9 Historic London Details To Look Out For
It’s been a few years now since I’ve been wandering around London, looking up with an eye to spotting historic clues. Over this time I’ve noticed the same kind of details crop up over the city and wanted to share a few things you might have seen around town.
A bit geeky? Sure.
Worth looking out for? Definitely.
1. Street Lamps
Gas lights were introduced on London’s streets around the late 19th Century, allowing illuminated walkways on previously dark thoroughfares.
But you might be surprised to learn that there’s almost 1,500 functioning gas lamps across London, including around 400 that are manually turned on by British Gas employees!
The first electric lights in London were along the embankment and designed with an unusual ‘dolphin’ motif by George Vulliamy.
Built in 1878, the area is still referred to as Dolphin Zone despite the creatures resembling the sturgeon fish.
But there’s also plenty of eclectic lampposts which are worth having a closer look at…
The left image in Chelsea is the memorial lamppost to Bazalgette’s embankment (construction starting in 1862) with two little boys clambering around the post.
On the right is a jazzy feature from the Strand; first erected in 1902 (restored in 1997) these celebrate St Martin as a Roman officer, offering his cloak to a beggar. One contemporary critic wasn’t a fan, declaring that;
Nothing more hideous in its abject tastelessness has ever been inflicted upon long-suffering Londoners.
Moving on, but staying on a religious theme…
2. Church Boundary Markers
You can usually spot these cryptic plaques in corners and alleys in The City. They seem random, but all becomes clear when you decipher the code…
They’re initials of nearby churches, ie these two on Surrey Street are for St Mary Le Strand (left) and St Clement Danes.
They’re there to indicate the boundaries of the Church parish and therefore which houses belonged to which congregation.
Sometimes they’re reapplied to modern buildings, like the two on the right below.
Or they can refer to churches that are no longer around, making it harder to guess. For example the one on the left is just off Fleet Street so I’d guess ‘St Bride’s Parish’?
3. Hidden Vents
The Victorians were a clever bunch when it came to town planning. Their contribution of sewers and the underground has only had to be updated relatively recently. But there are signs above ground too.
London is full of hidden ventilation systems. Sometimes they’re subtle Victorian ones like this;
Can you see the decorative grate which allows air up from under ground?
In other cases these are hiding in plain sight, like this vent outside Pimlico Station designed by Eduardo Paolozzi;
Or these angel wings disguising an electricity substation by Thomas Heatherwick;
But back to something smaller…
4. Guild Symbols
Medieval London’s industry was organised by Trade Guilds. These organisations controlled the training of new recruits, standards and prices of their respective products.
There are 12 major Worshipful Companies, guilds which are the oldest and largest, like the Mercers, Goldsmiths and Tailors. These wealthy groups owned lots of property and you can still spot their insignia on buildings they own.
Below is the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects at London Wall (left) and the flag for the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. As you can probably guess this is a more recent one, founded in 1980.
But the symbol to really look out for is the Mercer’s Maiden.
The Mercers’ sit on the top spot of guilds, the largest and wealthiest of them all. With a 700-year history they own a lot of land, mainly in The City and Covent Garden. Read more about the Mercers’ in a blog all about their maiden here.
Among the posh townhouses of London you may spot these peculiar conical shapes.
Before gas or electric lighting, servants would light the way for their masters with flaming torches. Then when they got home, they’d put out the flame on these handy snuffers.
6. Fire Insurance Plaques
While you’re looking up in the hope of spotting parish boundary markers, you might also spot these smaller plaques on the side of 17th and 18th century houses.
Before we had a nationalised fire service private companies sold fire insurance to households, providing you with a lead plaque once you’d paid up. This particular one is from the Sun Fire office, founded in 1710.
If you’re desperate to seek some out, your best bet is among the Georgian townhouses of Spitalfields.
Related Post : London’s Oldest Blue Plaque
7. Wartime Relics
There’s not many bomb sites left in London now, but there’s plenty of evidence of The Blitz if you know where to look.
As well as the faded shelter signs (the one above can be found on Lord North Street SW1) there’s remnants of the bomb damage on lots of large buildings.
The pock-marked facades of St Clement Danes (left) and Tate Britain (right) were purposely left with their shrapnel damage, a kind of stoic symbol of London’s resilience. In fact the Tate’s damage has been specifically incorporated into its Grade I listing, meaning it can’t ever be repaired.
A more subtle reminder of WWII is one of my favourite hiding-in-plain-sight discoveries…
Look a bit closer at the shape of these East End railings. They’re recycled cast iron stretchers used by the ARP to carry civilians to safety during the bomb raids!
Read more about these fantastic up-cycled bits of street furniture here.
While you’re admiring the street lamps along the embankment, take a moment to appreciate the benches too.
These Grade-II listed bits of furniture are most likely designed by George Vulliamy, though they were made by Henry Doulton, a local Lambeth ceramic firm. Across the river on the North side, the benches have Egyptian motifs including camels and sphinx, a reference to the nearby Cleopatra’s Needle. Another great example of the attention to detail that’s hidden in the fabric of London.
And last but not least…
9. Ghost Signs
This is the name given to faded advertisements, usually so old they now have little relevance to their location. However, sometimes they do give clues to an area’s history.
For instance this one, round the back of Borough Market, is an advert for Courage Ales. One of the many breweries in Southwark between the 1780s and 1980s.
Sometimes signs are deceptive though, this ‘ghost sign’ in Brockley is a cynical fake, commissioned by the property developer selling the flats on which it sits. The real crime is that they covered an original ghost sign for Daren Bread, a huge rival of Hovis in the 1930s.
I hope some of these have piqued your interest and now you’ll have a bit of context when you’re looking up in London.
There’s plenty more to be found, do you have any favourites I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!