Today (August 22) in London History – London’s forgotten sculptor

Thomas Brock – London’s forgotten sculptor – died on this day, 100 years ago (August 22, 1922). This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Takeaways first. Three of them. See what you think. You tell me, would you pass on this candidate?

First takeaway: the round number of round numbers: it was a hundred years ago that he died.

Second takeaway: his impromptu knighthood. When the rollout came – the unveiling – the king was so pleased with the result he said, “somebody give me a sword, quick” and knighted our man on the spot. 

Third takeaway: his mysterious disappearance – the king dubbed him “Sir”, the world dubbed him “London’s forgotten sculptor.”

How do you resist any of that?

“London’s forgotten sculptor” – no way I’m going to pass that challenge up. Bit of Greek mythology here. I’m thinking about Lethe, one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. Lethe’s the river of forgetfulness. The Greek mythos held that the shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of the Lethe in order to forget their earthly life. Only after the Lethe had erased their memories could they be reincarnated.

Well, in this instance it’s not a question of Thomas Brock – for it was he – not a question of Thomas Brock having drunk deep of the Lethe, it’s as if we’ve done so and the libation has erased Thomas Brock from our memories.

That’s not on. Gotta do something about that. It’s just not acceptable. I’ve resolved, I’m not going to look at those statues again and be clueless about the sculptor who made them. And I’m hoping of course that I won’t be the Lone Ranger, hoping that I’ll have some company. Yes, that’s you – the Doctor in Chiswick and David in Manhattan and Cathy in Australia and the rest of the battalion – 300 to 1,000 – I’m told that’s the size of our unit for this podcast.

Well, bringing up Thomas Brock the man – like a negative coming up in a darkroom – that might take a little bit of work. What’s not going to take any work at all is that impromptu knighthood. Once you learn that it’s literally impossible to go down there and look  at the Victoria Memorial and not see George V snapping his fingers, calling for that sword, nodding at Thomas Brock to get down on one knee and then doing the business with the sword. And – one hopes – saying those words: I do hereby dub thee Sir Thomas Brock, or some such.

Once you make its acquaintance it’s an indelible moment. Memories make us rich. And not just personal memories – historical memories as well. Seeing that impromptu knighthood in your mind’s eye when you’re down there in front of Buckingham Palace, well, you’re having a better time of it, having a richer experience than the people who can’t see it. 

Finally, as for today being the centenary of Sir Thomas Brock’s death – ok, the hold that exerts is likely to weaken over time. But it sure is potent today. Imagine being down there today, pointing it out to a friend, and just casually mentioning, “and as it happens, the sculptor who did that memorial died exactly 100 years ago today.”


And, well, let’s go there. Like attending a wake. Sir Thomas Brock died at home on August 22nd, 1922. Home was 4 Dorset Square, near Marylebone Station, in London.

Now let me tell you something about being a guide. What does a good scrap of London information or London history do for me – I’ll tell you what it does for me – it makes me feel like an old warhorse at the sound of a trumpet. Elaborating on that just slightly – like any guide worth his salt, I like knowing things other people don’t know, I like seeing things other people don’t get to see.

Thanks to this date I’ve now got an extra Dorset Square sugar plum dancing in my head. I’ve talked about this before. The double or treble or quadruple or quintuple or whatever multiple vision that guides have. Until this morning my Dorset Square vision was a sextuple affair: I’m there I see what everybody else sees, I see the square. But I also see five other things. I see Lord’s Old Cricket ground. It’s one of those London palimpsests. Lords – the very first Lords – was there from 1787 to 1811. 

Then the square moves in. And we get the name – the square’s named for the Duke of Dorset, an early cricket patron. The third thing I see is the blue plaque to George Grosssmith, author of that Victorian classic The Diary of a Nobody. Fourth thing: We don’t have a blue plaque but how do you forget her, the English painter Jeanette Pickersgill, the first person to be legally cremated in the UK. And to make it a quintuple: we’ve  got the Alliance Francais, where you can go and learn French and not fail to be moved every time you go up the steps there, because of the plaque that reads, in English and French, “This plaque is erected to commemorate the deeds of men and women of the Free French forces and their British comrades who left from this house on special missions to enemy-occupied France and to honour those who did not return.”

The sixth course was Balcombe Street, which is an extension of the west side of Dorset Square. Balcombe Street – 22B to be exact – was the site of that standoff between an IRA gang and Scotland Yard in 1975. Came to be known as the Balcombe Street siege. It ended well. 

And now, thanks to Sir Thomas Brock, my Dorset Square is a septuple. And I don’t mind admitting, I’ve taken some extra pleasure in finding out that Sir Thomas Brock isn’t on the Wikipedia radar for Dorset Square. 

Ok, that’s the end of our wake. Let’s find out just a little bit more about our man and pin his name to a selection of his statues that you doubtless will have seen but didn’t see the ghost at the banquet, didn’t see their creator. It’s like playing a hand of face cards, listing these statues: Albert at the Albert Memorial, Gladstone in front of St Clement Danes down on the Aldwych, the actor Sir Henry Irving behind the National Portrait Gallery, Captain Cook at the eastern end of Pall Mall, the artist Millais outside the Tate Britain, the Lord Frederic Leighton Memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral.

And to get to the biggie – Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace – well, it’s nice to know that Thomas Brock took care of the other end of the Mall as well. The next time you’re there take a look at Gunnery and Navigation on Admiralty Arch and give yourself a little pat on the back because you’re one in ten thousand – you know the artist who created those fine works.

Which brings us to the Queen Victorian Memorial. It dominated the last two decades and more of Brock’s life. He started on it in 1901. It wasn’t completed until 1924, two years after he died. It’s of course huge. It’s been described as the most important ornamental structure in London. The statistics are mind-boggling. You’re looking at 2,300 tons of marble and 600 tons of granite. The memorial group at the centre is 25 metres high. The enthroned queen is 24 feet high. George V unveiled it in 1911 and, well, you know the rest. Well, you don’t quite know all of it. Here’s a date for you: It happened on Tuesday, May 16th. The foreign guest of honour was Kaiser Wilhelm. And in St James Park there was a 41-gun-salute at the precise at which the king unveiled the statue. I wonder if Thomas Brock secretly thought, “I’m only man in history who had a 41 gun salute when he was knighted.”

Three final thoughts. That unveiling before Kaiser Wilhelm. Victoria dead. Edward dead. Ever the peacock, he will have regarded himself as the foremost monarch in the world. And to think that that day will have been almost the start of the thousand days – the countdown to World War I.

And something for you to look closely at. The winged figure with the mirror – she’s around to the left as you’re facing Victoria. She represents Truth. Now look at the little boy Truth’s got her left arm around. Damned if the rapscallion isn’t having a good ogle at her bare breast. It may be just my depraved mind but I suspect he’s thinking he’d like to get at the truth. You have to ask yourself did prim, proper, oh-so-Victorian Thomas Brock have a streak of mischief in him.

Anyway, that’s story of London’s forgotten sculptor. Not bad for a lad from Worcester whose father was a builder and decorator. Proof, if any were needed, that the birthright of a silver spoon jammed in a mouth is not a pre-requisite for lights-out artistic talent. 

And a Today in London recommendation? You know what’s coming. Our Wednesday afternoon Royal London walk. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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