The history of the Cecil Brewer staircase and Heal’s flagship store at Tottenham Court Road.
London is full of some pretty spectacular staircases, many hidden from view from the general public. In my opinion, one of the capital’s most lovely ones is located in Heal’s furniture store in Tottenham Court Road.
Heal’s has a long history on Tottenham Court Road, having had a store on the street for over 200 years. Heal’s was originally founded by John Harris Heal (1772-1833), a feather dresser from the west country. He opened his first store in Rathbone Place in 1810, before relocating to 203 Tottenham Court Road in 1818. The store soon won over Londoners with its feather mattresses, which were significantly more comfortable than the typical straw palliasses that many were sleeping on at the time.
When John died in 1833, his widow Fanny (1782-1859) and their son John Harris Heal Jnr (1810-1876) took over the business and renamed it Fanny Heal & Son. In 1840, they moved the premises to the current site at 192 Tottenham Court Road with a new purpose-built store. The new building was designed in a Venetian Palazzo style by architect James Morant Lockyer (1824-1865) and was completed in 1854. Now incorporating No.s 186-198, it became known as one of the largest stores in the capital.
By 1916, Heal’s was under management by John Jnr’s son Sir Ambrose Heal (1872-1959), who had joined the family business in 1893 after completing an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. He wanted to modernise the business for the 20th century and enlisted his cousin and best friend Cecil Brewer (1871-1918) and business partner Arnold Dunbar Smith (1886-1933) to design a new store. The original building was demolished to make way for the new store, which was was built between 1914-1917. Brewer erected his namesake spiral staircase at the back of the store in 1916, ready to take visitors upstairs to the new Mansard Gallery. The helix of lights tumbling from the ceiling were added after World War II. The concrete and wooden staircase was refurbished in 2013 and a Bocci chandelier was added, completing its picture-perfect look.
If you look closely as you ascend the staircase, you may notice a bronze sculpture of a cat. Known as the store mascot, the cat has been perched on a windowsill of the stairs since they were built. One interesting story involves 101 Dalmatians writer Dodie Smith (1896-1990), who worked at Heal’s toy department for 10 years in the 1920s and had an affair with Ambrose Heal. She confessed in her autobiography to selling the cat, with an unimpressed Ambrose later writing to the customer to cancel the sale with a note reading, “Heal’s mascot. Not for sale.”
Although Heal’s hasn’t been a family business since 1983, it’s still trading in furniture and homewares on Tottenham Court Road over two centuries later. The store was Grade-II listed in 1974 and it’s magnificent staircase is still used by customers to access different departments.
- Heal’s, 196 Tottenham Court Road, Fitzrovia, W1T 7LQ. Nearest stations: Goodge Street, Warren Street or Tottenham Court Road.
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What is the London Stone and why is it famous?
Many of us have heard the urban myth about the ravens at the Tower of London, claiming the Crown and Britain ‘will fall’ if they leave. However, there’s another old legend tying the capital’s success to a piece of stone.
The London Stone has been a part of the city’s history for centuries, yet so many Londoners haven’t even heard of it. Today, the London Stone stands on bustling Cannon Street, protected from the elements in a display in the wall of a modern office building. The block of oolitic limestone measures 53m x 43cm x 30cm, although was originally much bigger. The London Stone was first recorded in 1100, although its origins are believed to date back much earlier. Some historians believe the stone has been in situ since the Romans occupied London, perhaps being related to the local governor’s palace, which stood on the current site of Cannon Street railway station. It’s also been claimed that King Arthur pulled his sword Excalibur from it.
In Medieval London, it stood on the south side of Candelwrichstrete (Candlewright Street), which was widened to create Cannon Street in the 17th century. It was a popular landmark and listed on many maps of the area. A French visitor to London in 1578 described the Stone as having much larger dimensions of 90cm x 60cm x 30cm. London historian John Stow wrote in 1598 of “a great stone called London stone” adding it was “pitched upright… fixed in the ground verie deep, fastned with bars of iron”. The Stone is even mentioned in William Shakespeare‘s Henry IV, Part II in the 1590s. The scene refers to Jack Cade, leader of the Kentish rebellion in 1450, striking the London Stone with his sword and declaring himself Lord Mayor of London.
Although the reason for the Stone’s reduction in size is not known, it’s highly likely it was damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666. By 1742, the Stone was considered an obstruction to traffic so was moved to the north side of Cannon Street, beside the door to the Church of St Swithun, London Stone. Fifty-six years later, it was moved again when it was built into the south wall of the Church. It was during the 18th century that it was claimed the success of London depended on the stone’s survival. Georgian writers claimed there was an ‘old saying’ referring to the London Stone’s other name as ‘the Stone of Brutus’. It read: “So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish.” In the 1820s, it was relocated a third time when it was set on its own plinth in the middle of the church wall. It was later covered by a protective iron grille at the request of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society in 1869.
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Standing on London Wall surrounded by the brutalist concrete of the Barbican estate and 21st century office blocks is a rare piece of Medieval London. Largely hidden in recent decades, the redesign of the highwalk and a new pavement-level garden means Londoners can now see the ruins of St Alphage church.
The original St Alphage (or St Alphege) Church was built slightly north of the current site around the 11th century and adjoined the London Wall. The second church was originally the Priory Church of the St Mary-within-Cripplegate nunnery, which was believed to have been founded before 1000, but had fallen into decay by 1329. While the original church was demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s under Henry VIII, the Priory Church survived and took on the name St Alphage. It was repaired in 1624, with its steeple rebuilt in 1649. St Alphage was slightly damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and be 1747, the steeple was in such bad condition, the bells couldn’t be rung so four were sold. In 1774, the church was declared unfit for use and was rebuilt at a cost of £1,350, with the tower retained. The new church opened in July 1777.
By the turn of the 20th century, the tower and porch were in poor condition, with the north entrance rebuilt with a neo-Gothic façade by 1913. It was damaged during World War I and repaired in 1919. However, the same year, the church’s fate was sealed for good. The bells went to St Peter’s Church in Acton, west London, with the nave being demolished in 1923. During World War II, the tower was maintained as a base for prayer, although was gutted by a fire in 1940.
As the City of London Corporation started to redevelop the ravaged City during the 1950s, the church’s porch and upper levels of the tower were moved. What remained (and what you see today) were Grade II listed in January 1950. The current structure features a central tower made of flint and rubble and arches on the north, west and east sides. When the London Wall road and the Barbican Centre were constructed in the 1950s, pedestrian access to the ruined church was cut off, while an ugly concrete highwalk didn’t give much of a view of the remains.
In recent years, the highwalk has been redeveloped and some of the 1960s office blocks demolished to make way for more modern 21st century buildings. The new highwalk, unveiled in 2018, is more delicate and gives a great overview of the ruins. Meanwhile, pedestrians can access the remains of St Alphage at street level via a small garden, featuring greenery and concrete block seating.
- St Alphage Garden, City of London, EC2Y. Nearest station: Barbican.
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This year marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. From 1961 to 1989, a guarded concrete barrier divided West and East Berlin. During its 28 year life span, over 80 people died trying to cross the wall. Finally, on 9 November 1989 the wall started to come down and was destroyed by Berliners, uniting the city once again. I was at primary school when the wall fell and remember my impassioned teacher telling us about this historic moment during assembly, which I was a bit too young to understand.
Various pieces of the Berlin Wall survive today. In the gardens of the Imperial War Museum in London, there is a piece of the wall complete with original street art. It features the words ‘Change Your Life’ in a giant mouth by graffiti artist Indiana (Jurgen Grosse). The 3.64 metre high section comes from near the Leuschnerdamm in the Kreuzberg district and was acquired by the Imperial War Museum in 1991. It is believed the slogan ‘Change Your Life’ may be from the German poem Archaischer Torso Apollos (Torso of an Archaic Apollo).
- Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, Lambeth, SE1 6HZ. Nearest station: Lambeth North.
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Demon Barbers and Scottish newspapers.
Fleet Street is synonymous with Britain’s journalism industry, with most of the country’s newspapers having offices or headquarters in the area in the first half of the 20th century. While most of the papers have moved on to less central areas, such as Canary Wharf, Southwark and Kensington, there still lies some signs of their EC4 past in the heart of the City.
Standing at 186 Fleet Street is an old remainder of Fleet Street‘s tabloid heyday. No.186, along with 184 and 185 belong to DC Thomson – a Scottish publishing house and TV company. The Thomson family originally started out in shipping before branching out in publishing by buying the Dundee Courier and The Daily Argus in 1886. David Coupar Thomson (1861-1954) established DC Thomson in 1905 as the family’s publishing assets expanded.
Although DC Thomson were headquartered in Scotland, they established a London base to cover relevant stories. Prior to the current building, the site featured the street’s last early 17th century timber-framed buildings before they were demolished.
No.186 was built around 1913 by Meakin, Archer and Stoneham. The architecture practice had an office in Nicholas Lane near Monument and also designed The Strand Cinema Theatre in 1910 (it closed in 1953 and although the façade remains at No.428 The Strand, the auditorium has been demolished). The practice changed in 1916 with Edgar Percy Archer and Frederic Martyn Stoneham remaining in partnership together after Meakin left.
The façade of the building features glazed red bricks with stone dressings. Five of DC Thomson’s titles were written across the building in mosaic bands as a form of advertising. Four of the five titles are still in publication, with The People’s Journal having folded in 1986 after a 128 history. The remaining publications are Dundee Courier (founded 1801); Dundee Evening Telegraph (founded 1877); Sunday Post (founded 1914) and People’s Friend (founded 1869).
In 2014, DC Thomson extensively renovated their London and Dundee offices. However, just two years later, DC Thomson took the decision to close their editorial office, which meant the last journalists to work on Fleet Street were leaving. DC Thomson continues to own the building, with advertising staff remaining on site.
As well being the home to the last Fleet Street journalists, 186 Fleet Street is also where fictional murderer Sweeney Todd’s infamous barber shop was located. The Victorian villain was known to dispatch his victims into the cellar from his barber’s chair and slit their throats with his razor. His sidekick Mrs Lovett then baked their remains in meat pies.
- 186 Fleet Street, City of London, EC4A 2HS. Nearest station: Chancery Lane.
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One of London’s hidden rivers is flowing through one of the capital’s busy tube stations.
London is home to many ‘hidden’ rivers. Many of these became subterranean in the 19th century as the capital’s population boomed. A host of tributaries of the River Thames and River Lea have been forced underground and now exist in pipes. While most of the secret rivers aren’t visible to most Londoners today, there is one river you can see (sort of).
The River Westbourne was originally named Kilburn – originating from ‘Cye Bourne’, which means ‘royal stream’. It rises in the Whitestone Pond in Hampstead and flows south through Kilburn, Bayswater, Hyde Park and Chelsea, before discharging in the River Thames near Chelsea Bridge. One of the crossings over the Westbourne was the Knights’ Bridge, a name dating back to at least the 11th century. Although the bridge is long gone, its name lives on in the district of Knightsbridge. There was another bridge crossing the Westbourne in the Sloane Square area named Blandel Bridge, later being renamed as Grosvenor Bridge.
The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park was formed in 1730 when King George II’s wife Queen Caroline (1683-1737) ordered the damning of the Westbourne. The river continued to supply the Serpentine until 1834, when it was deemed too polluted, so Thames water was used instead.
London’s population boom in the 19th century prompted widespread development. Increased residential dwellings popping up in the areas surrounding the Westbourne in Paddington, Chelsea and Belgravia, led to the decision to drive the Westbourne underground. The water was directed into pipes in the early part of the 19th century.
Today, commuters who use Sloane Square tube station can see the River Westbourne crossing the platform and tracks in a pipe. A large iron pipe suspended from girders carries the Westbourne through Sloane Square station, which was opened in December 1868. The pipe is the original one from the 19th century and managed to escape damage when the station was bombed during World War II in November 1940.
- Sloane Square tube station, Chelsea, SW1W 8BB. Nearest station: Sloane Square (obviously!).
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Have you ever spotted a cow’s head sticking out of one of Chelsea’s buildings? Here’s the history behind them…
Today, the London district of Chelsea is famous for its football club, trust fund socialites and designer boutiques. However, until the 19th century, the area was a rural neighbourhood. Chelsea served as a market garden for the rapidly-expanding city, with corn, barley, fruit and vegetables grown on the area’s numerous farms, orchards and gardens. It was particularly known for its root vegetables and was the first place in Britain where lettuce was grown successfully in the mid-to-late 18th century. Meanwhile, the area became fashionable for the wealthy from the 16th and 17th centuries, with its residential districts starting to overtake the farms in the late 19th century.
One such farm which held on longer than others was Wright’s Dairy. The dairy was one of the first in Chelsea and was erected on Cook’s Grounds (the site of Glebe’s Place today) in 1796. Around 50 cows and two goats grazed nearby, providing milk for the dairy. In advertorials for their business, they were described as ‘dairy farmers and cowkeepers’. A frequent visitor to the dairy was Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carylyle (1795-1881), who lived a few minutes walk away on Cheyne Row. At the time of Carylyle lived in Chelsea, the dairy was run by W. H. Wright, whose late father had founded the business.
The Old Dairy was forced to move slightly west due to rapid redevelopment in the late 1800s, with Cook’s Ground and the nearby kitchen gardens of the Chelsea Rectory being swallowed up by housing. Wright’s Dairy set up their headquarters and a shop at 38-48 Church Street (now Old Church Street). The fields behind the dairy were used for the grazing cows. The street – which runs from the Embankment to the Fulham Road – is one of the oldest recorded streets in the area and dates back to the 16th century. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, business was booming for Wright’s Dairy and it was well-known and respected in the area. Its advertising in 1914 (see here) boasted about being “under constant medical, veterinary and sanitary inspection” and “acknowledged to be the finest and cleanest dairy in Chelsea”. One of their big selling points was stocking “humanised, sterilised and special nursery milk in glass bottles for infants and invalids”. As well as their Old Church Street base, Wright’s also had a shop at 69 King’s Road. Like many dairies of the time, both shops and the headquarters featured cow head sculptures sticking out of the top of the buildings. Read the rest of this entry
Room to Breathe exhibition review: Exploring the journey from new arrival to finding ‘home’ @ Migration Museum
The Migration Museum has been open since 2016 and explores how the movement of people has shaped the capital over history. Although a hot topic of conversation in the media, it’s far from new, as migration in and out of London and the UK as a whole has been going on for centuries. This month, the Migration Museum launched their newest exhibition Room To Breathe, which runs until summer 2019. I went along to the recent launch to check it out.
Room To Breathe is the museum’s most interactive exhibition yet, offering an immersive journey through a migrant’s experiences, from arrival to settling in to (hopefully) finding somewhere they can call ‘home’. It explores the very different reasons people arrive in the UK, from escaping war, to seeking new opportunities, to love and family.
To those who may have visited before, the museum galleries have been transformed into a home, with a series of rooms featuring interactive learning tools. You start in the ‘Home Office’, an overwhelming place full of files, depicting how new arrivals are often seen as numbers on paperwork categorised into a section.
You then progress into a bedroom, a classroom, a kitchen with interactive screens, audio, and objects bringing these people to life. Over 100 migrants who arrived in Britain from the early 20th century until the present day have shared their stories for the exhibition. Many are hidden within the exhibition in drawers, cupboards or magazines so you are invited to rummage around and explore. People including war refugees, international NHS workers and Windrush migrants have revealed their personal histories. As a daughter of Irish migrants, I found some of the Irish stories particularly relevant. As many migrants can attest, pining for familiar foods or a favourite snack from home can bring a lot of comfort. I spotted a box of Barry’s Tea in the kitchen which made me smile. Whenever I visit family in Ireland, I always make sure I buy a box of Barry’s Tea for my mother, who insists it’s better than Twinings or Yorkshire Gold.
With many migrants often being demonised by society or the media, this exhibition delves deeper as it humanises them and turns them from numbers into living, breathing human beings. As well as educating and inspiring, there will also be a programme of events throughout the exhibition, including performances, workshops, cookery classes and storytelling.
- Room To Breathe is on from 1 November 2018 – 28 July 2019. At the Migration Museum @ The Workshop, 26 Lambeth High Street, Lambeth, SE1 7AG. Nearest station: Vauxhall, Westminster or Lambeth North. Open Thu 12pm-8pm, Fri-Sun 12pm-6pm. Free admission. For more information, visit the Migration Museum website.
For a guide to what’s on in London in March, click here.
With 2,000 years of history and 8.1 million residents, it’s no surprise that London has acquired quite a lot of urban legends over the years.
Some of these urban myths – or ‘alternative facts’ emerged centuries ago and still circulate today. Metro Girl looks at London’s top 10 urban legends and tries to separate the truth from fiction. However, reality isn’t always black or white and sometimes the answer isn’t so clear-cut.
1. The ‘Coco Chanel’ lampposts
Around the Westminster council district, you may have seen lampposts with an interlinking CC, which look remarkably similar to the Chanel logo.
French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel famously had an on/off love affair with Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster for around a decade in the 1920s-1930s. However, the aristocrat failed to make Chanel one of his four wives.
The story goes, the Duke attempted to prove his love for Coco by having her initials embossed in gold on lampposts around Westminster. Each lamppost features a grand ‘W’ nearby – which many assumed were for the Duke.
True or false? False. Sadly, the truth isn’t so romantic. The W does stand for Westminster – but the council, not the Duke – while CC stands for city council. Despite their traditional look, they only got installed in the 1950s – two decades after Chanel and the Duke’s romance hit the skids.
Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.
2. A rich American bought London Bridge by accident.
The capital has had many London Bridges over the centuries, the first one dating back to Roman Londinium in the 50s AD. Despite its iconic name, many would agree the current 1970s creation isn’t the most attractive of London’s river crossings.
In 1968, US businessman Robert P McCulloch bought the previous Georgian-era ‘New’ London Bridge for just over £1million. It had been put up for sale by the City of London as it was sinking into the Thames and wasn’t suitable to modern vehicle traffic.
After being purchased, it was taken apart and shipped across to Arizona to be rebuilt in Lake Havasu City, where it remains today.
However, the story goes that McCulloch thought he was buying the more ornate Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. Many tourists visiting the capital today still think Tower Bridge is London Bridge because it’s one of London’s most recognisable icons.
True or false? False. City of London council member Ivan Luckin, who was the one who suggested selling the bridge and was heavily involved in the sale, has firmly denied misleading McCulloch and insisted the American knew exactly what bridge he was buying.
Read Metro Girl’s blog post to find out more.
3. There’s no flowers in Green Park because of a cheating King.
Green Park is one of eight royal parks in the capital. It was established in the 17th century during the reign of King Charles II.
Unlike the rest of London’s royal parks, it is noticeable for its lack of flowers and lakes and only having a few monuments and is mostly grass, trees and pathways – hence the name Green Park.
Legend has it the park was full of flowers in the 17th century and Charles II used to venture from nearby St James’s Palace to pick flowers for his wife Queen Catherine.
However, Charles was famously unfaithful to his wife and fathered at least 14 illegitimate children. It’s been claimed Catherine found out her husband was picking flowers for other women so ordered every flower bed to be removed from the park.
True or false? Maybe. Green Park has no formal flowerbeds, although there’s around 1 million daffodils that bloom every spring.
4. Vampire in Highgate cemetery
The myth of a vampire roaming Highgate cemetery first appeared in 1969 when some young people interested in the occult claimed to have seen a ‘grey figure’ lurking amongst the graves. After it was reported in a local newspaper, many people wrote in, each giving a different account of spooky goings on.
One man had a theory that a Medieval Romanian ‘King Vampire’ had been brought to England in a coffin in the early 18th century and buried on the site of Highgate Cemetery. He claimed modern Satanists had ‘woken him’.
By March 1970, there was a media hysteria with a mob of ‘vampire hunters’ arriving to track down the Highgate vampire. One man was jailed in 1974 for damaging memorials and interfering with dead remains in Highgate Cemetery.
True or false? False (probably), but it all depends on if you believe in vampires. Read the rest of this entry
Discover the history and sights of Dulwich Village with this special walk.
Today, there is only a few ‘villages’ left in London. Back in the Georgian era and beyond, London as a city was significantly smaller and surrounded by many country villages. As London expanded during the Industrial Revolution, many of these districts got swallowed up by the growing capital. However, there are a few areas, such as Dulwich, Wimbledon and Highgate, left today which have retained their village charm.
One such place is Dulwich Village in south London, which dates back to at least the 10th century. I’ve lived nearby most of my life and am really fond of the village. Of course, the property prices are ridiculous and unattainable for most of us, but it’s a lovely place to visit, eat and drink in. The Dulwich Society have retained a tight control over planning so the likes of Tesco superstores and flashy developers haven’t ruined the village’s Georgian feel. Located just five miles from the centre of London, it’s surprisingly close to the capital and easy to get to with regular trains from London Bridge and London Victoria.
If you’ve ever fancied exploring Dulwich Village, why not try out my self-guided history walking tour with Routey.net. The company is a free online platform offering walking tours created by members of the travel community. My walking tour covers less than 2 miles and includes 18 stops. It can take a minimum of 90 minutes to up to 5 hours if you choose to stop at the Crown & Greyhound pub for lunch or dinner and visit an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
- Visit Routey.net for Metro Girl’s Dulwich Village history walking tour. Starting point: North Dulwich station (15 mins from London Bridge). End point: West Dulwich station (13 mins to London Victoria).
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.