Category Archives: City of London

Eastcheap’s Camels

Eastcheap – from an old english word for market (and “east” to distinguish it from the original Westcheap, now ‘Cheapside’) – runs from Monument tube station towards the Tower of London; its name dates to at least anglo-saxon times.

At number 20 is a bar called Eastcheap Records, but look above the door and you will see a frieze of three laden camels being led by a Bedouin across a desert. The bones of a fourth camel might be made out in the centre foreground.

three camels led across the desert above the door of 20 eastcheap - "peek House"

Unsurprisingly, this has nothing to do with the current occupants of the building, but date to its time as ‘Peek House’ the home of tea and coffee importers Peek Brothers, established in 1810 by the eponymous brothers Richard and William. The company built number 20 in the early 1880s as a replacement for their earlier building, which had been demolished when the underground line was constructed.

They were a major player, handling around 5% of the total tea trade in London (and you know how much tea the Brits drink); in 1865 alone the company imported over 5 million pounds of tea (over 2,200 tonnes of the stuff). When the head of the firm, Sir Henry Peek, died in 1898 his estate was valued at over £400,000 – £45 million or so in today’s money.

Sir Henry it was who commissioned the sculptor William Theed to produce the frieze. Theed was an unusual choice, and one might say that he was slumming it a bit by taking on such ‘commercial’ work. He had produced busts of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria – in fact, he had been appointed by the queen to take the death mask of Albert – as well as the double portrait of Albert and Victoria in anglo-saxon dress that can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery. (A quite frankly risible sculpture – it would take a heart of marble not to burst out laughing when one sees it.) Theed also did the ‘Africa’ grouping at the foot of the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. As this features in its centre a camel, perhaps this is what inspired Sir Henry to get him involved.  

Theed’s ‘Africa’ at the base of the Albert Memorial

(Rather confusingly, after moving to Liverpool in 1834 William Peek went into business with a new partner called Winch. His son, and the nephew of Mr Winch, formed a new company called Peek Brothers and Winch, which was in direct competition with the original Peek Brothers. The two Peek firms were reunited in 1895 and became a limited company, under the name Peek Brothers and Winch Limited. (From the London Metropolitan Archives) Another branch of the family were the founders of the biscuit company Peek Frean, inventors of the Garibaldi and the Bourbon.

Holland House – Bury Street, EC3

There are quite a number of ‘Holland Houses’ in the capital – the remains of a Jacobean country home in Holland Park, Kensington; a school in Edgware; a student hostel near Victoria – but it’s only outside Holland House in Bury Street in The City (a stone’s throw from the Gherkin), that they still fly the Dutch flag.

This Holland House dates from 1916 and is sometimes called the first modern office block in London. Designed by the Dutch modernist architect Henrik Petrus Berlage, it was the first steel-framed buidling in Europe, with walls of green glazed terracotta bricks (shipped in from Delft) rising from a black plinth. (It is also said to be the first office block in Britain to have an atrium.)

Smoke pours from the funnel of the steamship as it breasts the waves on the Holland House sculpture

It was built for the Dutch shipping company Wm H Muller + Co, and its links to maritime trade can be seen in a lovely low relief sculpture on the corner of the building. This is by the Dutch sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa, and is the front perspective of a steamship ploughing through the waves, a fitting symbol of both the source of the money that built Holland House and of the innovative spirit of the time.

Real World Guiding

With the prospect of lockdown lifting, I’ll be able to get back out into the real world and do some in person tours around the capital. The plan is to start in late June (assuming everything is quite safe by then). But what to do first? I’ve put together a very short questionnaire for you to choose which of my prospective walks most interest you.

Choices include Greenwich, the Blitz, the Rock n Roll history of Soho, the Great Fire of London, Whitehall and Westminster, War Memorials, the Southbank and Southwark, plus more. It would be great to hear what you’d like.

Go here to complete the questions

The 1666 Great Fire of London

Just after midnight on 2 September 1666, the bakery of one Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane near the north end of London Bridge caught alight. Fires – sometimes major conflagrations – were not unusual in the towns and cities of the time, but this one proved to be a class apart.

Fanned by a strong wind from the east, and with wooden houses tinder-dry from a long, hot summer, the efforts of the citizens, the King and his brother, the army and the navy, failed to halt the progress of the fire until the wind abated and fire breaks were made by blowing up streets in the path of the flames.

In the four days of devastation, over 80% of the City of London was left a smouldering ruin, around 13,000 homes had been destroyed (as had the magnificent medieval St Paul’s cathedral) and up to 80,000 people had been made homeless, many living as refugees in camps in the fields on the roads up to Highbury.

On 10 September John Evelyn wrote “I went again to the ruins; for it was now no longer a city.

Next week I’ll be giving an online talk about the fire on, looking at how it started, its progression through the City and the destruction caused. We’ll look at the plans for the rebuilding from Wren, Evelyn and Hooke, how rumour spread throughout the city that the fire had been deliberately started by the Dutch, or the French, or Jesuits, and how a new city emerged from the ashes of the old.

The Lloyd’s Building

outside-columnIn 1978, the year after architect Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre opened in Paris, construction started on his first major London project, The Lloyd’s Building in Lime Street.

Built to house the London Insurance Market, this was the first “high tech” building in the UK and there is still nothing quite like it.

The building is “inside out”, with the service functions placed on the exterior. The pipework and air conditioning ducts wrapped around the outside, the glass lifts scooting up the outside walls, the corner staircases like corkscrew metal are all still a delight to behold. But the concept is not decorative per se: it allows for easy replacement and maintenance of the facilities, and it means the inside can be open and flexible, with uninterrupted activity on each level. Rogers has designed other buildings in London since Lloyd’s, but none provoke the same sense of looking at something otherworldly. Continue reading

The Monument

dsc_0100Climb the 311 stairs today to the top of the Monument and the view lays out the 21st century City. To the north the Walkie Talkie seems close enough to touch, and behind that are the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin, Heron Tower and the other towers of skyscraper alley.

To the south the view is dominated by the Shard, but the Elephant and Castle developments are now starting to block that horizon; the east has the packed legoland towers of Canary Wharf.

The west gives some relief with a great view of St Paul’s and down the river to Westminster, but look down into the City and one can see the current building boom with cranes and construction sites all around. Continue reading

Christchurch Greyfriars and the 1666 Great Fire

In the post on the Firefighters’ Memorial we talked about the destruction caused by the Blitz – and Christchruch Greyfriars gives a hint of that devastation. This was a Wren church built after the 1666 Great Fire and gutted in WW2. Rather than being restored like so many others, it was turned into a garden. Flowerbeds mark where the pews once stood, and wooden frames with climbing plants show where the towers once stood in the nave.

Before Wren’s church it had been one of the largest churches in London. Originally it was part of a Franciscan friary (Franciscans wore grey habits, hence greyfriars). Four queens were buried in the friary grounds, including the wives of Edward I and Edward II , which stretched from King Edward Street (once known as ‘Stinking Lane’ by the way) right down to the City Wall at Newgate.

Continue reading

The Firefighters Memorial, St Paul’s

75 years ago George Orwell, the author of 1984 wrote, “as I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me”.

He was talking about the Blitz, the WW2 bombing campaign by the German airforce that attempted to destroy London’s industry and infrastructure and shatter the morale of the population. Between September 1940 and May 1941 over 18,000 tonnes of high explosive was dropped on London, up to a million and a half homes were damaged or destroyed, and nearly 30,000 people killed. It seems almost impossible to us, living here in this cosmopolitan city, that all this horror and destruction took place within a human lifetime.

And this monument commemorates some of the people who helped London survive: the firefighters – professionals and auxiliaries, men and women – the “heroes with grimy faces” as Winston Churchill called them. Continue reading

St James Garlickhythe

DSC_0013With the current building works going on around it, the approach to St James’s is now down Garlick Hill, an indication – along with the church’s suffix – of what the area was known for in medieval times. A ‘hythe’ is an old English word for a jetty or landing, so this is the place where garlic was unloaded and brought into the City. It was also where wine was landed, as the church is in the ward of Vintry – home to wine merchants. More on this shortly.

There has been a church on this site since at least the 1100s and the scallop shell motif seen above the door indicates that this was a pilgrim church – it was a stop on the route to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella which was reputed to hold the body of St James the Apostle. It was rebuilt in the 1320s with money from Richard de Rothing, a member of the Vintners’ guild and, although St James’s is the Guild Church for ten Livery Companies, it is with the Vintners that it is most closely associated. Continue reading

Cleary Gardens

cleary gardensWith so much noise and traffic in the City it’s sometimes nice to take a bit of time out. And that’s what places like Cleary Gardens attempt to provide – a little spot of tranquility among the roar and bustle of the Square Mile.

There are over 200 open spaces within the City, managed by the City Gardens Team, and the Corporation also owns huge areas of open space outside central London – Epping Forest for example, Hampstead Heath, Ashtead, Kenley and Coulsdon commons. The City of London principally funds these spaces through its ‘City Cash’ funds, with other revenue coming from donations, sponsorship and visitors.

Continue reading