- Historic Sites
America In London
Within the city’s best-known landmarks and down its least-visited lanes stand surprisingly vivid mementos of our own national history
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
King George III and Queen Charlotte accepted her into the royal entourage and maintained stiff upper lips when she scolded them for making war and addressed them as “George” and “Charlotte.” But not all Americans in London approved of Mrs. Wright. Abigail Adams thought she was dissolute. Elkanah Watson described her as a maniac. Mrs. Wright was unmoved. Spies must have thick skins. To Franklin she wrote, “I meet with the greatest politeness from the people of England,” adding, “My education joined with my father’s courage can be serviceable to bring on the glorious cause of civil and religious liberty.”
An earlier American with a shadowy reputation, George Downing, graduated from Harvard in 1642 and became one of the trickiest, meanest, most unscrupulous wheeler-dealers in the politics of Restoration London. Contracting a lucrative marriage, he invested the proceeds in a piece of real estate within walking distance of Parliament. It was a shrewd deal that ensured the buyer’s immortality: 10 Downing Street has been the official residence of British prime ministers since 1735. During the 1940 blitz, Winston Churchill, himself the son of an American mother, fumed at Downing’s rickety houses—“shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear.” He knew what he was talking about; Churchill was an expert bricklayer.
Four miles from London’s center is Rotherhithe, rich in Mayflower lore. The Pilgrim vessel was probably built at Rotherhithe and dismantled there after her final voyage, in 1642. Some of the timbers are thought to be part of a barn at Jordans, to the west of London. The skipper of the Mayflower, Capt. Christopher Jones, is buried in Rotherhithe Church. There is even a pub called the Mayflower Inn, dating from the Pilgrim era, when it was known as the Shippe. Tradition has it that the four part owners of the Mayflower often met there.
London’s Americana is carefully hidden from even the most determined sleuth.
Back, now, across London Bridge (not the medieval original with shops and houses or the replacement, which currently bakes in the sun of Lake Havasu, Arizona) and into the City once again. Outside the Royal Exchange is the statue of George Peabody, born Danvers, Massachusetts, 1795; died Eaton Square, London, 1869. In those seventy-four years Peabody established a reputation as a philanthropist that has never been surpassed. Among the Victorian poor of London his name was revered, and his “dwellings for the needy,” known as Peabody buildings, are still classics of innercity low-cost housing. It was Peabody who paid for the U.S. section of the Great Exhibition in 1851 when Congress refused to vote a cent.
To the west looms St. Paul’s (the American painter Benjamin West lies there), and beyond it comes the slope of Ludgate Hill. This is where Princess Pocahontas stayed in 1616. A vanished tavern called La Belle Sauvage was named for her. She died at Gravesend, far down the river, on the voyage home. In St. Martin s Ludgate Church, Capt. William Perm married Margaret van der Schuren in 1643. Their son, the founder of Pennsylvania, was born the following year.
Ludgate Hill gives way to Fleet Street, where St. Bride’s contains a memorial to Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World, just four hundred years ago, in 1587. Ben Franklin fixed a lightning conductor on St. Bride’s steeple. George III said it wouldn’t work, but he was wrong.
Another Fleet Street church, St. Dunstan’s, has memorials to the Calverts, the founders of Maryland, and to the De La Warrs of Delaware. Nearby, in the Strand, St. Clement Dane’s—famous for a nursery rhyme, “Oranges and lemons. Say the bells of St. Clement’s”—belongs to the Royal Air Force. It contains a shrine and honor roll of U.S. airmen based in Britain and killed in World War II, with a tablet quoting the Gettysburg Address. The fine organ was presented by the United States Air Force. We need not dwell too long on the statue behind the church of Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose opinion of Americans during the Revolutionary War was less than flattering: “Rascals, robbers, pirates: I am willing to love all mankind except an American.”
While Johnson was fulminating against Americans, a young German who was to become the archetype of the American self-made man was walking the streets of London. John Jacob Astor spent only three years in the capital before heading for New York and a dynastic fortune. A century later his descendants arrived back in London, determined to join the aristocracy and armed with a hundred million dollars to smooth the path.