What happened in London on the day Machu Picchu was discovered?

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s for Trevor.

It’s July 24th, 1911.

Hiram Bingham, a wealthy young American academic, is high in the Andes, in Peru. He inches his way up a ridge, goes round a promontory… and sharp intake of breath, there right in front of him is the lost city of the Incas. Hiram Bingham has discovered (Match-oo Peek-choo) Machu Picchu.

The ancient Inca citadel – built in the mid-15th century, abandoned a century later – hasn’t been seen for hundreds of years. Bingham’s find is one of the two greatest discoveries of the twentieth century.

Which brings us to our question, what was going on in London on the day Hiram Bingham made his discovery up on the roof of the Andes 6,000 miles away?

The place was breathless with excitement.  Breathless with excitement about those magnificent men in their flying machines. Four monoplanes – two piloted by Englishmen, two by Frenchmen – completed the journey. It was the second leg of the Daily Mail Circuit of Britain air race. There were 30 entrants for the competition. Only four of them stayed the course.

The flight from Hendon in North London to Edinburgh was punctuated with stops at Harrowgate and Newcastle.

The planes averaged an unheard-of 60 miles an hour.

And, yes, bears repeating – London, and indeed the whole country, was beside itself with excitement. Thousands turned out to witness the take-offs and landings.

The enormous crowds at Hendon aerodrome overwhelmed caterers. Bread was at famine prices. People slept in the open using newspapers as bed sheets.

Must have been something in the air, so to speak, because Hendon wasn’t the only place where there was a lot of ballyhoo. The Daily Mirror described the goings-on in the House of Commons as a scene almost unparalleled in its history. The speaker had to adjourn the session because of the uproar. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was trying to announce the Government’s determination to disregard the Lords’ amendments to the Veto bill. His opponents weren’t having it.  They barracked him, calling him “Traitor” and “Constitution breaker.” The Prime Minister couldn’t make himself heard. The House ignored the Speaker’s repeated calls of “Order, order.” It was twenty minutes before the Prime Minister could utter a single audible sentence. And he didn’t get much further than that. In the words of the Daily Mirror, “down swept the din like a wave overwhelming him.” Finally the Speaker had to declare the sitting at an end.

There are of course eight million stories in the naked city. One of those stories on this day in London 112 years ago was Hugh Cecil Robinson, a member of the Reform Club, taking arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing ends them. That’s my supposition anyway. Hugh Cecil Robinson, who was 55, was a retired civil engineer. He was found shot dead in the bathroom of his rooms at St James’s Place. Whatever it was that impelled him along the closed-in corridor of his final hours it can’t have been money problems. He left over £43,000 pounds. That’d be about six and a half million pounds today.

In other news, on July 24th, 1911 London got its first rainfall in 25 days.

It was the longest drought since 1887. The downpour was welcome because a serious milk famine was bearing down on London and elsewhere in the country thanks to grass on pasture lands having been badly dried up by the sun.

And of course the day wouldn’t be complete without royal news. We learn that the Prince of Wales was a spectator at his own Investiture. After a fashion. The ceremony in Wales had been filmed and it was shown at the Scala Theatre in Leicester Square on July 24th. Shown with the Prince of Wales in the audience.

Despite that thunderstorm, July 24th, 1911 was a hot day in London and the papers had plenty of advice about how to cool down. Including putting cabbage leaf in the crown of your hat. Or, if you prefer, fitting it up with pieces of green and yellow tissue paper. Almost quaint isn’t it? And completely harmless. What wasn’t harmless – what was in fact utterly repugnant – was the outright racism of a piece in the Daily Mirror.

I’m quoting – and I’m going to censor the rest of this because it’s so odious – the writer speaks of the “amused contempt” that he discerned on the face of Londoners when they caught sight of dark-skinned people. The writer took the position that that was perfectly all right, to be expected.

And that brings me to Trevor.

I got on a 328 bus earlier today. A black man was sitting by himself with his satchel on the empty seat beside him.

I asked him if I could sit there.

He said, “yes, of course.”

He then said, “so many people don’t want to sit beside a black man. So I make it easy for them by putting something on the empty seat.

I said, “no, surely that can’t be the case.” He said “it is, it happens to me every day.” He said, “sometimes when people see me coming toward them on the pavement they clutch their purse tightly against their body. It happens every day.”

I was horrified. Naturally I thought “how much that would get me down, how saddened, how demoralised I would be if I were in his shoes. It struck me that it’s maybe not that far removed from an adult version of a schoolchild who’s bullied or picked on or ostracised by his classmates. That thought was me simmering at what I was hearing. The simmer soon boiled over into something approaching rage – rage that that sort of vileness happens. Then, sure enough, right on cue, Shakespeare joined the conversation. For whatever reason what I was hearing put me in mind of the opening lines of Shakespeare’s great sonnet about lust. The sonnet begins:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

is lust in action.

Well, this, what Trevor was telling me about this horrible cross that he has to bear – this was the very definition of racism in action: the expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Harms Trevor. But also harms the people who make it clear how they feel about a fellow human being. Harms all of us. The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

Trevor is a train driver. When we parted company I said to him, “Trevor, the next time you’re on a bus, save me a place beside you.”

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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