Category Archives: London Stories

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

20Mar/15

Dickens

I’ve mentioned Dickens a couple of times so far – his “club for tom cats” jibe at Barnard’s Inn, as well as his use of what is now Nancy’s Steps on the Bankside end of London Bridge, and soon you’ll see what he had to say about Staple’s Inn. Near Union St in Bankside there is Copperfield St, the Dickens primary school and the Charles Dickens pub. He came from Chatham and lived in Rochester, where he set some of his novels, but he also lived and worked in Holborn. There is a Dickens House and Museum in 48 Doughty St WC1, just off Grays Inn Rd , where he lived for two years. While there he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. To remind himself of his roots, he installed a grille from the Marshalsea Prison where his father was imprisoned for a year for debt. There’s also a Dickens House at 15 Took’s Court, behind Furnival St, but I can’t find out why.

The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop

Just behind Holborn Tube station is the Old Curiosity Shop. It’s a Tudor building and if it was thought old in Dickens’ time, then it’s 100yrs older now. Why someone would want to sell antique shoes is beyond me, but that’s what the owner does. A very quiet little street in the middle of the London School of Economics (LSE).

His first job on leaving school was as a legal clerk in Grays Inn and he chose that office as the set for Mr Phunky in one of the Pickwick tales. When he married he and his new wife lived in Furnivals Inn, which was demolished and replaced by the Prudential building on Holborn at the end of the 19th Century. This bust, left, and a plaque on the wall of the Pru, record Dickens’ stay in the former building.

Dickens Statue

Dickens Statue

The picture below is of Wine Office Court, off Fleet St. Dickens uses it in A Tale of Two Cities, but it was a well-known lane on the route to see Dr Johnson, the poet, literary critic and lexicographer, whose house even now is signposted from here, as well as from New Fetter Lane. Dickens also visited the Old Cheshire Cheese pub in this lane.

Entrance to Wine Office Court, off Fleet St

Entrance to Wine Office Court.

This picture below is of Inner Temple Fountain off Fleet St. Dickens mentions it fondly in Barnaby Rudge where “a vagrant ray of sunlight patches the shade of tall houses” and it’s a meeting place for Ruth and Tom in Martin Chuzzlewit.

Inner Temple fountain, off Fleet St

Inner Temple fountain, off Fleet St

 

20Mar/15

Barnard’s Inn

This is the entrance to the Hall of Barnard’s Inn. A beautiful, fascinating little courtyard with old date stones, a story on the wall, the coat of arms of the Baden Powell family – and this glorious, small Hall. The Hall itself dates from the late 1300s, but in a chamber beneath, the southern wall is chalk and tiling from the Roman period, 2000 years ago. In 1252 the estate was recorded in the property of the then mayor of London Sir Adam de Basyng, and in the mid 1400s became one of the Inns of Chancery. Law students would enrol here for some time, then move on to Grays Inn, to which Barnards Inn and Staples Inn were associated.

The Hall, Barnard’s Inn

The Hall, Barnard’s Inn

It’s a strange place; to get to; from Holborn Circus walk up Holborn, cross Fetter Lane and look for the Barnards Inn archway on your left, with a Gresham College sign. Go boldly down the short alley and it opens out into this courtyard. Young couples sit here eating their lunch and on a sunny day the courtyard is warm and cosy, with historic carved stones set into the walls and an interesting story about the Mercers’ School carved into a large slate. After you have explored the courtyard you can move onwards under another arch into an altogether more modern courtyard, left, then beyond that again, back onto New Fetter Lane. It’s hard to tell you have almost turned back on yourself.

The courtyard, Barnard’s Inn

The courtyard, Barnard’s Inn

This Flemish lady shows Sir Thomas Gresham’s status as Royal Agent of Antwerp.

Sir Thomas Gresham’s status as Royal Agent of Antwerp.

Sir Thomas Gresham’s status as Royal Agent of Antwerp.

In Dickens’ time, Barnards Inn had fallen badly into disrepair and in Great Expectations young Pip came to London and found “Barnard to be … a fiction, and his inn the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for tom cats.“ In the 1890s the Mercers’ Company renovated the building and moved their boys school here from College Hill for about 60 years, closing in 1959.

The whole site has been purchased by Gresham College and you can now attend free lectures here, in this lovely Hall, at lunchtimes or about 6pm, mostly on Tuesdays. The Gresham Professors were set up in the 1500s and studied and taught the following disciplines: Astronomy, Divinity, Geometry, Law, Music, Physic (medicine) and Rhetoric. Even today the lectures follow the same themes – great topics, though – “Mathematics in the modern age – The 18th Century; Crossing bridges” and “Handel and London” and “Should we take our leaders as seriously as they take themselves?.”

20Mar/15

Camden Lock

Strictly speaking, Camden Lock isn’t in our neighbourhood at all, since you can’t walk there and back in your lunch hour. However, many of the street signs around here say that parts of Holborn are in the Camden Borough, and if you use the Tube, with a couple of changes, from Chancery Lane to Camden and back, you should do the round trip well inside an hour, with time to have a look at the sights.

Here is one of those sights. He is a character, isn’t he, fully in line with other tattooed, bespangled, leather-clad lads in the Camden Lock Market. Nice chap, too, munching on his enchilada and talking to his Goth girlfriend who was as tattooed, pierced and silver-ringed as he was.

Camden Lock punk

Camden Lock punk

Below is the front of the PunkyFish on Chalk Farm Rd. Many of the shops and arcades in Camden are highly decorated like this. Lots of them have movement as well as this 3-D effect. The traffic in Camden High St is as dense and loud as anywhere in London.

There are about a dozen large street-style markets in Camden, and they say there are over 700 stall-holders. I believe them; Camden is a market paradise. There is even a shop on Camden High St selling leather and chains called Amsterdam in London, in the fond belief, I suppose, that Amsterdamers drape themselves in leather and chains, perhaps just like the Camdenners like to do.

The Punky Fish, Camden

The Punky Fish, Camden

Camden Lock itself, below, is on Regent’s Canal. You can follow the towpath 2 ½ miles all the way through London Zoo to Little Venice, but not in your lunch-hour of course.

On the opposite side of the lock in this picture is the Camden Lock market. We had a great time exploring here. Lots of noise, food, clothes and jewellery.

Camden Lock

Camden Lock

20Mar/15

Bloomsbury

There is a connection between these three pictures: the sign in New Zealand near Matamata, Bloomsbury Square Gardens in the sun at lunchtime, and the stables at Woburn Abbey. The connection is the Duke of Bedford.

You will remember from your high school history that the Duke of Bedford was a prime mover in ensuring that  Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne and he was there in the front row when she was crowned. This rather loose-knit family includes the Russells, Churchills and Spencers – as in Bertrand, Winston and Diana.

Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire is the family seat and a story is told about a walnut tree in Chenies, Bucks, which was planted from a nut that fell from the branch upon which Henry VIII hanged the last abbot of Woburn.

Bloomsbury Square Gardens

Bloomsbury Square Gardens

You will remember, too, the Bloomsbury Group of the early 20th Century, they used to meet in the Bloomsbury Square area – Virginia Woolf the author, Keynes the economist – the intellectual stimulus of the area drew them here. Just over the back of the gardens is the British Museum, a couple of streets away is the Gt Ormond Street hospital, nearby is the Shaftsbury Theatre. The University of London is here, as is the School for Oriental and African Studies. Look for Great Russell St, Woburn Place and Isaac D’Israeli.

Bloomsbury Stud, Matamata, New Zealand

Bloomsbury Stud, Matamata, New Zealand

Finding Bloomsbury is easy – walk up High Holborn, turn right into Southampton Place, cross at the pedestrian crossing and walk into the gardens. Stand in the gardens a moment and observe – a wonderfully eclectic crowd passes you by: tourists and intellectuals roam the museum while students from the university mingle with the strays of St Giles. Look for the group clustered on the steps of the English Language Institute, and stroll the lovely tree-lined vista of Bedford Row to admire its beautiful four storey brick apartments now turned legal chambers. Mind you, they do back on to Gray’s Inn, so it’s no wonder the lawyers took them over. Much of the area lies within the Borough of Holborn, so it’s nice to see street signs that make you feel at home – so much cosier than Camden and Westminster.

The horse studs in Woburn and in Matamata are the same – the family spends six months in the sun in NZ and then the same again in England.

The stables, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire.

The stables, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire.

20Mar/15

A children’s nursery rhyme

Here is the text of the children’s poem “Oranges and Lemons”, as published in 1774. The Victorians added lots of lines and silly rhymes, but we’ll stick with the earliest printed version. If you listen to the cadence, it cleverly mimics the sounds of English change-bell ringing. We have already seen St Mary le Bow.

“Oranges and lemons” say the bells of St Clements
“You owe me five farthings” say the bells of St Martins
“When will you pay me?”  say the bells of Old Bailey
“When I grow rich” say the bells of Shoreditch
“When will that be?” say the bells of Stepney
“I do not know” says the great bell of Bow.

Oranges and lemons

Oranges and lemons

This is St Clement, Eastcheap. It used to be close to the wharf where Spanish oranges and lemons were unloaded and it pealed a bell when the ship arrived.

St Clement, Eastcheap

St Martin Orgar was a tiny church. All you can see now is the blue plaque marking its site in Martin Lane near Monument. Not replaced after the Great Fire of 1666.

St Martin Orgar, Martin Lane

St Martin Orgar, Martin Lane

The bells of Old Bailey are actually those of St Sepulcre, Newgate. And the mention of Old Bailey is for Newgate Prison, most used for incarcerating those in debt. The tenor bell tolled on the morning of execution day and up to 100,000 people would turn up to celebrate and party. There is a bricked-up stone staircase in St Sepulcre which used to lead to a passage under the road to Newgate Prison, and prisoners would be brought to St Sepulcre for final prayers. The execution handbell, below, would be rung by a prison official as he walked to “The Tyburn Tree” in front of the procession. There’s a story that the prisoners were given alcohol to drink (a tot of rum? Small beer?) before they were loaded onto the dray that took them to Tyburn, which stood where Marble Arch is now. During the procession, sympathetic members of the public might approach the prisoners and offer them some drink. The gaoler would say,

“Oh, sorry, Ma’am ‘e can’t take drink now; he’s on the wagon…”

St Sepulchre, Holborn Viaduct

St Sepulchre, Holborn Viaduct

This is the bell that was rung at the head of processions taking the condemned from Newgate Prison to Tyburn.

The St Sepulcre execution handbell

The St Sepulcre execution handbell.

 I have not found “the bells of Shoreditch” nor “the bells of Stepney” so this story will need to end here, until I have.

St Clement Danes church, in The Strand near the Royal Courts of Justice, likes to advertise that it is the church of “Oranges and Lemons” but St Clement, Eastcheap, has a much better claim.

20Mar/15

St Mary le Bow

When I was a kid, St Mary le Bow WAS London. We would crowd around the radio (yes, really) in my home town of Rotorua, New Zealand, at dinnertime, 6pm, and we would hear a peal of bells that gave us goosebumps and a calm, carefully modulated male voice would say “From the BBC World Service, this is London calling.” Then would follow the news.

“That’s the sound of the Bow Bells,” said Dad. “My elder brother, Fred, was born in Islington, and he could hear those bells, so he is a true London cockney – born within the sound of the Bow Bells.” I met Uncle Fred several times and he was indeed a cockney. In past times, when there was no roar of London traffic, and the buildings weren’t so tall, you could hear the Bow Bells all the way out to the Hackney Marshes, but in the end it’s the accent that counts and Uncle Fred certainly had it.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, which made the bells for the Wren church, told me the church was set alight by nearby burning buildings on 11 May 1941. The tower was badly damaged and the bells crashed down, breaking all twelve of them. It took until 1961 for the bells to be restored to their original position and rung again, the new bells being cast from the metal of the old.

St Mary le Bow

St Mary le Bow

No doubt you are familiar with the strange little poem “Oranges and Lemons”; the line “I do not know, said the great bell of Bow,” refers to St Mary le Bow. In Medieval times the bell was rung for the nine o’clock curfew – which probably also meant closing the gate on London Bridge to prevent further traffic to and from the markets of Bankside.

There was a Saxon church on this site in Cheapside, but it was build over by the Normans and the crypt, which dates from 1080, is a sign of how anxious they were to assert their superiority over the Londoners of the time. The spire on the Norman church was a well-known landmark and when the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, Wren replaced it with this most distinctive spire, which you can see from here. The great bell (number 12) is still called Bow.

The spire of St Mary le Bow

The spire of St Mary le Bow

The body of the church was completely destroyed in the blitz but Wren’s beautiful masterpiece, the tower, had survived and the church as we see it now was rebuilt in new stone, whilst many of the old stones were recycled in the new building and some of the memorials were able to be restored to niches in the walls.

St Mary le Bow

St Mary le Bow, interior

20Mar/15

Holborn

Picture this at the turn of the last millennium – around 1000 AD. You are sitting on a high branch of a tree growing in the middle of Holborn Circus and looking to the west, up High Holborn. The Hole Bourne Stream runs through the area and empties into the Fleet River, over to your right, which joins the Thames at Blackfriars. The City wall, built by the Romans, is just on the other side (from here) of the Fleet, with an imposing entrance called Ludgate. Most ordinary Londoners speak the East Saxon language, in common with the Essex villagers who live in the area from here to the mouth of the Thames.

There is a large cattle market by the stream which overlooks a few small lakes. A track wanders through the lakes, giving the locals access to the market. The de Grey family builds a nice house here, just outside the City, and they call it the Manor of Purpoole, referring to the market near the lake. Around the city wall to the north from here, there are swamps and rough country – caused partly by the wall itself. There are wild boar and deer in the woods that you can see from your tree, some cattle graze on tree-lined paddocks and corn ripens in fields cared for by tenant farmers. To the south of the Thames you can see the dense smoke of the brick-makers’ ovens.

The Prudential Building, Holborn

The Prudential Building, Holborn

Skip a thousand years and look around from your tree branch high above the Circus. The Hole Bourne stream has been buried but the name has survived, mangled to Ho’b’n and we spell it Holborn. If you listen carefully, you may hear the locals say the L, even though it isn’t actually pronounced. The cockneys of London are the direct inheritors of the East Saxon language used so long ago.

The Prudential building (above) now sits where the market was, the Fleet River is in a culvert under Farringdon Street and the Purpoole name is preserved in Portpool Lane that joins Grays Inn Rd to Leather Lane. The roads and streets of London follow the the hedgerows and pathways of those ancient paddocks and fields while the deep deposits of clay to the south of the Thames have been used to make millions of bricks for London’s yellow-brick buildings.

Portpool Lane

Portpool Lane

20Mar/15

Gray’s Inn

The Inns of Court are ancient institutions and as you walk around our neighbourhood you’ll see signs of them: Staples Inn, Clifford’s Inn, Furnvials’s Inn, Barnard’s Inn, but there are four really famous ones – Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn. They have a serious teaching function, but many of their buildings are also occupied by operating legal chambers. You join one as a law student and through them, you get “called to the bar” ie become a barrister. Not everyone who joins an Inn becomes a barrister, or even wants to, but there are few other ways to become a lawyer, and none (until 2004) if you wanted to be a barrister.

Gray's Inn

Gray’s Inn

If you walk up High Holborn to Chancery Lane tube station, you will meet Gray’s Inn Rd at the lights. Cross the road and then just past the Cittie of Yorke pub, turn right into Warwick Ct  – you’ll miss it if you blink. At the end of it, through an imposing arch, is an entrance to Gray’s Inn. These are the arms of each of the Inns and the notice “School of Law.” Gray’s Inn has the gold griffin on a black background.

Inns of Court

Inns of Court

Famous people associated with Gray’s Inn? Queen Elizabeth I was patron and “a loving glass” is still raised to Good Queen Bess. Shakespeare performed his plays there, and part of a captured Spanish galleon has been made into a wooden screen in the Hall. Thomas a’Becket was chaplain of the chapel and he occupies the centre of the stained glass triptych behind the altar. Sir Francis Bacon was a member as was Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Walks, as the gardens are called, were laid out by Sir Francis Bacon and much of what he did endures. Verulam Buildings on Gray’s Inn Rd were named after him. Almost all the buildings were destroyed by German bombs in WW2, but a few choice buildings survive.

At the entrance to Gray’s Inn you’ll see a nice bronze relief of Sun Yat-Sen, who overthrew the Manchu dynasty in China in 1911. You could say “We taught him everything he knew…”

Sun Yat Sen

Sun Yat Sen

20Mar/15

The resurrectionists

There were three great slums in Victorian London, perhaps the worst slums in the whole world; Spitalfields, the Mint and St Giles-in-the-Fields. I have mentioned St Giles before, perhaps a mile from Holborn, behind CentrePlace. Mint St was the area around the Southwark fire station, literally the site of King Henry VIII’s mint, just behind Union St, and the Spitalfields slum was the Bethnal Green/Shoreditch area to the east of Shoreditch High St. This particular slum was described in 1845 as having “the most intense pangs of poverty, the most profligate morals, and the most odious crimes (which) rage with the fury of a pestilence.” Into this mix of poverty, low morals and crime, throw in a nice money-making scheme supplying bodies to the local hospitals so that they could teach anatomy, and you would generate one of the most disgusting and disturbing crimes humanity could dream up – body-snatching, in this case, for profit.

Sign in Giltspur St, Smithfield

Sign in Giltspur St, Smithfield

The sign above is in Giltspur St, opposite St Bartholomew’s Hospital. It tells the story of the Fortune of War pub, in which bodies were laid out so the surgeons from St Bart’s could select and pay for the ones they wanted. I often wonder how the surgeons of St Barts these days deal with their consciences when they leave work through the exit that faces this sign.

The men who carried out this skin-crawling, “trade” were variously called Resurrectionists (guess why!) or body snatchers. They would hang around looking for funerals and then the night after the ceremony they would lift the body, strip it, drag it on a trolley through London to their markets, sell the body, and then sell whatever useable clothes and jewelry the body might have possessed. There are also stories of lifting the flagstones in churches and replacing them carefully, so the families never knew the body had been removed.

Most of the churches of London had graveyards, and the graves were almost always shallow-dug. It was the work of an hour or so to remove a body from its coffin and supply it to the nearest paying surgeon, replacing the flagstone as they went. You can see in this picture I took in St Bartholomew the Great, that the caskets were buried very shallowly – the gap in the clay is the lead from the casket. There are stories – and some convictions – of gangs who supplied freshly murdered bodies, but I know of no surgeons who were prosecuted for causing the demand, or for desecration, or even for receiving stolen property.

Lead casket, St Bartholomew the Great

Lead casket, St Bartholomew the Great

The work of the body snatcher was to supply bodies for dissection in London’s teaching hospitals. Their  surgeons had no access to the bodies of executed criminals, so they started paying for fresh bodies, and did not ask too many questions about how the body was obtained. The most famous anatomist and surgeon in England was John Hunter. He did ground-breaking work in venereal disease, gum disease and gun-shot wounds. 3000 items of his work are displayed in the Hunterian Museum, in the Royal College of Surgeons, behind Lincoln’s Inn Fields. All of his items are from purchased (ie snatched) bodies.

I found this topic difficult enough to research and write about so I have no intention of giving you some samples from the Hunterian Museum. Suffice it to say that you will find it in the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I have attached a photo of a 19th Century cauterisation instrument. I could have shown you artificial leeches, twelve-bladed bloodletting instruments and other 18th and 19th Century medical paraphernalia, but I have spared you.

19th Century cauterisation instrument, Hunterian Museum

19th Century cauterisation instrument, Hunterian Museum

Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn

Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn