America in London – Top Six Sights in the 1950s

In the early 1950s Charles Skilton issued a set of six postcards entitled “America in London” promising them to be “Of interest to all your friends”. Most of these “Top American sights” can still be seen in London but some of the stories surrounding them have been embellished and other stories forgotten.

America in London A1 - George Washington Statue

America in London A1 – George Washington Statue

Washington has been standing outside the National Gallery since 1921 and can still be seen today.

It is often claimed that the plinth of the statue sits on a ton of soil donated by the Commonwealth of Virginia so that Washington’s vow “Never to set foot on British soil” could be honoured. I think this is almost certainly an urban myth. There are no mentions of a protective layer of Virginian soil in any contemporary newspaper reports and the National Archives, who hold detailed files relating to the statue’s donation and installation, makes no mention of the special soil sheath either.  I suppose it does make a good story though.

America in London A2 - The United States Embassy

America in London A2 – The United States Embassy

The building is still there but the Embassy isn’t.

No 1 Grosvenor Square was the home of the US Embassy from 1938 to 1960. In 1960 the US Embassy moved across the Square to a purpose built block it still currently occupies and No 1 was taken over by the Canadian High Commission . In November 2013 The Canadians sold this building to an Indian Developer for  £306m and will be moving their whole operation to Trafalgar Square.  The US Embassy will also be leaving Grosvenor Square, for Nine Elms in 2017.

America in London A3 - Abraham Lincoln Statue

America in London A3 – Abraham Lincoln Statue

Lincoln has been looking across Parliament Square since 1920.

I’ve heard more than one disreputable tour guide tell an attentive group that this statue arrived in very mysterious circumstances. Dodgy guides often claim that it was anonymously donated and simply turned up one day, completely unannounced, at a dock in London. Baffled by this generous but unexpected gift, MPs eventually decided, after very lengthy debates, that a home should be found for it and Lincoln ended up in his current position facing Parliament.

This story is complete nonsense. Every aspect of this statue’s donation, delivery and installation is very well documented and proof is no more than a 30 second Google away. It was originally intended to have been erected in 1914 to mark “100 years of peace among English Speaking Peoples” but the First World War intervened.

Over the course of six years the statue was thoroughly discussed by a British Committee, an American Committee, the Office of Works, Middlesex County Council, the Foreign Office, the US Secretary of State, the British Embassy in Washington, the US Embassy in London, the Treasury and even Lincoln’s own son. It was also debated in both the House of Commons and Lords before it was eventually unveiled in July 1920.

So yes, there was a lot of debate, some of it even heated, but it was well-informed and there is no mystery attached to this statue whatsoever.

America in London A4 - Benjamin Franklin House

America in London A4 – Benjamin Franklin House

Benjamin Franklin’s house was privately owned back in the 1950s. Since 2006 it has been a museum open to the public.  On Mondays they offer architectural tours of the Grade I listed building, on Tuesdays it is closed except for school groups, from Wednesday to Sunday they offer an “historical experience” exploring Franklin’s life and times.

America in London A5 - Franklin D. Roosevelt Statue

America in London A5 – Franklin D. Roosevelt Statue

Roosevelt still dominates the centre of Grosvenor Square.

This statue was famously paid for by public subscription. Such was the British public’s affection for the recently deceased President that when an appeal was launched to raise the £40, 000 required it took only 6 days to reach that total, with 160,000 individuals purchasing a modest commemorative booklet at 5 shillings each.

America in London A6 - President Harry S. Truman in London

America in London A6 – President Harry S. Truman in London

You have to visit the Madame Tussauds in Washington DC to see a waxy Truman today. But in the 50s, back when Tussaud’s still had an apostrophe, the original London museum was their only site  and it was the most respected collection of waxworks on earth.

When Truman became President on the death of Roosevelt on the 12th April 1945 he inherited one hell of an inbox but still made time for Tussaud’s.

On April 25th 1945  alone, he was fully briefed for the first time on the existence of the atomic bomb, he spoke to Churchill by “secret-telephone” phone and he addressed the United Nations Conference by wire and on that very same day a letter arrived from Madame Tussaud’s requesting the President’s exact measurements in order that a model of him could be made as soon as possible †.

As a matter of obvious priority the President’s office duly obliged: “Height 5′ 9″, chest measurement 42″, waist measurement 35″, size of shoes 9B, size of collar 15″, size of gloves 8, size of hat 7 3/8ths.”

By November 1945 the waxwork was complete, but clothing was still rationed and Tussaud’s did not receive any additional coupons for new models so clothing the President’s effigy  was going to be a problem. When Tussaud’s explained the situation to Truman, he responded by personally donating one of his suits and a matching shirt and tie††.  Presumably this is the very outfit we can see him wearing in the image above.

Today there are of course many other sights that deserve to be included in any list of American cultural and historical connections with London. The US Embassy in London has a pretty comprehensive collection and English Heritage also have an excellent series of pages on Anglo-American Heritage.

This is an original envelope that Skilton’s choice of the best “America in London” sights came packaged in. Another notable set that he issued around the same time was “London Life” (12 cards) and I have previously blogged about them here.

Skilton America 7

† Mc Cullogh, (1993) Truman, Simon & Schuster 0671869205 p465

†† Reported in the Evening Telegraph - Monday 12 November 1945 p4

Postcards of London Life in 1950 by Charles Skilton

A celebrated series of postcards depicting London Life by renowned publisher Charles Skilton crop up regularly on EBay and the like. The evocative images are often described as being from the 1940s, 1930s or even earlier. But aside from dress there is at least one piece of dating evidence that points in favour of the early 1950s. Whenever they were produced I think they are a beautiful set. Here are all 12 cards together with the original envelope they came packaged in.

1. London Life: Costermonger "Pearly Kings and Queens"  in Southwark

1. London Life: Costermonger “Pearly Kings and Queens” in Southwark

2. London Life: Orators' Corner, Hyde Park. A well known spot for open-air speaking.

2. London Life: Orators’ Corner, Hyde Park. A well known spot for open-air speaking.

3. London Life: The Busy Docks in the Port of London

3. London Life: The Busy Docks in the Port of London

4. London Life: Judges leaving a service at Westminster Abbey.

4. London Life: Judges leaving a service at Westminster Abbey.

5. London Life: Posing for a photograph with the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

5. London Life: Posing for a photograph with the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

6. London Life: A Flower Seller in Piccadilly Circus

6. London Life: A Flower Seller in Piccadilly Circus

7. London Life: An entertainer escapes from a bound sack in Charing Cross Road.

7. London Life: An entertainer escapes from a bound sack in Charing Cross Road.

8. London Life: A Pavement Artist outside the National Portrait Gallery.

8. London Life: A Pavement Artist outside the National Portrait Gallery.

9. London Life: A Street Market in Soho, the Latin Quarter.

9. London Life: A Street Market in Soho, the Latin Quarter.

This image is the one that helps to date the set. On the wall of the Globe Theatre, to the right (it is now the Gielgud) is a poster advertising “Ring Round the Moon” starring Margaret Rutherford and Paul Scofield. This play opened on the 26th Jan 1950.

10. London Life: Artists show their pictures in the open-air at Hampstead.

10. London Life: Artists show their pictures in the open-air at Hampstead.

11. London Life: An East End Rag-and-Bone Man. Crockery is offered as an alternative to cash.

11. London Life: An East End Rag-and-Bone Man. Crockery is offered as an alternative to cash.
12. London Life: The Guards in Whitehall are a familiar spectacle.

12. London Life: The Guards in Whitehall are a familiar spectacle.

London Life: An original presentation envelope.

London Life: An original presentation envelope.

“12 Postcards of Unique Interest” indeed.

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When Madame Tussaud’s Tested A Commando

In 1947, 110 would be Royal Marine Commandos embarked upon a nationwide, five day long, “personal initiative” test. Taking the initiative test was a very serious matter for the men, passing out as a fully-fledged Commando would depend upon it, but for the officers who designed and set the bizarre tasks  it was a lot more fun.

On Thursday May 8th each man was given individual task and ordered to reach their destinations, complete their task, and return with proof that they had done so, on or before Tuesday May 13th. To make things more difficult the men weren’t allowed to begin the test until the last train of the night had left the local station, Towyn in Wales (now Tywyn). None of the men had received any pay for nearly a fortnight, and they were not given any money. They were however issued with five days’ worth of iron rations to sustain them.

And so off they went into the darkness, in groups of two or three, to disperse across the country and attempt to complete their individual tasks.

One of the men was assigned to “Spend a night in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s”.

Madame Tussaud's

Madame Tussaud’s

Getting to London with no money and  in the middle of the night must have been a gruelling task. Requesting free admission and an overnight stay at Tussaud’s would have been even more difficult. Spending the night with images of  Dr Crippen, Burke & Hare, Marat, models of torture etc may not have been pleasant but I think I would admire him most for having managed to endure the time-honoured queues. Above is an exceptionally rare queue-free image, it comes from Tussaud’s 1934 guide and catalogue.

Other men had to attempt tasks such as:

  • Work at the face of a specified coal pit
  • Secure 100 feet of film of himself at Denham Studios
  • Get himself on any BBC broadcast
  • Find out the population of three villages whose names are pronounced like ” Who” ,” Why,” and “When”.
  • Find the smallest house in Britain
  • Get a job as a bricklayer’s labourer for four hours
  • Work as a corporation dustman for two hours in specified cities
  • Get a handkerchief dyed pink at Hinckley Dye Works, Leicestershire, and get a photograph of the prettiest girl in the works

I can’t find any record of whether the man assigned to spend a night in The Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s was successful but I did find one local newspaper report concerning another one of the tasks.

The Sunday Post –  reported on Sunday 11 May 1947 under the headline “The Commando And The Pretty Girl”

Royal Marine Commando J. Dougall, of Glasgow, called at Skechley[sic] Dye Works, Hinckley, Lancs.,[sic] yesterday. He asked to have his handkerchief dyed pink. He also asked for a photograph of the prettiest girl working for the firm. He succeeded in the first quest. But, as to the second, Miss Jose Pratt unsuccessfully searched her handbag for a photo, and he had to make do with a copy of the works’ magazine. Dougall, had journeyed 150 miles across country on iron rations, with 5s in his pocket. He was performing his passing-out test from a training centre in Wales. It included this test of personal initiative.

There doesn’t seem to be any record of whether the picture in the works’ magazine was deemed satisfactory. If you know anything about this story, the man assigned to spend the night in Tussaud’s or any of the others please share your recollections in the comments below.

This post relied on the story from the Sunday Post 11/5/1947 &  from another in the The Evening Telegraph - Monday 12/5/1947, both were found via the wonderful British Newspaper Archive.

Peter Berthoud


  • A City of Westminster Guide
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