Today (September 21) in London History – Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre in 1599

On September 21, 1599 a Swiss visitor saw a production of Julius Caesar at the Globe Theatre. It’s believed to be the first production mounted at the world’s most famous theatre. Happily, our Swiss visitor provided us with a detailed account of his theatre-going. 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.

I’ve pretty much eschewed personal matters barging into this Today in London History series.

But I’m going to bend that rule, briefly, here at the top of today’s ‘cast. Yesterday I was under the jackboot of inordinate time pressure. There was a lot going on. Most important of all, we’ve had a houseful of offspring and friends this month and yesterday was their last full day at Chez David and Mary, so we of course laid on some special stuff. And needless to say, it was the Queen’s funeral. That was required watching. As was House of the Dragon – because Mary was in yesterday’s episode. Anyway, yes, full day – lot of time pressure. And in the way of these things I woke up in the middle of the night and realised I’d somehow managed to leave out of yesterday’s podcast a polished gem of a poetic reference. I’m now – thanks to listener Nancy in Bethesda, Maryland – very keen to work poetic ore into these podcasts wherever possible. That’s Nancy’s permanent fingerprint on them thanks to a note from her saying she particularly enjoys the literary references that quite often get worked into the weave. Well, sure enough, one day after I get that lovely note from Nancy I manage to let her down, leave out a brilliant literary reference. So I’m going to remedy that right now. Yesterday’s podcast was about Dr Johnson’s famous pronouncement, “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life.” I said that Johnson was in his late 60s when he made that lapidary statement. Said that he was very aware of the sands of time running out of his glass and that in consequence he was travelling and visiting as much as possible. Visiting old friends and his old haunts. 

And of course there it was – came to me at 3 am – came to my subconscious because I was sound asleep – and needless to say 3 am was about five hours too late. The podcast had been put into the bottle, the bottle had been corked and flung out onto the mighty main.

But it’s not as though I’ve dropped and shattered a priceless Dragon and Lotus porcelain vase. It’s only a day later. I can go some way toward making amends in today’s podcast. So here you go, Nancy. In 1777 Dr Johnson was very aware of his advancing years. He was Andrew Marvell-ously aware:

But at my back I always hear

Time’s Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Yes, that’s right. They’re Andrew Marvell’s famous lines from his poem To His Coy Mistress. 

Ok, let’s get to today, September 21st.

The autumn equinox.  

Spoiled for choice today. 

There was the duel fought between Castlereagh and Canning – dominant figures in the Cabinet of Prime Minister William Henry Cavendish. Pistols at dawn on Putney Heath. That was September 21st, 1809. 

There was another duel of sorts on September 21st, 1991. An ill-starred boxing match between Chris Eubank and Michael Watson. Poor Watson – he was only 24 years old – suffered near-fatal brain damage from the bout. He was in a coma for 40 days. He spent six years in a wheelchair. He had to relearn how to talk, read, write and walk. It’s a huge pleasure to say that he went on to run a marathon, has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charities and indeed, just three days ago – on September 18th – was inducted into the British boxing hall of fame.

Then there was the Frenchman’s spectacular ascent – and parachute descent – in 1802. Monsieur Garnerin went up from North Audley Street, just off Grosvenor Square. And came down in a field near St Pancras.

In no time at all, a ballad was making the rounds of poetically inclined London.

Bold Garnerin went up

Which increased his Repute

And came safe to earth

In his Grand Parachute.

There you go, Nancy in Bethesda, that’s two helpings of verse for you for this one.

But no verse I should think – I hope anyway – for the September 21st, 1875 story.

I’m talking about the hand that fell out of one of the parcels a youth had been asked to carry from a bankrupt shop by its dodgy owner. Proved to be a handy bit of evidence in the subsequent murder trial and the perp swung. But that’s another London story. Let it not detain us further.

The tale I’ve decided to air out fully took place on September 21st, 1599. It’s an account by a Swiss visitor – one Thomas Platter from Basle – of some of his theatre-going in London. The September 21st outing was to, yes, the Globe Theatre – to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s special in every way, this account. Not least because that production of Julius Caesar is believed to be the first production mounted at the world’s most famous theatre.

Now all of that has theatre historians salivating. But I also rejoice in Platter’s account because of what it tells us about Londoners and life in London exactly 423 years ago. We learn about how Londoners spend their time. We learn that dinner is at midday. We learn about a couple of customs. We learn about their jollity. We learn about their preening and jingoism and sense of superiority vis-a-vis foreigners. And just general self-satisfaction with being English. It’s priceless, this document. 

Here it is.

Right. Handbrake turn time. Here we are at the Today in London recommendation. A few weeks ago the Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition got the treatment, so I won’t go over that ground again. Not so soon afterwards, anyway. So instead, how about this? A private tour of the Tower of London. The Tower figures in several Shakespeare plays, so we’re not we’ve gone wildly astray with the recommendation. And what’s seriously to the point is, this is a great time to do the Tower of London. The number of visitors there still isn’t anything like it was pre-Covid. And, especially if you’re an American, the exchange rate is doing you a big favour just now. Drop us a line at [email protected] and we’ll get you a world-class guide. 

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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