“Ghosts of London”, by HV Morton, First published by Methuen, London, 16th November 1939
This little known work of Morton’s comprises 30 chapters including the explanatory introduction and twelve gravure plates illustrating some of the subjects. Each chapter is an essay in its own right (although two sets of two chapters are conjoined by closely related subjects) describing the Ghosts of the title, namely the ancient customs and rituals of London which even at the time of writing were well on their way to becoming endangered species that Morton felt moved to preserve in print before they disappeared altogether.
According to the introduction, they were compiled in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, having been written some time in the late twenties and thirties, presumably as Daily Express articles. The theme, according to the author is ‘the continuity of London’s existence’ and to ‘remind us of certain permanent values’ which even at that time Morton seems to have realised were changing and slipping away from the country, and from him.
Yeomen with the Royal Maundy, Westminster Abbey
This work is a testament to what London and by extension Britain stood to lose in the coming conflict, particularly (and remarkably prophetically) with the new threat of war in the air and the mass aerial bombardments which had already seen Madrid, Barcelona and Warsaw brought low. This book is a rallying cry not to arms but to the past, an invocation of the nation’s ‘spiritual reserves’ at a time of dire need.
After an introduction stark with contemporary intrusions as the capital prepares for war – gas masks and barrage balloons, empty streets and sandbagged buildings – the reader is plunged as it were into ‘deep-time’ in a series of chapters which invoke a reassuring sense of solidity, permanence and order. Even though the reason for their existence may be obscure or even, in some cases, non-existent, at least the Ghosts endure.
The reader gets the distinct impression of Morton in his element as he describes his various chosen topics. Chapter one opens with an account of ‘Charlie’s day’ where the restoration of Charles II after the fall of the English commonwealth is celebrated by schoolboys wielding oak apples and attacking one another with bunches of stinging nettles, something which would in all likelihood be an arrestable offence these days!
Later Ghosts are even older. The traditional horn-blowers of the temple, for example, keep alive a tradition dating back to the crusades while the curfew bell may date as far back as Alfred the Great. The shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella, Maundy Money and the Lambeth dole where elderly ladies receive half a crown from an ex-quartermaster-sergeant by virtue of an act of generosity by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century are all discussed in lively detail while en route Morton stops off to celebrate snuff and herbs, leeches and eye lotion and narrowly avoids an encounter with a red dragon.
Harking back to his account of the history of Mayfair which appeared in a detailed pamphlet in 1927 to celebrate the building of the Hotel of the same name, Morton casts a new light on Shepherd Market, the last surviving remnant of the original May Fair before it was hemmed in by houses and eventually banned.
The Tower of London features in several chapters and, in a modern twist on an ancient tradition, Morton gives an account of the Ceremony of the Keys from the point of view of the radio broadcasts which he himself gave to the nation every year for several years at the request of the broadcaster 2LO, later known as the more familiar British Broadcasting Corporation.
He shares a beer with the bell ringers of St Paul’s after hearing how Big Ben had to be recast following a disastrous trip down from York and lends a sympathetic ear to Hansom Cab drivers, night-watchmen and some of the few remaining lamplighters of London, who he refers to as ‘leeries’, from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem ‘The Lamplighter’.
‘There’s not many of us stick lighters left… but here and there a few of us still muster for the evening’
By the end of the account the reader is left with an insight, not only into some of the ancient history of London but also into HV Morton’s mindset too. In selecting his subject matter he has given us a tantalising glimpse into the mental world he inhabited and the things he valued, many of which were destined to be swept away not just by the aerial bombardment he predicted but afterwards too, by misguided urban planners and a changing political and social landscape.
Whether Morton liked it or not society was evolving, in many ways for the better, becoming more inclusive, more egalitarian, but also more centralised, and committee led. Old-fashioned respect came to count for little and the ‘ruling classes’ were obliged to find new roles for themselves in a weakened, post-war Britain as the nation itself adjusted to a new, more subordinate role in a post-imperial world.
It is sad to consider that less than ten years after publication of “Ghosts of London”, as the old ways gave way to the new, Morton, finding it impossible to reconcile his views with what was happening around him in his native country, had left it for good, finally settling with his family in South Africa.