The London histories of Jerry White

When in need of a bit of history to illustrate a point – and, of course, create the false impression of being terribly well read – I often reach for the books of Jerry White. His most recent is about the notorious Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Southwark, which brings alive a time when the capital was full of people avoiding those they owed money to, and full of jails full of those who ran out of luck. Before that, White had produced other London micro histories followed by separate, exhaustive accounts of the capital in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. These sealed White’s reputation as one of London’s most eminent historians and the place of his works on the shelves next to my desk.

To demonstrate their usefulness to shallow hacks in need of intellectual buttressing and, more importantly, to anyone who loves learning about this city and its past, here are three passages from London In The 20th Century that link directly to today. First, as London prepares to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, here’s White’s summary of the Irish presence in London in the early decades of last century:

The Irish were prominent in the law, police force, journalism and civil service, as well as providing a large element of the artisan and casual trades in building, road transport and the docks. They brought with them the added excitement of a culture divided by religion and politics. Irish nationalism continued throughout the century to view London as its very own battleground. Waging the struggle by peaceful means before the First World War, the Gaelic League ran 15 Irish schools in London and an annual music festival at the Queen’s Hall. There was an Irish Literary Society, an Irish Peasantry Association to promote education among poor Irish children in London, an Irish club in Holborn and an annual Irish concert on St Patrick’s Night in St James’s Hall. The Gaelic Athletic Association federated eight or nine clubs, offering hurling, football and athletics on the Hackney Marshes and at Alexandra Palace.

Rows about transport policies and redevelopment, raging with exceptional force today, are absolutely nothing new either. After the last war, the main struggles were over new office blocks and roads. One focal point for conflict, as now in different ways, was the Elephant and Castle and what White calls the “disastrous” scheme there:

Although not built until the 1960s, this was a road improvement plan designed in 1948, ten years or so before the motor car began to present its hideous new challenge to London’s roads. The redevelopment eventually provided a shopping centre that few seemed to wish to use, an unlovely (but quickly filled) office  block by Ernö Goldfinger, and a twin roundabout traffic scheme causing so much congestion that the GLC seriously considered building a by pass around it within a year of its opening in 1965. Similar combinations of roads and offices were implemented in Knightsbridge (Harold Samuel) and Notting Hill Gate (Jack Cotton).

It could have happened too with Jack Cotton’s Monico Restaurant redevelopment proposal at Piccadilly Circus, supported by the London Country Council, but stopped, untypically and in response to a public outcry, by government. Experts and working parties were commissioned to recommend a scheme for the whole of the Circus. By 1965 the planners were contemplating the “vertical separation” of cars and pedestrians, giving ground level to the traffic and lifting shoppers on to raised decks and walkways. This “segregation”, a dominant ideology in city-planning in the mid-1960s, had grown so large in the bureaucratic mind that a network of “pedways”, linking the West End and Soho with the City, was enthusiastically advocated. So things might have been worse.

Lastly, professional football. Wth three London teams, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs, in the semi-finals of this year’s FA Cup, let’s look back with White at the evolution of London crowds:

From the mid-1920s the London crowd began to assume forms which, if not entirely new, took on a distinctive virility not previously encountered. The catalyst here was professional sport. Although the Football Association was formed in London in 1863, and the early FA Cup Finals were held at Kennington Oval and then at Crystal Palace (where a crowd of over 120,000 gathered in 1913), professional football came late to the capital. The football League was founded in 1888-9 but no London club joined until 1893-4. That was Woolwich Arsenal and it remained the only metropolitan side in the League until 1905-6, when it was joined by Chelsea and Clapton (later Leyton) Orient. In 1910-11 there were just five professional  clubs in London out of 40 in England.

The capital did not take its full place in the game until 1921-22, when the 11 clubs who represented professional football in London for the next 55 years became League members. In that season the average total weekly attendance rose to 217,000, nearly 20,000 a club, with the big three (Arsenal, who moved from Woolwich to Highbury during the First World War, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur) achieving around 35,000 or more each week. The new stadium at Wembley, home to the FA Cup Final from 1923, set the seal less on London’s place in the game than on the place of the game in the nation’s culture. Even so, football got ever-larger crowds on the London’s streets for almost the next 30 years.

That’s just a few paragraphs from a mass of marvellous knowledge in just one of Jerry White’s books. You can buy London In The 20th Century and other he has written via here.








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