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.


15 comments on “London Stories: The Big Frieze”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    My work takes me around Central London and I’ve made a habit of looking up the street where my next meeting venue is. I recently went to the bland-looking but interesting sounding Saffron Hill:

    “Saffron Hill is a street in the south eastern corner of the London Borough of Camden, between Farringdon Road and Hatton Garden. The name of the street derives from the fact that it was at one time part of an estate on which saffron grew.

    In 1850 it was described as a squalid neighbourhood, the home of paupers and thieves. In Charles Dickens’s 1837 novel Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger leads Oliver to Fagin’s den in Field Lane, the southern extension of Saffron Hill: “a dirty and more wretched place he [Oliver] had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours”.

    Saffron Hill is mentioned in the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, as the Italian Quarter where the Venucci family can be found.”

    Most streets have a story. Does the removal of thieves and vile smells always improve a place? Probably, but a lot is lost, too.

  2. Adam says:

    Well I never knew that about my institute! Must pay it a visit next time I’m in London and see what’s there….

  3. snowy says:

    Not having much to do, apart from drink a cup of tea, [Builders naturally]. I fastened upon David’s mention of Saffron Hill, [like a seagull suddenly spotting a carelessly waved savaloy dip].

    And betook myself off to the Booth Archive as previously mentioned by some idiot on these very ‘pages’, [that idiot was me, dear readers, so don’t be upset at the term.]

    The results were a bit patchy, not everything has been digitised yet, it lists the class, condition and occupations of the area as one would expect. It’s all a bit.. dry, until it mentions the up-market ‘knocking shop’ on the corner.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    But saffron needs sun and stuff – grows in Portugal and north Africa (as witness a couple of telly programs) – so how could it be grown in London? Unless it was unsuccessful and hence the deterioration.

  5. snowy says:

    Modern high yield varieties might need/benefit from sun, but it is just a crocus and would have grown all over the place, I suspect.

    Saffron Hill was originally part of the estate of the Bishop of Ely, Ely Gardens. Famous for producing strawberries if you believe a certain playwright, [baldy head, goatee, parsimonious attitude to handing out beds], so it should have been possible.

    [If I can be forgiven a rather nerdy aside, intended only for all those people here who may run WordPress blogs.

    A rather nasty bug has been found that lets people take over control and kick the owner out. [It is trivial to scan for blogs that are vulnerable, each page contains the necessary marker.] There is an update available [5.1.1] that fixes it. You may wish to consider applying it as part of normal updates.

    People still running a version [4.9.4] that hasn’t been updated since Feb 06 2018, [no names, no pack drill], should consider themself recipients of a very severe look.]

    *Winds neck back in*

    *Hides under rock*]

  6. admin says:

    Not with you, Mr S. I’m fully updated according to system. Where do I find this additional shield of justice of which you speak?

  7. David Ronaldson says:

    Helen, Saffron Hill is indeed a hill and South-facing (with clear views of the river in its day, I suspect) so would have got plenty of sunshine, in a good year, at least.

  8. Gary Hart says:

    Helen, London is not nearly the most famous English town for Saffron. What about the glorious Saffron Walden in Essex. A mere smidge over 40 miles North of London. Named for the Saffron crocuses that they grew there.

  9. snowy says:

    *Puzzled look*

    Right click – View Page Source

    Line 54 reads – meta name=”generator” content=”WordPress 4.9.4″

    If you look at the bottom RH corner of the Administration screen, in the footer – in slightly greyed out text is Version X.X.X. What does that say?

  10. snowy says:

    Leaving the mundanity of patching CMS aside and getting back to really important stuff like flowers.

    Production of saffron might have moved south just for economic reasons, cost of labour in particular.

    £5 per gram, is a ridiculous price for any Spice!

    *dons stillsuit*

    *goes off to ride about on a giant worm*

  11. Brooke says:

    Thanks, Snowy for wp heads up.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    That lighthouse looks like the one built by John Smeaton for Eddystone Rock, off Plymouth. It was dismantled, and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe, when the Eddystone began to fracture – the replacement tower sits on a coffer dam next to the rock, which still bears a small stump of Smeaton’s tower. The phrase ‘working model’ has always amused me since it’s use in one of Tom Sharpe’s novels, in which a character mentions that he has made a “Working model of Buckingham Palace” out of old matchsticks.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    I always wondered about Saffron Walden. Saffron crocuses are not just any crocus, though, but a particular varietal. Thanks all.
    A local gardening site must have been hit by that virus. It was taken over by someone who has offered to sell it back to the owner for a considerable amount. They have a second site almost up but yes, check your situation.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – most normal types of Crocus are extremely toxic, in some cases, lethally so. I wonder how many flowers were tested until an edible variant was found. And it’s fascinating that only the stamens of the flowers are used as a spice. Who could have thought of that in a million years?

  15. snowy says:

    [Footnote only]

    I think I know what is going on, [a phrase that I get to use so infrequently, it stands creating a public record to mark the occasion].

    [Just to free up memory space, two annotations that will appear to be gibberish.]
    Hosting holdback, Security backports only go back to 4.9.10.

    [Service now resumes, nothing to see here.]

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