Thursday, 20 June 2013

City’s delights

Sometimes when Walking the City one is pleasantly surprised to encounter a ceremony taking place outside one of London’s historic buildings. Whatever is being commemorated usually gets added colour from members of the City’s Guilds in their livery.

However, what happened on Monday was no surprise. I had received a formal invitation to attend the ancient custom of presenting a rose to the Lord Mayor. Not any old rose but one from the garden of All Hallows by the Tower – a  gem of a church with delights such as its Saxon arch, a Roman pavement and a crows’ nest from Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition’s boat “Quest”. Along with several other City Guides, I have the great pleasure of leading complimentary public tours of this church during the busy summer months. But that’s a story for another blog.

The Knollys Rose Ceremony is a revival of a medieval custom in which a rose is given as payment for a fine. It is organised by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames and by the vicar and wardens All Hallows.

The ceremony dates back to 1381 and came about thanks to Sir Robert Knollys and his wife Constance. Knollys was abroad fighting alongside John of Gaunt, so leaving Constance in charge of their rather grand house on Seething Lane. During her husband’s absence, Constance became increasingly vexed about the chaff dust blowing in from the threshing ground opposite their house. So she bought the threshing ground and turned it into a rose garden.

Most of us would have left the matter there. However Constance didn’t like the idea of soiling her footwear in London’s filthy medieval streets so to get back and forth between house and garden she had a footbridge built across the lane. Yes even 600 years ago women had a thing about shoes. Unfortunately, medieval councils also had a thing - about building consent. Constance hadn’t bothered to seek planning permission for her bridge, so leaving Robert and herself open to some dire fourteenth century punishment. However the council took account of her husband’s gallant service for his country. They not only allowed the bridge to remain – “to make an haut pas at the height of fourteen feet” - but imposed only a nominal fine of one red rose per annum to be presented to the Lord Mayor. The footbridge has long since disappeared, but the payment of the fine remains a City tradition.

Yesterday the six hundred and thirty second rose was plucked by the Master of the Watermen and Lightermen. After a short speech welcoming everyone and assuring us that he had permission to “vandalise” the garden of All Hallows Church, the Master ceremoniously laid the flower on a velvet cushion held by the vicar. It was duly secured with a pin. All Hallows has pitched in because the normal source of the rose, Seething Lane gardens, is currently undergoing reservation.

Then the Company, the Knollys’ family and we assorted guests weaved our way through the sunny City streets. The liverymen, bearing oars and decked out in  skirted scarlet tunics and breeches, spotless white gloves and stockings, and black buckled shoes were “clocked” by City workers, taxi drivers and tourists. Eventually we reached Mansion House where the Lord Mayor was waiting for the annual fine to be paid.

Clutching my invitation I was then welcomed with the rest of the party into the  Georgian palace. Up the stairs adorned with Dutch and Flemish 17th Century Paintings and then into a chamber lit by a stunning chandelier. Here The Rt Hon The Lord Mayor, Roger Gifford accompanied by The Lady Mayoress, Dr Clare Gifford, received the rose with solemn dignity and rounded off the occasion with an amusing and well researched acceptance speech.

I’ve captured the event here on camera. What other intriguing City ceremonies have you witnessed?

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Best job in the City

As our new Lord Mayor, Roger Gifford, was “shown” to the people, my mind turned to the 684 previous holders of this office. They have trotted, floated and rolled their way through 800 years of history which have encompassed civil war, devastating plagues, great fires and the Blitz.

Our early Mayors rode about on horseback. The swords they wore were sometimes more than a fashion statement: Mayor William Walworth used his to slay the rebel Watt Tyler, and was knighted in the field. In his case, “Smithfield”.

Some Mayors distinguished themselves in less violent ways. The most famous, Dick Whittington, held the office on four occasions; when he died childless, he left everything to charity. Charles Duncombe, who was frequently thrashed for arriving late for work as a young apprentice, vowed that if he ever became Lord Mayor he would present a timepiece to the church he passed daily. St Magnus Martyr still displays the clock he donated in 1709. Brass Crosby was thrown into the Tower for championing free speech in 1770. He was reprieved when 50,000 Londoners besieged the fortress.

Others are remembered less fondly. The hapless Sir Thomas Bludworth went back to bed after commenting that “a woman could piss out” the flames rising in Pudding Lane on 3 September 1666.  

Some Lord Mayors have broken new ground. The very first Mayor was Henry FitzAilwyn in 1189. We had to wait 794 years for our first Lady Mayor, Mary Donaldson, in 1983. After the tragic death of Henry V in 1422, Mayor William Walderne was asked not to ride through the streets but instead to go by barge to Westminster, making his “showing” the first by river. In 1855 the City had its first Jewish Mayor in David Salomons.

The Mayor’s office is associated with ceremonial splendour and mouth-watering banquets, but things don’t always go to plan. Spare a thought for Sebastian Harvey in 1618. James I selected this Lord Mayor’s day to execute Sir Walter Raleigh in the hope that the pageant would draw the crowds away from the Tower. As any events promoter would have predicted, poor Harvey rode through empty streets while the crowds thronged to Tower Hill. In 1944 the dinner John Newton-Smith gave to the Turners Company in Mansion House was subject to wartime regulations.  The 5/- budget meal ran to mock turtle soup, roast chicken and trifle – no doubt made more  palatable by ’34 Macon & an ’08 Crofts port! Or would you rather have been one of the guests at Thomas Strong’s banquet in 1910? The meal would have been lavish, but you would have toasted the Mayor with tea. Thomas Strong was teetotal.

It’s a great honour to become Lord Mayor but a surprising number have gone out of their way avoid the appointment, and have even preferred to pay a fine rather than take it up. The mayor doesn’t draw a salary and  expenses are heavy. Some holders of the office have even ended up in debtor’s prison.

Many colourful Lord Mayors have left their mark but two who stand out for me. First, John Wells who made play with his name at his pageant in 1431. Three wells in Cheapside flowed with wine; shading the wells were trees hung with almonds, dates, oranges and lemons. Secondly, Brook Watson, London’s only one legged Mayor.  The missing limb was eaten by a shark when the young Watson was swimming in Havana Harbour. Opponents scorned Watson’s intellect, yet he rose to become Governor of the Bank of England. We might still argue whether the holder of that post needs to be nimble or brainy.

Answers to the Lord Mayor’s Blog “Do you know?”

1.     b,  2. a,  3. c,  4. a,  5. b,  6. b, 7. c, 8. b,  9. a, 10. b

 How good is your knowledge of our Lord Mayors? Try the Lord Mayor quiz on














Friday, 27 July 2012


 After seven years of preparation, the Olympics and Paralympics are taking place in London in front of a worldwide audience of billions. Contrast this with the 1900 Paris Olympics, when the athletes outnumbered the spectators.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing a great deal about fastest times, longest jumps, smashed world records. All new, all very exciting, but we shouldn’t turn our backs on the history of the games, which throws up some extraordinary trivia.

At the first modern games in Athens in 1896, no women competed. Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics felt that their inclusion would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect."!

Altogether all there were 245 male competitors in Athens. Many individual countries now field a far greater number than this.

Women first got their chance at the 1900 Paris Games. They competed in lawn tennis, golf and croquet. It is commonly stated that first woman to win an Olympic event was England's Charlotte Cooper, with the tennis singles title. However the sailor Hélène de Pourtalès sneaked in ahead of her. She was part of a mixed Swiss team that won a sailing event.

Women's athletics and gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Olympics and over time there have been fewer and fewer “men only” sports. The final Rubicon will be crossed in 2012 with the inclusion of women's boxing.

More and more sports have joined the Olympic roster, but others have fallen by the wayside. These include croquet, cricket, Jeu de Paume, pelota, polo, roque (no, I don’t know either), rackets, tug-of-war, lacrosse and motor boating.

Pigeon shooting was one of the sports on the 1900 Paris programme. Fortunately this was the only time that animals have been deliberately killed at the games. (Although some might suggest that this particular event should have been reintroduced this year in Trafalgar Square...)

 In 1912, at the ripe young age 64, the Swede Oscar Swahn won a shooting gold.  At the 1924 games, aged 72, he put in a dismal performance, managing only a silver! The astonishing Oscar holds a hat-trick of records: oldest Olympian, oldest gold medallist, oldest medallist full stop. The oldest female Olympian was the equestrian Lorna Johnstone, who competed for Britain aged 70 at the 1972 Munich Games. No gongs for Lorna, I’m afraid.

 During the first few modern Olympics, the marathon did not have an exact distance. In 1908, the British royal family requested that the marathon begin at Windsor Castle so that the royal children could see the start. The distance from the Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium was 42,195 meters (or 26 miles and 385 yards). This later became the standardized length of a marathon.

 The marathon provides a striking example of how Olympic ethics have changed. Tom Hicks, who won the 1904 event, took several hours to recover after the race. It’s possibly because, during the event, he received numerous infusions of brandy laced with strychnine! This concoction was supposed to improve his stamina. At the time nobody questioned this sort of doping. However there were strict guidelines as to how much preparation one could make for the games: training hard wasn’t seen as fair play.

 There’s a lot of pressure on the 2012 GB squad. They did extraordinarily well in Beijing, but there are great expectations that they will do even better with home advantage. Whatever happens, we can be proud that Great Britain is the only nation to have won at least one gold medal at every Summer Games.

  Finally, some Olympic firsts.

 The FIRST Olympic Games for which we have written records were held in 776 BC.

The FIRST recorded Olympic champion was a naked runner, Coroebus, a cook from Elis. He won the only event – a 192 metre run called the stade.

The FIRST ever event of the modern Olympic Games was heat one of the 100 metre sprint, held on 6 April 1896.

The FIRST Olympic champion of the modern era was James Brendan Connolly of the United States. He won the triple jump.

The FIRST brothers to win Olympic gold medals were Americans John and Sumner Paine. They came first in the military pistol and free pistol shooting events in 1896.

The FIRST team sport added to the Olympics was football in 1900.

The FIRST black athlete at the Olympics was Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera, competing for France in 1900.

The FIRST black gold medallist was African-American John Taylor, who was a member of the 1908 US relay team.

Answers to the Olympic Blog “Do you know?”

1.b, 2.a, 3.a, 4.c, 5.b, 6.d, 7.a, 8.b

How good is your knowledge on the Olympics. Try the Olympic quiz on

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A Walk on the Thames

The River Thames runs from its dribbling source near Cirencester to the ten huge steel gates of the Woolwich Flood Barrier. I’ve walked every one of its 184 miles.

Each part of this epic walk has its own character and atmosphere, but the closer the Thames comes to London the more history you encounter. On the final stretch, three periods in the Thames’ life particularly come to mind – and how I would love to have witnessed them first hand!

First, we go back to the seventeenth century. The19 narrow arches of old London Bridge slowed the flow of the river and during severe winters it froze over. This gave rise to the “frost fairs”.

The first proper frost fair came in 1683. The river froze over in December, and stayed solid for two months. Londoners soon took to the ice. The fairs were a great commercial opportunity. Traders set up two parallel rows of stalls between the banks of the river. Some enterprising businessmen cashed in by providing entertainments for the visitors. With so many people eager to buy any souvenir, prices soon went up. As one popular rhyme stated:

'What you can buy for threepence on the shore, will cost your fourpence on the Thames, or more.'

You could prove you had been to a frost fair by buying a certificate from the resourceful merchant who had lugged his printing press onto the ice. A certificate has survived from the visit made by Charles II and his family.

More frost fairs followed. Each time the entertainment became more varied: fairground rides, swings, skittles, dancing and singing, bear baiting and horse racing.

In 1831 John Rennie's bridge replaced the old structure. It had wider arches and improved the flow of the river. Since then London’s Thames has kept moving, even during the harshest winters.

The second period I would like to have witnessed was the golden age of the Port of London. During the late 1700s and the 1800s the Port was the largest and most prosperous in the world. Ships from all around the globe brought exotic cargoes such as spices, rum and luxurious fabrics.

Every ship’s captain had to declare his cargo at Customs House, the spectacular building which still stands on the north bank. Until the captain had paid his tax he was not allowed to unload or sell his cargo. Imagine the spectacle of the 400 ships which could be waiting at any one time outside Customs House.

The cargo of each ship had to be weighed, measured and examined. Once the duty was paid a release certificate was issued. You could circumvent this time-consuming and expensive process by forging the certificate, but those caught faced the death penalty.

 My final period would be during the eighteenth century when the City’s Lord Mayor travelled down the river to Westminster to receive the Monarch’s approval for his tenure of office.  At first a few friends turned up in their barges to accompany the Mayor, but this custom gradually grew into a spectacular event. Probably the most memorable occasion was the one captured by Italian artist, Canaletto. His huge painting depicts an assembly of barges, sloops, pinnaces, skiffs, wherries and bumboats. You can see the puffs of gun salutes and St Paul’s dwarfs the church  towers and spires of the City skyline.

I shall never see the Thames frozen over, and nor will the Port of London ever recapture its glory days. However my third wish was granted on Sunday 3rd June 2012 when over one thousand boats collected on the River Thames to take part in the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

The Pageant celebrated Her Majesty's 60 years of service by magnificently bringing the Thames to life; making it joyously full of rowing boats, long boats, steamers and motorised vessels, resounding with clanging bells, tooting horns and piercing whistles. The Pageant recalled the Thames’s royal heritage and its heyday as a working, bustling river.

 Answers to June’s  “Do you know?”

 1 b, 2 a, 3 d, 4 b, 5 c, 6 d, 7 d, 8 a

 How good is your knowledge on the River Thames? Try this month's quiz on

Monday, 30 April 2012

Anyone for crocodile?

It’s a Wednesday morning, and here begins one of my more unusual City walks.
My clients have set their alarm clocks early enough to arrive at our meeting point by 6.45am ………
Surprisingly, everyone pitches up bright eyed and eager to start. Most are finishing off the lattes and cappuccinos bought en route. They exchange stories of their dawn-breaking commute to the heart of London.  Our group includes a  gentleman from Slough, a couple from Essex, a retired New Zealand sheep farmer, two residents of the nearby Barbican Towers, a handful of City workers,  an American family in London for the week, and an author who will shortly publish the latest in her series of crime novels about the area.
A brief introduction from me and off we go, crossing the street already busy with taxis and lorries (in the City, we always “have the builders in”). But we immediately leave the main road and disappear into a narrow alleyway with the intriguing name of Cloth Fair. This place did what it says on the tin: it was the site of England’s greatest cloth fair, attracting traders from all over Mediaeval Europe.
 We progress along the narrow street with an eye out for any silent cyclists speeding on their way to work. We pass the Hand and Shears, the tavern where the Lord Mayor would open the local fair by cutting the first piece of cloth. We stop to admire a different type of fabric - that of the oldest church in the City.  Either side of the alleyway are reminders of 2,000 years of history. We are now following the path of the old Roman Wall.  Involuntarily the group treads with more care when I mention that we are walking over ground where the Romans buried their dead.
At the end of Cloth Fair we come to a unique house. Built at the end of the sixteenth century, it is the only domestic residence in the City which has outlived the Great Fire of London of 1666.  In recent years it has been lovingly restored by two local architects. 
We then emerge into an open tree-lined area, surprisingly large and once known as Smoothfields. Centuries ago this was the site of a horse market. Did the merchant find a sturdy animal to draw his cart?  Was there a little ambler for the knight’s lady friend?
Turning right we reach our destination. Smoothfields has given its name to Smithfield, the imposing building which houses London’s Central Meat Market.  We enter through the East Market’s huge colourful gates, 25 feet tall and 15 tons apiece. Early in the day for us, but Smithfield has already been trading for seven hours.
 As well as the more conventional items, the market will sell you crocodile meat, zebra, kangaroo, wild boar. There is Royal steak on offer from the Prince of Wales’ Scottish estate. Or would you care to casserole one of the thousand sheep’s heads that the market sells every week?  
No end of fascinating sights and stories await our group as we begin to make our way along the Buyers’ Walk ………
Answers to May’s “Do you know?”
1. c,   2. b,   3. a,   4. c,   5. b,   6. c,   7. a,   8. c
 How good is your knowledge of the City’s Livery Companies? Try this month's quiz on