Growing up in suburban Boston, Blue Badge Guide Steve Fallon was convinced that London was populated by bowler-hatted gentlemen and cockney villains. “I watched a lot of British TV programmes,” he explains. “They all seemed to feature aristocrats or gangsters, so I just assumed all Brits were like that.”
Three decades later, Steve came to live in the UK. A career in journalism had taken him to Iron Curtain-era Poland (where the government kept a secret service file on him), Hungary (where he started writing guide books), Hong Kong, rural Essex and, in the year 2000, Bow in east London.
“I arrived at a great time,” he says. “The East End was full of energy and when the Olympic Games were announced there was a real excitement about the place.
My partner and I were welcomed into a community that still holds onto its cockney roots.” Steve was commissioned to write the Lonely Planet guide book’s London edition. This led him to become a Blue Badge tourist guide and he started to investigate the connections between his native New England and his new ‘old England’ neighbourhood.
“In many ways, the East End is the cradle of the American colonies,” says Steve. “The first 65 Pilgrim Fathers boarded the Mayflower near Rotherhithe in 1620. There is a riverside pub named after the ship, and its captain, Christopher Jones, is buried nearby in St Mary’s church.
“Another Thames church with American links is All Hallows by the Tower. The country’s 6th president John Quincy Adams married there in 1797 and his British-born wife Louisa is the only non-American First Lady in the history of the United States.
“The religious pioneer, William Penn was baptised at All Hallows in 1644. King Charles II gave Penn’s father land in America that William used to found a Quaker colony called Pennsylvania. Its main city, Philadelphia, became the United States’ first capital.
“The symbol of Philadelphia and American independence is the Liberty Bell. It was cast in 1752 in London’s East End at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The bell was shipped to America, where it cracked at the first ringing. The foundry is still there – the oldest manufacturing company in Britain.
“The church with the strongest emotional ties to the States is St Paul’s Cathedral. Its American Memorial Chapel commemorates the 28,000 soldiers who died on active service while based in Britain during WWII.
“I have a personal connection to the chapel via my father-in-law who served with US Army Airborne in Norfolk. He was bombed four times and saw several friends fly out, never to return. Their names are recorded in the chapel’s book of remembrance. It’s a poignant list of the fallen that moves many of my American clients to tears.
“If you study the chapel wood carvings you will see representations of American flora and fauna; birds such as cardinals and American robins, which are much bigger than their British counterparts – supersized, like US cars.
“There is a very public reminder of the ‘special relationship’ in the form of the statues of American presidents you see across London – seven at the last count. Grosvenor Square, next to the US embassy, boasts three: Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt.
“The Roosevelt memorial was funded through subscriptions; the British public were so enthusiastic that all the money was raised in six days. Roosevelt suffered from polio in childhood and the Grosvenor Square statue depicts his disability. This was heavily downplayed in the States and Americans are surprised by such an honest representation. Roosevelt is also commemorated in Bond Street, where he is shown ‘in conversation’ with Winston Churchill.
“George Washington’s statue is in Trafalgar Square. The rebellious Washington said he would ‘never set foot on English soil’ and there is an urban myth that when his statue was erected in the 70s, Virginia soil was placed under the plinth. The British dislike for Washington is illustrated by a story that during the decades after the Revolutionary War, every British embassy placed a portrait of Washington next to the urinal.
“London folklore is full of this kind of banter. There is an often repeated myth that when Robert P. McCulloch bought the 19th century London Bridge in the 1960s, he thought he was getting Tower Bridge. McCulloch had a bill of sale and knew exactly what he was buying and, like a ‘typical American’, he made lots of money by rebuilding the bridge as a tourist attraction in Lake Havasu in Arizona.
“One of London’s strangest memorials to Americans is on Gloucester Place. It’s a plaque that reads: ‘Benedict Arnold, American patriot resided here’. He was a British spy and turncoat during the revolutionary wars and Americans spit when they hear his name. Apparently the person who attached the plaque to his house is a relative who is trying to salvage Arnold’s reputation. I don’t think it’s working – he has had gruff phone calls from angry Americans.
“One of my favourite transatlantic heroes is fellow New Englander, George Peabody, who came to London in the 1830s and set up a bank. He lost all his money in a financial crash, but was bailed out by the Bank of England. But it’s Peabody’s later philanthropic work that is his great legacy:he created the first social housing in Britain, giving £500,000 to establish homes for the ‘deserving poor’.
“Peabody was loved in Britain and when he died was given a grand funeral in Westminster Abbey. But it was discovered that he actually wanted to be buried in his home town, so they transported his coffin to New England for reburial – the perfect symbol of how our nations’ histories are inextricably linked.”