Who do you sphinx you are? The history behind the camel and sphinx benches on Victoria Embankment
The story behind these curious Egyptian benches by the Thames.
Anyone who has strolled along the Victoria Embankment may have noticed the ornate benches alongside the river. Dotted along the north of the Thames between Battersea and Blackfriars Bridges, the cast iron and wooden benches provide more than just a place to rest your weary bones. Unlike the pedestrian-friendly South Bank, the north bank of the Thames isn’t as pleasurable to walk along due to the busy traffic churning out fumes. As a result, all the benches face the river so you can sit with your back to the traffic and enjoy the view.
The benches are one of the many ornamental details created for the Embankment by English architect George John Vulliamy (1817-1886). As well as the benches, he is also responsible for the sphinxes and pedestal for Cleopatra’s Needle and the ‘dolphin’ lamps on both sides of the river. In the centre of London, the Thames used to be a lot wider until the 19th century, city bosses needed a new sewage system to cope with the rapidly expanding population. Sir Joseph Bazelgette (1819-1891) came up with a scheme to reclaim some 22 acres of marshland, creating a new sewage system and a new road, taking the pressure off The Strand. In the typically Victorian way, the new Embankment needed to have suitable ‘street furniture’ to give London – heart of the British Empire – a look of prestige and style.
Hired as the Superintending Architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Vulliamy created the ‘Dolphin’ (actually, sturgeon fish!) street lamps along the retaining river wall in 1870. Several years later, he decided to look to Egypt for inspiration when it came to designing the benches, a place he had visited in the early 1840s. Pre-empting the arrival of Cleopatra’s Needle – a gift from Egypt – in 1878, Vulliamy opted for a design which would complement the ancient monument when it eventually arrived. Near the site of the Needle itself, the benches in the City of Westminster feature armrests of Sphinxes, before camel armrests appear in the City of London section of the Victoria Embankment. The benches were made by Z.D. Berry & Son of Regent Street and placed on the Embankment in 1877 – a year before Cleopatra’s Needle was erected. Of course, weather and pollution have damaged the benches over the years, with Westminster and the City of London councils restoring and faithfully reproducing them when needed.
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Seen a Dolphin in the Thames? Story behind the lamps on the Embankment
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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Can lampposts be fashionable? The myth of the Coco Chanel street lights
The real story behind the CC logo on Westminster’s street lights.
Anyone observant who has walked around the City of Westminster may have noticed the gold CC initials embossed on some of the lampposts. With the two Cs back-to-back, the first association that would spring to mind would be Coco Chanel’s iconic logo. Decades after the French designer was the talk of the town, her brand is still a big name internationally, synonymous with classic style and quality.
For years, there has been a myth that the initials actually are in homage to Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883-1971) as a declaration of affection from her lover, the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (1879-1953). The pair were said to have met at a party in Monaco sometime between 1923 and 1925 and embarked on a love affair until the early ’30s. Although French and known for her long association with Paris, Gabrielle spent a lot of time in London during the ’20s and opened her Mayfair boutique in 1927.
To prove his love for her, the myth claims the Duke had his French lover’s initials CC embossed in gold on black lampposts alongside his own ornate W crest (for Westminster). Decades after their romance, Coco herself denied reports she had refused the Duke’s proposal with the reply: ‘There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but only one Coco Chanel.’ She said such a response would have been ‘vulgar’, adding: ‘He would have laughed in my face.’ However, he did buy her some land at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera, where she built her villa La Pausa.
What does the CC on Westminster lampposts mean?
While the lampposts appearing to combine French fashion and traditional British design remain on many Westminster streets, it appears the CCs may not have such a romantic origin after all. Westminster Council told the Telegraph in 2011 that the CC stands for something far less glamorous. Martin Low, City Commissioner of Transportation for Westminster City Council, told the paper: ‘Periodically, we get calls from the fashion press asking if the double Cs on our lampposts stand for Coco Chanel. It’s a nice idea, but no. The fancy W stands for Westminster and the two Cs stand for City Council. The lampposts didn’t actually get installed until the 1950s.’
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The water’s run dry | A Georgian pump lanquishing on Cornhill
For a blog update on the Cornhill water pump, which has now been restored, click here.
Cornhill is a road in the heart of the City of London, known for its bustling offices and designer boutiques. Located a stone’s throw from the Bank of England, the name Cornhill comes from it being one of the city’s three hills (Tower Hill and Ludgate Hill).
In a world before cars, travelling around on a horse and carriage was the way to get around. Just like today the city is dotted with petrol stations to refuel, in Georgian and Victorian times there were wells, troughs and water pumps to water the horses and refresh the people. With an extensive underground sewer network and piped water supply, thankfully these days we don’t need to grab a bucket and head to the nearest pump for some water.
While demand for public wells has ceased over the past 100 years, the staggering history and aesthetics of the City’s old street furniture means many of these pumps can still be seen today. Earlier this autumn, one such pump caught my eye. Located outside the Gucci store in the Royal Exchange, it looks very different to other stone and black ones I’ve seen on the streets. Painted in the City of London’s light blue colour, just like the Old Police Telephone posts, it stands out amongst the bins, post boxes and street lighting. While to some, it looks like a tired piece of old London, the pump actually has a significant tie to the history of London and distances from the old capital. A minute’s walk up to the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street is the location of ‘The Standard’ – the first mechanically-pumped water supply in London. As well as being a source for water, the pump became a meeting place and also the mark from which distances from London were judged (until the marker later became Charing Cross – see Civil war, centre of London and a memorial to a queen: The story behind Charing Cross).
Although The Standard pump was discontinued in 1603, back down the hill outside Gucci (of course it wasn’t Gucci then!), the current pump was erected nearly 200 years later. Two of the City’s big players of the time, the East India Company and the Bank of England, together with the local fire stations and local bankers and traders who worked in the area, jointly funded the cast iron pump with an adjoining granite trough.
Designed by architect Nathaniel Wright (who built St Botolph Aldersgate in Postman’s Park), the inscription on the road-facing side, it reads: ‘On this spot a well was first made and a House of Correction built thereon by Henry Wallis Mayor of London in the year 1282.’
It continues on the Royal Exchange-facing side: ‘The well was discovered much enlarged and this pump erected in the year 1799 by the contributions of the Bank of England, the East India Company, the neighbouring fire offices, together with the bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill.’
As well as the inscriptions, the Grade II-listed pump has fire insurance emblems on each side – Royal Exchange, Sun, Phoenix and County. Although the pump is in good condition considering it’s 213 years old, it’s definitely been slightly neglected in recent years and could do a bit of tender loving care.
- The Cornhill pump is located on the north side of Cornhill, outside Gucci (9 Change Alley), City of London EC3V. Nearest station: Bank.
Metro Girl Likes: While you’re in Cornhill, pop into the Counting House for a drink or pie. Built in 1893 as Prescott’s Bank, the pub has stunning woodwork, paintings and tiling, which helps the venue retain its 19th century charm.
For more Metro Girl blog posts on London’s street furniture, read about the myth of the Coco Chanel street lights.
Find out the story behind London’s police telephone posts.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
London Calling | BT Artbox celebrates 25 years of Childline
The red telephone box is one of Britain’s biggest icons – it’s up there with red London bus, Big Ben, Beefeaters, the Union Jack and Queen Elizabeth II herself. But for tourists arriving in London ahead of the Olympics, may find themselves slightly confused by the bizarre-looking phoneboxes dotted around the capital.
However, these multi-coloured and embellished street furniture haven’t been vandalised, they are simply part of the BT ArtBox project to mark the 25th anniversary of children’s charity Childline. It has invited artists and companies to customise their own replica box, which have been displayed around the city. But don’t get too carried away, these boxes don’t include a working phone should you need one, they’re simply for your viewing pleasure.
With the use of telephone boxes on the rapid decline since the popularity of mobile phones, I think the ArtBox project is an ingenious way to celebrate this iconic structure that draws so many tourists to pose inside them, as well as raise awareness and money for Childline. Following their display around the streets of London, they are to be auctioned off.
Before we find out about some of the Artboxes I have come across, a quick history about the real things. The first public telephone box was designed in 1920 for the Post Office and named K1 (Kiosk No.1), based on the same idea as the Police Telephone Boxes and Posts. However, the London Metropolitan Boroughs weren’t too impressed with the design and so the Fine Arts Commission judged a competition to find a more attractive and practical design. The winner was a London-born architect named Giles Gilbert Scott (who later designed Battersea Power Station) who came up with a classical style with a dome on top – inspired by Sir John Soane’s mausoleums at St Pancras Old Churchyard and Dulwich Picture Gallery.
So with the K2 design chosen, the Post Office chose to make it red so it easily to stand out to the public searching the streets for a payphone. Various different models followed, the K3, K4 and K5, but it is the K6 one which is most famous today.
Sir Giles designed the K6 model in 1935 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. The model was rolled out across the country with the amount of public phone boxes in Britain rising from 8,000 in 1930 to 19,000 in Silver Jubilee year, rising even further to 35,000 by the time World War II broke out.
Today, with a majority of the boxes owned by BT and a lot less attractive, modern phone boxes instead and the widespread use of mobile phones, you will find the red telephone boxes aren’t in such demand as they used to be. The days of queuing for a phone box and huffing and puffing when you’re stuck in a line behind a right chatterbox appear to be long gone.
With the BT ArtBox auction having gone live on eBay on Monday 16th July (ending Sunday 22nd July), there isn’t much time left to check out the boxes on show.
Many tourists are likely to come across the two on a traffic island in Trafalgar Square – Mandii Pope’s ‘Big Ben’ and Lauren O’Farrell’s ‘Dial M For Monster’. A short hop away outside Charing Cross Station on The Strand is Fred Butler’s Mobile Phone, designed to look like a vintage mobile. With actual buttons, it creates nostalgia for a design already outdated by Smartphones.
Another popular tourist spot where the public will come across the ArtBoxes is in Potter’s Field Park – the green expanse outside City Hall on the south bank of the River Thames. Right beside the base of Tower Bridge is London & Partner’s ‘Welcome To London’ box, a white box covered in speech bubbles with different languages to represent the multi-cultural melting pot that is London.
Less than a minute’s walk to the East of City Hall are two ArtBoxes – Aboud & Aboud’s ‘Shocking Conversation’, which looks like an unfinished box which has been partially dunked in red paint. It has been described as the colour is ‘draining out’ of the box.
Next to it stands Peter Anderson’s ‘London Calling’, which features iconic images of Joe Strummer and The Clash from the 1980s.
While most of the ArtBoxes are in and around the City and West End, some are dotted a bit further out, including Westfield Stratford, Canary Wharf and Ravenscourt Park. Just outside the West End are two located in and outside the Royal Albert Hall.
The ArtBox outside, entitled ‘Ring-A-Royal Phonebox’ created by children’s TV presenter Timmy Mallett, has a royal theme, which is very apt considering the origins of the concert venue and the fact the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live a short walk away in Kensington Palace. Each side of the box contains some of the most popular members of the Royal Family – the Queen herself, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Kate Middleton is recognisable with her glossy brown hair and blue dress and is pushing a pram – significant to the pressure she is under to produce a royal heir. The Queen is accompanied by one of her beloved Corgis, while Prince Harry is pulling Usain Bolt’s classic pointing pose – so the ArtBox is both celebrating the Royal Jubilee, while making a nod to the Olympics.
- The BT Artbox exhibition is on around London from 18 June until 16 July 2012.
What’s that small Tardis-looking thing? Story behind London’s police telephone posts
The history behind the blue police telephone posts in the City of London and Westminster.
One afternoon strolling through the City Of London, I happened upon an old Police Telephone Post, on the junction of Queen Victoria Street and Friday Street outside Bracken House. I had very rarely seen posts and the larger Police Telephone Boxes in the capital – in fact most are so well hidden you may never even notice them. After taking a photo of the well-preserved one near Mansion House tube station, I was intrigued to find out the history of them.
Of course, when most people see a Police Box today they are likely to think of the Tardis from the Doctor Who TV series. While the Time Lord’s Tardis is a huge time travelling machine with lots of space inside to move around (and fictional!), the real things managed to squeeze in a telephone, first aid kit, a stool, fire extinguisher and small heater.
Police boxes and posts were important tools for the Metropolitan Police from the late 1920s until the late 1960s, when they began being phased out with the advent of personal radios. From a peak of 685 in 1953, there aren’t many left in London today. However, some have been left in the city’s streets as a reminder of the world before mobile phones and radios came along and changed modern policing. Generally they remain a sky blue – their official colour in the City of London, however some have been painted different colours.
Police Telephone Posts and Boxes aren’t unique to London and were actually introduced in Glasgow in 1891. However, while English posts were blue, Scottish ones were red. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that they were introduced in London by the Metropolitan Police.
Posts and boxes were for officers on the beat and the public to use to contact the police – an alternative to 999 when people didn’t have access to their own telephones or mobiles.
At the top of the post is a red lantern, which would flash when police were required to contact their station. It’s thought the square frame surrounding the bulb was inspired by Sir John Soane‘s lantern feature on the mausoleum of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Is there a real Tardis in Earl’s Court?
In a bit of nostalgia, a new police phone box was erected outside Earl’s Court tube station in 1996 to keep an eye on the area’s undesirables, although is now longer manned. It does contain CCTV functions for watching over the action outside the station and continues to be maintained by the police. Unsurprisingly it attracts a lot of Doctor Who enthusiasts in search of the Tardis.
All the Police Telephone Boxes I found in the City appeared to be well-preserved, with a sign informing the public they can no longer use them to contact emergency services. It reads: ‘An original police telephone. Free for use of public. The telephone is no longer operational. Please use nearby payphone.’ Given that hardly anyone uses payphones these days, the signs were obviously written some time ago.
However, in the City of Westminster, it appeared the council aren’t so bothered about the state of their old posts. The post in Piccadilly Circus – on the junction with the northside of Piccadilly – was looking quite sad. It has been incorrectly painted a wrong shade of blue and due to its location on such a busy thoroughfare in terms of both foot and vehicle traffic, it’s taken a battering over the years. (Watch footage of the Piccadilly Circus box being used by a policeman in 1946).
The telephone post located in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair is also looking rather neglected. Although it’s the same shade of blue as the ones in the City, the black ‘Police Public Call Post’ sign near the top is missing. However, the old sign on the door still suggests you could use it to call for help. It reads: ‘Police telephone free for use of public. Advice and assistance obtainable immediately. Officers and cars respond to urgent calls. Pull to open.’ Perhaps a bit misleading to a visitor from out-of-town… no one is going to come if you try to use this post!
A completely different style of telephone box to the Tardis ones appears in London’s iconic Trafalgar Square. Many would have passed the circular box, which has been described as ‘Britain’s smallest police station’. It was built in 1926 out of an existing lamp plinth (the lamp fitting dates back to 1826) so police could keep an eye on demonstrations in the Square. It was created to blend in with the walls of Trafalgar Square after public objections to previous designs. Inside was a phone line direct to Scotland Yard and whenever it was picked up, a flashing light in the ornamental light on top would flash alerting nearby officers to trouble. No longer in use by police, it’s now used to store cleaning equipment for City of Westminster street cleaners.
For Metro Girl’s blog post on another tiny police station in Hyde Park Corner, click here.
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