Tag Archives: Winston Churchill

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.


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


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.

Waxworks at war

The other day I headed to London Bridge to investigate Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience, a peculiar attraction on Tooley Street next to the London Dungeon that opened in 1992.

This strange place attempts to recreate the experience of wartime London feels rather like a private collection of eccentric memorabilia that has been thrown together in a space under a railway arch. There are no shiny monitors and well-lit cases; some of the labels are handwritten.

I quite liked it, although not at the £13 it would have cost if Laura at About London hadn’t got me in for free.

It begins with a film screened in a mocked-up air raid shelter, features various displays about life in London during the war (evacuation, fashion, rationing, entertainment, land girls), has a real Anderson Shelter to sit in and ends with a gloriously dramatic and gruesome life-size reconstruction of a bombed pub, complete with smoke and severed limbs.

What I liked best, were the waxworks. You don’t get many waxworks in museums these days but there are loads at the Britain At War Experience and they are mostly terrible. Unfortunately, I only managed to photograph a couple, missing out on the frightening one of a small child asleep in an air-raid shelter, looking like a little corpse, and also a brilliant Winston Churchill with a head the size of Gibraltar (this may in fact be physically accurate).

But here are the ones I got.

This one is quite normal. It’s a man using a switchboard. It shows what they can do with waxworks when they put their mind to it.

But then they get progressively weirder. This woman with a massive nose is demonstrating wartime fashion, although I think she is actually a man who dresses like a woman to avoid war service and because he likes the freedom it offers him.

This woman is a fire warden with a bad back. 

At the end, in the bombed pub, this woman can be seen bravely selling tea even though she has clearly suffered terrible burns and should be taken to the nearest hospital. This could be to demonstrate the implacability of London spirit during the Blitz, or it could be because they ran out of artificial hair.

So there you go, if you like weird wartime waxworks and have thirteen quid to spare, get down to Tooley Street before they all come alive and take over the London Bridge Quarter.

Footballers: the new aristocracy

A few years ago, on a train coming back from Wales, I fell into conversation with the chap sitting next to me. He was a former professional footballer who now worked in the strange world of ‘player services’, which meant he was employed by a large London club to hold the hands of footballers. He helped them find a house, pay their utility bills, run the car, deal with cleaners and nannies, liaise with solicitors, represent them in court after unfortunate incidents with air rifles – basically all these annoying bits of life that most of us have to deal with but would probably rather we didn’t.

He told me a story about an African player who moved from London to a smaller club outside the capital. They who did not employ anybody in ‘player services’ but the footballer managed to get himself a new house easily enough. However, some months later he was astonished to discover his electricity and gas had been cut off.

It turned out that he hadn’t paid any of his bills. He thought that once you forked out for a house that was it, everything else – the lighting, heating, phone line etc – was taken care of. He’d stuck all his utilities bills unopened in a drawer and forgotten about them.

I recalled this splendid story recently when reading about the adventures of Jessica Mitford. Jessica was the Communist Mitford, an aristocrat who moved to Rotherhithe in the 1930s so she could live among the proles. Mitford seemed happy, even if she noted that ‘the locals were a shorter and paler race of people than the inhabitants of the West End. In appearance, dress and speech they form so radical a contrast as to give the impression of a different ethnic group.’

Mitford looked forward to a life of May Day parades and pie and mash among ‘the rough children of Rotherhithe’, but sadly it didn’t work out that way. Her daughter died of pneumonia, and the disconsolate parents fled to Corsica for three months.

When they returned, the problems continued to mount. Mitford and her equally posh husband, Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill, had never been told they needed to pay for utilities, and so ‘lights, electric heaters and stoves blazed away day and night’ in their house overlooking the river.

A gargantuan gas bill built up. Soon the gasman began to pay regular visits to try to get it settled, so Romilly took to wearing a false moustache as a disguise. Eventually, though, it all got too tiresome for words, and the couple fled back across the river to the sanctity of Marble Arch, where people were so much more understanding about the foibles of landed gentry.