Wed 2 December 2020

Mike Stuchbery recalls a cacophony of people through time, who came to London and made it what it is today.

He knew these lands intimately, could know where he was by the feel of the mud between his toes.

He spent his days stalking through the reeds by the river, looking for fowl to spear and fish to gather from traps to feed his growing family.

He was hunting when he fell – nobody knows why – and when he was unearthed, all that was left was part of his skull. Enough, however, to date him as more than 5000 years old.

She was built like a ballet dancer, with olive skin.

She was born in Rome, probably mortified at the thought of being sent to this damp, misty outpost.

She had money though, and when she died, some time around 350CE, she was buried at Spitalfields in a manner befitting her station in life – a glorious lead coffin in a stone sarcophagus.

A wonderful, horrible, glorious place – a behemoth fed on the traffic of people in and out, a living engine feeding on change.

They called him ‘Chinano’, or at least that’s what the scribe wrote in the parish register.

He’d come to London from far across the sea as a young man, the call to prayer replaced with the sound of hundred church bells ringing. It sounded like the whole heavens chimed at times.

God was truly here, he thought.

He embraced their God and made a life for himself trading spices, cloth, anything that came through the docks. Eventually, the city consumed him, as it does everyone – we don’t know where he lies.

Ignatius was always proud of what he had achieved.

His parents died during the voyage aboard the slave ship and, upon arrival in England, everything he achieved was on his wits alone.

He’d managed to open a grocers, giving him time to read, write and publish – did he not embody the abolitionist’s credo: ‘Am I not a man and brother?’.

Certainly less savage than the rioters he watched burn houses from his shop, during Lord Gordon’s riots, in that hot summer of 1780.

If he could know that they’d dubbed him ‘The Italian Boy’, he’d fall about laughing – he was from Lincolnshire!

He’d come to London driving cattle for slaughter in November 1831, but was desperate to enjoy the delights of the city that lay before him. He thought it was his lucky day when he fell in with the men who took him drinking near Smithfield.

Unfortunately, it was his last day – he was given laudanum, killed, and his body sold to doctors by the resurrectionist gang. Pity he was not there to enjoy the fame his case brought.

Lizzy was born to trouble and woe. Her feet were turned askew, and her chest was never really strong enough to keep her going a full day’s work, so she did what so many did and sold herself, from a painfully early age. It wasn’t the syphilis that killed her, however.

Pneumonia finished her off, age 19, on the 15th of August, 1851  She was interred in Southwark, in the place where whores and others of disrepute were buried – Crossbones, on Union Street. There she slept for over a century, before her pitiful remains were recovered for study.

Londoners, they were all, whether they knew it or not, part of the fabric of a city far more than merely ‘English’, as some critics have lamented. A wonderful, horrible, glorious place – a behemoth fed on the traffic of people in and out, a living engine feeding on change.

To demand London revert to a previous state of homogeneity is a nonsense – that’s never, ever been the case.

That’s what makes it so extraordinary.

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