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The Return of Sebastian Harding

February 15, 2017
by the gentle author

Over the last five years, Illustrator Sebastian Harding has been constructing intricate models in paper and card of London’s vanished and vanishing buildings, and recently he has turned his attention to the much-loved Foyles Building in the Charing Cross Rd which is slated for imminent demolition in spite of a campaign of over 5,000 signatures to save it. Now Sebastian is seeking to collect memories of those who worked in or used this building, so please email him at if you can help or click here to read more about his project.

Foyles Building, 113-119 Charing Cross Rd

In just a few months, we will see the demolition of 113-119 Charing Cross Rd, better known as the former home of Foyles Bookshop. In 1929 William Foyles opened his newly expanded bookshop here after trading on the same street since 1906 and it soon became known as one of the largest of its kind in Europe.

The Charing Cross Rd facade dates from the early nineteen-hundreds and boasts a simple asymmetric design built of plum red brick with classical columns. The building runs back the length of Manette St with a bolder Art Deco facade dating from 1929 and these two facades are charmingly interrupted on the corner of the building by an early Victorian stuccoed facade.

Regrettably, this major London cultural landmark will soon be demolished to make way for another luxury office development and although SAVE Britain’s Heritage submitted a petition with over 5,000 signatures to the Secretary of State in July, demanding a public enquiry, it was to no avail.

For generations of book lovers, this huge building provided a haven of tranquility in the noisy and chaotic hub of central London. For over eighty years Foyles, with its labyrinthine layout, sprawling floors and large cafe was far more than just a bookshop. Full of oddly-shaped spaces and quiet corners, the place exuded an irresistibly-inviting atmosphere.

The building’s demise stands as a warning of the current wave of short-sighted decision making by the City of Westminster. Over the past ten years, numerous buildings of historical interest in this area have gone. On Charing Cross Rd alone there has been the demolition of The Astoria and neighbouring buildings 157–167 in 2009. This was followed soon after by the block running 135–155 and, in 2014, numbers 140–148 were also razed to the ground.

The Marquis of Lansdowne, Cremer St, Hoxton

Opening before 1838, The Marquis of Lansdowne was a typical East End pub which became the focus for workers in the cabinet-making trades which filled the surrounding streets for over a century. After drastic slum clearance and redevelopment in Hoxton in the mid-twentieth century, the pub fell into decline and closed. In 2013 David Dewing, Director of the Geffrye Museum  announced the demolition of the pub for the sake of a concrete cube restaurant as part of a multi-million pound revelopment of the museum designed by Sir David Chipperfield. However, largely thanks to a campaign by readers of Spitalfields Life, Hackney Council refused permission for demolition of the historic pub. Subsequently, the Heritage Lottery Fund supported a new scheme by Wright & Wright which requires no demolition, expanding the museum’s galleries by opening up unused spaces in the existing buildings and restores the Marquis of Lansdowne.

The Saracen’s Head, 4-7 Aldgate High St

The Saracen’s Head public house was demolished in 1913. Even in the late nineteenth century, Aldgate survived as a slice of sixteenth and seventeenth century London until the developers moved in from the eighteen eighties to modernise these streets. It was one of the few places to avoid the Great Fire of 1666, where the locals gathered to watch the conflagration. This makes the Saracen’s Head all the more important to the area’s history and, though long gone, there is a plaque at No. 88 Aldgate High St commemorating its existence.

It operated as a coaching inn with a service that departed from the yard at the back, transporting Londoners to East Anglia – hence the building’s location on the main road eastward out of the city. The frontage holds wonderful early examples of  Baroque decoration and the ornate moulding echoes the decoration seen on the Baroque post-Fire churches – including St Paul’s – that emerged throughout London at the time. When the building was demolished, it was functioning as the Metropole Restaurant with the Ladies Select Dining Room housed on the first floor. After its destruction, the Guildhall Museum bought the intricate wooden pilaster capitals  for their collection, confirming its aesthetic importance.

Nicholas Culpeper’s House, Red Lion Field, Spitalfields

In 1640, when Nicholas Culpeper, the herbalist, married Alice Field, aged fifteen, he was able to build a substantial wooden house in Red Lion Field, Spitalfields, with her dowry. Here, he conducted his practice, treating as many as forty citizens in a morning, and in the land attached he cultivated herbs – collecting those growing wild in the fields beyond. Since Culpeper never finished his apprenticeship, he could not practise in the City of London but chose instead to offer free healthcare to the citizens of Spitalfields, much to the ire of the Royal College of Physicians. In this house, Nicholas Culpeper wrote his masterwork known as Culpeper’s Herbal which is still in print today.

After Culpeper’s death, the building became the Red Lion public house, surviving into the nineteenth century when it was demolished, as part of the road widening for the creation of Commercial St to carry traffic from the London Docks.

186 & 184 Fleet St

If you were to take a stroll down Fleet St today, you might like to take a closer look at the buildings that stand at 186 & 184. They perch immediately to the right of St-Dunstan-in-the-West on the north side of the Street in a row of inconspicuous turn-of-the-century buildings. On closer inspection each appears distinct, but all three are somewhat tall and somewhat narrow. Their cramped proportions are explained by the fact they were built, like much of London, on the site of two ancient pre-fire buildings.

The history of the nineteenth century buildings that occupy the site today relates directly to the rise of the newspaper trade that proliferated in the area. Indeed, Fleet St is still synonymous with British journalism despite all major publications now being headquartered elsewhere.

Today the site of 184 & 186 is home to the Scottish firm D.C. Thomson & Co., who claim to be the last newspaper group to retain a base on Fleet St, and the titles of their publications, The Sunday Post and The Dundee Courier, are still proclaimed in mosaic on the façade of their neighbour at 188.

Part of Rothschild Buildings, Spitalfields

Before their demolition in the seventies, the Rothschild Dwellings were visited by historian Jerry White whose first impression of the buildings was that he had “never seen tenements, so starkly repulsive” and “so much without one redeeming feature” in his whole life.

The Rothschild Dwellings were erected in 1888 by the ‘Four percent Industrial Dwellings Company’ and stood on the sight of what had once been respectable middle class residences in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which had degenerated into lodging houses and slums.  In the mid-nineteenth century, the old filthy streets with their myriad alleyways and courts were swept away. In their place, came the wide thoroughfare of Commercial St and large housing blocks such as the Nathaniel Dwellings (1892), the Lolesworth Buildings (1885) and, of course, the Charlotte De Rothschild Dwellings (1887). The tenants of these buildings were respectable working class tradesmen and craft workers able to pay the slightly higher rent.

The Fortunes Of War Public Tavern, Cock Lane, Smithfield

Smithfield Market’s proximity to St Bartholomew’s Hospital betrays a lot about the British public’s distrust of the medical trade. It is fitting therefore to focus on one building that catered to both trades – The Fortunes Of War Public Tavern.

Let us place ourselves in the eighteenth century as we watch a student of anatomy making his way into the tavern. He is here, not as you would expect for his leisure, but for his studies. He is led by the landlord down dank mouldering stairs to the cellar. Rows of sacks give off a pungent smell of rotting meat, yet these are not the carcasses of swine or cattle but the bodies of recently dead Smithfield residents.

This was the secret trade of the Body Snatchers or Resurrectionists that supplied students and professors of anatomy with fresh corpses. For a God-fearing public, it was immoral and barbarous in the extreme, for this was a time when many believed a soul would only be granted into heaven if their corporeal body was intact, while being dissected meant an eternity in purgatory.

John Aston’s House, Charterhouse Lane

John Aston was a priest in the parish of Smithfield, arrested at the same time as the influential protestant leader John Rogers. Queen Mary’s secret police randomly inspected any priests who had been advocates of protestantism before her ascension to the throne in 1553.

Unsurprisingly, the inspections would usually find a protestant bible or a mass being held. Typically, the raids were held on Sundays and John Aston’s misfortune was to be found eating meat in one of these raids. The tyrannical catholic religion of the sixteenth century forbade any consumption of meat on Sunday and he was burnt at the stake for this trifling pretence.

20 Cock Lane, Smithfield

The name of this street can be traced to its proximity to the market, where poultry would once have been traded, but it also serves also as a risqué innuendo, since for hundreds of years it was the preferred haunt of prostitutes. It was on this street that fraud, haunting, murder and sex were all intertwined in one story.

Late one November night in 1760,William Kent was away on business in Norfolk. His wife Fanny, wishing to alleviate the loneliness of her nights alone, invited Betty the youngest daughter of the Parsons – the landlord’s family – to sleep in her bed. In the night, Fanny was disturbed by scratching sounds like claws on wood and lay frozen with fear. On appealing to Mr & Mrs Parsons, she was told a shoemaker lived next door and her fears were assuaged. But the next night was Sunday when no good Christian would ever work, yet the scratching came again, brought to a terrifying end by a loud bang.

After William Kent returned the next night the sounds were not heard again. Then, two months’ later, after a furious row, Mr Parsons threw the Kents’ possessions out onto the street,  even though William had not received a penny of the money he had loaned to his landlord the previous year. Subsequently, Fanny succumbed to smallpox and died on February 2nd 1761.

Some time later, the Parsons family began to hear the same scratching again and made sure it became a talking point for superstitious members of the community. The methodist preacher John Moore held a séance and ,when he asked if a spirit was present, a knock rang out. A second question followed – “Was the spirit that of the late Fanny?” Another knock. “Was Fanny murdered by her husband?” the reverend asked and then followed the loudest banging the party had heard.

Subsequently, William Kent was hanged, but afterwards the events were revealed as a fraud motivated by the feud between Mr Parsons and his tenant over the loan. Parsons was sentenced to three years in prison and three days in pillory, but later became regarded as something of a celebrity.

Mother Clapp’s Molly House, Field Lane

This was not a coffee house as we would know it, but rather a private club for gay gentlemen, where they could meet and form relationships without fear of discovery. The discretion of fellow members was crucial and entry was only permitted to those who knew a password. There were even gay marriage ceremonies conducted in locked rooms between men, with one donning a bride’s dress and the other a groom’s jacket. Mother Clapp herself presided over all, only leaving to get refreshments from the pub across the street.

Everything we know about this secret sub-culture stems from the raid by The Society For The Reformation Of Manners which had placed secret police inside the house. One man, a milkman, was hung for being found in the act of sodomy and Mother Clapp was sentenced to a day in the pillory. The crowd was so furious that they ripped the pillory from the ground and trampled it, and Mother Clapp died from the injuries sustained.

Sebastian Harding

Illustrations copyright © Sebastian Harding

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. February 15, 2017

    I love these models. Deliberately weak planning legislation and big money are doing more damage to London’s heritage than the blitz ever did.

  2. February 15, 2017

    Sebastian; I like your unique building form all clever stuff, lots of research and hard work was needed here. I suggest you collect all your 3d model buildings and more, make them into a major collection and present them to a major London museum. Cost to them would not be excessive. I consider them that important. You have added a new dimension and give further meaning to our historic buildings. Young persons and schools would be delighted to see them I am sure. Poet John PS Make up Sam Pepys old house in Seething Lane if you can.

  3. February 15, 2017

    Sebastian’s models are wonderful. I can’t believe that Foyle’s will be gone when I visit London again, what a shock. Valerie

  4. February 15, 2017

    Those who want to learn more about Mother Clap’s Molly House should refer to, the website of Rictor Norton who has written an eponymous book on the house and the whole subcultural world of 18th century gay life in London, as well as much else on gay history and literature.

  5. February 15, 2017

    When in Fleet Street, I always look out for the cheery building, proclaiming the Dundee Courier. I shall enjoy it all the more now.

  6. February 15, 2017

    Thank you for revealing this fabulous paper chase! The buildings are totally captivating……further proof that the so-called “ephemeral” paper arts are enduring and spot-on.
    Applauding Sebastian and the Gentle Author — Many thanks.

  7. Yvonne M permalink
    February 15, 2017

    These are wonderful models, full of character. They skill of the maker and the history behind them is captivating.
    I wish they were produced in kit form to buy. I loved card models as a child and now have a collection of period houses and furnishings made of wood.

  8. February 15, 2017

    Also shocked to read about Foyles. And what of poor Mother Clapp?

  9. Jill permalink
    February 15, 2017

    Annually, the Year 2 children at the school where I work make cardboard houses in the style of the 17th century when studying the Great Fire of 1666. Our local fire brigade attend when the caretaker sets fire to them, watched by the children on the school field, then the fire brigade put the fire out (and follow up with a talk on fire safety).

    On another note, I used to take my kids to Foyles to spend their pocket money and get lost among the shelves. It was an eccentrically run business, the kids are now adults, shame they won’t be able to take their kids for the same delightful experience.

  10. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 16, 2017

    Those of us who remember the old Foyles always wondered, given its chaotic internal lack of organisation, how it made money.
    Enlightenment came later, when it was apparent that they were being, um, “supported” by the government of the PRC.
    [ I understand that, earlier on, in the 1930’s, they had received Soviet support ( in opposition to the Nazis ) but that there had been some sort of ideological contretemps in the early 1950’s, hence the switch of connections ]

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