Britannia Rules the Waves (8)

Ships Ahoy!

 After spending a couple of days on the sea, I thought about the places in London where you can see ships.
Not surprisingly, since the British Empire spread around the world in a time when foreign travel and trade could only be done by sea, you can find a lot of ships.  And they tell a lot of history.

Ship on Foreign and Commonwealth Office - Europe

Images of the continents decorate the front of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Whitehall. Here is Europe – with a goddess holding a ship in front of the globe. Is it Britannia sending a ship out to explore and trade in far-flung ports?

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel - Tufton Street, Westminster

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, on Tufton Street, Westminster. The motto TRANSIENS ADJUVA NOS is translated as ‘come over and help us’ from the Acts of the Apostles 16:9.

This plaque reveals a lot of history. In 1701, King William III issued a charter establishing the SPG as “an organisation able to send priests and schoolteachers to America to help provide the Church’s ministry to the colonists”. The society’s first missionaries started work in North America in 1702 and in the West Indies in 1703. The Society’s work wasn’t always easy in the American colonies where they had to compete with the Congregational, Baptist and Methodist churches – and many people had gone to America to separate from the Church of England. However, by the time of the American Revolution, the SPG had employed about 300 missionaries in North America and the Caribbean. It soon expanded to Australia, New Zealand and West Africa.

History (and Wikipedia) reveal a darker side to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel:

The SPG was a major slave owner in Barbados in the 18th and early 19th centuries (Note: This was from inheriting plantations and slaves from British owners), employing thousands of slaves on the Codrington Plantation, many of whom died there in terrible conditions and from overwork and cruelty. During the February 2006 meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England, bishops voted unanimously to apologise to the descendants of slaves for the church’s involvement in the slave trade.                                               (from – )

Several ships decorate buildings on New Bond Street, which is now a major shopping street but wasn’t always. Admiral Nelson lived for a while in a house on New Bond Street.

Ship in full sail - New Bond Street

This ship sails above a door. In the upper corners little heads represent the winds blowing to fill up the sails on a full-rigger.

Ship, Viking - New Bond Street

This time it’s a Viking ship with dolphins in the waves.

This scene is over a door on Billiter Street. The two putti refer to maritime commerce. The one on the right is holding an anchor and two ships are sailing behind him. The one on the right has a cornucopia overlofwing with the bounty that comes from the empire.

Ship at Post Office Court, Thomas Coutts monogram

This carved plaque is in a covered corridor on Post Office Court (between Lombard Street and King William Street) on a site that was the General Post Office from 1678 til 1820. I thought this ship might represent the British trading empire or taking mail around the world – but it turns out that the three crowns on the left are an emblem used by Coutts Bank and the monogram is intertwined TCs for Thomas Coutts, so there must have been a Coutts Bank on the site.

Ocean Buildings - off Moorgate

Here’s the Ocean Building off Moorgate. It was built as the headquarters for a company that sold shipping insurance.

Lighthouse - Habib Bank, Moorgate

The front of the Ocean Building faces onto Moorgate. There is a tall lighthouse with a ship on the corner of the building.

The relief in the lunette below (is that the right term?) shows an old commercial clipper ship and a modern steam ship.  Appropriately, it is on the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping building in The City, and is part of the whole decoration of the building which is titled “The Spirit of British Maritime Commerce”.Ladybadge symbol with ships - Lloyd's Register of ShippingThe lady in the middle is the Goddess of Commerce.  From what I can find online, the decoration was completed in 1901.  That surprised me because I thought it looks a bit Art Deco, especially with those strong rays of sun (?) coming from behind the goddess – but I thought that 1901 is a bit too early for Art Deco.

Lloyd's Register seal (image found online)

I found this explanation of the goddess –

The Ladybadge symbol originated in 1799. It showed a nymph standing beside an anchor with a large book bearing the address of the Society next to her. Much of this design was retained in the badge adopted in 1834 by the reconstituted Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping. The nymph became a goddess, holding in her right hand a caduceus, the winged staff of Mercury, symbolising a messenger of the gods. She wore a mural crown (in the form of a wall), indicating Lloyd’s Register’s foundation in the City of London.

There are some exotic ships in London –

Ship on National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

This Roman galley complete with oars is on top of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I THINK it’s Roman, but the battering ram in the front and curved ends look somewhat exotic.

Ship - Roman Galley on Admiralty Screen

This Roman galley is on on of the pavillions on Admiralty Screen on Whitehall. It defiitely IS a Roman galley – see the SPQR (“Senate and People of Rome”) above the end of the hippocampus’ tail? It certainly looks like a warship with the eagle’s head and three swords poking out in front.

Ship on Milestone Hotel, shield

This terracotta design with a ship topped by a helmet with a monster is on the side of the Milestone Hotel in Kensington.

I was hoping to interpret all the symbolism, like the three bumblebees just above the ship, which I thought were an emblem of Napoleon.  I found the building was owned by a French émigré in the late 1700s – “ It next passed to a French émigré nobleman and cleric, Prince Charles Victor de Broglio, who ran from here a Jesuit school which numbered among its ushers the future King Louis Phillipe.

Mosaic of boat, Arundel Street

I really liked this ceramic tile scene of a working ship bringing barrels to the dock. This building it was on, part of King’s College London, has been demolished. I hope they saved the mural and will re-install it on the new building that is going up.

Ship on lampstand - Two Temple Place

This odd little ship is on top of a lampstand at Two Temple Place. It’s probably historically correct, but that little house at the end with a flag on top isn’t something you see every day!

Ship on lampstand, The Mall

And finally – all along the Mall going towards Buckingham Palace the lamp stands are topped by sailing ships.

All the ships in London are appropriate for a nation where the second national anthem starts:

Rule Britannia,
Britannia Rule the Waves!

Here’s a little gallery of a few more ships I’ve found in London


@Cathey Leitch, 2015