Walking the City of London

Month: October 2017

City Angels (and a few devils)

Having had a lot of fun seeking out cherubs for an earlier blog I decided to go in search of angels.

Above the door of St Michael Cornhill is the warrior Archangel Michael ‘disputing with Satan’. It was carved by John Birnie Philip when the church was remodelled in 1858-1860.

No question as to who is winning this battle

Outside the church is another sculpture of Michael brandishing a flaming sword. It is a bronze memorial to the 170 out of the 2,130 men of this parish who enrolled for military service in the First World War and died as a result.


A close-up of the inscription

The sculpture (by R R Goulden) was described in the Builder magazine as follows

St Michael with the flaming sword stands steadfast above the quarreling beasts which typify war, and are sliding slowly, but surely, from their previous paramount position. Life, in the shape of young children, rises with increasing confidence under the protection of the champion of right.


Do go into the church, it’s a serene place to visit with very attractive pews and stained glass.

Of particular note on the left is the Churchwarden’s pew which shows St Michael thrusting a lance into the mouth of a truly evil-looking devil. It’s a work by the eminent wood carver William Gibbs Rogers (1792-1875).

The carving on the church wardens pew showing St Michael driving a spear into the devil’s mouth..



A close-up of the devil’s face on the churchwarden’s pew.

When you come out of the church turn right and you will find that Cornhill is seriously infested with devils.

It’s a blogger’s dilemma when one encounters what seems to be an apocryphal explanation for something one is researching. I have taken the decision that it’s OK to publish if, firstly, I make the nature of the story clear and, secondly, if it could just about be true, and thirdly if it’s a great story!

What follows seems to me to meet all the criteria.

As I walked along Cornhill one day I glanced up and saw these rather sinister figures silhouetted against the sky…

Closer inspection shows them to be devils, and rather angry and malevolent ones too …

They look down on St Peter upon Cornhill and are known as the Cornhill Devils. The story goes that, when plans were submitted for the late Victorian building next to the church, the rector noticed that they impinged slightly on church land and lodged a strong objection. Everything had to literally go back to the drawing board at great inconvenience and expense. The terracotta devils looking down on the entrance to the church are said to be the architect’s revenge with the lowest devil bearing some resemblance to the cleric himself.

If this resembles the rector he must have been a pretty ugly guy!

Onward now towards the Tower of London via Hart Street.

Two trumpeting spandrel angels face one another over the doors of St Olave, Hart Street.

North door, St Olave

You can read more about this historic church in my earlier blog Samuel Pepys and his ‘own church’.

This angel by the door of All Hallows by the Tower holds a shield bearing the cross of St Andrew. Above is the crossed sword emblem of the Diocese of London.

All Hallows by the Tower, north door

Fleet street is always great to visit given the vast range of subjects to explore.

Inside the door of St Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street…

Angels holding a commemorative plaque to the original architect (1830-1832) John Shaw. On his death the work was continued by his son, also John

The plaque reads:

The foundation stone of this Church was laid on the 27th day of July 1831 and consecrated to the worship of Almighty God on the 31st day of January 1833: John Shaw, Architect who died July 30th 1832, the 12th day after its external completion, and in the 57th year of his age. To his memory this tablet is here placed by the Inhabitants of this Parish.

Ever since one of my earliest blogs, Philanthropic Fountains, I have a bit of  a ‘thing’ about drinking fountains so I shall digress from angels momentarily.

Just outside St Dunstan’s is this pretty but sadly timeworn fountain designed by John Shaw junior. The inscription is really hard to read but I believe it says …

The gift of Sir James Duke Bart MP ald. of this ward

The fear of the Lord is the fountain of life

Elected Lord Mayor 1848

MP London 1849

Fountain detail

An Art Deco trumpeting angel called The Herald graces 85 Fleet Street. The sculpture is by William Reid Dick and was unveiled by Sir Edwin Lutyens himself on 10 July 1939. The Times stated that The Herald was

Sending forth through her trumpet the news gathered from all corners of the Earth …

The Herald

And finally to St Bartholomew the Great via St Paul’s Cathedral.

Emily Young FRBS is one of the country’s foremost stone sculptors and you can enjoy her work in the form of Angels I to V in the courtyard beside St Paul’s Cathedral. I never tire of looking at them.


And finally some more classical angels at the church of St Bartholomew the Great …

They support the coat of arms of the founding patron King Henry I (reigned 1100-1135)


The Medieval City Monasteries

It is difficult to grasp nowadays just how much Medieval London was dominated by the Church, but its traces are still very evident today in, for example, the names of streets and surviving districts. Before the Dissolution more than thirty monasteries, convents, priories and hospitals squeezed into the City’s ‘square mile’ or huddled outside against the still-surviving Roman wall. Today I am going to write about two of them, the Dominicans and the Carmelites. I will write about the Franciscans and the Augustines in a subsequent blog.

The friars tended to be teaching orders, and accordingly their churches were built to accommodate a large congregation in a fashion that meant the preacher could be seen and heard by everyone. The buildings and land they owned became extensive and were obviously an incredibly valuable acquisition for Henry VIII when their Dissolution started in 1536 under the diligent management of Thomas Cromwell.

St Dominic 1170-1221

Dominican friars had arrived in England in 1221 and became known as the Black Friars on account of the colour of their robes. They found great favour and patronage under Edward I and construction of their London monastery was completed in 1276. It was here that this king deposited the heart of his beloved queen Eleanor, although her body was placed in Westminster Abbey

So prestigious and important was the monastery that it was chosen as the location for various parliaments and privy councils. Ironically, however, given what was to happen later, it was also the venue of the divorce hearing between Henry and his queen Catharine of Aragon. As you walk around the area now known as Blackfriars imagine the scene on 21 June 1529 when Henry and his first wife Catharine appeared before Cardinal Wolsey and the papal legate Cardinal Campeggio, who were there to hear testimonies as to the validity of the King’s marriage.

Henry and Catharine – together again at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013. Henry is in his 30s before he became grossly overweight.

Henry, already infatuated with Anne Boleyn and desperate for a male heir, was hoping for annulment on the ground that Catharine was his brother’s widow and that the subsequent marriage to Henry was against biblical teaching. But things did not go according to plan. An incredibly eloquent speech by Catherine brought enormous sympathy from onlookers who had already cheered her entrance (you can read her speech online, it is still very moving). Henry was defeated and the subsequent refusal of an annulment by Pope Clement VII would set the King on the road to the dissolution of the monasteries, priories and convents and the appropriation of their income and lands.

Shakespeare’s signature on the deed of sale of a house in Blackfriars, London (1613)

After the priory was dissolved in 1538, the hall where the hearing was held served as the Blackfriars Theatre, hence the present name of Playhouse Yard. Shakespeare’s plays were performed here, and the dramatist himself had property close by in Ireland Yard. There is a deed of conveyance dated 1613, bearing one of the few extant Shakespeare autographs (see below), and the quirky Cockpit Pub claims it stands on the property’s site.


Remains in the former churchyard of St Anne Blackfriars, Ireland Yard

It’s rather sad, isn’t it, that these few bits of stone tucked away in an old churchyard are seemingly all that remain of the great Blackfriars monastery.

However, if you feel bold enough to venture out of the City, do visit St Dominic’s Priory Church in Belsize Park, one of the largest Catholic churches in England. Tucked away in the north west corner of the nave you will find this pillar next to a representation of George and the Dragon …

The notice attached to it tells its story …

Back in the City, you might like to walk just around the corner from the old monastery stones to the little passage known as Church Entry. Here you will be following the approximate line north-south between the monastery church nave and the chancel. After the Dissolution, it was used as a churchyard for the parish of St Ann Blackfriar.

Church Entry

The Carmelite monastery was founded in the 1240s on land just south of Fleet Street. Originally hermits living on the slopes of Mount Carmel, they fled on the Saracen reconquest of the Holy Land and those arriving in London ceased to be hermits and became more visible in the community. They were known as Whitefriars after the colour of the mantle worn over their brown robes.

Click on the picture to read more about the Carmelites today

Theirs was a typical group of friary buildings including a church, cloister and chapter house and their library was said to be particularly notable.

After the priory was dissolved in November 1538  the land was sold to individuals who subdivided their plots and built tenements on them. However, this precinct had long possessed the privileges of Sanctuary, which were confirmed by a charter of James I in 1608. From about this time the area was known as ‘Alsatia’ (after the disputed continental territory of Alsace), and its entrance was in Ram Alley, now known as Hare place.

The old Ram Alley, one time gateway to Alsatia

It became the ‘asylum of characterless debtors, cheats and gamblers here protected from arrest’. One Edwardian historian spoke of …

Its reeking dens, its bawds and its occupants’ disgusting habits. Every house was a resort of ill-fame, and therein harboured women, and still worse, men, lost to every instinct of humanity

The privilege of Sanctuary was finally abolished in 1687.

I am really pleased to say that you can still see the crypt of the old Carmelite Priory.

Walk down Bouverie Street and turn left into Magpie Alley where tiles illustrate the historical connection between this area and the print industry.

At the end of the alley you can descend a short flight of stairs and gaze at the remains of the crypt. They were discovered in 1895 and were moved here on a concrete raft from the west side of the road during building development in the 1980s.

The old Whitefriars crypt


Coming soon – The Augustines of Austin Friars …


Stones and bones – a walk through Bunhill Burial Ground

When I read that over 120,000 people had been interred in the Bunhill burial ground over the years it immediately made me think of Thomas Hardy’s 1882 poem The Levelled Churchyard

O passenger, pray list and catch

Our sighs and piteous groans,

Half stifled in this jumbled patch

Of wrenched memorial stones!

We late-lamented, resting here,
 are mixed to human jam,

And each to each exclaims in fear, 
‘I know not which I am!’

About 2,500 monuments survive in Bunhill and it is possible to go on an accompanied walk through the stones, which are mostly now fenced off.  In this short blog I am restricting myself to commenting on what can be seen from the public paths.

The history of the land is fascinating. Owned by the Dean & Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral between 1514 and 1867, it was continuously leased to the City Corporation who themselves sub-leased it to others. The name Bunhill seems to have been a corruption of the word Bonehill.  Theories range from people being interred there during Saxon times to the suggestion that various types of refuse, including animal bones from Smithfield, were disposed of there. However, an extraordinary event in 1549 made the name literally true.

Since the 13th century corpses had been buried in St Paul’s churchyard just long enough for the flesh to rot away, after which the bones were placed in a nearby Charnel House ‘to await the resurrection of the dead’. After the Reformation this was seen as an unacceptable Popish practice, the Charnel House was demolished, and 1,000, yes 1,000, cartloads of bones were dumped at Bunhill. A City Golgotha, it is said the the resulting hill was high enough to accommodate three windmills.

In 1665 it was designated a possible ‘plague pit’ but there is no evidence that it was used as such. At the same time, however, a crisis arose concerning St Paul’s, the ‘noisome stench arising from the great number of dead’ buried there. Many other parishes had the same problem and the Mayor and Aldermen were forced to act quickly as a terrible smell of putrefaction was permeating the City. After negotiations with the existing tenants, the ‘new burial place in Bunhill Fields’ was created and had been walled in by the 19th October that year with gates being added in 1666.

The Act of Uniformity of 1663 had established the Church of England as the national church and at the same time established a distinct category of Christian believers who wished to remain outside the national church. These became known as the nonconformists or dissenters and Bunhill became for many of them the burial ground of choice due to its location outside the City boundary and its independence from any Established place of worship.

The last burial took place in January 1854 and the area was designated as a public park with some memorials being removed and some restored or relocated. Heavy bombing during the war resulted in major landscaping work and the northern part was cleared of memorials and laid out much as it is now with grassy areas and benches.

I have chosen a few memorials for you to look at as you walk through Bunhill from City Road in the East to Bunhill Row in the west.

I’d like to start just outside the east entrance on City Road and a few yards to the north. Look through the railings and you will see an obelisk memorial to this handsome gentleman. The inscription is in Welsh and marks the tomb of the Calvinistic Methodist minister, poet and Bible commentator James Hughes. Also inscribed is his Bardic name Iago Trichrug.

As you enter Bunhill you’ll notice that much of the path you are walking on consists of old grave stones, with some lettering still visible. I will point out a few along the way.

After passing through the east gate, look out on the left for this skull on the corner of one of the gravestones. Many of the stones are seriously eroded now but this one gives us an intimation of what the graves must have looked like originally.

This stone probably dates from the late 18th century judging by the others nearby

A little bit further on to the left is the memorial to Thomas Rosewell. The inscription reads

Thomas Rosewell

Nonconformist Minister


Died 1692

Tried for High Treason under the infamous Jeffries

See state trials 1681


The stone was renewed by a descendant in 1867

A Presbyterian minister in Rotherhithe, allegations (almost certainly fabricated) were made that he had uttered seditious sentiments during a sermon in September 1684. This led to his being arraigned for high treason at a trial presided over by the notoriously ruthless Lord Chief Justice, George Jeffreys, aka ‘The Hanging Judge’. He was initially found guilty and sentenced to death, but a tremendous public outcry led to a royal pardon in January 1685. Charles II had been told by an adviser that ‘If your majesty suffers this man to die, we are none of us safe in our houses’.

A little further on is John Bunyan’s tomb of 1689. It is not quite what it seems since the effigy of the great man and the bas-reliefs (inspired by Pilgrim’s Progress) were only added in 1862 when the tomb was restored. A preacher who spent over a decade in jail for his beliefs, he holds the bible in his left hand. He started the Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress whilst imprisoned and it became one of the most published works in the English language.


The Christian weighed down by his heavy burden of sin

Standing upright, free of sin, and clinging to the cross

Bunhill is a nice place for a quiet spot of lunch …

I was photobombed by a squirrel!

Old stones used as paving beside Bunyan’s memorial.

Turn your back on Bunyan’s tomb and you will be facing the obelisk erected in 1870 to commemorate the 1731 burial of Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. The monument was funded by an appeal to boys and girls by the weekly newspaper Christian World who were invited to give ‘not less than sixpence’. Defoe got into serious trouble in 1702 by publishing a satirical work entitled The Shortest Way with Dissenters which was taken seriously by some and resulted in him being prosecuted for seditious libel. He spent time in jail and  was also sentenced to three sessions in the pillory – supporters threw flowers instead of stones and garbage and he emerged unscathed to write a pamphlet entitled Hymn to the Pillory.

Defoe’s memorial

Paving nearby

Next to Defoe’s obelisk is the stone pictured below commemorating William Blake and his wife. The memorial was originally placed over his actual grave by The Blake Society on the centenary of Blake’s death (1927) but it was moved in 1965 when the area was cleared to create a more public open space. Candles, flowers and other offerings are frequently left here by modern day Blake admirers. Considered mad by many of his contemporaries, he is now regarded as one of Britain’s greatest artists and poets, his most famous work probably being the short poem And did those feet in ancient time. It is now best known as the anthem Jerusalem and includes the words that  are often cited when people refer to the Industrial Revolution.

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Blake’s memorial with some offerings from modern day Blake pilgrims

If you return to the east/west path and carry on walking you will shortly see down a path on your right the extraordinary tomb of Dame Mary Page.

It appears that Mary Page suffered from what is now known as Meigs’ Syndrome and her body had to be ‘tap’d’ to relieve the pressure. She had to undergo this treatment for over five years and was so justifiably proud of her bravery and endurance she left instructions in her will that her tombstone should tell her story. And it does …

Return to the path going west and this family grave is on the left.

I mention it because it poignantly illustrates the high degree of infant mortality in the early 19th century.

Days of life are sometimes included as well as years and months

And finally, as you approach the west gate, take a look at the wall on the left and you will see the elegant iron row numbers that the Victorians placed there to make finding a particular grave easier.


Dragons and Maidens

Mythical dragons do seem to keep finding themselves guarding pretty, captive maidens who are then rescued by brave heroes who slay the poor old dragon. So I thought I would combine dragons and maidens for this blog, especially since the dragon is a well-known symbol of the City of London.

The first thing I must be clear about is that the City symbol is a dragon not a griffin!

I always used to call them griffins and that is how they are described constantly in guides to London but there are differences between the two.

A griffin (or gryphon) is a legendary creature with the body, tail and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. I have only been able to find one in the City and here it is …

Entrance to Dunster Court, Mincing Lane

He proudly supports the arms of the Clothworkers Company.

Dragons, on the other hand, have a serpent’s tail, tend to be scaly all over and breathe fire and smoke. Here is the City of London version …

Tower Hill Dragon, EC3

It is made of cast iron and painted in silver with details picked out in red. It holds a shield with the City emblem of the red cross of St George and the short sword of St Paul and nine of them serve as boundary marks around the City. In addition, there are many other dragons all over the City in a variety of poses.

Their original version once graced the 1849 Coal Exchange on Lower Thames Street which was demolished in 1963. The two dragons, however, were relocated to Victoria Embankment in November of that year where they remain to this day and are much bigger than subsequent versions which are about half their size.

From the Illustrated London News 1879 – you can just make out the dragons on the parapet over the entrance

Here is an original dragon in his new home on Victoria Embankment…

That’s the ‘OXO’ building behind him across the Thames

He looks very sinister in silhouette …

Original dragon viewed looking south

Guarding the boundary between the City of London and Westminster, the Temple Bar Dragon is in a league of its own. It is taller, fiercer, very gothic and is black rather than silver. It would be quite at home in a Harry Potter story and is quite scary – maybe that’s why the Corporation Committee Chairman, having considered the Temple Bar version, chose the less flamboyant Coal Exchange dragons as boundary markers instead.

Atop the Temple Bar Memorial

Another dragon at Temple Bar looks towards Westminster …

This Smithfield beast looks like he is just about to swoop down – perhaps for a meaty lunch …

Smithfield Market

And these two work hard supporting the roof of Leadenhall Market

Leadenhall Market
Leadenhall Market

And so to maidens – Mercer Maidens to be precise.

The Mercer Company is the first in precedence of the ‘Great Twelve’ livery companies of the City of London and I shall be writing in more detail about the companies in a later blog.

The Mercers’ Maiden symbol is part of the coat of arms of the Company and according to their website she first appears on a seal in 1425. Her precise origins are unknown, and there is no written evidence as to why she was chosen as the Company’s emblem. She is often depicted wearing the fashions of her time since the coat of arms was not granted until 1911 so her appearance often varied.

She was often used to mark buildings belonging to the Company and I have been strolling around the City looking for her.

The inconsistency of design is apparent here with these two maidens only a few feet apart on the same building in Old Jewry.

‘Shall I wake up?’
‘No, I think I’ll go back to sleep’

Here is the Mercer Hall Maiden

Ironmonger Lane, off Poultry

And one in Queen Street

Regina House, Queen Street EC4

And another in Gresham Street, incorporating cornucopia signifying wealth and plenty …

93-95 Gresham Street EC2

And finally the oldest surviving …

The earliest surviving maiden, Corbet Court off St Michael’s Alley EC3

As you can see, she is dated 1669 and was reinstated here after development work in 2004. Serene and beautiful, she must have witnessed much of the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire of 1666.

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