Samuel-Johnson-plaqueThere is only one official blue plaque in the square miles of the City of London – that which marks the property of lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson in Gough Square (he always did like to stand out from the crowd) – and, like many of the plaques in the scheme, it’s not even blue.

Samuel-Johnson-plaque2The plaque was among the 35 erected in the first 35 years of the scheme – this one in 1876 – and was done so by the Society of Arts which then ran the scheme (later the Royal Society of Arts). In common with most of the first 35 plaques, it is brown in colour.

In 1879, just three years after this plaque was erected, the Society of Arts came to an agreement with the Corporation of the City of London that the corporation – the governing body of the square mile – would commemorate sites of historic significance within its boundaries and the agreement has stood ever since.

The hundreds of “blue plaques” since erected by the City of London Corporation are rectangular in nature and commemorate everything from structures like the long-gone historic gate of Aldgate (88 Aldgate High Street) to homes of the notable such as martyred Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas á Becket (86 Cheapside).

There’s a searchable database of all the City of London plaques which can be found here.

And, of course, Dr Johnson’s house, which he lived in from 1748-59 which compiling his famous A Dictionary of the English Language (the first comprehensive English language dictionary), is now a museum – for details of that, see our earlier post here.

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There’s a couple of alternate theories for the origins of this City of London street’s name.

Fenchurch-StreetRunning between Gracechurch Street to the west and Aldgate to the east, Fenchurch Street isn’t actually home to Fenchurch Street Station (one of the four Monopoly board stations!) – that’s located in adjoining Fenchurch Place. And for good measure, there’s also a nearby Fenchurch Avenue.

The name apparently relates to a church that once stood here, known as St Gabriel Fenchurch. The fen part of the name is believed to either stand for what may have been nearby ‘fens’ – that is, swampy or marshy ground – related to the now lost Langbourn River once located here or for faenum, a Latin word for hay which may have referred to a nearby haymarket.

The church, which is known to have existed from at least the 14th century and stood between Rood and Mincing Lanes, burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was not rebuilt but merged into the parish of St Margaret Pattens (there’s a plaque marking its site in Fenchurch Street opposite Cullum Street – we’ll have a look at the church in more detail in a later Lost London entry).

Landmarks in the street include Lloyd’s Register of Shipping at number 71 (a Grade II-listed building dating from 1901) and the somewhat controversial tower at 20 Fenchurch Street, nicknamed the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building.

77-Memorial

It’s not immediately obvious what this series of upright stainless steel pillars standing on the eastern edge of Hyde Park has been placed there for.

But look a little closer and you’ll see inscribed upon a date which any long-term Londoner immediately recognises – 7th July, 2005: the day when a series of bombs claimed 52 lives on three trains and a bus at various locations around central London.

The memorial, designed by architects Carmody Groarke and engineering team Arup working in consultation with victims’ representatives, Royal Parks and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, consists of 52 pillars – one for each victim of the bombings.

The 3.5 metre high, 850 kilogram pillars are clustered together in four groups representing the four locations of the bomb attacks – Tavistock Square, Edgware Road, King’s Cross and Aldgate. They are marked with the times, dates and locations of the bombings and there’s also a 1.4 tonne stainless steel plaque upon which are written the names of the victims located nearby.

The RIBA award-winning memorial, which is located just to the north of the colossal statue Achilles and Hyde Park Corner, was unveiled by Prince Charles and Lady Camilla on the fourth anniversary of the attack in 2009.

For more, see the Royal Parks website www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/hyde-park-attractions/7-july-memorial.

A late 17th and early 18th century wood carver and sculptor, the curiously named Grinling Gibbons is remembered for his magnificent carvings in numerous English buildings including such London icons as St Paul’s Cathedral and Hampton Court Palace.

Not much is known about Gibbons’ early life. The son of English parents (his father was apparently a draper), he was born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands on 4th April, 1648, and, as a young man, is believed to have undertaken an apprenticeship as a sculptor in that country.

Around the age of 19, he moved to England – first to York and to Deptford in the south. It was the quality of his work which led diarist John Evelyn, having discovered Gibbons working on a limewood relief of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion in a small cottage near Deptford in early 1671, that led him to introduce him to Christopher Wren, the architect of the age, and fellow diarist Samuel Pepys and to eventually present him (and his relief) to King Charles II at Whitehall Palace on 1st March the same year.

But Gibbons’ work apparently failed to initially impress at court and it was only following his ‘discovery’ later that year by the court artist Sir Peter Lely that he began to receive major commissions.

It’s apparently not known when Gibbons married his wife Elizabeth and moved to London they were living there by 1672 and were having the first of their at least 12 children (while at least five of their daughters survived into adulthood, none of their sons did).

In 1672, they were living in an inn, called La Belle Sauvage or The Bell Savage, located on Ludgate Hill near St Paul’s, and, while Gibbons continued to maintain a workshop here into the 1680s, the family moved to Bow Street in Covent Garden around the end of the 1670s (the house here apparently collapsed in 1702 and was subsequently rebuilt in brick).

Gibbons, who was admitted to the Draper’s Company in 1672 and held various posts within it over ensuing years, reached the pinnacle of his success when he was made master sculptor and carver in wood to King William III in 1693, and was later made master carpenter to the king, then King George I, in 1719.

Having worked mostly in limewood, Gibbons, recently called the “British Bernini”, is known for his distinct and exuberant style which features cascading foliage, fruit, animals and cherubs. While he worked on numerous important buildings outside of London – including carvings in the Chapel Royal and king’s dining room at Windsor Castle, in a chapel at Trinity College in Oxford, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and a famous ‘carved room’ at Petworth House in Sussex – and beyond (he also created two presentation panels – known as the ‘Cosimo’ and ‘Modena’ panels which were sent to Italy as royal gifts), Gibbons is also noted for his work on a number of prominent buildings in London.

Among the buildings he worked on or in around London are the churches of St James’s in Piccadilly, St Mary Abchurch, St Michael Paternoster Royal and, famously, St Paul’s Cathedral (where he carved choir stalls, the bishop’s thrones and choir screen) as well as Hampton Court and Kensington Palaces.

While he is primarily remembered for his limewood carvings, Gibbons’ workshop was also responsible for sculpting statues, memorials and decorative stonework. A couple of the workshop’s statues can still be seen in London – one of King Charles II in Roman dress at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea and another of King James II outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square – while the magnificent Westminster Abbey memorial to Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell is also attributed to him.

Gibbons died at his Bow Street home on 3rd August, 1721, and was buried in St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden (his wife had been buried there several years before).

For more on Grinling Gibbons, check out David Esterly’s Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving.

Once the eastern-most gateway into London, Aldgate is another of London’s gates which dates from Roman times.

The gate, which stood over the short street in the City now simply known as Aldgate, was rebuilt several times during the Middle Ages before, thanks again to the need for road widening, it was demolished in 1761.

Some sections of the gate were apparently taken to Bethnel Green, just to the east, where they were rebuilt as an addition to a 17th century mansion known as Aldgate House.

The name Aldgate is generally thought to mean ‘Old Gate’ but alternative theories suggest it derives from ‘Ale Gate’ (a connection with a local alehouse perhaps?) or ‘All Gate’ (that, is, all are free to enter).

The most famous person associated with the gate is the Middle English writer Geoffrey Chaucer – he lived in apartments above it for more than 10 years – from 1374 to 1386 – while working as a customs official.

Aldgate is also one of the wards of the City of London.

PICTURE: An artist’s impression of how Roman Aldgate may have looked as seen on a plaque marking the site of the former gate (part of a series of plaques on the former London Wall Walk).

Contrary to what some may, St Katharine Cree is not named after a person of that name (or at least not entirely). St Katherine, certainly, but the addition of ‘Cree’ is simply a medieval corruption of ‘Christ Church’.

The name Christ Church, abbreviated to Cree, was applied to this church because it was the prior of the Augustinian Priory of the Holy Trinity in Aldgate, also known as Christ Church, who founded St Katharine Cree in 1280 for the use of the area’s parishioners (apparently their use of the priory church was causing problems).

The current building dates from 1630 (although the tower dates from 1504), making it the only surviving Jacobean church in London.

It  was consecrated by William Laud, then Bishop of London (and later beheaded for, among other things, his support of King Charles I). He is commemorated in one of the church’s chapels.

Unlike so many other of London’s churches, St Katharine Cree was not destroyed in the Great Fire of London and only suffered minor damage in the Blitz. But structural problems meant it did need substantial restoration in the 1960s.

Inside, is a mid 17th century font and stained glass dating from the same era which depicts a Catherine wheel (St Katherine/Catherine is said to have died strapped to a spiked wheel when martyred during the time of the Roman Empire.).

There is also a rose window which was modelled on that of old St Paul’s Cathedral (before it was destroyed by the Great Fire). Parts of the organ, which was restored in the early Noughties, date from the 17th century and the original was played by none other than George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell. The six bells were restored in 2009 following an appeal.

Among those buried at St Katharine Cree are Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a 16th century diplomat (his monument is inside), and the artist Hans Holbein the Younger (his grave is also claimed by St Andrew Undershaft).

The church today has no parish but is the Guild Church to Finance, Commerce and Industry (its rector is that of St Olave Hart Street). Among its annual events is the Lion Sermon given in October, a tradition that dates back to 1643 and owes its origins to the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Gayer, who decided to finance the sermon after he survived an encounter with a lion in Syria.

WHERE: Leadenhall Street, London (nearest Tube stations are Aldgate and Tower Hill); WHEN: See website for service timesCOST: Free; WEBSITE: www.sanctuaryinthecity.net/St-Katharine-Cree.html.

Best remembered for his landmark Middle English work in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer is known by many as “the father of English literature”.

But he also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, civil servant and courtier and while much of his life (and death) remain something of a mystery, there’s no doubt that he spent a considerable part of it in London.

Chaucer (the name comes from the Latin for ‘shoemaker’) was born into a wealthy London family sometime between 1340 and 1345 and nothing is known of his early life or education. In 1357 he was working as a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and daughter-in-law of King Edward III.

Two years later, he travelled in the retinue of the countess’ husband, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, to France with the army of King Edward III but in 1360 was captured near Rheims. He was subsequently ransomed with the king himself contributing to the sum needed.

Soon after Chaucer formally joined King Edward III’s court and was over the next two decades was sent on numerous missions by him to places as far flung as France, Genoa, Florence and possibly Padua (it was on these trips that he was apparently exposed to the writings of men such as Dante, Boccaccio and Froissart).

In 1366 he married Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Philippa of Hainault, King Edward III’s queen (and, some suggest, the sister to Katherine Swynford, mistress to John of Gaunt). Chaucer and his wife are believed to have three or four children – their son, Thomas, was later chief butler to English kings and served as the Speaker of the House of Commons.

In 1374, Chaucer was appointed as Comptroller of Customs for the Port of London, a post which he held until 1386 or so. It was during this time that he wrote many of his other major works including Parlement of Foules and Troilus and Criseyde (he had written his first major work, The Book of the Duchess, in honor Blanche of Lancaster, the late wife of his friend John of Gaunt sometime earlier following her death in 1369). Chaucer was also known at this time to have lived rent free in an apartment above the now removed Aldgate.

At some time in the 1380s, it is suggested Chaucer moved out to Kent where he is thought to have started work on The Canterbury Tales and where he also served as a local MP. His wife is believed to have died while they were there.

In 1389, he was appointed to the position of Clerk of the King’s Works and oversaw building projects at the Palace of Westminster, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, and at the Tower of London (building the wharf). Later he served as deputy forester of the royal forest of North Petherton in Somerset.

Chaucer’s name disappears from records in 1400 and he is believed to have died either that year or shortly after. The cause of his death remains unknown although writer Terry Jones, in his book Who Murdered Chaucer?, has suggested Chaucer was murdered in 1402 at the behest of Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury – a claim which has met with short shrift with many.

Chaucer’s remains were later transferred to a more elaborate tomb and he become the first writer to occupy a space in Poet’s Corner – a fitting place for a towering figure of English literature.

PICTURE: Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from Ellesmere Manuscript in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The manuscript is an early publishing of the Canterbury Tales. Source: Wikipedia.