Are We Remembering The Wrong Famous Londoners?

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 26 months ago
Are We Remembering The Wrong Famous Londoners?

There is a parallel London in which Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not the greatest railway engineer, Florence Nightingale was not the greatest health reformer and Joseph Bazalgette was not the pioneering sewer builder.

Where did we find this parallel city? Well, it’s no steampunk dream because we are living in it. We don't seek to knock Isambard, flame Florence or badmouth Bazalgette, but we thoughtit's time to give the limelight to their challengers for a change.

I. K. Brunel v Joseph Locke, Railway Engineer

Barnes Bridge. Photo by Matt Brown


It's curious that the lives of Brunel (1806-1859) of the Great Western Railway and Stephenson (1803-1859) of the London and Birmingham Railway ended almost simultaneously. The third pioneering railway engineer, Joseph Locke (1805-1860), pegged out a few months later. He built the line from London to Southampton and then continued the international link to Paris from Le Havre. He also built lines in mountainous northern Britain. In 1847 he became an MP and had a house in Lowndes Square.

Locke’s career began with George Stephenson and he drove the famous Rocket on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, running over statesman William Huskisson on the opening day. Later, when others dug expensive tunnels to avoid gradients, Locke risked the rises and locomotive evolution proved equal to the climb. While Brunel took on diverse projects, including ships and locomotives, these were sometimes follies, and he was extravagant. Locke had the rare ability to bring projects in on budget. His reputation suffers because his effacing effectiveness needed few landmarks, but the older Barnes railway bridge (the oldest surviving Thames bridge in the London postal area) is one.

Florence Nightingale v Thomas Wakley, Health Reformer

Thomas Wakley (image courtesy of the Royal Institution)


There are no storybook images of Thomas Wakley (1795-1862) wafting through the wards. He was more likely to be found in the mortuary than the hospital. Founding The Lancet journal as a young medical man in London he intended the title to have the sense of pricking a boil. His irreproachable medical content gave him safe cover from which to agitate, with evidence, against such deadly menaces as incompetent medics, quack doctors and tradesmen adulterating food. He named and shamed, standing his ground against the inevitable assaults and lawsuits, and fighting for those wronged.

He became the first medically-qualified coroner. His day included running The Lancet, presiding at several inquests around Middlesex county and attending parliament. As an MP he did not manage to move inquests out of ale houses. But laws tightened and, on his watch, it became more difficult for bullies in barracks, tyrants in workhouses and poisoners in prim parlours to get away with murder. His home in Bedford Square has a plaque.

Joseph Bazalgette v William Lindley, Sewer Builder

Lindley (1808-1900), born off the Old Kent Road, completed extensive sewers in Hamburg more than 10 years before Joseph Bazalgette even started his great work in London.

As a young man he worked on both the London and Southampton Railway and the Brunels’ Thames tunnel. Then he headed for Hamburg to build a railway there. On the day the railway opened a great fire broke out he was instrumental in taming it by razing buildings and creating fire breaks. He helped to rebuild the city, supplying it with clean water and baths as well as sewers. In his career he worked on the back passages of numerous European cities, as did the son he begat. He died in Blackheath but you are more likely to find a eulogy in Polish or German than in English.

Queen Victoria v Prince Albert

The Albert Memorial, by London in my lens from the Londonist Flickr pool


Victoria’s virtue seems to have been her popularity, following monarchs who were successively mad, bad and reactionary. She happened to be around for the height of the industrial revolution and so had a number of railway stations named after her.

Her consort, the German Prince Albert (1819-1861), however, was more active but died young, to be immortalised in an overblown Kensington memorial which he would have hated. Known for the way he marshalled his love muscle in tight trousers, we do not, however, advance that as the foundation of a reputation, although there were legions of grandchildren.

Even before his great moment in 1851 Albert’s negotiations brought to London A. W. Hofmann, one of the best German professors of chemistry, who trained a generation of top British scientists.

For all Britain’s success in starting the industrial revolution it was producing tat. British industry rested on its laurels. The nation was shown up in competition. Albert helped to make the Great Exhibition of 1851 a success, encouraging excellence and making the event almost a measure of human progress to date, and the starting line for future advances.

Alexander Fleming v Frederick Twort, Microbiologist

Fleming (1881-1955) noticed at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, how bacteria were killed by mould in a dish. His discovery was put to limited use in the laboratory for the next 10 years. But it was only when his paper on the subject was ‘discovered’ by Howard Florey that the mould was exploited as antibiotics.

Frederick Twort (1877-1950) began research at St Thomas’s and the London Hospital but preferred the seclusion of Brown’s Institution for veterinary medicine at Vauxhall. He tried to propagate viruses in a dish and in 1915, like Fleming, noticed that something was killing bacteria growing there. We now know that he had discovered bacteriophages, viruses that eat bacteria. These may now offer a useful alternative weapon against bacterial infections. Ironically, they are often found in that great soup of infection, sewage. They have been used to treat disease in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, trying to regulate living medicines which can evolve independently is problematic!

Last Updated 30 June 2016