What Happened in London on Bastille Day?

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

Couple of milestones coming up. Sometime next week this podcast will pass the 300,000 mark. A third of a million downloads.

And sometime next month we’ll clear the one thousand podcasts bar. A thousand podcasts about London. That’s a lot of podcasts, a lot of content.

Looking back, well, we got into the groove on December 26th, 2021. On a whim I put up a On This Day in London History podcast. And then I did another one the next day. And another one the day after that. Had no idea at that stage how long the run would continue. And then at some point – I suppose it was in January – I thought, I wonder if can keep this up for a year. Do one of these for every day of the year. And sure enough I was able to. In fact, I did one of those every day for something like 420 consecutive days. And then I hit the wall. It was a big time commitment, I had other things I needed to do and wanted to do, so it ground to a halt. An abrupt halt. Then this spring I put out a few this, that and the other podcasts. But now, since July 4th, I seem to have got into another groove.

Let’s compare those two grooves for a minute. The first 420-game streak the idea was to avoid the obvious. It had to be something out of London’s history for any given day – but I didn’t want it to be achingly obvious. On September 2nd, for example, I did not want to do the start of the Great Fire of London on that date in 1666. Everybody and his cousin and his monkey’s uncle was in there swinging at that fat pitch. No, I wanted to do bits of London history that were new to me. And to anybody who was listening. So for example, the double execution of the twins. They were launched into eternity together, holding hands. Wonderfully compelling tale. So London. And, yes, I’ve already forgotten the date – but it’s there, it’ll be there somewhere in that 420-day-long catalogue of Today in London History podcasts. Or the last day – this was early in the 20th century – of the fresh milk market there on the Mall, just a hundred yards or so from Buckingham. I was astounded to discover that there were still cows there on that patch of St James’ in the early 20th century and a couple of ancient London crones were milking those cows and selling drinks of fresh milk to Londoners. And that finally the modern world caught up with them and they were forced to close down. That was a tale – a rich, poignant bit of London history – I didn’t know about it. And pretty much nobody else knew about. So it was perfect for what I was aiming for in that podcast series.

But of course some times the pickings were thin. The materials to hand were ok, but just ok. And moving into that second year of the series I thought, ummm, there are going to be days when I’m putting out stuff that’s fairly humdrum. I mean how many London conflagrations do you report before that subject gets old.

So, yes, those were the parameters. It had to be London. It had to be an event that wasn’t well known. Or wasn’t known at all. And it had to be intrinsically interesting. That’s a very tight, narrow, confined focus. And in the end, I thought, sooner or later there are going to be dates when I run out of road with this one. So, after 420 days, as I said, I packed it in.

And then along came the 4th of July. The American Declaration of Independence. And I remember the thought crossing my mind, ‘I wonder what was going on in London on July 4th, 1776. What was going on here while they were signing that world-changing document in Philadelphia? Part of the fascination for me was that nothing was happening in real time. They were blissfully ignorant in London about what was taking place in Philadelphia on that same day. Blissfully ignorant not just on the day itself but for the next six weeks or so.

And that moment was the breakthrough. I thought, I don’t have to confine this to London. I can open it up to the world. I can fasten on a huge story anywhere in the world and ask what was going on in London while that was taking place in Paris or Berlin or Mexico City or Chicago or Beijing or wherever? The contrast was what appealed to me. I saw it almost as historical chiaroscuro. You’ve got this world-changing event taking place in Cairo or Moscow and here in London it’s just another day.  I liked the screeching, hand-brake turn of the switch from something hugely important in some far-flung corner of the world to what was going down in London that same day.

And I of course knew that just ten days after the 4th of July I had another world-changing event I’d be able to get my teeth into. I’m talking of course about Bastille Day. July 14th, 1789. The day of the storming of the Bastille. That an important event in the French Revolution. An event so important that its anniversary would become the national day of France. The event that ushered in the abolition of feudalism in France and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

And of course, as with the 4th of July, they were blissfully ignorant in London of that world-changing event taking place not 300 miles to the east.

Had my subject. Next stop the London newspapers on July 15th, 1789. The July 15th papers in order to find out what happened on July 14th.

I looked at six papers: the Morning Post, the Morning Star, the Oracle, the Public Advertiser, The World, and one called The Diary or Woodfall’s Register.

So here we go. Welcome to the London of July 14th, 1789. Here’s what was going on in London while the Bastille was being stormed in Paris.

First of all, there was quite a bit of news from France. There were well aware in London that trouble was brewing on the other side of the Channel. It’s just that they were reading about events that had taken place several days previously. The British newspapers were like a seismic monitor next to an active volcano. All that summer they’d been recording worrying activity – emissions of steam and gas, tremors, etc. – there was every chance a volcanic eruption was coming. But on July 14th itself they were blissfully ignorant that the eruption was underway.

July 14th, 1789 was a Tuesday. The Diary or Woodfall’s Register was reporting what had happened on Saturday. I’m quoting, “the populace of Paris attacked the guard at the Palais Royal, and cut some of the officers to pieces.”

That was a straw in the wind if there ever was one. We learn that the Prime Minister, William Pitt, had been unable to go to the House of Commons on Monday because of a violent fit of gout. Absent the Prime Minister, the House of Commons had busied itself with the Slave Trade Bill, the Cocoa Nuts Bill and the Custom House Officers Bill.

There was a bad fire at the house of a cabinet maker on the south side of the churchyard of St Paul’s. Mr Brown’s house was consumed in flames and neighbouring houses were damaged.

There was a sporting event. The Vauxhall Cup, a boat race on the Thames. Eight boats competed. The Phoenix made the running. In the words of the Morning Post, “the event grew a great concourse of company together” who after the race adjourned to the Vauxhall Pleasure Grounds. Then there was the race at Hampton Court between Powell, the famous walker, and a boy. The distance was one mile. The boy ran three-fourths of a mile in five minutes. But he couldn’t best Powell, the famous walker. When the boy packed it in Powell “wanted only 123 yards of having performed the mile. There was a purse. The Bet was for Twenty Guineas.”

Back to the troubles in France. From the Morning Post – I’m quoting again, We learn that “the Prince of Wales, with the wonted liberality of his character, set off on Monday evening for Brighton, in order to receive some French families of consequence, recommended to his protection, who have been induced to quit France on account of the present very alarming measures prevalent in that country.”

And how’s this for a Distant Early Warning. We learn from that Post that “no two Courts upon earth, can be more opposite than those of the Courts of St James’s and Berlin. The views of the former COMMERCIAL, and consequently, PACIFIC. Those of the latter are AMBITIOUS and consequently are ANTI-PACIFIC. Our object is the defence of what we already possess. The object of the King of Prussia, must, from the very nature of things, be CONQUEST, and the EXTENSION OF DOMINION.” My goodness the British empire in full swing, that has to be an Olympian case of the pot calling the kettle black. Ever jingoistic, the Post goes on to say, “France is on the eve of a civil war, by which her power will be destroyed by the hands of her own people. What an inviting scene to conquest.” Meaning the King of Prussia will be licking his chops.

Back home, we learn that the greatest artist of his day, Sir Joshua Reynolds, has just completed a portrait of himself.

And from a letter to Editor we learn about that prodigy of nature, Mr O’Brian. The author of the letter, one R.W. says “I lately visited that prodigy at the Lyceum, in the Strand, and that I cannot help thus publicly expressing the satisfaction I received. I must say, that on hearing his height was eight feet four inches, I expected to see a deformed monster but was most agreeably disapointed to find, that he is as well proportioned as those of lesser stature, and this his countenance displays a placidity of disposition that cannot fail to prepossess you most strongly in his favour.”

And let’s remember poor Mrs Reheling, a necessary woman to the Royal Nursery in Buckingham House. It hadn’t yet become Buckingham Palace. She died on Monday. And what was a “necessary woman” you ask?

She was a maidservant. A maidservant who emptied and scoured chamber pots. Along with a host of other duties. But that job title – necessary woman – speaks volumes, doesn’t it. It was a busy Monday for the Prince of Wales. Prior to setting out for Brighton he and the Duke of York visited the Albion Mills at Blackfriars Bridge. In just a few years the Albion Mills will of course be immortalised by Blake as ‘the dark Satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution in his epic Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

Not London but a fun and very revealing detail. We’ve all heard of the grand tour that was part and parcel of the education, the coming of age of the sons of nobility in the eighteenth century. Well, the paper called The World reports, “Five thousand pounds at Paris, 7,000 pounds at Marseilles, 3,000 pounds at Geneva are stated as the total gaming debts of a young nobleman now on his travels.” Be about 3 million pounds in today’s money. And remember he’s still got some way to go on his grand tour. I imagine he got a dressing down from his father when he got home.

What else? Where a boat upended at Blackfriars. A woman drowned. And one William Addington was had up at Bow Street magistrates court for “willfully driving a chaise cart against the Marquis Townshend and Colonel Syons who were on horseback in a lane near Hammersmith.

But let’s end with that notice posted at the entrance to Hyde Park. This is from the Public Advertiser. I’m quoting. “At the entrance in Hyde Park is now wrote, ‘No carpets to be beat in the Park. – Oxford.’ A correspondent asks where is so proper a place, next to impossible to offend? Has his Lordship considered who he speaks to by that order? A neighourhood of equal rank with himself. It is his Majesty’s command that no vagrants shall wander up and down, no person wash or fish in the waters. Are they observed? Alas, my Lord, you strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

And that’s what was going on in London while Paris was storming the Bastille.


You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – 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 distinguished


By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs,

Oscar winners (people who’ve won

the big one, 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. See ya next time.

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