Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Month: March 2020

‘The politest statue in London’

That’s how this statue of Prince Albert at Holborn Circus was described by one observer …

The words on the plinth are ‘Prince Albert Consort Born 1819 Died 1861’

Here he is again from a different angle …

He is shown astride a high-stepping horse, in the uniform of a Field Marshal, and raising his plumed hat in acknowledgment of a salute. He isn’t, therefore, waving at imaginary crowds, and so the epithet of ‘politeness’ is sadly misplaced.

The way the Prince and his horse faced was the subject of some debate but finally decided when the sculptor, Charles Bacon, wrote the following to the architect William Heywood on 9 May 1873 …

I most decidedly think the horse’s head ought to look into the City … as a matter of etiquette he ought not to turn his back on those who erected the statue and … most important of all, the sun would be on the face most of the day.

This arrangement was, of course, less satisfactory when viewed from Holborn!

Not everyone liked it. Common Councilman L.H. Elliott said the statue …

… was not suggestive of a man of military genius; but at best it only represents a captain of a cavalry regiment saluting some ladies in a balcony.

At the west end of the plinth is a seated allegory of Peace wearing a laurel crown …

In her left hand she holds a (rather droopy) palm and her right supports a cornucopia.

At the east end there is a seated allegory of History, her curly hair falling generously down her back and her right breast exposed …

Her left leg rests on three books and in her left hand she holds a guide to the 1851 Great Exhibition which Albert played a major role in organising. The quill in her right hand is new, the original having been stolen some time since the unveiling in 1874.

The relief on the north side shows him standing with a ceremonial mallet beside the foundation stone of the Royal Exchange. Two workmen are preparing the pulley …

Entitled ‘The Prince laying the first stone of the Royal exchange Jan 17 1842’

He is surrounded by a crowd of dignitaries including, directly behind him, the Lord Mayor. One of the persons in attendance holds the ceremonial trowel in readiness.

The relief on the south side shows Britannia enthroned, a lion reclining at her feet …

Entitled ‘ Exhibition of all nations 1851. Britannia distributing awards’

She holds out laurel crowns to representatives of the exhibiting nations who are all dressed in their national costumes.

Here is a close up of the Prince taken from the north …

Still a very handsome chap despite the bald patch. The statue was sited to show off his profile ‘from the new street leading to the market’.

Just like History’s quill, a thief had made off with his original sword some time in the past, so this is a replacement. The sculptor paid incredibly close attention to detail and the restorers in 2014, Rupert Harris Restoration Limited, did a superb job. You can watch a fascinating video about the restoration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVgMoZW3Gdg

There is a mystery concerning the statue – to this day we don’t know who paid for it.

A sculpture of Albert had been discussed for some time and in 1868 Charles Oppenheim (the founder of the De Beers diamond company) came forward offering to meet the cost. Apparently, however, his probity was questioned by some and, perhaps as a result of this, he subsequently formally withdrew the offer.

After the monument was erected The Times, quoting the City Press, reported …

The donor is a very benevolent gentleman of considerable wealth, who is desirous that his name should not be announced, and it is, we believe, known only to Her Majesty, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, to Alderman Sir J.C. Lawrence … and to Mr Bacon.

As is often the case, I am grateful to Dr Philip Ward-Jackson and his splendid book Public Sculpture of the City of London for being the source of much of the content of this week’s edition.

You can see some earlier pictures of the monument in my blog The City before the War.

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Samuel Pepys and the Plague -‘God preserve us all’

I thought it might be interesting in these worrying days to look back on how one of my great heroes, Samuel Pepys, described the ferocious pestilence that attacked London’s citizens in 1665.

Pepys survived, and here he is a year later …

Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703). Painted by John Hayls in 1666. Copyright National Portrait Gallery.

Hayls had already painted his wife and Pepys was so pleased he commissioned this one of himself. He noted in his diary on 17 March …

This day I begin to sit, and he will make me, I think, a very fine picture. He promises it shall be as good as my wife’s, and I sit to have it full of shadows, and do almost break my neck looking over my shoulder to make the posture for him to work by.

Pepys was a remarkable man, the son of a tailor whose rise to power owed something to circumstances but much more to his own tenacity, drive and personal charm. Despite eventually becoming First Secretary to the Admiralty (and instituting reforms that dramatically improved the professionalism of the Navy) it is for his diary that Pepys is usually remembered.

Here is its first page …

Written in a code and shorthand he personally devised, the diary runs to one and a quarter million words and covers the period 1660 to 1669. Anyone wanting to get a sense of the day-to-day life of an ambitious young Londoner, with a great appetite for work and pleasure, only has to consult his fascinating account.

But it is the year 1665 that I am going to write about.

The first mention in the diary of the plague was on 30 April 1665 …

Great fears of the sickness here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.

Then in July 1665 …

I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me.

The main idea for management of the plague was containment of the infection and so entire families were locked in their own houses. A padlock was fixed to the outer door and a watchman assigned to make sure that any surviving inmates stayed there for the full 40-day quarantine period before being released. The only people being allowed to enter were the doctor, the nurse, the searchers and the men who came at night to remove the bodies …

Who were the searchers? Deaths in London and their causes were recorded in the Bills of Mortality. These were usually collected and published by Parish Clerks and ‘searchers’ were employed to help collect the data. According to Dr Robin Gain of the Samuel Pepys Club …

Plague was almost certainly under-reported by the searchers, who were usually ignorant old women, paid by the parishes to go into the houses where people had died to ascertain the cause of death … If relations of plague victims could persuade or bribe the searchers to report a cause of death other than plague, the family might avoid being quarantined.

Here is the Bill of Mortality from 15 to 22 August 1665 held at the Wellcome Library London. You may find some of the reasons for death a bit surreal …

By 10 June Pepys reported that the plague had entered the City and on 26 July he wrote that the ‘sickness is got into our parish this week’. His parish was St Olave Hart Street.

The number of deaths were beginning to overwhelm the capacity of the City graveyards and plague pits were being opened up. Here is a further image from the Wellcome Collection …

On August 12th he wrote …

The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing to do it in.

One of the reasons I admire him so much is that because, unlike many of those who had the opportunity, Pepys remained in London for much of that year. Even after he and his employer were forced to relocate to Greenwich in the late summer, he commuted by river from there to his home in Seething Lane near the Tower of London and visited other parts of the capital.

There was a war going on at the time with the Dutch and Pepys believed he should stay at his post. Here is how he elegantly put it in a letter on 25 August to Sir William Coventry …

You, Sir, took your turn at the sword; I must not therefore grudge to take mine at the pestilence.

On the same day he wrote in his diary …

This day I am told that Dr. Burnett my physician is this morning dead of the plague … poor unfortunate man.

As plague moved from parish to parish Pepys described the changing face of London-life – ‘nobody but poor wretches in the streets’, ‘no boats upon the River’, ‘fires burning in the street’ to cleanse the air and ‘little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells’ that accompanied the burial of plague victims. He also writes in his diary about the desensitization of people, including himself, to the corpses of plague fatalities, ‘I am come almost to think nothing of it.’

It had eventually subsided significantly by January the following year and on January 30th 1666 he visited St Olave, but found the experience deeply shocking …

It frighted me indeed to go through the church … To see so many graves lie so high upon the churchyard, where many people have been buried of the plague.

And five days later, on February 4th he wrote …

It was a frost and had snowed last night, which had covered the graves in the churchyard, so I was less afraid of going through.

The churchyard survives, its banked-up top surface a reminder that it is still bloated with the bodies of plague victims, and gardeners still turn up bone fragments. Three hundred and sixty five were buried there including Mary Ramsay, who was widely blamed for bringing the disease to London. We know the number because their names were marked with a ‘p’ in the parish register.

Note how much higher the graveyard is than the floor at the church door.

In 1655 when he was 22 he had married Elizabeth Michel shortly before her fifteenth birthday. Although he had many affairs (scrupulously recorded in his coded diary) he was left distraught by her death from typhoid fever at the age of 29 in November 1669.

Do go into the church and find the lovely marble monument Pepys commissioned in her memory. High up on the North wall, she gazes directly at Pepys’ memorial portrait bust, their eyes meeting eternally across the nave where they are both buried. When he died in 1703, despite other long-term relationships, his express wish was to be buried next to her.

Memorial to Samuel Pepys.

And the sculpture of Elizabeth – I think she looks beautifully animated, like she is in the middle of a conversation.

Another reason I like Pepys is that, despite the terrible events of 1665 he carried on his life as usual, no self-isolation for him. He still worked at the Navy Office, continued his adulterous liaisons, celebrated his cousin’s wedding, and pursued many of his interests. Surprisingly the year brought much opportunity and wealth Pepys’s way and, as the plague subsided, he wrote in his final diary entry for the year …

I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.

According to the Bills of Mortality, 68,596 people died of the plague in London in 1665 but the true figure was probably more like 100,000. Even the lower figure represents a very high percentage of the population at the time, which was about 460,000. In today’s population that would mean getting on for 2,000,000 dead Londoners.

If you visit the church treat yourself to a copy of Dr Gain’s leaflet entitled Pepys and The Plague. It was of great help to me in composing this blog and can be yours for a modest £2 donation.

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Things that made me smile

It’s not much fun at the moment is it with a virus to worry about. So I thought I would pop in some light-hearted pictures this week and maybe cheer you up a bit.

First up, a brilliant busker collects donations using up-to-date technology …

Listen to him and his ‘backing singers’ by Googling ‘Bohemian Rhapsody Steve Aruni on YouTube’. I promise you will enjoy it.

A farmer chases his pigs across the front of The George pub with the Royal Courts of Justice reflected in the window …

Nearby a monk pours some ale into a jug. I think that’s his faithful dog next to him – I sincerely hope it’s not a rat …

Bidfood vans! I regularly see them delivering around the City and love the edible landscapes portrayed on the sides.

An orange sunrise between the cheese tower blocks …

A tranquil lake with bread hills and cauliflower clouds …

I know it’s not a Banksy, but this little flower cheered me up …

Colourful street art on Rivington Street …

Healthy eating options on Fleet Street …

‘Let’s ADORE and ENDURE each other’ on Great Eastern Street …

Postman, biplane and pigeon mural next to the Postal Museum …

Yes, the pretty guardian angels are still there on their swings opposite St Paul’s Underground Station …

I smiled at this at first …

…and then thought: ‘Hey, writing on seats isn’t good for them either!’

And finally, one of my favourite sculptures, Leaping Hare on Crescent Bell by the late Barry Flanagan on Broadgate Circle …

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The Temple Bar Memorial

If you walk east down Fleet Street past the Royal Courts of Justice and look up a fearsome dragon straight out of a Harry Potter story looms over you …

It sits atop the 1880 memorial to the Temple Bar that once stood here and marked the western boundary of the City of London. The beast holds in its forepaws a shield showing the cross of St George, part of the City’s coat of arms.

Unfortunately it is somewhat marooned on an island, and heavy traffic whooshes past, but it really is worth studying since it contains some fascinating detail. Let’s start with the people …

On the south side stands Queen Victoria in state robes holding a golden sceptre and orb. She is surrounded by symbols of the arts and science. Sadly the marble is very damaged by traffic fumes and pollution but some re-gilding was carried out to celebrate our own Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 2002.

On the north side stands Edward, then Prince of Wales but later to become King Edward VII on Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. He is wearing a Field marshal’s uniform …

He has not been as badly damaged by pollution as his mum but it looks like he has been given a new left hand.

The west face is framed with pilasters each side, decorated with emblems of war to the left and peace to the right. Carved in the stone between the pilasters is a medallion portrait of Prince Albert Victor …

He is ‘the king we never had’ since he was the eldest child of the Price and Princess of Wales who died in the 1892 influenza epidemic. Look just below his head and you will see St George slaying the dragon.

Gazing down at us on the east side is the generously bearded face of the Lord Mayor at the time of the monument’s erection, Sir Francis Wyatt Truscott …

Above his head is his coat of arms and below his ornate chain of office.

The art historian Philip Ward-Jackson writes …

The reliefs of royal progresses and the portraits of Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales celebrate the congenial relations between the City and the royal family, and recall the ceremonial function of Temple Bar as the spot where the Lord Mayor traditionally met royal visitors to the City.

The reliefs are absolutely fascinating and I do recommend you brave the traffic in order to get a closer look. This is the one on the north side …

It depicts Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral for an 1872 service of thanks to celebrate the Prince’s recovery from typhoid.

This is the one on the south side …

Here Victoria is progressing to the Guildhall on 9th November 1837 after her accession. This is a close-up courtesy of the Ian Visits blog …

On the east side a plaque commemorating the removal of the old Bar – a curtain is being dramatically drawn over it by the angels of Fortune and Time

And finally, on the west side …

Flanked by the giants Gog and Magog, a golden arrow indicates the position of the west side of the old Temple Bar and where a line drawn through its centre from east to west would emerge.

The old gate, one of the eight that originally gave entry to the City, was removed in 1878 because it obstructed the traffic but has now found a new home alongside St Paul’s Cathedral …

Read more about its fascinating history since it was dismantled in my blog Temple Bar and the Banjo-playing Lady.

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