What happened in London on July 4th, 1776?

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with a 4th of July London fix.

Story time. History time.

July 4, 1776. Maybe best summed up in Shakespeare’s great line “alarums and excursions.”

Anyway, I wanted to find out what was going on in London on the most important day in American History, the day the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence. The signing of the Declaration of Independence had taken place two days before, on July 2nd.

But first, a bit more context.

The shot heard round the world had been fired on April 19th, 1775. That shot was fired across the village green at Lexington in Massachusetts. It was the opening shot in the American War of Independence. Aside here: there’ll be a podcast coming about that event – and its London connection – come next spring.

The war ended – the Americans victorious – nearly eight and a half years later – on September 3, 1783.

Now what about communications 250 years ago? The beginning of electronic communications – the telegraph – was still 60 years in the future. The telephone, a century away. The Internet, well over two centuries.  There was the post. Letters delivered by foot. And horseback. And coach. Coaches lumbering over bad roads. It took a coach nearly two days to get from Bristol to London.

Bristol, Connecticut to London – well figure about six weeks just to get that letter, by sail power, across the Atlantic.

Those distances and that primitive communication technology – if technology is the word – meant that what passed for news in the newspapers of the day wasn’t just yesterday’s news, it was often last month’s news. It was the eighteenth century equivalent of looking at a star today and getting your head around the fact that the light you’re seeing was produced millions of years ago. You’re scoping stellar events that took place in our Jurassic or some other Deep Time period.

It also meant that newspapers in, say, Bristol or Liverpool would run American news – stories that had happened nearly two months previously – a couple of days before London papers carried the tale.

So what was July 4th, 1776 like in London? What was going on here?

Well, to start with, there certainly was interest in what was going on on the other side of the pond. Brows were furrowed over over here. The war and the independence business was in the air, so to speak, but they didn’t have a clue about that document, that Declaration.

Its signing on July 2nd and its ratification on July 4th.

The Morning Post, for example, informed its readers – I’m quoting here – “a very elegant monument adorned with various military trophies is erecting at Philadelphia to the memory of General Montgomery, by order of the Continental Congress.”

The searing irony of that.

That Continental Congress was busying itself on July 4th erecting a monument all right – a very elegant mighty monument – a monument of monumental, world-changing importance – but it wasn’t the one the Morning Post was wittering on about. All the same, let’s spare a thought for General Richard Montgomery. Absolutely appropriate to do so on the 4th of July. He was an Ulster Scotsman. That’s another story – no other part of this country turns out great warriors like that part of the United Kingdom. There are of course historical reasons for that. But, yes, that’s another story. I’ll go there another time. Being an Ulsterman,  Richard Montgomery first served in the British army. But, yes, he turned his coat. When the American Revolutionary War broke out he took up the Rebel cause. Along with Benedict Arnold he led the unsuccessful attack on Quebec City. It was one battle too many for the General. Leading his troops toward a blockhouse he drew his sword and shouted “Come on my good soldiers, your General calls upon you to come on.” The British forces in the blockhouse – 30 Canadian militia and some seamen waited until they could see the whites of his eyes, as the saying goes, and then they opened fire with musket and grapeshot. Montgomery was killed with grapeshot through his head and both thighs. One of his staff officers was my ancestor, Aaron Burr. Yes, that scoundrel. Burr tried to drag his commander’s body to friendly lines but the snow and the dead weight of the corpse foiled the attempt.

The tone of the Morning Post’s announcement about the monument speaks to the fact that this country itself was divided about what the Americans were trying to achieve. When Montgomery returned to England after his first tour of duty in America he hung with Whig members of Parliament who for the most part supported the colonists in their demands for more political freedom.

But back to our newspaper. Another item in that July 4th edition of the Morning Post informed its readers that “the next news expected from America is that either General Howe is in quiet possession of New York, or that he has been under the necessity of laying that beautiful town in ashes.” The casual complacency of that remark.

Little did they know, eh, about the bombshell that was going to be the real ‘next news’, the fuse of which was being lit that very day in the City of Brotherly Love.

Mind you, George Washington and the British General Howe were cut from the same cloth with regard to New York City. Washington confided to his cousin, “Had I been left to the dictates of my own judgment, New York should have been laid in Ashes before I quitted it.” Indeed, he sought permission to burn the Big Apple down. But Congress wasn’t having it, which Washington regarded as “a grievous error.”

And having introduced the great man, how about the George Washington item in the London papers that day.

This is absolutely alarums and excursions stuff.

The London Gazette, in its wisdom, passes this along:

“The American Congress is certainly broke up, and the last violent commotion therein, was on account of a judicious remonstrance from General Washington, who with a proper spirit, though at the same time with great temper, informed them, ‘if their aim was independency, he had much mistaken them, and therefore must beg leave to resign the chief command of their forces, which he always thought were embodied for different purposes, and which he headed, not with a view of separating the two countries for ever, but to effect, if possible, a more lasting union between them.’ The congress, upon receipt of this remonstrance, entered into all the fury of a republic debate, and after many hours spent in this wild tumult, several attempts were made to divide upon it, but in vain, as the parties of Hancock and Adams refused to listen to any terms of accommodation; in consequence of which they broke up in the utmost disorder, without coming to any resolution.”

That’s the Gazette quoting from another paper which is quoting, so it says, a letter from over the pond. What to make of it?

Wishful thinking? Rumour? Made up? Propaganda? Or, the genuine article? Certainly news to me that Washington ever wanted anything other than a complete break with “the old country.”

And then there was the Mississippi Land advert in the Morning Post. It read as follows: “Any person possessed of 500 pounds to 1000 pounds willing to improve it in that country, may hear of a very advantageous opportunity by applying to Mr Shee, Charing Cross. The proprietor of a large tract of land there, would either sell the whole of his interest, or one half, and enter into terms with the purchaser of the other for a joint concern in the cultivation of the country, from a residence there of several years, and some other private reasons, has not a doubt of the success of such an undertaking.”

And love the the Nota Bene, the N.B. at the end of the ad.

“N.B., The above country is happily unconcerned in the present American disquietudes.”  Disquietudes. Dude’s got a way with the fine art of the euphemism.

Ok, yes, alarums and excursions. What was going on on the other side of the Atlantic was certainly exercising the London mind on July 4th in 1776. Occupying, rent-free, as the saying goes, a lot of London mental terrain. And what a wild and fanciful set of notions it was.

But it’s a whirligig, grasping at straws, speculating about what we don’t know about.  Let’s get out on the streets of London. Forget over there – let’s try to de-America our heads by seeing what’s going on here.

And to make the transition, none other than that great Londoner and radical, John Wilkes. He’d run for local office. Chamberlain for the City of London. Ballots were cast and lo and behold Wilkes lost.

The declaration – that word again – of the poll numbers was made at Guildhall on July 4th. Wilkes didn’t go down without firing a last salvo. He, along with Edmund Burke, was the greatest speechmaker of the 18th-century. Here’s a taste of his taking the Gentlemen of the Livery to task for voting in a nonentity when they could have cast their ballot for the great champion of Liberty.

When Wilkes began to speak many in the hall hissed and groaned. But his words and delivery worked their magic. Coming down the stretch of his speech Wilkes said, “By the creation of so many unnecessary lucrative offices, the division and subdivision of contracts, the threats of the opulent and insolent to the necessitous and dependent tradesman, and all the captious promises of power, the greater number of the livery seem at present either lulled into supineness and a fatal Security, or enrolled among the mercenaries of corruptions and despotism. No longer worthy the name of Freemen, they are sunk into tame, mean vassals, ignominiously courting, and bowing their necks, to the ministerial yoke. Such, Gentlemen, it gives me pain to think is the faithful but melancholy picture of this once free and independent City. All public spirit in the Capital is visibly decaying, and that stern, manly virtue of our fathers, which drove from this land of freedom the last Stuart tyrant, is held in contempt by their abandoned offspring. A dissolution of the empire, ruin and slavery, are I fear, advancing with giant strides upon us. We are ripe for destruction. If we are saved, it will be almost solely by the courage and noble spirit of our American brethren, whom neither the luxuries of a court, nor the sordid lust avarice in a rapcious and venal metropolis, have hitherto corrupted.”

Heady stuff, isn’t it? If you don’t know Wilkes, he’s worth getting to know. Champion of liberty, yes, but also a champion libertine. His famous boast was that he “loved all women except his wife.” He was famously ugly with a hideous squint but that didn’t slow him down in the least. He matter of factly said, “it takes me half an hour to talk away my face.” Died at Grosvenor Square, where the American embassy used to be.

Ok, what else went down in London on that American day of American days? There was of course – there always is – the national comfort blanket: the crown. On July 4th, 1776 King George III travelled from Kew Palace to St James’ Palace where held a levee, before journey back to Kew.

George III went west to Kew just about the time the deed was being done 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia. We could have gone in the opposite direction. We could have gone east, gone down to the London pool. A Thameside trip, that’s always diverting and reassuring.

That day we would have seen eleven ships docked, from, respectively, Antigua, Rouen, Cork and Stockholm.

And eight set sail, bound for Minorca, St Vincent’s, Riga and Cork.

Further down the river, Greenwich, there was a local story of some interest – a local story from 1776 that speaks to London 2023. A housing shortage story.

That 1776 newspaper clucked its tongue: “there are a great number of new houses in Greenwich left unfinished on account of the defection of the journeymen carpenters. Some of these houses are little better than skeletons, and yet so anxious are some people to get possession of them, that they have contented themselves for some time to dwell in premises barely wind and water tight.”

One problem with seeking solace in the news is that most news is bad news.

So we learn that “Mr Allen, grocer, of Somerset Street White Chapel; coming down stairs to open his shop, fell down in a fit of apoplexy and expired immediately.”

And it was also farewell “Mrs White, a widow lady of fortune.” She died at her house in Tottenham.

Then there was the young man who was flung from his horse in Piccadilly and pitching on his head, was killed on the spot.

And of course crime abounded. As it does today. I have it on good authority, there will be over 10,000 crimes reported to Scotland Yard today, July 4th 2023. Be interesting to know whether, on a per capita basis, there was more or less crime on July 4th, 1776.

But let’s sample the fare.

Two young bloods of the town driving a pair of bay nag-tailed horses in a light pea green phaeton from Paddington to Islington, diverted themselves by lashing coachman and other persons on the road as they drove by; and as their aim was at the face, their only ambition must have been to cut people’s eyes out. A gentleman and his coachman pursued them through Islington towards Stoke Newington, but could not overtake them. Since such freaks as these may be attended with very serious consequences to persons in carriages, their detecting such gentry and exposing them would be an act of public utility.”

Then there were the two inhabitants of Clerkenwell, who, being out in a chaise, after having rode 16 miles and drunk freely, fell asleep in the chaise, when the horse as supposed, turned aside to graze under a hedge. When they awoke the horse was lost and shafts of the chaise were placed against the bank.

And there was the gentleman who was met by two street robbers in Hatton Street. One of the robbers flung snuff in the gentleman’s eyes, while the other stole his money and watch.

And I suppose it was a crime but as the Middlesex Journal put it, it gave a great deal of satisfaction to a number of spectators. I’m talking about the contretemps between a gentleman and a hackney coachman at Charing Cross. The gentleman had words with the coachman respecting his fare. The affair at length came to blows. The gentleman took off his clothes and delivered them to a bystander who took the opportunity, during the contest, to go off with them. The naked gentleman gave the coachman a severe drubbing but he had to go home in buff.

Elsewhere on the London crime front, over a hundred felons in several jails around the metropolis were removed to Newgate preparatory to their trials commencing on July 10th. And I daresay, the executions of quite a few of them not long after.

And we learn about the 25 poor, wretched, and abandoned women, who had been apprehended the previous night in the environs of St Giles’. In the newspaper’s words, not mine, they were brought up, charged with being disorderly – or, in other words, common whores. The dismal looks of some, the pitiable appearance of others, and the audacious behaviour of the rest rendered it a difficult matter for the bench. After applauding the vigilance of the peace officers, the judge pronounced sentence of imprisonment to hard labour for one month in Bridewell on eleven, and the rest, behaving themselves in a tolerable decent manner, were discharged.

What else? You’re not going to like this but there was cocking at the new Vauxhall Gardens, St George’s in the East.

More to our taste – and sensibilities – Astley’s Riding School at Westminster Bridge. It had all the bells and whistles, including an exhibition of the Egyptian Pyramids.

Londoners have never been anything if not eclectic, not to say promiscuous.

And how about this petit four. Under the title, Origin of the word Yankee one of our papers served up the following: “When the English first took possession of New England, they very easily overcame the tribes that inhabited it, except one which was called the Yankoos (i.e., invincible); these at length they overcame, and as is the custom with the Indians, they took the name of those they overcame, which since, by a corruption, is called Yankee.”

In other news, fish were plentiful at Billingsgate.

And the more things change the more they stay the same. What do you know, there was industrial unrest on July 4th, 1776. “Yesterday,” we’re told, “a great number of journeymen, plasterers, blacksmiths and leather breeches makers, assembled in a field near Islington and agreed to leave off their work unless their wages are augmented.”

And as long as we’re at it, let’s not forget the auctions, nor the lady in Grosvenor Square who has procured a small Carriage, in which she places two Lap Dogs, which the Footman draws round the square two hours every morning, for an airing.

And as if that wasn’t enough stimulation, there was plenty of official entertainment in London on July 4th, 1776.

Plays aplenty. The Devil on Two Sticks at the Haymarket Theatre, Othello at the Theatre Royale, The Old Bachelor at Drury Lane and so on.

And Mrs Cornelys – gosh, she’s got staying power – she’s got a cameo role in our Soho walk – anyway, Mrs Cornelys ran an ad “respectfully acquainting the Nobility and Gentility that her next Masquerade would be on Monday next, on the same terms as her last, and will, she flatters herself, give at least qua. satisfaction.”

Just dripping with innuendo isn’t it?

Best of all, though – in the circumstances – the Festival di Campagna at the Marybone (they called it) Pleasure Gardens. The evening’s entertainment there would end with a fireworks extravaganza.

Fireworks on the fourth of July – it doesn’t come much better than that.

Ok, so what’s happened here. It’s early days – this is the first one – but I may have stumbled on a shape for the next series of London Walks podcasts. Which is – take an A-List Day – and find out what was going on in London on that day. And not just events in London. I’m also interested in finding out – making an educated guess at – what was going on in London heads. What were they thinking about? What was on their minds? Methodology? Simple. Cherry pick my dates and then head for the newspapers of the day. I love old newspapers. They’re a snapshot of a time and a place. Well, that’s what I’ve done with this podcast. Let’s see where we go from here.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast for the 4th of July. 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

professionals. 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, 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. See ya next time.

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