This small, simply laid out garden in the City of London is redolent with history.
It was once the site of the Navy Office, the workplace of diarist Samuel Pepys, and it was in the garden of this building that he and Sir William Penn buried their wine and parmesan cheese for safety during the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The office survived the Great Fire but was, oddly enough, destroyed by fire only a few years later in 1673 (there is a blue plaque commemorating it in the garden) and a new office, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built here in the early 1680s before it was demolished in 1788.
It’s due to its association with Pepys (who also lived in the street and was buried in the nearby church of St Olave Hart Street) that it boasts a bronze bust of him which was erected by the Samuel Pepys Club in 1983, designed by Karin Jonzen and funded by public subscription. It was presented to the garden by Fred Cleary who played an instrumental role in encouraging green spaces in the Square Mile in the 1970s.
The garden, which was laid out in about 1950, is also notable for its beds of red roses, planted to commemorate the deal struck in 1381 in which the Sir Robert Knollys was belatedly granted permission for a footbridge his wife had built over Seething Lane. She had done so contrary to planning rules while he was away fighting with John of Gaunt (ostensibly so she could avoid the dust of the street when crossing from her house to her rose garden), and so when he returned, the City of London Corporation allowed the bridge (now long gone) to remain, but only in exchange for the symbolic “penalty” of one red rose a year.
The occasion is still marked each June in a ceremony overseen by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames in which a red rose is plucked from the garden and delivered to the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House.
WHERE: Seething Lane Garden, Seething Lane, City of London (nearest Tube stations is Tower Hill); WHEN: Daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/city-gardens/Pages/default.aspx.
Constructed on the site of the Duke of Somerset’s Tudor-era mansion, Somerset House as we know it today owes its origins to a national scheme aimed at creating public buildings in London which would rival those of Continental cities.
The campaign led to the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1775 for the construction of a new public building at Somerset House to house government agencies such as the Navy Office, Salt Office, Surveyor General of Lands, the King’s Bargemaster and the offices of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cornwall as well as various learned societies.
The former building – which had been worked on by the likes of Sir Christopher Wren and which had been used as a residence for the likes of King Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, following his death, had fallen into a state of considerable disrepair and was demolished in 1775.
William Robinson, secretary of the Office of Works, was initially given the job of designing the new building (much to the discontent of some) but after his sudden death the same year, the task was given to Sir William Chambers, comptroller of the Office of Works and one of England’s leading architects.
The basic design was as it appears today – four ranges built around a central court (now named the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court). The Strand Block, located to the north and the most highly decorated of the buildings inside and out, was built first and largely completed by 1780, the Embankment Building (home of the Navy Office) in 1786 and the east and west ranges two years later.
When Chambers died with the work unfinished in 1796, it was carried to completion by James Wyatt and declared complete in 1801, despite the fact elements of Chambers’ design were still outstanding. It had cost more than £460,000, in excess of three times Robinson’s original estimate.
One of the first new occupants – thanks to a decision by King George III – was the fledgling Royal Academy of Arts (it had been one of the last occupants of the former premises) and its focal point was the Great Exhibition Room where exhibitions were held until 1836. Others in the new building included The Royal Society (it remained until 1837 when, like the RA, it moved to Burlington House) and the Society of Antiquaries (it moved to Burlington House in 1874).
As well as being home to various offices of the Navy Board (the southern building, where it was housed, contains the stunning, now restored, Nelson stair), Somerset House was also home to the Inland Revenue.
New additions were made to the original design in the nineteenth century – the extension of the south block to the east and addition of a New Wing to the west – and the construction of the Victoria Embankment (see our earlier post here) meant the two watergates Chambers had designed became landlocked. Somerset House no longer rose directly from the water as he’d intended but from a roadway (as it does today – we’ve mentioned this before but you can see the original riverbank by looking through the glass floor of the building’s Embankment entrance).
Somerset House is these days home to a range of cultural and artistic organisations – from the British Fashion Council to the National Youth Orchestra and, in the north wing, the Courtauld Institute of Art. And as well as hosting various art installations, the central courtyard is host to an ice-skating rink over winter.
For more on Somerset House, see www.somersethouse.org.uk.
June 14, 2011
A London tradition which has its origins in the fourteenth century, the Knollys Rose Ceremony surrounds the presentation of a single red rose to the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House.
The ceremony, which was held in the City yesterday, relates to a judgement of 1381 in which the fine was the annual payment of a single red rose.
The fine was levied after Lady Constance Knollys, the wife of prominent citizen Sir Robert Knollys, bought a property opposite her own in Seething Lane and then added a footbridge linking the two without first gaining planning permission (it’s suggested that she bought the property which had previously been used as a threshing ground because she was annoyed with the constant chaff in the air).
Following discovery of her breach, it was agreed that she would pay the annual ‘peppercorn rent’ of a single red rose from the new property’s garden to the Lord Mayor.
Lady Constance’s footbridge is long gone but the tradition of paying the annual rent was revived last century and is now presided over by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.
The ceremony starts at the church of All Hallows by the Tower and then involves a procession to Seething Lane Gardens (a modern garden close to where the original may have been; the gardens were once the site of the Navy Office) where the Master of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen snips off a rose before heading on to Mansion House where it is presented to the Lord Mayor on a velvet altar cushion from All Hallows.
The ceremony usually takes place on the second Monday in June.