PutneyThis south-west London Thames-side district (and the bridge named after it), traces the origin of its name back to Saxon times.

Putney2Recorded in the Domesday Book as Putelei and known in the Middle Ages as Puttenhuthe, it apparently goes back to a Saxon named Puttan who lived in the area and the Old English word ‘hyp’, which means ‘landing place’. Hence, “Puttan’s landing place” (or Puttan’s wharf).

Putney has something of a storied history – it was the birthplace of Tudor heavyweight Thomas Cromwell, Georgian-era author Edward Gibbon and it was here, in the still-standing parish church of St Mary the Virgin (pictured), that the Putney Debates were held in 1647 among members of the New Model Army.

The first bridge was apparently built here in the first half of the 18th century and the present stone bridge in the 1880s.

Today a sought-after riverside residential district, Putney boasts a sizeable high street, great riverside pubs and eateries and is particularly popular every April when The Boat Race is held between Oxford and Cambridge universities thanks to the starting point being just upstream of Putney Bridge.

The area also is home to the 400 acre Putney Heath (which adjoins Wimbledon Common), a popular site for duels in the 18th century, and also home to a stone and brick obelisk, erected in 1770 to mark the 110th anniversary of the Great Fire of London (more on that in an upcoming post).

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This curiously named area in London’s east – located outside the medieval walls – is named for a priory and hospital founded here in the late 12th century.

The Priory and Hospital of Blessed Mary without Bishopsgate (more commonly known as St Mary Spital), was founded by London citizen Walter Brunus and his wife Roisia (both later said to have been buried before the chapel’s high altar), possibly along with other Londoners, in 1197 (although the priory was apparently “refounded” in 1235 when the church was moved).

An Augustinian institution, it also housed what became one of the largest hospitals in England – as well as caring for pilgrims, widows and the infirm poor, it is said to have provided care for pregnant women and the young children of those who died in childbirth – and the site of a large cemetery.

The hospital survived until the reign of King Henry VIII (although apparently barely with the church said to have been in some disrepair by this time) when it fell prey to Thomas Cromwell and his agents in the Dissolution. It was closed in 1539.

The church and most of the buildings were subsequently demolished with part of the area subsequently used as an artillery ground under the jurisdiction of the Tower of London (the area of the inner priory, meanwhile, reverted to the Crown and retained its status outside the jurisdiction of local authorities, known as the Liberty of Norton Folgate).

But the name remained in use for the suburb which had started to appear around the priory and on its former lands (Spitalfields) and in the seventeenth century a market was established here which ensured its longevity. For more on Old (and New) Spitalfields Market and the area’s later history, see our previous post here.

Major excavations were carried out at the priory cemetery between 1991 and 2007 when more than 10,500 skeletons were unearthed. More than 5,000 of these were analysed providing archaeologists with considerable insight into medieval burials. The remains of a charnel house, dating from about 1320, which was once part of the cemetery still exist in Bishop’s Square.

For more, check out Christopher Thomas’ Life and Death in London’s East End: 2000 Years at Spitalfields.

And so we come to the last entry in our special series on Lost London looking at some of London’s gates – this time the only gate located on the south side of the Thames.

Located at the south end of London Bridge, this gate guarded the bridge entry in medieval times. When the first gate was built here remains something of a mystery but it is known that the first stone bridge, built in the late 1100s under the direction of priest Peter de Colechurch (it opened in 1209), certainly included a gatehouse known as the Stone Gateway (referred to by some as Bridge Gate) at the southern end.

The practice of parboiling the heads of traitors and the dipping them in tar before putting them on pikes above the gate apparently dates from 1305 when Scottish rebel William Wallace’s head was displayed there. The practice apparently continued until 1678 when goldsmith William Stayley’s head was the last to be displayed there.

As we mentioned in our earlier post on London Bridge, famous heads to adorn the gateway over the years included Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, rebel Jack Cade in 1450, the former chancellor Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, Thomas Cromwell in 1540 and Guy Fawkes in 1606.

Pictured above is an enlarged detail of a 1616 print showing London Bridge by Claes Van Visscher – the heads are clearly visible on top. One German visitor famously counted 30 heads on top when he visited in 1598.

The gate (and it should be mentioned there was also another gate on the bridge with a drawbridge which was replaced by Nonsuch House in 1577) was presumably removed sometime after 1756 when an Act of Parliament authorised the removal of shops and houses on the bridge.

Of course, there are many other gates in London – some of them smaller gates in the city walls – which have been lost to time. We’ll be looking at some more of these in future posts…

PICTURE: Wikipedia

Nestled on Tower Hill, somewhat overshadowed by the monumental memorial to the merchant naval casualities of World War I and II nearby, lay a series of plaques commemorating more than 125 people who were executed there.

The plaques, which stand on the site of the former scaffold, list the names of some of the most prominent who died there including Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was beheaded by an angry mob during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, and former chancellor Sir Thomas More – both of whom were executed in 1535 on the orders of King Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell, another chancellor who fell foul of King Henry VIII and was executed in 1540.

Later executions include William Laud, another Archbishop of Canterbury who was executed in 1645, James, Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of King Charles II who was executed in 1685, and Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who became the last man to be executed there in 1747 (and the last man in England to be beheaded) after his capture following the Battle of Culloden in Scotland.

An inscription at the site reads that the memorial was created to “commemorate the tragic history and in many cases the martyrdom of those who for the sake of their faith, country or ideals staked their lives and lost”.

It’s worth noting that contrary to popular belief only 10 people were ever executed on Tower Green inside the Tower of London including two of King Henry VIII’s queens – Anne Boelyn (1536) and Catherine Howard (1542) – as well as the tragically young Lady Jane Grey, queen for only nine days before she was beheaded in 1554, and three Black Watch soldiers who were shot in 1743 after being charged with mutiny.

Lost London – London Bridge

December 14, 2010

In the first of a new regular series looking at “lost” London, Exploring London takes a look at London Bridge.

It’s a commonly confused fact that many first-time visitors to London think Tower Bridge and London Bridge are the same. As Londoners know, London Bridge (pictured right with St Paul’s and the city in the background) lies west of Tower Bridge. It’s not a particularly inspiring bridge having been built in the early Seventies. But there’s been a bridge spanning the Thames here for almost 2,000 years. So what happened to Old London Bridge?

The first bridge built across the River Thames on or close to the current site of London Bridge is thought to have been a wooden pontoon bridge constructed by the Romans around 50 AD. It was quickly followed by a more permanent bridge (rebuilt after it was destroyed by Boudicca and her marauding army in 60 AD).

Following the end of the Roman era, the bridge fell into disrepair although it’s known that there was a wooden Saxon bridge on the site by around the year 1,000. A succession of Norman bridges followed the Conquest and in 1176, during the reign of Henry II, construction of a new stone bridge began under the supervision of the priest Peter de Colechurch to service to growing numbers of pilgrims travelling from London to Thomas a Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. The new bridge, which had a chapel dedicated to St Thomas at the centre, wasn’t finished until 1209.

The bridge had 19 arches sitting on piers surrounding by protective wooden ‘starlings’ and a drawbridge and defensive gatehouse. The design of the bridge meant the water shot rapidly through the arches, leading boatmen to describe the practice of taking a vessel between the starlings as “shooting the bridge”.

King John, in whose reign the bridge was completed, licensed the building of houses on the bridge and it soon became a place of business with some 200 shops built upon its length, many of them projecting over the sides and reducing the space for traffic to just four metres. Many of the buildings actually connected at the top, creating a tunnel-like effect.

One of the more remarkable buildings on the bridge was Nonsuch House, built in 1577. A prefabricated building, it had been assembled in the Netherlands before being taken apart, shipped to London, and then reassembled. No nails were used in its construction, just timber pegs.

The practice of putting the heads of traitors on pikes above the southern gatehouse (see picture right, dating from 1660) started in 1305 with Scottish rebel William Wallace’s head and continued until it was stopped after 1678 when goldsmith William Stayley’s head was the last to be displayed there. Famous heads to adorn the gateway over the years included Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, rebel Jack Cade in 1450, the former chancellor Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, Thomas Cromwell in 1540 and Guy Fawkes in 1606.

Some of the bridge’s arches collapsed over the years and had to be restored and there were several fires which destroyed houses upon it, including those which occurred during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450.

Congestion reached such a state by the 18th century that in 1756 Parliament passed an act which allowed for the demolition of all the shops and houses upon it (it had remained the only bridge spanning the Thames east of Kingston until Westminster Bridge was completed in 1750). This was carried out in 1758-62 along with the removal of two central arches which were replaced with a single wider span.

With traffic only increasing – by 1896, 8,000 people and 900 vehicles were reportedly crossing the bridge every hour – it was clear a new bridge was needed and work on a new stone bridge with five arches – following a design competition won by John Rennie – began in 1824. The old bridge, located about 30 metres east of the new one, remained in use until the new one was opened in 1831. Widening work carried out the early 20th century, however, was too much for the bridge’s foundations and it began to sink.

What followed was one of the strangest episodes in the bridge’s history when in 1967 the Common Council of the City of London decided to sell the bridge. It was sold the following year to Missourian entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for $US2.5 million.

Carefully taken apart piece by piece, the bridge was then transported to the desert resort of Lake Havasu City in Arizona in the US and rededicated in 1971.

The current London bridge, designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, was built from 1967 to 1972 and opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. It stands on the same site as the previous bridge.

As for the song, “London Bridge is falling down”? There’s several stories to explain its origins – one being that it came about as the result of an attack by a joint force of Saxons and Vikings on Danish held London in 1014 during which they pulled the bridge down, and another being that it became popular after Henry III’s wife, Queen Eleanor, was granted the tolls from the bridge by her husband but instead of spending them on maintenance, used it for her own personal use. Hence, “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady”.

PICTURES: Top: © Steven Allan (istockphoto.com); Bottom – London Bridge (1616) by Claes Van Visscher. SOURCE: Wikipedia.