There’s several candidates for this title – NatWest Tower, built in 1980, has been described as London’s first “genuine” skyscraper (we’ll deal with that in our current special) but we’re looking back to earlier times (after all, the term first started to be used in the 1880s) when candidates included 55 Broadway in Westminster.

Once the tallest office building in London, 55 Broadway was constructed in 1927-29 as the headquarters of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (which later became London Transport and then Transport for London). The building contains the St James’s Park Underground Station which is one of the most intact of the early underground stations.

Designed by Charles Holden (also noted for his design of the University of London’s Senate House and war cemeteries in Belgium and France) , the 14 storey Art Deco building is cruciform in plan to maximise street views and the amount of light entering each office as well as to ensure that the bulk of the building’s tower didn’t overwhelm the surrounding streetscapes (and to ensure the building complied with the then current building height restrictions).

The building, the design of which was influenced by US architecture, is made from a steel frame encased on concrete and faced in Portland stone. Based on a two storey pedestal which covers the entire site, the spur wings around the tower rise a further five storeys above the base while the tower itself rises 53.3 metres (175 foot).

Internally, the building features bronze and marble decoration and what was a state-of-the-art system known as a Cutler mailing chute to send letters around the building.

Of special note are the many sculptures which adorn the building, described as a “showcase of pre-Second World War British sculpture”.

Among them are two Jacob Epstein sculptures representing ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ and eight figurative reliefs representing the winds for each cardinal point, the work of sculptors led by Eric Gill and also including Eric Aumonier, Alfred Gerrard, Samuel Rabonovitch, Allan Wyon and Henry Moore (it was his first public commission).

The sculptures proved somewhat controversial at time particularly due to Epstein’s depiction of ‘Day’ featuring a nude male – Ezra Pound famously said Epstein was contributing to a “cult of ugliness”. And while this sculpture eventually had his manhood truncated slightly following the outcry, the sculptures were otherwise left untouched.

Holden won the RIBA London Architecture Medal for the building which received Grade I-listing in 2011 (it had earlier been Grade II listed), partly due to its being London’s first ‘skyscraper’ and a building which “heralded the epoch of tall steel-framed office buildings”.

The building was damaged during the Blitz but remains largely intact. There are now plans to convert the building to luxury apartments although at present Transport for London continue to use the building.

PICTURES: Top – Epstein’s ‘Night’ – One of the less controversial sculptures adorning the building (Loz Pycock (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0))/Right – The mass of 55 Broadway with the controversial (and altered) sculpture of ‘Day’ (David Adams).

Note: The original article said 55 Broadway was once the tallest building but should have, of course, said tallest office building. St Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building until 1967. The building was also damaged during the Blitz but apparently not by a flying bomb.


OK, this is an unusual one – a TV show instead of a person, but given it’s 30 years this month since the last episode was broadcast on 28th January, 1988, we thought we’d pause to remember a landmark couple of TV series.

Yes Minister, which starred Paul Eddington as the hapless newly-elevated first time government minister Jim Hacker, first aired on BBC on 25th February, 1980.

The show centred on the trials and tribulations of Mr Hacker as he tried to bring about the sort of changes he had dreamed about as a candidate, opposed by an obstructionist civil service – in particular the Permanent Secretary to the Minister for Administrative Affairs, Sir Humphrey Appleby (played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne). Caught between the two – with loyalties to both – was Mr Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds.

While the Houses of Parliament (pictured above) are shown as a drawing on the opening credits, the action rarely moves to the House of Commons but largely takes place in Mr Hacker’s Whitehall office and other offices and private clubs in the Westminster area under the premise that it’s behind the scenes where the real work of politics does (or doesn’t) get done.

The show was famous for almost always finishing with Sir Humphrey muttering those immortal words “Yes, Minister”, even as he has thwarted another of the minister’s plans.

Three series of seven episodes were made which ran until 1984 (there were also two Christmas specials) . A follow-up series, Yes Prime Minister, first aired in 1986 and centred once again on Jim Hacker, this time following his elevation to the role of PM. Sir Humphrey continued to be a thorn in his side.

The show, which was also adapted for radio, won several BAFTAs and was said to be a favourite of British PM Margaret Thatcher. It was later made into a stage play and this in turn lead to a “revival” series being produced.

The show has been referenced numerous times in popular culture as well as real-life politics – Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was a fan and even Humphrey, a former Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, was named after Sir Humphrey.

PICTURE: Jamie Street/Unsplash


The moniker of this Soho street owes its origins to the Greek Orthodox Church – London’s first – which was built in the area following an influx of Greeks in the 17th century.

The street was laid out in the 1670-80s and along with taverns, coffee houses and tradesmen’s workshops, also had some aristocratic tenants such as the 5th Earl of Anglesey. Casanova stayed in the street when visiting in 1764 and writer Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium-Eater, also lodged here temporarily.

Other tenants have included Josiah Wedgwood who had a warehouse and showrooms here from 1774 to 1797. Number 1, the House of St Barnabas, was once the home of twice Lord Mayor of London, William Beckford, and also the location where Sir Joseph Bazalgette commenced work on designing the city’s famed sewer system (it was then the offices of the Westminster Commissioners Sewers). It’s now a private members club.

The church, meanwhile, was soon taken over by the French Protestants who came into the area and eventually demolished in 1936. A remnant of the church, an inscription which was once embedded in the wall of the church, was salvaged and apparently taken to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Sophia in Bayswater.

Current premises based in the street include pubs like the Pillars of Hercules (number 7) and Coach and Horses (number 29) as well as establishments such as The Gay Hussar restaurant (number 2) and French patisserie Maison Bertaux (number 28).

Located at 39 Dartmouth Street – between St James’s Park and Parliament Square, this pub is understood to be the oldest in Westminster and dates from at least 1729.

The name is fair self-explanatory – it refers to the two men needed to carry a sedan chair which wealthy patrons would use for transportation about the city (and save their dainty feet from the muddiness of the streets). There’s a picture of two chairmen at work in the bar.

This pub, which was rebuilt in the mid-18th century, was apparently a hub where sedan chair carriers would wait for their next fare – its location opposite the Royal Cockpit Theatre, a cockfighting arena, meant it was well-suited for that purpose. There’s a suggestion that the cry used to attract carriers – ‘Chair ho!’ – is where the word of greeting ‘Cheerio’ came from.

Its proximity to the Houses of Parliament meant the Grade II-listed pub has also seen its fair share of politicians over the years.

Original features include the ornate fireplaces, oak beams and a mural on the back wall.

Now part of the Greene King chain. For more, follow this link.

PICTURE: RedJulianG40 licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0

PICTURE: Hala AlGhanim/Unsplash

And so the day has finally arrived. Following its usual bonging at midday today, the famous bell nick-named Big Ben has now controversially fallen silent as what have been described as “critical” conservation works are carried out.

How long the 13.7 tonne bell, which sits at the top of Elizabeth Tower (formerly known as the Clock Tower) at the northern end of the Palace of Westminster (also known as the Houses of Parliament) and is officially known as the “Great Bell”, will be silent remains something of a mystery.

Following uproar over the initial announcement that the bell would be silent for four years (until 2021), officials have now said that the plan will now be reviewed. There have also been claims that the bell will continue to toll for significance events such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve (Conservative MPs also reportedly want the bell to toll as the UK leaves the EU on 29th March, 2019).

It should be noted that while the mechanism which strikes the bell will be stopped from doing so during works to protect the ears of those working on it, the clock faces on the tower will continue to show the time.

The giant bell, which was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, went into action on 11th July, 1859, and has been bonging almost continually since. It apparently stopped for two years during World War I for fears it would attract Zeppelins to the site and was silent during the funerals of former PMs Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. It was last silent in 2007 when maintenance was carried out.

PICTURE: Athena/Unsplash




Yes, this is a rather odd one but it was 140 years ago this month that, on the 10th April, 1877, 14-year-old acrobat Rossa Matilda Pitcher (stage name Zazel), became the world’s first “human cannonball”.

‘Zazel’ was launched into the air by a special ‘cannon’ – invented by Canadian William Leonard Hunt (aka ‘The Great Farini, he was a famous tightrope walker), it used rubber springs to propel the person forward – in an event at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster.

She apparently flew some 6.1 metres before landing in a net.

Zazel later went on to perform in PT Barnum’s circus but sadly, in 1891 she was forced to retire after an accident in New Mexico during which, thanks to a net mishap, she landed badly and broke her back.

It’s worth noting that there is another claimant to the title of first human cannonball – some accounts have the “Australian Marvels”, a couple named Ella Zuila and George Loyal, first performing such an act in Sydney in 1872 (which, if true, would predate Zazel). Guinness World Records, however, has awarded the title to Zazel.

The Royal Aquarium, meanwhile, opened in 1876 in Tothill Street, west of Westminster Abbey, and was demolished in 1903 (we’ll look at its further in an upcoming Lost London post).

PICTURE: Via British Library/Public domain

the-albert2This pub’s name isn’t too mysterious – it is, of course, named after Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria, and given the date on which the building that now occupies the site was built – between 1862 and 1867, nor is the motivation to name it so – Prince Albert died on 14th December, 1861, leaving a bereft queen and a nation in mourning.

There had been a pub on this site at 52 Victoria Street prior to the current building – it was called The Blue Coat Boy and named after the nearby Blue Coat school – but in the mid-19th century the Artillery Brewery, which was located next door, bought the premises and renamed it.

The four storey building, which is now Grade II-listed (and dwarfed by the glass towers surrounding it), survived the Blitz and is the only building remaining from the first phase of the development of Victoria Street (and redevelopment of the area which had been a slum known as Devil’s Acre), only a stone’s throw from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Inside, the Victorian features include ornate ceilings and hand-etched frosted windows and wrought iron balconies. Also of note is the Prime Minister’s gallery – including some who were patrons here – as well as memorabilia including a House of Commons Division Bell and one of Queen Victoria’s napkins.

For more, see

PICTURE: Patche99z/Wikimedia

the-coal-holeThis pub’s name is fairly self-explanatorily related to coal but there’s a couple of different versions floating around as to why.

One story, mentioned on the pub’s website, says the name comes from the legend that the pub occupies the space which once contained the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel – not a great leap given its location on the corner of Carting Lane and the Strand, with the Savoy Hotel just behind.

The other is that it takes its name from the “coal heavers” – men who moved coal – who worked nearby on the River Thames. Again, not too much of a stretch.

Which-ever is true (or maybe both), the current Grade II-listed building at 91-92 Strand dates from just after the turn of the 19th century and, according to a plaque on the property, was apparently briefly known as as the New Strand Wine Lodge.

During Edwardian times it was apparently a ‘song and supper’ club where patrons were encouraged to sing (something like the karaoke bars of today).

Gilbert and Sullivan apparently regularly performed here regularly during Edwardian times and the great Shakespearean thespian, Edmund Keane, apparently started the Wolf Club – ostensibly “for oppressed husbands forbidden to sing in the bath” but apparently as a pretence for considerably more debauched activities – in the basement.

Now part of the Nicholson’s chain. For more, see

PICTURE: Ewan Munro/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped

LondonLife – Rooftop view…

September 27, 2016


Looking across the roof of the National Gallery past Nelson’s Column to Westminster. PICTURE: London & Partners.

To look at it, you wouldn’t necessarily imagine the memorial marking the former site of the ‘Tyburn Tree’ near Marble Arch was part of the English Heritage Blue Plaques scheme. 

Tyburn-Tree2But, located on the ground on a traffic island at the junction of Edgware and Bayswater Roads, this memorial commemorating the site of the former gallows at what was once London’s execution grounds (and those who died upon it) is just that.

It’s estimated by some that as many as 60,000 people may have been executed here over the 600 years until the late 1700s

While the plaque only mentions one of the names by which the various gallows erected here were known – Tyburn being the name of the village originally here, others included ‘The Elms’, the ‘The Deadly Never Green Tree’ and the ‘Triple Tree’, the latter presumably a reference to the famous three-sided gallows set up here during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The last gallows was removed in 1759 when executions were moved into Newgate Prison (for more on the Tyburn Tree, see our earlier post here).

The plaque was erected on the site in 1964 by the London County Council; it replaced an earlier triangular plaque the council had erected here in 1909.

The memorial was restored and rededicated in a ceremony in 2014 with the placement of three oak trees around it (this picture was taken before the restoration).

There is a green City of Westminster plaque nearby which commemorates 105 Roman Catholic martyrs who lost their lives on the gallows between 1535 and 1681 while the deaths of the more than 350 Roman Catholics who died across England and Wales during the Reformation, including those on the Tyburn Tree, are also recalled in a shrine at the nearby Tyburn Convent.

The origins of the name of this pub apparently lie in something of a mistake (well, sort of).

St-Stephens-TavernLocated at 10 Bridge Street on the corner of Canon Row – just across the road from the clock tower at the north end of the Houses of Parliament, its name apparently lies in mistaken belief that the tower was named St Stephen’s Tower.

It never was, at least not officially. Prior to recently being renamed the Elizabeth Tower – in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne, the tower, which contains the bell known as Big Ben, was simply known as the Clock Tower (another common error has been to call the tower itself Big Ben).

The name St Stephen’s Tower apparently was the fault of Victorian journalists. They had the habit of referring to stories relating to the goings-on in the House of Commons as “news from St Stephen’s” because MPs, prior to the destructive fire of 1834, used to sit in St Stephen’s Hall (the entrance to the hall can be found down the road opposite Westminster Abbey).

Hence we have St Stephen’s Tavern, a favoured watering hole of many politicians – including apparently PMs Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold MacMillan.

The pub has been around since at least Victorian times – it was demolished in 1868 when Westminster tube station being built and rebuilt a few years later. In 1924, the pub was expanded to take over the Queen’s Head next door.

It closed in the late 1980s but was reopened in 2003 with many of the original fittings restored. These include one of only 200 parliamentary division bells, located above the bar, which calls MPs back to parliament when it’s time for them to vote (tourists apparently often think it’s a fire alarm and flee when it goes off).

For more, see

PICTURE: Ewan Munro/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 (image cropped)


The Houses of Parliament in the early morning light. For more on their history, see our earlier post here.

Bloody-TowerIt was in February, 1616 – 400 years ago this year – that the adventurer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh (Ralegh) was released from the Tower of London where he had spent the last 13 years of his life. Sadly, his freedom was to be short-lived.

Raleigh had been imprisoned in 1603 by King James I – not his biggest fan – after being accused of plotting against the king and subsequently sentenced to death for treason (a sentence which was then commuted to life imprisonment).

The Tower, where he’d been imprisoned a couple of times before – most notably by Queen Elizabeth I for secretly marrying Bessy Throckmorton, one of her maids-of-honour, was to be his home for the next 13 years.

It was in Bloody Tower (in left of picture) that his rather luxurious ‘cell’ was located. Originally known as the Garden Tower, it was renamed for the tradition that the two ‘Princes in the Tower’, King Edward V and his brother Richard, had been murdered here in 1483.

The tower’s top floor was added specifically to provide more room for his family in 1605-06 (and Raleigh’s son Carew was conceived and born while he was imprisoned here). It was also during this time of imprisonment that he wrote his History of the World (published in 1614).

Raleigh was released in 1616 to lead an expedition to the New World – he’d previously been on a couple of expeditions there including one with his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert aimed at finding the Northwest Passage (but which deteriorated into privateering and led to his brief imprisonment following his return to England), and one aimed at finding the legendary ‘golden land’ of El Dorado (which he failed to do). It was again with the purpose of finding gold that he now returned to the Orinoco River region of South America.

Failure, however, was once more the outcome, and on Raleigh’s return to England, the death sentence issued on 1603 was reimposed (for his failure but also for attacking the Spanish in defiance of the king’s instructions to specifically not do so, although the blame was not all his). He would be executed in Old Palace Yard at Westminster on 29th October, 1618.

2016 is fast approaching and to celebrate, we’re looking back at the 10 most popular posts we published in 2015. Today, we present our most popular and second most popular articles posted this year…

London-Bridge-chapel2. Our second most popular article, posted in August, was another in our Lost London series and this time looked at a long-lost feature of Old London Bridge – Lost London – Chapel of St Thomas á Becket.

1. And we are finally there – the most popular of our posts published this year was run in conjunction with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Part of our LondonLife series, it took a look inside King Henry V’s rarely opened chantry chapel in Westminster Abbey – LondonLife – A rare glimpse inside King Henry V’s chantry chapel.

Well, not so much a battle as a widespread civil insurrection, the Gordon Riots, often described as the worst riots London has ever seen, resulted in considerable property destruction and numerous deaths.

Houses-of-Parliament10The riots, which took place against a backdrop of high taxation, widespread poverty, and unjust laws, had its origin in the passing of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 which intended to reduce entrenched discrimination against Roman Catholics in Britain and redress some of anti-Catholic laws which had been introduced 80 years earlier, partly in an attempt to get more Catholics to join the British Army to fight against the United States of America in what’s now known as the War of Independence.

While it initially passed without any real hostility, an attempt to extend the Act’s provisions to Scotland in 1779 provoked such a serious response there that the action was withdrawn. Following the Scottish success in having the provisions withdrawn, the Protestant Association of London was founded with the aim of spear-heading opposition to the act’s provisions. Lord George Gordon was elected president of the newly formed Protestant Association of London in November of that year.

Following failed attempts to have King George III repeal the Act (Lord Gordon had several audiences with the King but failed to convince him of his case and was eventually banned from His Majesty’s presence), on 2nd June, 1780, Gordon and the members of the association marched on the Houses of Parliament (pictured above although the current buildings date from much later than these events) to deliver a petition demanding the Act be repealed.

They crowd, estimated to have been as big as 60,000 strong although a figure in the mid-40,000s is generally accepted, attempted unsuccessfully to force their way into the House of Commons before Lord Gordon, wearing a blue cockade (the symbol of the Protestant Association in his hat) was granted access to deliver the document.

Outside, meanwhile, things went from bad to worse and the crowd erupted into rioting, attacking members of the House of Lords, including bishops, as they attempted to enter and damaging carriages (including that of Lord Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield). Soldiers were eventually summoned to quell the riot which they did without violence. Inside, the members of the House of Commons voted down the petition by an overwhelming majority.

That night violence flared up again with the Roman Catholic Sardinian Embassy Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields set alight while the chapel of the Bavarian Embassy in Golden Square, Soho, was destroyed and random violence carried out in streets known to be the residence of wealthy Catholics.

The next day, a crowd gathered in Moorfields – known to be home to many poor Irish Catholic immigrants – and that night attacked many homes.

The violence spread over the following days and among the buildings attacked was Newgate Prison (which was set on fire), the Fleet Prison, and the Clink in Southwark – hundreds of prisoners escaped – as well as Catholic churches, more embassy chapels, homes of known Catholics and politicians who had been associated with the passing of the act (including that of Lord Mansfield and Sir George Savile, who had proposed the Catholic Relief Act) and the Bank of England (the attack on the bank led to the long-standing tradition of soldiers guarding the bank).

Without a standing police force to tackle the mobs, on 7th June the army was called out with orders to fire on groups of four or larger who refused to disperse. In the next few days, well over 200 people (possibly more than 300) were shot dead and hundreds more wounded. Hundreds of the rioters were arrested and, of those, about 25 eventually executed. Gordon himself was arrested and charged with high treason but found not guilty.

Sam-MarksHundreds gathered at Westminster Abbey last Thursday for a service to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt – 600 years to the day when word of the battle’s victory arrived in London. During the service, the sword of King Henry V – who was buried in the abbey and whose chantry chapel is located above his tomb (see our earlier post here) – was carried through the abbey and presented to the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, at the High Altar (pictured below). “A hundred years ago, as our countrymen fought alongside the French, the old enmities had been put away,” Rev Dr Hall told those at the service who included the Duke of Kent and Princess Michael of Kent. “In the dark days before the Second World War, the story of Agincourt encouraged men and women alike to strive their utmost for freedom from tyranny. Today we give hearty thanks for our freedoms, and we pray for an end to tyranny wherever it is found, and for enduring peace and prosperity.” Royal Shakespeare Company actor Sam Marks read the St Crispin’s Day speech from the Bard’s Henry the Fifth (pictured above) while veteran of the stage and screen, Robert Hardy, read the prologue from Act IV of the same play. For more on abbey, visit  PICTURES: Ian Stratton/Westminster Abbey.


Kensington-Palace• Join the Georgian Queen Caroline for a garden party in the grounds of Kensington Palace this weekend. The Georgian Court will be taking to the palace gardens for a summer celebration featuring music, military drills and theatre as they bring the era to life. Visitors are encouraged to immerse themselves in the experience as a courtier with the gardens decked out in a range of tents where they can try out costumes and powdered wigs as well as learn court etiquette, swordplay and dancing while the ice-house will feature Georgian ice-cream (and it’s rather odd flavours such as parmesan). Runs from tomorrow until Sunday. Admission charges apply (under 16s go free with a maximum of six children per paying adult). For more, see PICTURE: ©Historic Royal Palaces

First created in 1923, a playground in Victoria Tower Gardens – newly named the Horseferry Playground – has been reopened after improvement works. The works, carried out under the management of Royal Parks, have seen the reintroduction of a sandpit as well as the installation of new swings and slide, dance chimes and a stare play installation to represent the River Thames. The playground, located close to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, also features a series of timber horse sculptures, new seating and a refreshment kiosk with metal railings designed by artist Chris Campbell depicting events such as the Great Fire of London and Lord Nelson’s funeral barge and views of the River Thames. The project has also seen the Spicer Memorial, commemorating role of paper merchant and philanthropist Henry Spicer in the establishment of the playground – then just a large sandpit, restored. For more, see

Now On – A Dickens Whodunnit: Solving the Mystery of Edwin Drood. This temporary exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury explores the legacy of Dickens’ final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left unfinished after his death in 1870. Visitors are able to investigate crime scenes, search for murder clues and see the table on which the novel was penned as well as clips from theatrical adaptations, and a wealth of theories on ‘whodunit’. The exhibition runs until 11th November. Admission charge applies. For more, see

Send all items for inclusion to

Famous for its associations with London’s theatreland, Drury Lane takes its name from the Drury family who once owned a mansion here.

Drury-LanePreviously known as the Via de Aldwych (apparently for a stone monument the Aldwych Cross which stood at the street’s northern end), Drury Lane – which runs between High Holborn and Aldwych – was renamed after Drury House which was built at the southern end of the street.

Some accounts suggest it was Sir Robert Drury (1456-1535), an MP and lawyer, who built the property around 1500; others say it was his son, Sir William Drury, also an MP and a Privy Councillor, who did so  in around 1600 – which may mean there were two versions of the one property.

The street, meanwhile, is said to have been briefly renamed Prince’s Street during the reign of King James I (1603-1625) but, following the Restoration in 1660, the name Drury once more gained supremacy.

The origins of the street’s famous theatre (London’s oldest), the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, dates from the same year (see our earlier post here). Other theatres in the street included the Cockpit Theatre which had been designed at one stage by Inigo Jones.

The street is also famous for being the site of the worst outbreak of the plague in London – the Great Plague of 1665, burned away the following year by the Great Fire – and by the 18th century was a slum noted for its seediness, in particular for prostitution (it features in William Hogarth’s work The Harlot’s Progress).

This didn’t change until the second half of the 19th century – author Charles Dickens had been among others who had commented on the poverty he had seen there – when gentrification took hold. Among the shops opened there during this time was the first Sainsbury’s, founded at number 173 in 1869.

Alongside the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (although the main entrance is in Catherine Street), other theatres in the street today include the New London Theatre and the London Theatre.

Houses-of-Parliament2 Both Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (these days better known as the Houses of Parliament – pictured) pre-date 1215 but unlike today in 1215 the upon which they stood was known as Thorney Island.

Formed by two branches of the Tyburn River as they ran down to the River Thames, Thorney Island (a small, marshy island apparently named for the thorny plants which once grew there) filled the space between them and the Thames (and remained so until the Tyburn’s branches were covered over).

One branch entered the Thames in what is now Whitehall, just to the north of where Westminster Bridge; another apparently to the south of the abbey, along the route of what is now Great College Street. (Yet another branch apparently entered the river near Vauxhall Bridge).

The abbey’s origins go back to Saxon times when what was initially a small church – apparently named after St Peter – was built on the site. By 960AD it had become a Benedictine monastery and, lying west of what was then the Saxon city in Lundenwic, it become known as the “west minster” (St Paul’s, in the city, was known as “east minster”) and a royal church.

The origins of the Palace of Westminster don’t go back quite as far but it was the Dane King Canute, who ruled from 1016 to 1035, who was the first king to build a palace here. It apparently burnt down but was subsequently rebuilt by King Edward the Confessor as part of a grand new palace-abbey complex.

For it was King Edward, of course, who also built the first grand version of Westminster Abbey, a project he started soon after his accession in 1042. It was consecrated in 1065, a year before his death and he was buried there the following year (his bones still lie inside the shrine which was created during the reign of King Henry III when he was undertaking a major rebuild of the minster).

Old Palace Yard dates from Edward’s rebuild – it connected his palace with his new abbey – while New Palace Yard, which lies at the north end of Westminster Hall, was named ‘new’ when it was constructed with the hall by King William II (William Rufus) in the late 11th century.

Westminster gained an important boost in becoming the pre-eminent seat of government in the kingdom when King Henry II established a secondary treasury here (the main treasury had traditionally been in Winchester, the old capital in Saxon times) and established the law courts in Westminster Hall.

King John, meanwhile, followed his father in helping to establish London as the centre of government and moved the Exchequer here. He also followed the tradition, by then well-established, by being crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1199 and it was also in the abbey that he married his second wife, Isabella, daughter of Count of Angouleme, the following year.