The golden era of transatlantic travel hidden in plain sight by Trafalgar Square.
While the Battle of Trafalgar is melodramatically documented on Nelson's Column, a collection of buildings a few seconds away conceal secrets of infinitely more luxurious adventures at sea.
As the phenomenon of transatlantic cruise liners took off in the the early 20th century, Cockspur Street — to the immediate south west of Trafalgar Square — flourished with the offices of shipping companies. The idea, says the brilliant BBC documentary, The Golden Age of Liner (which you can watch on YouTube) was to bring the glamour of the ocean liners to the street of London. Companies also used alluring models of ships, posters and brochures to lure in passing trade. Along this grand alley linking Trafalgar Square to Pall Mall, wealthy Edwardians came to see which exotic places they might visit, and purchase tickets for their extravagant voyages to far-flung corners of the globe. Less wealthy would-be migrants would have started new chapters in their lives here too.
Just behind Canada House (unmissable thanks to its fluttering forest of maple leaf flags), is Oceanic House — a palatial structure with rounded, porthole-esque windows. Today, home to ritzy penthouse suites, it was purpose built as the London headquarters of the White Star Line company in 1911, which operated ocean liners including the Olympic and Titanic. Not long after the building opened, many of the Londoners who travelled (and perished) on Titanic, bought the tickets that sealed their fate from this very building.
When Titanic did sink on 12 April 1912, Oceanic House became the focus of the drama in London, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reporting:
The inquirers to Oceanic House came steadily but never in a rush. The well-dressed friends of passengers came and went away, preferring to wait in hotels and clubs close by rather than on the firm's premises. Those who remained chained to the place were chiefly relatives of the crew — some of whom even travelled from Southampton. Men from the Stock Exchange and the West End raced up in cabs at busy hours, and returned again and again seeking news and receiving the meagre details which were to be had.
A little further on in the article, we see the nature of the developing news/rumours of the tragedy:
In tube and 'buses one heard people argue that as the cables had lied yesterday, so they might lie again to-day, leaving to-morrow to assure us that the Titanic still floated, or, at least, that most of her people had been picked up.
Unsurprisingly, the disaster had a negative impact on the company, which was even nicknamed the 'Black Star Line', and accused of haggling with bereaved relatives over compensation. In 1934, the flagging White Star Line merged with rival, Cunard — a company, of course, which continues to operate. The original Cunard building (now the Trafalgar St James hotel) can be seen at 31 Cockspur Street, flaunting a grand clock. Further towards Pall Mall is the original building belonging to the Hamburg America Line; this was later taken over by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (who we know as P&O). Today, it's occupied by the Brazilian and Kazakhstani embassies, but a glance upwards betrays its past, including P&O's rising sun logo above the doorway accompanied by its now-defunct motto Quis nos separabit (nothing shall separate us). Among the many other nautical details adorning the building is a copper cupola topped with a golden ship.
A profusion of other companies also operated out of Cockspur Street, including Canadian Pacific, whose old HQ stands almost directly south of Nelson's Column (look up for its stately clock and friezes depicting steam trains and ocean liners); the Canadian National Railway Company (its name still proudly printed in gold lettering, although it's now the Hungarian Cultural Centre); and the Grand Trunk Railway (again, its name emblazoned atop the basilic building at 20 Cockspur Street; and bonus fact, this is the company that Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham fritters away his wife's money on).
The building was originally built in 1901 for the International Sleeping Car Company, which, in June 1902 was offering trips to Engelberg in Switzerland and the Falls of the Rhine in Neuhausen. Just to the left of this sits the stunning Norway House (now occupied on the ground floor by a Thai Square restaurant), built around 1914-15 and serving as the Norwegian-British Chamber of Commerce, as well as housing the Norwegian State Railways Travel Bureau and the Bergen Line. Among its friezes is one of a topless woman cradling a steam train.
Emigration to Canada from Britain back in those days, by the way, was extremely high (in 1921 8% of all Canadian residents were recorded as born in England), which explains the preponderance of companies related to that country — and presumably, Canada House too.
Not all the buildings on Cockspur Street peddled holidays per se; decorating the red brick building directly to the right of the former Cunard headquarters, are various travel-themed motifs, including an anchor and a globe. This was the original address of Stanfords, the map sellers; like Cunard, Stanfords is still in business today (and in this case, not operating all that far away — in Covent Garden).
As air travel increasingly became the choice of the well-to-do traveller during the 1920s and 30s, the golden age of the cruise liner began to dull, and companies moved their premises to less prominent settings. It's quite something that so many of these buildings — and their eloquent details — survive; more so that they go relatively undetected smack dab in the heart of London.