“Noel Coward wrote “London Pride” in the spring of 1941, during the Blitz. According to his own account, he was sitting on a seat on a platform in Paddington station, watching Londoners going about their business quite unfazed by the broken glass scattered around from the station’s roof damaged by the previous night’s bombing: in a moment of patriotic pride, he suddenly recalled an old English folk song which had been apparently appropriated by the Germans for their national anthem, and it occurred to him that he could reclaim the melody in a new song. The song started in his head there and then and was finished in a few days.
The song has six verses. The opening lines, repeated three times within the song, are:
London Pride has been handed down to us,
London Pride is a flower that’s free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it forever will be.
The flower mentioned is Saxifraga × urbium, a perennial garden flowering plant historically known as London pride, which was said to have rapidly colonised the bombed sites of the Blitz. The song was intended to raise Londoners’ spirits during that time.
Coward acknowledged one of the traditional cries of London (“Won’t You Buy My Sweet-Blooming Lavender”, also used in the musical Oliver) as the starting-point for the tune, but he also pointed out the similarity with “Deutschland über alles”, which he claimed was based on the same tune. It contrasts with many of the major-key, grandiose melodies used to celebrate patriotism, including God Save The King and Land of Hope and Glory. Its orchestration also contrasts with those anthems, employing muted strings and a celeste, rather than a pipe organ and a choir.
The music is used in the film This Happy Breed, including the closing titles.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Noël Coward’s birth, Jeremy Irons sang a selection of his songs at the 1999 Last Night of the Proms held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, ending with “London Pride”.