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Virtual tours of London’s best buildings: How to explore during the Covid-19 lockdown

Visit some of London’s most iconic buildings without leaving your sofa.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Head to Somerset House… virtually

Most Londoners would agree they often take the city for granted normally, let alone now. As our ongoing lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic continues, many of us are looking lustfully over #throwback photos on social media wondering when we’ll be able to explore the capital again. Or perhaps, you’re a would-be tourist whose trip to London was postponed or cancelled.

During the current Coronavirus crisis, I’ve put a lot of my usual events and ‘what’s on’ content on hiatus and have instead been focusing on London history and architecture. While researching the background of some of the capital’s most iconic buildings, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find how many of their websites provide virtual tours.

So if you’re feeling bored and missing walking around the capital, why not enjoy a virtual stroll around some of these iconic London sights.

Ten virtual tours of London buildings

  • Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Explore the striking Victorian government offices of Whitehall, which were built in the 1860s. Gaze at George Gilbert Scott’s designs, such as the Grand Staircase, the Locarno Suite and Durbar Court. Although usually off-limits to the public, you can usually get a peek during Open House London in September.

– For a virtual tour, visit the FCO website.

  • Middle Temple Hall

The public rarely gets to step inside the 16th century hall in the Temple legal district. This historic building has an impressive hammerbeam roof and is said to have hosted the first ever performance of William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night in front of Queen Elizabeth I.

– For a virtual tour, visit the Middle Temple Venue website. Read about the history of Middle Temple Hall.

  • Sky Garden

The ‘Walkie Talkie’ is the nickname for the City of London skyscraper 20 Fenchurch Street. Its top floors are home to a garden, bar, restaurants and viewing platform, give wonderful views of the capital.

– For a virtual tour, visit the Sky Garden 360 website. Read a review of a visit to the Sky Garden.

  • Somerset House

The multi-space arts and entertainment venue has a contrasting mix of old and new architectural features inside the 18th century riverside building.

– For a virtual tour, visit the Somerset House website. Read about the history of Somerset House. Read the rest of this entry

Artistry, education and tragedy: The Pugin home on Great Russell Street

The history of the London home of artist Augustus Charles Pugin and his architect son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.

Pugin Great Russell Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Pugin family lived at 105 (now 106) Great Russell Street

The name Pugin will be familiar to many as it comprised a dynasty of talented artists and architects. The family name has been immortalised as the creators of many great buildings in the UK, mostly notably the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster (aka Big Ben). While the architects of the family designed many grand structures, their own abodes were rather modest in comparison. One of the Pugin family’s only surviving London homes stands on Great Russell Street on the Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia boundaries.

Augustus Charles Pugin by Joseph Nash 1861

Augustus Charles Pugin (by Joseph Nash, 1861 – from Wikimedia Commons)

Great Russell Street was first established around 1670 and followed an old path named Green Lane. The road took its name from the local landowners, the Russell Family and Dukes of Bedford. John Strype’s (1643-1737) ‘Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster’ in 1720 described Great Russell Street as “a very handsome large and well built street, graced with the best buildings, and the best inhabited by the nobility and gentry, especially the north side, as having gardens behind the houses: and the prospect of the pleasant fields up to Hampstead and Highgate. In so much that this place by physicians is esteemed the most healthful of any in London.” One such early resident was the celebrated architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), followed by Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835), who designed a row of white stuccoed, terraced houses on the street in 1777-8 and lived at No.66. By the 19th century, the road’s fortunes were somewhat mixed. Although the north side has remained relatively well to do, the south side had become more downmarket and commercial, with the Meux brewery premises nearby.

When it was first built in the late 17th century, 106 Great Russell Street was numbered 105. The three-storey terrace is made of yellow brick, with an attic featuring dormer windows. Today, the ground floor features an early 19th century shopfront with a projecting window, that is currently a showroom for the Italian lighting company Artemide. There are two doors on the ground floor – one on the left providing entrance to the shop and the other providing access to the floors above (what would have been the home of the Pugins).

French artist and writer Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) arrived in Britain in 1798 after leaving France during the revolution and enrolled at the Royal Academy school in London. He soon found work as an architectural draughtsman for John Nash, sketching his buildings such as Carlton House Terrace and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. In 1802, Pugin Snr married Catherine Welby (1769-1833), of the wealthy Lincolnshire Welby family. By 1809, the couple were living at 39 Keppel Street (now Store Street) in Bloomsbury, where Pugin Snr also had an office. Their only son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) was born at the home in 1812. Read the rest of this entry

Ye olde gaol door: The lone survivor of Tothill Fields Bridewell prison

Learn about the history of one of Westminster’s prisons and its only visible remains.

Tothill Prison © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The old gateway to Tothill Fields Bridewell

Today, London prisons are few and far between. While today, prisons tend to be extensive and house large populations of prisoners, in previous centuries, houses of punishment were quite different in more ways than one.

In past centuries, Westminster only had a couple of prisons in comparison to many in the City of London. There was the substantial Millbank Prison (on the site of the Tate Britain) and Tothill Fields Bridewell. During its over two century history, the latter was known by various names, including Westminster House of Correction (Tothill Fields), Westminster Bridewell, Westminster Prison or Westminster County Gaol.

The location was Tothill Fields, a marshy section of land in between Westminster Abbey and Millbank. When it first opened, it was originally named Bridewell after Bridewell Palace and Prison in the City. Formerly a royal residence, the original Bridewell (on the current site of New Bridge Street near Blackfriars) became a prison, hospital and workrooms in the 16th century. When the Westminster prison first opened in 1618, it was deigned as ‘house of correction’ for paupers. It was relatively small and was built near the site of the House of Fraser store on Victoria Street. It was enlarged in 1655 as its population grew. During Queen Anne’s (1665-1714) reign in the early 18th century, Bridewell started to incarcerate criminals.

The 17th century prison was demolished in 1836, two years after a new prison opened. The new larger prison was built on an eight-acre site near Vauxhall Bridge Road. Designed by English architect Robert Abraham (1773-1850) at a cost of £186,000, the new prison was in the shape of an ace of clubs. This was inspired by social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) Panopticon design, which meant guards could keep an eye on a large body of prisoners from a central point. Each ‘leaf’ featured a separate cell block, which collectively held 900 inmates. The centre of the leaves included a courtyard, with exercise yards located between each cell block. The main entrance was located on Francis Street. Aside from the main prison buildings, there was also a chapel and governor’s house within the complex (see the original ground floor plan of the new prison). When the new prison opened, it had one block for untried male prisoners and debtors, one of male convicted criminals and the last of female convicts. Inmates were put to work, usually oakum picking (here’s an image of women picking oakum in 1906), carpentry, mending clothes and the exhausting treadmill. Among the noted prisoners were Scottish soldier and trickster Gregor MacGregor (1776-1845), tea broker and schizophrenic James Tilly Matthews (1770-1815), and revolutionary war veteran and artist John Trumbull (1756-1843). Read the rest of this entry

Kings, hills and prisons: The story behind Ludgate in the City of London

The history of Ludgate in the City of London… and does a part of the old gate still exist?

An image of Ludgate from a 1680 map after it was rebuilt following the Great Fire
(Wikimedia Commons)

Centuries ago, when London was significantly smaller, the City was enclosed by a wall with several gates providing entrance to the Square Mile. After the population boomed in the Georgian and Victorian era, the capital spilled over the boundaries of the City, spreading east, west, north and south.

One of these City gates was Ludgate – or the Lud Gate – situated on Ludgate Hill. The latter was one of three ancient hills in London, the others being Tower Hill and Cornhill. There have been a few theories about the origins of the name Ludgate. The idea that the gate was named after King Lud (who is claimed to have founded London before the Romans arrived) has been widely discounted. Many historians believe the word derives from the Saxon term ‘hlid-geat’, which means swinging gateway into a city. Another popular theory is Ludgate evolved from Flud-gate – a potential barrier to the flood waters of the nearby Rivers Fleet and Thames.

Ludgate sign © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

A plaque marking the site of the Lud Gate

The first Lud Gate was built around 200AD as an entrance into the fortified Roman settlement of Londinium. It was the most western of all the gates into the city. After the Romans abandoned Londinium in the 5th century, the city was largely uninhabited for several centuries. However, it started being used a settlement again around the 8th century as the old Roman walls provided perfect protection from the frequent Viking invasions.

By the 12th century, the area of Lud Gate has become known as Lutgatestrate. Around 1215, the old Lud Gate was repaired or rebuilt when the wealthy rebel barons captured London and strengthened the walls and gates of the city as they battled King John (1166-1216). In 1260, the gate was apparently repaired again under King Henry III’s (1207-1272) reign, with statues of King Lud and other monarchs added to the façade. Read the rest of this entry

Take a ‘wade’ on the wild side with Creekside Discovery Centre’s low tide walk

Explore the history and nature of Deptford Creek with the Creekside Center

With the current pace of building in the capital and developers looking to seize every last piece of land to build on, London’s wildlife is being squeezed into increasingly smaller environments. As banks of rivers and streams are absorbed into manmade land and structures, many animals and birds are running out of space to build nests, or even shelter during bad weather. While we need more homes in this overcrowded capital, it’s trying to balance fulfilling demand while protecting the wildlife’s habitats that is a real challenge.

Recently I paid a visit to the Creekside Discovery Center in Deptford, south-east London to join one of their Low Tide Walks. My boyfriend and I were up bright and early on a Sunday (well, by my standards early for a Sunday!) morning to get suited up for our visit to Deptford Creek. We were told to wear old clothes and a hat, with the CDC providing thigh-high waders and a walking stick. The Center itself is a one-storey educational space in a garden full of beautiful, coloured wildflowers. In fact there are over 130 different wildflower species across the site. It was rather amusing to see various memorabilia retrieved from the Creek dotted around like a modern art display, such as shopping trolleys, rollerskates and typewriters. I’m always baffled why someone would find enjoyment by throwing a trolley into a river or creek… perhaps they should get an actual hobby?!

The old lifting bridge, built in the 1830s

The name Deptford comes from ‘deep ford’, with the Creek forming the north end of the River Ravensbourne before it flows into the Thames. We started our two-hour expedition being led down to the Creek by a conservationist Nick. We entered the water – and mud – near the historic lifting bridge. It was originally built in the 1830s for the London and Greenwich Railway, which connected London Bridge with Greenwich, which was incredibly busy at the time due to its naval and royal connections. The railway was the first steam service in the capital and also the first entirely elevated railway. When it came to crossing the Creek, the railway owners realised it was problematic. They couldn’t build a regular fixed crossing as that would have blocked the many ships passing up and down the Creek. Civil engineer George Thomas Landmann (1779-1854) came up with the idea of a lifting bridge, which would allow trains to pass over while in situ, but could be lifted up for passing barges via pulleys, chains and sliding rods with eight men required to operate it. The current bridge you can see today, is a younger replacement, with several bridges replacing the original 1830s one. At time of writing, it’s been out of action for decades and is a listed structure. Read the rest of this entry

33-35 Eastcheap: This former Victorian vinegar warehouse is far from sour

33-35 Eastcheap © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

33-35 Eastcheap is a Victorian former vinegar warehouse in the City of London

Despite being extensively rebuilt following the Blitz, the City of London has retained many of its old street names. While some are rather humorous (e.g. Cock lane in Smithfield), others aren’t so flattering such as Eastcheap. Today, the word ‘cheap’ is used as an unattractive way to describe something low in price and quality. ‘Cheap’ actually comes from the Saxon word for ‘market’. In the Middle Ages, Eastcheap was the main meat market in the City. However, by the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed the area with offices and warehousing replacing the butchers’ stalls.

33-35 Eastcheap © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

A sculpture of a Boar’s head can be seen on the façade in a nod to the site’s history

Walking down Eastcheap today, you will see a lot of the Victorian buildings survive and are home to offices, coffee shops and the like. One particular building that stands out from the rest is No. 33-35 Eastcheap, a dramatic Neo-Gothic, double-fronted structure. Prior to No. 33-35’s erection in 1868, the site was home to the famous Boar’s Head Tavern. The pub’s exact origins aren’t known, but it was used as a meeting place by William Shakespeare in several of his historical plays, most notably Henry IV, Part I (abt. 1597). The character Falstaff was a frequent drinker at the Boar’s Head Tavern. The original tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt and became a pilgrimage site for Shakespeare fans. It stood on Eastcheap until 1831 when it was demolished to make way for a road widening scheme leading to the new London Bridge. At the time of demolition, the building hasn’t been used as tavern since the late 18th century and had been sub-divided into shops. The Boar’s Head sign was preserved and went on show at The Globe Theatre at Bankside in 2010.

The current building of No. 33-35 was constructed in 1868 to a design by English architect Robert Lewis Roumieu (1814-1877). Born to a Huguenot family, who had arrived in Britain 100 years before his birth, Roumieu was an original and daring architect for the time. Although many of his designs were Neo-Gothic – which was trendy in Victorian times – he did like to push the boundaries. As well as the Eastcheap building, he also designed Milner Square (Islington), the Almeida Theatre, the French Hospital in Hackney, among others. Roumieu was commissioned to design a vinegar warehouse depot for Hill & Evans at a cost of £8,170. Hill & Evans were founded in Worcester in 1830 and were, at one point, the world’s largest vinegar producers. By the early 20th century, they were selling 2 million gallons of malt vinegar a year. The company ceased trading in 1965 after 135 years of business.

No. 33-35 is a Neo-Gothic, five-storey building with a further attic storey in a slated roof. On the ground floor is a huge arched doorway which would have been used for delivery access and Devonshire marble columns. However, the current iron gates only date back to 1987. The top three-storeys feature Gothic arched bays with projected canopies over the windows. Above the second floor, central window is a sculpture of a wild boar peering through long grass – a nod to the site’s former Boar’s Head Tavern. Meanwhile, the second floor canopies to the left and right feature carved heads of Henry IV and Henry V. The building features a lot of decorative elements, including tiling, cast iron cresting, and plaster badges.

33-35 Eastcheap © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The top storey features a slated roof and cast iron cresting

When the building was completed in 1868, it certainly caused a stir, with Roumieu being labelled a ‘rogue’ architect for some of his daring styles. The British Almanac of 1869 described it as: “The style is French, but some of the details are Venetian. The general effect is novel and striking, though somewhat bizarre.” Twentieth century critics Gavin Stamp and Colin Amery were more positive, proclaiming Roumieu’s creation as “the City’s masterpiece of polychromatic Gothic self-advertisement”. Meanwhile, architectural critic Ian Nairn (1930-1983) gave it a rather dramatic review: “This is truly demoniac, an Edgar Allan Poe of a building. It is the scream that you wake on at the end of a nightmare.” Despite the critics’ mixed reviews to the building, it was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1971.

In recent decades, the ground floor has been home to various shops and restaurants. Bewlay’s Pipes had a small shop from the 1950s to 1970s, while there was a branch of J. Lyons & Co tea shops at No.35 in the 1950s. Today, the upper storeys are home to offices, while the ground floor houses branches of Black Sheep Coffee and a Simmons bar.

  • 33 – 35 Eastcheap, City of London, EC3M 1DE. Nearest stations: Monument or Fenchurch Street.

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Is this London’s thinnest house? The story behind 5 Thurloe Square

The history of the ‘Thin House’ in South Kensington.

Thurloe Square thin house © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The ‘Thin House’ in Thurloe Place

Standing in a quiet square sandwiched between South Kensington tube station and the Victoria & Albert Museum is a rather unusual block of flats. No.5 Thurloe Square, nicknamed ‘the Thin House’, is thought to be one of the narrowest homes in the capital. Looking at the block from the south-west corner of the square, the house looks ridiculously narrow. However, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion as the building is actually triangular, which widens as you move further east.

Thurloe Square was built in 1840-1846 on land belonging to the Alexander Estate. The square was named after the Thurloe family – from which brothers John and James Alexander inherited the land following the death of their great-grandmother Anna Maria Harris’ son from her second marriage. Anna Maria, who inherited the estate in the early 18th century, was left widowed from her first marriage to John Browne (the Alexanders’ great-grandfather), and remarried John Thurloe Brace – grandson of the Puritan statesman John Thurloe (1616-1668). Their son Harris Thurloe Brace died without an heir in 1799, so the estate passed on to his mother’s family from her first marriage.

Thurloe Square © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

No.5 was designed as artists’ studios in the 1880s

Most of the houses in Thurloe Square were designed by London-born architect George Basevi (1794-1845), a student of Sir John Soane and a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The terraces were designed in his signature neo-classical style with Doric columned porches at the front doors. This entrance feature is now a signature design of mid-Victorian terraces in the area. However, just two decades later, 23 houses in Thurloe Square were designated to be handed over to the Metropolitan District Railway, who were working on a new transport advancement, now known affectionately as ‘the tube‘. Landowner at the time, H.B. Alexander was thoroughly unimpressed and fought against the plans, but the Government overruled him. Mr Alexander could only be grateful that the Government banned the railways from erecting an entrance to South Kensington station in Thurloe Square as it would have ruined the amenities and character. The railways bought Nos. 1-11 Thurloe Square for £3,000, but in the end, only five houses (Nos. 1-5) on Thurloe Square were demolished in 1867. The company had bought a total of 42 houses from the Alexander Estate over various roads, but only destroyed 19. Some of the surviving buildings had their back gardens dramatically reduced. In 1868, South Kensington station opened, providing services on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District Railway lines.

By the late 19th century, Kensington and Chelsea were world-renowned as a hub for art. Flocks of artists built studios in the area, many of which still exist today. Two Victorian artists’ homes Leighton House Museum and 18 Stafford Terrace are currently open as museums. With the railway lines just a few feet away from the south side of Thurloe Square, the triangular site of former Nos.1-5, remained vacant for many years. However, prolific local builder William Douglas saw its potential for seven artists’ studios. The wedge-shaped red brick block was built between 1885-1887. The large north-facing windows are perfect for letting in lots of light for the artists to work in. Building plans were submitted to the Metropolitan Board of Works by surveyor C.W. Stephenson on behalf of Douglas, suggesting he may have been the architect. At its narrowest point, the building is said to be 6ft wide, spanning to 34ft at its largest. The building proved popular with artists. The 1911 census showed a landscape painter named Arthur Johnson Ryle (1857-1915) was living in studio 3.

In 1899, Thurloe Square was surveyed by Charles Booth for his poverty map. Notably, the houses on the south of the Square overlooking the railway were labelled ‘middle class’, while the remaining residences were ‘upper middle and upper class, wealthy’. Today, Kensington remains an area with some of the most expensive houses in the country. Most of the original Basevi terraces are Grade II listed, as is South Kensington station. While not listed, the artists’ studios are an impressive piece of real estate today. In 2016, a top floor artist studio apartment covering just 600 square foot in 5 Thurloe Square went up for sale for £895,000.

  • ‘The Thin House’, 5 Thurloe Square, Kensington, SW7. Nearest station: South Kensington. NB: This building contains private residences and are not open to the public.

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The ceramic bakers of Spitalfields on Widegate Street

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The façade of 12-14 Widegate Street features four ornamental bakers

Spitalfields is full of fascinating buildings, with Georgian, Victorian and early 20th century well represented. Many businesses are moving into the area, with some redeveloping or demolishing older buildings. While some historic architecture has been restored and changed for the better, there are others which meet a sorry fate (see my post on a crime against architecture in Artillery Lane). One of the things I love about the Spitalfields area is its many old lanes and alleys. Although many were destroyed during the Blitz, some still remain despite the encroaching modernity and skyscrapers of the City. As businesses come and go from the area, it’s interesting to see which ones embrace the history and heritage of the buildings they occupy… or completely annihilate any original features.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Widegate Street is named after the former ‘white gate’ entrance into the Old Artillery Ground

This post focuses on one particular street and one of its buildings. Widegate Street is just 200ft long and connects Middlesex Street and Sandy’s Row. The name Widegate comes from the former ‘white gate’ entrance into the Old Artillery Ground, which was established in the 16th century. Areas of the ground were sold off for housing and shops in subsequent centuries, with its legacy living on today in names such as Fort Street, Gun Street, Artillery Passage and Artillery Lane. Widegate Street used to be longer than what you see today, but some of it was absorbed by Middlesex Street in the 1890s. Today, Widegate Street features a mix of narrow historic buildings, including two listed houses at No.24 and 25 dating back to 1720.

No.12-13 is currently home to Honest Burgers, who have branches across London in a variety of historic premises. However, long before burger buns were being served, more traditional buns were being baked on site. The building was designed in the 1920s by architect George Val Myer as a bakery, in a neo-Georgian style to complement neighbouring buildings. The ground floor features glazed white bricks, giving a clean, clinical look. The two upper stories are made of red brick, Crittal windows and a strong cornice projecting above. The most striking part of the building are four ceramic panels, giving a permanent reminder of its origins as bakery. ‘Bakers Relief’ were created by Brixton-born sculptor Philip Lindsey Clark (1899-1977) in 1926 and were fired by Carters of Poole. The white and blue glazes are 1.2metres by 50 centimetres and depict the baking process. The panels start with a man carrying a sack of flour; a baker kneading the dough, baking the loaf in the oven and a baker carrying a tray of loaves. The original business itself was called the Nordheim Model Bakery and was opened by Charles Naphtali Nordheim (1864-1941). It carried on trading for several decades after Charles’ death (see a 1973 photo of the bakery). In the 1970s, the words ‘French Vienna and Rye Breads’ had been fixed to façade in between the 1st and 2nd floors. Although the bakery moved on in recent decades, today customers are still their getting their carb fix thanks to buns with their burgers.

  • 12-13 Widegate Street, Spitalfields, E1 7HP. Nearest station: Liverpool Street.
Spitalfields Widegate Street © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Sculptor Philip Lindsey Clark created the ceramic panels depicting the baking process

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‘They shall not pass’: Fighting the fascists on the Battle of Cable Street mural

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

A huge mural depicts the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in October 1936

We’re currently living in a time of great political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic, with effects from Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency likely to be felt for years to come. While it’s understandable to feel despair right now, remember Londoners in the past have gone through similar tumultuous times and have managed to come out the other side. In the past year, it seems like more Londoners are expressing their anger over political issues and taking to the streets to protest. However, back in October 1936, ordinary Londoners ended up clashing with police in a historic battle.

In between the two World Wars, politician Oswald Mosley (1896-1980) founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932 after becoming disillusioned with the Labour party. His speeches were so controversial, it was predictable that BUF meetings often ran into trouble with Communist and Jewish groups so Mosley enlisted the infamous ‘Blackshirts’ for protection.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The mural depicts faceless police officers clashing with working-class East End Londoners

On 4 October 1936, the BUF planned to march through the streets of East London – particularly antagonising as the area was renowned for its large Jewish population. Ignoring their better judgement, the government declined to ban the march and instead requested the police escort the fascists. Outraged by the BUF’s plans, various groups of Jewish, Irish, socialist, anarchist and communist groups decided to put up roadblocks in a bid to stop the march. An estimated 20,000 demonstrators turned up, chanting ‘they shall not pass’, and were confronted by 6,000 police officers, who were under orders to let the BUF march as intended. The ensuing clash between the groups involved protestors fighting back with anything they could get their hands on, including furniture, sticks and rocks. Meanwhile, Mosley’s BUF finally realised what an ill-advised idea it had been and retreated to Hyde Park. Around 175 people – protestors and police – were injured, while 150 demonstrators were arrested. The battle influenced the passing of the Public Order Act 1936, which required political marches to obtain police consent and banned the wearing of political uniforms in public.

Decades later, the historic clash was to be commemorated on a huge mural on the side of St George’s Town Hall on Cable Street. Artist Dave Binnington was commissioned to depict the battle on the 3,500 square feet section of wall, beginning his work in late 1979. It was initially hoped the mural would be completed by the 44th anniversary of the battle in October 1980, but the sheer scale and other technical problems led Binnington to realise it was a bigger task than he estimated. In May 1982, part of the mural was vandalised with far-right graffiti, which prompted a tired and disgusted Binnington to resign from the project. Two months later, artists Paul Butler, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort got together to complete the mural, with the top section fulfilling Binnington’s original designs and the vandalised lower portions covered with a modified design. The mural was finally unveiled in May 1983 by Paul Beasley (leader of Tower Hamlets Council) Jack Jones (former General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union), Tony Banks (Chair of the Greater London Council Arts Committee) and Dan Jones (Secretary of the Hackney Trades Council).

Unfortunately in the intervening years, the mural has been vandalised several times, but was restored in October 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Visiting today, it’s an overwhelming and powerful piece of art. The sheer scale and details of the mural will keep many visitors lingering at it for quite some time. The 1930s setting is clear through the style of painting, while the flying milk bottles and broken windows really epitomises the unexpected explosion of violence.

  • The Cable Street mural is on the side of St George’s Town Hall, 236 Cable Street, E1 0BL. Nearest station: Shadwell.

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Tribute to the man who saved St Pancras station: The Sir John Betjeman statue

Heritage campaigner and poet has been immortalised at St Pancras International.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The bronze statue of Sir John Betjeman on the upper level of St Pancras International station

Whatever your taste in architecture, few would deny the St Pancras station and hotel is one of London’s finest buildings. After decades of neglect, the station was given a huge facelift in the Noughties, with the former Midland Grand Hotel reborn as the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Every year, over 28 million passengers pass through the Victorian Gothic architectural masterpiece.

However, while today we appreciate architecture from yesteryear, it wasn’t always the case. In fact, St Pancras nearly followed the fate of nearby Euston, whose famous Doric arch was demolished in 1961. One of the heritage campaigners who fought to save the Euston Arch was English poet, writer and broadcaster, Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984). Betjeman was a founding member of the Victorian Society, which was established in 1957 to fight to preserve 19th and early 20th century architecture, which had fallen out of favour at the time.

St Pancras station and the Midland Grand Hotel were built in 1868 to a design by acclaimed architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). Originally a luxurious hotel, as technologies advanced, it lost its popularity and was closed in the 1930s. British Rail then moved into the former hotel – then known as St Pancras Chambers – and its bedrooms became offices. By the 1960s, British Rail made several attempts to close and demolish the hotel. However, Betjeman and his colleague Jane Hughes Fawcett (1921-2016) at the Victorian Society led a ferocious campaign to save the Victorian wonder.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The statue stands on the upper level as it appears Betjeman is gazing up at the famous Barlow train shed

At the time, Betjeman wrote: ‘What (the Londoner) sees in his mind’s eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of Barlow’s train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street.’ Fortunately, Betjeman, Fawcett and the Victorian Society’s campaign was a success and St Pancras was saved. It was protected forever in 1967 when it was given Grade I listing.

When St Pancras International re-opened in 2007, the late Betjeman was commemorated with a bronze sculpture of his likeness. The 6ft 7in statue by artist Martin Jennings shows the former Poet Laureate holding on to his hat as he gazes up at the Barlow roof. Explaining the piece at the time, Jennings said: ‘The piece is an image of him as if he has walked into the station for the first time and gazes up at the roof. He’s got a bag with his books and his coat is billowing up behind him as if in the wind of a passing express train.’ Under his feet is a disc of Cumbrian slate with lines from his poem Cornish Cliffs: ‘And in the shadowless unclouded glare. Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where. A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.’

  • The Sir John Betjeman statue stands on the upper level, above the shopping arcade concourse at St Pancras International station, Euston Road, N1C 4QP. Nearest tube station: King’s Cross St Pancras.
St Pancras John Betjeman © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

A tribute to a man who fought to save London’s heritage


For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

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