Today’s trip covers the triangle formed by Charterhouse Street to the North, Holborn Viaduct/Newgate Street (A40) to the South and Aldersgate Street (A1) to the West, encompassing both Smithfield Market and St Bart’s Hospital. Another compact area but once again one that’s teeming with historical echoes of the likes of William Wallace, Wat Tyler and Henry VIII (of course).
We start out from Holborn Circus and head east along Charterhouse Street, almost immediately taking a detour into Ely Place, apparently the last privately-owned street in London. This is the site of the first of several churches we’re going to cover this time out, St Ethelreda’s RC. It might not look that impressive from the outside but St Ethelreda’s is the oldest Catholic church in England and one of only two remaining buildings in London from the reign of Edward I. It was the town chapel of the Bishops of Ely from about 1250 to 1570 (hence Ely Place). Ethelreda, daughter of King Anna, ruler of the Kingdom of East Anglia, was born in 630. She wanted to be a nun but agreed to a political marriage with a neighbouring King, Egfrith, on condition that she could remain a virgin. When the King tried to break the agreement she fled back to Ely where she built a magnificent church on the ruins of one founded by St Augustine. For reasons more obvious than is generally the case with such designations she is the Patron Saint of Chastity.
Continuing along Charterhouse Street we cross Farringdon Street and enter the surrounds of Smithfield Market. This area was originally known as Smoothfield, meaning a flat plain, from the Saxon word smeth, eventually corrupted again to become Smith. In the 12th Century it was used as a vast recreational area where jousts and tournaments took place and by the late Middle Ages had become the most famous livestock market in the country. It was also the location of Bartholomew Fair – three days of merrymaking, dancing, trading and music which over the centuries became the most debauched and drunken holiday in the calendar. This went on for almost 700 years before it was eventually closed in 1855.
Before we get to the actual market though there are a couple of buildings on Charterhouse Street to take stock of. First up is the Port of London Authority (PLA) building. The PLA is the self-funding public trust that governs the Port of London and has responsibility the maintenance and supervision of navigation on the tidal stretch of the Thames from the estuary upstream to Teddington. Built in 1914, this only lasted five years as the main HQ of the PLA before being superseded by a grandiose monolith adjacent to the Tower of London. The motto at the top of the building “floreat imperii portus” translates as “let the imperial port flourish” (curse of the commentator as it turned out of course).
Right next door is the Central Cold Store (constructed in 1899 for the Dutch margarine manufacturers, Van Den Bergh). In 1992 the two buildings were gutted and behind their facades a power station was installed; the Citigen CHP (combined heat and power) plant which supplies 31 MW of electricity to the London Electricity network and provides heat and cooling through a system of heating and chilled water pipes to a variety of buildings in central London.
The building just to the right of Fabric at 79-83 dates from 1930 and was home to the Corporation of London Meat Inspectors.
Within in a few years four more buildings had been added including the Poultry Market, opened in 1875, which is the only one still in use today. The original building however was destroyed by a major fire in 1958. A new building was commissioned, at a cost of £2 million, and was completed in 1963. While unremarkable from the outside, inside it is a feat of engineering: at the time its domed roof was, at 225 feet, the largest clear spanning dome roof in Europe. The appositely named West Poultry Avenue and East Poultry Avenue run beneath the arches either side and taking the former we emerge onto West Smithfield.
Head west from here then take a sharp right down Snow Hill before returning to the market via Smithfield Street. Nip up East Poultry Avenue, turn right and then duck into the aforementioned Grand Avenue. The market opens for business at 2 a.m. and is pretty much done for the day by 7 a.m. Some of the local pubs have adjusted opening hours to cater for this, and they no doubt pick up a bit of extra business when Fabric chucks out.
Opposite the southern end of the Grand Avenue is where the underground railway used to terminate. Nowadays it’s a car park and is topped by the West Smithfield Rotunda Garden which features a bronze statue of Peace courtesy of John Birnie Philip (1824-1875), echoing the statue of Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey which you can see in the distance below.
Circling round to the other side of the garden/car park we reach the west gate of St Bartholomew’s Hospital (or just Barts Hospital as it is generally known). Barts and the adjacent priory of St Bartholomew the Great (of which more later) were established it 1123 by the priest/monk Rahere, a favourite courtier of King Henry I. It was refounded by Henry VIII in 1546 on the signing of an agreement granting the hospital to the Corporation of London which endowed it with properties and income entitlements that replaced the support from the priory taken away by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Barts is the oldest hospital in Britain still providing all medical services and which occupies the site it was originally built on. The west gate continues to be the main public entrance; and the statue of Henry VIII above it is the only remaining statue of him in London.
Passing through the gate we arrive almost straight away at the church of St Bartholomew-the-Less St Bartholomew-the-Less. The church’s tower and west façade date from 15th century, with two of its three bells dating from 1380 and 1420 respectively. These hang within an original medieval bell frame, believed to be the oldest in the City of London.
The North Wing of the hospital contains the Barts Museum which tells the story of this renowned institution and showcases historical medical and surgical equipment as well as displaying a facsimile of that agreement between Henry VIII and the City of London.
The quaint No.1 Snow Hill Court was formerly a parish schoolhouse but these days is a suite of consulting rooms for hire. Next port of call, Cock Lane, is closed off for building work so we have to trek all the way back round Hosier Street to get to the eastern end.
Once we get there we’re in the presence of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner. This small wooden statue covered in gold marks the reputed spot where the Great Fire of 1666 was brought to a halt. The inscription immediately beneath the (pretty surly looking) boy reads This Boy is in Memmory Put up for the late FIRE of LONDON Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony. Presumably that’s a reference to the fire having started in the baker’s on Pudding Lane. I won’t repeat the full inscription positioned at eye level but it’s worth clicking the link to see that. Suffice to say that papists get equal billing with gluttony here when it comes to the causality of the fire.
At the southern end of Giltspur Street where it joins Holborn Viaduct as it turns into Newgate Street is the Church of St Sepulchre without Newgate. As seems to often be the case, a church has existed on this site since Saxon times. It was rebuilt after being destroyed in the Great Fire (a few yards further up the street and it might have made it) and extensively restored in Victorian times. Today it is the largest parish church in the City. The bells of Old Bailey in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons refer to those of St Sepulchre which were tolled on execution days as the condemned were led to the gallows of Tyburn. For hangings at the even nearer-by Newgate, between the 17th and 19th centuries, a handbell was rung outside the condemned man’s cell by the clerk of St Sepulchre’s. This handbell had been acquired for the parish in 1605 at a cost of £50 by London merchant tailor Mr. John Dowe for this express purpose. It now resides in a glass case to the south of the nave.
The church has been the official musicians’ church for many years and is associated with many famous musicians. Its north aisle is dedicated as the Musicians’ Chapel, with four windows commemorating John Ireland, the singer Dame Nellie Melba, Walter Carroll and the conductor Sir Henry Wood respectively. Wood, who “at the age of fourteen, learned to play the organ” at this church and later became its organist, also has his ashes buried in this church. The south aisle of the church holds the regimental chapel of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) and its gardens are a memorial garden to that regiment.
Proceed eastward next along Newgate Street then cut through Christchurch Greyfriars Garden to King Edward Street. The site of the Franciscan church of Greyfriars was established in 1225. Four queens were buried in the medieval church, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, including Margeurite, 2nd wife of Edward I, Isabella, widow of Edward II and Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III (though in her case it was only her heart that was interred here) . A new church, designed by Wren, was completed in 1704 and survived until incendiary bombs destroyed the main body of it in 1940. Only the west tower now stands.
A short way up King Edward Street is a statue to Sir Rowland Hill (1795 – 1879) the inventor and social reformer generally credited with the concept of the postage stamp.
Continue east along Angel Street as far as St Martin Le Grand and follow this north as it turns into Aldersgate Street. Here there is one of the few remaining (though no longer used) Police “Call Posts” which from 1888 to 1969 provided bobbies on the beat and the general public with the means to make emergency calls to the local Old Bill station. The larger variant of these, the Police Call Box, was of course the inspiration for Dr Who’s TARDIS.
Turn west again through Postman’s Park which contains a real oddity in the form of G.F Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Conceived and created by the Victorian Artist George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904) this wooden pavilion contains an array of 120 tile plaques commemorating individuals who lost their lives trying to save others.
Double back to Aldersgate Street via Little Britain (and no I’m not going to mention that TV series – doh !). Then proceed clockwise round the Museum of London roundabout to Montague Street and take this back to the northerly section of Little Britain which runs along the back of St Barts. On the eastern side more major development work is taking place.
(I just liked the colours of the crane). Anyway we’re back now at the north face of St Barts where there are separate memorials to the two historical figures I mentioned right back at the start of the post (I know it seems at eternity ago), Wat Tyler and William Wallace.
Taking these chronologically we’ll deal with William Wallace (c.1270 – 1305) first. Wallace led a Scottish rebellion against Edward I. Having won a famous victory at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 Wallace was defeated by a much larger English force at Falkirk a year later. He fled to France and in his absence Robert the Bruce negotiated a truce with Edward that he was excluded from. A large reward was posted on him and 2 years after his 1303 return to Scotland he was captured and brought to London where he was hung, drawn and quartered at Smithfield having been dragged there behind a horse. (Again I shall say nothing about that Mel Gibson film – doh!)
The main trigger for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the levying of new taxes to finance wars in France. A group of rebels from Kent and Essex marched on London under the leadership of Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball. After they had burnt and ransacked part of the city and supporters had murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury they were met at Mile End by the 14-year old King Richard II. After he had heard their grievances and made certain promises some of the mob dispersed and the rest set up camp at Smithfield. When the King returned to see them accompanied by a number of loyal soldiers and William Walworth, the Mayor of London an altercation broke out which led to Walworth stabbing Wat Tyler who was dragged into the church of St Bartholomew the Great. Troops then surrounded the rebels who effectively surrendered. Tyler was beheaded and his head placed on London Bridge. The memorial below commemorating the Great Rising of 1381 (alternative title) was unveiled in 2015.
This brings us on to the aforementioned Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great which is more than worth a visit despite an entrance fee of £5 (keeps the rabble out). As noted earlier this was founded as an Augustinian Monastery by the monk cum priest, Rahere, in 1123 making it the oldest church in London. During the dissolution of the monasteries (1539 remember) the nave of the Church was demolished and one Sir Richard Rich (seriously), Lord Chancellor from 1547-51, took possession of the remaining buildings. During the religious rollercoaster of the reigns of Queens Mary and Elizabeth I a number of Protestant and Catholic Martyrs were burnt at the stake outside the west gate of St Bartholomews. The Tudor timber frontage of the gate that remains intact today was erected by Lord Rich.
The Lady Chapel at the eastern end was used for secular purposes from the 16th century until the 1880’s including as a printing works where Benjamin Franklin was employed and a lace and fringe factory. In the latter years of the 19th century it was restored along with the rest of the church.
The church today contains a number of works by notable contemporary artists; some permanent fixtures, others on temporary loan (details in the slide show below). It has also featured extensively as a location for many recent films including Four Weddings and a Funeral (the fourth wedding), Shakespeare in Love and (somewhat incongruously) Avengers:Age of Ultron.
The church also has a resident squirrel who must be the tamest one in London.
Leave the grounds of the church via steps down into Cloth Fair which connects with Long Lane via the alleyways of Barley Mow Passage, Cloth Court and Rising Sun Court.
There are several pubs in this small area including the Hand & Shears on Cloth Fair which claims to have been established in 1532. The name of the pub derives from the prevalence of cloth merchants trading in the area in Tudor times (as does teh name of the street self-evidently). Apparently St Bartholomew’s Fair (see above) was for many years officially opened by the Lord Mayor from the doorway of the inn.
The pub is on the corner with Kinghorn Street which we turn down as far as Bartholomew Court which is a dead end due to the building works. So we zig-zag west to east courtesy of Newbury Street, Middle Street and East Passage which all intersect with Cloth Street. Long Lane then sends us back to Aldersgate Street across the way from the Barbican Complex and turning south we finish up at the steps leading to the Museum of London – which you will be relieved to hear can wait for another day.