This iconic church on the edge of Trafalgar Square, known for its musical associations, is another of the works of architect James Gibbs and, as with St Mary le Strand, the current building was constructed in the first half of the 18th century to replace an earlier building.

St-Martin-in-the-fieldsThe first references to a church on the site of the present building date back to the 13th century when, constructed upon a Roman burial site, it was apparently used by monks from Westminster. It was replaced by King Henry VIII around 1542 and enlarged in 1602 before finally being demolished in 1721.

Gibbs’ apparently first suggested the design feature a round nave with a dome over the top but the proposal was rejected as too expensive and a simpler, rectangle-shaped church was subsequently agreed upon and eventually completed in 1726. Part of the design inspiration comes from Sir Christopher Wren, although Gibbs’ integration of the tower into the church was a departure from Wren’s designs (the church spire rises 192 foot into the air).

Among the features of the interior are ceiling panels in the nave which feature cherubs and shells and are the work of ceiling experts Giuseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti. Other items of interest include Chaim Stephenson‘s sculpture, Victims of Injustice and Violence, remembering all victims during apartheid in South Africa (it was dedicated by Desmond Tutu in 1994), a statue of St Martin and the Beggar by James Butler, and, on the porch, Mike Chapman‘s sculpture marking the millennium, Christ Child. Paintings include one of James Gibbs himself by Andrea Soldi and dating from 1800.

Among those buried in the church are furniture-maker Thomas Chippendale, sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac and notorious robber Jack Sheppard (he’s buried in the churchyard). The crypt also contains a life-sized marble statue of Henry Croft, London’s first pearly king, which was moved there from St Pancras Cemetery in 2002.

As well as being the location of the first religious broadcast, its musical heritage includes performances by Handel and Mozart and being the location of the first performance of its namesake chamber orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Since the early 20th century, the church has been noted for its work with the homeless (thanks in particular to the work of Vicar Dick Sheppard). Meanwhile, its connections with music – which date back to its rebuilding – continue in the concerts held in the crypt cafe. The crypt also hosts art exhibitions.

The church underwent a £36 million renewal project in the Noughties. Additions included the new east window by Shirazeh Houshiary.

WHERE: St Martin-in-the-Fields on the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square (nearest tube stations are Charing Cross, Leicester Square and Embankment); WHEN: Open weekdays and weekends – times vary, see website for details; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org.

The self-styled “Thief-Taker General”, Jonathan Wild was one of the most famous figures of London’s underworld in the early 18th century, credited by some as being the city’s first organised crime boss.

Jonathan-WildBorn to a family in Wolverhampton, Wild – who had at some point undertaken an apprenticeship as a buckle-maker – was married and had a son when he first came to London as a servant in 1704 and although he returned to the city of his birth after being dismissed, he apparently abandoned his family and returned to the capital in 1708.

Little is known of the first couple of years he spent in London but records show he was arrested for debt in March 1710 and sent to Wood Street Compter where he quickly ensconced himself and was even awarded the “liberty of the gate” – meaning he could leave the prison at night to aid in the apprehension of thieves.

It was also during this period that he came under the influence of a prostitute Mary Milliner. Upon his release in 1712 – thanks to an Act of Parliament passed to help debtors – he lived with her as her husband (despite his earlier marriage – and hers) in Covent Garden.

Acting as her protector when she was on the street, Wild also branched into the business of being a fence or receiver of stolen goods and racketeering offences like extortion. In 1713, he joined Charles Hitchen to be his assistant. Hitchen, who had been suspended from his position as the City’s Under Marshal thanks to his practice of extorting thieves and their victims (it’s thought he may have taught Wild the craft), was then working as a thief-taker.

Wild apparently took to the new role with fervour for when Hitchen was reappointed to his post as Under Marshal, Wild parted from his company and continued his work as a thief-taker, opening his own office in the Blue Boar Tavern in Little Old Bailey.

Wild’s method of operation was simple enough – he would organise thieves to steal items and then, when it was announced that said items were stolen, claimed to have found them and would return them to the rightful owners for a “reward”. At the same time, he’d often also aid the police by bringing to justice thieves from rival gangs (including Hitchen’s, for they were now rivals) or those of his own gang who had crossed him – and in all his dealings manage to keep at arm’s length from the actual business of stealing and receiving.

By 1718, Wild – who wore a sword as a sign of his authority and had pretensions of being a “squire” – was calling himself the “Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland”. It’s said that more than 60 thieves were sent to the gallows on the back of his testimony including the prolific housebreaker (and jail escapee) Jack Sheppard and his associate Joseph “Blueskin” Blake (who almost succeeded in killing Wild while he was awaiting trial).

Wild’s pursuit of Sheppard was the beginning of his own downfall (although authorities had as early as 1717 passed an Act of Parliament aimed squarely at ending his criminal enterprise, it seemed to have had little effect, at least initially). Sheppard’s demise had been unpopular with the masses and the press of the day – and in February 1725, Wild himself was arrested for assisting in the jailbreak of one of his gang members. Other members of the gang turned against him and eventually, in May that same year, he was sentenced to death for the theft of lace.

Having unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself by drinking laudanum before his execution, Wild was hanged at Tyburn on 24th May before a large and raucous crowd which apparently included an 18-year-old Henry Fielding.

Wild was buried in secret in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church next to his third wife (and one of his many lovers), Elizabeth Mann (she had died in 1718 and he apparently married another woman shortly after). His body was later reported to have been dug up and eventually, following the recovery of a body with a hairy chest from the Thames which was identified as being Wild’s, a skeleton said to have been his was donated to the Royal College of Surgeons (it’s now on display in the Hunterian Museum).

The subject of numerous articles, books and ballads, Wild’s story has been since told numerous times and for varying purposes. Among them are Daniel Defoe’s True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild, published in 1725, Henry’s Fielding’s ironic The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), and John Gay and John Rich’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) which features the character Peachum, said to have been based on Wild.

PICTURE: From “Ticket to the Hanging of Jonathan Wild”/Wikimedia Commons

To read more about Jonathan Wild, see Gerald Howson’s Thief-taker General: The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild.

Originally a postern (small or secondary) gate built by the Romans, Moorgate came into its own as a larger gate in the 15th century and survived for more than 300 years before it was demolished in 1761.

The name comes from the area in which it stands – Moorfields, one of the last open pieces of space within the City of London – stood just to the north of the gate. It was originally a sparsely populated marshy expanse – so much so that when the gate was first built, the area around it was often flooded and some local residents used boats as a means of transport – but was later drained. Many people were evacuated here during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and some apparently then settled in the area which later also gained a reputation as a hiding place for highwaymen like Jack Sheppard – we’ll take a closer look at Moorfields in a later post.

The gate known as Moorgate, meanwhile, was first rebuilt as a full sized gate with towers in 1415 on the orders of then Mayor Thomas Falconer to provide access to the fields without. It was enlarged several times in medieval years before being damaged in the Great Fire. It was replaced with a ceremonial stone gate in 1672 to provide access to the now well-drained fields before being demolished in 1761 (some of the stone was apparently later used to support the newly widened central arch of London Bridge).

The gate’s name now lives on in the street known as Moorgate (originally formally known as Moorgate Street after it was first constructed in 1846) – worth noting is that the Romantic poet John Keats was born in the street. The area around the street also is also known by the name Moorgate and is home to some of the City’s key financial institutions.

There’s a plaque near where the site of Moorgate once stood at the corner of Moorgate and London Wall.

PICTURE: Moorgate in its final, ornate form. Taken from a London Wall Walk plaque.

The most notorious of London’s many prisons, Newgate remained in use for more than 700 years.

The prison – located on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey on the site of what is now London’s Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey thanks to its position on the street known as Old Bailey) – was apparently first constructed around the end of the 1100s on the orders of King Henry II at the site of one of the gates in the Roman wall (see picture).

It was enlarged and renovated several times over the ensuing centuries (including a complete rebuilding after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and another to the design of George Dance after the prison was badly damaged during the Gordon Riots of 1780, sparked by opposition to Catholic emancipation).

The prison, which was infamous for the squalid conditions in which prisoners were housed, was used for a range of purposes including housing debtors and the incarceration of people awaiting execution (by the 18th century, it’s said that more than 350 crimes had become punishable by death).

In 1783 public executions were moved from Tyburn, west of the city, to a site just outside the prison. In 1868, executions were no longer open to the public at large and the gallows moved inside. The prison closed in 1902 and was eventually demolished in 1904.

Famous prisoners who spent time in Newgate include Shakespeare’ contemporary Ben Jonson (for killing a man in a duel), 17th century author Daniel Defoe (for his authorship of political pamphlets), Captain William Kidd (for piracy), and William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania (for contempt of court during a case brought after he was accused of having illegally preached ).

But perhaps the most infamous is the 18th century criminal Jack Sheppard, known for having escaped from the prison several times before finally being hanged at Tyburn (close to where Marble Arch now stands).

The only surviving part of the prison in its original location is part of the prison wall which can be seen in Amen Corner.

PICTURE: Wikipedia.com