Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Month: February 2019

The City before the Great Fire

Just suppose you could go back in time and were approaching London from the north in Tudor times. If you were coming from modern day Lincoln or York, you would be following the old Roman Road, Ermine Street, which would lead you to Bishopsgate, one of the principal gates into the City. Stow’s 1598 Survey of London describes this area as part of the ‘suburbs without walls,’ and throughout the 16th century wealthy citizens were beginning to build properties for themselves in that vicinity. One of them was Sir Paul Pindar (1565?-1650), and when the Venetian Ambassador, Pietro Contarini, lodged with him in the early 17th century he described Bishopsgate Without as ‘… an airy and fashionable area … a little too much in the country‘.

It’s wonderful to know that you can today, in the 21st century, get some idea of the house’s scale and beauty since its facade is preserved and on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum …

A close-up of one of the brackets

Contarini’s chaplain described it as ‘a very commodious mansion which had heretofore served as the residence of several former ambassadors’.

Having unfortunately lent generously to Charles I, poor Pindar died leaving considerable debts and by 1660 the mansion had already been subdivided into smaller dwellings. It survived the Great Fire of 1666, but was soon given over to the London workhouse, with wards for ‘poor children’ and ‘vagabonds, beggars, pilferers, lewd, idle, and disorderly persons’. The street-level rooms on the front were used as a tavern, known as Sir Paul Pindar’s Head.

The house was demolished in 1890 to make room for the expansion of Liverpool Street Station, but we do have an idea as to what it looked like in 1812. There are more pictures and commentary on the Spitalfields Life blog which you can access here.

What would you see going on elsewhere in this area north of the City walls? We are extremely fortunate to have this map that gives us some idea …

The Copperplate Map circa 1556-1558

This is one of the earliest maps we have of London and you can take an imaginary walk thanks to its fascinating detail. Approaching from Shoredich in the north, the already dissolved hospital of St Mary Spital would be on your left. On your right is the lunatic hospital of Bedlam before its destruction in the 1666 Great Fire. As you approached the Bishop’s Gate itself, the illustration appears to show some spikes exhibiting the gruesome remains of traitors who had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Moor Gate to the left seems to have a similar display and leads directly on to Moor Field, an area drained and ‘laid out in pleasant walks’ in 1527. There is a lot going on there.

Washing is being laid out to dry, goods are being carried to market, a lady carries a pot on her head, archery is being practised, people have stopped to chat and there is a rather elegant Dogge Hous. See if you can find the man with the horse and cart driving what looks like a sow and piglets in front of him.

To the right you can see that the wealthy and the religious orders have enclosed their land within private walls, windmills can be seen on hilly ground.

Now take a look at this map …

The ‘Agas’ woodcut plan from 1633 – a ‘cheap and cheerful’ version of the Copperplate Map

At a quick glance it looks the same but there are differences and this map is nowhere near as detailed. For example, fewer figures are shown in the fields and they are not so well drawn (the Dogge Hous is still there though!). Known as Civitas Londinum, it was first printed from woodblocks in about 1561 and obviously drew on the Copperplate map for much of its information. Widely, but erroneously, attributed to the surveyor Ralph Agas, no early copies survive and the small section above is from a modified version printed in 1633.

One of the things that fascinated me was how many of the streets exist to this day and have the same name. Here is another section of the map …

With some serious concentration I found Old Street, Chiswell Street, Beech Street, Cheapside, Aldersgate, Whitecross Street, Aldermanbury, Milk Street and a few others – all pretty much located exactly where they are today.

If you want to study an enlarged version of the map in more detail, pop into the Guildhall Art Gallery. Here it is displayed in all its glory …

The architect Simon Foxell, in his outstanding book Mapping London – Making Sense of the City, (ISBN 13: 9781906155070) states …

Civitas Londinum is the essential view into the teeming streets of Tudor London. It shows us the interrelationship between churches and streets and houses and how, outside the walls, London rapidly transforms into fields and villages. It shows the windmills that must have dominated the horizon and the regular lime kilns that must have filled the sky with smoke. A recognisable view into a past beyond living memory.

The Great Fire of 1666 devastated the City and, luckily for us, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar was there to produce this ‘groundplot’ of the damage. His drawing of 1666 is a bird’s eye view of the City and gives us some perspective as to the vast extent of the catastrophe. The non-shaded area shows the extent of the destruction …

What else can we see today that pre-dates the Fire apart from the street names?

St Paul’s Cathedral was lost in the inferno but there was a remarkable survivor …

The effigy of John Donne, 17th century poet and Dean of the Cathedral, survived the Fire but you can still make out the scorch marks on the urn (you have to go into the Cathedral to see it). I have written about Donne in an earlier blog which you can access here.

And finally, there is the oldest house in the City …

41-42 Cloth Fair  EC1A 7JQ    

Built in 1615, it survived the Great Fire due to its being enclosed and protected by the priory walls of St Bartholomew. Incidentally, you’ll notice the building has no window sills. The post-Fire Building Acts required window sills at least four inches deep or more to be installed in homes in order to reduce the risk of fire spreading upwards. I have written about this and other City dwellings in an earlier blog City Living.

I hope you enjoyed this trip back in time. I love old maps, so will probably be exploring the history of the City in a similar way in the future.


More City courtyards and alleys


I have been back prowling around the alleys and courtyards just off Cornhill and again experiencing the atmosphere and surprises to be found here. Take, for example, Corbet Court (EC4V 0AT). The entrance doesn’t look very promising …

But once you have entered look around and you will come face to face with this lovely serene lady who has gazed out at London and Londoners since 1669 …

Regular readers will recognise her as a Mercer Maiden, the symbol and coat of arms of the Mercer Company. She first appeared on a seal in 1425 but her precise origins are unknown, and there is no written evidence as to why she was chosen as the Company’s emblem. She can be found all over London marking Mercer property and I have written about her in an earlier blog which can be found here.

Nearby is St Peter’s Alley (EC3V 3PD) with its atmospheric entrance on Cornhill …

Here stands the church of St Peter’s, Cornhill which is now used as a Christian Aid study centre and is currently not open to the public. The Saint stands atop the entrance gate holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven …

The church tower with some of its more recent neighbours such as the Cheesegrater …

A few memorial stones are beginning to wear away …

Thomas Atkinson was a resident of Corbet Court

The churchyard was in use as the main place of burial for the parish until 1850 and following closure it was laid out as a garden for public use that you see now.

If you retrace your footsteps to Corbet Court, you can then walk down St Michael’s Alley (EC4V 9DS) which winds its way to back to Cornhill …

Your eye is immediately drawn to the gigantic lamp advertising the Jamaica Wine House, a Victorian stone fronted building which now stands on the site of the City’s first coffee house …

A plaque commemorates the coffee house and I wrote about this last week

Pasqua Rosée (Easter Rose) the proprietor was the servant of a Levant merchant named Daniel Edwards, a trader in Turkish goods, who imported the coffee and assisted Rosée in setting up the establishment.

Look out for the entrance to Castle Court …

You’ll see the back of the George & Vulture … …

… and this splendid narrow alleyway.

Squeeze through and enjoy the feeling that you are back in the 17th century …

It was common at the turn of the 20th century for offices to have mirrors installed and hung outside to reflect light. I have come across this picture which is captioned Bengal Court 1910

Copyright Collage – The London Picture Library Record 36020

Make your way back to the front entrance of the George & Vulture …

You will find a fascinating history of this great pub here.

Of course, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of these old tiles …

Simpson’s Tavern in Ball Court retains its character …

As does the Ball court entrance …

And finally, as I walked back down this alley towards Cheapside, I came across this old bank entrance …

… and, around the corner, these extra large iron-framed windows designed to catch the maximum amount of light for the benefit of the clerks beavering away inside …

I am taking a break from alleys and courtyards now!

But I know I will be tempted back.

More City courtyards and alleys – Change Alley

By the end of June 1720, one share in the South Sea Company (a monopolistic trading entity) would have cost you £1,050. As confidence began to ebb away, however, the price began to drop. By the end of August, the stock was less than £800 and by December £175, meaning financial ruin for many institutions and penury for hundreds of individuals. A subsequent enquiry revealed a web of corruption, deceit and bribery and resulted in disgrace and prosecution for numerous company and government officials. The so-called South Sea Bubble passed into legend.

E

Change Alley (EC3V 9AZ – then called Exchange Alley) is where the dealing in the South Sea shares took place and gets a mention in a poem to peoples’ folly …

Why did ‘Change Alley waste thy precious hours
Among the fools who gaped for golden show’rs?
No wonder if we found some poets there,
Who live on fancy, and can feed on air;
No wonder they were caught by South Sea schemes,
Who ne’er enjoyed a guinea but in dreams.

Some speculators, however, got out in time and with great profit. One of them was Thomas Guy, who owned a bookshop at the end of Lombard Street. We benefit to this day from his successful investment and philanthropy as he used some of the cash to found Guy’s Hospital.

Thomas Guy in 1706

Any history of the City and its development always makes reference to the extraordinary growth and influence of the coffee house, the first being opened by a Greek named Pasqua Roseé in 1652. Its location is commemorated by this plaque in St Michael’s Alley …

Incidentally, there is something suspicious about this plaque – it probably isn’t a bona fide City one. Though blue and oblong, the proportions are wrong, the style is different and it’s anonymous.

‘In many ways the coffee houses formed the central hub of daily life; they were where the news was gathered and distributed; they were the main places for the exchange of gossip. Here a business man could meet his client and discuss a deal in relative comfort and warmth over a dish of coffee (as they called it) and perhaps a hearty meal. As popular as the coffee houses became, they were not without their enemies and slanderers. In 1674 a congregation of ladies formed the ‘Women’s Petition against Coffee’, circulating notices about London in which they complained that by indulging in the beverage men were made as ‘unfruitful as the dessert where that unhappy berry is said to be bought’. Despite their efforts, by the 18th century it was estimated that there were over 3000 coffee houses in London.’ (Extract from the Underground Map blog).

Change Alley was the site of another famous coffee house …

The grasshopper references the emblem of Sir Thomas Gresham who built the Royal Exchange

Following the Fire of 1666, Garraway’s was reconstructed on a grand scale. Situated on a corner with various entrances into the building, it had smaller rooms and a kitchen downstairs and a large coffee room upstairs.

Here it is in a contemporary illustration from the 19th century – the alley looks very different from today where it is hemmed in by white tiled office blocks …

Garraway’s from W. Thornbury, Old and New London, vol 2, p. 174

A panel on the fascinating doors at 32 Cornhill depicts its interior. You can read more about the doors and their stories here

A place where ‘People of Quality who have Business in the City, and the most considerable and wealthy Citizens frequent’.

The Scottish Widows insurance company arrived in 1935 …

They made sure that the splendid company logo was prominently displayed even though it faces the narrow alley and blank walls. I have written about it in more detail in an earlier blog entitled Insurance Company Ghosts

It is extraordinary that the warren of courtyards and alleys off Cornhill survives to this day given not only wartime bombing but, long before then, a ferocious fire.

‘This dredful fire which has laid Waste so useful & opulent Part of the City began in the Powdering Room at Mr Eldridge’s peruke maker near the midle of Exchange Alley on Friday March 25 1748 at One o’Clock in the Morning, and continued burning till Twelve the same day.’

A peruke was another name for the fashionable wigs, or periwigs, worn at the time.

After the stock market crash that followed the South Sea Bubble scandal, the fire insurance market had consolidated into the hands of three major companies : The Sun, Royal Exchange and the Phoenix. Each had their own small fire fighting force that independently dealt with fires, including the Exchange Alley one. This map of the 1748 fire damage was drawn up to ensure a satisfactory allocation and settlement of any claims …

The three separate fire fighting forces were merged in 1832, along with those of six other companies, to form the London Fire Engine Establishment. You can see a late 17th century/early 18th century fire engine at the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr on Lower Thames Street EC3R 6DN …

By the way, one striking feature of Change Alley has remained the same over the centuries – as you wander around the bordering streets, you keep seeing it. There are five access points. Two off Cornhill, two off Lombard Street and one leading out of Birchin Lane.

I shall be visiting more alleys in future blogs. As you will see from these pictures, they have managed to keep much of their charm and air of mystery …

Thank you for reading this week’s edition.

Tales from the City’s courtyards and alleys

One evening in April 1718 a comedian named Bowen (described as a ‘hotheaded Irishman’) was drinking copiously in the Pope’s Head Tavern. Having worked himself into a ‘transport of envy and rage’ he sent for an actor, a comedian and competitor called Quin. As soon as Quin entered, Bowen planted his back against the door, drew his sword, and bade Quin draw his. Quin remonstrated in vain and at last drew in his own defence, trying to disarm his antagonist. Bowen eventually received a mortal wound, of which he died in three days, ‘confessing at last his folly and madness’. Quin was tried, and honourably acquitted. This story, from British History Online*, sent me searching for the scene of the affray – logic telling me that it must be in Pope’s Head Alley (EC3V 9AY).

Sadly the Tavern no longer exists and the alley has been shifted a little to the east from its original location.

It looks a bit sterile from its Cornhill entrance (it leads to Lombard Street) and I wasn’t going to bother to walk down it …

I am glad I did though, because first of all, looking up, I noticed this line of bees and bee hives …


Here is a close-up of one of them …

And then came across the Pope himself …

The bee symbol was traditionally associated with the Barberini family and, in particular, the 17th century Pope Urban VIII Barberini. I honestly don’t know if this is the reason for the bees but that’s my hypothesis.

Below the Pope’s head there is metal fence incorporating the galloping Lloyd’s Bank horse …

So the moral of this tale is – don’t judge an alley by its entrance.


I went on enthusiastically to explore more. I know it’s a cliche, but the phrase ‘stepping back in time’ really does come to mind with some of them.

For example, here is a picture I took of Ball Court and a side entrance to Simpsons’s Tavern …

The Tavern’s full address is Ball Court, 38 1/2 Cornhill (EC3V 9DR). It still looks authentically 18th century …

On Cornhill you will find the entrance to Sun Court (EC3V 3NB) …

At the end of the alley the scene opens out considerably …

You are looking at the rear of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall with its lovely curved glass windows. There is a nicely carved rendition of the Merchant Taylors’ coat of arms …

Here is the full colour version …

The motto is a quotation from Gaius Sallustius Crispus: ‘Concordia parvae res crescunt, discordia maxumae dilabuntur‘ : with harmony small things grow, while with discord the mightiest are ruined.

Further along Cornhill another nice surprise awaits you in White Lion Court (EC4V 3NP) …

The gated entrance doesn’t look terribly promising

Once inside you find yourself facing this stunning four-storey house, said to date from 1767 …

Probably originally the home of a wealthy merchant, it was once the offices of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.

On the wall is another emblem of the Merchant Taylors’ crest …

And a nice example of the Parish Boundary mark for St Peter Cornhill …

I hope you have enjoyed this short tour through some of the City’s courts and alleys. There are many more to visit and I shall cover them in a future blog.

*Incidentally, there are a number of versions of the fight between Quin and Bowen and not all of them coincide with the British History Online account. The fullest I have found appears in the book The Life of Mr James Quin, Comedian, from his commencing Actor to his retreat to Bath. It was published in London in 1766, includes an account of Quin’s trial, and can be found online here.


Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén