(Pen and Sword 2017 211pp ISBN 1473879116) £12.99
John Wade is a freelance writer who began his journalistic career on local newspapers before becoming the editor of the magazine Photography. He has written articles on social history for magazines and contributed to more than thirty books. London, a thriving city for such a long period of time, has many stories to tell. The surprise in Wade’s book is how many such stories were new to me and indeed how many features, in plain sight, I had walked past without a second’s thought. Even stories I already knew have been enriched with further details or background. London Curiosities is divided into fourteen chapters, with titles such as ‘Surprising Buildings’ or ‘Peculiar Parks’, each containing details telling stories of the city’s rich past.
The book is well illustrated throughout, enabling the reader to visualise the features being described. It lends itself well to being read from cover to cover or, as the description of each feature is quite short, dipped into at will. What is particularly enjoyable is that this book describes features which still exist today and can be treated as a guide to finding them and understanding their context in the city. To this end, the author has included a very useful postcode list for each location, to help to find them on a map. While the book was an interesting read in itself, it can be used as a guide to some walks around different parts of the city.
A story that caught the imagination was that of London Bridge, warranting a whole chapter to itself in the book. This was the Old London Bridge, the medieval structure which stood for over 600 years and was the predecessor to the one to be found today in Arizona. The bridge is often depicted in illustrations laden with buildings but I had no idea that a chapel stood at its centre, dedicated to St Thomas Becket and used by pilgrims starting their trip to Canterbury. I had assumed that all traces of this bridge, in use until 1831, had disappeared long ago but pieces remain today if you know where to look. A short way to the north-east of the current bridge, the church of St Magnus the Martyr, built by Sir Christopher Wren, features a stone arch which was once the pedestrian entrance onto the bridge. Beyond the arch, the churchyard formed part of the roadway to the bridge, a surprisingly narrow space and no doubt the site of medieval traffic jams. Other parts of the bridge remain, dotted around the city in the most surprising of places.
In a salutary lesson that sometimes we should look upwards, the book describes a number of clocks present on buildings well known in the city. One such is in Piccadilly, adorning the frontage of Fortnum and Mason, one of the most famous stores in London, with a long history of royal patronage. On the hour, the clock chimes and two doors open, allowing figures of Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason to emerge, one carrying a tea set and the other a candelabra. They meet and bow to each other before returning to their respective sides of the clock.
Not all the curiosities detailed in the book are old. Some are relatively recent, marking moments or events from the past. For instance, the director Alfred Hitchcock, who hailed from London, is commemorated at an Underground station and quite prominently on the side of a building in East London. By combining stories from the city’s past with objects still visible today, the book helps bring the history to life, making it highly readable and certain to be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the social or architectural history of London.
Paul Carter is the web manager for BALH and a proud Londoner, who regularly returns to explore his home town.
(author, 2016 326pp ISBN 9780950720784) £15
This book is the first biography of Thomas Fletcher Waghorn for over fifty years, and was written following an exhibition in 2000 at the Snodland Millennium Museum (Kent) to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth. It has clearly been built on a great deal of research, and gives a clear account of an important historical figure from the Medway (Waghorn has a statue in Chatham). However, it lacks a substantial introduction, which would inform the reader why Waghorn should merit our attention, and how he fits into the wider historical and historiographical landscape. Moreover, Ashbee suggests that he is building on previous works, but it is not entirely clear what this new biography adds to our understanding of Waghorn and his times, bar that this one is a ‘properly documented account’ and that previous accounts have been ‘unkind’.
Ashbee is a local historian, and is clearly skilled at mining local sources, so the book offers a good introduction to Waghorn’s early life. His naval service is charted, although some wider historical context might have illuminated this more effectively. There is better context, however, to his service in the East India Company, although more could have been said as to why ‘his thoughts had already turned to the prospect of establishing a steam service for mails between England and India’ by 1826.
It is only in chapter 3, some 33 pages in, that we really learn why Waghorn was so important, when Ashbee recites a dedication to him in Samuel Bevan’s Sand and Canvas. Waghorn was not the first to promote the overland route to India, but was a ‘leading figure in putting the final piece of the jigsaw into place’. He was early to recognise the value of steamships to shipping mail to India, initially via the Cape but soon, because of a lack of engine power and coaling infrastructure, from Egypt through the Red Sea. There is a good descriptive narrative of his attempts to get his steam mail route funded, in the face of stern resistance from the Post Office and East India Company. It shows very effectively why opposition existed, how acceptance of steam power was slow to emerge, and the incredible determination of Waghorn.
Two travel accounts from 1839, when the overland route was more established, with the writing of an ‘assistant’ who worked on the route, provide good colour for the book, and highlight the realities of travelling to India. A later chapter looks at Waghorn’s attempt to connect with Australia by steam, which was eventually achieved by P&O. The lack of support from the government for his ideas—particularly financial support—is well covered, and the book concludes with his final years, which he spent in debt and despair.
There are admirable amounts of primary sources, showing the depth of the author’s research. However, they are often cited in full (one chapter being almost totally a cited source) which makes the text somewhat clunky and dense reading, and more analysis of them would have been welcome. The conclusion is a little too brief, and the claims for Waghorn’s importance could have been better served. Nevertheless, this is a well-researched and referenced work (with footnotes, a bibliography, and appendices), which adds depth to our understanding of one of steam-shipping’s earliest pioneers.
Steven Gray is a lecturer in the history of the Royal Navy at the University of Portsmouth and author of Steam Power and Sea Power: Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire, c. 1870-1914
(History Press 2016 188pp ISBN 978 0 7509 6240 7) £12.99
The author begins by explaining why the book was written—to put what happened in Basingstoke in the context of national implementation. Her task was made harder by the paucity of records held locally, these being limited to little more than the minute books of the Board of Guardians. Fortunately, the valuable correspondence books held by The National Archives (MH12) provide otherwise missing details. Above all, the author laments the lack of personal stories which survive for other poor law unions.
The book is divided into four sections: the early years (1835-1845); consolidation (1846-1871); challenges and changes (1872-1900); and 1901 to the end of the system in 1948. Within each section there are themes, many of which are covered in all four periods. These include details of the guardians and staff; the buildings; emigration; life in the workhouse; relations with central authority; vagrancy; children, education and training; health and disease; workhouse visitors.
Much of the information will be familiar to students of the subject but it is always valuable to have further comparative studies. The author refers to other Hampshire unions, such as Alton, but a limited index means that it is not possible to find all the references without a careful reading of the text. A Poor Law conference was held in Basingstoke in 1870, attended by representatives from neighbouring unions. Some stories of individuals were discovered, but apparently only two letters of complaint can be found in the MH12 series, in contrast to other unions. There was a sporadic Visiting Committee and some entries are quoted, including one from the Duke of Wellington in 1841. The author concludes that the Basingstoke workhouse was no worse and indeed a lot better than most and was comparatively humane and well-run even in the early period of the union, which was so problematic elsewhere (including nearby Andover). In her conclusion she singles out five interesting characters: the first chairman; an inspector; a teacher; the first lady guardian; and one of the workhouse masters.
There are just a few quibbles. The over-use of ‘we’ in the introduction jars and the proliferation of initial capital letters should have been avoided. The term ‘spike’ is usually thought to refer to the casual wards, rather than a tool used to separate oakum. And I would dispute the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor given on page 13. There are a few black and white illustrations, line drawings, maps and graphs, five appendices, notes, bibliography and a rudimentary index, with no personal names. The author concludes by referring to the ongoing fear of entering the hospital which succeeded the workhouse, but also found some people who wanted to bring the workhouse back. The buildings were vandalised, and then demolished in 1977.
Kate Thompson was successively county archivist of Leicestershire and of Hertfordshire. She is a former chairman of BALH and now a vice president. Her PhD thesis was on the Leicester Poor Law Union, 1836-1871.