Tag Archives: Nelson

The great and the good

George Ryan, pictured in bas relief at the base of Nelson's Column, London

All of us who live or work in Westminster have walked through Trafalgar Square dozens of times, but how many of us have actually looked at Nelson’s Column  properly? Certainly not me until recently when I happened to look at the bas-reliefs at the base of the pillar and wondered what they actually represented. Coincidentally on the bus home I heard a trailer for an excellent-sounding radio programme, Britain’s Black Past which mentioned the reliefs and revealed that at least one of the sailors pictured was black. A bit of research revealed that a third of the crew of the Victory, Nelson’s ship, were born outside Britain (including, somewhat surprisingly, three Frenchmen) and that one of the men pictured, George Ryan, was black.

As we celebrate Black History Month, what other memorials of interest can we find in Westminster?

Well, for a start there’s the oldest monument in London – Cleopatra’s Needle. Nothing to do with Cleopatra, it actually predates her by 1500 years, being made for Pharoah Thotmes III. One slightly odd feature of the Needle is that the four sphinxes, ostensibly there to guard it, actually face inwards so you’d think they’d be fairly easy to surprise…

Cleopatra's Needle, London

Moving forward to the eighteenth century brings us to Ignatius Sancho (1724-1780) who, despite pretty much the worst possible start in life (he was born on  slave ship and both his parents died soon after) became butler to the Duke of Montagu and, after securing his freedom, was the only eighteenth-century Afro-Briton known to have voted in a general election (in Westminster). He wrote many letters to the literary figures of the time such as the actor David Garrick and the writer Laurence Sterne, was painted by Thomas Gainsborough and was also a prolific composer.


You can read more about Sancho in several books available to view at Westminster City Archives, and listen to some of his compositions.

And if you happen to be passing the Foreign and Commonweath Office, see if you can spot the memorial to him.

A more famous near-contemporary of Sancho, was Olaudah Equiano (1747-1797), another former slave and author of one of the earliest autobiographies by a black Briton.

Olaudah Equiano

Like George Ryan, Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa as he was known in his lifetime) was a sailor who travelled to the Caribbean, South America and the Arctic, having been kidnapped from Africa as a child. While still a slave, Equiano converted to Christianity and was baptised in St Margaret’s Westminster. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first slave narratives and was reprinted several times in Equiano’s lifetime. He became a leading member of the  abolitionist movement, as one of the Sons of Africa, a group of former slaves in London who campaigned against slavery. You can see a plaque to him at 73 Riding House Street, Paddington and see him portrayed  by Youssoo N’Dour in the  film Amazing Grace.

Olaudah Equiana Plaque, London

One black Briton who needs almost no introduction is Mary Seacole (1805-1881), who fought racial prejudice to nurse and feed  soldiers in the Crimea and who was so popular with her former patients that the Times reported on 26th April 1856 that, at a public banquet at the Royal Surrey Gardens:

“Among the illustrious visitors was Mrs Seacole whose appearance awakened the most raputurous enthusiasm. The soldiers not only cheered her but chaired her around the gardens and she really might have suffocated from the oppressive attentions of her admirers were it not that two sergeants of extraordinary stature gallantly undertook to protect her from the pressures of the crowd.”

You can follow the famous war correspondent WH Russell in the Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number) – he was a great admirer of Mrs Seacole. And if you haven’t already, do read her extraordinary autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. There are two plaques in her honour in Westminster – one at 147 George Street and one at 14 Soho Square.

Mary Seacole

Less well-known than Mary Seacole  is Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911), a Trinidadian teacher who came to London in the 1890s, studied Latin at King’s College and qualified as a barrister in 1897 (though he earned his living as a lecturer for the Temperance Association). He was a founder-member of the Pan-African Association, whose aims were

“to secure civil and political rights for Africans and their descendants throughout the world; to encourage African peoples everywhere in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise; to ameliorate the condition of the oppressed Negro in Africa, America, the British Empire, and other parts of the world”

In 1906, Williams was elected as a Progressive for Marylebone Council and, along with John Archer in Battersea, was one of the first black people elected to public office in Britain. You can read more about Williams (and the other people listed here) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and see a plaque erected by Westminster Council in his honour at 38 Church Street.

Bringing us nearer the present day are two former residents of Westminster who everyone knows. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix, discussed before in this blog, lived for a short time in 1968 at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair, and you can see a blue plaque to him there.

Jimi Hendrix, blue plaque

And we finish on perhaps the most famous memorial of recent years – in 2007 a bronze statue of Nelson Mandela was erected in Parliament Square in the presence of Mr Mandela himself.

Nelson Mandela stature, Parliament Square

You can find out more about the people in this blog by checking out our library catalogue and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as well as our Newspaper Archives. Plus if you want to know who the first Black British woman to write an autobiography was, don’t miss the event at Paddington Library on 27 October!


Two lions to guard me

Marylebone Council House lion after restoration, July 2013

Damaged Marylebone Council House lion, 2013Anyone walking past Westminster Council House on Marylebone Road a few weeks ago will have been horrified to see that the splendid art deco lions who have guarded it since it opened in 1914 had been brutally assaulted, with one losing a nose and the other an ear in the attack. Fortunately they have now been mended and thanks to an excellent cleaning job they look better than ever. Do give them a pat if you’re in the area.

But these fine fellows are not  the only lions in Westminster – let’s have a look at some of the others. The most famous, of course, are the four guarding Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. These were designed by the noted animal painter Edwin Landseer after a competition set by Parliament, despite the fact that, as The Times said, “Sir Edwin never had a chisel in his hand in his life, and never yet, we believe, attempted to model anything.” Read more about Landseer and his family (he was the youngest of seven children, all talented artists) in Oxford Art Online (you will need to log in with your Westminster Library card). The lions, of course, feature in the famous music hall song I Live in Trafalgar Square, which inspired the title of this blog post. Skip the boring introduction and listen to Richard Thompson’s rather splendid version instead.

London pride, by Valerie Colin-RussBut not all London lions are quite as big as those guarding Trafalgar Square and the Council House. London Pride by Valerie Colin-Russ attempts to list all the London lions ‘visible from the streets and public footpaths’.

While our neighbours in Kensington and Chelsea have 365 lions and Hammersmith and Fulham an impressive 1,323 (to put this into perspective the much larger Croydon has a mere 17), Westminster, you will be proud to hear, has a staggering 3,766 lions for you to find. Let’s look at a few of them…

Rather different to the placid creatures guarding Nelson is the lioness found in Grosvenor Gardens which is chasing an antelope. This was commissioned by the Duke of Westminster to celebrate the opening of the gardens to the public – what sort of activities he was expecting shall remain a mystery!

Lions turn up in all sorts of expected (The Red Lion pub on Parliament Street if spotting MPs takes your fancy) and unexpected places (the are sixty lion heads around the top of The Albert pub in Victoria Street. And you might want to take a careful look at the statue of World War I heroine Edith Cavell next time you pass the National Portrait Gallery. See how many of the other 3,700 or so Westminster lions you can spot next time you walk around the city.

London Zoo, on the border of Westminster and Camden, was once the home of real African lions but now only plays host to the smaller Asian variety. These were the lions known in Biblical times and which fought in Roman arenas so you still don’t want to mess with them. Of course you could always buy a ticket to The Lion King or Wicked which feature very different theatrical lions. Sadly it’s no longer possible to round off a hard day’s lion hunting with tea at a Lyons Corner House (though you can read about their fascinating history by clicking on the link) so you’ll have to make do with a Lion Bar.

Animal London by Ianthe RuthvenIf this sculptural safari has whetted your appetite for more hidden (or not so hidden) animals, why not broaden your horizons and take a look at a wider range of species… ?