Love London: Women in Music – Divas, Rebels & Junkies, 1722 – 2019

Wellies, umbrellas and raincoats were definitely in order for today’s Love London tour! Despite the rainy weather, we ventured into SoHo to learn, explore and be inspired by those whom history has forgotten or brushed aside – the women of music in London over the last few centuries.

Cecil Court is a lovely pedestrian street about halfway between Leicester Square tube station and Trafalgar Square. Hidden amongst the antique book shops and map stores sits a blue plaque commemorating the residence of W.A. Mozart and family. Surely the name rings a bell, but true to the nature of this tour, we did not focus on the famous younger brother. Instead, we learned that Mozart’s sister, Anna Maria, was the first musical prodigy in the family, but due to the customs of the era, her musical talent was surpressed in favor of her younger brother. Rumor even has it that she may have been responsible for Mozart’s first symphony.

Noël_Coward_Theatre_2 Just around the corner we came to the Noel Coward theatre which housed the very first production of Oliver! One of the most famous songs from the show – As Long As He Needs Me – was beautifully performed in the 1960s by Georgia Brown. The song, at its core, is about staying with a problematic partner in a relationship that might not be a healthy one. It is in stark contrast to today’s feminist sensibilities, but important to remember it in the context of the 19th century. At that time, a woman would rather be in a bad relationship than be on her own as a single woman who society presumed to be a prostitute.

IMG_9417Moving into Leicester Square, we admired the Grade 2* facade of the Empire theatre. In recent years it’s housed a cinema and casino, but back in the 1880s it was the performing home to Marie Lloyd, London’s most powerful music hall entertainer. She commanded a salary of £100 per week, unheard of by the day’s salary standards and for a woman, in particular. Despite being a bit tawdry for the times, Marie Lloyd was immensely popular. Even with this popularity, she, too, was not immune to the idea that a woman of such a profession must be of ill repute and had to continually justify to the police that this was a reputable entertainment venue.

Just around the corner we learned about the factions of fighting fans for a pair of 18th century opera singers, Cuzzoni and Bordoni, who were George Frideric Handel’s leading ladies on stage. But as can only happen in London, we also happened to be standing next to the site of where Patti Boyd met George Harrison and John Lennon met his first wife, Cynthia, in a drug filled evening back in the 1960s. Just to make it more interesting, right next door was a French Roman Catholic Church where both the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees performed in the heart of London’s punk scene. #onlyinLondon

 

IMG_9422A short stroll away is the famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz venue. Ronnie brought in the biggest names of American jazz to entertain British audiences. The bar is thought to be a favorite of Ella Fitzgerald, who prefered the intimacy of the Ronnie Scott’s over the bigger arenas she could easily fill. She did not, however, like the all male facilities at the club, so you can find the Ella Fitzegerald commemorative loo in the back. So named after she made a generous donation to Ronnie to fix the problem.

IMG_94232i’s Coffee Bar is no longer in existence, but thanks to the green musical plaque in front of a fish and chip shop, we were able to stop and learn a bit about skiffle music. Inspired by early American rock’n’roll (which has its roots in jazz and blues), and originating in America in the early 20th century, it became extremely popular in the UK in the 1950s. As true to our theme of hidden musical female heros, we learned about Nancy Whiskey who was a prominent skiffle musician, but rarely heard about today. I guess that is what happens when the Beatles take inspiration from your musical genre and kind of take over the world.

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Our guide, Adam Scott, standing in front of the former site of the Bag O Nails Pub where Paul and Linda McCartney first met

The stories of the forgotten, or perhaps distorted is a better way to phrase it, women of music continued on for our next few stops. Peggy Seegar is a successful muse, activitst musician and songwriter in her own right, but very often gets tagged as being Pete Seegar’s sister. Marianne Faithfull has had a successful career spanning over 50 years, but always gets mentioned as being Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, despite not having had that role for decades. While her own celebrity shone bright as a photographer, animal rights activisist and breast cancer awareness crusader, Linda McCartney is still first thought of by many as Paul’s wife. The bar pictured to the right is where Linda and Paul first met. She wasn’t there as a groupie, but rather as a photographer working on the night they met. It was refreshing to hear the stories of these women for their own roles and credentials and not just as a subtext to the men they were famous for being related to or romantically involved with.

Our last stop was at the London Palladium and we appropriately closed the curtain with a story about Judy Garland (very timely given the movie coming out about her life this week). In 1964, Judy performed at the Palladium for the TV broadcast of the Night of a 100 Stars. Just days earlier she had attempted suicide for the second time and despite being in a fragile state, she brought the crowd to their feet with a rendition of one of her most famous songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. This archived article from the New York Times describes the evening as it was 55 years ago. A very fitting end to our tour.

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Photo credit: J Langfitt

Many thanks to Adam Scott from London Music Tours who entertained us and shared many delightful stories throughout the tour. You can find him on Facebook or his website https://www.londonmusictours.co.uk/.

 

Love London: Hyde Park

This year I am leading the London walking tours for my international women’s group, AWBS. In the two years I’ve been a part of the group, this is one of my favorite activities as I’m always learning something new about the different neighborhoods in this amazing city. Luckily I’m being assisted by some world class Blue Badge tour guides who have an unbelievable wealth of knowledge.

Our first tour of the year was through Hyde Park. Actually, it was more Kensington Gardens as the two parks sit side by side, but are typically referred to as Hyde Park. The land originally belonged to the monks of Westminster Abbey, but during his reign, Henry VIII took them over as hunting grounds. In the late 17th century, William and Mary purchased Nottingham House – which later became known as Kensington Palace – as a means to escape the city of London for health reasons. George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, is the one primarily responsible for bringing the park together as we know it today. During the 1700’s the public started to be permitted access to the lands when the monarchy was not in town. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria’s reign in the 1800s when the public had full access to the grounds, as we do today.

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Stop 1: Bear StatueIMG_9247

Hyde Park is known for being a park for children with playgrounds, water features and statues all throughout the park. One of the first stops on our tour was at this drinking fountain of two bears hugging. It’s been stolen several times, and was just return from the most recent escapade two days ago.

Stop 2: Italian GardensIMG_9250

The Italian Gardens are most recently known for the fight scene in Bridget Jones 2 between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. They do, of course, have a much more historial significance in that they were a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria and were designed after Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight.

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Stop 3: Peter Pan

The author of Peter Pan, JM Barrie, lived near Kensington Gardens and would frequently go for a casual stroll in the afternoon or evening. During these walks he befriended the Llewelyn-Davies family and became a pseudo guardian to the five boys, i.e. the lost boys, after their parents died tragically young. The one son, Michael, is who inspired Peter Pan for Barrie. The statue in the park was created by Sir George Frampton in 1912

 

IMG_9263Stop 4: Speke Monument

The sweet chestnut trees line the pathway in a 19th century addition to the park. The spire to the left is a tribute to Sir Henry Speke, the man credited with finding the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria Nyanza, in 1858. There was much debate on this topic at the time, but was validated by the Royal Geographical Society years later.

Stop 5: Physical Energy StatueIMG_9267

The Physical Energy statue is the work of the British artist George Frederic Watts. The statue represents the human need to find more and learn more, i.e. the “human need for new challenges – of our instinct to always be scanning the horizon, looking towards the future.” The statue was unveiled in 1907 after Watts’ death in 1904.

 

Stop 6: Isis Statue IMG_9273

The Isis statue sits on the banks of the Serpentine and is one of the most recent statues added to Hyde Park in 2009. It was part of a fundraising effort to raise money for children’s education center and is named after Isis the Egyptian goddess of motherhood.

IMG_9277Stop 7:  The Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Garden

The Princess Diana Memorial Fountain opened in 2004. It is a heart shaped water feature that is designed for children to be played in. It has calm and turbulant waters and was designed to represent the well known features of Diana’s life: “The design aims to reflect Diana’s life, water flows from the highest point in two directions as it cascades, swirls and bubbles before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom.”

IMG_9279Stop 8: Rotten Row

As often happens with language over time, Rotten Row is not the original name of this path horse path that traverses the south end of Hyde Park. Originally, it was known as “Route du Roi, which meant ‘King’s Road’ in French” as the path connected Kensington Palace all the way to Whitehall for the King.

Stop 9: The Site of the Great ExhibitionIMG_9280

For any fan of the TV series Victoria, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a major plot point of the show. Originally designed as a showcase of art in industry, the Great Exhibition turned into a showcase of modern British manufacturing on a scale never seen before. The event was housed in a purpose built glass and steel structure known as Crystal Palace and sat on this site in Hyde Park. One third of the UK population attended the exhibition and the financial success of the event provided the foundation for all the museums that South Kensington is now famous for.

Stop 10: Prince Albert MemorialIMG_9287

Sitting across the street from Royal Albert Hall, the Prince Albert Memorial was designed by George Gilbert Scott to honor the impact that Prince Albert had on British society. Prince Albert died young in 1861 at the age of 42. Queen Victoria famously went into a deep mourning period after his death. The memorial celebrates Victorian achievement and Prince Albert’s passions and interests. It is an impressive structure standing at 176 feet in the air with gilded statues and world reknown freizes decorating the structure.

Stop 11: Kensington Palace

We wrapped up the tour at Kensington Palace. Its recent history is well known for being the modern royal residence of the extended Royal Family. It was the site of all the flowers that were laid upon the gardens after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, lived here until her death in 2002 and is the current London residence of William and Kate. Harry and Meghan recently departed the building to live full-time at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor.

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