Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Lost Obelisk of Ludgate

I've often wondered, looking at 19th C. pictures of London, why there was an obelisk at Ludgate, when it got there, and when it disappeared. See this picture for example:

The obelisk is in the middle of the carriage-way, surrounded by railings and (oil) lamps attached. The obelisk is still there, minus the lamps, at the end of the century, even after the junction has been expanded to become 'Ludgate Circus' in the 1860s (nb. you can enlarge this pic for a great view).



A closer look at this picture actually reveals two obelisks, something I had not realised. Fortunately, it doesn't take long to Google the answer.

The first of the two obelisks was, seemingly, erected in honour of 18th C. politician John Wilkes (1727-97) but Public Sculpture in the City of London by Philip Ward-Jackson (a book which I am now going to buy) tells us different:

"For over a century and a half after his death, it was believed ... that Wilkes was commemorated by an obelisk with lights attached to it at the southern end of Farringdon Street ... An inspection of the Corporation Records in 1949, however, proved that this had originally been erected by the Blackfriars Bridge Committee as a street lamp, and had had Wilkes' name placed on it only because it was put up in his mayoralty. The obelisk had deterioriated to such an extent by this time, that, when in the following year, an attempt was made to dismantle it, it disintegrated."

This is supported by various references in the press, and a final mention in the Times that the obelisk was "erected in 1775 by the Blackfriars Bridge Committee to 'support four lamps to enlighten the footway'." So much for obelisk no.1 (the most southerly, nearest the bridge).  What about the second one?

The same book, luckily, gives the answer. It was erected in 1833 to honour the memory of the recently deceased Robert Waithman, a linenpdraper whose premises were nearby. Waithman was also a prominent City of London politician, and was voted City member of parliament in five successive elections; hence it's understandable why future generations assumed the other obelisk was built to honour another 'radical' politician, Wilkes.

There's a lovely piece in the Times about the opening of the monument, and why it was contained by railings:

THE WAITHMAN OBELISK - Although it has been objected that the people of England are too prone to destruction of works of art, and that England is the only country in Europe where it is necessary to protect such works by iron railways, and to request persons to leave their sticks and parasols below at exhibitions of pictures, and to keep them at arm's length by bars, the committee and architect of the Waithman's obelisk, in consideration of the extreme hardness of the materials, and the broad simplicity of the design, had determined not to enclose it with railing, but to give their fellow-citizens an opportunity of redeeming this part of the national character. Yet a few hours had hardly passed after opening it to the public when wanton curiosity, to ascertain whether it was real granite or not, has injured and defaced the fine arrisses and points of some of the bold Roman letters, and other parts of the sculpture, and dirty feet marks are visible in clambering on the  steps and cornice. The British nation have now the disgrace of seeing this beautiful work of art enclosed by a temporary chevaux de frise, till the committee surround it by an iron railing.

The Wilkes obelisk, as mentioned above, disintegrated. It was not only fragile but 'sinking perceptibly into the gentlemen's lavatory beneath it.' The Waithman memorial, however, survived. It was removed and replaced with the new innovation of automatic traffic lights. It was sent to Bartholomew Close, near Aldersgate, then moved again in 1975 to Salisbury Square / Salisbury Court.

It's still there today, somewhat unknown and unloved. I've seen it many times and never realised its origin.


Image courtesy LondonDave on Flickr
http://www.flickr.com/photos/londondave/2171129165/



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