A Guest Post by Stephen Cooper.
In research for my book of the Great War told through the experiences of men from one London rugby club, I stumbled across a neglected landmark with a poignant tale. In 2010 I wrote these opening words for a chapter:
“Head south over London Bridge, towards Borough High Street, the old coaching road to Kent. Southwark cathedral crouches to the right and the clumsy bulk of the station’s viaduct looms ahead. Look for a once-splendid, once-white façade: an elaborate blend of arch, balustrade and ornament, with carved swags of hops, grapes and even a stag’s head. Now grey with soot, this, like Miss Havisham’s wedding-cake, is a ghost of a building.
The hands of its clock with black Roman numerals are fixed at 11.47 as they have been since the early 1960s. Ragged shrubs sprout from crevices where no plant should grow, and the faïence frontage offers a tempting canvas to the graffiti artist. This wan face among grimy walls and thrusting plate-glass neighbours like the Shard is a ghostly survivor from another era. It is a corner of the capital where time has indeed stopped.
For over a century, Findlater’s Corner has been a familiar sight to the southbound City worker, ‘passed or seen by more persons every day than any other spot in London’*. The current structure is shrunken from its Victorian original by the encroachments of railway and advertising hoardings. Peter Ackroyd’s London the Biography observes the lingering spirit of place that binds many capital landmarks to their past. Call this instead a ‘place of spirit’, for today it is a branch of an eccentric national wine-seller, evoking its first incarnation in 1856 as headquarters of Findlater, Mackie, Todd & Co. Ltd, Wine & Spirit Merchants.
In the cruellest month of April 1915, a boy brings a curt telegram from the War Office to these same premises, addressed to the Chairman. Its formulaic words, by now dreaded in households across the country, regret a death in the family. A brother, husband and father are all fallen in one man. Since that day another spirit has haunted this corner: the gregarious wine-merchant, soldier and international rugby player, Alec Todd.”
The chapter goes on to tell of Todd’s experience as a British Lion rugby player in South Arica in 1896, of his fighting the Boer War there four years later and of his death near Ypres in 1915. He had nominated his brother, James, as Next of Kin (NOK) so that wife Alice would not hear the fateful knock at her Ascot door. He was shot through the neck at Hill 60 east of Ypres on April 18. The National Archive shows a flurry of telegrams from the War Office to the Norfolk Regiment depot to ascertain the correct NOK. By the time the ‘serious wounding’ telegram arrives at Findlater’s Corner three days later, CaptainTodd is dead in a Casualty Clearing Station near Poperinghe.
The stopped clock was much photographed and internet searches revealed a history of graffiti headaches for the Council. The romantic in me speculated whether the telegram had arrived at 11:47 that April morning in 1915. Had the clock stopped perhaps on the 50th anniversary of Alec’s death? No way of knowing, but it made a good story. That is, until October 27, 2012.
This was the afternoon, three months after the book’s publication, when riding over London Bridge on my trusty Vespa, I glanced up to find the hands at 02:30. Aghast, I enquired inside: ‘Ah, that would be Boris’, I was told. Turns out our esteemed Mayor, bicycling to a meeting at his nearby City Hall, had trusted the clock’s time, only to arrive late. In a fit of civic efficiency, he commanded that a Derby clockmaker be summoned to restore the clock and change the ‘hands of time’. Thanks, Boris. The story is too good to lose, but I have relegated the Mayor’s intervention to a footnote – by way of revenge.
Todd maintains his mystique even in death. He is buried in ‘Pop’ but is also named on the Menin Gate, memorial to those with no known grave. Better that he is doubly remembered than he, or any man, be forgotten.
The full story and many other London nuggets can be discovered in ‘The Final Whistle: the Great War in Fifteen Players’ by Stephen Cooper, (Spellmount ) £14.99 from all the usual sources and also this month’s LH Members’ prize draw, don’t forget to enter.
*The Wine Trade Review 9 November 1934.