FirefightersIt was 75 years ago this year – on the night of 10th/11th May, 1941 – that the German Luftwaffe launched an unprecedented attacked on London, an event that has since become known as the ‘Longest Night’ (it’s also been referred to as ‘The Hardest Night’).

Air raid sirens echoed across the city as the first bombs fells at about 11pm and by the following morning, some 1,436 Londoners had been killed and more than that number injured while more than 11,000 houses had been destroyed along and landmark buildings including the Palace of Westminster (the Commons Chamber was entirely destroyed and the roof of Westminster Hall was set alight), Waterloo Station, the British Museum and the Old Bailey were, in some cases substantially, damaged.

The Royal Air Force Museum records that some 571 sorties were flown by German air crews over the course of the night and morning, dropping 711 tons of high explosive bombs and more than 86,000 incendiaries. The planes were helped in their mission – ordered in retaliation for RAF bombings of German cities – by the full moon reflecting off the river below.

The London Fire Brigade recorded more than 2,100 fires in the city and together these caused more than 700 acres of the urban environment, more than double that of the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the costs of the destruction were also estimated at more than double that of the Great Fire – some £20 million).

Fighter Command sent some 326 aircraft into the fight that night, not all of them over London, and, according to the RAF Museum, the Luftwaffe officially lost 12 aircraft (although others put the figure at more than 30).

By the time the all-clear siren sounded just before 6am on 11th May, it was clear the raid – which turned out to be the last major raid of The Blitz – had been the most damaging ever undertaken upon the city.

Along with the landmarks mentioned above, other prominent buildings which suffered in the attack include Westminster Abbey, St Clement Danes (the official chapel of the Royal Air Force, it was rebuilt but still bears the scars of the attack), and the Queen’s Hall.

Pictured above is a statue of firefighters in action in London during the Blitz, taken from the National Firefighters Memorial near St Paul’s Cathedral – for more on that, see our earlier post here.

For more on The Longest Night, see Gavin Mortimer’s The Longest Night: Voices from the London Blitz: The Worst Night of the London Blitz.

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This oddly located church on the Strand is the work of acclaimed architect James Gibbs – the first public project he embarked upon after returning from Italy where he had trained.

St-Mary-le-StrandWhile the history of St Mary le Strand goes at least back to the Middle Ages (and it initially stood just south of the current churches’ position on land currently occupied by Somerset House), the construction of the current church – the first of 50 built in London under a special commission aimed at, well, seeing more churches built in the capital to meet the needs of the growing population – began around 1715 (the foundation stone was laid on 25th February, the year after the accession of King George I.)

While building was briefly delayed by the Jacobite rising which broke out in 1715, the church was finally consecrated for use on 1st January, 1723.

Gibbs, who trained under a baroque master – a style which contrasted with the Palladian-style favoured by Lord Burlington and others, had apparently originally intended the church to be in the Italianate style with a campanile over the west end instead of the steeple  but this scheme also included a 250 foot high column surmounted by a statue of Queen Anne located to the west of the church which would celebrate the work of the commission (it’s also worth noting that the churches built by the committee – and they didn’t get close to building 50 – were known as “Queen Anne Churches” despite their construction taking place largely after her death).

However, plans for the column were abandoned on the queen’s death on 1st August, 1714, and instead Gibbs – a Roman Catholic who thanks to his supposed Jacobite sympathies apparently finished the project without pay, was ordered to use the stone which had been gathered to build the steeple and, thanks to that, amend his plans for the church into an oblong form rather than the square form he had initially intended. The work shows the influence of Sir Christopher Wren as well as churches in Italy.

The interior has been remodelled several times since its creation. The white and gold plastered ceiling was apparently inspired by the work of Italian sculptor and architect Luigi Fontana on two Roman churches and other features include paintings by American artist Mather Brown (these were put in place in 1785 and are located on panels on the side walls of the chancel – they were restored in 1994), while the crucifix behind the altar was presented by parishioners in 1893.

It the late 1800s, the London County Council proposed demolishing the church so it could widen the Strand for traffic but this plan was abandoned after an outcry led by artist Walter Crane (although the graveyard was removed).

Famous faces associated with the church include Charles Dickens’ parents, John and Elizabeth, who were married here in 1809, and there’s a story that during a secret visit to London in 1750, Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) renounced the Roman Catholic Church by receiving Anglican communion here. The parish currently includes that of nearby St Clement Danes after the church was bombed in 1941 (it’s now central church of the Royal Air Force).

WHERE: St Mary le Strand, Strand (nearest tube stations are Temple, Covent Garden, Holborn, Charing Cross and Embankment); WHEN: Usually open 11am to 4pm from Tuesdays to Thursdays and 10am to 1pm Sundays; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.stmarylestrand.org.

Margaret Thatcher’s funeral will be held next Wednesday at St Paul’s Cathedral from 11am with Queen Elizabeth II among those attending (the first time she has attended the funeral of a British politician since Sir Winston Churchill’s in 1965). The funeral procession of the former Prime Minister, who died on Monday aged 87, will start at the Houses of Parliament and make its way down Whitehall to Trafalgar Square before moving down the Strand, Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral. Baroness Thatcher’s coffin will carried in a hearse for the first part of the journey and will be transferred to a gun carriage drawn by six horses of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery at St Clement Danes church on the Strand for the final part of the journey. There will be a gun salute at the Tower of London. Meanwhile, a Book of Condolence has opened at St Margaret’s Church, beside Westminster Abbey, this morning and will be available for people to pay their respects until 17th April, during the church’s opening hours. St Margaret’s – which stands between Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament – is commonly known as the parish church of the House of Commons.

The story of the Jewel Tower – one of the last remaining parts of the medieval Palace of Westminster – is told in a new exhibition at the historic property. Now in the care of English Heritage, the tower – located to the south of Westminster Abbey, was built in 1365 to house King Edward III’s treasury, later used as King Henry VIII”s ‘junk room’, the record office for the House of Lords, and, from 1869, served was the “testing laboratory” for the Office of Weights and Measures. The exhibition, which opened this month, is part of the English Heritage celebrations commemorating the centenary of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act. The Jewel Tower is open daily until November. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.english-heritage.co.uk.

See some of the earliest underground trains, a Lego version of Baker Street station and ride the Acton Miniature Railway. The London Transport Museum’s depot in Acton is holding it’s annual spring open weekend this Saturday and Sunday and in celebration of the Underground’s 150th anniversary, attractions will include the Metropolitan Steam Locomotive No. 1 and the recently restored Metropolitan Carriage 353 along with model displays, rides on the miniature railway, film screenings, talks, and workshops. Wales’ Ffestiniog Railway team – celebrating their own 150th anniversary – will also be present with the narrow gauge train, Prince. Open from 11am to 5pm both days. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.ltmuseum.co.uk.

Now On: Designs of the Year. The Design Museum has unveiled contenders for the sixth annual Designs of the Year competition and you can what they are in this exhibition. Consisting of more than 90 nominations spanning seven categories, the nominated designs include the Olympic Cauldron by Heatherwick Studio, The Shard – western Europe’s tallest building – by Renzo Piano, a non-stick ketchup bottle invented by the Varanasi Research Group at MIT, and Microsoft’s Windows phone 8. The exhibition runs until 7th July – the winners will be announced this month. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.designmuseum.org.

Sam-C-Moore

Says the photographer, Sam C Moore (of SCM Photography): “I was on my way to St Clement Danes and the telephone box against the snowy street background really caught my eye, and almost directly adjacent to it was a bike that had been parked up which added to help frame the shot. All I needed now was a black cap to drive past, so waited (very briefly) and, of course, being London. I got my wish” For more of Sam’s work, see www.flickr.com/people/84891527@N00/.

Taken an interesting photograph of somewhere in London? We’re always looking for interesting images of the city so if you’ve got one you reckon captures a snippet of life in London, please contact us at exploringlondon@gmail.com or via Flickr at www.flickr.com/groups/exploringlondon/

London’s oldest manufacturing company is the same as Britain’s oldest and is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

The company was established in 1570 (although founders have been discovered operating in the area as far back as 1420) and, according to its website, still concentrates solely on the manufacture of bells and their fittings with large church bells accounting for 80 per cent of the company’s business. The remainder of the business is involved in manufacturing handbells and other smaller bells.

The foundry’s current buildings, apparently originally used as a coaching inn named The Artichoke, date from 1670 and are presumed to have replaced structures consumed in the Great Fire of London. The foundry had earlier been located in smaller premises on the other side of Whitechapel Road.

The foundry has typically operated under the name of the master founder and owner but since 1968 has apparently operated under its current name.

The most famous bells cast at the foundry include the Liberty Bell (1752) – the symbol of American independence which cracked when first rung and was recast in Philadelphia, the Great Bell of Montreal Cathedral, ‘Great Tom’ of Lincoln Cathedral, and, of course, Big Ben (1858) – at 13,760 kilograms, the largest bell ever cast at the foundry.

Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral also feature bells cast at the foundry and replacement bells for St Mary-le-Bow and St Clement Danes made here following their destruction in World War II and bells from the foundry have been sent as far afield as Australia and India.

Among the most recent bells to be cast at the foundry are the Royal Jubilee Bells, used in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant and now housed at St James Garlickhythe in the City of London (each of the bells, which bear the Royal Arms, is named after a member of the Royal Family – Elizabeth being the largest with others named Philip, Charles, Anne, Andrew, Edward, William and Henry.)

There is a small exhibition on bell-making in the foundry shop looking at the history of the foundry and bell-making in general, and one-and-a-half-hour tours of the foundry run Saturdays (booking well in advance is usually required). Additional tours are being held every day during the Olympics.

WHERE: 32/34 Whitechapel Road; WHEN: Tours are usually held on Saturdays when no work is being undertaken – see website for dates – but special tours are being held daily from 10am to 5pm, 28th July to 12th August, 2012; COST: The exhibition/museum is free but tours are usually £12 a head for over 14s (Olympic period tours are £10 a head/£25 a family – children under 14 not admitted without adult supervision) – see website for more details on purchasing tickets; WEBSITE: www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk.

What’s in a name?…Strand

October 10, 2011

Now one of the major thoroughfares of the West End, the origins of the roadway known as the Strand go back to the Roman times leading west out of the city.

Later part of Saxon Lundenwic which occupied what is now the West End, it ran right along the northern shore of the Thames and so became known as the Strand (the word comes from the Saxon word for the foreshore of a river). During the following centuries the river was pushed back as buildings were constructed between the road and the river, leaving it now, excuse the pun, ‘stranded’ some distance from where the Thames flows.

Sitting on the route between the City of London and Westminster, seat of the government, the street proved a popular with the wealthy and influential and during the Middle Ages, a succession of grand homes or palaces was built along its length, in particular along the southern side.

All are now gone but for Somerset House – originally the home of the Dukes of Somerset, it was built in the 16th century but rebuilt in the 18th century after which it served a variety of roles including housing the Navy Office, before taking on its current role as an arts centre. Others now recalled in the names of streets coming off the Strand include the Savoy Palace, former residence of John of Gaunt which was destroyed in the Peasant’s Revolt, and York House, once home of the Bishops of Norwich and later that of George Villiers, favorite of King James I (see our earlier Lost London entry on York Watergate for more).

After the aristocracy decamped further west during the 17th and 18th centuries, the road and surrounding area fell into decline but was resurrected with a concerted building effort in the early 19th century (this included the creation of the Victoria Embankment which pushed the Thames even further away) which saw it become a favorite of the those who patronised the arts, including the opening of numerous theatres. Among those which still stand on the Strand today are the Adelphi and Savoy Theatres (this was apparently the first in London to be fitted with electric lights and sits on a site once occupied by the Savoy Palace).

Among the other landmarks along the Strand are the churches of St Mary-le-Strand (the present building which sits on what amounts to a traffic island) dates from 1717 and was designed by James Gibbs, and St Clement Danes, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1682 (it is now the Central Church of the Royal Air Force). The Strand is also home to the Victorian-era Royal Courts of Justice (it boasts more than 1,000 rooms), Australia House (home of the oldest Australian diplomatic mission), the Strand Palace Hotel (opened in 1907) and Charing Cross Railway Station.