London is full of visual clues about its rich working past. These handsomely rendered architectural details are easy to miss, often hidden away or located high up on buildings.
Here are some lesser-known examples that reveal fascinating stories about the capital’s history.
Bakers in Spitalfields
Lindsey Clark’s bakers have been likened by some to the Christian iconography of the Stations of the Cross, although the bakery was managed by members of the Jewish community. The reliefs apparently caused disquiet and were covered up at some point. Lindsey Clark’s body of work became increasingly more religious over the years. He eventually joined a Carmelite Order as a lay member.
The reliefs were made by Carters of Poole (later Poole Pottery), famous for decorative and relief tiles across the country, including for pubs and butchers, as well as the London Underground.
Newspaper trade on Fleet Street
The Daily Telegraph building was designed by architect Charles Elcock between 1927 and 1928. Made of Portland stone, its striking facade combines Art Deco styling – such as Egyptian ornamentation, sculptural stone swallows, and winged stone masks representing The Past and The Future – with the Neo-Classicism of its enormous Doric columns.
Fleet Street, an ancient London through-route since Roman times, witnessed the birth of the newspaper trade – the Daily Courant, published 1702, was England’s first newspaper.
By the mid-18th century, over 30 papers were being sold in London, fulfilling an insatiable public demand for news, especially scandalous, sensational or grisly stories. Fleet Street became the heart of the newspaper industry. Bribery, plagiarism and shameless bias were rife.
By the 20th century, most national papers were based in Fleet Street, put together by members of powerful print unions. But in 1986, News International – publisher of The Times, Sun, Sunday Times and News of the World – controversially moved out of Fleet Street to Wapping in Docklands a few miles away, cutting costs and staff by establishing a high-tech printing plant. Most of the other national papers (as well as news agencies) followed suit, leaving Fleet Street and dispersing the industry round the capital.
Tea, coffee and spice importers on Eastcheap
Richard Peek (a well-known abolitionist and philanthropist) and his brothers William and James, founded their own firm of tea merchants in 1823 in London, becoming leading tea brokers and dealers. James’ son, Henry, continued the trade, importing tea, coffee and spices.
Henry created a prestigious company headquarters at 20 Eastcheap between 1883 and 1885. He commissioned the eminent artist William Theed – whose patrons included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – to sculpt the camel relief on the façade – the firm was known for its ‘Camel Tea’. Theed had earlier created the monumental Africa sculptural group on the Albert Memorial (1872), Kensington Gardens, that also featured a camel.
Fur traders in Bishopsgate
The Hudson’s Bay Company was established in London in 1668 by a group of English merchants who saw the rich potential in fur from the North American continent. The company received the Royal Charter from King Charles II two years later, giving it exclusive fur trading rights in the Hudson Bay area of Canada. London became the centre of its fur business, from administration to warehouses and auction rooms.
Indigenous peoples trapped beavers in the coldest months when pelts were of highest quality, travelling to the Hudson Bay’s Company’s trading posts and bartering them for goods such as tools, pots, textiles and guns.
The company engaged in the highly competitive fur trade into the 20th century, fiercely battling with rivals over the centuries, including French and independent fur traders.
But, as real fur started to become a political issue from the 1960s and the use of fur began to decline, the company ended 300 years of trading in the capital. It relocated to Canada in 1970; dropping out of the fur trade in the early 1990s to concentrate on retail, real estate and natural resources.
Cutlers in the City of London
The Cutlers’ Company is one of the most ancient of the City of London’s livery companies (trade associations), receiving its Royal Charter from King Henry V in 1416.
Cutlers made knives and swords and other implements with a cutting edge. Over time, the company moved away from blades associated with conflict, to cutlery, razors, scissors and surgical tools.
Pictured above is the first section showing ‘forgers’ at work in a smithy, including forging scissors on an anvil, a man working the bellows, two men forging table knives and another bringing in a bundle of steel.
Here figures include a boy holding a blade up to the light to check the stone marks have all been removed, while two other men work at the grindstones, and a young man brings in a box of new work.
The image above includes hafters preparing knife handles before fitting them to the blades, a young boy apprentice watching what is going on, and man checking a blade is true.
Among those pictured is an old man working on scissors at his bench, a man operating a lathe with his feet, and another testing that the scissors are perfect before they leave the workshop.
Scale-makers in Smithfield market
Thomas Herbert was a young ambitious scale maker who set up his own business in a garden shed in London’s East End in 1842. His business grew and he opened a shop in Tower Hamlets producing small scales used to check the weight of gold coins which were often ‘clipped’ (fragments shaved off) by fraudsters for profit.
Thomas’s business and reputation prospered. He bought up a scale makers in King’s Cross in 1857 and another 10 years later – Woods of West Smithfield – that had been in business since 1740. The premises were situated opposite Smithfield Meat Market, which opened in 1868 – the butchers giving a huge boost to the company.
The family firm – now named Thomas Herbert & Sons and counting grocer J. Sainsbury as a client – were granted their lion trademark in 1888. They remained at Smithfield for a 100 years, moving to Haverhill, Suffolk in 1968 where, as Herbert & Sons, they are still in business today.
Potters in Vauxhall
Doulton Pottery was founded in 1815 in Vauxhall Walk by John Dwight Doulton (1793 to 1873), sometimes called the ‘father of English pottery’.
Originally the firm made utilitarian salt-glazed stoneware, expanding to produce sanitary ware, and glazed pipes to replace porous brick-lined sewers in response to public health concerns.
Doulton began making decorative pottery from 1867, exhibiting vases at the Paris Exhibition that year. Queen Victoria became a client.
Doulton worked with the renowned local Lambeth School of Art, founded in 1854, run by its radical head, John Sparkes. The school’s ethos was a strong belief in the connection between craft, design and fine art.
A number of well-known artists worked for Doulton, enjoying the freedom it gave them to express their talents, including George Tinworth, who worked for Doulton from 1867 until his death in 1913, and artists Hannah and Florence Barlow who painted Doulton pottery. Both George and Hannah were ex-Lambeth School of Art students.
The company received the Royal Warrant in 1901, allowing it to be called Royal Doulton. The Doulton Pottery complex in Black Prince Road finally closed in 1956.
Book publishers on Saffron Hill
The Longman company was founded in 1726 when Thomas Longman bought a publishing house in Paternoster Row in the heart of the London book trade. The firm published Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and was based in a building called The Ship. Longman also bought the next door property, The Black Swan. His company’s emblem became a swan and a ship.
Longman & Co, whose publications included dictionaries, began producing high quality leather-bound copies of their books. They were so sought after that the bindery in Paternoster Row could not cope. The Ship Binding Works was established in 1887 for the specialist work, eventually becoming one of the most renowned bookbinders in Britain.
Saffron Hill was hit by a high explosive bomb in 1941 during the Blitz in the Second World War, resulting in the closure of the business.
The plaque above shows a hand pouring oil into a lamp and the Latin inscription, Alere Flammam (‘to feed the flame’): a classical allusion to feeding the ‘lamp of knowledge’.
It marks the building where the scholarly Abraham Velpy, former fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, printed and published volumes of classical works from 1822 to 1837.
Merchants on Lombard street
16th-century merchants in the Lombard Street area had long thought that it was too small and crowded, too vulnerable to the weather, for the business of London. As a response, Gresham founded the Royal Exchange at his own expense in 1567 as a centre of commerce for the City of London. Queen Elizabeth I’s visit in 1571 made the Exchange fashionable and gave it its ‘Royal’ title.
There was a public square with covered walks, and around 100 small shops, including milliners that also sold mousetraps, birdcages and lanterns; apothecaries, sellers of armour, bookshops, goldsmiths, glass vendors. A tall column with a grasshopper on top reputedly stood outside the north entrance, while each corner of the building and every dormer window featured a grasshopper.
Gresham’s Royal Exchange was destroyed by the Great Fire of London (1666), rebuilt and then destroyed again by fire in 1838. Extraordinarily his original grasshopper weathervane survived both events and was re-installed on the current building when it opened in 1844.
Written by Nicky Hughes
Fascinating article. I have never seen these details in my visits to London, sorry to say.
Very interesting indeed. Thank you.
I worked in the London Fire Brigade HQ, Albert Embankment, in front of the Doulton Building (and built on the site of the factory) and always noticed something different on the facade, as it was my route to Lambeth Walk shops of a lunchtime.
Thank you for this.I had seen the facade and wondered what the company ‘L &Co’ was, thinking it was a shipping company. So I am very happy that you disabused me. Gillian