Ruth Polling was destined to be involved with politics. As a teenager she campaigned outside voting booths alongside her siblings, earning her nickname the ‘polling sister’. Her first job was as secretary to MP Ed Davey (now Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change).
When she moved from what she calls ‘glamorous Penge, the place you end up in if you fall asleep on the 176 bus’ to Islington in North London, Ruth joined the local Liberal Democrat Party. In 2006, aged just 25, she was elected to Islington Council.
“Most people want to change the world,” she explains. “But I wanted to change the place I lived in. My ward was Bunhill, a former working-class industrial area that sits right next to the City of London. I was responsible for local leisure services, and one of my proudest achievements was restoring Ironmonger Row Baths, a 1930s public washroom and steam bath”.
So what took Ruth from a fast-rising political career to Blue Badge Guide? “I was studying part-time for a history degree, and was fascinated by the history of my local area – particularly the struggle for people’s rights. So when I completed my Blue Badge in 2014, I combined these interests, and devised a tour of my neighbourhood called ‘Radicals and Rebels’.
“We start at St Paul’s. The magnificent City cathedral is just a short walk from areas that were once beyond the control of authority – far away enough that dissenters could feel safe to express their opinions, but close enough that people might listen.
“We’re familiar with The Old Bailey, England’s central criminal court. This was once the site of the notorious Newgate Prison. Dissenters were regularly imprisoned here, a short walk from the execution scaffold where England’s last public hanging took place in 1868 –Michael Barrett, an Irish Republican, sentenced for his part in a bomb attack.
“A hanging represented a good day out for the Londoners. In 1862, 20,000 people turned up see the last public execution of a woman – a serial-killer nurse who bumped off her patients for financial gain. It’s extraordinary to think that people could have taken the recently opened underground to see a hanging.
Smithfield market stands on the border of the City of London. Before the Victorian meat market was built here, it was a large open area – in medieval times a good place for public demonstrations of justice. Smithfield was known for entertainment, jousting, public archery, freshly slaughtered livestock… and freshly executed humans.
“In 1305, thousands gathered at Smithfield to see William Wallace hung, drawn and quartered. The Scottish hero was immortalised in the film Braveheart, but even Hollywood baulked at showing the visceral brutality of this form of execution.
“Wallace was drawn through the streets on a cart, with enraged Londoners throwing rocks at the condemned man. He was hung by a doctor who made sure the condemned man didn’t die, slit open from the groin, emasculated, and his quarters sent throughout the country as a warning. With no body left to be buried, a plaque at Smithfield commemorates the Scot.
“Below the surface of Smithfield are clues to more agonising deaths. By tradition, when they dug down to build the meat market, there was a layer of ash below ground – the charred remains of Protestants burned here during the 1550s.
“Bloody Mary, the Catholic Queen, wanted to return the country to her faith. Her reign of terror saw the burning of some 40 Protestants at Smithfield. Legend has it that the queen herself came here to watch, sitting on the gatehouse where she ‘ate chicken and drunk red wine’”.
“Smithfield was once home to several monasteries. Charterhouse was founded in the 14th century, but during the reformation, Henry VIII expelled the monks. The Carthusians made a stand against Henry, so in a show of royal power, the head prior was hung, drawn and quartered and his dismembered arm pinned to the monastery gate.
“During the 1700s, what is now Islington was a spa area – a history preserved in names such as Sadler’s Wells and Clerkenwell. In 1816 – a time of mass unemployment and revolutionary ideas – Spa Fields was an open area where protesters rallied for change.
“They signed a petition for voting rights and took it to the Prince Regent, who refused to listen. They met again, most hoping that a further petition would work. But a hard core laid siege to the Bank of England and marched to the Tower of London where they encouraged the garrisoned soldiers to join their cause. The troops were not interested, so the protestors went home. This was a very British rebellion; lots of petitions and shouting, somewhat similar to my experience of modern politics.
“Near Spa Fields is a grand Victorian school building. It is on the site of a former prison. The original jail was known as a Bridewell – a place where petty criminals, beggars, homeless children and prostitutes were held. It was rebuilt in the 1840s as Clerkenwell House of Detention and in 1867 an Irish Republican gun runner was locked up here.
“There was an attempt to break him out, so the authorities moved him to the back of the prison. The Republicans returned with a 500lb barrel of gunpowder and blew up the front of the prison, where they believed their compatriot was held. The explosion killed five and injured 17 innocent people, but the Fenians didn’t come close to releasing anybody. Only one of the bombers was convicted, Michael Barrett, the man who was executed outside The Old Bailey in 1868.
“Clerkenwell Green is the home of radical thought in London. This is where Lenin, who was in exile in London in 1903, published his revolutionary newspaper – from the building which is now the Marx Memorial Library.
“By the late 1800s Britain had become the place where foreign revolutionaries found safe exile. The UK prized and respected free speech, so figures like Lenin could come to this part of the city without fear of arrest.
“The Green has been a focal point for protest for over two centuries; from Chartists seeking democratic voting rights, to anti Corn Law rallies. It was the site for the first ever May Day workers march in the world. The rally went from Clerkenwell to Trafalgar Square, a tradition that continues to this day.
“As a Blue Badge guide, former political campaigner and local resident, the area’s history reminds us that the rights we have today were won by the protests of the past”.