Category Archives: London Stories

I worked in London for 8 years, and these are some of my explorations of the City.

21Mar/15

Staples Inn

Staples Inn is not so much an institution as an experience. It used to be one of the Chancery Inns that legal students signed up to and then moved on to Gray’s Inn. These days the buildings are full of (mostly) legal chambers, but they do not appear to have a teaching motive, as Gray’s Inn does. Dickens had a very soft spot for Staples Inn and you can see why in the pictures on this page. If you leave Holborn and go up to High Holborn, you’ll see an archway under the big black and white Tudor building on the intersection of Grays Inn Rd and High Holborn. You will walk into the cool, dappled light of the courtyard right. You can read the signs over the doorways and discover that when they rebuilt the buildings after a bomb destroyed them in the Blitz, they used as many timbers from the original buildings as they could find. There is an archway in the building on the other side of the square and you then walk into the beautiful garden immediately below with its lovely fountain.

Staple’s Inn courtyard

Staple’s Inn courtyard

Dickens described Staples Inn as a ‘little nook composed of two irregular quadrangles’ in Edwin Drood. You have to agree with him. It’s not public land like a park, but there are no restrictions except you can be removed by the servants if you make noise or enter with a dog….

Staple's inn

Staple’s inn

Dickens: “It is one of those nooks the turning into which out of the clashing street, imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears, and velvet soles on his boots. “ I couldn’t agree more, the atmosphere is still exactly as Dickens described it.

Dickens further says, “Moreover, it is one of those nooks which are legal nooks; and it contains a little Hall (below) with a little lantern in its roof: to what obstructive purposes devoted, and at whose expense, this history knoweth not.”

The Hall, Staple’s Inn

The Hall, Staple’s Inn

The clock, dated 1757, is accurate. You won’t be late back to work. You can just see this clock on the Hall, by the windows above the door.

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21Mar/15

St Paul’s Cathedral

One thing about St Pauls that always takes your breath away is just how magnificent it is. It’s not just huge, it’s not just majestic and it’s not just tall, St Pauls is a monument on the grandest scale; one man’s vision of how God himself should be housed. We have this world landmark  building within 10min walk of us and it has always inspired. It was once a huge, square Norman church with a tall crossing tower, that glowered over London but the flames of the Great Fire of 1666 were so hot the lead from its roof ran molten down the streets and the church was destroyed. From such destruction came the inspiration to build in a way that would awe even the Romans. The view in the photo on the right is from Canon St across St Pauls Gardens.

When Sir Christopher Wren was given the sole charter to rebuild the churches of London City, he also submitted a plan to redesign the streets in the grand manner of the piazzas of the great cities of Italy. However, local laws and landowners rights overruled him and he had to stay within the existing street patterns. What a difference he would have made to London if he had been allowed! In the event he fudged his plans for St Pauls and made the church much bigger than he had permission for.

St Paul’s Cathedral from Canon St

St Paul’s Cathedral from Canon St

Below is Cardinal Cap Alley on the Bankside end of the Millennium Bridge. Sir Christopher Wren lived in this little white block cottage and often stood in the alley to survey his beautiful, growing creation.

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St Pauls is more than just a building; it is an inspiration on the grandest scale. There are always people sitting, meeting and chatting on its steps. Visitors to London who come to see it are often moved to express themselves and their cultures in the amphitheatre created by its steps and the magnificent background of its columns. This busload of students could not contain themselves and in sheer exuberance leapt from their coach and danced in the sunlight on its steps.

On the steps of St Paul’s

On the steps of St Paul’s

21Mar/15

Sir William Walworth

This chap was Sir William Walworth. He was lord mayor of London in the late 1300s, during the reign of Richard II. Washington Irving said of him: “That doughty champion, William Walworth, knight, who so manfully clove down the sturdy wight, Wat Tyler, in Smithfield; a hero worthy of honourable blazon, as almost the only Lord Mayor on record famous for deeds of arms:- the sovereigns of Cockney being generally renowned as the most pacific of all potentates.” You will remember Wat Tyler from your high school history as the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, a group protesting a Medieval poll tax. In those days, protest was regarded as treason and therefore a capital offence. The group fought its way into London to see the king, who offered to meet them in Smithfield.

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After Wat Tyler had given his demands to the king, Sir William mortally wounded him, and then later dragged him from his death bed in St Bartholomew’s Hospital and beheaded him. “Thus ending his miserable life,” said the chronicler. Tyler was, after all, only a peasant. The king gave everyone in the protest a pardon and let them disperse, even escorting the Kentish contingent over London Bridge to ensure safe passage. He then send “messengers” all over England to hunt for and summarily execute all the peasants who were in the revolt in London that day. Walworth was awarded a knighthood and a pension and it is his dagger which is in the left-hand corner of St George’s cross, which is the emblem for London City.  Dick Whittington was Lord Mayor very soon afterwards.

This beautiful and elegant Victorian bridge (below) over Farringdon St is Holborn Viaduct. Sir William’s statue stands on the first floor (see below) of the stone building above the stairs.

Holborn Viaduct from Farringdon Rd

Holborn Viaduct from Farringdon Rd

Sir William was a member, as was his father, of the Fishmongers Guild, from which he rose to be alderman and then mayor. He was buried in St Michaels Church, Crooked Lane, which was destroyed by the Great Fire. The replacement Wren church was demolished in 1831 to make way for King William St, which takes you from London Bridge up onto Cheapside. I have asked all the churches in the area and no-one knows where he lies now, nor where his memorial is.

This is Walworth House, and there are three identical buildings on Holborn Viaduct sitting as guardians of the stairs down to Farringdon Rd.

Walworth House, Holborn Viaduct

Walworth House, Holborn Viaduct

21Mar/15

The Great Fire

I’m sure you know more about the Great Fire of London in 1666 than I do. It’s as much folk lore as it is fact, so I thought I’d have a look at the fire from street level.

This fellow (below) the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, is a quirky sign of how the fire was viewed in its day. Because the fire started in Pudding Lane, and ended at Pye Corner, some blamed it on gluttony and the fire was therefore seen as a message from God himself that Londoners should mend their ways and not be so greedy. This chubby little statue in Giltspur St, leading to Smithfield Garden, is a reminder of that message.

King Charles II himself is credited with rallying the population and organising the defence of London against the flames; because he was one of the few men in London with enough influence to affect a result, and he was the one who acted.

The Golden Boy of Pyes Corner

The Golden Boy of Pyes Corner

It is possible that the fire more or less killed off the Plague. Probably this was caused by the flames destroying the infrastructure that the fleas which spread the Plague lived in – straw, debris, rats and the food the rats lived on.

This picture is in St Brides Fleet St. It clearly shows how St Pauls dominated London in the early 17th Century. St Pauls was completely destroyed as the lead from its roof ran molten in the streets. You can also see the distinctive spire of St Mary le Bow as it was before the fire.

Drawing of London found in St Bride’s, Fleet St

Drawing of London found in St Bride’s, Fleet St

The Samuel Pepys Exhibition building, below, in Fleet St, opposite Chancery Lane, marks the westernmost extent of the fire. Everything to the left was destroyed; this lovely building remains. They say no-one was killed, because the flames moved quite slowly, but it’s likely that peasants, serfs and villeins didn’t count. If you stand in the middle of the road in front of this building (not for long!) you can see St Pauls on Ludgate Hill to the east. It’s not very far from there to here, so you can see that 17th Century London was not a very big place, but you can also see from the cramped buildings, tiny lanes and narrow footpaths that it was a very compact city, dominated by foot traffic. Immediately after the fire, thatched houses were prohibited. The Globe Theatre in Bankside, built in the 1990s, was the first new thatched building in London since 1666.

Samuel Pepys Exhibition building, Fleet St

Samuel Pepys Exhibition building, Fleet St

21Mar/15

The Norwegians

The Norwegians arrived in Britain some time after the Saxons (who were invading as the Romans left) but they had a roughly similar language, which was probably the same Germanic language in the distant past. Along with the Danes and the Swedes, they were together called the Vikings and they arrived in England in large numbers after 800AD, setting up almost their own country, called the Danelaw, which was dismantled by William the Conqueror after his invasion of 1066. Viking history and its deep and lasting influence in England is worthy of study; the Danelaw, for instance was all that area east of Watling Street (the A5) from north of London, so Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Lake District and Lincolnshire, as well as Scotland, owe much of their local accent and dialect to the Vikings, while father, blackmail, egg, knife, crooked, window and ill, are some of the words we still use from the Old Norse. Look up your Oxford English Dictionary for more.

In Holborn you can easily walk to see evidence of the Vikings because if you cross London Bridge, descend Nancy’s Steps and then go to your left under the bridge, you will see St Olaf’s House and a sign on the ground for St Olaf’s churchyard. In an unsuccessful attempt to capture London, King Olaf invaded from the Thames and pulled down London Bridge in 1009. This is believed to be the inspiration for the children’s rhyme “London Bridge is falling down.” Mind you, it was a wooden bridge so it was subject to fire and flood anyway and had been rebuilt several times before.

Which brings us rather circuitously to the picture of the Christmas tree below. Every 7 Dec, a representative of the Norwegian government (last year it was the Crown Princess of Norway) turns on the lights for the Norwegian Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square. The tree is presented to the Mayor of Westminster in a ceremony beginning at 1745hr.

Photo Jern Tomter

Photo Jern Tomter

Last year was the 60th time this ceremony had been performed.

When the Germans invaded Norway during WW2, King Haakon VII escaped to Britain and set up a government in exile. This tree is presented each year in thanks for the assistance Britain gave to that government, and to the people of Norway. The tree itself is always a Norwegian spruce from near Oslo and is usually about 60ft tall and 60years old. It is felled in a ceremony attended by the Mayor of Westminster in Oslo during November and brought to London by ship free of charge. It is lowered into a hole 4ft deep, secured with a dozen wooden wedges and lit with only white lights, for snow.  Members of the choir from nearby St Martin-in-the-fields will sing carols around the tree every night until Christmas, and there will be a collection for selected charities as well. Those of us who went in the coach to the Accenture Christmas function last year will remember driving past the tree as it stood, scattered with its little white lights, in Trafalgar Square.

If you go to St Mary le Bow you will see there a bronze relief of St George slaying the dragon, which was a gift to the church in memory of the stirring sound of the Bow Bells, giving hope to many parts of the world, as they were played for each broadcast of the BBC World Service. Interestingly for an impartial news service, included in the broadcasts were coded messages to the Norwegian resistance.

Bronze relief of St George slaying the dragon

Bronze relief of St George slaying the dragon

21Mar/15

Crane City

Our neighbourhood is in a constant state of change, and the best indicators of where the change is happening are the cranes on the horizon. This picture below is of the proposed Shard/London Bridge. The building on the left of the picture is 1 London Bridge and on the right is St Thomas’ Hospital which sits on top of London Bridge station. The Shard is going to replace London Bridge House, which also sits on top of London Bridge station. Also missing in this picture is Southwark Tower, alongside St Thomas’. Perhaps that’s coming down, too.

Proposed Shard, London Bridge

Proposed Shard, London Bridge

I took this picture, below, one very late summer evening because it shows so clearly the myriad cranes on London’s skyline. The hoop-topped building on the right is Barklays Bank on Bishopsgate and the stainless steel building with little dots of blue on it is Lloyds of London, the insurers. Immediately behind it, in Lime St, is the new Willis Building, a glass tower nicely curved to follow the shape of the street.

View to The City from Holborn

View of The City from Holborn

It must happen from time to time, mustn’t it? A dead crane. This one, below, stopped building work on New Street Square for a day, and closed off both Fetter Lanes and any street to it from Fleet St. Crowds of high-visibility vests and hard hats leaned gloomily against the bars in local pubs and worried about what they were going to do for the rest of the day.

Dead crane, One New Street Square

Dead crane, One New Street Square

 

21Mar/15

Sir Richard Whittington

There’s a wonderful story about Dick Whittington, isn’t there? The first dramatic presentation of this story was a play in 1606; a poor lad came to London to seek his fortune and was leaving town, deeply disappointed, when his cat talked him into having another go. He stayed, and became mayor three times.

Forget all that! Firstly, it wasn’t the cat that called him back, it was the bells of St Mary le Bow, secondly he was mayor four times and thirdly he was never poor.

The Museum of London (just down the road from us) tells us that Richard was the son of Sir William Whittington of Gloucester who died in the 1350s. The estate went to Richard’s elder brother, so Richard left Gloucester for London.

There he was apprenticed to a mercer and of course joined that guild. It is entirely likely that his father’s estate paid for his apprenticeship and his stake in business.  He became a wealthy merchant dealing in velvet, silk and gold cloth from abroad. Since most of his trade was with the Royal Court, he came to the notice of King Richard II, and Henry IV, to whom he lent large sums of money.

Dick Whittington

Dick Whittington

This lovely picture, above, of the legend, cat and all, is in the window of St Michael Paternoster Royal on College St. To get there, follow Newgate St to Cheapside, right into Queen St, left into Canon St and College Hill is first right. This beautiful church, which hosts the Mission to Sailors, was first built by Whittington and was his own parish church. You can read the blue plaques on College Hill which shows where he lived.

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The steps to becoming mayor, or Lord Mayor as it is these days, are as follows: first be a citizen of the City of London, then a guild member, then a freeman, then an alderman, then be elected Lord Mayor. Henry IV appointed him mayor on the death of Adam Bamme, but he was elected thereafter.

Whittington still lives! His will left a huge sum to be used for charitable works, one of which was an almshouse which is now in Stepney, run by the Whittington Charity. The Mercer’s Company is no longer a trade guild, but is still an important City institution and is given over entirely to managing the charities, including the Whittington Charity, that it administers.

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In the 1400s the office of mayor was the government of the City of London, based in the Guildhall on what is now Gresham St. The Guildhall these days is the seat of the Corporation of the City of London, and the mayor is called the Lord Mayor but both institutions are direct descendents of the Medieval government.

21Mar/15

The Virginians

On 20 Dec 1606, Captain John Smith commanding the Susan Constant, with two other ships, the Discovery and the Godspeed, set sail for America on a charter from King James 1 to colonise part of the Chesapeake area for the Virginia Company, arriving at Jamestown Island on 13 May 1607 with 103 settlers. Wed, 20 Dec 2006, marked the 400th anniversary of the day they left London. The stained glass window below is in the church of St Sepulcre, opposite the Old Bailey, parish church for Captain John Smith.  Don’t get him confused with the Pilgrim Fathers, because that is a completely different story. I have a friend who lives in Virginia and they celebrate the day Captain Smith and the other ships arrived – 13 May 1607.

I have tried to find out the names of all the early settlers, but the ships’ passenger records show only the names of the captains, about 40 “Gentlemen,” 20 “Labourers” including the ship’s surgeon, “and diverse others.” Bad luck if you were a diverse other because now history has no knowledge of you.

Cptn John Smith was appointed governor of Virginia and under his structured leadership, the town prospered. When he left for England in 1609, they suffered their “starving time” winter when only 60 of the original settlers survived. Disease, failing crops and the attacks of the local Algonquian tribe heaped misery on the settlers. All of these, as you can imagine, are the products of poor management. This catalogue of disasters and mismanagement followed the township for the next 15 years. Eventually, the king became impatient with lack of progress, dissolved the Virginia Company and the the area became a crown colony in 1624. Once back in England, Smith wrote copiously about his life and adventures, making it difficult to tell fact from fantasy. He died in London in 1631. When you consider he was in America for only 3 years, he really has written a great history for himself.

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith

Everyone has heard the story of Pocahontas, if only because of the Disney movie. Smith says the 11yr old girl saved his life when he was captured by the locals and sentenced to death. He wrote about her often and made her a real celebrity. She later married an Englishman, John Rolfe, and died of smallpox in Gravesend, London, aged just 22. She is buried there in St George’s church. I can’t show you a picture here because they are all copyright.

The ship that Smith captained, the Susan Constant, is pictured below from the stained glass windows of the Church of St Sepulcre. It took 4 months to get to America because of storms affecting these little ships.

"Susan Constant" stained glass window in St Sepulcre Church.

“Susan Constant” stained glass window in St Sepulcre Church.

Below is a photo of the plaque marking Cptn John Smith’s grave. There is a notice in the church to say St Sepulchre was the last place he visited before catching the ship to America, as well as pointing out that he died in a house on Snow Hill, within a stone’s throw, and is actually buried in the church.

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith

I met a Bostonian lady here who said Cptn Smith was regarded as the first American because, when he was mayor of Jamestown, trying to keep his new settlement viable, his motto was “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

This may come as something of a surprise, but Captain Smith was a member of the Cordwainer’s Guild. The Jamestown Foundation of the Commonwealth of Virginia (their words) presented a statue to the City of London and in 1960 it was mounted in the churchyard of St Mary le Bow, in the heart of the Ward of Cordwainer. The cordwainers were leather workers and merchants who bought their leather exclusively from Cordoba in Spain.

Statue of Captain John Smith in churchyard of St Mary le Bow

Statue of Captain John Smith in churchyard of St Mary le Bow

This statue of the cordwainer at work represents the Ward of Cordwainer, where mostly shoemakers worked. Smith was not necessarily a shoemaker, but his father probably was, hence this was the guild he joined.

The Cordwainer, Watling St

The Cordwainer, Watling St

Here are the other two ships that went to Jamestown on the same mission: The Discovery captained by Sir Robert Bertie, Earl of Lindsay, and The Godspeed, captained by Sir Samuel Saltonstall.

"Discovery" in St Sepulcre Church

“Discovery” in St Sepulcre Church

"Godspeed" in St Sepulcre Church

“Godspeed” in St Sepulcre Church

21Mar/15

The Blitz

On 7 Sept 1940, the Germans started a policy of strategic bombing of non-military targets – first used by the Germans on a small though devastating scale in the Spanish Civil War – and London was the centre of that attack. The campaign lasted 57 consecutive days – all the way until 10 May 1941. We have already seen that this was the night when St Mary le Bow was destroyed by all the nearby burning buildings, but the Holborn area was heavily affected and well into the 1980s there were bomb sites around us. Strategic bombing caused the loss of 40,000 civilian lives in England, of whom 23,000 lived in London.

I put the photo of Christ Church Greyfriars at the head of the page because I have family who were christened and married there, and it is such a sad and poignant reminder of what London lost in those terrible days

Christ Church Greyfriars

Christ Church Greyfriars

The Wren tower has been restored, but the walls on this side of the building were demolished for a road widening scheme. The Pineapple Project hopes to restore the missing walls, but there are no plans to replace the building.

On 7 May 1941, the church of St Andrew Holborn, pictured left and sited on Holborn Circus, was completely gutted by bombing and eventually it was decided to restore the building “brick for brick and stone for stone” to the original Wren design for the largest parish church he built. During its restoration, the old crypt was discovered and hinted at religious observance on this site since the Romans arrived, 2000 years ago.

If you look at the new building going up opposite, called 40 Holborn Viaduct, it was the subject of a very famous Blitz photo; a fire engine is parked next to Prince Albert’s  statue and its crew is fighting the blaze.

St Andrews, Holborn

St Andrews, Holborn

There is much to be known about the effect of the Blitz on Holborn, for which there is plenty of room below, and I’ll continue this story later. In the meantime, look for St Albans Church near the red-brick Prudential building and St Ethelreda’s in Ely Place. St Albans was substantially destroyed and rebuilt and St Ethelreda’s lost its nave. The spirit of London is such that these fine buildings are standing proud again today, in continuous use.

In the end the tactic of strategic bombing was counter-productive. The bombs did not destroy English morale; they may have strengthened it. The time and effort that should have been spent destroying the RAF was dissipated into a huge cushion that could absorb as much military ordinance as the enemy could discharge. The German distraction from the war effort to the bombing of London (and other cities) allowed the British to perfect their radar, re-build their air bases and their air force, and probably prevented the planned invasion of England. Military strategists might like to take note.

St Albans Holborn interior

St Albans Holborn interior

 

21Mar/15

Sir Thomas More

I’m sure you have heard of Sir Thomas More as part of  your high school English theatre studies, if not from history, in the form of a 1960 Robert Bolt drama and a subsequent 1966 movie starring Paul Scofield, both called “A Man for all Seasons.” He was the Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII. It was not always good to be too close to King Henry because when he annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, and wanted to marry Ann Boleyn, the spotlight fell on Sir Thomas.

Catherine had two girls, Mary and Elizabeth, but Henry considered he needed a male heir. He had Catherine sequestered to a convent in Dunstable (look for the Priory signs all around Dunstable and you’ll realise it was a formidable presence in Dunstable’s past) and held a convocation of bishops in the Blackfriars building, now the site of Sion Hall, next-door to the Old City of London School building, still standing on the bank of the Thames.

Sion House Victoria Embankment Henry Viii Convocation

Sion Hall, Victoria Embankment, site of the last Convocation of Bishops held by Henry VIII.

The convocation could not bring itself to agree to Henry’s actions so he dissolved it and declared himself head of the Church in England. He expected Thomas to declare his right to marry Ann Boleyn, but Thomas said nothing. Henry interpreted Thomas’ “thundering silence” as condemnation of his wish to marry, but Thomas said the legal meaning of silence is assent.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

The king encouraged Thomas Cromwell to try Sir Thomas in a special court, which duly found him guilty of treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered but the king commuted this to beheading and his head was set on a pike on London Bridge. His body was buried in the Tower of London. It is said that one of his daughters later claimed the head, and it is buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

I found the statue above on the corner of Carey St, off Chancery Lane, and I was interested in the caption which says “Some time Lord High Chancellor of England. Martyred July 5th 1535. The faithful servant both of God and the king.” It looks like a Victorian building and I was intrigued that even 350 years after he was executed, Sir Thomas’ admirers still insist that his actions were those of a true servant of the king.

The stained glass window below is in the church of St Lawrence Jewry, which is in the grounds of the Guildhall in Gresham St. To get there, walk across Holborn Viaduct, down Newgate Street, left into St Martins le Grand and right into Gresham St. Follow it to the Guildhall on your left. The church isn’t always open; you just have to be lucky.

Window in St Lawrence Jewry

Window in St Lawrence Jewry

I have been surprised that nothing of Sir Thomas is mentioned in Lincoln’s Inn, his Alma Mater. I could only inspect the chapel, of course, so perhaps there is some remembrance in the Hall, or the library. This picture of the gardens of Lincoln’s Inn shows the fountain with the Old Buildings behind, that back on to Chancery Lane. They bend the corner and run along Carey St to my right in this picture, to form part of a square.

Lincolns Inn, Old Buildings

Lincolns Inn, Old Buildings

The statue of Sir Thomas, is on a building attached to the back of the Old Buildings, so he has his back to Lincoln’s Inn and is looking at the Royal Courts of Justice. Since this building and the RCJ are both Victorian, perhaps our great-grandparents are reminding us of how government should work.

Sir Thomas More was born in Milk St, off Cheapside, almost opposite St Mary le Bow, and became a lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn. He coined the word Utopia as an island paradise of justice and good. In 1935, More was canonised a saint by both the Catholic Church and the Anglicans and was declared the patron saint of lawyers and statesmen. He gave his life in the firm belief of the separation of church and state. He was indeed, the Faithful Servant.