10 Bits Of London We Mislaid (And Sometimes Put Back)
Do you ever get the feeling when you walk along a familiar street that something is different and a bit of it has perhaps vanished? I get this feeling all the time, usually because developers have whipped something away behind my back – but the mislaying of bits of London is not a new thing at all. Here are ten…
1. The False Teeth Factory of Anglers Lane
If you needed new gnashers in North London you didn’t have to go very far to find them. Claudius Ash was a silversmith who made false teeth for the rich from precious metals. The alternative was using the teeth of corpses. By 1840 Ash had started to make “mineral teeth”. He expanded to Anglers Lane and set up the largest false-teeth factory in Europe. The building’s still there but we mislaid something else in the vicinity. The Jolly Anglers was a pub on the corner that became a Nando’s (oh joy) and the preponderance of Angling references around there is because the road was, just over a century ago, still a thriving river.
2. The Puppets at the Punch Tavern
The Punch Tavern on Fleet Street wasn’t named for Punch & Judy, surprisingly. Punch, the satirical magazine, was founded in 1841 at the Edinburgh Castle Tavern on the Strand, just nearby, but the entire magazine’s staff began to meet at the Crown and Sugar Loaf, so its name was changed to the Punch Tavern. There’d been a pub on the site since the 17th century, mentioned in Samuel Pepys diaries. It was re-fitted as a gin palace in the late 19th century, and until about six years ago had a great collection of Punch and Judy puppets in it, which all mysteriously vanished during the refit. The mummified cats in Dirty Dick’s have all vanished as well (Health & Safety). Next; watch the famous tiled witches’ mural in the Black Cap disappear now that the pub has been shut!
3. The Statues of Unilever House
Occupying a prime location on the north of the Thames, right next to Blackfriars Bridge (one of Henry VIII’s palaces once stood here), this curved building, designed in a neoclassical Art Deco style, was commissioned in 1920 by Lord Leverhulme and, when completed in 1931, became Unilever’s headquarters. Grade II listed in 1977, it was renovated to create offices. Some original features were retained, but it now looks like a minging shopping mall atrium inside. However, I have a strong memory of statuary around the outside that didn’t make it to the upgrade. Where did it all go? The figures were rather like those on the former City of London School next door, now occupied by JP Morgan, but I can’t find any old photos to prove my case, even online.
4. The Palace Pre-Raphaelites
This may be apocryphal, but someone who worked at the Palace Theatre told me that the pre-Raphaelite paintings adorning the walls of London’s Palace Theatre were removed by Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber ‘for insurance reasons’ and replaced with copies. I can’t image that such a talented and respected impresario would go around nicking paintings and I don’t want to be sued, so I suggest you go there and make up your own minds.
5. John Williams’ plaque
The Ratcliffe Highway murders were committed in 1811. In just under two weeks two families were brutally killed in their homes with a ripping chisel, a crowbar and a knife. In the midst of public unrest, a man called John Williams was circumstantially linked and arrested. He killed himself, which the mob took as proof of guilt, and his body was paraded through the street strapped to a board with the murder instruments. He was dumped into a hole at the crossroads of Cannon Street Road and Back Lane (now Cable Street) and a stake was driven through his heart for good measure. One day I went with a group of friends to find the site, and we discovered that under a railway arch there was a plaque in the road where he was buried. Recently I tried the same exercise and found that not only was the plaque gone, but most of the street had been rebuilt. History had been paved over to provide houses, which was probably the best thing to do.
6. The Intrepid Fox
I worked next door to a 222 year-old pub in Soho named after Britain’s first foreign secretary. When Charles James Fox campaigned for parliament, his mistress drank a yard of ale to win him votes and smashed the glass into its formidable fireplace. It was run by the most humourless Irishman I ever met, and when he left it became a Goth pub. One day I walked past it to find that it had been gutted, despite over 5,000 people backing a campaign to save it. Developers had flogged off the upper floors as flats. The Fox proved Intrepid enough to reappear behind Centrepoint for a few years, but one day that vanished, too. That’s the trouble with pubs; you have to keep an eye on them all the time.
7. Temple Bar
Temple Bar is the only surviving gateway to the City of London. It stood at the junction where the Strand meets Fleet Street for more than 200 years. A bar is first mentioned there in 1293, at which time it was probably no more than a stick between wooden posts. Wren’s version was used to display the heads of traitors on iron spikes above the main arch. Supposedly the Rye House plotters drew so much attention that telescopes were offered for hire to get a better view. In 1878 Temple Bar was removed because it was impeding traffic. Ten years later it caught the eye of Lady Meux, a banjo playing barmaid who had married into a wealthy family of London brewers. Determined to convince Victorian society of her respectability, she decided to rebuild it at her Hertfordshire estate, Theobalds Park. More than 2,500 stones weighing nearly 400 tons were transported from London. In 1976 we noticed it was gone and finally, in 2004 we got it back. The bar guards the entrance to…
8. Paternoster Row
The medieval Paternoster Row was where the clergy of St Paul’s once walked holding their rosary beads and reciting the ‘Paternoster’, or Lord’s Prayer. The row was filled with peddlers of spiritual goods like rosaries and psalters. They relied on the passing trade of pilgrims visiting the old St Paul’s Cathedral. Mercers, stationers and lace-makers joined them until the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed everything. After the fire stationers returned, publishers moved in, and taverns and coffee houses (including the famous Chapter coffee house) sprang up nearby. Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Chatterton and Charlotte Brontë hung with their homies here. The square became the site of Newgate Meat Market until Smithfield opened in 1868. In the winter of 1940, St Paul’s was bombed and the area was destroyed again. This time several million books were lost in one night when the booksellers’ shops came under fire. The bookshop where my dad worked as a kid simply vanished. Paternoster Square is now owned by Mitsubishi, who call it ‘an exciting retail experience’. So, not a windswept concrete plain filled with chain-shops then.
9. The Euston Arch
I’m sorry to go against the grain here but it was a pretty horrible entrance and weirdly out of proportion to the road, a 72 foot high arch of four soot-covered Doric columns, the largest mock-Greek portico in the UK. Its stumps are still there and have two good pubs in them, but there’s now a move to restore the arch. Perhaps it will become an exciting retail experience (see below). The original stonework was buried in the Lea Valley in 1962, so good luck with that one. Speaking of station-items we’ve mislaid, I do miss Sally’s Diner, which was in an authentic railway car where the glam new King’s Cross departure hall is now.
‘Mum, can we go and see Santa at Gamages?’ ‘No dear, they pulled it down in 1972, get in the game.’ I used to go to Gamages in High Holborn every year to see Santa – you’d board a rocket ship or a Mississippi river boat and there his Ho-Ho-Holiness would be. This magnificent department store had been built in 1878 (or at least it began then, with a tiny shop front). By 1911 its catalogue ran to 900 pages. It was replaced by – you guessed it – offices and ‘exciting retail spaces’. Just like the other great department stores – Swan & Edgar, Marshall & Snellgrove, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Derry & Toms and Dickins & Jones. This just leaves Selfridge’s, which has lately undergone a transformation from ‘all-purpose home store’ to ‘overpriced tourist tat parlour’.