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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

Top 10 Free London Sights in 1903

Londoners have always prided themselves on the enormous diversity and quantity of free sights to be enjoyed in this great city.

Today we have great resources such as Ian Visits and Laura Porter's Blog to guide us around all the the free and cheap events on offer. Back in the day our grandparents and great-grandparents relied upon less up-to-date printed recommendations.

In 1903 George R Sims introduced his guide to the free sights of Edwardian London:

"YOU can always take your walk abroad in London and see plenty of amusement without putting your hand in your pocket to pay for it. The amusement that I have in my mind is derived from the free sights of the great thoroughfares, the sights that invariably collect a crowd and for which "there is no charge," nor any voluntary contribution expected."

Using his original article and all the accompanying illustrations I have compiled this list of the "Top 10 Free London Sights" of the early 20th century.

Number 10: A Wedding

Top Free London Sights 10 - Outside Westminster Abbey: Waiting for the Bride & Groom
Top Free London Sights 10 - Outside Westminster Abbey: Waiting for the Bride & Groom
"The passing of the bride and bridegroom ... is a favourite free sight with all classes; so is the arrival of the bridal company at a fashionable church. This crowd is largely feminine, but small boys are always conspicuous among the millinery. If the ceremony is in the afternoon and the weather is cold, you will observe elderly ladies of unimpeachable reputation stamping their feet on the pavement to keep them warm.

Top Free London Sights 10 - "Arrival of a Bridal party St Paul's Knightsbridge"
Top Free London Sights 10 - "Arrival of a Bridal party St Paul's Knightsbridge"
The favourite diversion of an expectant crowd at the church gates is to criticise the dresses of the arriving guests. The small boys take no notice of this portion of the "show." All their enthusiasm is reserved for the bride. No one recognises the bridegroom, or can even point him out. He is supposed to arrive early and enter at a side door.
When the wedding is a "great "one, and takes place in Westminster Abbey, of course, the crowd — as shown in our photographic reproduction — is an enormous one."

Number 9: A Funeral

"The Englishman has a passion for funerals which is peculiar to his race. There is always a little crowd round a house of mourning to see the coffin carried out, the flowers arranged upon the hearse, and the mourners assisted into the carriages.

Top Free London Sights 9 - "Borne to the hearse"
Top Free London Sights 9 - "Borne to the hearse"
There is respectful silence in the crowd, but little emotion or sympathy. The butcher's boy with his tray of meat upon his shoulder ceases to whistle as he pushes his way to a good front place, the more decent male portion of the throng raise their hats as the coffin passes; but one generally looks in vain for any "awe" of death in the expression of the loiterers.
You never see a crowd of this sort without noticing in it a number of old and infirm women of the poorest sort, on whom one would think the spectacle would have a depressing effect. But they take the bringing out of the coffin as a "sight" and when the last carriage has driven off go on their way, perhaps gossiping garrulously with a neighbour of the petty concerns of their daily life."

Number 8: An Inspection

"Everything pertaining to a red coat is dear to the Londoner's heart, and so among its most highly patronised free sights are the military exhibitions which occasionally take place in the public thoroughfares. The marching of a regiment with its band at its head draws the bishop to his club window as it brings the kitchenmaid up the area steps.
Top Free London Sights 8 - "Volunteers on the way to an inspection in Hyde Park"
Top Free London Sights 8 - "Volunteers on the way to an inspection in Hyde Park"
The Volunteers give Londoners many enjoyable spectacles, principally on Saturday afternoons and evenings. When they go through military evolutions in Hyde Park they are the centre of attraction for numerous youths and maidens, and the night march through the streets with band, lamps, and cyclist corps is a joy to all beholders."

Number 7: A Burst Water Main

One of the most picturesque free sights of London is a burst water-main.

Top Free London Sights 7 - "Mending a burst water main"
Top Free London Sights 7 - "Mending a burst water main"
"Suddenly in a busy street a great water-spout ascends to the height of many feet. Crowds do not exactly gather about it, for the spray is far-reaching when the wind blows. But right up the street and down the street the people stand and watch the novel 'fountain' effect.
When the water does not ascend above two or three feet there are always adventurous little boys to be found who will run out through the gathering river and put a daring foot on the ascending stream. The effect is to send a volume of water squirting in another direction. The small boy is drenched to the skin. Half the bystanders are sprinkled. But everybody laughs. It is a comic interlude in the more serious portion of life's programme."

Number 6: A Safe

The hoisting of a safe is a thrilling free spectacle which no Londoner passes with unconcern.

Top Free London Sights 6 - "Hoisting a safe"
Top Free London Sights 6 - "Hoisting a safe"
"A free sight of London which attracts a more general crowd is the passing of a big safe from the special waggon on which it has been brought to the tradesman's or merchant's door into the tradesman's shop or merchant's office.
The process of transfer is a long and interesting one, even when the safe has only to travel into the ground floor. The letting down of the safe from the van takes time, and attracts a small crowd. But when on the ground the preparations become absorbing. Metal rails and wooden platforms are temporarily constructed across the pavement. Strong men with their coats off and their sleeves rolled up proceed to jerk the safe forward with levers and crowbars at the rate of an inch in every five minutes. The crowd is doubled and trebled by this time. Everybody takes the most intense interest in the proceedings.
Some people see the safe half-way on its journey and then go about their own business. Others remain until the safe is well inside the walls of its new home and the outer door is closed.
When the safe has to be hoisted to a second or third floor the attracted crowd gathers mainly on the opposite side of the street. The second-floor window is probably taken out, and in the space stands the foreman of the safe firm and an assistant. The foreman continually shouts his instructions to the men who are engaged in working the pulley below. The great safe hangs in mid-air. A policeman notifies the foot-passengers to go out in the roadway.
Even the people in the passing vehicles are interested in the hoisting of a safe. Every head on a garden-seat 'bus is turned back to have another look. Occasionally a driver is so absorbed in the spectacle that he puts his pole into the back of the vehicle in front of him."

Number 5: Painters At Work

Top Free London Sights 5 - "In the painter's cradle"
Top Free London Sights 5 - "In the painter's cradle"
"Much interest is taken by the passers-by in the hoisting of the cradle in which a painter is at work on the side of a house. When the cradle is at the third storey with the painter in it, and in its ascent it tilts to a dangerous angle the crowd is occasionally thrilled as well as interested. Possibly the painter shares the feelings of the spectators."

Number 4: A Fire

A great fire is a free sight which generally occurs in the night time; but a fire even at dead of night will attract gigantic crowds.

Top Free London Sights 4 - "Leaving the fire station"
Top Free London Sights 4 - "Leaving the fire station"
"When the news of it is spread by some mysterious means the streets are quickly filled with hurrying pedestrians anxious not to miss the spectacle. You will meet men and women at two and three in the morning running along and dressing as they go. All are hastening in one direction, that in which the sky is red with the reflection of the leaping flames.
Even the modest " chimney on fire " will cause a little mob. When, anticipating the arrival of the firemen, a man appears on the roof and begins to empty buckets of water down the tube of flame, he is greeted with humorous salutations, and his efforts are encouraged with much playful recommendation not to singe his whiskers.
But when there is real danger, when there are lives in peril in the burning building, then a London crowd is at its best. It is silent and anxious, and every beat of its great heart is in sympathy with the men who arc striving to save a human life — perhaps a mother and her child. From the final scene of such a tragedy many a Londoner turns away. The strain on the emotions is too great."

Number 3: A Trial

Top Free London Sights 3 - "Waiting for prisoners at The Old Bailey"
Top Free London Sights 3 - "Waiting for prisoners at The Old Bailey"
"The trial of 'great' cases at the Old Bailey and the earlier proceedings in sensational charges at the police courts always bring a big outside crowd desirous to see the arrival or the departure of the prisoners."

Number 2: A Street Fight

Top Free London Sights 2 - "A street fight"
Top Free London Sights 2 - "A street fight"
"A street fight in London is generally between boys. Navvies and roughs do not in the twentieth century settle their differences in the old-fashioned way before an admiring crowd.
Boy fights, from the moment the challenges and "daring" remarks cease and coats go off, are as a rule conducted down a side-street, not so much for fear of the police as of the soft-hearted female passer-by, who directly she sees two little boys squaring up to each other has visions of terrible slaughter, and so rushes off to find a representative of the law.
As a rule the boy fights of London are harmless. A good deal more is said than done, but the crowd is always enthusiastic, and the combatants, if fairly matched, are encouraged by applause. The crowd that gathers round a street fight may generally be trusted to see fair play, and it is usually on the side of the smaller boy. The appearance of a policeman causes both combatants to pick up their coats and run."

Number 1: An Accident

The most attractive free sight is a horse down on the wood or asphalt.

Top Free London Sights 1 - "A street accident (Cheapside)"
Top Free London Sights 1 - "A street accident (Cheapside)"
"Immediately everyone stops for a moment and takes note of the incident. If the horse rises again quickly the pedestrian traffic 'resumes itself' at once; but if — as is too frequently the case — the unfortunate animal is unable to regain its feet while hampered with its harness, then a certain number of his Majesty's lieges take up a position along the kerb with the intention of seeing the thing through.
Some of the more eager sightseers make for the roadway and crowd round the centre of interest. If it is a 'bus horse down the crowd is always bigger than when it is a cab horse, because the process of raising the animal will be longer and more involved. Much advice is tendered to the driver and conductor on these interesting occasions. But a crowd enjoying a free sight is always most eloquent when the trouble is with a jibbing horse. The horse that won't go and must be made to go is a never-failing draw. When, after a quarter of an hour of more or less gentle persuasion, the animal at last consents to move on there is generally a big cheer given which is not without a certain note of irony.
It is an entirely sympathetic crowd that gathers round an accident. In the old days there was always danger of unskilled attention ; but now that the police and so many of the public have learned to administer " first aid to the injured," this danger is reduced to a minimum."

Other great free London sights of the day, that didn't quite make the Top Ten, include:

"The goings and comings of Royalty, the drive of foreign potentates or military men from the west to the Guildhall to receive the Freedom of the City of London, advertised demonstrations of strikers, carnival cavalcades, and bonfire processions."

Some of George R Sims' suggestions might seem a little odd, or even rather distasteful to Londoners in the 21st century but they were evidently very popular entertainments just 100 years ago.

In a way I suppose similar spectacles are still popular today, it's just that we tend to "enjoy" many of them vicariously, through the media, rather than in person.


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