Today (September 17) in London History – St Paul’s Covent Garden & Pygmalion

Inigo Jones’ St. Paul’s Covent Garden was severely damaged by a fire on September 17, 1795. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I trust it will be all right if I begin this one by putting down a marker.

This Today in London History podcast series began on December 26, 2021. If you do the maths – do the calendar count – that comes to 265 of them. Meaning a hundred to go to complete the year. So, yes, completing this one will break me into two figures country. Ninety to go – and counting – after I complete this one. That first one – last December 26th – was done on a whim. Done because I felt like doing. For all I knew then that one could have been a one-off. Then on December 27th I did another one. And then another one the next day. At some point back in those first days the bemused thought will have crossed my mind, “I wonder how long I can keep this going.” I was probably thinking a few weeks max. 

And then at some point back then the virgin thought will have crossed my mind, “gosh, it’d be extraordinary to have one of these for every day of the year. I can’t imagine that I’m equal to it but I’ll just take it a day at a time and see how far I get. And then Spring rolled around and I’d done over a hundred of them and at some point back then the iron entered my soul – I thought, I’m going to see if I can do this. 100 became 150. 150 became 200 and so on. This is the fourth one I’ve worked on today – September 13th – the other three are down and dusted. They were number 263, 264 and 265. So, yes, this feels like a landmark, feels like the beginning of the long home stretch. Assuming I do complete this marathon – do that last one, the 365th in the series, on Christmas Day – what happens on December 26th? I’ve been asked that a few times. And have asked myself – posed that question to myself – a good few times. There’s a lot about this project that I like very much. I’ve made a lot of interesting discoveries. The body of this podcast is going to be about St Paul’s Covent Garden and its architect Inigo Jones. Inigo Jones’ motto was “Altro diletto che imparar no trovo” – “I have no other delight but to learn.” Well, I, David, do have a few other delights. But as mottos go, I have a lot of time for that one. That thought – that approach to life – that’s talking a lot of sense by my lights. So the stuff I’ve found out – including some things tonight about Inigo Jones – have been very rewarding. And of course for a guide – a London Walks guide – invaluable. Thanks to this podcast project I now know a lot of interesting stuff that no other guide in London knows.

But then we come to the rub – well, the main rub – should make that plural because there are two of them. One is the time commitment. Each one of these takes me four to five hours. I have to research it, script it, voice it, clean up the voice and run it up the mast. That’s a seriously heavy time commitment given the other stuff I’ve got on my plate. There are huge chunks of our website, for example, that are crying out for this or that and I’ve had to backburner quite a few of those repairs and emendations and alterations. And the other side of that coin is 1. getting out and about in London. For half a century I’ve fine-tooth combed this city – voraciously explored it. Those daily forays deep into London – just walking and looking – doing less of that, which has been a necessary consequence of this podast project, that’s like a restriction of my oxygen supply. And the same goes for reading. I suffer from an incurable case of bibliomania. 30 to 35 hours a week on this podcast project translates into, I would say, 15-20 lost reading hours every week. That I can’t abide. For me, that’s like being locked up.

So where are we going to be on December 26th? I have a ton of material I haven’t used. It’s material I’d like to use. But I have to slip the surly bonds of this heavy time commitment. So what I think might happen – it’s still early days, of course – is that the Today in London History podcast might become a Today in London History bulletin. A much much shorter daily piece. A snippet, really. I’ve already been told, “hey it’s not a podcast as is – a proper podcast is at least 30 minutes and often 45 minutes long or even an hour long. You’re just doing these mostly 10 to 15-minute informational morsels. That’s not a podcast. Well, who cares? I certainly don’t. What I’ve put out – the stride I’ve got into – feels right for me. That surely is all that matters. Nobody’s paying me for this output. Nobody’s being short-changed. So my dwarf podcasts – there, nomenclature-wise, does that neologism pass muster – anyway, yes, my dwarf podcasts will likely become bulletins. And depending on how I feel about any given day’s topic – and given my time commitments and pressures – well, some of them might well be more like, size-wise, the ones I’ve been ladling out here for the nine months.

And the other thing I want to do with this particular instrument – this audio component of our website – is spread my wings – get a lot more output that’s London and Londoners today. Interviews. Input from guides, etc.

So that’s the state of play, the London Walks podcast state of the union address for mid-September 2022.

Shall we do some Today in London History? Let’s go first to September 17th, 1795. It’s lunchtime. Lunchtime in Covent Garden. You know, the piazza and all the little streets around it. Oh, and do let me mention in passing, isn’t St Paul’s Covent Garden looking great? And so it should do – they’re just putting the finishing touches on the major renovations that have been going on there for several years. Renovations which were sorely needed, as handsome and characterful as the old fellow was. It’s been there for over a century and half now. That’s a lot of London to weather. And a lot of London weather to weather.

So, yes, looking great. But, hey, did you see that? That looks like smoke. Quick, quick. Oh my god.

Ok, that’s the lead-in to what happened today. It’s mid-day. Workers have downed tools and gone off to lunch. They made a mistake. A big mistake. They left an unguarded fire. Who knows how it happened? Sometimes a burning log or stick will pop. And a spark flies out. It depends on where that spark lands. If it lands on something that’s flammable. Well, it only takes one spark. That spark did for it. The whole of the interior – all of that renovation – up in flames. The one bit of Inigo Jones’ original early 1630s church that survived is the great east front, with its Tuscan columns. That, incidentally, was originally going to be the front. Shows you how innovative Inigo Jones was. The altar’s always at the east. You enter the church from the West. Jones said, “sod that, this faces this wonderful piazza, the entrance has to facing the piazza. That time Inigo Jones was trumped. The Bishop of London said, ‘no, you don’t – the altar has to be in its traditional place, at the eastern end. So that magnificent front was never a front. But never mind. 

Well, the pantry of great stories about St Paul’s Covent Garden overflows. But thanks to that long introduction to this piece this podcast is in danger of overflowing. So I’m confining myself to one tale. A favourite tale. What I like very much about it is the way it illuminates London and Londoners.

And there’s another reason this one gets the nod. We’ve got a connection. Well, a near enough connection. And this avocation of ours – guiding London – it’s all about making connections.

The immediate connection – nearly perfectly timed – is a birthday. Well, near enough to a birthday. Henry Sweet’s birthday has just passed. He was born on September 15th, 1845. Who was Henry Sweet? Well, might you ask. He was a phonetician comparative philologist. A philologist is a words-person. He or she is a collector of words and their etymologies. And a phonetician. A phonetician is an expert in phonetics. And phonetics is the study of human sounds and phonology is the classification of the sounds within the system of a particular language or languages. 

And what do you know, Henry Sweet sat for the portrait as it were of Professor Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics in George Bernard Shaw’s great play, Pygmalion. Which of course became the famous musical My Fair Lady. And what do you know, right there, under that great portico of St Paul’s Covent Garden is where the play – and the musical opens. And why does Shaw open it there? Well, watch the lights of illuminations, of understanding – understanding of London and Londoners – go on here. GBS – George Bernard Shaw – was, we perhaps should remind ourselves, Irish. And as an outsider, he was fascinated by the difference an accent can make to an English person’s life. In the preface, Shaw says, “an Englishman cannot open his mouth without making another Englishman either hate or despise him.” The two key words there are hate and despise. The Englishman doing the despising is a member of the upper class. He’s got a posh accent. He looks down on “stains” – yes, that’s the current slang word toffs use for the rest of us. Stains.

The other Englishman is the one who hates. He’s way down the social scale. Doesn’t have one of those plummy accents. And he senses the arrogance of the toff. Feels pretty sure that the toff looks down on him. And he doesn’t like that one bit. He hates the supercilious prick. Excuse the French. 

Now let’s think about the time of day Shaw opens his play. It’s 10.30 at night. The theatres have just let out. On the other side of the piazza you’ve got the Royal Opera House and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The two poshest theatres in London. 

The opera’s over, the shows over, all those toffs are just coming out Drury Lane and the Opera House. Finally, what’s the weather doing? It’s bucketing down. And when it buckets down nobody can ever get a taxi in London. So what happens, Mrs Eynesford-Hill, her daughter Clara and her son Freddy – and look, their double-barrelled name – Eynesford-Hill gives the game away. They’re upper class. They’ve just come out of the Opera House, they can’t get a taxi, mother and daughter take shelter under the portico of St Paul’s Covent Garden and send hapless Freddy off in the downpour to get a taxi for heaven’s sakes Freddy.  But it’s not just Clara Eynesford Hill and her mother taking shelter there. So does Eliza Doolittle the cockney flower seller from Covent Garden Market. And her accent – and indeed her names – she’s not Elizabeth, she’s Eliza. Eliza Doolittle, does that surname not sum up how the toffs of this land feel about the hoi polloi.

And finally, there’s one other person. A person with a notebook and a pencil. A professor named Henry Higgins. A professor of phonetics. He’s there because of the range of accents that are on offer.

Brilliantly, Shaw has picked the one place in London where he can plausibly bring together the whole moth-eaten, class-ridden range of English accents. Plausibly being the operative words. They are few and far between – indeed, almost non-existent – the places where you hear, effectively under one roof, the accent of the bottom rung of the English social and the accent of the topmost rungs. It’s close, careful observation and pure genius Shaw working that out. He found the one place where he could plausibly bring together the Eyensford Hill accent and the Eliza Doolittle accent. And that one place is St Paul’s Covent Garden, the focal point for this day in London history. And while we’re at it – a slightly belated happy birthday to Henry Sweet. 

And a Today in London recommendation? Been to the Royal Opera House yet? Why not, it’s a special place. World-class opera and ballet. It’s not cheap, though. But you knew that. 

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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