A monument to the abolition of slavery.
Every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge to gaze upon Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. However, the pedestrian traffic flowing to the west of the iconic building shrinks considerably in comparison to the east. With the Elizabeth Tower containing Big Ben (actually the name of the bell, not the actual clock and tower as is often believed) being the main draw, the Victoria Tower and its adjacent eponymous gardens often get ignored.
Victoria Tower Gardens is a small area to the west of the Houses Of Parliament containing greenery, memorials and a good view of the River Thames. Having rode on a bus past the Gardens many times over the years, I have often found my eyes drawn to the Buxton Memorial Foundation in the gardens. After decades of not seeing it up close or knowing what it was about, in recent years I finally started walking through the Gardens and checked out the fountain up close.
Although the fountain is mid-19th century, it has only been in Victoria Tower Gardens since 1957 when it was relocated from nearby Parliament Square following a redesign. The colourful and ornate monument is to commemorate one of Westminster’s most important laws – the emancipation of slaves following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Although Parliament had passed the 1807 Slave Trade Act, making slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire, some still held slaves that were traded before the act. The 1833 Act went a step further and gave all existing slaves emancipation.
It wasn’t until another 33 years later that the lawmakers and campaigners involved in making the 1833 act happen were commemorated for their efforts. MP Charles Buxton funded the fountain and dedicated it to his late father, the abolitionist and MP Sir Thomas Buxton, along with William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry Brougham and Stephen Lushington. Charles commissioned London architect Samuel Sanders Teulon to create the fountain in his Gothic revival style for the price of £1,200.
The fountain is covered with a timber-framed spire and clad in enamelled sheet steel. The entire structure is made with a wide range of materials, including limestone, grey and red sandstone, wrought iron, rosso marble enamelled metalwork, grey and pink granite, mosaic and terracotta. Originally unveiled in Parliament Square in 1865 – coincidentally the same year the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, abolishing slavery.
The ornate memorial commemorating the end of a horrific part of human history remained in Parliament Square until 1949 when the area was given a post-war makeover. It was finally reinstated in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1957. However, by 1971 all eight of the decorative figures of British rulers, including Queen Victoria and William the Conqueror, on the pinnacles had been stolen. These were replaced with fibreglass ones in 1980. Over the years, the fountain fell into disrepair until it was restored in 2006-2007 – just in time for the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act.
Along with the Buxton Memorial Fountain, there is also a monument to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and a reproduction of the sculpture The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. There is also a children’s play park, which is currently closed for refurbishment.
- Victoria Tower Gardens is accessed from Abingdon Street/Millbank on the north bank of the River Thames. Nearest station: Westminster.
To read Metro Girl’s blog on the memorial to Emmeline Pankhurt in Victoria Tower Gardens, click here.
Or to find out the history of nearby Parliament Square, click here.
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Long before it became a food and shopping destination, the Galleria was known as Hay’s Wharf.
Hay’s Galleria is known today as an area for eating, drinking, working and shopping. Many pass through the covered shopping centre on their way to Tower Bridge or HMS Belfast. However, by looking at the building, it’s obvious to see it wasn’t built for these purposes, and like many buildings along the banks of the River Thames, started life as a wharf.
Despite rumours of the contrary, wharf does not stand for ‘ware-house at river front’. The word wharf originates from the Old English ‘hwearf’, which meant bank or shore. Before the advent of cars, boats were the main form of transport in London, so there were once as many as 1,700 wharves on the bank of the River Thames.
The site was originally a brewhouse, which was bought by Alexander Hay in 1651. However, the building was severely damaged in the Great Fire Of Southwark in 1676. It remained with the Hay family until Francis Theodore Hay, Master of the Waterman’s Company and King’s Waterman to George III and George IV, died in 1838. The next owner John Humphrey Jnr acquired a lease on the property and commissioned engineer Sir William Cubitt (1785-1861) to convert it into a wharf with an enclosed dock, becoming Hay’s Wharf in 1856 (see a photo of the Wharf in 1857). However, just five years later, the wharf was damaged by another fire, the Great Fire Of Tooley Street, which overall caused £2million of damage due to the contents of the warehouses destroyed.
During the 19th century, Hay’s Wharf was one of the main delivery points in the capital, with an estimated of 80% of dry goods passing through the building, including the very popular tea. The sheer importance of Hay’s to London’s trade and import industry led to it being nicknamed ‘the Larder of London’. (For a photo of Hay’s Wharf in 1910, click here.)
Hay’s Wharf was such a lucrative business, the company was able to build an Art Deco headquarters a few doors to the west. The river-facing structure was erected in 1928-1932 to a design by architect Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel (1887-1959). The Thameside façade features panels depicting ‘Capital, Labour & Commerce’ by sculptor Frank Dobson (1886-1963).
However, the wharf was seriously damaged again by bombing during World War II. London’s trade was severely dented following the war and over the subsequent years, more and more wharves shut down and fell into neglect. With ships getting bigger, Hay’s enclosed dock wasn’t big enough to fit most of the vessels, so fell into disuse. Fortunately in the 1980s, the wharf was brought back to life by property developers. The dock was covered over, while the tea and produce warehouses were restored and converted into offices. A glass and steel barrel-vaulted roof was erected over the former dock area in a Victorian style. In 1987, ‘The Navigators’, a moving bronze sculpture of a ship by David Kemp, within a fountain, was unveiled in a nod to the wharf’s shipping history. Meanwhile, the Art Deco HQ is now known as a St Olaf House and is used by the neighbouring London Bridge Hospital.
Now known as Hay’s Galleria, the building is a mix of shops, offices and restaurants today. There are several market stalls under the covered walkway, as well as branches of Boots, Café Rouge, The Christmas Shop, Bagel Factory, Côte and Starbucks. On a nice day, I would suggest buying some takeaway food here and bringing it for a picnic in nearby Potters Field Park overlooking Tower Bridge and the Tower Of London. Alternatively on a warm summer night, sink a pint riverside at the Horniman At Hays pub – named after the tea merchant Frederick Horniman. Also nearby is the museum on board the HMS Belfast.
- Hay’s Galleria is located on the riverfront, but is also accessed from Tooley Street, SE1 2HD. Nearest station: London Bridge.
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Cleopatra’s Needle | How an Egyptian obelisk ended up by the Thames… and why isn’t it Thutmose’s Needle?
Standing on the banks of the River Thames is an ancient piece of Egyptian history.
Regardless of your knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, few would disagree that Cleopatra and Tutankhamun are two of the nation’s most famous rulers. While Tutankhamun’s reign was relatively short and his fame is largely down to the discovery of his tomb, Cleopatra was known for many reasons – her power, her beauty and being the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. So when it comes to the ancient Egyptian obelisk standing by the River Thames on the Victoria Embankment, Cleopatra’s Needle is a lot more glamorous a name than one would have been a lot more accurate… Thutmose III’s Needle.
The name Cleopatra’s Needle is shared between three Egyptian obelisks – the London one’s twin in New York City and a third in Paris – which came from a completely different site in Egypt. The London and New York pair are made of red granite from the quarries of Aswan, weighing a hefty 224 tons each. Standing tall at 68ft (21 metres), they were originally erected in ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis by Pharoah Thutmose III (1481-1425BC) around 1450BC. Ramesses II (1300s-1213BC) added the hieroglyphs around 200 years later to commemorate his military victories. The obelisks remained in Heliopolis for around 1,400 years before they were moved north by the Romans to Alexandria to be placed in the Caesareum around 12BC. Although the Caesareum in Alexandria had been built during Cleopatra’s (51-30BC) reign, the obelisks didn’t arrive there until around 15 years after she had committed suicide. So why her name is associated with the obelisk is inaccurate, but probably brings a bit of glamour to it – but when it’s nearly 3,500 years old, I don’t think it needs the help to be any more impressive! The obelisks didn’t stay standing for long and were toppled some time later, spending centuries in the Egyptian sands.
These days, Egypt is rightly intent on keeping on to its treasures. However, in the early 19th century, Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) was happy to give away a piece of antiquity. Following the victories of Lord Nelson and Sir Ralph Abercromby in the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandra in 1798 and 1801 respectively, Ali gave one of the obelisks to the United Kingdom as a thank you gift in 1819. Although honoured, the then-Prime Minister Robert Banks Jenkinson (1170-1828) and his government couldn’t justify the huge expense it would have cost to transport the 224 ton monument to the UK. It remained in Alexandria for over five decades until anatomist and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson (1809-1884) decided to fork out the money and organise the mammoth feat for the obelisk to be dug out of the sand at Alexandria and brought to London. The obelisk left Alexandria on 21 September 1877, encased in an iron cylinder – nicknamed The Cleopatra – which included a stern and rudders and was towed along by the Olga ship. However, when it was over halfway to its destination, a storm in the Bay of Biscay put the crew of The Cleopatra in danger. The initial rescue attempt led to six crewmen from The Olga drowning, but eventually The Cleopatra’s Captain Carter and his five crew were rescued. Amazingly, The Cleopatra didn’t founder and was discovered drifting in the Bay a few days later and eventually retrieved by the Fitzmaurice and towed to Ferrol Harbour in North-West Spain. From there, she was towed to Gravesend, Kent, by the paddle tug Anglia, arriving on 21 January 1878. Finally, on 12 September 1878 – 59 years after the UK had been given it as a gift – Cleopatra’s Needle was erected on the Victoria Embankment of the River Thames.
Although they certainly look the part, the two sphinxes ‘guarding’ the obelisk aren’t quite so old. The bronze sphinxes were designed by George John Vulliamy (1817-1886) and created at the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico in 1881. They include the words ‘the good god, Thuthmosis III given life’ written in hieroglyphics. It has been pointed out they aren’t really guarding it, but rather looking at it and should have been facing outwards from the obelisk. Despite surviving intact for nearly 3,500 years, London’s obelisk came close to being destroyed in World War I. A German bomb landed near the needle on 4 September 1917, causing damage to the pedestal of the obelisk, the pedestal of the sphinxes and to the west sphinx itself. However, the damage remains to commemorate the event and can still be seen to this day. A plaque has been placed on the western sphinx to explain this. Meanwhile, it’s twin was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1881.
- Cleopatra’s Needle is located on Victoria’s Embankment (just south of Embankment Gardens), Westminster, WC2N. Nearest station: Embankment.
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London is famous for its lovely squares – often idyllic pockets of green surrounded by Georgian townhouses. However, when it comes to Parliament Square, Londoners are more likely to associate it as a traffic island than anything else. Funnily enough, Parliament Square became Britain’s first roundabout in 1926 and was also the location of London’s first traffic signals.
While the City of London as we know today was the centre of the our capital from Roman times onwards, the focus moved to the adjoining City of Westminster in the 11th century onwards when the royal family decided to set up their palaces there. The word Westminster derives from ‘west of minster’ (minster being an honorific title given to a church, this being located west of the City of London and St Paul’s).
Parliament Square was laid out in 1868 by Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) in a bid to improve the landscape around the grand new Houses of Parliament, which he also designed and was built between 1840-1870. The new government headquarters were created after the previous old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834 (although the Jewel Tower still survives today). Sir Charles was actually born on Bridge Street – just opposite where the Clock Tower containing Big Ben stands today – so no doubt had great affection for the area. A few decades earlier (1840-1845) he re-modelled Trafalgar Square, which has since been changed again in 2003 with the closure of the north side road. Already in the area were St Margaret’s Church (15th century) and Westminster Abbey (12th century onwards).
Over the decades since, Parliament Square has been a huge draw to tourists checking out Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. It has also been a traditional place for demonstrations against the Government, most famously the late anti-war campaigner Brian Haw, who camped on the square for nearly 10 years.
Being in the heart of Westminster and beside Parliament, it is only fitting for the Square to house statues of famous British and foreign statesman. Standing directly across the road from Elizabeth Tower (which houses Big Ben) is a sculpture of Sir Winston Churchill, one of Britain’s most famous Prime Ministers. During his second tenure as PM in the 1950s, Churchill expressed a wish to have a statue of himself erected on the same spot. Sculptor Ivor Robert-Jones’s statue was unveiled in Parliament Square by Churchill’s widow in November 1973 and has since been Grade-II listed.
Other former Prime Ministers commemorated in Parliament Square includes George Canning (PM 1827, sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott, unveiled 1832), Sir Robert Peel (PM 1834-35, 1841-46, sculpted by Matthew Noble, unveiled 1877), Edward Smith-Stanley, Earl of Derby (PM 1852, 1858-59, 1866-68, sculpted by Matthew Noble, unveiled 1874), Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (PM 1855-58, 59-65, sculpted by Thomas Woolner, unveiled 1876), Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (PM 1868, 1874-80, sculpted by Mario Raggi, unveiled 1883),
As well as British PMs, there is also sculptures of former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts (PM 1919-24, 1939-48, sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein, unveiled 1956) and former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, unveiled 1920). More recently, sculptures of former South African President Nelson Mandela and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George were added.
The South African icon’s likeness was created by Ian Walters and its location was the subject of much debate. Although many wanted it outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, it was eventually erected in the south-western edge of the green. Mandela himself attending the unveiling and admitted he wished for that day since a visit to Britain in the 1960s. He said: ‘When Oliver Tambo visited Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square… we half joked that one day a statue of a black person would be erected here.’ Glynn Williams’ sculpture of Lloyd George (PM 1916-22) was erected in November 2007 – three months after the unveiling of Mandela’s statue.
Of course one of these statues was unveiled before Parliament Square even existed, but was relocated after it was laid out. The Canning statue was originally in New Palace Yard, but was moved to the Square in 1949.
- Parliament Square, Westminster, SW1P. Nearest station: Westminster.
Or to read about another famous London ‘traffic island’, read about the Wellington Arch.
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Find out about the huge monument in the forecourt of Charing Cross station.
Charing Cross lends its name to one of London’s busiest overland stations, seeing over 37 million people passing through every year. However, a majority of those who pass through Charing Cross probably have no idea what the station is named after. In the forecourt of the 19th century station stands a Victorian replica of the Eleanor Cross, of which the original stood on the edge of the hamlet of Charing from the 13th century.
After years of passing by the Eleanor Cross and admiring the ornate carvings, I decided to find out the history behind it. I had long heard of Charing Cross as being referred to as the centre of London and was interested to find out how this came about with the area being located west of the original City of London.
The original Eleanor Cross was erected on the junction of Whitehall with Trafalgar Square – where the statue of Charles I on a horse stands today. The cross was commissioned by King Edward I (1239-1307) in the 13th century as a memorial to his wife Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290). The Charing Cross was one of 12 erected to mark the nightly resting places her body stopped on its way from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey. The Cross was placed where the hamlet of Charing – believed to have come from the Anglo-Saxon word for bend – ‘cierring’ (referring to the nearby bend in the River Thames) met the Royal Mews of the Palace of Whitehall. Out of all 12 Eleanor Crosses, the one at Charing was the most expensive and was created by senior royal mason Richard of Crundale and sculptor Alexander of Abingdon.
For over 350 years, the Eleanor Cross stood at the top of Whitehall until the Civil War. In 1647 it was destroyed on the orders of Parliament, and nearly 30 years later, replaced by the equestrian statue of Charles I during the restoration. Since the late 19th century, Charing Cross has been seen as the centre of London and it’s from this point of Charles’s statue where distances from the capital are measured.
With the Industrial Revolution transforming the city, the name Charing Cross was to be used again to name the railway station being built on the site of the Hungerford Market – which had been there since the late 16th century. In the forecourt of the station and its adjoining Charing Cross Hotel, it was decided by the South Eastern Railway company that the Eleanor Cross should rise again.
Architect Edward Middleton Barry (1830-1880), who had also designed the hotel and the Royal Opera House, designed the reconstruction. Built by Thomas Earp of Lambeth with Portland stone, Mansfield stone and Aberdeen granite, it was a much more elaborate and ornate design than the original. Standing at 70 feet (21 metres) high, it consists of three stages on an octagonal plan, topped by a spire and cross. The first stage features shields copied from the other Eleanor Crosses and bear the arms of England, Castile, Leon and Ponthieu. The next level features likenesses of Eleanor of Castile. It was finished in 1865 – a year after Charing Cross station opened.
Over the decades, the Eleanor Cross started to suffer a bit from the weather and general ageing. After being designated a Grade II listed monument in 1970, it was put on the English Heritage At Risk Register in 2008. During its restoration in 2009-2010, over 100 missing ornamental features were recreated, with existing ones being re-attached or secured. Let’s hope this Victorian piece of architecture survives as long the original Eleanor Cross, if not longer.
To read about the history of nearby Great Scotland Yard, click here
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The history of the sturgeon lamps by the River Thames.
Many capital cities around the world have a river running through them. However, when it comes to the Thames, one thing that makes it so recognisable is the striking Victorian lamps lining the Embankment. The street lighting in question are called the ‘Dolphin lamps’, but appear to be sturgeon fish.
Prior to Victorian times, the Thames was a lot wider in the centre of town, but was slimmed down by the building of the Victoria Embankment on the north side in the late 19th century. Civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazelgette (1819-1891) came up with a scheme to reclaim some 22 acres of marshland and built a new road and sewage system for the rapidly expanding capital. While this transformed the city, it also meant many riverside buildings were demolished, such as York House. Building of the Victoria and Chelsea Embankment meant Londoners had somewhere new to stroll beside the river so of course, some attractive new street lighting would be required.
Step forward George John Vulliamy, (1817-1886) the Superintending Architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works, who created the unique riverside lamps built into the retaining river wall in 1870. Many different designs were submitted, including one by Bazelgette, however Vulliamy’s designs were chosen for the centre of town. The cast-iron lamps featured two sturgeons with their bodies wrapped around the lamp column. Facing the Embankment, the face of Neptune peered out with the year 1870 inscribed underneath him. Vulliamy was said to have been inspired by the dolphin sculptures on the Fontana del Nettuno in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo during his extensive travels around Europe. As well as the lamps, Vulliamy also designed the pedestals and sphinxes for Cleopatra’s Needle – the ancient Egyptian obelisk gifted to London by Egypt in 1819 – and the sphinx and camel benches to complement it along the Victoria Embankment. The 1870 lamps were bronzed by Masefield & Co Founders of Chelsea, with its company name visible on the base of some lamps.
For the rest of the 19th century, these lamps only stood on the Victoria Embankment and part of the Albert Embankment (in between Westminster Bridge and Lambeth Bridge). However, further were added in 1910, 1933 and 1964. In 1977, city authorities created replicas on the rest of Albert Embankment on the South Bank to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Instead of the year underneath Neptune on the Victoria Embankment, ‘EIIR’ was inscribed to mark Queen Elizabeth II.
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The history of this glittering gold monument opposite the Royal Albert Hall.
Of all our monarchs over the past 1,000 years, Queen Victoria is one of Britain’s most famous and iconic. During her reign of 63 years, the country was in the middle of a great change due to the Industrial Revolution. Although she was only 18 when she became Queen following the death of her uncle William IV, many of us picture her as an elderly widow dressed in black. Of course, the reason for her black clothes was her decades of deep mourning for her late consort, Prince Albert, who died at the age of 42.
Following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, his grieving wife ordered his legacy to be enshrined both in Britain and across the Empire. The novelist Charles Dickens actually commented to his friend John Leech in a letter: ‘If you should meet an accessible cave anywhere in the neighbourhood, to which a hermit could retire from the memory of Prince Albert and testimonials to the same, pray let me know it.’ This is where we come to the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall – a Taj Mahal of sorts from the Queen. Us Brits aren’t known for flashy, gold monuments, so tourists may well find it a surprise to see the glimmering Albert Memorial standing in Kensington Gardens.
Ahead of the Royal Albert Hall’s existence, Albert had proposed an entertainment venue on the site following the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. However, he died before work began, with the Queen deciding the venue should be titled the Royal Albert Hall, instead of the earlier, rather boring title Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, after laying the foundation stone.
However, the Albert Memorial was always part of the plan following the Prince’s death. In 1862, the Lord Mayor at the time headed a committee to find a suitable design for a public lasting memorial, which had to include a statue of the Prince, under the Queen’s orders. Eventually, noted Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott submitted the winning design – which demonstrated the Prince’s passions for the arts and sciences.
After much delays – some due to the rising public costs – the 176 foot tall Albert Memorial was officially opened by the Queen in 1872, although Albert’s statue wasn’t ‘seated’ until three years later. Construction cost around £120,000, equivalent to £10million in today’s money.
Rather unusually for the period, the statue of Prince Albert – made of gilt bronze – was seated, rather than standing. In one of his hands is a catalogue of the Great Exhibition, which had been organised by the Prince. Above the statue, is a Gothic canopy featuring mosaics depicting allegorical figures of the arts – painting, poetry, sculpture and architecture. Also adorned on the sides are eight statues representing Christian virtues, including faith, hope and charity.
At the base of the canopy are four white sculptures depicting Victorian industries and sciences, including agriculture, commerce, engineering and manufacturing. Situated further from the statue are four more sculpture sets depicting four continents Europe, Asia, Americas and Africa. A group of people and products associated with the continent sit on four different animals – a cow, camel, bison and bull.
Over the years, the memorial saw some decline, and spent many decades black instead of gold. Prior to its restoration and re-gilding in the early 2000s, English Heritage discovered the black coating on Albert’s statue pre-dated the war and believe it may have been painted as such following pollution damage to the gold, not in an attempt to hide the landmark from the enemy during the two World Wars as had been previously thought.
- The Albert Memorial is located in Kensington Gardens, directly across Kensington Road from the Royal Albert Hall. It is open and free to visit during park hours. Nearest stations: High Street Kensington, Hyde Park Corner, South Kensington or Gloucester Road.
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