best for Ms Joan Bull.

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 cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished 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 searching 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 whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. 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 people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… 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.

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