Category Archives: An urban view

Duke of Wellington Steps

Just over two hundred years ago on 21st June 1815 Major Henry Percy staggered into Mrs Boehm’s house in St. James’s Square while a ball was in progress. Major Percy covered in dust and carrying captured French Colours in each hand had had an arduous three days.

He arrived just as the first quadrille was lining up looking for the Prince Regent to tell him of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

Three days previous Wellington’s aide-de-camp had remained at Wellington’s side on the battlefield, having his horse killed under him, becoming one of just three of the General’s staff not injured in the battle.

On Wellington’s orders he was despatched to England to bring news of the victory. The journey to Ostend took a full day, then embarking on a ship that lay becalmed mid-Channel. Taking to a rowing boat to reach the English coast and finally riding post haste to London. After calling at 10 Downing Street he was sent to St. James’s Square to deliver news personally to the Prince Regent.

Arriving at the ball the music stopped as he dropped on one knee before the Prince proclaiming “Victory, Sir! Victory!”

Wife of the nouveau riche merchant Mrs. Boehm bore a grudge of the man who stopped her ball writing:

Well, I must say it! Of course one was very glad to think one had beaten those horrid French, and all that sort of thing. But still I always shall think it would have been far better if Henry Percy had waited quietly till the morning, instead of bursting in upon us, as he did, in such indecent haste.

Wellington by contrast would be feted as England’s greatest commander. His house Number 1 London (taken to be the first house encountered on arrival at the capital) is a museum. Around London there are many other monuments: the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, his sarcophagus in St Paul’s Cathedral and an equestrian statue of him outside the Royal Exchange [above] in the City of London to name but a few.


He would become Prime Minister and a member of the newly founded Athenæum Club at Waterloo Place. In 1830 – six years after the club was founded – Prime Minister Wellesley suggested the club should erect some mounting stones to assist in getting on and off horses. Then in his 60s, the Duke would not have been as able as he once was so the stones would have encouraged a more graceful dismount.

Over 180 years later, the stones remain on the kerb, although these days unused.

On the inward facing side, a rusty plaque reads: ‘This horseblock was erected by desire of the Duke Of Wellington 1830.’

Dick Whittington’s Cat

Normally at this time of year children would have been taken to the Panto, giving them an introduction to cross-dressing, crass jokes and mild peril. One of the established characters in this uniquely British tradition is Dick Whittington.

In the year that Dick will not be appearing on stage, also marks the bi-centenary of the Dick Whittington Stone, which has sitting upon it a black cat.

Traditionally Knowledge boys and girls touch the cat’s head to bring them luck at their next Appearance. Much like the tests to become London cabbies, the history of this monument is shrouded in mystery.

Everyone knows the story of Richard Whittington who having failed to make his fortune started to leave London and climbing up Highgate Hill heard the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside some 4 1/2 miles away (he must have had some pretty acute hearing) and took the peal to be giving him a message to return to the City.

The traditional rhyme goes:

Turn again, Whittington,
Once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!

He returned with his cat and the popular pantomime character was born.

The reality of this iconic site is more complicated but closer to actual events. The 1821 stone we see today was not the original. An engraving in Beauties of England published in 1776 reported that ‘the stone is a small pyramid mounted upon a larger pediment’, and was thought to have marked the spot of a leper hospital that stood opposite.

This stone was reported to have been sawn in half and placed on each side of Queen’s Head Lane, Lower Street, Islington (I understand that Lower Street was renamed Essex Road).

The current stone, inaugurated in 1821, is in two segments and was restored in 1935, even so, its inscription telling of medieval merchant and City dignitary Sir Richard Whittington is almost illegible:

Whittington Stone.
Sir Richard Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London.
1397. Richard II.
1406. Henry IV.
1420. Henry V.
Sheriff in 1393.

The cat surmounting the stone arrived later, in May 1964, when Dennis Biddett unveiled the cat upon the stone. The cat was carved by Jonathan Kenworthy, in polished black Kellymount limestone, looking back at London.

This and the iron railings are the only pieces we can date with some certainty, the story of the stone(s) is far more convoluted than I’ve described and can be read at IanVisits.

Featured image: Archant

London’s oldest

Sykes & Son Limited based on Essex Street, just off Strand since 1759 Is moving. As London’s oldest builder Sykes & Son was formed by John Willis in 1759 and its earliest records show that it worked at St Clement Dane’s Church in 1759 – where it worked again some 250 years later. Other clients include the Tower of London, Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall and English Heritage.

They haven’t remained in the same Essex Street building [featured]: 1759-1799 at number 23; 1799-1881 at number 47; 1881-1895 at number 9; 1895-1949 at number 10; 1949-1969 at number 8; 1969-2020 they moved to 23 Devereux Court which is a small turning off Essex Street.

They have worked on Royal palaces, world-renowned museums, galleries and universities but a new possible client for the company has been uncovered, ironically at the same time, Sykes moved to Bloomsbury.

At 54A High Street, High Barnet a crown post timber roof was found intact dating to 1397, or perhaps earlier, which would make it the oldest known surviving timber structure in London. To put it into perspective Westminster Hall with its huge hammer-beam roof, commissioned by Richard II was completed in 1401.

This shop was being converted from a hairdresser to a florist when the discovery was made. Built-in the days when High Barnet was on the route of animal drovers who stopped the night at taverns or perhaps sold animals at a fair. Barnet fare is one of the most well known and oldest in the country.

At some point, it is thought the building was amalgamated into a group of taverns that became the Mitre, which was established in 1633 and is Barnet’s oldest former coaching inn.

Analysis by Historic England has shown that the oldest timbers were from trees felled between 1330 and 1362, those mature trees would have been saplings at the time of the Norman Conquest.

XX Place

Recently, for no apparent reason, I decided to write about the first alphabetical entry in my map index. All went swimmingly until reaching X, not one entry, no Xanadu Drive, Xylophone Gardens, even that fine organisation Xerox seems to have missed a trick when it comes to naming thoroughfares.

In fact, there isn’t a single X-road in the country, even America only has nine.

With a little research, I found my first, and the only X featured in a little book written by Hugh Pearman, a London cabbie. I then realised that Hugh Pearman (no relation) had once written a Guest Post about Curious London: An illustrated guide to the curious places and curious things in the twenty-nine boroughs and cities that make up the county of London.

Much of the small book by the ‘Cabman Psychogeographer’ was devoted to facts such as where the Brighton Road ends: “Where Craven Hill Road makes a ‘T’ junction with Porchester Terrace”. It’s the sort of trivia loved by cabbies.

As you might have expected Pearman found some very curious locations, among them was XX Place which he describes as:

Half hidden in Globe Road is a little turning with the oddest of all odd names, XX Place, so-called, it is believed, because it was built to house their workers, by the owners of the huge brewery in whose shadow it stands. lending colour to that belief is the two little beer barrels, carved in stone, high up in the wall of one of the cottages.

XX Place was built in 1842 for locally employed workers and was only a short street of 10 small terrace houses running along one side of the street. About 10 feet wide with the majority of those living in the street were employed at the nearby Charringtons Brewery.

The local name for the street was either XX Place, 2X Place or, as known by older locals, Double X Place.

These were typical two-up two-down properties without a hall, with the front door opening onto the living room. Each had a small yard at its rear.

London Inheritance has researched this little cul-de-sac and discovered that a family of 10 once lived in one of these little houses.

XX Place in Globe Road, just off Mile End Road, was demolished around 1957/58 being replaced with Stock Court student dormitories.

Research by retired Head of Highways at Tower Hamlets discovered:

XX Place, Globe Road E1, was a narrow street, first on the left off Globe Road from Mile End Road, serving ten small cottages on the north side. One of the houses in this narrow passageway had an inscription on a stone projection that showed a half-barrel marked XX and the initials I.S. XX Place with the date 1823. “I” was a character frequently used in earlier times for the modern letter “J”. This indicated that the owner was J Stayner, a brewer by trade and there used to be a small brewery near this alley. Note Stayners Road just to the west. It is listed in the LCC 1901 volume as both “Double X Place” and XX Place. All the houses in XX Place were demolished about 1956 in an LCC clearance area and the street closed. It no longer exists as a street although the name has been revived commercially on a number of occasions, probably for its novelty value.

Further research by A London Inheritance led to a book titled A Londoner’s Own London by Charles G. Harper, published in 1927. Here the author visited XX Court and sketched the alley and also a plaque which gives a date of 1823 and not 1842.

As a final curiosity to this little alley has been used by criminals according to this website’s account:.

There used to be an XX Place in Stepney, east London. It was demolished in 1956 but every so often someone tries to use it illegally. I had to have one cast-iron street sign taken down on the instructions of the naming and numbering officer for the area in the 1980s. The owner of the cast iron plate never claimed it back so a few years later I had it mounted on wood and gave it to the head of Highways as a leaving present.

Featured image: XX Place 1956 London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, catalogue ref: SC_PHL_01_406_56_3582

Green Shelters – Two Squares

These two shelters, located on London squares, are at each end of one of London’s worst shopping streets, so to avoid those seeking fake perfumes, trashy souvenirs or the queues outside McDonald’s a short bus ride is to be recommended.

Hanover Square

The most impressive building here is St. George’s Church whose best-known parishioner was George Frideric Handel who to nearby Brook Street just as the church was nearing completion. His opinion was sought on the suitability of the organ, and when candidates for the post of organist were being tested. He remained a regular worshipper until his death.

St. George’s Church has for many years given out small amounts of money to the homeless who sleep under the church’s portico at night. The Cabmen’s’ shelter close by has had difficulties of late obscured as it is by the hoarding for never-ending construction work for Crossrail. The solution has been that the Vestry issues ‘refreshment coupons’ valued at £2 each, which may be exchanged for food and drink at the shelter.

Very little remains of the original 18th-century buildings, although at its northern perimeter are the editorial offices of Vogue, if fashion is your thing.

A 73 bus (no cab for a change), alighting just after turning into Tottenham Court Road, walking down Great Russell Street opposite and skirting the British Museum takes me to Russell Square with the green shelter at the top of the square.

Russell Square

This shelter was originally outside the Haymarket Theatre, the theatre that the shelter’s donor, Sir Squire Bancroft was then managing. It was later moved to Leicester Square where it spent some considerable time.

During this time, when the green hut was located in Leicester Square during the war, the siren was sounded and the diners made their way down to the underground air-raid shelter. After the all-clear, the cabbies made their way back to the shelter to finish what was left of their dinner. To their surprise, all their cabs had been destroyed by a German bomb. Amazingly, the shelter survived with just some superficial damage.

It vanished in the late 1980s when pedestrianisation arrived at Leicester Square and the shelter became obsolete.

The decision was later taken to move the shelter to Russell Square. The shelter was restored in 1987 and again before the London 2012 Olympics when it was re-sited in the north-west corner of Russell Square, making it the most re-located shelter in London.

Before going I have to check out London’s most pointless plaque, for just behind the shelter there fixed to a wall is this statement: