While the stories of London’s most celebrated names will always command attention, the city is full of compelling tales of ordinary Londoners doing extraordinary things. In some cases, the light of these inspiring individuals has remained hidden under a bushel for centuries, records of their good deeds only recently emerging from the annals of history.
Here, we pay tribute to some of the capital’s secret stars.
For those who’ve admired the mighty 310-metres tall Shard, there’s one woman to thank for it being here. Roma Agrawal, an award-winning structural engineer, was responsible for designing the building’s foundations plus its spire.
"If you go up to the viewing gallery and look at the exposed steel at the pinnacle, this is where you can really see the skill of the architect and engineer working together," says Roma.
Its construction presented many challenges, especially as it's next to busy London Bridge Station. However, the innovative use of top-down construction, which saw the team start on the ground floor, building The Shard’s concrete core upwards while creating the foundations, helped reduce the construction time by three months.
If you visit the Florence Nightingale Museum you'll learn more about this heroic Jamaican-born nurse. Born in 1805 to a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother, Mary had few civil rights (even though of mixed race) — unable to vote, enter a profession or hold public office. On her travels, she learned European medical practices yet was turned down by the War Office in England to be sent to the Crimean War. Undeterred, Mary travelled independently to Crimea. She established the British Hotel in Balaclava, to help care for the wounded soldiers and even visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire.
Mary returned to London after the war where she practiced medicine, and her story is told in the museum. In 2016 a statue to honour her life was unveiled in the grounds of St Thomas' Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament. She is the first named black woman to have a memorial statue in the UK.
Sitting in the study of her Hampstead home surrounded by albums of as-yet-unseen images of the city, Dorothy Bohm declares: ‘I think I have photographed London more than any other photographer.’
Leaving Lithuania aged 14 to escape the rising threat of Nazism, Dorothy’s father handed her his Leica camera as she boarded the train, saying that ‘it might be useful’ one day. His prophetic words spawned a career that has spanned 75 years and, at 94, Dorothy is still delighting audiences with her work.
Currently, it is her photographs of children that are attracting attention thanks to Little Happenings: Photographs of Children, an exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood (to 17 Mar). "I do not press the shutter unless I think something is worth taking," she says. Dorothy went on to found the Photographer's Gallery.
Samuel Friend Penney
When construction work on Tower Bridge began in 1886, one of the bravest people contracted to the project was Samuel Friend Penney. He led the team of divers who levelled the bed of the River Thames and dug out the foundations for the massive concrete piers on which the bridge’s two towers stand.
This dangerous work saw caissons – large wrought iron boxes (12 for each pier) – sunk to a depth of approximately 6.5 metres. They were then filled with concrete, before being clad with granite brickwork above water level. A commemorative bronze plaque was unveiled in Tower Bridge’s South Tower in acknowledgment of his bravery.
For any visitor who takes the Piccadilly line into central London from Heathrow Airport, their journey will be accompanied by the dulcet tones of a woman telling them to ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’. Julie Berry has been the voice of the Piccadilly line since the 1980s, her recordings used to announce a train’s arrival at a station and inform passengers of the next and final destination of the service. Her voice pops up in all sorts of other places, often catching Julie unawares.
"I once had a friend who was working with The Royal Ballet and he gave me and a friend a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I got a bit of a surprise when I heard my voice in one of the backstage lifts as we went up to the canteen," she says.
Notting Hill Carnival can trace its roots back to a woman with an important cause. Claudia Jones arrived in London in 1955 having been deported from the US for her involvement in Communist Party USA. Horrified by the hostility, she became a pivotal figure in the British Civil Rights movement and founded the West Indian Gazette in 1958, pioneering the black press.
When the White Defence League and racist gangs began attacking London’s black community, Claudia’s unconventional approach was to showcase Afro-Caribbean culture. Her Caribbean Carnival was held at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959 and was followed by other events. Many say these laid the groundwork for Rhaune Laslett-O’Brien to start the Notting Hill Carnival in 1965. Blue Plaques honouring them are on Tavistock Road.
As a youngster, Ada Lovelace reputedly pored over journals and, after studying the anatomy of birds, conceived an idea for a steam-powered winged machine. Later, she would veer into gambling and alleged adultery, but she also became one of the pioneers of computing.
It was her notes on Charles Babbage’s plans for an Analytical Engine and her suggestion that Babbage write a plan for how the engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. This marked Ada out as an exceptionally gifted mind — she even prophesised the computer age before it arrived. She is celebrated with a Blue Plaque in St James’s Square.
Keeping the streets of this bustling city clean and tidy can be a thankless task. For one man, however, his local community was so grateful for the years of service he dedicated to sweeping its streets that he was honoured with a permanent tribute. David Squires was known for his positive outlook and community spirit, so when he passed away in 2009 following a long illness, Southbank Mosaics was commissioned to create a portrait of him. It can still be seen on the wall outside the Waterloo Action Centre.