Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Memorials

A shop, a tree and a poem

Although it doesn’t look it at first glance, the corner of Wood Street and Cheapside is a little historical treasure trove. Here it is today, a card shop, a tree and a bit of open space – and all offer a fascinating sense of continuity with the City’s past.

Copyright Katie at ‘Look up London’

Cheapside had originally been known as West Chepe to distinguish it from East Chepe at the other end of the City and the name comes from the Saxon Ceap, meaning market. For centuries it was a scene of medieval pageantry, being wide enough for horse racing and jousts. It was also a place of grisly executions and the punishment of the likes of errant tradesmen and apprentices, usually utilising the permanent pillory and stocks. Facing Wood Street was the Eleanor Cross, one of a dozen lavish monuments erected by Edward I between 1291 and 1294, in memory of where the coffin of his wife Eleanor of Castile rested overnight as her body was transported to London.

The Cheapside Cross, with the Great Conduit to the right of it. Illustration: Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty

Before its demolition in 1643, the Cross was adjacent to a conduit, one of three providing fresh water piped from the River Tyburn, giving the citizens of London an alternative to the foul water from the wells and the Thames. It was the custom, on days of celebration, for the conduits to run with claret. The historian Bernard Ash observed that it was …

‘Claret undoubtedly as coarse and bloody as the mob which drank it’.

By the beginning of 1666 the street was dominated by traders: mercers, drapers, haberdashers, furriers and also Cheapside’s ‘greatest treasure’, the goldsmiths. Most of the messy, smelly trades had migrated to London’s rim.

As the Great Fire fire spread, people dug desperately into the earth to puncture the conduit’s water supply, hoping the water might quench the flames – in vain – and the Great Conduit itself was razed to the ground along with Cheapside on Tuesday 4 September 1666. A post-fire visitor declared in amazement …

‘You may stand in Cheapside and see the Thames!’

I would like to start my story with the little shop on the corner, which I have been tracking through time …

An anonymous drawing from the 1860s.

The 1920s – From ‘Spitalfields Life’ – pictures selected from the three volumes of ‘Wonderful London’ edited by St John Adcock and produced by The Fleetway House in the nineteen-twenties.

As I remember it in the 1970s through to the late 1990s. Sadly the lovely glass door engraved with the words ‘L R Woderson under the Tree’ has disappeared and been replaced with plain glass and a security grille.

The rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire took over forty years, but the little shop on Cheapside, along with its three neighbours to the west, were some of the earliest new structures to be built as the City recovered. The site is small and each of the shops in the row consists of a single storey above and a box front below. According to Peter Ackroyd, in his London, the Biography, many trades have operated there since the stores were built in 1687. These included silver-sellers, wig-makers, law stationers, pickle- and sauce-sellers, fruiterers, florists and, as can be seen above, shirt-makers. The shop now sells greetings cards.

The little garden at the back of the shop used to be the churchyard of St Peter Westcheap (also known as St Peter Cheap) which was destroyed in the Great Fire and not rebuilt. Three gravestones survive as do the railings which date from 1712.

The railings and the names of the Churchwardens who probably raised the money for them.

The railings incorporate an image of St Peter. In his lap and above his head are the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The plaque in the churchyard attached to the Cheapside shop’s northern wall confirms the age of the building …

And finally to the magnificent London Plane tree that you can see in most of the pictures. It stands 70 feet high and is protected by a City ordinance which also limits the height of the shops.

No one knows precisely how old it is but what we do know is that it was there in 1797 when its presence inspired the poet Wordsworth to compose a poem ‘where the natural world breaks through Cheapside in visionary splendour’. The poem, The Reverie of Poor Susan, records the awakened childhood memories of a country girl now working in London, possibly as a servant. I think it is rather sad. An excerpt is displayed in the churchyard, but here is the complete version:

At the corner of Wood-Street, when day-light appears,
There’s a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years.
Poor Susan has pass’d by the spot and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the bird.

‘Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripp’d with her pail,
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove’s,
The only one dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in Heaven, but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade;
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all pass’d away from her eyes.

As Ackroyd declares, in his unique, poetic style …

Everything about this corner of Wood Street suggests continuity … on every level, human, social, natural and communal.

I thought this picture was worth including. Sir Robert Peel looks east down Cheapside around the turn of the 20th century (and a uniformed ‘Peeler’ stands beneath the lamp post). The shops gradually disappeared for a while as commerce took over but now they are back in abundance, especially with the new development at New Change.

Sir Robert was moved in 1933 to reduce traffic congestion. He is now outside the Peel Centre in Barnet (more familiarly known as Hendon Police College).









The Mysterious Panyer Boy – and other curiosities

Here he sits in Panyer Alley, just beside an entrance to St Paul’s Underground Station, a naked little boy astride what looks like a basket, and a strange inscription precisely dated ‘August the 27 1688’. What is going on?

Sadly the little chap has become very eroded and damaged over the years, and it is pretty surprising that he has survived at all. After a bit of searching I have found a drawing of him, possibly from the 18th or 19th century, which may give us a better idea of what he used to look like …

The pedestal and scrollwork have now disappeared.

I have also found this old photograph, probably early 20th century …

For this picture and other really interesting photos, visit the ‘Spitalfields Life’ website and search for ‘Signs of Old London’.

As with all mysteries, there are many theories, but all are agreed that the sign really does date from the 17th century since this is acknowledged in trusted sources such as Thomas Pennant’s Of London (1790). What the boy is doing and what he represents are the areas where there is much dispute, for example:

‘Is he: sitting on a pannier (basket), or a coil of rope, or a woolsack, or a barrel?’

‘Is he holding: a bunch of grapes, or a loaf of bread, or his foot (perhaps pulling out a thorn – apparently the carving was once known locally as ‘pick my toe’)?’

‘Does he represent: the bread market that was here in medieval times, and at nearby St Martin’s Le Grand, or the sign of a brewhouse (brewery)? There was a Panyer brewhouse recorded nearby as long ago as 1426.’

‘Does he have any connection whatsoever to the claim to the highest ground?’.

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but one thing that is certain is that this is not the ‘highest ground’ in the City, that description nowadays belongs to Cornhill.

Nearby on the north west corner of Warwick Lane is a small bas-relief of Guy, Earl of Warwick. It is believed that the lane was so named since it was the location of the Warwick Inn owned, not surprisingly, by the Earls of Warwick.

The knight represented is the 10th Earl (c.1272-1315) and the British Museum archives hold a picture of the carving as it was illustrated in Antiquities of London (1791) …

Copyright : British Museum

And here is how it looks now …

You can see that the top and bottom sections of the present-day relief were added later, most likely at the time of a restoration in 1817 by John Deykes (an architect and surveyor). Pennants London is a book published in 1805 and its 5th edition (1815) gets a mention on the relief, right down to the page number where  the carving is discussed (492). Maybe the publisher paid for the restoration in return for this smart piece of advertising?

Incidentally, whilst researching the Warwicks I came across this reference to the Warwick Inn. Neville, the 16th Earl …

At a meeting of the great estates of the realm in 1547 … lodged himself  (there) with 600 men where, says Stowe, ‘there were oftentimes six oxen eaten at … breakfast, and every tavern was full of his meat; for he that had any acquaintance in that house, might have there so much of sodden [boiled] and roast meat, as he could prick and carry upon a long dagger.’

Now that’s what I call a buffet.

On the north west side of nearby Ludgate Circus is this memorial plaque. Wallace sold newspapers on this corner when he was eleven years old …

The memorial is by F.W. Doyle-Jones (1934)

Born out of wedlock in Greenwich in 1875, and with both of his parents itinerant actors, he was adopted by a kindly Billingsgate fish porter and his wife. Asked by a journalist years later to contribute to a celebrity feature entitled ‘What I Owe My Parents’, Wallace replied on a postcard:

‘Sorry, cock, I’m a bastard’.

Despite such a challenging start to life (or perhaps because of it) his story is extraordinary. As well as journalism, Wallace wrote screen plays, poetry, historical non-fiction, 18 stage plays, 957 short stories, and over 170 novels, By 1926, he was knocking out 18 novels a year and by 1929, he was up to 34, and it was claimed that a quarter of all books read in English were by him.

When he turned to writing fiction in 1905 he told his wife he would give his readers :

 ‘Crime and blood and three murders to the chapter; such is the insanity of the age that I do not doubt for one moment the success of my venture.’

More than 160 films have been made of Wallace’s work and he sold over 50 million copies of his combined works in various editions, The Economist describing him as ‘one of the most prolific thriller writers of [the 20th] century’.

So why is he hardly known at all now compared to his overlapping contemporaries Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie? His biographer, Neil Clark, sees him as a victim of literary snobbery, being one of the first crime writer to come from a working-class background. Another factor may be that the characters of his investigators, JG Reeder and the gloomy Inspector Elk, were not as seductive as Holmes, Poirot or Maigret. For example, Elk was introduced in The Fellowship of the Frog as ‘tall and thin, a slight stoop accentuated his weediness.’

Wallace’s last piece of work was on one of the most famous movies of all time …

In 1931 RKO invited him to Hollywood to work on an idea that Wallace would generously credit to the director, Merian C. Cooper. However, as Neil Clark makes clear in his biography, the Bodleian’s existing script shows that Wallace conceived the ‘beauty and the beast’ motif himself, the climb up the Empire State building and the aeroplane attack.

He also created the final scene …


‘Kong opens his eyes, picks the girl up, holds her to his breast like a doll, closes his eyes and drops his head,’

Wallace died in Hollywood on 10th February 1932 after falling into a diabetic coma, compounded by double pneumonia, from which he never recovered.

And finally, would you like a close look at a piece of work by the pioneering modern sculptor Jacob Epstein?

Once again, as in previous blogs, I invite you to pass through the blue doors in Foster Lane to the lovely tranquil garden of St Vedast-alias-Foster  …

In the corner you will find Epstein’s Head and Shoulders of Canon Mortlock (1936)…

Mortlock was a personal friend of Epstein’s and also of Max Mallowan (Agatha Christie’s husband) who gave him the cuneiform marked tablet also displayed in the churchyard – see my blog City Churches and Churchyards – more Tales of the Unexpected.


Fleet Street Legends

Today I am writing about two people who changed the world of newspaper reporting forever, and both have commemorative busts in Fleet Street.

They come from the great days of newspaper publishing, when Fleet Street throbbed with sound of the press machinery and journalists and barristers gossiped at the bar in El Vino. ‘They used to say that the way to tell them apart was to ask if anyone had a pen’, says Michael McCarthy, a former reporter, ‘the journalists would be the ones who didn’t have one.’

El Vino is still there at 47 Fleet Street, but the family that had owned it since 1879 sold up in 2015

Ladies were forced to sit in the back room until Anna Coote, a journalist who was banished in this way, took the owners to court.  In 1982, three Appeal Court judges, all of whom admitted to being patrons, ordered that the ban be lifted on the grounds that the exclusion could harm women’s careers if they could not ‘pick up the gossip of the day’. The manager at the time called it ‘a very sad day’ for El Vino, ‘a place where old-fashioned ideals of chivalry still flourish’.

At number 78 Fleet Street is this bust, erected in 1936, with a stirring inscription on a plaque below that reads …

T. P. O’Connor, journalist & parliamentarian, 1848 – 1929.
His pen could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines.

As well as being a journalist, Thomas Power O’Connor (often referred to as ‘Tay Pay’, people mimicking the way he pronounced his initials) was also an Irish nationalist and House of Commons MP for almost 50 years. One biographer has claimed that ‘there is hardly one significant paper circulating in the English speaking world that does not owe something of its style to T.P.’s original Star‘. He ‘made newspapers both clean and readable’ and therefore ‘popular’.

He founded the Star in 1880. Its editorial policy pulled no punches and declared …

The rich, the privileged, the prosperous need no guardian or advocate; the poor, the weak, the beaten require the work and word of every humane man and woman to stand between them and the world.

It was a radical evening paper published six days a week, fighting valiantly against social injustice and for the rights of the poor as well as workers involved in trade union disputes. So popular was it that by 1888 it had achieved an average circulation of some 125,000 copies a day at a price of one halfpenny.

O’Connor also understood that sensational crimes sold newspapers and the ‘Whitechapel murders’ gave plenty of scope – graphic details being often accompanied by lurid illustrations, for example …

‘Finding the body of Martha Tabram’

Reporting on what would later be described as the Jack the Ripper murders pushed circulation up to over 400,000, and reports were accompanied by harsh criticism of the police and the Commissioner Charles Warren in particular.

The Star finally ceased publication in 1960, absorbed by its long-time rival the Evening News which became the Evening News and Star, reverting back to just the Evening News in 1968.

The T.P. tradition was followed by others. When, in 1896, Alfred Harmsworth, later lord Northcliffe, launched his new journal the Daily Mail he was said to have instructed his journalists :

Find me a murder every day!

He now looks down at us from the wall of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West at 186 Fleet Street …

The bust is by Kathleen Scott, Baroness Kennet. An inscription below reads: ‘Northcliffe MDCCCLXV-MCMXXII’ (1865-1922)

The Daily Mail was immensely popular – two of its taglines were:

‘The busy man’s daily journal’ and ‘The penny newspaper for one halfpenny’

Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, was less flattering, describing it as …

Produced by office boys for office boys

The original plan was to sell 100,000 copies but the print run on the first day was 397,215 and additional printing facilities had to be acquired to sustain a circulation which rose to 500,000 in 1899. By 1902, at the end of the Boer Wars, circulation was over a million, making it the largest in the world.

The paper devised numerous ways to keep their readership engaged. For example, in 1906, the paper offered £1,000 for the first flight across the English Channel and £10,000 for the first flight from London to Manchester.  Punch magazine thought the idea preposterous and offered £10,000 for the first flight to Mars, but by 1910 both the Mail‘s prizes had been won.

Along with his other newspapers (including the Observer, Evening News, Times and Daily Mirror) by 1914 Northcliffe controlled 40 per cent of the morning newspaper circulation in Britain, 45 per cent of the evening and 15 per cent of the Sunday circulation. All his papers were fiercely imperialistic and anti-German and in the run up to the war, the Star thundered in criticism …

Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war

Such was Northcliffe’s influence on anti-German propaganda that, on 14th February 1917, a German warship shelled his house, Elmwood, in Broadstairs in an attempt to assassinate him. He escaped injury, but the shells killed the gardener’s wife and small child.

Incidentally, direct selling insurance off the page is nothing new. During the First World War the paper sold insurance against Zeppelin attacks …

Harmsworth’s marriage to Mary Elizabeth Milner in 1888 produced no children but he had four acknowledged children by two different women. The first, Alfred Benjamin Smith, was born when he was seventeen, the mother being a sixteen-year-old maidservant in his parents’ house. Smith died in 1930, allegedly in a mental home. By 1900, Harmsworth had acquired a new mistress, an Irishwoman named Kathleen Wrohan, about whom little is known but her name. She bore him two further sons and a daughter, and died in 1923.

When he himself died in 1922 he left three months’ pay to each of his six thousand employees.

The Daily Mail’s print circulation in January this year was 1,343,142, second only to the Sun at 1,545,594, but Mail Online is claimed to be the most widely read English newspaper in the world. Its slogan is ‘Seriously Popular’ – I think both O’Connor and Northcliffe would have approved of that aspiration at least (not sure what they would have made of the content though!).


Some interesting faces – from a handsome poet to the ‘ugliest man in England’

Over the last few weeks I have been exploring the City looking at how people have been portrayed in busts, statues and other varieties of portraits. There are a remarkable number of them, particularly if you venture into the churches, so I have just picked some of the ones that I found most interesting.

I will start on a rather sombre note.

This is the beautiful marble war memorial above the concourse at Liverpool Street Station. It contains 1,108 names in alphabetical order and the panel at the top reads as follows:

To the glory of God and in grateful memory of those members of the Great Eastern Railway staff who, in response to the call of their King and Country, sacrificed their lives during the Great War.

If you look beneath it, you will see two individual memorials containing bronze portraits.

This is the one on the right …

Wilson was assassinated outside his house in Eaton Place at about 2:20 pm. Still in full uniform, he was shot six times, two bullets in the chest proving fatal. The two perpetrators, IRA volunteers Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, shot two police officers and a chauffeur as they attempted to escape but were surrounded by a hostile crowd and arrested after a struggle. Interestingly both were former British army officers and O’Sullivan had lost a leg at Ypres, his subsequent disability hindering their escape. After a trial lasting just three hours they were convicted of murder and hanged at Wandsworth gaol on 10 August that year – justice was certainly delivered swiftly in those days. No organisation claimed responsibility for Wilson’s murder.

This magnificent bust of William Shakespeare is in St Mary Aldermanbury Garden, Love Lane EC2 …

Designed by Charles Clement Walker and sculpted in 1896 by Charles John Allen.

A Wren church gutted in the Blitz, the remains of St Mary Aldermanbury were shipped to Fulton, Missouri, USA in 1966. The restored church now is now a memorial to Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech made at Westminster College, Fulton, in 1946.

The Shakespeare bust in the garden stands as a memorial to his fellow actors Henry Condell and John Heminge who were key figures in the printing of the playwright’s First Folio of works seven years after his death. There are almost twenty plays by Shakespeare, including The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, which we would not have at all if it were not for their efforts. Both of them were buried at St Mary’s.

Outside the south side of St Paul’s Cathedral is this rather handsome bearded gentleman …

John Donne 1572-1631 by Nigel Boonham (2012).

In 1617, two years after his ordination, Donne’s wife died at age 33 after giving birth to a stillborn child, their twelfth. Grief-stricken at having lost his emotional anchor, Donne vowed never to marry again, even though he was left with the task of raising his ten surviving children in modest financial circumstances. His bereavement turned him fully to his vocation as an Anglican divine and, on November 22, 1621, Donne was installed as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The power and eloquence of his sermons soon secured for him a reputation as the foremost preacher in the England of his day, and he became a favourite of both Kings James I and Charles I.

His bust points almost due west but shows him turning to the east towards his birthplace on Bread Street. The directions of the compass were important to Donne in his metaphysical work: east is the Rising Sun, the Holy Land and Christ, while west is the place of decline and death. Underneath the bust are inscribed words from his poem Good Friday – Riding Westward :

Hence is’t that I am carried towards the west, This day when my soul’s form bends to the east

The most familiar quotation from Donne comes from his Meditation XVII – Devotions upon Emergent Occasions published in 1624:

‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’

Donne is also famous for the fact that his effigy in St Paul’s Cathedral was the only one to survive the Great Fire of 1666 almost intact (you can still see scorch marks on the urn).  You have to enter the cathedral to see it.

The effigy by Nicholas Stone

Dr Philip Cottrell of University College Dublin describes it as follows:

Donne is shown standing, perched on a funerary urn, and enveloped in a body-hugging burial shroud which has been gathered into two decorative ruffs at the head and feet … The clean, moist appearance of the drapery and the softly-nuanced modelling of the features testify to Stone’s position as the finest sculptor of the English Baroque.

The inscription on this statue of John Wilkes in Fetter Lane EC4 reads as follows:

A champion of English freedom, John Wilkes 1727-1797, Member of Parliament, Lord Mayor.

The inscription on the back of the document he is holding reads ‘A bill for a just and equal representation of the people of England in Parliament’.

English History Online writes of him:

In 1774 that clever rascal, John Wilkes, ascended the civic throne … Young Wilkes grew up a man of pleasure, squandered his wife’s fortune in gambling and other fashionable vices, and became a notorious member of the Hell Fire Club

Wilkes’ career is so extraordinary that I gave up trying to devise edited highlights – please forgive me for cheating and quoting this summary from The Geograph website …

The remarkable Mr Wilkes was a radical, politician, wit, rake, journalist, Lord Mayor of London, prankster and member of The Hellfire Club.

He was repeatedly expelled from The House of Commons and even once declared an outlaw. He is described on the plinth as a “Champion of English freedom” though he was disparagingly known as “the ugliest man in England” by some …. ‘he could woo any woman in competition with any man, provided he was given a month’s start on account of his ugliness.’

Reputedly, John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich said to Wilkes “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.”

Wilkes’ famous squint has been honestly represented by the sculptor, James Butler RA

Although hated by some, Wilkes has also been described as …

The father of the political system we have today and a major influence on that adopted by America: he established freedom of the press as we know it, argued for yearly elections and the abolition of rotten boroughs, and was the first MP to propose universal suffrage in the Commons.

And finally, in my local church, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, there is this touching memorial to Sir William Staines …

And here is the man himself …

Staines had extremely humble beginnings working as a bricklayer’s labourer, but eventually accumulated a large fortune which he generously used for philanthropic purposes. He seemed to recall his own earlier penury when he ensured that the houses he built for ‘aged and indigent’ folk would have ‘nothing to distinguish them from the other dwelling-houses … to denote the poverty of the inhabitant’.

British History Online records an encounter he had with the notorious Wilkes who referred rather rudely to Staines’ original occupation …

The alderman was an illiterate man, and was a sort of butt amongst his brethren. At one of the Old Bailey dinners, after a sumptuous repast of turtle and venison, Sir William was eating a great quantity of butter with his cheese. “Why, brother,” said Wilkes, “you lay it on with a trowel!”


City Churches and Churchyards – more tales of the unexpected

City churches and their churchyards have so much to offer, and after all these years I am still discovering new quirky items and treasures to write about in my blog. Two church interiors and two churchyards will feature today. I know many of my readers are immensely knowledgeable in this area but I hope there will be something new here even for them.

Once again I suggest you pass through the blue doors at 4 Foster Lane …

Entrance to St Vedast Fountain Courtyard and Cloister

Near the piece of Roman pavement I discussed in an earlier blog (The Romans in London and Two Roman Ladies) you will see displayed in a niche a tablet with cuneiform writing.

It comes from a 9 BC Iraqi Ziggurat and was given to the Rector, Canon Mortlock, by Agatha Christie’s husband, the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. He discovered the brick during a 1950-65 dig and apparently it includes the name of Shalmaneser who ruled from 858 to 834 BC.

Just down the road from Pudding Lane, the source of the Great Fire, St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street was the second church to be destroyed in 1666. It was rebuilt by Wren circa 1671-84 and, despite being damaged in the Blitz, it has a great atmosphere – especially on a Sunday when lots of incense has been deployed.

It is worthy of an entire blog all to itself, but for today I will be writing about just a few of its fascinating features. First of all there is the portico you walk through to enter the church …

The view towards Lower Thames Street

Between 1176 and 1831 the churchyard formed part of the roadway approach to Old London Bridge. I found it easy to imagine the tens of thousands who passed through here, since it was the only bridge across the Thames until Westminster Bridge was opened in 1750. Despite the heavy passing traffic, and the lavatorial white tiles on the nearby buildings, this is an atmospheric place and I paused there thinking of all those forgotten souls who had walked these flagstones before me.

The clock (top left in the picture) was presented in 1709 by Sir Charles Duncombe when he was Lord Mayor. One legend tells us that, as a poor saddler’s apprentice living south of the river, he was often severely reprimanded by his master for being late because he had no way of telling the time. Now immensely wealthy, he gifted the clock for the benefit of other folk who could not afford a timepiece.

Right inside the door is a lovely surprise – a 17th century fire engine …

It once belonged to St Michael Crooked Lane. It has only recently been displayed in the narthex having been in store with the Museum of London since 1945.

And if the fire engine wasn’t enough to prompt a visit, what about this extraordinary model of the Old London Bridge …

My picture really does not do it justice – it is four metres long and portrays the bridge at the start of the 15th century

It was created in 1987 by David T Aggett, a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers. The detail is superb, from the individual tiles on the lead roofing, to the countless  individuals crushing into the roadway or hanging out of windows. Over nine hundred tiny people are crammed onto the bridge, amongst them a miniature King Henry V, who can be seen processing towards the City of London from the Southwark side of the bridge. No wonder it is estimated that the bridge usually took more than an hour to cross.

This window on the south side remembers the St Thomas a Becket chapel which was situated near the centre of the bridge …

See if you can find the Chapel on the model

The chapel paid a levy to St Magnus from the fees received from travellers crossing the river.

I paid another visit to St Sepulchre-without-Newgate at the junction of Holborn Viaduct and Snow Hill. Housed there, in a glass case, is a macabre relic – the Newgate Execution Bell

Photo by Lonpicman

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the clerk of St Sepulchre’s was responsible for ringing a handbell outside the condemned person’s cell in Newgate Prison, just across the road where the Old Bailey court is now. A tunnel linked the church to the prison and at midnight, on the night before their execution, the bell would be rung twelve times and the following ‘wholesome advice’ delivered …

“All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before Almighty God will appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you not to eternal flames be sent,
And when St Sepulcher’s bell tomorrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.”

The tradition of ringing the bell apparently dates from 1605 and has its origins in a bequest of £50 made by one Robert Dow(e), a prominent member of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors. Dow had apparently wanted a clergyman to be the one to ring the bell but £50 was insufficient to cover the extra cost.

On the day of execution, the condemned were ‘carted away’ and ‘went west’ from Newgate to the Tyburn gallows (near today’s Marble Arch), the death cart pausing outside St Sepulchre’s for the prisoners to be presented with a nosegay. The distance between Newgate and Tyburn was approximately three miles, but due to streets often being crowded with onlookers, the journey could last up to three hours. A usual stop of the cart was at the Bowl Inn in St Giles where the condemned were allowed to drink ‘strong liquors or wine’.

The tremendous disruption caused by the thousands who came to watch eventually became too much for the authorities and the last execution at Tyburn took place on Friday the 7th of November 1783 when John Austin was hanged for highway robbery. Public executions continued outside Newgate Gaol until 1868 and still attracted vast crowds, the last person dispatched being the Fenian Michael Barrett on the 28th May that year.

Looking down from St Sepulchre’s is this sundial. Dating from 1681 it will have witnessed many of the sad events associated with the old prison. You can read more about it, and other dials, in my blog We are but shadows – City Sundials.

The dial is made of stone painted blue and white with noon marked by an engraved ‘X’ and dots marking the half hours.










The City’s lone church towers and the Blitz

William Sanson, a London auxiliary fireman, thought 7th September 1940 ‘one of the fairest days of the century, a day of clean warm air and high blue skies’. At 4:00 pm that afternoon, just across the Channel at Cap Blanc Nez, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring was also enjoying the sunshine. From there he watched as 348 German bombers headed for London accompanied by an escort of 617 fighters. Looking up, Londoners who had not taken shelter could see this vast force some two miles high and 20 miles wide – they seemed to blot out the sun. London was pounded until 6:00 pm. Two hours later, guided by the fires set by the first assault, a second group of raiders commenced another attack that lasted until 4:30 the following morning. The  raids continued for 56 out of the following 57 days and nights. Sanson and his brave colleagues were no longer mocked as ‘army dodgers’ (who restaurants often refused to serve) but were re-christened as ‘heroes with grimy faces’.

Thanks to the efforts of the fire services and volunteers, many City churches survived the Blitz although some, such as St. Mary-le-Bow, had to be substantially rebuilt. Others were effectively lost apart from their towers and today’s blog visits the four of them that were originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren, assisted by  Nicholas Hawksmoor.

In Wood Street, just opposite the police station, stands the tower of St Alban’s. It’s a church designed by Wren in a late Perpendicular Gothic style and completed in 1685 to replace a previous structure destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire.

St Alban, Wood street

The church was restored in 1858-9 by George Gilbert Scott, who added an apse, and the tower pinnacles were added in the 1890s. It was destroyed on a terrible night, 29 December 1940, when the bombing also claimed another eighteen churches and a number of livery halls. Some of St Alban’s walls survived but they  were demolished in 1954 and now nothing remains apart from the tower – not even a little garden to give it some cover from the traffic passing on both sides. I’ve often been told someone lives there but I have never seen any evidence of it.

This is St Dunstan-in-the-East on St Dunstan’s Hill, just off Great Tower Street.

The body of the church had been rebuilt in 1821 but the Wren tower was retained and it survived the Blitz whereas the church did not. It is said that Wren had such confidence in its construction that, when told the steeples of every City church had been damaged in a hurricane that hit London in 1703, he replied ‘Not St Dunstan’s, I am sure’.

Where the church stood is now a lovely secluded public garden which is well worth a visit. Horror film aficionados will recognise the tower as the setting for the final scenes of the 1965 movie Children of the Damned when it, and the children, are wiped out by the military.

There are some cute cherubs on the west door, one of them fast asleep …


The St Dunstan cherubs

These walls and the tower are all that remain of Christchurch Greyfriars on the corner of Newgate Street and King Edward Street …

Scorch marks are still visible on the walls. The substantial steeple consists of triple-tiered squares.

The site of the Franciscan church of Greyfriars was established in 1225. Those considered to be significant enough to be buried in the medieval church included  four queens: Joan de la Tour, Queen of Scotland and daughter of Edward II; Margaret of France, second wife of Edward I and one of the church’s original benefactors; Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III (her heart is said to have been interred under the altar); and Queen Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France and wife of Edward II (nicknamed ‘the She-Wolf of France’ on account of her plots against her husband). Also buried here, despite having been given a ‘traitor’s death’, was Elizabeth Barton, who was hanged in 1534 for prophesying the death of Henry VIII when he planned to marry Anne Boleyn. The old church was destroyed in the Great Fire and a new church, designed by Wren, was completed in 1704.

Like St Alban Wood street, his church was another victim of the night of 29 December when incendiary bombs created the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ and only the west tower now stands. Incredibly, though, its wooden font is said to have been saved from the flames by a postman and it now stands a few hundred yards away in St Sepulchre-without-Newgate.

Where the main body of the church once was is now a very attractive garden consisting of heavily planted herbaceous borders including a variety of modern repeat-flowering shrub roses and climbers. The wooden towers within the planting replicate the original church towers and host a variety of climbing plants.

The pretty garden at Christchurch Greyfriars

Situated slightly to the east of St Paul’s Cathedral is the tower of St Augustine with St Faith, Watling Street …

I like this view very much – the Cathedral and church tower complement one another beautifully

Rebuilt by Wren in 1682-3 the tower and spire were added in 1695 and are probably by Hawksmoor. The church was bombed to destruction on 9th September 1940 but you will no doubt be pleased to learn that Faith, the church cat, survived and became very well known. Days before she was seen moving her kitten, Panda, to a basement area. Despite being brought back several times, Faith insisted on returning Panda to her refuge. On the morning after the air raid the rector searched through the dangerous ruins for the missing animals, and eventually found Faith, surrounded by smouldering rubble and debris but still guarding the kitten in the spot she had selected three days earlier. Her story reached Maria Dickin, the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, and for her courage and devotion Faith was awarded a specially-made silver medal. Her death in 1948 was reported around the world. For the full story of Faith I suggest you visit the wonderfully named purr-n-furr UK website and search for Faith, The London Church Cat. There is even a photograph of the famous moggie.

The surviving tower now forms part of the St Paul’s choir school. The new building was awarded the RIBA Architecture Award for London in 1968, being commended particularly for sensitive and intelligent handling of the context.

The Evening News reports on the bombing …

Over 30,000 Londoners died in the World War II air raids and they are commemorated by this understated monument outside the north transept of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was paid for by public funds raised following an appeal in the Evening Standard newspaper, launched in connection with the 50th anniversary of VE Day. The Queen Mother made a personal donation and carried out the unveiling on 11 May 1999.

It is a single piece of Irish limestone sculpted by Sir Richard Kindersley. The words on top, written in a spiral, are taken from Sir Edmund Marsh writing after the Great War, but quoted again by Winston Churchill in his history of the Second World War.

They read as follows

‘In War, Resolution: In Defeat, Defiance: In Victory, Magnanimity: In Peace: Goodwill’

And around the sides


Before the terrible onslaught of the Blitz, the first bomb actually fell on the City early in the morning of 25th August 1940. The event is commemorated by this engraved stone on Roman House at the corner of Wood Street and Fore Street. I only know about this because I can see it from my window in the Barbican!

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)


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.


Three Queens and a King

I have chosen these four statues because I love the background stories behind them and hope you find them interesting too.

First up is the one of Henry VIII over the main entrance to St Bartholomew’s hospital, the only outdoor statue of the king in London. If you have seen and admired the famous Holbein portrait, the king’s pose here is very familiar. He stands firmly and sternly with his legs apart, one hand on his dagger, the other holding a sceptre. He also sports an impressive codpiece.

The hospital was founded in 1123 in the reign of Henry I and, during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1331, Wat Tyler died there of a stab wound in what we would now call the A&E department.  Bart’s, as it became known affectionately, was put seriously at risk seven Henrys later in 1534, when Henry VIII commenced the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The nearby priory of St Bartholomew was suppressed in 1539 and the hospital would have followed had not the City fathers petitioned the king and asked for it to be granted back to the City. Their motives were not entirely altruistic. The hospital, they said, was needed to help:

the myserable people lyeing in the streete, offendyng every clene person passyng by the way with theyre fylthye and nastye savors.

Henry finally agreed in December 1546 on condition that the refounded hospital was renamed ‘House of the poore on West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London, of King Henry’s foundation’. I suspect people still tended to call it Bart’s. Henry finally got full public recognition when the gatehouse was rebuilt in 1702 and his statue was placed where we still see it today. The work was undertaken and overseen by the mason John Strong, who was at the same time working for Sir Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral. Such were the masons’ talents, no architectural plans were needed to complete the work.

Fleet Street boasts two queens – one responsible for the execution of the other.

Mary, Queen of Scots was born in 1542, daughter of King James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise. Briefly Queen of France, in 1559, Mary ruled Scotland from 1542-1567. Following an uprising she fled to England putting herself under the protection of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Mary’s fervent Catholicism, and claim to the English throne, made her a target for plots and Elizabeth ordered her beheading for treason in 1587.

Mary Queen of Scots House was built in 1905 for a Scottish insurance company but I have been unable to discover which one. The developer, Sir Tollemache Sinclair, was a big fan of the Queen and his architect, R. M. Roe, created an extravagant, theatrical building with a special niche for her statue. Head slightly bowed, she peers down at us wearing an elegant headpiece and a wide prominent ruff. Unfortunately the sculptor’s name is unknown. Do glance up at her if you pop in to Pret’s on the ground floor for a lunchtime sandwich.


143-144 Fleet Street

And now her nemesis.

She looks young, doesn’t she?

This statue of Queen Elizabeth I is nearby in a niche at St Dunstan-in-the-West and its history is rather complex. Some current thinking is that the Queen dates from 1670-99 despite a date on the base of 1586, which would have made it the only statue carved in her lifetime. It is now thought that, rather than the date of sculpture, this date was inscribed on it when the statue was placed on a restored Lud Gate in 1670 after the Great Fire and is merely making reference to the original gate. When the gate was demolished in 1760 she was moved to a previous St Dunstan’s but this was torn down in 1829-33 to be replaced by the current building. Meanwhile it seems that the statue spent the time in the basement of a nearby pub. It was only when that too was demolished in 1839 that the statue was rediscovered and put in its current niche on St Dunstan’s. Millicent Fawcett, the prominent suffragist, left £700 in her will for the statue’s upkeep and the funds are managed by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

And finally Queen Anne.

Brandy Nan, left in the lurch, her face to the gin shop, her back to the church

One has to feel sorry for Anne – and not just because of the scurrilous rhyme referring to her alleged fondness for alcohol. Of her 18 pregnancies, none of her children survived infancy except for one boy who reached 11, and this sadness may have contributed to her tendency to overindulge in both food and drink.

Here she stands outside the west entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral – an 1884-6 sculpture which replaced an earlier weather-beaten version of 1712. She looks imperiously upwards, holding a sceptre and orb and wearing the Order of St George around her neck.

She is surrounded by allegorical figures, the picture below being that of America.

‘America’ with a not very accurate alligator

America wears a feathered head-dress, holds a metal bow and has a quiver of arrows on her back. Her foot rests on what looks like the severed head of a European. The strange lizard like creature was described in the original statue as ‘…an allegator creeping from beneath her feet; being an animal very common in some parts of America, and which lives on land and in the water’.


Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee here in 1897. She sat outside in her carriage for the service, being then too infirm to climb the Cathedral steps. It was suggested that Anne’s statue should be moved for the occasion, but Victoria would have none of it, apparently commenting

‘Certainly not, someone in future might want to move a statue of me, and I should not like that at all’.





Samuel Pepys and his ‘own church’


Samuel Pepys is one of my heroes. Clever, witty, curious, hard-working and, some would say, licentious, we owe him a lot. His diary gives us a wonderful insight into his times, and his work on the Navy Board and with the Admiralty played a major role in rebuilding England’s naval strength at a critical time in history. Not only that, his personal intervention with King Charles II probably helped curb the spread of the catastrophic Great Fire of 1666.

There are many, many books written about Pepys and a short little blog like this can’t really do him justice. So instead, in this and in future blogs, I will write  briefly about some of the places and events Pepys wrote about in his diary and see what remains of them today.

A bust of Samuel Pepys by Karin Jonzen, 1983, in the St Olave churchyard

In July 1660 the Pepys household moved to a house in the Navy Office building on Seething Lane and his famous diary dates from that year to 1669, when he stopped writing it because he feared losing his sight. This location meant that his local Church (‘our own church’ as he described it) became St Olave Hart Street, which is still there for us to explore today and is the subject of this blog. It has a really gruesome but stunning churchyard entrance incorporating impaled skulls and crossed bones dated 11th April 1658. The Latin inscription, roughly translated, reads ‘Christ is life, death is my reward‘ and the central skull wears a victory wreath.

Charles Dickens called it ‘St Ghastly Grim’

Fortunately for us, Pepys was around to give us an intimate personal account of two of the most awful events that struck London in the seventeenth century – the ‘Black Death’ plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.

When in 1665 it became apparent that a major pestilence was striking London, Charles II and the entire Court moved to Oxford. The Privy Council was endowed with wide-reaching powers to try to control its spread, appointing ‘Searchers’ to seize dying victims and to quarantine both them and their households.

Pepys wrote on 7th June 1665 about a terrible sign he encountered on his way to Covent Garden:

‘I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, ’Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me’.

Despite such efforts, the plague spread slowly and remorselessly. According to the official records, the ‘Bills of Mortality’, 68,596 people died of it in London in 1665 but the true figure was probably more like 100,000. Even the lower figure represents a very high percentage of the population at the time, which was about 460,000.

It had eventually subsided by January the following year and on January 30th 1666 he visited St Olave, but found the experience deeply shocking:

‘It frighted me indeed to go through the church… To see so many graves lie so high upon the churchyard, where many people have been buried of the plague.’

And five days later, on February 4th he wrote:

‘It was a frost and had snowed last night, which had covered the graves in the churchyard, so I was less afraid of going through’.

The churchyard survives, its banked-up top surface a reminder that it is still bloated with the bodies of plague victims, and gardeners still turn up bone fragments. Three hundred and sixty five were buried there including Mary Ramsay, who was widely blamed for bringing the disease to London. We know the number because their names were marked with a ‘p’ in the parish register.

Note how much higher the graveyard is than the floor at the church door

In 1655 when he was 22 he had married Elizabeth Michel shortly before her fifteenth birthday. Although he had many affairs (scrupulously recorded in his coded diary) he was left distraught by her death from typhoid fever at the age of 29 in November 1669.

Do go into the church and find the lovely marble monument Pepys commissioned in her memory. High up on the North wall, she gazes  directly at Pepys’ memorial portrait bust, their eyes meeting eternally across the nave where they are both buried. When he died in 1703, despite other long-term relationships, his express wish was to be buried next to her.

Memorial to Samuel Pepys

And the sculpture of Elizabeth – I think she looks beautifully animated, like she is in the middle of a conversation.


Philanthropic Fountains

It was a nice sunny day when I stood in front of this modest little drinking fountain outside St Sepulchre’s Church on Snow Hill near Holborn Viaduct and recalled a picture of the scene on 20th April 1859 when it was unveiled as the first public drinking fountain in London.

A stern reminder to ‘Replace the Cup’ common on many fountains

To me the fountain represents the coming together of some of the great influences on people’s lives in the 19th Century – the philanthropic initiatives of the Quakers, the gradual recognition that access to clean water was essential if London was to continue to flourish, and the temperance and teetotalism movements striving to combat drunkenness.

In the early 19th century water had become a valuable commodity and by 1860 the supply of drinking water to London was controlled by no fewer than eight private companies. It was generally acknowledged that its quality was unsatisfactory to say the least, as outbreaks of cholera earlier in the century had demonstrated. This, combined with a shortage of availability, contributed to a heavy consumption of beer and spirits, particularly among poorer citizens and the ‘labouring classes’ whose workplace was the London streets. Making available free, safe water was to enable a common cause to be established between those seeking to improve hygiene and reduce disease and the anti-alcohol campaigners.

If you look at the picture of the fountain, you might just be able to make out the inscription on the arch above the scallop shell which reads ‘The Gift of Sam Gurney MP 1859’. Gurney was a Quaker, and although Quakers numbered less than 14,000 people in Britain in 1861 their influence in business and philanthropy was disproportionately great – think, for example, of Cadbury, Fry, Barclay and Rowntree. They believed that good works were a sign of man’s sanctification and their economic and religious philosophies ran parallel to one another.

Gurney was present in spring 1859 for the inauguration of The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. At the meeting the unveiling in two weeks time of his new fountain was announced along with the intention that it would be the first of many. The Earl of Albermarle got rather carried away and stated his hopes that the fountains would …

Check those habits of intemperance which caused nine-tenths of the pauperism, three-fourths of the crime, one half of the disease, one-third of the insanity, one-third of the suicide, three-fourths of the general depravity and (amazingly) one-third of the shipwrecks that annually occurred.

The opening of the fountain was an incredibly well attended event …

 Copyright Illustrated London News.

‘The Lady’ newspaper’s view was that the fountains would help by ‘providing an alternative to the public house and the low company found in those establishments’. To demonstrate the water’s purity the inaugural first sip at the opening was taken by a Mrs Wilson – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter, no less – who declared the taste excellent. Just for the removal of doubt, however, a final announcement was made that the fountain was for the special use of the working classes and was committed to their care. Incidentally, Mrs Wilson used a specially engraved silver cup which she was presented with after the ceremony.

Over the next six years 85 fountains were built, most using granite in order to keep the water supply cool. In summer 1865 the Association conducted a twenty-four-hour survey, which produced some very satisfying results. For example, 2,647 drinkers were recorded at the St Sepulchre’s site; at London Bridge more than 3000 people visited and at Bishopsgate an extraordinary 6,666. By 1867 it was estimated that up to 400,000 drinkers a day were using the amenities and by 1875 there were 276 fountains across the capital.

Charles Gilpin was another Quaker whose fountain can still be seen at St Botolph Without Bishopsgate

‘The Gift of C. Gilpin Esq. M.P. 1860’

Getting the fountains built was no easy matter with protracted negotiations often needed with, for example, local vestries, and of course the water companies themselves, who had to be paid for the water used unless they could be persuaded to become donors. Also, water was a precious commodity, and some objected on moral grounds to the wastefulness of the water flowing continuously when the idea of using taps was rejected, given the wear and tear involved. Before the end of its first decade the term ‘free’ in the Association’s title had been recognised as a misnomer and it was dropped. About the same time it elongated its name to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association to embrace public water provision for animals. Previously troughs had been sited outside public houses with free use only for patrons or on payment of a fee, as one poetic sign declared:

All that water their horses here
Must pay a penny or have some beer

At least one of the horse troughs has survived in the City – although many more can be found around London, usually adapted to accommodate flowers.

Trough and fountain for use by the public, and animals large and small, on London Wall

Remarkably, the cup is also still attached to this nice fountain in Love Lane at the junction with Aldermanbury, the gift of Robert H. Rogers, a Ward Deputy.

Robert H. Rogers’s gift dated November 1890



Love Lane fountain cup and chain


If you thirst for more knowledge about London’s water-related history get hold of a copy of the excellent book ‘Parched City’ by Emma M. Jones on which much of this post is based, including the title.


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