The Dragon and the Grasshopper

My last post on London’s weathervanes ended with a brief mention of the eleven-foot golden grasshopper of the Royal Exchange. Since writing it I’ve been learning more about the grasshopper, and about its relationship with another beautiful old vane, the great nine-foot dragon that flies above Wren’s magnificent steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow:

 

It’s rather lovely to reflect that the dragon has been up there, taking all that the Thames valley’s gusty weather can throw at it, for more than three centuries, dating back to the rebuilding of St. Mary-le-Bow in 1679 after the Great Fire. Records show that a sum of £4 was paid to Edward Pearce, Mason, for carving the wooden model on which the dragon was based; and that a further £38 was paid to Robert Bird, the coppersmith who made the dragon itself. It is said that when the dragon was raised to its pinnacle it was accompanied by the famous Jacob Hall, a noted trapeze artist of the time, who performed a high wire act to the astonishment of the watching crowd.

In my previous post I noted that it is said that the Royal Exchange grasshopper is even older, possibly dating back to the original Exchange built in 1567. Images of that building (see below) clearly show that there were several similar grasshopper vanes mounted on the roof, but I’ve seen other sources that suggest these were lost in the Great Fire and that the current vane is from the second Exchange dating from 1669. If anyone has the definitive position, please let me know in the comments box!

 

 

With the exception of the giants Gog and Magog – and possibly Dick Whittington’s cat – I can’t think of any more deeply symbolic emblems of London’s great history. As explained in my earlier post about the old signs of Lombard Street, the grasshopper is the family emblem of Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabethan merchant adventurer and founder of the Royal Exchange. The dragon, with its association with the cross of St.George (the badge of Londoners since at least the reign of Edward I) has been depicted as the bearer of the City coat of arms for centuries.

 

 

Note that the St Mary-le-Bow dragon also has the red crosses painted on the undersides of its wings, as shown below.

 

Until the late 20th century the vanes were two of the highest points in the City (the dragon is 221 feet high and the grasshopper 188 feet) and ever since they were erected, Londoners have imagined a relationship between the creatures, often reflecting the uneasy tension between organised religion and commerce. For example, in 1698, a tract, Ecclesia & Factio, was published as a dialogue between dragon and grasshopper about religious freedom:

 

In the early 19th Century, one Skryme (see note 1), an apothecary known for sensationalist predictions of doom, took to broadcasting a prophesy that ‘when the grasshopper on the top of the Exchange shook hands with the dragon on the top of Bow Church steeple, fearful events would take place’. As luck would have it, in 1820 the same architect happened to be engaged in repairing both creatures and for a time both vanes lay ‘cheek by jowl’ as it were, in the same workshop. And sure enough, within a year Mr Skryme was able to report that:

King George III had died; a royal duke had died suddenly; another, in France, had been murdered; there had been radical meetings in all parts of the kingdom; the bloody scenes in Manchester [Peterloo]; the great plot in Cato Street – and above all, the Queen [Caroline, estranged wife of George IV] had returned to England. All these and similar events are recounted by Mr Skryme with a mysterious look, and a dismal shake of the head…

These great weathervanes take such a battering from wind and rain that it is no surprise that major overhauls are needed from time to time. The dragon was taken down for repairs in 1760 and again, as caused Mr Skryme such consternation, in 1820. On the latter occasion a young Irish labourer accompanied it on its descent by sitting on its back and using his feet to manoeuvre it around the various obstacles, ‘which daring feat was witnessed by many thousand persons’ (see note 2).

The grasshopper has been subject to more recent repairs and I am delighted to be able to share some details and images of the process followed, which were very kindly provided by John Wallis of Dorothea Restorations (see note 3) who carried out the work:

 

The grasshopper was manufactured from copper and had been badly damaged. The surviving body was panel beaten back into shape and the broken sections repaired using copper and soldering in place using high lead content solder. The legs, which were some of the weakest elements, were reinforced using copper tube and fixed to the main structure. The original paint covering was carefully removed by gently flame cleaning and scraping. The whole structure was then lightly sanded by hand to remove any remaining paint.
An etch primer was applied to the whole structure, followed by several coats of a cream enamel paint to provide a smooth surface of the correct colour for gilding.
The gold was applied on top of an oil based size and was 23.5 ct double thick loose leaf. This is a great image as it really gets across just how huge the vane is.
And finally, here is the grasshopper, resplendent after its makeover, back in its rightful place on top of the Exchange where it can turn in the wind and chat the days away with its fire-breathing friend down Cheapside (the spire of St. Mary-le-Bow can be seen in the photo, just in front and to the right of St.Paul’s).

If you liked this post and enjoy reading about London history, you may like to read about my book The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London.

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Notes and sources

1. The Edinburgh Monthly Review, Vol IV (Sep1820), p.330.

2. Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 175-182.

3. I am very grateful to John Wallis of Dorothea Restorations for sharing these details and allowing me to publish his images.

 

Lombard Street Signs: how London’s Banks got their Logos

My journey to work in the City of London takes me along Lombard Street, that ancient lane curving east from Bank tube station and linking two of the City’s finest churches: Nicholas Hawksmoor’s splendidly compact St Mary Woolnoth and Robert Hooke’s Dutch-inspired St Edmund, King & Martyr, both built in the period after the Great Fire.

St Mary Woolnoth

 

St Edmund King & Martyr

  

No matter how many times I make the journey, my attention is always grabbed by the astonishing 1.5m golden grasshopper sign hanging high above my head outside number 68. 

 

The Lombard Street Grasshopper

Further up the street there are other old-looking signs, including a Cat and Fiddle and what appears, based on a resemblance to King Charles II, to be The King’s Head & Sun.

Where did these street signs come from, and why? I’ve always imagined them to relate to the banks and other institutions that line the street, and I knew vaguely that the grasshopper had some connection to Sir Thomas Gresham, a Tudor financier and founder of the Royal Exchange who is buried in the nearby church of St Helen, Bishopsgate. But I didn’t know the facts: not only are the signs themselves peculiar, but there appears nothing obvious to explain their linkage to the residents of their respective premises.

I was therefore delighted recently to acquire a fascinating book, The Signs of Old Lombard Street, published in 1902. This treasure reveals not only the story of the Lombard Street signs – and the important part that its author, Frederick Hilton Price, played in their Edwardian restoration – but also the wider history of British banking including the explanation of how these ancient street signs came to give Barclays and Lloyd’s, two of London’s best known banks, their trademark logos.

Born in 1842, Hilton Price was himself a Lombard Street banker: after joining his father’s firm of Child & Co as a clerk, he worked his way up to become senior partner. With his mutton-chop whiskers, wing collar and cravat (see image below) he looks the epitome of the Victorian City gentleman. In the best Victorian tradition he was also an enthusiastic amateur historian, archaeologist and collector; a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the London Topographical Society and President of the Egypt Exploration Fund. In all these fields he researched and published widely. He researched the Lombard Street signs for a paper he presented to the Institute of Bankers in 1887 and published it in book form in 1902.


Frederick Hilton Price (1842-1909)

According to Hilton Price, Lombard Street was the site chosen by London goldsmiths for their craft ever since the Norman conquest. The first goldsmiths were Jewish, but after they were expelled from England by Edward I they were replaced by Lombards or Longobards from Italy, the first of whom were the Corsini family. John Stow’s Survey explains that in the reign of Edward II a building was set aside for them between Lombard Street and Cornhill, which became known as the King’s (later the Royal) Exchange. Goldsmiths and banking trades brought wealth and finery to Lombard Street and by the mid 16th century it was considered the finest street in London, a view supported by Pepys after the Great Fire.

London’s business premises adopted street signs to advertise their whereabouts from the earliest times. Given that the vast majority of the population were unable to read or write, the use of visual images to distinguish one shop from another was a useful device. It seems likely that many of these began as inn signs but were then adopted by subsequent tenants of the same premises. As early as 1375, one Simon Leggi, son of a Lord Mayor of London, was trading at The Raven Tavern. By 1560 Thomas Muschamp, a goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth, was trading at the sign of The Ring and Ruby. Around the same time, The Grasshopper made its first appearance outside number 68, being the representation of the family crest of the occupier Sir Thomas Gresham.

Sir Thomas Gresham (c.1519-1579)

Hilton Price’s study of the records reveals that most of the Lombard Street premises had similar signs, with a remarkable 168 separate signs recorded over the years. He paints a beguiling image of the Tudor street, with the signs…‘swinging over the doors or shop fronts: many projecting far into the roadway in order to attract more attention, and many were fixed to posts in front of the houses.’

This tendency grew, until by the time of King Charles II the signs presented such a nuisance and danger to the public (in several cases the weight of the signs caused the entire front of the premises to collapse into the street) that a law was passed preventing the signs from overhanging the street. After the Great Fire it became the fashion to create the signs out of stone; this led to them becoming almost as great a nuisance as before, until by the mid-18th century they had almost all died away altogether.

This situation appears to have persisted for 150 years or so until Hilton Price’s day. He remarks that it ‘has of late become fashionable…to replace the old sign of the house’ on the cheques issued by London banks. In 1902 this interest in the old signs gave Hilton Price and his associates the idea of resurrecting as many of them as possible to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII.

In the end, 23 such signs were erected. They made a rather splendid sight:

Lombard Street in 1902 with signs restored

Hilton Price’s full list of the restored signs is as follows:

  

A century later, many of these institutions remain household names; others, such as Guinness Mahon and Guardian Assurance, have only recently been swallowed up during one or other wave of city consolidation. Of the signs themselves, only the golden Grasshopper, still resplendent outside number 68, appears to have survived unchanged. Having been inherited after Sir Thomas Gresham’s departure by successive occupants of the site, the sign was taken over by one Edmund Backwell in 1662, beginning an unbroken chain of ownership by the firm which ultimately became Martins Bank. Martins remained at 68 Lombard Street and used the grasshopper as its sign until its own acquisition by Barclays in 1969 – it is thought that this represents the longest continuous use of a business premises by any bank in the world.

Of the few other remaining signs, the Cat-a-Fiddling seems to have crossed the road and the “Head” of the Queen’s Head & Sun has metamorphosed into that of a King.

  

 

Several of the other 1902 signs have only recently disappeared. The grasshopper’s former neighbour, the Anchor belonging to Glyn, Mills & Co, at the time of writing had temporarily surrendered to the developers [now resurrected!]. But two of the other, now missing, signs have perhaps the greatest resonance: the Barclays Black Spread Eagle at number 56 and the Lloyd’s Black Horse at number 73. The histories of the Barclays and Lloyd’s signs are as follows: 
Number 56 Lombard Street was known as The Black Spread Eagle as early as 1672. By 1702 the premises were occupied by Messrs Freame & Gould; in 1728 Mr Freame was joined in partnership by James Barclay and the firm evolved into the Barclays Bank we know today. The Spread Eagle has remained the Barclays logo ever since, albeit with some small alterations including a change of colour to blue in the 1960s (in 2008 when Barclays attempted to acquire the Dutch bank ABN Amro it reportedly considered dropping the Eagle logo due to sensitivities in the Netherlands over its similarity to the Nazi eagle sign). The 1902 sign remained in place in Lombard Street until 2005 when it was removed on Barclays’ departure to Canary Wharf. It was last seen advertised by an architectural salvage house, so presumably is now in private hands:

The former Barclays sign from Lombard Street
The Black Horse sign was first recorded at 53 Lombard Street in about 1677 when it was adopted by the goldsmith Humphrey Stokes, a friend of Samuel Pepys. Around 1728 the then owner, John Bland, took the sign with him when he moved up the street to number 62. The business became known as Bland & Barnett until 1884 when it was taken over by Lloyd’s Bank, who adopted the sign as the company’s logo. When Lloyd’s themselves moved premises to number 73 they again retained the sign, which remained in place until 2003 when Lloyd’s too moved its head office away from Lombard Street.
 
To conclude, thanks to the assiduous researches of Frederick Hilton Price, we can explain the origins of the logos still used by two of Britain’s best-known companies: both signs date back almost to the Great Fire and must therefore be among the oldest corporate logos still in use in the world today. And thanks to Hilton Price’s enthusiastic desire to please his new Sovereign, we can all still enjoy at least a few remnants of Lombard Street’s ancient signs, hopefully for many more years to come.
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in my book The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London.
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Sources

1. Frederick G Hilton Price, The Signs of Old Lombard Street (1902):

2. RBS archives: Frederick Hilton Price

3. Martin’s Bank archive

4. Barclays archive: The Spread Eagle

5. Lloyd’s Banking Group: The Black Horse

 

The Prince Regent, the Gin Distiller and the Cesspit

Historians seeking insight into the characters of Georgian London could do worse than read Arthur Conan Doyle’s largely forgotten novel Rodney Stone, set during the Peace of Amiens in 1803. In the book, the young eponymous narrator is whisked around the metropolis by his uncle Sir Charles Tregellis, ‘King of the Bucks’ and very particular friend of the Prince of Wales, on his way encountering a host of real-life characters including Beau Brummell, Charles James Fox, Lord Nelson and the Prince himself.

The Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and George IV) in 1792

Much of the novel is taken up with the sport of prize-fighting, and in one memorable scene Rodney visits a low-life drinking den in St. Martin’s Lane where a bare-knuckle fight is to take place for the amusement of the Prince and his friends. Entering the bar, Rodney sees a group of pugilists seated round a table bearing a tray of small glasses and pewter mugs:

‘The boys were thirsty, sir, so I brought up some ale and some liptrap’, whispered the landlord.

Liptrap? Was this slang for some extraordinary concoction so strong that it froze the mouth of the imbiber? The derivation is more prosaic: Liptrap was a popular brand of London gin, produced at the great distillery of S D Liptrap & Son off the Whitechapel Road, just west of the London Hospital and on the site of today’s Whitechapel Sports Centre.

Site of S D Liptrap & Son (later Smiths) distillery, Whitechapel (1830)

It’s unclear whether Conan Doyle knew it, but had a real landlord served Liptrap’s gin to the Prince of Wales, it would have triggered a strong response. The Prince and the distiller had a history:

John Liptrap, the owner of the Whitechapel distillery, was born in 1766 and had inherited the business on his father’s death in 1789. A Middlesex magistrate, Liptrap was also a philanthropist and patron of the arts and sciences, a governor of the London Hospital and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also active in City of London politics, culminating in 1795 with his election at the age of just 29 as one of the City’s two Sheriffs.

It was during his year as Sheriff that Liptrap had an encounter with Prince George that would result in the word Liptrap forever leaving an unpleasant taste in the Prince’s mouth. In his capacity as Sheriff, the distiller invited the Prince to dine with him and various other worthies at his house in Whitechapel. During dinner the Prince, recently disentangled from his disastrous marriage to Princess Caroline, was captivated by the charms of Liptrap’s wife Elizabeth, a celebrated beauty. According to Robert Huish, the Prince’s early biographer, Mrs Liptrap was flattered:

…her eye beamed with desire and passion, and her LIP was not the first TRAP which, by its lovely pouting, had ensnared the affection of the enamoured Prince.

When the ladies left the table, the Prince – unable to resist temptation – excused himself and followed them. When his guest of honour failed to return, Liptrap became concerned and went to investigate. Huish continues:

There were several places in the house to which it was possible that the Prince had retired, but there was one, in particular, in which it was highly improbable that he be found, and that was the bed-chamber of his lady. It was, therefore, the last which the worthy Sheriff visited – but, had he visited it first, it would have saved him a great deal of trouble, and calmed at once his anxiety for the safety of his Royal guest.

Notwithstanding the interloper’s identity, Liptrap responded in the only way open to a gentleman of the time: he drew his sword and chased the Prince out of the house. The heir to the throne found himself pursued around Liptrap’s garden in pitch darkness, with no sign of an escape route. His only option was to vault the garden wall:

…and he now found the adage to be true, that a man should always look before he leaps. The Prince did not look; and therefore he leapt into as vile a compound of dirt and filth as ever received the body of a human being, much more that of a Prince.

The story concludes with the comment that from that day on, the Prince could never hear mention of the name Liptrap without exclaiming: Oh, but it has a rank, unearthly smell!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Liptrap’s career appears to have taken a turn for the worse after this encounter. In 1804 he got into financial difficulties and entered bankruptcy proceedings. In 1812, Liptrap set himself up in opposition to Joseph Merceron, the infamous ‘Boss of Bethnal Green’ and Godfather over much of London’s East End (of whom much more later*). This was a very unwise tactic, given that Merceron owned or controlled most of the local inns and was also the licensing magistrate, well known to withhold licences from publicans unless they sourced their ales and spirits from Merceron’s favoured suppliers. It seems that Merceron exercised his nefarious influence over Liptrap’s customers and suppliers with the result that by the end of 1812 the Liptrap distillery company had unpaid debts amounting to more than £100,000.

Early in 1813 the government instituted further bankruptcy proceedings. That July, Liptrap’s fine house and mahogany furniture were auctioned, together with his art collection, impressive library and the assets of his distillery (including 100 bags of juniper berries!), and he departed from the East End for good.

We hear no more of Liptrap until his death in Canterbury on May 17 1826 at the age of 60, his mind weakened by repeated attacks of paralysis . His obituary described him touchingly as ‘a gentleman who for literary acquirement, gentlemanly feeling and benevolence of heart, was second to none’. His name lives on only in Australia, in the form of Cape Liptrap, a beautiful coastal park 160km south of Melbourne, named after him by his friend and its discoverer, Lieutenant Grant, R.N.

Cape Liptrap, Victoria, Australia

And so, dear Readers, in memory of this fine London citizen please help resurrect a lovely and apposite name for a shot in the arm. The next time you are offered a drink, instead asking for a plain old G&T, please raise the cry:

Make mine a Liptrap!

* Further details of John Liptrap’s feud with Joseph Merceron are set out in my book The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron, the Godfather of Regency London.

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Further Reading

1. Arthur Conan Doyle, Rodney Stone (1896)

2. Robert Huish, Memoirs of George the Fourth (1830)