A 1950s guide to London

Friday 17 June 2016

Back in 1952 John Metcalf was tasked with writing a guide on things to do in London on occasion of a young Elizabeth I’s Coronation. But instead of writing just a standard guide to attractions and amenities, he wanted to celebrate the culture of the British capital in all its weird and wonderful forms. As well as listing the London Underground, for instance, he also had a heading - of equal significance - for umbrellas.

London A-Z guide book front cover illustration in black and white
London A-Z by John Metcalf (1952) re-published in 2016 by Thames & Hudson

To celebrate the re-issue of the beautifully quirky guide, complete with original illustrations by celebrated British artist Edward Bawden, we take a look at the honest and often amusing advice he had for visitors to the city over 60 years ago.

What do you think, has London changed much?

Royal Albert Hall ready for the Proms

Albert Hall 

“This great cake tin of a place, which can hold over 10,000 people was built in 1871 and is constantly in use for concerts, exhibitions, balls, recitals, boxing matches. Long the target, through the '20s and '30s, of mockery of aesthetes, it is now enjoying a certain vogue among the sort of people who use the words ‘quaint’ and ‘charming’.”

Man and woman in bowler hats, sitting in camping chairs on the grass and waving British flags for a royal celebration

Bowler hat 

“The possession of the correct type of bowler, hairy, not too large and curly-brimmed, is as essential to the young man about town as a pair of trousers… The most London of all headgear.”


“London is sprinkled with churches, lovely and ugly, old and new, white stone and red brick, serenely spired or roofed with corrugated iron.”


“London is teeming with hotels. Claridge’s, the Connaught, The Ritz and Brown’s are perhaps the most exclusive, the Savoy and the Dorchester the minkiest.”

Kew Gardens from a distance, on a sunny day


“In the great conservatory, plants flower all year the year round; and there are fern houses, the cactus house, the Alpine house, the winter garden, the palm house and the succulent house. Thousands of Londoners, however, pay little attention to the more esoteric plants; they go to Kew to look at the flowers, to sleep on the grass, and listen to the birds. Their example is well worth following, particularly in spring and early summer.”

Oxford Street 

“With none of the dignity of Regent Street, no pretence at the chic of Bond Street, it’s a cheery, chattering, take-it-or-leave-it old girl, decked out with neon lights and sales gimmicks, an old girl who has a warmth and a liveliness that her more respectable sisters haven’t got.”


“You’ve a vast variety to choose from, ranging from the great gin palaces, glittering with cut glass mirrors and bedecked with carved wood and moulded plaster, of Victorian London, that you’ll find in Camden Town and Paddington and the Euston Road - all the older swallowed up suburbs - to the quiet little single-roomed mews pub, once a coachman’s taproom and now very chic.”

Oxford Street busy with shoppers


“In an age of department stores...the small merchant is very much a part of the London tradition and, I hope, always will be.”


“You can skate to your heart’s content in London.”

Well dressed lady getting into a black cab in London


“London’s taxicabs range from rickety old puffing-billies which seem (with their drivers) to be of pre-World War I vintage, to purring smoothies smelling of leather and metal polish.”

A happy family outside Shakespeare's Globe theatre


London’s theatre is flourishing. The diet is rich and varied, and unless you are extraordinarily difficult to please, you should be able to find at least three or four shows running to suit your taste.”

Turkish baths

“...One of the best ways to get rid of a hangover. If you’ve never had one, try it just for the experience. You may find it terrible to be first boiled and then frozen, with a bit of pummelling thrown in, but the after-effect is worth it.”


“Weather is as much a topic of conversation for Londoners as it is for everyone else in this weather-bound country. Suitable phrases like ‘Raining again, I see’, or ‘Cold this morning’, or ‘Foggy last night’,or ‘Nippy, that east wind’, or, more rarely, ‘Nice morning’, are standard conversational openings. However, Londoners like it.”


London A-Z by John Metcalf has been re-published in 2016 by Thames & Hudson with a new introduction by Peyton Skipwith.

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