Not so long ago my toddler son was delighted to be taken for his first ride on the top deck of a double-decker bus. For him escaping the constraints of a buggy downstairs and achieving the mystical heights up top was a very exciting prospect. From his constant grin, he wasn’t disappointed with this new perspective of city streets from on-high.
As an adult its all too easy to become jaded about this kind of thing, but as I was reminded the other day, even the most routine of journeys can hold surprises.
I was on a bus heading into work. Like most mornings I had my head buried in a book in my usual pre 9am attempt to avoid inessential engagement with the rest of the world, but the bus had ground to a halt and hadn’t moved for a while. So I looked up.
We were somewhere on Moorgate. A traffic jam stretched north, up beyond the junction with London Wall and the corner pub once known as The John Keats and on past the tube station. For some unfeasible reason Nicholson’s have renamed that pub The Globe, and the great Romantic poet has been reduced to the status of a bar. Another reason to harumph on the top deck.
Looking away from the bleating cars below, I glanced over to the right hand side of the road. There on the facade of a bank, was a lighthouse sculpted into the corner of the building, with a pair of full-masted merchant ships in relief sailing alongside. It’s one of several nautical carvings on the building’s Portland Stone facade.
I’ve tried to find out who sculpted it. Thanks to a combination of helpful librarians at The Guildhall Library and the Islington Local History Centre, along with various internet searches of my own, I’ve been able to discover the architects: Sir Aston Webb & Son – who according to RIBA were commissioned to redesign the building in 1914.
There is a reference to the building on the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association site, here Number 42, Moorgate – sculpted facade. Underneath the entry, ‘contributors’ are listed as the Architects Aston Webb and W.H Atkin-Berry, but it’s not clear exactly what the specific role of each was in this particular building. The arcade facade of Moorgate Place around the corner though was by Atkin-Berry.
Thanks to Mark Aston, the local history manager at the Islington Local History Centre, I was able to learn that the original inhabitant of the building (perhaps responsible for its construction) was The Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation Ltd. This would explain the building’s nautical themed facade.
The London Metropolitan Archives lists the following:
Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation Limited, insurance company, of 36-44 Moorgate Street (in 1901). The company was established in 1871 as the Ocean Railway and General Travellers’ Assurance Company Limited; it became the Ocean Railway and General Accident Assurance Company Limited in 1875. It amalgamated in 1890 with the Ocean and General Guarantee Company Limited, and changed name to Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation Limited. It was acquired in 1910 by Commercial Union Assurance Company Limited.
As Mark Aston suggests, it seems quite likely that the lighthouse was a symbol of the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation.
Pevsner’s The Buildings of England London 1: The City of London (thanks to Isabelle Chevallot of the Guildhall Library for confirming) contains the following entry:
the former Ocean Accident, by Sir Aston Webb & Son, dated 1928. The Commercial Union, Webb’s patron, had taken over the company in 1910. Webb’s new building is subtle and inventive. Five strongly rectilinear bays with paired giant pilasters at the ends. Mullioned triple windows between, with simplest recessed mouldings. Above, an attic with mullions treated as shaped piers, a larger top cornice, then storeys set back. Much playful nautical detailing: seahorses, ship’s-prow capitals, and in a corner niche a charming sculpted lighthouse (with working light) and a galleon in relief.
Today, sadly, the light no longer appears to be working, although the glass appears still to be intact. Number 42 Moorgate is currently home to a private bank, Habib Bank AG Zurich, however rather fittingly a shipping registration company is still based upstairs.
Whoever actually crafted it, the Moorgate lighthouse serves as a reminder to look up and out, you never know when you might stumble across something unexpectedly beautiful, especially when you’re on the top deck of a bus.
Links & References
Public Monuments & Sculpture Association – National Recording Project
Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation (once occupied the building)
Islington Local History Centre
Royal Institute of British Architects listing for 36-44 Moorgate
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