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19th Century London: the Diaries of John Daws

John Daws (1810 - 1896), the father-in-law of Emma Eliza Cryer, lived much of his life in the Bermondsey area of London (on the south bank of the River Thames, opposite the Tower of London). He was an intelligent, energetic and curious man who made a point of involving himself in events of topical interest. He wrote of these in his diaries which he illustrated with his own sketches. A sample of the sketches are a feature of this page. Through them and the corresponding diary entries, we get a feel 19th century London.

The diaries of were scanned by John's descendant, Wendy Herbert, who has added genealogical data about the Daws family to the IGI. She may be contacted on:

email address for Wendy Herbert

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John Daws wrote his diaries for the delight of future generations. So Wendy and I have given freely of our time to make the following extracts publicly available. If you use them, please acknowledge their source and - for our own satisfaction - let us know. (Wendy's contact information is directly above. Mine is on the contact page. My particular interest is old photographs and if you have any of the family or their location, please do get in touch.)

1830 The burning down of the Royal Exchange
1841 The destruction by fire at Tower of London
1843 The opening of Brunel's tunnel under the River Thames
1843 The destruction by fire of St Olaves Church
1851 The Great Exhibition of All Nations at the Crystal Palace
1856 The erection of the bell of Big Ben
1862 The Great Exhibition of 1862
1863 The opening of the London Underground (the Tube)
1878 The arrival of Cleopatra's Needle at the Thames Embankment
1894 The opening of Tower Bridge across London's River Thames

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The burning down of the Royal Exchange, 1838

10 January 1838

The burning of the London Royal Exchange, 1838

The Royal Exchange London burnt down. Father says in his letter that he passed it at 12 o'clock at night. The chimes in the belfry were playing a singular tune "There's no luck about the house". At the same time some part of the building was in flames, and by morning it was all destroyed. So intense was the cold that night that the water was frozen in the pipes of the [fire] engines.

[On this occasion, John was in Manchester, and the sketch must have been either copied from his father's letter or simply what he thought the fire would have looked like.]

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Destruction by fire at Tower of London, 1841

31 October 1841

The Tower of London on fire, 1841

Saturday night (11 o'clock) great fire burst out at the Tower of London. The armoury with beautiful specimens of guns, cannons, trophys of valour, some of the first cannon that were made - it also contained about 300000 stands of arms, beautifully arranged in one of the largest rooms in the Kingdom. This armoury was all destroyed, together with the Bowyer Tower and part of the ancient Chapel. This is looked upon as a great national calamity and caused a great sensation.

The White Tower saved from the blaze of 1841

1841 November 1

The Tower still burning. It was with difficulty that the Great White Tower was saved. In the vaults beneath it was a magazine of powder. The barrels of produce were carried out in wet blankets and then thrown into the Tower ditch. The Armoury 300 feet long is now a vast ruin, once a splendid building - and to look at it from Tower Hill, the whole represents a fortified town that has lately been bombarded. There are the walls surrounded by the ditch; the cannon pointing at you from the ramparts and batterys, but the great buildings inside the walls all appears in ruins. But the beautiful ancient White Tower is not in the least injured.

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The official opening of Brunel's tunnel under the River Thames, 1843

21 November 1841

The first communication between the shores of the River Thames was effected this day through the Thames Tunnel.

25 March 1843

The Thames Tunnel opened for public thoroughfare at one penny toll for each person. Thousands availed themselves of the opportunity, specially on the ensuing day.

28 March 1843

I walked through the tunnel - Mr Brunel engineer. It is indeed a noble undertaking, and as I walked beneath the bed of the river, what an excitement of wonder did it cause in my mind. I was then 80 feet beneath the surface of the water which was just ten at high tide, and a large ship, towed by a steamer was then passing over.

Brunel's tunnel under the River Thames, 1843
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The destruction by fire of St Olaves Church, 1843

19 August 1843

Dreadful fire this morning near London Bridge. St Olaves Church, Toppings Wharf, Lead works, the Telegraphs and shipping destroyed. The bells of the church fell about 2 o'clock. The clock stopped and was destroyed at a quarter to three and the hands still point to that time.

The skyline of the north bank of the Thames before the fire of 1843

The skyline of the north bank of the Thames after the fire of 1843
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The Great Exhibition of all Nations at the Crystal Palace, 1851

October 1850

The Great Glass Palace is now erecting in Hyde Park for the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations. The largest building in the world. 1848 feet in length, 408 feet wide, built entirely of glass and iron to cover 18 Acres, 3230 iron columns, 2244 iron girders, 900000 feet of glass, value 150000.

The crystal palace under construction, 1850

September 1851

Immense sums of money are being taken every day at the Great Exhibition.

1 October 1851

Mr Livingston's son Henry came to be with us to see the Exhibition.

Crystal Palace, site of Great Exhibition of 1851

11 October 1851

The Great Exhibition closed this day to the public. This great and wonderful Exhibition is now over. It has brought over to this country people of every nation. We have seen the Chinese, the Greek, the Turk, the black, the coloured and every grade of mankind walking our crowded streets of London, while Frenchmen, German, Dutch, etc with their great beards and moustaches are constantly about us. Then the thousands of our countrymen from every part of England and Scotland brought up daily by immense Railway trains and by every possible conveyance all together give London a very lively and animated appearance. Most of our country friends and relations visited London. In fact every one made an effort to do so. No less than the astonishing number of Six Million Sixty three thousand, nine hundred and eighty six persons visited the exhibition. The receipts at the doors amounted to 469,115.13.0. [...unreadable word ...] 275000 of the above was in silver, or 35 tons in weight. 5084 Rewards were given to Exhibitors of goods in valuable medals or sums of money at the close of the Exhibition.

Account of numbers who have visited the Great Exhibition of All Nations up to this date.

11 Oct   


6,201,857 persons

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The erection of the bell of Big Ben, 1856

21 October 1856

The Great Bell of Big Ben, erected 1856

I saw the great Bell (intended for the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament), hoisted out of the Schooner "Wave" from Sunderland. It weighs 16 tons, the largest by far of any in England. It is a magnificent Bell, beautifully cast. I touched it, and a man with a large mallet sounded it. It was slowly raised from the hold of the ship in the presence of many and placed on a large truck to be dragged by 16 horses to its destination. It then was tested and sounded in the Palace Yard previous to its being raised to the top of the Clock Tower 200 feet high.

[It is interesting to note that the great Bell was yet to earn its nickname of Big Ben.]

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The Great Exhibition of 1862

1 May 1862

The opening of the Great Exhibition took place. The contract for building is 430,000 and covers 16 acres in extent: 1200 feet from east to west and 560 feet from north to south, and with other additional erections increases the extent of the building to 24 acres. Mess Kelk and Lucas brothers and Captain Fowke [are] the designers. There are two vast domes built of iron and glass, each of which rise to the height of 260 feet. The Duke of Cambridge was commissioned to open [the exhibition] instead of the Queen or the Royal family who are still in mourning for Prince Albert who was the great promoter of this great undertaking. It appears that the number of visitors to the Exhibition was 6,117,450, to [the] close [of] Saturday 1 November inclusive, 8,700 more than in 1851.

The Great Exhibition of 1862
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The opening of the London Underground (the Tube) in 1863

January 1863

The Metropolitan Railway (Underground Railway) opened this month. Nearly 30,000 persons travelling on it each day. The carriages are lit up with gas, and it is a great help travelling from one end of London to the other. The engines condense the steam.

Opening of the London Underground in 1863
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The arrival of Cleopatra's Needle at the Thames Embankment, London, 1878The arrival of Cleopatra's Needle at the Thames Embankment, London, 1878

15 June 1878

The Cleopatra Needle, as it is called, being a massive stone some 60 feet long, weighing 180 tons, which has been brought from Egypt at an immense cost. It lay in the sand, near the sea side; a casing of iron of boiler plates was built round it, and by digging a trench the water was brought to it. After floating it, it was towed by a steam tug. In a storm it was nearly lost, and the crew lost their lives. It was again recovered and brought safe to England up the River.

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The opening of Tower Bridge across London's River Thames, 30 June 1894

30 June 1894

The opening of the great "Tower Bridge" which has been 8 years building. A grand day. The Prince of Wales and several of the Royal family were present. Our neighbourhood "Horselydown" had a grand display, seats built for 8000 spectators and children of the various schools. The decorations were enormous on both sides of the river. Several Triumphal Arches in the City, and the river and the streets were decorated.

Opening of Tower Bridge across London's River Thames in 1894
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