London Stories: The Big Frieze
I set stories in London because when it comes to fables, legends and historical tidbits the city offers up an infinite and continuous supply. London has always been a working city, its streets, wards, neighbourhoods and boroughs defined by the trades of the people who lived in them – but no more. When everyone seems to be in a branch of media or money shuffling, there’s no reflection of their trade on their neighbourhood. Billingsgate was built on the Thames because fishmongers needed to be near boats. Where does someone who sells airtime on a cable channel need to live?
Not too many people are interested in the stories of old London anymore; it has become a specialist academic branch, something for elderly white men to sift through in their twilight years. A walk along, say, Tooley Street, once redolent of cinnamon and pepper and nutmeg, now takes you through a wasteland of glass boxes. This means that the stories once associated with Tooley Street involving the spice traders and dockers have concluded, and there are no stories about the screen-staring office workers who occupy their space because they have no stories to tell.
All of which leaves behind a mine of treasures for writers to unearth. The trouble is, every mystery opens another mystery.
For example, opening an entirely random page of Arthur Mee’s ‘London – The Great City Complete’ (1937) I find details of an insurance building in Moorgate. These were once among the grandest places in the city. You want your insurance company to have a look of permanence.
Ocean House provided marine insurance, and was covered in carvings of Neptune and sea-horses, plus a working statue of a lighthouse. It housed the Institute of Chartered Accountants, designed by John Belcher, who had created the high Gothic of No.1 Poultry (now demolished and replaced with a ludicrous Miami-style pink triangle). Belcher reinvented classic images and subverted them, even down to the keystones that featured women turning into leaves. He proved that revolutionary styles don’t have to be ugly.
Inside was the largest frieze in London (190 feet long). Sir Hamo Thornycroft planned a procession of figures showing progress through the ages. There are miners, teachers, builders, nurses and sailors, and when the building was enlarged the frieze was extended by fifty feet.
The problem was that Sir Hamo had died by this time, and his successor found that the frieze ended in the present day, even to the point of including the current building. So in order to extend it he had to take it backwards in time. He sculpted figures from the Renaissance, Michelangelo stroking his beard, Palladio with his folio, Wren with a model of St Paul’s, right back to the Romans, Assyrians and cave dwellers. Lo and behold, a complete history in a single frieze. Here is the only image I can find of it, in my ancient copy of a London guide.
London is full of friezes, like the ones on Liberty’s and the Albert Memorial, but I can find nothing further about the great Ocean House frieze or what happened to it. The building is still there but its doors are closed.
NB> The lighthouse used to have a light in it, but no-one has bothered to rewire it.