My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Great Britain, which is composed of England, Scotland, and Wales, is arguably one of the ancient lands imbued with history and tradition, full of primeval sites, historical artifacts, unique landscapes where skyscrapers casting shadows over castles, and a people of equally unique heritage and culture. But most of all, to me England appears to be a gem of the Crown, the archetypal image of Great Britain because there is London that has existed for thousands of years. The Mysterious British Isles by Charles River Editors offers the reader an elegant history of London with interesting information on the city itself, including backgrounds of famous buildings, places, and on its equally fascinating inhabitants who lived and worked to make their ends meet before our time.
London has been a cosmopolitan city for centuries, and it is a city of amalgamation of the ancient and the new with churches built atop pagan temples, ordinary commercial buildings grounded around medieval burial grounds, and so on. To illustrate, St. Paul’s was built upon an old temple to Diana, the Roman version of Greek goddess Artemis. Also, Westminster Abbey, dating back to the reign of William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest, was originally located on the Isle of Thorney – supposedly the site of a Roman temple to Apollo, which was destroyed by an earthquake and then replaced with an Anglo/Saxon temple to Thor. It was in 610 A.D. that it finally made Christian by King of the East Saxons, who had converted to Christianity, in dedication to St. Peter.
In addition to the aforesaid great churches, the ancient Roman time street named Hounds Ditch, still running through the City of London, was used as the old London’s dumping ground. But Hounds Ditch is not the only place of the disposed remaining to be seen today. There are quite a few modern buildings with part of their plots unused, bits of empty lands in crowded, expensive London with signs warning people to “Keep off the Grass.” In fact, they are old plague pits, mass graves used to place a myriad of infected corps during the period of great plagues in London.
Since London has been the center of economic activities, many professions have been come and gone as a consequence of changes of social and economic systems. Some of the worthwhile professions to mention in memory of the people who worked in them for their livelihood are listed as follows:
- Chimney Sweep: It was city law that people should keep their chimneys clean due to a fire hazard. So many poor boys aged between seven and eight started becoming climbing boys, serving the apprenticeship to master sweeps. Unsurprisingly, may of them died of suffocation, suffered from deformity, developed scrotum cancer as a result of residue of soot.
- The Mudlark: It was a popular job for poor boys in the 18th and 19th centuries; many of them were orphans. They scored the banks of the Thames for items of value. When the tides were low, the mudlarks looked for items through the muddy banks and became easy targets for police harassments, one of which was to throw the boys to the river. So the mudlarks were also good swimmers.
- The Tosher: After the Great Stink of 1858, a genius engineer named Joseph Bazalgette developed a citywide sewer system that is still in use. It was this great Victorian engineering feat that gave birth to this profession. Toshers were specialized in the sewer system for any valuables dropped out of the pockets of Londoners.
- The Linkboy: Before the late 19th century, London night was as dark as Persian night without public lamps. Hence these linkboys whose parents were dead or were so impecunious that they had to allow their little child to roam London’s dark nights became the essential night guides with lanterns on poles to drunken citizens or travelers or theater-goers. Sometimes, linkboys were also employed to decoy to guide customers to brothels in addition to their tips.
- Sandwich Men: As a rise of advertising due to prosperous cheap printing with growing disposable income in the early 19th century, shops and stores were eager to hire the city’s impecunious citizens however old or young to use them as mobile advertisement. These sandwich men worked with poor pay by standing out in the sun and rain for up to 12 hours with their front and back covered with boards held up by ropes over their shoulders. In fact, the term was originated by Charles Dickens’s description of such man as a “piece of human flesh sandwiched between two slices of pasteboard. Sandwich men survived the centuries despite several attempts to ban the profession. Although the Westminster City Council prohibited the presence of sandwich men in 2008 in effort to upgrade the city’s shopping ambience in West End, the other boroughs of London have not yet perished sandwich men.
The Mysterious British Isles by Charles River Editors encapsulates some of the most interesting facts of Great Britain, such as the aforesaid history of London and facts of its inhabitants. It also covers subjects such as famous criminals, fairies and giants, and legends of historic places throughout the Isles. It is worthwhile to read this book as a concise but essential reference book on Great Britain either to satisfy your curiosity for the country where the Sun never set on in the past or to occupy yourself with something at once entertaining and informative during your lunchtime, coffee break, or before going to bed.