The history behind this street furniture in St James.
The 1st Duke Of Wellington is one of the country’s most famous soldiers and statesmen, having defeated Napoleon at the Battle Of Waterloo and serving as Prime Minister twice. Although there has been seven subsequent Duke Of Wellingtons since his death, it is Arthur Wellesley most of us think of when we hear the title.
Around London there are many monuments to the late, great Duke Of Wellington (1769 – 1852), such as the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, his sarcophagus in St Paul’s Cathedral and an equestrian statue of him outside the Royal Exchange in the City of London to name but a few. There are also many buildings connected to the Duke, such as Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner and Walmer Castle in Kent, where he died at the age of 83.
While Wellington’s belongings can be seen in museums and stately homes, one piece of memorabilia remains on a busy London street, with thousands passing it each day unaware of the significance. Sitting on the pavement outside the Athenaeum Club, on Waterloo Place near the junction with Pall Mall is a pair of unassuming granite stones. To those walking by, they may not even be noticed at all or simply dismissed as a plain old piece of London street furniture.
However, to those who take a closer look, these stones are in fact a mounting step to get on and off a horse. During the Duke’s tenure as Prime Minister (January 1828 – November 1830), he was a regular at the Athenaeum Club, of which the original building still stands today. Designed by architect Decimus Burton (1800 – 1881), it is one of the country’s most famous gentlemen’s clubs, with Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy among its prestigious alumni of past members. As the transport of choice for many in the 1800s, the Duke used to arrive at the club on horseback. In 1830 – six years after the club was founded – Prime Minister Wellesley suggested the club should erect some mounting stones to assist in getting on and off horses. Then in his 60s, the Duke would not have been as amble as he once was so the stones would have encouraged a more graceful dismount.
Over 180 years later, the stones remain on the kerb, although these days unused. On the inward facing side, a rusty plaque reads: ‘This horseblock was erected by desire of the Duke Of Wellington 1830.’
- The mounting stones are on Waterloo Place, just south of Pall Mall and outside the Athenaeum Club, 107 Pall Mall, St James, SW1Y 5ER. Nearest stations: Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus or Green Park.
For a post on the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, read A monument to victory, grand park entrance and an upset Duke: History behind the Wellington Arch.
For more Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
The Victorian monument is not to be confused with Marble Arch.
The Wellington Arch is one of London’s famous landmarks, being beamed to televisions around the world during ceremonial, historical events. However, to many Londoners, it is often dismissed as an ornament on a traffic island in the middle of one of the city’s busiest and stressful traffic junctions. Being one of a few ornate arches in the capital, it is often confused by tourists with Marble Arch just up the road. Although upon first look, you would assume the Wellington Arch has stood in its spot for centuries as the world changed around it. However, the structure has in fact gone through two major changes over the years – with its Quadriga statue on the top not actually being the original and the location in a different spot from where it used to stand.
In the early 19th century, Hyde Park Corner – where Kensington Road met Piccadilly – was widely thought of as the entrance to London. A tollgate stood in front of Hyde Park, to the west of Apsley House (the London residence of the Dukes of Wellington). Apsley House’s location just inside the tollgate lead to its nickname as being No.1 London, when in actual fact it is 149 Piccadilly. Following Britain’s success in the Napoleonic Wars, King George IV was keen to commemorate the victories with the Wellington Arch and Marble Arch. Young architect Decimus Burton (1800-1881) was commissioned to create a grand entrance to Green Park and the longer screen entrance to Hyde Park Corner. His initial design was considered too modest, so he submitted a second design with an arch that was deemed more triumphal featuring a more ornamental exterior and would be christened with a Quadriga – a car or chariot driven by four horses.
Building on the arch started in 1826 in the architecture style of the Corinthian Order, featuring elaborate capitals at the top of the columns. However, in 1828, the Government was unhappy when construction costs exceeded Burton’s original budget, along with the fact the rebuilding of Buckingham Palace at the same time was also hugely over budget. The Treasury declined to fund the rest of the project so Burton had to scale back his exterior ornamental features and the Quadriga never materialised.
After years of standing as an arch, the Wellington Memorial Committee thought it would be fitting to have an equestrian statue of the Duke Of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1769-1852) atop the arch. As well as commemorating his victory at the Battle of Waterloo, it was deemed a perfect location as it was outside his London residence. Eight years after it was commissioned, Matthew Cotes Wyatt’s bronze statue of Wellington was erected in 1846. At the time, it was the largest equestrian statue in the country, standing at 30 foot high and weighing 40 tons. While Britain was incredibly proud of the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, his bronze likeness was not so popular. Many thought the statue was disproportionate to the arch, Burton hated it and even Queen Victoria wasn’t a fan, believing it disturbed the view from Buckingham Palace. Despite its lack of popularity, it would have been seen as a huge insult to the Duke if it was moved, so it remained during his lifetime. The Duke actually said he would feel obliged to step down from all his public posts if it was removed, so the Government and Queen decided it should remain in situ.
By the 1870s, the traffic around Hyde Park Corner had reached chaotic proportions. In the 1880s, the Government proposed moving the arch 20 metres away so the road could be widened. From 1883 until 1885, the arch was dismantled and bit by bit, moved to its current location, facing south-east down Constitution Hill. Its new location meant the original relationship between the arch and the Hyde Park Corner screen was lost. After a brief stay in Green Park during the relocation, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) suggested Wyatt’s sculpture of Wellington should be moved to Aldershot, Berkshire, as a gift to the British Army, where it remains today.
At its new site, the arch was marooned on a traffic island on land which used to be the western part of Green Park. The southern pier of the arch was used as a residence for the park-keeper, while the northern pier was used as a police station (said to be the smallest in Britain) until the 1950s. After decades without a crowning glory, the Prince of Wales suggested sculptor Adrian Jones’s Quadriga, (of which he had seen a smaller version during a Royal Academy exhibition), would be a fitting topper. Although no funds were available at the time, thanks to a donation from banker Sir Herbert Stern, Jones’s full-size bronze ‘Triumph’ was finally created and placed upon the arch in 1912 – when the Prince was King Edward VII. The Angel of Peace riding the chariot was said to be modelled on Beatrice Stewart. The statue is the largest bronze sculpture in Europe.
After being acquired by English Heritage in 1999 and restored, the arch is now open to the public. As well as presenting a history of the arch and an exhibition area, visitors can also check out the vistas from the two balconies.
- Wellington Arch, Apsley Way, Hyde Park Corner, W1J 7JZ. Nearest station: Hyde Park Corner. Tickets: Adults: £4, Children: £2.40. Opening times vary depending on the season. Check the English Heritage website for further details.
To find out about the Duke Of Wellington’s old mounting stone, click here.
For the history of another London ‘traffic island’, read the history behind Parliament Square
For more of Metro Girl’s London history blog posts, click here.