Today (September 14) in London History – the Royal Hospital

The Royal Hospital in Chelsea first pops up on the radar of history on this day – September 14 – in 1681. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

September 14th. It’s like a fireworks display, this date. Every single rocket gets an “ooooh, look at that” from the spectators. There’s Handel finishing the Messiah on September 14th, 1741. Finishing it in London, of course. 

There’s the Idol’s Eye diamond going on sale at Christies on September 14th, 1865 and, needless to say, dazzling everybody. There’s fireworks for you, Gemstone fireworks. There’s the first recruitment campaign for World War I getting underway on September 14th, 1914. Getting underway with a grand assembly at Guildhall. There was London beside itself with excitement on September 14th, 1974 because Chia Chia and Ching Ching, a pair of giant pandas finally arrived at their new home – the London Zoo. That was a consummation devoutly to be desired. In token of friendship, the Chinese had presented the pandas to Prime Minister Edward Heath during his visit to China earlier in 1974. 

And then there was a big black mark entered against Scotland Yard – or at least two of its officers – on September 14th, 1928. Two coppers were found guilty of perverting the course of justice. They’d prepared a false charge against young – she was only 21 – Helen Adele of Islington. They’d had her arrested on the false charge. And what was behind it: sex. The bent coppers had filed the false charge against Helen to punish her for refusing to sleep with one of the young PCs.

Then there was the hanging at Tyburn – to much popular acclaim – of a loathed and feared midwife, Elizabeth Brownrigg. She was hanged on September 14th, 1767. For good measure her skeleton was exposed at Surgeons’ Hall in the Old Bailey so that “the heinousness of her cruelty might make the more lasting impression on the minds of the spectators.” And it was on September 14th, 1824 that things began to come unstuck for the banker and forger Henry Fauntleroy. His bank owned up on this day: it put up a notice informing the public that the bank was suspending payments in consequence of “the very unexpected situation which we find ourselves placed in by the extraordinary conduct of our partner, Mr. Fauntleroy.” In just a couple of months Mr Fauntleroy would find himself in a very unexpected situation – well, he can’t have expected it when he set off down the primrose path. He found himself hanging from a noose in front of 100,000 spectators. At Tyburn of course.

Let’s light one more rocket. One more before the grand finale. 

There was a huge procession – two huge processions actually – through the streets of London on September 14th, 1929. The marchers – one of the processions was of some 12,000 schoolboys and girls – were marking the centenary of Catholic Emancipation. In short, the passing of the Act – in 1829 – that enabled Roman Catholics to sit and vote in both Houses of Parliament. Coming across that story in newspapers now nearly a hundred years old, I was, frankly, taken aback. The thought was, “I had no idea – that centenary was clearly a big deal for London’s Catholic community.” And of course the follow-on thought was, the bi-centenary is coming up fast – it’s just seven years in the future. I wonder if it’ll be marked? Probably it will be – but I’ll be bowled over if it’s a mass event the way it was in 1929. Events, historically important men and women, are like radionuclides. They each have their own particular half-life. Definition time: a half-life is the length of time it takes for half of the radioactive atoms of a specific radionuclide to decay. The rule of thumb is that after seven half-lives, you have less than one per cent of the original amount of radiation.

Food for thought. Perhaps especially so just now. My best American pal – he’ll be listening – has twin grandsons. They’re seven years old. The death of the Queen will be occupying a lot more of my friend’s mental landscape than it will of his grandsons’.

Anyway, that’s the fireworks show for September 14th. We could have hitched a ride on any of those rockets.

But they’re just the warm-up act. The star of this September 14th show is the beginning of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Each of the entrants got its turn in the balance – and none of the others had the wallop of the Royal Hospital. It’s like the difference between a show that’s a two-hander or a four-hander and a huge musical extravaganza. Les Miserables, perhaps, or The Phantom of the Opera. 

I mean with the Royal Hospital you get those old soldiers walking around in those amazing scarlet uniforms, the uniform of the British soldier 340 years ago. You’ve got the beautiful Wren building. You’ve got the position: location, location, location. Arguably the most remarkable position of any building in London. I mean let’s take it compass point by compass point. Look north from the Royal Hospital you’ve got the Royal Avenue. Look west you’ve you’ve got the Chelsea Physic Garden. Look south you’ve got the River Thames. Look east you’ve got the National Army Museum. And of course the stories are to die for. It’s always about narrative. I mentioned the Royal Avenue. It’s very grand. But it’s also very stubby. It’s truncated. To use the Americanism, it’s only one block long. The story is they were going to push it all the way up to Kensington Palace. But they ran out of money. So it’s very grand but very stubby. But one can always take comfort in the thought that James Bond’s flat was in the Royal Avenue. And of course the street that crosses the T– St. Leonard’s Terrace, well there you have Dracula – translation, Bram Stoker’s house. Bram Stoker was of course the Irish actor and writer who authored the famous Gothic horror tale. And you have Laurence Olivier’s house. 

And the house of Richard Rogers, the late, so celebrated modern architect. Christopher Wren over the way. Richard Rogers right here. There’s his house. Look up there. That’s right, that’s the huge, famous Andy Warhol Chairman Mao portrait just visible through the first floor window if you know exactly where to look. 

And that’s not to mention the Chelsea Flower Show, which takes place on the grounds of the Royal Hospital. If it’s dawning on you what a joy it is for Brian and Stephanie, our Chelsea Walks guides, to do their thing down there, well, so it should be. Guiding-wise, Chelsea is great circus act after great circus act.

And of course then there’s the history of the Royal Hospital. As is so often the case, emulation, jealousy, not going to be outdone by the Jones mob was a factor. In this case – as is so often the case in this country – the Jones were the French and Paris in particular. They had for their old soldiers the Hotel des Invalides and Charles II wasn’t having any part of hanging his head in shame because he wasn’t doing nearly as good a job of looking after his old soldiers as Louis XIV was doing in Paris.

Cue Nell Gwynne. It’s been said that pretty Nelly – the cockney orange seller turned actress turned favourite royal mistress – triggered the whole thing by teasing Charles II, “the French king is putting you to shame Charles.” And of course it’s Katy bar the door once you get Nell Gwyn in the spotlight of a walk. The story for example of her carriage being surrounded and stoned by a London mob. They mistakenly thought it was Charles II’s hated French mistress in the conveyance. Nelly opened the window, thrust her head out and said very sweetly, “please desist, dear friend, I am the protestant whore.” Not only did the crowd desist, it cheered.

Well, anyway, let’s pin down the particular of the anniversary. And throw a faggot on the fire that you almost certainly won’t know about. I certainly didn’t. We go to John Evelyn’s diary entry for September 14th, 1681. It reads: “Din’d with Sir Stephen Fox. [A member of the Royal Society, Stephen Fox was the paymaster General].

“Din’d with Sir Stephen Fox who proposed to me the purchasing of Chelsea College, which his Majestie had sometime given to our Society, and would now purchase it of us again, to build a Hospital for Soldiers there.”

And there you go, that’s the genesis moment.

The faggot to toss on the fire is the Chelsea College. What was there before, in other words. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. Founded in 1609, it was “a spiritual garrison” to refute papist doctrines. It proved to be a damp squib and so 70 years later was, as a site, ripe for the plucking. 

And a Today in London recommendation. No end of low-hanging fruit here. The Royal Hospital has a museum. There’s the National Army Museum. There’s the Physic Garden. Take your pick. Mix and match. You couldn’t be better situated than this bit of Chelsea. 

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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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