Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Business signs

Aimless wandering!

I think the lockdown is finally getting to me. I usually don’t have much trouble thinking of a theme for the blog but this week I have failed. So instead, I just wandered around a still quiet City with my camera waiting to see what caught my eye. These are the results – I hope you find some of them interesting.

Now the pavements are deserted, it’s easier to look upwards as you walk and see what you might have missed on previous occasions.

The Victorians paid a lot of attention to decorative detail and I really liked these two faces, carved into bricks, looking out over London Wall. I’ve nicknamed them Beauty …

… and the beast …

And while on the subject of beauties and beasts, take a look at this view from Gresham Street …

The church is St Lawrence Jewry and behind it some modern buildings that I like, the Cheesegrater and the Scalpel, and one I don’t, a characterless glass monster growing on Bishopsgate.

There’s a nice little pond in front of the church …

It’s home to these Arum Lilies and Irises …

I have written before about Thomas Gresham and the college he founded was once based here at 90 Basinghall Street until 1991 (EC2V 5AY) …

Above the coat of arms rests the symbolic Gresham grasshopper …

The sun was perfectly placed to illuminate Ariel or The Spirit of the Winds by Charles Wheeler. She’s positioned on a cupola above the Bank of England on Tivoli Corner …

When she was unveiled in 1937 the Bank’s magazine stated …

It is the symbol of the dynamic spirit of the Bank which carries Credit and Trust over the wide world.

Ariel was, of course, the Spirit of the Air in Shakespeare’s Tempest, who by Prospero’s magic could ‘put a girdle around the world in forty minutes’.

I’m fascinated by this old Wall on London Wall. I can’t find out more about it but it looks Medieval to me (EC2M 5ND) …

London Wall has lots of examples of the wonderful work the small team of City gardeners do to keep beds and parks looking good all year round …

Austin Friars (off Old Broad street) was once the location of an Augustinian Friary until its dissolution in 1538. Walk in through an atmospheric doorway with its charming ghost signs …

When I visited the sun was in exactly the right place to illuminate the slightly spooky friar who reminds us of the area’s original purpose …

He resides at 4 Austin Friars, was sculpted by T Metcalfe and dates from 1989 (EC2N 2HA).

Near St Giles Cripplegate, the Columbarium is known as ‘one of London’s secret gardens.’ It lies to the east of the church down a flight of stairs. There are some niches on an outside wall and others are in a covered area enclosed by a gate …

And finally, two of the City of London Police’s finest …

… and their riders.

I really enjoyed my little walk and I hope you enjoyed reading about it.

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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 City before the War

I have been loaned a lovely book called Streets of the City by Judy Pulley and have included some of the photographs from it for those of you who like looking at wonderfully atmospheric pictures from the past. You can buy your copy of the book here.

A photographer recorded the vast scale of the construction site for the Holborn Viaduct looking west towards Holborn in 1869. A hoarding advertises the ‘New’ St Pancras Station which opened the previous year …

The finished product …

A congested Fleet Street in 1905 …

The view today …

Shops alongside the entrance to Cannon Street station in March 1939. Three years later most had been destroyed by the wartime bombing …

Prince Albert doffs his hat to the City in 2020 …

In this picture His Royal Highness makes the same gesture at the turn of the last century…

Below is the view towards the west in 1910. The awnings outside Gamages store can be seen on the right and just behind Prince Albert’s statue a man in an invalid carriage braves the traffic. He should be OK if vehicles obey the sign on the lamp post which urges ‘Caution’ and ‘Drive Slowly’. Wallis & Co on the left advertises linens and blankets and has a display of parasols hanging outside the shop. …

Eastcheap as seen from the end of Cannon Street. The statue of King William IV was erected in 1844 when King William street was created as a new approach to London Bridge. The small cart in the centre is delivering ice and the buses are turning right towards London Bridge, just as they do now …

The busy west end of Cheapside at the corner of New Change around 1905 with omnibuses and a Royal Mail coach to the right. The statue is of Sir Robert Peel and was erected here in 1855 and then removed to Hendon Police Training School in 1939 …

The sign on the lamp post says ‘Standing for 10 Hackney Carriages’.

I particularly like this picture of Fleet Street in the 1930s because it shows the cart on the left laden with massive rolls of paper for use in the nearby printing presses …

It’s 7 o’clock in the morning in February 1937 and Lower Thames Street is at a standstill as fish from old Billingsgate Market is loaded on to carts …

The viaduct carrying the approach road to London bridge can be seen in the distance and to its left the church of St Magnus the Martyr.

Many of these pictures illustrate the enormously important role horses played in the life and commerce of the City right into the 20th century.

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Another stroll along Fleet Street

As I think I have said before, I never tire of walking around this part of the City, especially spotting things of interest simply by directing my gaze skywards.

I remember the heyday of printed news when the Fleet Street hostelries were frequently packed with journalists, lawyers and print workers ‘refreshing’ themselves at lunchtime and in the evening. Now you are more likely to encounter overseas visitors seeking out ‘authentic old English pub’ experiences.

Mr Punch advertises these listed premises at the east end of the street …

The previous building on the site was known as the Crown and Sugar Loaf but was renamed the Punch Tavern in the late 1840s because of its association with Punch Magazine which had its offices at that end of Fleet Street.

The Old Bell further west is also listed …

The story goes that it was built by Sir Christopher Wren to accommodate the stonemasons working on nearby St Bride’s Church and the rear of the pub does, indeed, date from 1669.

Between the buildings you can glimpse St Bride’s and its famous ‘wedding cake’ spire as you proceed from east to west …

Why would a business stress ‘discretion’?

Because it’s a pawnbrokers, still advertising their presence using the symbol of three spheres suspended from a bar, said to be a reference to the coat of arms of the Florentine Medici family …

I love this pair of spectacles and thought at first that the sign must date from the 19th century but in fact Whitby & Co have only been around for 20 years …

On the north side of the street you can see the evidence of past publications now, alas, defunct or relocated elsewhere …

Further along are the premises previously occupied by the Kings & Keys pub, once a favourite hangout place for journalists from the Daily Telegraph next door. The name is derived by the amalgamation of two licences of separate former pubs, the Cross Keys and the Three Kings …

It’s narrow because, like many other buildings fronting Fleet Street, it follows the size of the original medieval plot.

If you are a little tired by now and need to recharge batteries there are healthy snacks available nearby …

Onward to St Dunstan in the West which boasts this magnificent clock …

It dates from 1671, and was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. The figures of the two giants strike the hours and quarters, and turn their heads.

The double headed eagle is the emblem of the Hoare family and their bank’s premises are at the Sign of the Golden Bottle – a practice dating from the time before buildings were allocated street numbers …

The London firm was started in 1672 by Richard Hoare and tended to the affairs of many famous literary folk including the diarist Samuel Pepys, poet Lord Byron and novelist Jane Austen.

What about these three squirrels busy chomping on nuts …

Gosling’s, originally a goldsmiths and later a bank, started trading at the Sign of the Three Squirrels around 1650. It was the fourth largest of the banks that joined together in 1896 to establish Barclay and Co Ltd as a joint stock bank. Today, Goslings remains the oldest branch in the Barclays Group and still occupies its original site in the City.

The adjacent Inns of Court were once so important to Lloyd’s Bank that they had a dedicated branch (with a pretty beehive emblem suggesting hard work and prudence) …

Looking skywards, you can observe these muscular chaps supporting the building’s upper stories…

And finally, at number 50 …

Sculpted by A. Stanley Young in 1913, the building housed both the Norwich Union Insurance Company and the lawyers of Serjeant’s Inn. On the left, the Insurance side, Lady Prudence holds a little hoard of fruit and a leafy branch whilst the cherubic figure of Liberality or Plenty spills his cornucopia of coins and fruit. On the right, the lawyers’ side, blindfolded Lady Justice rests against her shield and sword grasping the scales of justice in her left hand.

There are many versions of Lady Justice in the City and I have written about them here.

You can find earlier blogs about Fleet Street here Fleet Street Ghosts and here Fleet Street Legends.

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Looking skywards

I spend a lot of time looking up as I wander around the City, which is another reason why I tend to take photographs at the weekend. That way I won’t be obstructing bustling City folk going about their business and get tutted at when I stop abruptly.

I hope you find this miscellaneous collection interesting. Some have appeared in blogs already but I have included them again because I just like them.

This globe sits on top of the London Metropolitan University building on Moorgate (EC2M 6SQ) …

I had never noticed before that it is encircled by the signs of the Zodiac.

Here’s what it looks like at street level with the Globe Pub sign in the foreground …

Whilst on the subject of Zodiacs, there are some attractive figures around the door of 107 Cheapside (EC2V 6DN) …

They were sculpted by John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth’s first husband …

Sagittarius – November 22nd to December 21st.

Pisces – February 19th to March 20th.
Aquarius January 20th to February 18th.

And in Cheapside there is another globe, this time supported by a straining Atlas balanced on top of a clock …

It was once the headquarters of the Atlas Assurance Company. The entrance was in King Street and above the door is another depiction of Atlas hard at work. I like the detail of his toes curled around the plinth (EC2V 8AU) …

Across the road is Kings House sporting a magnificent crown …

Above it is a very pretty Mercer Maiden dating from 1938 …

This wise old owl watches commuters as they flow back and forth over London Bridge. He was located outside what was once the Guardian Insurance Company headquarters (EC4N 7HR) …

Look up as you walk down Eastcheap and you will see the remains of a dead camel …

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.

Admire the leopard’s head symbol of the Goldsmith’s Company over the entrance to the old churchyard of St Zachary on Gresham Street (EC2V 7HN) …

Guardian angels are still resting on their swings opposite St Paul’s Underground Station …

This fearsome dragon on Fleet Street guards the western entrance to the City on the site of the old Temple Bar. He looks like something straight out of a Harry Potter story …

I love spotting the wide variety of weather vanes that populate the skyline even in a City crowded with new skyscrapers. This one referencing the horrific death of a martyr sits atop St Lawrence Jewry (EC2V 5AA) …

St Lawrence was executed in San Lorenzo on 10 August 258 AD in a particularly gruesome fashion, being roasted to death on a gridiron. At one point, the legend tells us, he remarked ‘you can turn me over now, this side is done’. Appropriately, he is the patron saint of cooks, chefs and comedians.

The church of Anne and St Agnes also stands in Gresham Street and is unmistakable by its letter ‘A’ on the weather vane on top of the small tower. It is named after Anne, the mother of the virgin Mary and Agnes, a thirteen year old martyr (EC2V 7BX) …

Now compare and contrast these two war memorials.

In Holborn is this work by Albert Toft. Unveiled by the Lord Mayor in 1922, the inscriptions read …

To the glorious memory of the 22,000 Royal Fusiliers who fell in the Great War 1914-1919 (and added later) To the Royal Fusiliers who fell in the World war 1939-1945 and those fusiliers killed in subsequent campaigns.

Toft’s soldier stands confidently as he surveys the terrain, his foot resting on a rock, his rifle bayoneted, his left hand clenched in determination (EC1N 2LL).

Behind him is the magnificent, red terracotta, Gothic-style building by J.W. Waterhouse, which once housed the headquarters of the Prudential Insurance Company. Walk through the entrance arch to the courtyard and you will see the work of a sculptor who has chosen to illustrate war in a very different fashion. The memorial carries the names of the 786 Prudential employees who lost their lives in the First World War …

The sculptor was F V Blunstone and the main group represents a soldier sustained in his death agony by two angels. He is lying amidst war detritus with his right arm resting on the wheel of some wrecked artillery piece. His careworn face contrasts with that of the sombre, beautiful girls with their uplifted wings. I find it incredibly moving.

I have written about angels in the City before and they are usually asexual, but these are clearly female.

And finally, as I walked along Cornhill one day I glanced up and saw these rather sinister figures silhouetted against the sky…

Closer inspection shows them to be devils, and rather angry and malevolent ones too …

They look down on St Peter upon Cornhill and are known as the Cornhill Devils (EC3V 3PD). The story goes that, when plans were submitted for the late Victorian building next to the church, the rector noticed that they impinged slightly on church land and lodged a strong objection. Everything had to literally go back to the drawing board at great inconvenience and expense. The terracotta devils looking down on the entrance to the church are said to be the architect’s revenge with the lowest devil bearing some resemblance to the cleric himself.

If this resembles the rector he must have been a pretty ugly guy!

Happy New year!

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A pair of doors in Cornhill

When I started this blog I never thought I would be dedicating an entire issue to a pair of doors, but I hope you will agree that in this case it is appropriate.

32 Cornhill is the old headquarters of the Cornhill Insurance Company (EC3V 3BT) and I am going to write about the mahogany doors you can see on the right …

Here is a closer view …

Walter Gilbert (1871-1946) designed these doors in 1939. He was a designer and craftsman who developed his visual style in the Arts & Crafts movement at the end of the nineteenth century and then applied it to a wide range of architectural commissions in the twentieth century, including the gates of Buckingham Palace, sculpture for the facade of Selfridges and some distinctive war memorials. In this instance, he modelled the reliefs in clay which were then translated into wood carvings by B.P Arnold at H. H. Martyn & Co Ltd of Cheltenham.

They tell of events that took place in the area over the centuries. Below is a picture of each panel along with a description …

‘St Peter’s Cornhill founded by King Lucius 179 A. D. to be an Archbishop’s see and chief church of his kingdom and so it endured the space of 400 years until the coming of Augustine the monk of Canterbury’.

An architect holds up the church plans and a builder holds up a compass.

‘Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, did penance walking barefoot to St Michael’s Church from Queen Hithe, 1441’.

The Duchess, holding a lighted taper, performs public penance having been convicted of sorcery in 1441. Rather unwisely, because it was ‘treasonable necromancy’, she had asked the astrologers Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke to cast the horoscope of the then King Henry VI. Southwell died in the Tower of London, Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, she was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The explanation reads: ‘Cornhill was anciently a soke of the Bishop of London who had the Seigneurial oven in which all tenants were obliged to bake their bread and pay furnage or baking dues.‘ A soke was a right of jurisdiction and the women have just paid the priest and are carrying away their freshly baked bread – they certainly don’t look very happy about the arrangement.

‘Cornhill is the only market allowed to be held after noon in the 14th century’. A stallholder sells apples to two ladies.

 

‘Birchin Lane, Cornhill, place of considerable trade for men’s apparel, 1604‘. A tailor adjusts a gentleman’s hem, an assistant holds a tape measure, the gentleman admires himself in a mirror. Suits you, sir.

Pope’s Head Tavern in existence in 1750 belonged to Merchant Taylor’s Company. The Vintners were prominent in the life of Cornhill Ward.‘ Nearby today is Pope’s Head Alley.

‘Garraway’s Coffee House, a place of great commercial transaction and frequented by people of quality’. Garraway’s was nearby in Change Alley and is commemorated now with this plaque incorporating Sir Thomas Gresham’s grasshopper emblem.

Change Alley EC3V 3ND.

‘Thackeray and the Brontes at the publishing house of Smith Elder & Co. Cowper, the poet, Gray the poet, Guy, the bookseller and founder of Guy’s Hospital, lived in Cornhill.’

The panel depicts Charlotte and Anne Bronte meeting with William Makepeace Thackeray at the premises of Smith Elder.

I hope you found the doors and their stories as fascinating as I did. These pictures were taken at the weekend but the doors open inwards, so you can still see them when the building is open.

 

 

 

 

 

City Animals 5

It has been quite a while since I sought out animals in the City and so last weekend I took advantage of the sunny weather and went on another safari.

I always like to visit the Tower Hill memorial to the merchant navy and fishing fleet seafarers who lost their lives in both World Wars and have no grave but the sea. It’s a peaceful place on a weekend as virtually all the visitors to London have their eyes focused on the Tower of London across the road.

There are two memorials alongside one another and these pictures come from the one commemorating the almost 24,000 casualties of the Second World War (Trinity Square EC3N 4DH).

Dolphins feature highly in the allegorical sculptures by Sir Charles Wheeler representing the Seven Seas.

Here a boy is seen riding one surrounded by fishes and sea horses, above his head is a thorny snail …

A dolphin leaps through the legs of this figure who is creating the wind …

You can’t miss Neptune with a spider conch above his head and accompanied by another dolphin …

Across the road from Trinity Square is the church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower (EC3R 6BJ).

Substantially damaged in the War it was restored and reopened in 1957 with a new cockerel weathervane …

The beaver above 64 Bishopsgate (EC2N 4AW) is a reminder of the Hudson’s Bay company which once dominated the fur trade and was based nearby. Beaver fur was much sought after, particularly in the making of hats …

A golden rodent looks out across Bishopsgate.

Wander down to the end of New Street off Bishopsgate (EC2M 4TP) and you will find this ram over the gateway leading to Cock Hill …

It’s by an unknown sculptor, dates from the 186os and used to stand over the entrance to Cooper’s wool warehouse.

Outside 68 Lombard Street there hangs an astonishing five foot long grasshopper (EC3V 9LJ) the insect being derived from the coat of arms of the Gresham family. Buildings in Lombard Street were not numbered until 1770 and so when the Greshams lived and worked there a similar sign would have been used to mark their residence …

The year 1563 refers to the year Thomas Gresham (TG on the sign) set up his business here.

The present building dates from 1930 when it was destined to become the City office of Martin’s Bank (whose coat of arms included a grasshopper). The original family sign disappeared at the time of Charles II when such advertisements were banned after numerous serious accidents. They had a tendency to become detached in high winds and on one occasion pulled down the entire frontage of a building. This grasshopper dates from 1902 when a host of signs were recreated to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII.

And finally, the Sculpture in the City event has brought us this extraordinary work by Nancy Rubins. It’s called Crocodylius Philodendrus and you can view it at 1 Undershaft (EC3A 6HX).

See how many animals you can spot …

In there somewhere you will find crocodiles, hogs, deer, tortoises and a zebra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City of London pub ghosts

The City has been home to thousands of pubs over the years. Some have continued to flourish for, literally, centuries whereas others have disappeared. I have been exploring to see if I can identify some remnants of those lost hostelries.

At 12 Old Street is the building that once housed The Old Rodney’s Head …

The building is for sale at the moment – offers in excess of £6.5 million – EC1V 9BE.

George Brydges Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney (1718-1792) was a famous Admiral best known for his victory over the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 which ended the French threat to Jamaica. The building dates from 1876 and Rodney still gazes down on Old Street …

Sadly the Hat and Feathers has not reopened after a short time operating as a restaurant …

2 Clerkenwell Road EC1M 5PQ.

British History Online tells us that the building dates from 1860 and the facade – ‘gay without being crude’ – is decorated with classical statues, urns and richly ornate capitals and consoles.

I found this fascinating picture whilst researching …

Laying tramlines outside the pub in 1906 – source UK Pub History.

At the corner of Clerkenwell Road and St John Street is the building which once housed the Criterion Hotel (EC1V 4JS) …

The owners of the Cannon Brewery in St John Street built the Hotel here in 1874–6 as a replacement for the Red Lion and Punchbowl at No. 118 St John Street. This old tavern itself survived as a shop, but was eventually replaced in the 1920s by the present two storey extension to the Criterion, matching the style of the 1876 building. The Criterion closed in the 1960s, becoming a watch-materials shop and then, in the late 1990s, a restaurant.

Look at this lovely ornate brickwork …

I don’t know the significance of the two frogs, or maybe they are toads.

Further down St John Street at number 16 is the previous home of the Cross Keys pub with the pub’s emblem still visible at roof height (EC1M 4NT)

According to British History online the former Cross Keys inn was rebuilt in 1886–7 for Lovell & Christmas, provision merchants. It has been closed as a pub since the Second World War and was occupied during the 1980s as the London headquarters and library of the Communist Party of Great Britain, before being refurbished as offices in the early 1999.

The Lost Pubs Project informs us that the Barley Mow was around as long ago as 1806 although it was rebuilt in the late 19th century. It is now a restaurant but the name lives on at the top of the building’s facade and the adjacent Barley Mow Passage (EC1A 9EJ)

In their 1973 book City of London Pubs the authors Richards and Curl describe the White Hart at 7 Giltspur Street as …

The most lavish pub encountered for some time, with heavily upholstered seats and settees, low coffee-type tables, a Black Watch tartan carpet , soft music and subdued lighting.

Makes one want to visit, doesn’t it, but unfortunately it is now office accommodation …

The building dates from 1907 – EC1A 9DE 

But the stag’s head remains over the entrance, rather spookily scrutinising visitors …

Incidentally, in 2014 the Darkest London blogger tracked down all the pubs in Richards and Curl’s book to see what had happened to them since it was published and you will find more information here.

This building at 28-30 Tudor Street bears further investigation  (EC4Y 0BH)

It was once The White Swan pub, known locally as The Mucky Duck. Swan motifs remain either side of the entrance …

The building dates from 1881 …

And the facade includes the coat of arms of the Clothworkers Guild – perhaps because they owned the freehold …

The excellent London Remembers website has the following to say about the building that was once the Sir Robert Peel pub at 178 Bishopsgate (EC2M 4NJ)

This building has been through interesting times. It looks like it started off in the Georgian period and had a major refacing round about 1930 when the windows were replaced and the tiled front added. And then the ground floor front suffered the standard anonymising sometime 1960-1990, but they left the lovely tiles for us to enjoy.

The building is Art Deco in style – shame about the uPVC windows.

Nowadays always busy, even at weekends, it is amusing to note that a visitor in the early 17th century described the area as ‘airy and fashionable … but a little too much in the country’.

The ceramic panel depicting Robert Peel looks like it was based on his picture in the National Portrait Gallery.

As is often the case when researching, one story leads to another.

This building at 38 Charterhouse Street used to house the Charterhouse Bar which has now closed. However, I came across some more background about the premises which I found fascinating.

I really like the way it is squeezed into the triangular corner plot (EC1M 6JH)

And the decoration – the City of London shield with its bearded supporter …

… and this pretty lady …

What I discovered was that it was once the ‘new additional showrooms’ for scalemakers Herbert & Son and their 250th anniversary commemoration contains this invitation from 1937 …

Their Lion Trademark was granted in 1888 and can still be seen above their old showrooms at 7 and 8 West Smithfield which date from 1889. It seems to typify the pride the organisation felt at the height of the British Empire …

Directly opposite Smithfield Market – what better location for a firm of scalemekers. And they’re still going strong based in Suffolk.

 

Bench Marks and other ‘ghosts’

With global warming and rising sea levels just how safe are you as you walk along Cheapside? Read on to find out.

The City contains many examples of signs that were once important but have now ceased to have the relevance they once did. In the last blog I looked at parish boundary markers and this week I will be looking at other examples.

If you know Wood Street then you will be familiar with the tower of the old church of St Alban, left stranded in the middle of the street as a result of wartime bombing and subsequent redevelopment …

St Alban, Wood Street EC2

Whilst walking past it one day, I noticed this mark chiselled into the base of the west side of the tower …

Then, on a later date walking past St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, I saw another one …

It isn’t so clear but if you want to see it look just below the notice boards on the Cheapside entrance to the church …

The mark is below the notice board on the left.

At first I thought they might be old War Department markers (see below) but didn’t think they were likely to be carved into churches.

I have subsequently discovered, to my personal surprise, that they are what is known as Bench Marks, and there are thousands around the UK indicating where the height above sea level has been calculated. Actually I have often wondered what was taken as ‘sea level’ since the sea tended to, well, go up and down. The decision was taken back in 1918 that the single reference point would be mean sea level at Newlyn in Cornwall. In its favour was that it was situated in an area of stable granite rock and the gauge was perched on the end of a stone pier at the harbour entrance where it was exposed to the open Atlantic. This meant it wasn’t liable to be influenced by the silting up of the estuary or river tide delays.

So now you know – Ordnance Datum Newlyn (ODN) is the national height system for mainland Great Britain and forms the reference frame for all heights above mean sea level. Bench Marks were made on buildings which surveyors believed were unlikely to be redeveloped or demolished – they would be the ‘bench mark’ for the surrounding area. Nowadays, however, satellites can measure this distance to the nearest few millimetres and Bench Marks are no longer inspected for accuracy.

The St Alban tower survived the Blitz as did the tower of St Mary-le-Bow …

The St Mary-le-Bow tower shortly after the war. Photo : ‘A London Inheritance’.

So you can feel relatively safe from drowning as you walk down Cheapside – by the ODN measurement the church Bench Mark is 56.269ft above sea level!

On the right below is an example of the sign I confused the benchmarks with …

Outside Trinity House, Trinity Square.

The ‘broad arrow’ mark is used to identify property owned by the War Department (which became the Ministry of Defence in 1964) and here it appears on a boundary marker. There are half a dozen WD marks in the vicinity of the Tower of London, all numbered like No 11 above (in ascending order they are numbers 8, 12, 13, 21, 28 and 29).

And finally, I always take a picture of ghost signs because you never know how long they are likely to last. Here is a selection …

 

A bit of history from the ‘old days’ before Big Bang. There is still a second door on the right but opening it no longer reveals dapper gents with pinstriped trousers perusing the Financial Times.

At the top of Lovat Lane EC3 are these old survivors …

A bonded warehouse held taxable goods ‘in bond’ until an importer redeemed them by paying the appropriate level of excise duty.

And to finish, these printers, stationers and account book manufacturers …

Old sign in Wardrobe Place EC4

 

 

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