Are you interested in your family history but don’t know where to start? Well, this autumn, the Migration Museum in London is offering visitors insights and opportunities to delve into their ancestry. On 2 November, a day-long event will feature workshops, talks, and meetings with experts to help you delve into your origins. The Migration Museum’s Family History Day will offer activities, talks and assistance from experts from the National Trust, the National Archives and London Metropolitan Archives.
There will be talks from TV star Robert Rinder, who delved into his own family’s past on BBC show Who Do You Think You Are?. Robert Kershaw from the National Archives will explain how its records can be searched and interpreted. Else Churchill from the Society of Genealogists will also be showing how you can search your family’s 20th century history, which can often be more difficult due to sealed records. Meanwhile, Robert Winder – author of Bloody Foreigners – shows how to put historical context into our personal family stories.
Throughout the day, there will also be a photograph dating with a National Trust expert, family history workshop, a chance to search for relatives who fought in WWI and WWII, an installation highlighting the history of black Britons with the Black Cultural Archives, and the chance to speak to war veterans.
Robyn Kasozi, Head of Public Engagement at the Migration Museum, enthused: “Our Family History Day aims to empower people to delve into their past and uncover their family’s migration stories, both within the UK and beyond its borders.”
- Migration Museum’s Family History Day is on 2 November 2019. At the Migration Museum at The Workshop, 26 Lambeth High Street, London SE1 7AG. Nearest stations: Vauxhall, Lambeth North, Westminster or Waterloo. Open: 10.30am–4.30pm. Tickets: £5 (includes entry to all exhibitions). Book online at the Migration Museum website.
For a guide to what else is on in London this November, click here.
Linking the City of London and Holborn is a rather ornate road bridge. While other bridges in the capital attract a lot more attention due to their location and viewpoints, the Holborn Viaduct isn’t such a familiar sight to many Londoners. The bridge dates back to the Victorian era when London’s road and sewage system were given a massive overhaul. Built between 1867-69, it spans the valley of the River Fleet, which now exists underground and flows out into the River Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, a short distance south. It connects the steep hill of Holborn (the actual road) and Newgate Street, crossing Farringdon Street below, which follows the trail of the Fleet. It was designed by architect and engineer William Haywood (1821–1894) to improve access to nearby Smithfield Market and the City in general. Haywood had worked closely with Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1818-1891) on improving London’s sewer works in the 1860s, including the creation of pumping stations, like Crossness. Before construction began, city authorities agreed to demolish a series of old streets and buildings by the Fleet Valley, with the owners being financially compensated for the loss of their homes. The plans also meant destruction of St Andrew Holborn’s north churchyard, leading to an estimated 11,000-12,000 remains being reinterred elsewhere.
Holborn Viaduct is 1,400ft long, 80ft wide and made of cast iron. It covers three spans and is supported on granite piers. When it was completed, it became the first flyover in central London. Along the bridge are bronze statues, winged lions and replica Victorian-style globe lamps. The female statues represent Agriculture, Commerce, the Fine Arts and Science. Henry Bursill (1833-1871) sculpted Commerce and Agriculture on the south side, while Science and Fine Art on the north side are by the sculpture firm Farmer & Brindley.
Two step buildings were erected either end of the viaduct, with steps on both north and south sides allowing pedestrians to move between the upper and lower street levels. The upper storeys now contain offices and have ornate details, including more Bursill sculptures and wrought iron balconies. Each of the four buildings feature a statue of famous Medieval Londoners on the façade: merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579); engineer Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631); and London mayors Sir William Walworth (d.1385) and Henry Fitz Ailwin (1135-1212). Gresham founded the Royal Exchange in the City, while Sir Hugh headed the construction of the New River to bring clean water into London. Meanwhile, Alwin was the first ever Mayor of London and Sir William is particularly notorious for killing Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt. Read the rest of this entry
Find out where William Shakespeare used to spend his time during his two decades in London.
Although he was born, died and spent a lot of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon, actor, playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) found fame – and fortune – on the London stage. Over 400 years after The Bard’s death, his life and works continue to fascinate and entertain people around the world. Although many of Shakespeare’s former homes and haunts in Warwickshire are in good condition, it’s rather more difficult to find his London hotspots. Fires, plagues, war and redevelopment over the centuries have changed the fabric of the City of London and Bankside and left little of Shakespearean sights. However, fans of the great literary legend can make a pilgrimage to some Shakespearean landmarks, with some buildings still in existence or plaques marking his presence.
What was William Shakespeare’s life like in London?
Born in 1564, Shakespeare moved to the capital in his twenties. It’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly when he headed for the big city, as historians have referred to 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare’s “lost years” due to lack of records. However, it’s certain that he was a married man and a father-of-three by the time he sought fame and fortune in the capital. He was definitely working in London by 1592 when he was mentioned by a rival dramatist Robert Greene.
Shakespeare lived in London for around two decades, but split his time between the city and Stratford-upon-Avon, where his wife Anne (1556-1623) remained bringing up their children. Soon after arriving in London, he began his career as an actor and playwright, with records showing his plays were being performed by 1592. He started acting with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later becoming the King’s Men, and became part owner of several theatres, including The Globe. He turned his attention from plays to poetry when theatres were closed during the plague outbreak of 1593. He remained in London for another 20 years or so, eventually retiring to Stratford in 1613, three years before he died.
Guide to William Shakespeare’s London landmarks
- The Crosse Keys
Today, the Crosse Keys is a Wetherspoons pub in a former Victorian bank. However, the pub takes its name from the former Crosse Keys Inn, which stood near the site in the late 16th century. Shakespeare’s troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men, performed for audiences of up to 500 people in the cobbled courtyard of the Inn on a regular basis in the early 1590s. The original Crosse Keys was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, with its replacement burning down in 1734.
– The Crosse Keys, 9 Gracechurch Street, City of London, EC3V 0DR. Nearest station: Bank.
- St Helen’s Parish
By 1596, Shakespeare was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, while his family back in Stratford had moved into the recently bought New Place. The exact address is not known, but it is believed he was living near Leadenhall Street and St Mary Avenue. The Bard is listed as failing to pay 5 shillings on £5 worth of taxable goods in November 1597. Living locally, it was likely he worshipped at St Helen’s Bishopgate church and is commemorated inside with a stained glass window of his image.
– St Helen’s Bishopsgate, Great St Helen’s, EC3A 6AT. Nearest station: Liverpool Street.
- The Theatre
After the Plague led to plays being banned from the City of London, theatre troupes like Shakespeare and co started to move to just outside the jurisdiction of the City. The Theatre was built in 1576 on the site of the former Holywell Priory by actor and theatre impresario James Burbage – a colleague of Shakespeare at the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By 1594, the group started performing The Bard’s plays exclusively and it soon became the leading acting company in London. Romeo & Juliet was believed to have been performed at The Theatre for the first time, with the tragedy estimated to have been written around 1591-95. However, The Theatre was dismantled in 1598, with some of its materials being used to build The Globe, after the company fell out with the land’s owner Giles Allen. Archaeologists discovered remains of the theatre in 2008. A building to house offices and a permanent exhibition about The Theatre is currently being constructed on site. Today, a mural of Romeo & Juliet commemorates Shakespeare’s spell in Shoreditch.
– New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch, EC2A 3PZ. Nearest stations: Shoreditch High Street or Old Street.
Why Blackfriars is called Blackfriars and the pre-railway history of the area.
Blackfriars is an area by the southern fringes of the City of London, familiar to many City workers. Now dominated by office blocks, the district used to be a hub for religion and entertainment. Until the early 13th century, the area was home to Norman fortresses Mountfiquet Castle and the original Baynard’s Castle. Mountfiquet was likely named after the Baron of Mountfichet (of the Stansted Mountfichets in Essex), while Baynard’s was built by Ralph Baynard (a sheriff of Essex). Both castles were demolished by King John (1166-1216) in 1213 after their then-residents Robert Montfichet and Robert Fitzwalter took part in the barons’ revolt against the monarchy the previous year.
The name Blackfriars dates back to the 13th century when Dominican Friars established a priory on the site. The Friars first came to the capital in 1221 and established their first London monastery on the outskirts of the City near Lincoln’s Inn at Holborn. However, in 1276 they obtained permission from King Edward I (1239-1307) to move to the area we now know as Blackfriars. The King approved the levelling of the remains of Mountfiquet and Baynard Castle and the demolishing and rebuilding of the Roman City walls to incorporate their priory in 1282. The plot covered around 8 acres and incorporated the main church, a tower and five chapels (the Virgin chapel, a Lady chapel, St John the Baptist chapel, a pardon chapel and the Chapel of St Ann). The name Blackfriars started being used around 1317 to describe the Friars, who were recognised by their black cappas. The City also included Grey Friars (Franciscan), Austin Friars, Crutched Friars, Austin Friars, White Friars (Carmelites), and the Holy Trinity and St Helens Priory priories. In 1322, the Blackfriars was the scene of tragedy when a large number of impoverished Londoners were crushed to death in a rush to beg for food and money at the gates. Read the rest of this entry
As the host venue of the Chelsea Flower Show, the Royal Hospital Chelsea sees over 157,000 visitors pass through its gates every May. However, these horticulture lovers only get to see the outside of this historic venue. Known as the home of the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’, parts of the Royal Hospital are open to visitors, including during Open House London.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement and nursing home for around 300 veterans of the British Army. Until the 17th century, there was no state provision to look after retired or injured soldiers. However, King Charles II (1630-1685) recognised these veterans needed care and founded the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1682. He chose to establish it on a 66-acre site in Chelsea, which housed a theological college named ‘Chelsey College’, founded 73 years older by his grandfather James I of England (1566-1625). Charles II and his royal administrator Sir Stephen Fox (1627-1716) commissioned architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) to design and oversee the building’s construction.
Wren designed the Great Hall and Chapel. The 42ft high chapel was completed in 1687 and was consecrated in August 1691. The chapel’s interior features a painting of the Resurrection of Christ by Italian painter Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) and his nephew Marco Ricci (1676–1730), which was added in 1710-15 during Queen Anne’s (1665-1714) reign. Just to the south-west of the Chapel was the Great Hall, which was originally intended as a dining hall. It featured 16 long tables with a large mural of King Charles II on horseback being crowned by Victory. Meanwhile, outside in the central court, the King was honoured again with a 7ft 6in statue in copper alloy by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). Read the rest of this entry
Learn about the history, people and architecture of a London landmark at special late-night openings of Tower Bridge.
Tower Bridge is one of London’s most iconic sights. Instantly recognisable the world over, the bascule and suspension bridge is one of the most photographed landmarks in the capital. To mark the bridge’s 125th anniversary, there will be a series after-hour talks for Londonphiles.
Kicking off in September and running until December 2019, each session will invite experts to share their knowledge and skills in a specially-curated event which explores the history of Tower Bridge. Each experience will last an hour and take place in the new Learning Space, high up in the South Tower. Film, food and art are among the themes explored over the talks.
- Thursday 5 September : Illuminated River Project
The Illuminated River Project is a London wide public art commission that will transform the capital at night, lighting up 15 bridges across the River Thames. Once complete, the project will be the longest public art project in the world. Join Director Sarah Gaventa and Project Architect Chris Waite at the Bridge to explore the ambitious decade-long public art project and how Tower Bridge will shine in its role.
- Thursday 12 September : Sir Horace Jones and the Architecture of Tower Bridge
Dr Jennifer Freeman, architectural historian and writer, and a specialist in ‘at risk’ conservation buildings will guide guests through the extraordinary life of Tower Bridge architect Sir Horace Jones. A specialist on the man behind a number of London’s most iconic buildings, including Smithfield Market and Billingsgate Market, Jennifer will not only explore Jones’ legacy and his innovations as a designer and planner, but the architectural marvel Tower Bridge remains as to this day.
- Thursday 17 October : Tower Bridge Eats – Cooking and Dining with the Denizens of Tower Bridge in 1894
Don your kitchen whites and test your taste buds to explore the past century through an exclusive tasting talk with food historian Dr Annie Gray. Foodies will be taken on a whistle-stop tour of 125 years of gastronomic history at Tower Bridge.
- Thursday 7 November : An Illustrated Construction of Tower Bridge
From the fanciful to the downright farcical, explore some of the alternative river crossing designs presented to the City of London’s special committee in 1876. Tom Furber, Engagement and Learning Officer with the London Metropolitan Archive offers a fascinating insight into some of the weird and whacky designs submitted for the design competition, as well as the ground-breaking construction of Tower Bridge.
- Thursday 5 December : Tower Bridge & the Thames on Film
This illustrated talk by British Film Institute curator Simon McCallum will give a flavour of the BFI National Archive’s unparalleled collection of film and TV about London, with a particular focus on life along the Thames. Drawing on a rich array of newsreel footage, documentaries and home movies, this archive tour will include glimpses of the majestic Bridge itself across the past century. These films are part of the Britain on Film initiative, with thousands of newly digitised titles from the BFI and partner archives around the UK now free to explore on BFI Player. Simon’s talk will be complemented by a screening of the classic 1959 film The Boy on The Bridge, made possible by the estate of Director Kevin McClory.
(Please note this event will finish later due to the film screening).
- Talks will take place in the Tower Bridge Learning Space. At Tower Bridge, Tower Bridge Road, SE1 2UP. Nearest stations: Tower Hill, Tower Gateway or London Bridge. All events: arrive at 7pm for a 7.30pm start. Tickets: £20pp (includes a welcome drink and a return ticket to visit Tower Bridge within 12 months). For more information and booking, visit the Tower Bridge website.
For a guide to what else is on in London this November, click here.
For more London history and architecture posts, click here.
How to make the most of one of London’s most fascinating and photogenic festivals.
Open House London is a must-do for any lovers of architecture, history… or just London really! Whatever your taste in design, you can be guaranteed to find a building that appeals. To those uninitiated, Open House London is a two-day long festival of architecture, when hundreds of buildings open their doors to the public for free. It could be a chance to step inside a government building, a City of London skyscraper, an art deco masterpiece or a brutalist icon – places that would normally be off-limits to visitors.
This year’s Open House London is the 27th and takes place from 21 – 22 September 2019. Over 800 buildings are taking part in the event, with most of these accessible to those who just turn up. However, there are some special buildings – such as 10 Downing Street. the new US Embassy and the BT Tower – which are balloted entry only, so you need to apply before the beginning of September to be in with a chance. There are some other buildings which have limited numbers so offer time slot bookings in advance.
Top 10 tips on making the most of Open House London
- Make a list of places you want to visit and also a few back-up options if the queues are too long by searching Open House’s official website. Alternatively, you could buy a hard copy of the guide here or download the free app available on Apple Store or Google Play.
- Check out TFL’s website to make sure there are no engineering works affecting your transportation to the sites.
- Wear comfortable shoes and check the weather forecast to inspire suitable clothing. You will be walking and standing a lot.
- Get up early: Most of the buildings taking part open around 10am or 11am, but some open even earlier. If you get there before they open, you could beat the queues.
- Make sure your phone and/or camera are fully charged and bring a portable charger if you have one so you can search online maps and share photos on social media.
- Bring ID – some buildings may require ID to enter.
- Make sure you don’t carry too much in your bag, as many buildings are subjected to security searches.
- Go the toilet whenever you find one. Some of the more unusual buildings may not have any available facilities or you could end up desperate while waiting in a very long queue.
- Follow Open House London on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
- Share your discoveries on social media with the hashtag #openhouselondon. It’s worth searching this hashtag on Twitter to find out where the long queues are.
Top picks to visit at Open House London 2019
Camden Highline. A tour of the proposed Camden Highline park connecting Camden Town to King’s Cross. Open Saturday and Sunday 9.30am-3.30pm (pre-book only). Camden Gardens, Camden Street, NW1 9PT. Nearest station: Camden Town or Camden Road.
Drapers’ Hall. Livery Hall first built in 1530s, twice rebuilt. Featuring 19th century façade and Victorian interiors. Open Sunday 10am-4pm. Throgmorton Street, City of London, EC2N 2DQ. Nearest station: Bank or Liverpool Street.
Freemasons’ Hall. Art Deco meets classical, built in 1927-33. Open Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm. 60 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5AZ. Nearest station: Holborn or Covent Garden. Read the rest of this entry
With the current pace of building in the capital and developers looking to seize every last piece of land to build on, London’s wildlife is being squeezed into increasingly smaller environments. As banks of rivers and streams are absorbed into manmade land and structures, many animals and birds are running out of space to build nests, or even shelter during bad weather. While we need more homes in this overcrowded capital, it’s trying to balance fulfilling demand while protecting the wildlife’s habitats that is a real challenge.
Recently I paid a visit to the Creekside Discovery Center in Deptford, south-east London to join one of their Low Tide Walks. My boyfriend and I were up bright and early on a Sunday (well, by my standards early for a Sunday!) morning to get suited up for our visit to Deptford Creek. We were told to wear old clothes and a hat, with the CDC providing thigh-high waders and a walking stick. The Center itself is a one-storey educational space in a garden full of beautiful, coloured wildflowers. In fact there are over 130 different wildflower species across the site. It was rather amusing to see various memorabilia retrieved from the Creek dotted around like a modern art display, such as shopping trolleys, rollerskates and typewriters. I’m always baffled why someone would find enjoyment by throwing a trolley into a river or creek… perhaps they should get an actual hobby?!
The name Deptford comes from ‘deep ford’, with the Creek forming the north end of the River Ravensbourne before it flows into the Thames. We started our two-hour expedition being led down to the Creek by a conservationist Nick. We entered the water – and mud – near the historic lifting bridge. It was originally built in the 1830s for the London and Greenwich Railway, which connected London Bridge with Greenwich, which was incredibly busy at the time due to its naval and royal connections. The railway was the first steam service in the capital and also the first entirely elevated railway. When it came to crossing the Creek, the railway owners realised it was problematic. They couldn’t build a regular fixed crossing as that would have blocked the many ships passing up and down the Creek. Civil engineer George Thomas Landmann (1779-1854) came up with the idea of a lifting bridge, which would allow trains to pass over while in situ, but could be lifted up for passing barges via pulleys, chains and sliding rods with eight men required to operate it. The current bridge you can see today, is a younger replacement, with several bridges replacing the original 1830s one. At time of writing, it’s been out of action for decades and is a listed structure. Read the rest of this entry
The red post box is an iconic piece of British heritage, having been a familiar piece of the streets for nearly 180 years. Despite the public’s fondness of the post box, it isn’t in such demand as it used to be due to the rapidly changing world. The rise of electronic communication and the introduction of rival delivery companies to Royal Mail means the post box isn’t used so widespread as in previous years. A Royal Mail post box is said stand half a mile from over 98% of the UK population. There are around 155,500 post boxes across the UK, with a substantial portion of these situated in London.
Of the thousands of post boxes in the capital, some of them are listed. In 2002, the Royal Mail entered into agreements with Historic England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively to retain and conserve all existing post boxes.
When it comes to post boxes, there are two main factors which distinguish them from each other – their design and the royal cypher. The roadside post box has existed since the reign of Queen Victoria, with every subsequent monarch’s cypher being immortalised on the front. By looking at the cypher, you can date the age of your nearest post box, although admittedly the ballpark for boxes erected during the reigns of Victoria and our current monarch Elizabeth II are rather large! Of course, the shortest reign in recent memory is that of King Edward VIII. The eldest son of King George V only reigned for 326 days, before he abdicated the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Despite his short time as head of state, there are 171 boxes with his cypher, some of which are in London.
Walking around London today, a red post box is a frequent piece of street furniture. While the majority are round or oval, there are also hexagonal, wall boxes and other unusual sizes. Most free-standing post boxes feature a cap, which protects rainwater from entering the box and wetting the mail.
Prior to postal reform in 1840, mail was an expensive form of communication. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced, meaning the sender pre-paid the postal costs, rather than the recipient. The same year, the Penny Black adhesive stamp was released. It wasn’t until 12 years later, the first roadside Post Office pillar box was erected in St Helier, Jersey as a trial. In 1853, the first roadside pillar box was established in the mainland United Kingdom in Carlisle. In 1856, Richard Redgrave (1804-1888) from the Department of Science and Art came up with an ornate pillar box design to be used in London and other cities. Today, you can see one of Redgrave’s designs – which were bronze – at the Victoria & Albert Museum. From 1857, some post boxes were built into existing walls. Read the rest of this entry
Exploring the history of the Tower on a three-hour semi-private tour.
The Tower of London is one of the capital’s most iconic sights. It’s been standing on the fringes of the City, looming over the River Thames, for over 1,000 years. With such an amazing heritage, the layers of history within the Tower walls can be overwhelming for a visitor. I previously visited the Tower of London as a teenager and didn’t really absorb the stories of the complex as I knew I would as an adult. Over the Easter Weekend, I paid a long-awaited return to the Tower on a semi-private tour with Context Travel.
Context Travel is a specialist walking tour company, which offers private, semi-private and custom tours in over 50 cities worldwide. Aiming to put tourist sights ‘in context’, the tours are hosted by experts in their field, giving you an in-depth knowledge while taking you off-the-beaten track to find hidden places and details. Context Travel semi-private tours are in small groups, which immediately appealed to me because I’m not a fan of sharing my travel/tourist experiences (even in my hometown of London!) with a huge group of people.
My three-hour tour started on a sunny Sunday morning so the weather was on our side. Myself and two other participants met our guide Lesley outside Tower Hill station and headed straight to the entrance of the complex. The immediate bonus of visiting on a group tour I noticed was being able to bypass the long queue and we were within the tower walls within no time.
We swiftly passed through the Middle Tower and crossed the now-dry moat before passing under the Byward Tower for our first stop on the tour. Looking at the complex, I would find it hard to identify the ages of the different parts. However, Lesley shared her great knowledge of each buildings’ history, which King (or Queen) was responsible for its building and how their use had evolved over time.
Before delving deeper into the various sections, Lesley suggested we head straight to the Jewel House to visit the world-famous Crown Jewels. As guides aren’t allowed to accompany tour groups inside during busy periods, Lesley gave us easy-to-remember pointers on what to focus on inside. Covering 800 years of the British monarchy, the Jewel House contains some truly amazing sights and spectacular examples of wealth. I recognised many crowns and other regalia and vestments I had seen worn by Queen Elizabeth II over the decades. It was great to see them in the flesh so to speak – albeit surrounded by heavy security.
Read the rest of this entry