11 Unusual Architectural Details that Reveal London’s Secret History

London is full of visual treats, not just its extraordinary mix of architecture, but what decorates its walls, entrances, recesses, corners and niches.

Here we tell the stories of 11 historic and modern sculpted figures, most well above eye level – symbolic, commemorative, realistic, curious…

1. The giants of Fleet Street

The clock at St Dunstan-in-the-West church, Fleet Street
The clock at St Dunstan-in-the-West church, Fleet Street, with its two giant figures to left and right that turn their heads and strike the hours and quarters on the bells with their cudgels. Listed Grade I © Jerry Young

A St Dunstan-in-the-West church has stood on this site for around a thousand years.  The clock with its giants dates from 1671 when it was installed on the medieval church to celebrate it surviving the Great Fire of London five years earlier.

Its creator was local clock-maker John Harrys. He was paid £80 to produce what was then the first public clock in London to have a minute hand as well as an hour hand.

Close-up of the right-hand giant
Close-up of the right-hand giant © Jerry Young

Harrys’s giants were carved of wood and heavily gilded. These muscly men with scanty loincloths caused some disquiet, but they proved hugely popular over the next 150 years.

That early church was demolished in 1828 as part of the widening of Fleet Street and the clock sent to auction. It was bought by the art collector, Francis Seymour-Conway, and installed at his villa in Regent’s Park.

More than one hundred years later in 1935, the clock was returned to the rebuilt church by the villa’s next owner, Lord Rothmere, in commemoration of King George V’s Silver Jubilee – becoming a Fleet Street landmark once again.

2. Fire fighters in Lambeth

Detail of stone relief of firemen in action by sculptor Stanley Nicholson Babb on the exterior of Lambeth Fire Station
Detail of stone relief of firemen in action by sculptor Stanley Nicholson Babb on the exterior of Lambeth Fire Station, former headquarters of the London Fire Brigade, Albert Embankment. Listed Grade II © Jerry Young

Lambeth Fire Station, facing the River Thames and built in 1937 by the London County Council, was designed in modern functionalist style by their in-house architect, EP Wheeler, to house fire appliances, administrative offices and living-quarters for the firemen.

The severe geometry of the huge building is embellished with stone reliefs. Pictured above is one of Babb’s two graphic carvings that each sit above an entrance.

Two mermen with fish ‘hoses’ extinguish a stylised fire. First floor carved relief
Two mermen with fish ‘hoses’ extinguish a stylised fire. First floor carved relief by sculptor Gilbert Bayes © Jerry Young

Pictured is one of three other stone reliefs, in allegorical style and enhanced with gold mosaic, fixed centrally to the exterior of the Fire Station.

3. Remembering a Saint in Cheapside

Thomas a Becket was Henry II’s Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170. They clashed over the rights and privileges of the church and he was brutally murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights of the king’s own court.

The murder sent shock waves throughout Europe. Becket was venerated as a martyr and canonized as saint three years after his death.

Pilgrim’s badges were sold to the devout making their pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral over the centuries, and were often ritually thrown in the River Thames at the end of a pilgrimage.

4. The Persian scarf dancer of Britannic House, Finsbury Circus

Figure of a Persian scarf dancer performing a traditional dance
Figure of a Persian scarf dancer performing a traditional dance, Britannic House (formerly Lutyens House), Finsbury Circus. Grade II*. Sculpted by Francis Derwent Wood © Jerry Young

Britannic House was designed by the celebrated architect Edwin Lutyens and completed in 1925 for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which became British Petroleum (BP) in 1954. It was the first of his many post-war corporate commissions in London.

This fine building and its sculpture are indicative of the British imperial origins of the oil company in Persia (now Iran) and represents the emergence of the oil industry as a world player in the interwar years.

Mother and baby sculpture
Mother and baby sculpture, Britannic House © Jerry Young

The scarf dancer figure, along with others including the mother and baby above, a water carrier and Britannia, was created by renowned sculptor Francis Derwent Wood.

He is known for his controversial bronze Machine-Gun Corps war memorial, Hyde Park Corner – a pairing of a classical nude figure with brutally realistic machine-guns.

5. The golden boy of Pye Corner, Smithfield

The Golden Boy of Pye Corner
The Golden Boy of Pye Corner, situated at the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, Smithfield. This late 17th century figure was once attached to the front of a pub on the same site, The Fortune of War. Listed Grade II © Jerry Young

This carved and painted figure marks the spot where the inferno of the Great Fire of London ended. (The Monument, just off London Bridge, stands where the fire started).

The boy formerly had wings and an inscription on his breast and arms: ‘This boy is in memory put up for the late Fire of London occasioned by the Sin of Gluttony, 1666.’ These words are now carved beneath him.

It was believed by some then that the fire was a Catholic conspiracy, and by others that it was god’s punishment for the sin of gluttony. The latter is inferred by further historic words inscribed on a panel of modern stonework on the site explaining that the boy was made ‘…prodigiously fat to enforce the moral…’

6. Carved panels at City Bank, Bishopsgate

The roof sculptures (sheathed in anti-pigeon netting) represent the British cities the bank traded with
The carved panels are visible over the entrance and the windows of the bank. The roof sculptures (sheathed in anti-pigeon netting) represent the British cities the bank traded with © Stephen Richards

Banking was booming in the mid-19th century when John Gibson – considered the most prolific of bank architects – designed this elaborately embellished bank in 1862.

The little-known Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, John Hancock, created the Mining and Shipbuilding relief panels. Six further panels symbolise Arts, Commerce, Science, Manufacturing, Agriculture and Navigation.

7. Crutched Friars near Fenchurch street

Figures of two Crutched Friars
Figures of two Crutched Friars, Crutched Friars, near Fenchurch Street, created in 1984 by sculptor Michael Black who died in 2019 © Lonpicman

This sombre and peaceful contemporary sculpture commemorates the small Order of Crutched Friars – the name has its origins in the carrying of a staff topped by a cross – who came from Italy to England in the 13th century. They established several houses, including in London where they gave their name to the locality where they settled.

The friars’ habits are carved from the same red granite used on the modern building behind, while their hands, feet and faces are carved from marble. The scroll and staff are bronze, representing respectively wisdom and leadership.

8. Charity Scholars in Rotherhithe

Boy and girl charity scholars, wearing clothes dating from around the 1700s, on the former Rotherhithe Charity School
Boy and girl charity scholars, wearing clothes dating from around the 1700s, on the former Rotherhithe Charity School, Marychurch Street, Rotherhithe, opposite the church of St Mary. The wearing of ‘blue coats’ (a kind of uniform) was a common feature of charity schools. Listed Grade II © Jerry Young

The Charity School movement began at the end of the 17th century, and grew during the 18th as more and more people moved from rural areas to the city in search of work.

Often financed by voluntary subscription, the schools helped impoverished children with clothing and lessons, although frequently the main aim was moral instruction, with reading mostly taught from the Bible. By the end of the 18th century, there were over 1,600 schools in England and Wales teaching around 40,000 children.

Close-up of the plaque beneath the two figures
Close-up of the plaque beneath the two figures, Rotherhithe Charity School © Jerry Young

A free school was originally founded in Rotherhithe in 1613 – for eight sons of seafarers from the parish – by locals Peter Hills, master mariner, and Robert Bell.

The school continued for nearly 130 years, originally supported by the church and its parishioners. It became a Charity School in 1742, moving to Marychurch Street in 1797.

9. Cries of London in St James’ Square

One of five enormous window-height reliefs - sitting between the first floor windows of Buchanan House, St James’s Square - depicting a knife-grinder at work watched by a child.
One of five enormous window-height reliefs – sitting between the first floor windows of Buchanan House, St James’s Square – depicting a knife-grinder at work watched by a child. © Weglinde Gordon Lawson

The sculptor, Newbury Trent, known for his war memorials, created the Buchanan House reliefs.

As well as the relief pictured, Trent sculpted a costermonger selling fruit surrounded by children, an organ-grinder with a monkey, a woman with a little girl selling lavender and, centre to the building, a town crier holding a parchment which reads: ‘Oyez, Oyez Take Notice This Building was erected in the year 1933 Messrs Alfred and David Ospalak being the architects thereof.’

10. Boy and a goose at 27 Poultry, Bishopsgate

Statue of boy with goose
One of two identical sculptures of a naked boy cradling a goose with its wings outstretched, standing high on pedestals either end of the former Midland Bank headquarters (now a hotel, The Ned), 27 Poultry, near the Bank of England. Listed Grade I © Jerry Young

The renowned architect Edwin (‘Ned’) Lutyens designed this elegant classical-style bank in 1925. The area was once the centre of the medieval poultry trade.

The figures were by sculptor William Reid Dick, best known for the decorative features on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ypres, Belgium, and for the sculptures at Edwin Lutyens’ Mercantile Marine war memorial, Tower Hill.

Lutyens wrote to Dick suggesting a ‘group of a boy and a goose. The idea is Poultry – the name of the street which it will overlook.’

11. Signs of the Zodiac on Cheapside

The signs of the Zodiac were created by John Skeaping, a sculptor of both figures and animals. From 1924-1933 he was the first husband of sculptor Barbara Hepworth, one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.

As part of the astrological theming on the building, there may also have been sun and star devices that did not survive the modernisation.

Written by Nicky Hughes

Header image – Two figures of young charity scholars on the exterior of the former St John’s Schools, Scandrett Street, Wapping. Listed Grade II © Jerry Young.

Further Reading

5 responses to 11 Unusual Architectural Details that Reveal London’s Secret History

  1. I was born in London in Jan 1940, was evacuated to All Cannings when I was about 3 but
    demanded to return to London at 4 bombs or no bombs. Please see Love Affair with London parts 1 and 2 which is my tribute to the city I have always loved – it includes Churchill’s speeches, evacuation, Brtisih Museum, London Parks, the funerals of Churchill and Queen Mother. I always worked in lovely areas and spent lunchtimes exploring and always looked at details of statues and buildings. This brought back man happy memories. Thank you.

  2. Lee Sharpe says:

    Many thanks for this. Most of these I didn’t know about and hope to have a wander at some time and find some of them.

  3. Eddie Evans says:

    Highlights the unique adornments of London Buildings, that Londoner’s, pass every day, but are oblivious to. The facts are fascinating. Keep up the good work.

  4. John Bevan says:

    Thank you – very informative and much appreciated by a Londoner

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