Today (November 19) in London History – Hero of Street & Trenches

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This London story has everything. 

For starters, for me, there was the thrill of finding it. The long odds against finding it. I mean, browsing through a 1928 newspaper – that wasn’t loitering with intent. That was just loitering. But suddenly there it was. I felt like Orpheus. I’d descended into the underworld and found – well, not Eurydice, but Arthur Lovell. And led him back to the surface. Didn’t make Orpheus’ mistake, didn’t look back until I’d got Arthur safely up here, where he can join us, tell his story. Well, I’ll have to tell it for him – but at least he’s here, not buried, not forgotten. To put it in Christian terms, the stone’s been moved and the tomb is empty. Arthur Lovell lives. After a fashion. So, yes, the huge satisfaction of finding the story. I call stories that are readily to hand – “domesticated stories.” They’re there in the trophy case. For example, today, November 19th, being the anniversary of Britain’s first Lottery draw. Or the importance of November 19th to the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Or Lord Tennyson being made Poet Laureate on November 19th, 1850. Or King George VI making Philip Mountbatten the Duke of Edinburgh on November 19th, 1947. A little something to get the wedding show on the road. The next day, November 20th, the newly ennobled Duke would wed Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen. For the record, Philip would have to bide his time – wait ten years – before he became a British prince.

So for starters there was the considerable satisfaction of going deep into the forest and finding the Arthur Lovell story. Or if you will, going – Orpheus like – deep into the underworld of the past.  Going where nobody’s much been for nearly a century now. 

But over and above all of that, the Arthur Lovell story is the real McCoy. It’s got everything you want in a story. It’s very moving. It’s got heroism. It’s got a moment of horror that turns into tragedy. It’s a local story that becomes a national story. It’s got a tremendous surprise – a story within a story. It’s heart-warming. It gives us a rare glimpse deep into the soul of London – shows us an aspect of the place that’s usually kept under wraps.

Ok, here’s the tale. 

In a sense, 1928, uniquely, had two Remembrance Days, two Armistice Days.

On the official Armistice Day, November 11th, in Burgess Street, in Limehouse, right after the two-minute silence, a little three-year-old, Rosie Burroughs, slipped and fell in front of an oncoming steam tractor. Arthur Lovell, a 40-year-old fish monger was standing beside cart, just yards away. He dashed into the street, shoved the little girl to safety. But he slipped himself. Fell back under the track of the oncoming steam tractor. Was crushed to death. A twice-wounded former soldier – he was one of the Old Contemptibles – Arthur Lovell laid down his life for little Rosie Burroughs. He left a widow and seven young children. 

Arthur’s funeral – it was held on this day, November 19th, 1928 – became a kind of second Armistice Day. London remembered Arthur and his act of heroism. 

In the words of the Telegraph’s double headline: Hero of Street and Trenches. Life for a Child.

Thousands of men and women lined the streets of Limehouse. Many others watched from windows and from roofs. Indoor East London emptied out to be part of the obsequies, pay their respects.

From All Hallows Church, Bow, where the funeral service was held, the coffin, on a horse-drawn gun carriage, was escorted by a detachment of the 17th London regiment, and representatives of the British Legion and other ex-servicemen. Hundreds of them.

The coffin was covered with a flag that had hung from the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. 

Behind it, came Arthur’s hawker’s cart, drawn by his pony. His cart was laden with wreaths, one of them from little Rose, the child whose life Arthur saved. That was the front of the cortege. It was followed by no end of pony carts and tradesmen’s carts. And the procession was joined by many people from the streets it passed through. For a time the cortege was more than a mile long. 

And another 10,000 people had gathered at Tower Hamlets cemetery where Arthur was buried with full military honours. 

The Bishop of Stepney presided. He had an extraordinary tale to tell. Remember that headline: Hero of Street and Trenches. The Bishop said, “Last night there came to Lovell’s house a man who had been attracted by the name and asked if he might see the body. On doing so, he said quietly, ‘I thought so. This man save my life out in France during the war. I had not seen him since then until to-night.” The man said that he was wounded and during a gas attack Lovell had given him his own respirator, saying, “Take this mate, I can run.”

Were there consolations? Yes, I’d say so. Little Rose Burrough’s life was saved. And donations poured in from all over London to create an endowment that would assist Arthur’s widow and their seven children.

What else? Well, the way the story lifts a curtain on a secret side of London’s character. This place, famously, is tough as old boots. No nonsense, pragmatic, calculating, hard. But just occasionally the old place can be soft and soppy and sentimental. As it was on this day, November 19th, 1928. 

And a Today in London recommendation – well, the Winter Festival has just got underway at the Museum of the Home over in East London. On Kingsland Street in Hackney. Not far from Arthur Lovell’s neck of the woods.

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. See ya tomorrow.

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