I was a strange youth. While most teenagers spent their summer holidays playing in the sun, I was often just as happy cooped up in my bedroom reading history books. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer’s engrossing history of Nazi Germany, certainly left me paler than my friends.
That somewhat nerdy interest in understanding how history happens explains why I became a journalist. As an FT foreign correspondent, I have been lucky enough to have reported on financial crises, wars, revolutions, riots and elections from 34 countries, from Moscow to Manila, Paris to Peshawar.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown, however, my travelling has been confined to a small patch of central London within walking distance of my flat, just off Baker Street. But on early evening strolls with my 18-year-old son, furloughed from university, we have stumbled across countless reminders of how so much history has happened in our own backyard. You don’t have to wander far to appreciate that London is one giant urban palimpsest where history has been written, rewritten and overwritten for centuries.
Here’s one of our most interesting blue plaque safaris, starting and ending at Baker Street station.
Heading south, we pass a plaque commemorating Charles Babbage, the mathematician and pioneer of modern computing who lived at 1 Dorset Street from 1829 to 1871. It was here that Babbage built the first versions of his Difference Engine, an ingenious mechanical calculating machine, lavishly funded by the British government to the tune of £17,500 (equivalent to the cost of two battleships).
On a visit to the house in 1833, Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, was so entranced by the concept of the “thinking machine” that she devoted herself to working with Babbage and imagined the world’s first computer code. A blue plaque is dedicated to the Countess of Lovelace herself in St James’s Square.
Passing by the wonderfully refurbished, but firmly closed, Wallace Collection, the museum housing one of London’s richest private art collections, we cross an eerily deserted Oxford Street, which in normal times is crammed with four million shoppers a week.
Nodding to a blue plaque at the top of Poland Street commemorating the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, we reach our next destination, the John Snow pub in the heart of Soho. Sadly, a refreshing pint is not yet on offer. Located on Broadwick Street (formerly Broad Street), the pub is named in honour of the great physician, regarded as one of the inventors of modern epidemiology.
In 1854 Snow investigated the causes of “the most terrible outbreak of cholera” ever seen in Britain in which 616 people died. Many of the victims were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital, where Florence Nightingale helped treat them before heading off to perform further heroics in Crimea. As the “ministering angel” of nursing, Nightingale has her own blue plaque in South Street in Mayfair.
By tracing the locations of all the deaths in Soho, Snow deduced that a contaminated water pump on Broad Street was the likely source of the infection, rather than bad air (or miasma) as was commonly supposed. He persuaded the parish authorities to disable the pump by removing the handle. The pump still stands today as a monument to the power of data and deductive reasoning in treating disease, a lesson for our times.
We head west and cross Carnaby Street, stopping by the Shakespeare’s Head, which contains a bust of the great bard high on the wall. We read the sign telling the pub’s history. It recounts how a German bomb exploded nearby during the second world war demolishing the playwright’s right hand. Looking up, we see that Shakespeare remains handless, a detail I’d never noticed before.
Our next destination is Cato Street, close to Edgware Road, where 200 years ago a conspiracy to assassinate the British cabinet was foiled. Outraged by the Peterloo massacre of 1819, when cavalry charged a crowd of 60,000 people demanding parliamentary reform, the plotters planned to behead the prime minister Lord Liverpool and his ministers who were thought to be dining nearby.
But the plot was betrayed by an informer and the Bow Street Runners stormed the building. Five of the plotters were publicly hanged outside Newgate Prison and their decapitated heads were displayed in a “most awful exhibition.” “Albion is still in chains of slavery. I quit it without regret,” said the ringleader Arthur Thistlewood in his final speech.
Passing a plaque to the poet TS Eliot on Homer Row, we cross the Marylebone Road entering a leafy Dorset Square, where a green shed on the eastern side speaks of more peaceful pursuits than in Cato Street. Two plaques record that this was the site where Thomas Lord established his original cricket ground in 1787, the same year as the Marylebone Cricket Club was formed. It was only in 1814 that Lord’s relocated to its present location on top of a former duck pond in St John’s Wood.
My eye is caught by a red poppy wreath hanging outside the London headquarters of the Alliance Française across the road. On closer inspection, a plaque describes how the building served as an outpost of the Special Operations Executive during the second world war. In this building, secret agents were trained for dangerous missions in occupied France.
It has turned into a glorious summer evening and thoughts of war seem far away. But thanks to the pandemic, I have belatedly discovered one of the joys of French culture no doubt promoted by the Alliance Française: the art of being a flâneur.
Map by Liz Faunce
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