St Stephen Walbrook

I was in the City earlier this month and had a couple of free hours in the afternoon, so I headed to the church of St Stephen Walbrook, a church I have not been inside for a number of years.

The church is located just south of the Bank junction of Poultry, Princess Street, Threadneedle Street, Cornhill and King William Street. Located just behind the Mansion House, the church includes the name of one of the City’s lost rivers, and faces onto a street with the same name, Walbrook.

Walking down from the Bank junction, this is the view of the tower of St Stephen Walbrook:

St Stephen Walbrook

St Stephen Walbrook has a long history, however the church is not on its original site.

The River Walbrook originally ran slightly to the west of the street, and it was on the western side of the River Walbrook that the first church was established. Foundations of the original church were found during excavation of the site that today is occupied by the offices of Bloomberg, also the original location of the Roman Temple to Mithras.

According to Walter Thornbury writing in Old and New London, “Eudo, Steward of the Household to King Henry I (1100- 1135) gave the church of St Stephen, which stood on the west side of Walbrook, to the Monastery of St John at Colchester.”

The church probably dates from around the 11th century, but is probably older.

There is very little written evidence of this first church, however in the History of the Ward of Walbrook of the City of London (1904), J.G. White states:

“It possessed a Steeple with Bells and Belfry, as, from an inventory made, it appears that at the time of building the new Church, three bells, with their wheels, &c., were removed from the old building, and fixed in the new Steeple; also that it contained a belfry is evident from the fact that there is in the Coroner’s Roll for 1278 an entry, that on the 1st May in that year information was given that on the previous Sunday, about mid-day, William Clarke ascended the belfry to look for a pigeon’s nest, and in climbing from beam to beam he missed his hold and fell, dying as soon as he came to the ground. There was also a Chancel, there being in the year 1300 an Inquisition taken to enquire who was liable to repair the watercourse of the Walbrook over against the Chancel Wall of the Church.”

Around 1428, this original location of the church, and its associated graveyard was considered too small to support the parish, so a new location was required.

A plot of land was given by Robert Chicheley, a member of The Worshipful Company of Grocers, on the opposite side of Walbrook street, roughly 20 metres to the east of the original location, and the new church was built between 1429 and 1439.

This church would last just under 240 years as the church of St Stephen Walbrook would be one of those destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

Rebuilding commenced in December 1672, with Wren as the architect. St Stephen Walbrook was probably his local church as at the time he was living in Walbrook.

It was a difficult location for the new church as houses were built up against the church, including the area around where the tower would be built.

The area north of the church, now the site of the Mansion House was originally occupied by a market in fish and flesh know as the Stocks Market. Part of the original design for completion of St Stephen Walbrook was a colonnaded replacement for the pre-fire Stocks Market, which would have extended north from the church, This did not get built.

The church was ready to use in 1679, although the tower appears to have been completed later.

The following print from Old and New London shows the church soon after completion. The print also highlights the houses that clustered immediately around the tower.

St Stephen Walbrook

The above drawing from Old and New London is dated 1700, however I suspect this is wrong. The drawing shows the spire on top of the tower, however the spire was not added until 1713-1715.

Remove the houses in front of the church, and as the following photo demonstrates, the appearance of the church is much the same today. It was not possible to replicate the above drawing as the Mansion House presses in to the left of the church, occupying the space that was the Stocks Market.

St Stephen Walbrook

The following extract from a 1720 Ward map shows the church of St Stephen Walbrook, with the Stocks Market occupying the land to the north.

St Stephen Walbrook

Time for a look inside the church. A set of steps rise up from street level to the interior of the church.

St Stephen Walbrook

The interior of St Stephen Walbrook from the entrance:

St Stephen Walbrook

The interior has an unusual layout for a City church. The wooden reredos is at the far end of the church where the altar would traditionally have been located, however following restoration work carried out between 1978 and 1987, the traditional altar was replaced by a central circular altar carved from Travertine by Henry Moore.

St Stephen Walbrook

The new altar and additional restoration work throughout the church was commissioned and supported by the fund-raising efforts of Lord Peter Palumbo who was Churchwarden from 1953 to 2003.

Restoration work at the time was essential as the church was suffering from subsidence, possibly due to the long-term impact of the River Walbrook.

The location of the altar does prevent an ideal photograph of one of the main features of Wren’s designs – the large dome located above the central square of the church.

St Stephen Walbrook

Multiple references refer to the dome as being Wren’s practice for the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, however whilst the overall shape is similar, a dome with lantern on top, the size and construction method is very different.

Whilst the dome of St Paul’s has the inner false dome, with the layer of supports between inner and outer dome to transfer the load of the large stone lantern through to the body of the cathedral, the dome of St Stephen is a much more straightforward construction, however that does not detract anything from the beauty of a magnificent dome, designed in the 17th century on a City parish church.

The following drawing from 1770 shows a view of the interior of the church, with below a cut away diagram of the dome’s construction and a floor plan of the church.

St Stephen Walbrook

The interior of the church also shows another of Wren’s innovations. Rather than the weight of the dome being carried on a large pier at each corner, there are three slender columns at each corner. These have the effect of opening out the corners, rather than these spaces being occupied by a large load bearing pillar.

Note in the floor plan above that the tower is missing. The tower was added after the church had opened, and perhaps Wren’s idea was to have a rectangular church with no tower, where the dome rising above the church would have been the dominating feature.

When the exterior of the church is viewed today, the dome of the church is somewhat hidden to the rear with the tower dominating – perhaps not Wren’s original intention.

Whilst many writers praised St Stephen Walbrook as one of Wren’s best City churches, there were other views, for example in Curiosities of London (1867), John Timbs writes:

“This church, unquestionably elegant, has been overpraised. The rich dome is considered by John Carter to be Wren’s attempt to ‘set up a dome, a comparative imitation (though on a diminutive scale) of the Pantheon at Rome, and which, no doubt, was a kind of probationary trial previous to his gigantic operation of fixing one on his octangular superstructure in the centre of the new St Paul’s’. Mr J. Gwilt says of St Stephen’s ‘Compared with any other church of nearly the same magnitude, Italy cannot exhibit its equal, elsewhere its rival is not to be found. Of those worthy notice, the Zitelle at Venice (by Palladio), is the present approximation in regard to size, but it ranks far below our church in point of composition, and still lower in point of effect.’

Again, had its materials and volume been as durable and as extensive as those of St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren had consummated (in St Stephen’s) a much more efficient monument to his well-earned fame than this fabric affords.”

The church suffered significant damage during the war. the following photo shows the interior of the church with parts of the dome collapsed onto the floor of the church.

St Stephen Walbrook

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: M0019488CL

A view of the damage to the dome can be seen in the following drawing by Dennis Flanders in June 1941.

St Stephen Walbrook

Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/9354

Dennis Flanders was a freelance artists who recorded bomb damage to London. He sold some of his work to the War Artists Advisory Committee, including the drawing of St Stephen’s.

Another drawing purchased by the War Artists Advisory Committee was the following by Ian Strang, dated 1945.

St Stephen Walbrook

Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/25791

Note the temporary wooden cover in the place of the dome.

In the foreground are the foundations of the bombed buildings that occupied the space now occupied by the Bloomberg building. Excavation in the space during 1954 would reveal the Roman Temple of Mithras.

There is a wonderful model of the church to be seen inside the church:

St Stephen Walbrook

The model allows the overall design of the church to be appreciated, not easy when viewed from outside.

Looking at the model, the tower and buildings along the front of the church do look separate to the main body of the church (the smaller building to the right of the row on the front is a Starbucks).

Remove the tower and the buildings along the front and the church would be of rectangular design with a magnificent dome dominating the view of the church – perhaps Wren’s original intention.

The spire on top of the church is very similar to two other City churches, St Michael Paternoster Royal and St James Garlickhithe, which is shown in the following photo taken by my father in 1953.

St Stephen Walbrook

The spire was added to St Stephen Walbrook between 1713 and 1715, and the spires to the other two churches were added in the same period. They are possibly to a design by Hawksmoor.

Looking back towards the entrance to the church with a rather magnificent organ case above the door. This dates from 1765.

St Stephen Walbrook

There are a number of monuments on the walls of the church, including the following to Samuel Moyer dated 1716:

St Stephen Walbrook

Many of these tablets provide an insight into the dreadful child mortality rates of earlier centuries, even for those who were affluent.

The tablet states that Samuel Moyer was a Baronet. He must have had money as the tablet states the family spent the summer at their home at Pitsey Hall in Essex and the winters in the parish of St Stephen Walbrook.

A Baronet, who could afford homes in Essex and London still suffered numerous child deaths, Of their eleven children, eight died in their minority, with only three daughters surviving to “lament with their sorrowful mother, the great loss of so indulgent a father”.

It was not just the high rates of child mortality, but also what this level of child-birth did to women. The risks to women during childbirth were very high, and for Rebeckah Jollife, Moyer’s wife, surviving eleven must have been traumatic.

Also, with eleven births, for a significant period of her life, Rebeckah must have been in a state of almost continuous pregnancy.

St Stephen Walbrook also has a rather nice sword rest dating from 1710. This apparently came from the church of St Ethelburga.

St Stephen Walbrook

Back outside the church and this is the view of St Stephen Walbrook from the south.

St Stephen Walbrook

Today, a Starbuck’s occupies the corner space between tower and body of the church.

The dome of the church and lantern is just visible from the street.

The side view of the church shows the rough building materials used in the construction of the church – probably because other buildings were up against the side of the church so there was no need for expensive stone dressing to the side walls.
St Stephen Walbrook

Close up view of the dome and lantern:

St Stephen Walbrook

A longer view looking along Walbrook from the south. The Bloomberg building is on the left:

St Stephen Walbrook

This is such a fascinating area. In the above photo, the River Walbrook once ran roughly from where I am standing to take the photo, up and parallel to the existing street. The original church was on the left, prior to moving across the street and the river. The Roman Temple of Mithras is under the Bloomberg building on my left.

St Stephen Walbrook still dominates the northern part of the street, however if you walk along the street, look behind the tower and admire Wren’s dome.

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The Goat Tavern, Stafford Street

Hardly a week goes by without news of another London pub closing. Business rates, sudden increases in rent, demographic changes, or just the land becoming more valuable through a one-off payment for redevelopment, all conspire to an ongoing reduction in the city’s pubs.

It was therefore with some relief that I found the subject of this week’s post still there, serving as a traditional pub, and on the day of my visit, doing rather well.

This is my father’s 1952 photo of The Goat Tavern in Stafford Street:

Goat Tavern

The same view in July 2019:

Goat Tavern

The distinctive feature of a goat still projects proudly from the front of the building. Shutters still flank the windows. I suspect that since 1952 the interior of the pub may have converted from separate Public and Saloon bars to a single bar, hence the change of the ground floor frontage to the street where the two original doors have been replaced by a single door.

The Goat Tavern is in Stafford Street, a street just north of Piccadilly. Stafford Street runs between Old Bond Street and Dover Street, crossing Albemarle Street. I have ringed Stafford Street in the following map extract  (© OpenStreetMap contributors):

Goat Tavern

Stafford Street was built in 1686, part of London’s westerly expansion when a number of the old large private house and grounds lining Piccadilly were demolished to be replaced by the streets we see today.

Clarendon House and grounds originally occupied the space now occupied by Stafford Street, Albemarle and Dover Streets. Built in 1667 by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon who fled abroad soon after completion of the house. He had occupied senior positions at court and was influential in arranging Charles II marriage to Catherine of Braganza. He was blamed, probably unfairly, for a number of state problems, including the failure of Catherine to bear children.

He died in 1674, and the house and grounds were sold to Christopher Monk, the 2nd Duke of Albemarle in 1675. The property was sold again in 1683 to Sir Thomas Bond, who demolished the house, and Dover, Albemarle, Old Bond, Stafford and Grafton Streets were laid out (which gives an indication of the size of the property as it stretched all the way from Piccadilly to where the northern edge of Grafton Street is today).

The street is named after Margaret Stafford, one of Sir Thomas Bond’s partners in the development.

Albemarle Street is named after the 2nd Duke of Ablemarle, Old Bond Street after Sir Thomas Bond and Grafton Street after the 2nd Duke of Grafton who purchased part of the still undeveloped land at the north of the old Clarendon property and completed Grafton Street. Dover Street is named after Henry Jermyn, Baron Dover, also one of Sir Thomas Bond’s partners in the development.

Not one of the new streets laid out on the site of the original Clarendon House was named after either the house, or Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon. Although after his death his body was returned from France and buried in Westminster Abbey, his reputation must still have been tarnished which prevented his title or name being used to name any of the streets built on his former property.

The Goat Tavern dates from this original development as the first public house on the site dates from 1686, but I cannot find any references as to the origin of the name.

The London Encyclopedia states that the Goat Tavern was rebuilt in 1958, however looking at my father’s photo and the view of the Goat today, there does not appear to be much of a change, apart from the ground floor facade, and probably the interior of the pub, so this may be a reference to when the new facade was created, rather than to a rebuild of the building.

The ground floor facade of The Goat Tavern:

Goat Tavern

As with the majority of other London pubs, the Goat Tavern supported a number of functions, not just drinking. Clubs met at the pub, it was used for sales and auctions, and inquests into local deaths were all held in the Goat – a good example of why these establishments were called Public Houses.

Rather strangely for a pub in this location, the Goat Tavern seems to have had a naval connection. The pub’s entry in “The London Encyclopedia” states that Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton met here.

The pub was also a meeting place and unofficial club for naval officers. Meeting at the pub was banned during the 1st World War as the authorities were concerned that naval officers meeting in a London pub would divulge operational details, putting ships and sailors at risk of enemy action. There is a reference to this in The Bystander on the 7th April 1937:

“The coming-of-age dinner of the Goat Club the other night, with Admiral of the Fleet Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt as guest of honour, must evoke for large numbers of chaps the agreeably eighteenth century air of romance surrounding the Goat Club’s foundation. Most people know how, in 1915, when the Admiralty prohibited naval officers in uniform from visiting licensed premises, the lady of the Goat Tavern in Stafford Street, Piccadilly, known to all and admired by every ward and gun room in the entire Navy as ‘Bobby’, wrote to Their Lordships asking if she mightn’t form a club to keep ‘my huge family’ together; how Their Lordships gracefully bowed to the lady’s wishes; and how the Goat Club started in Regent Street, to the great content of 2000 officers of H.M. ships of war and, undoubtedly, to the great vexing of an almost equal number of enemy spies.”

Remarkable to imagine that this pub, tucked away north of Piccadilly, was once known throughout the navy, with officers meeting in the pub and enemy spies trying to discover naval secrets from drunken sailors.

An event in 1822 provides an indication of how those employed as servants were treated, from an advert in the Morning Advertiser on the 9th May 1822:

” FIVE POUNDS Reward – LEFT, about Four o’clock this afternoon in the tap-room of the Goat, Stafford Street by a servant, who will have to make the amount good, a SMALL PARCEL, containing eight Table-spoons, and twelve ditto Desert ditto, cypher E.B. Whoever has found and will bring the same to Mr. Lilford, at the bar of the said house, shall receive the above reward.”

I bet the five pounds reward was also deducted from the servants pay if the missing items were returned.

In the 1952 photo, the pub only had the statue of a goat on the front of the building. In 2019, the pub has both a statue of a goat and also a pub sign.

Goat Tavern

The following is an extract from my father’s 1952 photo. The goat is a different model to the one we see today, and the platform on which the goat stands states that the pub had been licensed for over 100 years.

Goat Tavern

Stafford Street is a relatively short street of around 105 metres, however according to the 1895 Ordnance Survey map, there were 3 pubs in Stafford Street at the end of the 19th century (I have a theory which I have not had the time to either prove or disprove that the decades either side of the year 1900 were London’s “peak pub” period).

I walked along Stafford Street to see if the other two pubs were still in existence.

On the corner of Stafford Street and Ablemarle Street is The King’s Head in a rather nice 19th century building.

Goat Tavern

The next pub should have been on the corner of Stafford Street and Dover Street, however the ground floor is now occupied by a shop.

Goat Tavern

This was the Duke of Ablemarle pub, a pub that appears to be from the original building of the streets, however closed in 2006.

The LMA Collage archive has a photo of the Duke of Ablemarle as it appeared in 1944:

Goat Tavern

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0963_F2333

If you look above the shop today, the black panel that extends along the length of both sides of the building has the pub name, the year 1686 as the year the pub was established, along with other typical pub wording.

Goat Tavern

The style and state of this writing gives the impression that this is of some age, however looking at the photo of the pub in 1944, the pub has the black panel extending along both sides with the pub name in large letters, however I cannot see the writing that appears today.

It had either been covered in the 1944 photo, or had been added after 1944 – I suspect the later.

The ground floor of the old Duke of Ablemarle in Dover Street.

Goat Tavern

Given how fast pubs have been disappearing in central London, two out of three remaining in a relatively short street is a good result.

None of the original buildings from the 17th century development of Stafford Street remain, although looking at the building that was the Duke of Ablemarle pub, I would not be surprised if there was part of the original corner building remaining in the existing structure.

The majority of the buildings look to be 20th century, although the King’s Head pub is 19th century.

There is a variety of architectural styles and use of materials in the buildings that line the street today. Some having some rather nice features, often hard to see.

On the corner of Stafford Street and Old Bond Street is Swan House.

Goat Tavern

The ground floor is currently a Saint Laurent shop, but along Stafford Street is a rather nice building name:

Goat Tavern

And if you peer at the top of the building, there are some not easy to see features:

Goat Tavern

Further down is Stafford House:

Goat Tavern

Stafford House gives the impression that one architect has designed the ground and first floors, then a second architect has completed the second and third floors to a completely different design.

The Goat Tavern is a lovely pub with a fascinating history. I hope the Goat continues to stand proudly overlooking Stafford Street for many years to come.

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St Katharine’s Way and Ship Fires on the Thames

The primary aim of the blog is to track down all the locations of the photos that my father took of London. With a number of the photos he had identified the location, either written on the photo if printed, or later labeling some of the negatives. Many had no identification so I have been tracking these down based on the scene in the photo.

I thought the subject of last week’s post was easy as it had been labelled Thomas More Street, however despite walking up and down the street a couple of times, I could not identify the location. The street had the high brick walls, but I could not find the curve on the street.

Fortunately, the expertise of readers came to help with the identification of the correct location. It was not Thomas More Street, but nearby in St Katharine’s Way, so before turning to the subject of this week’s post, I need to provide an update on last week’s post (I will be re-writing the post, but wanted to get this update out).

This is the photo from last week’s post:

Ship Fires on the Thames

Andy Murphy commented on the post to identify the correct location and also provided a link to the following photo from the Britain from Above website:

Ship Fires on the Thames

The twin docks that are St Katharine Docks can be seen in the lower right of the photo. There is a single entrance to the dock from the River Thames, and a bridge can see seen over the dock entrance.

This is a swing bridge, and it was just to the east of the swing bridge that my father was standing when he took the photo looking east.

I have enlarged the specific part of the above photo to show the area in my father’s photo:

Ship Fires on the Thames

In the above photo it is just possible to see the wall along the northern edge of the street, the curve of the street which would be seen when standing in the straight entrance to the swing bridge, and the main building, the large warehouse in my father’s photo can be seen along the northern edge of the street.

Malcolm used the OS maps to identify the location, and the following map extract shows the location:

Ship Fires on the Thames

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

The area today is very different and the swing bridge has disappeared. In the following map showing the same area as it is today, I have marked the location of the swing bridge and the large warehouse  (© OpenStreetMap contributors).

Ship Fires on the Thames

Annie mentioned in a comment that she thought she could see one of the features in my father’s photo in photos of the site today.

I wanted to take another look, but work was too busy in the week, leaving yesterday, the hottest day of the year so far, as an opportunity to investigate further.

This is the main entrance to the St Katharine Dock from the River Thames today.

Ship Fires on the Thames

The footbridge and swing bridge in the photo are part of the redevelopment of St Katharine Dock, if you look back at the maps earlier in the post, you can see that the original swing bridge was a short distance along from the footbridge, further in towards the docks.

Comparing the two maps and using the overlay feature on the National Library of Scotland site, the swing bridge crossed the dock entrance, then the road curved to the left, behind what is now the Marina office. This is the view looking across the dock entrance today from roughly where the swing bridge would have been on the western side.

Ship Fires on the Thames

In the above photo, the marina office is the building on the left. To the immediate right of the marina office is a set of steps and a high brick wall.

Crossing over, I took a look at the steps and the wall.

Ship Fires on the Thames

The wall on the right is modern, but the wall on the left looks to be one of the original dock walls. There are bricked up features in the wall and the brickwork is rough and aged. Very similar to the dock walls in Thomas More Street.

This is the view along the footpath alongside the wall.

Ship Fires on the Thames

For some reason, the footpath is raised, with steps at both ends of the footpath, so the walls would originally have been much higher. No idea why the footpath has been raised.

At the end of the footpath, this is the view looking along St Katharine’s Way. The large building on the left is occupying the space where the large warehouse was in my father’s photo (see the maps for details).

Ship Fires on the Thames

My suspicion was that the wall that runs along the footpath, to the rear of the marina office, could be the wall in my father’s photo on the left of the street, towards the warehouse.

I was checking the wall for features, probably to the amusement of those also walking along the footpath.

This may be me seeing things that are not there – wanting to find evidence where there is none. I will leave it to you to judge.

On the wall on the left of my father’s photo is a triangular feature. The wall today is in shade, rather than the bright sunshine of my father’s photo, but there also appears to be a triangular outline in the brick wall today, in roughly the right place along the wall.

I have taken extracts from photos earlier in the post and marked this feature – not easy to see in the 2019 photo.

Ship Fires on the Thames

This area has changed very dramatically in the 70 years since my father took the original photo, and it may be that I am seeing things which are not there, wanting to find something remaining today from the 1949 photo, but it does look right.

I have no idea why my father wrongly labelled the street. This is only the second example I have found in five years of the blog. The other photo that was wrongly labelled was Bevington Street in Bermondsey. I suspect the reason why these photos were wrongly labeled is that he would develop the film some weeks after taking the photos and finishing a role of film, and this gap after walking multiple London streets resulted in an error, or forgetting exactly the location of the developed photo.

The other question from last week’s post was the uniform of the man walking along the street. It is now clear that he was walking towards St Katharine Dock, so perhaps he was walking towards the start of work. There were a number of suggestions as to the uniform and cap badge, but the lack of detail in the photo could not help with a firm identification.

Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s post – your feedback helps make writing these posts so enjoyable. So now to the subject of this week’s post.

Barge and Ship Fires on the Thames

My father took the following photo from Bankside looking across to the north bank of the Thames, with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background.

To the right, there is a fire on a ship with black smoke partly obscuring the scene.

Ship Fires on the Thames

The same scene today:

Ship Fires on the Thames

The scene is both much the same, and very different.

St Paul’s Cathedral is still the dominating feature, and it is good to see that the height of buildings between the cathedral and the river are much the same, so the view of the cathedral is very similar.

On the river front, the only building that is the same in both photos is the warehouse on the right.

The Millennium Bridge on the left is the main new feature at river level.

Looking at the photo, I wonder if the reason my father took the photo was perhaps the fire.

Shipping on the River Thames carried a considerable variety of goods and materials, many of which were highly inflammable. This, along with a lack of regulations around safety and fire prevention, how goods should be carried, the fire needed to raise steam in steamships and the sheer volume of traffic on the river probably resulted in many such examples.

To investigate further, I had a look through newspaper reports to understand how frequent these were, and the types of goods that were at risk.

31st March 1845 – A Ship On Fire In The Thames

Yesterday afternoon information was received at several engine stations that a fire was burning on board the brig Betsy, Captain J. Rich of Penryn, lying off King Edward Stairs, opposite Rotherhithe. For sometime the greatest fears were entertained that the whole vessel would fall sacrifice to the fury of the flames, which were then burning brightly and fiercely in the after cabin. The floating engine, manned by one hundred men, was got to work, and a vast body of water poured into the cabin. At length the flames were subdued, and all danger of their further extension at an end, but not before the after cabin and its contents were nearly consumed. The fire from the cabin stove, from some cause which is unexplained, is said to have caused the disaster. The vessel, which is the property of Capt. Tranery, of Penryn, is said not to be insured.

23rd March 1877 A Barge Fire On The Thames

A barge laden with straw, caught fire on the Thames, near Blackfriars, on Monday. The barge was speedily got away from a number of others, and removed to mid-stream, where the fire floats played upon her until the fire was extinguished.

12th September 1871 Petroleum Barge on Fire In The Thames

The barge City of Rochester, belonging to Mr Burkett, of Greenwich, laden with petroleum, while lying in the upper part of Halfway Reach, London, on Saturday morning, took fire, and was burned to the water’s edge. the barge had received the petroleum from two vessels, the Harmony and Ennis, discharging at the petroleum buoys, near Erith.

15th February 1899 (a single paragraph in among other news items)

A barge took fire in the Thames this morning, and of her crew of three men, one was burned to a cinder, and the others were so severely injured that they are not likely to recover.

3rd January 1902 – A Smallpox Ship On Fire In The Thames

A fire broke out last evening on board the Endymion, a smallpox hospital ship, in the Thames, near Dartford. The vessel is one of three ships moored together, and used for acute cases. The Metropolitan Fore Brigade were apprised by telephone, and immediately sent down the Alpha fire float, which was moored at Blackfriars Bridge. The fire brigade authorities were later informed that the outbreak occurred in the stokehold of the Endymion.

The fire was overcome this morning, having smouldered all night in the stokehold, At the time of the outbreak, a number of nurses and attendants were on board, but no smallpox patients. There was no panic, neither was any personal injury sustained.

I had no idea that there were smallpox hospital ships on the River Thames. I found the following drawing of these ships (or rather hulks as in the drawing) in the Wellcome Collection.

The ships were the Atlas and Endymion (the subject of the above news report) at Deptford Creek.

Ship Fires on the Thames

Ships used as smallpox isolation hospitals. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

17th September 1906 – Blaze Near London Bridge

Early on Saturday morning a vessel, the Balgownie, belonging to the General Steam navigation Company, was found to be on fire at her berth in the Thames. Carrying a general cargo, the ship came up the Thames on Friday night’s tide, and was berthed near London Bridge, it being intended to unload her on Saturday morning. When the alarm was raised two L.C.C fire floats, Alpha and Beta, were summoned and were quickly on the scene. A number of fire-engines from stations near by were also called.

The vessel was lying just off Hay’s wharf, near Tooley-street. A number of other vessels were near by, and there was some danger that the fire would spread to these ships. The brigade quickly got to work under the command of Captain Hamilton, and a very strong force of water was pumped into the burning vessel’s hold. The smoke and flames had in the meantime created considerable excitement amongst early morning frequenters of the river and bridge, and large crowds watched the operations of the firemen. 

After two or three hours work the fire was subdued, although the firemen had been working under considerable difficulty through not being able for a time to get at the seat of the outbreak. After the flames had been put out the fire-boats and the engines from the shore remained in attendance, the floats directing their attention to pumping out water from the hold.

14th September 1910 – Barge Fire On The Thames

The East-end firemen were called last night to a vessel alight on the Thames, and found that the Dutch barge Alberdina, of 200 tons burden, was on fire alongside Foster’s Wharf, in Stanley-road, North Woolwich. The fire had broken out in the main hold, and was just attacking the deck when appliances were set to work and the fire overcome.

24th March 1911 – Ship On Fire In The Thames

The steamer “North Point” was bound for Philadelphia, and discovered on fire shortly after leaving the dock. The crew, which numbered forty, were aroused by the captain, and all saved by tugs. Five sailors, unable to join their comrades, owing to the heat of the decks, lowered themselves by ropes over the side of the vessel, and were then rescued. The vessel in a short time was a floating furnace, the iron plates on her sides being red-hot to the water’s edge. Eventually the “North Point” was beached. 

24th April 1912 – Ship On Fire In The Thames

London bridge was crowded by sightseers on Saturday evening owing to the fact that a fire had broken out on the steamship Prince Albert, lying off Nicholson’s Wharf, Lower Thames-street. The alarm was given at half-past five, and the brigade authorities ordered out ten motor pumps and steamers and two powerful river floats. The vessel, of 3,000 tons burthen, is owned by the Ocean Belgian Steam Navigation Company of Antwerp, and had recently arrived from Italy with a general cargo, which included sulphur, hemp, and green fruit. Owing to the fumes of the sulphur, a number of smoke helmets had to be used by the firemen, who were engaged for several hours before the outbreak was suppressed, this being accomplished by the flooding of No. 2 hold. The work was very difficult, as the firemen could not remain for any length of time at close quarters, and they were relieved at short intervals by fresh relays. Beyond the damage to the one hold, the vessel received comparatively slight injury.

16th December 1919 – Explosives On Board, Three Barges On Fire In Thames Dock

A serious fire broke out this morning in three barges laden with explosives lying in the Thames off Dagenham Docks. Explosions followed, which prevented the local fire engines coming close to the barges. Fire floats and fire engines subsequently got to work, but up to noon had made no impression and there were further minor explosions.

Efforts were made to sink the barges before they blew up, and the fireman worked under dangerous conditions to themselves. It was not believed that the property on shore would be in much danger if the barges ultimately blew up. So far there have been no casualties.

16th November 1921 – Ship Fire On The Thames, Unusual Spectacle For City Workers

Thousands of people on their way to the City this morning witnessed a fire on board a large steamer lying in the Thames near London Bridge on the north side of the river, at Fresh Wharf.

The vessel, the S.S. Kingestroom, of 796 tons gross register, carried a general cargo, including rum and paper. River floats pumped large volumes of water into the affected parts of the ship, and within about three-quarters of an hour the outbreak was mastered.

The main seat of the fire was among some rum barrels. These blazed fiercely, giving off a pungent odour. Then some full barrels became involved, and, these bursting, the contents ran over the decks. At midday hundreds of gallons of rum and water were being pumped from the ship.

19th September 1925 – Its Own Extinguisher

A barge caught fire in the Thames, and though fire floats were soon on the spot, the outbreak was extinguished by the barge sinking.

The above is just a very small sample of news reports of fires on board barges and ships on the River Thames – all the way from central London, out along the river to the estuary.

The river was a dangerous place.

It is perhaps surprising from a 21st century viewpoint that a ship carrying a mix of sulphur, hemp, and green fruit would berth in the heart of the City. The impact of burning sulphur must have been terrible, however this was normal for the time, when the same ship would carry a wide range of goods and materials and there were very few restrictions on where such ships could berth.

Fire boats or fire floats were a key weapon in the fire brigades arsenal of tools to fight fires on the river, and also fire onshore, from the river.

The following photo from 1910 is of the fire float ‘Beta III’.

Ship Fires on the Thames

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0487_2358C

These boats were equipped with powerful pumps drawing water directly from the river and able to direct powerful jets of water towards a fire.

A couple of years ago I was on board the fire boat Massey Shaw and saw an early fire boat in action. I wrote about the day (with video) in this blog post. The following is a view of the Massey Shaw pumping water.

Ship Fires on the Thames

The London Fire Brigade still has two fire boats available, and these new boats are far more sophisticated than earlier boats. They are able to change the way in which water is pumped towards a fire, from a powerful directed jet of water, to a dense mist of water.

When I was on the Massey Shaw, we were joined by one of the current fire boats, the Fire Dart.

Ship Fires on the Thames

Both pumping water was an impressive sight, and it was possible to imagine how ship fires would have been fought on the river, when it was full of goods traffic,

Sorry, that was a bit of a long read.

The feedback to last week’s post was so informative that I had to revisit and investigate further and I wanted to write a new post.

Just shows how much there is to discover about this fascinating city.

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Sunday Morning in Thomas More Street

On a Sunday morning in June 1949, my father photographed a solitary man walking along the middle of Thomas More Street. This is a street in the middle of the London Docks, as can be seen by the surrounding warehouses.

Thomas More Street

Fortunately, this photo is one of those that my father labelled, as without that guidance I would not have been able to find the location as there are no features to identify the exact street.

The man is in uniform. I have looked at the original high definition scan of the negative, but cannot see any details that would indicate his job. He is walking towards the river, he may be about to start work, or possibly walking home after ending a night shift.

Thomas More Street

The badge on the hat would almost certainly indicate his role, but it is to indistinct on a 70 year old film negative.

Thomas More Street is to the immediate east of St Katherine Docks. The street runs from East Smithfield down to the junction with St Katherine’s Way and Wapping High Street.

The following map shows Thomas More Street running vertically down the map, just to the right of centre  (© OpenStreetMap contributors) :

Thomas More Street

The name Thomas More Street is a relatively recent change, made at some point between 1895 and 1940 (it had the current name in the 1940 Bartholomew London Atlas). The street is named after Sir Thomas More, who was executed nearby on Tower Hill on the 6 July 1535. The original name was Nightingale Lane, a rather rural sounding name for a street in this location.

I cannot find any reference as to why the street name changed.

The following extract from the 1895 Ordnance Survey Map shows the street with the name Nightingale Lane:

Thomas More Street

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

The name might imply a reference to the bird of the same name being heard in the distant past in this part of east London, however there is possibly a very old source of the name. Henry Harben’s Dictionary of London states that the earliest mention is by Stow in 1598 as Nightingale Lane. The street formed the eastern boundary of Portsoken Ward. Harben also quotes a publication by the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society on the Anglo Saxon settlement around London, where there is a suggestion that the name may be a corrupted survival of Knightengild.

This source of the name is also mentioned in “The Streets of London” by Gertrude Burford Rawlings  which states: “Nightingale Lane E.1. A corruption of Cnihtena Guild or Knightenguild. This was an ancient London Guild established, as some think, in the time of King Edgar. In the reign of Henry I it was merged in the Priory of Holy Trinity, then newly founded at Aldgate. Its ‘soke’ is represented today by Portsoken ward.”

The 1895 map shows how the street ran between two large docks, St Katherine Docks to the west and London Docks to the east. The map also shows the street lined by warehouses serving the two docks, which is confirmed by my father’s photo as being much the same in 1949.

In John Rocque’s map from 1746, the street (just to the right of centre of the map below) is called Nightingal Lane. The ‘E’ on the end is missing. Assuming this is not just an error in the map, it does add credibility to the origin of the name referenced by Harben and Rawlings.

Thomas More Street

Rocque’s map shows how much this area would change with nearly everything in 1746 obliterated by the St Katherine and London Docks and their associated infrastructure, but Nightingal(e) Lane survives today at Thomas More Street.

I tried to find the location of my father’s photo, but whilst many of the old dock walls remain, the warehouses have long since disappeared, and I suspect entrances through the walls have changed to accommodate the recent building.

Starting at the junction of Thomas More Street with East Smithfield, this is the original entrance to the Western Dock of the London Docks. The 1895 OS map shows this well.

Thomas More Street

The view looking south along Thomas More Street from the junction. The high brick walls remain and give a good impression of how tall and solid these walls were. Theft from the docks and their warehouses was always a major problem and the dock owners built these walls to surround their docks to try to manage access through a limited number of controlled entrances.

Thomas More Street

A couple of lengths of Thomas More Street did have the S shaped curve shown in my father’s photo, but I could not match up the walls at any of the locations.

Thomas More Street

There has been considerable building over the area once occupied by the warehouses that lined Thomas More Street, alongside the London Docks.

Thomas More Street

The different brick colours in the walls around the entrance show some probable rebuilding, so it is not always clear whether the entrances we see today are original, or later changes to the wall.

The development alongside Thomas More Street is named Moretown – an example of a trend seen across many parts of London where new names are given to an area to try to build a new identity – or in developer speak ‘place making’.

The wall continues alongside Thomas More Street:

Thomas More Street

Another entrance:

Thomas More Street

Looking back up Thomas More Street, the curve is going in the wrong direction to my father’s photo.

Thomas More Street

The buildings between Thomas More Street and the site of the London Docks are of steel and glass, whilst those between the street and St Katherine Docks are of brick. A couple of gaps in the building on the western edge of the street show the docks behind.

Thomas More Street

A Waitrose now serves the residents of the area, showing how much the area has changed.

Thomas More Street

Looking back along Thomas More Street showing the height of the walls.

Thomas More Street

At the junction of Thomas More Street and Stockholm Way. Thomas More Street continues to the right, as do the walls, which once had the warehouses of the London Docks behind them.

Thomas More Street

When walking these streets, the continuation of Thomas More Street look strange, as the northern section ends at Stockholm Way, which looks as if it should continue on, however Thomas More Street than continues at a 90 degree bend to the northern section.

This makes sense when looking at the 1895 OS map as Stockholm Way did not exist when the area it now runs through was covered by the London Docks.

The following photo is looking back along Thomas More Street, at the southern end of the street at the junction with St Katherine Way. On the right is an entrance to Hermitage Basin shown on the 1895 OS map.

Thomas More Street

The final street sign:

Thomas More Street

If you look at the 1895 OS map, to the west of the southern end of Thomas More Street was the Red Lion Brewery.

This was owned by the brewers Hoare & Co. but had a very long history as a brewery, possibly dating back to the 15th century. Sir John Parson’s (who gave his name to Alderman’s stairs, see last week’s post) had a brew house here in 1746 as shown in the extract from John Rocque’s map.

The brewery was closed in 1934. The end of the business was widely reported as the end of an industry that had been in operation on the site for over 500 years.

The West London Observer reported on the 15th June 1934:

“The ‘King’s Brew House’ is about to be closed after being used continuously for brewing throughout the last 500 years. The brew house is part of the buildings which form part of the Red Lion brewery, the oldest, and probably the third largest brewery in London. The whole of these buildings will be closed on June 23rd.

The ‘King’s brew house’ is so called because it supplied the beer for the English and French courts in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is believed to be the only brew house in Britain to have had a monopoly on the beer supply to the old French courts. The privilege was obtained in a romantic way by Humphrey Parsons, an 18th century brewer, who was twice Lord Mayor of London, and the manufacturer of the liquor christened by Oliver Goldsmith ‘black champagne’.

Parsons was hunting near Paris with Louis XV, and being well-mounted outstripped the rest of the party and was first in at the death. This was contrary to Court etiquette, and when the King asked the name of the hard riding stranger, he was indignantly told that he was ‘un chavalier de malte’.

The King summoned Parsons and asked the price of his horse. He replied that the horse was beyond any price other than his Majesty’s acceptance.

The horse was delivered to the King and from that time, the ‘Chevalier’ Parsons had the exclusive right to supply the French court with beer.”

There is no sign of the brewery today, after being in operation for 500 years and supplying the English and French Courts with beer.

The St Katherine’s Estate was built on the location of the brewery, and the estate now occupies the land between Thomas More Street and St Katherine’s Way, across the road from Alderman Stairs.

The entrance to the St Katherine’s Estate from St Katherine’s Way:

Thomas More Street

The estate was one of the many built by the London County Council, and above the main entrance arch is a rather lovely reminder:

Thomas More Street

The old walls that defended the warehouses and docks are Grade II listed, so hopefully are protected to provide a reminder of the industry and business that operated in the area for so many years.

It was frustrating that I could not find the location in Thomas More Street of my father’s photo, however I do love the original photo, it is so evocative of another London which has disappeared for forever.

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Life and Death at Alderman Stairs

Before exploring Alderman Stairs, a quick thanks for all the feedback to last week’s post regarding the statue in Catherine Place – I will be updating the post with some of the additional information and possibilities as to the meaning of the statue.

I was recently walking along St. Katherine’s Way, heading towards Thomas More Street to find the location of one of my father’s photo. I walked by Alderman Stairs, and as the tide was out, as I have many times before, I walked down to the foreshore.

I find the river stairs that remain fascinating. They provide a connection between the land and the river, and are a reminder of when the river was a bustling place of trade and passenger transport.

Today, they are frequently quiet. I very rarely see anyone else on the foreshore at Alderman Stairs.

It is interesting to imagine everything that has happened over the centuries, centered around these stairs – all the people who have arrived or departed, everything that has happened in the Thames adjacent to the stairs.

I thought it would be interesting to research back through newspaper articles for references to Alderman Stairs, and use these to tell the story of Life and Death at Alderman Stairs.

Alderman Stairs

Alderman Stairs are along St. Katherine’s Way, just east of what were St. Katherine Docks. I have marked the location of the stairs with a red oval in the following map  (© OpenStreetMap contributors) :

Alderman Stairs

The stairs are old. Henry Harben in A Dictionary of London states that the first mention of the stairs was by John Rocque in 1746. The stairs had a number of names, including Alderman Stairs, Alderman Parsons Stairs and Lady Parson’s Stairs.

The name possibly derives from a former owner, Sir John Parsons who was an Alderman of Portsoken Ward in 1687. There are also references to Humphrey Parsons, Alderman between 1721 and 1741, and Sir John Parsons, Fishmonger described as the son of Parsons of St. Katherine’s.

Although I have seen references to Alderman Parsons Stairs in newspaper reports, the majority of references are just to Alderman Stairs, so over time the name was probably abbreviated down to the form we see today.

John Rocque’s map of 1746 shows Alderman Parsons’s Stairs leading down into the river from what looks to be Catherine Street, with Parsons’s Brew House across the street.

Alderman Stairs

Catherine Street is today St. Katherine’s Way, but between these two names it was also called Lower East Smithfield (see the 1895 OS extract later in the post).

Walking between the two high buildings on either side, through to Alderman Stairs:

Alderman Stairs

Alderman Stairs is just a single place in the whole of London, and based on my visits, the stairs and foreshore do not receive many other visitors, however exploring what happened here can tell us so much about life in London and life on the River Thames.

So here is a sample of Life and Death at Alderman Stairs.

The river has always been a dangerous place, but the sheer number of deaths in and along the river and the apparent casual acceptance in the way these are reported is remarkable from a 21st century viewpoint.

The Illustrated London News on the 7th June 1851 reports on one single day on the River Thames, including Alderman Stairs:

“FATAL RIVER ACCIDENTS – On Tuesday, Captain Artus, of the brig Melbourne, lying in Bugsby’s Hole, in attempting to ascend the side, missed his hold, fell into the water, and was drowned. Almost at the same time, (twelve o’clock), Captain Downie, of the ship mentor, lying off Stone-stairs, Wapping, fell overboard and perished. About 3 o’clock, P.M. a boat, containing two men and a woman, was swamped near Alderman Stairs; the men were saved, but the female, Mrs Coghlan, residing in Old Gravel-lane, was drowned.”

That is three deaths in one single day.

On the 5th November 1842:

“FATAL ACCIDENT – Tuesday night, a few minutes before twelve, John Dunlevy, cook on board the steam-packet City of Limerick, lying off the Alderman’s-stairs, Lower East Smithfield, while proceeding on board the steamer, and having just effected a landing on the accommodation ladder, fell into the river, and was carried away by the strong flood tide at the time, and was drowned. He was partially intoxicated. the body has not been found.”

On the 10th September 1842:

“On Saturday morning a large sailing barge, navigated by two men and a boy, while coming up the river, was sunk by the heavy swell caused by several vessels going down the river at full speed. She went down nearly opposite the St. Katherine Dock entrance. The people in her were saved by the watermen, who rowed from Alderman’s Stairs to their assistance. The barge was laden with 70 tons of coal. The damage sustained is estimated at £300.”

A report in the Illustrated Police News dated the 10th October 1903 highlights the risks that waterman working from Alderman Stairs endured when crossing the river:

“NEARLY DROWNED – AN EXCITING SCENE ON THE THAMES. At the Southwark County Court his Honour Judge Addison and a jury heard an action in which Henry George Wilson, an aged waterman, sought to recover damages from Arthur Gamman, of Holborn Wharf, Chatham, for personal injuries sustained.

Plaintiff said that on April 17 he was rowing his boat across from Alderman Stairs to Mills Stairs, Bermondsey, when he saw a steam hoy nearly on top of him. Without a word of warning from those on board she came on, and catching his boat amidships, smashed her to pieces, going right over the wreckage. He went under her and was much scratched and bruised. On rising to the surface almost exhausted he heard a cry of ‘Strike out Harry, there’s a boat coming’. Being a cold day he was heavily clad and sinking when somebody clutched him, and he eventually found himself being brought round on a ship.

Mr Thompson said it was only fair to the captain of the hoy to say that when he saw what had happened he very gallantly jumped overboard in his full rig and secured Wilson just as he was going down. 

Charles Wady, the captain, said he signaled to Wilson to stop rowing. He did so, but started again, and witness could not stop in time to avoid the boat. When he saw Wilson go under the hoy he stopped the screw, which was reversing, fearing that he would be cut up. 

His Honour warmly complimented Wady on his plucky behaviour.

The jury found in favour of the plaintiff, awarding him £25, for which amount and costs judgement was entered.”

I took the following photo from the top of Alderman Stairs, looking down to the river. Fortunately the tide was out.

Alderman Stairs

In the introduction to the post, I mentioned that the stairs were also called Lady Parsons’s Stairs. The use of the Parsons name in the name of the stairs is mainly concentrated in the first half of the 19th century and earlier. A typical example is from this report in the Morning Chronicle of the 12th February 1818:

“Yesterday morning the body of a young woman, apparently about 21 years of age, was found by a waterman, who was rowing near Lady Parsons stairs, in the river Thames, lying in the mud near the stairs.”

Another reference to Parsons’s Stairs records one of the very many tragic stories of those found in the river. From the London Courier and Evening Gazette on the 1st August 1801:

“Thursday night, about eight o’clock, was found floating in the Thames, at Parsons’s stairs, the body of a young woman, and brought to Aldgate Workhouse, Nightingale-lane. She was decently dressed in a cotton gown, brown ground, with white running sprig and leaf, modern pattern; a cambric sprig-netted shawl; had only one pocket on, in which there was nothing but one glove and tie, and a white pocket handkerchief. She appears to have been drowned upwards of a week, and appears to be about 20 or 30 years of age.”

The Parsons name also comes up in a reference to a possible bridge across the Thames before Tower Bridge was built. The Morning Advertiser of the 30th March 1824 listed petitions being presented at the House of Commons. One of these was:

“Mr T. Wilson presented Petitions from Watermen of St. Katherine’s Stairs, Old Parson’s Stairs, and the Tower Stairs, against the St. Katherine’s Suspension Bridge Bill.”

The St. Katherine’s Suspension bridge was a proposal for a bridge to improve access between St Katherine’s Dock and the proposed South London Docks. There were many objections to the bridge, including from the City of London. The bridge was not built.

There has always been immigration into London and on the 24th April 1847, the Illustrated London News reported on arrivals at Alderman Stairs:

” IRISH IMMIGRATION INTO LONDON – The importation of Irish paupers, so much complained of in Liverpool and Glasgow, begins to wear a threatening aspect in London. On Sunday, the Prussian Eagle, from Cork, and the Limerick, from Dublin, landed 1200 Irish Paupers at Alderman’s Stairs, Lower East Smithfield. The new comers, who were in the most wretched state of distress, were forthwith distributed over the eastern part of the metropolis. The same vessels landed 1200 Irish paupers on Sunday week.”

After walking down the stairs, I crossed over onto the foreshore. The following photo is looking to the west. The stones of the stairs running into the Thames.

Alderman Stairs

The pier of HMS President the Royal Naval Reserve unit associated with London is adjacent to Alderman Stairs.

If you look at old maps of east London, along the River Thames, adjacent to many of the river stairs was a public house. Probably this should not be a surprise as being next to where people were boarding or arriving on ships, was a good place to attract trade.

Sailors or passengers arriving after a long journey would probably welcome a quick stay in a pub after arriving onshore.

Adjacent to Alderman Stairs was the Cock and Lion public house, The pub had been next to the stairs from the 18th century to some point in the 1920s when it was demolished.

It is shown in the following extract from the 1895 Ordnance Survey map, just to the right of Alderman Stairs:

Alderman Stairs

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

The pub is mentioned in a number of articles, including  the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, dated the 1st September 1832, where a sailor, his shipmate and two women landed at Alderman Stairs from the Amity passage vessel and went straight into the Cock and Lion public house.

It was when he was in the pub that the sailor found his pocket book was missing, and accused the two women of stealing it.

One of the women asked a waterman to then row them across to the Europa Tavern at Rotherhithe, where one of the women asked the landlord to change a £5 note. Suspecting that this had been stolen from the sailor, the waterman snatched the £5 note, and both women were taken into custody.

This report, along with so many others highlight a way in which we see the north and south banks of the river has changed.

Today, the north and south banks are considered part of north and south London and therefore different. Reading books and newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries, this separation was not that apparent – north and south banks were seen as part of the river environment rather than as different parts of London.

Numerous reports of events at Alderman Stairs, include casual crossings of the river, as in the example above, where it was probably thought very normal to cross the river from a pub on the north, to a pub on the south bank – all part of the same river ecosystem.

The river was full, not only with passenger and cargo ships, but also with waterman, the river based taxi services of the time, offering quick transport across and along the river.

Not so easy today, however a couple of Saturday’s ago I was in the Gun on the Isle of Dogs for late afternoon, followed by the Angel at Rotherhithe for the evening. Rather than a waterman, the Jubilee Line provided cross river transport between the two.

The following photo shows the view looking east. The pier extending into the river is where the Thames pathway returns to the water edge.

Alderman Stairs

The boats in the river are at Hermitage Moorings.

Alderman Stairs were a reference point for the ships mooring in the river, and there are many records of the arrivals by the stairs.

From the Illustrated London News on the 23rd December 1843:

“CHRISTMAS FARE – On Sunday night the Dublin Steam Navigation Company’s steam-packet Royal William, Captain Swainson, arrived at her moorings off the Alderman-stairs, Lower East Smithfield from Dublin, Falmouth and Plymouth. She brought a miscellaneous cargo, part of which consisted of a large quantity of geese, turkeys, and other Christmas fare, for the metropolitan markets. In the course of Saturday and Sunday a number of steam-packets arrived in the river with large quantities of geese, turkeys, and other kinds of poultry, for Christmas cheer. Last week, several vessels arrived at Fresh-wharf, London-bridge with cargoes of varied fruits. Most of the stage-coaches which arrived in the metropolis on Tuesday and during the week brought very large quantities of geese, turkeys, hares, &c.”

The following photo shows the view looking back from the bottom of Alderman Stairs:

Alderman Stairs

The stairs consist of the steps up to street level and a paved stretch along the foreshore that runs into the river. This paved stretched raises the stairs above the foreshore to provide a flat walkway and without the mud, sand and random debris that litters the foreshore.

Alderman Stairs were also a departure point for regular shipping routes for both passengers and parcels. Departures and routes were regularly advertised in the newspapers, for example, in the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette on the 18th April 1838, the St. George Steam Packet Company were advertising that:

“Vessels sail regularly from off Alderman-stairs, below the Tower for:

PLYMOUTH, FALMOUTH and CORK, and taking goods and passengers for Liverpool, every Saturday morning at 8 o’clock.

EXETER, calling off Deal, Ryde and Cowes (weather permitting), every Wednesday morning, at 8 o’clock.

BOSTON – The SCOTIA, on Tuesday morning, the 10th April , at 4 o’clock, and every succeeding Tuesday at the same hour.

STOCKTON (at reduced fares), calling off Scarborough and Whitby, weather permitting – The EMERALD ISLE, every Saturday night at 12 o’clock, returning every Wednesday.

Goods to be sent to the St. George Steam-wharf, Lower East Smithfield.”

Passengers arriving off Alderman Stairs ran the risk of being overcharged for their transport between ship and shore, as this article from the Morning Post on the 29th September 1847 reports:

“MONSTROUS OVERCHARGE BY A WATERMAN – Yesterday, John Thomas Jones, a waterman, appeared before Mr Yardley, to answer the complaint of Mr. Edward Sole Munico, wine merchant of Trinity-square, for making the following grievous overcharge.

On Sunday the 29th of August, Mr Munico, a lady, and a gentleman, were passengers in the AJAX, a Cork steamer, which arrived that day off the Alderman’s Stairs, Lower East Smithfield. After the vessel was moored, the defendant, who was in his boat alongside, came on board, and was engaged by Mr. Munico to convey him and his friends and luggage which consisted of seven packages not exceeding five cwt, to the Alderman’s Stairs exactly opposite. The party was no sooner afloat that the defendant, who had a partner with him, said he could not land his fare at the Alderman’s Stairs, but would row to the Tower Stairs, or any other place. Mr. Munico then directed him to row to the Dublin Wharf, adjoining the Alderman’s Stairs, where the complainant wished to deposit some of his luggage, intended to be shipped to India. No landing could be effected at Dublin Wharf because it was a Sunday, and the boat was rowed into Alderman’s Stairs, where the defendant demanded 12s 6d as his fare, and would not allow Mr. Munico and his friends to land till it was paid. Mr. Munico expostulated with him for some time, but with little effect; at last he reduced his claim to 8s 6d, which was paid to him and the passengers and luggage were landed. the utmost that the defendant was entitled to claim was 3d per each passenger only, and they were entitled to carry 56lbs weight of luggage each. Beyond that the quantity the waterman was entitled to charge 1s per cwt, which would make the total amount of his fare only 4s 3d.”

The report then states that the waterman had no right to ply on a Sabbath between the steamer and Alderman’s Stairs, as that privilege belonged to the Sunday ferrymen, who rented it off the Watermen’s Company. The defendant was fined 20s, however Mr. Munico interceded on behalf of the waterman, on which the penalty was reduced to 10s and costs.

A lesson which also applies today, to agree a fare before getting into a river boat, or a taxi.

A report in the Evening Chronicle on the 30th October 1840 also highlights the risk to travelers arriving in London by Alderman Stairs.

The report was about another waterman, a certain William Vallance, who was a member of the ‘Jacob-street gang of steam boat rangers’. In the reported case, Vallance had been directed to meet the Dublin steam-ships when they arrived off Alderman Stairs, however the members of the Jacobs Street gang would persuade their passengers to be taken to another landing point where they could be charged significantly more. The Jacob Street gang would also “on arrival of a steam ship the Jacob-street gang managed to board the vessel while the crew were busily engaged in mooring the vessel, and seized any luggage they could lay their hands on, which they lowered into a boat, generally having a fellow of very questionable character ready to receive it and stow it away”.

Theft of goods from the ships moored on the Thames and from the warehouses that lined the river was a continuous problem, and had led to the formation of the Thames River Police,

The Thames river Police would frequently question people carrying goods along the river, on land, or at the river stairs. If they could not give a satisfactory explanation for why they were in possession of the goods, they would be arrested for theft. Newspapers often carried long lists of those arrested, and the goods they were found with. On the 3rd September 1821, the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser included a “E. Bateman who was found with 1lb of sugar at Alderman Stairs” without being able to give any satisfactory explanation of why he was in possession of the sugar.

The remains of old piers can still be seen:

Alderman Stairs

Ships moored off Alderman Stairs could also be purchased. On the 12th of January 1809, you could have bought the “good Brig LITTLE WILLIAM, square stern, foreign built, and free; burthen 84 tons per register, is abundantly found in good stores, and can be sent to sea at a very trifling expense; is well adapted for the Mediterranean or any other Trade her burthen may suit. Now lying off Alderman’s-stairs, John Gofton, Master.”

The view looking west, under the decked area in frount of the converted warehouse to the west of Alderman Stairs:

Alderman Stairs

Reports involving Alderman Stairs also highlighted the dangers of passenger shipping, for example this article from the Evening Chronicle on the 17th October 1838:

“DREADFUL STEAM-PACKET COLLISION – The non-arrival of the Dublin Steam Packet Company’s vessel Shannon, Captain Pym, at her mooring of the St. Katherine’s Dock, on Sunday, or yesterday morning from Dublin, Falmouth and Plymouth, excited considerable apprehensions for her safety,and that of the passengers and crew.

These fears were still more heightened, owing to the recent heavy gales which she must have encountered at sea; and in consequence of information having been received at the company’s office, St. John’s-street, Minories, by yesterday morning’s mail, from Portsmouth, that the steam-ship Thames, Captain Williams, belonging to the same company, which sailed from the river for Dublin on Saturday morning last, with a great number of passengers, had put into that port (Portsmouth) early on Sunday morning, with extensive damage, having been in violent contact with a large steam-vessel off Brighton, about twelve o-clock on Saturday night. When the collision took place both vessels were proceeding at full speed, although the night was dark and stormy.

As might be expected, the consternation among the passengers most of whom were in their berths, was frightful in the extreme – doubtless rendered the more so on account of the recent dreadful loss of the Forfarshire, and other steam packet disasters. The steam-ship with which the Thames was in collision was believed to be the Shannon, from Dublin for London, although this could not be correctly ascertained, the steamer having proceeded on her voyage, and not again seen. 

These particulars were received in the city by the Portsmouth mail yesterday morning, and soon spread through the metropolis to the distress of those who expected relatives or friends to be on board, the Shannon not having at that time arrived; and the belief in consequence being entertained that after the collision with the Thames she had gone down with all on board.

Yesterday, soon after noon, these evil forebodings were happily dispelled; the Shannon having arrived at her moorings off the Alderman-stairs, Lower East Smithfield.”

A final look back up the stairs:

Alderman Stairs

These stairs are so quiet today. There are no waterman rowing their passengers across the river. Sea going passenger and cargo ships no longer travel this far up the river (apart from the cruise ships berthing alongside HMS Belfast), but stand on the Thames foreshore, look up the stairs, and imagine the countless thousands of people who have used Alderman Stairs as their gateway to the river.

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A Mystery on Catherine Place and Wilfred Street

In 1986 my father photographed what I assume to be a statue of the Virgin Mary. In the photograph was a street name sign, Catherine Place, so I was able to identify the location and I went to take a look and see if it was still to be seen.

Catherine Place

Catherine Place is in the cluster of streets between Victoria Street, Buckingham Gate, Palace Street and Buckingham Palace. A short walk along Buckingham Gate, turn into Wilfred Street and at the junction with Catherine Place, the image remains.

Catherine Place

The overall view of the building on the corner of Wilfred Street and Catherine Place is shown in the photo below. The design of the building clearly tells that it was originally a pub. The rounded brick corner – designed for pub signage. The wooden facade on the ground floor, rather than the brick of a normal house. The large corner door. This was originally the Palace Arms.

Catherine Place

Knowing that this was originally a pub, and now converted to a residential building, did not give any clue as to why a religious symbol would be on the wall of the building. The name of the pub gave no clue, Palace Arms probably refers to either Palace Street or Buckingham Palace.

I can find no reference to the image in any of my usual reference books or research sources. The City of Westminster Conservation Area Audit includes the following reference to the building but does not include any mention of the statue:

“On the corner of Wilfred Street and Catherine Place is a redundant pub front. Although no longer in use, the frontage survives, with Corinthian pilasters marking each window opening and projecting console brackets to either side of the entablature that projects over the blocked entrance.”

The audit report includes a photo of the building which includes the statue, but there is no reference – either it has no historical significance, or perhaps the authors of the Conservation Area Audit also could not find any reference as to why it was there.

I checked the London Metropolitan Archives Collage image site. There are some photos of the area, including the following from 1974, but no images which show the building when the pub was open, or images of the building older than 1974. The photo does confirm that the statue of the Virgin Mary was there in 1974.

Catherine Place

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_01_454_74_19310

The statue of the Virgin Mary is obviously maintained. If you look at the 1986 and 2019 photos, it has been repainted and a forearm and hand has been added.

I then turned to the 1895 Ordnance Survey map to see if there were any clues. In 1895, Catherine Place was named Catherine Street. Look above the end of the word “Wilfred”, and the corner building labelled P.H. is the pub.

Catherine Place

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

There is a possible clue as to the source of the Virgin Mary statue. Look down along Wilfred Street to the junction with Palace Street, and on the corner is a building labelled as a Roman Catholic Chapel.

This is the Roman Catholic Chapel today:

Catherine Place

This was the chapel of St Peter and St Edward. Originally built in 1856 , with an upper floor added between 1857 and 1858, the lower section of the building was used as a school and the upper section as the chapel.

The chapel provided a special Mass for guardsmen from Wellington and Chelsea Barracks and was known as the Guards Catholic Chapel. It closed in 1975 and later converted to offices. The building is Grade II listed. Visitors to the chapel included in 1965, the former United States First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

The side view of the chapel in Wlifred Street shows the windows providing light into the central space of the chapel.

Catherine Place

The chapel closed in 1975. The statue of the Virgin Mary was on the side of the building in 1974 – I cannot find any reference to when it first appeared.

Is it possible that the statue was originally part of the chapel, and knowing that the chapel was to close, for some reason it had been moved to the side of the old pub building?

It cannot have been part of the original pub. There appears to have been no relationship between the pub and the chapel, and the name of the pub (Palace Arms) has no religious reference.

Why on the pub building? It is a prominent corner position, looking down Wilfred Street towards Buckingham Gate, but I can find no other reasons why it should be there.

I have also looked for any newspaper reports providing any reason for the statue, but again cannot find any reference. The only reports are of the usual events that you would expect from a London pub, for example from the Morning Post on the 14th November 1842:

“James Coffee, an Irish labourer, was charged with being drunk and disorderly at Wilfred Street, Westminster at 3.15 on Saturday. Police Constable Frazer proved that at the time in question he was called by the landlord of the Palace Arms to eject the prisoner, who was drunk, and annoying customers. He was got out of the house and in the streets said he would ‘smash the witness’s head with a stick’ and if he had a revolver ‘he’d shoot him as they did landlords in Ireland’. At length he was taken to the station-house. The prisoner said he had never been in trouble before, he had been five years from Ireland, and he was a hard working man. He had only threatened to hit the constable with a stick after he had knocked him down. 

He was fined 7s or seven days, and he was removed crying out that he had only 3s in the world.”

It remains a mystery and I cannot find any reference as to why the statue of what I assume to be the Virgin Mary is on the frount of the old Palace Arms.

The area around the old pub is a mix of architecture styles. 18th and 19th century survivals, early 20th century and some very recent building.

An example of recent building is shown in the following photo, opposite the old Palace Arms and on the site of the school shown on the 1895 Ordnance Survey map:

Catherine Place

The view along Catherine Place from Wilfred Street. The street is a mix of residential and offices.

Catherine Place

The opposite corner of Catherine Place to the old Palace Arms:

Catherine Place

The use of different coloured bricks for decoration of the above house indicates that whilst emulating many of the features, it is a later building than the Georgian survivals on the street.

The following photo shows a late Georgian terrace along Catherine Place. The brickwork is simple, the sash windows recessed, but note the different door styles.

Catherine Place

As well as looking up at the buildings, the pavement can also provide some fascinating survivors. Along Catherine Place is this cover from the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation Ltd.

Catherine Place

The Westminster Electric Supply Corporation was one of the many local electricity generation and distribution companies, formed in the late 19th century, that powered London. Each company served their own specific area and the Westminster Electric Supply Company had generating stations at Millbank, Eccleston Place and Davies Street.

In the first decades of the 20th century, many of these companies merged or were taken over. The Westminster Electric Supply Corporation lasted until 1938, when it was taken over (along with a couple of other companies) by the Charing Cross Electric Supply Company, to form the Central London Electricity Company Ltd.

There are not too many of these covers surviving.

The mix of architectural styles and building materials shows how the street has developed over the centuries. At number 53 is an interesting red brick 19th century building.

Catherine Place

Wilfred Street is also full of interesting buildings and has two pubs. The Cask and Glass is on the corner of Wilfred Street and Palace Street. A lovely pub, but very small and possibly one of the smallest pubs in central London.

Catherine Place

The 1895 Ordnance Survey map does not label this building with P.H. so it may not have been classed as a pub, rather as a “beer shop” – possibly due to its small size. The Cask and Glass is a relatively recent name, it was originally the Duke of Cambridge.

Some of the earliest houses on Wilfred Street are these early 19th century, single bay brick houses.

Catherine Place

The view along Wilfred Street, with Catherine Place a short distance along on the left.

Catherine Place

A short distance along Wilfred Street, half way between what was the Palace Arms and the Cask and Glass is another pub – the Colonies.

Catherine Place

Three pubs within a short distance along Wilfred Street – the original occupants of the street were well served.

The Colonies is marked as a Public House on the 1895 map, sandwiched between the school and the Roman Catholic Chapel.

As with the Cask and Glass, the Colonies is a relatively recent name, dating from 1976. The original name was the Pineapple, and the pub dates from the early 19th century.

Catherine Place and Wilfred Street were an interesting couple of streets for a bit of exploration. Streets that I suspect do not get that much attention, tucked away between Victoria and the area surrounding Buckingham Palace.

I still have no idea why the old Palace Arms pub has a statue of the Virgin Mary above what was the main entrance door – there is probably a very mundane reason, however it is good to still have some mysteries on the streets of London.

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The 6th June 1944, D-Day in Maps

Firstly, an apology. This post in nothing to do with London, however on the 75th anniversary of D-day, I wanted to write a post that brings together my interests in history, books and maps to commemorate such an important event, and the sacrifice of so many in what was one of the defining days of World War 2.

In 1946 the British Field-Marshal Montgomery published his personal account of the campaign to liberate Europe, from the landings at Normandy on D-day to the eventual defeat of Germany. The book is a detailed account of the operations, the battles, the logistics of the campaign to open and fight a second front from the west.

Reading the book, the logistics of D-day are staggering. The volume of men and equipment that had to be landed, the secrecy to ensure the landing sites were a surprise to the defenders, the bravery that ensured a bridgehead had been established by the end of D-day, and the challenges of then extending that bridgehead and fighting from Normandy to Germany.

Normandy to the Baltic consists of 222 pages of text, but what makes this book rather special are the two pockets to the front and rear of the book which contain a total of 47 coloured maps and 3 diagrams. The maps detail the campaign from D-day through to the closure of the war.

The front of the book’s dust wrapper – lovely bold colours and very evocative of the time.

D-Day

The book was published when paper for publishing was still in short supply, and the book notes that “this book is produced in complete conformity with the authorised economy standards“.

The first map highlights the invasion coast – the area from Dunkirk in the north to Cherbourg in the west that was considered as possible landing sites for the invasion. Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne were the obvious locations as these were only a short distance across the channel and would therefore make the crossing easier, however this was a very heavily defended stretch of coast.

D-Day

The logistics of managing such a large invasion force are remarkable. The army groups and all their equipment were marshaled across the south of the country, stretching from Wales through to East Anglia, and to the west of Cornwall. The following map shows the areas occupied by individual Corps and Divisions. They all had to be then transported to coastal embarkation points for transport across the channel on D-day and during the following weeks.

D-Day

This map of German forces in France and Belgium shows the heavy concentration of forces along the French and Belgium coast where the distance across the channel was shortest.

D-Day

To avoid the heavy concentration of forces across the shortest stretch of channel, the plan for the assault was to land in Normandy, which would involve a lengthy sea crossing, but hopefully maintain an element of surprise and allow the Allied forces to establish a bridgehead before the defending forces could be reinforced.

D-Day

The organisation was incredible. The following diagram shows the assault technique and covers the various different types of specialised craft that had to be moved from the south coast of England to Normandy, arranged in the right order and to perform their role at the right time.

D-Day

Although in reality, conditions such as the weather on the morning of D-day meant that the assault was not as precisely choreographed as the above diagram suggests. Landing craft often did not arrive at the right place, and in some instances, troops left landing craft when still in deep water, and many drowned as they were loaded with heavy equipment.

At the front were Landing Craft Support (LCS), craft that provided fire support to troops as they landed on the beaches. Behind them was a line of D.D. Tanks, or Duplex Drive amphibious tanks. These would be launched some distance from the shore and would make their way under their own power and flotation to the beach.

Behind then was a line of Landing Craft Tank (LCT), landing craft that carried tanks and other mechanised equipment for transport to the shore. Further back was a line of Landing Craft Assault (LCA), landing craft that carried the assault troops. As well at the LCTs, this line included Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE), landing craft carrying specialised equipment such as tanks fitted with flails to clear a path through mines, bridging equipment etc.

The assault was supported by Landing Craft Gun (LCG) artillery ships and destroyers tasked with bombarding the enemy positions before the landing, and providing supporting fire once the assault troops had landed.

Landing Craft Flak (LCF) were anti-aircraft variations of the landing craft, fitted out with anti-aircraft guns to defend against enemy aircraft.

After landing and establishing a bridgehead, the plan was to quickly strike in land, with the US Third Army moving south and the US First Army, British Second Army and Canadian First Army moving east and north towards northern France, Belgium and Paris.

D-Day

The distribution of German forces on the 6th June 1944, showing how every section of the coast was defended, with reinforcements inland.

D-Day

Bombing on and after D-day aimed to frustrate the move of German reinforcements to the front by destroying railways, bridges and attacking columns of transport.

The following map again highlights the challenge of attacking Normandy. A lengthy sea crossing and the coordination of forces from across the south coast, including follow-up forces from Cornwall , the Thames estuary and Felixstowe.

D-Day

The US assault on the 6th June included airborne drops of parachute forces in the early hours. They suffered heavy casualties during the landing on the town of Sainte-Mère-Église as many buildings across the town had been set on fire which illuminated the descending paratroops.

D-Day

By the end of the 6th June 1944, a bridgehead had been established and the push inland had started. 156,000 troops had landed on the first day, and an estimated 4,400 had died.

The following map shows the situation at the end of D-day.

D-Day

In the book, Montgomery described the situation at the end of the 6th June as follows:

“As a result of our D-Day operations we had gained a foothold on the Continent of Europe.

We had achieved surprise, the troops had fought magnificently, and our losses had been much lower than had ever seemed possible. We had breached the Atlantic Wall along the whole Neptune frontage, and all assaulting divisions were ashore. In spite of the bad weather the sea passage across the Channel had been successfully accomplished, and following this the Allied Naval Forces had given valuable support by fire from warships and craft; the Allied Air Forces had laid the foundation of success by winning the air battle before the invasion was launched, and by applying their whole collective striking power, with magnificent results, to assist the landings.

In spite of the enemy’s intentions to defeat us on the beaches, we found no surprises awaiting us in Normandy. Our measures designed to overcome the defences proved successful. But not all the D-day objectives had been achieved and, in particular, the situation on Omaha beach was far from secure; in fact we had only hung on there as a result of the dogged fighting of the American infantry and its associated naval forces. Gaps remained between Second British Army and V United States Corps and also between V and VII United States Corps; in all the beachhead areas pockets of enemy resistance remained and a very considerable amount of mopping up remained to be done. In particular, a strong and dangerous enemy salient remained with its apex at Douvres.

It was early to appreciate the exact shape of the German reaction to our landings. The only armoured intervention on D-Day was by 21 Panzer Division astride the Orne, north of Caen. Air reconnaissance, however showed that columns of the 12 SS Division were moving west.

To sum up, the results of D-Day were extremely encouraging, although the weather remained a great anxiety. I ordered the armies to proceed with the plan; First United States Army was to complete the capture of its D-day objectives, secure Carentan and Isigny so as to link up its beachheads, and then thrust across the base of the peninsula to isolate Cherbourg as prelude to its reduction, Second British Army  was to continue the battle for Caen, develop the bridgehead southwards across the Bayeux-Caen road and link up with the V United States Corps at Port-en-Bessin.”

Montgomery’s comments on the fighting at Omaha beach demonstrate how parts of the invasion were a close run thing.

That the bridgeheads had been achieved by the end of the 6th June was down to the considerable bravery of those involved in the assault, and the logistical achievement of transporting thousands of troops and tons equipment.

The 6th of June was just the start of a long campaign that would take British, American and Canadian armies all the way into Germany.

The breakout from the bridgehead would still take some weeks.

The following map shows the situation during the week following D-day with the start of the push inland from the beaches.

D-Day

The advance after D-day was slow going. The nature of the countryside (wooded, hollow lanes, hedging lining the lanes) and growing enemy reinforcements meant that after establishing the landing, the push inland would be very challenging with considerably more killed and injured than during the initial landings.

The initial development of the bridgehead during the second week after D-day:

D-Day

By the end of June, the Allied forces had made limited progress and were now up against an enemy force that was more coordinated than on D-day and with further arriving reinforcements. The following map shows the situation at the end of June, just over three weeks after D-day.

D-Day

But progress was being made – the push up the peninsula by the American forces to capture Cherbourg:

D-Day

The British and Canadian forces start to push inland and to move towards the city of Caen:

D-Day

The US Army operations during the two weeks after D-day:

D-Day

The capture of Caen:

D-Day

Operations of the Second British and Canadian Armies in July:

D-Day

Moving south after the capture of Caen in the third week of July:

D-Day

When the break out happened from the initial bridgehead, it was rapid and resulted in a breakdown in enemy resistance which resulted in the liberation of Paris when the German forces in the city surrendered on the 25th August 1944.

The following map shows the break out by the First United States Army between the 25th July and 4th August.

D-Day

After the August breakout, progress would then be relatively rapid, however the overstretched supply lines and regrouping of German forces would cause delays and set backs, for example with the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944 to reach Arnhem, cross the Rhine and turn into Germany.

Montgomery’s book is a fascinating account of the campaign, which started on the 6th June 1944, and would end on VE Day, the 8th May 1945. The rest of the maps in the book follow the course of the campaign between these two dates.

That D-day was a success was down to a phenomenal achievement in logistics and planning, long before the days of instant communications, computers and spreadsheets, allied with the incredible bravery and sacrifice of those who took part.

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London In Pictures – A London County Council 1937 Guide

The London County Council (LCC) along with the metropolitan boroughs, transformed London.

The LCC was responsible for the coordination and provision of a wide range of services across London, for example the growth of council provided housing, education, provision of medical services, parks and gardens, infrastructure and consumer services. The LCC, along with authorities such as the Metropolitan Water Board, the London Passenger Transport Board, the London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Borough Councils transformed London from the 19th century city to the city we recognise today.

The London County Council produced a considerable number of publications on almost any aspect of the running and organisation of a major city that you could imagine. Within these publications there is a common theme – a considerable pride in the city and the services that the LCC provided to Londoners.

Much of this can look strange from a 21st century viewpoint – too intrusive, too organising, too much “authority knows best”. However with austerity, drastic reductions in council services, library closures, funding challenges for the NHS, Police and Education, the past can look deceptively attractive, but dig deeper and comparisons are never simple.

I have collected a wide range of LCC publications over the years, they provide considerable insight into the development of the city from the formation of the LCC in 1889 until the transfer to the Greater London Council in 1965.

For this week’s post, I would like to feature a publication which provides an overview of all the services provided by the LCC and other London authorities. A snapshot in one specific year – 1937.

This is London In Pictures – Municipal London Illustrated.

London County Council

London in Pictures is a guide-book, but a guide-book with a difference as the foreward to the book describes:

“Many London guide books are published every year and many picture books illustrating the external beauties of London streets and street scenes and buildings of architectural and historic interest. None of these publications, however, devotes adequate attention, even if any notice at all be given, to the municipal interests of London”

The guide-book was targeted at visitors to, and those on holiday in London, and the foreward goes on to explain that if the visitor can understand the government of the city and how London is delivering municipal activities, they can take back this knowledge to help solve problems in their own town or city. Possibly a very limited readership, but again, this demonstrates the LCC’s pride in the way that London was administered and the services provided to the city’s inhabitants.

The book is divided into sections focusing on a specific aspect of the LCCs services, so lets start with – Block Dwellings built by the Council.

In 1937 the LCC owned around 25,000 flats across London. These were typically in estates with blocks of flats to a common design, however many designs were unique and still look good today.

One of these was the Oaklands Estate in Clapham. This estate occupied around 3 acres and provided 185 dwellings with a total of 582 rooms. The estate was built between 1935 and 1936 and the following photo is of Eastman House on the Oaklands Estate.

London County Council

The Clapham Park Estate is of the more traditional London County Council design. This is a view of Lycett and Cotton Houses on the estate which was built between 1930 and 1936, with the overall estate comprising 759 dwellings.

London County Council

The LCC also developed Council Cottage Estates. These estates consisted of houses and smaller flats, providing a low-rise appearance and reduced housing density. This is the Old Oak Estate – the estate which is located between Westway (the A40 road) and Wormwood Scrubs.

London County Council

In 1937 the Old Oak Estate consisted of 1,055 houses and flats.

Occupying around 202 acres of land across Chislehurst and Sidcup districts was the Mottingham Estate. In 1937 the estate consisted of 2,356 houses and flats with further growth planned by the reservation of space for a cinema, shops, schools and a church and 25.5 acres of open space.

London County Council

Londoners also needed education and the London County Council designed new school buildings with large windows for natural lighting, assembly halls, gymnasium, libraries and rooms designed for specific subjects such as science and art. The book highlights that LCC schools were provided with hot water facilities (with the implication that earlier schools lacked this feature).

This is the King’s Park School in Eltham. The senior school in the two storey block with the single storey infant school to the right.

London County Council

As well as education, health care was important, and in 1937 the NHS was still a distant dream. In 1930 the LCC took over responsibility for hospitals controlled by Boards of Guardians and the Metropolitan Asylums Board. This allowed the council to start a programme of modernisation and standardisation of health services across the city and in 1937 there were 43 general hospitals and 31 special hospitals controlled by the LCC.

This is the Operating Theatre and X-Ray Unit completed in 1936 at St. Mary Abbots Hospital, Kensington.

London County CouncilAs with new schools, LCC designed hospitals also featured large windows to maximise natural lighting and a belief in the importance of fresh air to aid recovery. This is the Sun Balcony at St. Olave’s Hospital:London County Council

One of the departments within the London County Council was the rather 1984 Orwellian named “Public Control Department”.

This department had a wide range of services which today would be included within the scope of departments such as Trading Standards.

The Public Control Department was responsible for services such as for weights and measures, testing of gas meters, control and storage of petrol, licensing employment agencies and massage establishments, administration of the Shops Act, diseases of animals, sale of fertilizers and animal feed stuffs and the registration of theatrical employees.

The following three photos from the book show the type of activities carried out by the Public Control Department. The first is testing a weighbridge:

London County Council

Measuring the weight of a sack of coal to ensure that the contents met the specified and charged for weight:

London County Council

Checking the weights and measures in a shop:

London County Council

The London County Council became the local education authority for London in 1904, and was responsible for:

  • To co-ordinate the activities of its predecessors, the School Board for London and the Technical Education Board,
  • To place those elementary schools provided by voluntary bodies on the same basis as regards maintenance as those provided by the Council itself,
  • To establish a system of secondary schools linked to the elementary schools by a scholarship scheme,
  • To reorganise the former ‘night schools’ into a comprehensive system of continuative education,
  • To expand technical, commercial and art education,
  • To build up a system of school medical inspection and treatment, and of special schools for children with physical and mental defects.

In 1937 the LCC was responsible for nearly 800,000 pupils. 512,000 under the age of 14, with 125,000 between 14 and 18 and a further 163,000 in adult education.

An annual nativity play by junior boys and girls:

London County Council

Mid-morning milk at a junior school:

London County Council

Practical work – Domestic Subjects:

London County Council

Residential schools in camp:

London County Council

The scope of education covered by the London County Council included training colleges which focused on specific subjects and skill sets. These colleges included teacher training colleges and in the photo below, poultry farming:

London County Council

A teacher training college:

London County Council

The London County Council was also responsible of the main drainage services for London, which in 1937 meant servicing the needs of 5.5 million people.

The main treatment works were at Beckton, which dealt with 280 million gallons of sewage a day, with effluent being discharged into the river, and 2 million tons a year of solid matter being dumped at sea by a fleet of four, wonderfully named “sludge vessels”.

This view is of part of the 7.5 miles of aeration channels at Beckton:London County Council

An example of the tunnels that transported sewage for treatment – 10 foot and 11.5 foot diameter sewers:

London County Council

Included within the wide range of infrastructure services for which the LCC was responsible were ferries, tunnels and piers, including the Rotherhithe Tunnel:

London County Council

Greenwich Pier:

London County Council

And the Woolwich Ferry, which in 1937 carried 4,000 vehicles and 7,000 pedestrians daily between the weekday hours of 6 a.m. and midnight.

London County Council

Originally, fire brigade services had been built up across London by private enterprises such as insurance companies, however by the 1860s, the costs of providing the service were escalating and the insurance companies requested that the Government took over the service.

This was achieved by the 1865 Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act which consolidated the individual services into a single, London fire service.

In 1889 the London County Council took over the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and in 1904 the name was changed to the London Fire Brigade.

In 1937 the new headquarters building and fire station for the London Fire Brigade on the Albert Embankment had only just been completed. The fire services moved from this building a few years ago, and it is currently being redeveloped, however it will retain a link with the fire service as the London Fire Brigade museum is planned to return to a new and upgraded facility within the building.

In 1937, the London Fire Brigade were equipped with a range of leading edge appliances, including a Hose Lorry:

London County Council

And a Breakdown Lorry:

London County Council

The London Docks were a high fire risk, due to the dense storage of large amounts of inflammable materials, with probably a lack of attention to fire prevention measures. The following photo from the book shows a typical fire that the London Fire Brigade had to deal with, a large fire in July 1935 at Iceland Wharf, Old Ford.

London County Council

The Municipal Hospitals of London were the responsibility of the London County Council, with 74 hospitals taken over from the Boards of Guardians and Metropolitan Asylums Board.

In 1937, these hospitals contained at total of 38,500 beds. This was before the establishment of the NHS, so treatment was not free for all. The book explains that “Admission may usually be secured on the certificate of a private doctor, without any suggestion of poor law ‘taint’, and except in certain circumstances, patients are required to contribute according to their means.”

The Children’s Ward at a LCC hospital:

London County Council

A London County Council hospital operating theatre:

London County Council

The London County Council also ran medical inspections and treatment of school children. Children would be ‘inspected’ at the ages of 7, 11 and between the ages of 13 and 14. This included dental inspections with the possibility of follow-up treatment at 74 medical and dental treatment centres across London.

Probably a nightmare for most children – school dental treatment:

London County Council

A minor ailment centre:

London County Council

The London County Council set-up the London Ambulance Service in 1915, initially to focus on street accidents. There was a separate ambulance service run by the Metropolitan Asylums Board, which was used for the transfer of patients with infectious diseases, and another service run by the Boards of Guardians. All these services came under the central control of the LLC in 1930 under the Local Government Act of 1929.

The interior of a 1930s ambulance:

London County Council

Control of ambulances was from County Hall and an ambulance could be summoned by calling WATerloo 3311.

in 1937 there were 153 ambulances covering London. These were based at 6 large ambulance stations and 16 smaller stations. By comparison in the financial year 2017/18 the London Ambulance Service consisted of over 1,100 vehicles based at 70 ambulance stations and support offices across London. In the same year the service dealt with 1.9 million 999 calls – a truly extraordinary number.

If you needed an ambulance in 1937, this is the vehicle that would arrive:

London County Council

Parks and Open Space were also the responsibility of the London County Council, with a total of 6,647 acres of space managed by a staff of 1,500.

The LCC provided and managed parks such as Battersea Park, as well building and managing facilities within parks, such as the open-air swimming pool at Victoria Park:

London County Council

One of the responsibilities of the LCC, in the terms used in the 1937 book was the “Care of the Mentally Afflicted”. The LCC had started to change how mental health was treated with a move from the custodial approach to proper nursing care, however it was a very institutionalised approach with 20 hospitals and institutions providing treatment for 33,600 patients from a staff of 9,000.

This is Forest House, the admission and convalescent villa in Claybury Hospital:

London County Council

In the same hospital, the Needleroom where “many patients can still do useful work”.

London County Council

The guide-book also included the other governance authorities within London, including the City of London Corporation. This included the City markets, with this superb aerial view of the London Central Markets at Smithfield:

London County Council

And a very quiet Spitalfields Market:

London County Council

The other key element of London governance were the Metropolitan Borough Councils. These were formed by the 1899 London Government Act and were responsible for a number of local services such as the collection of refuse and the maintenance of streets.

In 1937, 16 out of a total of 28 borough councils were still electricity supply authorities, having their own local generation and distribution capabilities. These services would not consolidate further until after the war with the creation of the Central Electricity Generation Board and the regional distribution boards, such as the London Electricity Board.

The establishment of the Metropolitan Borough Councils resulted in the building of impressive Town Halls across London. The book includes a night view of St. Marylebone Town Hall:

London County Council

Municipal Borough Councils also provided local facilities, for example, local parks and playgrounds, libraries and swimming pools.

One impressive example in 1937 was the Poplar Swimming Bath and the books show how the same building could support very different uses:

London County Council

In 1937. the London docks were still major centres of trade. Containerisation and the shift of ports from inland rivers to coastal centres such as Southampton and Felixtowe was still decades in the future.

The Port of London Authority was responsible for the management of the ports and river. In 1937 the Port of London dealt with more shipping than any other UK port and over a third of UK overseas trade passed through London. In 1937, approximately 43 million tons of goods were managed through the London docks.

A ship entering the King George V Dock:

London County Council

The Wine Gauging Grounds operated by the Port of London Authority:

London County Council

London County Council publications are always fascinating and London in Pictures provides a really good overview of the governance of London and the breadth and depth of the services provided by the LCC.

Two years after the guide was published, the Second World War would bring devastation to the city, but would also mark one of those break points in history with, for example, the coming NHS taking over the provision and considerable expansion of health services.

The London Docks would soon start their gradual decline which would end in the closure of all central London docks. The population of London would also reverse the centuries long expansion and would go into a decline that would only start to recover in the 1980s.

Council house provision would reduce to almost nothing and “right to buy” would transfer council owned accommodation into private ownership.

The 1937 guide therefore provides a snapshot of LCC services at the end of an era.

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Charing Cross Road, Sandringham Buildings and Newport Market

For this week’s post, I am in Charing Cross Road to track down a couple of photos I took in 1979, and a later “shop front” photo from 1986.

This was the view in 1979, looking north along Charing Cross Road, close to the junction with Great Newport Street.

Charing Cross Road

The same view in 2019:

Charing Cross Road

In 1979, there were two, almost identical buildings on either side of the street. Both of these were named Sandringham Buildings and were constructed when this length of Charing Cross Road was created. The building on the left in 1979 was replaced by the block we see today, running roughly the same length of the street and with a similar approach of shops on the ground floor and flats on the upper floors.

I took these photos specifically because of the impending demolition of the building – something I have always try to do when I see a building at risk. The following photo shows the corner of the block. The signs of the shops that once occupied the ground floor can just be seen behind the scaffolding.

Charing Cross Road

The other location I wanted to track down was this 1986 photo of a tobacconist at number 74 Charing Cross Road, one from a series of shop front photos in the area.

Charing Cross Road

The same location in 2019 – no longer a tobacconist.

Charing Cross Road

The shop is one of those along the ground floor of the remaining block of Sandringham Buildings, along the eastern side of Charing Cross Road. The history of Sandringham Buildings is integral to the reconstruction of the area that resulted from the development of Charing Cross Road.

To understand how Charing Cross Road has developed, we can start with John Rocque’s map of London from 1746. Charing Cross Road does not yet exist as a through route from the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, down to the future location of Trafalgar Square. Part of the road that would become Charing Cross Road can be seen in the centre of the map, but named Hog Lane.

Charing Cross Road

The name probably came from the location of a Pound at St. Giles (roughly around the junction today of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road), where animals were held as they were driven into London, as a stop before the final push into the City markets (I wrote more about Saint Giles Pound at this link).

Hog Lane ended just north of where Cambridge Circus is today.

Continuing south, there was no single street running the future route of Charing Cross Road. It was a maze of streets, alleys and courts. In the following extract from Rocque’s map, the future location of Cambridge Circus is in the middle of the top edge of the map, and the future location of Trafalgar Square is at The Royal Stables in the middle of the lower edge of the map.

Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road has long been known for bookshops. The most famous being Foyles at the northern end of the street, but with many other specialist, new and second hand bookshops lining the street as you walked south.

Many of these have closed over the years, but thankfully a few still remain, holding out against the wave of standardisation across London streets.

Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road

Other shops that fill the retail units along the ground floor of Sandringham Buildings.

Charing Cross Road

Charing Cross Road

The development of Charing Cross Road to a single street from Tottenham Court Road towards Trafalgar Square, and the development of Sandringham Buildings can be told through the story of Newport Market.

From the time of Rocque’s map, up to the mid 19th century, the area from what was Hog Lane, around what today is Cambridge Circus, and part of what is now Charing Cross Road to the south was a dense cluster of streets and buildings known as Newport Market.

In the following extract from Reynolds’s 1847 “Splendid New Map of London”, I have circled the area of Newport Market with a red oval. To the north is Crown Street, the new name for what was Hog Lane, and the street that will become the northern part of Charing Cross Road.

Charing Cross Road

Trafalgar Square has replaced the Royal Stables, but there is no single, direct street continuing from Crown Street down towards Trafalgar Square.

In 1654, Lord Newport purchased a block of land, which today covers the area from Little Newport Street up to the location of Cambridge Circus. He built a large house and gardens, which would remain until 1682 when the estate was sold and the house demolished. The land was then redeveloped by Dr. Nicholas Barbon who created Newport Market which consisted of a large central square and operated as one of London’s main meat markets.

By the mid 19th century, the area had degenerated considerably and was recorded as providing slum living conditions. An article in the London Evening Standard of the 26th August 1880 titled “Old Newport Market” records how the market had changed:

“Gone are the glories of Newport Market; gone the glory of its Butchers-row. Fashion has this many a year forsaken its uninviting neighbourhood. Beau and buck know no more of its unsavoury haunts. Filth and squalor reign supreme in its courts and passages. Poverty and vice find within its dingy precincts congenial shelter. The old Market, indeed, exists; its walls are still standing. But how changed, how utterly changed, out of all form and semblance. Its shops and sheds are stables and slaughter-houses, its stalls and stands bricked over and built upon. Its very identity is lost; merged, so to speak, in that of prince’s-row, the narrow lane – foul among the foul – that surrounds and gives access to it. Even the name has been taken from it and applied indiscriminately to the adjoining thoroughfare and the unwholesome butchers court that abuts the southern extremity.

The article then goes on to describe the remaining trades of the market:

“The semblance only, a shadow, as it were, of its former self. A score or so of stalls owned by good-natured Irish women, pipe-loving and rough-tongued. A few eager French women, basket-bearing and garrulous, bargaining for flabby lettuce, unhealthy looking endive and sun-stewed cress. The indescribably nasty row of butchers’; shops in the narrow alley on the right, these constitute the market of to-day, galvanised into fitful activity on Saturday and Saturday night.”

The need for a wide street, linking the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road with Charing Cross and the station of the same name that had opened in the 1860s, was part of the 19th century construction across London of direct, wide streets that would address congestion problems and sweep away what were seen to be dense, slum housing.

Plans for Charing Cross Road developed during the 1870s, but there were challenges with land ownership, how much land could be purchased for the new development and the impact on those who lived in the houses that would be demolished. Newport Market was in the middle of the area planned for the extension and widening of the new Charing Cross Road, and the surrounding development.

Finally in 1882, plans were in place, and purchases of property made along the streets that would be demolished. The Illustrated London News on the 19th August 1882 reported:

“Steps have at length been taken for making, at all events, a beginning of a long-needed public improvement, a new thoroughfare between Charing-cross and Oxford-street. The materials of about forty houses about Newport Market have lately been sold by Messrs. Eversfield and Horne, the structures themselves are in process of demolition, and in the course of another month a large portion of the following streets will have disappeared:- Newport-court, Little Newport-street, Market-row, Market-street, Prince’s-row, Lichfield-street, Hayes-court, and Grafton-street.”

The last mentioned Grafton Street appears in one of the prints made in the early 1880s of Newport Market. The following print titled “North side of Newport Market Soho, Grafton St on the right”. The print is dated 1882, the same year as Grafton Street would be demolished – possibly a 19th century example of recording buildings and streets before their demolition.

Charing Cross Road

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PZ_WE_01_0315

The above view shows a rather good looking location. Open space edged by some well constructed buildings with shops along the ground floor. What the area may have been like can be judged by some of the newspaper reports of the time, such as the following from the Illustrated London News on the 10th February 1872, regarding the remains of a statue of King George II in Leicester Square:

“When the statue was removed, having suffered too much ll-usage and some positive mutilation, the effigy of the horse remained, and became the target of frequent stone-throwing practised by the idle boys of Newport-market and its neighbourhood.

Returning to Sandringham Dwellings, the Metropolitan Board of Works were forced by the Government to construct dwellings for “2,000 people of the labouring classes”, in the area of Newport Market. Agreement to this allowed the Metropolitan Board of Works to commence demolition and the build of Charing Cross Road.

The dwellings for 2,000 people were comprised of the two blocks of Sandringham Dwellings that lined both sides of Charing Cross Road to the south of Cambridge Circus.

As was often the case with these new developments, it was probably not the displaced labouring classed that benefited from the new accommodation.

In the 5th September 1885 edition of the Illustrated London News, Police Superintendent J.H, Dunlap of St. James’s Division wrote “On the site of Newport Market, notorious for everything bad and disreputable, have been erected two splendid blocks of buildings for the accommodation of the working classes, one by private speculation and called Newport Dwellings, and the other by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, called Sandringham-buildings, a suite of erections of handsome elevation, with no appearance whatever of model buildings, having large shops on the ground floor, with the upper portion allotted in suites of two, three and four rooms. There is every possible accommodation and sanitary appliance. In these buildings, the Superintendent adds, he has sixty-seven police families, occupying 193 rooms.”

The following view of the remaining block of Sandringham Buildings is from the north, looking south along Charing Cross Road.

Charing Cross Road

To show how identical the remaining block is with the demolished block opposite, compare the corner of the building with the corner photo I had taken in one of the photos at the start of the post.

The name plaque recording that the building was erected by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company can still be seen on the northern corner:

Charing Cross Road

Cambridge Circus is just under half way along Charing Cross Road from the north. It is at the point of intersection with Shaftesbury Avenue. it is named after the Duke of Cambridge who officially opened Charing Cross Road on Saturday 26th February 1887.

The Morning Post reported on the opening:

“The new line of thoroughfare formed by the Metropolitan Board of Works from Charing-cross to Tottenham-court-road, and designated Charing-cross-road, was on Saturday afternoon opened by the Duke of Cambridge. His Royal Highness was at one o’clock met opposite the church of St. Martin-in-the Fields by the members of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and thence drove along the new street to the circus forming the junction of the new thoroughfares.

Crowds had assembled on either side along the whole of the route, and at many points flags were flying from the windows of the houses. Upon reaching the circus the Duke of Cambridge alighted, and addressing those within hearing said – ‘I declare the new thoroughfare – Charing-cross-road – open for public use. I am happy to have the honour of assuring you and the other members of the board that all such improvements as these are of the greatest possible value (hear, hear). there is no question that the growth of this great metropolis has been such that the building of houses east and west through the town has gone on in a manner seriously injuring the public health, and anything the Metropolitan Board of Works or any other body can do to improve the locomotion in such a great city must be a benefit not only to the metropolis but to the country at large (cheers).”

The article also provides some statistics on the new road “The length of the new street is 966 yards, and its width generally 60ft. It widens to about 130ft at St. Martin’s-place but it is restricted at its entrance into Trafalgar Square to 45ft, between St. Martin’s Church and the National Gallery”.

The view across Cambridge Circus towards the Cambridge pub.

Charing Cross Road

The most impressive building facing onto Cambridge Circus is the Palace Theatre, opened in 1891 for Richard D’Oyly Carte who intended the theatre to be the home of English opera and on opening the theatre was known as the Royal English Opera House.

Charing Cross Road

As always, there is so much to see and explore, and I am only touching on a brief part of the history of the street.

The Porcupine pub on the southern corner of Great Newport Street, the building dating from around 1865.

Charing Cross Road

Look on the corner of the building, a boundary marker is partly hidden by the lighting and flowers.

Charing Cross Road

The old Tam O’ Shanter pub:

Charing Cross Road

There has been a pub here since the mid 18th century, originally named the Bulls Head. The new building was part of the realignment and widening of Charing Cross Road and the new building dates from 1896, when the pub changed name to the name that still appears at the top of the building today. The Tam O’ Shanter closed as a pub in 1960.

Charing Cross Road is one of the locations where rumours of a hidden street below the surface persist. In the middle of Charing Cross Road, at the junction with Old Compton Street, there is a large grill on an island in the middle of the road.

Charing Cross Road

Peer down through the grill and you can see a couple of signs for Little Compton Street on the brick wall lining the tunnel.

Charing Cross Road

Personally I am not at all convinced that the wall and street signs are all that remains of a street from before the redevelopment of the area, now hidden below the surface.

For a start, in the 1746 map, Compton Street approaches from the west, and terminates at Hog Lane. In the 1847 map. Compton Street still approaches from the west, then Little and New Compton Street cross over and continue eastwards from what is now Crown Street. The wall below the surface is running north south, in the same direction as Charing Cross Road, not east-west as would be expected if this was a relic of Little Compton Street.

I am also not convinced that street levels along this part of Charing Cross Road changed this significantly during redevelopment to leave a substantial part of a wall buried below ground level.

Finally, the article I quoted earlier from the Morning Post on the 28th February 1887 probably gives the real reason; “A subway has been formed under the whole length of this street to receive the gas, water, and other mains, telegraph wires, &c.; it is placed under the centre of the carriageway, and is 12ft wide and 7ft, 9in. in height, formed of a semi-circular arch of brickwork.”

I suspect the street names may have been painted on the wall, or recovered from Little Compton Street and attached to the brick wall of the subway so that those working below ground, installing or repairing utility services would know where they were, as they worked their way, below ground, along the centre of Charing Cross Road.

As usual, I have only scratched the surface of the history of the area I visit to track down the location of our old photos of London. In a post a few years ago I wrote about Foyles and the College for the Distributive Trades to the north of the street.

Newport Market has long disappeared beneath Charing Cross Road and the buildings that now line the street, but the name can still be found in Newport Place, Little Newport Street and Great Newport Street – all references to Lord Newport who purchased the land in 1654 and who also gave his name to the market.

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America Square

After finding the location of Holy Trinity for last week’s post, I walked to another location just off Minories which was my main reason for visiting the area. I wanted to find the location of the photo my father had taken of America Square in 1949.

America Square

The photo was taken at a bit of an angle and does not show the full view of America Square. The photo appears to be looking across to the far side of the square. There is an obelisk to the right, in front of a bridge, which carries the railway into Fenchurch Street Station which is to the right.

As could be expected, the area has changed significantly, and this is America Square in 2019:

America Square

The following photo shows where a street leading from America Square heads underneath the railway bridge. The obelisk would have been just in front of the bridge and to the right of the street.

America Square

America Square was built between 1768 and 1774 as part of a development which extended from America Square, south towards Tower Hill. The architect was George Dance the Younger who worked for the developer of the estate, Sir Benjamin Hammett.

The square consisted of 16 residential houses. The northern edge along what was John Street (now Cross Wall) was the only side of the square without any development.

The name America Square was a reference to American traders in the City of London, or possibly to attract these traders to purchase the houses.

The East London Observer on the 28th August 1915 provides some detail on the American association:

“America Square in John Street, Minories, in the middle of the last Century, wast the Rialto an open-air club of the officers of the beautiful sailing vessels from the States, which, for a time, outclassed the British commercial marine on the Atlantic, and filled the London and Liverpool Docks. The outbreak of the Secession Civil War brought many changes; the long blockade of the Southern Ports rid England for a full generation of a dangerous rival in international ocean trade. The ‘skimmers of the sea’ disappeared from the Atlantic or changed into armed blockade-runners and privateers; the dashing dandy Yankee and Charleston captains were improvised into Admirals of the improvised Navies of the North and the South, and found a seaman’s grave; the glory, bustle, gaiety and profusion of America Square departed.”

On an overcast Saturday morning in America Square, it was hard to imagine it as a place of ‘glory, bustle, gaiety and profusion’.

It is also hard to really appreciate how many people have walked the same streets over the centuries and the random events that connect London streets with the rest of the world. Newspapers from the last couple of centuries are full of the usual range of adverts, positions vacant, sales, passages on ships available, imported goods for sale, births, deaths and marriages etc. all with an address in America Square. On the basis that only bad news is salable news, there are also many stories of tragic and criminal events taking place.

The first reference to America Square in the newspapers is from the 16th February 1773 when John Stainbank, of America Square, Lead Merchant was included in the weekly list of bankrupts.

In the London Evening Standard of the 16th April 1863 there is a reference that a “Frederick Walker, a shrewd-looking young foreigner, was charged with robbing a hotel in America Square”.

One of the hotels in America Square was Kroll’s Hotel and an unfortunate resident was the main suspect in the Great Coram Street murder of Harriet Buswell at 12 Great Coram Street in December 1872.

Dr Henry James Bernard Gottfried Hessel was traveling from Germany to Brazil in the ship Wangerland when the vessel became stranded on the Goodwin Sands. The shipped was floated, but taken into Ramsgate for checks and repairs. Dr Hessel and his wife first stayed in a hotel in Ramsgate then traveled to Kroll’s Hotel in America Square.

In a case of mistaken identity, Dr Hessel was arrested and charged with the murder. The lack of any firm evidence, contradictory prosecution evidence and the support of those who knew Dr Hessel resulted in him being found not guilty, as the judge’s summing-up reported by the Morning Post on the 31st January 1873:

“This case has been most fully investigated here, and the witnesses on both sides have been subjected to a close and searching cross-examination, and I am satisfied that the witnesses who have spoken to the identity of Dr Hessel are entirely in error. But even supposing that their evidence had been stronger and free from discrepancies, i should have considered that the case on the part of the prosecution had been entirely destroyed by the evidence of the witnesses for the defence. It is therefore my duty, and a duty with which I discharge with great satisfaction to myself, to state that the prisoner is released, as far as I can see, and I can say that he leave this court without suspicion.”

Poor Dr Hessel – finding yourself stranded on a sandbank off the Kent cost resulting in an unexpected stay in a country which you did not expect to visit, then finding yourself on a charge of murder – a travelers nightmare.

The 1895 Ordnance Survey Map shows America Square, just above the railway shown running across the middle of the map.

America Square

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

America Square originally extended further south than its current boundary with the railway, however building of the railway in 1841 started the process of chopping bits of the square as the railway expanded.

The City Press on the 28th January 1860 reported that the London and Blackwall Railway Company had applied for an Act to enable them to provide additional station accommodation, along with other works on the northern side of the existing railway. The report stated that “The public ways proposed to the absorbed or partially interfered with by the scheme, are Gould-square, America-square, Hanover-court, the Minories. The railway is to be carried on arches through the City, and those arches which already span the public ways of Vine-street and the Minories will practically be widened by the addition of others at the side of them.”

The impact on America Square can be clearly seen in the 1895 Ordnance Survey map.

The London Metropolitan Archives, Collage collection has a number of drawings and photos that help tell the story of America Square.

The first is a drawing by Thomas Colman Dibden from around 1850, showing the square when it was still surrounded by the original 18th century houses. The obelisk features in the centre of the drawing, and supports a couple of lanterns hung on either side.America Square

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: v9010129

The following direction of view of the following photo is very similar to my father’s photo, however the scene is very different.

America Square

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: m0017453cl

The photo shows America Square in 1944, soon after being hit by a V1 flying bomb. The buildings on the eastern side of the square consisted of offices for the railway’s goods yards and a parcels office. Rubble was strewn across the square, but the obelisk has survived.

This explains the state of the buildings in my father’s photo, and possibly why he photographed the scene.

The following photo from 1957 shows the obelisk still in place, but looking in rather poor condition.

America Square

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: m0026573cl

I could not find exactly when the obelisk was removed, and I assume it was destroyed. I suspect it was during the 1980s when the buildings on either side of America Square were developed.

There were many pubs around America Square, but they have now all disappeared. The building of one remains, directly opposite America Square on the junction of Crosswall and Vine Street.

America Square

This was the Angel and is shown in the 1895 Ordnance Survey map. The pub closed in 2006 and it is now a bar / restaurant called the Missouri Angel – continuing the American links of the area.

After exploring America Square, I walked under the railway to explore another part of George Dance 18th century development.

I always find the tunnels under London’s railways oddly fascinating. Look to the upper right and at the top of the wall is a street lamp with the red cross from the coat of arms of the City of London.

America Square

The streets on either side of the railway are tarmac, however the part of the street under the railway is still cobbled.

America Square

There are some interesting alleys leading off from the streets south of America Square:

America Square

Looking back through the tunnel under the railway towards America Square:

America Square

A very short distance south of America Square is the next part of George Dance and Sir Benjamin Hammett’s development that I wanted to find. If you go back to the 1895 Ordnance Survey map, you will see just below the railway is a semi-circular development called The Crescent.

In an area that consists of steel and glass office buildings from the 1980s onward, The Crescent is a rather unique place, not on any direct walking route, reached through a small street that leads from the Minories and from America Square.

America Square

The original buildings were badly damaged by bombing during the last war. The damage started with total destruction on the right and progressively reducing along the buildings to the left.

Pevsner’s guide to the City of London explains that there were originally 11 houses, and only numbers 6 to 11 can be seen today. Numbers 6 and 7 (the two on the left of the terrace) retain their original doorcases. The facades were extensively restored in 1985-6 when replicas of numbers 8 to 11 (the houses to the right) were built.

Although only two originals survive (with much restoration), it is good to see that George Dance’s crescent design can still be seen, having avoided being replaced by yet another glass and steel block.

The London Metropolitan Archive, Collage site includes a photo of the Crescent in 1913:

America Square

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_01_008_79_4342

There is still more to explore here. There is a remarkable section of the Roman wall in the basement of One America Square. It was excavated in the late 1980s, but had been found much earlier. The reference to America Square in the 1927 edition of London by George H. Cunningham records that “In 1908 a large portion of Roman wall was discovered here”. A topic for a future post with a bit of Roman wall exploration.

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