Battle of Trafalgar

The life and amazing times of George King

What a life! George King’s early life as a foundling held no clue of what was to come. This new exhibition at The Foundling Museum takes us through his adventures with letters, documents, items from the time  and art work.  Entitled ‘Fighting Talk: One man’s journey from abandonment to Trafalgar’ it takes us step by step through George’s life from 1787 to 1857.

An overlooked diary was found in a display case in the museum and on closer inspection it was a first hand account of the life of George King written in his own words and in his own hand. What a treasure trove this turned out to be.

George King was left at the Foundling Hospital at aged 5 months where he was numbered child 18,053, a shocking number showing the extent of extreme poverty in the 1790s when mothers surrendered their children because they could no longer care for them. His own mother was seduced and abandoned and left her baby who was given the name George after the king at the time. This sad document is her petition in 1787 to have him admitted because she was ‘friendless’ and ‘in extreme misery’ tho her application is supported by her local clergyman. Her name was Mary Miller tho George would never have known this.  It is shocking to learn that not all the needy children were admitted due to pressure of numbers and lots were drawn to decide. George’s mother drew the lucky white ball while the other children, whose mothers drew a black ball,  most likely died

Foundling Museum

George was sent to  wet nurse in Hertfordshire and was well treated until her returned to the Foundling Hospital He was taught to read and write which was to stand him in good stead through his life and was an unusual skill for a working class child of the time. His schoolmaster Robert Atchison was highly influential in George’s life and is kindly remembered in his diary.

So how did he end up at the Battle of Trafalgar? At age 13 he left the hospital to become an apprentice to John Browne’s, a confectioner and grocer in the City of London.  Charity apprenticeships were common as employers were paid to provide board and lodging and train them to earn their living in lowly often dangerous jobs where they were badly treated.   George was bullied by fellow apprentices and ended up in fights.  To avoid the danger of prison after one particularly bad fight,in 1804  George runs away to Chatham to join the navy with indentures but was plied with drink and press ganged directly onto the HMS Polyphemus, a massive war ship.   Soon the Polyphemus joined up with Nelson’s fleet and entered the Battle of Trafalgar.  A dramatic painting dominates the main exhibition room marking this event.

Battle of Trafalgar

George recounts the chaos and danger of the battle and notes that ‘at half past nine Nelson made the signal the England expects every man will his duty… ‘  And they did!  Nelson of course was killed in action and HMS Polyphemus towed his ship VIctory into the safe port of Gibraltar.

One unexpected artifact is a fragment of the Union Flag from Victory which had been draped over Nelson’s coffin. Sailors pocketed scraps instead of folding it onto the coffin – apparently they were prone to taking things at public occasions!

Victory flag

George stayed in the navy for 24 years and travelled the world but this hard life took a toll on his health.  This map shows his travels gives you some idea of the extent of his voyages to Africa, South America and the Caribbean. .

George King's sea travels

His health suffered from the work but also due to poor treatment.  He was drinking, perhaps to counter the horrors of war but also sailors were given wine before battle and the famous tot of rum was a daily norm, The drinking led to fights which were punished by lashes on many occasions.  He is recorded as having dysentery and having to be sent ashore in Malta in 1811.

He finds the time to marry in 1825 partly because ill health causes him to spend more time on shore but she dies while he is away at sea.  After 24 years in the navy he travelled to Charleston, in newly independent America and worked successfully as a teacher.  Despite being asked to stay on with a pay rise he left to return to England possibly finding his witnessing of slavery too hard to bear.  Back home in 1832, he tries various jobs such as dock work, hop picking and even being a policeman but he fell on hard times with no recourse to help but applied to get a place at the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich and he was successful and awarded a pension for life.

His writing skills helped him again and he secured a clerk’s position in the hospital, earning enough money to leave, get his own home and marry again.

George King died in 1857 aged 70 but he left us his diary which he called: Diary of the Incidents of the Life of the Undermentioned, for forty one years c1845 ‘ It was written when he was settled in Greenwich but it is thought he kept notes so he could write up the ‘incidents’ in great detail.  Here’s the book itself.  There is an excellent film which shows pages with sections read out which are interspersed with interviews giving useful background to George’s story.

George King's diary

Back in uniform at the hospital it is fascinating to think of his life being dominated by uniforms from the foundling through the sailor to the pensioner. A case displays the pensioners’ uniform, the only surviving example, another special item in this exhibition.

Pensioner's coat Greenwich


We were lucky on the preview visit to have a talk by Helen Berry whose book Orphans of Empire, The Fate of London’s Foundlings traces the lives of many foundlings and was a an external curator of this exhibition.  She stressed what a rare treasure George’s diary was because a foundling  boy was not usually taught to write as well as read.  His first hand account of life below decks on naval vessels showed the back breaking work the working class press ganged sailor put into the great victories of the era.

This is a small, well presented and fascinating exhibition.  George has left us a rich story and it is well overdue the telling.

For more information about the Foundling Museum, visiting times and costs their website is There is a lot more to see than this special exhibition!


Full disclosure: as is customary in the travel industry I was invited by the Foundling Museum to a preview of this exhibition.  This has not influenced my review.

Miracle Window

The murder of Thomas Becket at the British Museum!

Thomas Becket, what’s the story and why does he deserve his own exhibition at the British Museum?  It’s quite a story!

Born around 1120, Thomas’s parents were quite well connected and he got a good education but his father fell on harder times so Thomas got a job as a clerk and then found a position working for the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He travelled on church business, met the right people and did so well that he was recommended to the post of Lord Chancellor! He and the King, Henry ll  became close and Thomas was good at his job which included collecting revenue from landowners such as churches and bishoprics.

His next job was as Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior religious role in the country, despite having never been a priest and this is when everything changed. Thomas’s first allegiance was now to the church not the king and Henry had assumed Thomas would continue as Chancellor and help him get more control over the church but he resigned as Chancellor right away.  Disputes between the church and state increased and Henry and Thomas’s relationship worsened. In 1164 Thomas was accused of contempt of the king’s authority and was found guilty so he fled to Europe.

A compromise was found, Thomas returned but infuriated by the acts of 3 Archbishops and Bishops who took on a role reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury alone he excommunicated them.  Henry took a dim view of this and 4 knights were dispatched to Canterbury to arrest Thomas. Things got out of hand when Thomas refused to go with them, he fled to the cathedral and in the ensuing melee, Thomas was killed in this holy site on 29th December, 1170.

This story of the murder spread like shock waves throughout Europe, Thomas was seen as a martyr, then he was made a Saint in record time,  the  king had to make public penance at the tomb and Canterbury cathedral became a key pilgrimage site for centuries to come.  His cult was strong during the middle ages and people all over Europe revered him.

Now you’ve got the story, what about the exhibition?  This takes us through his life chronologically with artifacts, letter, books, and of course the famous Miracle Windows – more on these later.  The items really grab the visitor are those associated with his later life but story told leading up to this is well worth following and enjoying through books, seals and ??

The murder itself is at the heart of the exhibition and with eye witness accounts, the event is well documented.   Accounts from the time also describe miracles which occurred around the tomb almost immediately after his death.

In 1173 the Pope made Thomas Becket a saint and many beautiful caskets were made in France to hold his relics . About 50 of these remain, scattered across Europe where his cult spread. This example is one  of the largest and earliest, made within 20 years of his death.


I’ve mentioned how the cult of St Thomas spread through out Europe and one of the more striking examples is this golden reliquary from Norway dating from 1220-1250 with 2 extraordinary dragons’ heads marking out from the French designs. The bottom panel shows the moment the fatal blow is struck.

This alabaster sculpture from an altarpiece shows the moment of the murder and dates from about 1450

Henry ll had not foreseen that the death of Thomas would result in his martyrdom and then sainthood and there are conflicting accounts of whether he did want Thomas dead or just to curb his powers.  It is clear that Henry made public penance, even walking barefoot through Canterbury and undertook many pilgrimages there to Thomas’s tomb.  In this document with Henry’s Great Seal he promises to protect the rights of the  monks at Canterbury in perpetuity – political back covering or genuine regret?

The undoubted highlight of the whole show is the Miracle Window, brought here for the exhibition from Canterbury Cathedral where it has survived somehow for 800 years .  These extraordinary Medieval glass wonders depict the stories of Becket’s miracles. It has never left the cathedral before and is displayed at eye level for a better view of its details. I have to say it is breath-taking. At its home in the cathedral  it’s hard to see properly as the window is 6 meters tall and the light does not fall though it as it does here.  The colours are so intense and it is impossible to believe that this precious window dates from ?.  The British Museum has taken each of the 4 portions of the window and set them side by side so you can really see the miracle stories being told. The information panels easily take you through each tale and the whole area is somewhere to linger.

Here are the windows in the cathedral, hard to see and rather dark.

Canterbury Cathedral

Here are a couple of photos to give you an idea of this splendid sight:


Looking closer at one miracle, you can see the wonderful story telling skills of the glass makers.   This small section shows Ralph de Longville being cured of leprosy,  On the left he sits by Becket’s tomb, his limbs which are covered in sore, are bathed with St Thomas’s Water  (Becket’s blood diluted) and he is offered some to drink.  At the top he leaves on his horse, cured and on the right he returns to the tomb to  give thanks.  Can you believe this glass dates from the early 1200s, it has of course been repaired over the centuries but the skill and beauty shine out.

Miracle Window

The final section of the exhibition which really caught my eye was the incredibly grand tomb built to house St Thomas in 1220.  The unveiling was quite the event with King Henry lll and European dignitaries in attendance.  It was a no expense spared moment with the fountains in Canterbury flowing with wine!  The tomb was destroyed by Henry Vlll in another king v church dispute but computer aided reconstruction using fragments and contemporary descriptions from the time give us a picture of the grandest tomb in Christendom.  This version is from approximately 1408. A short film gives us a 360 view and one with the cover aloft.

Becket's tomb

There is so much more in this exhibition, more information can be found about this and other exhibitions at the British Museum here.

Full disclosure: I was invited to the press preview by the museum but as a member I have revisited it since.

Churchill Arms at Christmas

More London Christmas lights

Have you soon my last post on London’s Christmas lights? Check it out here.  There are so many great lights cheering us up that I thought a second post was called for.

My favourite is the Tate Britain, not the most obvious place to look for festive lights but they do have some previous successes in the form of festive slugs a few years ago!  This year’s display is a brilliant use of lights and packs in so many ideas.  The building looks great day and night and is really popular with people travelling just to see it – if they can while we are under the current regulations.

The display by Chila Kumani Singh Burman called Remembering a Brave New World  celebrates a range of cultures in swirling colour and neon light and is a message of hope at this difficult time. Can you spot the Hindu mythology, Bollywood imagery as well as British traditions?  This is a Diwali celebration, the festival of light and its message fits well with Christmas.   I loved the tiger and the ice cream van!

Tate Britain Tate Britain

Tate Britain Xmas Tate Britain Xmas








St Pancras station always brings us a dramatic and elegant tree and this year is no exception.  This pink beauty from EL&N is made up of thousands of ribbons with messages of hope from  NHS and key workers.  In the background you can see Tracey Emin’s ‘I want my time with you’ in purple neon.

Christmas tree in St Pancras

The Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street is a riot of lights and they must take the prize for the most festive pub in London.  Sadly closed at the moment but still giving us joy.

Some lights manage to be impressive in daylight (see the Tate Britain above) and these reindeer, fox, bird combination by the Thames does just that.  In a great position with Tower Bridge in the background, they brightened a dull day in London.

Mayfair put up its usual elegant and dramatic crowns.

Xmas in Mayfair

Covent Garden’s mistletoe and disco baubles cheered up a visit during lockdown where everything was shut but the lights gave us hope that things would get better.

Xmas in Covent Garden

Hamley’s famous and huge toy store went all Harry Potter on us with this traditional Christmas window.

Christmas lights in London

I’ve saved the best for last.  In a side street near RIchmond park this nativity was made with such love and thanks to all the NHS and care workers .  Congratulations to this family for this great celebration of the Christmas spirit!


I send festive wishes to you all and all the very best for 2021.


Burlington Arcade

Christmas lights brighten up London

It’s been a tough few months so I was keen to head to the West End of London to see the Christmas lights 2020 and taken on some Christmas spirit.  They did not disappoint and I’d like you to join me on my first tour around these famous illuminations.

Burlington Arcade is a top end passage of shops and said to be the world’s first shopping arcade.  Its simple colour scheme and tasteful decorations are a delight and Moet & Chandon have set up a tempting photo opportunity which I could not resist!

Burlington Arcade

Burlington Arcade

Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly is a beautiful shop inside and out  Famous for its teas it loves to mark Christmas with its customary style and flair.  This year the exterior is one huge advent calendar with a section for each leading up to the 25th and a massive 2020 down the side of the building.  Their shop windows are commemorating 8 famous displays from the past from 1930 through to 2020. Inside it is a masterclass in Christmas decorations and symmetrical design.

Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason

Carnaby Street is usually my favourite decoration with its off the wall and over the top approach but this year they seem rather subdued although the message is strong.

Carnaby Street

Seven Dials just near Covent Garden have excelled themselves this year with a stunning  halo of lights with coloured baubles and sliver birch sprays around their famous centre.  The overall them is Festive Woodland.

Seven Dials

Oxford Street have gone for big banners with lights and text which changes rapidly so you have to be patient to see any full messages.

Christmas lights in London Oxford Street

Regent Street has returned with its beautiful angels which have been on display for many Christmases but still delight

Christmas lights in London Regent Street

The Mayfair shops always push the boat out and Cartier take the prize this year with their jaguar themed bright red shop front.

Christmas lights in London Mayfair

I hope you enjoyed this tour around some of London’s Christmas lights. There are plenty more so watch out for another blog post to come featuring South Molton Street, Tate Britain, Trafalgar Square and many more

Merry Christmas.


Kimono by Yamamoto

Kimonos at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The VIctoria and Albert Museum has reopened and I’m really looking forward to returning to one of London’s great, world leading museums.

Just before lockdown I visited their Kimono : Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition and am delighted that is has returned and remains there  through to October this year.   This exhibition is a delight to the eye as we are guided through stunning kimonos, paintings from Japan and then onto the influence of these styles have had on the wider world and in particular fashion.  The displays are beautifully put together

To start with here is a selection of the extraordinarily beautiful kimonos on display. As you go round the displays, you can learn of the significance of the pieces, the importance of the garments and cloth in Japanese society and how they developed over the centuries.  Captions explain how the kimonos were worn and the extraordinary craftsmanship required to produce them.

Kimonos at the V&A

Kimonos at the V&A

Kimonos at the V&A

Kimonos at the V&A


Kimonos at the V&A

Delicate and detailed paintings of people wearing kimonos feature heavily and add a great deal of interest as we can see how these garments looked on the wearers of that time in the classic Japanese art style.  Through the artworks you get to hear of the complexities of the layers of society, the world of entertainment including geishas and the messages sent out through their dress by men and women.

Japanese painting at the V&A

Japanese painting at the V&A Japanese painting at the V&A

Japanese painting at the V&A

Japanese painting at the V&A Japanese painting at the V&A

Fast forward a couple of centuries (missing out many interesting displays in several rooms of the exhibtion) and we arrive at the world of modern fashion.  Stunning pieces show the influence of the kimono on modern fashion and culture including pop music stars and films. As always the fabulous display work by the V&A shows them off at their best and the colours and shapes are breath-taking.

Kimono by Galliano

Kimono by Galliano

Kimono by Yamamoto

Kimono by Yamamoto

Kimono amd Bjork

Bjork and her McQueen kimono

Star Wars

Star Wars Obi Wan’s kimono

Star Wars

Star Wars Queen Apailana’s kimono

Kimono by Galliano

Madonna’s kimono by Galliano

Every good museum needs a quality gift shop and the V&A is no exeption. Among an array of lovely smaller items and books this rack of colourful kimonos was extremely tempting!

Kimonos in the V&A shop

For more information about Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, which runs to 25th October, entry prices to this special exhibition as well as free pre-booked entry to the rest of this wonderful museum:

Full disclosure:  I am a V&A member and pay for this myself so I am able to visit V&A’s great special exhibitions whenever I like.

Khadija Saye

Art on the street in Notting Hill

I was strolling past the former site of Joseph on Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill when I was stopped in my tracks by some amazing artworks.  We have a good deal of art in Notting Hill on the walls of buildings but this was something new.  Large pieces in black and white were placed in the boarded up windows and they led me round the corner to discover what this was about.

In my neighbourhood we have a lot of reminders of the appaling Grenfell Tower fire and huge loss of life and you can easily see the boarded up tower block with its green Grenfell heart.  This display of art on the street is a tribute to the artist  Khadija Saye who died in this tragedy.

Art in the street Notting Hill

Continue reading

Charles Dickens in colour

Charles Dickens London home

The Charles Dickens Museum has reopened!  It’s a very special place as it is Dickens’s only surviving London home  where he lived from 1837 to 1839 and wrote 3 of his most famous novels:  Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers, and Nicholas Nickleby.

He moved to 48 Doughty Street with his wife Catherine and first child and this is where his fame grew as well as his family. The museum offers you the chance to see where he lived, entertained and wrote and to top that there is a new special exhibition called Technicolour Dickens: The Living Image of Charles Dickens – more on this further down.

Charles Dickens museum

Continue reading