Book Review: The Watchers

Stephen Alford
The Watchers: A secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I
(Penguin; 2012)

I mentioned this book some while ago, and promised a review of it when I finished it. At that time I was about four chapters from the end, but have only just got round to reading them – life has intervened in too many ways! Anyway, here at last is a review.

The book is a tour de force of forensic historical document research. There is little remaining evidence to go on, as Alford himself explains in his “Introduction”:

It would be wonderful to have the papers of [Elizabeth’s] secretary and his staff just as they were left at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. Instead we have to make do with tantalizing fragments, scattered pieces of a great documentary puzzle that keep historians on their toes. A stunning exception is the surviving archive of manuscripts belonging to Robert Beale, a clerk of Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Beale was a powerful character, a plainly spoken man of … high intelligence, an experienced bureaucrat and a master of government business. Over his long career, Beale collected the kinds of papers he and his colleagues needed to use every day, organized by themes and topics … Beale’s volumes in the British Library … allow us to understand an Elizabethan archive, to touch it and feel it: the stiff pale animal hide spines and covers, the leather ties to keep the books closed, the indexes for speedy reference, and Beale’s explanatory notes in what, after the frenetic scrawl of Sir Francis Walsingham [Elizabeth’s principal secretary] or the impossibly compressed minute writing of Walsingham’s most secret servant, Thomas Phelippes, is one of the vilest hands of sixteenth-century England … Unfortunately Beale’s papers are exceptional. Time, damp and hungry rodents quickly set to work on the piles of old government papers that lay in heaps in the Tower of London for centuries. Most of what survives today was preserved for us by the enterprising Victorians who … went through the chaos of papers they found in government and family archives and gave them order.

What emerges is a “who nearly done it” from the misty and murky world of Elizabethan espionage. Espionage that, in those dangerously unsettled times, was essential for the survival of Protestant England and Elizabeth. Espionage, which was perhaps the first really consolidated use by the state, and whose methods very much laid the foundations even for today’s shadowy world of subterfuge.

Alford uses the available papers to tell the story of the machinations underneath many of the plots against Elizabeth, and of the subtle, cunning and, yes, dishonest way in which Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Burleigh, Robert Cecil (Burleigh’s son), and to a lesser extent the Earl of Essex, used spies, couriers and shadowy men to capture Catholic plotters, entrap Mary Queen of Scots and send many to the rack and the gallows.

We all knew that Mary Queen of Scots had been caught out colluding with the Catholic enemy. What we probably didn’t realise was just how many people were involved; many were just couriers of letters who knew not what was happening; but equally many knew parts of the plan and were paid handsome sums of money not to ask questions. We probably also didn’t know that the crucial evidence against Mary was in fact a forgery.

It is a fascinating story with web upon web upon web of interplay between agents, double agents and even triple agents. A web which ranges across much of mainland Europe as well as England. But this tangle of webs does make the book somewhat challenging, as you need a clear head to keep in mind who everyone is, and who is playing who off against who.

It is an engrossing read which is well written and keeps you turning the page – I had to restrict myself to a chapter or two a night just so as not to stay up round the clock to finish the book. This is a book which tells history in the raw, and in the way it happened on the ground at the time, rather than as the sanitised version we are all taught at school. It gives us an insight into what (at least for some elements of society) was a really frightening, unsafe and unstable age.

If you enjoy history, are interested in the Elizabethans, or just like some good intrigue and skulduggery, then this is a book you will want to read. It is perhaps the most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time.

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

Shoes and Ships, but no Sealing Wax

The last couple of evenings I’ve been reading a small volume produced in 1965 by the Sussex Record Society. It’s by Richard F Dell and titled Rye Port Books; it documents shipping in and out of Rye in East Sussex between 1566 and 1590, ie. a large part of the reign of Elizabeth I. Rye, at this date, had a large harbour which irrevocably silted up around 1600.

While this might sound somewhat dull, they were interesting times (to say the least) when there was essentially a “cold war” between Protestant England and Catholic Europe. Understandably no-one was permitted to leave (or enter) the country without government permission, although many did and not a few were either Catholics fleeing to France or Italy or they were spies for one side or the other (or indeed both).

Rye at that time was one of the major ports for both passengers and freight between England and France and the Low Countries. Regrettably there is little detail of people movements in these records, apart from the occasional note of a boat carrying “20 passengers”. This is a shame because even at this date there were immigration officers stationed at every port such as Rye. Their job, as today, was to interrogate and determine the bona fides of all travellers and naturally to detain any they thought might be Catholic insurgents or spies. From reading elsewhere about the spy rings of Elizabethan England (masterminded by Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham) it is clear there was also a large amount of mail travelling back and forth, mostly being hand-carried by couriers. [For more on this see Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I. Review when I’ve finished reading it.]

This book is more about the trade which was happening. Although there are several vessels logged which seem to do nothing but ply back and forth between Rye and Dieppe (the preferred route to France) carrying what today would be called “stuff”, there is also a large amount of goods travelling round the coast of the country, especially between Rye and London, but also as far afield as Newcastle, Spain and Portugal. Remember these are times when the roads were poor, if they existed at all, and a journey from Rye to London by cart carrying goods would take a week or more whereas in good weather a boat could sail between Rye and London in a couple of days. None of the ships involved are of any size; the largest I saw mentioned was 70 tons and they go down to tiny boats of 10 tons; the average is probably around 25-30 tons. These really are tiny boats; the Mary Rose by contrast was rated at 500 tons.

A large section of the book is a line by line summary of every ship which enters or departs Rye over this 35 year period (give or take a few gaps), all constructed from the surviving Elizabethan records in the Sussex County Archive, the National Archives and the Rye Town Records.

Most of the cargo was quite mundane, and perhaps what one might expect: grain of various sorts, wood (ship upon ship full of wood), coal, wool, cloth of various types, wine; and there were many loads which are just recorded as “mixed” so who knows what they contained. Iron appears fairly regularly, and in significant quantities too (the Sussex Downs were an iron smelting centre at this date) and there are several shipments of ordnance including the occasional iron cannon.

But there are some surprising (at least to me) things, such as: lupins, vinegar, apples (from France), oranges and lemons (yes even so; they come in from Spain and Portugal), hops (being traded in both directions), horses (strangely mostly out-bound), cony skins, wolf skins, bricks (being imported from the Low Countries; a single 40 ton ship can carry at least 10,000). And it goes on with nuts, spices, lead, paper, hosiery, cochineal, woad (presumably for use as a dyestuff), herrings (red and white), codfish, quails and scrap brass. Another ship brings in “6 asses”. All of this is, of course, taxed.

But there were several entries which really caught my eye. One cargo is documented as “Mixed inc. tennys bawles”; another contains “French playing cards”. Then there’s a mixed shipment which includes hawks (“6 Tassell hawks, 7 Falcon hawks, 3 Martin hawks, imported by Walter Libon, alien”). Lastlly, there are several shipments of old shoes to London! One can only guess that scrap leather had a value, but for what?

We think we live in interesting times, ship strange goods around in containers, using humongous amounts of oil. But all this was being done by the power of man, horse, tide and wind.

Who said history is dull!

Your Monthly Links

They’re off! … On the quest for this month’s links to items you really didn’t want to miss the first time.

Science & Medicine

Many statistics are lies compounded by misleading graphics. Here’s a quick guide to spotting lies in visuals.

Queueing is quite complex, both psychologically and mathematically, so no wonder there are old wives tales about how to queue. But many are wrong, and the right answers are non-intuitive. The Guardian gives us some clues.

We don’t normally think of Winston Churchill as a scientist, but he certainly had a passionate interest in, and knowledge of, the science of his day, even down to writing with great foresight about astrobiology and extra-terrestrial life.

Black chickens. Not just black feathers, but black all the way through: meat, bones and organs. No wonder they’re a special, and expensive, breed. It just seems wrong that so many are bred purely for divination.

Social Sciences & Business

In 1944 the CIA wrote a manual on how dissidents can surreptitiously sabotage an organisation’s productivity and gradually undermine it. Now it has been declassified and released.


So who was Gordon Bennett? The BBC looks at a few of the people behind famous phrases.

Writers, improve your text. Here are a number of filler words and phrases which are superfluous and serve only to bulk out your word count.

Polari is a British slang dating back to at least the 19th century. Used by a number of tightly knit cultures it is perhaps best known for its use by sex workers and the gay subculture. As you might guess the Bible in Polari is quite a hoot; here’s my blog post about it.

Art & Literature

Book blogger Karen Langley has rediscovered Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Here’s her blog post about it.


Construction of London’s Crossrail has unearthed a vast amount of archaeology. Here are two very different reports on the same Clerkenwell site which includes a completely lost river and a curious pair of plague victims: the first report is from IanVisits and the second from the Guardian.


Apart from the above item on Crossrail archaeology there is only one snippet on London this month …

Canals are well known for carrying water not electricity, but IanVisits, again, brings the story of how the Regent’s Canal ended up safely carrying both.


Life is stressful. Things are continually conspiring against us. We all know that if we get too stressed we get sick. So it’s useful to have a list of major life stressors, with their relative values, so you can work out your likelihood of a stress-related illness.

Unsurprisingly the second most highly-rated stress is divorce. Here are four behaviours which appear to be the most reliable predictors of divorce.

Finally in this section is our favourite zen master talking about immigration and tribalism. It’s a perspective worth reading.

Food & Drink

And finally, finally … Garlic. Whether you love it or hate it trying to supress the resulting odour is far from obvious.

Be good until next month!

Book of Gloria

I posted about this on Facebook earlier, but it’s so brilliant I have to say more here.

Earlier today on the intertubes I came across the Bible in Polari. Those who know Polari, or are old enough to remember Julian and Sandy from the radio show Round the Horne, will guess how much of a hoot it is. Here, for example, are the first five verses of Genesis …

1 In the beginning Gloria created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was nanti form, and void; and munge was upon the eke of the deep. And the Fairy of Gloria trolled upon the eke of the aquas.
3 And Gloria cackled, Let there be sparkle: and there was sparkle.
4 And Gloria vardad the sparkle, that it was bona: and Gloria medzered the sparkle from the munge.
5 And Gloria screeched the sparkle journo, and the munge she screeched nochy. And the bijou nochy and the morning were the first journo.

And here, the Immaculate Conception from Luke 1:26-35 …

26 And in the seyth month the fairy Gabriel was laued from Gloria unto a smoke of Galilee, named Nazareth,
27 To a nanti charver espoused to a homie whose name was Josephine, of the lattie of Davina; and the nanti charver‘s name was Mary.
28 And the fairy trolled in unto her, and cackled, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Duchess is with thee: fabed art thou among palones.
29 And when she vardad her, she was troubled at her cackling, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
30 And the fairy cackled unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with Gloria.
31 And, varda, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and parker forth a homie chavvie, and shalt screech her name Josie.
32 She shall be dowry, and shall be screeched the homie chavvie of the Highest: and the Duchess Gloria shall parker unto her the throne of her Auntie Davina:
33 And she shall reign over the lattie of Jacob for ever; and of her kingdom there shall be no end.
34 Then cackled Mary unto the fairy, How shall this be, vardaing I know not a homie?
35 And the fairy answered and cackled unto her, The Fantabulosa Fairy shall troll upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that fabulosa fakement which shall be born of thee shall be screeched the homie chavvie of Gloria.

Brilliant isn’t it?!

Incidentally it’s worth downloading the PDF version, even though it is big, as it contains some wonderfully captioned “old style” images (“Gethsemane had always been a notorious cruising ground”) and a huge dictionary of Polari.

What I find interesting is how much Polari has passed into modern parlance (possibly as some was stolen from existing dialect like Cockney and entered the modern English from there). Just in writing this I’ve noticed acdc, troll, barney, butch, drag … the list goes on!

This is what I find so entrancing about language: not just the fun but the interplay between language, dialect, argot and idiolect. And I love it when something in one form is translated into another, but remains amusingly intelligible to speakers of the original – as here and as with the Pidgin of Papua New Guinea for Prince Charles: nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin.

Just excellent!

Book Review: Map Stories

Francisca Mattéoli
Map Stories: The Art of Discovery
(Ilex, 2015)

bookThis is, in the words of the Preface, “a book that invites the reader on a journey from map to map, to let their imagination run free”. It is a curious collection of historical maps, around which the author tells the stories the places and voyages which gave birth to the maps.

Now I love maps, and I love stories of history and the discovery of new worlds. However I found this a very difficult book to engage with, for a number of reasons.

  1. While I love maps I do find old, multi-coloured, shaded maps with tiny print/calligraphy difficult and off-putting.
  2. The stories I dipped into didn’t engage me; I found them dull; which is in part down to the author’s style.
  3. The stories major heavily on the Americas and SE Asia. Europe hardly gets a look in.
  4. This is a large, oversize, atlas-sized book; and quite heavy. It needs to be to make the most of the maps. But this does make it almost impossible to read in bed.

As a consequence I did no more than leaf through the book and dip into it from time to time. I just found it was asking too much of me, especially when I was reading it late at night in bed. I’m sure I’m missing a lot, and I may well return to it in due course – it would be a shame not to.

Overall Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Book Review: Letters from England

Karel Čapek
Letters from England
(Continuum, 2001)

What is the connexion between Czechoslovakia, ant, London and robots? Answer: Karel Čapek.

Čapek (1890-1938) was a Czech novelist, dramatist and journalist who was mostly active in the 1920s and 30s. He is possibly best known today for two plays written with his brother Josef: R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and Pictures from the Insects’ Life (aka. The Insect Play). This latter I have known since school as we did it as the school play in my final year; it is strange, weird and disturbing. With R.U.R. Čapek is credited with the invention of the term “robot”.

In 1924 Čapek visited Britain and Letters from England is the resulting sketches about the visit. It is a small paperback which I’ve had on the shelves for many years and dipped into occasionally – as I have done again recently.

The sketches, originally written in Czech but in several translations, are a mixture travel diary and cynical but humorous observation.

Čapek travels the length and breadth of the Britain (but omits Ireland). The first third of the volume is taken up with London, including this wonderful description of his first visit:

I remember with horror the day when they first brought me to London. First, they took me by train, then they ran through some huge, glass halls and pushed me into a barred cage which looked like a scales for weighing cattle. This was ‘a lift’ and it descended through an armour-plated well, whereupon they hauled me out and slid away through serpentine, underground corridors. It was like a horrible dream. Then there was a sort of tunnel or sewer with rails, and a buzzing train flew in. They threw me into it and the train flew on and it was very musty and oppressive in there, obviously because of the proximity to hell. Whereupon they took me out again and ran through new catacombs to an escalator which rattles like a mill and hurtles to the top with people on it. I tell you, it is like a fever. Then there were several more corridors and stairways and despite my resistance they led me out into the street, where my heart sank. A fourfold line of vehicles shunts along without end or interruption; buses, chugging mastodons tearing along in herds with bevies of little people on their backs, delivery vans, lorries, a flying pack of cars, steam engines, people running, tractors, ambulances, people climbing up onto the roofs of buses like squirrels, a new herd of motorised elephants; there, and now everything stands still, a muttering and rattling stream, and it can’t go any further …

This, remember, is 1924. Plus ça change!

Čapek perambulates an astonishing amount of the country: Oxford, Cambridge, Yorkshire, North Wales, the Lake District, Edinburgh, Inverness … and here he is in the Isle of Skye:

I am in a region which is called Skye, that is to say ‘Sky’, although I am not in the heavens but only in the Hebrides, on a large, strange island among other islands, on an island consisting of fjords, peat, rocks and summits. I collect coloured shells among the blue or flaxen pebbles and by a special grace of heaven even find the droppings of a wild elk, which is the milch cow of Gaelic water nymphs. The hillsides drip like a saturated sponge, the bruach heather catches at my feet, but then, folks, the islands of Raasay and Scalpay, Rhum and Eigg are visible and then one can see mountains with strange and ancient names like Beinn na Callaich … It is beautiful and poor, and the original shanties look as prehistoric as if they had been built by the long-departed Picts, of whom, as is well known, nothing is known.

Interspersed with the text are occasional thumbnail sketches by the author: naïve but humorous. And Čapek meets people, often well known people, like George Bernard Shaw, who sketches, twice:

GBSThis is an almost supernatural personality, Mr Bernard Shaw. I couldn’t draw him better because he is always moving and talking. He is immensely tall, thin and straight and looks half like God and half like a very malicious satyr, who, however, by a thousand-year process of sublimation has lost everything that is too natural. He has white hair, a white beard and very pink skin, inhumanly clear eyes, a strong and pugnacious nose, something knightly from Don
Quixote, something apostolic and something which makes fun of everything in the world, including himself; never in all my life have I seen such an unusual being; to tell you the truth, I was frightened of him. I thought that it was some spirit which was only playing at being the celebrated Bernard Shaw. He is a vegetarian, I don’t know whether from principle or from gourmandaise. One never knows whether people have principles on principle or whether for their own personal satisfaction.

If you want a criticism, the prose does get a bit tedious and turgid at times, however all in all this is a delightfully eccentric and amusing small volume; very readable in small doses, so eminently suitable for dipping into or light bedtime reading.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Book Review: Molecules

Theodore Gray
Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything
(Black Dog & Leventhal; 2014)

This is another of my Christmas acquisitions. It is a large coffee table book of almost 250 pages containing (mostly) photographs and diagrams on a black background with relatively little, but simple, textual explanation. It is a science book for the non- or only-just-scientist in which Gray sets out to show us how everything around us is built.

Gray shows how the elements of the periodic table combine to form the molecules that make up our world. Everything is made up of molecules, formed in an infinite variety of ways from the elements. This book explores the most interesting, essential, useful and beautiful of the millions of chemical structures that make up every material in the world. Gray begins with an explanation of how atoms bond to form molecules and compounds, as well as the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry. He then explores the vast array of materials, all built of molecules: soaps and solvents; alcohol and oil; rocks, ropes and fibres; painkillers, sweeteners, perfumes and poisons. All are stunningly photographed and accompanied by chemical diagrams and potted explanations.

This double page spread with a potted introduction to each chapter shows why this book is so brilliant
You’ll want to click the image to get a larger view and appreciate the image fully

I’m originally a chemist, but over 40+ years have forgotten much of what I once knew – and in fact much of what is here I never did know as it is materials science beyond the scope or time of a 1960s/70s chemistry degree (although I had the grounding to work it out). But do not be put off … even if you have no science background at all, you should get a huge amount from this book as it starts with some basic steps, and is all written in very non-scientific language. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the detail of the molecular structures shown; you don’t need to as the explanations allow anyone to follow along. There is no hard science here such that you are lost if you don’t understand it. And there are no details of how the compounds discussed are synthesised (if such is even possible in the lab.) – so there’s no need to be scared.

What is here are simple explanations of why many things are the way they are. Why, for instance, tetraethyl lead was added to petrol, how it’s toxic effects were known but ignored and thus why it was eventually banned. Why asbestos is so dangerous. Why plastics work. And even why coins smell. The book ends with a very simple explanation of how the proteins that make up the living world are built – which just reinforces the wonder of life itself.

I found this a fascinating book, which made me realise how much I had missed (or forgotten) of my chemistry degree. I found the chapter on sugars and the one on painkillers especially interesting. Yes, I could have taken more detail, but in fact the balance is right for the interested layman rather than the superannuated chemist.

So yes, I’d recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in how the world around is built and why it works in some of the ways it does. Although if you have a science background you will get more from this book, you don’t need it to appreciate the fascinating nature of “stuff”.

Overall Rating: ★★★★★

Book Review: London in Fragments

Ted Sandling
London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures
Frances Lincoln, 2016

I was given this book at Christmas – well what else do you give a Londoner who is interested in the history and eccentricity of the city? I’ve been reading it in small chunks, which is why I’ve only just finished it.

Sandling is a mudlark; someone who when the tide is low wanders the beaches and foreshores of the River Thames hunting for objects trouvés. Now you might think that such a mighty river would wash away any and every artefact dropped into it. But not a bit of it. There is a surprising amount to be found: everything from Roman tiles through remnants of ships and shipbuilding right up to a twentieth-century Sri Lankan talisman.

What Sandling does in this book is to put on display images of many of the artefacts he’s found over the years. Each is identified, as best one can. Along with many there are the stories; some about the artefacts themselves but many about the history surrounding how they might have gotten into the river.

The stories give us some surprising insights into London’s history. Like why are so many pins found? Apparently in Tudor times many clothes were pinned together; the pins fell off in the street and were washed down a sewer and into the river. It sounds unlikely, and I must say I have my doubts, but over the course of a couple of hundred years it could well be what happened.

And why is there so much cullet – glass which has been broken into small pieces for recycling? Well, apparently in medieval times there was a big market in cullet and it was shipped around between Europe and Asia. And it doesn’t take many shipwrecks to seed the whole of a coastline with cullet and sea glass. That’s something I would never have guessed.

The whole book is broken up into sections for things like “Adornment”, “Industry” and “Pleasure and Vice”. Each section has a short overview introduction before the artefacts themselves make their appearance. This, with the information about the artefacts, makes the book a fascinating read, and along the way there is some excellent photography, often of tiny things, to be admired.

It is a small format book of some 250 pages, printed on good paper to bring out the best in the photographs. I cannot fault the production.

Where I was less happy was that all too often the text with an artefact is very general and not nearly as specific as I would like: how big is the item, where was it found; how was it identified? Yes, we do get some of that; but for me, not enough. This is though a rather unfair criticism as many of the items are so fragmentary there isn’t much which can be divined about them.

But overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in London and its history. And I would say it is a must read for anyone who is thinking of having a go at mudlarking.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Book Review: Field Guide to Moths

Paul Waring & Martin Townsend
Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland
2nd edition; Bloomsbury; 2009

This is a magnificent tome, but not what I would define as a “field guide”: for an octavo paperback of almost 450 pages, on glossy paper and weighing almost 900 gm you would need a poacher’s pocket or a JCB to carry it around. It is a reference book — and a brilliant one at that — but as such it is not something to be read from cover to cover but explored when needed. It is an essential on the shelves of anyone with an interest in the huge diversity of the insect world, especially, obviously, moths.

Having said that, it doesn’t cover all moths but just the “macro-moths” (essentially anything with a forewing length over about 1 cm); micro-moths are covered elsewhere.

I’ve long wanted such a book (why didn’t I get this before?) as there was for many, many years a huge hole in the field guide coverage of British moths; I remember my mother complaining at least 40 years ago that there was no good, available, guide to moths — how she would have loved this book!

The book does what it sets out to do: describe for the naturalist (both professional and amateur) every known species of moth in the British Isles. The descriptions are organised by genus, with each species getting an entry of a third to half a page in quite small type. The descriptions cover mostly the adult moth, its habitat, lifecycle and distribution.

Strangely all the illustrations of adult moths occupy the central 20% of the book. This is not obvious from the colour-coding of the pages and I’ve found the only way to know quickly where the illustrations start is with a bookmark. Having said that, the illustrations (by Richard Lewington) are magnificent — much the best I’ve encountered — and they show the wonderful diversity and beauty of these important but much disliked insects. Moreover the illustrations show the adult moths in their normal sitting pose, unlike many guides which show the wings displayed as they would be in a museum case (something that’s not helpful to the non-specialist).

There is, however, one significant thing I don’t like about this book. In general it does not illustrate the larvae (caterpillars) of each species. Some (maybe 15%) of species have a photograph of the caterpillar along with the description (not with the illustrations). This I find curious. I know that many caterpillars look very similar (even more than adult moths) but why not illustrate them and have a complete section of the illustrations — separate from the adult moths would be OK — as an aid to identification. For me, this stops the book getting a top 5-star rating.

My only other gripe is the cost; at around £30 for the paperback this is beyond the reach of many.

Nevertheless this is a reference book which will live on the shelf over my desk and quite likely become well used.

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Book Review: Bomb Damage Maps

Laurence Ward
The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945
Thames & Hudson, 2015

During WWII the Architects Department of the London County Council (the LCC; then the local authority for what are now the central London boroughs) set about documenting the cumulative bomb damage in the capital city. This was an area from Woolwich in the east to Hammersmith in the west, and from Crystal Palace in the south to Highgate in the north. Detailed maps were produced showing every property, from the smallest cottage to the large factories. Teams of surveyors soured the area to assess any bomb damage to properties. The damage was graded from “total destruction” down to “minor blast damage” and areas marked for clearance. The sites of V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket impacts were also marked.

The task required 110 maps at a scale of 1:2500 (that’s 25 inches to the mile), and each measuring roughly 75x106cm; these were based on the 1916 Ordnance Survey maps, updated to 1940. And they were hand-coloured according to the level of destruction found. Each of the maps is reproduced here at roughly 1/3 size. And boy do they give a vivid picture of the destruction wrought by the Luftwaffe. Every map contains something interesting — just look at the map for the area of the City around Farringdon and Holborn: it is one big swathe of purple, meaning “Damaged beyond Repair”, from the river to Hoxton and from Bank to the west of Blackfriars Bridge. Overall, getting on for 50% of the Square Mile must have been demolished!

This is just a part of the destruction in the City of London.
The map is centred on St Paul’s Cathedral.

The maps are part of the LCC archives, now held by the London Metropolitan Archives. They were first compiled into this book back in 2005 by the LMS in conjunction with the London Topographical Society. And now they’ve been published for everyone.

Given the number of maps, it is no great surprise that this is an enormous tome measuring 37x27x3cm and weighing in at only just under 3kg! Despite the size, it is definitely not a coffee table book; nor is it a book to read front to back, or even back to front. It is a reference for anyone interested in the history and topography of London, and that will include family historians who may wish to research where their ancestors lived. As I say, every map contains something of interest.

In addition there are 30 or more pages of introductory material, documenting the maps, the surveyors and rescue teams, and a detailed listing of all the Luftwaffe raids; and another almost 50 pages of photographs documenting the destruction.

All in all this is an absolutely stunning collection for those interested in London or WWII. Just don’t try reading it in bed!

Overall Rating: ★★★★★