Theatre Archives: The Annals of Haymarket

By David Evans, archives volunteer

The Annals of the Haymarket (1911), collected by the barrister and author Alexander Meyrick Broadley in 1911, recount some of the fascinating story of the theatrical, and sometimes non-theatrical, world centred around this area of Westminster. Back in 2011 I was asked to transcribe the letters in this collection so that the contents could be brought to a wider audience.

Continue reading “Theatre Archives: The Annals of Haymarket”

Book Review: A House Through Time by David Olusoga and Melanie Backe-Hansen

A House Through Time is a recently published book that has been produced to accompany the very successful BBC2 series of the same name. As with the series, the book demonstrates how archival records can be used to find the all important details needed to uncover the human stories and secrets within the four walls of one single house. Interestingly, through the details of the lives of the mostly ordinary inhabitants of one house, the wider social and cultural issues of the day are also revealed. For this reason the book also functions well as an alternative history of Britain from within the major cities of Britain including London, exploring themes around slum housing, poverty and disease, industrialisation and the railways, class and crime. 

For anyone wishing to extend their genealogical research to include house histories, this book is an excellent place to start. It provides a thorough introduction and plenty of tips for navigating the many sources of information available in local archives such as national censuses, electoral registers, street directories, Land Registry documents and title deeds to name but a few. High quality online resources have opened up many possibilities for genealogical researchers in recent years so the section on online resources, including where to find historical maps, is also very useful.  

The book was authored by the programme’s presenter David Olusoga along with the renowned house historian Melanie BackeHansen who acted as consultant historical researcher for the series. Backe Hansen specialises in the social history of houses in the UK, including Westminster where she has carried out many house histories for properties in the borough using records from the archives. Archivist Gillian Staples recently interviewed her about the book and her experiences of carrying out historical research at City of Westminster Archives Centre 

Glimpses of Queen’s Park in 1936

01 Headpiece adverts
Adverts from the Queen’s Park Calendar, December 1936

Westminster City Archives holds a few editions of a monthly local community guide from the 1930s called The Queen’s Park Calendar. One from December 1936 gives some impressions of contemporary social life in the area.

02 Cover and contents
Front cover and contents of The Queen’s Park Calendar, December 1936

The calendar gave Queen’s Park residents local information on shops, civic and church events, the public library, public transport, postal collection times, the cinema, and sports and recreation.

A notice of the Queen’s Park library advises that “all residents of Queen’s Park may borrow books on the signature of any ratepayer”. The library was open every day and with generous hours.

03 Queens Park Public Library
Advert for Queen’s Park Library, The Queen’s Park Calendar, December 1936

Among a short list of new books acquired by the library are two that reflect anxieties about international relations: “War Over England.  Air attack, with incendiary booms to melt steel like tallow, calculated to stir public apathy” by L.E.O. Charlton; and “The Far East comes nearer.  To a little Japanese expansion, add equal portion Chinese territory, flavour with Russian propaganda, simmer gently and this is the result”, by H.H. Tiltman.

The two neighbourhood cinemas, the Pavillion, Kensal Rise and the New Palace, Chamberlayne Road, offered a mix of British and American fare, and fitting the festive season they included Cicely Courtneidge in “Everybody Dance” and Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers in “Swing Time.”

Queen’s Park Rangers F.C., then in League Division Three (South), played two home fixtures over Christmas: on the 25th against Exeter City, 11am kick off; and on Boxing Day against Bristol City. With one day off, Rangers then travelled west for a return fixture with Exeter.

For those braving the tennis hard courts at the Paddington Rec and Queen’s Park, spots could be had for two shillings per hour.  The Rec’s cycling and running tracks could be used for training (running, four pence; cycling, six pence).

The Willesden & District Motor Club met every Tuesday evening at its HQ, the William IV pub on Harrow Road.  Afternoon recreational runs were held on Sundays, departing from the pub.

04 New Years Carnival Dance
Advert for an event at Porchester Hall, The Queen’s Park Calendar, December 1936

1937 was welcomed in with a New Year’s carnival dance at Porchester Hall, where “continuous dancing to two bands, 7.30 until 12.45” was to be enjoyed. Tickets five shillings at the door.

05 Tailpiece adverts
Adverts from the Queen’s Park Calendar, December 1936

Theatre Archives: The Royal Aquarium

The City of Westminster Archives Centre is home to a large and ever growing theatre collection. We regularly welcome donations from a range of donors including museums, other archives and individual theatre goers. We have an ongoing theatre cataloguing project which over the years has attracted many volunteers from the UK and overseas.

Spanning several centuries of London theatre history the collection comprises of theatre programmes, playbills, theatre cuttings albums, prints, theatre portraits, photographs and other theatre ephemera. Among the researchers who use this rich resource are theatre historians and authors as well as family historians researching theatre ancestors.

Every month we are going to share a post related to these fascinating and beautiful collections. This month we are looking at the Royal Westminster Aquarium, more commonly known as The Royal Aquarium. Initially opened in January 1876 as just an aquarium, it later opened its theatre which was known as the Aquarium Theatre. Located away from the central theatre district of the West End, The Royal Aquarium was located to the West of Westminster Abbey on Tothill Street.

A06A2590- Zaeo Triumphant
Zaeo Triumphant climbing the rope at The Royal Aquarium, 16 August 1890

This Victorian theatre was known for its daring and risque music hall, variety acts. No doubt these performances would have both thrilled and shocked their Victorian-era audiences.

Performers at The Aquarium included Zazel the aerialistand actor whose act was being shot from a cannon, the Strongest Man on Earth as well as other circus performers such as the acrobat Zaeo Triumphant.

George Leybourne was known for most of his career as Champagne Charlie after the title of one of his songs.

He was a Lion Comique, which was a type of entertainer that parodied the upper-class and were made popular by big Victorian music hall stars like Alfred Vance and G H MacDermott.

In this image of a song sheet we see a man, possibly Leybourne himself, lounging next to one of the fish tanks at the Royal Aquarium. Lounging at the Aq was the title of a song sung by George Leybourne, written by T L Clay and composed by Alfred Lee.

A06A2584- Lounging in the Aq George Leybourne


The words to Lounging at the Aq are as follows:

“Lounging in the Aq,
lounging in the Aq,
That against all other modes of killing time I’ll back,
Fun that’s never slack, eyes brown blue and black
Make me feel in Paradise while lounging in the Aq”


As the theatre was housed within the aquarium building, it seems fitting that the venue featured performances by aquatic performers such as the swimming expert William Beckwith. He performed regularly at the Aquarium and the playbill below shows a heroic looking Beckwith posing in a Victorian swimsuit.

A06A2589- Playbill advertising William Beckwith from 1882
William Beckwith was part of the Beckwith family of swimmers. His sister Miss Agnes Alice Beckwith, or simply Miss Beckwith, was a champion swimmer who came to fame for a six mile swim she undertook as a teenager in 1875 along the River Thames from London Bridge to Greenwich.
A06A2579 - Playbill for Professor Beckwith, swimming and diving entertainment given by Miss Beckwith and Willie Beckwith

The family of swimmers performed extraordinary feats of endurance and the siblings would often perform together as can be seen from the listing on the above playbill.

Among the remarkable list of feats Willie performed included eating two sponge cakes under water and smoking under water. Miss Beckwith’s performance included Waltzing, for which she is greatly celebrated and Undressing under Water.

Volunteers’ Week

Volunteers’ Week is a national celebration of the contribution millions of people make every year through volunteering.

At Westminster Archives we are lucky to have a wonderful team of volunteers, who have helped with a whole range of projects on our collections including research, indexing, cataloguing, education projects, and running events. There are also a large number of volunteers who have assisted our Conservator, Georgia, in our conservation studio.

This year some of our conservation volunteers have shared their motivations for volunteering and experiences with us.

We are so grateful for their time and look forward to welcoming them back to the archives in the future.

conservation volunteers4
Volunteers cleaning a map in the studio

Following retirement, I wanted to do something a million miles away from what I had been doing before (medicine). The opportunity came to volunteer in the conservation department of Westminster City Archive and without any previous experience I walked up to the fourth floor soaked and windblown from a sudden shower to meet the team. Nearly five years later, I still look forward to meeting Georgia and friends on Thursdays to clean, sew and repair the variety of documents that await our attention. Each time, I come away with another little piece of Westminster history in my head and a spring in my step. Thank you Georgia.

Mary Clarke


I started volunteering every Thursday at the archives last year. I didn’t really know what to expect and thought volunteers might just be dogsbodies while “real” staff did all the interesting work! That’s not the case at all. I was thrilled to find that Georgia encourages all the volunteers to be hands-on in learning how to clean and repair documents, some of which haven’t been seen for many many years. A few of them, like Victorian vestry letters, are frankly dull, but others like a collection of postcards sent to a young soldier on the Western front from a variety of different girlfriends, are touching and eye-opening. There is always something new and interesting to find out, which makes my volunteering experience really rewarding. I have always been interested in history, and at the archives history comes alive through the papers we work on. This voluntary work even inspired me to sign up for a paper conservation and bookbinding course.

Rachel Simhon

conservation volunteers3
Volunteers cleaning volumes in the studio


I enjoy volunteering in the conservation studio of Westminster Archives because of the variety of preservation programmes and for getting involved in preparing community engagement projects. So many of them during my time with Georgia. On Thursdays along with a big group of other volunteers, we are making joyful noises chatting and giggling, while we are working on the collections. It is a rewarding experience giving me a sense of life satisfaction by offering to the community.

Gloria Frankel


As a Friend of the WCA and having attended many events held by the Archives, I decided that I would like to volunteer with them in the conservation department. Georgia and the team are wonderful to work with and the atmosphere is very calm and educational. Georgia has taught me how to conserve documents and I started work on a collection of theatre programmes and magazines from the 1950’s. It was like stepping back in time and reliving part of my childhood, seeing photographs of the younger Bruce Forsyth and reading an article on an up and coming stage designer; Barbara Hepworth no less. I’ve watch as much older books and documents are lovingly preserved and then made available for the general public to view. Working in the department has given me new skills and knowledge in a very friendly and welcoming environment.

Johanne Enright

conservation volunteers5
Volunteers and public on the conservation roadshow which toured round our libraries

I have enjoyed being a paper conservation volunteer for a long time. Georgia’s regular volunteers are a friendly and inclusive group with a love of London and an interest in its history. We enjoy not only the work, but also in meeting new people, especially the international students who spend part of their UK study time learning paper conservation skills from Georgia who also holds a training refresher day each year for us to ensure we maintain standards and don’t get into bad habits. This past year we have worked on some fascinating material held by Westminster Archives, in particular the Parish records of St Margaret’s including the workhouse records. We cleaned and repaired the apprentice bonds, learning at the same time about the diverse trades the workhouse youth were sent to be trained in, for example I was surprised at the number of apprentice fishermen needed in Wandsworth. We also found that London children were sent as far away as Yorkshire to work in the mills, but were not forgotten as agents of the workhouse were instructed to interview the children on their own to find out truthfully how they were being treated. I’m looking forward to being able to return to volunteering and also attending again the interesting visits and tours organised by Georgia.

Sue Gardner


My volunteering in the conservation studio of Westminster Archives has been a positive experience. After my retirement, I have started volunteering as I love history and I wanted to give something back to the community; the experience has been truly rewarding! Georgia placed me in a suitable group with like-minded people, and since then, I have learned new skills through appropriate training, I have improved my English and made new friends. The environment is friendly, yet professional and I am happy to go back every week, to help preserve Westminster’s history! I love the social events and visits organised for volunteers. Many thanks Georgia!

Keiko Shiraishi

conservation volunteers8
Volunteers working on the theatre collection in the studio

My first experience at Westminster Archives was in a professional capacity as a practising architect researching the architectural drawings held by the archives. It was a natural progression when I became semi-retired to volunteer to assist with the collection especially as I am a resident of Westminster. I found as a volunteer that I was joining a team that was very inclusive, enthusiastic and managed by a dedicated team of professionals. I have worked on cleaning Westminster’s Theatreland as well as Parish records. The level of professionalism of the staff is of the highest order, with a deep interest in the collections they manage. Georgia looks after us with enthusiasm and patience when we have the inevitable query. She also organises stimulating visits which have included the Weiner Library and the Banqueting House. In conclusion volunteering at Westminster Archives has been fulfilling and interesting and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Westminster’s history.

Bryan Guttridge MA MSt (Cantab) Dipl.Arch. RIBA


I started volunteering at Westminster Archives a couple of years ago. Right from the beginning Georgia made me feel very welcome and wanted and we have become friends. I thoroughly enjoy my days at the archives Conservation Department and have learned a great deal from Georgia who is an extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic mentor and teacher. It’s been a pleasure helping and I hope to continue for many years to come.

Mike Lofty


Thank you again to our wonderful volunteers!


The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

By David Evans, Westminster Archives volunteer

David during a taste test
David Evans testing the food

Towards the end of 2012 the Westminster Archives Local Studies Librarian, Judith , asked me to transcribe a fascinating document that we called “The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies” as it was an anonymous hand-written cookery book with recipes from what we took to be the 1760s and others from the first decades of the nineteenth century.

The 1760s date was taken from an entry on one of the covers but we quickly realised that the handwriting, and more especially the spelling, was more like that of the Queen Anne period or even a few years earlier and that the recipes added after these, because of their “modern” spelling and lack of long essses, were much like other known recipes of the early nineteenth century Regency period and were, indeed, from that era.

As for the book’s origins, we took it to be something written up by the cook working in a large household of the times as the amounts shown for many of the dishes, cakes and pastries were prodigious with requirement for a dozen eggs, pounds of butter and pints of cream on occasions.

Later, it was decided to use the cookbook as the basis for a “Cooking Up History” blog which ran from 2013 until 2014. The idea was to recreate some of the recipes in the Archives kitchen and to ask readers for their comments on these and on their own attempts to copy our efforts. It attracted a fair number of followers which we took as a sign of its success.

On a personal basis, my favourite re-creation was our making early eighteenth century Christmas mincemeat using traditional ingredients of the era – including real meat! It was not to everyone’s taste but it was to mine especially as it had given me the chance of experiencing the flavour of something from the reign of Queen Anne.

The eighteenth century recipe for Christmas mincemeat included cured ox tongue, a fruity mix of apples, currants, raisins and sweetmeats (dried apricots, dried cranberries and candied peel and ginger)

All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable projects with which I was involved during my time as a volunteer in Westminster Archives but, regretfully, the “unknown ladies” remain unknown…

If you wish to re-visit this project to read the blog and see more photographs of the Cooking Up History project then please visit the blog.

The West End Job: Bicentenary of the Cato Street Conspiracy, 1820-2020

The Spencean Philanthropists, the group that devised the Cato Street Conspiracy, involved men of all walks of life. Many were struggling tradesmen while others like John Harrison and Robert Adams were just two of many disillusioned soldiers that had been dragged into the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars only to return home to be faced by hunger and unemployment. While they found work as a baker and cordwainer, respectively, many others were not as lucky.

A03A0240 (2)

The conspirators who gathered in a stable on Cato Street did so for many reasons. These men followed the radical writings of Thomas Spence, who advocated for universal suffrage an end to private property and the division of the nation’s lands amongst its people. Instead, all around them the working poor suffered under Corn Laws that drove up food prices and those that dared discuss reform were brutalised at places like St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. Parliament passed the hated Six Acts following this civilian massacre quickly dubbed “Peterloo,” in which eleven died and hundreds more were injured. This legislation attempted to curb violent civilian response, stifled reactionary gatherings, and expanded and increased newspaper taxes to thwart the spread of radical ideas.


The Cato Street conspirators believed the landed gentry that made up both the Lords and Commons in Parliament were the architects of all the suffering in the country. When conspirator George Edward’s showed them a copy of the New Times announcing that the Cabinet ministers were to dine together at Lord Harrowby’s Home in Grosvenor Square, the conspirators knew their moment to act had arrived and began plotting to assassinate the members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet.

Betrayed by an Agent Provocateur: Edwards the Spy

On 23 February 1820, the conspirators under the instruction of well-known radical Arthur Thistlewood gathered men and weapons and settled into a cowshed on Cato Street to wait for the cover of darkness and the Cabinet dinner to commence. Despite their confidence in their revolutionary plans, all along there had been a traitor among them. The spy George Edwards relayed information to the spy master, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, whose character the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley famously compared to a crocodile. In exchange for his service, Sidmouth gave Edwards the resources to provoke the radical Londoners into action.

Ashbridge 950

By the time the conspirators descended on Cato Street for their final preparations, Bow Street Runners had already received a warrant for their arrest and were lying in wait with a detachment of Coldstream Guards on their way to assist in the arrest. Bow Street magistrate Richard Birnie, together with a small band of men led by George Ruthven ambushed the conspirators who were cornered in the upper floor of the building. The conspirators snuffed out their candles and threw the room into a cacophony of shouting, smoke, and gunfire. In the ensuing chaos, Arthur Thistlewood fatally stabbed Bow Street Runner Richard Smithers before attempting to escape with John Harrison and Robert Adams from a second-floor window using a rope ladder.


Liberty… or Death

While an estimated 27 men gathered in a cowshed on Cato Street to stage a revolution, many evaded punishment or even recognition for their part in the plot. For instance, Conspirator John George had stopped at his local pub on the way to the rendezvous and so avoided capture. Others, like well-known orator Henry Hunt or the imprisoned Jamaican-born radical Robert Wedderburn likely waited to see whether Thistlewood’s plan would be a success. Of those involved in the conspiracy, only eleven men were ultimately accused and convicted. However, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth only needed a few men to make an example of to tamp out any traces of revolution in the country.


Lord Sidmouth also did not allow the spy, George Edwards, to testify. Instead, two conspirators, including Robert Adams, gave the king’s evidence and became informants in exchange for elimination of their sentences. Five men, including John Harrison, pled guilty to their crimes, and were sentenced to transportation for life and were sent to penal colonies in Australia. Another man, James Gilchrist, earned only a few months sentence for being found among the conspirators at Cato Street. The man ended up in the wrong place at the worst time, lured to the meeting on the promise of food.

Five others refused to admit guilt for actions they did not see as criminal. During the trial, conspirator William Davidson used the rights inscribed in the Magna Carta, to justify their radical action:

“It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny… And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword… Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards? I can die but once in this world, and the only regret left is, that I have a large family of small children, and when I think of that, it unmans me.”

Davidson as well as four other conspirators—Arthur Thistlewood, Richard Tidd, James Ings, and Robert Brunt, were convicted of High Treason and were sentenced to being hanged, drawn, and quartered. However, the authorities feared that carrying out the men’s gruesome sentence might provoke a riot amongst the thousands gathered outside of Newgate Prison to witness the execution. Worse, they also worried that the sentence would earn the condemned men the same level of notoriety on the level of Guy Fawkes, who had also been sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

 In the end, the hurdles and the quartering were omitted from the Cato Street Conspirators’ executions. Instead, the five were publicly hanged and decapitated outside Newgate Prison on 1 May 1820. Despite a rousing final speech by Thistlewood and a cajoling performance of the popular song “Death or Liberty” by Ings on the scaffold, the crowd kept an uneasy silence and the event quickly faded from public memory.

Holy Trinity




City Limits: perambulating in Westminster

The boundaries of the present City of Westminster were set in 1965 when the boroughs of Paddington and St Marylebone were incorporated into the City.

A safe bet that you’re within the City’s precincts is if you have one of Westminster’s distinctive street nameplates in view.  Designed in 1967 by Sir Misha Black, these harmonious metal signs have become a design classic. Their popularity spawned a large trade in replica signs sold as souvenirs – which prompted the City Council to buy the copyright in 2007 from Sir Misha’s estate. Their reproduction is now permitted only under license from the Council.

Ordnance Hill Street Sign
Ordnance Hill street nameplate [staff photo] © Westminster City Council
The signs, with some small revisions and special editions (e.g. for those celebrating Theatreland and Chinatown), have almost entirely replaced the former street nameplates of the three old boroughs. A few of these do exist still and there is the odd street sign that predates the creation of the London Metropolitan Boroughs in 1901.

Even older symbols of name and place are parish boundary markers.  A surprising number survive in Westminster, some weathered and illegible, others preserving inscriptions of number, date, or parish name.  A cache endures undisturbed (and largely unnoticed) in the Royal Parks.   Boundaries of the parishes of St Margaret Westminster, St George Hanover Square, Paddington and Kensington all traversed some part of Kensington Gardens or Hyde Park; the parishes of St Marylebone and St Pancras met in Regent’s Park.

Boundary stones in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park
Boundary stones in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park [staff photos]
The boundary markers took various forms: stone and iron posts and pillars; flagstones; stone and metal tablets; and painted and lettered marks.  Survivors are a fraction of those that once existed. In 1856 there were 137 describing the united parishes of St Margaret and St John the Evangelist, Westminster; in 1882, St George Hanover Square counted 142; and there were 87 in the parish of Paddington in 1904.

Boundary markers were important because they described the geographical extent of parochial assets and responsibilities.  The main asset was the taxes paid by parishioners; the responsibilities the ecclesiastical and civic services parishioners relied upon. The parish vestries were therefore keen to mark and maintain the boundaries and guard against encroachment.

The signs and stones defined the route for the ceremony of the beating of the bounds, walking a circuit of the parish limits.  The origins of the ritual are ancient and were originally a means of asking for God’s protection and blessing.   Before the 1860s there were few accurate local maps that detailed parish boundaries, hence the practical need for the beating of the bounds.

Documented in the parish records held at Westminster’s Archives Centre are inventories of boundary markers, descriptions of the perambulations, and financial accounts relating to attendant festivities. The processions generally took place every 5-10 years, at Rogantide before Ascension Day.  They were well attended.

St Marylebone, Perambulation of Parish Boundaries, 27 June 1866, Order of Procession (Ref: Ashbridge 018 – Acc 1977)

There is evidence of young parishioners, commonly charity school boys, suffering certain indignities with the aim of soundly fixing in their memory the location of a boundary marker. The trials might include unannounced clouts around the head, being held upside down and shaken by the ankles, or even whipping. The accounts for the perambulation of St Marylebone in 1760 records:

“To sundry boys whipped at the Perambulation, 4s 10d”.

But also:

“For Dinner for the Charity Children: £3. 3s 0d”

The accounts for the same parish in 1828 list the costs for some of the merriment accompanying the perambulation:

“Wine 39 dozen (468) bottles: £121 1s 0d”
“Ale and porter”: £72 12s 6d”

The total expense associated with the day amounted to £453 0s 10d.  There were critics of this particular largesse and the parish vestry was reported to a committee of the House of Commons.  The next St Marylebone perambulation in 1836 appears to have been more abstemious: the total cost fell to £45 19s 9d.

As buildings and utilities were commonly constructed without respect for parish boundaries, markers were often to be found in unusual or inaccessible places. A St George Hanover Square description of its bounds in 1882 records: “then along the line of covered sewer behind Chester Cottages to an iron Tablet fixed on the face of North side of wall of Metropolitan District Railway station (Sloane Square Station), over the crown of the sewer near the engine house, at the point where the sewer crosses the railway”.  A map of the same year shows the boundary between St George Hanover Square and St James Piccadilly cutting through Buckingham Palace.

St George Hanover Square parish map, 1882
St George Hanover Square parish map, 1882, detail showing Buckingham Palace
(Ref: C765b)

When in the later nineteenth century Ordnance Survey maps plotted boundary stones, the practical value of beating the bounds fell and the practice declined. Today the ceremony continues to be observed in some parishes, commonly as a means of charitable fund-raising.

Beating the Bounds, St Clement Danes, 1930s
Beating the Bounds, St Clement Danes, 1930s (Ref: Acc 2232-49)

Do keep an eye out for these stubborn relics: they may conjure up the shadows of festive, marching beadles, bell-ringers, charity school children, and parish officers in their pomp.