Today (September 23) in London History – “Never knew that about London”

The things you can learn about London on the quietest day of the year. 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.

You see them occasionally. They’re of course a send-up. Cocking a mild snook is another way of putting that. I’m talking about those blue plaques that say something like 

“Nobody famous lived in this house.” Or “Nothing happened in this house.”

Well, it isn’t quite true that nothing happened on September 23rd. Nothing of historical importance anyway. But it does seem to have kept its head down, kept a quieter profile than other days in the calendar. You’ve got the opening of the Central School of Speech and Drama. That was in 1957. And in 1518 the College of Physicians getting their charter. And in 1959 the opening of the first heliport – not just in London but in the country. And in 1897 the first child car fatality. And in 1952 Charlie Chaplin returning to his hometown for the first time in 21 years. Pretty low-key stuff, really.

But you know something, that’s all right. It’s welcome even. The level of intensity we had for the twelve days – the 200 BBC cameras event – well, a rest is called for. It’s time to lie fallow. 

So for this one I’m not going to play the pretty meagre hand that history’s dealt us. Instead, I thought I’d take a look at what was going on in London exactly a hundred years ago. September 23rd, 1922. And if a low-key, quiet time was had by all, well, that’s all right. It’s a breathing space. A time for frighted peace to pant, as Shakespeare puts it at the beginning of Henry IV, Part I. 

So what was going on in London exactly 100 years ago?

Some of it’s pretty familiar stuff. There was labour unrest. Actors were threatening to strike. As we’re tramway workers. Yes, London had trams in 1922. 

And there was some tut-tutting in the press about rough football. Three footballers were ordered off the field, two of whom were – quote-unquote “famous internationals”. Though I hadn’t heard of them. I note in passing that the 1922 press did not use the phrase red card. Nor were the offending players afforded a full name mention. Just their surnames were doled out. You have to wonder whether that was some sort of subtle class marker. I checked lawn tennis and golf stories for 1922 and sure enough the players got full name mentions or at the very least first name initials plus their surnames. And in some cases their names were prefaced with a Mr. 

Making the running, though, were, the following three tales. First, 3,000 bandsmen competing in what was headlined as Stirring Scenes at Crystal Palace. September 23rd was the great annual festival and holiday of the British bandsmen, who, we learn, foregathered at the Crystal Palace to compete for the thousand guinea trophy and Daily Telegraph Cup, which stamp the winners as the finest players of the day.

I’ll bet that was fun. And you wonder, a little wistfully, what happened to that festival? When – and why – did it go the way of all flesh.

Second, it’s utterly charming, this. So innocent. The story of the Waitresses’ French Trip. Twenty Lyons’ waitresses left Victoria Station on September 23rd for a trip to the champagne districts of France. We’re told the girls – I’m quoting – were specially selected from several depots and preference was given to those longest in the service. That scene at Victoria Station, I wonder, I hope, it had overtones of the railway station scenes in the film Some Like It Hot.

What completely won me over was the sentence, “Most of the girls appeared to be more keenly interested in the prospect of seeing the Paris shops than in learning something about vintages.” Good for you, ladies. You go, girls.

And one more sporting tale. The London to Brighton Walk.

Under the headline: Brighton Walk, two almost predictable subtitles.

First: Englishman First

Followed by: Italy’s Champion Beaten.

Put me in mind instantly of that 1599 letter written by a Swiss visitor. It was in this podcast a couple of a days ago. He writes about a comedy he saw in which an Englishman is fighting various representatives of other countries. Defeats them except the German. But he then gets the German drunk. The German’s servant throws his shoe at his master’s head. And the Englishman robs the German of his gain – thus he’s defeated them all, outwitted, defeated all those foreigners. Well, this walking race wasn’t a plurality of foreigners but sure enough it was an Englishman who won the race and we’re told very pointedly that he beat the Italian champion. And if you’re wondering, the triumphant Englishman’s name, was Mr E. C. Horton.

And the Telegraph was quick to add that the race was “international” because three of the 109 competitors were Italian. The competitors set out at 7 am from the clock Tower at Westminster. The victor, Mr E. C. Horton reached Brighton a little before half past three. His exact winning time was eight hours, 27 minutes and 12 seconds.

It also jumped off the page at me that the reporter had not used the name Big Ben to describe the starting point. It was “the clock tower.” For what it’s worth, my guess is its official name – it’s been so for a few years now – the Queen Elizabeth Tower – will now take hold and the name Big Ben will gradually fade. Though I hope not. Be interesting to know, though, when that name began to take hold. And why.

Now because the name Big Ben has come up I think it would be in order to take our leave of September 23rd, 1922 and head back, ever so briefly, to September 23rd, 1857. Same day of the year, so that’s a nice coincidence. Had back to a boxing match between Ben Caunt and Nat Langham. Nat Langham was the only man who ever beat the famous Tom Sayers. It was Ben Caunt last appearance in the ring. The fight went on for sixty rounds. Whereupon the men shook hands and no decision was given. Caunt was a big, unscientific fighter known as Ursa Major and Goliath the Second. The book on him was “he hits at random and has no idea of defence.” In short, his size rather than his skill was the basis for his pugilistic aspirations.

But here’s the thing, Caunt was the proprietor of the Coach and Horses public house at 90 St Martin’s Lane. That’s the address of the famous High Victorian Salisbury pub today. And how much fun is it going to be for me as a guide to point that pub out, tell my walkers its forerunner was called the Coach and Horses and its proprietor in the mid-19th century was a huge pugilist named Ben Caunt. And aficionados of these matters say Ben Caunt is believed to have been the real inspiration for the christening of the Palace of Westminster bell as Big Ben, even though Sir Benjamin Hall remains the official candidate. Well, Goliath the Second aka Ursa Major aka Big Ben gets my vote.

And more keeping the powder dry, I’ll also be telling my walkers about the tragedy that happened in the pub that earned Ben Caute a great deal of sympathy.

And there you go, this is why I’m plowing this furrow. I’m learning all kinds of things about this city that I thought I knew very well, having guided it for 42 years.

And a Today in London recommendation: sure, go have a drink at the Salisbury Pub. In the words of the folks at Pub Heritage, it’s a historic pub interior of national importance. 

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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