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London: 2000 years of history (channel 5)

Who let Dan Jones out? At least, as in his last outing, he is accompanied both by a historian (Suzannah Lipscomb) and an engineer (Rob Bell), narrating and illustrating almost two millennia of the city’s past.

In the first episode, we were taken through the walled city of “Londinium” being built and rebuilt after Boudicca’s revolt. Whilst Bell showed us the Kent stone from which the original Tower was built, we were told about the Ampitheatre and the remains, near Spitalfields, that include the “Lamb Street Teenager” and the slaves that helped to build the city, strategically located on the Thames. Some archaeology has resulted from the building of Crossrail.
As Roman Britain ended and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, their original city (“Londonwych”) was on a smaller scale. Viking raids followed and Alfred moved the city inside the Roman walls as “Londonburgh”, as broken glass and pottery found near Covent Garden testifies, with the previous entity further east now being known as Aldwych. Although the Vikings took the city, Ethelred II reconquered it and destroyed London Bridge as well.
The programme finished with William I’s coronation on Christmas Day 1066, followed by his rebuilding of the Tower with Norman stone, not to be confused with this historian, with the domes later added by Henry VIII.

The second episode showed us Westminster Abbey, later to be rebuilt at great expense by  Henry III, in a smaller city then separate from London, where every coronation since Harold II has taken place, followed by Westminster Hall, where Wallace, Fawkes and Charles I were all sentenced to death. Half of the evolving city’s population fell victim to the Black Death, after which Richard Whittington, younger son of a Gloucestershire knight, really did serve as Mayor three or four times under Richard II and Henry IV. The population then increased exponentially to the days of the wealthy Cardinal Wolsey, who built Whitehall Palace before falling from Henry VIII’s favour, so Henry and his successors occupied it from 1530 until the fire of 1698. This part ended with Elizabeth I knighting Drake aboard the Golden Hind.

Week three covered the Great Fire, which the trio had previously examined in much greater detail, although they did mention Pepys’ description, the probable origin in a Monument Lane bakery, the timber-framed buildings of the old city and the easterly wind that spread the fire. Although we can see the new St. Paul’s today, Wren’s original plan for the area was even more radical, featuring a Glasgow-style grid of streets. London then expanded to the west for merchants and their imports via the Thames, whilst the poor stayed in the east where gin was popular. In the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused the city’s population to rise rapidly, although smog became a factor.
London Bridge became the city’s first rail terminus, in 1836, before Euston was built and Paddington was soon added to serve Brunel’s Great Western lines. The steep hills of Hampstead were overcome through a man-made valley, as Bell showed by visiting the abandoned Highgate station, allowing London to expand to the north. Poor water hygiene caused a cholera outbreak, which Bazalgette’s civil engineering solved with pumping stations, sewers and the reclaiming of land. Heavy traffic then necessitated the strengthening of the ancient bridges. The reclaimed land (Embankment) and Great Fire site (Monument) are both remembered on the Underground map.

The series concluded by pointing out that road congestion was quite possibly worse in 1860 than it is now, as trains were banned from running within two miles of the epicentre at street level. The solution was to run them underground, with the Metropolitan line being started first by “cut and cover” and the Northern line, authentically bored, to follow. Residents moved out of the first engineered areas to the east, leaving Shoreditch and Whitechapel overcrowded with twice the mortality level of London as a whole. By 1890, the capital had five million residents and Charles Booth’s “poverty map” highlighted a quarter of these, with the worst cases in the East End, where “Jack the Ripper” preyed on some of them. From the maps, living conditions were addressed and the worst slums demolished. Following Edward VII’s accession in January 1901, recognisable modern buildings such as Admiralty Arch, the MI5 building and the War Office arose. Visitors could stay in hotels such as the Savoy and shop at Selfridges as we can do today. Suffragettes were active before the First World War, during which they suspended their activities and many worked in armaments manufacture, for instance at the Royal Ordnance factory known as the Woolwich Arsenal.
Air warfare came to London with Zeppelin bombs in 1915. In the remainder of the conflict, there were thirty raids killing forty thousand people, including thirty children at Poplar in 1917. Armistice Day was followed by the “Spanish ‘flu”, which was generally three times as deadly as the war itself, with some 20,000 deaths in London alone. In the following years, houses were built along the expanded Metropolitan Lane, taking in towns such as Pinner and Harrow, and advertised in a “Metroland” magazine to raise the population to 8.6 million. The Blitz brought the Second World War to London a year after the start but, importantly, after the corrugated tin structures known as Anderson shelters were made available. It happened on fifty-seven consecutive nights in the first instance and a total of two million homes were damaged or destroyed. Replacing these and housing Commonwealth immigration from 1948 was hampered by the Green Belt so that London could no longer expand outwards, only upwards. As freight expanded, containers could no longer fit into the Thames so the docks were less busy from the sixties, in favour of more coastal ports. However, Docklands regeneration was initiated in the eighties as the City was pushed eastwards to Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. In a further effort to relieve congestion, the great Crossrail project opens later this year with twenty six miles of new tunnels, forty-two metres below ground, providing a unique archaeological opportunity to view London’s past.

In conclusion, it is possible to enjoy a history programme with Dan Jones, so long as he has at least two colleagues and cannot simply indulge his prejudices against particular figures. The second half of the series was more a social and economic history, which is a further restraint.

Today Flinders; who might it be tomorrow….?

Who else might be waiting to be discovered? Which great figures from the past, thought to be lost forever, are just lying there impatiently, wondering when we’ll get around to them? How many tombs, destroyed by Henry VIII’s love life, might yet be retrieved…?

Oh, we hardly dare wish! Richard III was found, and just think of how much more we now know about him. The list of other possibilities is really quite dizzying. High on my list would be Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the “Kingmaker”. He was buried at Bisham, as were many others, including his brother, Montagu, and those tombs have been lost forever, along with the priory itself. Are these men, like Richard III, still there?

Perhaps he should be reburied at Earl’s Court?

A very busy presenter

Rob Bell seems to be on television a lot at the moment. Although he is an engineer and not quite a historian, many of his programmes go back in time as structures were built. Walking Britain’s Lost Railways, for instance, goes back under two centuries because of the subject matter, but Great British Ships (both Channel Five) has already covered HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, which was built in 1510 and sank in 1545. At the same time, possibly literally, Bell is appearing on BBC1 and BBC4’s (repeated) Engineering Giants, projects which he narrates actively with enthusiasm and technical knowledge, together with an interest in the local culture. For example, he tells viewers of Brunel’s great feats, tries to explain why the Mary Rose sank and walks most of the Dartmoor route from Plymouth to Exeter, although a small stage of this track has re-opened in recent years.

The last episode featured Ruabon to Barmouth via Llangollen, where the Irish Ladies lived.

Feuding and fighting.

I am currently reading a book about the reconstruction of the Welsh Highland Railway. For those who don’t know, this was a narrow gauge line that lay completely derelict (all track lifted) for more than 70 years. Eventually, after a hideously complex and titanic struggle against the odds, it was rebuilt and you can now ride on it. And a very nice ride it is too, all the way from Caernarfon to Porthmadog.

So what has this to do with Yorkist England? you may reasonably ask. Well, the first few chapters of the book describe the ongoing feud between two factions who wanted to own the railway. They were all railway enthusiasts, naturally, and they all wanted the railway to reopen, but both sides had their own views as to how it could be done. And, boy, did they squabble! Actually squabble doesn’t cover it – it was a long saga of bitterness and outright hatred that still leaves scars to this day. A number of ‘powerful personalities’ were engaged on both sides, and no one was willing to give an inch. Occasionally there was an attempt to bring the two sides together, but the conferences grew as heated as those you might find in a stalemated civil war. There was no loveday here! Only at the very end, when one side had clearly lost through courts and public enquries and ministerial decisions, was a sort of agreement reached.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the matter of Richard III. We are all history enthusiasts, and we all have the same objective – historical truth. The only difficulty is that, unlike the reopening of a railway, ‘historical truth’ is not a tangible end. Certainly not when we have a fair bit of evidence, but virtually nothing in the way of proof. Sadly, the discovery of Richard’s body seems to have acted as a catalyst in terms of deepening the bitterness and intensity of the debate around him.

I am a long standing Ricardian. I make no bones about it. I am biased in Richard’s favour. I wish everyone in the debate would be equally frank, instead of pretending to be independent thinkers, free from bias, and with no particular agenda. If you think Henry VII was in the right, why not just say so?

I am frankly sick of the level of abuse aimed at me, and people like me. For example:

1. That all my ideas on Richard are based on reading novels. This may be true of some Ricardians, but certainly not all. Indeed, I can think of some who very pointedly do not read novels at all. Most of us, believe it or not, read factual history books all the time. Including those with which we disagree, in whole or part. To suggest otherwise is downright insulting. The accusation is particularly annoying because it is clear that many of the anti-Richards are heavily influenced by ‘popular history’ which is almost invariably overly dependent on the fictions of More and Shakespeare. Like fiction, ‘popular history’ is a useful introduction for newcomers, but nothing matches the reading of serious history texts and original sources.

2. The suggestion that the likes of me secretly want to go to bed with Richard. Poor Philippa Langley has had this thrown at her left, right and centre. It is absurd, and one wonders how the anti-Richards would care to be characterised as the Brides (or Grooms) of Henry VII, or perhaps more aptly, of Anthony Woodville? One suspects that all hell would break loose.

3. The intellectual arrogance of people who appear to know what happened in 1483-1485. How, were they there in a previous life? Were they, perhaps, Lady Rivers? They claim to know things that even fringe members of Richard III’s own court would not have known for certain! Most Ricardians, if pushed, will admit the possibility that Richard did away with the boys, or that Edward IV did not marry Eleanor Talbot. The anti-Richard brigade are rarely willing to concede the converse. It is as if they have some secret store of knowledge that contains the absolute historical truth.

4. The homophobic abuse aimed at a particular distinguished historian who dares to differ from the ‘party line’.  We Ricardians may have our faults, but I honestly don’t recall any of us stooping to such a low, even though there is at least one very large and prominent target on the ‘other side’.

This is written more in sorrow than in anger. I don’t expect peace to break out any time soon, especially as people on both sides seem to want to confine themselves to echo chambers. I just hope that the general tone of debate takes an upward turn.

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