Fascinating World

London – an Elephant with a Castle

Dec 3, 2016

We are at “Elephant and Castle” in November 2016. Here on this spot, just outside the “Elephant and Castle” Shopping Center, we find the icon that lent the area its name – a bronze statue of an elephant carrying a castle on its back. It is the bright pink version of the sculpture that used to hover over the Elephant and Castle crossing, attached to the roof of a “Pub” that has shaped the name and history of this area.



The public house, or in short “Pub” in question is called the “Elephant and Castle” and started its history back in 1670. The first visual document available to me dates back to 1824. This is about the time, when its history as a coaching-inn took its beginning. A coaching-inn traditionally is providing horse carriage for hire. At times when education was not a granted right, but a symbol of wealth, and the illiterate prevailed, signboards with pictograms such as the “Elephant with a Castle” helped to recognise a facility or service even for people who could not read or write. Below is probably the first image of the “Elephant and castle coaching-inn, with the pictorial signboard clearly visible in the front.


“Elephant and Castle” gained in importance as a coaching-inn, because it was the most popular starting point of coach journeys on the route from London to Portsmouth. Portsmouth is one of the most important harbours of the country, and is located just 64 miles south-west of London. Even today it boasts the World‘s oldest drydock, and it has been serving the British as a defence port since Roman times.

The etching below shows the “Elephant and Castle” two years after the above picture, in 1826. This etching shows clearly, how the inn has flourished over this short span of only two years. At this point it is already bearing the inscription “Tavern”, a place traditionally serving wine and food. Later on, these coaching-inns developed into public houses, hence they are the predecessors of the famous British “Pubs”.  As a coaching-inn, the Elephant and Castle also  provided rooms for travellers.

Here is the explanation of the etching below, given by the British Museum:
“A large, square coaching-inn in Newington, Southwark, with coaches passing in front, one for Brighton, almost running down a couple crossing the road, a covered waggon with an advertisement ‘Wright’s Champagne 63/Pr/Doz’, an oyster seller on the right. 1826 Etching and aquatint printed in black and blue.”© The Trustees of the British Museum




Until the beginning of the Railway Era, the Elephant & Castle had been a very popular establishment and I found literature from 1863 that underlines that it had been the preferred choice as a starting point of travels on the Portsmouth Route:

“Every one journeyed from the “Elephant and Castle” in the old stage-coach days, before the mails were introduced, and this well-known house early became famous. It was about 1670 that the first inn bearing this sign was erected here, on a piece of waste ground that, although situated so near the borders of Southwark, had been, up to the time of Cromwell, … quite an unconsidered and worthless plot of ground, at one period the practising-ground for archers, hence the neighbouring title of Newington Butts – but then barren of everything but the potsherds and general refuse from neighbouring London.”
In 1658 this “place of desolation” was given to the poor of Newington. In 1673 is is documented “that the premises of the ‘Elephant and Castle’ inn were but recently built”. The rent “of this piece of waste” had been put at 5 Pounds per annum, but had risen to 100 Pounds just a hundred years later. “The neighbourhood had grown by prodigious leaps and bounds, and Newington Butts had become a busy coaching centre.”
When the lease had expired in 1811 “the whole estate was put up for auction in four lots, and a certain Jane Fisher became tenant of the house called the ‘Elephant and Castle‘.”
(Source: The Portsmouth road and its tributaries : to-day and in days … Harper, Charles G. (Charles George), 1863-1943.)

The “Survey of London, vol. 25, 1910” gives us one more fact: The Elephant and Castle had a predecessor, namely a certain “John Flaxman, a blacksmith, who got permission in 1641 from the Lords of the Manor, to build a workshop on a piece of waste ground in the middle of the road on condition that he gave 4s. a year to the poor.”


Detail showing the name of the new tenant, J. Fisher



Cover image of “Survey of London, Vol. 25” is the Elephant and Castle:




Well, this piece of “waste ground” has evidently gained a lot more in value today, the whole “Elephant and Castle” roundabout area being in focus of a large scale renovation and land development project that constitutes the biggest change of the area in hundreds of years.

This is  the Elephant and Castle area in November 2016, seen from a nearby apartment complex at Bartholomew Street. The vision towards the small pub being swallowed up by high-rise buildings.





In October 2011  –  The Elephant and Castle Pub photographed by Ewan Munro.




November 2016: The “Elephant and Castle” Shopping Center is still existing. As part of the large scale renewal plan it will face demolition very soon.

The pink elephant sculpture was unveiled at the launch of this shopping mall, that was said to revolutionise the shopping experience of London. A local blogger writes:
“The three-store shopping arcade, dominated by an 11-storey office block – Hannibal House – was part of city-wide post-war development in the sixties which saw properties destroyed by enemy bombing in World War II replaced by controversial concrete towers and building blocks”.






The Worshipful Company of CUTLERS

“It is known that a Gild of Cutlers existed in the City of London in the 13th century, comprised of cutlers who had settled in the vicinity of Cheapside. As was the case with the other trade guilds of the day, its function was to protect the interests of its members, to attend to their welfare, and to ensure that high standards of quality were maintained. ” (http://www.cutlerslondon.co.uk)

“Arms were first granted to the Company on 17th May 1476, but the elephant and castle crest was not granted until 1622. The original blazon reads “Gules, three pairs of swords in saltire argent, hilts and pommels or Crest: An elephant’s head couped gules, armed or.”  (http://www.cutlerslondon.co.uk)”



The elephant is presumed to allude to the ivory employed in the work of hafting swords, knives and other weapons, a costly material only fit for the best of implements. The motto was originally ‘Pervenir a bonne foy’, To succeed through good faith.”
Left: Crest of “The Worshipful Company of Cutlers”. Today it has its seat in “Cutlers’ Hall, in Warwick Lane, London EC4M 7BR. (Photo below from http://www.cutlerslondon.co.uk)

My research so far has found no proof however, how the “Elephant and Castle” had made its way from medieval gilds to the 1673 documentation of the “Elephant and Castle” coaching-inn. If you have any knowledge that leads further in this respect, please kindly let me know. I am happy to hear from You.
Finally, I would like to end this entry with a series of photos I took in November 2016, to give an idea of the large scale changes presently underway in the “Elephant and Castle” area: High rise steel structures are meeting with Victorian style red brick buildings today.
If you would like to use any of my photos, feel free to contact me.






The Strata Tower, nicknamed the ‘Razor’ or more recently the ‘Lipstick’, is 148 metres high, has 43 stories, and three turbines on top to cover part of the energy needs of the structure. The 39th floor features a “Sky Lobby” (a small corridor with a view over central London).



Newington Estate and Strata Tower:


Newington Estate:

The Hampton Court Palace Hotel (A Victorian Style Pub turned into a Hotel) against the Strata Tower:


Elephant Park construction at the Elephant and Castle roundabout:








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