Waterloo 2022 – the London tour was the first official tour day. I had a great dinner last night at the Clarence pub, meeting the rest of the tour group then this morning we set off on the London section of the tour.
We began outside Lanesborough House. The former home of the Viscounts Lanesborough, it is a beautiful neoclassical building on Hyde Park Corner opposite Apsley House. From 1733 it housed St George’s Hospital until it became a five star hotel in 1991. It was the beginning of our walking tour around the early nineteenth century heart of London.
Our guides were historians Gareth Glover who has published more than a hundred books on the Peninsular War and Waterloo campaign and Kristine Hughes Patrone who runs Number One London tours and is the author of Waterloo Witnesses and who can talk forever on the Duke of Wellington, or ‘Artie’ as he’s also known and the social world in which he moved. We visited Hamilton Place, Wellington’s temporary London home in 1814-15 from where he and some of his staff departed for Brussels in 1815. We saw the site of Tattersalls, the famous auctioneer of quality horses during the period and learned something about the best choice of horses for officers setting off on campaign.
We moved on to the Grenadier Pub, and heard Kristine’s personal experience of the local ghost story and we walked between mews and carriage houses, now converted into fabulously expensive residential properties and were able to get a sense of how busy the area would have been in 1815 with the army barracks, Horse Guards and the comings and goings of officers and men alongside fashionable London.
No Wellington visit would be complete without a trip to Apsley House, also known as Number One London. There is an excellent Wellington Museum inside the house which includes a spectacular art collection, much of which was captured from the French after the Battle of Vitoria and which the Spanish then gave to Wellington after the war. The house was originally bought by Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, but in 1817 financial difficulties caused him to sell it to his famous brother, by then the Duke of Wellington, who needed a London base from which to pursue his new career in politics.
We went on to St James’s Square where the Waterloo Dispatch and captured French eagles were delivered to the Prince Regent, who was attending a soiree hosted by Mrs Edmund Boehm on 21 June 1815. The dispatch was brought by Major Henry Percy, one of Wellington’s ADCs. Percy first delivered Wellington’s dispatch to the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for War in Grosvenor Square before going to lay the eagles at the feet of the Prince Regent.
Our final stop for the day was the Horse Guards museum and were in time to see an inspection parade. After that it was back to the hotel in preparation for an early start on the Eurostar to Brussels the following morning.
I try to imagine what it would be like to still have her with me. These days, it’s not unheard of for a woman to live to that age, and to be sound in mind, if not always in body. She’d have loved to have seen her grandchildren grow up and she’d have been desperately proud of both of them. She’d have been proud of me too. She was one of the first people I allowed to read one of my unpublished books and I was very nervous about it. Mum was a voracious reader who haunted the public library and was on first name terms with all the staff there. She was also honest. She handed me back the manuscript of A Respectable Woman with a casual air, as if it didn’t mean much to her.
“If I’d got that from the library, I’d be looking for more books by that author,” she said, in matter of fact tones. “Better get writing some more.”
It was one of the best tributes I ever had as a writer.
Mum was born in 1931 in an old weavers’ cottage in Bessy Street in Bethnal Green, East London. Her parents, Herbert and Hilda Taylor had seven children, although the youngest, Joyce, survived only a few days after birth. My Mum used to tell us that she could remember them using a dressing table drawer as a crib for the baby. The family later moved to a small terraced house in Hartley Street, close by.
My Uncle Herbie was the eldest, followed by Hilda, Violet, Jimmy, Mum and then Ronnie. The family was poor, in a way that it’s hard for us to imagine now, but fiercely respectable. There were iron-clad rules about cleanliness and tidiness and if you wore white socks they had to BE white. My Nan washed down her front steps every morning until she no longer had her own front step, net curtains were bleached and windows were cleaned even when there wasn’t much to eat. I never knew my grandfather, but I’m told he ruled the family with a rod of iron, and for all the humorous stories told about him, I’ve always suspected that all of them felt a sense of freedom along with their sadness when he died in 1946 when my Mum was just fifteen.
Wartime came, bringing the Blitz to the East End and the family separated. Herbie went into the army, Hilda joined the ambulance service and the youngest four were evacuated to Norfolk. It wasn’t a good experience, and as an adult, my Mum spoke very little of her time there. We never knew why they were brought home, right back into the middle of the bombing, but it was clearly bad. For a time they remained at home. Vi was old enough to leave school and start work, and the youngest three attended the local school, dodging air raid wardens on their way home and collecting shrapnel from bomb sites. They were still in London in June 1943 when the tragedy of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster took the life of one of their cousins and they could remember the falling of the first V1 flying bombs.
At some point, probably in 1944, they were evacuated again to a farm near Tamworth. This second experience was very different to the first. Mr and Mrs Wiggins were an older, childless couple, who probably chose the Taylors because the two boys could help on the farm, but they were very kind, if old-fashioned, and took good care of the children, inviting my Nan to visit and sending farm produce home to her when they could. My Mum was very attached to them and remained in touch after the war. I can remember the excitement of visits to the Wiggins farm as a small child.
After the war it was back to London and a short time back at school before Mum left at 14. She was already something of a rebel, and rejected well-paid jobs in local factories to travel up to the West End to work in an office. Her father was furious, believing that it was her duty to contribute as much as she could to the family budget, but Mum was determined. She was clearly bright, although it was many years later while sorting out some old family papers, that she discovered that she had been offered a scholarship to carry on with her education at the local girls grammar school. The headmistress of her school wrote a very eloquent letter begging her parents to let her go, and assuring them that the scholarship covered all expenses, even the uniform. Mum had never known about this, and I think it was a shock even after all those years, with both her parents dead, to find out that they’d refused it on her behalf without even telling her about it.
Mum did well at work, taking every opportunity she could to learn new skills. War ended in Europe and then Japan and Mum accompanied her elder sisters to the celebrations proudly wearing home made blouses sewn from parachute silk. Hilda and Vi married and soon afterwards, Hilda emigrated to Australia with her new husband.
Life changed in 1946 when my grandfather, who had been ill for many years with chest problems, probably an industrial illness, contracted pneumonia and died. My grandmother was ill in hospital with the same thing, and with elder sisters married and moved on, Mum was on her own with the two younger boys until her eldest brother arrived, rushed home on compassionate leave from the army. With her father gone, there were suddenly new freedoms for my Mum and she made the most of them. At the age of seventeen, she surprised everybody by announcing that she had signed up to join the Women’s Land Army.
Mum had very happy memories of her Land Army days near Cambridge and we loved her stories when we were children. The women’s land army finally received a veterans’ badge and acknowledgement for their service in 2007. I can’t tell you what Mum said about that, but she was actually very proud of it. I still have the badge she wore at the time. Mum’s stories made even the worst tasks sound like a laugh and talked fondly of dances at the local American and Canadian air bases. She had several boyfriends during those years, light-hearted romances with a Canadian pilot and an Irishman from an army base, called Paddy, but then towards the end of her time there, she met Kurt, a former German POW who had chosen to remain in the area after the war, working on a farm. Kurt was different, it was serious, and for a time I think she genuinely thought she might marry him, but the prospect of him possibly wanting to move back to Germany one day made her hesitate.
She was still undecided when she left the Land Army, and went up to Cambridge at weekends to visit Kurt, hitching lifts on Army lorries to save the train fare in a way that would terrify us today. Perhaps she would have taken the risk eventually, but in 1950, working as a telephonist in a City office, she was asked to be bridesmaid at a close friend’s wedding. The best man was the best friend of the groom, a young builder’s apprentice by the name of George Bryant and my Mum had been dodging him for months, knowing that Violet and Bobby were trying to set up a date. She later found out he had been doing the same thing, as he was still recovering from a broken romance. They couldn’t avoid the wedding though, they met, and my mother’s life suddenly became a lot more complicated.
It took several months for her to decide. Unusually, she was completely honest with both Kurt and my Dad, and she continued to go up to Cambridge at some weekends. Others were spent getting to know my Dad. They were both broke, so dates often consisted of long walks along the Embankment. Dad was from South London, not far from the Elephant and Castle, and wasn’t seen as a very good prospect by my Mum’s family. He was very quiet, very shy and came from the wrong side of the river, with no education. Her brothers, all as confident and full of it as she was, used to tease him unmercifully. Dad put up with it, got used to it, and won my Nan over very quickly by offering to decorate her house in his spare time. He was very good at it, ignored Jimmy and Ronnie’s tormenting and quietly waited.
At some point, he must have decided that it was decision making time. I’ve never known how that was worked out, but Mum went up to Cambridge to talk to Kurt and promised my Dad that she’d give him a definite answer on the Sunday evening when she got back. The ensuing story is a family legend, with something farcical about it which could never happen in these days of mobile phones and messaging. Mum’s train was delayed and she missed their rendezvous which led Dad to think she’d decided to marry Kurt. He went home, miserable, but then decided he still wanted to speak to her so went back out and got the underground to her house. She, meanwhile, got the underground to his house, only to find he wasn’t there. In their mutual upset, it took two more cross London train journeys before they finally managed to meet up. They were married in 1952 on Christmas Day.
Theirs was a traditional life. They lived in rented flats and houses all their lives, worked hard, saved their money and raised two daughters. Both worked their way to better jobs, my Dad spending a lot of his working life working for the Post Office and then British Telecom, my Mum doing a variety of office jobs, then staying home with the children until I went to secondary school when she took a job in a bank. There was nothing remarkable about Mum’s life, and yet in her own way, she remained quietly different.
Mum was fiercely independent to the end of her days. Although her education was severely cut short, both by the war and by her parents poverty and limited viewpoint, she was self-taught. Like my Dad, she was a reader, good at arithmetic and passionate about history. My childhood never took me on foreign holidays but I grew to know the winding back streets of London in a way that few of my schoolmates did. We walked for miles every weekend, fed pigeons in Trafalgar Square, went to every royal event, saw the Changing of the Guard regularly and got locked in the park after the firework display for the Royal Wedding, my sister and I having to hoist Mum and Auntie Vi over the fence to get out.
She supported me through school days, very hands off unless I asked for help with a problem, but willing to step in if necessary. She valued independence and would probably seem almost neglectful in these days of helicopter parenting, but she was always there, rock solid, if I needed her. She supported me through university, through working life, through marriage and children. She adored her grandchildren and was very hands on, a favourite playmate, even though my choice of late motherhood meant that she was not as active as she would have liked.
In later life, she had a variety of health problems and wasn’t always patient about it when they got in the way of real life. She and my Dad enjoyed retirement, took up sequence dancing, got more adventurous about holidays and finally got a dog. We talked sometimes about them moving to the island after we came to live here. Dad seriously considered it, he loved the countryside and being by the sea. My Mum loved them too and visited three or four times a year, but she refused to consider a move. Mum was a Londoner, and a city girl. As with her ventures into rural life as a girl, she enjoyed the outdoors, but her roots were in London, in the East End, and along the banks of the Thames where she’d done her courting and fallen in love.
When they finally moved to the island it was too late. Dad had cancer and died only a couple of months after he got here and Mum, by then, was already showing signs of dementia. She’d smoked all her life, long after Dad gave up, calmly asserting that it was her one vice and she knew the risks. We gave up arguing about it, we knew how stubborn she could be. Vascular dementia was the legacy of that vice, a series of small strokes over the years, which gradually took her away, until she no longer knew who I was.
Even in the home, with declining faculties, she was something of a legend. She found a friend who clearly reminded her of my Dad, and they managed to make themselves the centre of the day room, passing acerbic comments on whatever was going on around them. She was funny to the end, reminding me heartbreakingly of the mother I adored with the occasional sharp comment. She outlived my Dad by six years and was buried beside him on a quiet hillside in Braddan, a long way from her home town. Mum wouldn’t have given a damn about that, it was the living she was interested in.
At her funeral, the weather was appalling, and my sister and I were wholly unsuitably dressed for it, tottering over to the graveside in heeled shoes and our smart funeral outfits. The wind howled, the rain came down, and our flimsy umbrellas were instantly wrecked. The vicar, clearly Manx, was well-prepared with a big solid umbrella, and there was something slightly smug about him as he stood reciting the final words of the funeral as the coffin was lowered into the grave. There was a sudden huge gust of wind which caught his umbrella just the wrong way, and took him off his feet, knocking his glasses off and nearly sending him into the muddy open grave.
Suddenly she was there with me, laughing. I looked at my sister and I knew she was hearing it too. We stood there on that rain lashed hillside, holding each other up laughing, as we’d once had to hold Mum up, hiding behind the car at a family funeral when her much-loathed posh hat blew straight off her head and into a puddle before she even made it into the church. We cried laughing that day, despite our grief, and we did it again at Mum’s funeral, knowing that she’d never really leave us.
Happy Birthday to Iris Bryant, nee Taylor, an East End girl to the end of her days. I’ll go up in a bit and put daffodils on the grave, they were your favourite flower and both your grand daughter and I love them just as much. You’re laughing somewhere at me doing that, telling me not to be daft, to take the flowers home and enjoy them myself. I’ll get some for me as well. I always do on this day.
You were a remarkable woman in an unremarkable life, and I will never stop missing you.
Working on a book based around a navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, a visit to the National Maritime Museumin Greenwich seemed like an ideal way to start this visit to London. I can remember going to all the Greenwich museums growing up, but it has been a very long time.
The National Maritime Museum is the leading museum of its kind in the UK and probably one of the best in the world. It is part of a complex known as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and includes the Royal Observatoryand 17th-century Queen’s House. In 2012 the complex was given the overall name of Royal Museums Greenwich along with the famous Cutty Sark which stands nearby.
Greenwich has always had associations with the sea and the navy has roots on the waterfront while Charles IIfounded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for “finding the longitude of places”. The home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridiansince 1884, Greenwich has long been a centre for astronomical study, while navigators across the world have set their clocks according to its time of day. Something about this knowledge has always given me a slight sense of awe when visiting this part of Greenwich.
The National Maritime Museum has a huge collection on Britain’s seafaring history including art, maps and charts, manuscripts, models and plans, navigational instruments and personal items belonging to important historical figures such as Nelsonand Captain James Cook.
Flamsteed House, the original part of the Royal Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and was the first purpose-built scientific institution in Britain. In 1953, the Old Royal Observatory became part of the Museum.
The 17th-century Queen’s House, an early classical building designed by Inigo Jones, is the keystone of the historic “park and palace” landscape of maritime Greenwich. The Queen’s House was refurbished in 2001 to become the heart of displays of art from the Museum’s collection.
In May 2007 a major capital project, “Time and Space”, opened up the entire Royal Observatory site for the benefit of visitors. The £16 million transformation features three new modern astronomy galleries, four new time galleries, facilities for collections conservation and research, a learning centre and the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetariumdesigned to introduce the world beyond the night sky.
The National Maritime Museum has galleries exploring various aspects of Britain’s maritime history. A gallery dedicated to Nelson and the Navy tells the story of Admiral Nelson, his battles, his life and his death at Trafalgar, and sets the battle in the context of the wars against the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It describes the ships, the sailors and how they lived and the way the navy was perceived at home.
The gallery concerned with traders explores the relationship between Britain and the wider world, particularly the powerful East India Company which spread its influence until it controlled huge areas of territory in India. I found this fascinating, partly because I studied this at University and partly because I spent time researching the Company in India when I was writing about Assaye in An Unconventional Officer.
Another gallery covered the difficult subject of the transatlantic slave trade, both up to abolition and beyond. I thought this topic was well-handled, looking at both slavers and abolitionists as well as the slaves who fought back against their masters in places like Haiti.
Other galleries explored the maritime history of London, the first world war and in Voyagers, the personal significance of Britain’s maritime story. I particularly liked the exploration of Turner’s famous painting of Trafalgar which analysed the painting and it’s meaning in the context of national pride and naval power following the battle.
The museum is huge and there is so much to see and do that it is easy to miss things. Work is in progress on a new gallery and there are various temporary exhibitions, a children’s play area and the fabulous Great Map.
If the museum has a fault, it is that the various galleries are sometimes hard to follow in the correct order. Especially as it is sometimes possible to enter a gallery from either end it is easy to find yourself going around in the wrong order and there is no numbering of exhibits to help with this. With a fairly good background in history it didn’t really bother me that much, but I can imagine it would irritate some people.
I loved the museum along with the Royal Observatory, which completed the story of some of the scientific aspects of navigation and the Cutty Sark, standing 400m outside. I didn’t manage the Queen’s House this time around, although I’d like to go back to it.
The Cutty Sark is one of my clearest childhood memories. It was a Sunday afternoon treat, even just going to see it. Going aboard was even better. The ship was one of the fastest tea clippers in the world and there was something romantic for me as a small girl, standing on the deck gazing up at the tall masts and trying to imagine billowing sails and a fresh breeze at sea. I was devastated in 2007 when the ship was badly damaged by fire and have followed the progress of the restoration.
We used to take the bus to the Isle of Dogs back in the sixties and seventies and then walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich. The foot tunnel is a piece of history in itself, a masterpiece of late Victorian engineering which opened in 1902 and was built to replace an expensive and unreliable ferry service which took workers living south of the river to work in the docks and shipyards. The entrances at each end are beneath glazed domes and I can remember the joy of running through the tunnel calling out and hearing my voice echo, bouncing off the walls eerily. We used to count the steps at each end. There were lifts but for some reason we seldom used them.
A visit to Greenwich is both a research aide for the new book and a trip down memory lane. The strong sense of standing with both feet in maritime history is just what I need as I embark on the second half of my book which places me aboard a Royal navy ship bound for Copenhagen in 1807 under Admiral Gambier. But there is also a sense of standing with at least one foot in my own past, a child growing up in the East End with parents who took us to some historic site almost every weekend. There is a strong link between that excited little girl standing on the deck of an old ship and trying to imagine how it felt to sail in her and the woman writing a novel of those who did. I owe that as a debt to the parents who gave me that sense of history and why it matters to all of us.
The new book, An Unwilling Alliance, is due for publication in April 2018.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner was played at my mother’s funeral a few years back. It was very appropriate for her, because although for the last few years of her life she moved to the Isle of Man to be near us, she saw herself as very much a Londoner. She was fiercely proud of it, would defend London as the best city in the world – in fact the best place in the world – against anybody.
I was in London myself recently for a few days, cat sitting for a friend of my sisters and getting some quiet time after the complete madness of the past few months. It was as hot as Hades and I spent a few days with my sister catching up, being a tourist and getting sore feet after which she went home and I was alone and peaceful with Monty the cat. My intention wasto catch up on a lot of admin jobs that I’ve left for too long and then to get a really good way into my new Regency novel. It was a lovely flat with a balcony and the temptation to doze in the sun with Monty was huge, although I did try to resist.
It’s always odd being back in London. I’m not so familiar with this part, but we took a bus out through the East End where I grew up, to Stratfordand then went on to Canary Wharfand had lunch by the river. In my childhood, Stratford was our local shopping centre and Canary Wharf was a place we simply didn’t go – it consisted of rotting and boarded up warehouses with a few dingy businesses still struggling on. I’ve watched the evolution of docklands through my life and it’s been a fascinating process.
Despite being born and raised in the East End, I’m not really a city person. I don’t mind small towns; Douglasis about right for me. But I love the countryside and the coast, the feeling of fewer people and wider spaces and not feeling trapped. I don’t think I’d ever choose to live full time in a city again, especially a city as overcrowded as London now is.
Nevertheless – and maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner – I actually do still love London. It’s the place of my birth and my childhood. I love the history and the parks and the odd little corners that many people never visit. I was so lucky as a child to have parents who adored both history and walking. Every Sunday, unless the rain was torrential, we were dragged out to the number 8 bus stop at the end of the road, to “go for a walk”. This did not mean a twenty minute stroll through a park. It meant a four or five hour marathon through parts of London I would never have known existed.
We walked through theCity and listened to my mother’s stories of the blitz and of her first jobs in old fashioned offices, learning the switchboard and typing on an old fashioned typewriter. We wandered through the Inns of Courtand the world of legal London, with my Dad stopping to read every plaque on every wall. We discovered hidden gems like the Museum of the Order of St John and Postman’s Park. On wet days we did every museum in London including ones I’ve forgotten even existed. We went into obscure but beautiful churches which were always open to visitors back then, and if it was late enough in the day we would stay for evensong before getting the bus home. When people ask me why I write historical novels rather than any other kind, I find it hard to answer apart from to say I always loved history. But I know that this is why. At times, wandering through the ancient streets, I would whinge about the fact that my friends from school were all off ice skating or swimming or just hanging out in the street. But Mum was adamant that unless there was a genuine reason not to (like a broken leg – arms didn’t count, I once saw her scale the cliffs at Hastings with her arm in a sling) we would all go out together on Sundays. Church, Sunday lunch, walk or other outing and then home for tea and whichever series was on TV on Sundays. Saturdays were ours; on Sundays we belonged to her.
As I grew older the rule relaxed, but by then she didn’t have to nag me, I was hooked. At secondary school by then, I visited exhibitions relevant to whatever I was studying, sometimes with the school but sometimes on my own. I would think nothing – and still don’t – about taking myself off to the British Museumon a free day. A boat trip down to Hampton Courtor Greenwichwas a joy. I loved the Cutty Sark and the Tower of London – just wandering around outside them was enough. And I adored – and will always adore – theRiver Thames, where my parents did a lot of their courting.
All of this came from a family with very little. We lived, for the first thirteen years of my life, in an old rented house with no bathroom or indoor toilet. We washed in the kitchen sink and bathed in an old fashioned tin bath by the oil stove in the kitchen because there was no central heating. We ate healthily but with few luxuries on a daily basis although it made a meal out for a birthday or the extra treats at Christmas incredibly special.
When we moved to a council maisonette when I was thirteen, it was luxury. I can remember squabbling over who would be the first to use the new bath until we realised my mother was already in it. Curiously, we missed our old fashioned house; the new place had no garden. My parents were good managers and saved for their old age but we didn’t have that much stuff.
What we did have was experiences. We had one week’s holiday every year, always in the UK but always somewhere special. When we were small we went to holiday camps a lot as they were cheap and there was entertainment but as we got older we rented cottages and we explored Devon and Cornwall, the Lakes and Yorkshire, the Isle of Wight and parts of Scotland. We did it all by coach and bus and train; they had no car.
We went to the cinema to see every good new film going. We went to the London Palladium to see the Pantomime every Christmas. If there was a school trip to anywhere, they would find the money for us to go. My love of music came from endless school trips to concerts, the opera, and to hear Gilbert and Sullivan. My love of good plays and literature came from school trips to the Young Vic and Stratford upon Avon.They had never been abroad, but I went to Russia at sixteen with the school because my Dad did overtime to pay for it.
I’m aware as an adult of everything they did for us and everything they sacrificed so that we could absorb as many different experiences as they could afford to give us. It’s not that surprising that we both did so well. But I don’t think they thought it was that much of a sacrifice, I think they loved doing all these things with us, enjoyed introducing us to the city they both loved.
They were poor when we were young, got more comfortable as we grew up and travelled a bit more, spent more on themselves although they still never had a car or bought a house. They ate out a lot, discovered different cuisines and enjoyed it. They both still walked until arthritis and old age prevented them. But they never resented poverty or saw themselves as victims. They were never angry. They simply worked out what was important to them and what they could easily do without and if they needed more they worked a bit harder to get it.
They weren’t political although they never failed to vote, but they both voted on issues rather than blind loyalty to a party so at different times they voted for all three main parties. My mother voted for Margaret Thatcher simply on the grounds that it was time there was a woman in charge. She was a feminist without ever knowing what the word meant, or caring. My father voted Labour that year. Neither of them cared what anybody else voted. Their friends and family could be Labour or Tory or Liberal or nothing at all. It was considered rude to get personal about such matters as religion or politics. They were old enough to appreciate the welfare state, the NHS and any help they were given. They were gracious about it, didn’t see it as a right, said thank you when help was given. During the IRA bombings they continued to take us to all the same places, do all the same things. We missed the Ideal Home Exhibition bomb by a few minutes only, but there was no sense of anxiety. We were in London and that city belonged to us, not the bombers.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. But when I’m back here, no matter how much it has changed, no matter how much I know that I’d never come back to live here now, I still feel a very primitive sense of belonging. This is my city, my home, my childhood. I feel an enormous sense of familiarity and of love and gratitude both to the people who raised me and the city that shaped all of us. I’ve lived in many places now and loved a fair few of them. But when I come back to London, I know I’ve come home.