London Diaries

London Diaries, by Jen Farren. 

See the city through the eyes and experiences of those who lived here – the diaries of locals, travelers – even the royal family. Watch the Great Fire of London with Samuel Pepys in 1666, go bear-baiting in 1592, watch a Shakespearean play in the original Globe Theatre, live the Blitz with George Orwell, watch a hanging with Herman Melville, wander through the London fog with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

heads on spikes

Heads on Stakes – 1592

Violence and death were an everyday sight in early London:

“Over the river at London there is a beautiful long bridge, with quite splendid, handsome, and well-built houses, which are occupied by merchants of consequence. Upon one of the towers, nearly in the middle of the bridge, are stuck up about thirty-four heads of persons of distinction, who had in former times been condemned and beheaded for creating riots and from other causes.” Frederick, Duke of Württemberg, 13 August 1592.

Bankside Bear Gardenbear

Bull & Bear Fights – 1592

A visiting Duke recorded a trip to the contemporary sport:

“In order to gratify his Highness, and at his desire, two bears and a bull were baited; at such times you can perceive the breed and mettle of the dogs, for although they receive serious injuries from the bears, are caught by the horns of the bull, and tossed into the air so as frequently to fall down again upon the horns, they do not give in, that one is obliged to pull them back by the tails, and force open their jaws. Four dogs at once were set on the bull; they, however, could not gain any advantage over him, for he so artfully contrived to ward off their attacks that they could not well get at him; on the contrary, the bull served them very scurvily by striking and butting at them.” Frederick, Duke of Württemberg, 1 September 1592.

frost fair

Thames Frost Fairs – 1600 – 1814

The River Thames froze over and “Frost Fairs” were held on the ice:

“Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgment on the land, the trees not only splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers[e] places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.” John Evelyn, 1683.

charing x

A Hanging – 1660

Charing Cross is at the junction of Strand and Whitehall south of Trafalgar Square. Those responsible for executing King Charles 1st were publicly executed here after the monarchy was restored.

“I went out to Charing Cross to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy….. took Captain Cuttance and Mr Sheply to the Sun Tavern and did give them some oysters. After that I went by water home where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.” Samuel Pepys, 13 October 1660.


Great Plague – 1665

“This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw, which took away the apprehension.”  Samuel Pepys, 7 June 1665.

“The town grows very sickly, and people are afraid of it.” Samuel Pepys, 15 June 1665.

“The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficing to do it in.” Samuel Pepys, 12 August 1665.

“I wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection.” Samuel Pepys, 16 August 1665.

Great Fire Of London – 1666

On September 2nd the house of the King’s Baker in Pudding Lane caught fire, it blazed up Fish Street Hill, Thames Street, igniting the riverfront warehouses and spread out of all control. The damage to London was immense.

“I rode down to the waterside, and there saw a lamentable fire. . 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 waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.” – Samuel Pepys, 2 September 1666.

‘Fire coming on in that narrow street, on both sides, with infinite fury, Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmesan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.’ – Samuel Pepys, 4 September 1666.

“The burning still rages, and it was now gotten as far as the Inner Temple; all Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate hill, Warwick lane, Newgate, Paul’s chain, Watling street, now flaming, and most of it reduced to ashes; the stones of St. Paul’s flew like [grenades], the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them. John Evelyn, 4 September 1666.


Watching Shakespeare At The Original Globe Theatre – 1611

Full of costume, music, costumes and special effects, audiences placed a penny in a box (the box office) for a standing room ticket as a Groundling.

“Anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door. And in the pauses of the comedy food and drink are carried round amongst the people and one can thus refresh himself at his own cost.” Thomas Platter,1599.

Reviews of the early plays were variable:

(On The Winter’s Tale) “How he changed apparel with the King of Bohemia’s son, and then how he turned courtier, etc. Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows.” Simon Forman, 15 May 1611.

(On Richard II) “I say it was a villain’s part and a Judas kiss to hang the man for telling him the truth. Beware by this example of noblemen of their fair words, and say little to them, lest they do the like by thee for thy goodwill.”  Simon Forman, 20 April 1611.

(On A Midsummer Nights Dream) “I had never seen before nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life”. Samuel Pepys, 1662


A Murderers Execution – 1849

In a sensational crime George and Marie Manning were hung after a body was found under their kitchen floor. Their execution was a London event, with a crowd of thousands arriving to eat, drink and watch the spectacle. American author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville recorded that he:

“Walked over Hungerford Bridge to Horsemonger Lane Borough to see the last end of the Mannings. Paid haft a crown each for a stand on the roof of a house adjoining…All in all, a most wonderful, horrible and unspeakable scene” Herman Melville, 12 November 1849.


Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens – 1749

The top hotspot for eating, drinking, dancing and dating, thousands came to walk the alleyways, eat in supper boxes and enjoy the statues, arches, orchestra and temples eating ham and drinking rum punch:

“By far the best understood and prettiest spectacle that I ever saw…nothing in a fairy tale ever surpassed it . . It began about three o’clock, and at about five (o’clock) people of fashion began to go. When you entered, you found the whole garden laid with masks and spread with tents . . in one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked, as were all the various bands of music who were disposed in different parts of the garden.”  Horace Walpole, 25 April, 1749.

“Much of Vauxhall’s attraction lay in these romantic thoroughfares, where behaviour of the guests was not always above reproach, leading the Magistrates to order Tyers to fence them off in 1763. It was not unusual for young men to ogle the ladies as they passed and newspaper ads were taken out by bloods who had taken a fancy to a certain lady, expressing his passion for all to read. Let us not forget John Keats, who titled one of his works, “Sonnet to a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall.”  Horace Walpole, 23 June, 1750.

The Imperial History of England, comprising the entire work of D. Hume ... brought down to the present time by W. C. Stafford and H. W. Dulcken. With engravings ... and ... woodcuts

Queen Victoria’s Coronation – 1838

Queen Victoria kept a diary, recording the day she became Queen:

“There were millions of my loyal subjects, assembled in every spot, to witness the Procession. Their good humour & excessive loyalty was beyond everything. I really cannot say how proud I felt to be the Queen of such a nation. I was alarmed at times for fear the people would be crushed, in consequence of the tremendous rush & pressure. (Once inside Westminster Abbey) I took off my Circlet of diamonds & proceeded bare headed, to the place before the altar, where I took my seat on St Edward’s Chair, & the Dalmatic Robe was clasped around me by the Lord Great Chamberlain. There followed all the various ceremonies, ending by the Crown being placed on my head, which I must own was the most beautiful, impressive moment….The shouts, which were very great, the drums, the trumpets, the firing of the guns”.

london fog

The London Fog – 1857

Victorian London was full of choking, dirty, fog leading to deaths from pollution and accidents from being unable to see.

“I went home by way of Holborn, and the fog was denser than ever,— very black, indeed, more like a distillation of mud than anything else; the ghost of mud,—the spiritualized medium of departed mud, through which the dead citizens of London probably tread, in the Hades whither they are translated. So heavy was the gloom, that gas was lighted in all the shop-windows; and the little charcoal-furnaces of the women and – boys, roasting chestnuts, threw a ruddy, misty glow around them. And yet I liked it. This fog seems an atmosphere proper to huge, grimy London; as proper to London, as that light neither of the sun nor moon is to the New Jerusalem. On reaching home, I found the same fog diffused through the drawing-room, though how it could have got in is a mystery. Since nightfall, however, the atmosphere is clear again. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 8th December 1857.


London Blitz – 1941

During WW2 between 7 September 1940 and 21 May 1941, London was bombed 71 times causing immense damage, shock and fear. Many started to sleep in bomb shelters and tube stations.

“Londoners are very much changed, everyone very hysterical, talking in much louder tones, etc., etc.  If this is so, it is something that happens gradually and that one does not notice while in the middle of it, as with the growth of a child.  The only change I have definitely noticed since the air-raids began is that people are much more ready to speak to strangers in the street. . . .  The Tube stations don’t now stink to any extent, the new metal bunks are quite good, and the people one sees there are reasonably well found as to bedding and seem contented and normal in all ways – but this just what disquiets me.  What is one to think of people who go on living this subhuman life night after night for months, including periods of a week or more when no aeroplane has come near London? . . .  It is appalling to see children still in all the Tube stations, taking it all for granted and having great fun riding round and round the Inner Circle.” George Orwell, 1 March 1941

See more from Jen @ The Blloku Blogger


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