Today (October 23) in London History – dinner on top of Nelson’s column

The 14 stonemasons who built Nelson’s column dined at the top of the column on October 23, 1843. 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.

Gleefully rubbing my hands together in anticipation of this one.

Because of where it goes. Because of what it does. Because of what you see.

It’s classic makes the familiar new. And that hugely important matter – making the familiar new – is of course one of the two ignition coils of what we’re about: London Walks makes the new familiar and the familiar new.

Had a very nice chap from Essex on my Hampstead walk on Sunday. We got talking between stops and he said he’d come into town to go on the walk and then, in the afternoon, go down to King’s Cross Station and see the Flying Scotsman, the legendary steam engine. The which was news to me. I had no idea that wonderful creation was in town and it gave me a pang of disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to get down there and see it. It was just a flying visit for the Flying Scotsman, it was only in town for the weekend. 

But it got me thinking about London generally – how the place is like a larder. Some foodstuffs – canned goods and the like – are pretty much permanent. Others – fresh foods – are temporary. They’re only in the larder for a short while. They’re carpe diem items – short shelf life, you have to use them while they’re fresh, while they’re there. 

In essence that’s London. We have the great set-pieces that are permanently here – the Tower, the Abbey, St Paul’s, Highgate Cemetery, etc. etc. and then there’s a whole lot more that’s just passing through. Special exhibitions at galleries and museums, the Flying Scotsman at King’s Cross, shows (The Mousetrap excepted), Maria Callas’ London farewell concert, etc. You catch it when you can; you miss it, it’s gone; it won’t be back. 

Anyway, the thought that followed was the obvious one: because they’re ephemeral, special events, one-offs have an aura about them, have an extra charge that permanent features of the London landscape do not, by definition, have. 

It’s that thought, I’m seeing something no one has ever seen before. And no one will ever see again.

And that brings us to today, October 23rd. October 23rd nearly 200 years ago. 1843 to be exact.

We’re at a dinner party. Some dinner party. A not just a once-in-a-lifetime dinner party. A once-in-eternity dinner party.

There are fourteen guests of honour seated at the table. And what a wonderful view they have. One question I have – one question of many – is, were there toasts? Did the brimming bowl make the rounds? How many bottles of wine did they consume? And what were the seating arrangements? And inasmuch as it was an al fresco dinner party – well, what was the weather like? Was there much of a breeze. And getting to the dinner party – was there anything special about that?

All those questions in addition to the more usual ones – what was on the menu, how formal an affair was it, how were the guests dressed? And indeed, how was the table set, how was the food presented? And of course what did they talk about? What one wouldn’t give to know? And when it was all over, the farewells, taking their leave and all that – what was that like? Who was the last man out, did he take a final look round? And as for regrets, the immediately obvious one, isn’t a shame the dinner party came just that bit too early for there to have been a photographic record. What one wouldn’t give to have a photograph of them seated there, beaming at the camera, perhaps raising a glass. Or even just a one-man or two-man selfie or two – showing off where they were, the pretty special view they had. 

Ok, that’s a long teaser. Who were the dinner guests? Where were they?

They were skilled working men. Stonemasons. They had dinner on the platform at the top of Nelson’s column. The statue would go up in a week or so. But it wasn’t there yet. So the column was finished but its platform was empty – crying out to be topped up, be put to work doing its job. If putting Nelson’s statue up there was like planting a flag on top of Mount Everest, this dinner party was like that moment when the climbers reach the summit. 

And sure enough, the 14 diners were the stonemasons who built the column. Something very satisfying about that. Though thinking it over, in the end I did qualify, ever so slightly, that observation. I’m guessing there weren’t too many other people – especially dignitaries – who were willing to go up there, be seated, break some bread high in the sky. It would have been familiar territory for the stonemasons. They were used to that ascent. The cynic in me thinks that had it been 110 per cent guaranteed safe the guests for that dinner party would have been VIPs. But in the circumstances they weren’t clamouring to get up there – so they sent the stonemasons instead. But you know something, that’s ok. Even if those fellows were the second choice guests, I’m glad they got the chance. Everything about it is good. The camaraderie, the sharing of something they and they alone had created and experienced – no question about it,  the most special experience in their life. They will have remembered it to their dying day. As will, from their very different perspective, the people down below looking up at them, barely able to make them out. 

That column is 171 feet high. That’s the height of a seventeen-storey building. 

So you can imagine how Liliputian those 14 stonemasons will have looked from ground level. 

The whole moment immediately put me in mind of one my favourite poems, John Ormond’s Cathedral Builders. When the RSC actor Steve Noonan and I do that occasional London in Poetry walk – I handle the historical background, literary analysis dimension of the walk, Steve performs the poem – anyway, when we do that walk Steve always reads Cathedral Builders when we get to Westminster Abbey. And the sentiments of the poem – as you’ll see in a minute – are a perfect fit for this moment in London history, that dinner party up on top of Nelson’s column.

Here’s the poem.

They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God,

with winch and pulley hoisted hewn rock into heaven,

inhabited the sky with hammers,

defied gravity,

deified stone,

took up God’s house to meet him,

and came down to their suppers

and small beer,

every night slept, lay with their smelly wives,

quarrelled and cuffed the children,

lied, spat, sang, were happy, or unhappy,

and every day took to the ladders again,

impeded the rights of way of another summer’s swallows,

grew greyer, shakier,

became less inclined to fix a neighbour’s roof of a fine evening,

saw naves sprout arches, clerestories soar,

cursed the loud fancy glaziers for their luck,

somehow escaped the plague,

got rheumatism,

decided it was time to give it up,

to leave the spire to others,

stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the consecration,

envied the fat bishop his warm boots,

cocked a squint eye aloft,

and said, ‘I bloody did that.’

Last thought: are you like me lusting to know how they got up there? Were they hoisted up in some sort of basket contraption? Or go up a ladder? And how’d they get the food up there? And was there some sort of safety rail at the top? Did the column sway at all? And you can see why one of the questions my mind was immediately chiselling away at was, “did they have anything to drink? Were there toasts?”

Oh, well.

But we’re not done yet. Two other points. 1. You have to like the timing of the thing. October 23rd wasn’t quite Trafalgar Day – it’s October 21st. But it’s close enough to be in the picture, so to speak.

And 2. the other thing – and here we’re seriously into make the familiar new territory. Just a few days later Nelson’s statue was there at the foot of the column, preparatory to being hoisted up onto his perch. For four days Londoners were allowed an up-close view. Something nobody had seen before. Something nobody would ever see again. Londoners seized the opportunity.

Turned out in their thousands. On the Saturday more than 100,000 of them filed by – saw the Admiral from a vantage point that would never again be accessible.

The wonder of it comes across in the statistics. They make the familiar new. 

Here are some measurements for you.

The circumference of the Admiral’s collar is five feet. The circumference of his waist is nine feet. Yes, a 108-inch waist. The circumference of his thigh is four feet ten inches. His forefinger is 11 inches long. The distance from his knee to the tip of his toe is 5 feet six inches. His instep is nine inches high. His foot is two feet four inches long. Quite a galumpher, really. A foot nearly two and a half feet long would need a size 33 shoe. You don’t see too many of those in Jimmy Choo’s. His pigtail is two feet six inches long. His arm – his one arm – is five feet eight inches long.

His scabbard is six feet eight inches long. The width of the transverse piece below the hilt of the sword is one foot-four inches long. Having that plunged into you, it’d be like being run through by a snow shovel. No thanks.

Anything else?

Yes, the circumference of the plinth is 20 feet seven inches. A measurement that takes us back to the fourteen, the last supper of the fourteen disciples, the stone masons. 

And finally, Nelson’s not alone up there. On the plinth, at the rear of the statue, is the inscription E.H. Baily, RA 1843. Edward Hodges Baily was the sculptor. I’m glad he’s up there – well, his name is up there – at Nelson’s feet. To my mind that’s a pairing not unlike Severn and Keats, there at Keats’ deathbed at the Spanish Steps in Rome. And then later, together, eternally, in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. 

Ok, a Today in London recommendation. Yesterday we were at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Today, let’s go back to Greenwich. To the Maritime Museum. Making sure we see Nelson’s Trafalgar coat. With the hole in the left shoulder where he was hit by the fatal ball fired by the French sniper from his perch in the mizzen mast of the Redoubtable. 

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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