Dear Diary . . .

Many of you whose New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary will by now have given up on this daily habit of record keeping.

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.

[H]istorians 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.

While my own record is as mundane as ‘walked the dog, light rain, not much work today in London’, 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.

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.

Not before time

Nelsons ColumnWhile waiting to enter Trafalgar Square via Admiralty Gate it occurred to me that this public space has always been about time delays.

Now that north side has been pedestrianised the flow of vehicles approaching King Charles Statute has been restricted due to the re-phrasing of the traffic lights (Red: 1 minute, 3.1 seconds; Green 8.3 seconds if you’re interested) that allows only six vehicles at a time to enter the square. This triumph of traffic management, which creates a line half way down The Mall, has the bonus that it gives more time to study this celebration of a national hero.

The area around Charing Cross had mostly been a maze of ramshackle dwellings, alleyways and shops when the Prince Regent engaged the landscape architect John Nash to design a square in the area to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar. By the 1830s it had begun to take shape, with the new National Gallery built along the northern side of the quadrangle in the spot where the King’s Mews (stables for royal horses) had previously been located since the 13th century.

[T]he original construction of Nelson’s Column was delayed by budgetary difficulties and rows over taste and artistic merit, the time taken to begin was seen as a national disgrace. Immediately after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar in 1805 there had been calls for a tribute to over sea victory over the French. Time taken for building work for Trafalgar Square has never been “of the essence” for it took nearly 40 years to raise enough money to begin construction, even then the Tsar of Russia had donated a quarter of the monies raised while a certain Mrs. Beeby is recorded to have given 2s 6d.

The eventual cost of the memorial was £47,000 (the equivalent of £4 million today), indeed that seems relatively good value compared with some modern public monuments: for example the ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower planned for the 2012 Olympic site will cost around £20 million.

At 145ft tall it is still the world’s tallest Corinthian column but not tall enough for William Railton who won £200 for his design, its full designed height was deemed to be dangerously high, and 30ft was lobbed off its proposed height. Other submissions included a gigantic pyramid, an octagonal Gothic cenotaph, mermaids playing water polo and an immense globe.

The sculptor for the statute was Edmund Baily who was forced to modify his plans when no shipper could be found to transport the massive piece of stone required, in the event the stone broke in two solving the problem at what height Nelson should finally be. While Landseer’s bronze lions, modelled from a dead big cat from London Zoo (his neighbours complained at the time of the smell from the decaying animal) were not added until 1863.

In 1888 poor old Nelson was hit by lighting and his remaining left arm broken, a temporary repair was effected using metal braces, but in true Trafalgar Square tradition it was not until 2006 that the repair was carried out properly. Fortunately, the monument being made of granite and sandstone is immune to acid rain and the 2006 inspection found the monument to be in a well preserved condition for anything made from marble or limestone would have been in a dreadful shape by now as evidenced by King Charles’ plinth by Admiralty Arch, the one opposite the traffic lights that give me so much time.

Sidney Street Siege

One hundred years ago today an incident occurred in east London that brought to the public’s attention a man that 28 years later would lead Britain in its fight against Hitler. In the first decade of the 20th century London had become a hotbed for Latvian revolutionaries. In an uprising some five years earlier 14,000 men, women and children had been massacred in reprisal by the Russian army, when an uprising to overthrow the Tsarist regime was foiled.

[W]ith a deep distrust of their own police who had tortured their ringleaders the survivors had come to London to organise another revolution and to raise funds for their cause. Armed they had held up banks, shops and factories and two robbers had been killed the previous year in a London robbery which had left seven policemen wounded and two innocent bystanders dead.

At 10pm on 17th December 1910 a shopkeeper living above his premises in Houndsditch heard noises from downstairs, fearing a break-in at the jewellers next door he alerted a nearby policeman, who was joined by two constables, three sergeants and two plain clothed colleagues (in those days burglary was taken seriously). Knocking on the door they were let in by a man pretending not to understand, who was instructed to fetch someone who could speak English. The police did not know at the time but they had stumbled on the compatriots of last years’ bungled robbery, who were in the process of breaking through a wall trying to get to the jewellers safe.

What ensued can only be described as a massacre as the anarchists opened fire on the unarmed policemen, leaving three dead and two crippled for life.

For the local predominantly Jewish population, it was as if the terror they had fled from in Eastern Europe had emerged on the Sabbath amongst their own community. Within days two of the gang had been arrested and a third was suspected of fleeing the country.

In the early hours of 3rd January 1911 following a tip off 200 police officers surrounded a house in Sidney Street and a six hour gun battle ensued.

The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill (highlighted in the picture) arrived on the scene and characteristically he led from the front, directing the police (a style of leadership sadly lacking in today’s politicians), and when the criminals inside set fire to the house to cover their exit he refused to allow the fire brigade to extinguish the flames. Eventually two bodies were found in the ashes and one fireman died from falling debris.

The two arrested were subsequently put on trial but acquitted through lack of evidence as most of the witnesses were either dead or had fled the country.

One of the acquitted, Jacob Peters, remained in London returning to Russia in 1917 and became deputy head of the Cheka, the Soviet Secret Police. Thousands were killed on his orders and many of the executions he personally carried out gaining the nickname ‘The Executioner’.