I find time capsules so intriguing. Opening a time capsule gives you a glimpse into the minds of the past. In contrast to most archaeology, the collection and burial of objects for a time capsule is a deliberate and conscious decision, with the express intention that one day they will be uncovered and analysed. Not only are you looking at those select objects which the past has deemed the most important of the day, but you also get a sense of how the past wanted to be seen by the future. They are essentially trying to curate their own narrative, providing their impression of contemporary life. Admittedly, the deciding panel for these objects is normally from quite a limited snapshot of society, but it is still a window back in time, however narrow.
Today I’ll be covering some of what, I believe, are London’s most fascinating time capsules. It’s always cool to know exactly when they were buried and what they contain, but I do believe that, in those cases, you lose some of the excitement of the unknown. Where’s the thrill of a time capsule where you already know exactly what’s inside before you open it?
There are, however, plenty of time capsules which still exist under London which I will not be able to include today, simply because we do not know or have forgotten about them. The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS), an organisation I had no idea existed before my research for this blog post, estimate that of 10,000 capsules known to have been buried around the world since the Second World War, 9,000 have been lost. Not a great track record, admittedly, but it’s our own forgetfulness, like squirrels misplacing their winter nuts, which results in the excitement of discovering time capsules by accident. Whether that’s a capsule under a “sober hospital”, lost for almost 140 years, or accidentally digging up a Blue Peter time capsule 33 years early… Awkward. (It was subsequently reburied.)
It was actually quite tough to pick my favourite time capsules, because once you start looking for them, they seem to be everywhere. Time capsules under Kew Garden’s Princess of Wales Conservatory (buried 1985 by David Attenborough), the column at Seven Dials (buried 1987), Westminster Abbey (buried 1989), multiple under the Victoria & Albert Museum (buried 1899, 1987, and 1995), the Tate Modern (buried 1997), and One Blackfriars (buried 2014).
I got so carried away that I ended up having to split this blog post into two! There will be six time capsules in total, and you can enjoy the first three below.
South Bank Lion
You may be familiar with the South Bank Lion, standing stately (and I have to say, a little bit morosely) over Westminster Bridge. He’s only been there since 1966. Originally he stood on top of the Lion Brewery – not far away, where the Royal Festival Hall is now. That was from 1837 until 1949, when the Brewery was demolished, after which he was transferred to the front of Waterloo Station.
This lion is also special because he is made of Coade stone and is one of the finest examples of such work. Just a forewarning, I’m about to geek out about construction materials, but it’s so worth it. Trust me.
Now, if I asked you what material you thought the South Bank Lion was made out of, you’d probably say stone. That would be a very sensible response.
The truth, however, is slightly more ridiculous, because as convincing as our South Bank Lion is, he’s not made of stone, but ceramic. Don’t worry, thought, he’s not quite as fragile as your mugs back home. It’s a special type of toughened ceramic.
At the end of the eighteenth-century, Coade stone first appeared on the scene. The recipe was perfected by Eleanor Coade (1733–1821), daughter of a wool merchant. She was a determined, successful entrepreneur who would go on to lead the business for over fifty years. The ceramic was a mix of clay, terracotta, silicates, and glass, which was fired at an incredibly high heat, for four days at a time, to produce a very durable, hard-wearing, but at the same time malleable material. The perfect combination. Exactly that which made it a popular “stone” with the top architects of the day, including Robert Adam and John Nash. It’s thanks to the tough nature of this artificial stone that the South Bank Lion looks so pristine to this day. He hasn’t aged a day since he left the factory in 1837. He didn’t have to go far either; the Coade factory was just next door to the Lion Brewery. The recipe and production of Coade stone was such a closely-guarded secret guarded that the material wasn’t fully understood until the 1990s! It was baffling us over 200 years after it was first produced.
But back to time capsules! In this case we need to look in Mr. Lion’s bottom. When he was relocated to his current perch, workers discovered a bottle holding two coins from the reign of William IV and a Coade trade card, like a business card. I love that. Advertising to the future. The confidence.
The production of the lion in 1837 and the coins from William IV’s reign (ruled 1830-37) implies that the time capsule was tucked away when the lion was first installed on the brewery. When it was rediscovered in 1966 a new time capsule was produced. It contains a 1966 coin, a letter from the Greater London Council’s chairman with a brief history of the lion, and an article on Coade stone (see, it’s not just me who’s obsessed). It’s unclear if the original time capsule was also returned, but I hope it was.
During the Second World War, there was a saying that, “so long as the lion stands, London will stand”. He has a special place in my heart to, so I hope he’ll be watching over London for many years to come.
You might recognise Cleopatra’s Needle from Embankment on the north bank of the River Thames. Although it would be more accurate to call it Thotmes III’s Obelisk. It was created for Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460 BC. Cleopatra ruled Egypt between 51 and 30 BC, so the dating is off by over 1,400 years…
It was given to Britain by the Sultan of Egypt and Sudan in 1819 to commemorate Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and Ralph Abercromby’s victory at Alexandria a few years later.
It took, however, 59 years to get the 200+ ton obelisk to the UK (they also lost it and the vessel carrying it for five days on the voyage home).
When it was eventually erected at Embankment on 12th September 1878, two earthenware time capsules were buried underneath.
I’ll include what I believe is a full list of items below for those interested, but amongst the items you might expect (ten daily newspapers, a translation of the hieroglyphic inscription, an account of the obelisk’s journey to London), I find it fascinating that other chosen items included: a baby bottle (called an Alexandra Feeding Bottle), some cigars and tobacco pipes, a box of hairpins plus “sundry articles of female adornment” (as they were described in a contemporary Times article), and… twelve portraits of “pretty ladies” (chosen by Captain Henry Carter, who’d helped ship the obelisk to London). Who these women were and whether they were even aware that they’d been included in the time capsules, we’ll probably never know.
Items in addition to my description above: children’s toys, a Mappin’s shilling razor, copies of the Bible in several languages, a painting of Queen Victoria by Louis Le Prince, a Tangye’s hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in the erection of the obelisk, British coins and a rupee, plans on vellum, a 3-inch model of the obelisk as well as a piece of it, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide and a map of London.
153 Regent Street
This time capsule is a bit more mysterious because no one seems to be quite sure where it is! Theoretically, somewhere underneath 153-155 Regent Street, there is a time capsule which was buried on 29th August 1922 in the foundations of the newly constructed shop for drinks company Hedges & Butler.
The instructions were not to open it until 2022. The only problem is locating it… To the extent that the building has been remodelled since 1922 and the time capsule remains illusive. If it is one day discovered, inside we would find some coins and notes, books, copies of The Times and Daily Mail, as well as a few other unknown items.
What I love about this time capsule, however, is that at the time it was buried a futurologist (another exciting new concept to me!), Professor Archibald Low was asked to imagine what a 2022 world would look like. “Picture them, first of all, coming up Regent Street. Should they drive, they will drive in soundless and scentless electric broughams [an old horse-drawn carriage], on a street made of some resilient material, such as rubber compound.” He also describes London under the blanket of a “great silence” as these fancy electric cars will “speed up and down with scarcely a murmur”. Professor Low’s account of 2022 is quite extensive – clearly he took his job very seriously – but here are a few other details I love. One random prediction is he imagines that underwear for businessmen will essentially be obsolete. Instead it has been replaced with onesies of artificial silk and “over that he will don a similar garment prepared against cold”. A standard fashion accessory which was predicted to join this double onesie look was a broad-brimmed hat, “to afford greater protection to his ever-weakening eyes and skull”. A particularly bleak and rapid idea of how evolution works, but I guess I should forgive him as a futurologist, not a biologist. In addition, women are “almost certain to be wearing trousers”. Goodness. What a thought?
As the Londonist also writes, he semi-predicts the smartphone: “In their pockets, apart from the inevitable wireless receiving set, will be a tiny pocket dictaphone, ready to take down, at any moment, a sound record of their thoughts.” I wonder what Professor Low would think of the real 2022.
These were just the tip of the iceberg! Our adventures into the past continue in Part 2.
- ‘The time capsule craze hits snag as people forget where they buried them’, Independent, (accessed 05/08/2021)
- ‘The History of Time Capsules’, The Edges of Time, (accessed 06/08/2021)
- ‘The International Time Capsule Society’, (accessed 06/08/2021)
South Bank Lion
- ‘South Bank in Focus: Celebrating the South Bank Lion’, South Bank London, (accessed 06/08/2021)
- ‘8 Secrets of the South Bank Lion’, Londonist, (accessed 05/08/2021)
- ‘The South Bank Lion’, Historic England, (accessed 07/08/2021)
- ‘A History of the South Bank Lion’, ianVisits, (accessed 07/08/2021)
- ‘What is Coade Stone?’, National Trust, (accessed 07/08/2021)
- ‘Eleanor Coade’, English Heritage, (accessed 07/08/2021)
- ‘The Time Capsules buried beneath London’, Londonist, (accessed 05/08/2021)
- ‘The ‘time capsule’ secret beneath Cleopatra’s Needle’, Egyptology News Network, (accessed 05/08/2021)
- ‘Photographs of a dozen pretty Englishwomen’, These Islands, (accessed 06/08/2021)
- ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, Historic UK, (accessed 06/08/2021)
- ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, Royal Museums Greenwich, (accessed 06/08/2021)
- ‘Cleopatra’, BBC, (accessed 06/08/2021)
- ‘London 2022, As Foreseen in 1922’, Londonist, (accessed 05/08/2021)