With 2,000 years of history and 8.1 million residents, it’s no surprise that London has acquired quite a lot of urban legends over the years.
Some of these urban myths – or ‘alternative facts’ emerged centuries ago and still circulate today. Metro Girl looks at London’s top 10 urban legends and tries to separate the truth from fiction. However, reality isn’t always black or white and sometimes the answer isn’t so clear-cut.
1. The ‘Coco Chanel’ lampposts
Around the Westminster council district, you may have seen lampposts with an interlinking CC, which look remarkably similar to the Chanel logo.
French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel famously had an on/off love affair with Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster for around a decade in the 1920s-1930s. However, the aristocrat failed to make Chanel one of his four wives.
The story goes, the Duke attempted to prove his love for Coco by having her initials embossed in gold on lampposts around Westminster. Each lamppost features a grand ‘W’ nearby – which many assumed were for the Duke.
True or false? False. Sadly, the truth isn’t so romantic. The W does stand for Westminster – but the council, not the Duke – while CC stands for city council. Despite their traditional look, they only got installed in the 1950s – two decades after Chanel and the Duke’s romance hit the skids.
Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.
2. A rich American bought London Bridge by accident.
The capital has had many London Bridges over the centuries, the first one dating back to Roman Londinium in the 50s AD. Despite its iconic name, many would agree the current 1970s creation isn’t the most attractive of London’s river crossings.
In 1968, US businessman Robert P McCulloch bought the previous Georgian-era ‘New’ London Bridge for just over £1million. It had been put up for sale by the City of London as it was sinking into the Thames and wasn’t suitable to modern vehicle traffic.
After being purchased, it was taken apart and shipped across to Arizona to be rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, where it remains today.
However, the story goes that McCulloch thought he was buying the more ornate Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. Many tourists visiting the capital today still think Tower Bridge is London Bridge because it’s one of London’s most recognisable icons.
True or false? False. City of London council member Ivan Luckin, who was the one who suggested selling the bridge and was heavily involved in the sale, has firmly denied misleading McCulloch and insisted the American knew exactly what bridge he was buying.
Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.
3. There’s no flowers in Green Park because of a cheating King.
Green Park is one of eight royal parks in the capital. It was established in the 17th century during the reign of King Charles II.
Unlike the rest of London’s royal parks, it is noticeable for its lack of flowers and lakes and only having a few monuments and is mostly grass, trees and pathways – hence the name Green Park.
Legend has it the park was full of flowers in the 17th century and Charles II used to venture from nearby St James’s Palace to pick flowers for his wife Queen Catherine.
However, Charles was famously unfaithful to his wife and fathered at least 14 illegitimate children. It’s been claimed Catherine found out her husband was picking flowers for other women so ordered every flower bed to be removed from the park.
True or false? Maybe. Green Park has no formal flowerbeds, although there’s around 1 million daffodils that bloom every spring.
4. Vampire in Highgate cemetery
The myth of a vampire roaming Highgate cemetery first appeared in 1969 when some young people interested in the occult claimed to have seen a ‘grey figure’ lurking amongst the graves. After it was reported in a local newspaper, many people wrote in, each giving a different account of spooky goings on.
One man had a theory that a Medieval Romanian ‘King Vampire’ had been brought to England in a coffin in the early 18th century and buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery. He claimed modern Satanists had ‘woken him’.
By March 1970, there was a media hysteria with a mob of ‘vampire hunters’ arriving to track down the Highgate vampire. One man was jailed in 1974 for damaging memorials and interfering with dead remains in Highgate Cemetery.
True or false? False (probably), but it all depends on if you believe in vampires. Read the rest of this entry
Discover the history and sights of Dulwich Village with this special walk.
Today, there is only a few ‘villages’ left in London. Back in the Georgian era and beyond, London as a city was significantly smaller and surrounded by many country villages. As London expanded during the Industrial Revolution, many of these districts got swallowed up by the growing capital. However, there are a few areas, such as Dulwich, Wimbledon and Highgate, left today which have retained their village charm.
One such place is Dulwich Village in south London, which dates back to at least the 10th century. I’ve lived nearby most of my life and am really fond of the village. Of course, the property prices are ridiculous and unattainable for most of us, but it’s a lovely place to visit, eat and drink in. The Dulwich Society have retained a tight control over planning so the likes of Tesco superstores and flashy developers haven’t ruined the village’s Georgian feel. Located just five miles from the centre of London, it’s surprisingly close to the capital and easy to get to with regular trains from London Bridge and London Victoria.
If you’ve ever fancied exploring Dulwich Village, why not try out my self-guided history walking tour with Routey.net. The company is a free online platform offering walking tours created by members of the travel community. My walking tour covers less than 2 miles and includes 18 stops. It can take a minimum of 90 minutes to up to 5 hours if you choose to stop at the Crown & Greyhound pub for lunch or dinner and visit an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
- Visit Routey.net for Metro Girl’s Dulwich Village history walking tour. Starting point: North Dulwich station (15 mins from London Bridge). End point: West Dulwich station (13 mins to London Victoria).
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
An architectural remainder of the former City Bank Ltd.
The City of London is full of old buildings originally designed to be banks. In the 21st century, there are significantly less banks and building societies due to various takeovers and mergers and the growing popularity of online banking. While many brand names have died out, some former Victorian and Edwardian bank buildings still survive today. Back in the 18th and 19th century, the sheer volume of banks meant they had to stand out amongst the competition. As their directors attempted to attract rich customers, their buildings needed to exude luxury and stability so many hired top architects to make sure their HQs and branches really looked the part. With considerably less banking names existing today, their former buildings have been repurposed for new businesses, restaurants and bars, with many keeping their original features.
One such former bank no longer offering financial services is the former Ludgate Hill branch of the City Bank. Now a wine bar, this Victorian building certainly stands out as one of the most attractive buildings on Ludgate Hill. Known by many as the road leading toward St Paul’s Cathedral, Ludgate Hill is one of two London hills where the original Roman settlement of Londinium was founded in the 1st century. Around 200AD, Lud Gate was constructed – one of seven gates into the walled city. The Lud Gate was rebuilt in 1215, with its upper rooms used as a prison by the 14th century. After being rebuilt again in 1586, it lasted nearly two centuries before Ludgate and the remaining city gates were all demolished in 1760. A plaque on St-Martin-within-Ludgate church marks the location of the Ludgate, although a stone remainder of the gate is thought to survive on the eastern corner of Pilgrim Street just 100ft away. Although the gate is long gone, its name lives on in Ludgate Hill.
With the City being the commercial heart of the capital, there were a host of banks to cater for the multiple businesses nearby and the booming population in the 19th century. One such financial institution was City Bank Ltd, which was founded in 1855 by stockbroker and future Lord Mayor of London, Sir Robert Walter Carden (1801-1888). Its stunning palazzo-style headquarters at 5-6 Threadneedle Street were built in 1856 by architect W Moseley and still remain today as the 5-star Threadneedles Hotel. By 1863, the bank had deposits to £3.5million and was acting as a London correspondent for 40 foreign banks, so they could provide finance for international trade. It became a limited company in 1880 and by 1894, it had 14 branches across London, including suburban outposts in Croydon and Bromley. One of its original branch buildings (built 1889) can still be seen today at 138 Shaftesbury Avenue at Cambridge Circus.
Read the rest of this entry
It’s that time of year again – when Londoners get the chance to peek inside buildings that are normally off-limits. Taking place on 22-23 September 2018, Open House London is essentially a festival of architecture and design, where a huge range of buildings from homes to Government buildings to skyscrapers allow the public to step inside. Many museums which usually cost to enter are also taking part so you can visit for free. While it’s probably too late by now to enter some of the ballots or ticketed entry slots, there are tons of other places just waiting to be explored. This year marks the 26th year of Open House London, with over 800 properties taking place. Some popular venues, such as the Gherkin and the Billingsgate Roman Bath House, are likely to have long queues. With that in mind, here’s my guide to making the most of Open House London. This guide lists a selection of reviews and photos of buildings already visited by Metro Girl, as well as tips and advice for making the most of the weekend.
Tips on making the most of Open House London
- Comprise a list of places you hope to visit and also a few back-ups if the queues are too long by searching Open House’s official website, buy a hard copy of the guide here or download the free app available on Apple 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.
- Start early – many of the sites open around 10am or 11am, but some 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 official buildings or skyscrapers may want to check you out before letting you enter.
- 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.
- Make sure you don’t carry too much in your bag, as security searches are expected.
- Bring your lunch with you – you’ll have plenty of time to eat it if you end up queuing.
- Share your discoveries on social media under the hashtag #openhouselondon. This is also handy for checking out where the long queues are.
- Follow Open House London on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Metro Girl’s reviews and photos of Open House buildings
Banqueting House. Only surviving building from Whitehall Palace, built in 1619. Open Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm. Banqueting House, Whitehall, SW1A 2ER. Nearest stations: Westminster, Charing Cross or Embankment.
Billingsgate bath house. Roman home and bath ruins in the basement of a modern office building, dating back to 2nd-3rd century and discovered in the 19th century. Open Saturday and Sunday 11am-4pm (queues likely). 101 Lower Thames Street, EC3R 6DL. Nearest station: Monument.
Caroline Gardens Chapel. Partially-derelict Georgian chapel used as an arts and event space, built 1827. Open Sunday 10am-5pm. Asylum Road, Peckham, SE15 2SQ. Nearest station: Queens Road Peckham.
Charlton House. London’s only surviving Jacobean mansion, built in 1607. Open Sunday 10am-4pm (tours at 11am and 2pm). Charlton House, Charlton Road, Charlton, SE7 8RE. Nearest station: Charlton.
Crystal Palace Subway. Victorian subway connecting what used to be a train station to the site of the Crystal Palace, built 1865. Open Sunday 10am-5pm (queues likely). Crystal Palace Parade, Crystal Palace, SE19 1LG. Nearest station: Crystal Palace.
Dennis Severs House. Georgian townhouse and unique setting for a historic ‘still-life drama’, built in 1724. Open Saturday 12-4pm (queues expected). 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BX. Nearest stations: Liverpool Street or Shoreditch High Street.
Emery Walker’s House. Georgian terrace styled in authentic arts and crafts interiors. Open Sunday 2pm-5pm (queues likely). 7 Hammersmith Terrace, Hammersmith, W6 9TS. Nearest station: Stamford Brook.
Fitzrovia Chapel. Victorian designed chapel, designed 1891, completed 1929. Open Sunday 10am-5pm. Pearson Square, Fitzrovia, W1T 3BF. Nearest station: Goodge Street or Tottenham Court Road.
Granada Tooting (Gala Bingo Hall). Former Art Deco cinema with neo-renaissance interiors, now used as a bingo hall, built in 1931. Open Sunday 9am-12pm. 50-60 Mitcham Road, Tooting, SW17 9NA. Nearest station: Tooting Broadway. Read the rest of this entry
In centuries gone by, hundreds of roads in the capital used to be pedestrian only. When the car wasn’t even a twinkle in Henry Ford’s eye and not everyone owned a horse, walking was the dominant form of transport. In the past 100 years, war and technological advances (e.g. the motor car) have caused many of these alleys and other pedestrianised lanes and roads to be destroyed or built upon. However, one such road has managed to remain throughout history and is a charming little passage in the bustling West End.
Cecil Court is a 300ft long street linking Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane. While today is it known as Booksellers’ Row, it has a long and varied history dating back to the 17th century. The land encompassing Cecil Court and the surrounding streets were bought by Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612) in 1609. He served as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth I and King James I and was the principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot. He built the family seat, Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire in 1611. The Jacobean mansion continues to be the home for the Cecil family and the current Marquess of Salisbury, who still owns a lot of the land around Cecil Court. The first Earl of Salisbury bought four acres on the west side of St Martin’s Lane, from Newport Street to the south-west corner of the lane. It didn’t take long before the Earl built houses there to lease out. Cecil Court is believed to have been laid out in the 1670s by one of his descendants.
By the 18th century, Cecil Court housed some pretty unsavoury characters with residents appearing in court for various crimes. One particular character was an Irish Catholic woman, Mrs Elizabeth Calloway, who ran a brandy shop and alleged brothel in Cecil Court. In early 1735, she had taken out a £150 fire insurance policy with the Royal Exchange Assurance. In June 1735, she bought kindling, emptied her brandy barrels and was drinking locally with friends when a fire broke out at her shop. The blaze spread quickly and damaged 16 houses in neighbouring St Martin’s Court and four in Cecil Court. Mrs Calloway was charged with arson, but was later acquitted because she appeared to have genuine reasons for insuring her property. She testified at the Old Bailey: “The cook’s shop joining to mine, the wainscot of my closet was often so very hot that I was afraid it would some time or other be set on fire and for that reason I insured my house.” Witnesses also testified that Mrs Calloway was often concerned her drunken lodgers could set the house on fire with their candles. The fire inadvertently resulted in the death of local resident Anne Hogarth, the mother of famous satirical artist William Hogarth, who lived in nearby Cranbourn Alley. Her cause of death was deemed to be ‘shock’ from the fire.
Cecil Court quickly recovered with new properties being erected on-site. In 1764, a young child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and his family lodged with barber John Couzin at No.9 Cecil Court. Tickets for Mozart’s first London concerts were sold at Couzin’s shop. During his time there, the eight-year-old composer played twice for King George III. In 2011, a plaque was unveiled at the site to commemorate Mozart’s time in the capital. Read the rest of this entry
The word ‘sewage’ doesn’t bring up many positive associations. If we were to list the pros and cons of life, human waste is right at the bottom of the pile. It’s a subject we generally like to avoid and try not to spend much time thinking about. However, as over 8 million of us are cramming into the 611 square mile space we call London, a working sewage system is one of our most important utilities. Back in Victorian London, the Industrial Revolution had caused a huge population boom in the capital and the amenities were struggling to cope. The streets and rivers of the city were streaming with rubbish and human excrement… pretty disgusting and a breeding ground for disease. The frequent outbreaks of Cholera were blamed on the inhalation of ‘bad air’. Of course, it was physician Doctor John Snow (1813-1858) who found it was spread by contaminated water, not oxygen. The River Thames was essentially an open sewer and was so toxic it was unable to sustain fish or wildlife. The existing sewers built in the 17th and 18th century were in a bad state and were unable to cope with a population which had nearly tripled to 3 million. However, it wasn’t until ‘The Great Stink’ in summer 1858, when the hot weather exacerbated the smell of the capital’s untreated waste, that the Government finally took action.
Step forward civil engineer Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819-1891), who was the Chief Engineer for the Metropolitan Board of Works at the time of the Great Stink. He had already been working for years on plans to revolutionise London’s sewer system and came up with a solution to create a network of smaller sewers feeding into a network of larger sewers. The Government finally gave Bazalgette the OK for his ambitious plan, with work commencing in 1859. The scheme involved 1,100 miles of street sewers feeding into 82 miles of main interconnecting sewers, with pumping stations located both sides of the River.
One of these pumping stations was Crossness, built in Abbey Wood in south-east London. The large site contained a beam engine house, boiler house, 208ft chimney, workshops, a 25 million gallon covered reservoir and homes for the employees. Crossness was designed by Bazalgette and architect Charles Henry Driver (1832-1900), with James Watt & Co building the four, huge beam engines, named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra respectively. Crossness was opened on 4 April 1865 by Edward, Prince Of Wales (future King Edward VII). As London’s population rapidly expanded, the need for an even more advanced sewage system grew. Crossness was further extended in 1895 with the addition of a triple extension engine house on the front of the original. This featured two triple expansion engines and reciprocating pumps. In 1916, it was extended again as 4 superheated boilers were added. However, by the 1940s, the beam engines were hardly used and eventually Crossness was closed in the 1950s with its chimney demolished in 1958. It was Grade I listed by Historic England in June 1970. Crossness has been under the care of the Crossness Engines Trust since it was founded in 1987. Read the rest of this entry
When it comes to London’s royal palaces, most of them tend to be rather young, with the oldest parts of Buckingham Palace dating back to 1703 and Clarence House, a few years shy of its 200th anniversary. However, long before the monarch resided at Buck House, the King or Queen had a home in the huge Palace Of Westminster. Today, the title belongs to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of our Government.
Most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a huge fire in the 1800s, to be rebuilt as the iconic masterpiece, which remains today. However, two buildings managed to survive, the 11th century Westminster Hall, and the 14th century Jewel Tower. Now owned by English Heritage, the diminutive Jewel Tower is open to the public. Recently, I paid a visit to this small, but interesting piece of Medieval London. It’s a small space with the exhibition taking about an hour to see.
The Jewel Tower was built around 1365-6 at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster to house the treasures of King Edward III (1312-1377). The Tower stood at the end of the garden and was protected by a moat to the south and west of the building. It was built under the direction of master mason Henry Yevele (1320-1400) and master carpenter Hugh Herland (1330-1411) on land which had been appropriated from Westminster Abbey, to the chagrin of the monks. The keeper would have worked on the ground or first floor, logging the King’s treasures coming in and going out of the Tower. The most valuable goods were kept on the second floor.
For 150 years, the Tower was used to house the subsequent Kings’ treasures until a fire at the palace in 1512. The building then became home to less valuable items, such as clothing, bed linen, furniture and royal children’s toys, according to an inventory in 1547. In 1600, the building was repurposed for the Government, rather than royals, when it became a parliamentary office. A three-storey timber extension was added to the side of the Tower as a house for the Clerk of the Parliament. The ground floor of the Jewel Tower became the kitchen and scullery, while the first floor was used as a repository for various parliament documents. In 1621, the building was renovated to become more secure to protect the important documents. On the first floor, a brick vault was added with a metal door featuring the year inscribed on the exterior and the cipher of King James I (1566-1625). That very door still exists today and can be seen on your visit.
By the 18th century, the Tower was apparently a bit of a state so work was taken to renovate and improve it. Larger windows and a new chimney were added, while the building was made more fireproof to protect the documents inside. Throughout the century, the Tower was gradually hidden by the buildings popping up around it. By 1827, the House of Lords’ records had been moved out of the Tower because it was too small and it was known as part of Old Palace Yard, with the name Jewel Tower dropping out of use. Read the rest of this entry
William Blake (1757-1827) is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest artist in British history. The born and bred Londoner was an acclaimed poet, painter, author and printmaker, although never had much success during his lifetime. Nearly 200 years after his death, Blake’s canon continues to amaze and inspire people around the world. Among his more famous works include ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, ‘The Four Zoas’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Milton’, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’.
Having been brought up as an English Dissenter (Protestant Christians which broke away from the Church of England), Blake was laid to rest in a Dissenters’ graveyard following his death in 1827. The painter died at home in the Strand and was buried in Bunhill Fields in the London borough of Islington. As well as the location of his parents and two of his brothers’ graves, Bunhill also included the burial sites of Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and Susanna Wesley. Blake was buried in an unmarked grave on 17 August – on what would have been he and wife Catherine’s 45th wedding anniversary. He was buried on top of several bodies, with another four being placed above him in the coming weeks. His widow Catherine died in 1831 and was also laid to rest at Bunhill Fields, but in a separate plot.
Bunhill Fields was closed as a burial ground in 1854 after it was declared ‘full’, having contained 123,000 interments during its 189 year history, and became a public park. Although William and Catherine Blake had both been buried in unmarked graves, the William Blake Society (founded 1912) erected a memorial stone to the couple in Bunhill Fields on the centenary of the painter’s death in 1927. The stone read: ‘Near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake 1757–1827 and his wife Catherine Sophia 1762–1831.’ Re-landscaping in the 1960s following widespread damage during World War II resulted in many of the monuments being cleared. Although the Blakes’ memorial was one of those to survive, it was moved from its location at William’s grave to near Defoe’s memorial stone in 1965. Read the rest of this entry
Despite being extensively rebuilt following the Blitz, the City of London has retained many of its old street names. While some are rather humorous (e.g. Cock lane in Smithfield), others aren’t so flattering such as Eastcheap. Today, the word ‘cheap’ is used as an unattractive way to describe something low in price and quality. ‘Cheap’ actually comes from the Saxon word for ‘market’. In the Middle Ages, Eastcheap was the main meat market in the City. However, by the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed the area with offices and warehousing replacing the butchers’ stalls.
Walking down Eastcheap today, you will see a lot of the Victorian buildings survive and are home to offices, coffee shops and the like. One particular building that stands out from the rest is No. 33-35 Eastcheap, a dramatic Neo-Gothic, double-fronted structure. Prior to No. 33-35’s erection in 1868, the site was home to the famous Boar’s Head Tavern. The pub’s exact origins aren’t known, but it was used as a meeting place by William Shakespeare in several of his historical plays, most notably Henry IV, Part I (abt. 1597). The character Falstaff was a frequent drinker at the Boar’s Head Tavern. The original tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt and became a pilgrimage site for Shakespeare fans. It stood on Eastcheap until 1831 when it was demolished to make way for a road widening scheme leading to the new London Bridge. At the time of demolition, the building hasn’t been used as tavern since the late 18th century and had been sub-divided into shops. The Boar’s Head sign was preserved and went on show at The Globe Theatre at Bankside in 2010.
The current building of No. 33-35 was constructed in 1868 to a design by English architect Robert Lewis Roumieu (1814-1877). Born to a Huguenot family, who had arrived in Britain 100 years before his birth, Roumieu was an original and daring architect for the time. Although many of his designs were Neo-Gothic – which was trendy in Victorian times – he did like to push the boundaries. As well as the Eastcheap building, he also designed Milner Square (Islington), the Almeida Theatre, the French Hospital in Hackney, among others. Roumieu was commissioned to design a vinegar warehouse depot for Hill & Evans at a cost of £8,170. Hill & Evans were founded in Worcester in 1830 and were, at one point, the world’s largest vinegar producers. By the early 20th century, they were selling 2 million gallons of malt vinegar a year. The company ceased trading in 1965 after 135 years of business.
No. 33-35 is a Neo-Gothic, five-storey building with a further attic storey in a slated roof. On the ground floor is a huge arched doorway which would have been used for delivery access and Devonshire marble columns. However, the current iron gates only date back to 1987. The top three-storeys feature Gothic arched bays with projected canopies over the windows. Above the second floor, central window is a sculpture of a wild boar peering through long grass – a nod to the site’s former Boar’s Head Tavern. Meanwhile, the second floor canopies to the left and right feature carved heads of Henry IV and Henry V. The building features a lot of decorative elements, including tiling, cast iron cresting, and plaster badges.
When the building was completed in 1868, it certainly caused a stir, with Roumieu being labelled a ‘rogue’ architect for some of his daring styles. The British Almanac of 1869 described it as: “The style is French, but some of the details are Venetian. The general effect is novel and striking, though somewhat bizarre.” Twentieth century critics Gavin Stamp and Colin Amery were more positive, proclaiming Roumieu’s creation as “the City’s masterpiece of polychromatic Gothic self-advertisement”. Meanwhile, architectural critic Ian Nairn (1930-1983) gave it a rather dramatic review: “This is truly demoniac, an Edgar Allan Poe of a building. It is the scream that you wake on at the end of a nightmare.” Despite the critics’ mixed reviews to the building, it was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1971. Today, it is home to offices, while part of the ground floor houses a branch of Black Sheep Coffee.
- 33 – 35 Eastcheap, City of London, EC3M 1DE. Nearest stations: Monument or Fenchurch Street.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
This August will mark 250 years since Captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour set sail from Plymouth. It was the first of three important voyages that changed the world. Although the figure of Cook can be somewhat controversial at times, there’s no arguing that he and his crew were responsible for some amazing exploration of the planet in challenging conditions.
To mark the anniversary, the British Library have curated a special exhibition following the story of Cook’s three voyages from 1768 to his death in Hawaii in 1779. This fascinating collection features many of the original maps, logbooks, sketches, and artefacts collected during the three expeditions. While many of Cook’s predecessors sought solely to claim new lands for their empires, his voyages were more intellectually minded as well with a goal to study the life and culture of the lands they visited. Joining him on the various vessels used over the decade were artists, botanists and astronomers.
The exhibition is split into sections covering how the world was before Cook and how he changed the world’s map. It was amazing to see a copy of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s journal of his discovery of Tasmania and New Zealand. Following a brief introduction to world maps at that time, the exhibition begins chronically with Cook’s first voyage (1768-1771), taking in Tahiti, several Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia’s east coast. During this trip, the botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and his team collected thousands of animal and plant specimens. The exhibition features a sea urchin and squid captured and preserved by Banks from the Pacific Ocean. There are also drawings of the various native people they came into contact with upon arrival in each country or island, such as the Tahitians and Maoris, and their culture. What is particularly amazing about this collection were the various maps of New Zealand drawn by Cook himself. Tasman before him only saw a small section of NZ, whereas Cook’s voyage managed to circumnavigate both the north and south island. If you consider he didn’t have satellite or drones like we would have today, to map an entire country’s coastline as near-accurate as he is did in the 18th century is pretty impressive. It was also on this voyage, Cook’s men caught their first sight of the Kangaroo, which is featured in a sketch by Sydney Parkinson, the first European drawing of the marsupial.
The remainder of the exhibition continues in the same vein, with areas dedicated to the second voyage (1772-1775), which he crossed the Antarctic Circle and proved the so-called huge land mass named ‘Terra Australia’ was actually a myth. The third and Cook’s final voyage (1776-1779) resulted in the Captain’s death in Hawaii after clashing with the Hawaiians. Admittedly, Cook and his men made some mistakes along the way, although some of those you could blame the European colonialist attitude of the time. The pros and cons of Cook’s voyages, in terms of colonization and mapping is addressed by experts from both sides in a series of videos. In our world right now, we are so used to globalisation, it’s hard to imagine when the other side of the world was completely unknown and so dramatically different to our own way of life. Looking through Cook and his colleagues’ logbooks and diaries and seeing the images of the ships, you really get a sense of how treacherous and challenging these voyages were. It’s no wonder so many men never returned, dying from diseases or following violent clashes with the people they met along the way. Seeing these historic men’s handwriting was amazing and, admittedly, difficult to read at time with their small Georgian scrawls. It was particularly poignant to see Cook’s last ever logbook entry on 6 January 1779 – a week before he was killed in a skirmish over a stolen smaller boat.
Before this exhibition, I didn’t know much of Cook, a man I’d seen in various statues in New Zealand and Australia and had never really thought of him as a three-dimensional character. This fascinating exhibition has really provided a vivid and human picture of this famous figure together with the men who sailed with him and how they changed the world with these epic voyages.
- James Cook: The Voyages is on from now until 28 August 2018. At the PACCAR Gallery, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB. Nearest station: King’s Cross St Pancras or Euston. Opening hours vary. Tickets: Adults £14, Senior £11, Students: £7 (free for members). For more information and tickets, visit the British Library website.
Metro Girl likes: While you’re in the British Library, head to the free exhibition Treasures of the British Library. You can look at genuine manuscripts, books and letters from some of Britain’s most iconic figures. Among the collection on display includes the original 1215 Magna Carta; Jane Austen’s writing desk and a 1809 letter to her brother Frank; Beatles’ handwritten lyrics; a 1603 letter from Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Christopher Wren’s designs for The Monument. Currently, the Treasures room also features a small exhibition (until 5 August 2018) on Karl Marx and his daughter Eleanor. It includes a first edition of the Communist Manifesto, letters from Eleanor after her father’s death, and a chair from the original British Library Reading Room which Marx is likely to have sat in. After you’ve had a good read, head to the nearby Gilbert Scott bar in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel for a cocktail.