What Connects Michael Caine, Ronnie Corbett And Nicola Adams? London's Portrait Benches

By M@ Last edited 16 months ago
What Connects Michael Caine, Ronnie Corbett And Nicola Adams? London's Portrait Benches
"And it's goodnight from him..."

The late, great Ronnie Corbett might have been Scottish, but he has a charming memorial on Charles Street, Croydon. The comedian was a resident of the borough for many years. His likeness stands alongside two other local luminaries, actor Dame Peggy Ashcroft (born in Croydon) and composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (raised and worked in the borough).

Three statues in Croydon
Left to right: Corbett, Coleridge-Taylor and Ashcroft.

The distinctive sculptures — statues at a push — are not unique. They were installed by walking and cycling charity Sustrans, as part of a nationwide programme to commemorate local heroes.

Each of the Sustrans 'portrait benches' depicts three local characters, cut from a type of steel that takes on a pleasant weathered appearance over time. Each groupings also includes a bench, upon which passers-by can rest and contemplate the great lives commemorated by the memorial.

Phyllis Pearsall, Michael Caine and Barry Mason at Greenland Dock

Here's another trio near the Moby Dick pub, on Greenland Dock, Surrey Quays.

Phyllis Pearsall, Michael Caine and a bike representing Barry Mason

You'll probably recognise Michael Caine in the centre — he was born in Rotherhithe in 1933. On the left is another famous figure, Phyllis Pearsall who founded the A-Z and is said to have personally walked every street in London. The bicycle and cormorant represent Barry Mason, a local cycling campaigner and birdwatcher who died in 2011.

Sustrans once maintained a map of its two-dimensional portrait sculptures, but its website is now curiously devoid of any mention. To fill the gap, we've created the map above, which shows the seven locations we're aware of across town. (There may be more... tip us off in the comments.)

Alan Turing, Mary Seacole, Michael Bond and Paddington Bear in Paddington

Two statues in Paddington

Perhaps the most famous set of figures can be found in St Mary's churchyard, Paddington. Here you'll find local codebreaking genius Alan Turing who was born nearby, and nurse Mary Seacole who lived and died in Paddington. Both were once little-known figures but now might be described as household names. The trio, or perhaps quartet, is completed by Michael Bond and Paddington Bear, who may also have crossed your radar.

Michael Bond and Paddington Bear

Sylvia Pankhurst, Ledley King and a canal horse in Mile End Park

The little bear from Peru isn't the only animal to appear on a portrait bench. The set in Mile End Park includes a horse in commemoration of the working animals that once towed boats along the Regent's Canal. The rusty equine is flanked by local footballer Ledley King and suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst.

Canal horse
Sylvia Pankhurst statue
Ledley king statue

Finsbury Park's trio of Jazzie B, Edith Garrud and Florence Keen

Jazzie B, Edith Garrud, Florence Keen

The set of statues in Finsbury Park probably get noticed more than any other, for they stand right outside the station. This bunch is the only one to feature two women. These are the suffragette Edith Garrud — famed for her jujitsu skills — and Florence Keen who founded the North Islington Welfare Centre and School for Mothers, but died tragically young. The ladies are supported by DJ and producer Jazzie B, who grew up in Hornsey.

Because of their prominent location, the statues are often used as impromptu bike racks, or public leaning posts...

A man leans on Florence Keen
Careful... she knows jujitsu

Henry VIII, Dick Bouchard and Harry Eccleston in Harold Wood

Henry VIII, Dick Bouchard and Harry Eccleston
Image courtesy of Dave McGowan

Here's a particularly interesting addition to our list. London trivia champions will tell you that there's only one outdoor statue of Henry VIII in the whole of London, and that's above the gatehouse of St Bart's, in Smithfield. Not so. Another likeness of the tyrant king stands proudly in Central Park, Harold Wood, out in the London Borough of Havering and on the route of the London Loop. The kingly connection is the royal palace of Havering, which stood in the area until the late 18th century. We're grateful to Dave McGowan in the Londonist Urban Oddities FB group for that nugget, and the image.

The Tudor brute stands aloof from two gentler souls. Dick Bouchard (on the right) dedicated his life to teaching music to children, and founded the Romford Drum and Trumpet Corps. Behind his back stands Harry Eccleston, who designed banknotes for the Bank of England. If you're old enough to remember the notes featuring Isaac Newton, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale, William Shakespeare and Christopher Wren, then you'll have seen his work first hand.

Nicola Adams, Walter Tull and Luke Howard in Haringey

Luke Howard, Nicola Adams and
Luke Howard, Nicola Adams and

Spurs get another nod (following Ledley King in Mile End), with a statue of former footballer Walter Tull in Downhills Park, Haringey. Even the most die-hard Arsenal fan could not begrudge the inclusion, however. Tull was a remarkable man. Besides playing for Spurs, he also became the first man of Afro-Caribbean descent to practice as a dentist in the UK, and the first black officer in the British army. His life was cut tragically short, killed in action during the first world war aged just 30.

Tull stands beside Nicola Adams, the two-times Olympic boxing champion, who represented Haringey Police Community Club. The trio is made up by Luke Howard, the man who classified clouds. He lived and died in nearby Tottenham.

Have we missed any other portrait benches from the London area? Let us know in the comments below. All images by the author, except the photo of Henry VIII and co from Havering.

Last Updated 19 December 2022