Category Archives: History

A bit of historical background and historic events

Open House London 2019: Tips and highlights of the annual architecture festival

How to make the most of one of London’s most fascinating and photogenic festivals.

View of the City from the Leadenhall Building

Open House London is a must-do for any lovers of architecture, history… or just London really! Whatever your taste in design, you can be guaranteed to find a building that appeals. To those uninitiated, Open House London is a two-day long festival of architecture, when hundreds of buildings open their doors to the public for free. It could be a chance to step inside a government building, a City of London skyscraper, an art deco masterpiece or a brutalist icon – places that would normally be off-limits to visitors.

This year’s Open House London is the 27th and takes place from 21 – 22 September 2019. Over 800 buildings are taking part in the event, with most of these accessible to those who just turn up. However, there are some special buildings – such as 10 Downing Street. the new US Embassy and the BT Tower – which are balloted entry only, so you need to apply before the beginning of September to be in with a chance. There are some other buildings which have limited numbers so offer time slot bookings in advance.

Top 10 tips on making the most of Open House London

  1. Make a list of places you want to visit and also a few back-up options if the queues are too long by searching Open House’s official website. Alternatively, you could buy a hard copy of the guide here or download the free app available on Apple Store or Google Play.
  2. Check out TFL’s website to make sure there are no engineering works affecting your transportation to the sites.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes and check the weather forecast to inspire suitable clothing. You will be walking and standing a lot.
  4. Get up early: Most of the buildings taking part open around 10am or 11am, but some open even earlier. If you get there before they open, you could beat the queues.
  5. Make sure your phone and/or camera are fully charged and bring a portable charger if you have one so you can search online maps and share photos on social media.
  6. Bring ID – some buildings may require ID to enter.
  7. Make sure you don’t carry too much in your bag, as many buildings are subjected to security searches.
  8. Go the toilet whenever you find one. Some of the more unusual buildings may not have any available facilities or you could end up desperate while waiting in a very long queue.
  9. Follow Open House London on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
  10. Share your discoveries on social media with the hashtag #openhouselondon. It’s worth searching this hashtag on Twitter to find out where the long queues are.

Top picks to visit at Open House London 2019

Camden Highline. A tour of the proposed Camden Highline park connecting Camden Town to King’s Cross. Open Saturday and Sunday 9.30am-3.30pm (pre-book only). Camden Gardens, Camden Street, NW1 9PT. Nearest station: Camden Town or Camden Road.

Drapers’ Hall. Livery Hall first built in 1530s, twice rebuilt. Featuring 19th century façade and Victorian interiors. Open Sunday 10am-4pm. Throgmorton Street, City of London, EC2N 2DQ. Nearest station: Bank or Liverpool Street.

Freemasons’ Hall. Art Deco meets classical, built in 1927-33. Open Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm. 60 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5AZ. Nearest station: Holborn or Covent Garden. Read the rest of this entry

Serpentine Pavilion 2019: Slope down to Junya Ishigami’s rock-y structure

Anniversary of Seven Dials’ Sundial Pillar marked in new artwork

Rene Gonzalez Seven Dials art © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

At the Entrance of Seven Obscure Passages by Rene Gonzalez in Seven Dials

A new piece of art is on show in Seven Dials to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the district’s famous sundial pillar. ‘At the Entrance of Seven Obscure Passages’ by Rene Gonzalez is the latest installation for the Seven Dials’ The Artist’s Artist Project and was unveiled in May 2019.

The Artist’s Artist project features the showcased artist nominating another for a new installation. Iona Rowland nominated Gonzalez and two other artists following the display of her Agatha Christie piece earlier this year. A panel of Shaftesbury representatives and Seven Dials stakeholders then select the winning artwork. Following display, the piece will be donated to charity.

Gonzalez’s art not only pays tribute to the sundial, but also the rich history of the area. Politician and project manager Thomas Neale (1641-1699) – who designed the Seven Dials estate – is featured in the image, alongside Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who unveiled the reconstruction of the sundial monument for The Seven Dials Trust in 1989.

  • ‘At the Entrance of Seven Obscure Passages’ is on show until September 2019 at the junction of Shorts Gardens and Neal Street, WC2. Nearest station: Covent Garden or Leicester Square. For more information, visit the Seven Dials website.

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

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A look at London’s post boxes from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II

Victorian post box © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

A Victorian post box in Kensington

The red post box is an iconic piece of British heritage, having been a familiar piece of the streets for nearly 180 years. Despite the public’s fondness of the post box, it isn’t in such demand as it used to be due to the rapidly changing world. The rise of electronic communication and the introduction of rival delivery companies to Royal Mail means the post box isn’t used so widespread as in previous years. A Royal Mail post box is said stand half a mile from over 98% of the UK population. There are around 155,500 post boxes across the UK, with a substantial portion of these situated in London.

Edward VII era post box in Kensington

Of the thousands of post boxes in the capital, some of them are listed. In 2002, the Royal Mail entered into agreements with Historic England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively to retain and conserve all existing post boxes.

When it comes to post boxes, there are two main factors  which distinguish them from each other – their design and the royal cypher. The roadside post box has existed since the reign of Queen Victoria, with every subsequent monarch’s cypher being immortalised on the front. By looking at the cypher, you can date the age of your nearest post box, although admittedly the ballpark for boxes erected during the reigns of Victoria and our current monarch Elizabeth II are rather large! Of course, the shortest reign in recent memory is that of King Edward VIII. The eldest son of King George V only reigned for 326 days, before he abdicated the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Despite his short time as head of state, there are 171 boxes with his cypher, some of which are in London.

Ciphers of British monarchs

VR – Queen Victoria : 1837-1901
ER VII – King Edward VII : 1901-1910
GR – King George V : 1910-1936
ER VIII – King Edward VIII : Jan-Dec 1936
GR VI – King George VI : 1936-1952
EIIR – Queen Elizabeth II : 1952-present.

Walking around London today, a red post box is a frequent piece of street furniture. While the majority are round or oval, there are also hexagonal, wall boxes and other unusual sizes. Most free-standing post boxes feature a cap, which protects rainwater from entering the box and wetting the mail.

Prior to postal reform in 1840, mail was an expensive form of communication. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced, meaning the sender pre-paid the postal costs, rather than the recipient. The same year, the Penny Black adhesive stamp was released. It wasn’t until 12 years later, the first roadside Post Office pillar box was erected in St Helier, Jersey as a trial. In 1853, the first roadside pillar box was established in the mainland United Kingdom in Carlisle. In 1856, Richard Redgrave (1804-1888) from the Department of Science and Art came up with an ornate pillar box design to be used in London and other cities. Today, you can see one of Redgrave’s designs – which were bronze – at the Victoria & Albert Museum. From 1857, some post boxes were built into existing walls. Read the rest of this entry

Visit the Medieval ruins of Whitefriars in the basement of a London office block

The history of the City’s Carmelite monastery.

Remains of the Whitefriars monastery in the City of London

Most Londoners are aware of Blackfriars, as it lends its name to a bridge and busy train and tube station. The name stems from the Dominican Friars – who wore black mantles – who had a priory in the area. Although the Blackfriars priory was closed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the name remained. However, the names of some of the City of London’s other monasteries and priories weren’t so durable throughout history.

In Medieval London, a number of monastic organisations owned a lot of property in and around the city. After King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a large number in London were closed. Among those shutting their doors were Grey Friars in Newgate Street and Whitefriars at Fleet Street. Grey Friars managed to survive in name after the King gave its 14th century church to the City Corporation and it was renamed Christ Church Greyfriars. After it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) designed its replacement, which hosted worshippers until it was bombed during the Blitz and now its ruins survive as a public garden. (Read Metro Girl’s blog post on Greyfriars to find out more).

The 14th century crypt is believed to be part of the priory mansion

White Friars was a Carmelite religious house which sat between Fleet Street and the River Thames, spreading west to Temple and its eastern boundary at Whitefriars Street. The order was originally founded on Mount Carmel in what is now Israel in 1150. After fleeing the Saracens in 1239, the White Friars travelled to England and established a church on Fleet Street in 1253. Their name White Friars comes from, you guessed it, the colour of their mantles. In 1350, it was replaced by a larger church, rebuilt by Hugh Courtenay, Earl of Devon (1303-1377). The White Friars were popular with nobility and Londoners, with many leaving money to the monastery in their wills. The friars’ extensive grounds included cloisters, a cemetery and garden, along with the church.

After nearly three centuries in the capital, the White Friars monastery was closed by Henry VIII in 1538. The king gave the Grey Friars chapter house to his physician, Doctor William Butts (1486-1545) as a residence. The king’s son and successor King Edward VI (1537-1553) ordered the church’s demolition and allowed noblemen’s houses to built on the site. One of the few surviving buildings, the refectory of the convent, became the Whitefriars Theatre. Established in 1608, the Jacobean theatre only lasted for around a decade and was thought to have been abandoned by the art scene by the 1620s. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) often frequented the establishment and noted his visits in his famous diary. At the time, the surrounding area was pretty notorious, with refugees, prostitutes and debtors known to hide there from the authorities. This bad reputation lasted well into the 19th century, with Charles Dickens writing about the area in the 1830s.

Now, all that remains of the friary is a 14th century cellar or crypt, believed to be part of the priory mansion. It was discovered in 1895, later being restored in the 1920s when the News of the World were developing their Fleet Street offices. After the NotW moved east to Wapping in the 1980s, a new building was constructed on site. During building in 1991, the ruins were lifted up on a crane and replaced in a slightly different location. Today, the basement of 65 Fleet Street features a large window so the ruins can be viewed from Magpie Alley.

  • Ruins of Whitefriars, Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street), City of London, EC4Y 8DP. Nearest station: City Thameslink, Temple or Blackfriars.

For more London history posts, click here.

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Gaze up at the ‘Lunch Break’ angels for the London Festival of Architecture

Step inside the Colour Palace as the Dulwich Pavilion returns for 2019

Review: Visiting the Tower of London with a Context Travel tour

Exploring the history of the Tower on a three-hour semi-private tour.

Tower of London © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

One of London’s most historic and important sights – the Tower of London

The Tower of London is one of the capital’s most iconic sights. It’s been standing on the fringes of the City, looming over the River Thames, for over 1,000 years. With such an amazing heritage, the layers of history within the Tower walls can be overwhelming for a visitor. I previously visited the Tower of London as a teenager and didn’t really absorb the stories of the complex as I knew I would as an adult. Over the Easter Weekend, I paid a long-awaited return to the Tower on a semi-private tour with Context Travel.

Context Travel is a specialist walking tour company, which offers private, semi-private and custom tours in over 50 cities worldwide. Aiming to put tourist sights ‘in context’, the tours are hosted by experts in their field, giving you an in-depth knowledge while taking you off-the-beaten track to find hidden places and details. Context Travel semi-private tours are in small groups, which immediately appealed to me because I’m not a fan of sharing my travel/tourist experiences (even in my hometown of London!) with a huge group of people.

Tower of London Tour © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The White Tower is over 1,000 years old

Tower of London Tour © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

One of the Tower Guards on duty

My three-hour tour started on a sunny Sunday morning so the weather was on our side. Myself and two other participants met our guide Lesley outside Tower Hill station and headed straight to the entrance of the complex. The immediate bonus of visiting on a group tour I noticed was being able to bypass the long queue and we were within the tower walls within no time.

We swiftly passed through the Middle Tower and crossed the now-dry moat before passing under the Byward Tower for our first stop on the tour. Looking at the complex, I would find it hard to identify the ages of the different parts. However, Lesley shared her great knowledge of each buildings’ history, which King (or Queen) was responsible for its building and how their use had evolved over time.

Before delving deeper into the various sections, Lesley suggested we head straight to the Jewel House to visit the world-famous Crown Jewels. As guides aren’t allowed to accompany tour groups inside during busy periods, Lesley gave us easy-to-remember pointers on what to focus on inside. Covering 800 years of the British monarchy, the Jewel House contains some truly amazing sights and spectacular examples of wealth. I recognised many crowns and other regalia and vestments I had seen worn by Queen Elizabeth II over the decades. It was great to see them in the flesh so to speak – albeit surrounded by heavy security.
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The Trinity Green Almshouses in Stepney: A 17th century mariners’ retirement complex

The history of 17th century almhouses on the Mile End Road.

Trinity Green almshouses © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Trinity Green almhouses in Stepney

Standing in a busy, built-up part of the East End, the district of Stepney couldn’t look less rural. However, there’s one particular complex of buildings that have been standing since the area was surrounded by fields. If you walk down traffic-laden Mile End Road, you may find your eye drawn to the historic Trinity Green Almhouses and Chapel.

Trinity Green almshouses © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The eastern end gable is in good condition and features the ship models and cartouche

Originally named Trinity Hospital or Trinity Almhouses, the complex was built in 1695 by the Corporation of Trinity House (est. 1514) to provide housing for “28 decay’d Masters & Commanders of Ships or ye Widows of such”. Captain Henry Mudd of Ratcliffe (1630-1692) – an elder brother of Trinity House – donated the land to the charity in his will. His grave can be found in St Dunstan’s churchyard less than a mile away. Deputy Master of Trinity House, Captain Robin Sandes (d.1721) also contributed funding the building. As well as accommodation, the retired and incapacitated mariners also received a money allowance and coal. It’s been claimed the almhouses were designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and John Evelyn (1620-1706), although this cannot be verified. Many historians believed it was the work of master carpenter Sir William Ogbourne (1662-1734).

The Trinity Almhouses featured two rows of cottages facing a central garden with a separate chapel in the north. Each red brick house features is spread over one storey and a basement, with wood block and bracketed eaves cornices providing some lovely period detail. The front doors feature a wide hood supported by carved brackets.

At the south end of the two rows of cottages stand ornate gable ends facing Mile End Road. Each gable end is two storeys high and features white, rusticated quoins. The top storey features a brick niche surrounded by an ornate, stone architrave, while the building is crowned with a stone pediment. While the eastern gable end is still in good condition, the western one’s windows have been bricked up. The main attraction of the gable ends are the four model boats perched on the corners. These are actually 1950s fibreglass replicas of the original marble ones, which are being protected by the Museum of London. The models are of 42-gun Stuart warships of the 4th Rate and carved by Robert Jones. Each gable end also features a cartouche depicting the purpose of the almhouses, the contribution of Mudd and his widow and the year it was built.

Trinity Green almshouses © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The chapel can just be seen behind the trees with two rows of cottage either side

The centrepiece of the gardens is the Chapel. Built in a Classical Revival style, it stands two storeys high, with rusticated quoins and pediment. The chapel is entered through a white door, at the top of a flight of stone steps curving outwards. Trinity Green is protected from the street by curved brick wall, wrought iron railing and iron gates.

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Romeo & Juliet mural marks the site of original Shakespearean theatre (before the Globe)

Shoreditch street art commemorates where the tragic love story was first performed back in the 16th century.

New Inn Broadway © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Romeo and Juliet mural on New Inn Broadway in Shoreditch

When it comes to checking out street art in Shoreditch, you’ll be spoiled for choice. However, one of the district’s most striking murals has a special historic significance. One particular building on New Inn Broadway features a mural depicting Romeo and Juliet… on the very spot where the play was first performed.

Long before The Globe was built on Bankside, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used to tread the boards in the East End. In 1572, the Mayor of London cracked down on plays being performed within the City of London in an attempt to prevent the spread of the Plague. As a result, theatre companies started performing just outside the jurisdictions of the City. The Theatre was built in 1576 on the site of the Holywell Priory, which has been demolished following the dissolution of the monasteries a few decades earlier. It was started by actor and theatre manager James Burbage (1530/5-1597) and his brother-in-law John Brayne (1541-1586). At the time, Shoreditch was notoriously rough and was surrounded by brothels, gambling dens and rowdy taverns. The Theatre was built in a polygonal shape, included three galleries and a yard and was said to have cost £700 to build.

The Theatre owner Burbage was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, with a certain actor and playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon as one of his colleagues. The LCM was formed in 1594, when Shakespeare had already been making waves in the theatre scene for at least two years. The troupe started performing Shakespeare’s plays exclusively. Shakespeare’s tragic love story Romeo and Juliet was performed for the first time at The Theatre, estimated to have been written around 1591-1595.

New Inn Broadway © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Juliet is seen leaning over her balcony looking for her Romeo

After 22 years of entertaining Londoners, The Theatre came to an end following a dispute between the late Burbage’s son Richard (1567-1619) and the site’s landowner Giles Allen. In a desperate bid to protect their playhouse, Richard and his brother Cuthbert enlisted the help of some associates to dismantle The Theatre in December 1598. The timbers were believed to have been hidden nearby in Bridewell, before being taken over London Bridge to Bankside when the weather improved. Timbers from The Theatre were used to build The Globe in 1599.

For centuries, the site of The Theatre was lost until it was rediscovered by Museum of London archaeologists in 2008. They found remains of brick and stone polygonal footings of the gallery, along with seeds and fruit pips and broken beer vessels from the Elizabethan period. Just north of the Romeo and Juliet mural we see today, a building is being erected to house offices and a permanent exhibition about The Theatre.

Today, a Romeo and Juliet mural adorns a modern three-storey office building on the site of The Theatre. The top of the piece features the heroine Juliet in a blue gown, looking down from her balcony for her Romeo, who gazes up adoringly at her from two storeys down. One of Juliet’s passages from Act 2, Scene 2 of the play is featured: ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea’; ‘My love as deep the more I give to thee’; and ‘The more I have for both are infinite’. Fans of the play will recognise it from Romeo and Juliet’s post-Capulet ball discussion when they make plans to marry after meeting that evening. The mural was commissioned through the Global Street Art Agency in June 2018.

  • New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch, EC2A 3PZ. Nearest station: Shoreditch High Street or Old Street.

For more London history and architecture posts, click here.

Find out about Middle Temple Hall, location of the first performance of Twelfth Night.

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