Today (September 26) in London History – a new ‘thrill’ for London

London got a new thrill on September 26, 1931. This Today in London History podcast reveals all.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The days of the year. The London days of the year. They’re like a flower bed. A flower bed with 365 flowers in it. 366 flowers every fourth year.

And if the days of the London year are like flowers, well, London events are like bees. And the fact of the matter is, some of those flowers attract far more bees – some of them really quirky, exotic bees – than their neighbours do. What is it about some of these London days? Or dates if you prefer. The buzzings around – the goings-on on some of these dates! Why are those event bees all buzzing around and putting down on this flower and not its next-door neighbour? The September 26th flower is certainly a case. Just look at the hit parade of event bees that made a bee-line for September 26th. For starters, a coronation at Westminster Abbey. Well, coronation schmoronation you say. And then you look at the date – the year – and you reel that coronation schmoronation remark back in haste post haste. 1087. 935 years ago. The coronation of William Rufus. The English king – well, the Norman king. William Rufus, all 5 feet four inches of him with the protruding belly. But hey his mother was barely four feet tall. And in any case, you didn’t want to look him in the eye and the keeping a downcast eye operation was helped no end by the shoes he wore – you know, the ones with long points curled like scorpions’ tails.

Yes, that William Rufus, the king who went to his reward when an arrow thudded into him out on a deer hunt. Somebody missed the buck but bagged his majesty instead. Or maybe it wasn’t an accident. Yes, that William Rufus. The second son. The one who, when he was a teenager, went along with his ten-year-old brother to the house where his older brother, Robert, the heir apparent, was headquartered. This was the first stage of the Normans’ attack on one of their neighbours. Older brother Robert was downstairs conferring with his friends. William and his younger brother went upstairs and played dice, as soldiers do. They got bored, made a commotion and then urinated on the heads of Robert and his friends. Now I know King Charles has had his share of young brother problems but, hey, let’s get things into perspective. So, yes, there’s the bee of that coronation on the flower known as September 26th. And look there’s another gaudy bee heading for the September 26th. It’s the bee of the trial of four servants, in 1564, who stole Queen Elizabeth’s chamber pot. Don’t ask why. It’s a show trial. They’ll swing two days later.  And you’ve got the first recorded cremation in England. It was illegal. It was a woman named Honoretta Pratt. It was in an open grave. It was in the Mount Street Gardens behind the Grosvenor Chapel. In Mayfair. In 1769.

Two hundred years later, to the day, there was the Beatles releasing Abbey Road, the final LP they recorded together. September 26th is a red letter day for the Fabs. Four years earlier, to the day, the Queen had appointed them Members of the British Empire. And then you’ve got, in 1850, the first stretch of the Northern Line opening. In 1963 you’ve got the publication of Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo scandal. Busy bees – exotic bees – lots of them buzzing around the September 26th flower. 

And none of them have particularly caught my eye for this podcast. No, I’m going for that quirky little fellow in 1931. The one that’s trailing the banner that reads: A New Thrill for London.

And what is it, it’s the sheepdog trials in Hyde Park. Well, I’ve banged on about this before: London’s insatiable appetite for the novel, for spectacle. Sheep-dog trials were nothing new in England but they were held on their home grounds, so to speak. You know, out in the country, in places like Yorkshire. Which after all describes itself as “a county built on wool.”

Word must have got to London. London wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So it organised its own international sheepdog trials. I don’t know how long they went on for. But I do know there was a repeat performance the next year, in 1932, and 50,000 Londoners attended those 1932 trials. Maybe two years running jaded London had got its fill and that was it for sheepdog trials in Hyde Park.

We don’t have specific audience figures for the September 26, 1931 new London thrill but we’re told the large number of spectators were most orderly, with the result that the dogs were able to give of their best and concentrate themselves on their work. It’s hard to believe that a crowd of Londoners could be that docile, that there wouldn’t have been at least a couple of cockneys who couldn’t resist the temptation to upstage the dogs. But well-behaved they were and the dogs delivered. There were three championships. The National Championship was won by Craig – that’s Craig the sheepdog not his owner. Ben came second. And Queen was third. In this event the dog had to round up five sheep, drive them through a gate to the shepherd, drive them through two other gates. He then sheds two. He then collects the two lots and pens all five. And finally he sheds the one sheep that’s marked.

I’m lost in admiration at these dogs.

Then there was the doubles champions. That involved two dogs and two lots of sheep.

The biggie, though, was the International Championship. Ben took the honours, Queen came second. And Moss was third.

Those London spectators would have had plenty to talk about round the office water cooler on Monday. Ben’s skill level – his efficiency and speed – the way he got those sheep to do his bidding – would have been off the charts, a thing of wonder. Ben had to round up ten sheep from the left of the course, drive them through a gate in the middle of the course. Then in response to a whistle he left them – having given them firm instructions that they were to stay put – left them and gathered ten other sheep from the right of the course. He fetches them. He’s now riding herd on twenty sheep. Ordering them about. He shepherds them through obstacles. Five of the twenty are marked. He sheds and pens the five marked sheep. 

It’s so quirky this. Had the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane existed in 1931 you would have been able to go up to the Sky Bar, get yourself a drink, and watch sheep being herded in Hyde Park. If I could time travel back to ten historical events in London the Sheep Dog Trials in Hyde Park would definitely be on my dance card.

What we can do is time travel forward. Time is taking us forward.

So here’s one for you. The new exhibition at Japan House on Kensington High Street is called The Carpenters’ Line. It explores the life and legacy of the master woodworkers in the densely forested Hida Region of central Japan.  It opens on September 29th. So you can Time Travel there – that’s your Today in London recommendation for this podcast. Sheep-dog trials in Hyde Park, traditional woodworking deep in a Japanese forest – come on, you have to admit it, London Walks is coming through for you.

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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