Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Interesting times (2)

December 2016 version of Sgt Pepper cover, by Chris Barker There’s an ancient Chinese curse or proverb: “May you live in interesting times…”

Well, there isn’t actually (it dates all the way back to the politician Austen Chamberlain in 1936) but I think we can all agree that 2016 has been… interesting!
Most of us would probably wish that 2017 is a little less so.

While Westminster Libraries can’t promise world peace or political stability, we can promise you some interesting anniversaries and the resources for interested people to carry out further research.


The year kicks off in January with the 75th anniversary of Desert Island Discs, which was first broadcast on 29 January 1942. It continues to this day with guests (rather tweely known as ‘castaways’) being asked to discuss the eight pieces of music they would take to a desert island. Later on, guests were allowed to choose a book and a luxury too. The first castaway was the ‘comedian, lightning club manipulator, violinist and comedy trick cyclist’, Vic Oliver. Oliver was not only a major star on the radio but also the son-in-law of Winston Churchill (something Churchill wasn’t too thrilled about, though Oliver never traded on the relationship). Though this episode doesn’t survive in the BBC archives, many hundreds of others do and  are available to listen online or download as podcasts. The earliest surviving episode has the actress Margaret Lockwood as a guest and other castaways include seven prime ministers, dozens of Oscar winners, a bunch of Olympic medallists, a few Royals and several criminals.


19 February brings the 300th anniversary of the birth of the actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick. Though he was a native of Lichfield (and former pupil of another Lichfield resident-turned-London-devotee, Samuel Johnson) by the age of 23, Garrick was acclaimed as the greatest actor on the English stage. He was a noted playwright but most famous for his Shakespearean roles – though he was not averse to ‘improving’ on the text – his adaptations included a Hamlet without the funeral of Ophelia and the need for the gravediggers, a ‘King Lear’ without the Fool and a Cordelia who lives on, an interpolated dying speech for Macbeth and a scene between the two lovers in the tomb before they die in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Be honest – who wouldn’t want to see those? He ran the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for nearly 30 years and he is now commemorated by a theatre and a pub (with Charing Cross Library neatly sandwiched in between).


1717 wasn’t just a significant year in the history of ‘legitimate’ theatre. 2 March that year saw the first performance (at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)  of The Loves of Mars and Venus by John Weaver, generally regarded as the  first ballet performed in Britain. While there had been English masques and French ballets before this, Weaver was the first person to tell a story through the medium of dance without the need for songs or dialogue. Weaver was the son of the dancing master at Shrewsbury School (public school curricula must have been rather different in the 1600s).

Mrs Hester BoothIn 1703 he had staged (at Drury Lane) a performance called The Tavern Bilkers, usually regarded as the first English pantomime (he described it as “the first entertainment that appeared on the English Stage, where the Representation and Story was carried on by Dancing Action and Motion only”) but it was The Loves of Mars and Venus (the choreography of which survives) which established Weaver as the major figure in English dance until the twentieth century. Venus was played by Hester Santlow (shown dressed as a harlequin), one of the leading ballerinas of the day, who created many roles for Weaver.


Readers of a certain age will remember adverts for Memorex tapes (other brands are available) in which a singer shattered a glass with a high note and the trick was repeated when the tape was played back. Depending on exactly how certain your age is, you may have identified the singer as the great Ella Fitzgerald whose centenary is commemorated on 25 April 2017.

Growing up in a poor district of New York and orphaned in her early teens, Ella spent time in a reformatory but soon escaped and began to enter show business via talent competitions and amateur nights, becoming an established band singer. At the age of 21 she recorded a version of the children’s nursery rhyme A Tisket A Tasket which went on to sell over a million copies. She went on to become one of the greatest of all jazz singers, developing her own idiosyncratic style of ‘scat singing’. All through her career she fought prejudice, refusing to accept any discrimination in hotels and concert venues even when such treatment was  standard in the Southern USA.

You can listen to some of her greatest recordings via the Naxos Music Library and learn more about her career in Oxford Music Online (log in to each with your Westminster library card number).


May Day has long been a festival associated with dancing and celebration and more recently with political demonstrations. But 1 May 1517 has become known as Evil May Day. Tensions between native Londoners and foreigners lead one John Lincoln to persuade Dr Bell, the vicar of St Mary’s, Spitalfields to preach against incomers and to call upon “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.”. Even though the Under-Sherriff of London (none other than Sir Thomas More)  patrolled the streets, a riot broke out when they tried to arrest an apprentice for breaking the curfew. Soon afterwards, a crowd of young men began to attack foreigners and burn their houses. The rioting continued throughout May Day – fortunately, while some houses were burned down there were no fatalities. More than a thousand soldiers were needed to put down the riot. Lincoln and the other leaders were executed, but most were spared at the instigation of Cardinal Wolsey, who according to Edward Hall

‘fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out “Mercy, Mercy!” Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and “jumped for joy”.’

Sadly this was not the last outburst of anti-foreign feeling in London’s history but such incidents are thankfully rare.


Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK RowlingA happier event took place on 30 June 1997 with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.  It’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t all wish we’d received our letter to Hogwarts instead of going to a boring Muggle school.

But we all know about Harry so let’s move on.


To 12 July and first documented ride, in 1817, of the ‘dandy horse’ or ‘running machine’ or, to you and me, a bicycle without chains or pedals. This was the first means of transport to make use of the two-wheel principle and the creator was Baron Karl Drais , perhaps the most successful inventor you’ve never heard of, and he managed an impressive 10 miles in an hour. While it looks pretty clunky by today’s standards, Drais was inspired by the Year without a Summer of 1816 when crops failed and there weren’t enough oats to feed horses.

Dandy horse

Readers of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances may remember thar Jessamy in Frederica was very proud of his skill with the ‘pedestrian curricle’. The Observer newspaper was enthralled by the invention of  ‘the velocipede or swift walker’ claiming in 1819 that, on a descent, ‘it equalled a horse at full-speed’ and suggesting that

‘on the  pavements of the Metropolis it might be impelled with great velocity, but this is forbidden. One conviction, under Mr Taylor’s Paving Act, took place on Tuesday. The individual was fined 2/-.’

When he wasn’t inventing bicycles Karl Drais was making an early typewriter, a haybox cooker and a meat grinder.

And on 27 July 1967, we note the 50th anniversary of the decriminalistion of homosexuality.  This will be celebrated with many events throughout the year such as this one at Benjamin Britten’s home and others at various National Trust properties.


Most of us can probably remember what we were doing on 31 August 1997 when we heard of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and she will be on many people’s minds as the 20th anniversary of this event approaches.

A slightly more auspicious event took place on 17 August 1917, when the two war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, an event written about by Pat Barker in her novel Regeneration, as well as Stephen Macdonald’s play Not about Heroes. Owen wrote two of his most beloved poems – Dulce Et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth while he was in hospital (he also edited The Hydra, the patients’ magazine) and was tragically killed the following year at the very end of the war. Sassoon survived the war and wrote about his hospital experiences in the autobiographical novel Sherston’s Progress. You can read more about the lives of Owen, Sassoon and the other war poets in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card).

Wilfred Owen 


Another literary anniversary is upon us on 21 September, when we note the publication of one of the bestselling fantasy books of all time – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, about a small, shy creature who becomes involved in a quest for a dragon’s hoard. It was offered first to the publisher Stanley Unwin who asked his 10 year old son Raynor to review it for him,

Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home – rich!

This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.”

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienThe book was an instant success thanks to glowing newspaper reviews (The Manchester Guardian wrote ‘The quest of the dragon’s treasure  – rightfully the dwarves treasure – makes an exciting epic of travel, magical adventures, and – working up to a devastating climax, war. Not a story for pacifist children. Or is it?’) and has never been out of print. While embarking on the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, is a pretty daunting task, The Hobbit is still funny and exciting and highly recommended to that clichéd group – children of all ages.


The audience at Warner’s Theatre in New York on 6 October 1927 knew they were going to see an exciting new movie, but none of them could have predicted that motion pictures would never be the same again. The Jazz Singer was the first feature film with synchronised singing – no dialogue had been planned but the star, Al Jolson, couldn’t resist adlibbing on set and his ‘Wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet’ (in fact, his stage catchphrase) has electrified audiences ever since.

The film was a huge hit making over $2,000,000 (having cost only $400,000) and Jolson became an international star. The movies didn’t look back and within three years, silent film was a thing of the past.

The Jazz singer posterTo be honest, seen now, the film (about a Jewish boy who defies his father to sing jazz) is slow, sentimental and creaky, and the less said about Al Jolson’s penchant for blackface the better, but it’s worth checking out his performance to see the sort of charisma that sold out Broadway theatres for 20 years.

You can also see how fan magazines reported it at the time by checking out the Lantern site – a fantastic archive of Hollywood magazines that will keep film buffs busy for days…


As of 2015 there were 5640 female clergy in the Church of England (with 14,820 men) and it’s predicted that women will make up 43% of the clergy by 2035. Yet the General Synod only voted to allow women priests (against fierce opposition from conservatives) on 25 November 1992. Now they are central to the life of the Church of England  and most of their opponents have been won over. Some of this can, of course, be attributed to The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French as the eponymous lady priest, but they’re now so much part of the landscape that even Ambridge, home of the Archers has had a woman vicar.


3 December will be the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant operationperformed by the South African surgeon Christian Barnard. The first patient, Lewis Washkansky, died 18 days after the operation (though he was  able to walk and talk after the transplant). The second patient to receive a heart was a baby who sadly didn’t survive the operation, but the third patient, Philip Blaiberg lived for another nineteen months. Six months later, in May 1968, the first British heart transplant took place at the National Heart Hospital in  Westmoreland Street, Marylebone. Now about 3,500 heart transplants take place each year and 50% of patients live for at least 10 years. So while none of us want one, it’s good to know they’re available.

Christiaan Barnard

You can find out more about these events and many more in our 24/7 library and of course the in the libraries themselves. Happy 2017!



Everyone but Shakespeare

Westminster Libraries’ users, unless they’ve been living under a rock, will know that today is the 400th anniversary of  William Shakespeare’s death. Quite a lot of us probably think of it as his birthday too though that is a little more dubious. We know he was baptised on 26 April 1564 and it is usually assumed that he was born three days before though there’s no hard evidence for that, or for very much else about his early life.

If you want to know more, read Bill Bryson’s excellent short book Shakespeare: the world as a stage which goes through the established facts we have about his life (surprisingly few – we can’t, for example, be sure where he went to school, only that he picked up some education somewhere, presumably in Stratford). But while you’re celebrating the Bard,  possibly by watching a live broadcast by the Royal Shakespeare Company, spare a thought for some of the other figures whose anniversaries are overshadowed by Will’s.

Top of the list is Spain’s most famous author Miguel Cervantes, who died on the same day as Shakespeare.

Cervantes’ greatest work, Don Quixote, is often called ‘the first modern European novel’ and tells of an elderly knight who is obsessed with tales of chivalry and who, after many adventures with his squire Sancho Panza, is bemused to find he has become a famous fictional character himself.

Don Quixote has been played in films and television by actors as varied as Boris Karloff, Peter O’Toole and Andy Garcia, though the book tends to defeat all but the most determined readers (the most famous incident, that of Don Quixote tilting at windmills comes a few chapters in). Why not resolve to be one of the elite who has actually read it?

A less well-known figure from the arts whose birthday we celebrate this week is composer Dame Ethel Smyth who was born on 23 April 1858. As well as several well-regarded operas (the most famous of which is probably The Wreckers, a tragic story set in eighteenth-century Cornwall) she composed the  March of the Women, the unofficial anthem of the votes for women movement which you may have heard on the soundtrack to the film Suffragette. Her activities for the movement even lead to her imprisonment for window-smashing. She was visited in Holloway by the conductor Thomas Beecham who watched a band of women singing the March in the quadrangle while its composer conducted with a toothbrush from her cell window. For more on this remarkable woman and to listen to some of her works (including a better sound recording than the one used for the video below), check out our online music resources.

Another figure from the arts who shared a birthday with Shakespeare was the  cinematographer and film director Ronald Neame who died in 2010 at the grand old age of 99.  His father Elwyn was a Bond Street photographer and occasional film director and his mother Ivy Close was a bona fide silent star (who received the ultimate accolade of a mention in an episode of Downton Abbey, perhaps not entirely coincidentally produced by Neame’s grandson Gareth) . Neame’s career started young – he was assistant director on Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie Blackmail and continued until the 1980s, taking in I Could Go On Singing, Judy Garland’s final film and perhaps his most famous work, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie for which Maggie Smith won an Oscar.  In his 90s he wrote an autobiography Straight from the Horse’s Mouth which is as pleasingly gossipy as one could wish.

For those who prefer deathiversaries to birthdays, why not commemorate the death, on 23 April 1975, of actor William Hartnell, best known as the First Doctor. Hartnell was born in St Pancras to an impoverished  single mother who managed to get him a place in the famed Italia Conti Stage School (attended by Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence a few years earlier). At 16 he left and joined the famed Frank Benson company which specialised in touring productions of Shakespeare. He soon turned to films, mostly in serious roles either in gangster films such as Brighton Rock or as NCOs – you’ve probably seen him in the title role in Carry on Sergeant (a role he more or less repeated in the long running sitcom The Army Game). But nothing in his 40 year career matched the success of his three years as the curmudgeonly eccentric  time traveller. It was a a role he loved and he attracted a huge personal fan mail.

You can find out more about Hartnell’s life in the biography by his grand-daughter Who’s there? and in our newspaper archives and  the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card number) . Also check out some more clips of his acting on another  birthday celebrant – Youtube which is 11 years old today!


Bardolatry in the Archives

Housed under the umbrella of Shakespeare 400 is a panoply of exhibitions, readings, performances, talks, tours and films marking this year’s quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Among the stand-outs are the offerings from the British Library, the National Archives/King’s College London,  , and the Corporation of London.

A sift through the collections at Westminster City Archives finds some earlier tributes to the Bard.

David Garrick as Richard II. Image property of Westminster City Archives

David Garrick as Richard II. Image property of Westminster City Archives

The Annual Register and Gentleman’s Magazine (available to view at the Archives Centre) of 1769 provide a commentary on the Shakespeare Jubilee of that year and on its enthusiastic promoter, the great Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Rebuilding their town hall, the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon sought the help of Garrick to fund the raising of a statue of the poet to beautify the new civic building. Garrick, a Shakespeare devotee (and of whom it’s been said that the Bard was “the only man he honestly believed to be more talented than himself”) answered the Corporation’s petition – and went much further in devising a grand ‘Jubilee’ to commemorate (a few years late) the bi-centenary of his hero’s birth in 1564.

“Sketch of Stratford Jubilee Booth or Amphitheatre”, Gentleman’s Magazine, 1769 p344. Image property of Westminster city Archives

“Sketch of Stratford Jubilee Booth or Amphitheatre”, Gentleman’s Magazine, 1769 p344. Image property of Westminster city Archives

The Jubilee took place 6-9 September 1769, and saw the construction of a rotunda to house festivities, the dedication of the new town hall, and the unveiling of the statue – together with a portrait of Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough as a companion piece. The three days events included 30 canons sounding from the banks of the Avon, serial bell-ringing, fireworks, musical performances directed by Thomas Arne (a hundred musicians from Garrick’s Drury Lane Theatre had been coached-in), a pageant of Shakespearean characters in costume, a horse race, a banquet and masked ball. No play was produced. Torrential rain on the last two days compelled the cancellation of most of the planned outdoor events, not least the colourful pageant. The Jubilee and Garrick were roundly mocked in the press.  And whilst the venture was well-attended by the London beau-monde and theatre world it saw Garrick £2000 out of pocket. But he was to more than re-coup his losses by successfully re-staging a version of the pageant under the shelter of the Drury Lane Theatre.

Shakespeare commemorations, Primrose Hill, 1864. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Shakespeare commemorations, Primrose Hill, 1864. Image property of Westminster City Archives

A newspaper cutting in our Ashbridge Collection of St Marylebone local history depicts a celebration held on Primrose Hill in 1864, part of the wider tercentenary (of birth) commemorations taking place in Stratford, London and other British towns. The events were organised by sundry bodies, including the National Shakespeare Committee and the Working Men’s Shakespeare Committee – the latter championing him as the people’s playwright and satirist of kings and courts. In London, concerts and readings were held in the Royal Agricultural Hall, St James’s Hall and the Crystal Palace. Several of the plays were performed at the Haymarket, Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells theatres. The largest gathering was for a tree planting (an oak sapling donated by Queen Victoria), speeches and much cheering on Primrose Hill. The crowd was estimated at 15-20 thousand (by the press) and 70-100 thousand (by the Working Men’s Shakespeare Committee).

The planting was performed “in the name of the workmen of England” by the highly regarded Shakespearean actor Samuel Phelps – who had revived the Sadler’s Wells theatre with productions which were faithful to the original texts. Following the ceremonies a splinter group of several thousand massed for a rally in support of another people’s hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had just left Britain, it was believed, under government duress…

Shakespeare Tercentenary at Drury Lane, programme cover, 1916. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Shakespeare Tercentenary at Drury Lane, programme cover, 1916. Image property of Westminster City Archives

The tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death was marked at Drury Lane on 2 May 1916 by

“A tribute to the genius of William Shakespeare …. humbly offered by the players and their fellow-workers in the kindred arts of music & painting”.

The eulogy in the programme’s preface acknowledged the shadow cast by the Great War:

“In honour of Shakespeare this performance has been arranged by actors, painters and musicians who have united in paying such tribute as lies in their power to the Master-Intellect of the ages. To all artists the memory of the Great Englishman is as dear as to those who recall with gratitude his patriotic love of his native land … for all his countrymen alike the deathless art of Shakespeare – especially at a time like this, so unpropitious to the higher levels of imaginative creation – is at once a vindication and a pledge that Art itself is immortal”.

The evening included a performance of Julius Caesar, a programme of music arranged by Sir Hubert Parry, and a Shakespeare pageant.

Shakespeare Birthday Festival at the Old Vic, programme cover, 1938. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Shakespeare Birthday Festival at the Old Vic, programme cover, 1938. Image property of Westminster City Archives

A ‘Shakespeare Birthday Festival’ held on 25 April 1938 at the Old Vic (People’s Opera and Playhouse) presented scenes from a dozen of the plays and George Bernard Shaw’s one-act comedy The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.  Among the Festival’s better remembered actors performing were Marius Goring, Jessica Tandy, Michael Redgrave, Donald Wolfit,  Sybil Thorndike, William Devlin and Tyrone Guthrie.

The Archives Centre, keen to join bardolators past and present, is currently displaying a selection of portraits and likenesses, views of Tudor and Jacobean Bankside and its theatres, London memorials to Shakespeare, theatre programmes and playbills of historic West End productions, and a gallery of noted Shakespearean players.


A look ahead to 2016

Well, 2015 is almost over, which means it’s time to look forward to 2016 and see what anniversaries we will be commemorating. It’s a particularly interesting year for them.


One of the great unsung heroes of medicine will be remembered on 1 January (or if he isn’t, he should be!). On that date in 1916, Oswald Hope Robertson, a British born research scientist from Harvard  Medical School, then working in France, carried out the first successful blood transfusion using blood that had been stored and refrigerated.

There had been blood transfusions before (the soon-to-be-more-famous-as-an-architect Christopher Wren experimented on injecting fluids into dogs as early as 1857) but the donor and the recipient had both needed to be present as there was no way of storing the blood for later use. Robertson is usually credited with setting up the first blood bank and thus being instrumental in saving thousands of lives. So think about him if you donate blood or if you are someone who needs a transfusion. And of course, with any reference to blood donation, a mention of Tony Hancock becomes compulsory: “A pint! That’s very nearly an armful!


February brings with it the 90th anniversary of Black History Month. Yes, we know that this is commemorated in October in Britain but in the USA it’s in February. The first events were in the second week of February (chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and the great abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass) when the historian Carter G Woodson of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History announced the first Negro History Week.

This was taken up by school boards in North Carolina, Delaware and West Virginia and was soon successful enough that other states followed. By the 1970s, the week had become a month and had renamed itself as Black History Month. In Britain it has been celebrated since 1987 and is now a national institution.


There’s no doubt that one of the biggest anniversaries next year will be in July when football fans will be celebrating 50 years since England last won a major tournament. All very tedious for those of us not in thrall to the beautiful game but even non-footie fans will want to remember an associated story from 19 March 1966 when the World Cup was stolen from Westminster Central Hall where it was on display at a stamp exhibition. A £4,500 reward (about £70,00 in today’s money according to the excellent Measuring Worth site) was offered. A ransom note asking for £15,000 was received (the thief probably should have gone for the stamps which were worth £3 million) and the chap who posted it was soon arrested but the real thieves were never found.

However the cup was found, by the hero of the hour – Pickles, a border collie who spotted a newspaper wrapped package next to a car in South Norwood and soon uncovered the missing trophy. Read more about the story in the Guardian:

“Now Pickles began the life of a celebrity. He starred in a feature film, The Spy with the Cold Nose, and appeared on Magpie, Blue Peter and many other TV shows. He was made Dog of the Year, awarded a year’s free supply of food from Spillers and there were offers to visit Chile, Czechoslovakia and Germany.”

Pickles received an appropriate reward and British Pathé was there to capture the moment:


April is going to be Bardtastic as the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare will be remembered on 23 April (Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote died on the same day so expect to hear plenty about him). Shakespeare’s Globe will be projecting 23 short films on the South Bank of the Thames, one for each of the plays. They’ll probably being putting on some theatre too.

A more lowbrow commemoration will be on 11 April, 80 years after the first Butlins holiday camp opened in Skegness (which as we all know, is ‘so bracing’) in 1936. The camp was opened by Amy Johnson, the pioneer aviator and was an instant success. A week’s holiday with three meals a day and all the knobbly knees competitions you could eat would have set you back 36 shillings and people flocked there, though three years later the camp was requisitioned for use as a naval training camp. Read about the history of Butlins in Sylvia Endacott’s Butlin’s: 75 years of fun!


Five years later on 9 May 1941, an event took place that got little publicity at the time but which literally changed the course of the war. On that day the German submarine U-110 was captured by the Royal Navy, and with it an Enigma machine complete with code books. Fortunately the Germans didn’t realise that the machine had been retrieved (the submarine commander tried to scuttle it rather than allow it to be captured and he himself drowned) and so it became a vital part of the code breaking activities at Bletchley Park led by Alan Turing.

The Imitation GameThere are plenty of books about Bletchley available in Westminster Libraries – find out lots more in a previous blog post on the subject – or you could borrow and watch the recent film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch.


PocahontasMoving back in time, 12 June sees the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Rebecca Rolfe from Virginia with her husband and baby son Thomas. She stayed at the Bell Savage Inn in Ludgate Hill (which itself had a very interesting history, being a former theatre) and soon became the toast of the town, being presented to King James I, attending a masque by Ben Jonson and having her portrait painted by the Dutch artist Simon de Passe. Sadly though, London didn’t suit her health and she planned to return to Virginia the following year, but tragically died at Gravesend without seeing her homeland again.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Rebecca Rolfe, better known by her Algonquian name of Pocahontas was one of the first native born Americans to visit this country. You may have  seen the Disney film but the reality is much more interesting. You can read about how Pocahontas saved the life of Captain John Smith and ensured peace between her people and the English settlers in A man most driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the founding of America.


Castleton Knight advert, 1923Readers of cinema trade journals in the 1920s would have noticed adverts for Castleton Knight (a producer and distributor) who claimed he could ‘show a perfect picture through any fog’. This boast seems rather baffling now but anyone who attended the cinema before 1956 would have known exactly what the problem was – smog. This didn’t just affect the streets of London and other cities – it found its way into buildings too.

In 1952 an opera at Sadlers Wells had to be cancelled and the leading lady was treated for smoke damage. It has been calculated that 4000 people died in just a few days in 1952 as a direct consequence of the London smog.

On 5 July 1956 the Clean Air Act was passed, which introduced smoke control areas in which only smokeless fuels could be used and which ensured the removal of power stations from cities among other measures. Smog, in Britain at least, is a thing of the past though other countries certainly have a way to go to reduce air pollution.

You can read about the smog in The Big Smoke: a history of air pollution in London since medieval times, by Peter Brimblecombe. Or you could check out some contemporary newspaper reports – a picture in the Illustrated London News shows the Christmas Tree being erected in Trafalgar Square four days late because of the smog.
(And no, we don’t know what Castleton Knight’s invention actually was).


If this article had been published by Westminster Libraries 25 years ago, it would have been typed on an electric typewriter or perhaps a PC with a basic word processing programme and then sent out in a paper newsletter rather than being researched and published online. Not that many of us would have known what the word online meant. There were online databases but it was a laborious process logging on to each one individually and then printing out search results and few but academics had access to the right computers and modems anyway.

However all this changed thanks to Tim Berners Lee, the father of the World Wide Web. While the first website went live in December 1990, it was on 6 August 1991 that Berners-Lee posted a summary of the World Wide Web project on several internet newsgroups, which marked the debut of the web as a publicly available service on the internet.

You can still read Berners-Lee’s post here. Subsequently he has been knighted, awarded the Order of Merit, named by Time Magazine as one the Hundred most important people of the twentieth century and even took part in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.


The World Wide Web has certainly changed all our lives. A smaller, but no less important event – for the people of London anyway – took place on 2 September 1666, 350 years ago when a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane and raged for 5 days. Over 400 acres of London were destroyed including approximately 13,000 houses and 67 of the 109 city churches as well as St Pauls Cathedral.  A witness to the Great Fire of London was the diarist Samuel Pepys, who ‘saw a lamentable fire’ with

“Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”

Old St Paul's Cathedral in flames
It took nearly half a century to rebuild the City, with St Pauls not completed until 1711.

By Permission of Heaven: the story of the Great Fire of London, by Adrian TinniswoodFor a first hand account of the city before the Fire, have a look at John Stow’s Survey of London, published in 1603, which describes in detail many of the churches and other buildings that were destroyed in 1666. For more on the Fire itself, you could listen to the podcast on the subject from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time or you could read Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven: the story of the Great Fire of London.


In October 1941, 75 years ago, a magazine called Liliput published a cartoon of a group of schoolgirls reading a notice with the caption “Owing to the international situation, the match with St Trinian’s has been postponed.” The cartoonist, Ronald Searle, was to spend most of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese, though he continued drawing even in the terrible conditions of Changi. On his return home he began to submit cartoons to Punch, The Strand, Radio Times and other magazines and his first book, Hurrah for St Trinian’s and other lapses was published in 1948.

St Trinian's : the entire appalling business - Ronald SearleThe ghastly schoolgirls were soon followed by their schoolboy equivalent, eternal prep school cynic Nigel Molesworth but it was St Trinians which remained Searle’s greatest success. The school, with its pupils more interested in the racing results than their education and disreputable staff soon inspired a series of successful films along with several more books, and the cartoons were collected together as St Trinian’s : the entire appalling business.

St Trinians  was even revived in the twenty first century with two more films starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth and no doubt will continue to entertain and horrify for many years to come.


One anniversary that will definitely not go unmarked, by the BBC at least, falls on 2 November 1936 when the television service officially opened (though there had been experimental transmissions since 1932). Until the war put an end to television (the engineers were need for more important work), programmes were only broadcast within a 40 mile radius of Alexandra Palace and by 1939, 23,000 licences had been sold. The Times was impressed with the first day’s transmission

“As seen on the small screen of a receiver in Broadcasting House, the inaugural ceremony was more successful than those previously unacquainted with the achievements of television had expected… the very successful transmissions of the male television announcer suggested that there is a technique to be learned by those who wish to be well-televised.”


The final anniversary of the year is, appropriately enough, a festive one. For  Christmas 1616 King James I requested a masque (a courtly entertainment involving singing, dancing and general razzamatazz) from the poet Ben Jonson. Christmas, his masque begins

Enter Christmas, with two or three of the Guard.

He is attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him.

While he’s not actually *called* Father Christmas, he is soon followed by his 10 children – Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Offering, Wassail, Mumming, New-Year’s-Gift, Post and Pair,  Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake, each followed by a torch-bearer carrying marchpane, cakes and wine. It seems that this was the first time Christmas had been personified so 2016 can really be considered his 400th birthday. Find out more about the history of Father Christmas.

We’ve mentioned lots of books and online resources above, but if you want to find out more about these or any other anniversaries throughout the year, there’s much more to be found using both the 24/7 Library and of course the libraries themselves – search the catalogue and see where it takes you!


23 April is a big day for books

World Book Night 2014It’s no coincidence that today, 23 April is Shakespeare’s birth (and death) day, St George’s Day and, later on, World Book Night.

It’s also the UNESCO International Day of the Book – read more about the date on the World Book Night website.

We’ll be celebrating alongside our Triborough colleagues with linked events taking place in Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington and Paddington libraries – meet Emily Winslow at Paddington Library from 6.00-8.00pm. We also have another great author event happening at Pimlico Library, where we’ll be joined by Prajwal Parajuly discussing his book Land where I Flee. Kicking off the activities, 11-18 year olds are invited to celebrate with Real Life Ghost Stories in Kensal Green Cemetary – an event organised by Queen’s Park Library. It’s free, but booking is essential and it starts at 1.15pm today – so contact the library to book your place now!

Alongside the celebrations, WBN Book Givers are invited to take the opportunity to give away books. Some staff members let me know which books they’ll be giving away and why:

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie“I shall be giving away copies of Agatha Christie’s crime thriller After the Funeral at Paddington Library.
I chose it because I enjoy books set in the England of yesteryear – nostalgia about middle class small town life. This novel was turned in to a film called ‘Murder at the Gallop’, starring Margaret Rutherford as the amateur sleuth, Miss Marple.”

“I plan to give away copies of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City to the homeless people who use Charing Cross Library and The Connection at St Martins in the Fields. It’s a bit of escapism to San Francisco and the ‘family’ in the boarding house of Mrs Madrigal, where all sorts of people live, love and grieve.”

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin“I’ll be giving out Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, just because it’s a great read, funny and will put a smile on faces. I will be giving the book out at Pimlico Library.”


We wish everyone a great World Book Night, whether a Book Giver or simply a reader, and hope to see you at one of our events.

Brush up your Shakespeare!

Shakespeare by Bill BrysonWhile it may seem as if 2012 is the Year Of Dickens, he’s not the only great British writer to have helped the Doctor fight alien invasion and it’s only right that so many arts organisations should be devoting the rest of the year to celebrating his 448th birthday (if you want to send him a card, his official birthday is actually the 23rd April though we don’t know for sure whether he was born then.

As our old friend the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it:

Shakespeare, William (1564–1616),
playwright and poet, was baptized, probably by the parish priest, John Bretchgirdle (or Bracegirdle), in Holy Trinity, the parish church of Stratford upon Avon, on 26 April 1564, the third child of John Shakespeare (d. 1601) and Mary Arden (d. 1608).
It seems appropriate that the first of many gaps in the records of Shakespeare’s life should be the exact date of his birth, though that is a common problem for the period. He was probably born on 21, 22, or 23 April 1564, given the 1559 prayer book’s instructions to parents on the subject of baptisms. But, ever since Joseph Greene, an eighteenth-century Stratford curate, informed the scholar George Steevens that Shakespeare was born on 23 April, with no apparent evidence for his assertion, and Steevens adopted that date in his 1773 edition of Shakespeare, it has been usual to assume that Shakespeare was born on St George’s day, so that England’s patron saint and the birth of the ‘national poet’ can be celebrated on the same day.”

Confusingly, if you want to join in the celebrations in his home town (handily accessible via Marylebone Station), the main events are all happening tomorrow, Saturday 21 April.

The Lodger, by Charles NichollBut we Londoners are traditionalists and on Monday 23 April, Shakespeare’s Globe is kicking off its ambitious programme of every one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays  in 37 different languages with Troilus and Cressida in Maori (complete with haka!), finishing with Hamlet in Lithuanian. If you prefer your Shakespeare in English, check out the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season  schedules for such delights as Twelfth Night with David Tennant as Malvolio and Simon Schama on Shakespeare and Us.

There will be plenty of other productions around London this summer – check out the Stage & Screen section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites for a look at the excellent theatre listing sites Whatsonstage and London Theatre Guide. And if you fancy treading the boards yourself, there’s the Amateur Theatre Network for all your Amdram needs. Or closer to home, you could check out the Play-reading Group at Maida Vale Library.

Cue for Treason, by Geoffrey TreaseOf course, there have been plenty of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works – a glance at the Internet Movie Database reveals that he was the source for more than 800 films  going back to Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s King John in 1899. Sir Herbert, incidentally, had six illegitimate children, one of whom grew up to be Carol Reed, director of Oliver! and The Third Man. Find out more about the Bard’s cinematic career at the BFI’s Screenonline site. If you access the site on a Westminster Library public computer you will be able to view rare clips and films such as the 1899 King John itself. And don’t forget to check out our catalogue for DVDs, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (a high school Taming of the Shrew) and Shakespeare in Love (from the days when Colin Firth used to play the bad guy!).

Having watched a few plays, you will now want to look at the texts. Check out the Books & Literature section of the Gateway for  Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks – both of them offer downloadable ebooks in a variety of formats. For background information, check out Oxford Reference Online, another of Westminster’s online subscription resources. Here you can read the full text of the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare – everything you want to know about the Bard from Aaron to Zuccaro.

The Road to London, by Barbara MitchelhillHave a look at the library catalogue for some of the many  books on Shakespeare we have. Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare : the world as a stage goes back to the original sources to examine what we know for certain about the man. Which apparently doesn’t include where he was educated, whatever they tell you at King Edward VI School in Stratford. In The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, Charles Nicholl analyses in-depth a single incident in Shakespeare’s life, giving an insight into his way of life while he was writing his materspieces. Children’s novels, such as Geoffrey Trease’s classic Cue for Treason and Barbara Mitchelhill’s recent The Road to London, have looked at the lives of the Globe Theatre’s boy players.

While you’re reading, why not crank up the Naxos Music Library, another online resource, where you’ll find no less than 544 tracks inspired by Shakespeare.  What better way to celebrate the bard’s birthday than listening to  Cole Porter’s Brush Up Your Shakespeare  (from Kiss Me Kate) performed by the late, great Sid James.


All the world’s a stage

Macbeth, by William ShakespearePaddington Library Reading Group recently celebrated William Shakespeare’s official birthday (April 23rd).

The group discussed one tragedy (Macbeth) and one comedy (Much ado about nothing) among his works.

The group was particularly interested in the way the staging has varied according to the discretion of the director and the trends at the time the performance was staged. Much Ado About Nothing, by Willaim Shakespeare

We felt that Shakespeare’s plays have an enduring quality that can be reworked to appeal to modern audiences.

The next meeting is on 20 May, when we’ll be discussing various books  on the theme of ‘Two-timers’ – books on marital infidelity, such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.