Red is London’s colour. The cabs of the early nineteenth century were red. The pillar boxes are red. The telephone boxes were, until recently, red. The buses are characteristically still red. The Underground trains were once generally of that colour. The tiles of Roman London were red. The original wall of London was built from red sandstone. London Bridge itself was reputed to be imbued with red, ‘bespattered with the blood of little children’ as part of the ancient rituals of building. Red is also the colour of violence.
The great capitalists of London, the guild of the mercers, wore red livery. The Chronicles of London for 1399 describe ‘the Mair, Recourdour, and Alderman off London in oon suyt, also in Skarlett’, while a poem commemorating Henry VI’s triumphal entry into London, in 1432, depicts ‘The noble Meir cladde in Reede velvette’. The pensioners of the Chelsea Hospital still wear red uniform.
Red was the colour used to mark street improvements on the maps of London, and to indicate the areas of the ‘well-to-do’ or wealthy. ‘Red’ was also the Cockney slang for gold itself. The London river-workers, who supported the mobs that poured through the streets in the spring of 1768, invented the red flag as a token of radical discontent.
Novelists have also identified the colour of red with the nature of the city. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton’s vision of a future London, a protagonist asks: ‘I was wondering weather any of you had any red about you’ and then stabs his left palm so that ‘The blood fell with so full a stream that it struck the stones without dripping’. This is a prelude to the success of ‘the red Notting Hillers’ in that novel.
Red crosses were placed upon the doors of households shut up with the plague, thus confirming the symbolic association of the colour with that London disease which was once considered ‘always smouldering’ like covered embers. The fire-fighters of London wore red jackets or ‘Crimson Livery Cloth’. Their commander, dying in a great fire in 1861, performed one telling act — ‘pausing only for a moment to unwind the red silk Paisley kerchief from his neck’. The colour is everywhere, even in the ground of the city itself: the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations which took place almost two thousand years ago. (pp. 217-218)