Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Maps

Secret & Sacred Rivers

I’m always intrigued by Londoners’ capacity to ignore odd behaviour. For example, I spent a good ten minutes bending over this grating, some of it virtually on my knees, and no one showed the slightest curiosity …

Junction of Greville Street and Saffron Hill (EC1M 3JF)

I was, of course, trying to hear the sound of running water since, directly underneath, runs probably the most famous of London’s ‘lost’ subterranean rivers, the Fleet. Its headwaters are two streams on Hampstead Heath, each of which was dammed into a series of ponds in the 18th century. At the southern edge of the Heath these descend underground as sewers which join in Camden Town. The waters flow four miles from the ponds to the River Thames, just underneath Blackfriars Bridge. Incidentally, it didn’t run down Fleet Street, it merely ran past its eastern, lower end.

This map, showing the route of the Fleet and various other waterways, is on display at the excellent Secret Rivers exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands …

Because of its later reputation, I always had a view that the Fleet where it joined the Thames would be a deeply unpleasant place, so this picture rather surprised me …

This painting (by a follower of Samuel Scott) was obviously influenced by Canaletto, who was based in England until 1755. Looking north across the Thames, it shows the entrance to the Fleet circa 1750 with Bridewell Foot Bridge, the City Wharf and Dock, and Blackfriars Stairs. The Fleet was developed into a canal up to Holborn, lending this view a Venetian appearance. This grand aspect, however, did not last long as the wharves proved unprofitable and Londoners continued to dump their rubbish in the river.

Originally a green river valley, the Fleet River had been gradually transformed into the Fleet Ditch, infamous for being a source of filth, corruption and disease. Observing a flood during a storm in 1710 Jonathan Swift penned the following lines …

Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

Pope made this small literary contribution in 1728 …

To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams, rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames.

On display at the exhibition is sad little exhibit. Found during excavations of the old river bed, it’s a dog’s collar with the inscription ‘Tom at Ye Greyhound Bucklersbury’. Poor Tom.

There is a reminder in the exhibition of how muddy and dirty the City’s streets were. This pair of wooden pattens date from the 15th century and were used to protect shoes and raise the wearer above the mud. They have a leather hinge to aid walking …

London’s population grew rapidly through the seventeenth century from about 200,000 to about half a million which resulted in a significant rise in the need for coal. This was brought from the north east of the country in barges which offloaded at wharves in the tidal Fleet. Street names that survive today remind us of this …

And the thoroughfare that ended at the canal, so you couldn’t go any further …

The Fleet Valley from Clerkenwell to the Thames housed many of London’s prisons and all manner of vice was practised in the dingy, stinking claustrophobic rookeries (slums). Nor was there much privacy if you had to go to the loo. This medieval oak three-seater toilet seat was found over cesspit in a yard behind buildings that faced on to modern day Ludgate Hill …

This picture tells a story. It’s an 1841 drawing by Antony Crosby of the Fleet River at Holborn Bridge – note the wooden latrine projecting over the ditch on the left …

Holborn Viaduct was built between 1863 and 1869 in order to span the Fleet and provide level access from east to west – a great improvement in an era of horse-drawn traffic. You can see it reaches over a deep valley …

Looking north whilst standing on what was the bank of the old Fleet canal.

When I climbed the stairs to take a picture from above a curious City dragon popped his head up to see what I was doing …

Gradually the entire river was enclosed in Victorian sewer tunnels and it now flows into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge (just below where the banker Roberto Calvi was found hanged in 1982) …

Rivers, such as the Thames and the Walbrook, influenced where the Romans founded Londinium and the Museum of London exhibition also illustrates the fact that our connection to water goes beyond the practical, reaching into the spiritual. While most objects found in London’s rivers are lost items, rubbish or remnants of river-related activities, some cannot be explained so easily. These bear witness to the spiritual importance of rivers.

On display, for example, is this first or second century AD small representation of a river god, possible Neptune, apparently cast or placed into the Walbrook …

And this piece of a marble offering is particularly fascinating …

The inscription has been translated thus:

To the Divinities of the Emperors (and) to the god Mars Camulus. Tiberinius Celerianus, a citizen of the Bellovaci, moritix, of Londoners the first …

It is the first example from the capital to use the word Londiniensi or ‘Londoners’. The language suggests a man who hailed from northern France and probably traded or travelled regularly within that region but whose home seems to have become London.

If you want to read more about Roman London I have written three earlier blogs on the subject: The Romans in London – Mithras, Walbrook and the Games, The Romans in London … and two Roman ladies and The Roman Wall revisited.

The Museum of London Docklands exhibition runs until 27th October this year. I highly recommend it.

Down by the River – wharves, beaches and desperate immigrants

Once upon a time, access by foot to the River Thames was absolutely essential since it was London’s main highway. These ‘Watermen’s Stairs’ were also of great benefit if you were unfortunate enough to fall into the river. A Waterman would usually be nearby plying for hire and might be inclined to rescue you (and the stairs were often adjacent to a public house, where such accidents could be more likely to happen!).

Although wharves and later rudimentary docks began to be used to offload goods, most ships simply moored in lines in the middle of the river and their cargo was rowed to shore and carried up shoreline stairs.

John Rocque’s London Map of 1756 showed literally dozens of such access points and last Sunday I decided to go in search of what was left of them, starting at the east side of the Millennium Bridge. These are the steps leading to the foreshore …

This is the exact spot where the ancient Trig Lane access to the River was located and back in the 1970s redevelopment work revealed a 14th century wharf. Here is a picture of some of the site taken in 1974, now totally covered by riverside office development …

Read more on Adrian Procter’s blog

There was some amateur excavation taking place when I visited …

Looking all around you see lots of pieces of pottery, tiles and bricks along with lumps of chalk …

Large chalk beds were once laid down to provide a soft settling place for barges at low tide.

It’s rather a strange feeling standing on the river bed and gazing along the foreshore …

As I walked east I looked back and spotted a sandy beach. You can see the Trig Steps in the distance …

My next stop was the Cousin Lane steps next to Cannon Street railway station …

As is common along the River, you can see the remains of old wharves …

And a barge resting nearby …

I got a distinct feeling that I was trespassing.

These steps at London Bridge are no longer open to the public. Again the remains of old wharves are visible at low tide …

Further along the Thames Walk a capstan reminds us of the days when this part of the river was a major commercial shipping hub …

Looking over the riverside wall, lots more lumps of chalk are clearly visible …

Next on my list was Custom House Stairs – here is how they appear in Roque’s Map of 1746 …

And here they are today …

I encountered lots of oyster shells on my walk, once a very cheap source of food for Londoners …

An old winch still decorates the pedestrian walkway …

As I walked past the Tower I was reminded of pictures I had seen of the beach there that was opened up in July 1934 for the use of people who couldn’t afford to go to the seaside. Apparently 1,500 bargeloads of sand were used to create it …

It was finally closed in 1971 due to river pollution. There is a nice blog about it here.

My final set of stairs were located just past St Katharine Dock along St Katharine’s Way. The entrance is easy to miss since the signage is quite high up …

Here I hesitated …

It’s all a bit slimy and slippery …

When you reach the bottom it’s clear you are definitely below the level of high tide …

The view looking west …

As I looked back up the steps I was reminded of a story in the London Inheritance blog.

On the 24th April 1847, the Illustrated London News reported on arrivals at Alderman’s Stairs …

IRISH IMMIGRATION INTO LONDON – The importation of Irish paupers, so much complained of in Liverpool and Glasgow, begins to wear a threatening aspect in London. On Sunday, the Prussian Eagle, from Cork, and the Limerick, from Dublin, landed 1200 Irish Paupers at Alderman’s Stairs, Lower East Smithfield. The new comers, who were in the most wretched state of distress, were forthwith distributed over the eastern part of the metropolis. The same vessels landed 1200 Irish paupers on Sunday week.

I hope these steps led to a better life for some of those poor souls, many surely victims of the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1849.

The scene at Skibbereen during the Great Famine, by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by The Illustrated London News.

Fun and Miscellany – my 100th blog!

Thank you so much for subscribing to my little publication – especially those of you who have been with me since the very beginning almost two years ago.

For the first anniversary I included things that I had come across that had made me smile and I want to do that again this week. I want as well, however, to include a few items that I thought were interesting but didn’t fit under any broad heading.

One of the great pleasures of doing research is the occasional joy of serendipity. I recently discovered that encouraging people to cycle to work is nothing new and magazines were being published almost 40 years ago which included maps to help cyclists navigate.

I came across this persuasive cover of On your bike! magazine from 1982 …

And now something a bit more surreal, a piece of art that was on display at the Guildhall art Gallery until a few weeks ago …

Marcello Pecchioli’s eye-catching stained glass Alien Priest was part of the Gallery’s ‘Visionary Artists’ exhibition. I like the flying saucers in the background.

Next up is this picture in the Gallery entitled Garden of Eden by Hugh Goldwin Riviere (1860-1956). Painted in 1901, it depicts a young man and girl walking in a misty, wet park with a horse-drawn cab rank in the background.

I like it because to me it’s one of those pictures that immediately gets you making up a back story to the characters. Surely this is an assignation – a secret lovers meeting, he clasping her hand and she gazing lovingly into his face. Then it struck me: Garden of Eden! A place of dangerous temptation and banishment!

Apparently guides point out that this picture is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes, lack of gloves and his rolled up trouser bottoms. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers. There are tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches. Surely they represent tears to come? Or am I getting completely carried away? Another commentator has said that she is simply a smartly dressed maidservant on her day off, out walking with her beau.

In Cullum Street I was stopped in my tracks by this stunning sculpture by Sarah Lucas entitled Perceval

Part of the ‘Sculpture in the City’ initiative – EC3M 7JJ

It’s a large-scale replica of a traditional china ornament of the kind that took pride of place on many British mantelpieces forty years ago. Perceval was a knight of the Round Table and apparently there is fertility symbolism in the giant concrete marrows on the cart. You can read more about this work here.

Also for us to admire as part of the Sculpture in the City project is this example entitled Crocodylius Philodendrus by Nancy Rubins at 1 Undershaft (EC3A 6HX). I love it because it’s completely bonkers …

See how many animals you can spot

I keep meaning to spend some time in the Blackfriar pub on Queen Victoria Street recording the brilliant brasses there (EC4V 4EG) but I still haven’t got around to it. So in the meantime, here is the advice on one of them …

‘Don‘t advertise – tell a gossip

Don’t forget to look down when crossing the Millennium (‘Wobbly’) Bridge and see if you can spot some of the witty work by the artist Ben Wilson. He has painstakingly painted literally dozens of pieces of discarded chewing gum …

I have written more about him in my earlier blog Tales from City Bridges.

There is a Banksy rat painting in Chiswell Street that has been altered by another artist. Banksy’s piece originally depicted a stencilled ghetto rat holding a placard which read ‘London doesn’t work’ …

Photograph taken by ‘Noodlefish’ 26 August 2006

However, Robbo, Banksy’s rival graffiti artist, reworked the placard by adding his name in red letters. Robbo was known for leaving his mark on many Banksy pieces but I read in the interesting Londonist blog that Robbo died in 2014, bringing the rivalry to an end.

I haven’t been able to find out more about the strange ‘Life is beautiful’ figure next to it.

It is hard to imagine now but many of London’s roads were once paved with wood. However a map of London by Bartholomew’s in 1928 shows clearly the expansive reach of the wooden block road paving method. In the map excerpt below, the yellow roads are all paved with wooden blocks …

Read more in the excellent blog ‘Ian Visits’

Many were destroyed in wartime bombing and many also dug up by local residents for burning as heating. Since they were impregnated with tar they burnt furiously and, of course, made a major contribution to London’s filthy air.

For some people this was an entrepreneurial opportunity. This is Alan Sugar being interviewed for the Daily Express in 2010 about when he noticed old blocks being uncovered when roads were being resurfaced …

The workers showed me the blocks, which were impregnated with tar, and they chucked a couple onto the fire – they burned like a rocket. Bingo! It occurred to me that these discarded wooden blocks could be made into fire-lighting sticks. I could cut them up into bundles of sticks and flog them.

And you can still see a section of wooden road today at the junction of Chequer Street and Bunhill Row EC1 …

Looking over the wall on the Embankment one day I noticed these lions heads with mooring rings …

They were sculpted by Timothy Butler for Bazalgette’s great sewage works in 1868-70 and it is said that, if the lions drink, London will flood.

And to end with, two more items with watery themes that make me smile.

Firstly, a famous satire on the quality of the Metropolitan water supply in 1828. An elderly lady displays her horror and shock on looking at a speck of Thames water through a microscope …

Copyright: British museum

It’s by the artist and caricaturist William Heath (1795-1840) and is entitled Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us! You can read more about the efforts made to get fresh water to Londoners in my blog Philanthropic Fountains.

And finally I always say hello to this miserable dolphin on The Ship pub in Hart Street (EC3R 7NB). I also tell him to cheer up – the pub is a listed building and therefore so is he …

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Underground history at Moorgate station

I love old photographs, and there is a selection of them on display alongside the platforms at Mooorgate Station. For those of you who don’t board or alight there I have reproduced them here. For those of you that do, I have added a little more history.

First up is this distinguished looking gentleman …

Lord Ashfield posed with his daughter at Moorgate Station in 1924

Ashfield was then Chairman of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London. He had joined the organisation as General Manager in 1907 when it was in such poor financial shape that he reserved the right to leave after a year and return to America where he was running the New Jersey transport system. A charming but tough character, on arrival he demanded and got resignation letters from all the UERL senior management, post-dated by six months.

An extraordinarily competent businessman, he turned the operation into a success and went on to hold numerous senior positions with the Underground railway as well as becoming President of the Board of Trade in 1916.

Here is a copy of the first Underground Map of 1908 showing the UERL’s lines and those of the other Tube lines including the Metropolitan Railway …

I still find it quite amazing that the Metropolitan opened for business over 150 years ago in 1863 as a possible solution to London’s desperately overcrowded streets. It was a great success, carrying over 30,000 passengers on its first day, despite the foul and disgusting atmosphere created by the steam trains that pulled the carriages. The Metropolitan’s owners claimed the ‘invigorating’ atmosphere ‘provided a sort of health resort for people who suffered from asthma’, but they also allowed drivers to grow beards in a futile bid to filter out the worst of the fumes. An attempt to ban smoking was thwarted by Parliament and a total ban didn’t take place until 1987 as a result of the King’s Cross fire.

This drawing of circa 1865 shows early morning commuters arriving having taken advantage of cheap fares on ‘workmen’s trains’ …

Available if you travelled before 6:00 am, the cheap workmen’s tickets were incredibly popular. Interviewed by the journalist Henry Mayhew, the labourers he spoke to all voiced their enthusiasm for a service that allowed poorer Londoners to live further out, sparing them a six-mile walk to work and allowing their families to live in two rooms rather than one.

Commuting from the suburbs was portrayed in this poster as a very civilised experience …

Stamp issued in 2013 the celebrate 150 years of the Underground

Isn’t this poster from 1911 by Alfred France splendid, look at the silhouettes …

The Underground really was for everyone

There was also a horse-drawn omnibus available at Moorgate for onward journeys. In fact, the very last journey of this nature in London was between Moorgate and London Bridge on October 25th 1911 …

The last journey

The station was busy enough to require a signal box …

1933 – Signallers operated their levers in a cabin by the Station

By 1955 a signaller controlled Moorgate’s section of track from a new push-button signalling cabin …

I think this is a great picture from 1965 of Underground workers stopping for a tea break during a shift realigning the Metropolitan line tracks …

‘I’ll be mother’. That’s a proper workers’ teapot!

An entrance to the station survived the Second World War bombing that destroyed other parts of the building …

Picture taken in 1955

I found these pictures during my research and hope you find them interesting …

A heritage Metropolitan steam train at Moorgate in 2014 – Picture by Christian NX

There is a Greathead tunneling shield which was left in place below the station in 1904 when the Lothbury extension to the Great Northern & City Line was abandoned …

You can find this picture and read more fascinating facts on the Subterranea Britannica website. I have also written about Greathead and where you can actually walk through one of his shields in an earlier blog. You can find a link here.

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.


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