Bell, Walter George. Unknown London.

London: John Lane, 1919.

__________. More About Unknown London. London: John Lane, 1921.

I admit to a weakness for books of history with “unknown” in the title. And I always enjoy collections of then-present-day observations written in the semi-distant past. Well, 1919 doesn’t really seem that ancient to me — but it’s ninety years ago now, nearly a century, so I suppose that says something about me. The Great War had just ended and Bell the antiquarian was continuing his lifelong habit of poking about in the city of his birth, climbing down ladders into medieval basements, opening cupboards in ancient churches, and discovering things of which, he laments, the people about him walking to work are completely oblivious.

And many of the small, unknown pieces of London’s history which he describes here would not survive the Blitz twenty years later or the savaging that redevelopment would continue to do to the city’s historical fabric.

His first chapter is also one of the best, about Henry Grey, the Duke of Suffolk (and father of the ill-used Lady Jane Grey), who was executed by having his head struck off on Tower Hill in 1554 — largely because of his own foolishness and weakness of character. But the head apparently survived, having been rescued by his widow (who didn’t want to see it spiked on London Bridge), and was found nearly three centuries later, tucked away in a nearby church. It was still there in 1919 and Bell actually held in his hands the glass box in which it was preserved. In fact, the book includes a photograph of it. (Is it still there, somewhere? The church appears to be gone, but I haven’t been able to find out.)

Bell was also a fan of London’s Roman remains — the surviving sections of the city wall, now built into warehouse walls and hidden in basements (and, more recently, in a parking garage), and the two baths discovered by 19th-century workmen preparing to erect new office buildings. Then there’s the City merchant’s mansion rebuilt just after the Great Fire of 1666 — goods stored in the cellar, offices on the ground floor, spacious living quarters above that — which still stands today at No. 34 Great Tower Street. The only remaining building of its kind, certainly in London, probably in England.

And his exploration of Wapping High Street and the Old Stairs down to the Thames at the end of it, which served both the Navy and the merchant sea trade, and which, in its heyday, was one of the most roisterous and dangerous neighborhoods in Greater London. By the time Bell compiled this volume, it was a dead and dull area of warehouses with few residents. (Nowadays, Wapping is being cautiously gentrified, but the sailors never returned.)

Other chapters will take you to the pavement of Smithfield where religious martyrs, both Catholic and Protestant, were burned at the stake, and will show you the funereal waxworks of the late great, still preserved at Westminster Abbey, and will investigate the ghosts of the Tower. And Bell will turn the pages of Domesday Book for you, and will examine the hitherto secret parchments recording the details of the trial of Anne Boleyn — which, in 1919, any student could handle just by filling out the request slip at the Public Record Office. Unbelievable.

Bell is completely and totally fascinated by all this, and it comes through in his knowledgeable but never stuffy prose. You have the sense of your tour guide tugging you along to the next amazing sight, listening to his descriptions and commentary about things and places you never knew were there, just around the corner.

The sequel volume continues in very much the same vein, with the author remembering his youthful introduction to the sights of the Guildhall — including a naval dispatch written in 1340 by Edward III to his son, the ten-year-old Duke of Cornwall, and still (in 1920) to be found in their archives; the Duke later became the Black Prince, victory of Crecy and Poitiers. Then there’s the City’s own execution ground (not the same as Tower Hill), where sentences were carried out personally by the Sheriff of London, and which now stands in a very pleasant garden. And there’s the 17th-century printing house in Cheapside, possibly the earliest remaining structure from the vast rebuilding that followed the Great Fire. (The tablet on the wall tells the passerby that the building actually predates and survived the Fire, but Bell doesn’t believe that, and he tells you why.) And, naturally, there are more Roman sites to be explored, too. If you’re interested in the history of London, or if you simply enjoy a fascinating bit of sightseeing, I cannot recommend these two books highly enough. And, in a sign of our own times, of which I think Bell would have approved, both can now be found at Google Books as downloadable PDF files.

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Published in: on 3 April 2012 at 5:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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