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London is awash with the relics of Empire. Great statues and monuments commemorating great men and greater victories. But it is not always the British Empire. There is the occasional Roman Wall. And then a couple of minor road signs and a plaque, which are all that remain of the London outpost of the Hanseatic League.

The League was an empire of trade which ran northern European commerce, and so much of northern Europe itself, for more than a century. Its offices stretched from Kievan Rus and Riga in the east to London in the west, with a sphere of influence that took in Greenland and Colchester.

The westernmost point of empire.

The English tend to know little of their history (relative to other occupants of these islands), and that which they do know is often somewhat heroic. Tales of kings and queens and splendid isolation. Something about being on an island, perhaps. Possibly something to do with Shakespeare: Richard this, Henry that. But also something to do with the compromises required if a “national” history is to be taught. Among the under-reported events is the Anglo-Hanseatic war of 1470-4, where the Hanse dealt such a spanking to the English navy that Edward IV was forced to Utrecht to sign a treaty which locked England out of trade in the North and Baltic seas and, essentially, ceded a chunk of prime territory in the centre of London to a foreign power. (The treaty also granted the Hanse the right to build a warehouse in King’s Lynn. It’s still there today, though now resolutely the property of Norfolk County Council). Utrecht firmed up the arrangements in London where a Kontor in one form or other had existed for centuries.


The Stalhof, on the bank of the Thames just west of London Bridge, controlled amongst other things the export of English cloth to much of Europe. It had its own currency, with merchants seconded from the major centres in Lübeck and Hamburg. But not many windows that faced outwards. “Rich German merchants” were targeted by Wat Tyler’s rebellion, and their presence was no more welcomed by the good Städtern of mediæval London.

Not cannon street.

The land under the steelyard was bought by the city in 1853 and turned into Cannon Street station, the site of the aforementioned plaque, and, aptly, right next to what is (I think) the last working wharf on the square mile. By then the great League was no more than a rump, subverted by rise of the Swedes and the Dutch and ultimately sunk by Bismarck. It was finally written out of history in 1862, but the memory persists (if only as a politicised ideal).

It is a bit of a shame that none of the Hanse architecture survives in London to rival the gables and conical spires that decorate Lübeck and Hamburg. But there is some historical resonance in a great trading empire parked in the square mile (even if the English once went to war against the free trade it offered) and it played its part in establishing modern London as the entrepôt that it remains today, if more for people than for goods and grain.

A working river.

There are loads of great histories of the Hanseatic League and its role in European history, though they are mostly in German – it isn’t a subject much covered in the English language. A friendly intro was written in 1891 by Helen Zimmern.


Written by alexconnor

June 6, 2012 at 01:41

Last, best hope for peace.

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It is not as much of a secret garden as it likes to think it is, if only because those navigating central London by tall buildings will likely stumble across it. But it always feels empty. A sense of quiet, even on its busiest lunchtime.

Between Seven Dials and Denmark Street.

Out the back of Seven Dials, and a few steps away from the modernisation wrought on Tottenham Court Road (whither Dionysus ) the Phoenix garden is a bit of London that never really got over the last great war. For forty years it served as a car park (itself a hidden gem, I imagine, for those who knew where to find it). And now it is the last of the unnecessarily repetitive Covent Garden Community Gardens.

The four scourges of inner city gardens.

A haven from the four scourges of modern life. The garden even has an eighteenth-century, Palladian-type church to complete the illusion.

That you can rent it out for the day somehow seems to miss the point.

Written by alexconnor

November 13, 2011 at 13:17

Posted in Sunburn

Tagged with , ,

The Wheatstone Bridge.

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Q corridor

One thing I missed when noting the passing of my dear old research group was the disappearance of something with a bit more history : with the retirement of the doyen of diamond science Alan Collins, went the last vestiges of the venerable Wheatstone Physics Laboratory.

Named for, as you might suspect, Charles Wheatstone, it was the home of Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, also of Maurice Wilkins’s co-authors on his coincidental paper. It was the home address of an awful lot of academics for at least 60 years.

To be honest, I don’t know very much about it, other than that it was also my academic address. I assume that it used to be a physical place, rather than just a slightly fancy name. Most of my colleagues used the more prosaic ‘Department of Physics’.

It may well have come into being when they rebuilt after the war. It might have been what ended up as the old teaching lab. Or they might have just re-used the door signs.

That’s gone now too, a lovely old wooden lab replaced by a gleaming white plastic one.

Written by alexconnor

September 2, 2011 at 20:52

Running on the backstreets.

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Should have a solidus.

I notice this. Apt.

W.C. is one of those linguistic curiosities: pervasive (common to at least half a dozen languages, more-or-less the pan-(western-)European identifier for a toilet), yet obscure. Does anyone really call a toilet a W.C.?

Written by alexconnor

July 17, 2011 at 21:49

Posted in Not really Flanders.

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Central London.

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Doughty Mews (good name)

‘Mewtopia’. Not my coining — Beck Smith sees a lot more of it than I do.

Everyone seems to enjoy places like this in London. A vision of the rural* in what is fundamentally not.

*I say rural, it’s not my rural. Where I was brought up, it was (for the most part) fields. Dead-flat fields.
In such a featureless landscape, my 5’6″-high eyes will always be able to see to about 2.8 miles away, no matter which way I face. The rectilinear certainties of the horizontal horizon, and all that.

Written by alexconnor

April 23, 2011 at 23:30

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