The Anson Gates

I’ve been meaning to talk about these gates for bloomin’ ever. They’re the entrance most tourists use these days (though if I was bringing someone for the first time, I’d be tempted to nip up along the five foot walk to the King’s Steps for the sheer grandeur of it all) and they look so solid, it’s almost impossible to imagine that they haven’t been there forever.

But the whole lot – the heavy rustication, the serious porters’ lodges, those giant globes – used to be a good hundred yards away. They lived just outside the King Charles Building, from when they were built in 1751 until 100 years later, after a bit more land had been begged, borrowed or just sat on by the hospital. It’s hard to imagine that they now stand on what was once a warren of grotty little medieval alleys – a bit like the ones we were talking about a couple of days ago, around the docks to the other side. Turnpin Lane is the nearest we get to what it was all like at one point.

I’m sure I have a photo somewhere of the East Gates, but my computer decided to re-order my files and now I can’t find anything. I’ll get another pic (when I get another camera) but the East Gates were built around the same time, and are very similar but aren’t nearly as cool because they don’t have splendid globes on top like the West Gates.

They’re called the ‘Anson Gates’ because they’re broadly commemorating a rather disastrous (in all respects other than for his pocket) circumnavigation of the globe by Admiral Lord George Anson. He’d originally taken six warships with him, but they just didn’t have enough kit and through storms, bad seas, disease and lack of gear, he lost five of the ships (some returned home, others were wrecked) two thirds of his crew, and he failed to make much in the way of calculations and measurements.

What he did manage though, was some harassment of the Spanish (always a plus in those days) a messy but ultimately successful regroup in Macao and that old fallback, a spot of plundering, capturing a Manila Galleon that just happened to be carrying, among other splendid things, well over a million pieces of eight.

He became massively wealthy – and First Lord of the Admiralty – and the globes on the gates trace (or at least used to trace) the voyage he took. The copper inlay was all calculated by a Richard Oliver, mathematics master at the Academy of Greenwich, who was paid fifty guineas for his pains. One was a terrestrial sphere; the other a celestial, and they were originally very detailed. Sadly the weather’s got to them and there’s only a few bands remaining, but it’s somehow fitting that Greenwich, which didn’t have the meridian running through it at the time, has a giant pair of navigational globes at her centre.

On the pillars, btw, the carvings still just about depict lots of symbols of British naval might – the Hospital and Royal coats of arms, flags, cannons, helmets and sundry trophies – though I suspect pieces of eight aren’t included in the tableau…

The little niches never had anything in them – we haven’t lost any statues – and the gates aren’t orginal. There appears to have been a mini scandal in 1858 when the gates, which, from reading the superb John Bold, were from Old Greenwich Palace, were sold at auction in 1858 for less than their scrap value, and quietly replaced with dull versions. I don’t know if they’re the same ones we have now.

I have Benedict to thank for the two good pictures on this post. Mine’s the slightly grotty-sky pic. I know I have more, including ones taken from inside the gates, but Lord only knows where they are. Life is a bit muddled just now.


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