Category Archives: Street furniture

Secret London: stink pipes

There is one of these just around the corner from where I live.

Herne Hill stink pipe

It’s long, thin, green and old and thrusts straight into the air like a giant’s, er, finger. It’s not a telegraph pole – there are no wires coming off it – and it’s too tall to be a broken street lamp.

It is, in fact, a stink pipe, one of four such items of street furniture that can be found within a half-mile radius of Brixton Water Lane. These stink pipe were built around the same time as London’s Victorian sewer network in the 1860s and are basically just huge hollow pipes that allow potentially lethal gas to escape into the atmosphere, far above the rooftops.  They often seem to located near the locations of culverted rivers – these ones are found more or less on the route of the Effra or its tributaries – suggesting that when these rivers were incorporated into the sewer system, they required some sort of additional safety valve (the buried Fleet famously exploded at King’s Cross after just such a build-up of gas in 1846).

Some stinkpipes are rather elaborate, but the ones I’ve seen around Herne Hill and Brixton are pretty basic and utilitarian. If you want to find some finer examples, like the fine crowned stench pipes of Kennington Cross, you should check out the excellent London Stench Pipes blog, which is devoted to these marvellous oddities leftover from Victorian London.

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Secret London: swastikas

One of the great London rumours is that somewhere inside the Royal Society’s building on Carlton House Terrace sits a giant swastika.  This is not because these esteemed scientists and thinkers are secretly Hitler-worshipping fascists, but because their home at Nos 6-9 was the location of the German Embassy (at Nos 8-9) during the pre-war Nazi era.

Carlton House Terrace was designed by John Nash between 1827-1832 to occupy a site previously taken by Carlton House. No 9 almost immediately became the seat of the Prussian Legation, which slowly evolved into the German Embassy. In the spirit of the time, it soon expanded to occupy the house next door at No 8.

In 1936, Joachim von Ribbentrop moved in, replacing the late Ambassador Leopold von Hoesch (whose dog’s gravestone can be seen under a tree near the Duke of York steps). Von Ribbentrop demanded a complete renovation of the property, and the Nazi’s top architect, Albert Speer, was called in to do the job. Exactly what he did remains something of a mystery, but the German Embassy website claims:

‘Only the fact that the Nash Terrace was a listed building saved the facades from being included in Ribbentrop’s plan to establish a model of the Third Reich architecture in the centre of the British capital. The renovation was exhaustive, money was no object.’

It is hard to discern exactly what alterations Speer made, but one diplomat wrote that the showy renovation of No 8 and 9 Carlton House Terrace had produced a style and furniture less suitable for an embassy and more comparable to that of German luxury liners of the time like the “Bremen”.  A contemporary set of photographs are lodged at the Library of Congress. The only one currently viewable is of the very modern-looking kitchen.

This decent phot0-set shows the building now, including Speer’s striking staircase, said to be constructed by marble supplied by Mussolini.

Albert Speer designed this

Among Speer’s embellishments was said to be the inclusion of a swastika mosaic on the floor of one of the public rooms. After the war, rather than remove the offending article, the swastika was said to have been simply covered with a carpet. (And this website claims there are still visible ‘border designs of swastikas on the floor of one public room’, which seems unlikely.)

Is it true?

Well, I’ve never seen a photo to substantiate the claim and people I know who have been inside the Royal Society are also none the wiser. However, I did once receive an email at Time Out from a builder who claimed to have renovated the building in the 1990s and seen a huge swastika under one carpet. Where, presumably, it still remains. Von Ribbentrop also had a house built for him in Pinner, which was said to have swastikas carved into the staircase.

If you do have a hankering to see a swastika in London, you should head for India House, where this plaque can be seen on the wall.

It represents the swastika when it was still an intriguing sign from the east, before it was appropriated by Hitler. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the swastika was a popular symbol in the west, often used as a good luck charm and adopted by groups as varied as the Boy Scouts and the Druids. My copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories still has a prominent swastika featured in one illustration and the British Museum is full of the things.

Indeed, so popular was the swastika, it was even used to liven up the decor at Hounslow Bus Garage. Click on that last link and zoom in and you’ll see the border of pretty little swastikas that featured in the staff canteen. These swiftly disappeared as the truth about Hitler became impossible to ignore.

 

‘My heart’s in the highlands, wherever I go’

I’ll be taking a break from the blog while I go to Scotland. Speaking of which, I’ve never really got my head round Rabbie Burns, but this statue in Victoria Embankment Gardens is rather lovely.

Sadly, it’s no match for the nearby attractions of the remarkable York Watergate…

London’s finest camel…

Or the weeping bare-breasted maiden who thrashes impotently (and rather fetchingly) at the memorial for Victorian composer Arthur Sullivan.

I’m sure many of you will feel this way about my absence, but don’t worry, I’ll be right back… after a few of these.

 

Secret London: more bits of lost London Bridge + Lorne Greene

Last week, I looked at where parts of Old London Bridge had ended up after the medieval bridge was demolished in the 1830s. But the story does not end there.

The new London Bridge, built by John Rennie, only lasted 140 years before it too was replaced, rendered obselete by the invention of the motor car. Rennie’s bridge was, famously and rather brilliantly, sold to Americans and moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it has become a tourist attraction.

The story that the Americans thought they were really buying Tower Bridge is almost certainly apocryphal. The bridge in Arizona was opened by the Lord Mayor of London at a banquet at which the master of ceremonies was Bonanza’s Lorne Greene.

Then they made a film about the bridge starring Greene, Tom Jones, Kirk Douglas, The Carpenters, Charlton Heston, Rudolf Nureyev, Terry-Thomas and Engelbert Humperdink. It was called The Special London Bridge Special and here it is in full.

But although the Americans paid £1 million for the bridge, they didn’t get the lot and a small selection of bits and bobs were left behind.

Some of the oddest remnants of the bridge can be found in Kew Gardens, where four granite blocks from the bridge are used as a feeding platform for waterfowl. Further granite blocks can be seen outside the Mudlark pub on Montigue Close, SE1, where they were placed to mark the Silver Jubilee in 1977, and there are two more on the pavement nearby, at the southern end of the Rennie bridge.

And there’s more. On the previous post, London Remembers reports ‘there’s a piece of granite behind the Duke of Wellington statue at Bank, commemorating his involvement with the London Bridge Approaches Act 1827.’

Other remaining bits of bridge are an abutment and arch at Tooley Street and the outer wall of the river steps up to the old bridge on the north bank. Finally, under the first arch of the new bridge on the north side hang four City of London lamps, which are also believed to have originally come from the Rennie bridge.

Just nobody tell Lorne Greene, okay?

Secret London: finding bits of lost London Bridge

When Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, it was decided with typical Victorian frugality to sell off some of the old bits and bobs of stonework. Although they were ostensibly part of the medieval bridge, they had largely been added during an 18th-century reconstruction. The best surviving examples are the old stone alcoves.

There were originally 14 of these covered domes at the end of the piers. They looked rather like curved stone bus shelters and were so sturdy and useful that four still survive.

Two now stand in Victoria Park, having arrived here some time in the 1860s and offering a pleasant seat from which to view passing parklife or shelter from London rain.

One other stands in isolation in a courtyard in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital (now with a statue of John Keats as the London Historians blog explains), while the fourth, somewhat bizarrely, has ended up in the garden of a block of flats in East Sheen. This is the Courtlands Estate, and there were originally two alcoves, or ‘porter’s rests’, but one ‘disappeared’ during renovation in the 1930s, as did some balustrading from the Bridge that was used as a wall. Further balustrading was taken to Herne Bay, but this was lost in the storm of 1951.

An arch from the bridge was discovered in 1921 during the rebuilding of Adelaide House, but this was deemed too expensive to preserve and was destroyed. One stone, though, survived, and is now preserved in the churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr

One final bit of the bridge that survives can be seen above the door of the King’s Arms on Newcomen Street in Borough. This was the coat of arms that had been added to Stonegate – the bridge tollgate – during rebuilding in 1728 but was demolished in 1760.

Update Since writing this I have learnt of more rescued balustrades from Old London Bridge. These sit in Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield alongside a piece of the original St Paul’s Cathedral, which burnt down in 1085.

London’s seven statues of shame

When Mohamed ‘Al’ Fayed unveiled this extraordinary tribute to Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage, seasoned statue-watchers found themselves embroiled in a furious debate. Was this London’s worst statue?

Note: the statue is the one in the background

And then there are these: London’s statues of shame.

7. Peter The Great in Deptford
Because it is silly.

 

6 Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace
Pompous and bloated.

5 Charles II at Soho Square
For its condition as much as its, er, execution. But even if this wasn’t horribly weathered, I reckon it would look a bit shit.

File:Statue of King Charles II in Soho Square.jpg

4 Oscar Wilde at Charing Cross
Disturbing. Like somebody tried to find the face of Jesus in a puddle of vomit.

3 Nelson Mandela at Parliament Square
I know, let’s imagine one of the great icons of the modern era, as if he was a THUNDERBIRDS PUPPET! The nearby statue of David Lloyd George’s cape is also appalling.

 

2. Horse’s head at Marble Arch
Stupid. Not to be confused with the almost as ridiculous Animals at War statue down the road on Park Lane.

1 The Meeting Place at St Pancras
Widely acclaimed as the worst statue in London, this monstrosity was brought to you by the same person responsible for the hideously smug Queen Mother statue on the Mall.

For a forensic analysis of this statue and its fauls, I point you towards Christopher Fowler‘s excellent critique of its numerous deficencies.

But the question remains: is Jacko worse than this?

Celebrating the noble tradition of defacing London statues

It seems to happen every time a march or protest takes place in London. A much-loved statue or monument is defaced, horrifying the sort of people who are horrified by this sort of thing while the rest of us wonder why nobody’s got round to throwing a bucket of paint at that godawful Animals At War monstrosity on Park Lane.

On Saturday, after the TUC and some kids dressed in black marched through the London to complain about stuff, it was the turn for the Landseer lions at Trafalgar Square to take a pasting.

lion

While the statue of Charles I received a more artful reimagining.

statue

Interestingly, this Charles I statue had already been manhandled by the mob – albeit inadvertently – way back in 1867 when a reporter climbed the statue to get a better view of a passing protest and used the sword to steady himself. The sword promptly fell off and disappeared into the crowd, never to be seen again.

Most people think that this habit of deliberately defacing certain statues is a recent thing, dating back to the inarguably splendid Winston Churchill turf mohican on May Day 2000.

But the London mob has a rich tradition of dressing up (or down, depending on your viewpoint) London statues. My favourite example is the treatment dished out to the statue of a mounted George I, which was cast in 1716 and placed in Leicester Fields in 1784. This received serious punishment over the years as children clambered all over it, so both horse and rider lost bits, and at one point the poor king was without head, legs and arms. But worse was to come.

In October 1866, after the state of the statue had been discussed in the Times, guerilla jokers attacked the statue at night, painting black spots all over the horse, replacing the lance with a broomstick and putting a dunce’s hat from the nearby Alhambra Theatre on George’s bonce. Crowds flocked to see the spectacle. It was cleaned up, but eventually sold for £16 and pulled down in 1872.

As British History online website comments: ‘It would be almost impossible to tell all the pranks that were played upon this ill-starred monument, and how Punch and his comic contemporaries made fun of it, whilst the more serious organs waxed indignant as they dilated on the unmerited insults to which it was subjected.’

Nothing changes, once again.

Bollardian

I first came across John Kennedy’s brilliant Bollards of London blog shortly after he started it two years ago, when I idly googled ‘London bollards’ one evening (that is the sort of thing I do).

I’ve been fascinated by bollards for years, ever since I pretended to be  an art cinema-loving ponce and went to see Ben Hopkins’ weird London demi-classic The Nine Lives Of Tomas Katz at the ICA and was transfixed by a montage scene involving talking bollards.

Many years later I sent M@ from Londonist on a quest to locate London’s top ten bollards, but John has taken this to the extreme and now has over 100 London bollards on his site.

Bollards are great. They are everywhere and they are all different. Here are two I snapped last week, located within metres of each other in Wapping but very different. 

This one is fat, old and very rusty.

This one is new, shiny and very, very short. It barely comes up to my knees and nobody would ever describe me as a giant.

Amazing eh? If you agree, check out John’s site, where he will shortly be presenting my top three London bollards from his collection.

Can you contain yourselves?

Secret London: the riddle of the Farringdon spoons

I first saw these spoons several years ago stuck on a wall in a miserable stairwell under Farringdon Road near Mount Pleasant. Nobody seemed to know anything about them or where they came from – the only reference I could find is a passing mention in this interview with the Greenwich Phantom on Londonist.  

I walked past them again the other day and tweeted about them. An answer came back within half-an-hour (from @mrrylln), who said: ‘They have been up there for about 10 years. The stairs were used by heroin addicts a lot… hence the spoon H-shrine.’

Not the most romantic of explanations, but an explanation all the same. Chalk up another one to Twitter.

Great nameplates of London

This is probably mine. What’s your favourite? What do you mean, you don’t have one?