It’s a great mistake to build a palace that rivals that of the monarch. Take Cardinal Wolseley who commissioned Hampton Court Palace only to have Henry VIII decide it was way too good for his top adviser and took it over. The same dangerous error was made by the Lord Protector Somerset – who built a previous version of what we know today as Somerset House on the Strand.
Somerset was the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour – who died after giving birth to Henry’s successor, Edward VI. He became king as a child and Somerset had to exercise effective power – hence his title of Protector. Enjoying his new role, the boy’s uncle decided to construct a massive home for himself between London and Westminster.
The only problem was the presence of other people’s homes – like the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. The solution was easy. Demolish the residences and use the masonry for his new palace.
He also knocked down the nearby church of St Mary’s for more materials. And then Somerset’s men tore down a chapel in St Paul’s churchyard; robbed more stone from the church of St John of Jerusalem near Smithfield and then wrecked the Strand Inn near the Temple.
All of this wasn’t enough. His lordship’s new Somerset House needed to be huge and impressive. So, the ambitious noble ordered his masons to start tearing bits off St Margaret’s church in Westminster – a much loved place of worship. And that’s what finally got to Londoners.
They formed the Tudor equivalent of a human chain around St Margaret’s and drove off Somerset’s masons. This didn’t help Somerset’s popularity and his star began to wane. Building stopped on Somerset House and the man himself was eventually dragged to the scaffold to have his head chopped off.
If you stand in front of St Paul’s cathedral and look to your left, towards Paternoster Square, you’ll see a stone arch with windows and well-worn statues. This is Temple Bar. Hard to believe now, but there were once human heads on poles adorning the top of it.
The structure was built in 1670 by Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect who gave us St Paul’s Cathedral and many smaller churches. He set about rebuilding London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, a vast inferno that consumed much of the ancient city.
This terrible event had one upside. It gave Wren the opportunity to design a new and more ordered metropolis. However, poor Wren’s hopes of creating piazzas and wide streets was confounded at every turn by stubborn Londoners and their wish to keep the medieval winding thoroughfares and dark alleys.
So, why did Wren build Temple Bar? The stone gate replaced wooden posts and chains that separated the City of London from the City of Westminster. It was originally positioned across the road in front of what’s now the Royal Courts of Justice. On one side was Fleet Street in the City and on the other was The Strand leading to Whitehall and the centre of royal government.
Everybody entering the City had to pass under the Temple Bar. It wasn’t entirely popular. For one thing, it held up traffic. The archway soon became way too narrow for the mass of carts, horses, carriage and people trying to cram through and do business. It also had four poorly crafted statues of James I, Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II that were described in very unflattering terms by one Victorian writer as “mean” with “small feeble heads”. They’re not the greatest works of art it must be said.
The man who carved these mediocre works of art was called John Bushnell. By all accounts, he was somewhere between eccentric and insane. One scheme he devised was to prove that the Greeks could have invaded Troy by building his own Trojan Horse out of timber and covering it in stucco. He spent £500 of his own money (a vast sum then) on this project creating a horse’s head that could hold a dining table to seat twelve people. The whole thing fell to pieces during a storm.
There is a room along the top portion of Temple Bar that was used as a storage room for Child’s bank. On the very top of Temple Bar, the heads of traitors once stared down on passers-by. This was meant to be an object lesson for 17th and 18th century Londoners not to rebel against their anointed kings and queens.
The first head to appear on Temple Bar was Sir Thomas Armstrong involved in the so-called Rye House Plot. Next came Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend who planned to assassinate King William III as he returned from hunting in Richmond – intercepting his coach between Brentford and Turnham Green. They were hanged at Tyburn despite pleading their innocence – and their heads removed for public display.
In a ghoulish twist, typical of London, there were enterprising people in 1746 who were reportedly hiring out looking glasses at Temple Bar so that passers-by could take a closer look at the severed heads. It cost a halfpenny apparently. In 1766, a man was arrested for firing musket balls at the heads – which he then confessed to having done for three nights running.
In 1772, one of the heads blew down during a storm. Incredibly, the blackened object had been on top of Templar Bar since 1723 – nearly fifty years! A chap called John Pearce took it to a local tavern where it was then buried under the floor. Must have been an amusing subject of conversation beforehand!
You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact. So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:
Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead. This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.
A workhouse – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery. If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!
Gordon of Khartoum – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule. Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.
St Martin’s in the Fields – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!
“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians. I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.
If you’ve ever been to Wong kei in London’s Chinatown, you may have experienced the joy of being shouted at by the waiters – it had the reputation for years of being the rudest restaurant in London. I understand that as of last year, they’ve refurbished the place and decided to tone down the bad attitude – even though many punters paid to be treated badly. It was all part of the fun.
But what has often caught my eye on going into Wong kei – and I haven’t dined there for at least ten years – are the plaques on either side of the main door. One commemorates Sarah Bernhardt laying the foundation stone of the building in 1904. And who, you might ask, was she?
Sarah was the leading actress in the late Victorian period. Born in Paris of a Dutch prostitute and unknown father, she briefly trained to be a nun before taking up acting. She was very aware of her public image and projected herself as mystical and unknowable. This extended to having some very odd pets including a boa constrictor and an alligator fed on milk and champagne (it died). When I first came across her story what struck me was the choice of resting place at night – Sara slept in a coffin, which she took with her on tour. When the great actress died, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to bid her adieu.
The other plaque is to another legend of the same period, Sir Henry Irving. He laid the coping stone in 1905. Irving was both an actor and theatre manager – a very hands-on member of the acting fraternity. He had a close association with the Lyceum Theatre, near the Strand, which today has been hosting the Lion King for what seems like an eternity. Irving found a sound financial manger for the Lyceum in the form of a Dubliner called Bram Stoker. Yes – THAT Bram Stoker! The creator of Dracula.
I’m not going into all the detail here but there’s a debate that has raged for a hundred years over whether Irving was the model for Dracula. The theory tends to emphasise a history of conflict between the two men with Stoker seething with hatred for the overbearing and evil Irving. The truth doesn’t quite bear that out – though they seem to have had stormy episodes, they co-operated for decades in running the Lyceum.
So why are these two plaques outside Wong kei? Well, the building originally opened as a theatrical costume shop in the heart of London’s bohemian Soho. Little could Bernhardt and Irving have known that the thespians would one day give way to scoffers of crispy duck noodles.
Hard to believe now but the Strand was once dominated by a vast and luxurious hotel called the Hotel Cecil.
With 800 rooms and riverside views, it became a centre of the “flapper” scene in the 1920s or the Jazz Age if you prefer. But the hotel had been built by a fraudulent company called the Liberator Society, led by Liberal Party politician Jabez Balfour (MP for Tamworth and later Burnley).
Balfour was a wheeler-dealer in the property market who played fast and loose with investors’ money. He eventually did a prison stretch having been arrested in Argentina, where he’d done a bunk.
Thousands of investors detested the very sight of the Hotel Cecil as it had been built with their savings frittered away illegally. so I doubt any survivors wept when the huge complex was swept away by the oil giant Shell in 1930.
It replaced the great Victorian edifice with Shell Mex house, a great hulk of an art deco statement that still graces the riverside today.
An 1890s guide to London I own describes the building in very scornful terms:
It was one of the outcomes of the notorious Liberator Society, whose shameful transactions led to the ruin of thousands of poor investors and for which the promotors have been justly punished.
Far from being impressed by Balfour’s sprawling hotel, the guide angrily notes that two venerable streets were swallowed up by the Hotel Cecil: Cecil Street and Salisbury Street. The name “Cecil” refers to the great aristocratic family who advised Tudor and Stuart monarchs.
Most famously, Sir William Cecil (Lord Burleigh) who had a house on the Strand – on the other side of the road from the hotel. There is still a Burleigh Street that roughly marks the spot, a pretty inconspicuous thoroughfare with a Barclays bank and the back end of the Lyceum Theatre on it.
As The Strand is renovated and is starting to recover its past glories – I can’t help feeling a renovated Hotel Cecil would have been hugely popular today. Ah well.