22 March 2011
Follow young Londoners through time at local London museums....
What follows is a text version of the trail, scroll to the bottom for pdf download.
What would life have been like as a teenager or young adult in London across time?
Sometimes filled with freedom – it’s unlikely that many 14 year olds today would be allowed to wander a burning city alone like William Taswell did during the Great Fire of London. Sometimes frustratingly constrained, like that of the apprentices hauled before courts for dressing with too much bling. Sometimes a stage to bask in stardom, as it was for Miss Dynamite at the peak of her career in 2002, a place of execution, as it was for Jack Sheppard – a clubbing capital, an arena for protest and of course a place to find love – with or without the helpful assistance of London Transport.
How long is a life?
Today with a very low mortality rate among children and teenagers, Londoners are, on average, living well into their seventies. This is a relatively new thing for the capital. London’s very vibrancy and dense population made it a death trap throughout much of history. Starvation as well as plague frequently carried off as much as a sixth of the population; half the city died during the Black Death.
In Roman London about 10% of the population lived to be over 40, and it hardly improved over time: by the 16th century the average age of death was 20 – 25 in poorer parishes, 35 in wealthier areas. In 1552, half the men in London were under 30. So is 40 the new 14? 80 the new 40? Certainly people are now marrying and starting families later - but not that much later. In the medieval period, apprenticeships were long and many people wouldn’t qualify in their trade until 26. We do though, see London youth facing huge life events: achieving fame, confronting terrible danger, hatching plans that changed history - as well as being trailblazers for fashion.
This trail is part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World, which presents exciting new museum exhibitions across the UK, created by young people. Stories of the World is led by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in partnership with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).
Over 1,000 14 - 24 year olds have been working creatively with 23 museums in London. Look out for the results next year: four major exhibitions about London’s history as a world city.
Join us at www.facebook.com/storiesoftheworldlondon
Status: a different kind of human
Environment: temperate river valley
Object: a replica of the Swanscombe skull – and ancient objects from the world of its owner
Now: at the Museum of London, London before London gallery
The Museum of London’s London before London gallery takes us back to the very dawn of history.
The Swanscombe skull belonged to a young woman in her 20s who was a relative of modern humans – possibly a Neanderthal. Her skull is now at the Natural History Museum but not on display. At the Museum of London you can see a replica, and remains of some of the animals – including an auroch – which inhabited her world.
The London she knew would be utterly unrecognisable to us – a temperate river valley filled with now-extinct creatures like the straight-tusked elephant, creatures now only found in Sub-Saharan Africa, like rhinoceroses as well as bears and large fallow deer.
She would have been a part of a Nomadic hunting and gathering band made up of 15 or 20 people from one or more related families. It’s likely that there would have been a very high death rate among children. Surviving that dangerous age, her life was still very short by our standards.
Gravel from Swanscombe was used to build the Mulberry harbours off Normandy in the run up to D-Day – this may be the resting place of her other remains.
Age: a younger teenager
Environment: edge of an Empire
Object: bikini pants
Now: at the Museum of London, Roman gallery
These sexy leather bikini briefs date from the 1st century AD. When first discovered, they were assumed to belong to a young female acrobat, because of their size and a surviving statuette from France which shows an acrobat dressed in this way (and also wearing knee pads).
The owner of these pants was not necessarily a slave, although the job would have been relatively low status: our bikini girl would not have been a Roman citizen. So perhaps we should imagine a native Briton earning a living by her flexibility.
For many years, these bikini bottoms were unique, but now other pairs have been discovered in London rubbish heaps – leading some people to wonder whether they were more widely worn by women in the Roman capital – or were used not as a fashion item, but as a sanitary garment.
Status: London youth
Environment: edge of an Empire
Object: a tombstone
Now: at the Museum of London, Roman gallery
Wandering through the Museum of London’s Roman gallery it is easy to see how sophisticated the city became with elaborate bathhouses, a forum and an ampitheatre. There’s also jewellery, make up and games. But often it’s hard to see the shape of young lives in Roman London except where they are cut short. Life expectancy was low with only 10% of people living beyond 40.
In the 3rd century AD a woman buried her 15 year old son, Marcus Aurelius Eucarpus. His tombstone is now at the Museum of London.
In 2012, millions of people will flock to London for the Olympic Games which are now both technical and highly commercialised. But how much has really changed for young people visiting the Games?
The Roman amphitheatre discovered beneath the London Guildhall Art Gallery is fundamentally the same as elite sporting stadiums of today: from the raked seating to the exits (still known as ‘Voms’ or ‘Vomitoria); even the location of the VIP area would have been identical. The Roman audience for sporting and other events was made up of people of all ages, speaking many different languages. Roman London was populated by people from all over the Empire – often soldiers who had been absorbed into the Roman Army as far away as North Africa. The similarity to a modern sporting audience is stronger than we first imagine, bringing together many nationalities.
Fandom hasn’t changed over time either. Clay figures of different sporting heroes, graffiti and lead ‘curses’ have been found near or in amphitheatre sites showing that young people idolised different gladiators in the same way that footballers are worshipped today.
Age: between 14 and 26
Environment: urbanely fashionable
Object: leather jerkin
Now: at the Museum of London, medieval gallery
Medieval London apprentices were a large percentage of the London working population and the answer for many parents to the question of how to get
your child established in a career. Apprenticeships were seven years long, and could begin before 14 or as late as 17 or 18.
Technically apprentices had no money of their own, worked six days a week and spent Sunday devoted to God. As if.
The London record is full of rioting apprentices (particularly on May Day and Shrove Tuesday), lustful apprentices stealing their master’s goods to pay a prostitute, disrespectful apprentices hanging about the streets mocking the King’s coach and alarming Samuel Pepys.
Cities filled with young people are always fashionable cities, and some young apprentices would try to ape the fashions of the wealthy. This was illegal under ‘sumptuary’ laws, aimed at preventing people from dressing above their station. One young victim was a merchant taylor’s apprentice, Thomas Bradshaw, who in November 1570 was spotted ‘contrary to good order’ walking down the street wearing ‘a payre of monstrous great hose’ with lavish amounts of ‘stuffinge and lyninge’. The Court of Aldermen ordered him into plain doublet and hose and then had him led home. This slightly plainer, but still very fashionable young man’s leather jerkin is on display at the Museum of London.
A good three hundred years before the 1960s, young men were growing their hair long as a sign of fashion and rebellion and their elders were trying to stop them because it blurred the line between the sexes. Thomas Hall’s 1654 tract The Loathsomenesse of Long Haire was devoted to deploring this tendency as ‘a most loathsome and horrible disease…unheard of in former times’.
These days arguments about style tend not to end up in court, but in 16th century Newcastle a bunch of ‘disobedient and very obstinate’ apprentices were ‘made exemplary by shortning their hayre… and afterwards for their wilful obstinacy were committed to prison’.
By the 60s and 70s, long hair for men was back in fashion. This picture by Henry Grant was taken at the Hyde Park festival in 1970. It is now held in an archive by the Museum of London.
Status: schoolboy, free agent
Object: an early 20th century model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral
Now: at the Museum of London, medieval gallery
Age 14, William Taswell had been having an eventful couple of years; in 1665 he was a witness of the Great Plague as it killed a third of London’s population. The next year he was back at school during the outbreak of the Great Fire of London and a free agent in the burning town.
He witnessed what many Londoners regarded as impossible: the destruction of the great medieval cathedral of St Paul’s.
A model of the old Cathedral sits in the medieval gallery at the Museum of London. Taswell’s description of the still smouldering old cathedral is
gripping Boy’s Own Adventure stuff, complete with scorchingly hot ground, melting bells, falling masonry and a half cremated body.
‘On Thursday, soon after sunrising, I endeavoured to reach St Paul’s. The ground so hot as almost to scorch my shoes; and the air so intensely warm that unless I had stopped some time upon Fleet Bridge to rest myself, I must have fainted under the extreme langour of spirits. After giving myself a little time to breathe, I made the best of my way to St Paul’s.
And now let any person judge of the violent emotion I was in when I perceived the metal belonging to the bells melting; the ruinous condition of its walls; whole heaps of stone of a large circumference tumbling down with a great noise just upon my feet, ready to crush me to death.’
It might seem strange to us that a child would be free to roam around in such dangerous circumstances. 17th century London was clearly a place where people had a different perception of risk, and viewed young teenagers as being able to fend for themselves.
Status: a poet and a thief
Environment: from cockney grittiness to a brief fame
Object: John Keats’ death mask and Jack Sheppard in prison
Now: at Keats House Museum and the Museum of London
Today the dozens of young Londoners who meet early deaths through knife crime or traffic accidents are a source of great concern and public campaigns. In most earlier periods of history, today’s figures would barely register: the young could expect a significant number of their peers to die in their teens and early twenties.
Two celebrated young men die in their early twenties
Keats’ engagement ring and Death Mask (1818 – 1821)
This is the ring that the poet John Keats gave to Fanny Brawne just before he left for Rome in 1820, where he died of tuberculosis the following year, aged
25. Fanny wore his ring for the rest of her life (she finally married someone in 1833, 12 years after she had lost Keats, but even then continued to wear the ring).
It was common to take the death mask of people celebrated by their peers – the fact it exists is a symbol of how much Keats achieved in his short life. From an ordinary background, he was labelled the ‘cockney poet’.
Drawing of Jack Sheppard in prison (1724)
Like Keats, Jack Sheppard died in his early 20s – though it was the Tyburn gallows, not tuberculosis that took his life. A petty criminal, he was widely celebrated for escaping on four occasions from Newgate prison – once while chained to the floor of his cell.
Sheppard ultimately preferred death to exile from London – using his escapes for increasingly wild flings. Historian Peter Ackroyd writes that after his final escape:
'he robbed a pawn broker in Drury Lane then used the proceeds to buy a silver sword; then he hired a coach and, with that innate sense of theatre which never seemed to desert him, he drove it through the arch of Newgate itself before visiting the taverns and ale-houses in the vicinity…’
Jack Sheppard became a local London hero – with crowds flocking to see him in prison and on his last journey to Tyburn. This picture on display in the Museum of London shows Sheppard awaiting execution in prison.
Status: slave or allegory
Environment: stately home – Bruce Castle in Tottenham
Now: at Bruce Castle Museum
The slave trade lasted almost 300 years and brought a million Africans to harvest sugar cane in terrible conditions in the Caribbean. Others, though, were brought to London and became fashionable accessories of wealthy households.
We know from parish records that there were black people living in Tottenham in the 17th century, but it’s uncertain whether the young man blowing a horn in this rather mysterious painting is real or allegorical. This painting and one other are the only two surviving objects from the early history of the house.
Life for a young man in a stately home might not have been a bad one, compared to life in the Caribbean. But despite his ambience as a free hunter in the wild woods, there’s a vital detail: a silver collar around his neck, denoting his captivity. Slavery was not abolished in Britain for another 130 years.
Slavery was a risk for young people at other points in London history. Slaves formed a portion of the population in Roman and Saxon London; in AD 1000 it is rumoured that King Cnut’s sister siphoned off a number of pretty young London girls to be slaves in Denmark. This whip survives from that very early medieval slave trade and is now on display in the medieval gallery at the Museum of London.
Status: an escaping gentlewoman and a trapped Queen
Environment: gilded cage
Object: two society paintings and a drawing
Now: at London Guildhall Art Gallery and the Florence Nightingale Museum
Queen Charlotte and Florence Nightingale were typical of upper class women of their times: provided they survived the rigors of childbirth, they could look forward to long, comfortable privileged lives. Compared with the slaves, single mothers, acrobats and the apprentices of our story, they drew a very long straw indeed. But not every seventeen year old girl wants the safe option….
Portrait of Queen Charlotte, Guildhall Art Gallery
Queen Charlotte was brought to England age 17 to marry George III. They were married the day after they met – the marriage was happy and produced 15 children, but in its early years the Queen was dominated by her mother-in-law and had very little power in her life. This picture was painted shortly
after her wedding.
Line drawing of Florence Nightingale by her sister Parthenope at the Florence Nightingale Museum
This picture shows Florence Nightingale, also aged 17, the image of delicate, beautiful Victorian womanhood, ripe for the marriage market. Florence, however had very different ideas. Just before her seventeeth birthday she felt God calling her to his service. She discovered a talent for nursing during a flu epidemic and studied it despite the objections of her family. She later became a national heroine during the Crimean War for her work trying to improve conditions at the hospital in Scutari.
Status: an adult, religiously speaking
Environment: the Jewish Community in Gibraltar
Object: barmitzvah present
Now: at the Jewish Museum in London
This beautiful highly decorated bag was given to Isaque de Moses Cansino in Gibraltar in 1786 on the occasion of his barmitzvah. He would have been 13 years old. Barmitzvah is the first time a boy puts on a tefillin and wears a tallit (prayer shawl). It’s also the point when a person becomes an adult in religious terms and takes responsibility for their own actions.
Status: knocked up and exploited
Object: love tokens
Now: at the Foundling Museum
Poverty and shame meant that many unwanted babies were abandoned on the streets of London. In early 18th century many of the abandoned children remained unrescued and were left to die. Ship’s captain Thomas Coram was appalled by this state of affairs and created the Foundling Hospital to receive babies and keep them from exposure. Many of the mothers would have been very young. They left some sort of symbol with their child – sometimes a bit of material, sometimes a poem, so they could identify their child if they were ever able to return for them.
Ill treatment by former lovers is a frequent theme in these stories. The Gazeteer and London Daily Advertiser of 1756 tells the story of a 17 year old maid who wanted to keep her baby, and the revolting plans of her exploitative lover.
‘One man, a sober green grocer not far from Temple Bar of 60 years of age, who had a child by his maid a young virgin of 17, sent her out of the way, and trotted with great satisfaction to the [Foundling] hospital, thinking to get rid of all his cares; but the poor girl, coming back and missing the child, followed him, and overtook him in Red-lion-street, when, with much difficulty she got the child from him, and carried it home again, to the great entertainment of all the persons that were looking on, who gave their assistance to alleviate the distress of this poor unhappy young creature.’
Age: children and young teenagers
Status: slum dwellers
Environment: the Dusthole
Object: a rare photograph
Now: at Greenwich Heritage Centre
The Royal Arsenal was home to the Dusthole, a slum so dangerous that even policemen wouldn’t go in alone. Though it changed very little from the late 19th century to the 1940s when it was finally demolished, there are few pictures of the Dusthole.
Many people wrote about the terrible conditions there, especially for children who lacked proper food and clothing, including the social reformer Charles Booth who visited in 1900. This late 19th century image shows shoeless children and young teenagers in the street.
Status: schoolchild, fledgling Londoner
Object: a piece of hand sewing
Now: at the Jewish Museum
The Jews’ Free School educated one third of London’s Jewish children between 1880 and 1900, and played a key role in anglicising the young immigrants of the East End. Hebrew and religious studies were part of the curriculum, but speaking Yiddish was strongly discouraged. Children were not to forget that they were Jews – but they were English Jews.
This miniature dress shows an example of Standard 7 needlework, and was made in 1906 at the Jew’s School.
Age: 18 up
Status: young, free and single
Environment: lover’s lane
Object: tube posters
Now: at London Transport Museum
When William Taswell went to school in the 1660s he had to board even though his parents only lived in Chelsea – ten miles was much too far for a daily commute.
By the 1920s when these iconic posters were produced by London Underground, the city had grown far bigger but become much easier to cross. This poster shows young lovers crossing the town not for education or work, but a kiss – if you’re going to snog your boyfriend in the suburbs, please take a bus to get there!
London Transport Museum posters acknowledge the excitement and variety of London for the young – from the swinging centre of town to the still rural edges. This advertisement for ‘private motor coaching’ shows a vision of family life where young adults are still part of a picnicking family unit. The concept of the ‘teenager’ as a separate person, with their own culture would not really take off until the 1950s.
Status: war veteran, out for fun in a carnival city
Environment: the Olympic Games come to London
Object: an Olympic torch
Now: at Brent Museum
Olympic Torch 1948.
This is one of over 1,600 torches used to carry the Olympic flame across Europe, from Olympia in Greece to London, before the opening of the 1948 Olympic Games. As well as the torch, Brent Museum holds oral histories given by many people who watched the 1948 Olympic Games in their teens and early 20s.
Henry Edwards says: ‘the Games were the first Festival since the 1937 coronation. In between we had ten years of misery, sadness, semi-starvation and general deprivation. I was 23 and all my generation had recently been demobbed from the Army. Most of us were pretty sportconscious – no TV, no computers, internet, foreign holidays to distract us. Very few people had cars.’
The burst of prosperity, jobs and technology which created the ‘teenager’ was just around the corner.
Status: Teddy boy
Environment: working class birth of youth culture
Object: photograph by Henry Grant
Now: archived at the Museum of London
‘Scotland Yard is examining the activities of a gang of youths in Edwardian clothes. A doctor in the British Medical Journal says they are suffering from emotional chicken pox. Who are these Teddy boys? What makes them what they are? And what can we do about them?’ News Chronicle, May 1954
What uptight doctors diagnosed as ‘emotional chicken pox’ we would now call the ‘birth of teenage culture’. The Teddy boy look was a working class invention – these were the teenagers who were not at school, but out earning a wage, – a wage which could be spent on fashion. Like the hoodie of today, an association with violence (typically bust ups in cinemas and snooker halls) meant that everyone wearing the uniform of the Teddy boy was seen as a public menace.
In other respects, Teddy boys were part of a long tradition of working class people dressing up in a version of the clothes of the elite. Though the sumptuary laws were long gone, a Teddy boy outfit still guaranteed its wearer the special interest of the police.
Frances Stewart wore a duffle coat in the 1950s when it was the height of fashion, then again in the 60s on marches with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Her CND badge and duffle coat is now at the Museum of Croydon.
Young people have been associated with protest since the medieval period – and there’s an unchanging public debate about where the line lies between ‘protest’ and riot.
In the early 1990s the hugely unpopular Poll Tax drew thousands onto the streets – many of them students. The Museum of London’s History Painting by John Bartlett shows a stylised picture of the 90’s poll tax riots.
The social realism of the police and the ‘crusty’ protestor has a shimmering, ghostlike element to it – almost as though, if you looked hard enough, you could peer straight through the protestors to generations of apprentices who regularly rioted in
London in the 1590s. Nor were the grievances of 16th century young people that different from the Poll Tax rioters – or the furious students who attended London demonstrations in winter 2010. 1590s London contained a rich elite and a nearly-destitute majority. Poverty wages barely sustained the working poor and the vagrancy rate increased eight times over in the 40 years after 1560.
The slogan ‘Break the law, not the poor’ would have worked in 1590 too.
History Painting by John Bartlett
Environment: high tech London
Object: videosphere television
Now: at the Geffrye Museum
This design of this portable television takes its inspiration directly from the space race and a space man’s helmet. It was made in Japan by JVC and is symbolic of the beginnings of the globalised electronics marketplace. Watching television can be a way to both conform and rebel, and is now well established as a young person’s communication medium.
Status: shopping, clubbing 60s chick
Environment: glamorous Ilford
Now: in Redbridge Museum’s Teen Dreams exhibition until 18 June 2011
This green and blue paisley print catsuit was bought by Vicky Blackburn in 1968 when she was 17 years old. ‘I bought it in Maison Riché which was near to Ilford Station, above one of the shops. The shops in Ilford at the time were equal to the West End. The women in there who served were all over made up with long red nails and really pushy... I would wear the catsuit when I went clubbing in Ilford, especially to disco nights on Wednesday and Thursdays!’
Age: 14 - 19
Status: students at the BRIT School, Croydon
Environment: London’s only free performing arts and
Object: two electric guitars and keyboard
Now: at the Horniman Museum, in the Music gallery
Boasting alumni such as Kate Nash and Adele, the Brit School is the first rung on many celebrity career ladders. These instruments are typical of the range of instruments played in the mid 90s.
Status: R&B, hip hop star
Environment: music awards
Object: suede track suit
Now: at the Museum of London, World City gallery
Fashion for much of history has aped the styles of the wealthy – but this long tradition was reversed at the end of the 20th century, as youth culture started to celebrate itself, not older, richer role models. At the pinnacle of her career, the singer Miss Dynamite attended an awards ceremony in this tracksuit. It is however suede and therefore secretly rather posh.
‘Fashion moves so quickly especially when it comes to celebrities – the so-called ‘timeless’ looks are so hard to achieve. The tracksuit feels very dated to me. I definitely think lots of bling would be on hand to complete the outfit. This sort of streetwear will always be linked to her type of music’. Richelle Quinto, Museum of London youth panel
Age: teenagers and 20 somethings
Environment: multicultural London
Object: photographs of young gay people
Now: previously shown at Hackney Museum and still online at
London has had a gay scene since at least the eighteenth century – but earlier frequenters of Molly Houses and cruising grounds often paid a terrible price for their orientation – homosexuality was punishable by death. Today LGBT young people flock to London for its scene and for the liberal attitude of the town. However the response of individual communities to gay people is still uncertain and many still find it hard to come out. The photographer Sonalle charted attitudes among BME communities in Hackney in the summer of 2010 and the results were shown at Hackney Museum.