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The joys of London

Often, when walking near Old Kent Road close to my home in Southwark, I have seen this peculiar sight.


Yes, it appears to be a tank. London is London though. Our glorious city contains a lot of weird shit. Is it a war memorial? I doubt it. Is it a decoration in a public park? Again, I doubt it. The land is overgrown and is fenced off, although the fence has long ceased to be effective. Is it an art project? Possibly. Certainly the paint and graffiti on the tank changes from time to time, but as to whether this is planned or simply something done by the nearby and bored, once again who knows? As to what type of tank it is, my knowledge of military hardware is sadly lacking.

Half the Samizdata commentariat (and certainly this blog’s glorious leader) is no doubt jumping up and down and saying “It’s a T-34, you idiot”. As it happens, I discovered this when looking at Google Maps yesterday. The tank is in fact shown on the map, at the intersection of Mandela Way and Page’s Walk in London SE1. (Places in the UK that were ruled by Labour local governments in the 1980s are full of streets, council buildings, and lord knows what else named after Nelson Mandela, as this was considered a good way to annoy Margaret Thatcher).

Curiouser and curiouser. A T-34 is a Soviet tank. What the hell is it doing on an overgrown piece of land in Southwark? Thankfully we have the internet, which tells us one of those stories that is probably not entirely true but should be. Reputedly a man named Russell Gray, the owner of the now overgrown block of land, wanted to build a house on it. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. Although the block is fairly small and a peculiar shape, it is certainly big enough for a small house. As the location is no more than a 15 minute commute to the financial jobs in the City of London, any house there would be of considerable value. However, when Mr Gray applied to Southwark Council for planning permission, it was denied. In frustration he submitted another planning application requesting permission to put a tank on the site. This was granted. He then obtained a surplus Soviet T-34 and this has been on the site ever since. Apparently the turret was originally pointed in the precise direction of of Southwark Council’s offices and the tank was given the nickname “Stompie” after an ANC activist murdered by thugs loyal to Winnie Mandela after they suspected him of being an informer to the apartheid South African government in 1988.

Where does one obtain a surplus Soviet T-34, exactly? It was imported from Czechoslovakia as a prop in the 1995 film of Shakespeare’s Richard III, starring Ian McKellan and a large ensemble of Britain’s other finest actors. Prior to that it may or may not have been used by the Soviets in putting down the Prague Spring in 1968. In any event, Mr Gray was able to buy it cheaply after the film-makers had finished with it.

Er, come again? Didn’t Richard III die in 1485 before spending the next five hundred years beneath a car-park in Leicester? Were there a lot of T-34s involved in the Wars of the Roses?

Ah, this version was set in a fictionalised 1930s England. Soviet tanks that did not go into production until the 1940s were apparently a better fit in that world.

As I said, London contains some weird shit. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

24 comments to The joys of London

  • Mr Ed

    On my morning or evening walks in the rural Midlands, I may see leverets, a charm of goldfinches, yaffles, maybe a kingfisher, kites, buzzards, a Little Owl, a weasel or a whitethroat. Having taken the 53 bus up then Old Kent Road in my youth, London has little to offer but grime, ugliness and decay.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Re Mr Ed’s comment, what’s the total opposite of seconding? “Zeroing” perhaps? Anyway I zero what he said. Like you Michael, I love London. Well, each to his own. Anyway, I bet there are lots of yaffles in London, in you know where to go.

    I also love the Ian McKellen Richard III you mention.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Well, as a child in Australia, I regularly saw much more varied and spectacular birdlife than anything you see in the Midlands. It was nice, actually, as I am sure it is for you. London has an excitement of human activity like nowhere else on earth, though. Rather less grime and decay than a couple of decades back, too.

  • If a Labour couincil was willing to name stuff after Mandela to annoy Thatcher, why would it be a surprise that they were in bed with the Communists enough to get a Soviet tank? 😉

  • Mr Ed

    When the credit bubble bursts and London faces economic reality, the T-34 might be needed… by the Council (the Russian word for ‘Council’ is, naturally, ‘Soviet’).

  • …in the 1995 film of Shakespeare’s Richard III, starring Ian McKellan

    And a truly magnificent adaptation it was. And it really was not set in the 1930’s, it was set in some very nebulous imaginary time before 1945 in some rather plausible seeming alternate reality that made perfect sense, and as the bad guys got badder, they looked more and more fascistic. It was a very well conceived bit of cinema.

  • Rumour has it the tank actually belongs to electronica artist Aphex Twin (aka Richard D James).

  • Regional

    This is not weird shit for England, it’s normal.

  • Regional

    There were tanks during Medieval Times, they were called Knights. The Mobsters(Princes) realised that it was cheaper to give a Knight an estate in return for his loyalty and more importantly his duty along with his retinue to uphold the Mobster’s authority, wether it be killing uppity peasants or rival mobsters.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    It looks pretty, but does it collect water?

  • bloke in spain

    Thanks for this post. I can well remember the WTF! moment of stumbling across this one slightly pharmaceutically enhanced evening & had always put it down to hallucination. Although, as a card carrying Cockney, anything Sarf of th’ River was, by definition, a tad mythical.

  • I have to say that Regional’s description of the Age of Chivalry is spot on 😀

  • llamas

    Our gracious host wrote:

    ‘…in the 1995 film of Shakespeare’s Richard III, starring Ian McKellan

    And a truly magnificent adaptation it was.’

    Starring, among others, a 1936 de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide aircraft. I call bias 🙂



  • Bruce Hoult

    When he applied for and received permission to install a tank … I take it he was not terribly specific as to the exact description of this tank?

  • John K

    It’s a T34/85, we may as well be accurate. The Russians were still using them at the time of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, but I doubt a tank like this would have been used in Czechoslovakia in 1968, it was mostly T55s by then, judging by the newsreels. However, the Russians never threw anything away, which is why stockpiles of kit like this was available to flog off to the west in the brief 1990s interregnum between communism and fascism.

  • Runcie Baspune

    T-34 tanks were used by the Cyprus National Guard during the defence against the Turkish invasion of 1974.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    I don’t know why someone put a WWII tank there. But if you must put a WWII tank on your unused London parcel of land, the T-34 would be the one, as it was the best in the War.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    The tank is on this list of odd London sights, though no details are given about why it’s there.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Many years ago, the English Shakespeare Company performed Shakespeare’s entire history cycle here in Chicago in a grand unified production. It was a brilliant series of adaptations, using various historical settings to establish context.

    Some of the bits I remember:

    Richard II as an Edwardian fop in a fancy dressing-gown.

    Richard III, Buckingham, Hastings, and Stanley as corporate sharks in a modern boardroom.

    Henry VII’s final speech as a BBC address to the nation, with production crew, spotlights, and video cameras.

    Nearly all of it worked very well.

    I’ve never seen the McKellem Richard III, but using the 1930s as context could work, and a slightly-too-modern tank as prop would be OK with me.

  • Mr Ed

    Henry Ford was wrong, Shakespeare is bunk.

  • Peter

    Russell told me the planning application for a “tank” is not true. Sorry to kill off a nice story.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    I was doubtful about this too, which was why I expressed some scepticism about the complete truthfulness of the story. The fact that the tank’s Wikipedia article lacks the part of the story about the “tank” planning permission is also a bit of a red flag. I suspect the author of this article attempted to find verification for the story, but couldn’t.

  • John K

    It would have been a nice touch if true, because of course the first tanks were only described as “water tanks” to confuse the Germans.

  • A Cow

    The locations for the Richard III film were interesting: St Pancras station hotel became the palace, Senate House (rumoured to be the chosen site for a Nazi puppet government if the invasion had been carried out in 1940) was Richard of Gloucester’s base. The Bankside power station (pre-Tate Modern was the Tower of London and the ruins of Battersea power station were the location for the battle of Tewkesbury. I don’t know where the aerodrome was.