Bell, Walter George. London Rediscoveries and Some Others.

London: John Lane, 1929.

Bell, a newspaperman by trade, was also a noted antiquarian and author of London’s local history in the early part of the 20th century, and I discovered his two previous books some years ago: Unknown London (1919) and More About Unknown London (1921) – both also reviewed art this site. I was completely fascinated by his guided tour of Roman, medieval, and later historical locations in the City, many of which would not survive the Blitz, not to mention the redevelopment boom of the 1950s.

But somehow, I missed this third volume, which is very much the same sort of work as the first two, but often focusing more on events and smaller objects. Unfortunately, unlike the first two, it’s apparently not quite old enough to be out of copyright and is therefore not downloadable online — but Inter-Library Loan is your friend.

You should think of Bell as a friendly tour-leader, willing to sit down over tea and regale you with interesting tidbits about the city he obviously loves, and which he spent his life researching — and then insistently hauling you off to see them for yourself while he points out and explains the historical details. He seems to have known practically everybody, or at least everybody who could introduce him to someone else worth knowing in the area of London history.

He starts with Hoare’s Bank, which had recently celebrated its 250th anniversary — close to 350th, now, the oldest extant bank in the United Kingdom (and fourth-oldest in the world) and still at the location, No. 37 Fleet Street, which was originally a goldsmith’s shop. (And who better to look after the sacks of specie which were its first deposits?) And there were still Hoares on the board of directors in 1929. And the clerks still wore black tail-coats and white ties, simply because they always had. The early ledgers, which Bell had permission to prowl through, include such account holders as Oliver Cromwell and Samuel Pepys and Lord Somerset, and, Bell says, a number of publicly wealthy men who turned out to have been continually overdrawn — but only their banker knew, and the Hoare family was discreet.

Another chapter describes the Gentleman Jailer’s House at the Tower of London, the outer walls of which had begun to separate from the inner ones, thereby providing an opportunity for archaeological investigation as restorative work was undertaken. (Bell, of course, was brought in as an expert and was in the thick of things.) Traditionally, this is where lady Jane Grey, “the Six Days’ Queen,” spent her last evening before being led out to the block. Only it turns out it wasn’t, and the guides have had to rewrite their pitch. And Bell details the builder’s venality that caused the wall to nearly collapse, too. A later chapter details the investigation in 1928 of the riverfront wall of the Tower, which it was thought had been constructed by William I atop the remnants of the Roman wall, since the Tower Keep itself stands on the site of a Roman bastion. Some theories were upheld in the process and others cast down, but Bell’s account (he witnessed the whole project, naturally) of the hunt for the Tower’s original foundations is fascinating.

Burials of the famous are sometimes the focus of minor history and Bell describes events surrounding three of them — George II (a farce), Charles I (several of his bodily parts wandered far and wide before being returned to his tomb several centuries later), and Edward I (whose heart was supposed to be taken to the Holy Land for burial, but never made it — but his tomb was left unsealed for several centuries to assist in that hoped-for eventuality). Then there’s Jeremy Bentham, whose embalmed body, dressed in his own actual clothing, still sits in a glass cabinet at the University College in London, of which he was one of the founders. Thomas Paine, the radical American patriot and author of The Rights of Man, was buried at New Rochelle in 1809 — but then his coffin was dug up by an old friend who thought he wasn’t sufficiently appreciated in the U.S. and determined to rebury him in Britain. But one thing led to another and it appears, after Bell’s own close investigation, that Paine’s remains ended up on the rubbish heap in Stepney sometime around 1850.

The Jerusalem Chamber is a large room in a building adjacent to Westminster Abbey where the Coronation Regalia is laid out the night before a new monarch is crowned. It’s also the room in which Henry IV died, and in which the Westminster Assembly met to decide what to do about Charles I. And it was where Isaac Newton’s body lay in state before interment in the Abbey.

It’s not generally realized, even to most Englishmen, that the special privileges of the City of London — the Corporation of London answers only and directly to the monarch — predate the Conquest in 1066. But William was anxious to have the citizens of his new capital on his side and he granted them a charter confirming their status as one of his first acts. All charters need a seal and one was attached in this case, but it disappeared centuries ago. But then, in 1927, a small box turned up in a drawer that held the decayed pieces of the Conqueror’s seal and it was reassembled and reattached to the charter. “Nothing in a well-kept records office is ever really lost.”

Other chapters are devoted to Izaak Walton, “the Father of Angling,” and his less-known predecessors; and to the laying of telephone cables through the remains of Roman London that lie beneath the modern streets, including a previously unknown and quite extensive cemetery; and “some historical letters” (with full transcriptions) which Bell was able to examine at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, including signatures and even entire holographic documents by Edward V, Thomas Cromwell, Geoffrey Chaucer, Catherine of Aragon, and Daniel Defoe, among dozens of others. They were encased in glass frames for protection, but anyone in the 1920s could pick them up and read them.

And there are a dozen other topics which the student of local, detailed history will find engrossing, and which Bell does a terrific job of relating. As a journalist, he was writing for the ordinary educated Londoner, not for a scholarly audience, and he succeeds admirably.


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