As I wander around looking at the architecture of London, I have been surprised at how many Girls in Helmets I have seen. They are a legacy of the Roman Empire which projected itself as a great military power (it was!) and the British Empire which saw itself as a benign empire that spread “civilization” and democracy, and was represented by a woman – Britannia. So, we get Girls in Helmets all over London.
Once you know the history of the building, it makes sense that Britannia has a cable that winds around her back, through a telegraph machine and down around a globe where she rests her hand.
The main university building was built as Electra House and was opened in 1902 as offices for the Eastern and Associated Telegraph Companies. In 1933 the administrative centre of the company was transferred to a new building on the Victoria Embankment. The building on Moorgate then served as the administrative headquarters for Imperial and International Communications, which in the following year became Cable and Wireless Ltd. And the building was also the alternative terminal for the nation’s main cable system overseas.
Britannia became a symbol of Britain very early on. In the year 43AD the Roman Empire began the conquest of the island they called Britannia. The name was derived from the Greek name for the group of islands to the west of Europe – Prettanike or Brettaniai.
By the 2nd century AD Britannia came to be personified as a woman with a trident and shield,
wearing a rounded Corinthian helmet which had a face guard that is pushed up.
Britannia made her first appearance on English coins in 1672 during Charles II’s reign.
The model for this Britannia was supposedly Frances Teresa Stewart, a great beauty of the Restoration period who refused to become the mistress of Charles II. She eventually married the Duke of Richmond and Lennox.
The Britannia on the early Victorian coin is clearly inspired by the Roman coin from 1,800 years earlier. Britannia was a way to represent the Power of the Empire that had a Queen – without the aggressive image that a man in armour would project.
The same arrangement of Britannia sitting on a lion appears in the sculpture below – but what a difference!
This Britannia and lion are part of the large memorial to Field Marshall Colin Campbell, Baron Clyde at Waterloo Place.
Wikipedia describes his successful military career – it seems he was in the middle of every big battle:
“Field Marshal Colin Campbell, 1st Baron Clyde (1792 – 1863) was a British Army officer. After serving in the Peninsular War and the War of 1812, he commanded the 98th Regiment of Foot during the First Opium War and then commanded a brigade during the Second Anglo-Sikh War. He went on to command the Highland Brigade at the Battle of Alma and with his “thin red line of Highlanders” he repulsed the Russian attack on Balaclava during the Crimean War. At an early stage of the Indian Mutiny, he became Commander-in-Chief, India and, in that role, he relieved and then evacuated Lucknow and, after attacking and decisively defeating Tatya Tope at the Second Battle of Cawnpore, captured Lucknow again. Whilst still commander-in-chief he dealt with the ‘White Mutiny’ among East India Company troops, and organised the army sent east in the Second Opium War.”
Colin Campbell was created a Baron in 1858; his title of Baron Clyde of Clydesdale reflects his Scottish heritage – he was born in Glasgow. Campbell was regarded as a brave soldier and a careful and prudent leader. The soldiers whom he led were devotedly attached to him.
He must have been held in very high esteem because the sculptor of his memorial was someone who created some of the most important statues in London. Today we might not recognize the name Carlo Marochetti but in the mid-Victorian period he was a sculptor who worked on some of the most important public art in London:
- The statue of Robert Louis Stephenson in front of Euston Station
- The statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel on Victoria Embankment near Temple Station
- He worked with Sir Edwin Landseer on the Lions at Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square
- He created the effigies for the tomb of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore in Windsor Great Park (so, he had the most important patron an artist could have – Victoria)
- He was commissioned to design the statue of Prince Albert for the Albert Memorial, but sadly died before the design was completed.
- AND – he made the statue of Richard the Lionheart on his horse that stands in front of Parliament
Quite a list. I wasn’t familiar with the name of Marochetti, who was obviously one of the most important sculptors of his day. But his statue of Britannia on the memorial to Lord Clyde shows his great skill and artistry.
There are MANY more statues of Britannia in London. Here are a few interesting ones:
With all these powerful women around, one might expect Britain would have more women in positions of leadership.