Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

That rings a bell …

Just off Whitecross Street is this doorway which makes me smile every time I see it. The story I have conjured up in my mind is that, some time in the early 1970s, the people living there found that visitors knocked on the door rather than ringing the bell. When asked why, callers usually said that they didn’t know there was a bell. As a consequence, the residents (who obviously had artistic talents) got out their paint brushes and added this helpful sign to indicate where the push button bell was. Brilliant!

This got me thinking about doorbells generally and their vanishing use in the City, where people are now ‘buzzed in’ or channeled via security guards or reception desks. So as I walked around looking for other blog subjects I kept an eye out for doorbells that have survived from a previous era – here are those that I have found so far.

Number 103 Cannon Street is a listed building dating from 1866 and is described as being of  ‘Byzantine style with some carved decoration and mouldings with shafts of polished pink granite to ground storey arcade’. It isn’t a house any more but beside its rather formidable doors are two very nice examples of bells from a time when home and office accommodation were in some way combined.


The bells are hidden when the door is open so this picture was taken at the weekend



When living space and workplace were closely located

I knew the Livery Companies wouldn’t let me down when it came to buildings that had been preserved right down to the smallest detail. The splendid blue door of the Wax Chandlers Hall has a complementary bell beautifully mounted.

6 Gresham Street EC2

Bell for the Wax Chandlers Hall

The bell at Stationer’s Hall, below, is rather austere …

Ave Maria Lane, EC4

Not surprisingly, the Goldsmiths are well guarded …

The doorbells in Gresham Street

I’m sure it’s pleasure keeping this one looking smart …

81 Coleman Street EC2

Number 5 Frederick’s Place was constructed in 1776 by the Adams brothers, John and Robert, of Adelphi fame. No wonder the old bell pull looks a bit wobbly now given the usage it must have had over the years. Lawyers, accountants and medical men were its primary residents over the years but at one time it housed a very different business. The London & Oxford Group, who are the current tenants, have researched the building’s previous occupants and in their notes on this subject they comment as follows

One of the more interesting enterprises carried on from here during the Edwardian era was a servants’ registry run by Owen Limms. At this date the supply of domestics still exceeded demand. Consequently, employers could afford to be very selective. It would have fallen to Owen Limms to weed out the fly-by-nights, drunkards and pilferers who represented a significant portion of those who beat a path to his door, and to instill in the remainder the habits of industry and piety.

I can’t help imagining these young folk reaching out and pulling this bell, nervously anticipating their interview with the no doubt formidable, and rather scary, Mr Limms.

Number 5’s imposing front door


‘Mr Limms is expecting you’

The Bank of England had a special arrangement for night time callers …

On the wall of the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street

This bell in Great Tower Street obviously gets a regular polish …

Entrance to Williams & Glyn’s Bank, 8 Great Tower Street

And finally, a visit to the secluded Wardrobe Place off Carter Lane. Number 2 has two bells …

Many old City doors seem to be blue

Housekeeper bell at 2 Wardrobe Place

Office bell at 2 Wardrobe Place

You can read more about the curiously named Wardrobe Place in my last blog City Living.
















City Living

Ten years ago a detailed analysis of the population of the City of London revealed that, with the number of residents at 9,185, the City had the second smallest residential population of any English Local Authority with the exception of the Isles of Scilly!

Just to put this into even greater perspective, before the Great Fire of 1666 the population estimate was 80,000 of whom about 70,000 lost their homes in the conflagration. The Fire created an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild the City and proposals were speedily produced by eminent people such as Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn. In Wren’s case, he imagined a reconstructed capital full of wide boulevards and grand civic spaces, a city that would rival Paris for Baroque magnificence

Christopher Wren’s plan for rebuilding London © Trustees of the British Museum

None of the plans were implemented – defeated by the sheer complexity of revoking existing  freeholds, renegotiating leases and the likely cost of compensation. Post-fire, some streets were widened and new legislation was introduced requiring buildings to be more fire resistant.

‘No man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building great or small, but of brick or stone’.

1667 Rebuilding Act

By mid-1667 surveyors were already at work designating boundaries and meticulously marking out building plots. Interfering with these markers was discouraged by the threat of imprisonment or ‘being taken to the place of his offence and there whipped until the body be bloody‘.

By 1688 it is estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 buildings had been rebuilt and London was being enhanced further by the 51 new churches designed by Wren plus, of course, the construction of a new St Paul’s cathedral.

In my latest walk around the City I have been looking for residential buildings that have survived despite redevelopment, the Blitz and, in one case, the Great Fire of London itself.

Cloth Fair was named in honour of the medieval festival Bartholomew Fair where merchants gathered to buy and sell material. The Poet Laureate and conservationist John Betjeman moved into number 43 in 1955 and his residency is commemorated with a blue plaque. Nearby at number 41/42 is the oldest house in the City. Built in 1615, it survived the Great Fire due to its being enclosed and protected by the priory walls of St Bartholomew. The building was originally part of a larger scheme of eleven houses featuring a courtyard in the middle, known as ‘The Square in Launders Green’ – the original site of the priory laundry.

Incidentally, you’ll notice the building has no window sills. The post-Fire Building Acts required window sills at least four inches deep or more to be installed in homes in order to reduce the risk of fire spreading upwards.

41/42 Cloth Fair

1 and 2 Laurence Pountney Lane are a remarkable survival from the early 18th century. They were built in 1703 as a pair of red brick, four-storey houses, on the site of a single post-fire house. They are considered to be finest surviving houses of this period in the City with elaborately carved foliage friezes around the doors and cornice above and ornate shell-hoods over the doorways.  The virtuosity of the woodwork is explained by the fact that the houses were built by a master carpenter, Thomas Denning. He had worked on Wren’s church of St Michael Paternoster Royal nearby and would later contribute to Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth. Like other ambitious craftsmen, Denning branched out into the cut throat world of speculative building. At Laurence Pountney Hill he appealed to the market by ingeniously contriving two basements beneath the houses. This created an abundance of storage space that would be attractive to the London merchants, whose houses doubled as business premises. Denning’s speculation paid off; on 15 July 1704 he sold both houses to Mr John Harris for £3,190, a tidy sum.

1 & 2 Laurence Pountney Hill

The delightful doorway hoods. Look closely – the cherubs on the right are playing bowls!

Here is a close-up (you may have to concentrate – they are not always obvious)

The date still visible despite years of over-painting

Numbers 27 and 28 Queen Street are a pair of mid-18th century houses set back behind a forecourt. They are some of the finest examples of their type in the City, with their elevated position giving them an additional prominence.

27 and 28 Queen Street

If you look at this picture of 41 Crutched Friars below you will see the entrance arch to a narrow thoroughfare on the right. This is French Ordinary Court – named for the fact that in the 17th century the Huguenots were allowed by the French Ambassador, who had his residence at number 41, to sell coffee and pastries there. They also served fixed price meals and in those days such a meal was called an ‘ordinary’. The lane itself dates from the 15th century and perhaps even earlier. It  was further enclosed in the 19th century as the railway station was constructed above, transforming it into a cavernous passage. French Ordinary Court was commonly known as ‘Spice Alley’ until the late 20th century, the smells lingering from the old warehouses nearby – something I can attest to personally since I frequently used it as a short cut in the 1970s and 80s.

The French Ambassador’s residence until the 18th century

Dr Johnson’s cat Hodge looks towards their old home. Once surrounded by the throbbing printing presses of Fleet Street newspapers, Gough Square is today a quiet haven off the noisy main road. Now known as Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square was built by one Richard Gough, a City wool merchant, at the end of the seventeenth century. It is the only survivor from a larger development and Dr Johnson lived here from 1748 to 1759 whilst compiling his famous dictionary.

Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square

Amen Court is a private enclave of houses occupied by the Canons of St Paul’s Cathedral. Given its name by a former processional route of the clergy, the court consists of a range of three houses of the 1670s along with six Queen Anne Revival houses dated 1878-80, the group unified by the use of red bricks. In his flat here in January 1958, Canon John Collins started the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Amen Court – note the nice original ironwork including ‘snuffers’ for extinguishing lighted torches

Part of the Chiswell Street Conservation Area, these buildings are a fine example of terraced town houses dating from the late 18th Century and built for the then burgeoning middle classes in London. A plaque on number 43 tells us that numbers 43 to 46 were rebuilt in 1774 after a fire in 1773 and restored in 1988. There is an attractive wooden sundial in the adjacent courtyard which reference the fire.

Often referred to as the ‘Whitbread Brewery Partners’ Houses’

The inscriptions read: ‘Such is Life’,  and, around the sides, ‘Built 1758, burnt 1773, rebuilt 1774’

The curiously named Wardrobe Place, just off Carter Lane, is a tranquil spot and marks the location of what was once the King’s or Royal Wardrobe.  In the 1360s the executors of the late Sir John Beauchamp sold his house here to King Edward III for the storage of his ceremonial robes which were then transferred from the Tower of London. In addition, the Wardrobe held garments for the whole royal family for all state occasions, together with other furnishings and robes for the King’s ministers and Knights of the Garter. In his diary, Pepys records visiting it in order to borrow appropriate Court dress. The facilities were gradually extended to comprise stables, courtyard warehouse, workrooms, great hall, chapel, treasury, kitchens and chambers.

Beauchamp’s house was destroyed in the Great Fire and in 1673 a Crown lease was granted to William Wardour, who redeveloped the site with houses arranged around an open courtyard. The north and east sides were begun in 1678. Wardrobe Court, as it was known until the late 18th century, was described in John Strype’s Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster (1720) as ‘a large and square court with good houses’.

Wardrobe Place

Ghost sign in Wardrobe Place – ‘Snashall & Son – Printers, Stationers & Account Book Manufacturers – 1st Door on (?)’

I couldn’t write about homes without mentioning this great man, George Peabody (1795-1869)

George Peabody by W.W.Storey 1867-69

Here he sits, looking pretty relaxed, at the northern end of the Royal Exchange Buildings. Born in Baltimore he became extremely wealthy importing British dried goods and, after visiting frequently, became a permanent London resident in 1838. In retirement he devoted himself to charitable causes setting up a trust, the Peabody Donation Fund, to assist ‘the honest and industrious poor of London’. The Peabody Trustees would use the fund to provide ‘cheap, clean, well-drained and healthful dwellings for the poor’ with the first donation being made in 1862.

My ‘local’ estate is the one on Whitecross Street and dates from 1883 – the design is very typical Peabody, with honey coloured bricks and a pared down Italianate style.

Block E, which survived the Blitz

Resident planting

Peabody now own and manage over 55,000 homes across 29 London boroughs as well as Kent, Sussex and Essex. Do browse their website – the section on the Trust’s history is particularly interesting.


Insurance Company Ghosts

I started my career in the City working for the Legal & General Assurance Society in the much criticised Temple Court headquarters in Queen Victoria Street. Although the company had plonked a ‘restored’ part of the Roman Temple of Mithras (discovered during construction) on the forecourt, the building was seen as an example of poor, unimaginative 1950s design. It has now been demolished and a new facility has been created in Wallbrook for people to view the Temple and some of the fascinating Roman period artifacts that miraculously survived successive redevelopments. You will find more on the London Mithraeum website.

The City then was home to numerous insurance companies but many have now either decamped elsewhere or become subsumed into larger entities.

I have been hunting for traces of their existence and, like the Roman ruins, many pieces of evidence have survived.

Take a walk down the shadowy and rather mysterious Change Alley and you will come across a building that once housed the Scottish Widows insurance company along with its magnificent crest. At the centre is the mythical winged horse, Pegasus, symbol of immortality and mastery of time. A naked figure, the Greek hero Bellerophon, is shown grasping its mane.  In mythology, Bellerophon captured Pegasus and rode him into battle. This explains the motto ‘Take time by the forelock’, or ‘seize the opportunity’. Presumably time could be tamed by taking out a Scottish Widows policy to make provision against the uncertainties of the future.

The Scottish Widows building in Change Alley

Here is a Scottish Widows advertisement from the turn of the 20th century …

Scottish Widows’ advertising placard, early 1900s, featuring Walter Crane’s Pegasus

This striking piece of advertising features a beautiful full colour version of the Pegasus motif created by Walter Crane. Crane (1845 – 1915) was an English artist and book illustrator. He is considered to be the most influential, and among the most prolific, children’s book creator of his generation.

Fast forward to the present day and Scottish Widows is now part of Lloyds Banking group, its corporate symbol now being the beautiful ‘Scottish Widow’.

Amber Martinez is the fourth Scottish Widow

Rising from the flames and just about to take off over the City is the legendary Phoenix bird and from 1915 until 1983 this was the headquarters of the Phoenix Assurance Company. One can see why the Phoenix legend of rebirth and restoration appealed as the name for an insurance company.

5 King William Street


The clock shows the name of the present tenants, Daiwa Capital Markets

Insurance companies often seemed to favour having clocks outside their buildings – a neat form of advertising when not everyone could afford a watch.

This wise old owl looks across the road to the north side of London Bridge, observing the thousands of commuters flowing back and forth every day from London Bridge Station. He is perched outside what was once the offices of the Guardian Royal Exchange Insurance Company (later just ‘Guardian’) and was for a while their symbol, presumably signifying wisdom and watchfulness.

68 King William Street – he now watches over a branch of House of Fraser

Since 1893 this golden lady has been standing at the top of  13-15 Moorgate facing the Bank of England.

Her image is repeated on the side of the building.

This was originally the London headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Assurance Society. The lady comes from its coat of arms (granted in 1885) which show her holding a skull (mortality) in her left hand with a serpent (signifying wisdom) entwined on her right.

The building also incorporates an attractive set of figures representing Prudence, Justice, Truth and Thrift – presumably all Virtues that the Insurer would like to be identified with.

The Cardinal Virtues look down on Moorgate

Some sadly rather dusty ladies in Fleet Street on what were once the offices of the Norwich Union Insurance Company (now Aviva). Prudence is on the left, with her little hoard of fruits and a leafy branch whilst the cherubic figure of Liberality, or Plenty, spills his cornucopia of coins and fruits over Lady Justice’s shield. She is probably there because the entrance arch is shared with Serjeants’ Inn and, as usual, she holds scales and a sword.

And finally, completed in 1958 for the Sun Life Assurance Society, these two sundials  incorporate the company’s sunburst logo.The south facing sundial has the letters GMT under the sun face and covers hours from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. The west facing sundial also shows the letters GMT in the bottom right corner of the dial and covers the hours 2:00 in the afternoon until 7:00 in the evening.

107 Cheapside

Also at 107 Cheapside you will find a splendid collection of Zodiacal signs arranged in twelve relief panels around the main door. When the Lord Mayor opened the building in July 1958 he said he felt sure that the signs would ‘attract a considerable number of people to inquire what you can do for them’. This would have been a remarkable marketing success, but sadly there is no record of long queues forming to purchase life insurance. The sculptor was John Skeaping who, incidentally, was Barbara Hepworth’s first husband.

The Zodiacal signs around the entrance

Sagittarius – November 22 to December 21

Pisces – February 19 to March 20

Aquarius – January 20 to February 18

Art Nouveau in the City

I hope you enjoyed my earlier blog on Art Deco – here is the promised post concentrating on Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau is pretty rare in the City so it’s worth seeking out this masterpiece tucked away in Cullum Street just off Lime Street. I haven’t been able to find out a lot more about it apart from the architect (A. Selby) and that it’s reportedly named after Prior Bolton. He was a builder of some eminence employed by Henry VII and Henry VIII which included supervising work on Westminster Abbey.

It’s blue and white faience with strong Moorish influences.

The frieze is typical Art Nouveau

The building was completed in 1907, a few years before Art Nouveau went out of fashion.

The shield apparently resembles Prior Bolton’s heraldic device but I have only found one source for this assertion

The Bishopsgate Institute is a wonderful cultural centre in the City of London.

The website tells us that the architect for the building was decided by a design competition and Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928), whose previous work had mainly consisted of church restoration, was chosen as the winner. Townsend was an inspiring and original architect whose work was individual rather than adhering to any particular style or movement. The Grade II* listed building combines elements of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles, but the influences of Townsend’s interest in Romanesque and Byzantine architecture can be seen in the broad semi-circular arched entrance, twin roof turrets and mosaic interior floors. Do go inside and visit the beautifully restored library.

Townsend’s reputation today is based not only on Bishopsgate Institute but also his other major London public buildings such as the Whitechapel Art Gallery (1901) which I write about later in this blog.

The Institute entrance

Intricate carving reflects Townsend’s fondness for the ‘Tree of Life’, an Arts and Crafts motif symbolizing social renewal through the arts. 

The Whitechapel Gallery was founded in 1901 to bring great art to the people of east London. The Gallery’s history is a history of firsts: in 1939 Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica was displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery on its first and only visit to Britain; in 1958 the Gallery presented the first major show in Britain of seminal American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock; and in 1970 and 1971 the first shows of David Hockney, Gilbert & George and Richard Long were staged to great acclaim.

Turning now to the building itself, the rectangular space between the turrets was originally intended to be covered with a mosaic frieze, but this proved too expensive. In 2012, however, the acclaimed artist Rachel Whiteread created a beautiful substitute. The work was Whiteread’s first ever permanent public commission in the UK.

You can see the similarity to the Bishopsgate Institute

Like the Bishopsgate Institute, the Gallery’s towers each feature a Tree of Life. The Gallery brochure explains that, for this new work of art, Whiteread has cast their leaves in bronze to create an exhilarating flurry across the frieze. Four reliefs, casts of windows, stand as reminders of previous architectural interventions. Inspired by the tenacious presence of urban plants like buddlea, which the artist calls ‘Hackney weed’, Whiteread has covered the leaves and branches in gold leaf, making them part of London’s rooftop repertoire of gilded angels, heraldic animals and crests.

Whiteread’s golden leaves

Connoisseurs of both architecture and beer will know of the splendid Black Friar pub on Queen Victoria Street. An Art Nouveau delight which was saved from demolition in the 1960s by a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman and Lady Dartmouth. It’s packed with fascinating details so I will be heading off there with my camera and devote more space to it in a future blog than I have available now.

The Black Friar

City animals 3

A neat little book called City of London Safari by Helen Long was recommended to me by my friend Annetta and reading it inspired me to go out again and take more pictures of the many animals that inhabit the City.

My most pleasing discovery in the book was this little Scottish terrier called Chippy. He rests now in All Hallows by the Tower at the feet of his master the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton CH MC who became vicar of the Church in 1922 and remained there until 1963.  He is best known for his work initially as an army chaplain during the First World War and in particular the establishment of Talbot House, a unique place of rest and sanctuary for British troops. After the war the spirit and intent of Talbot House became expressed through the Toc H movement.

All Clayton’s Scottish Terriers were called Chippy

These one and a half times life-size bronzes are outside the headquarters of the London Underwriting Centre in Mincing Lane and the sculptor was Althea Wynne, who sadly died in 2012. She was a keen rider and her love of horses shows through clearly along with influences from classical art, especially Etruscan. There is also a deliberate reference to the classical horses in front of St Mark’s in Venice, whose wealth was also almost entirely built on trade.

Each horse stands 10ft high, weighs 4.5 tonnes and is shown pawing the ground. They are intended ‘to exemplify the dynamism and power of new City buildings …’

In typical City fashion they were swiftly nicknamed Sterling, Dollar and Yen

A ram stands proudly on the crest of the Clothworkers’ Company on the entrance to Dunster Court, Mincing Lane.

Once upon a time you could learn more about the City Livery Companies if you smoked Wills’s cigarettes!

Founded by Royal Charter in 1528, the original purpose of The Clothworkers’ Company was to protect its members and promote the craft of cloth-finishing within the City of London. Although few of their present members are involved in the textile industry in any direct way, the Company continues to support textiles, principally through educational grants, fostering the development of technical textiles and colour science, and support for the nation’s textile heritage.

As you approach the Bank junction from Cheapside look up and you will see two young boys at either end of the grand building that was once the City headquarters of Midland Bank (1935). The are both struggling with a rather angry looking Goose.

The sculptor was William Reid Dick

Why a goose? A clue is the ancient name of the street and the goose was a suggestion by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate its original market function. The building is now a private club and restaurant, called The Ned in Sir Edwin’s honour.

The name of the street is a clue

The Church of St Katherine Cree in Leadenhall Street, one of the few to almost totally survive the Great Fire and the Blitz, has a rooster on its weathervane.

The St Katherine Cree weathercock with The Gherkin in the background

The Bible tells the story of St Peter denying Christ three times ‘before the cock crowed’. In the late 6th Century Pope Gregory I declared the rooster to be the emblem of St Peter and also of Christianity generally. Later, in the 9th Century, Pope Nicholas decreed that all churches should display it and, although the practice gradually faded away, the tradition of rooster weathervanes survived in may places.

The Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God, is the adopted emblem of the Middle Temple and can be seen in many places around the Inn.

Lamb and Flag keystone, Fleet Street entrance to the Middle Temple (notwithstanding the date, the precision suggests it has been substantially recut over time)

There is a theory that the holy lamb was chosen as the emblem because it had originally been used by the Knights Templar whose arms were two knights mounted on one horse with a trotting Agnus Dei.

A Goldsmith’s Company symbolic leopard head over the entrance to the old churchyard of St John Zachary

The St John Zachary garden is on the site of the former churchyard and church of St John Zachary, which was partly destroyed in the Great Fire. In 1339 the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths had acquired land here and built the earliest recorded livery hall on this site. The present multi-level garden includes mature trees, benches, lawn and a fountain.

A wise owl gazes at the commuters as they trek over London Bridge from his perch on the House of Fraser store opposite the north entrance to the bridge.

The building used to be the offices of the Guardian Royal Exchange Insurance Company

And finally, a wily fox decorates the door of the old Fox’s umbrella shop on London Wall.


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