What would a London street have looked like in the 1870s? There would have been over two million horses taking people and goods around the metropolis, for a start. The roads were all cobbled, providing a non-slippery surface for the horses, but there were neither traffic lights nor zebra crossings. Cabdrivers and their hansom cabs or hackney carriages waited for fares in designated cab stands. By law, a cabbie could not leave his horse and cab unattended; if he wanted to nip into a pub for quick bite, he had to pay someone to look after them. If the weather was appalling, he had nowhere to take shelter. London was crowded and noisy, as today, but the noises were different, even the smells were different.
A Cabman’s Shelter Hut, at Temple Place, London, WC2. It now sells coffee and snacks to passers by
In 1871, the philanthropist, the Earl of Shaftesbury, set up a charity, the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, to help London cabbies. He erected a number of green huts; they couldn’t be larger than a horse and cart because they sat on the public highway, and they each contained a small kitchen, seats, tables, books and newspapers for up to a dozen men. They were run by an attendant who sold hot food and non-alcoholic drinks. It struck me that London was once full of things like cabbies’ shelters and horse troughs which are now redundant. Most of them have vanished but a few remain – like the occasional horse trough, filled with flowers, and thirteen of the Cabmen’s Shelters, all now Grade II listed buildings.
Warden’s hut in Victoria Embankment Gardens
The park warden’s hut is another example of a now redundant hut. The mock Tudor one above dates from the 1860s when the gardens were laid out following the building of the Circle and District lines and the creation of the Embankment and Joseph Bazalgette’s construction of London’s main sewer in the 1860s. But what knocked it sideways? It looks as though it’s suffering from the morning after the night before.
Thornhill Square, Islington
Little huts were once everywhere, all self-respecting squares – at least the sort with a garden in the centre – had one. Thornhill Square, built in the 1840s, is a good example. The elegant terrace houses overlook an attractively designed square with paths, rose beds, a shrubbery on a small hillock, various cherry trees, and what is now a magnificent plane tree. A yellowish London brick hut sits against the tree.
The Thornhill Square hut
The hut warden’s job – a burly man, I remember him well – was to unlock and lock the garden gates at the appropriate times. He was there to keep an eye on the place. There is a small fenced off playground for toddlers with benches for mums to sit and chat; and a larger playground with swings and a slide for older children. The warden sat outside the hut with his dog and, every now and then, they would do the rounds of the square, just to make sure that everything was, and stayed, in order. Which it did.
The hut was quite spacious inside with water and electricity, though back in the 1840s it must have been more Spartan.
Policeman outside his box. He’s guarding the royal residence of St James’s Palace
There are other shelters which are still very much in use like this policeman’s sentry box outside the entrance to St James’s Palace and Clarence House, once home to the Queen Mother and now Prince Charles’s London residence.
As you can see, the policeman is bristling with weaponry and, on the day I met him, security was high but he was happy to chat for a few moments whilst keeping his eyes peeled for anything untoward. Notice that he, like the park warden in Thornhill Square, also has a chair to sit on.
Entrance to St Leonard’s Court air-raid shelter
Some small huts, however, can be misleading. The attractive red brick hut with the conical tiled roof in the photo above, is situated in the front garden area of St Leonard’s Close, an expensive 1930s development of classy flats in East Sheen, London SW14. It looks like a dovecot but, in fact, it’s the entrance to a private air-raid shelter dating back to the Second World War, and it leads to a narrow, very steep staircase.
The Men’s Day Room
The underground shelter comprises a long corridor and four rooms: a Gentlemen’s and a Ladies’ day room, and a Gentleman’s and a Ladies’ dormitory. At the back of the photo of the Gentleman’s Day Room you can see two recesses on either side of a projecting cupboard. They are labelled GENTS – which is what they were. There was a bucket in each with a curtain across for privacy. It looks very primitive. Our guide once interviewed an old man who’d taken shelter down there during the Blitz; he’d said that the shelter was so horrible that he decided he’d rather take his chance in his own flat. Fortunately, St Leonard’s Court was never bombed.
A sentry of the Blues and Royals in his ‘box’ facing Whitehall.
Sentry boxes come in all sizes. The sentry in the photo above is known as a ‘boxman’ because his sentry box, at the entrance to the Horse Guards, is tall enough to shelter a mounted soldier. Horse Guards, comprising the Life Guards (with scarlet jackets) and the Blues and Royals (with dark blue jackets), have a dual role: to guard the Queen and take part in ceremonial duties, but they also go on active service, like any other regiment. The sign to the sentry’s right says: BEWARE, HORSES MAY KICK OR BITE. THANK YOU.
The sentry doesn’t just stare straight ahead, he looks to both right and left to check for any danger. And, of course, the poor man has to put up with the public trying to make him react, or getting as close as they dare to have their photos taken with him. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to be there for too long; the guard changes every hour so as not to tire the horses.
Shell Seat in the gardens of Strawberry Hill, Twickenham
I’m ending with a different sort of shelter, this delightful shell seat, designed by Richard Bentley, friend of Horace Walpole, for the late 18th century gardens at Strawberry Hill. It’s big enough to shelter three or four people, and the top of the shell curls over enough to protect them from the rain.
What I like about this miscellany of objects is that, whilst they are all about sheltering people in one way or another, they do so in a pleasing variety of ways. My seven very different shelters feel like a good haul, and they confirm my belief that keeping your eyes open to your surroundings can lead to some fascinating discoveries.
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