Category Archives: History

A bit of historical background and historic events

White Hart Dock | Boat sculptures pay tribute to a lost riverside hub

Today, wooden boat structures give a clue to the hidden dock, which has existed in some form for centuries.

White Hart Dock in Vauxhall, London

The art installation and benches at White Hart Dock in Vauxhall

The River Thames has always been the life blood of London, but before the rise of motor vehicles, it was a dominant way to travel. The river was a hub of industry and transport, with factories, wharf, docks and stairs lining its quaysides. As our demands on the river changed in the latter half of the 20th century, the volume of wharfs and docks has dramatically shrunk.

White Hart Dock slipway

The slipway is hidden behind brick walls and leads to tunnels (left) leading towards the Thames

One remaining dock that has managed to survive is White Hart Dock in Vauxhall. With a road separating the dock from the Thames, it would be easy to miss it if you walked past. However, today there are modern boat sculptures giving a clue to what lurks behind. Situated at the junction of the Albert Embankment and Black Prince Road, there has been a dock or slipway at the site since the 14th or 15th century. On a 1767 map, White Hart Stairs are marked just a short distance south from the famous Horse Ferry embarkation, an ancient river crossing. At the time, Black Prince Road was named Lambeth Butts and led from White Hart Stairs to Kennington Palace (which existed from 12th to 16th century). By the early 19th century, the riverside end of Lambeth Butts had become Broad Street, with White Hart Stairs a popular drop off for water transport.

In 1868, the Albert Embankment was constructed by London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, creating a riverside road and walkway and allowing for the construction of piers for the many large-scale industrial premises, along with improving flood defences for the regularly flooded Lambeth. Prior to construction, White Hart Dock was a draw dock, but was rebuilt facing south. With the main road in between the dock and the Thames, boats would have to pass at an angle at low tide to access it (see a 1872 photo of the newly-built Albert Embankment with the tunnel leading to the dock). Around the same time, many other inland docks were built for Lambeth and Vauxhall factories, including the Royal Doulton potteries. It is believed the White Hart Dock served the Lambeth and Salamanca soap works, although was deemed for public use.

To those disembarking at White Hart Dock in the mid 1800s, one of the first things they would see was the enticing Crowley’s Alton Ale Wharf. The pub chain was run by the Alton Brewery, founded by a Quaker family from Alton, Hampshire. The Crowleys were early pioneers of the traditional pub lunch, offering a glass of ale and a sandwich for 4 pence. Charles Dickens had commented on the popularity of Crowley’s Ale Houses throughout England. Their signature offering grew so famous, the Crowleys had to take out an advert warning Londoners that the Ale Wharf at Vauxhall was their only genuine London branch, accusing rivals of opening “ale and sandwich” venues. (Check out a 1869 photo of the Crowley’s Alton Ale Wharf overlooking White Hart Dock).

Timbers in the shape of bows crown the dock

The dock’s decline began in the 20th century as industry started to move away from the river. During World War II, the dock was used as an Emergency Water Supply, with the letters EWS still visible today on a sign from the period. In 1960, the local council Lambeth sought parliamentary powers to close White Hart Dock as it hadn’t been used by commercial vehicles for many years. However, the closure was never realised, but the dock continued to lay unused.

After decades of neglect and uselessness, in 2004 Berkeley Homes purchased the land adjacent to the dock for development of a luxury apartment block. It was agreed, the surrounding environment should be enhanced, including White Hart Dock. A public art panel was established and the public invited to give feedback on six shortlisted proposals for the space. Sheffield artists Handspring Design won the commission with their ornamental boat-themed sculptures in 2009. Made of sustainably sourced, FSC English oak, the dock is now crowned by bow-like arches, with boat shaped benches facing the river. The dock itself is enclosed by high brick walls, with flood gates at one end. Peering over the walls you can see the slipway and under road tunnels leading to the river.

  • White Hart Dock, junction of Albert Embankment and Black Prince Road, Vauxhall, SE1 7SP. Nearest station: Vauxhall. To find out more about the artwork, visit the White Hart Dock website.

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Victoria House in Whitefriars | An unusual blend of 19th century architecture

The story of a former Fleet Street printing house.

Victoria House on the junction of Tudor Street and Temple Avenue in the Whitefriars district of the City

Many of the surrounding streets of Fleet Street have the industries of law and the press to thank for their many architectural designs. Although the newspapers and publishing houses have moved on, their legacy in the area lives on through their former offices. One of these buildings, the former Argus Printing Company, now survives as a great example of Victorian commercial architecture and is now luxury apartments. Located on the corner of Temple Avenue and Tudor Street in the district of Whitefriars, is a building now known as Victoria House.

The name Whitefriars comes from the former friary, which stood in the area from the 13th to 16th century. Following the dissolution of the friary, the area swiftly went from religious to run-down. At the time, it was located outside the jurisdiction of the City of London so became a magnet for the badly-behaved. The area was known as ‘Alsatia’ and was renowned for its criminal population. However, the Great Fire of London of 1666 provided an opportunity for officials to clean up the area as it was rebuilt.

By the 17th century, Whitefriars became a hub for trade with its many warehouses and wharves. Horwood’s Map of 1799 shows Grand Junction Wharf, Weft & Coves Wharf and White Friars Dock around the site of current Victoria House. Although today, Tudor Street is just over 300 metres long, on Horwood’s Map the name only leant itself to a short stretch of the eastern end. Meanwhile, the western end leading into Inner Temple was called Temple Street until it was renamed as an extension of Tudor Street in the 19th century when the area was altered by construction of the nearby Victoria Embankment in the 1860s. It was during the 19th century that the area of Fleet Street and the surrounding streets – including those in Whitefriars – became a hub for London’s booming newspaper industry. The Victorian era saw the establishment of buildings for both the editorial and production of newspapers and magazines.

Grotesque keystones add some character to the façade

One of the Victorian buildings established for this burgeoning industry was Victoria House, home to the Argus Printing Company. Journalist and politician Harry Marks (1855-1916) established the Argus Printing Company (APC) in 1887 to print his Financial News daily newspaper, which had been founded three years earlier. At its launch, the original Argus printing plant on Bouverie Street wasn’t very large, featuring one machine and rotary press which could produce 12,000 eight-page papers hourly. By 1887, the success of the Financial News meant the APC could buy a larger machine by Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni (1823-1904), which doubled the hourly output. Within a few years, the Bouverie premises were too cramped for the volume of production required so a new site closer to the Thames was acquired in 1891. Read the rest of this entry

Oscar Wilde’s London: Discover the playwright’s haunts

Find out where the playwright lived, socialised and, sadly, suffered during his time in London.

Oscar Wilde in 1894Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was one of the world’s most famous playwrights and poets. Born and brought up in Ireland and dying young in France, he also spent a long period of his life in London. Having studied at Oxford, the young graduate moved to London around 1878, where he would remain for 17 years. During his adult life in London, he tasted success with plays such as ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, ‘A Woman of No Importance’, and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. However, this was cut short by revelations about his sexuality, which tragically led to his downfall in a society which was not so inclusive as it is today. His last six months in the capital were sadly spent behind bars. Upon his release from prison in Reading, he sailed to France and never returned to London, or the UK, ever again. He died of meningitis in Paris at the tender age of 46 following three years in exile.

Guide to Oscar Wilde’s London sites

  • 44 Tite Street, Chelsea

After graduating from Oxford, Wilde moved in with his university friend and society painter Frank Miles (1852-1891). Wealthy Miles had commissioned architect Edward William Godwin to build him a house, complete with artist’s studio, in 1880. Wilde is listed on the 1881 census as a ‘boarder’ at what was then 1 Tite Street.

– 44 Tite Street, Chelsea, SW3. Nearest station: Sloane Square.

  • St James’s Church, Paddington

Wilde married Constance Lloyd in the Anglican church in May 1884. The Grade II* listed building was designed by Victorian architect George Edmund Street (1824-1881) and completed just two years before the Wildes’ wedding. A plaque to commemorate the Wildes’ ceremony was erected at the east end of the church in 2016.

– Sussex Gardens, Paddington, W2 3UD. Nearest station: Lancaster Gate or Paddington.

  • 34 Tite Street, Chelsea

Wilde and his wife Constance lived together at 16 Tite Street (now 34) from 1884-1895. It was their family home to raise their two sons Cyril (1885-1915) and Vyvyan (1886-1967). Despite Wilde’s sexuality and his affairs, the boys had a good relationship with their father until his arrest. It was at this house that Wilde had a run-in with his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry in June 1894 after he caught the men together at a restaurant. Queensberry threatened to “thrash” Wilde if he caught him with Bosie again. Following the writer’s conviction, Constance changed their sons last name to Holland and got her husband to relinquish his rights to the boys. Today, there is a blue plaque commemorating Wilde’s residence at the house.

– 34 Tite Street, Chelsea, SW3. Nearest station: Sloane Square.

  • St James Theatre (demolished)

Several of Wilde’s plays made their debut at the now-demolished St James’s Theatre in St James. Built in the late Georgian era, the theatre was managed by actor Sir George Alexander (1858-1918) when Wilde was writing plays. The two creatives started a professional partnership, with Lady Windermere’s Fan being presented at the theatre in 1892. In February 1895, the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest was under threat of disruption by Queensberry, who planned to throw rotten vegetables on stage. However, Wilde received a tip off and had the theatre heavily guarded by police. Queensberry raged in the street outside for three hours, before finally going home. Despite the play’s initial success with critics and audiences, it was short-lived as Wilde was arrested the following April. As public outrage erupted at the Wilde scandal, Alexander tried to keep the run going by removing the playwright’s name from the bill, but to no avail. The production ended prematurely after just 83 performances. St James’s Theatre was eventually demolished in 1957 after 122 years.

– 23-24 King Street, St James, SW1Y 6QY. Nearest stations: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.

  • James J Fox, St. James

Wilde was an enthusiastic smoker, having acquired the habit while studying at Oxford. While cigars and pipes were popular at the time, he preferred cigarettes, once declaring: “A cigarette is the type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.” The poet frequently bought his cigarettes from James J Fox, London’s oldest cigar merchant. Today, the shop has a smoking museum downstairs which includes Wilde’s ledger and a High Court letter showing an outstanding balance for the writer’s purchases made between September 1892 and June 1893.

– 19 St James’s Street, St. James’s, SW1A 1ES. Nearest station: Green Park.

  • Truefitt & Hill

Wilde was generally clean-shaven and often visited this top Mayfair barber. Opening in 1805 and securing a royal warrant, it’s the oldest barbershop in the world.

– 71 St James’s St, St. James’s, SW1A 1PH. Nearest station: Green Park.

  • Albemarle Club

The exclusive Albemarle Club in Mayfair was unusual during Wilde’s time because it was a members’ club open to both sexes. Oscar and his wife Constance were both regulars. This club provided a key role in Wilde’s eventual downfall. Scottish nobleman John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900), arrived at the club on 18 February 1895 demanding to see Wilde, who he (correctly) suspected of having a love affair with his son Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945). The porter blocked his entry, so Queensberry left a calling card with the message, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” (sic). Wilde didn’t receive the card until he turned up at the club two weeks later and was so offended by it, he decided to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. It was the libel trial which led to evidence being produced about Wilde’s sexuality, leading to his subsequent arrest and conviction for gross indecency.

– 13 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, W1S 4HJ. Nearest station: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.

  • Kettner’s

Originally one of the first French restaurants in Soho, Kettner’s opened in 1867 and hosted Wilde, among many other prominent names, at its lounge and champagne bar. Today, Kettner’s is a private members’ club run by Soho House and comprises seven Georgian townhouses.

– 29 Romily Street, Soho, W1D 5HP. Nearest station: Leicester Square or Tottenham Court Road. Read the rest of this entry

Step inside Whitehall’s jewel: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office building

Exploring George Gilbert Scott’s stunning government offices in Westminster.

Foreign Office exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office building’s neo-classical exterior

Many UK Government buildings in Westminster date back to the Victorian era. It was an age when no expense was spared when it came to decorating buildings’ exteriors and interiors, when structures were created to ‘make a statement’ about the people within them. Although the Palace of Westminster gets most of the attention from Londoners and visitors to the capital alike, there is also another remarkable piece of architecture housing a government department. At the time it was built, Britain was at the height of colonial power, so had an extensive budget with which to impressive foreign visitors.

When it came to settling on the final design for what we know today as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Building, it was an arduous process to get there. As was (and still is) common at the time, a competition was launched in 1856 to choose the design for the Foreign Office and neighbouring War Office. English architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) ended up in third place in the competition with his original Gothic revival design (see the designs in the RIBA archives), which also incorporated the War Office. However, it was Scott’s former pupil Henry Edward Coe (1826-1885) and his then-partner HH Hofland’s French Visconti-type design which was chosen for the Foreign Office. However, Coe and Hofland’s plans were ditched the following year when Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), brought in the government’s favoured architect Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871), who had originally designed plans for the Foreign Office a few years previously, but had not entered the competition. Lord Palmerston’s decision to dismiss the competition results outraged the architecture industry, with Scott leading the protest against it. In 1858, Lord Palmerston lost power and Scott was given the commission. It was around this time, the plans for the War Office were ditched in favour of the India Office, established in 1858 to take over the governing of India from the East India Company.

The dome topping the Grand Staircase depicts female figures representing countries of the world


The grand staircase is designed to impress

In June 1859, Lord Palmerston was re-elected and kicked up a fuss over Scott’s neo-Gothic design, demanding he redesign something neo-Classical, which the architect described as “a style contrary to my life’s labours”. Scott feared ditching his signature style would leave his reputation as one of the key Gothic Revival architects “irreparably injured”. However, Scott decided turning down the opportunity would be unwise, bought some books on Italian architecture and headed to Paris to study classical buildings, such as the Louvre. The India Office insisted he collaborate with their Surveyor Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877), who designed the interior of their office, leaving Scott to focus on the classical exterior of both offices. The plans were finally approved by the Government in 1861, with construction completed in 1868. The Foreign Office was located on the north-west corner of the building with the India office on the south-west corner, while the Colonial Office and Home Office were added on the eastern side in 1875. Fortunately, Scott’s fears about his reputation were unfounded, with support from his peers and the public. “Even Mr (John) Ruskin said I had done right,” wrote Scott in his Personal & Professional Recollections in 1879. As for Scott’s original Gothic vision of the Foreign Office, it was used as the basis for the Midland Hotel at St Pancras.

The Victorian ceiling stencils and gilding have been restored in the Grand Locarno Suite

On completion, it was the first purpose-built Foreign Office, which by that point had been in existence for nearly 80 years. The white, Portland stone façade features many classical elements, including balustrades, columns and pediments. Dotted around are sculptures of former monarchs and politicians as well as allegorical figures of Law, Commerce and Art by English sculptors Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) and John Birnie Philip (1824-1875). Most enter the complex through the grand arched entrance on King Charles street leading to a large outdoor courtyard. Read the rest of this entry

From criminals to cocktails: How one London hotel started life as a Magistrates Court

The former courthouse in Soho hosted some high profile trials featuring John Lennon, Oscar Wilde, Christine Keeler and Mick Jagger.

Courthouse hotel exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Edwardian-built Courthouse Hotel in Soho

Great Marlborough Street in Soho features an amalgamation of architecture styles. From the mock Tudor timbers of Liberty to the dazzling Art Deco detailing of Palladium House, there’s quite an array of designs. One imposing building is the Courthouse Hotel – its name giving a clear reference to the building’s former life.

Originally without the ‘Great’, Marlborough Street was built in the early 18th century, the road being named to commemorate John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), following his 1704 victory at the Battle of Blenheim. The site of courthouse was originally three houses (19-21), where various affluent families lived over the decades. In 1793, No.21 became one of seven police offices across the capital, established by Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 following the success of the Bow Street court and its ‘runners’ – the precursor of the Metropolitan police. Each location was staffed by three magistrates and up to six officers. Crime had risen steadily in the capital as its population boomed, so the offices could house suspects following arrest and host criminal trials. Other offices were opened in Clerkenwell, Shadwell, Shoreditch, Southwark, Whitechapel, St James and St Margaret Westminster. The police office was expanded to incorporate the rear grounds of No.20 in 1856, although tenants continued to live in the building until 1892.

Courthouse hotel Marlborough Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Iron bars separate the lobby lounge from the hotel bar

Police courts were utilised for a wide range of ‘criminal’ activities, including assault, theft, animal cruelty, desertion, solicitation, gambling, matrimonial disputes, small debts, drunk and disorderly conduct, and ‘loitering with intent’. More serious cases to be heard in front of a jury would be heard in the Old Bailey or a Crown Court, although sometimes the preliminary hearings would take place in the magistrates’ courts.

During the 19th century, many famous names passed through the doors of Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court – on both sides of the law. In 1835, a young Charles Dickens (1812-1870) used to cover cases while reporting for the Morning Chronicle. A decade later, Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873), the future Napoleon III, was a witness in a fraud case while exiled in London. The beginning of Oscar Wilde‘s (1854-1900) case against John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900) for libel began at the courthouse in 1895, before moving to the Old Bailey. The author and poet launched a private prosecution of Douglas (father of his then-lover Lord Alfred Douglas) after the Scottish nobleman described him as a “sodomite” on a calling card. The case was dropped, but Wilde was famously charged and convicted of gross indecency soon after and sentenced to two years in prison.

An Edwardian makeover

As the 20th century dawned, it was time for the court to be updated. Architect John Dixon Butler (1861–1920) was responsible as the Metropolitan Police’s architect and surveyor. Butler, who succeeded his architect father John Butler in the role, began his tenure with Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), assisting on the building of New Scotland Yard. During his career, he designed over 200 courts and police stations, including Charing Cross, Wapping, Hackney, Highbury Vale, Hampstead, Muswell Hill, and Tottenham.

Butler’s new design for Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court was a three-storey building made of Portland stone in a restrained free Classical style. Details such as Ionic pilasters, arched windows, and a grand central pedestal topped by the Royal Arms all lend to the building’s imposing style as a location for law and order. Butler’s new design did manage to incorporate some of the original Georgian building, including three late 18th century chimney pieces, two of which are white marble and still exist today. The courthouse was built by Messrs. Patman and Fotheringham and was completed in 1913. Read the rest of this entry

The history of the Effra River | South London’s lost waterway

Discover the story of one of London’s lost rivers, which has been driven underground.

Belair Park Dulwich Effra River © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

There have been debates about whether or not the water in Belair Park in West Dulwich is from one of  the Effra’s tributaries

For centuries, the River Thames wasn’t the only big expansion of water in the capital, with many rivers and streams flowing in all directions across the capital. Before water was piped around the capital, Londoners relied on their local rivers for washing, fishing… and some other less sanitary activities.

One of these London rivers was the Effra, which is now mostly subterranean. It started life as a tributary of the River Thames, and now runs through south London’s Victorian sewers. There has been much debate of the name ‘Effra’, which is believed to been first associated with the river in the late 18th century/early 19th century. English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who grew up in Herne Hill, suggested the name was “doubtless shortened from Effrena, signifying the unbridled river”. Other suggestions include it originating from the Anglo Saxon word “efer” (translates as “bank”) or from the Celtic term “yfrid” (which means “torrent”). Various 18th century maps label the River as “Brixton Creek”, “The Wash” or “Shore”. Another recent suggestion is Effra is a corrupted word of “Heathrow” – the name of a 70 acre estate located south of Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. In the 1790s, the land belonging to Heathrow Manor was called Effra Farm. It’s been suggested the section running through the Brixton farm was called Effra, before being expanded to include the whole river.

River Effra marker © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

A marker in West Norwood showing the course of the Effra

The course of the Effra River and its tributaries ran thorough the centre of south London (don’t take the postcodes of bordering SE and SW neighbourhoods so literally!), through Upper and West Norwood, Brixton, Herne Hill, Dulwich, Vauxhall, and Kennington. There has been much debate whether or not the lake in Belair Park in West Dulwich was made by damning one of the Effra’s tributaries in the 19th century, if so it would be the only part of the River currently visible above ground. However, the lake is just a few minutes walk from the old Croxted Road (formerly Croxted Lane), where the Effra did run through. When the river was open, it had an average width of 12ft and was around 6ft deep.

Over the centuries, the river and its tributaries were diverted. By the 18th century, the Effra was pretty filthy as rivers were commonly used for waste disposal. In the 1840s, the commissioners of Surrey and East Kent Sewers began the process of culverting the Effra. Civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) incorporated what was left of the open Effra into his revolutionary sewer system in the 1860s. Along the way, huge metal stink pipes were erected to safely expel the gases in the sewer. You can still spot the stink pipes dotted around south London, they look like extra tall lampposts with the light missing. While the river is now subterranean, nods to its existence remain in the local streets. For example Brixton is home to Effra Road, Effra Parade and Brixton Water Lane.

Meanwhile, in more recent times, the course of the Effra has been marked by cast iron plaques dotted throughout Lambeth. Design agency Atelier Works teamed up with local artist Faranak to design 14 different illustrations of flowing water for 30cm plaques in 2016. They can be spotted in pavements on various sites along the river’s 6 mile course. The typescript reads: “The hidden River Effra is beneath your feet.” Some of the plaques sightings include outside the Meath Estate on Dulwich Road (Herne Hill), Rosendale Road just south of the junction with the South Circular (West Dulwich), Robson Road (south side opposite No.5/6, West Norwood), the junction of Rattray Road/Mervan Road (Brixton), among others.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.


📚 Further reading:

  • London’s Lost River. Paul Talling, 2011.
  • River Effra: South London’s Secret Spine. Jon Newman, 2016.
  • London’s Hidden Rivers: A walker’s guide to the subterranean waterways of London. David Fathers, 2017.

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Trading, theatre and Tudor merchants | The story of The Royal Exchange

The current Royal Exchange is the third iteration to stand on the site at Bank.

Royal Exchange exterior © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Royal Exchange on Cornhill is the third building on the site

Today, an exchange building is generally utilised for telecommunications or foreign currency. However, as a commercial building, exchanges date back to at least the 13th century. In London, many of the capital’s former exchanges are long gone, and if they do still exist, conduct business using different methods. However, one of the London’s oldest exchanges still exists, albeit not the original building.

Royal Exchange clock tower © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The eastern side of the Exchange

Standing at the Bank junction of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street is The Royal Exchange, which dates back to the 16th century. It was founded by Tudor merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), who had been trading in Bourse of Antwerp, the world’s first commodities exchange. He obtained land and permission from the City of London’s Court of Alderman to establish a centre of commerce. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) opened the first exchange in January 1571 and gave the building a royal title, along with a license to sell alcohol and valuable goods. Gresham later added two additional floors above the trading floor, with units leased out for retail. This savvy move essentially created Britain’s first shopping mall. Originally, stockbrokers weren’t allowed into the Royal Exchange because of their reputation for being rude, so conducted their trading in the nearby coffee shops.

Gresham’s original Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Its replacement was designed by architect Edward Jarman (1605-1668) and opened in 1669. It was a stone, Baroque building with piazzas, arched entrances to the inner court and a 178ft high tower with clock and bells. The second Royal Exchange was full of merchants and brokers. In 1713, Lloyd’s of London acquired two rooms in the building. However, the building followed the fate of its predecessor and burned down in January 1838. It is believed the blaze may have been caused by an overheated stove in Lloyd’s Coffee House in nearby Lombard Street. Read the rest of this entry

Explore the unlocked city as Open House London 2020 returns with a difference

Find out what’s on at Open House London this year, including event types, safety measures and changes due to the pandemic.

Brixton Windmill © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Brixton Windmill is one of the buildings taking part

With the Covid-19 pandemic still continuing, “normal life” is still a way off from returning. So this year, Open House London is expanded to the Open House Festival, with additional events taking place over a longer period than the usual weekend. This annual event is essentially a festival of architecture and history, where some of London’s most interesting buildings open their doors to the public for free. From private homes to government buildings to offices and hidden historical sites, it’s a great opportunity to explore the capital beyond what is usually accessible. Open House London is one of my favourite weekends of the year and I’ve seen inside some amazing buildings in previous years. It’s also an opportunity to visit some London attractions, such as museums (that you would usually have to pay for) for free. The main weekend takes place 19-20 September 2020, with more activities taking place up to 27 September. As part of the festival, Open House Families will be hosting various events around the capital for children to discover the city’s architecture and history.

Is Open House London different this year because of Covid-19?

Yes. Many buildings that usually take part are unable to open safely this year, so many are offering virtual, online experiences instead. Those venues that are allowing physical visits will be subjected to typical safety requirements, including social distancing, restrictions on group sizes (rule of six applies), one way systems and requirements to wear a face mask and bring hand sanitiser. You will also be required to give your information as part of the Government’s Test and Trace scheme. Open City is advising Londoners to stay local to their homes so travelling long distance and using public transport is kept to a minimum. In addition to virtual and physical building visits, there will also be guided and self-guided walking and cycling tours.

Do I need to book in advance?

For the buildings that are allowing physical visits, some are requiring people book in advance, while others are allowing walk ups. However, at the walk ups, you should be prepared to wait depending on the capacity already present. Organisers will be prioritising safety so will ensure visitors have enough space to socially distance while inside the building. Those who have pre-booked tickets are advised to have a digital copy on their phone, unless otherwise advised by the ticket provider.

Be aware, government restrictions and advice could change at any time so keep visiting the Open House website frequently for the most up to date information.

Metro Girl’s favourite Open House London posts

Check out MG’s blog archives of previous Open House London visits to buildings taking part in this year’s festival:

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Step into a neon wonderland at Gods Own Junkyard in Walthamstow

This year, there will also be podcasts, Open House films and publication of a new book, The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs. Wherever you explore – be it virtually or in person – I wish you a safe and fun Open House London experience!

  • Open House London 2020 takes place 19-20 September, while the Open House Festival runs from 19-27 September 2020. For more information, visit the Open House London website.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

For a guide to what’s on in London in October 2020, click here.

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Tower Subway | The story behind London’s lost underwater railway

This short-lived river tunnel provided a test run for the engineering used to build the world’s first deep-level railway, aka London’s tube.

Tower Hill Subway © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The 1920s reconstruction of the subway entrance on the Tower Hill side

Situated just a few hundred metres from the Tower of London is a remnant of a lost transport system. A short circular building near the junction of Petty Wales and Lower Thames Street commemorates the former Tower Subway, which briefly transported passengers under the river in the 1870s. Although it closed 150 years ago, this 20th century reconstruction of its northern entrance reminds us of a pioneering piece of Victorian engineering.

The population of London swelled hugely during the Victorian era, prompting widespread building of bridges and transport to move the masses around the capital. The Thames Tunnel, which originally opened to pedestrians in 1843, was converted to train use by 1869. Meanwhile, the first tube, the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863. Keen to capitalize on the growing demand for these new transport methods, London-born engineer Peter W Barlow (1809-1885) patented a new method of tunnelling, in the hope of creating a network of tunnels to carry people under the city. City bosses were wary of the cost after the spiralling budget, deaths in construction and the 18 years it had taken to build the Thames Tunnel. However, Barlow’s pupil James Henry Greathead (1844-1896) said he could make the first cylindrical tunnelling shield (patented by Barlow) and use it to build a transport tunnel system under the Thames for £9,400.

Greathead’s project kicked off in February 1869, with the cast iron shield used to dig through the London clay – the first time this construction method had been used. The tunnel was 1,340 ft long, connecting Tower Hill on the north of the River Thames with Vine Lane near Tooley Street on the south. Inside the tunnel was a 2ft 6in gauge railway, which carried up to 12 passengers under the river in a cable-hauled wooden carriage in about 70 seconds. The lifts from street level to the tracks, as well as the cable car, were powered by a 4hp stationary steam engine on the London Bridge side of the tunnel. The rapid construction proved the tunnelling shield was a success and it was later used to build the City and South London Railway, the world’s first deep-level underground railway.

The Tower Subway carriage in the Illustrated London News 1870

The tunnel was completed in less than a year with it taking its first passengers in February 1870. It appeared to have a ‘soft launch’ in April 1870, before being opened to the public four months later. Robert Miles commented in the British Almanac that the brief journey wasn’t exactly pleasant: “The temperature of the Subway is certainly rather high, but it only has to be borne with for a brief space. The passage is somewhat rough, the movements of the omnibus being jerky, especially at starting.” Initially, there were plans for similar tunnels at Gravesend, Woolwich and Greenwich, Cannon Street and Borough. However, by 7 December that year, the Tower Subway cable car ceased after the company ran into financial problems. Just a few weeks later, the tunnel was converted for pedestrian use, with customers paying a halfpenny to use it. The lifts were removed and replaced by a flight of 96 stairs, with gas lights being placed throughout the tunnel. At the height of its popularity, 20,000 people a week were using the tunnel, despite its reputation for being dark and claustrophobic.

As the end of the century approached, the Tower Subway’s fate was sealed when Tower Bridge opened locally in 1894. The latter was not only free to use, but pedestrians had the choice of crossing the river at vehicle level or by using the high-level walkways – a much more pleasant option than a dark, cramped tunnel. By 1897, the Tower Subway company applied to dissolve the company and closed the tunnel the following year. It sold the tunnel for £3,000 to the London Hydraulic Power Company (LHPC), who used it for power mains.

The original Tower Hill entrance to the Subway was later demolished, with the LHPC building a reconstruction in 1926, with lettering commemorating the original construction date. The tunnel was damaged by a Nazi bomb in December 1940, but amazingly its lining wasn’t penetrated and it was able to be repaired. Meanwhile, the original Vine Lane entrance on the south side of the Thames was later demolished around the 1980s-1990s.

  • Tower Hill Subway, Tower Hill, EC3R 5BT. Nearest station: Tower Hill, Fenchurch Street or Tower Gateway.

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Travel to the ancient world with the Crystal Palace dinosaurs

The history of the Victorian life-sized models of prehistoric dinosaurs and mammals in Crystal Palace Park.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs Iguanodon © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Victorian sculptures of Iguanodons at Crystal Palace Park

Crystal Palace is famous for many things – its football club (actually located in Selhurst), its telecommunications tower (South London’s very own Eiffel Tower) and for being the site of the actual Crystal Palace building. However, it is also famous for another unique sight – the world’s first dinosaur statues.

Following the success of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, the building was such a success, it was erected permanently on a huge site on Sydenham Hill in 1854. The Crystal Palace was sort of a theme park-cum-museum for Victorians, bringing attractions, antiquities and experiences most had never seen before. To accompany the palace, the surrounding land (in what is now the park) was landscaped with many features added, including lakes, a maze, and rides. Towards the south-west corner of the park, a dinosaur park was created by sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894), with landscaping by architect (and creator of the Crystal Palace) Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) and Professor David T Ansted (1814-1880).

In the mid 19th century, Victorians were further behind in their knowledge of dinosaurs than we are today. Palaeontologists and archaeologists of the time were still trying to piece together exactly what the prehistoric creatures looked like by studying fossils. When you visit the dinosaur sculptures of Crystal Palace today, you may well find it humorous to see how the Victorians’ believed they appeared. However, it’s important to acknowledge the people who made them just didn’t have the science we have today.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs Megaloceros © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Megaloceros

 

Crystal_Palace Great Exhibition © Wellcome Images

An engraving of the sculptures, the Crystal Palace itself and other attractions in the grounds by George Baxter (1804–1867). Year unknown.
© Wellcome Images

Thirty sculptures from the prehistoric world were placed across three islands, grouped in species and following a rough timeline of their existence (Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras). The park made history as Hawkins’ creations were the first full-scale models of the extinct creatures in the world. The new Crystal Palace Company commissioned him to sculpture the ancient creatures, with advice from palaeontologist and biologist Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892). Hawkins set up a studio in the park and spent months creating replicas of the dinosaurs and other prehistoric mammals in 1853-1855. Using the scientific advice of Owen and other experts, the dinosaurs’ skin, claws and how they stood was mostly due to guess work by Hawkins. Read the rest of this entry