Private Eye

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Private Eye
Magazine cover dominated by large colour photograph overlaid with cartoon-style speech bubbles, captioned with tabloid-style headline, below a yellow and green masthead. There is no prose on the cover.
Cover of Private Eye from July 2011, making ironic use of a notorious headline from The Sun newspaper in 1982
EditorIan Hislop
CategoriesSatirical news magazine
Total circulation
(June 2013)
Year founded1961
CompanyPressdram Ltd
Based inLondon, England
WebsitePrivate Eye
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For other uses, see Private eye (disambiguation).

Private Eye
Magazine cover dominated by large colour photograph overlaid with cartoon-style speech bubbles, captioned with tabloid-style headline, below a yellow and green masthead. There is no prose on the cover.
Cover of Private Eye from July 2011, making ironic use of a notorious headline from The Sun newspaper in 1982
EditorIan Hislop
CategoriesSatirical news magazine
Total circulation
(June 2013)
Year founded1961
CompanyPressdram Ltd
Based inLondon, England
WebsitePrivate Eye

Private Eye is a fortnightly British satirical and current affairs magazine based in London, England, edited by Ian Hislop.

Since its first publication in 1961, Private Eye has been a prominent critic and lampooner of public figures and entities that it deems guilty of any of the sins of incompetence, inefficiency, corruption, pomposity or self-importance and it has established itself as a thorn in the side of the British establishment.

As of 2013, it is Britain's best-selling current affairs magazine,[2] and such is its long-term popularity and impact that many recurring in-jokes from Private Eye have entered popular culture.


The forerunner of Private Eye was a school magazine, The Salopian, edited by Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton, Christopher Booker and Paul Foot at Shrewsbury School in the mid-1950s. After National Service, Ingrams and Foot went as undergraduates to Oxford University, where they met their future collaborators Peter Usborne, Andrew Osmond,[3] John Wells and Danae Brook, among others.

The magazine proper began when Peter Usborne learned of a new printing process, photo-litho offset, which meant that anybody with a typewriter and Letraset could produce a magazine. The publication was initially funded by Osmond and launched in 1961. It was named when Andrew Osmond looked for ideas in the well known recruiting poster of Lord Kitchener (an image of Kitchener pointing with the caption "Wants You") and, in particular, the pointing finger. After the name Finger was rejected, Osmond suggested Private Eye, in the sense of someone who "fingers" a suspect. The magazine was initially edited by Christopher Booker and designed by Willie Rushton, who drew cartoons for it. Its subsequent editor Richard Ingrams, who was then pursuing a career as an actor, shared the editorship with Booker, from around issue 10, and took over at issue 40. At first Private Eye was a vehicle for juvenile jokes: an extension of the original school magazine, and an alternative to Punch. However, according to Booker, it simply got "caught up in the rage for satire".

After the magazine's initial success, more funding was provided by Nicholas Luard and Peter Cook, who ran The Establishment – a satirical nightclub – and Private Eye became a fully professional publication.

Others essential to the development of the magazine were Auberon Waugh, Claud Cockburn (who had run a pre-war scandal sheet, The Week), Barry Fantoni, Gerald Scarfe, Tony Rushton, Patrick Marnham and Candida Betjeman. Christopher Logue was another long-time contributor, providing a column of "True Stories" featuring cuttings from the national press. The gossip columnist Nigel Dempster wrote extensively for the magazine before he fell out with the editor and other writers, and Paul Foot wrote on politics, local government and corruption.

Ingrams continued as editor until 1986, when he was succeeded by Ian Hislop. Ingrams is chairman of the holding company.[4]

Nature of the magazine[edit]

Photo of black and white A4 poster attached to telegraph pole, reads: "The current issue of Private Eye magazine contains an article about one of our Councillors, the Estate and the Council."
2004 poster in Southwark, by a Private Eye reader, publicising the appearance of a local councillor in the "Rotten Boroughs" column

Private Eye often reports on the misdeeds of powerful and notable individuals and has received numerous libel writs. These include three issued by James Goldsmith and several by Robert Maxwell, one of which resulted in the award of costs and reported damages of £225,000, and attacks on the magazine through the publication of a book, Malice in Wonderland, and a one-off magazine, Not Private Eye, published by Maxwell.[5] Its defenders point out that it often carries news that the mainstream press will not print for fear of legal reprisals or because the material is of minority interest.

Unearthing scandals and breaking news[edit]

Some contributors to Private Eye are media figures or specialists in their field who write anonymously, often under humorous pseudonyms. Stories sometimes originate from writers for more mainstream publications who cannot get their stories published by their main employers.

A financial column, "In the City", written by Michael Gillard, has generated a wide city and business readership as a large number of financial scandals and unethical business practices and personalities were first exposed there.

Recurring in-jokes[edit]

The magazine has a number of recurring in-jokes and convoluted references, often comprehensible only to those who have read the magazine for many years. They include references to controversies or legal ambiguities in a subtle euphemistic code, such as replacing "drunk" with "tired and emotional", or using the phrase "Ugandan discussions" to denote illicit sexual exploits; and more obvious parodies utilising easily recognisable stereotypes, such as the lampooning as "Sir Bufton Tufton" of Conservative MPs viewed to be particularly old-fashioned and bigoted. Such terms have sometimes fallen into disuse as their hidden meanings have become better known.

The first half of each issue of the magazine, which consists chiefly of reporting and investigative journalism, tends to include these in-jokes in a more subtle manner, so as to maintain journalistic integrity, while the second half, more geared around unrestrained parody and cutting humour, tends to present itself in a more confrontational way.

Layout and style[edit]

Private Eye has lagged behind other magazines in adopting new typesetting and printing technologies. At the start it was laid out with scissors and paste and typed on three IBM Executive typewriters – italics, pica and elite – lending an amateurish look to the pages. For some years after layout tools became available the magazine retained this technique to maintain its look, although the three older typewriters were replaced with an IBM composer. Today the magazine is still predominantly in black and white (though the cover and some cartoons inside appear in colour) and there is more text and less white space than is typical for a modern magazine. The former "Colour Section" was printed in black and white like the rest of the magazine: only the content was colourful.

Special editions[edit]

The magazine has published a series of independent special editions dedicated to news reporting of particular current events, such as government inadequacy over the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, the conviction in January 2001 of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing (Lockerbie: the flight from justice, May/June 2001), and the MMR vaccine (The MMR: A Special Report, subtitled: "The story so far: a comprehensive review of the MMR vaccination/autism controversy" 2002).

Another special issue was published in September 2004 to mark the death of long-time staff member Paul Foot.

Regular sections[edit]

Regular columns[edit]

The magazine also features periodic columns such as "Library News", "Libel News", "Charity News" and others, detailing recent happenings in those areas. These follow predictable formats: library news usually chronicles local councils' bids to close libraries; libel news usually highlights what it sees as unjust libel judgements; while charity news usually questions the financial propriety of particular charities. "Poetry Corner" is the periodic contribution of obituaries by the fictional junior poet "E. J. Thribb". "St Cake's School" is an imaginary public school, run by Mr R. J. Kipling (BA, Leicester), which posts a diary of highly unlikely and arcane-sounding termly activities.

Satirical columns[edit]

Newspaper parodies[edit]

The latter half of the magazine is taken up with parodies of newspapers, spoofing various publications' layout, writing styles and adverts. Where further content is implied, but omitted, this is said to continue "on page 94".


The magazine contains a variety of regular sections, consisting of small amusing examples of different aspects of everyday life, generally sent in by readers. They include "Commentatorballs" (gaffes by sports commentators with poor or accidentally inaccurate command of the English language), "Dumb Britain" (examples of ignorance observed on British quiz shows) and "Let's Parlez Franglais" (which mocks recent political events, mainly within Europe, by creating an imaginary transcript in Franglais, usually ending with a reference to 'Kilometres' Kington).

Prime Minister parodies[edit]

A traditional fixture in Private Eye is a full-page parody of the Prime Minister of the day. The style is chosen to mock the perceived foibles and folly of each Prime Minister:

Not all of Private Eye's parodies have been unsympathetic. During the 1980s, Ingrams and John Wells wrote fictional letters from Denis Thatcher to Bill Deedes in the Dear Bill column, mocking Margaret Thatcher's husband as an amiable, golf-playing drunk. The column was collected in a series of books and became a play in which Wells played the fictional Denis, a character now inextricably "blurred [with] the real historical figure", according to Ingrams.[10]


Defunct sections[edit]


Private Eye is home to many of Britain's most highly regarded humorous cartoonists. As well as many one-off cartoons, the magazine has featured a number of regular comic strips:

At various times, Private Eye has also used the work of Ralph Steadman, Wally Fawkes, Timothy Birdsall, Martin Honeysett, Willie Rushton, Gerald Scarfe, Robert Thompson, Ken Pyne, Geoff Thompson, "Jerodo", Ed McLauchlan, "Pearsall", Kevin Woodcock, Brian Bagnall and Kathryn Lamb.

Frequent targets for parody and satire[edit]

While the magazine in general reports corruption, self-interest and incompetence in a broad range of industries and lines of work, in practice certain people and entities receive a particularly large amount of coverage in its pages. As the most visible public figures, Prime Ministers and senior politicians make the most natural targets, but Private Eye also aims its criticism at journalists, newspapers and particularly prominent or interesting businesspeople. It is the habit of the magazine to attach nicknames, usually offensive and often very crude, to these people, and often to create surreal and extensive alternate personifications of them, which usually take the form of parody newspaper articles in the second half of the magazine.

Other media and merchandise[edit]

Private Eye has from time to time produced various spin-offs from the magazine:

Criticism and controversy[edit]

Public offence[edit]

Cover with headline "Media to Blame" shows large crowd gathered at the gates of Buckingham Palace with speech bubbles: "The papers are a disgrace"; "Yes, I couldn't get one anywhere"; "Borrow mine, it's got a picture of the car."
The front cover of the infamous "Diana Issue"

Some have found the magazine's irreverence and occasionally controversial humour offensive. Upon the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Private Eye printed a cover headed "MEDIA TO BLAME". Under this headline was a picture of many hundreds of people outside Buckingham Palace, with one person commenting that the papers were "a disgrace", another agreeing, saying that it was impossible to get one anywhere, and another saying, "Borrow mine. It's got a picture of the car."[12] Following the abrupt change in reporting from newspapers immediately following her death, the issue also featured a mock retraction from "all newspapers" of everything negative that they had ever said about Diana. This was enough to cause a flood of complaints and the temporary removal of the magazine from the shelves of several newsagents. These included W H Smith, which had previously refused to stock Private Eye until well into the 1970s, and was characterised in the magazine as "WH Smugg" or "WH Smut" on account of its policy of stocking pornographic magazines. The Diana issue is now one of the most highly sought-after back issues.

Similar complaints were received about the issues that followed the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, the September 11, 2001 attacks (the magazine even including a special "subscription cancellation coupon" for disgruntled readers to send in) and the Soham murders. Following the 7 July 2005 London bombings the magazine's cover featured Tony Blair saying to Ken Livingstone, "We must track down the evil mastermind behind the bombers...", to which Livingstone replies "...and invite him around for tea", in reference to his controversial invitation of Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London.[13]


The cover of issue 256 from 1971 showed Emperor Hirohito visiting Britain with the caption "A nasty nip in the air" (subhead: "Piss off, Bandy Knees").[14] In the 1960s and 1970s the magazine mocked the gay rights movement as "Poove Power".[15]


The 2004 Christmas issue received a number of complaints after it featured Pieter Bruegel's painting of a nativity scene, in which one wise man said to another: "Apparently, it's David Blunkett's" (who at the time was involved in a scandal in which he was thought to have impregnated a married woman). Many readers sent letters accusing the magazine of blasphemy and anti-Christian attitudes. One stated that the "witless, gutless buggers wouldn't dare mock Islam", an observation later apparently vindicated when the magazine declined to publish the Danish Mohammed cartoons for fear of firebombs (although it does regularly publish Islam-related humour[citation needed] ). Many letters in the first issue of 2005 disagreed with the former readers' complaints, and some were parodies of those letters, "complaining" about the following issue's cover[16] – a cartoon depicting Santa's sleigh shredded by a wind farm: one said: "To use a picture of Our Lord Father Christmas and his Holy Reindeer being torn limb from limb while flying over a windfarm is inappropriate and blasphemous."


During the early 2000s Private Eye published many stories on the MMR vaccine controversy, substantially supporting the interpretation by Andrew Wakefield of published research in The Lancet by the Royal Free Hospital's Inflammatory Bowel Disease Study Group, which described an apparent link between the vaccine, autism and bowel problems. Many of these stories accused medical researchers who supported the vaccine's safety of having conflicts of interest because of funding from the pharmaceutical industry. Initially dismissive of Wakefield, the magazine rapidly moved to support him, in 2002 publishing a 32-page MMR Special Report that supported Wakefield's assertion that MMR vaccines "should be given individually at not less than one year intervals." The British Medical Journal issued a contemporary press release[17] that concluded: "The Eye report is dangerous in that it is likely to be read by people who are concerned about the safety of the vaccine. A doubting parent who reads this might be convinced there is a genuine problem and the absence of any proper references will prevent them from checking the many misleading statements." Subsequently, editor Ian Hislop told the author and columnist Ben Goldacre that Private Eye is "not anti-MMR".[18] In a review article published in February 2010, after Wakefield was disciplined by the General Medical Council, regular columnist Phil Hammond, who contributes under the pseudonym "M.D.", stated that "Private Eye got it wrong in its coverage of MMR", in maintaining its support for Wakefield's position long after shortcomings in his work had emerged.[19]


The magazine has long been known for attracting libel lawsuits, which in English law can lead to the award of damages relatively easily. For safety, the magazine maintains a large quantity of money as a "fighting fund" (although the magazine frequently finds other ways to defuse legal tensions, for example by printing letters from aggrieved parties). As editor, Ian Hislop has become the most sued man in Britain.[20] From 1969 to the mid-1980s, the magazine was represented by human rights lawyer Geoffrey Bindman.[21]

The first person to successfully sue the magazine was writer Colin Watson who objected to their description of him as "the little-known author who. . . was writing a novel, very Wodehouse but without the jokes". He was awarded £750.[22]

For the tenth anniversary issue, the cover showed a cartoon headstone inscribed with a long list of well-known names, and the epitaph "They did not sue in vain".[23]

An unlikely piece of British legal history occurred in what is now referred to as the "case" of Arkell v. Pressdram (1971).[24] The plaintiff was the subject of an article relating to illicit payments, and the magazine had ample evidence to back up the article. Arkell's lawyers wrote a letter which concluded: "His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply." The magazine's response was, in full: "We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that Mr Arkell's attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off." In the years following, the magazine would refer to this exchange as a euphemism for a blunt and coarse dismissal: for example, "We refer you to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram".[25][26] As with "tired and emotional" this usage has spread beyond the magazine.[27]

Possibly the best known litigation case against the magazine was initiated by James Goldsmith (known within Private Eye's pages as '(Sir) Jammy Fishpaste'[28][29]), who managed to arrange for criminal libel charges to be brought (effectively meaning that, if found guilty, those behind the Eye could be imprisoned). He sued over allegations that members of the Clermont Set, including Goldsmith, had conspired to shelter Lord Lucan after Lucan had murdered his family nanny, Sandra Rivett. Goldsmith won a partial victory and eventually reached a settlement with the magazine. The case threatened to bankrupt the magazine, which turned to its readers for financial support in the form of the Goldenballs Fund. Goldsmith himself was referred to as Jaws. The solicitor involved in many litigation cases against Private Eye, including the Goldsmith case, was Peter Carter-Ruck (or "Carter-Fuck", as the Eye referred to him).[30]

Robert Maxwell (known as Captain Bob) sued the magazine for the suggestion he looked like a criminal, and won a significant sum. The editor, Ian Hislop, summarised the case: "I've just given a fat cheque to a fat Czech" and later claimed this was the only known example of a joke being told on News at Ten.

Sonia Sutcliffe also sued after allegations that she used her connection to her husband, the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, to make money. She won £600,000 which was later reduced to £60,000 on appeal. However, the initial award caused Hislop to quip outside the court: "If that's justice, then I'm a banana."[31] Readers raised a considerable sum in the "bananaballs fund", and Private Eye scored a PR coup by donating the surplus to the families of Sutcliffe's victims.

A rare victory for the magazine came in late 2001, when a libel case brought against the magazine by a Cornish chartered accountant, Stuart Condliffe, finally came to trial after ten years. The case was thrown out after only a few weeks as Condliffe had effectively accused his own legal team (Carter-Ruck) of lying.

In 2009 Private Eye successfully challenged an injunction brought against it by Michael Napier, former head of the Law Society, who had sought to claim "confidentiality" for a report that he had been disciplined by the Law Society in relation to a conflict of interest.[32] The ruling had wider significance in that it allowed other rulings by the Law Society to be publicised.[33][34]

Paul Foot Award[edit]

In 2005, The Guardian and Private Eye established the Paul Foot Award, with an annual £10,000 prize fund, for investigative/campaigning journalism.[35]


The magazine is apparently owned by an eclectic group of people, officially published through the mechanism of a limited company called Pressdram Ltd,[36] which was bought as an "off the shelf" company by Peter Cook in November 1961.

Private Eye does not publish explicit details of individuals concerned with its upkeep (and does not contain a list of its editors, writers and designers). In 1981 the book The Private Eye Story stated that the owners were Peter Cook (who owned most of the shareholding) with smaller shareholders including Dirk Bogarde, Jane Asher, and several of those involved with the founding of the magazine. Most of those on the list have since died, however, and it is unclear what happened to their shareholdings. Those concerned are reputedly contractually only able to sell their shareholdings at the price they originally paid for them.

Shareholders as of the annual company return dated 26 March 2012, including shareholders who have inherited shares, are:

The other directors are Sheila Molnar and Geoff Elwell, who is also the company secretary.


The magazine's masthead features a cartoon logo of an armoured knight with a bent sword, parodying the "Crusader" logo of the Daily Express.

The logo for the magazine's News section is a donkey-riding naked Mr Punch caressing his erect and oversized penis, while hugging a female admirer. It is a detail from a frieze by "Dickie" Doyle that once formed the masthead of Punch magazine, which the editors of Private Eye had come to loathe for its perceived descent into complacency. The image, hidden away in the detail of the frieze, had appeared on the cover of Punch for nearly a century and was noticed by Malcolm Muggeridge during a guest-editing spot on Private Eye. The 'Rabelaisian gnome' (as the character was called) was enlarged by Gerald Scarfe, and put on the front cover of issue 69 at full size. He was then formally adopted as a mascot on the inside pages, as a symbol of the old, radical incarnation of Punch magazine that the Eye admired.


On May Day 1965, the magazine held a "Mass for Vass" rally in Central London for beleaguered former British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, a reference to his nickname "Baillie Vass". Under police supervision, 300 marchers carried banners proclaiming "High-Speed Vass Gets Things Done", "The Baillie Will No Fail Ye", "Hands off the Rann of Kutch!" and "Who's a Cretin?" (a reference to a former nickname, "Sir Alec Douglas-Who?"). The march progressed from Parliament Square to Conservative Central Office, where, accompanied by a brass band, the participants sang rousing songs in mock support of Home to the occupants of the building. This incident went almost entirely unreported in the national media.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Mag ABCs: Full circulation round-up for the first half of 2013". Press Gazette. 15 August 2013. Retrieved 7 December 2013. 
  2. ^ Dowell, Ben (16 February 2012). "Private Eye hits highest circulation for more than 25 years". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2013. 
  3. ^ "Andrew Osmond – Obituary". The Guardian. 19 April 1999. 
  4. ^ "Richard Ingrams interview". Press Gazette. 15 December 2005. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  5. ^ "''Not Private Eye'', Tony Quinn". 21 November 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  6. ^ James, Brian (28 February 1987). "The orchestra that opened up". The Times. 
  7. ^ Robertson, Wilmot (1993). Instauration, Volumes 19–20. Howard Allen Enterprises, Inc. p. 30. 
  8. ^ Shelley, Jim (11 August 2009). "Celebrity News – Celebs". Mirror. Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  9. ^ John Sutherland (1 March 2004). "The fictional ''Sally Jockstrap''". London: Guardian. Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  10. ^ Richard Ingrams's week (12 June 2005). "Diary: Dishonourable, dishonest". The Observer. Retrieved 15 August 2013. 
  11. ^ "Celeb rocks on and on". BBC News. 6 September 2002. Retrieved 15 August 2013. 
  12. ^ "Private Eye Issue 932". Retrieved 15 June 2007. 
  13. ^ "Private Eye Issue 1137". Retrieved 15 June 2007. 
  14. ^ "Private Eye Issue 256". Retrieved 15 June 2007. 
  15. ^ "pelib | Flickr – Condivisione di foto!". 19 December 2007. Retrieved 15 August 2013. 
  16. ^ "Private Eye Issue 1122". Retrieved 15 June 2007. 
  17. ^ Home. "Press: Private Eye Special Report on MMR – Elliman and Bedford 324 (7347): 1224 Data Supplement – Longer version". BMJ. doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7347.1224. Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  18. ^ "The media's MMR hoax – Bad Science". 30 August 2008. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2010.01.014. Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  19. ^ "Second Opinion: the Editor asks M.D. to peer review Private Eye's MMR coverage". Private Eye (Pressdram) (1256): 17. February 2010. 
  20. ^ Byrne, Ciar (23 October 2006). "Ian Hislop: My 20 years at the "Eye"". London: The Independent. Retrieved 13 July 2012. 
  21. ^ Robins, Jon (13 November 2001). "Forty years old and fighting fit". The Independent (UK). Retrieved 22 July 2011. 
  22. ^ Kim Bunce. "The needle of the Eye | Media". The Observer. Retrieved 2014-01-05. 
  23. ^ "pictures/covers/full/257_big". Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  24. ^ "Correspondence in full". Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  25. ^ Macqueen 2011, pp. 27,28
  26. ^ "Letters". Private Eye (London: Pressdram Ltd) (1221): 13. October 2008. "Mr Callaghan is referred to the Eye's reply in the famous case of Arkell v. Pressdram (1971)." 
  27. ^ Daneel (19 May 2011). "Comment to Legal rebuttal: "vade et caca in pilleum et ipse traheatur super aures tuo"". BoingBoing. Retrieved 19 May 2011. "I'd refer him to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram." 
  28. ^ "Colour Section". Private Eye (Pressdram) (907): 5. September 1996. "Now that the victory of Sir Jammy Fishpaste's Referendum party is assured by the addition of zoo-keeper John Aspinall to its candidates' list, Jammy is checking his members more carefully." 
  29. ^ "Colour Section". Private Eye (Pressdram Ltd.) (908): 6. October 1996. "Referendum Party News. Sir Jammy Goldsmith's briefing session for more than 100 Referendum party faithful" 
  30. ^ "A-list libel lawyer dies". BBC News. 21 December 2003. 
  31. ^ "Private Eye – 40 not out ... yet". BBC News. 25 October 2001. 
  32. ^ [1][dead link]
  33. ^ Gibb, Frances (21 May 2009). "Failure to gag Private Eye clears the way to publication of rulings against lawyers". The Times (London). Archived from the original on 11 June 2011. 
  34. ^ "Private Eye Wins Case!". Private Eye (London: Pressdram Ltd) (1237): 6–7. 29 May 2009. 
  35. ^ The Paul Foot Award for campaigning journalism (archive link)
  36. ^ "Pressdram". WebCHeck – Company Details. Companies House. Retrieved 6 December 2007. "PRESSDRAM LIMITED
    Company No. 00708923
    Date of Incorporation: 24 November 1961"

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°30′53″N 0°08′01″W / 51.514657°N 0.133652°W / 51.514657; -0.133652