London Trivia: Shock and awe

On 19 January 1917 at 6.62 in the evening an explosion at the Brunner-Mond munitions factory manufacturing explosives for Britain’s World War I military effort in Silvertown, West Ham killed 73 people and injured over 400. Much of the area was flattened by 50 tonnes of TNT exploding causing a shock wave felt throughout London and Essex. The largest explosion in London’s history was heard as far away as Southampton.

On 19 January 1937 The Underground Murder Mystery, a play by J. Bissell Thomas, was the first play to be broadcast by the BBC, it was set in Tottenham Court Road station

During the Jack the Ripper investigation the police paid £100 for 2 tracker bloodhounds but they got lost and needed the Police to find them

Bromley Hall, Brunswick Road, Bow is believed to be the oldest brick house in London, and dates back to 1490

It was in Room 507 at the Hotel Samarkand, 22 Lansdowne Crescent, Notting Hill that Jimi Hendrix died of a drugs overdose in September 1970

Had Hitler won World War II he planned to transport Nelson’s Column to Berlin as he believed it was a symbol of British naval supremacy

Sir John Goss who composed the hymn “Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven” was once organist of St Paul’s Cathedral and St Luke’s Church Chelsea

One of the performers at the 1831 opening of London Bridge played tunes by hitting himself on the chin with his fists

In September 2009 London and the River Thames hosted the world’s largest ever plastic duck race with 205, 000 ducks participating

On 19 January 2009 Pawel Modzelewski travelled the 19 bus for 6 hours unnoticed after dying the previous day and left in the garage overnight

In the 1880s workers at the Bryant and May match factory were forced to contribute one shilling to a statue of former PM William Gladstone

The keys to the vaults of the Bank of England which presumably are kept under lock and key – the real ones, not ceremonial ones – are 3 feet long

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

For the record

Have any of you given up your New Year’s Resolution to keep a diary?

This thought occurred to me as my digital diary informed me that I have written a daily entry, without a break, for 2,480 days. But before I come over overly supercilious, a far better London blogger Diamond Geezer has written every day uninterrupted for 43 years, without gaps. But as he informs us, even he can’t beat Colonel Ernest Loftus (of Harare, Zimbabwe) who began his daily diary at the age of 12 in 1896 and was still going strong when he died at the age of 103, some 91 years later.

Kenneth William’s bowel movements

Most diarists write for themselves of course, but a small number write mindful that others might read their thoughts. Some write just recording gossip, as in Kenneth William’s diaries, who would also record the time of his bowel movements for reasons best known only to him, while others record their thoughts, dreams and observations of what life was like to live at one particular point of time.

Historians depend on diaries to capture the essence of what it was to live at the point of recording that information, for example, Pliny the Younger’s account of Mount Vesuvius erupting in 79AD has been invaluable to both historians and volcanologists.

In September 1939 Nella Last a middle-aged housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness began keeping a diary for mass observation, a social research organisation which began in 1937 which encouraged the recording of what they called ‘The Voice of the People’. So engaging was Nella’s record of her life during the war years and post-war years it subsequently became a best seller and was later brought to the attention of later generations when it became a television drama starring Victoria Wood.

My mundane diary

While my own record is as mundane as ‘walked the dog, light rain, went to the shops’, Nella’s gave us an insight for what life was like for an ordinary housewife to live through the war years. In April 1940 after listening to reports on the radio of a sea battle the simple act of drinking a glass of water conjured up a terrifying vision:

. . . I got a drink of water and tilted the glass too much, the feeling of slight choking gripped me and sent my mind over green cold water where men might be drowning as I sat so safe and warm . . .

Good diarists make the ordinary, extraordinary and probably the greatest exponent of this daily account recorded life in London during the tumultuous times of mid-17th century London. We know he started the diary on 1st January 1660 with the entry ‘Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain, but upon taking of cold’, and for nearly 10 years Samuel Pepys kept an account of his life from the great events at the time to the mundane.

During the plague he notes:

And it is a wonder what will be the fashion, as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

Pepys confesses in having two mistresses giving a rather graphic account of his dalliances and the guilt he felt at his betraying Elizabeth his French Huguenot wife. His account of being an employer in 17th century London in which he had no fear from being accused of sexual harassment by employees for the young women servants naturally attracted the master of the household and having a go at the household maids seems to have been an established practice.

His most famous entries were of The Great Fire of London, which started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane in the early hours of 2nd September 1666, it burned down 80 per cent of London within the City walls and left 80,000 people homeless. But as fascinating as this account is of the drama that is unfolding before his eyes, it the small nuggets of personal information that helps us understand the Londoners who lived there at the time. Pepys’s records that night, by moonlight, he moved his money and valuables into the cellar and carried all his precious goods – his best wine and a good Parmesan cheese – into the garden and buried them.

Keep it up

So, if like Samuel Pepys your New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary, keep recording, and if you should find among a deceased family members’ effects their cherished thoughts don’t throw them away, one-day historians might want to know about life in 21st century London.

The writing was on the wall

As a sign of London’s diminishing cab trade, Radio Taxis, for whom I have been writing these past six years, decided we part company. I predict there will be a lot of detrimental changes for cabbies in the next 5 years.

I wrote these rather prophetic words in March 2017.

Little did I realise then how popular for Londoners would be an alternative to Radio Taxis. The new kid on the block used their ‘offshore’ status to avoid paying most UK taxes, and had a close association with the then prime minister.

It dispensed with the cumbersome criteria of having experienced driving in England at some point; abandoned comprehensive criminal record checks; used drivers with a lack of understanding the geography of London’s labyrinthine roads; and who had limited ability in understanding the capital’s native tongue, flooding London’s streets with thousands of rented vehicles purporting to be ‘cabs’.

Not everyone was so gullible. From these seemingly diverse cities spot the odd one out: Barcelona, Spain; Buffalo, New York State; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Vancouver, Canada; Frankfurt, Germany; Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; Oslo, Norway; Reykjavik, Iceland; London, England. Yes, you guessed it – London. The city voted many times as having the best cabbies, and with the most stringent taxi licensing regulations in the world allowed Uber to operate with predictable consequences.

Now they have gone but so has much of London’s Black Cab trade, so does anyone want to syndicate these missives?

London’s Number One Cabbie

James ‘Jimmy’ Michael Howe entered his profession in 1884, driving horse-drawn vehicles, better known as Hansom Cabs, around London. He had the distinction of being the regular driver for Leopold Rothschild, whose home in west London is now the Gunnersbury Park Museum.

He was been very successful, this could have resulted from his association with Lord Rothschild. Howe had been one of the first proprietors (someone who owned a vehicle and not just rented) to engage with petrol vehicles, in addition at one time he owned a fleet of 13 Hansom cabs and 33 horses.

In 1904, the Metropolitan Police licensed the first motor cab, a French-built Prunel, this vehicle was driven by 34-year-old James Howe. In 1933, now in failing health, in recognition of becoming London’s first motor cab driver, he was given badge number 1, presented to him by police commissioner Lord Trenchard at the end of his illustrious career.

Following his death on Christmas Day at his home in Hammersmith, aged 64 his obituary in the Daily Mirror erroneously stated that he was London’s first taxicab driver, but as his Prunel had no taximeter installed, this clearly was not the case. The taximeter, installed today in all of London’s legal cabs, had been successful in Berlin. It would be a recession, caused in part by the Boer War, and the advent of the petrol-driven vehicle, that it was felt, could give customers greater confidence in using a vehicle that had the fare metered.

Although electric cabs had been trialled a few years earlier, these proved impractical. Howe’s cab was the first to be powered by petrol, and the only one in London for several months. Soon the London Cab Driver’s Trade Union were embracing the new technology and running classes for horse cabmen and teaching them the basics of motor car driving from their premises in Gerrard Street. Two years later Jimmy had been joined by 18 others.

Today, all 24,000 licensed cab drivers carry a green badge with a unique number.

Apart from his success, Jimmy Howe seems to have led an eventful life. His wife left him in 1913, taking all the furniture, after falling for a man who had placed a ‘wife wanted’ advert in the local newspaper. Jimmy did not see his wife again until 1920 when Mrs Howe appeared in court on bigamy charges.

Three years later, Howe was sued for damages after his taxi cab plummeted into a hole on the Uxbridge Road.

Dozens of fellow cabbies drove to the funeral to pay their respects. “We called him ‘Up-Hendon’,” one of them told the press, “because if you asked him where he was off to, he’d answer ‘just going up Hendon-way'”.

Taken from London’s First Taxi Driver published by the Londonist with additional information from Abstracts of Black Cab Lore by Sean Farrell.

Taxi talk without tipping

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