Headless! The unusual Railings Around CaledoniaN Park

close up of missing headers
Railings around the Caledonian Park

Visitors to Caledonian Park who approach it from Caledonian Road will notice the railings that face Market Road and Fred White Walk. They date from 1855 when the Metropolitan Cattle Market opened on the site that later became the park.

The railings were built to withstand pressure from the two-legged and four-legged creatures that thronged the Cattle Market, and it is a tribute to their design and construction that they are still standing after more than 160 years. However, on a closer look, it is clear they have suffered some damage.

The photo above shows the tops of the main gates on Market Road. Notice the strange features on top of the main gateposts. While the gatepost closest to the camera still retains its ‘crown’, the same feature has disappeared from its immediate companion, and on the two posts on the other side of the entrance the crowns have only been saved by adding a brace that bolts the pair together. The crowns themselves are rather odd. They are four-sided, with each side having a large leaf-shaped cavity at the bottom and, on the top, a form of bracket that looks as though it should be supporting a missing feature. 

The impression of something being missing is only too correct. The print below gives some idea of the original appearance of the gateposts:

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Print by HS Melville, Wellcome Collection © Public domain

The second gatepost from the left gives the clearest impression. The three ‘plumes’ at the  top represent flames and the brackets we now see on the top of the pillars are the remains of the gas lighting fixtures which previously lit the entrance to the market. (The open flames shown in the print were later enclosed in glass lanterns.) Below the lighting, the leaf-shaped cavities were occupied by ornamental cast iron heads of bulls and sheep, paying tribute to the market’s most numerous visitors. 

There were many more heads than there were lanterns: while the lanterns only appeared on pillars that served as gateposts, four heads appeared on each of the pillars that supported the fencing.  Sometime before 1939 the authorities decommissioned the gas lighting and removed the gas lanterns. They left the animal heads in place but the bulls and sheep silently began to desert the railings under the cover of night until not a single head remained in place. What has been lost is shown by the remarkable quality of the ‘salvaged’ heads that occasionally appear for sale on the web – a beautiful example (sold for £4,000) appears here.

Happily the moulds from which the animal heads were cast still survive and there is now a project to restore the Market Road gateposts complete with their animal heads. More details appear here: Heritage of London. [The replica heads that were kept in the Islington Museum (mentioned in the proposal) have recently been removed but will apparently re-appear in the new London Museum when it opens in 2026.]

For more information contact Iain Monaghan the author of this post.