For ten years I walked past this building on the way to work but it was almost as long before I looked up and wondered ‘Why is there a camel train carved above a branch of HSBC?’ HSBC have moved on but thankfully the camels (and their dead companion) are still there. They have a story to tell.
Constructed between 1883 and 1885, the building at 20 Eastcheap was once the headquarters of Peek Brothers & Co, dealers in tea, coffee and spices, whose trademark showed three camels bearing different shaped loads being led by a Bedouin Arab. The firm was particularly well known for its ‘Camel’ brand of tea. When Sir Henry Peek (son of one of the original founders) commissioned this building he wanted the panel over the entrance to replicate the trademark, right down to the dried bones of the dead camel lying in the sand in the foreground.
He clearly wanted his prestigious building to be enhanced by a suitably eminent sculptor – preferably one with knowledge of camel anatomy.
The sculptor he picked, William Theed, was indeed an extraordinary choice for such a mundane task. Theed was a great favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and his work can be seen on the Albert Memorial where he sculpted the group Africa the central figure being, of course, a camel. The Queen also liked and trusted him so much that she asked him to take her beloved Albert’s death mask when the Prince died tragically young in 1861.
Peeks carried on trading under various names until the 1970s. Another branch of the family ensures that the name lives on by way of the biscuit makers Peek Freans.
Theed died in 1891 at the ripe old age of 87. Although his work had become unfashionable towards the end of his life, he still left an estate valued at £41,000 – about £3.5 million in today’s values.