Tag Archives: London monuments

Memorials to mortality

The coronavirus is just the latest in several pandemics that have struck London over the years. some are forgotten, while others have lasting memorials to their passing and the huge number of their victims.

One of the most dreaded diseases of the 19th century was cholera, thought at the time to spread through the air, the so-called ‘miasma theory’. Using precise mapping Dr. John Snow established that the outbreak was transmitted by contaminated water, by removing the handle of a water pump in what is now Broadwick Street proved is theory.

A replica pump – minus the handle – installed in 1992 by the Royal Society of Chemistry now commemorates his achievement. Nearby is a public house that carries his name.

Not quite a memorial, Vinegar Alley in Walthamstow is so named because locals used vinegar to sanitise the soil after a plague pit was dug here, one of many needed in 1665 outside the City to accommodate the huge number of dead as spaces ran out.

In Trafalgar Square on 17th May 1858 Albert, Prince Consort unveiled a statue of Edward Jenner, the pioneer of the world’s first vaccine. The figure holds a document, presumably relating to Jenner’s theory of vaccinating James Phipps with cowpox in 1796, thus preventing dreaded smallpox. He predicted at the time the worldwide eradication of smallpox, not finally achieved until 1980.

The Albert Memorial depicts Queen Victoria’s husband holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition. Albert died at 42 from typhoid, just three years after unveiling Jenner’s statue, which has since been moved from Trafalgar Square to Kensington Gardens.

On 30th September 1848, 22-year-old John Murphy showed symptoms of cholera, he was the third case identified in what was to become the 1848-49 Asiatic cholera epidemic. He died in Lambeth the next day with Dr John Snow writing: “The people had no water except what they obtained from the Thames with a pail . . . or from streams up which the Thames flows with the tide. It is quite what might be expected from the propagation of cholera through the medium of the Thames water. On the Albert Embankment, there is an unusual memorial to the thousands who died in the Lambeth cholera epidemics.

In Postman’s Park, there is a memorial to Dr Samuel Rabbeth. Thanks to vaccination diphtheria, a highly contagious bacterial infection are almost unheard of nowadays. In 1884 tending four-year-old Leon Rex Jennings who had been admitted to the Royal Free Hospital Dr Rabbeth ignoring his health, contracted the disease, which forms a thick grey membrane in the throat, eventually suffocating the host. A plaque commemorates him sucking on the tracheotomy tube to clear the child’s airway, giving the little boy temporary relief.

William Freer Lucas is also commemorated here. Another doctor who paid for his devotion performing a tracheotomy on another child suffering diphtheria, when the child coughed in his face, he refused to clear the spittal before he had attended to the child.

Pictures: Vinegar Alley and (part of) the church and churchyard of St Mary The Virgin by Mike Quinn (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Memorial to Samuel Rabbeth in Postman’s Park by Marathon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The elephant in the room

During the time that I was studying there, I would spend a lot of my time at college staring out of the window at a silver cube in the middle of the Elephant and Castle northern roundabout. Today I would bet the thousands who pass through that roundabout don’t even notice the enormous box in front of them. At 75ft wide and 20ft high it is what must be by volume the largest monument in London – and nobody seems to notice it.

[T]HE MICHAEL FARADAY MEMORIAL was designed by the brutalist architect Rodney Gordon who, with the regeneration of the Elephant in the early 60s, wanted to embody his visionary credentials of the man who was the area’s favourite son, who was born in nearby Newington Butts.

No glass

Unfortunately even though the notorious Heygate Estate was still under construction vandalism was already a problem. So out went Rodney Gordon’s box of glass, which would have allowed the public to see the London Underground transformer beneath, and thus make a connection with the pioneer of electricity. The glass was substituted by polished stainless steel panels, but they needn’t have bothered with the increasing traffic levels closer inspection is almost impossible marooned as it is surrounded by the Elephant and Castle gyratory system.

Blue Peter competition

In 1996 Blue Peter held a competition, which was won by a local schoolgirl from English Martyr R.C. Primary School, to design a lighting scheme to illuminate its 728 steel panels and thus draw the public’s attention to its presence.

That same year the monument gained Grade II listing status, unlike its neighbour the Heygate Estate currently in the process of being demolished.

The box has appeared on the BBC’s Dr. Who and Harry Potter, but despite its size and prominence it is ignored by Londoners. In 1995 the Evening Standard carried a picture of the cube with the caption ‘What on Earth is it?’

For more about post-war Elephant and Castle check out my colleague’s View from the Mirror.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 16th November 2012

A tale of a tail

This week I found a little mouse sitting on top of the bird seed which is stored in plastic containers in my shed. How he came to be there I have no idea.

The sight of my furry friend reminded me of what is claimed to be London’s smallest statute although Peter Berthoud would seem to disagree.

[T]wo mice are fighting over a piece of cheese high up on a building on the south-eastern corner of Philpot Lane by the junction with 23 Eastcheap. They apparently date from 1862 when the building was constructed for the spice merchants Messrs Hunt & Crombie by John Young & Son.

A homage to fromage

No documents seem to exist as to who sculpted this homage to fromage, however, they could be a memorial to a tragic fight between two builders over a cheese sandwich – except the sandwich hadn’t been invented at that time.

The builders in question were working on the Monument, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1671-77 to commemorate the Great Fire of London. It stands on the junction of Fish Street Hill and Monument Street about 400ft away from Philpot Lane.

Mice on buildingAt some point during the Monument’s construction, the two builders sat down to enjoy their packed-lunch of bread and cheese. Having a head for heights – well you would doing that job – the men were content to sit at their workplace, perched on a high piece of scaffolding. This was before steel scaffolding, hard hats and the ubiquitous hi-vis jackets, no health and safety in those days.

A fight on the roof

One of the men noticed that his cheese had been nibbled away. His suspicion as to the identity of the cheese nibbler, for reasons best known to him, fell on his mate sitting beside him perched high up on the Monument.

A fight broke out not wise when you’re poised so high up. Trading punches, the unfortunate pair lost their footing and plunged to the ground to their deaths.

It was only later, after similar disappearances of bread and cheese, that the real culprits were discovered – an infestation of tiny mice.

Pictures by Donna Ratherford.
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 22nd March 2013


At the southern end of London Bridge is a curious piece of sculpture rising up out of the debris that was once Tooley Street before they decided to build an even bigger station.

The ‘spike’ looks as if it could fall on someone’s head at any moment, and designed to add to London’s pointless architecture alongside Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth and the Trinity Buoy Lighthouse.

[T]hus proving that in the 21st century we can still add to the London landscape some pretty useless pieces of street furniture. Speculation about the purpose of a 52ft high Portland stone leaning tower dubbed ‘The Spike’ abound, for no plaque indicates its purpose.

It could serve as a giant sundial except at 19.5 degrees pointing south-west it’s likely to get the time wrong.

It could be a prototype for the Shard close by if it leaned at a precarious angle.

As everybody knows London Bridge once served the useful purpose of not only conveying the public across the river but to display the heads of traitors which had been liberally dipped in tar to aid preservation. The first to try out this novel way of deporting one’s cranium was William Wallace, who it is thought was also the guinea pig for being hung, drawn and quartered. A useful plaque serves to show the spot of his dismemberment in Smithfield.

Could The Spike be the furthest south the plague advanced?

Or the maximum distance your London cabbie is prepared to go ‘Sarf of The River.

Unfortunately, The Spike’s purpose seems to be far more prosaic.

Southwark Council intended for it to be part of a gateway to the borough incorporating a visitor and information centre. The official title is ‘The Southwark Gateway Needle’ and it tilts at 19.5 degrees pointing down to an exact location.

Following that trajectory downwards, it arrives at the riverside’s opposite bank and the church of St. Magus The Martyr. This was where the medieval London Bridge crossed the river.

I can’t see it. There are lots of angles on the thing but the only one that could be 19.5 degrees is that from the vertical. Surely if the needle is pointing anywhere it’s into the sky? But if you follow its front face down you surely would be a long way underground before you reached the riverside.

Photo: Southwark Needle, London SE1 by Christine Matthews (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The curse of Cleopatra

Erected on the Victoria Embankment is probably the most unwanted, and unloved monument to be found in London.

‘Cleopatra’s’ Needle was presented to Britain in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt in commemoration of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile.

We were touched by this generous gesture, but not grateful enough to bring it back to Blighty.

[I]t was a circus strongman turned Egyptologist one Giovanni Belzoni who with his engineering skill and personal money managed to do the impossible by transporting the obelisk as far as Alexandria.

The British might have been impressed by Belzoni’s feat, it had after all been thought impossible, but still resolutely ungratefully refused again to have it transported to these shores.

In 1877 Sir William Erasmus paid £10,000 (£10 million in today’s money) to ship the artefact, encased in a great iron cylinder and placed on a floating pontoon, en-route to London. Cleopatra showed her obvious displeasure at being moved from the shores of the Mediterranean and her spiritual home. Crossing the Bay of Biscay the pontoon broke away from its tow. Six sailors were sent to re-tether the mooring lines, not to be seen again.

It was eventually found adrift and successfully brought to England. We eventually erected it in 1887 on the newly constructed Victoria Embankment and at the time it had no ceremony to commemorate its successful arrival in London.

Again the Government seems to have refused to acknowledge its existence.


Cleopatra’s Needle being erected, August 1878

When the obelisk arrived in London there was indecision as to where it should be erected. The Palace of Westminster, St. James’s Park and the British Museum were some of the suggestions, but eventually the Victoria Embankment was chosen.

During World War I bomb landed close by and shrapnel damage can still be seen to the supporting plinth. No repairs were undertaken, there is just a small commemorative plate explaining why it looks so distressed.

It is now the most popular suicide spot on this stretch of the Thames come here at night to witness two ghosts who are seen jumping into the river.

You cannot help but feel that the needle is waiting for the day when it can return home to stand proud under the hot Egyptian sun.

Photo: Cleopatra’s Needle Tony Hisgett (CC BY 2.0)

Isle of Dogs Life has an excellent account of The Strange Story of the Transportation of Cleopatra’s Needle