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Shopping in style – Part 2: The world’s oldest arcade, the Royal Opera Arcade

The history of London’s first ever shopping arcade in St James.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The Royal Opera Arcade in St James is the world’s oldest existing shopping arcade

Decades before the likes of Westfield and Brent Cross came to London, those who wanted to shop in comfort headed to one of the capital’s arcades. Like the mega malls of today, these arcades featured numerous shops under one roof, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the weather. However, as well laid out as these modern fashion meccas are, they just can’t compare to the historic and upmarket designs of the late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods. As part of Metro Girl’s series on the five historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, Part 2 will be focusing on where it all began; the Royal Opera Arcade – the oldest arcade in the world.

The names and buildings of Her Majesty’s Theatre

1705: The Queen’s Theatre built
1709: Theatre is dedicated to Italian Opera. Often referred to as ‘the Opera House’
1714: Renamed The King’s Theatre
1789: The King’s Theatre burns down
1791: Theatre is rebuilt and reopens
1837: Renamed Her Majesty’s Theatre, Italian Opera House
1867: Fire destroys the second theatre
1869: New theatre built
1892: Third theatre demolished
1897: Current Her Majesty’s Theatre opens
1901: Renamed His Majesty’s Theatre
1952: Renamed Her Majesty’s Theatre

Now you could well be confused wondering why the Royal Opera Arcade is over a kilometre away from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Well the current opera house has only been in its current location since 1847. The current Her Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket is the fourth theatre to stand on the site and has experienced numerous name changes throughout history. Throughout the 18th and early 19th century, the theatre was renowned as the place in London to see opera and ballet. However, in 1846, Michael Costa (1808-1884), conductor at Her Majesty’s, had a dispute with the owners and switched allegiance to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, bringing most of the company with him. Theatre Royal, Covent Garden was then renamed the Italian Opera House, eventually becoming the Royal Opera House in 1892.

The Royal Opera Arcade was conceived as an add-on to the second theatre to stand on the site – the King’s Theatre. The original King’s Theatre burned down in 1789 and replaced by a new building in 1791, designed by Michael Novosielski (1747–1795), an architect and former scene painter. When it opened, it was the largest theatre in the country. However, as the 19th century progressed, the theatre was in need of improvement. Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) and his assistant George Stanley Repton (d.1858) altered the façade of the theatre and increased the capacity of the auditorium to 2,500 in 1816-1818. To the west of the theatre, they added the Royal Opera Arcade. Nash is also famous for designing Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, Carlton House Terrace and many others.

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Here lies Giro the dog: The only ‘Nazi’ memorial in London

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The only Nazi memorial in London: The grave of Giro, the pet dog of the former German ambassador

Photo from German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

Leopold von Hoesch in November 1931.
(Photo from German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Sheltering under a tree, lies the only memorial to a Nazi in London. However, in this case, it is in memory of a Nazi dog named Giro, who unfortunately had no choice in the party he was aligned to. Situated outside Carlton House Terrace in St James is the grave of Giro, the terrier owned by German Ambassador to the UK, Leopold von Hoesch (1881-1936). The pair lived at No.8 and No.9 Carlton House Terrace – two 19th century Regency homes designed by architect John Nash, which were merged to form the German embassy in 1923.

Previously working in Paris, Hoesch was transferred to the UK in 1932 (bringing his faithful companion with him). At the time, he was representing the Weimar Republic. It didn’t take long for Hoesch to find favour with the British and he was able to enhance Anglo-German relations. When the Nazi party took over Germany in 1933, Hoesch continued to represent his country, despite his growing unease about Adolf Hitler. From 1934 onwards, Hoesch began to clash with Hitler. One of Hoesch’s main contentions was his distrust of Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946), who was steadily climbing the Nazi power ladder.

Meanwhile, as Hoesch’s relationship with Hitler was worsening, he suffered some personal heartbreak at home. In February 1934, his beloved Giro died after chewing through an electric cable in the back garden. The Ambassador gave his dog a funeral and buried him with a diminutive gravestone featuring a German epitaph, which translates as: ‘Giro – a faithful companion! – London in February 1934 – Hoesch.’ The grave was originally in the garden of No.9 but was moved to its present site under a tree in the 1960s following some building works.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The small, if somewhat wonky gravestone, reads: ‘Giro – a faithful companion! – London in February 1934 – Hoesch.’

While he was popular with the Brits and had a reputation among social circles for his fabulous parties at the Embassy, Hoesch couldn’t hide his growing dismay over Hitler’s policies and actions. When Hitler invaded the Rhineland in March 1936, Hoesch wrote to Germany’s Foreign Minister, Konstantin Neurath strongly stating his disapproval, accusing the Führer of trying to provoke France.

A month later on 11 April 1936, Hoesch died of a heart attack in his bedroom at the German Embassy. Due to his popularity with the Brits, he was given a large funeral cortege, with his coffin draped in a Nazi flag. Accompanied by Grenadier Guards, Hoesch’s body was escorted down The Mall with onlookers giving the Nazi salute. An amazing scene you can imagine, given Britain was at war with Nazi Germany just five years later. Hoesch’s coffin was escorted all the way to Dover, for transfer back to Germany for burial.

Hoesch’s nemesis von Ribbentrop ended up succeeding him as Ambassador, but the latter’s relations with the British couldn’t be more different to his predecessor. He was a fully committed member of the Nazi party and strongly aligned to Hitler, who had ordered him to negotiate an Anglo-German alliance. However, Ribbentrop completely failed to understand the workings of British politics and the monarchy, wrongly believing King Edward VIII (1894-1972) could dictate foreign policy. After two years in London, Ribbentrop returned to Germany 1938 to become Foreign Minister and became a major Nazi figure throughout the war. Following World II, he was convicted of war crimes and hanged in 1946.

  • Giro’s grave is located under a tree at the top of the Duke Of York stairs in the middle of Carlton House Terrace, St James, SW1Y. Nearest station: Charing Cross or Piccadilly Circus.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Giro and Hoesch lived at No.9 Carlton House Terrace (last house on the right of the terrace with the taller roof)


For Metro Girl’s blog post on the history of Carlton House Terrace, click here.

For more London history posts, click here.

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Duck Island Cottage: A ‘rural’ retreat in St James’s Park

Duck Island Cottage © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Duck Island Cottage is a 19th century building in St James’s Park

Entering St James’s Park from the Whitehall side, it’s likely you will have come across Duck Island Cottage. Situated on the eastern end of the park’s lake stands a 19th century cottage – quite a contrast with the nearby neo-classical, imposing grey stone government buildings and Buckingham Palace. Situated by the lakeside with a small stream running under a bridge linking the cottage’s two sections, it also includes a sweet little garden. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Mr McGregor’s garden in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales.

As part a chain of royal parks (which are separated by roads), St James’s Park stands out from the others because of its birdlife. Established in 1603 under King James I (1566-1625), the park was named after a women’s leper hospital dedicated to St James the Less. After being landscaped, the park became home to exotic animals, including camels, crocodiles and an elephant! It wasn’t until 1664, the famous pelicans arrived as a gift by the Russian ambassador, and they still remain today. At the time, a long canal ran nearly the length of the whole park, with a duck decoy in the south-east corner to capture ducks for the royal dining table. The island in the middle of the decoy was given the name Duck Island, which was entrusted to the appointed Governor of Duck Island to oversee. The first cottage on the site wasn’t built until King William III’s (1650-1702) reign in the late 17th century, initially as a tea house. By the 18th century, Duck Island was removed due to the stench of stagnant ponds and replaced by grass.

Duck Island Cottage © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The view over the lake and the Tiffany fountain from the bridge

Over the centuries, the park was re-landscaped many times, with the body of water changing shape between a stream, channels, smaller ponds and now the lake as we see today. The landscape of the park today is mostly down to the Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835), who remodelled the straight canal of water into a more natural looking curved lake in the late 1820s. He also reintroduced Duck Island, which had been missing for several decades at this point. With new trees and shrubs surrounding the cottage, birdlife returned to the park.

In 1837, the Ornithological Society of London was founded with the aim to protect the birds and three years later, work started on plans for a cottage to house a bird keeper. Architect John Burges Watson (1803-1881) designed the cottage comprising of two buildings – a dwelling for the bird keeper and a clubroom for the Society – which were completed in April 1841. The two buildings were connected by a small covered bridge, offering views across the lake and garden. The romantic design appears to be Swiss inspired and wouldn’t look out of place in the countryside.

From 1900 to 1953, Duck Island Cottage was home to bird keeper Thomas Hinton. The cottage was damaged during the Blitz in 1940 and by 1953, following Hinton’s death, the cottage was abandoned after it was considered unfit for habitation. Today, the cottage features water treatment facilities and pumps for the lake and fountain, while the garden is maintained by the Royal Parks. Duck Island is a nature reserve as a sanctuary and breeding ground for the park’s birds, including herons, mute swans and eastern or great white pelicans. If you want to see the pelicans being fed, head to the grassy bank adjacent to the cottage between 2.30pm-3pm every day.

  • Duck Island Cottage, St James’s Park, Westminster, SW1A 2BJ. Nearest stations: Westminster or St James’s Park. Park is open daily from 5am-midnight. For more information, visit the Royal Parks website.
Duck Island Cottage © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The cottage grounds features an enclosed garden ‘in the Arts and Crafts style’


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

Regency London, John Nash and the Third Reich: Visiting The Royal Society’s Carlton House Terrace with Open House

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Only a staircase with blue and white Regency-style wood panelling is all what is left of John Nash’s original interiors at Carlton House Terrace

At Open House London this weekend (19-20 September 2015), The Royal Society are opening the doors to their headquarters for tours. The UK’s national science academy has been based at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace since 1967. However, their HQ was originally separate houses with an interesting history dating back nearly 200 years. I visited during Open House London last year and was charmed by the varied layers of history within the building.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The Wolfson Library, in what used to be No.6, features a spectacular ceiling and was used at the turn of the 20th century for lavish parties

Carlton House Terrace is a road comprising of two Regency terraces (Nos.1-9 on the west side, Nos 10-18 on the east) in a Roman classical style designed primarily by London-born architect John Nash (1752-1835), with input by Decimus Burton (1800-1881), among others. The road’s name refers to the site’s former royal residence Carlton House, which was demolished on order of its former resident King George IV (1762-1830) when he moved into nearby Buckingham Palace. The King wanted to give the site to the public on the condition new dwellings for the upper classes were erected on the site. Nash’s original idea was to link the two terraces with a large fountain, but the King vetoed his plans so the flight of stairs down to Pall Mall were built instead. The four-storey terraces were built between 1827 and 1832, with the Duke Of York column erected in between the blocks in 1834 in memory of the King’s younger brother Prince Frederick (1763-1827).

While the houses have changed and some have been merged over the years, only a small portion of Nash’s original interiors still exist. In what used to be No.7, Nash’s Staircase is still in situ, featuring white and blue wood panelling and wrought iron bannisters. It’s a small, but fine display of Nash’s regency interior style, of which hardly any examples exist these days due to it falling out of fashion.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The stunning mother of pearl detailing on the first floor ceiling of what used to be No.6

The houses remained as homes for around 100 years, with Prime Ministers Lord Palmerston, Earl Grey and William Ewart Gladstone among the high-profile residents. American millionaire Charles Henry Sanford, who lived at No.6 in 1890-91, had the house madeover in an opulent Italianate style when he moved in. Today, his stunning marble staircase and ceiling – featuring carved timber and mother of pearl inlays – can still be seen. Upstairs, the Wolfson Library features gold leaf detailing and a painted ceiling and was formerly used as a ballroom for lavish parties at the turn of the 20th century, hosted by American Mrs John W Mackay, who lived at the residence between 1892 and 1920. The Milwaukee Journal wrote of her abode: ‘Her beautiful house in Carlton House Terrace is always open and her gracious hospitality is chronicled by foreigners and her own countrymen.’ Read the rest of this entry