UPDATE July 2014: The Baker Street bombshell – as detailed below – has been removed. It’s whereabouts are now unknown.

On the eastbound Hammersmith, Circle and District line platform at Baker Street is something you don’t usually want to be in close proximity to when you’re stuck underground.

A foot long World War 2-era shell.

Sitting beside the beautiful (and recently restored) marble memorial to the railwaymen who lost their lives in the First World War, the shell was donated by the engineering company Vickers for use as a Railway Benevolent Institution collection box.

It may seem a slightly bizarre gesture on Vickers’ part, as the engineering company’s name is more closely associated with the production of arms than with charity. The Vickers machine gun was the British Empire’s weapon of choice for half a century, and the company was one of the most significant British manufacturers of guns, tanks and aerial bombers during both of the World Wars.

But while most closely associated with armaments, Vickers was also a more general engineering firm, and during the 1920s, the company (by this time known as the Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company) built twenty electric trains to run on the Metropolitan Line, which then terminated at Baker Steet.

Each train bore a plaque on the side bearing the name of a real or fictional person associated with an area along the Met Line (Lord Byron was chosen for Train No.4 as he was educated at Harrow; Train No.8 was called Sherlock Holmes, for his Baker St address.)

The Vickers trains were used until 1962, when the line was extended and the rolling stock updated. Train No. 5 – named John Hampden, after the politician who played a central role for the Parliamentary cause during the Civil War – is now on display in the London Transport Museum.

Clearly their connection with the Met Line led to Vickers making this altruistic gesture, but  I can find almost no additional information about it. I don’t know where the shell came from, whether it’s a British or a German make, or whether it was ever live and ready to blow, but it’s a safe assumption to presume it was erected in the years immediately after WW2.

Incidentally, the Railway Benevolent Institution, set up in 1858, is still going strong under the name The Railway Benefit Fund. They contacted me in June 2014 to say they were unaware of the shell’s existence, and informed me that when they went to see it, the bombshell had been removed.

And it’s worth a closer look at the beautiful carving by Charles W. Clark on the top of the WW1 memorial of a lion crushing a serpent beneath its paw.

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The Shakespeare’s Head

July 13, 2011

At 29 Great Marlborough Street, W1 (but most often approached by Carnaby Street, where it’s situated on a corner where the street meets Fouberts Place) stands The Shakespeare’s Head.

The sign outside the pub claims the inn was established on the site in 1735 and was named after the owners, Thomas and John Shakespeare, who claimed to be distant relations of their famous namesake. Nothing of the original establishment remains – the building which stands today is late nineteenth-century (albeit in a Tudor style) – and there are serious doubts over whether it has any connection even with Shakespeare’s descendants. After all, The Shakespeare’s Head is a fairly common pub name in London – others can be found in Holborn, the City, Kingsway, Finsbury and Forest Hill.

It’s likely Thomas and John Shakespeare form part of a colourful story about the pub’s origins, and one which has been stated with increasing conviction over the years. The presence of the claim on a nicely-painted board outside the pub certainly helps attract the passing tourists ambling down Carnaby Street, but it doesn’t make the story any more likely to be true.

What the pub does have, however, is one of London’s most charming Shakespeare statues.

There are others dotted around the capital – Leicester Square, Westminster Abbey, on the front of City of London school, a bust in the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury – but none with the playfulness of the one which peers out from a window-like recess of the pub.

There’s just something perfectly realised about the position of the body. While the face is cold and fixed, the stance of the body really conveys him casually examining the crowds below – a fixed moment where the greatest playright of all time is half-looking for inspiration in the throng that passes outside his window.

I have no idea whether the bust has always been painted in these cold colours, but there’s more than a touch of “zombie Shakespeare” about the hue (a zombie Shakespeare made an appearance in The Simpsons’ 1992 Halloween special Treehouse of Horror III, looking surprisingly similar to the pub’s statue.)

The sign outside also claims the bust lost a hand in World War 2 “when a bomb dropped nearby.”

While the bust is definitely one hand down, I’m inclined to take everything that sign says with a pinch of salt.