Cathy Ross: City of London bollards and their stories

Cathy Ross: City of London bollards and their stories

The archetypal City of London bollard is octagonal and painted black with a red star collar and white lemon-squeezer top. Many carry the City’s coat of arms, the legend “City of London” and a date. The styling is Victorian but the dates are usually from the last quarter of the 20th century. Today, you can’t miss them. Inescapable parts of the Square Mile streetscape, they line the streets, hover near stations. They are clearly creatures of the City, indisputable symbols even.

City of London bollards have a lot to say, not just about what goes where on the pavements, but also about civic government. Contemplating the City’s bollards inevitably leads to contemplating the body that put them there, and it seems no coincidence that outbreaks of bollard-enthusiasm in the City seem to have occurred when the City Corporation felt itself to be under threat. 

The archetypal design emerged  in the second half of the 19th century, a time when the Corporation of London came under fierce attack from those who deemed it scandalously unfit to manage London’s modern needs. It was almost certainly the work of William Haywood, the Corporation’s controversial chief engineer. For Haywood, installing battalions of crested and dated cast-iron street furniture – lamp columns, ventilation posts, orderly bins, underground urinals and guard posts (the old name for bollards) – was one way of confounding the Corporation’s critics.

A second eruption of crested and dated street furniture occurred in the 1980s. Again this marked another period of existential unease on the part of the Corporation as London’s local government was shaken and stirred. This new generation of bollards sprang from the City’s “Corporate Identity Project”, launched in 1986 as an overtly defensive strategy: “From time to time in its long and distinguished history, the Corporation’s existence has been threatened and it is therefore of paramount importance that the service which it provides should be clear for all to see.’”

The project saw the City of London’s coat of arms hoisted onto street name plates, notice boards, litter bins, cast iron seating, housing blocks and green space signposts. Haywood’s bollards returned to the streets in force, restored 19th century examples joining brand new versions. The early 1990s proved the golden age for crested City bollards, coinciding as it did with the arrival of “heritage” as a legitimate look for the public realm. Haywood’s Victorian design was tweaked to accommodate modern pictogram road signs – creating an odd combination of old and new which somehow seems to suit the oddness of the City. 

Today, the Square Mile contains more bollards than ever before. The latest generation are clearly descended from the Victorian guard-posts, but have evolved into more streamlined creatures. No longer crested or dated, the City’s 21st century bollards are thinner, tougher and somehow less quaint. What is the threat today’s bollards speak to? It hardly needs saying that it is terrorist bombs rather than local government reorganisation.

These are hardcore bollards of a type first seen in 2005 when a line of them appeared in Shoe Lane outside the new Goldman Sachs headquarters building. They were described as “crash-rated bollard cores, onto which a large City of London replica bollard sleeve was secured, the final assembly resembling those non-crash-rated bollards seen elsewhere in the City.” 

Since 2005, the un-crested, hard-core bollards have multiplied. Looking at old photographs of Bank Junction is a salutary lesson in how quickly the look of streets can change. Elsewhere in the City, lines of black octagonal red-star bollards now stand alongside thick-set tubular steel ones, hefty cuboid blocks and faux-marble planters – all part of the City’s “hostile vehicle mitigation” infrastructure. 

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Are these bollards here to stay? One of the things I’ve learnt about the City’s bollards is that they move around more than you might think, coming and going as planners change their minds. Today, there’s a sea change in City streets as cycle ways and pavements are given more space. It’s not inconceivable that bollards will fall out of favour completely, particularly as planters with trees seem to offer better value all round as “hostile vehicle mitigation” measures and are more in tune with today’s values. 

On the other hand, bollards are adaptable as well as moveable: they can still play a role in place-making, even when the sense of place no longer requires a coat of arms. The future is perhaps vinyl wraps – as seen recently when hard-core bollards were dressed in colourful arty patterns to promote the Corporation’s culture mile (see above). It will be no surprise if the Corporation’s new enthusiasm for Business Improvement Districts includes a new look for the Square Mile’s bollards. My guess is the indisputable symbols will survive.

Cathy Ross is the author of Bollardology: Observing the City of London (Quickfry Books, £12.99).

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Categories: Culture

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