A guest post by London Historians Member, Roger Williams
The City of London’s premier guild is the Mercers’, and their Hall lies off Cheapside where it was established in 1517 and rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. The Hall that was destroyed in wartime bombing had been upgraded in 1874, but the Wren-era building is not entirely lost. You still can still see its rich 1676 facade by visiting the seaside resort of Swanage in Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck. This was incorporated into the Town Hall where, beside the balcony on the upper storey, a tablet reads: ‘Old front of Mercers’ Hall designed by Sir Christopher Wren’, though others prefer to believe it was actually the work of Edward Jarman and John Oliver.
Swanage Town Hall
This handsome slice of London was brought here by George Burt, a Swanage mason and nephew of John Mowlem, whose local construction business Burt helped develop. Their trade began in local Purbeck stone, shipped to their London quays in Pimlico and Little Venice. Homeward-bound vessels would make ballast of plunder from their construction sites, which Burt used to make the village of quarriers and fishermen a sought-after resort.
The clock tower that once stood at the end of the Westminster Bridge, for instance, now looks down on boats bobbing in Swanage harbour near two 16ft Ionic columns in Prince Albert Gardens from an unknown provenance in London. Mowlem also developed Queen Victoria Street and Billingsgate Fish Market, and was involved in the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange and the Houses of Parliament.
Choice pieces were saved by Burt for Purbeck House, the residence he built for himself, now a hotel, which the Hutchins family have been running since 1997. Here on the croquet lawn are pillars from Billingsgate Market and statues from the Royal Exchange, one rumoured to be of Sir Thomas Gresham. A ‘temple’ at the back of the lawn has Doric columns from a toll-house that stood on Westminster Bridge and floor tiles from the lobby of the Houses of Parliament. An arch that stood in Hyde Park Corner, with the head of Neptune carved by Burt and his brother F.A. Burt, is another trophy in the hotel grounds where ceramic medallions dot outer walls.
Billingsgate Market column
A bastion on the southeast corner of the hotel has door furniture from Montague House in Bloomsbury, booty from the expanded British Museum. A copy of a chunk of the Parthenon frieze is embedded in the wall above a fancy ticket booth in the stable yard entrance where there are bollards from Millbank prison. Indoors are some fine Arts and Craft touches, and a copy of the Roman tessellated pavement uncovered during Mowlem’s work in Queen Victoria Street, which Italian craftsmen took three years to re-create.
Parthenon frieze copy
Around this sunny seaside town several items stand out: a stone market arcade, bollards from St Martins, lamp stands from Hanover Square, which have all given the resort a grand, if curious, air. Burt’s business made him a wealthy patron of the town, and he was elected a Sherriff in the City of London. When the Dorset writer Thomas Hardy visited the “King of Swanage”, he found “he had a good profile but was rougher in speech than expected after all these years in London”.
The Mowlem company prospered throughout the 20th century and was involved in major projects, such as Bush House, Battersea Power Station, The NatWest Tower and London City Airport. It was bought out by Carillon in 2006.
Stone market arcade
Roger Williams is the author of Temples of London (2014).