Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Charming Cherubs

They are everywhere in the City, watching over us from their lofty perches for literally hundreds of years. I always associated them with church buildings but they have now taken on many secular duties.

They are, of course, Cherubs. Called putti in Italian, they were originally little winged infants deployed in Christian art and architecture but over the centuries came to be used in a wider decorative fashion. Recently I have been walking around the City admiring their antics.

These two are enjoying chatting to one another on early 20th Century telephones. Now known as 2 Temple Place, the house was built in 1892 for William Waldorf Astor and was one of the first London residences to have a telephone installed. Astor’s incredibly generous philanthropy earned him a peerage and later, in 1917, he was elevated (somewhat controversially) to the rank of Viscount.

‘Can you hear me?’


‘Yes, I’m listening …’

There are some nice recently spruced-up cherubs at 110-111 Fleet Street. They are supporting a globe since this building was originally the London headquarters of the Thomas Cook travel agency. Built in 1865, the first floor was a temperance hotel in accordance with Cook’s beliefs.

‘This is where we are going for our holidays’

If you find yourself walking down Cheapside, do stop and admire the more traditional eight cherubs over the portico at Christopher Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow. There is a line of little winged cherub heads which, if you look closely, you will see are not identical. The two full-figured cherubs are extremely plump – one is playing a musical instrument and the other reading a book, presumably the bible.

St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside

In Cannon Street look up towards the roof of number 123 . Here are numerous terracotta cherubs who look like they are running an import/export business

Industrious cherubs running a business


Resting against a lamppost outside 10 Trinity Square. When this was the headquarters of the Port of London Authority, hundreds of people would have walked past him every day to pay their dues on goods landed in the port. It’s now a hotel.

The former Port of London Authority building built 1912-22


Supporting a cartouche is hard work, especially if there is a ship on top of it.

In Tooley Street opposite London Bridge Underground Station

And finally these two painted on a wall in Whitecross Street – is that a bazooka they are assembling? Best not to upset these little chaps.

Outside 124 Whitecross Street






Lady Justice

I had often looked up at Lady Justice gracing the roof of the Old Bailey and admired her poise and balance holding, as she does, the scales of justice and her sword, signifying that with her justice would be swift and final. She stands on a globe, for justice straddles the world.

And of course she was blindfolded, symbolising impartiality … or at least I always thought so. One day I went to a meeting high in a building opposite and looking out the window noticed, to my amazement, that she wasn’t blindfolded at all. This is hard to confirm from street level, and many people I have told about this have frankly disbelieved me, since the concept of her eyes being covered is so embedded. However, according to the Court’s brochure, merely her ‘maidenly form’ is supposed to guarantee her impartiality. She was sculpted by Frederick William Pomeroy – surely it’s no coincidence that Rumpole’s favourite watering hole was a Fleet Street wine bar called ‘Pomeroy’s’?

Lady Justice at The Old Bailey – the Central Criminal Court

Every now and then I have been lucky enough to glimpse an unusual view and actually have my camera with me at the time. Walking past Holborn Circus one day I noticed that Prince Albert on his horse seemed to be saluting a glorious sun-drenched Lady Justice.

Prince Albert salutes Lady justice

If you want to seek out a blindfolded Lady Justice there are a few to be found in the City.

Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues identified by Plato and later taught by Aristotle. They represent the foundation of natural morality and, as well as Justice, comprise Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance. It is no coincidence that Justice has Prudence at her right hand in the Moorgate representation below. She is the mother of all the virtues, helping us to distinguish between right and wrong using reason. Here she is carrying a lamp to light her way and a staff to test the ground in front of her. Often she holds a mirror, illustrating the importance of self-awareness when making judgments about others, but here it is held by Truth.

Prudence, Justice, Truth and Thrift at 13-15 Moorgate

The building was completed in 1893 as the London headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Assurance Society. It’s coat of arms (granted in 1885) are also incorporated, showing a lady holding a skull (mortality) in her left hand with a serpent (signifying wisdom) entwined on her right.

The coat of arms of the Metropolitan Life Assurance Society on 13/15 Moorgate

This lady adorns the Institute of Chartered Accountants. It looks like she has stepped out of her niche in order to upstage the accountants number-crunching away behind her.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants, 11 Copthall Avenue

And finally a sadly rather dusty lady in Fleet Street. These were the former offices of the Norwich Union Insurance Company and Justice is probably there because the entrance arch is shared with Serjeants’ Inn.

49-50 Fleet Street

City Animals

Once I decided to look for animals in the City I started to find them everywhere and here are just a few.

A boar pokes its head out from behind some foliage, sheep stroll past St Paul’s Cathedral and King Charles II’s spaniels are immortalised on one of the City’s most  modern buildings.

The Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap was where Shakespeare set the meetings of Sir John Falstaff and Prince Hal in his Henry IV plays. The present building (at numbers 33-35) dates from 1868 and references the Boar’s Head in its design by including a boar peeping out of bushes along with portrait heads of Henry IV and Henry V. The building exterior is extraordinary and I shall write about it in more detail in a future blog. Ian Nairn, the architectural critic, called it ‘the scream you wake on at the end of a nightmare’.


Sheep wander past St Paul’s

In Paternoster Square is a 1975 bronze sculpture by Elisabeth Frink which I particularly like – a ‘naked’ shepherd with a crook in his left hand walks behind a small flock of five sheep. Dame Elisabeth was, anecdotally, very fond of putting large testicles on her sculptures of both men and animals. In fact, her Catalogue Raisonné informs us that she ‘drew testicles on man and beast better than anyone’ and saw them with ‘a fresh, matter-of-fact delight’. It was reported in 1975, however, that the nude figure had been emasculated ‘to avoid any embarrassment in an ecclesiastical setting’. The sculpture is called called ‘Paternoster’. In pre-Reformation times there was a market there for rosary beads (known as Paternosters, after the first words of the Lord’s prayer).  The sculpture also references the connection between the area and the Newgate livestock market.

Like many others, I was really sad to witness the demolition of what was usually called the Mappin & Webb building at Bank junction and see it replaced in 1997 by ‘1 Poultry’ by James Stirling. Nonetheless, if you look up at the North side of the building you will see a fascinating survivor of the original building of 1875. In red terracotta it portrays royal progresses and shows visits to the City of (from left to right) Edward VI, Elizabeth I, Charles II and Queen Victoria. Look closely and you will see Charles is accompanied by his faithful spaniels. The incorporation of the panels was part of the listed building consent and we have the planning officer at the time, Tony Tugnutt, to thank for them being placed on Cheapside (where they used to be) rather than over the service entrance as originally suggested. I think they blend in with the new building extremely well.

King Charles II with two of his spaniels – Sculptor Joseph Kremer

When I started work in Queen Victoria Street I always glanced at the Mappin & Webb clock as I left Bank station to see if I had to run to ‘sign in’ on time. Even though the building has disappeared, the clock has been re-sited inside the new building’s rotunda.

The old Mappin & Webb clock

Looking at the Stars

Walking along Cannon Street one day I was captivated by this wonderful Zodiacal clock – especially as one wouldn’t expect to see astrological symbols in the pragmatic, businesslike, City of London. Configured like a dial, the names of the months are inscribed around the circumference and the inner ring has panels with signs of the Zodiac corresponding to the months. What also caught my eye was the gilt bronze sunburst at the centre, on which can be plainly seen the features of Winston Churchill. The building is called Bracken House and used to be the head office of the Financial Times. It is named after Brendan Bracken, its chief editor after the war.

During the War Bracken served in Churchill’s wartime cabinet as Minister of Information. George Orwell worked under Bracken on the BBC’s Indian Service and deeply resented wartime censorship and the need to manipulate information. If you like slightly wacky theories, there is one that the sinister ‘Leader’ in Orwell’s novel 1984, Big Brother, was inspired by Bracken, who was customarily referred to as ‘BB’ by his Ministry employees.

Only a five minute walk away at 107 Cheapside you will find another splendid collection of Zodiacal signs arranged in twelve relief panels around the main door. The building was originally the headquarters of the Sun Life Insurance Company. 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.

Sagittarius – November 22nd to December 21st

Pisces – February 19th to March 20th

Aquarius – January 20th to February 18th

The entrance to 107 Cheapside

Philanthropic Fountains

It was a nice sunny day when I stood in front of this modest little drinking fountain outside St Sepulchre’s Church on Snow Hill near Holborn Viaduct and tried to imagine the scene on 20th April 1859 when it was unveiled as the first public drinking fountain in London.

A stern reminder to ‘Replace the Cup’ common on many fountains

To me the fountain represents the coming together of some of the great influences on people’s lives in the 19th Century – the philanthropic initiatives of the Quakers, the gradual recognition that access to clean water was essential if London was to continue to flourish, and the temperance and teetotalism movements striving to combat drunkenness.

In the early 19th century water had become a valuable commodity and by 1860 the supply of drinking water to London was controlled by no fewer than eight private companies. It was generally acknowledged that its quality was unsatisfactory to say the least, as outbreaks of cholera earlier in the century had demonstrated. This, combined with a shortage of availability, contributed to a heavy consumption of beer and spirits, particularly among poorer citizens and the ‘labouring classes’ whose workplace was the London streets. Making available free, safe water was to enable a common cause to be established between those seeking to improve hygiene and reduce disease and the anti-alcohol campaigners.

If you look at the picture of the fountain, you might just be able to make out the inscription on the arch above the scallop shell which reads ‘The Gift of Sam Gurney MP 1859’. Gurney was a Quaker, and although Quakers numbered less than 14,000 people in Britain in 1861 their influence in business and philanthropy was disproportionately great – think, for example, of Cadbury, Fry, Barclay and Rowntree. They believed that good works were a sign of man’s sanctification and their economic and religious philosophies ran parallel to one another.

Gurney was present in spring 1859 for the inauguration of The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. At the meeting the unveiling in two weeks time of his new fountain was announced along with the intention that it would be the first of many. The Earl of Albermarle got rather carried away and stated his hopes that the fountains would ‘check those habits of intemperance which caused nine-tenths of the pauperism, three-fourths of the crime, one half of the disease, one-third of the insanity, one-third of the suicide, three-fourths of the general depravity and (amazingly) one-third of the shipwrecks that annually occurred’.

The opening of the fountain was an incredibly well attended event and ‘The Lady’ newspaper’s view was that the fountains would help by ‘providing an alternative to the public house and the low company found in those establishments’. To demonstrate the water’s purity the inaugural first sip at the opening was taken by a Mrs Wilson – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter, no less – who declared the taste excellent. Just for the removal of doubt, however, a final announcement was made that the fountain was for the special use of the working classes and was committed to their care. Incidentally, Mrs Wilson used a specially engraved silver cup which she was presented with after the ceremony.

Over the next six years 85 fountains were built, most using granite in order to keep the water supply cool. In summer 1865 the Association conducted a twenty-four-hour survey, which produced some very satisfying results. For example, 2,647 drinkers were recorded at the St Sepulchre’s site; at London Bridge more than 3000 people visited and at Bishopsgate an extraordinary 6,666. By 1867 it was estimated that up to 400,000 drinkers a day were using the amenities and by 1875 there were 276 fountains across the capital.

Charles Gilpin was another Quaker whose fountain can still be seen at St Botolph Without Bishopsgate

‘The Gift of C. Gilpin Esq. M.P. 1860’

Getting the fountains built was no easy matter with protracted negotiations often needed with, for example, local vestries, and of course the water companies themselves, who had to be paid for the water used unless they could be persuaded to become donors. Also, water was a precious commodity, and some objected on moral grounds to the wastefulness of the water flowing continuously when the idea of using taps was rejected, given the wear and tear involved. Before the end of its first decade the term ‘free’ in the Association’s title had been recognised as a misnomer and it was dropped. About the same time it elongated its name to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association to embrace public water provision for animals. Previously troughs had been sited outside public houses with free use only for patrons or on payment of a fee, as one poetic sign declared:

All that water their horses here
Must pay a penny or have some beer

At least one of the horse troughs has survived in the City – although many more can be found around London, usually adapted to accommodate flowers.

Trough and fountain for use by the public, and animals large and small, on London Wall

Remarkably, the cup is also still attached to this nice fountain in Love Lane at the junction with Aldermanbury, the gift of Robert H. Rogers, a Ward Deputy.

Robert H. Rogers’s gift dated November 1890



Love Lane fountain cup and chain


If you thirst for more knowledge about London’s water-related history get hold of a copy of the excellent book ‘Parched City’ by Emma M. Jones on which much of this post is based, including the title.


Ship Ahoy!

I really like The Gherkin a.k.a. 30 St Mary Axe and it’s interesting to recall that when it was completed in 2003 it dominated that part of the City. Now it’s sad to see soaring new office developments beginning to surround it so it’s unique shape is gradually being hidden from view. When it was finished it was for a while informally known as The Swiss Re building, after the company that commissioned it for their London headquarters, but some wag said it looked like ‘an erotic gherkin’ and the description stuck. It’s probably a shame for the company that their award-winning building had its name hijacked like this, even though they no longer own it.

Ship’s prow in Bury Street

Anyway, you may be wondering what the connection is with the magnificent Art Deco ship’s prow in the photograph above. Bear with me.

The Gherkin is built on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, which was eventually demolished as a result of an IRA bomb in 1992. The clearing of the area to provide an open space around the Gherkin opened up for the first time a new view of Holland House in Bury Street. This was at one time one of the narrowest streets in the City but the west side was demolished to open up the Gherkin ‘piazzetta’ (the name for a little piazza, I’m told). So the Holland House architect originally designed the building to be viewed obliquely.

Holland House with the Gherkin reflected in its windows

Holland House is fascinating for a number of reasons. For example, it was built in 1916 right in the middle of the First World War and the year of the Somme. The Dutch company Wm. H. Müller who commissioned it were big in shipping, steel and mining. In its feature on the building, the journal Building Design comments as follows: ‘The company thrived in the neutrality of the Netherlands … and there were scarcely any British clients who could, or would, invest in such a large city building. The glazed terracotta bricks (made in Delft) were sent to London in the firm’s ships and given priority over other cargoes’. It is also the only building in London by Hendrik Petrus Bertage, the foremost Dutch architect of the 20th Century and is one of the first in London to have a steel framed structure.
But what about the ship!
Walk around to the south east corner of the building, step back and admire this brave vessel plunging through the waves towards you, the funnel smoking impressively. It’s a granite structure by the Dutch artist J. Mendes da Costa and reflects the company’s main business of shipping.
I love this story about the ship’s positioning.
Apparently the company owner, Helene Kröller-Müller, had wished to buy the whole of the Bury Street corner, but had been thwarted by the adjacent owners who refused to sell. As a consequence, Holland House is broken into two sections, and it has been suggested that the aggressive prow of the ship was intended to ‘cock a snook’ at the neighbours.

The ship’s prow with the Gherkin in the background

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