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Shopping in style – Part 3 | Retail therapy Victorian-style at the Royal Arcade

The history of Mayfair’s striking Victorian shopping arcade.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The Royal Arcade is the oldest surviving Victorian 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 six historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, Part 3 will be focusing on the only surviving Victorian one – the Royal Arcade.

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The Albemarle Street entrance to the Victorian arcade

London’s first ever shopping arcade – the Royal Opera Arcade in St James opened in 1818, with the Burlington Arcade in Mayfair following a year later. The Lowther Arcade was established in The Strand in 1830, but unlike its contemporaries, it didn’t survive far into the 20th century when it was demolished in 1904. After the Lowther opened, it was a 49 years before another arcade joined the capital’s retail industry.

The Royal Arcade was originally known as simply The Arcade and was first envisioned in 1864 as a link between Old Bond Street and Regent Street. However, these proposals were rejected due to the required volume of demolition of existing buildings. However, the plans were revised into its current design by Victorian architects Thomas Archer and Arthur Green (1847-1904). Archer & Green shared a practice for over 15 years before going their separate ways in 1889, during which they designed Whitehall Court, No.1 Cambridge Gate and the Hyde Park Hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental). Green was the father of Leslie Green (1875-1908), who designed many of London’s tube stations, including Oxford Circus, Camden Town, Covent Garden, Holborn and South Kensington. His stations are recognisable due to their ox blood red tiling on the buildings’ exteriors.

The Clarendon Hotel on Albemarle Street was demolished in 1870, freeing up the space for construction of The Arcade, which opened in 1879. In contrast to the older shopping arcades of the capital, The Royal Arcade is a lot more ornate in design. The two-storey arcade features curved bay windows on the ground floor with Ionic columns separating the 16 shops. The first floor features cast iron balconies overlooking the walkway. Looking up, the aisle is covered by a saddled glazed roof and arches with stucco detailing. Meanwhile, the orange and white façade of the building features reliefs symbolising abundance and commerce, caryatids (sculpted female figures taking the place of a column) and a portrait of Queen Victoria.

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The Old Curiosity Shop: A little piece of 16th century London with a literary link

A historic shop proclaims to have inspired the classic novel, but what’s the real story?

Dickens Curiousity Shop © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The Old Curiosity Shop in Holborn

Down a little unassuming side street in the back roads of Holborn is historic shop. Just two storeys high, it is dwarfed by the modernity surrounding it. At first glance, fans of Charles Dickens may be thrilled to see the author’s name emblazoned across the upper storey as it claims to be his Old Curiosity Shop from the Victorian novel of the same name. Perhaps on close inspection the truth isn’t so clear-cut.

Built in 1567, the building is believed to be the oldest surviving shop in London. It was constructed using wood from old ships, with a tiled, hipped roof. The ground floor windows today still feature 17th or early 18th century frames, with 19th century glazing. It managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 as the fire died out before it reached the Holborn area. At one point the building was used as a dairy on an estate owned by Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth (1649-1734) – one of the mistresses of King Charles II (1630-1685) and mother to one of his illegitimate children. The estate was a gift from Charles and the road takes its name from the Duchess.

Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) originally serialised The Old Curiosity Shop in his serial Master Humphrey’s Clock from 1840-1841, before publishing it as a complete book in 1841. The novel told the story of orphan ‘Little’ Nell Trent and her grandfather, who live at The Old Curiosity Shop. The book was incredibly popular with the Victorian public, with even the Queen remarking it was ‘cleverly written’.

The idea that Dickens was inspired by this very shop in Holborn is untrue – although he lived for many years in the area and knew of the building. In The Old Curiosity Shop, the author himself writes “the old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place”. The actual shop which inspired Dickens’ tale is widely believed to be either 10 Orange Street (behind the National Gallery) or 24 Fetter Lane (off Fleet Street).

Old Curiosity Shop postcard. Owned by Memoirs Of A Metro Girl. Copyright unknown

An old postcard of the Old Curiosity Shop (approx 1920s-1930s)

Nearly 30 years after book was published, the shop’s proprietor decided to cash in on Dickens’ popularity. A bookbinder and bookseller named Tesseyman (d.1877) renamed it The Old Curiosity Shop, proudly declaring it was the very one ‘immortalised by Charles Dickens’. It’s been claimed Tesseyman was given the idea by Dickens’ illustrator Clayton Kyd Clarke (1857-1937) following the author’s death in 1870. Tesseyman’s brother confirmed to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1884 that the Curiosity Shop sign had been painted on the façade “for purely business purposes, as likely to attract custom to his shop, he being a dealer in books, paintings, old china, and so on”. According to the Gazette, Tesseyman ran the shop from 1868-1877 and was known as ‘Thackeray’s bookbinder’ and was acquainted with William Makepeace Thackeray, Douglas William Jerrold and Dickens, the latter he referred to as “lightning”. (See a watercolour of the shop during Tesseyman’s time).

From the 1880s until 1911, 13-14 Portsmouth Street was home to Horace Poole’s waste paper and jobbing stationery business. It was then taken over in the 1910s by stationers Gill and Durrant. In January 1925, it fortunately escaped destruction by a fire on the first floor, which made the Westminster Gazette headlines. By 1937, it appeared to be split into two businesses; The Society Tailors and Souvenir and Gifts with projecting signage and lamps erected on the first floor façade. The various businesses which resided at the address all preserved the Dickens’ signage, which surely ensured its survival, despite being untrue. The nearby Clare Market slums and shops were demolished in 1905 to create Aldwych and Kingsway, including the tramway subway. The Clare Market area today is mostly occupied by the London School of Economics (LSE).

At some point before 1950, the building became an antiques store, eventually closing in the 1970s. When it shut its doors, receipts and documents dating back as far as the 1920s were found. The building was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1958. Since the 1990s, the shop has been selling shoes by Japanese designer Daita Kimura. Why not pop in to see the low ceiling beams and winding staircases?

  • The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, Holborn, WC2A 2ES. Nearest stations: Holborn or Temple.

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Victorian Bath House review: Step back in time for exotic cocktails in one of London’s subterranean hideouts

Victorian Bath House © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The Victorian Bath House is a new bar in a 19th century Turkish bathhouse

I’m always on the lookout for something a bit different when it comes to London nightlife. The latest new opening in the City definitely has that unique feeling. Situated in a churchyard just off bustling Bishopsgate is a 19th century Turkish bath house, now open as a new bar, restaurant and event space called Victorian Bath House.

Victorian Bath House © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Bottled From The Lost City Of X (left) and Craven & Dunhill Ceramic Duo, served with a mini bottle of Peanut Butter Rum to add

The bath house was originally built as an underground palace of relaxation and hygiene, opening in February 1895. Designed by architect G Harold Elphick for Victorian entrepreneur James Forde Neville and his brother Henry, the bath house was narrow so it could fit between two 19th century office buildings – now long gone. With Turkish baths being all the rage at the time, the Bishopsgate ones were a huge hit with the public, who loved their marble floors, hot rooms and mosaics. The tiles were designed by Elphick and specially made at Craven Dunnill in Shropshire. The baths managed to survive the Blitz, but closed in 1954. Over the decades, the Grade II-listed building was used for various restaurants, nightclubs and storage space. In the 1970s-1980s, it was a Turkish-themed club called Gallipoli with belly dancers and live Turkish bands.

The building was reopened as the Victorian Bath House in April 2016. Today, the space is used primarily for special events, with the bar open ‘By Appointment Only’ from Thursdays to Saturdays. Last month, two friends and I booked a table on a Friday night to experience a night of decadence down below the streets of London. Walking into the courtyard, your eyes are immediately drawn to the Moorish pavilion entrance to the Bath House with its onion-shaped cupola and terracotta tiling. It certainly stands out among the modern, uninspiring office blocks surrounding it. After checking in our coats, we stepped down the winding, tiled staircase to the main bar – split into two rooms. A lot of the original tilework is still in situ, with the modern, Moorish-style furnishings complementing the interior. Low glass lamps and oil burners certainly made the bar very atmospheric.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The interior of the bar still features the original tile work and mosaics

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Rhubarb Flip (Egg Yolk, Rhubarb Vodka and Granulated Sugar)

The menu features a range of wine and cocktails inspired by Victoriana with a modern twist. Of course, gin being the 19th century tipple of choice, it features prominently on the menu, with different flavoured gins available so you can mix your own cocktail. In a throwback to the building’s original use, the ‘Wash, Rinse… Repeat’ is a mini bath tub served with mini cocktail bottles to make your own boozy bath water. However, I started with the ‘Craven & Dunhill Ceramic Duo’, two versions of Peanut Butter Rum to mix to your own taste. Despite being a fan of peanut butter and rum separately, I wasn’t sure how well they would work together, but it was sweet and had a nice kick. Clearly I was in the mood for something sweet, so next I ordered the ‘Rhubarb Flip’, a smooth combination of Egg Yolk, Rhubarb Vodka and Granulated Sugar, which was thick and delicious. Meanwhile, my friends tried the intriguingly named ‘Bottled From The Lost City Of Z’ – a glass bottle filled with Coconut Water, Sugar Cane Rum infused with Almond, Pink Peppercorn, Rose Water and Fresh Pineapple, which they said was nice and refreshing. Served in a bottle with a straw reminded us of drinking school milk.

The evening was thoroughly relaxing with the setting really bringing a different dimension to what would be a typical Friday night social practice. The service was excellent and we found the waiters very informative and friendly. The drink menu was certainly imaginative and unique, which would really put cocktail and gin aficionados in their element.

  • Victorian Bath House, Bishopsgate Courtyard, EC2M 3TJ. Nearest station: Liverpool Street. For more information, visit the Victorian Bath House website.

For more of Metro Girl’s bar and restaurant reviews, click here.

By Appointment Only Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Photo Friday | Looking up the grand staircase at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The grand staircase at the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel

I know I’m not alone when I say St Pancras station is one of my favourite London buildings. The Gothic Revival, Victorian masterpiece puts its (rather dull in comparison), rival London mainline stations in the shade. St Pancras was built as an hotel and train station in 1868 to a design by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878).

The Midland Grand Hotel as it then was known was very luxurious when it first opened and boasted fireplaces in every room (although sadly not ensuite bathrooms, which contributed to its demise in the 1930s when it was closed). The centrepiece of the hotel was – and still is – its grand staircase and gold leaf wallpaper. When the building was taken over to reopen as the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in the 21st century, the double staircase was restored to its former glory. Why not take a look on a visit to the Gilbert Scott restaurant and bar and gaze up at the starry vaulted ceiling and its Neo-Gothic features.

  • St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, NW1 2AR. Nearest station: King’s Cross St Pancras.

For a review of Afternoon Tea at the Gilbert Scott at the St Pancras Renaissance, click here.

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Morden Hall Park | A country oasis in south-west London

The history of the house and grounds at the end of the Northern Line.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The Victorian Stable Yard was restored in 2011 and is one of the most energy efficient historic buildings in the UK

Situated in London’s outer zones, are remnants of former country life. Now enclosed within the capital’s borders, there’s a host of manor houses and country estates which have amazingly managed to survive the frantic building and population boom of the ever-expanding city since the Victorian times. One such ‘leftover’ is Morden Hall Park, an 18th century estate in south-west London. Situated a short walk from Morden tube station, is 120 acres of parkland and historic buildings, enclosed by a 12-foot wall. Once you step inside, the city feels far away as you’re suddenly in a little country oasis.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The old snuff mill still features the water mill

Previously located in Surrey, Morden was owned by Westminster Abbey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. It was bought by Sir Richard Garth in 1553, who became Lord of the Manor. The Garth family owned the land for several centuries, with much of the estate being used as a deer park. The 5th Richard Garth built Morden Hall in 1770, with the building being used as a boy’s school from 1830-1873. Around this time, the two-storey Hall was stuccoed. Also in the 18th century, the East Mill was built, with the West Mill added in 1830. Meanwhile, Morden Cottage is a late 18th/early 19th century building featuring weatherboarding, with a Gothic façade linking it to the adjacent Mill Building.

In 1872, the Garth family sold the land to the tobacco merchant Gilliant Hatfeild (1827–1906), who had been brought up on the estate at Morden Cottage. He removed some of the field boundaries and demolished some of the cottages, while creating a tree-lined driveway linking the Hall to new South Lodge. The two mills on site were used to ground down tobacco into snuff until 1922, when a strike convinced Hatfeild’s son to quit the business. One of the original waterwheels that powered the mill still exists today. The family planted many of the trees that still exist, while one of the oldest yew trees in England is outside the cottage. In 1879, the Stable Yard was constructed opposite the cottage, with a distinctive clock tower and weather vane in the shape of a trout. In 1892, the park was described as containing around 100 deer.

The last private owner of the estate, Gilliat Edward Hatfeild (1864-1941) moved out of the grand Hall into the Cottage following the outbreak of World War I so it could be converted to a military hospital. As a confirmed bachelor, Gilliat preferred a simpler lifestyle and remained living at the cottage until his death. He enjoyed country life, with many of existing buildings today reflecting his interests. He was a keen hunter and fisherman, even converting the dairy for trout breeding. In 1930, he created the Rose Garden, which has been restored by the National Trust and now has over 2,000 roses across the 2.5 acres.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

The ornate Victorian bridge spans the River Wandle

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Within the grounds is the listed Morden Hall Cottage

Gilliat was very popular with Morden locals and often invited local schoolchildren to visit the grounds. Following his death during World War II, he bequeathed the estate to the National Trust, saying ‘a fee shall not be charged so that my Morden estate shall be open to the public’. He is buried in nearby St Lawrence Church on London Road, which was built in 1636.

Meanwhile, as for the house itself, following the National Trust purchase, it was used as offices until the early 1990s. The NT discovered the house had fallen into disrepair and teamed up with Whitbread to convert the building, while remaining sympathetic to its history, into a Beefeater restaurant and function room in 1996. Today, Morden Hall, is generally off-limits to the public, but is available for weddings following an extensive renovation in 2015. It is Grade-II listed.

Today, the estate contains the historic buildings and the expansive grounds, with the River Wandle running through. Among the features include a rose garden, wetlands, children’s playground, garden centre, city farm, gift shop and café. During the summer months, a pop-up cinema often take places during the evenings. During 2010, the Stable Yard was renovated to be the most energy-efficient historic building in the country. It now offers new visitor facilities, including an exhibition space.

  • Morden Hall Park, Morden Hall Road, Morden, SM4 5JD. Nearest station: Morden or Phipps Bridge (Tramlink). For more information and opening times, visit the National Trust website.

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One of the folly bridges in the park, designed to look like an old ruin


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Regent Street Cinema: Check out Britain’s oldest cinema

Regent St Cinema

Watch a film in Britain’s oldest cinema at the Regent Street Cinema

It was off limits to the public for 35 years. However, 2015 saw the reopening of the Regent Street Cinema, the oldest cinema in Britain. Situated moments from Oxford Circus, the Grade II-listed cinema now shows a wide range of quality world cinema including current and classic releases, as well as hosts special screenings, workshops, lectures and events.

Situated on the University Of Westminster’s Regent Street campus, the stunning Victorian building played host to the first ever film screening to a British audience back in 1896. French film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière brought their cinématographe to the capital on tour with 54 people paying a shilling to watch 40 second clips of moving images – a major landmark in the history of film. During World War II, it – like many UK cinemas – screened newsreels. Following war in 1951, it also made history by hosting the first UK screening of an X-rated film – La Vie Commence Demain, a French movie featuring graphic violence. In its heyday, the cinema was a favourite of the late Princess Margaret. However, in 1980, the cinema was closed off to public and became a student lecture hall for Westminster students.

Back in 2012, the University of Westminster launched a campaign to fund a £6.1 million restoration to restore the cinema to its former glory for both students and the public to enjoy. Following opening last year, the 1920s Art Deco refit has been restored, as has the stunning domed ceiling and 1936 John Compton organ. It’s now the only cinema in the country which can show 16mm, 35mm, Super 8 and 4K digital formats.

Currently, the Regent Street Cinema is running a limited 2016 offer to sign up for free one year membership. Usually costing £40 (seniors/students £20) a year, you’ll get discounts on tickets, no booking fees and priority booking to special events, as well as other perks throughout the year.

  • Regent Street Cinema, 309 Regent Street, W1B 2UW. Nearest station: Oxford Circus or Regents Park. For listings and bookings, visit the Regent Street Cinema website.

For the latest guide to what’s on in London, click here.

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

The history of the small cottage in one of London’s Royal Parks.

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. (See a 1844 sketch of the cottage on the London Metropolitan Archives).

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’


Find out about the milkmaids and cattle, of Green Park and St James’s Park.

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London’s oldest public drinking fountain on Holborn Viaduct

Holborn fountain © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

London’s first public drinking fountain is situated in the railings surrounding St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church in the City of London

With water taps now in every home and bottled waters on sale everywhere, there isn’t such a high demand for public drinking fountains these days. While public fountains are still found to be popular in places such as parks, leisure centres and museums, ones outside on the street… not so much.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Following its opening, the fountain proved incredibly popular with thirsty Londoners

Although these days we expect drinking fountains to be free and clean, back in the first half of the 19th century, it wasn’t so simple. Private companies had a monopoly on water so there wasn’t much regulation on quality, often providing contaminated water to the public. As a result, many people used to drink beer, which was considered a safer alternative to water. It was thanks to the work of physician John Snow (1813-1858), who traced the beginning of a cholera outbreak to a water pump in Soho, that authorities began to prioritise water quality. Following the passing of the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers Act 1848, it was made compulsory that water had to be filtrated. In 1859, MP Samuel Gurney (1816-1882) and barrister Edward Thomas Wakefield (1821-1896) joined forces to set up the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association, with the aim to provide free drinking water to the public. This later changed its name to Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1867, to also include cattle troughs.

The first public drinking fountain was built into the railings of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church on Holborn Hill. It opened in April 1859 and was funded by Gurney. The fountain is made of marble and stone, with two cups on chains to drink out of. It features three inscriptions, the top reading: ‘The gift of Sam Gurney MP 1859’. The bottom reminds users to ‘replace the cup’, while inside under where the water used to flow reads: ‘The first Metropolitan drinking fountain erected on Holborn Hill 1859 and removed when the Viaduct was constructed in 1867.’ Just eight years later after being installed, the fountain was relocated while the Holburn Viaduct was built, before finally being reinstated in its original setting in 1913.

The fountain was incredibly popular with hundreds of people using it daily – which I’m sure caused quite a queue of thirsty Londoners! As a result, the society built 85 more fountains around the city over the next six years. Public drinking fountains were heavily supported by the church and Temperance movement, and as a result many were situated near churches and opposite public houses. Now, the fountain still exists, but the water appears to have been turned off.

  • The drinking fountain is set in the southern gates around St Sepulchre’s Church on the eastern end of Holborn Viaduct (near the junction with Giltspur Street), City of London, EC1A 2DQ. Nearest stations: City Thameslink, St Paul’s or Farringdon.

To read about the Buxton Memorial Fountain in Westminster, click here.

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Sit back and enjoy one of London’s best views | The swan benches on the Albert Embankment

Swan bench © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The swan benches line Albert Embankment between Lambeth and Westminster Bridge

I’ve previously blogged about the creation of the Victoria and Albert Embankments in the 19th century which coincided with the creation of the camel and sphinx benches, the sturgeon lamps and Cleopatra Needle’s sphinxes. However, there is another item of street furniture which appeared around the same time – the swan benches on the Albert Embankment.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Bringing some grace to the Thames: The benches are often used by patients and visitors to nearby St Thomas’s Hospital

In Victorian London, the rapidly expanding population were creating major issues including the disposal of waste and sewage, most memorably the ‘Great Stink’ in 1858. The local government recognised the infrastructure couldn’t cope with surge of people living and working in the city and established the Metropolitan Board Of Works in 1855. One of board’s biggest projects was the creation of the Victoria and Chelsea Embankments on the north bank of the River Thames and the Albert Embankment on the south. The MBW’s Chief Engineer Sir Joseph Bazelgette (1819–1891) oversaw the extensive project, which involved reclaiming marshland and making the river slimmer in that part of the capital. As well as creating a sewage system and new streets to relieve traffic congestion, a lot of slums on the banks of the river were cleared. In regards to the south bank, the creation of Albert Embankment was also designed to protect low-lying areas of Lambeth from flooding at high tide. The creation of the Victoria Embankment started in 1862, with work commencing on the Albert Embankment in July 1866 and was finished in November 1869. The Chelsea Embankment wasn’t finished until 1874. The embankments were named after the reigning monarch of the time Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, who died in 1861.

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. George John Vulliamy (1817–1886) was hired as the Superintending Architect. Among one of his many projects in addition to the iconic London ‘dolphin’ lampposts, were creating benches for both sides of the Thames. On the north side, the benches’ panels and arms were designed in the shape of Egyptian sphinxes and camels – complementing Cleopatra’s Needle. On the south side of the river, there aren’t quite as many ornamental benches. However, on the stretch of Albert Embankment between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges are 15 benches featuring cast iron swan panels and arms. These benches were Grade II listed in 1981 and are established within Lambeth’s Conservation Area due to their aesthetic and historical significance. Although I am yet to find official confirmation, I would assume the swan benches have been similarly designed by Vulliamy and made by Z.D. Berry & Son of Regent Street. While the reason behind the Egyptian theme of the Victoria Embankment benches is established, the significance of the swans is not clear.

Swan bench Westminster Embankment © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Enjoy the view: Take a seat on the swan benches and gaze across the River Thames at the Houses Of Parliament

Henry Doulton’s name is on the base of the bench

The name Henry Doulton is stamped on the base on the benches. I admit I couldn’t find a definite answer (but would welcome anyone who knows to comment below), but perhaps Sir Henry (1820-1897) contributed to the funding of the Embankment. Sir Henry was a key player in the expansion of the family ceramics company Royal Doulton, which was founded by his father John (1793-1873). The company had factories on various sites in Lambeth over the years near the Embankment and had to give up some of their land to the MBW for the building of the riverside walk. Sir Henry’s brother Frederick (1824–1872) was a MP for the Liberal Party and a member of the Lambeth Vestry of the Metropolitan Board Of Works from 1855 to 1868. Today, the only remainder of the pottery industry which once stood there is the former Royal Doulton headquarters building on the junction of Black Prince Road and Lambeth High Street, a neo-Gothic building (built 1878) now renamed as Southbank House. Royal Doulton left the Lambeth premises in the 1950s for Stoke-on-Trent.

One possible link to the swans could a tribute to Old Swan Yard, a small yard full of housing off Fore Street – the road which ran along the Thames. Swan Yard and Fore Street were demolished to make way for the Embankment in the 1870s. Whatever the reasoning behind the design of the swan benches, today they stand elevated on a concrete plinth so people can sit and admire the fine view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Located so near to St Thomas’s Hospital, the stretch of Embankment and benches are popular with hospital patients and visitors.

  • The swan benches are on the Albert Embankment, in between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges. Nearest stations: Westminster, Lambeth North or Waterloo.

For Metro Girl’s blog post on the Vulliamy’s camel and sphinx benches on the Victoria Embankment, click here.

Or for more on Vulliamy’s Dolphin lamps, click here.

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Buxton Memorial Fountain | A memorial to one of Westminster’s most important laws

A monument to the abolition of slavery.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

The Buxton Memorial Fountain has stood in Victoria Tower Gardens since 1957

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

The fountain contains four large granite basins

Every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge to gaze upon Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. However, the pedestrian traffic flowing to the west of the iconic building shrinks considerably in comparison to the east. With the Elizabeth Tower containing Big Ben (actually the name of the bell, not the actual clock and tower as is often believed) being the main draw, the Victoria Tower and its adjacent eponymous gardens often get ignored.

Victoria Tower Gardens is a small area to the west of the Houses Of Parliament containing greenery, memorials and a good view of the River Thames. Having rode on a bus past the Gardens many times over the years, I have often found my eyes drawn to the Buxton Memorial Foundation in the gardens. After decades of not seeing it up close or knowing what it was about, in recent years I finally started walking through the Gardens and checked out the fountain up close.

Although the fountain is mid-19th century, it has only been in Victoria Tower Gardens since 1957 when it was relocated from nearby Parliament Square following a redesign. The colourful and ornate monument is to commemorate one of Westminster’s most important laws – the emancipation of slaves following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Although Parliament had passed the 1807 Slave Trade Act, making slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire, some still held slaves that were traded before the act. The 1833 Act went a step further and gave all existing slaves emancipation.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Ornate: The fountain was designed in a Gothic Revival style

It wasn’t until another 33 years later that the lawmakers and campaigners involved in making the 1833 act happen were commemorated for their efforts. MP Charles Buxton funded the fountain and dedicated it to his late father, the abolitionist and MP Sir Thomas Buxton, along with William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry Brougham and Stephen Lushington. Charles commissioned London architect Samuel Sanders Teulon to create the fountain in his Gothic revival style for the price of £1,200.

The fountain is covered with a timber-framed spire and clad in enamelled sheet steel. The entire structure is made with a wide range of materials, including limestone, grey and red sandstone, wrought iron, rosso marble enamelled metalwork, grey and pink granite, mosaic and terracotta. Originally unveiled in Parliament Square in 1865 – coincidentally the same year the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, abolishing slavery.

The ornate memorial commemorating the end of a horrific part of human history remained in Parliament Square until 1949 when the area was given a post-war makeover. It was finally reinstated in Victoria Tower Gardens in 1957. However, by 1971 all eight of the decorative figures of British rulers, including Queen Victoria and William the Conqueror, on the pinnacles had been stolen. These were replaced with fibreglass ones in 1980. Over the years, the fountain fell into disrepair until it was restored in 2006-2007 – just in time for the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act.

Along with the Buxton Memorial Fountain, there is also a monument to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and a reproduction of the sculpture The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. There is also a children’s play park, which is currently closed for refurbishment.

  • Victoria Tower Gardens is accessed from Abingdon Street/Millbank on the north bank of the River Thames. Nearest station: Westminster.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

The fountain stands in Victoria Tower Gardens, overlooked by the great tower itself


To read Metro Girl’s blog on the memorial to Emmeline Pankhurt in Victoria Tower Gardens, click here.

Or to find out the history of nearby Parliament Square, click here.

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

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