Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

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At the Charterhouse

Doing photography for my blog isn’t an essential journey, so I hope you won’t mind if I republish an earlier edition, the one reporting on my visit to the Charterhouse. The buildings are in Charterhouse Square (EC1M 6AN) just opposite Florin Court, the flats used as ‘Whitehaven Mansions’ in the Poirot TV series.

A Carthusian monastery had existed on this site since 1371, but catastrophe came in 1535 when the monks were asked to sign an oath acknowledging the King – Henry VIII – as the supreme head of the Church of England. Many refused, and on 4th May that year the Prior, John Houghton, a monk and a lay brother, were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Houghton’s right arm was chopped off and hung over the Charterhouse entrance gate – a symbol of what happened to those refusing to acknowledge the King’s authority.

One of the many fascinating things to see on a modern-day tour is this engraving …

Probably by Nicolas Beatrizet (1540-1560)

The print was produced in Rome about 20 years later. Five of the scenes show the monks imprisoned, dragged through the streets and then being executed. The final scene shows two Carthusian monks being executed in York.

The gatehouse in the 1930s

Charterhouse has passed through many incarnations over the centuries and evidence of this abounds to this day.

We can still see the entrance to one of the two-up two-down cells the monks occupied …

Food was passed in to the cell through the portal on the left to avoid disturbing the monk’s solitude

Each monk lived as a hermit, spending their time in prayer, contemplation and scholarly work. They seldom spoke, usually only meeting together for Sunday lunch.

Sir Edward North (later Baron North) bought the ransacked property in 1545 and turned it into a mansion. To describe North (1496-1564) as a ‘survivor’ in this tumultuous period would be an understatement – somehow remaining in favour with both Queen Mary and later Queen Elizabeth I. In fact three other owners of Charterhouse (John Dudley, Thomas Howard and Philip Howard) were all executed for treason.

Thomas Howard, the Fourth Duke of Norfolk, bought the buildings in 1564. He rebuilt what is now called the Norfolk Cloister, from the ruins of the monks’ original Great Cloister …

The boys from Charterhouse school played football here, its narrow dimensions creating the need for the offside rule

It was in King James’s reign in 1611 that a former ‘Master of the Ordnance in the Northern Parts’, Thomas Sutton, said to be England’s wealthiest commoner, bought the property and established a founda­tion to maintain a school and almshouses. The school, for 40 boys, was the beginning of Charterhouse School. Later, John Wesley and William Makepeace Thackeray were pupils. In 1872, the school moved to Godalming, taking the young Robert Baden-Powell to complete his schooling in Surrey.

The Great Hall (1571) where the Brothers dine today

In the Hall, Sutton’s coat of arms can be seen above this magnificent Caen stone chimneypiece, the cannon and gunpowder barrels at the sides referencing his connection with The Ordnance …

The arms include the head of a hunting dog, a Talbot, now extinct. It’s a motif that can be found throughout the building …

A carved Talbot dog on the stairs along with the arms of the fourth Duke of Norfolk


In Wash House Court, Tudor bricks meet Monastery stone …

Above the entrance to the passageway to the Court, a tiny monk has found a quiet place to study his Bible …

The buildings were severely damaged by incendiary bombs during the Second World War …

The medieval door to the Chapel damaged in the Blitz

The Chapel contains Thomas Sutton’s spectacular monument …

A relief panel shows the Poor Brothers in their gowns and a body of pious men and boys (perhaps scholars) listening to a sermon …

I love the figure, Vanitas, blowing bubbles and representing the ephemeral quality of worldly pleasure. The figure with the scythe is Time

The man himself …

His body rests in a vault beneath the monument

By way of contrast we can also see, in a darkened room lit by candles, this poor soul. Uncovered during the Crossrail tunneling, archeologists found it belonged to a man in the prime of his life, in his mid-twenties, when he was struck down by the Black Death. It’s believed he died at some point between 1348 and 1349, at the height of the pandemic …

Thomas Sutton’s will provided for up to 80 residents (called Brothers): ‘either decrepit or old captaynes either at sea or at land, maimed or disabled soldiers, merchants fallen on hard times, those ruined by shipwreck or other calamity’.

A community of some 40 Brothers (as of 2016, women are not excluded by this term) still live in the Charterhouse today.

This blog only covers a tiny example of what you will discover at the Charterhouse. I highly recommend the tours that are conducted every day except Monday. Some are led by one of the resident Brothers and are given from the perspective of each individual Brother, therefore no two tours are the same. Click here for details.

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City safari!

I have been looking again at some of the animals I have come across in previous City walks and I thought it might be fun to publish them again since, at the moment, walking around taking photographs doesn’t comply with the ‘stay at home’ recommendation.

When Barbican Station reopens you might like to pop in and pay your respects to the memory of Pebbles, the award-winning Station cat.

High up on a tiled pillar opposite the old ticket office is this poignant memorial …

For many years Pebbles was a favourite of staff and passengers, often sleeping soundly on top of the exit barriers despite the rush hour pandemonium going on around him. Here is a picture from the wonderfully named Purr’n’Fur website, a great source for moggie-related stories …

Clearly he was greatly missed when he died, as the plaque faithfully records, on 26th May 1997. This was doubly sad because he was due to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award. This was sponsored by Spillers Pet Foods and named after Arthur, a cat they used in their advertising who, I seem to remember, ate with his paws. The Certificate that came with the award is also displayed (the co-winner, the aptly named Barbie, was Pebbles’ companion) …

Pebbles’ posthumous award.

Another famous cat, Hodge, is remembered by this attractive bronze by John Bickley which was unveiled by the Lord Mayor, no less, in 1997. Hodge belonged to Dr Johnson and sits atop a copy his famous dictionary and alongside a pair of empty oyster shells. Oysters were very affordable then and Johnson would buy them for Hodge himself. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, explained why:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature

People occasionally put coins in the shell for luck and every now and then Hodge is given a smart bow tie of pink lawyers’ ribbon.

You can find him in Gough Square opposite Dr Johnson’s house (EC4A 3DE). ‘A very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’, said his owner.

And from famous cats to mysterious mice. Nibbling a piece of cheese, they add charm to a building in Philpot Lane off Eastcheap and have been described (rather appropriately, I think) as London’s smallest sculpture. Even though they have been repainted they are still a bit hard to find – so I am not saying precisely where they are, and hopefully (one day!) you will enjoy looking for them. One theory is that the builders in 1862 were pestered by mice who persistently ransacked their lunch packs, so they left this little informal tribute. Another is that they commemorate a man who died during the construction of the nearby Monument to the Great Fire. Mice had eaten his lunch, but he accused a fellow worker by mistake, and fell to his death in the fight that followed. As to the true story behind the little rodents, your guess is as good as mine …

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 Paternoster.

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.

This little Scottish terrier is 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.

Clayton owned a succession of Scottish Terriers and they were all called Chippy.

A wise owl gazes at the commuters as they trek over London Bridge from his perch opposite the north entrance to the bridge …

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

A wily fox decorates the door of the old Fox’s umbrella shop on London Wall …

This dolphin looks decidedly uncomfortable balanced on the facade of The Ship pub in Hart Street (built 1887) …

He needn’t look so worried – both he and the pub are Grade II listed.

Another dolphin serves a more solemn purpose on Tower Green…

More than 50,700 Commonwealth merchant seamen lost their lives in the two World Wars and the Mercantile Marine Memorial commemorates the almost 36,000 of them who have no known grave. The boy riding the dolphin, accompanied by fishes and seahorses, is one of seven sculptures representing the seven seas by Sir Charles Wheeler. The sculpture is surrounded by plaques showing the names of the dead arranged alphabetically under their ship’s name and the name of the Master or Skipper.

And finally, outside Spitalfields Market, is the wonderfully entitled I Goat. In the background is Hawksmoor’s Christ Church …

It was hand sculpted by Kenny Hunter and won the Spitalfields Sculpture Prize in 2010.

The sculptor commented …

Goats are associated with non-conformity and being independently-minded. That is also true of London, its people and never more so than in Spitalfields.

I hope you enjoyed the safari even though the animals have featured in blogs before.

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More City doors and doorways

Created between the 15th century and the more recent past, I have found a selection for us to admire and, in many cases, still walk through like thousands before us.

The oldest door I have discovered is the medieval chapel door in The Charterhouse. It was damaged by fire when the building was bombed during the Blitz (EC1M 6AN) …

When you visit St Vedast-alias-Foster in Foster Lane you enter through early 17th century oak doors that have remarkably survived both the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz (EC2V 6HH) …

The cherubim carved on the keystone above the door are by one of Sir Christopher Wren’s favourite stonemasons, Edward Strong, and date from the 1690s. In total Strong was paid £3106:14:7 for his work on the church – he charged £5 for the cherubs.

On the south side of St Paul’s Cathedral is the Dean’s Door …

The carver was stonemason and architect Christopher Kempster (1627-1715), another of Wren’s favourite craftsmen. His work on the cherub’s heads and foliage was considered so good Wren awarded him an extra £20 for ‘the extraordinary diligence and care used in the said carving and his good performance of the same’. When Kempster died at the age of 88 his son carved a cherub’s head for his memorial.

Incidentally, £1 then was worth about £120 now.

The Cathedral’s main entrance, the 30 foot high Great West Door, is only opened on special occasions …

Look closely and you will see it is surrounded by 18th century graffiti, some in elegant cursive script …

The facade St Martin’s House at 1 Gresham Street is a delight (EC4V 7BX) …

Dating from 1891 it incorporates a wonderfully happy, smiling Mr Sun …

What also makes it charming is the rogue apostrophe ….

Surely it should read St Martin’s House?

What about this trio above what was once the entrance to the City Headquarters of the Royal Insurance Company at 24-28 Lombard Street (EC3V 9AJ) …

The historian Philip Ward-Jackson writes as follows:

‘The winged chimera at the centre of the group has the head of a woman and the legs of a lion. The two personifications are fine looking women, naked to the waist. The Sea holds a caduceus, and therefore also symbolises marine commerce … The attributes of Fire are a torch and bunches of faggots.

This quite sinister allegorical group must have been intended to intensify the fears of potential customers.’

The church of St Stephen Walbrook was constructed between 1672 and 1679 and is another Wren building (EC4N 8BN). The doors look original to me but I haven’t yet found out for sure …

The building is where Dr Chad Varah founded the Samaritans and you can read more about that and the church itself here.

This impressive entrance is just around the corner from St Stephens. Push the doorbell and you never know, the Lord Mayor might answer the door …

The virus shut down has meant that these magnificent doors at 2 Moorgate can now be seen easily during the week rather than just at the weekend (EC2R 6AG). Each door weighs a ton …

Suitably opulent for a private bank, they were designed by John Poole and date from 1975 when the building was opened by Edward Heath (who used to work for the company). Poole had a free hand with the design and said he intended to represent, in the circular forms, the firm’s centres of business. The linear patterns suggest communications between these centres along with ‘the interaction of spheres of influence’.

In 1888 the Institute of Chartered Accountants decided to treat themselves to a permanent headquarters and work was completed in 1893. Described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ’eminently original and delightfully picturesque’, it is ‘a fine example of Victorian neo-Baroque which draws its inspiration from the work of the Italian Renaissance’. This is the formidable and imposing entrance at One Moorgate Place (EC2R 6EA) …

The architect was John Belcher RA.

The large cartouche above the massive bronze doors depicts the Institute’s coat of arms and is held up by two classical male figures.

In the Museum of London you will find a door that must have struck terror into the hearts of the poor souls who were led through it …

Photograph : Museum of London.

It comes from the now demolished Newgate Prison, dates from 1783, and was the one through which criminals were taken to their place of execution. In fact they walked through three doors of which this was the inner one – there was also an iron-cased half door and an outer one of solid iron. The final person to pass through it to his execution by hanging was the Fenian Michael Barrett on 27 May 1868 – the last public execution to take place in England.

Two doors that are a bit tucked away when open are here at 6 Holborn Viaduct (EC1A 2AE) …

They have certainly suffered some brutal treatment over the years and look very unloved, but the lions heads have survived …

And finally, to finish on a more lighthearted note, 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!

If, by any remote chance, doors, doorways and bells are your thing, do have a browse of the blogs I have written on these subjects : That Rings a Bell and City of London Doors and Doorways.

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Moorgate and the Goddess of Electricity

Firstly, I hope you are all keeping well and safe in these troubled times, and that maybe my little blog occasionally offers a welcome distraction.

The diminished traffic flow in the City, combined with the recent really sunny days, meant that I could more easily incorporate some photography with the walks I take for exercise. I was able to pause for some time to take detailed images of this spectacular building on Moorgate …

I think it’s crowning glory is its stained glass window, back-lit from within so its detail can be seen clearly from outside the building. Unfortunately the building was closed and in darkness when I visited so I have copied an image from the splendid London Inheritance website and blog.

Originally the London headquarters of the Eastern Telegraph Company, the current neo-classical building was built by Belcher & Joass between 1900 and 1903. At first it was called Electra House (named after the goddess of electricity) and the centre section shows her perched on top of the world. A glowing orb behind her head sends out rays across the seas, presumably representing the information the company’s cables help spread around the world. To the bottom left of the centre section is a sailing ship under full sail and bottom right is a lighthouse. Between the ship and lighthouse is a rough looking sea. The side panels show clouds and more rough sea and stars are scattered over the three parts …

The architect John Belcher was a prominent member the Catholic Apostolic Church and it is thought that this influenced the ornamentation of buildings he designed. The Moorgate stained glass window embodies the theme of communications but also symbolism from the Book of Revelations. You can read more about Belcher here.

To the left of the arch is a seated girl accompanied by a young winged genius …

Sculptor: George Frampton

She is transmitting a message.

The figure on the right is receiving a message (could be an iPad!) …

And above the arch …

… a winged Mercury, the god of Commerce, carries a caduceus.

Higher up is a beautiful frieze of four female figures …

Sculptor: William Goscombe John

They represent from left to right Egypt, Japan, India and China. Egypt carries a water jar on her shoulder, Japan is in a kimono and carries a fan, India lifts the veil from her face, and China carries a samisen (a three stringed lute).

At the very top of the building four naked boys support an armillary sphere which is itself encircled by a broad band displaying zodiacal signs …

Here it is in close up …

Some small figures decorate the tops of the pillars. Here are a few of them.

The horned god Pan playing his flute …

A blindfolded Lady Justice holding scales and sword …

I have no idea as to what this one represents …

I hope you found this interesting. I have not covered all the building’s decorations in this blog and there are more inside which maybe I will get access to at some future date.

To end on a more lighthearted note, have you noticed that the pigeons seem to have deserted the City? No humans, no food, I suppose. However, I did spot this lonely chap self-isolating on the old Roman/Medieval City wall …

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‘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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