The London Explorers’ Club

The London Explorers’ Club was founded by W. Margrie in 1930 “to study London in all her moods and phases”. In 1933 he published ‘The Diary of a London Explorer’, part autobiography part manifesto on behalf of the club.

“We look into London’s kitchens and backyards as well as her front parlours. When we visit a building we are concerned not with dead stone, wood, and metal, but with the dramas, romances and personalities that the wood and stone represent. Every institution we have explored, from a cathedral to a brewery, symbolises mankind’s aspirations and strivings for a better and fuller life.”

Margrie also put a heavy emphasis on the fact that the Club was “jolly, human and creative”.
Wearing a spray of London Pride as their emblem they combed London “to discover the romances hidden in her ancient buildings, the sorrows in her slums, the unexpected beauties of her streets and squares”.

In a statement to the press they declared their mission: “We shall see London in all her moods, and not only her beauty but her ugliness as well. We shall try to recapture her histories and memories, seeing all there is to be seen by the flare of the gas-jet, by the light of the moon, or from the electric arc-lamps”.

In the first 3 years of its existence the LEC visited 180 Places including: Croydon Aerodrome, Headquarters of the Fire Brigade, Merrie Islington which was “not as merrie as it used to be”, Caledonian Market, Historic Deptford guided by the vicar of Deptford, Samuel Jones’s Camberwell Beauty Mills which specialises in gummed paper, and Peek Frean’s Biscuit Factory.
They embarked on an All-Night Ramble Through Central London, an act recently repeated by an artist to much media interest. Their nocturnal derive included the City, Covent Garden, Adelphi Arches and parts of the West End. Margrie wrote that “One of our objects is to study London in all her moods. London at 2am is very different from London at 2pm. Central London on a fine summer night is a fine place for poets, dreamers, musicians, lovers, optimists, and explorers. It is romantic, lovely, and mysterious.”

Another of their stunts was The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt where competitors had two hours to identify twenty-four representative City institutions and a quotation. The hunt started at Mansion House and finished at Monument Station; and the clues included: 1. A church associated with Cockneys. 6. Insurance institution associated with a bell. 9. Historic institution associated with blood and beef. The winner would be crowned The Champion Londoner.

They pioneered the idea of the Topographical Race. Starting at Trafalgar Square and finishing at a restaurant in Holborn competitors had to visit ten institutions, “those spending the least amount on buses and trams would stand the best chance.” The institutions on the circuit were Bedlam, Boadicea Statue, Fire Brigade HQ, Friend’s House, Lambeth Palace, Law Courts, Mount Pleasant, new B.B.C House, St. George’s Hospital, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Margrie rounds off his book by proposing the formation of a Metropolitan Free State to replace the LCC. As a member of the left-wing Independent Labour Party it appears to be a forerunner of Red Ken’s GLC, “a central co-ordinating authority for the whole of greater London”, but would also include “five or six home counties, and the Thames”.

Margrie then spells out his grand vision for the new city state: “It is my supreme ambition to be the first Prime Minister of this Metropolitan Free State. When I realize my dream I shall emulate Mussolini and give Londoners plenty of dramas pageants and shows to wake them up”. He promises that under his rule “For the first time in London’s history Londoners will take an interest in their city and province, and all London will become as merry as a Peckham bye-election.”

This mixture of a form of proto-psychogeography allied to visions of a utopian future have echoes of the Situationist movement that would follow some 25 years later, although instead of drinking absinthe in Montmatre they supped tea in Camberwell.
The London Explorers’ Club seems to be a forgotten entity but lives on in the upsurge in interest in the hidden secret city led first by Geoffrey Fletcher and lately by Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

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Through Temple Bar into Paternoster Square. There’s a Mussolini-like modernism about it. Neo-classical fascist. It’s a cold Sunday night and a few souls criss-cross the asymmetrical space, it could be Rimini. I feel like a shape in a Di Chirico painting. It is ghostly and out-of-place which fits this city of dislocation. I’m pulled in strange directions from one side of the square to another, then under a portico which has sprouted concrete umbrellas from its ceiling.

I escape the vortex inside Paternoster Square and find myself looking into Hat and Mitre Court EC1, 10 yards long, chain-link gate, fragment of mediaeval street plan. Not a soul around. Brewhouse Yard, gleaming new and empty. The news from Clerkenwell is that loft development kills the street. The only flaneur round here is the deli of that name on Farringdon Road.

At Borat’s shop a 12-year old talks into his mobile phone. “That’s CID just gone past”.
“How can you tell?”. “I know, right”. They’re in a heightened state. Training their Bull Terrier to attack. Small time criminals in embryo.

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Dobney’s, Penton Street

Penton Street, N1

“Upon the site of Dobney’s Place, at the back of Penton Street, stood an old house, having a bowling-green, and tea-gardens, with ponds, &c. similar to those at White Conduit House….”
This strip is in the midst of a make-over whilst White Conduit House remains a locked up dodgy boozer.

J. Nelson’s History, Topography, and Antiquities of the Parish of St.Mary Islington in the County of Middlesex, pub 1811 also has a nice note about topographical writing:
“The study of our National Antiquities has called forth the talents of the most eminent scholars; and it is generally admitted, that writings on this subject, combining Historical remark with Topographical illustration, are calculated to convey a knowledge of our domestic concerns in a way the most entertaining and instructive.”

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Grays Inn Road-North Devon

Grays Inn Road Mansions

Dulverton and Dawlish Mansions just up from Holsworthy Square. I’ve checked their alignment with their namesakes in the South West and it yielded no clues to the mystery.

Update: 10/01/2006
Eileen Reid sent me the following by email:
Re all the Devon connections in Rosebery Avenue, etc. They’re there because the developer James Hartnoll was of Devonian extraction. Born in poverty in Southwark, he died worth more than £400,000.. not very psychogeographical, I’m afraid. But true. There was an article in the Camden History journal in 1980 all about him.

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