November 28, 2016
We reintroduce an old favourite this month with our first ‘Where’s London’s oldest’ in a few years. And to kick it off, we’re looking at one of London’s oldest public clocks.
Hanging off the facade of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street is a clock which is believed to have been the first public clock to be erected in London which bears a minute hand.
The work of clockmaker Thomas Harris, the clock was first installed on the medieval church in 1671 – it has been suggested it was commissioned to celebrate the church’s survival during the Great Fire of London and was installed to replace an earlier clock which had been scorched in the fire. Its design was apparently inspired by a clock which had once been on Old St Paul’s Cathedral and was destroyed in the fire.
Like the clock it replaced, this clock sat in brackets and projected out into Fleet Street which meant it was able to be seen from a fair distance away (and being double-sided meant the black dials could be seen from both the east and the west). Like the Roman numerals that decorate it, the two hands, including the famous minute hand, are gold.
To the rear and above the clock dials are located the bells and striking mechanism. The bells are struck on the hours and the quarters by ‘automata’ – Herculean figures, perhaps representing Gog and Magog (although to most they were traditionally simply known as the ‘Giants of St Dunstan’s’), who do so using clubs and turn their heads.
Such was the attention these figures attracted that when the clock was first installed the area became notorious for pick-pockets who apparently went to work on unsuspecting passersby who had stopped to watch the giants at work.
This church was demolished in the early 1800s to allow the widening of Fleet Street and when it was rebuilt in 1830, the clock was absent. Having decided it couldn’t be accommodated in the new design, it had been auctioned off with the art collector, Francis Seymour-Conway, the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, the successful bidder.
He had it installed on his Decimus Burton-designed villa in Regent’s Park and there it remained until 1935 when Lord Rothermere, who had bought the villa in 1930, returned it to the church to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V.
There are numerous literary references to the clock including in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield and a William Cowper poem.
November 13, 2013
OK, so the debate may continue over whether Sweeney Todd was an actual person (according to author Peter Haining, the real Todd, born in Brick Lane, is supposed to have been hanged in 1802) or a fictional character, but, suspending that debate for the moment, we’re including the infamous Fleet Street barber in this list.
Known as the “demon barber of Fleet Street”, Todd first appeared in literature as a murderer in the Victorian serial, The String of Pearls: A Romance, published in a weekly periodical, and soon became a staple of the Victorian theatre, later appearing in numerous plays and films including the 2007 Johnny Depp vehicle, Sweeney Todd.
His MO usually involved cutting his unsuspecting victim’s throat and then, using a specially constructed barber’s chair, dropping the body into the cellar. There, he and his associate, Mrs Lovett, would rob them (alternatively, other versions have him dropping the customers into the cellar first and then, if needed, finishing them off).
Mrs Lovett would then dispose of the remains by baking them into pies and selling them via her pie shop located nearby in Bell Yard. The story goes that the cellar was linked to nearby Bell Yard via tunnels.
Sweeney Todd was supposed to have terrorised London in the late 18th century and his barber shop was apparently located at 186 Fleet Street in London – right next to St Dunstan-in-the-West. The site is now occupied by a former newspaper office – that of the Dundee Courier (pictured above, left).
For Peter Haining’s book on Sweeney Todd, see Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
December 10, 2012
Regular watchers of London’s Lord Mayor’s Show parade will be familiar with the two giants Gog and Magog who for centuries have been an integral part of the procession. But just who are the two stern figures who strike fear into the hearts of all they pass (well, perhaps not so much the fear)?
While the names Gog and Magog appear several times in different contexts in the Bible came t0 epitomise the enemies of God, legend has it that the Gog and Magog seen in this context were leaders of a race of giants who inhabited Britain in times of prehistory.
Defeated by Brutus, a descendent of the Trojan Aeneas and the founder of London and first king of Britain, they were then chained to the gate of his palace which stood on the site of where Guildhall – home of the City of London Corporation – now stands.
Seen as guardians of the City of London, figures of the giants have been carried in the Lord Mayor’s Show – the annual procession surrounding the election of the new Lord Mayor – since as far back as the reign of King Henry V (originally made of ‘wickerwork and pasteboard’, they were later replaced with wooden ones).
The seven foot high wicker versions of the giants which are now carried in the parade were donated by the Worshipful Company of Basketweavers in 2006 (pictured here in the 2010 parade) and are the just latest in a series of effigies and statues of the two giants which have been associated with Guildhall.
These include pair of nine foot high limewood statues of the giants which currently stand in Guildhall – carved in 1953 by David Evans, they replaced two earlier, 14 foot high oak versions made by Richard Saunders in the early 1700s which were destroyed in the Blitz during World War II. They, in turn, were created to replace earlier papier mache versions.
As well as being found in numerous cities around the world, figures of the two giants also famously feature as the clock’s bell ringers on the facade of the Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street. The clock, incidentally, was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand.
August 24, 2012
A mythical figure from early Britain, King Lud is said to have been a pre-Roman king of Britain who rebuilt London (which according to legend had been originally founded by the exiled Trojan Brutus) and from whom London derives its name.
Lud is said by some to have given his name to the gateway known as Ludgate (although others say it comes from an Old English term meaning swing or postern gate – see our earlier post here for more on Ludgate).
This series of badly weathered statues – depicting King Lud and his two sons, apparently named Androgeus and Theomantius – was originally located on the gate. In fact, the legend goes, the king was buried under it.
Following the gate’s demolition, the statues – said to date from 1586 with the name of the sculptor now lost to time – were moved here at some point to the vestry porch of St Dunstan-in-the West in Fleet Street.
London is redolent with sites which appeared in the books of Charles Dickens and, having had a look at his life, it’s time we turn our attention to some of the sites relevant to his writing. For the next two weeks, we’re looking at just a few of the many, many sites which feature in his novels. So, here’s seven places to get us going…
• Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell. Once a notorious slum akin to St Giles (see last week’s entry) and the city’s Italian Quarter, Saffron Hill is where Fagin and his gang of thieves operate in Oliver Twist and have their den.
• Chancery Lane, Holborn. Much of the novel Bleak House is set around this narrow street between High Holborn and Fleet Street – Tom Jarndyce kills himself in a coffee shop here in the novel and Lincoln’s Inn Hall – formerly home of the High Court of Chancery – also features.
• The Old Bailey. Some have suggested Dickens worked here as a court reporter although there is no compelling evidence he did so. But the the Old Bailey (the current building dates from the early 20th century, well after Dickens’ death) and Newgate Prison certainly featured in his books – it is here that Fagin is eventually hung in Oliver Twist.
• Child & Co’s Bank, Fleet Street. While the present building dates from 1878, Dickens is believed to have used the bank as the model for Tellson’s Bank in A Tale of Two Cities.
• St Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street. In David Copperfield, David and his aunt, Betsy Trotwood, make a special trip to see the giants Gog and Magog strike the church bells. It also features in Barnaby Rudge and Dickens dedicated his Christmas story, The Chimes, to the church.
• Garden Court and Fountain Court (pictured), Middle Temple. Garden Court is where Pip lived in Great Expectations and where Abel Magwitch turned up to reveal himself as Pip’s benefactor. Fountain Court features in Martin Chuzzlewit as the site for the romance of Ruth Pinch and John Westlock.
• Golden Square, Soho. Mentioned in Nicholas Nickleby – Nicholas’ uncle, Ralph Nickleby, was thought to live in a previous building at number seven.
There’s some great books about London sites which appear in Dickens’ books – among them are Ed Glinert’s Literary London: A Street by Street Exploration of the Capital’s Literary Heritage and Michael Paterson’s Inside Dickens’ London as well as Paul Kenneth Garner’s
A Walk Through Charles Dickens’ London.
December 2, 2011
We’re launching a new ‘Lost London’ special looking at some of the now disappeared gates of London. First up is Ludgate which once stood on the western side of the city.
The gate is believed to have been constructed in Roman times and is known to have been rebuilt a several times – once in 1215 and another time after it was destroyed in the Great Fire – before being demolished in 1760 to allow for the road to be widened.
The origins of the name – which is today commemorated in street names like Ludgate Hill and Ludgate Circus – are sketchy but may have been named after the mythical pre-Roman King Lud, who was, so the legend goes, buried underneath this portal (this myth was popularised by the 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth). Others have suggested ‘lud’ is a corruption of ‘flud’ or ‘flood’ and the gate was so named because it prevented the city being flooded by the River Fleet. Another possibility is that ‘lud’ is simply an old English word for a postern gate, a small secondary gate.
Whatever the origins of its name, it has been suggested it was through Ludgate that William the Conqueror passed when first entering the city. In 1377 it became a prison for petty criminals like debtors and trespassers – serious criminals were sent to Newgate – and this lasted until its final destruction.
There is a blue plaque on the wall of the church of St Martin-within-Ludgate in Ludgate Hill marking where Ludgate once stood (pictured above). It is believed that some badly corroded statues standing under a porch at the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street are of Lud and his sons and were taken down from the gate before its demolition. William Kerwin’s statue of Queen Elizabeth I which dates from 1586 sits in a niche on the front of the church is also believed to have been removed from Ludgate.
May 23, 2011
It’s generally believed that London’s oldest outdoor statue is that of King Alfred the Great which stands in Trinity Church Square in Southwark but there are a few others worth mentioning for their age.
But first, to the statue of Alfred the Great. Located now in Trinity Church Square, it is thought to have been made in the late 14th century (although it’s also suggested it could be much younger) in honor of the man who ruled Wessex in the 9th century and is often credited as being the first “king of the English”.
The statue (right) was apparently located at the Palace of Westminster before it was brought to its present location in 1823 at about the time the square was being laid out.
Others among London’s oldest statues is that of King Charles I sitting astride his horse and looking from Whitehall from its position on the southern side of Trafalgar Square.
Credited as being London’s “oldest equestrian bronze”, this statue is the work of French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur and was cast in 1633 (during King Charles I’s rule) at the behest of Richard Weston, one of the king’s favorites, who that year became the 1st Earl of Portland.
It was removed during the Civil War but later reacquired by the Portland family and, following the Restoration, was reinstalled on its current site – once that of the Charing Cross (see our previous entry for more details) – in 1675 by King Charles II.
Another of London’s oldest statues is that of Queen Elizabeth I which stands on the facade of the church St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street. This statue, which has been attributed to William Kerwin although other names have also been suggested, dates from 1586 (created during her reign) and decorated the west side of Ludgate until its demolition in 1760, after which it was apparently put into storage until being brought to the church in the 19th century.
Standing nearby in the vestry porch as statues of the legendary pre-Roman British king, Lud, and his sons, Androgeus and Tenvantius, which were also removed from Ludgate and probably date from the same period (about 1586).
November 1, 2010
Renowned around the world for its associations with journalism (not to be mention, it’s desirability as a Monopoly property), the origins of Fleet Street’s name go back to a river which still runs through London today.
The River Fleet (the name Fleet is believed to come from a Saxon word, fleot, which means ‘flood’) these days actually runs under London, flowing from Hampstead Heath in the city’s north via sewers to spill into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge.
A significant river in Roman times, by the medieval period the river had become polluted, thanks to the growth of industry along its banks. After the Great Fire of 1666, it was converted into the New Canal but this rather quickly fell out of use and sections of the river were covered for various urban projects from the 1730s onwards (the final sections, near the headwaters, were apparently covered in the 1870s).
Fleet Street, which takes its name from the river, has been known as such since medieval times and along its length, which runs east from where The Strand ends at Temple Bar to Ludgate Circus, is the location of a number of significant properties – from the Temple, formerly the property of the Knights Templar and now site of two Inns of Court, through to St Bride’s Church, St Dunstan-in-the-West and several old taverns, including Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
The street’s association with publishing goes back to the early 1500s when Wynkyn de Worde, apprentice to William Caxton, set up shop there and other printers and publishers followed. London’t first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was published there from 1702 and the street subsequently became home to many national newspapers (the press in the UK is still referred to as ‘Fleet Street’ although these days no newspapers are based there – the last media outlet, Reuters, moved out in 2005).
There have recently been suggestions that the river Fleet could once again be uncovered as part of a bid to revitalise London’s “lost” waterways.