Sunday, 17 February 2019

A fountain with no function,
a forgotten synagogue
and a lost Wren church

‘La Maternité’, a charity fountain at Royal Exchange, is a reminder of a forgotten synagogue and three lost London churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

A fountain without a function, the monument to the memory of Paul Reuter and the Peabody statue in Royal Exchange eventually led me to the story of a lost synagogue in London and of three lost churches, including one designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire.

‘La Maternité’ is a charity drinking fountain at Royal Exchange that shows a breast-feeding mother with two children, one at her breast. It is difficult to imagine how this fountain caused controversy when it was erected in 1878-1879.

The inscription on the front of the plinth reads:

Erected 1878 at the expense of John Whittaker Ellis Esq Alderman & William Hartridge Esq Deputy, supplemented by a vote in Wardmote.

The inscription continues just above the basin:

Also by donations from The Drapers Company and the Merchant Taylors Company.

There are two smaller inscriptions. One on the right side of the plinth reads:

J Edmeston – Archt 1878.

The name and date on the back of the sculpture read:

Dalou, 1879.

The marble group was carved in 1877 by the French-born sculptor, Aimé-Jules Dalou (1838-1902), and was erected in 1878. However, it was altered by weathering and was replaced by an inferior copy in bronze in 1897.

The fountain and marble group were erected by the Drapers’ Company and the Merchant Taylors’ Company. A number of sources say the fountain commemorates Alderman William Bartman, but it appears to have been erected without the specific intention of commemorating anyone or anything.

However, the depiction of a breast-feeding mother was controversial at the time. A letter in the Globe, headed ‘An arrangement in milk and water’ and referring to the nearby statue of George Peabody, complained: ‘Do you not think, Sir, that propriety demands that Mr Peabody’s chair should be turned, at least until the delicate operation of lacteal sustentation be concluded, or until the Drapers or Merchant Taylors, to whom the young woman and youngsters belong, provide them with the requisite clothing.’

This collection of the three monuments – the fountain, the Reuter sculpture and the Peabody statue – stand on the site of the church of Saint Benet Fink. The church originally stood on Threadneedle Street, but was later rebuilt on this site by Sir Christopher Wren after an earlier church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

Saint Benet’s, Saint Bartholomew by the Exchange and Saint Anthony’s Hospital Chapel, were demolished in 1842-1844 to make way for the third, enlarged Royal Exchange and for widening Royal Exchange Avenue.

The churchyard was acquired by Act of Parliament but had a long history, and a 10th century wheel-headed cross was discovered on the site.

The church of Saint Benet Fink originally stood on Threadneedle Street. The church was rebuilt in 1670-1675 by Sir Christopher Wren in after an earlier church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was baptised in Saint Benet Fink on 9 April 1801.

Saint Anthony’s Hospital Chapel was first built as a synagogue in 1231 but became a chapel of the French Hospital in 1243. It was destroyed and rebuilt in 1666.

Demolition to make way for commercial expansion was the fate of many City churches in the economic boom of the Victorian era. These three churches were demolished in 1842-1844 to make way for the new, much expanded Royal Exchange built by Sir William Tite in 1841-1844 and for widening Royal Exchange Avenue. At the same time, the churchyard was acquired by Act of Parliament.

Tite’s Royal Exchange was the third on the site, London’s first Exchange was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1566-1570. The original Renaissance-style building replaced after the Great Fire by a building erected in 1667-1671 that was described as ‘the grandest monument of artisan classicism in the City.’

This second exchange burnt down in 1838 and Tite won the competition for the new Exchange. General trading in the building carried on until 1939 and was then replaced by specialist exchanges. The building has a central courtyard area that was designed by Tite as an open space but covered in 1883.

A paved area to the west end of the Royal Exchange has a number of statues: an equestrian statue of Wellington (1844) designed by Chantrey on a plinth; a War Memorial (1919-1920) by Sir Aston Webb with a sculpture by Alfred Drury; a statue in Cornhill of JH Greathead (1993) by James Butler. This area at the junction of Threadneedle Street and Cornhill was re-landscaped in 1985 with low walls, some planting and seating, cast-iron lamps.

Royal Exchange Square, to the east of the Royal Exchange, is a paved pedestrian piazza beside Royal Exchange Buildings (1906-1910) designed by Sir Ernest George & Yeates.

The sculptures and monuments here include the fountain with Dalou’s bronze figure of a nursing mother set on a granite plinth surrounded by planting, as well as Michael Black’s sculpture of Paul Julius Reuter by Michael Black (1976) and WW Story’s seated figure of the philanthropist George Peabody (1795-1869), erected in 1868).

A drinking fountain commemorating the Jubilee of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association is at the south end, a copy of one that was stolen and placed here in 1911 but which had originally been where the War Memorial now stands to the west of the Royal Exchange.

This paved area with seating set around flower beds marks the site of the forgotten Wren church.

‘La Maternité’ caused controversy when the breast-feeding mother was unveiled (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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