Vanity and Wind

Looking skywards in London can be surprisingly rewarding. There’s so much detail up there, passing most of us by, most of the time. Weathervanes, for example. Dozens of them, perched on top of our churches and other buildings. They range from the run-of-the-mill weathercock to a wide variety of other creatures and inanimate objects, usually with an interesting and emblematic significance linking them to their particular home.

Weathervanes are an ancient invention, dating back to at least the first century BC when a vane was erected on the Temple of the Winds in Athens. The common use of the cockerel or rooster is believed to be linked to an edict of Pope Nicholas in the 9th Century that all church steeples be surmounted by the symbol of Christ’s betrayal by St. Peter (that Peter would deny Christ three times before the cock crowed on the morning following the Last Supper). The Bayeux Tapestry (1) shows a workman attaching a weathercock (the less charitable might see it as a squirrel) to the roof of Westminster Abbey:

Here are ten London weathervanes I’ve spotted recently. We’ll begin with the traditional poultry, and then move on to some of the more idiosyncratic varieties.

All-Hallows-by-the-Tower. A very traditional-looking vane, on the City of London’s oldest church (originally built c.675, although gutted during the Blitz and extensively rebuilt after the Second World War). This vane is a good illustration of the two main rules of weathervane-making: (1) the centre of gravity must sit directly over the central spindle; (2) the surface area of one side should be significantly greater than the other. With such a big tail, the cockerel will face into the wind and give the direction from which it is blowing (it appears the wind was South-Westerly on the day I took this photo…)

St. Dunstan-in-the-East. Another weathercock sits atop Wren’s beautiful spire with its four flying buttresses. The main body of the church was ruined in the Blitz and never rebuilt. It is now a rather lovely enclosed garden.

Our third weathercock is at St. Katherine Cree on Leadenhall Street. Another beautiful building, dating mostly from the early 17th Century and one of the very few City churches to survive both the Great Fire and the Blitz almost unscathed.

Perhaps the next most popular category of weathervanes is the ship. Unsurprisingly given its great maritime history, London has its fair share of these:

Trinity House, Trinity Square is the HQ of the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales and the Channel Islands. Trinity House has been looking after shipping for more than 500 years so it is fitting that it is overseen by this model of a 16th century ship.
A rather more ornate ship adorns the pinnacle of the splendid Two Temple Place, near Temple Underground station and built for William Waldorf Astor in 1895. It is a representation of Columbus’s Santa Maria, intended by Astor to symbolise the path of discovery of his own ancestors and the linking of the US and Europe.
Another fitting nautical tribute is the replica of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower above the famous Liberty store in Great Marlborough Street. Not just because of the associations between the US and liberty, but because the store’s famous mock-Tudor beams were recycled from two ships, HMS Hindustan and HMS Impregnable.
It’s not all chickens and ships, however. The church of St Peter-upon-Cornhill boasts a rather large and ornate representation of St.Peter’s key to the gates of Heaven…
…and there is a wide variety of other creatures adorning London’s rooftops. For example at the former Billingsgate Market on Lower Thames Street, we should not be surprised to find:
…whereas at St. Helen’s Place off Bishopsgate, the former premises of the Hudson’s Bay Company, once masters of the Canadian fur trade, is topped by a golden beaver.
And finally, it is surprising how few people notice the giant creature at the very top of the Royal Exchange…
…this beautiful golden grasshopper, the family emblem of the Exchange’s founder Sir Thomas Gresham. This is a real whopper at around eleven feet long, and is believed to be from the original incarnation of the Royal Exchange built around 1567, having survived both the Great Fire and a further conflagration that destroyed the second Exchange in 1838.
You can read more about the Gresham grasshopper in our separate post on the old signs of Lombard Street, click here.
Sources and further reading
All other images © @HistoryLondon

2 thoughts on “Vanity and Wind

  1. Pingback: The Dragon and the Grasshopper | HistoryLondon

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