Look Up London | Revealing secrets above your eyeline
Revealing secrets above your eyeline. History, art and mind-blowing facts. I post about London's history, art and culture and lead my own independent walking tours around London. These include; The City: Power and Sacrifice Southwark's Saucy Secrets The Spirit of Spitalfields Fleet Street's Secrets West End Wonders Find out more.
Along Northumberland Avenue in Westminster you find the wonderfully picturesque Sherlock Holmes pub.
It’s delightful on the eyes and appears the quintessential Victorian London pub.
But out of sight there’s some hidden history of another Victorian gem. Or at least the remnants of it…
A Lost Turkish Bathhouse
Known as the Charing Cross Turkish Baths, the site was one of nine owned by Henry and James Forder Nevill.
The number is a bit disingenuous as four venues were really two; split between men and women. Today it’s the women’s entrance on Craven Passage (formerly Northumberland Passage) where you can find the only bit of surviving visual evidence.
You have to walk down the passage and look up to admire the details…
The scrap of decoration doesn’t at all do the former baths justice. But thankfully there is a surviving image of the interior, specifically the ground floor cooling room;
Image from Malcolm Shifrin’s Victorian Turkish Baths website
A Glorious Survivor
Happily, a more complete Nevill’s Turkish Bathhouse can be found on the other side of London by Liverpool Street.
This one was finished in the 1890s, also designed by Elphick, and today it’s an event space and bar.
The Sherlock Link
And just in case you thought including the pub was superfluous, there’s actually a fun link with the former bathhouse.
It gets a mention in the Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The Illustrious Client“, Dr Watson narrates;
“Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath … On the upper floor of the Northumberland Avenue establishment there is an isolated corner where two couches lie side by side, and it was on these that we lay upon September 3, 1902, the day when my narrative begins.”
The baths closed in 1948 and sadly, a peek through an open door while the site is being renovated reveal no saved interior decor. There’s a sign for a new business on the door but there’s not much information about it.
However do look up and admire what’s left on the outside, possibly while having a refreshment in the nearby drinking establishment!
Along North Audley Street, look down. I know I’m usually about looking up, but recently I spotted these interesting roundels in Mayfair and I wanted to find out a little more about them.
Commissioned by the Grosvenor Estate, these pavement roundels are a throwback to the businesses that used to flourish along North Audley Street.
It was tricky to find out any further information about them, but I gather they appeared recently as the proposal to install them appear on the Grosvenor Estate website and were dated from 2011-2012. The website that appears on the roundels also seems to draw a blank.
Originally North Audley Street was built as housing in the 1720s, however by the 1790s most of the occupants were tradesmen. These included greengrocers, a butcher, a baker, a saddler, a carpenter and a coal dealer among others.
It’s these plaques that make up the bulk of the roundels;
A watchmaker and a baker,
A tailor and a musician,
A doctor and a dressmaker,
And a butcher and carriage maker.
But not all the plaques are for now-lost shops or trades.
The first one that caught my eye seems to be the only one with a contemporary counterpart – The Marlborough Head Pub.
Judging by the picture on the front of the pub (below) it appears to be named after the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill (1650-1722) and despite this building dating from 1892, the pub was first licensed in 1758.
John Churchill was a soldier and went on to become First Lord of Treasury (basically the Prime Minister) and married Sarah Jennings who has recently been played by Rachel Weisz in film ‘The Favourite’ (2018). The son of the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Ivor Churchill lived at 12 North Audley Street in 1921.
Until 1894 North Audley Street used to boast four pubs, however the 1st Duke of Westminster’s anti-drink campaign meant only The Marlborough Head survives. Hugh Grosvenor was the 1st Duke of Westminster, the title being created and awarded in 1874. Today the Grosvenor family own huge sections of Mayfair, including North Audley Street.
One of the lost pubs; Vernons Head (1816-1882) is remembered in a plaque.
Just to come full circle, North Audley Street gets its name from Hugh Audley, a moneylender who amassed a great fortune and bought Ebury Manor, today the area around North Audley Street. The property was left to his great-grandniece Mary Davies who married – you guessed it – Hugh Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster.
I’d like to know a little more about the individual shops so will update anything else here. However it was nice to spot the individual designs of the plaques and think of a time when the street would’ve been bustling with a variety of trades.
They reminded me of another set of historic plaques in Spitalfields, so if you’d like to read that blog, simply click on the picture below.
I wrote about some of my favourite weird London street names about two years ago. (You can read the post here). But, as ever, London is the city which keeps on giving and there’s a few more brilliant strange names to celebrate…
1. Pardon Street, EC1V
Can you think of anything more fabulously English than ‘Pardon Street’? I had high hopes of a fun story about a history of over politeness from this corner of Clerkenwell. Sadly, it’s named after Pardon Chapel, founded in the wake of the Black Death in 1348.
Burial grounds for plague victims were built around the chapel but the name comes from the mass held to ‘pardon’ the souls who had died before receiving the last rites. So actually, pretty horrible!
2. Lizard Street, EC1V
For a while I considered that this Islington Street could be named after a nest of monstrous green reptiles. However I was fully expecting that it was named after someone’s surname. I was wrong.
It is named after the animal. The land is own by the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, whose earliest records date back to 1300. The link comes from the lizards used as supporters on their coat of arms.
But why does the ironmongers company use lizards on their coat of arms? Well, lizards sometimes thought of as being born from fire. Usually because they hide inside logs and when you set them alight they dash out!
3. Took’s Court, EC4A
Have to admit that this name caught my eye simply because in my head as I saw it, I heard Ian Mckellen as Gandalf saying “Fool of a Took”. Turns out this street off Chancery Lane is named after Thomas Tooke of London Esquyre.
There’s a Charles Dickens connection with number 15. It was renamed Cook’s Court in Bleak House and was the home by Mr Snagsby. It’s also believed that Dickens himself lived here while working as a parliamentary reporter.
4. Tweezer’s Alley, WC2
Just off the Strand, Tweezer’s Alley has been on maps since the late 1600s however an earlier reference in the City of London archives mentions the City paying for a forge here in 1235.
Presumably the name therefore comes from the heavy duty tweezers used by blacksmiths to hold items in the fire.
5. (Formerly) Of Alley, WC2
Before Charing Cross Station appeared on the site, this area was owned by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. A favourite of King James I, he was made a Duke in 1623 but then was assassinated in 1628, leaving his title to his son. Also, conveniently, named George Villiers.
The second Duke sold off the land in 1670 but made a strange agreement with the developers. If they were going to lay out streets, they should name them after him. As so the streets duly became; George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street and even Of Alley!
Above is the relevant section of John Rocque’s 1746 map of London
The name was changed to York Place in 1855, but thankfully there’s a reminder of its previous name on the sign today.
6. Turnagain Lane, EC4A
Off Farringdon Road, you’ll want to take a second look at this name.
The name refers to the River Fleet which used to run along this street from North to South, emptying into the Thames. The street was a warning to those wishing to cross that there was no bridge here, so they’d better turn back now!
7. Sherborne Lane, EC4N
On the face of it, there’s nothing that unusual about this street name.
But I wanted to include it purely because of its previous Medieval name; Shiteburne Lane, referring to the public lavatories that used to line the street!
On that note, I think I’ll end the post there! Got any other weird street names you’re curious about? Let me know!
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Walking through Liverpool Street Station, you’d be hard pushed to imagine a Medieval asylum, a Masonic Temple and a house that survived the Great Fire all occupying this site.
But its secret history is there. You just have to know where to look!
Entering Liverpool Street Station from Liverpool Street, you pass a small City of London blue plaque.
It informs you that this was the site of the first Bethlehem Hospital (1247-1676)
Founded in 1247, originally it was a priory to collect money for the crusades. It was established by Goffredo de Prefetti, the Bishop-elect of Bethleham. A City which had been conquered by Catholic forces in 1099.
When the Christians lost Bethelem in 1244, the priory became a ‘hospital’ which at the time just meant somewhere that the poor and needy could be cared for. Over time it became more and more secular and by 1547 it was under the control of the City.
It’s hard to say what led the hospital to start specialising in mental health, but in 1403 The History of Bedlam says that the visiting Charity Commissioners recorded six inmates who were ‘mente capti’ meaning mentally ill. It was later described by William Gregory, London’s Lord Mayor in 1415, as “An abode for those that have fallen out of wit”.
From the 14th century the hospital was commonly referred to as ‘Bedlam’ and today, that’s short-hand for confusion and up-roar.
In 1674 the management noted that Bethlehem Hospital was “very olde, weake & ruinous”. The decision was made to rebuild the hospital in Moorfields. In 1814 it moved to Southwark (the site of the current Imperial War Museum) and today the hospital is in Beckenham where there’s also a museum where you can learn more about the history.
A 17thC Mansion
Bishopsgate, the road where an entrance to Liverpool Street Station stands today, was a very important historic thoroughfare.
But if you were to walk along it in 1599 you may have seen the construction of a majestic house for a wealthy merchant named Paul Pindar.
Knighted by James I in 1620, Pindar settled himself in his Bishopsgate home in 1623 after serving as a diplomat abroad. Although he was wealthy enough to be lend money to Charles I and pledge £10,000 to the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Civil War of the 1640s meant Pindar had huge debts at his death in 1650.
Sadly the property was demolished in 1890 to make way for the expansion of Liverpool Street Station, but that’s not where the story (or visual clues!) end.
A painting from 1620 (which you can see above the bar of Lady Abercorn’s Pub on Bishopsgate) shows Paul Pindar’s house.
Pindar’s house is the second from the right, with dark brown bay windows jutting out into the street.
There’s also a street named after him around the back of Liverpool Street Station.
But most impressive of all is the survival of one bay of his three-storey home. Happily, you can visit this for free at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington!
Ever on the look out for quirky museums and sites to visit, when I saw that King’s Observatory was opening to visitors for the first time I was delighted to bag a ticket for the tours.
Before I saw the tours advertised I’d never even heard of the King’s Observatory. It turns out, I had good reason. It’s a private home owned by Robbie Brothers, a developer with a special interest in restoring historic properties.
History of The King’s Observatory
Richmond has long been an attractive spot for English Kings, with plenty of rolling greenery and the prospect of great deer hunting. The King’s Observatory sits within the Old Deer Park, a 360-acre green space set out in 1604 under King James I.
He’s not the King that gives his name to the observatory though, that falls to King George III. As a keen astronomer, George wanted to observe the transit of Venus and so – because he’s the King – ordered a bespoke observatory to be built.
King George III (ruled 1760-1820)
His wife Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and their children
The Transit of Venus
King George was an astronomy fan, but was particularly excited to see the transit of Venus across the Sun, something only repeated every 105 and 121 years. By viewing and measuring the passage of Venus, 18th Century Scientists hoped to calculate the size of the solar system and estimate of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
As well as across Europe, the transit was observed by James Cook in South Pacific. It was the space-race of the 1700s and everyone was excited.
The telescope (not the original) is housed in the Cupola, the round space at the top of the house. It’s the oldest of its type in the World and the crank mechanism still works, revolving the ceiling to allow for better alignment.
After the excitement of the Transit of Venus, the King’s Observatory became a centre for instrument making. Equipment made here was stamped with ‘K.O.’ to indicate it met the high standards of the profession.
From 1840 it passed out fo royal hands and was used as a meteorological office in the early 20th century, as well as a convenient place to study sun spots.
In 1981 the land and house was handed back to the Crown Estate and was leased as a commercial office, bizarrely used as the head office of Autoglass until 2011! In 2014 permission was granted to changed the building’s use from commercial to residential.
Exploring the House
King George chose Sir William Chambers as the architect. One of the most famous architects of his time, he followed the Palladian style and his most famous work is probably Somerset House.
Firstly, I had a new appreciation of how hard it must be, finding furniture which suits octagonal rooms.
But an intriguing element to the house today is its cultural fusion.
Robbie Brother lives in Hong Kong and so the walls which would’ve originally held astronomical instruments now hold Tang and Ming dynasty sculpture from his own collection.
And in another room the walls are covered in silk paintings.
We were told it took 10 artists one year to create these delicate artworks in 2008.
How to Visit
Unfortunately King’s Observatory isn’t currently open to the public, however if you’d like to register your interest to be the first to hear about future tours, you can sign up here.
As you leave Southwark Station, diagonally opposite is a lamppost. So far so normal. But look up and you’ll spot a peculiar sculpture on top; a dog licking a bowl.
If you’re feeling confused then thankfully there’s some nearby plaques to help explain what it’s all about…
The Charles Dickens Connection
As a 12 year old boy Charles Dickens would walk past this to work (yep, that’s the Victorians for you). Later, in his autobiography, he reminisced about his commute.
“My usual way home was over Blackfriars Bridge and down that turning on Blackfriars Road, which has Rowland Hill’s Chapel on one side and the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot above a shop door on the other”.
Of course, Blackfriars Road looked very different in the 19th century and the dog and bowl that Dickens saw was actually a shop sign hanging outside an ironmongers.
The ironmongery shop had the sign of the dog and bowl from the early 19th century. Ironmongers would usually sell metal pots as well as ‘fire dogs’ which support wood in household fireplaces.
The original sign lasted in this location right up until the shop was badly damaged in The Blitz.
Also nearby, you can find a coal hole which is a reminder of one of the owners of the shop; J.W. Cunningham & Co. They used the ‘dog licking a bowl’ as their emblem, which decorated many a Victorian coal hole. This, sadly, is also a replica. Though a convincing one!
Not the original
Again, the sculpture isn’t the original. It was unveiled in 2013 to mark 200 years since Charles Dickens’ birth (7 February 1812) and the sculpture was created by Michael Painter.
The original sculpture was in the care of Southwark’s Cuming Museum, in Walworth Town Hall. But this suffered a huge fire on 25 March 2013. The museum no longer has a physical home you can visit and I haven’t been able to find the sculpture in their listed online collection.
So despite not knowing the current whereabouts of the original, you can still look up and admire this bit of history next time you’re by Southwark Tube Station. You can even get in touch with the sculpture directly; it has its own twitter account!
There are thousands of statues in the capital. The majority are pretty dull. Long forgotten war heroes or monarchs we vaguely remember. However there’s a handful of seriously odd ones, this is my collection of London’s strangest statues.
‘Taxi!’, Victoria Embankment
‘Taxi!’ by Seward Johnson Jr (1983) can be found on John Carpenter Street, Victoria Embankment and if you stand there long enough you’re bound to see someone walk into him (or a black cab pull over to pick up a fare!)
It’s one of 6 casts made by the American Artist and heir to Johnson & Johnson, a curious coincidence then that it stands a stone’s throw from the HQ of their biggest competitors at Unilever House.
The Plinth, Cavendish Square
You’ve probably seen the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, but London has a second empty plinth.
It used to house a 1770 equestrian statue of William, Duke of Cumberland. He was known as the ‘butcher of Culloden’ after his brutal response during the Battle of Culloden (1746). The fight was between Jacobites; those in favour of restoring the Stuart monarchy, and government troops led by the Duke.
1,500 men were slaughtered in less than an hour, more than 1,000 of them Jacobites. The Duke also ordered his soldiers to charge down fleeing highlanders. Classy.
So by 1868 the statue was dilapidated, unloved and eventually removed and never replaced.
William Gladstone, Bow Road
At the end of Bow Road in East London stands a statue of former Prime Minister William Gladstone, but take a closer look to spot his red hands.
Legend has it that during the 1888 Bryant and May match factory strike, women (who had walked out over dangerous and unfair working conditions) smeared their own blood on Gladstone’s hands as a protest to his indifference.
Today it’s regularly replenished with rust-coloured paint which – unless anyone wants to own up to the guerrilla art – is one of London’s mysteries.
The Window Cleaner, Edgware Road
Another example that you should always look up! This is The Window Cleaner by Allan Sly, installed 1990.
The anonymous window cleaner approaches a building, looking up in exasperation at the size of the skyscraper in front of him (especially when we consider he’s only equipped with a small ladder!)
Peter the Great, Deptford
Sometimes, a statue really makes you stop and take a second look…
On Glaisher Street in Deptford you’ll find a memorial to 1698, when Tsar Peter the Great lived in London for 3 months to learn shipbuilding.
He rented John Evelyn’s House in nearby Sayes Court as an attempt to stay incognito, but a 6 ft 7″ flamboyant and heavily accented Russian was never going to stay a secret for long.
The pretext of his trip a Western Europe tour to learn techniques to bring back to Russia’s feudal system, but – as a heavy drinker – he seemed more concerned with drinking and debauchery.
Evelyn must’ve regretted allowing Peter to rent his home. The carpets were soiled, 50 chairs were destroyed and the paintings were used for target practise. To cap it all off, Evelyn’s prized holly bush was rammed through by a wheelbarrow, apparently with the drunken Tsar sitting inside! All in all, Peter’s entourage inflicted £350 of damage, paid out eventually by Christopher Wren on behalf of the Treasury. So basically every AirBnB host’s worst nightmare.
The sculpture was unveiled in June 2001 by Prince Michael of Kent and according to the inscription is near the Royal Shipyard where Peter studied.
Agatha Christie Memorial, Leicester Square
Not sure whether you can call this a sculpture or a statue, but in any case it’s pretty unique.
On 18 November 1952 Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap had its official opening performance at The Abassadors Theatre, London. This sculpture by Ben Twiston Davies was installed in 2012 to celebrate the 60th Anniversary.
Christie fans will be able to spot little clues to a lot of her stories. My favourite? The mousetrap at the top!
My Children, Chelsea
This pair of playing children can be found in Duke of York’s Square, Chelsea and is by Alister Bowtell, unveiled 2002.
They represent the Royal Military Asylum which took in army children. The RMA was first established on this spot and still exists as a school today but in Dover, Kent.
For reasons I’m not aware, the young girl has recently been removed. I hope she returns and if anyone knows anymore info, please share in the comments!
Jonesy, Across London
I couldn’t not mention one of my favourite elusive street artists; Jonesy.
A bit of an eco-warrior, Jonesy’s work often has an environmental theme and his tiny works are a joy to spot in East London. He works (or at least has connections) with a bell foundry – which explains the access to cast bronze.
Monument to An Unknown Artist, Bankside
A 2007 project by the artist collective, Greyworld, this animatronic sculpture moves to recreate the pose of passersby.
Although it didn’t seem to work the last time I was walking past, it’s a bizarre feeling when you see a seemingly bronze, lifeless sculpture move suddenly out of the blue!
Find London’s Strangest Statues
Click on the map below to see the location of London’s strangest church steeples;
And if you have any other suggestions, let me know in the comments below!
Walking over London Bridge, I’ll always take in the views of Tower Bridge and The Shard. However, what really catches my eye is the dirty gold letters exclaiming HAY’S WHARF.
I never seemed to have my zoom lens on hand when I was passing. But finally, last week I managed to find some time to take some photos and – as ever with London – there’s interesting history behind the details.
History of Hay’s Wharf
First up, the name is from a Mr Alexander Hay who purchased the land in the mid 1600s. He started with granaries, providing grain to the local Southwark breweries before becoming a brewer himself. Later he started renting out his warehouse spaces, earning a tidy profit from the amount of product flowing in and out of the City of London trading port.
When the Pool of London (roughly between London bridge and Tower Bridge) became too overcrowded with ships, storage moved to downstream to the purpose-built docks of today’s Canary Wharf.
Not one to miss the boat on an money-making opportunity (sorry). The new Mr Hay (Theodore) became a pioneer of Lighterage at the end of the 18th Century. A system which used smaller boats to transport precious cargo from the docks into Central London.
In 1838 Theodore Hay passed away, leaving the business to John Humphery Jr. He commissioned new warehouse buildings in 1856 where today you will find Hay’s Galleria (pictured below).
Sadly, the original was destroyed in the Tooley Street fire of 1861. But the company rebuilt and grew ever more wealthy, becoming the largest importers of tea in the Port of London.
Fast forward to the 1920s and they were looking to build a new company HQ.
Hay’s Wharf, London Bridge
On the site of St Olave’s church (I’ll come back to that…) a new headquarters was built 1928-1932. A rare example of Art Deco in Southwark and a beautiful one at that.
Designed by H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, the river facade has panels by Frank Dobson called ‘Capital, Labour and Commerce’.
They depict the frenetic scenes of dock life, with stylised burly men loading and unloading heavy goods.
While below are depictions of the luxury goods traded in the City.
Today the building is known as Olaf House, named after the church of St Olave, Southwark. Despite a long history (it was even mentioned in the Domesday Book!) the church was no longer in use in the 1920s and was demolished in 1926.
Olaf House contains the consulting rooms and Cardiology department of London bridge Hospital. The change came as the docking industry was moving to Tilbury with containerisation and the Chairman of Hay’s Wharf saw that the building would be better suited as office space.
The odd name has an even more surprising back story. It comes from St Olaf (sometimes spelled Olave) who was an 11th century Norwegian King (1015-1028) and an ally of the English King Æthelred the Unready.
He was a popular English saint with no less than 5 City of London churches dedicated to him, probably because he helped us when the Danes kept invading. In fact, one instance of this is often given as the reason behind the ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ nursery rhyme; In 1014 Danish invaders besieged an early London Bridge so Olaf instructed his long boats to wrap ropes around the supporting piers and drag it down.
But I digress.
There’s even more ’round the back!
Along with the depiction of Olaf himself, from Tooley Street, the views of Olaf House are equally striking.
It’s worth going to admire the splendid Art Deco shapes of the staircase and car park ceiling!
Have you ever wondered about the building, or maybe you know the hospital? Let me know in the comments!
Temple Tube Station has a special place in my heart. Not only was it the starting point for my first ever walking tour (Fleet Street Secrets, find out more here!) But it has a lovely little reward for those that look closely.
On the right hand side of the entrance you can admire this heritage tube map from 1932.
The Heritage Map
The first thing you notice is that it’s nothing like the iconic London Underground map.
This one has the lines overlaid on a geographically accurate map, one of the last to use this technique. Less than a year after this one was published, Harry Beck would unveil his new game-changing design that’s still used today.
But there are more anomalies.
The detail below shows a couple of now-lost tube stations.
Strand was absorbed into Charing Cross (a confusing little episode of history explained in a separate blog post here). Aldwych is another Ghost Station which no longer serves commuters, however it is used frequently for filming and you can buy tickets for tours inside. Have a look from a trip I made in 2018 here.
And there’s more.
Looking at the picture below you’ll spot another two odd names. Firstly Aldersgate, originally this opened as Aldersgate Street in 1865, before becoming Aldersgate & Barbican in 1924 then finally Barbican in 1968.
The other is Post Office, the previous name for today’s St Paul’s Station, given because the General Post Office HQ was nearby.
Further East, shown in the picture below, there’s another strange name; St Mary’s.
St Mary’s opened in 1884 and was named after the huge white church that stood on Whitechapel Road.*
In 1938 Aldgate East station was moved further East, making St Mary’s redundant. It probably didn’t help that both the church and the station were badly damaged during the Blitz.
*Incidentally this was the ‘white chapel’ that gave the area its name. The first church recorded on this site was here 1250-1286 but rebuilt in 1340. Although it survived the Great Fire in 1666 it was rebuilt in 1673 and again in 1875.
So next time you’re by Temple Tube Station have a little look at this map. Any other geeky tune finds? Let me know in the comments!
For centuries the skyline of London was navigable by the steeples of its churches. Rising heavenwards, these architectural delights are as eclectic as ever. You just need to look (up) a little closer!
1. St Bride’s, Fleet Street
Still known as the Journalist’s Church because of it’s place on Fleet Street, the former hub of printing industry and known as the ‘Street of Ink’. The Wren church of St Bride’s was rebuilt after the 1666 Great Fire of London and dates from 1675.
The steeple was added later in 1703m at the time the tallest in London after St Paul’s Cathedral and has a bit of a romantic story attached to it, all down to its ‘wedding cake’ shaped spire.
The pastry chef Thomas Rich – while contemplating his upcoming marriage – designed a multi-tiered cake on the St Brides steeple. Until his death in 1811 he made a small fortune peddling cakes under its design!
2. St Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street
A stone’s throw from St Bride’s along Fleet Street is St Dunstan-in-the-West, rebuilt in 1831 after miraculously surviving the Great Fire of London. Luck had run out by the 1940s however and the steeple didn’t survive The Blitz, it was rebuilt in 1950 thanks to newspaper magnate Viscount Camrose.
I wanted to include this church not for any particularly strange historic story but purely on its architectural merit. The architect was John Shaw Jr who is described as designed in the ‘manner’ of Christopher Wren (what a compliment!) And I think his elegant tower on Fleet Street is often overlooked.
3. St Luke’s, Old Street
No longer a church, St Luke’s is now a music centre and home to the London Symphony Orchestra’s community and education programme.
It’s sort of fitting therefore to have the most bizarre architectural addition; a huge obelisk instead of a steeple.
The church was designed by John James but several parts (including the odd steeple) were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1727-1773. Hawksmoor had a bit of an obsession with ancient shapes; there’s a peculiar pyramid to be found in the churchyard of St Anne’s, Limehouse. Find out more from the church’s website here.
4. Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road
This elegant spire (completed in 1876) cuts a lovely shape outside Lambeth North Station.
But look closely at the steeple and you’ll see the unmistakable design of stars and red stripes…
The American connections are deliberate and its official name is the Lincoln Memorial Tower, a reference to the US President Abraham Lincoln. The link comes from Christopher Newman Hall, who was a firm and vocal supporter of Lincoln and the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War. Hall was the pastor of Surrey Chapel, a nearby methodist chapel that moved to this site.
The Lincoln Memorial Tower is now the only part of the church that survives, the rest was destroyed during an air raid in The Second World War and the tower is now deconsecrated and used as office space.
5. St George’s, Bloomsbury
I’ve written a full post on this steeple here but this is probably the most visually striking one on the list.
Originally built 1730 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the current sculptures were replaced by Tim Crawley in 2006. King George I looks across London from the top of a pyramid (I did say Hawksmoor loved a pyramid!) while below a lion and unicorn – symbolising England and Scotland – chase around the base.
6. St Mark’s, North Audley Street
Another architectural oddity on the list is the former St Mark’s in Mayfair. It’s owned by the Grosvenor Estate who are currently undertaking a £5million restoration project to repair and restore the church building but changing the function to a retail and hospitality space.
Designed by John Peter Gandy in the Greek Revival Style, it was completed in 1828 and despite the boxy little tower contrasting with the elegant ionic columns, I thought the design was saved by the tracery on the top, allowing light to shine through little circular holes.
7. Saints Mary and Joseph, Poplar
From afar the short and simple steeple of this Poplar church doesn’t seem too unusual.
But once you’re close, look up and you see the bizarre incongruity of the scale of steeple versus church. Like an undersized party hat on the world’s strongest man.
SS Mary and Joseph’s foundation stone was laid in 1951 after the former Catholic church was destroyed by bomb damage during the Second World War. It was part of the architectural project of the Festival of Britain, celebrated in the same year, designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (brother of Giles Gilbert Scott who designed the iconic red telephone box).
Including the steeple the church stands at 140ft and prior to the arrival of Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers could be easily seen from Greenwich Park.
8. St Antholin’s, Forest Hill
Just like the Lincoln Memorial Tower, having an attached church doesn’t make you any less of an interesting steeple. Although this is a pretty extreme example.
Image from wiki commons and publicly available.
This is a Christopher Wren steeple, designed for St Antholin’s on Budge Row in the City of London in 1682.
The spire, although appreciated for its architectural design and history, was removed from its church body in 1829. This was either because it was too heavy or because it was damaged by lightening. Thankfully the top section was purchased by Robert Harrild, who moved it to his manor house in Sydenham. Though his house hasn’t survived, the steeple does and is surrounded by a 1960s housing estate.
9. St Pancras New Church
Construction for St Pancras New Church started in 1819, under the designs of William Inwood and his son while Isaac Seabrook was the builder. The foundation stone was carved with the following phrase; “May the light of the blessed Gospel thus ever illuminate the dark temples of the Heathen.”
With that phrase in mind it’s a little surprising that the steeple seems very influenced by ‘heathen’ Ancient Greek architecture. Its round stacked temples look like textbook Roman shrines. Then to top it all off you get the wonderful caryatids (women-as-columns) which are a direct influenced from a 5th Century BC Greek temple for the mythological figure King Erichthonius.
Find London’s Strangest Church Steeple’s
Click on the map below to see the location of London’s strangest church steeples;