Above: View through the fog (on Monday 2 November 2015) of the turret and weather-vane on a building on the east side of Bishopsgate.
It is not often that London is engulfed in fog these days. The ‘pea-soupers’, which were last seen in the early 1960s, are now a thing of the past. Every now and again freezing conditions and an absence of even the slightest wind are ideal conditions for fog to descend on London. It was more like very low cloud than a return of the pollution causing the smogs of old. That is exactly what happened on Sunday 1 and Monday 2 of November.
The view was taken with a long lens from Bishopsgate, while standing outside the entrance to Liverpool Street Station. The lack of clarity seemed to heighten the effect. When the turret was constructed, in Victorian times, the weather-vane was probably the highest object in Bishopsgate and it probably enjoyed that supremacy until the 1960s when tall office blocks began to appear in the City of London. Today Bishopsgate seems engulfed in high-rise office blocks — there is even one behind the weather-vane in the picture. That is really the whole point of this article because the foggy conditions have almost obliterated the view of the tower block in the background and for just two days recently the weather-vane could ‘reign supreme’ in Bishopsgate once more.
For most people who have an interest in history there is always the desire to return to a particular date in history and to experience what it was really like at that time. Alas, that is not possible but every now and then we gain a glimpse of the past in scenarios like the one just described.
So, what is at the top of that weather-vane? Well, it is quite an unusual object — it is actually a beaver which is the emblem of Hudson’s Bay Company. Beaver skin was once highly sought after to make such items as fur hats. The gilded figure sits on the top of an office block now called Hasilwood House, on the north side of a short street called St Helen’s Place. The land on either side of that street was acquired by the Leathersellers’ Company in the 1540s. The name of the street relates to the fact that it was laid out on land that had been part of St Helen’s Priory. The Leathersellers’ Hall now stands on part of the land.
London was the centre of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s business and from 1668 their head office was situated in the City of London — at first in Fenchurch Street and later in Lime Street. In 1926 the headquarters was moved to new premises at 60-62 Bishopsgate, designed by Mewes and Davis. The building was topped with a cupola surmounted by a weather-vane in the form of a golden beaver. That building remains today, known as Hasilwood House. The building which is Grade II listed stands on part of the Leathersellers’ land.
Completing the story, the last offices for the Hudson’s Bay Company in London were at Great Trinity Lane, near Garlick Hill. With public opinion turning against the fur trade in the 1960s, Hudson’s Bay Company relocated from England to Canada in 1970, closing their operations in London after 300 years. The fur trade in London and, indeed, in Britain, rapidly declined over the following decade.