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Three centuries of Blewcoat School: From educating the poor to a ‘Posh Frock Shop’

The former Blewcoat School building in Westminster

On an ‘island’ in the side streets of Westminster stands an old remainder of a Georgian poor school. Although the pupils have long moved on, the listed building is now home to an upmarket bridal boutique. At the junction of Buckingham Gate and Caxton Street is a 17th century schoolhouse building. Blewcoat School was originally founded in Duck Lane (now known as St Matthew Street) in Tothill Fields, slightly south of its present site, in 1688. It was established as a charity school to educate 50 impoverished boys from the parish of St Margaret’s and St John. Pupils wore a uniform of long blue coats and yellow stockings, the colour blue being associated with charity at the time.

In 1709, local brewer William Greene (d.1732) leased some land from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to build a permanent building for the school. Greene and his brothers had inherited a lot of land in the areas of Chelsea, Kensington and Westminster from their brewer father John. The family had owned the Stag Brewery at Tothill Fields since 1641 and it was rebuilt and enlarged in 1715 by William. In the 19th century, the brewery was taken over by Watney, with the Westminster site eventually closing in 1959. Today, there’s a nod to the former brewery with a road by the school being named Brewer’s Green. William Greene built a school and schoolmaster’s house on Caxton Street, with many of the pupils being sons of his brewery workers. The timing to move locations was good as Duck Lane was swiftly going downhill, with the area dubbed Devil’s Acre by Charles Dickens. Devil’s Acre had become one of the capital’s most notorious slums in the mid 18th century, renowned for its stench, dire sanitation standards, and cheap, dark dwellings.

Blewcoat School © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The Georgian building was built by local brewer William Greene in 1709

Blewcoat School © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

A statue of a pupil in the school uniform of a blue coat and yellow stockings

Although there is no record of the architect, there has been speculation it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). The two-storey building was built of brown brick with two tiers of windows on every side. The main entrance on Caxton Street features a Doric porch with a statue of a Blewcoat pupil in the famous blue coat above the door. The interiors feature pilasters, coving, Corinthian columns and fireplaces.

Now established in Caxton Street, the Blewcoat School pupils spent their days learning to read and write and about religion and trades. The school paid for the education of 20 boys for free, alongside fee-paying boys. Around four-five years after the move to Caxton Street, the school started admitting girls, who were also taught needlework and household chores. In 1842, records showed there were 86 poor children enrolled (52 boys and 34 girls). The school educated generations of boys and girls until 1876 when it ceased hosting female pupils. In 1899, the governors obtained an order to close the school and give the land and the buildings to the Vestry of St Margaret’s and St John. The Blewcoat moved premises to another site, with the original building being used for the Infants’ Department of the Christchurch School. The building ceased educating children in 1926.

During World War II, the Blewcoat School building was used by US services as a store. In peacetime, it was utilised for a spell by the Girl Guides. In 1954, the building was Grade I listed by Historic England and bought by the National Trust. The NT used the school as a membership and head office, later being converted into a gift shop. In 2013, fashion designer Ian Stuart gained permission to refurbish the interior and use the building as a boutique for bridal gowns and evening wear. It was opened the following year, and Stuart remains in business today. You may have seen him and the school building in the Channel 4 show The Posh Frock Shop.

  • Ian Stewart – Blewcoat, 23 Caxton Street, Westminster, SW1H 0PY. Nearest stations: St James’s Park or Victoria.

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Exploring the history of 55 Broadway with Hidden London

55 Broadway © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Visit 55 Broadway on a London Transport Museum Hidden London tour

Tube train monitoring dials in the lobby

If you’re interested in London history, architecture or its transport network, then check out a Hidden London tour from the London Transport Museum. Run for limited periods, I’ve previously visited the disused Aldywch tube station and the former World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station and found them fascinating. Although the Hidden London group offers visits to other disused platforms and tube stations, my last booking with them saw me remaining above ground. The tour lasts 90 minutes and covered many of the 14 floors of the building.

55 Broadway in St James was London’s first skyscraper because of the way it was built. Standing tall at 53 metres (175ft), the Grade I listed office block is an impressive piece of art deco architecture in Portland stone. The structure was originally built in 1927-1929 to a design by English architect Charles Holden (1875-1960). As well as 55 Broadway, Holden was also responsible for the University of London’s Senate House, Bristol Central Library and many tube stations, such as Acton Town, Balham, Clapham Common and Leicester Square, among others. 55 Broadway was briefly the tallest office block in London, before it was surpassed by Holden’s Senate House in the mid 1930s. It was originally constructed as the headquarters for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited (UERL), on top of St James’s tube station.

The pink ceiling of the Executive Office

55 Broadway corridor © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Walnut panelled doors and travertine marble on every landing

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The story of Cecil Court: Arson, Mozart, movies and books on London’s literary lane

Cecil Court © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Cecil Court is known as Booksellers’ Row

In centuries gone by, hundreds of roads in the capital used to be pedestrian only. When the car wasn’t even a twinkle in Henry Ford’s eye and not everyone owned a horse, walking was the dominant form of transport. In the past 100 years, war and technological advances (e.g. the motor car) have caused many of these alleys and other pedestrianised lanes and roads to be destroyed or built upon. However, one such road has managed to remain throughout history and is a charming little passage in the bustling West End.

Cecil Court Storey's © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Storey’s Ltd at No.1-3 is an antique print and map shop

Cecil Court is a 300ft long street linking Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane. While today is it known as Booksellers’ Row, it has a long and varied history dating back to the 17th century. The land encompassing Cecil Court and the surrounding streets were bought by Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612) in 1609. He served as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth I and King James I and was the principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot. He built the family seat, Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire in 1611. The Jacobean mansion continues to be the home for the Cecil family and the current Marquess of Salisbury, who still owns a lot of the land around Cecil Court. The first Earl of Salisbury bought four acres on the west side of St Martin’s Lane, from Newport Street to the south-west corner of the lane. It didn’t take long before the Earl built houses there to lease out. Cecil Court is believed to have been laid out in the 1670s by one of his descendants.

By the 18th century, Cecil Court housed some pretty unsavoury characters with residents appearing in court for various crimes. One particular character was an Irish Catholic woman, Mrs Elizabeth Calloway, who ran a brandy shop and alleged brothel in Cecil Court. In early 1735, she had taken out a £150 fire insurance policy with the Royal Exchange Assurance. In June 1735, she bought kindling, emptied her brandy barrels and was drinking locally with friends when a fire broke out at her shop. The blaze spread quickly and damaged 16 houses in neighbouring St Martin’s Court and four in Cecil Court. Mrs Calloway was charged with arson, but was later acquitted because she appeared to have genuine reasons for insuring her property. She testified at the Old Bailey: “The cook’s shop joining to mine, the wainscot of my closet was often so very hot that I was afraid it would some time or other be set on fire and for that reason I insured my house.” Witnesses also testified that Mrs Calloway was often concerned her drunken lodgers could set the house on fire with their candles. The fire inadvertently resulted in the death of local resident Anne Hogarth, the mother of famous satirical artist William Hogarth, who lived in nearby Cranbourn Alley. Her cause of death was deemed to be ‘shock’ from the fire.

Cecil Court quickly recovered with new properties being erected on-site. In 1764, a young child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and his family lodged with barber John Couzin at No.9 Cecil Court. Tickets for Mozart’s first London concerts were sold at Couzin’s shop. During his time there, the eight-year-old composer played twice for King George III. In 2011, a plaque was unveiled at the site to commemorate Mozart’s time in the capital.  Read the rest of this entry

Jewel Tower – a Medieval survivor of the Palace Of Westminster

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The Jewel Tower is a small remainder of London’s Medieval history

When it comes to London’s royal palaces, most of them tend to be rather young, with the oldest parts of Buckingham Palace dating back to 1703 and Clarence House, a few years shy of its 200th anniversary. However, long before the monarch resided at Buck House, the King or Queen had a home in the huge Palace Of Westminster. Today, the title belongs to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of our Government.

Jewel Tower door © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The fireproof door contains the year 1621 and the mark of James I

Most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a huge fire in the 1800s, to be rebuilt as the iconic masterpiece, which remains today. However, two buildings managed to survive, the 11th century Westminster Hall, and the 14th century Jewel Tower. Now owned by English Heritage, the diminutive Jewel Tower is open to the public. Recently, I paid a visit to this small, but interesting piece of Medieval London. It’s a small space with the exhibition taking about an hour to see.

The Jewel Tower was built around 1365-6 at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster to house the treasures of King Edward III (1312-1377). The Tower stood at the end of the garden and was protected by a moat to the south and west of the building. It was built under the direction of master mason Henry Yevele (1320-1400) and master carpenter Hugh Herland (1330-1411) on land which had been appropriated from Westminster Abbey, to the chagrin of the monks. The keeper would have worked on the ground or first floor, logging the King’s treasures coming in and going out of the Tower. The most valuable goods were kept on the second floor.

Jewel Tower stairs © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The spiral staircase

For 150 years, the Tower was used to house the subsequent Kings’ treasures until a fire at the palace in 1512. The building then became home to less valuable items, such as clothing, bed linen, furniture and royal children’s toys, according to an inventory in 1547. In 1600, the building was repurposed for the Government, rather than royals, when it became a parliamentary office. A three-storey timber extension was added to the side of the Tower as a house for the Clerk of the Parliament. The ground floor of the Jewel Tower became the kitchen and scullery, while the first floor was used as a repository for various parliament documents. In 1621, the building was renovated to become more secure to protect the important documents. On the first floor, a brick vault was added with a metal door featuring the year inscribed on the exterior and the cipher of King James I (1566-1625). That very door still exists today and can be seen on your visit.

By the 18th century, the Tower was apparently a bit of a state so work was taken to renovate and improve it. Larger windows and a new chimney were added, while the building was made more fireproof to protect the documents inside. Throughout the century, the Tower was gradually hidden by the buildings popping up around it. By 1827, the House of Lords’ records had been moved out of the Tower because it was too small and it was known as part of Old Palace Yard, with the name Jewel Tower dropping out of use.  Read the rest of this entry

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.

Don’t look a Gift Horse in the mouth: The new sculpture on the Fourth Plinth

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Gift Horse, by German artist Hans Haacke, was unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in March 2015

Trafalgar Square is a pretty dramatic setting, bordered by listed, historical buildings with Nelson’s Column as its centrepiece. Standing out amongst the predominantly Victorian architecture is the Fourth Plinth in the north-west corner of the Square – containing changing contemporary art pieces. When the Square was laid out in the 1840s by architect Sir Charles Barry, two plinths on the north wall were created. It was only in the 1850s two free-standing plinths were erected on the south of the fountains creating a grand total of four. The plan was for notable figures to be placed on all plinths, but only three were filled. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and until present day, three of the plinths hosted sculptures of King George IV, General Sir Charles James Napier and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock. The Fourth Plinth was originally designed to hold an equestrian statue of King William IV, but plans were dropped due to lack of funds.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The creation is a nod to the original plan to have an equestrian statue of King William IV on the fourth plinth

It’s only been since 1998 that the Fourth Plinth has been occupied. It was decided it would host temporary contemporary artworks. Over the years, it has been the base of many sculptures, including Marc Quinn’s one of Alison Lapper, Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle and Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Powerless Structures, Fig. 101.

In March 2015, the 10th artwork to occupy the plinth was unveiled to the public, replacing the previous Hahn/Cock which had been there since July 2013. The new ‘inhabitant’ is Gift Horse by German artist Hans Haacke. The sculpture is a skeleton of a horse with an electronic bow featuring share prices from the Stock Exchange. The art is a nod to the original Victorian plan for an equestrian statue that was due to stand on the fourth plinth, but didn’t make it due to funding. Haacke admitted he was inspired by 18th century painter George Stubbs’ The Anatomy Of The Horse. Gift Horse is due to remain on the Fourth Plinth until September 2016, when it will be replaced by David Shrigley’s bronze hand Really Good.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The Fourth Plinth stands in front of the National Gallery and overlooks London’s iconic Trafalgar Square

  • Trafalgar Square, Westminster, WC2N. Nearest stations: Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus, Embankment or Leicester Square.

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Great Scotland Yard history: From a London base for Scottish kings to the Met Police’s HQ

Great Scotland Yard © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

Great Scotland Yard is off Whitehall in the City of Westminster

The name Scotland Yard is synonymous with London’s Metropolitan Police. However, how did the name of a yard end up following the Met around Westminster as they moved headquarters over the decades?

As I write, the Metropolitan police are preparing to move their headquarters again from the current site of New Scotland Yard on Broadway in Victoria to the Curtis Green Building on Victoria Embankment in 2015. While the name New Scotland Yard will follow wherever the Met goes, the name originates on a short road in Westminster, which still exists to this day.

Great Scotland Yard is a short road spanning between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue, taking just three minutes to walk from one end to the other. While today, the road is relatively quiet from pedestrian and vehicle traffic, in the 19th century it would have been a hub of activity with police officers, victims and criminals passing through it.

The name of the road is said to stem back to a medieval palace which was used as a base for Scottish kings and diplomatic representatives visiting London. By the 17th century, the road was home to various government buildings and residences for civil servants. Two notable residents include the architects Sir Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones and the poet John Milton.

Great Scotland Yard © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

The former headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in Great Scotland Yard is being converted into a luxury hotel

The name Scotland Yard was first linked to police when the original Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s office at 4 Whitehall Place, had a rear entrance on Great Scotland Yard. By the early 20th century, the force had outgrown the Great Scotland Yard site and moved to the nearby Norman Shaw Buildings on Victoria Embankment – located next door to where Portcullis House stands today – which were built between 1887-1906. New Scotland Yard remained at the site until 1967 when it moved to the current site in Victoria. The move in 2015 brings New Scotland Yard full circle as it returns to the Embankment – next door to the Norman Shaw Buildings.

While the Met has moved on from Great Scotland Yard, the association will be enshrined forever thanks to the road name. At time of writing, the Edwardian, Grade II-listed building on the site of the old Metropolitan Police headquarters at No.3-5 Great Scotland Yard is being converted into a five-star Hyatt hotel, due for opening in 2019. On the corner of Whitehall and Great Scotland Yard, stands The Clarence pub, which dates from 1896.

  • Great Scotland Yard, off Whitehall, SW1. Nearest stations: Westminster, Embankment or Charing Cross.
Great Scotland Yard © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

Quiet: The road is relatively calm to what it would have been in the 19th century as a hub of police activity

For Metro Girl’s blog post on nearby Banqueting House or for the history of nearby Charing Cross.

To watch rare video footage of Whitehall taken in 1927, click here.

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

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Cock a doodle doo! A blue cockerel takes residence on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock was erected on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square in July 2013

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The fourth plinth, designed by Charles Barry, previously sat empty for decades

Trafalgar Square is easily London’s most famous square. Once marooned as a traffic island, the closure of the north road beside the National Gallery has made the space more pedestrian friendly. The square is a huge draw to tourists due to Nelson’s Column and his lions and the great view down Whitehall looking towards Victoria Tower and Big Ben. Dotted around the square, which was laid out in 1845 by Sir Charles Barry, are three plinths containing statues of notable figures: King George IV, General Sir Charles James Napier and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock. Which leaves the fourth plinth in the north-west corner, which stood empty for decades. It was originally designed to hold an equestrian statue of King William IV, but plans were dropped due to lack of funds.

Finally, after decades of debates about what would go there, it was decided in 1998 that the fourth plinth would play home to temporary contemporary artworks. Over the years, it has been the base of many sculptures, including Marc Quinn’s one of Alison Lapper, Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle and, most recently, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Powerless Structures, Fig. 101.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock stands at 4.73 metres high

In July 2013, a striking and colourful creation was unveiled. Katharina Fritsch’s 4.73 metre high sculpture of a blue cockerel, entitled Hahn/Cock. Meant to symbolise ‘regeneration, awakening and strength’ and the British triumph at the Tour De France, it will remain on the fourth plinth for 18 months. German artist Fritsch admitted her work is a feminist sculpture, prompting a humorous juxtaposition in  a square full of alpha male historical figures.

N.B. Hahn/Cock has since been replaced on the Fourth Plinth by a new piece entitled Gift Horse. Click here to find out more. 

  • Trafalgar Square is located in the City of Westminster. Nearest tube: Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus, Embankment or Leicester Square.

To find out the history of another famous London Square, read More than just a traffic island: The history behind Parliament Square.

To find out the story behind the nearby statue of Charles I and the Eleanor Cross which stood on the same site, read Civil war, centre of London and a memorial to a queen: The story behind Charing Cross.

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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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More than just a traffic island: The history behind Parliament Square

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Parliament Square was laid out in 1868 by Sir Charles Barry

London is famous for its lovely squares – often idyllic pockets of green surrounded by Georgian townhouses. However, when it comes to Parliament Square, Londoners are more likely to associate it as a traffic island than anything else. Funnily enough, Parliament Square became Britain’s first roundabout in 1926 and was also the location of London’s first traffic signals.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Icon: Sculptor Ivor Robert-Jones’s statue of Winston Churchill was unveiled by Lady Churchill in November 1973

While the City of London as we know today was the centre of the our capital from Roman times onwards, the focus moved to the adjoining City of Westminster in the 11th century onwards when the royal family decided to set up their palaces there. The word Westminster derives from ‘west of minster’ (minster being an honorific title given to a church, this being located west of the City of London and St Paul’s).

Parliament Square was laid out in 1868 by Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) in a bid to improve the landscape around the grand new Houses of Parliament, which he also designed and was built between 1840-1870. The new government headquarters were created after the previous old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834 (although the Jewel Tower still survives today). Sir Charles was actually born on Bridge Street – just opposite where the Clock Tower containing Big Ben stands today – so no doubt had great affection for the area. A few decades earlier (1840-1845) he re-modelled Trafalgar Square, which has since been changed again in 2003 with the closure of  the north side road. Already in the area were St Margaret’s Church (15th century) and Westminster Abbey (12th century onwards).

Over the decades since, Parliament Square has been a huge draw to tourists checking out Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. It has also been a traditional place for demonstrations against the Government, most famously the late anti-war campaigner Brian Haw, who camped on the square for nearly 10 years.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Modern additions: Sculptures of former South African President Nelson Mandela (left) and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George were erected in 2007

Being in the heart of Westminster and beside Parliament, it is only fitting for the Square to house statues of famous British and foreign statesman. Standing directly across the road from Elizabeth Tower (which houses Big Ben) is a sculpture of Sir Winston Churchill, one of Britain’s most famous Prime Ministers. During his second tenure as PM in the 1950s, Churchill expressed a wish to have a statue of himself erected on the same spot. Sculptor Ivor Robert-Jones’s statue was unveiled in Parliament Square by Churchill’s widow in November 1973 and has since been Grade-II listed.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

The view from Parliament Square looking towards Elizabeth Tower

Other former Prime Ministers commemorated in Parliament Square includes George Canning (PM 1827, sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott, unveiled 1832), Sir Robert Peel (PM 1834-35, 1841-46, sculpted by Matthew Noble, unveiled 1877), Edward Smith-Stanley, Earl of Derby (PM 1852, 1858-59, 1866-68, sculpted by Matthew Noble, unveiled 1874), Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (PM 1855-58, 59-65, sculpted by Thomas Woolner, unveiled 1876), Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (PM 1868, 1874-80, sculpted by Mario Raggi, unveiled 1883),

As well as British PMs, there is also sculptures of former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts (PM 1919-24, 1939-48, sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein, unveiled 1956) and former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, unveiled 1920). More recently, sculptures of former South African President Nelson Mandela and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George were added.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Statues of former Prime Minister Edward Smith-Stanley, Earl of Derby (left)
and Sir Robert Peel (right)

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Home and away: Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (left) and South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts (right)

The South African icon’s likeness was created by Ian Walters and its location was the subject of much debate. Although many wanted it outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, it was eventually erected in the south-western edge of the green. Mandela himself attending the unveiling and admitted he wished for that day since a visit to Britain in the 1960s. He said: ‘When Oliver Tambo visited Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square… we half joked that one day a statue of a black person would be erected here.’ Glynn Williams’ sculpture of Lloyd George (PM 1916-22) was erected in November 2007 – three months after the unveiling of Mandela’s statue.

Of course one of these statues was unveiled before Parliament Square even existed, but was relocated after it was laid out. The Canning statue was originally in New Palace Yard, but was moved to the Square in 1949.

  • Parliament Square, Westminster, SW1P. Nearest station: Westminster.

To read Metro Girl’s posts on the nearby Victoria Tower Gardens, read about the Buxton Memorial Fountain or the Monument to Emmeline Pankhurst.

Or to read about another famous London ‘traffic island’, read about the Wellington Arch.

For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London History, click here.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

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