Tag Archives: London

Under Waterloo Bridge by Rob Jeffries

The floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge, complete with police launch.

Henry Vollam Morton is one of my favourite authors. He was a widely travelled journalist and from the 1920’s through to the 1960’s he recorded his wanderings in a series of beautifully written travel books. His style was simple and elegant. He wrote short descriptive chapters about anything that took his interest and his legacy is a fascinating insight into a society that was rapidly changing from the old ways to the world that we know today. His books on London in particular, written between the wars, shine a fascinating light on a city that we will never see again.

H.V. Morton’s “The Nights of London

Morton seems to have had a particular affinity for the River Thames and its police force proved to be a rich source of material for him. He wrote about them on more than one occasion. In his book “The Nights of London” he recalls a visit he paid in the 1920’s to the floating police pier under Waterloo Bridge (now Tower Pier RNLI Station – the busiest in the country) and the conversation he had with the sergeant on duty. As a retired Thames police officer myself who served for many years at Waterloo Pier, I can almost feel the ghosts of serving officers past looking over my shoulder as I read his words – and my, how times change.

“I know of few more dramatic places in London than the Suicide Room of this police raft; the bed ready, the bath ready, the cordials ready. The little dinghy with the rubber roller on the stern, its nose pointed to the dark arches.”

Waterloo Bridge in July 1937, as seen from Cleopatra’s Needle and complete with contemplative young lady (The floating pier can just be seen under the arch on the left).

The sergeant being interviewed recalled one particular rescue. “We heard a splash and we were there in a second. She was a good looking, nice spoken young girl but she did want to die. I have never seen anyone who wanted to die so much. She fought and told us to go away. What right have we got to come and interfere with her private affairs?” The sergeant went on to describe how the ensuing struggle almost led to the small boat being swamped by the river before they managed to land her at the pier at around 3am. This sad tale then took a twist that plainly amused Morton.

The floating pier with Somerset House in the background

The sergeant described how they needed to put this attractive young lady in the bath to warm her up and apparently in those days a police matron needed to be summoned from Bow Street police station to deal with female patients. But, on this occasion, she was not available to attend. This left the police crew with an awkward problem – after all, the officers on duty were all unmarried men and not used to such jobs as undressing young ladies. Morton queried the sergeant that surely it would have been ok to assist the woman in these exceptional circumstances but our shy and bashful young sergeant was adamant, “You can’t be too careful, how did we know that she would not turn nasty for having her life saved and complain that she had been treated disrespectfully?

Thames Police rescue someone from the river (not the young lady in question!)

Fortunately for all concerned this tricky problem was resolved. It seems that the police pier in those days employed a “Handy Man” called Sam, and Sam was quickly summoned and informed that because he was the only suitably qualified man present (in that he had at some point in his life been married) He would have to undress the patient – a task he apparently performed without question.

Struggling to suppress his amusement that London’s finest, so often accused of callousness, could be so demure in its behaviour Morton completed his interview with a last few questions:

“And is that the end of the story?”

“Yes”

“Did she complain?”

“No, she didn’t”

“And why did she jump?”

“I think it was love”

As Morton left and walked along Victoria Embankment he wrote “I glanced back from the Embankment and saw the Thames heavy with the secrets it has carried to the sea these thousand years; and in the sky was a remote half moon lying on the curve in a ridiculous and careless attitude, as if London did not mean anything.

This article was originally circulated as HVM Society Snippets – No.170 on 1st August, 2014

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“Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, a review.

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Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, First published by Methuen, London, 16th November 1939

This little known work of Morton’s comprises 30 chapters including the explanatory introduction and twelve gravure plates illustrating some of the subjects. Each chapter is an essay in its own right (although two sets of two chapters are conjoined by closely related subjects) describing the Ghosts of the title, namely the ancient customs and rituals of London which even at the time of writing were well on their way to becoming endangered species that Morton felt moved to preserve in print before they disappeared altogether.

According to the introduction, they were compiled in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, having been written some time in the late twenties and thirties, presumably as Daily Express articles. The theme, according to the author is ‘the continuity of London’s existence’ and to ‘remind us of certain permanent values’ which even at that time Morton seems to have realised were changing and slipping away from the country, and from him.

img427 Yeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey GoL smallYeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey

This work is a testament to what London and by extension Britain stood to lose in the coming conflict, particularly (and remarkably prophetically) with the new threat of war in the air and the mass aerial bombardments which had already seen Madrid, Barcelona and Warsaw brought low. This book is a rallying cry not to arms but to the past, an invocation of the nation’s ‘spiritual reserves’ at a time of dire need.

After an introduction stark with contemporary intrusions as the capital prepares for war – gas masks and barrage balloons, empty streets and sandbagged buildings – the reader is plunged as it were into ‘deep-time’ in a series of chapters which invoke a reassuring sense of solidity, permanence and order. Even though the reason for their existence may be obscure or even, in some cases, non-existent, at least the Ghosts endure.

The reader gets the distinct impression of Morton in his element as he describes his various chosen topics. Chapter one opens with an account of ‘Charlie’s day’ where the restoration of Charles II after the fall of the English commonwealth is celebrated by schoolboys wielding oak apples and attacking one another with bunches of stinging nettles, something which would in all likelihood be an arrestable offence these days!

Later Ghosts are even older. The traditional horn-blowers of the temple, for example, keep alive a tradition dating back to the crusades while the curfew bell may date as far back as Alfred the Great. The shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella, Maundy Money and the Lambeth dole where elderly ladies receive half a crown from an ex-quartermaster-sergeant by virtue of an act of generosity by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century are all discussed in lively detail while en route Morton stops off to celebrate snuff and herbs, leeches and eye lotion and narrowly avoids an encounter with a red dragon.

Harking back to his account of the history of Mayfair which appeared in a detailed pamphlet in 1927 to celebrate the building of the Hotel of the same name, Morton casts a new light on Shepherd Market, the last surviving remnant of the original May Fair before it was hemmed in by houses and eventually banned.

The Tower of London features in several chapters and, in a modern twist on an ancient tradition, Morton gives an account of the Ceremony of the Keys from the point of view of the radio broadcasts which he himself gave to the nation every year for several years at the request of the broadcaster 2LO, later known as the more familiar British Broadcasting Corporation.

He shares a beer with the bell ringers of St Paul’s after hearing how Big Ben had to be recast following a disastrous trip down from York and lends a sympathetic ear to Hansom Cab drivers, night-watchmen and some of the few remaining lamplighters of London, who he refers to as ‘leeries’, from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem ‘The Lamplighter’.

img428 The Lamplighter GoL mod small ‘There’s not many of us stick lighters left… but here and there a few of us still muster for the evening

By the end of the account the reader is left with an insight, not only into some of the ancient history of London but also into HV Morton’s mindset too. In selecting his subject matter he has given us a tantalising glimpse into the mental world he inhabited and the things he valued, many of which were destined to be swept away not just by the aerial bombardment he predicted but afterwards too, by misguided urban planners and a changing political and social landscape.

Whether Morton liked it or not society was evolving, in many ways for the better, becoming more inclusive, more egalitarian, but also more centralised, and committee led. Old-fashioned respect came to count for little and the ‘ruling classes’ were obliged to find new roles for themselves in a weakened, post-war Britain as the nation itself adjusted to a new, more subordinate role in a post-imperial world.

It is sad to consider that less than ten years after publication of “Ghosts of London”, as the old ways gave way to the new, Morton, finding it impossible to reconcile his views with what was happening around him in his native country, had left it for good, finally settling with his family in South Africa.

Niall Taylor

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Trooping the Colour, by Kenneth Fields

London Year, A (from Kenneth 6-6-15)

… the big piebald drum horse…

Today, the 13th June, London celebrates The Queen’s official birthday with that much-loved military parade and march past of Trooping the Colour.  It is an annual event that has taken place in the city since 1820 and whose history stretches back to about 1700.

H.V. Morton wrote about the ceremony in 1926 in “The London Year” and in June 1929 he wrote the following feature for the Daily Express. At this time the nation was anxious about the declining health of King George V who was too ill to attend the ceremony:

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THE UNSEEN PRESENCE OF THE KING

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MOVING SCENE AT THE TROOPING OF THE COLOUR

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AND A COMEDY

By H, V. MORTON.

When I was walking up the Mall yesterday to see the ceremony of Trooping the Colour, I heard a woman scream. This is, of course, the most arresting sound in Nature.

Down the Mall, hell for leather came a Guard’s officer mounted on what appeared to be a likely Derby winner. His bearskin was over one eye, and his chin strap over the other. He had long ceased to say with Jorrocks, “Come up you ugly brute!” and was doing the only possible thing a man can do on a runaway horse – holding on and retaining his stirrups.

How cruel is human nature! A smile passed over the faces of his Majesty’s Guards. They blew bearskin out of their eyes and winked gravely. The public were more sympathetic: they seemed to know that this sort of thing happens now and then even to mounted officers. All save the inevitable London wit who clapped his hands and shouted: “Now then ‘Unter’s Moon, where are you a-goin’ to?

LORD LONSDALE

A little higher up the Mall I saw Lord Lonsdale, buttoned into a tight frocked coat and looking like one of the last great Victorians, as he smoked one of his inimitable cigars on the roof of his house in Carlton-House terrace. Two Cockneys below gazed up at him curiously:

E’s got a jolly face, aint e?” said one of them.

And now for the parade…

Against the perfect background of the Horse Guards the Household Troops stand ready to give their ancient birthday gift to the King. The Foot Guards stand in double lines in two blocks, one facing the Horse Guards and the other at right angles facing south. The massed bands face the Admiralty. In a corner, with their tails to the discreet little back-garden of No 10, Downing Street, are the band and two troops of Household Cavalry: the sun on their breastplates.

The Duke of Connaught, upright in the saddle, as a man of fifty, rides on the parade ground with the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, and Lord Lascelles. Behind come generals, state officials and the military attaches of foreign powers. The women admire the supposed Italian with blue feathers in his helmet and a sash to match. The ceremony begins.

You will read that the King was absent. This is not so. The King was present in the thoughts of every man and woman.

MASSED BANDS

Now the massed bands march and counter march. The four drum majors swagger in front in their gold-laced coats and black velvet caps. There is the “ruff of a drum.” The escort for the Colour moves out. The ensign receives the Colour. The troops salute it and come to attention. Then the Colour is trooped, that is to say it is borne at the slow march all along the lines, while the band plays “The British Grenadiers.

Then the march past. It is a magnificent sight. The Foot Guards pass in slow, then in quick time. There is the rum-tumming of cavalry drums, and the big piebald drum horse, whose reins are attached to his rider’s boots, moves out massively and leads the jingling march past of the cavalry.

The Duke of Connaught, with the princes a pace behind him, takes the salute beneath the arch of the Horse Guards. The troops reform. They present arms in three crisp movements and the bands play “God Save the King.

It is the most emotional “trooping” the Colour has ever known. Everyone is thinking not of the gorgeous military show, but of the sick-bed in Windsor Castle. And as the troops march down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace a royal salute cracks out from Hyde Park and the church bells ring.

I heard a woman say: “When I saw that picture of him in the ambulance – you know when they took him down to Bognor – well. I couldn’t help crying. The King. Somehow you don’t think of the King being ill – do you?

Beneath all the pomp and splendour of an official birthday London remembered not the Field-Marshall’s uniforms but the sick bed, not the monarch but the man.

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U.S. WARSHIP’S TRIBUTE

Warships were dressed in all naval stations at home and overseas in honour of the King’s birthday. Salutes were fired in garrison towns and in most places the troops were given leave for the rest of the day. Among the ships dressed at Plymouth was the U.S. flagship Raleigh.

Church bells were rung and flags flown in practically every town of the Empire and a torrent of messages of congratulations was sent to Windsor Castle. The King sent a message of thanks for the greetings of the citizen’s of London, which he received through the Lord Mayor, Sir Kynaston Studd.

This article was originally distributed as HVM Society Snippets – No.185

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Call me a cab

In Search of London 2008

While reading HV Morton’s 1951 “In Search of London”, reader Peter Dron came across this quote in section 6 of chapter 10:

The men who drive the taxi-cabs of London are naturally a race apart. I have known them, and have admired many of them, for years. Some of the old stagers used to drive horse cabs, but that generation is now vanishing…

The other day I struck an old driver who might have been a thin relative of Bairnsfather’s “Old Bill”. I sat looking at the nape of his aged neck, his greying hair, the way he dodged in and out of the traffic and wondering what age he was. When we parted I gave him an unusually large tip because I liked him and because he was old. He looked at the money in the palm of his hand, smiled and winked at me and said:

“Thank yer Guv’nor. Don’t often meet a toff these days, and that’s a fact!”

What a strange conversational throw back to a dead age! He remembered the age of “toffs”, “swells” and “nobs”.

“You see this ‘ere,” he said, still gazing at the money. Do you know what I’d rather ‘ave than this ‘ere? I’ll tell yer… a blinkin’ fat rump steak and a pint o’ porter.”

He then leaned towards me and deplored the age in wich we live. He was an old snob. He loved toffs. He liked “a gentleman”. You could always tell a “real gentleman” from the other kind. Not ‘arf you couldn’t! But nowadays, driving a “keb” in London, blimey what a queer collection of odds and ends you meet. Not ‘arf you didn’t! But in the old days… Ah, the old days, when you could get a rump steak and a pint o’ porter… them was the days, guv’nor, them was the days, and we shan’t see them again. Not ‘arf we shan’t…

And away he went.

Peter was reminded of an article he had written for the Telegraph in 2001 about the London taxi (the TX1 apparently) and, in particuar, those mysterious little green huts which act like docking stations – little taxi Shangri-Las – across London where black cabs and their drivers congregate to be among their own kind for a while, out of the public eye. Had his wish been granted, it is likely that Morton’s driver would have enjoyed his “blinkin’ fat rump steak and a pint o’ porter” in one of these.

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Peter informs us they are something of an endangered species, with considerable provenance and great historical and cultural significance; while at the same time possessing a rather amusing air of having been dropped down, more or less at random, from somewhere above, just like Dr Who’s police box.

They are certainly captivating and when I came across one during a recent family visit to the capital something told me I had to photograph it, and I’m glad I did. Having read Peter’s article I heartily agree with him – it’s rather splendid and surprising that so many of those cabmen’s huts have somehow survived wars and ‘planners’ – not ‘arf it ain’t!

Niall Taylor 20 May 2014

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HV Morton on London

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“So when I ask myself why I love London I realise I appreciate that which is London – a thing very like family tradition for which we in our turn are responsible to posterity – and I realise that I am every day of my life thrilled, puzzled, charmed and amused by that flood tide of common humanity flowing through London as it has surged through every great city in the history of civillisation. Here is every human emotion. Here in this splendid theatre the comedy and the tragedy of the human heart are acted day and night.”

HV Morton, 1926

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November 28, 2013 · 10:49 am

The Ultimate Peace Symbol

Originally distributed as HVM Society Snippet – No.159

PoppyDear Fellow Mortonites,

The first flower to regrow in soil disturbed by battle is the red corn poppy. This was initially remarked upon during the Napoleonic wars. Later, following the First World War, these bright little flowers were again the first to be seen as the torn, bare earth of no man’s land slowly began to transform back into pasture which, to this day, still carries the deep scars of combat. In 1921 the poppy was adopted as a symbol to commemorate soldiers who have died in war.

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The Cenotaph, by AE Horne from Morton’s 1926 “The London Year”

In his 1926 “The London Year”, a mere eight years after the end of the Great War, HV Morton described, in moving tones, the Armistice Day ceremony taking place around the newly erected Cenotaph, and the two minute silence that followed the laying of the wreaths:

Now London is hushed. The roar from Charing Cross dies away. Only the jingle of a horse’s bit breaks the silence of a people frozen in memory. Three white gulls fly over from the Thames, circle above the Cenotaph, and go. In Whitehall you feel the silence and the prayer ; for men and women are praying. It is not right to look. It is too sacred. The old memories well up in the heart, the old aches, the great joys, the misery, the gallantry, the laughter, and the tears.

How long two minutes can be! How much can be remembered! How little can a few years touch those things that go right down into the heart. I would not dare to look into a woman’s mind at this time—those women with medals! I would not care to imagine their thoughts ; but the young men— ah! in two minutes how many voices call to us, how many faces we remember, how many friendships, how many are the splendid loyalties of those “unhappy far-off times….”

Today, Monday 11th November is Remembrance Day, marking the 95th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The wearing of the poppy, or the laying of a wreath, on this day has nothing to do with politics, or with glorification and everything to do with gratitude, honour and respect and the determined hope that by remembering the past with all its horrors, we can perhaps be spared a repetition of it. The poppy is the ultimate peace symbol, pure and simple.

Tyne Cot war cemetery, Belgium

Tyne Cot cemetery, Belgium

Langemark war cemetery, Belgium

Langemark cemetery, Belgium

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England
11 November 2013

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A few Morton Connections

I had just sat down to enjoy a delicious “Pizzetta” from the Glastonbury market, accompanied by a pickled gherkin and a handful of Greek olives, all washed down with a glass of Coolwater Bay Sauvignon Blanc when an excited squeak from the other-half announced that she had stumbled across another HV Morton-related link while surfing the information superhighway.

I say “excited squeak” – it was more of an “oh no, not again“-type expostulation to be quite frank. I’m afraid the dearly-belovéd doesn’t entirely share her patriarch’s passion for all things Morton – a failing of which I am happily tolerant; it takes all sorts to make a world after all and it behooves a good Mortonite to be forgiving of another’s shortcomings.

In Search of England 1952 edn

As it happens I already had in mind a post to air a few of the various connections I have come across recently concerning Morton, the vast number of which are a testament to his phenomenal popularity during the early and mid-20th century. An author, born some 120 years, ago who still regularly crops up on random internet searches has clearly had a tremendous impact on popular culture at some point.

What Alison had discovered was a brief but very significant reference to Morton’s “In Search of England”, the 1927 publication that arguably ushered in the period of his greatest popularity. The link is on a blog, entitled “Socks for the Boys!” by historian and author Alison Twells, featuring a series of excerpts from the diaries of the writer’s Aunt Norah who lived from 1925 to 2009.

The material on the blog gives a fascinating insight into the concerns, fears and everyday events of Norah’s life. Particularly interesting for me was the entry on the page with the heading “Hitler Trouble“, written when Norah was just 14 years old (by my calculation), which begins “31st August 1939: Ma & I went down for tea to Helen’s. Came back early. Went down to Hills & post. Started to read ‘In Search of England’ by HV Morton. Cold. Hitler trouble.

If you have an eye for detail you will not be surprised to realise that what comes next is not this young girl’s impressions of Morton’s travelogue; her reading is interrupted in no uncertain manner by the outbreak of the Second World War, as Hitler invades Poland, and Britain declares war on Germany over the course of the next three days. The day after war is declared Norah’s diary records the sinking of the passenger ship Athenia and ends simply with the comment “sunny“.

Alison Twells’s intention is to eventually publish a book based on her aunt’s diaries and I wish her the best of luck. If her blog is anything to go by this will be a worthy and enlightening project.

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HV Morton's London

I have no idea what the connection Morton has with hosiery but, after “Socks for the Boys!“, the second website on my list is called “Sockless musings from London“. The blog entry announces a “One a day audio challenge” and goes on to review “HV Morton’s London“, a compilation of his three earlier books “The Heart of London“, “The Spell of London“, and “The Nights of London“.

The reviewer, a Canadian writer who goes by the name of “Sockless“, obviously likes the book quite a bit judging by her comments, and reports it is her intention to share this out-of-print work by posting a section from it online every day for a year.

Sadly however, this is the only post on the blog, her project remains unrealised, and my comment about it remains unanswered. This is a great pity – if you are still out there Sockless I hope everything is OK and that you might return to your challenge at some point in the future.

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The final entry today (I think I’ve gone on quite long enough, don’t you!) is a bit of an oddity that I have sat on for some years. It is part of the Hackney Podcast, a series of recordings about the East End London Borough of Hackney. Hackney Podcast volume 18 is a wonderfully atmospheric soundscape, based around readings from “HV Morton’s London” interspersed with selections of street sounds and general goings-on over a 24 hour period, including disoriented clubbers, partying squatters, late night booksellers and market traders opening up for the day. There are also other historical and contextual readings about the area.

Whoever thought of doing this must have quite a vision – the works of HV Morton and the hustle of the modern-day east end wouldn’t necessarily be the most obvious things to put alongside one another but the melange really works and provides a real insight into what it must have been like for Morton as a young  journalist wandering the streets looking for people to talk to and places to see, to use as material for his newspaper column.

After listening to the full 30 minutes of this haunting work,  you are left with the impression that actually, despite superficial differences, Morton himself might well have recognised many of the kinds of people featured in the production and would have discovered much useful material for “HV Morton’s 21st Century London“!

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

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