Latest Word in Social Clubs

Last term I ran a short course for adult learners called ‘Tourist London Since 1800’ at Bishopsgate Institute. As with all the courses I deliver, I selected a range of original sources from the Institute’s library and archive collections to direct the learning process and each week students explored a different theme using tourist guidebooks, restaurant guides, and so on.

The final week’s theme was ‘Nights Out in London’. As I gathered materials for the session, I stumbled upon this slim pamphlet.


This was an item I hadn’t seen before. Attracted by the cute jester on the front cover, and overlooking the rather dog-eared appearance otherwise, I popped the pamphlet on to the top of a set of materials on pubs, clubs and dining out at the very last minute – and started to deliver the class without having looked inside this one item. Honestly, this is not how I usually plan my sessions.

The notes read: “You don’t shay sho” “glad eye” “Oh how I wish Mother was here”.

As the group started to explore the sets of archive materials laid out for them, one student called me over to share an incredible find. On every page of ‘Tabarin Club’ someone had annotated the illustrations with droll remarks. With the kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute, I’ve reproduced this fabulously acerbic set of marginalia here for your enjoyment over the bank holiday weekend.

These notes read: “smug faces” “ought to know better” “new method of shaking hands”


These scribbled lines smartly undermine the formal, almost pompous, tone of the printed content that outlines the facilities offered at the Tabarin Club (‘special care has been given to the proper ventilation to ensure a refreshing and invigorating atmosphere…’). They also offer insight into popular catchphrases and comic conventions of the 1920s.

Here we have: “Someone has pushed him in the neck” “Booking up Vacant Dates” “I don’t care for you!!” “Frank with Bird and headache”.


I would like to thank my eagle-eyed student Jacqui Ross for bringing these previously overlooked notes to my attention – and now also to yours. As is often the case with original historical sources, this item asks more questions than it answers. Most obviously, who wrote the comments? Were they based on personal experience of nights out at the Tabarin Club (“why do we do this?” “you’re not going home yet sweetie…”)?

The notes here read: “Some dance” “why do we do this?” “liar” “ha ha” “You’re not going home yet sweetie” “last train for Balham”


And what else can we discover about the Tabarin Club? Street directories from the 1920s give the club’s stated address of 31 Tottenham Court Road as the Rector’s Club rather than the Tabarin. Yet the production of a high quality brochure of this type suggests a degree of permanence or longevity as opposed to a short-lived residency. This useful website mentions the Tabarin in the body of a longer piece of writing on London’s interwar jazz clubs but otherwise I’ve been unable to find out more about the club. Anyone able to provide fresh insight is invited to comment below. Similarly, anyone wishing to get their hands on this and dozens of other original sources on the history of ‘London at Play’ is encouraged to sign up for my next archives-based course at Bishopsgate Institute, starting on Monday 9 May. This annotated pamphlet will also be featured in a session delivered as part of Duckie’s Quite a Lot of Balls weekender on 7-8 May.

Stay Safe Victorian People

Here are four reasons that suggest health and safety actually ‘went mad’ some time ago:

(1) In 1897 two whole pages of a short guide to the diamond jubilee celebrations in London were given over to advice about ‘staying safe’ during the day (don’t smoke, don’t faint, don’t fall off tall buildings, don’t buy flimsy and flammable decorations manufactured abroad) under this dramatic sub-heading:

From 'All About the Diamond Jubilee' (1897).
From ‘All About the Diamond Jubilee’ (1897).

(2) In January 1894, the City Press reported that more than 40 Liverpool Street station staff had been successfully examined in the principles of first aid.

From London Collection Press Cuttings. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive
From London Collection Press Cuttings. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive

(3) In 1851,’ due care and attention’ was paid to the load-bearing capacity of the new gallery flooring ahead of the public opening of the Great Exhibition in a purpose-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

'Testing the Galleries of the Great Exhibition Building,' from the Illustrated London News, 1 March 1851. Reproduced with the kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute.
From the Illustrated London News, 1 March 1851. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive.

(4) In 1893, the architect employed to design the new Bishopsgate Institute and Library implemented structural safety measures to facilitate prompt evacuation of large numbers of people from the lecture hall in the event of a fire.

Detail of Bishopsgate Institute ground floor plan (1893), showing that hall exit doors were positioned to enable direct access out to the street. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive.

A more systematic overview of the history of health and safety legislation is available here.

…and not just adults

Delivering or supporting heritage projects involving school or youth groups is always an uplifting experience. I appreciate having the opportunity to encourage young people to see London’s history in new and different ways and I enjoy observing their invariably positive response to the chance to view historic sites they might not otherwise visit – or handle and work with original archive sources that are usually difficult to access. Invariably, too, their energy, creativity, thoughtfulness and enthusiasm provide a welcome counterbalance to the negative media stereotyping of young people.

The Only Way is Ethics (TOWIE) is a heritage lottery funded youth project, led by the brilliantly creative Emergency Exit Arts organisation with heritage support from Museum of London and Bishopsgate Institute. My main role in the project is to locate and share archive materials relating to the TOWIE themes (protest, politics, activism and representation). The idea is to establish a sound historical framework within which the ethical debates and discussions programmed to take place across 2013-14 might be meaningfully located.

Summer school archive workshop. Reproduced with the kind permission of TOWIE photographer Enrique Rovira
Summer school archive workshop. Reproduced with the kind permission of TOWIE photographer Enrique Rovira

TOWIE is a particularly uplifting project in which to be involved. Not only does it provide me with the chance to work with a team of inspiring creative heritage professionals from a range of organisations but it has also attracted an extraordinarily engaged and articulate set of participants. At the project summer school earlier this month I met young Londoners from across the city who shared a desire to engage in open, intelligent political enquiry about challenging subjects from class to gender to race. To find out more about how TOWIE summer school played out, view the amazing ‘storify’ narrative collated by Emergency Exit Arts:

In among the wealth of tweets, texts, clips and images showcased here, the words of one of the project’s young producers Gabriel Akamo stood out for me. Describing the archive workshop that took place on the final day of summer school, Gabriel wrote:

‘We looked at sources connected to feminism and gender politics from the mid-19th century to the present day. Possibly the most interesting archive task all week, we discovered evidence of an early women’s suffrage movement in the 1840s: a rejected parliamentary bill and a pamphlet arguing for female voting rights, inspiring engaging and insightful conversation. After this, we fed back to the rest of the group, inspiring a discussion about our perceptions of feminism, gender roles and the historical narrative presented to us from the sources we had looked at. Once again, I found myself questioning my assumptions about these issues and the contrast between the narratives taught in the curriculum and what we had just seen in the archive session – truly fascinating.’

The power of original historic sources to make people pause, think and re-think their views and ‘knowledge’ about the past is the reason why it’s so important to allow a range of audiences to access archive collections; that is, not just academics, not just researchers, not just librarians and not just adults.

To get involved in the project discussions on twitter, use the hashtag TOWIEthics.

The Adventurers at the Roman Baths in Bath

Every year the Adventurers History Club visits a town outside London for a summer residential. The aim is to provide young Londoners with a wider understanding of British history, cultures and buildings. Since 2009 the group has explored the sights in and around Arundel, Peterborough and Cambridge. This part of the club’s activity has been possible thanks to annual grants from the Bishopsgate Institute and Foundation small grants scheme.

On Wednesday 19 June the group travelled to Bath in Somerset. A series of unfortunate events meant the journey took far longer than anticipated. Day One was spent on delayed tubes and stationary trains and the planned walk around the city on arrival had to be postponed. Instead we just had time to find something to eat and shoehorn ten young adults into a dormitory room approximately 10 foot by 12 foot in size at the YMCA before bed. No wonder some Adventurers needed to power nap the next day.

power nap at Bath

On Thursday 19 June, we walked the short distance to the Roman Baths. All agreed this was one of the most impressive places we had ever visited as a group. As one member expressed it: ‘it was the best of everything that’s old combined with the best of everything that’s modern.’

visit to Roman Baths

The site itself was extraordinary. It would be difficult not to make much of a space where an unusual natural phenomenon (hot springs) meets an incredible historic happening (here are impressive examples of Roman construction and engineering, together with two-thousand-year-old artefacts showing an entirely different way of life in Britain). All the same, enormous credit must go to the those responsible for the site interpretation. The balance between text, objects, inter-actives and re-enactment was perfectly realised. Care had gone into every detail; the audio commentary was illuminating and informative, staff were professional and welcoming – and the view from the Ladies’ toilets was unexpectedly dramatic.

view from the Ladies at Roman Baths

The visit had set the bar high for the remaining trips of Day Two. See the next Adventurers post to find out whether the American Museum at Claverton House and the bell tower at Bath Abbey were able to hold their own against the Roman Baths.

Adventures in the Wild East

On Saturday I visited the News from Nowhere Club in East London to give a talk on the history of the Eton Manor Boys’ Club. It was a really enjoyable evening with some great questions at the end from an attentive and interested audience. It was especially lovely to have a couple of Eton Manor ‘Old Boys’ present. Not least because it saved me from having to sing the club song as a solo towards the end of the talk. Thanks to Brian Cole, in particular, for travelling so far to join us – and for kindly donating two items of club ephemera from his personal collection to the Eton Manor archive.

I promised to share the content of the talk as a pdf so that those unable to attend could read it in document form.

Adventures in the Wild East_Michelle Johansen_2013

Unfortunately I can’t share the 80+ images I showed as part of the talk but these are freely available to view and enjoy in the Bishopsgate Institute archive (for anyone able to travel to central London). To indicate the riches in the archive, here are three photographs from a set of colour slides donated by Club ‘Old Boy’ Peter Wilson. The images show Eton Manorites at summer camp during the late 1950s and are reproduced here with the permission of Bishopsgate Institute & Archive.




Speed History – and the 1893 Shoreditch Public Library Opening Ceremony

Inspired by the concept of speed dating, writer Alan Gilbey is pioneering a ‘speed history’ approach to retelling London’s past. In unusual and atmospheric East London locations, historians, writers and actors share stories of local characters or incidents with small audience groups, often using props and costumes to add drama or an element of surprise to proceedings. Every five minutes, Alan rings his bell and the audiences move on to hear another tale told. Across three nights in April and May, this innovative approach to public history is taking place in and around Bishopsgate Institute’s historic library. As part of the Bishopsgate event, I tell the story of the so-called ‘Battle of the Books’, a bitter dispute that split the public library world in the 1890s.

This is the second time I’ve been involved in speed history with Alan. During the ‘East End Back Passages’ walking tour around Shoreditch in December 2012, my story used the experience of chief librarian William Plant of Shoreditch Public Library as a way in to a wider narrative of learning, class and culture in Victorian Britain, taking in silver trowels, streams of bunting and a trip to Monte Carlo on the way. I’m posting my five-minute Shoreditch story, together with a photograph of Plant with his friends and colleagues in the Society of Public Librarians (1895-1930). The photograph was taken during a society summer outing to Kent in 1922 and is reproduced with kind permission of the Bishopsgate Institute and Archive. With public library provision especially vulnerable in a climate of spending cuts, the true story of the Shoreditch Library opening ceremony assumes a particular poignancy and significance. Read the story – and the next time you find yourself alongside one of London’s Victorian public library buildings, pause for a moment to re-imagine the scenes around the time ‘your’ library first opened to the public…brightly-coloured streamers and bunting…brass band music…large crowds of cheering men, women and children…and a shared sense of progress and optimism.

The Shoreditch Public Library 

In 1850 the Libraries Act was passed. It allowed local governments (at that time known as vestries) to use money from the rates (or local taxes) to fund the building of public libraries, free at the point of use, where all might have ready access to newspapers, books and informal learning. London was notoriously slow responding to the Act: some thirty years after it had been passed just two rate-assisted libraries had been built, in Westminster and in Wandsworth. For a variety of reasons (including the 1870 Education Act and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887) the late-1880s and 1890s witnessed a boom in library building programmes across the capital and by 1914 there were more than one hundred main and branch library buildings in London. There was an air of novelty, excitement and anticipation surrounding these new so-called ‘universities of the people’ and one way to get a sense of this is by describing the fanfare or ‘ta-dah!’ of the public library opening ceremony when thousands of local people would come out onto the streets to celebrate each new library launch. Library buildings and nearby trees and railings would be festooned with flags, banners and bunting. Brass bands played jolly tunes before and after the ceremony – often performing at the head of a procession of the local ‘Great and the Good’ as they paraded from the Town Hall to the Library to launch the proceedings in grand style.

The Shoreditch Library Opening celebration was scheduled for May 1893. Eager to book a big-name guest, the new chief librarian William Plant (below, top left) invited the Prime Minister William Gladstone to officiate on the platform. His approach was unsuccessful. Finally, Plant wrote to John Passmore Edwards, a self-made publisher and keen supporter of the library movement. Edwards had financed a number of public library projects in the East End, including at Shoreditch where he had paid the full construction costs of the library premises. Edwards had also officiated at dozens of library opening ceremonies – later in the 1890s he was to open not one but two library buildings in East London in a single day – but he was unable to take the platform at Shoreditch. Instead he proposed a politician friend, the Duke of Devonshire.

On the one hand, then, we have William Plant living and working in a free library located on the obscure fringes of the notorious East End. Surrounded by builders’ rubble, he regularly worked on late into the evening to prepare the library for public use. He fretted over the gilding of the words ‘Shoreditch Public Library’ on the front of the building; he bartered with booksellers ton gain the best price for books for the shelves; he oversaw repairs to the joints in the hot water pipes; he grew anxious about delays to the laying of a new cork carpet; and he expressed concerns about the efficiency of the monogrammed mat purchased for the library entrance. On the other hand, we see the Duke of Devonshire moving from one smart location to another. His staff remained in touch with Plant, issuing peremptory updates on the arrangements for the Shoreditch opening ceremony: his Grace had just left for Monte Carlo; his Grace was enjoying a day at the Races; no, his Grace wasn’t yet able to confirm a date for the ceremony; and so on.

The Duke of Devonshire’s half-hearted engagement with the Shoreditch opening ceremony indicated the ‘Cinderella status’ of the rate-assisted library in the eyes of those who moved in more elevated circles. At the same time, Plant’s grand aspirations for his opening ceremony reminded us that, at grass-roots level, the new free libraries were perceived altogether differently. Before the advent of the rate-assisted library, only those men and women with a disposable income or respectable social connections and/or a stable home address were able to access London’s various circulating and subscription libraries, university and church libraries and large reading rooms – of which the British Museum was probably the best known. Yet even the cheapest reading matter (down to and often including the daily papers) might lie beyond the financial reach of ‘ordinary’ people. So how would the self-improving domestic servant, the out-of-work bricklayer, the impoverished pupil-teacher, the itinerant labourer or the down-at-heel office clerk access books or learning in late-Victorian?

The public library was a truly egalitarian innovation – part of a broader movement aimed at widening access to ‘rational recreation’. Rather than spending their leisure hours in the pub, on the street corner or at the Music Hall, working-class men and women might use their weekends to promenade or perambulate in new public parks. Equally, they might spend their evenings reading or studying in ‘lighthouses of learning’ or ‘temples of light’ as the new public libraries were variously termed. Library user statistics from the period prove that there was a real demand for opportunities for self-acculturation among the urban working and lower-middle classes. By 1914, the city’s 100+ rate-assisted libraries stood at the unofficial heart of local cultural and intellectual life, circulating millions of books annually to hundreds of thousands of readers, as well as getting up popular lecture series’ and reading circles. Little wonder, then, that the new free libraries were known as the ‘universities of the people.’