Today (October 11) in London History – “a bloody good idea”

It was “a bloody good” idea Percy Lane Oliver had on October 11, 1921. An idea that made the world a better place. 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.

Good solid middle-class British stock. His parents were teachers in Maidenhead. He was born at St Ives, in Cornwall, at the home of his maternal grandparents. Born in 1878. So not a Londoner bred and borne, but a Londoner just the same. When he was five, the family moved to Camberwell, in southeast London.

So who is our mystery guest?

Well, his name won’t register. But what he did certainly will. This was a Londoner who made a huge difference. Made the world a better place.

His name was Percy Lane Oliver. And I’m glad to say he’s blue plaqued. He should be. Not that the plaque is widely known. Not many people outside the neighbourhood see it. It’s at 5 Colyton Road, the Olivers’ home for the last 16 years of Percy Oliver’s life. He died in 1944.

The house – it’s a handsome, good-sized red brick Victorian number looks out on Peckham Rye Park.

So let’s cut to the chase. What was the difference Percy Oliver made? Why are we – not just in this country but the whole world – in his debt? And why do we come calling on him today, October 11th? Why does he trump the coronation of George II on October 11th, 1827. I mean it’s coronation season in this country – we’re going to be up to our dewlaps in the coronation of Charles III – it’s going to be nothing but coronation, coronation, coronation for the next seven or eight months. But you know something, the bloody good idea Percy Oliver had on October 11th, 1921 was far more important than the coronation of an English king. 

And far more important than a wrongful identification that resulted in a knife attack on the Tudor era’s second most important admiral. A knife attack that nearly killed him. And that did kill the assailant. He was executed in the Strand where he’d carried out the attack. Executed after they cut off his hand and nailed it to the scaffold above his head. 

And far more important than the birth of the founder of the YMCA.

And far more important than the opening of an establishment that was once billed as the most famous spot in the world.

And far more important than hangman William Calcraft’s first private hanging. The person he launched into eternity was a woman, a baby farmer. And, yes, you’re not alone – I’m wondering, too – what was a private hanging.

Anyway, if you think of October 11th as a variety show, that’s a pretty florid list of acts. But they’re just supporting acts – the headliner act is what Percy Oliver did on this day, October 11th, 1921. 

Thanks for being so patient. Drum roll. Lights dim. Here it is.

We’re at King’s College Hospital. There’s an emergency. The surgeons make a frantic call to the Camberwell Red Cross for a blood donor. They get one. A life is saved. Percy Oliver was the Red Cross Secretary. And voila, he got the idea – a blood transfusion donor service would be a good idea. Not just a good idea. A really good idea. A life-saving world-beating, few- things-more-important idea. A bloody good idea indeed. Percy Oliver started with four volunteers. He initially ran the service from home. He worked seven days a week phoning volunteers. It could take eight phone calls to get hold of the right donor. For starters, most people did not have a phone at home. A hundred years later we so take phones for granted – everyone is packing, everyone has a phone more or less permanently at their fingertips – we forget that a century ago telephones were a rarity. 

Anyway, in short order Percy Oliver’s idea became the London Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service. And then it transfused right round the world. Here in this country, twenty years later, during the war, a million people made about two million blood donations. What was initially a case of tracking down a single donor with the right blood type became, to use the now ever-so familiar term, blood banks.

One more thing. I for one am reminded of Isaac Newton’s famous remark, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The ground was prepared for Percy Oliver’s bloody good idea by Karl Landsteiner’s recognition of blood types in Vienna in 1900 and the use of syringes replacing arm-to-arm (direct) transfusion. Surgeons who wished to transfuse blood needed to have a donor on hand. Percy Oliver pushed the envelope, stepped outside the box and took a look around – “you know what, a panel of donors would be a good idea.” Stored blood – which led to blood banks – didn’t follow immediately. It would need a technical advance – the addition of sodium nitrate. And a driver – a wider need than the demands the Red Cross faced in the 1920s and early 1930s. That wider need came in the shape of the Spanish Civil War. 

And a Today in London recommendation? Well, surely, a medical museum recommendation is in order. The oldest hospital in the United Kingdom – the second oldest hospital in Europe – is Barts. It’s got a fascinating little museum. Or you could try the Florence Nightingale Museum. Maybe try both.  

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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