Piccadilly local, Andrew Jones, stumbles across London's only remaining porters' rest... but IS it, though?
On Piccadilly, at the edge of Green Park opposite the Cavalry and Guards Club, stands what appears to be a thin, rectangular table, supported by two decorative columns.
It's the sort of table where, on a warm summer's evening, you might rest a martini while admiring the sun go down in between the Wellington Arch and Apsley House.
As you approach the table, you realise that it is a little higher than your average bar counter. On a long bronze plaque is the inscription:
At the suggestion of R A Slaney Esq who for 20 years represented Shrewsbury in Parliament, this porters rest was erected in 1861 by the Vestry of St George Hanover Square for the benefit of porters and others carrying burdens. As a relic of a past period in London’s history, it is hoped that the people will aid its preservation.
The profession that had its own beer
Until the mid-19th century, porters' rests such as this were typically found outside inns. Before the development of Belgravia and Knightsbridge, this end of Piccadilly was on the western edge of London and there were numerous staging inns serving as transport hubs where passengers and goods would arrive and leave in stagecoaches, providing work for local porters.
These inns had similar porters' benches outside with 'boards' for depositing their loads. (Porters' benches are also found in parts of India — they tend to be made of stone.)
At that time, one would rent a porter as one might now order a courier bike or hire a man with a van. There were badge-wearing 'Ticket Porters' and 'Fellowship Porters' (who carried 'measurable; goods – salt, coal, etc). Both were licensed by the City of London (examples of their badges can be found at the Museum of London).
William Darton illustrates the two sorts of porter in his City Scenes of 1828, and a similar rest is clearly visible.
Porters needed energy, so drank quantities of beer. This gave rise to a brew called 'porter'. Beer Street by William Hogarth shows a ticket porter outside an inn refreshing himself from a generous tankard.
London's porters today
An example of the portering occupation still exists in Smithfield Market, where licensed meat porters are known as 'bummarees' (and their act of carrying a large piece of meat is, somewhat surprisingly, technically known as 'humping'). They wear long white coats, beautifully besmirched with blood to look like abstract expressionist canvases, and hump colossal carcasses on their backs.
These bummarees — and the rather expensive luggage porters at Heathrow — are the last vestiges of a profession which employed several thousand in 17th-19th century London.
A mysterious disappearance
But Piccadilly's porters' rest is not all it seems. It is in fact a reproduction of the original Grade II rest, which (somehow) went missing under the care of Westminster City Council around 2014-2015.
In 2016, following pressure by Peter Berthoud, a local guide, the replacement was unveiled by Cllr Robert Davis and Simon Kenyan Slaney (the great-grandson of RA Slaney MP, a Whig politician remembered for his efforts to educate and improve the conditions of the poor).
The reproduction appears to be faithful to the original — even down to the missing apostrophe after "porters".
The Buildings of Green Park, by Andrew Jones, is published by ACC Art Books, with a foreword by Alain de Botton. Follow Andrew on Instagram as @mayfairbuildings.