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The Sign Of The Two Headed Swan

I was prompted to take this uninspiring photograph after coming across an old image of the same location.

The first picture is Gresham Street in 2020 and the second image is the same street a hundred years earlier in 1920. The most prominent building in the second image is Pickfords the removal company and I estimate that the start of their premises is roughly where the two modern buildings join in my photograph.

The 1920 version of the street was built in 1845, but it’s transition to the modern day configuration is largely due to the bomb damage sustained during the Second World War and the post war redevelopment that followed.

The 1845 incarnation was due to the amalgamation of two seperate streets that had existed for over 600 years and are shown on a medieval map dating from 1230. These are ladelane (later known as Lad Lane) and Cattestrate (later known as Cateaton Street)

To return to the 1920s image, the picture had the caption Pickfords on the site of the Swan with two necks. Referring to Rocques map of 1746 the Swan with two necks is shown on what is by then known as Lad Lane.

The Swan with Two Necks was one of London’s most famous coaching inns. It is first mentioned in 1556 standing in a court just off Lady Lane, which is probably the corruption of Ladelane from the medieval period.

Although the inn had a signboard portraying a double headed swan, the name is more likely to be from a corruption of “The Swan with Two Nicks” which relates to swans owned by the Vintners’ Company. All swans on the Thames have been owned either by the Sovereign, the Dyers’ Company, or the Vintners’ Company for centuries. Those owned by the Crown are unmarked. The Dyers company swans carried one small ‘nick’ filed into the beak. Swans owned by the Vintners company carried two ‘nicks’ on the bill, hence the name of the inn. This practice is still carried out annually in July and is known as Swan Upping. Today, instead of marking the bills with ‘nicks’, the swans have rings put on their legs to indicate ownership.

In 1637 John Taylor produced a guide to coaching inns and coach services called the Carriers’ Cosmographie. The entry for the inn reads,

The Carriers of Mancheſter, doe alſo lodge at the two neck’d Swan in Lad lane (betweene great Woodſtreet, and Milk-ſtreet end) they come every ſecond Thurſday: alſo there do lodge Carriers that doe paſſe through divers other parts of Lancaſhire.

Over the next two hundred years the inn grew in both size and also in the amount of coach services. By the early 1790s it is described as the main coaching inn for services bound for the north with 23 daily departures of Mail Coaches. In 1835 it was bought by William Chaplin who increased trade dramatically. Within two years he had a fleet of 68 coaches, 1,800 horses and employed 2,000 men.

Descriptions of the inn and also the scene above show it to be a very busy and sometimes chaotic place. This general melee allowed criminality to flourish and records from the Old Bailey have many cases relating to the inn. Mostly are for theft of property from the inn, storage facilities and in some cases from the coaches themselves.

My favourite case was that of John Sawyer, who on 22nd July 1800 turned up at the inn and asked to rent a room for the night. He was shown to a room with two beds and handed over one shilling and sixpence in payment. The servant asked Sawyer where his luggage was, to be told that he had none and the door was closed ending the conversation. The following morning the servant found that Sawyer had already vacated the room, taking with him two of the bulky curtains that surrounded one of the beds, valued at ten shillings each. How he managed to conceal them and make his way out of the inn without being seen is not known. However, his guile must of surpassed his common sense as he took the curtains to a pawnbrokers on the same street as the inn. The owner was suspicious of Sawyer and a constable was called. Taking his prisoner and the curtains back to the inn, the servant James Silsoe identified both the curtains and Sawyer who’s defence in court consisted of stating “I never was in the house in my life”. He was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

William Chaplin was a shrewd businessman and he foresaw the impact that the coming of the railways would have on the coaching industry.

In 1860 he sold the premises, the coaches and most of the horses and invested it in what later became the London and North-Western Railway. The inn was demolished and in it’s place Chaplin built a goods and parcel depot for the newly formed Chaplin & Horne Ltd., railway agents and carriers.

The British Almanac of 1862 reported “One of the most remarkable recent buildings in the City for its size and constructive features occupies the site of the well-known Swan-with-two-Necks, in Gresham Street. It is built for Messrs. Chaplin and Horne, the railway carriers, and has a frontage of nearly 100 feet, a depth of 150 feet, and a height of 64 feet above the pavement, while beneath are warehouses and extensive stabling. The front has a solid architectural character, in keeping with the purposes to which the building is to be applied. The ground floor, of Portland stone, rusticated, rests on a granite basement, while the three upper stories are of brick with stone dressings, a massive cornice crowning the whole. The architect was Mr. W. Tite, M.P. ; the cost has been a little under £40,000″

This description is that of the building shown in the 1920s drawing of Gresham Street. Chaplin, both as the proprietor of the Swan with two necks and latterly in Chaplin and Horne had been in competition with the firm of Pickfords, who he eventually sold his business to in the early 1890s. The building later became the head office of the company.

And there it stood, up until the 29th December 1940 when Gresham Street suffered extensive bomb damage during the Blitz.

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