London Lives

Sherds shares the scraps he has gleaned that reveal the eccentricities of the heritage world.

Contradictory policies

David Cameron marked the beginning of the holiday season (now but a distant memory) with a speech on tourism that included some startling statistics: did you know that Britain is only 22nd in the list of most popular destinations for Chinese tourists – by comparison, Germany is 10th. Or that the UK is 12 places behind Ireland in the world rankings for natural beauty? Or that the UK, with 28 million international visitors a year, is down with Malaysia, Mexico and Turkey in the world tourism league tables?

Not very impressive statistics, one must agree. The Prime Minister wants us in the top five along with France (74.2m), Spain (52m) and Italy (51m), so he has promised to ‘address Britain’s attractiveness deficit’. It is apparently Labour’s fault that we are not more attractive. ‘The last Government underplayed our tourist industry,’ he said, adding, ‘They just didn’t get our heritage.’ Instead, says Cameron, ‘we will focus more on national parks, seaside towns, castles, country houses, museums, galleries, theatres and festivals’. The coalition is committed to creating the ‘strongest possible tourism strategy’, bringing ‘a whole new approach’ to the area.

Time, perhaps, for a brave backbencher to use a future Prime Minister’s Question Time to ask whether the Prime Minister has ever visited Stonehenge, and whether he thinks that Britain’s most famous prehistoric monument suffers from an ‘attractiveness deficit’?

Coastal delights

In the same speech the Prime Minister spoke of his favourite holiday spots, singling out ‘our beautiful beaches’. This is the same Prime Minister who has scrapped one of Labour’s most popular policies: the plan to create a long distance walking trail around the entire English coast. The Government says the cost of the scheme, with the possibility of expensive and protracted legal action on the part of landowners demanding compensation for the perceived loss of privacy and property value, is ‘no longer acceptable in the current economic climate’.

Thank goodness, then, that so much of our coast (about 710 miles in all, a tenth of the UK’s entire coastline) is in the benign hands of the National Trust, which announced recently that it was negotiating to buy a stretch of coastline on the south-western tip of the Llyn peninsula, in North Wales, a demi-paradise of vast and mostly empty beaches and blue seas where the sun often shines when it is pouring with rain across the other side of Cardigan Bay. Just inland are some of the best and most evocative churches in Wales – not least at Llangian, former home of Welsh poet and nationalist R S Thomas, where the streamside churchyard has a standing stone erected in the 5th century to ‘Melitus, the doctor, son of Martinus’.

The Trust hopes that the acquisition will help preserve the way of life of local people, who mainly work in farming and fishing – catching the delicious crabs, for example, that feature on the menus of pubs and tea-shops in Aberdaron, the village and port at the end of the peninsula.

How many Beatles houses do we need?

The birthplace of Ringo Starr in Liverpool.
The birthplace of Ringo Starr in Liverpool. Photo © Jenny Preece, British Beatles Fan Club

On the other hand, there is no sign yet of the Trust riding to the rescue of 9 Madryn Street, Liverpool, the house in which Ringo Starr was born on 7 July 1940. Though the Trust owns the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and last year said it would consider buying the Abbey Road studios if EMI put up for sale, it seems not to be interested in Starr’s home. Standing unloved and boarded up, it will share the same fate as a number of other Victorian two-up-two down terraces in the area known as ‘the Welsh Streets’ that were once home to migrants from north Wales seeking jobs in Liverpool.

The Council has offered to dismantle the house brick by brick and rebuild it at the city’s Museum of Life, which is due to open next year. Beatles fans have accused the council of cultural vandalism bordering on the criminal. Locals have called for the area to be given a new lease of life rather than bulldozed. Isobel McDonagh, 70, who has lived in the area for over 40 years, says that the house brings a lot of tourists to the area even in its neglected state: ‘It’s a fine little house and a piece of Beatles heritage. It could easily be done-up along with all the other houses in the street.’

Museums ‘best place to lose wallets’

If Ringo’s house does end up in a museum, and if you happen to lose your wallet while visiting, it is reassuring to learn that the wallet is likely to be returned. That is the conclusion of a recent ‘social experiment’ in which researchers ‘dropped’ 100 wallets at various locations in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff and Leeds to see what would happened. The result was that Birmingham was found to be the ‘least honest’ city for handing the wallets in, London the best, and museum goers generally the most honest of the lot.

Half the wallets ‘lost’ in the Imperial War Museum and Natural History Museum were returned to their ‘owners’, while only a third of wallets dropped in shopping centres were returned and not a single wallet dropped in cafés or on public transport. Whilst one in four ‘lost’ wallets were returned in Birmingham, the money had been removed. All wallets returned in the capital still had their contents intact.

London Lives 1690–1800

The honesty or otherwise of 18th-century Londoners is the subject of a fascinating new website, London Lives, comprising 3.35 million names garnered from workhouse records, criminal registers, coroners’ reports and court orders for the period 1690 to 1800. So if you have a forbear who lived in London during this period, you can see if they were ever involved in a court case as a witness or defendant; or you can simply go to the Lives page and browse the biographies that the compilers of the website have picked out because they illustrate some aspect of crime, poverty and social policy in the metropolis at the time.

Especially revealing are the short summaries of Old Bailey trials. Here you will find many a tragic story of petty crime, committed in desperation, being punished by execution at Tyburn (sometimes commuted to transportation to Australia), but it is also instructive to see how often judges and juries gave the defendant the benefit of the doubt. Charlotte Walker (c.1754–1806), for example, was arrested 27 times for theft, prostitution, assault, vagrancy and disorderly conduct, and appeared 12 times to answer charges at the Old Bailey. On all but one occasion, she was acquitted for lack of evidence, she being clever enough only to relieve men of their money or watches when they were drunk or asleep, and when there was no other witness.

Many of the trial accounts sound like real-life versions of the stories told in folk ballads of sailors arriving home from sea, flush with money, only to be relieved of their wages in the rigs and rookeries of London town. Indeed, some of those arrested and convicted at the Old Bailey became the real-life subjects of popular broadside ballads, like the ‘gentleman’ highwaymen who dressed well in order to avoid being taken for a member of the criminal classes. Once convicted, many turned their execution into an elaborate show of contrition. William Udall (1716–1739) penned his autobiography and even wrote his own poetic ballad, calling on witnesses to the execution to learn by his example and avoid a life of crime, and thereby gaining for himself a kind of immortality.


CA 246 featured the Pylon Appreciation Society and quoted from Stephen Spender’s 1933 poem, The Pylons, comparing them to ‘nude giant girls that have no secret’. Now the Icelandic government is considering proposals to build a chain of human-shaped pylons across the island’s volcanic landscape, in order to ‘humanise and transform an ugly utility into something of beauty’. The 50m-high humanoid pylons will depict different postures, allowing the structures ‘to project moods fitting their surroundings’. And following the Sherds report on the rules for Blue Plaques English Heritage has published guidance for organisations wishing to create similar schemes outside London (see the English Heritage website for more information).

American architects Choi+Shine's proposed anthropomorphic pylons.
American architects Choi+Shine’s proposed anthropomorphic pylons. Photo © 2010 Choi+Shine Architects, LLC

STOP PRESS: Save Britain’s Heritage has launched a campaign to save Ringo Starr’s house and to have all four Beatles’ houses listed, as well as the gates to Strawberry Field; more next month.