The Wandering Caryatids Of Southwark Park

By M@
The Wandering Caryatids Of Southwark Park
Two caryatids in Southwark Park

The stone statues that have moved twice around south London.

This pair of stoney maidens in Southwark Park might look sedate but, like Doctor Who's Weeping Angels, they move! Or rather, they have moved. Twice.

The duo began life outside Rotherhithe Town Hall, a late Victorian building that stood not far away on the corner of Neptune Road and Lower Road. Here it is in all its magnificence:

Rotherhithe Old Town Hall with caryatids highlighted
Rotherhithe Old Town Hall with statues highlighted. Image public domain.

There's a special and lovely word for female statues that hold up bits of buildings: caryatids (sometimes caryatides). The most famous ones in London are the quartet along the side of St Pancras New Church on Euston Road.

Their Southwark sisters were sculpted by Henry Poole. You might not know the name, but you've probably seen his work. This is the man who contributed most of the ornamentation to the magnificent Blackfriar pub near Blackfriars Bridge.

Rotherhithe Town Hall was badly damaged in the second world war and demolished shortly thereafter. But the caryatids lived on, standing guard over the site until the 70s. With their overburden destroyed, they had technically become mere statues, but since caryatid is such a fine word, let's continue to call them by that name.

In 1974 the old Town Hall site was earmarked for development. The caryatids had to leave their original home, but they didn't travel far. They were re-erected on the Heygate Estate near Elephant and Castle, about a mile away. Here they were displayed back-to-back, separated by a brick tower, thus:

A caryatid against a brick wall on the Heygate Estate
Caryatid on the Heygate. Image public domain

And so they remained for another third of a century. Then, in 2009, the Heygate Estate was itself scheduled for demolition. Thousands of residents had to find new homes, and so too did the stone figures. Happily, the Friends of Southwark Park took the caryatids under their wing, and the sisters were re-erected in the park in 2011.

The stone figures are draped in leaves of oak and laurel. The one on the right has lost her arms.

Today, you'll find the figures near the Jamaica Gate along the south-western edge of the park. Until someone forces them to move on once more...

Last Updated 20 November 2023