Category Archives: London

In search of Aldersgate | The story of the City of London’s northern gate

The history of one of Roman London’s first gates.

Aldersgate sign © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

A City of London blue plaque marks the site of Aldersgate

Today, the City of London covers the area of the original Roman settlement of Londinium. Although the capital’s population spread out far beyond these boundaries in more recent centuries, the City gates remained until the mid 18th century.

One of the four original gates of London was Aldersgate, located in the north corner. It’s believed it was built by the Romans in the late 4th century to replace an older gate to the nearby Cripplegate Fort. It was built into the defensive City wall, which had been erected between 190-220 AD. The gates were designed to control traffic in and out of Londinium so taxes could be imposed on incoming goods. The first Aldersgate is believed to have had semi-circular towers with a pair of roadways and a platform for catapults.

After the Romans abandoned the City in the early 5th century, Londinium rapidly deteriorated over the years. It wasn’t until the 9th century that the Saxons began to resettle the area under Alfred the Great (847/9-899 AD). At some point in the Medieval period, the gate was named Ealdredesgate (AEldresgate). When it comes to what inspired the name, there has been much debate. In his 1603 Survey of London, John Stow (1524/5-1605) wrote some Londoners claimed it was named after a Saxon man Aldrich, while others believed it was after the alder trees which grew nearby. However, Stow theorised it was called so due to its age, writing: “The next is AEldresgate, or Aldersgate, so-called not of Aldrich, or of Elders, that is to say, ancient men, builders therefore, nor of Eldarne trees, growing there more abundantly than in other places as some have fabuled, but for the very antiquity of the gate itself, as being one of the first 4 gates of the city and serving for the Northerne parts, as Aldegate for the East.” The Anglo-Saxon word ‘Aeld’ was used to describe the type of tree or an older person. Another suggestion is the gate may have been named after Ealdrād, Archbishop of York (d.1069), who crowned King William I (1028-1087) in 1066. It’s likely we’ll never know for sure which theory is correct.

Aldersgate Wenceslaus Hollar 1690 Wikimedia Commons

Aldersgate by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1690 map.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

A map of Roman London by Walter Thornbury from ‘Old and New London’, 1873.
Image from British Library/Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the early centuries of the second millennium, the gate was frequently used by Londoners heading to nearby Smithfield, known for its fairs, markets, executions and jousting competitions, as well as St Bartholomew’s Priory. During the mid 16th century, the gate was home to Protestant printer John Day (1522-1584), who printed the Bible dedicated to the young King Edward VI (1537-1553) from the building in May 1551. His work was forced underground during Catholic Queen Mary I’s (1516-1558) reign and he was arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London in 1554. He was later released and returned to live at Aldersgate during the reign of Mary’s Protestant sister Queen Elizabeth I (1553-1603). Read the rest of this entry

Bigger than Ben | The history of Shell Mex House and its giant clock

The story behind London’s Art Deco riverside structure and the buildings which came before.

Shell Mex house © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Shell Mex House

Most of us would agree that the Elizabeth Tower (known more popularly by its nickname ‘Big Ben’ – actually the name of the bell), is one of the world’s most famous clocks. When it comes to iconic symbols of London, the Palace of Westminster’s time-keeper is up there with the Tower of London. While the clock faces of Big Ben are 23ft (7m) in diameter, there’s actually a bigger clock in the capital – just under a mile down river from Parliament.

Shell Mex House at No.80 Strand is a few years shy of its 90th birthday. Overlooking the River Thames and dwarfing the nearby Cleopatra’s Needle, the Art Deco structure is the latest in a series of interesting buildings to stand on the site over the centuries.

The Earls of Bedford at Russell Place

The land was first owned by the Bishop of Carlisle prior to the 16th century. It was around the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it came under the ownership of the famous landowning family, the Russells. John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (1485-1555), acquired some of the Carlisle estate in 1539, naming his home Russell Place (also known as Russell House and becoming later Bedford House). Eleven years later, the Earl took possession of more land in nearby Covent Garden. Following his death at Russell House in 1555, his home and land passed to his son, Francis, 2nd Earl of Bedford (1527-1585), who also died there. Francis’ grandson and heir to the peerage, Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford (1572-1627) built a second Bedford House on the north side of Strand in 1586, which remained the centre for the family’s estate until it was demolished in 1705-6.

It appears it was a case of musical chairs houses for the aristocratic families of Russell and Cecil. While the Russells moved the name Bedford House from south of the Strand to the north, the Cecils started north before expanding south. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-1598), originally lived in the 16th century Burghley House on the north side of the Strand, where the Strand Palace Hotel is today. It was renamed Exeter House in the early 17th century when William’s son Thomas Cecil (1542-1623) became the 1st Earl of Exeter. Meanwhile, Thomas’s younger brother Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612), expanded the family land across the road, acquiring the site of the original Bedford House in 1599. Read the rest of this entry

New art installation ‘One in Four’ on the Spanish Steps in Wembley Park

The latest art installation by Frank Styles raises awareness of mental health.

Spanish Steps Wembley © Amanda Rose

One in Four by Frank Styles on The Spanish Steps in Wembley Park
© Amanda Rose

The latest public art commission has been unveiled on Wembley Park’s Spanish Steps. The new piece, entitled ‘One in Four’, will give North-West Londoners a splash of colour while on their socially distanced walks. Spray can artist Frank Styles is the latest artist to decorate the Spanish Steps, leading from the national stadium with The SSE Arena. Styles’ design features a series of 12 portraits running down the stairs. Viewing the stairs from head on, only three of four portraits on each row are visible. However, the fourth was be viewed if you look over from an adjacent flight of stairs. The artwork symbolises the need to understand mental health and how a different perspective is sometimes required.

The new art installation, put in place this spring and officially unveiled in May, is a collaboration with the English Football League (EFL) and Mind’s charity partnership, which aims to highlight awareness of mental health issues among football fans. According to statistics, one in four people suffer mental health problem every year. ‘One in Four’ is the fourth public art commission for the steps, following Clare Page and Harry Richardson’s LOVE, LOVE, LOVE; Remi Rough’s Flight; and Maser’s Saturation Surge.

  • One in Four will be show until late September 2020. At the Spanish Steps, Wembley Park, HA9. Nearest stations: Wembley Park or Wembley Stadium. For more information, visit the Wembley Park website.

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The Elfin Oak | A whimsical visit to fairyland in Kensington Gardens

The story of how an ancient oak was given an artistic makeover to delight imaginative children.

Elfin Oak © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Elfin Oak, now protected by a cage, stands in Kensington Gardens

Like most of the Royal Parks, Kensington Gardens is home to several unique attractions and artworks. One of these is the Elfin Oak, in the north-west corner of the Gardens. Located near the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground is an ancient oak tree with dozens of whimsical decorations.

Elfin Oak © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Get up close to check out the various characters

Now protected by a cage, the Elfin Oak was made from the trunk of an ancient oak tree which originally grew in Richmond Park. Politician George Lansbury (1859-1940) conceived the idea, with Lady Winifred Fortescue (1888-1951) funding the project in a bid of improve facilities in Royal Parks.

Scottish-born artist Ivor Innes carved and painted 74 miniatures of fairies, elves, goblins, witches and animals into the oak, said to be around 800 years old. Among the characters are Wookey the Witch, Hucklebery the Gnome, Mother Cinders, Harebell the fairy, and elves named Grumples and Groodle.

The Elfin Oak was unveiled in August 1930 by the Mayoress of Kensington, Mrs Robinson – wife of then-Mayor Henry Robinson (1877-1960). Located near the children’s playground, it was the perfect place to inspire young minds’ about far off fairylands. The same year, Ivor’s wife Elise published a short story called ‘The Elfin Oak of Kensington Gardens’.

Over the years, the Elfin Oak was exposed to the elements, with a lot of the figurines losing their colour, being damaged and some pieces even going missing. Late comedian and local, Spike Milligan (1918-2002) helped restore the oak in both 1964-1966 and 1996. The nineties restoration was unveiled by Prince Charles in June 1997 with Historic England declaring it Grade II listed the same year. It is now surrounded by a cage in a bid to preserve the oak for future generations.

  • The Elfin Oak can be found near the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in the north-west corner of Kensington Gardens, W2 4RU. Nearest stations: Queensway or Bayswater. For more information, visit the Royal Parks website.

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A relic of Lambeth industry | The former Royal Doulton building

The former offices of Royal Doulton still stand in Lambeth, although the factory is long gone.

Southbank House Lambeth © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Southbank House is the only surviving building of the former Royal Doulton factory complex

From the 16th century to the mid 20th century, the riverside district of Lambeth was a hub of industry. The old village of Lambeth has existed since at least the 11th century and during the Medieval period was on the outskirts of London. In 1570, two Antwerp potters, Jasper Andries and Jacob Janson settled in Lambeth and started trading. Janson later anglicised his name to Johnson and is believed to be the first maker of what became known as Lambeth Delftware. Many Delft potters followed and settled in Lambeth, as well as Southwark and Vauxhall during the 17th centuries. These small potteries soon helped Lambeth establish its reputation as the centre of the industry, with many springing up on Lambeth High Street – previously known as Back Lane until the late 18th century. The potteries made various designs of earthenware, although pharmaceutical containers and accessories were prevalent. One prominent business was James Stiff & Son’s Pottery, which was established in 1751 and acquired by James in 1840. Located on a two acre site on the High Street, it was one of the largest potteries in London and employed 200 people, had 14 kilns and had its own dock on the River Thames until 1913. Other industries in the area included glassmaking, candlemakers and soap manufacturers.

Turning to the early 19th century, we meet the father of the famous Royal Doulton company, still trading today. Founder John Doulton (1793-1873) started his career as an apprentice to John Dwight’s Fulham Manufacturing Company from 1805-1812. After completing his apprenticeship, he joined widow Martha Jones at her small pottery in Vauxhall Walk. He soon invested his life savings of £100 in the pottery, which traded as Jones, Watts & Doulton from 1815, along with foreman John Watts. After Jones retired in 1820, the pottery continued as Doulton & Watts. The company specialised in salt glaze stoneware, making bottles, jugs and jars. They acquired a large pottery on the High Street in 1826, expanding their business to making glazed sewer pipes. By 1834, they were employing 12 men working across two kilns at 28 Lambeth High Street (see a Lambeth archive sketch of the factory in 1840). Fortunately for Doulton & Watts, demands for glazed pipes rose dramatically in the 1830s-1840s as they were hailed for their safety at the time.

George Tinworth relief Southbank House © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

George Tinworth’s tympanum relief ‘Mr Doulton in his Studio’

 

Southbank House Lambeth © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The patterned tiling still survives on the ground floor exterior

In 1835, Doulton took on his son, the future Sir Henry Doulton (1820-1897) as a teenage apprentice. Within 11 years, his son had set up his own independent Lambeth pottery, Henry Doulton & Co, next door at 63 Lambeth High Street. HD & Co established the world’s first stoneware pipe factory. The Victorians were swiftly embracing better sanitary habits and soon the company had become renowned for its sanitation products. In addition to running his own company, Henry continued to assist his father’s business. Both company’s wares were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851, with both winning prizes. Read the rest of this entry

Atlas House, Cheapside: Italianate architecture, Greek gods and insurance

The history of a Georgian office block in the City of London.

Atlas House Cheapside © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Atlas House is one of the few Georgian office buildings left on Cheapside

Atlas Assurance Company (1871) © Coast Review on Wikimedia Commons

Atlas House in 1871, before the Cheapside entrance became a portico
© Coast Review on Wikimedia Commons

Standing on the corner of Cheapside and King Street in the City of London is a grand piece of Italianate architecture. While much of the road has been significantly altered over the decades with new architecture and changing traffic layouts, this Georgian office block has remained fairly close to its original design.

For over 130 years, Atlas House was the headquarters of the Atlas Assurance Company. The fire and life insurance company was originally founded by a group of merchants and bankers in 1807 at Will’s Coffee House – a popular meeting place for London movers and shakers. Their first office was at Bush Lane (near Cannon Street station), then Coleman Street (near Guildhall), before acquiring the site on the corner of Cheapside and King Street in the mid 1830s. At the time, Cheapside was one of the city’s most busiest roads and renowned for being a hub of business and trade. By choosing it as the location for their head office, it would give the business prestige and good exposure to potential customers.

The Atlas Assurance Company directors enlisted one of the country’s top architects, Thomas Hopper (1776-1856) to design their new headquarters. Kent-born Hopper was popular with King George IV (1762-1830) and had worked on the royal residence, Carlton House. Throughout his career, Hopper was mainly focused on country houses, including Penrhyn Castle and Margam Castle in Wales, Alscot Park in Warwickshire, and Gosford Castle in Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland.

Atlas House Cheapside © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Atlas sculpture by Thomas Tyrrell

Hopper’s 1836 design took inspiration from classical Italian architecture. The ground floor is made of Cornish grey granite, while the upper storeys are Portland stone. The upper storeys’ windows feature alternate curved and triangular pediments, with single, Corinthian palisters between. The top of the building was framed with a balustrade. Business was so going so well for the company, the directors splashed out on the new technology of internal gas lighting. They also didn’t seem concerned about paying window tax as the building has many windows.

In 1857, the building was extended northward, and again in 1893-94. Celebrated English architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) designed the late 19th century alterations, including a grand entrance at 1 King Street, topped by a sculpture of Atlas. The piece was carved from Portland Stone by Thomas Tyrrell for Farmer & Brindley. Read the rest of this entry

Lawyers, lakes and lost villas: The story of Richard Shawe and Casino House of Dulwich

A small piece of Humphry Repton’s landscaping survives in a south London park.

Casino Avenue in Dulwich is named after the former Casina House

The leafy, inner London suburb of Dulwich couldn’t be further from the gaudy, neon lights of Las Vegas. However, after seeing the sign for ‘Casino Avenue’ in the district, you may find yourself wondering about the meaning behind the name. Despite the gambling association most of us have with the word ‘casino’, the avenue is named after a former Georgian villa which used to stand in the area, named Casina. Although the house is long gone, its grounds now survive as a small park, while the man who owned it is buried locally in a listed grave.

Before discovering the history of the house, it’s important to know how its building was funded. Lawyer Richard Shawe (1755-1816) was appointed to defend Warren Hastings (1732-1818) in Britain’s longest political trial. Having served as the Governor-General of Bengal following years in India, Hastings was impeached on charges of corruption upon his return to Britain. In 1795, Hastings was acquitted after the seven year trial. He was left financially ruined, with £7,000 in legal fees going to his lawyer. Obviously, Shawe was left quite the opposite from penniless after the trial. He had already married well, to a Miss Esther Croughton (the first of his three wives), with Hastings’ legal bill giving his coffers a huge boost.

Two years after the verdict, Shawe bought 16 acres of land on Dulwich Hill (now Herne Hill) in what was then Surrey. In 1797, he commissioned prominent Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) to design a villa. Completed by 1800, it was named Casina (later Casino), and was Palladian in style with an Italianate influence (see a London Metropolitan Archives sketch of the house from 1810). The grounds were laid out by celebrated landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who was in partnership with Nash for several years before their relationship soured in 1800. Repton’s features included an ornamental canal and fish pond. He later went on to design or extend Regent Street, Carlton House Terrace, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus (basically half the Monopoly board!).

Humphry Repton pond Sunray Gardens © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Humphry Repton’s pond survives in Sunray Gardens

Read the rest of this entry

Ultimate London quiz Part 1 | Test your knowledge of the Big Smoke with 20 questions and answers

London-themed questions and answers for your next virtual pub quiz.

Big Ben Westminster arch © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020Thanks to the likes of Zoom, Houseparty and other video conference apps, many of us have been taking part in virtual pub quizzes as the lockdown continues.

If you’re hosting a video quiz and want to test your friends and/or family’s knowledge of the capital, here’s 20 questions and answers.

This London quiz covers elements of the capital’s history from Londinium to Shakespeare to prisons.

Most of the questions will put your memory to the test, although there’s a couple of multiple choice options to help your participants out.

See just how well your friends and family really know London.

London quiz questions

Q1) What is hidden underneath Cleopatra’s Needle?

Q2) What narcotic used to be sold at Harrods until the early 20th century?

Q3) Pentonville and Holloway prisons are located in which London borough?

Q4) The City of London building 20 Fenchurch Street is better known by which nickname?

Q5) Which London rail station is named after a former priory?

Q6) Which City of London church inspired the tiered wedding cake design?

Q7) Name the architect who designed both the Battersea Power Station and the Tate Modern’s building.

Q8) What decade did the last execution at the Tower of London take place in? A) 1960s B) 1910s or C) 1940s?

Q9) Which London tube station is closest to Little Venice?

Q10) How many people died in the Great Fire of London? A) Six B) 112 or C) 25?

Q11) Boudica, who led a revolt on Roman London in AD60 or 61, was the Queen of which Celtic tribe?

Q12) In which London neighbourhood can you find ‘Little Portugal?’

Q13) Before establishing The Globe on Bankside, William Shakespeare used to tread the boards in which East End district?

Q14) The lions at the bottom of Nelson’s Column are identical – true or false?

Q15) Which London park is home to a pet cemetary?

Q16) Which mythical figure represents the City of London?

Q17) In which London neighbourhood can you find Charles Dickens’ former home and now museum?

Q18) In what U.S. state can you find the old London Bridge, which was sold by the City of London in the 1960s?

Q19) What the original use of the building which now houses the Imperial War Museum?

Q20) EastEnders’ fictional neighbourhood Walford shares the same E20 postcode as which east London area? Read the rest of this entry

The forgotten milkmaids and cows of St James’s and Green Park

Cattle used to graze in these central London parks in the 18th and 19th century.

Green Park Milkmaids Passage © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Milkmaids’ Passage

Today, the neighbouring St James’s and Green Park are small pockets of green in the centre of bustling Westminster. Dwarfed in comparison to other royal parks, the pair are a popular cut-through for tourists going between Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace. Standing in either park in the 21st century, you would be hard pressed to imagine of them covered in grazing cows. However, as little as 115 years ago, cows in the park were used to provide fresh milk for Londoners.

St James’s Park is the oldest of the two and was the first royal park in London. Originally set out as a deer park by King Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1532, it was later landscaped by King James I of England (1566-1625). Meanwhile, Green Park originally started life as Upper St James’s Park when the land was surrendered to King Charles II (1630-1685) in 1668, who was also restoring nearby St James’s Palace. By 1746, the park was renamed The Green Park. Queen’s Walk, a pathway along the eastern fringes of the park (leading from Piccadilly to The Mall), was laid out by King George II (1683-1760) for his wife, Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737). Walking down Queen’s Walk, you may notice a small alley off to the east, in between Lancaster House and Stornoway House. Named Milkmaids’ Passage and leading to the Stable Yard of St James’s Palace, the small lane gives a clue to the park’s former life.

Up until the Georgian housing boom, the western fringes of the capital were incredibly rural, covered in fields and dotted with farms. As the London population grew throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th century, so did the number of dairies in the city. In an era before mass transport could bring in milk from the countryside, cows were required to live in and by the city so Londoners could access the calcium-rich drink. Two of these nearby rural-esque areas were St James’s and Green Park, which had grazing cows, accompanied by milkmaids to milk them. As early as 1710, buying milk from the cows at the ‘Lactarian’ in St James’s Park was documented by German traveller Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1734). The main area for buying milk was the Whitehall end of St James’s Park. Milkmaids paid half a crown a week for the right to feed and milk the cattle, rising to three shilling a week in 1772. Generally, the milkmaids tended to be servants of cow-keepers and were given permission to trade in the park by the Home Secretary. The cows would be driven twice a day – at noon and in the evening – towards the Whitehall corner of St James’s, where they would tied up and milked for a penny for a mug. Many of the customers were parents or nannies, buying milk for babies and children, as well as the sick, who had been recommended to get a calcium boost (see this 1790 print of a milkmaid in the park from the V&A collection). Some adults ordered a ‘Syllabub’, milk mixed with wine, sugar and spice. By 1794, the Board of Agriculture estimated there were 8,500 cows being milked in London. This 1801 painting by American artist Benjamin West (1738-1820) gives an idyllic depiction of milkmaid life in St James’s Park.

The Milk Fair in St. James’s Park in the 19th century.
© Wellcome Library, London.

Between the 17th and 19th century, a host of new roads and large houses were built in the district of St James, which is now a conservation area. Lancaster House (previously known as York House and Stafford House) was completed in 1840, with its neighbour Bridgewater House (now known as Stornoway) following in 1872. With a Portland stone wall separating it from Lancaster House and old paving stones, Milkmaids’ Passage likely dates back to the 18th or 19th century. While not dated exactly, it is recognised as one of the surviving alleys or lanes which are “an integral part of the historic fabric of the area” by Westminster Council. The passage would have provided the perfect access for maids to carry fresh milk from the park’s cows to the dairy of St James’s Palace and the other aristocratic homes of the district. Read the rest of this entry

Explore London’s art exhibitions and museums online during the lockdown

Enjoy virtual tours of the city’s museums and galleries as the Covid-19 pandemic keeps us home.

British Museum © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

You could enjoy a virtual tour of the British Museum

The continuing lockdown means our museums and galleries are still closed for the foreseeable future. If you’re missing your culture fix while stuck at home during the Coronavirus pandemic, why not enjoy some of London’s top exhibitions and galleries online?

Here’s where to find 10 virtual tours of London’s museum and galleries:

  • Andy Warhol @ Tate Modern

The Bankside museum closed its doors just days after its Warhol exhibition launched. However, the Tate swiftly put an online tour for art fans to enjoy, with commentary by curators Gregor Muir and Fiontán Moran.

– To see the Warhol exhibition tour, visit the Tate’s YouTube channel.

  • Langlands & Bell: Degrees of Trust @ Sir John Soane Museum

The current exhibition at the Sir John Soane Museum has been put online for (virtual) visitors to enjoy. Contemporary artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell’s pieces have been showcased alongside the contrasting antiquities of the museum.

– To see the online exhibition, visit the Sir John Soane Museum website.

  • Harry Potter: A History of Magic @ British Library

The British Library’s 2017-2018 exhibition on Harry Potter was hugely popular and displayed the original drafts and drawings of JK Rowling and illustrator Jim Kay. Although the exhibition is long over and the BL’s doors are currently closed, you can enjoy the collection online.

– To see the online exhibition, visit Google Arts & Culture.

  • Picasso & Paper @ Royal Academy of Arts

The RA’s exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s works on paper opened in January and was due to run until April. Although real-life visits are on hold, you can enjoy a virtual exhibition tour on the RA’s website instead.

– Watch the video on the Royal Academy of Arts website.

  • Science Museum

There’s many ways for you to explore the Science Museum virtually, including a Google Streetview tour, curator gallery guides, collections and stories.

– For a virtual exploration of the Science Museum, visit the website. Read the rest of this entry