The Camels of Eastcheap

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.

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.

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