Little London On Sea: Why Swanage Has Loads Of Old London Stuff

By M@

Last Updated 05 June 2024

Little London On Sea: Why Swanage Has Loads Of Old London Stuff
A blue city of london bollard in swanage

Swanage in Dorset is home to dozens, if not hundreds, of old bits of London. Here's why, and where to find them.

Swanage has plenty to offer the typical tourist: a mile of sandy beach, picture-postcard chalets, locally netted seafood, a heritage railway, and clifftop walks so stunning that they're part of a World Heritage Site. But for the London-obsessed tourist, the Dorset town has a curiosity around every corner.

Bollards, buildings, obelisks, memorials, arches, columns, statues, tiles... even a fishy weather vane from Billingsgate Market. Leftover bits of London lurk in the most unexpected places.

We can thank two Victorian men for "Little London by Sea", as it's been dubbed. John Mowlem (who founded the famous construction firm) and his nephew George Burt brought tons of London salvage back to Dorset.

The family made its money shipping Purbeck stone to London for construction. Their barges needed stabilising ballast for the return journey. Rather than using random rubble or grit, they often packed in the unwanted curiosities of London, including street furniture, architectural salvage and, occasionally whole buildings. London's loss was Dorset's gain.

Here, then, are 16 architectural oddments that once graced the streets of London, but now taste the sea air of Swanage.

1. Many, many London bollards

A selection of London street bollards dotted around Swanage

London bollards are everywhere in Swanage. Some are prominent on the promenade; others lurk in the backstreets and are easily missed. Sill others can be found out in the surrounding villages, particularly towards Durlston. Many carry the names of London parishes, such as (top left) St Giles and Bloomsbury and (top right) St Anne's Soho. I spotted about 30 London bollards on my wanderings but there are no doubt many more to find.

2. A Christopher Wren building?

An impressive white stone building
Swanage Town Hall. A particularly fine quartet of London bollards can be found around the back (not the ones pictured)

One of Swanage's most impressive buildings is non-native. The Town Hall on the High Street has an arresting frontage which, it turns out, formerly decorated Mercers' Hall on Cheapside. The facade is sometimes attributed to Christopher Wren which, as you can see from our map, would make this his most southerly building. Wren's name is even inscribed on a tablet above the balcony. This is disputed, however, and historians usually attribute the design to Edward Jerman, one of Wren's team who also designed the old Royal Exchange.

3. An old memorial from London Bridge

A Gothic clock tower on the coast with an inset black and white illustration of its original setting in Southwark
The Wellington Clock Tower in Swanage and (inset) in its original setting in Southwark (image public domain). Note that the older image was an 'artist's impression' showing how the tower was expected to look in Southwark. The statue of Wellington above the clock was never added.

This lofty stone tower is now the most significant landmark on the Swanage skyline, but at one time it was merely a traffic hazard. The stone tower was originally erected in 1854, as a "useful and appropriate" monument to the recently deceased Duke of Wellington. The site chosen was the southern approach to London Bridge (and not Waterloo Bridge, which would seem more apt).

It lasted a mere 13 years, proving neither useful nor appropriate to the traffic- and rail-clogged area. George Burt had it shipped over and reassembled in 1868. The clock, which was a leftover from the 1851 Great Exhibition, never made the journey, and the spire was lopped off in the early 20th century.

4 and 5. Statues from the Royal Exchange, and a bit of bridge

Three statues stand either side of a raised gazebo structure in Swanage

George Burt didn't ship all these trophies back just for the delight of the town. Many ended up in his sprawling private residence of Purbeck House (now a hotel on the High Street). Its gardens are haunted at every corner by the ghosts of London past. None more haunting than this trio of statues, two of them headless, which hide away on a croquet lawn. The statues were rescued from the ruins of the Royal Exchange, which burned down in 1838. Their identification is disputed, though the decapitated ones may have been James I and VI and Henry V.

The statues stand either side of a small summer house, which itself is a partial London émigré. The columns holding it up are from an old toll house on Waterloo Bridge (we'll add them to our growing list of dispersed stones from that structure). Inside can be seen floor tiles from the old House of Commons.

6. Columns from Billingsgate Market

Sturdy black iron columns from billingsgate market holding up a wire fence with a view over Swanage

Turn 180 degrees from the summer house and you can view more old relics of London. These iron columns once supported the roof of the old Billingsgate Fish Market in the City, which was demolished in 1874. The cannon balls on top are a nod to the King Alfred column on the sea front, which is topped by retrieved Russian cannonballs. Another column can be seen down by the hotel's entrance yard (see below), opposite a piece of balustrade from old Billingsgate.

7. An arch from Hyde Park Corner

A stone arch at Purbeck House Hotel, with heavy vermiculation

This fanciful arch serves as the chief portal to the hotel's gardens. It was transplanted to Swanage from Burt's Grosvenor Place mansion, on Hyde Park Corner. The face is thought to represent Neptune. The arch was particularly important to Burt — he'd worked on the structure himself during his early years as a stone mason.

8. A rogue blue column

A blue pole with helical twist standing in an alleyway with a cat at the foot

I stumbled across this dainty number while exploring some of Swanage's alleyways. It can be found a short walk from Purbeck House Hotel, along Spring Hill. I can find no other mention of the blue column online, though I suspect this was also a refugee from Billingsgate, given the fish symbol near the top. Perhaps that beautiful tortoiseshell cat can detect a lingering trace of seafood.

9. A weather vane from Billingsgate Market

A huge weathervane, topped with a fish on a stone house

This oversized weather vane certainly is from old Billingsgate. It once stood atop Purbeck House, but has since migrated west along the High Street to decorate a lesser house

10. Replica Elgin Marbles

A replica panel from the parthenon frieze on top of a very curious annexe of the Purbeck House Hotel

What is surely one of the most peculiar buildings on the south coast stands within the entrance courtyard to the hotel. Here, this sturdy, red-tiled gable end presses down on a delicate wooden chalet (origins unknown). The whole ensemble is beautified with a frieze of prancing horses, copied from the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. As Dizzee Rascal might observe, "Bonkers". Oh, and that black column is another refugee from Billingsgate.

11. Bollards from Millbank Prison

A fat bollard beside a green gate at Purbeck House Hotel

Just before the Parthenonically enhanced armoured cottage stand a pair of chunky bollards, either side of the gate. These are said to come from Millbank penitentiary, the notorious prison from which thousands of convicts were transported to Australia. (More substantial remnants of the prison survive in Pimlico, as you can see in my video here.)

12. The mysterious columns and an Albert Memorial

A matching pair of Ionic columns in Prince Albert Gardens, Swanage

More huge chunks of London stand in the town's attractive Prince Albert Gardens. The twin ionic columns were moved here in 1988 following the demolition of Swanage's Grosvenor Hotel. Before that, they supported an unknown building in London — even Historic England draws a blank.

Nearby (visible in the background of the photo) stands the town's own Albert Memorial, a simple stone obelisk with no known London connections, other than the name. It will hardly come as a surprise, by this point, to learn that some of the stone chippings from London's own Albert Memorial supposedly found their way into the facing walls of Purbeck House.

13. An obelisk from St Mary Woolnoth

An obelisk alone on a grassy hillside above swanage

You have to really work to see this one. The stone obelisk stands 162 metres above sea level, marking the top of the chalk escarpment of Ballard Down, to the north of Swanage. It's a serious climb, but the views are more than worthwhile. The obelisk's lonely surroundings could not be more different from those it witnessed 150 years ago. The granite structure began its life in front of St Mary Woolnoth church, just metres from one of the busiest junctions in the British Empire. An entrance to Bank station is now close to the spot. The obelisk was erected by George Burt in 1892, to commemorate water improvement works to Swanage.

Even then it didn't sit still. The structure was demolished in the second world war, so as not to offer the Luftwaffe a waymarker. It was re-erected in 1973 by a team of Royal Engineers. Having struggled up the hill with nothing heavier than a smartphone, I take my hat off to those hardy chaps.

14. A globe from Greenwich, with attendant bollards

A large globe of the world flanked by bollards in Durlston, Dorset

A second hefty cache of London bollards can be found by taking the pleasant cliffside and woodland walk south of Swanage to Durlston. At least a dozen metal misters stand guard around this curious landmark, the Great Globe of Durlston. The globe itself was made in London, at John Mowlem's stone works in Greenwich, where today you can find the Granite Apartments complex. Additional London bollards and a stone from Pentonville Prison can be found further south towards the Tilly Whim caves.

15. A Wimbledon footbridge

A green footbridge spanning the tracks

Not all of the area's architectural salvage came to Dorset courtesy of Messrs Mowlem and Burt. This footbridge at Corfe Castle station arrived as recently as 2007. It formerly spanned the tracks at Merton Park railway station near Wimbledon. With the coming of the trams, the bridge was redundant, and was eventually rebuilt at Corfe to serve the resurgent heritage line.

16. BONUS UPDATE: Gunnersbury signal box

Since this article was first published, a reader has been in touch to tell us about yet another item. Ian Murray tells us that the signal box at Harman's Cross, was salvaged from Gunnersbury in west London. "There is a certain irony here," he tells us, "as the removal of the Gunnersbury signal box allowed the full electrification of the points at Gunnersbury, where the District Line under TFL joins the National Rail network line into Richmond. Because Gunnersbury is effectively a 'saucer', Network Rail have never been able to deal finally and firmly with the flooding of the electrically controlled points in inclement weather, and there are many staff who fondly remember the old signal box and its utterly manual clanking — and want it back."

We could go on... and on... The Purbeck House Hotel contains further London salvage inside that I wasn't able to access. A group of Victorian lamp posts, now removed, once adorned the promenade. Who knows how many old London bollards and other trophies are hidden away in private driveways? Even the heritage railway station carries name boards that resemble tube roundels (although this is simply a version of the historic Southern Rail logo).

Swanage railway station green roundel

Getting to Swanage: Got a secret bollard fetish and want to track down these relics for yourself? I'd highly recommend it. Swanage is not easily accessed by rail — its station is on a heritage line that isn't (normally) hooked up to the national network, though occasional trains now run from Wareham. The cheapest and most frequent option for public transport is to get a train to one of the nearby towns like Poole, Wareham or Bournemouth, then use the (excellent) Breezer bus service, which connects them all and passes along some stunning country roads. Swanage Town Council has more information.

All images by the author.