Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Lost Wren Churches of London

I am pleased to announce the launch of a new themed walk on “The Lost Wren Churches of London”. 
The walk will be a circular one, beginning and ending at St Paul’s tube station, and taking in all 21 of the “lost” Wren churches on the way, as well as passing a number of the surviving ones (see below). 

It will be another of our specials, meaning that it can be taken at any time.
To book, please either e-mail ( or phone (020-8998-3051).

One of the Not-Quite-Lost Wren Churches, St Dunstan-in-the-East

Background (an extract from my book, 'The Lost City of London', published in 2012 - see link for further details)

In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London of 1666, the question was asked, would the City ever be rebuilt, or be the same again?    

Well, of course it would, not least because the prosperity of the City was essential not only to that of the country as a whole but also to that of powerful men with vested interests, watching anxiously from the sidelines as “day by day the City’s wealth flowed out of the gate” to other boroughs. 

The Lord Mayor initiated the process essentially straight away, within weeks commissioning a detailed survey of the fire-damaged area of the City to assist with the assessment of compensation claims, and to use as a  template for reconstruction plans.  The survey was undertaken by the Bohemian Wencesla(u)s Hollar, who had travelled widely before eventually settling in London, and  earned a reputation as an engraver and print-maker of some skill, specialising in landscape scenes.  Other surveys were undertaken, and maps made, by Doornick, Leake, and Ogilby and Morgan. 

A number of revolutionary reconstruction plans for the City were submitted, by, among others, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn, any one of which, if implemented, would have given it a radically new look and feel, much more like that of the great European cities of the day, and indeed of today, with their uniform architecture, broad boulevards and   open piazzas.  (Evelyn wrote that “In the disposure of the streets, due consideration should be had, what are the competent breadths for commerce and intercourse (!), cheerfulness and state”).  But these  plans were over-ambitious, apart from anything else, and were abandoned on the grounds of practicality in favour of  one requiring much less groundwork, and much more like the old one (although allowing of at least one concession to modernity, in the widening, and freeing  from encumbrance to the flow of traffic, of the streets).  The City that might have been never came to be, and  that that had been would come  to be again:  for the most part neither  particularly beautiful nor harmonious; but, rather, “lived in” and fractious; and yet, familiar and loved.

The man selected to oversee and implement the chosen reconstruction plan was the aforementioned Christopher Wren, an architect and a  member of an aristocratic family who had finally found favour in the Restoration, after years in the wilderness during the Protectorate and Commonwealth: his assistants, the aforementioned brilliant but curmudgeonly Robert Hooke, memorably described by  Pepys as  “the most,  and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw”; and the young and prodigiously gifted Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Incidentally, Wren was an anatomist and astronomer as well as an architect (one wonders whether he, like Sartre’s autodidact, acquired his learning by reading an encyclopaedia, starting with the letter “A”); a follower of the “New Philosophy” of Francis Bacon; and a founder member of the Royal Society.  He was, in short, an archetypal (English)  Renaissance Man, and, most definitely, the right man, in the right place, at the right time - an unusually happy conjunction in the history of the City. 

Wren and his  office set about their reconstruction work as hastily, or rather speedily,  as practicable, so as to provide  the City with the opportunity of re-establishing itself with the minimum of delay and loss.  In all, they rebuilt 51 parish churches within and immediately without the walls, that is, around half of those that had been destroyed in the Great Fire (*), together with St Paul’s Cathedral, and also rebuilt numerous other public and private buildings, many in the High (English) Renaissance or Early Baroque style - the cost of the entire enterprise being covered by a tax on coal.  The most glorious of Wren’s many glorious achievements was undoubtedly St Paul’s Cathedral.  The cathedral is faced in plain Portland Stone, wonderfully reflective of the City’s light and mood.  It is crowned with a glorious and iconic dome, making it unique among all the cathedrals of England.  Wren’s simple epitaph inside the cathedral reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, meaning “Reader, should you seek his memorial, look about you”.   On the pediment above the south door is a stone bearing the image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, and the inscription of the single word “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again” (the inscription repeating  that on another stone found by one of Wren’s workmen among the debris of the  old, burnt-out cathedral - a positive portent if ever there was one). 

And so, out of the ashes arose  a new London.  And England was re-born. 

(*) Of  these 51 churches, 30 are still standing, together with St Paul’s Cathedral, and 21 are not.  Of  the 21 that are no longer standing, 17,  far more than one might have hoped, were demolished by our own over-zealous town planners and engineers in the pell-mell expansion of London following the Industrial Revolution – in some cases, at least marginally justifiably,  to  allow for development, but in many others simply because they were deemed, under the incomprehensibly philistine Union of Benifices Act of 1860, to be surplus to requirements!  Only 4, far fewer than one might have feared, were completely destroyed by German bombing during the Blitz of the Second World War.  However,  a number of others were also damaged to varying extents at this time, some of which were subsequently restored, and  some left as empty shells.   Two were destroyed,  and 8 damaged, on a single, fateful night, Sunday 29th December, 1940, when thousands of incendiaries were dropped on an essentially unguarded City.

At  least many of the  original plans of these recently lost churches still survive, as do some later paintings and photographs.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Property Boundary Markers

I’ve had a number of questions about property boundary markers recently.

Most of those I’ve seen in and around the City of London have been parish boundary markers.  The most common types of these are brass plaques affixed to buildings, typically a little above head height - here are some examples:

St Katherine Cree

St Lawrence Jewry

St Mary Le Strand

St Stephen Coleman Street
St Clement Danes

(The anchor on the St Clement Danes plaque, the Katharine Wheel on the St Katharine Cree one, and the gridiron on the St Lawrence Jewry one, allude to the respective methods by which the nominate saints were martyred; the encircled cockerel on the St Stephen Coleman Street plaque, alludes  to the “La Cokke on the Hoop” brewery that stood on Coleman Street in the fifteenth century). 

At least one that I’m familiar with, though, is in the form of a carved inscription more or less at street level 
Christ Church (and St Sepulchre)
And another is reminiscent of a milestone.
St Clement Danes a St Dunstan in the West

Brass shields bearing coats-of-arms also mark the boundaries of the properties of the livery companies. 
Armorers' and Brasiers' Company

Readers interested in further information are referred to the following web-site:

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Billingsgate Roman Bath-House

I’ve just got back from a guided tour of Billingsgate Roman Bath-House at 101 Lower Thames Street, which isn’t  generally open to the public, but was today (Saturday 21st July 2013) as part of the “Festival of Archaeology” (and will be again on September 22nd as part of “London Open House” day). 

The bath-house appears to have been built in the third century, possibly as an  inn (mansio) on the then-waterfront, and to have remained in use until the end of the Roman occupation  (a  coin of 402 has been found there, and the legions left in 410).  It then appears to have become derelict and overgrown by the Dark Ages, although at least one Saxon woman is known to have visited the site - she lost her brooch there in 530.  It   was eventually buried by, and preserved beneath,  hill-wash in the Middle Ages, and debris from the Great Fire of London in 1666, and only came to light again during work on the Coal Exchange in 1848.   

The bath-house is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and extremely impressive, despite its unprepossessing location in the basement of a 1960s office block, with the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium (cold, warm and hot baths, respectively) all near-perfectly preserved. 

I’m afraid  I can’t share my photographs with you, as this was one of the conditions of entry.
However, I can refer you to the following link, which provides its own gallery of images of the bath-house as well as some further  information about the site:

Friday, 19 July 2013

Blue is the New Plaque

July 19th 
I spotted a couple of new blue plaques on the “London Wall – A Story of Survival” walk this week.

One  is on the church of St Helen Bishopsgate, and commemorates the first resting place of Robert Hooke (1635-1703).  Hooke was not only an “eminent scientist” but also a brilliant architect, working with Wren on the reconstruction of London following the Great Fire of 1666 (the church of St Benet Paul’s Wharf being widely attributed to him).  He was also  apparently something of a curmudgeon, and was memorably described by  Pepys as  “the most,  and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw”.  Readers interested in more information on Hooke and his life and works are referred to “A More Beautiful City: Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire” by Michael Cooper, published by Sutton in 2003 (and reprinted in paperback in 2005). 
Three modern microscopists paying homage to Hooke

The other plaque is on the street of St Mary Axe, and marks the site of the church of the same name. The church was originally built around 1197, and suppressed, and converted into a warehouse, in 1561 (when the former parish was amalgamated with that of St Andrew Undershaft).  It  formerly  housed one of the three axes said to have been  used by Attila the Hun to behead St Ursula and her eleven thousand hand-maidens!

The “London Wall – A Story of Survival” walk is available on Fridays at 10am (pre-booking essential); also available at other times by arrangement, for private groups.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Burnt for her Beliefs

July 16thOn this day in 1546, in the final year of Henry VIII's reign, Anne Askew was burnt at the stake at West Smithfield for her allegedly heretical beliefs (see also June 27th Blog, about protestants martyred under Queen Mary).  She had previously been tortured in the Tower of London, in an unsuccessful effort to ellicit the names of fellow heretics - the only woman on record to have suffered both fates. 

It is curious to note that this execution of a protestant took place during the reign of the King who broke with Rome, thereby establishing the Church of England. But the Anglican orthodoxy of the time still held to a belief in transubstantiation, a doctrine against which Anne Askew gave sermons in London.

Anne Askew is also noted as the first Englishwoman to have demanded a divorce - in this case as an innocent party on 'scriptural' grounds, since she claimed her husband was not a believer.

West Smithfield  is visited on our Wednesday morning  “Historic Smithfield, Clerkenwell and Holborn – Fanfare and Plainsong” walk.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Great Fire of 1212

July 10thOn this day in 1212, there was a great fire in Southwark and on London Bridge that reportedly killed thousands of people.  

The fire also damaged  Southwark Cathedral, necessitating a partial rebuild.  Some of the masonry  used in the rebuild was salvaged from the fire debris and shows signs of fire damage.

London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral are both visited on our Thursday afternoon walk “Historic Southwark – Shakespeare’s London and more”.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Blood, Sweat and Tears

July 6th -  On this day in 1535, the former Lord Chancellor, also lawyer, humanist, social philosopher, author (of “Utopia”) and “Man for All Seasons” Sir, now Saint,  Thomas More was beheaded in the Tower of London for High Treason,  for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, an oath acknowledging the King, Henry VIII, rather than the Pope, as the Supreme Head of the Church. With his last words he declared himself to be “the king’s good servant, but God’s first”. 

More’s  headless corpse was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower.  His head was put on a pike on London Bridge, from where it was retrieved, and buried  in the Roper family vault in the church of St Dunstan in Canterbury, by his daughter Meg Roper.

There are plaques in the City marking the sites of his  birthplace on Milk Street and of his execution in the Tower of London.  

Plaque in Milk Street

Site of Death by Execution of Thomas More, Tower of London

There are  also statues of him to the west of the City, one on Carey Street just off Chancery Lane, and another outside Chelsea Old Church, the eastern chapel of which was commissioned by him.  

Statue of Thomas More, Carey Street
Statue of Thomas More, Chelsea Old Church

Crosby Hall, where More lived between 1523-4, was moved from its past location in Bishopsgate to its present one opposite Chelsea Old Church in 1910. 

Crosby Hall

The Tower of London is visited, although not entered, on our Friday morning walk “London Wall – A Story of Survival” and Friday afternoon walk “Tower to Temple – The Heart of the City”.

Also on this day, in 1551, one Henry Machyn noted that “a swet [sweating sickness, possibly caused by a hantavirus] began in London ... which carried off many people both noble and commoners”.  Henry and Charles Brandon, the Second and Third Dukes of Suffolk,  died within an hour of one another on July 14th.

For more information on any of our guided walks, follow the link to our website

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Lost Priories of London

July 3rd  -  On this day in 1322, hundreds of needy poor people were crushed to death in a rush to beg food and money at the gates of Blackfriars’ (Dominican) Priory. 

The site of the Blackfriars’ (Dominican) Priory, and later Theatre, is visited on our Wednesday afternoon “St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey – Priories, Palaces and Parliament” and Friday morning “London Wall – A Story of Survival” walks. 

Blackfriars Priory

The sites of the Charterhouse, Greyfriars’ (Franciscan) Priory, Holy Trinity Priory, Holywell Priory, the Priory of St John, the Priory of St Mary Spital, and Whitefriars’ (Carmelite) Priory,  are visited on various of our other walks.

Holy Trinity Priory

Priory of St John

Priory of St Mary Spital

Whitefriars Priory
For further information on all of the Lost City of London guided walks, have a look at our website or facebook page

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Old St Paul's

July 2ndOn this day in 1462, “old” St Paul’s cathedral received a new spire.  
Model in the Museum of London, showing the new spire.

Almost exactly 100 years later, the spire was destroyed by a fire after being struck by lightning.

Detail from Visscher Panorama, 1616

'New' St Paul’s  is visited, although not entered, on our Wednesday morning walk “Historic Smithfield, Clerkenwell and Holborn – Fanfare and Plainsong”, Wednesday afternoon walk “St Paul’s to Westminster – Priories, Palaces and Parliament”, Friday morning walk “London Wall – A Story of Survival” and Friday afternoon walk “Tower to Temple – The Heart of the City”.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Outcast Dead

July 1stOn or around this day in 1506, a Royal ordinance attempted to suppress the “stews” or brothels of Southwark.  

The related “Crossbones Graveyard” site on Redcross Way is visited on our Thursday afternoon “Historic Southwark – Shakespeare’s London and more” walk.

“Crossbones Graveyard” is an unconsecrated burial ground where “The Outcast Dead”, including the prostitutes or “Winchester Geese”, who worked  in the nearby brothels licensed  by the  Bishops of Winchester, were interred, up until the nineteenth century.  A “Museum of London Archaeology Service” monograph describes in detail the findings of recent archaeological excavations at the site.  One of the excavated skeletons, of a  nineteenth-century woman,  aged only around sixteen to nineteen,  exhibited pathological indications of advanced syphilis.  Research undertaken for an episode of the BBC television series “History Cold Case” in 2010  indicated  that this skeleton was likely to be that of one Elizabeth Mitchell, who is recorded as having been admitted to nearby St Thomas’s Hospital suffering from the running sores all over the body symptomatic of advanced syphilis, and as having died there, on 22nd August 1851, aged nineteen.