Category Archives: London History

1723 – A London Year

During recent years the news has been coming thick and fast. Covid, Ukraine, political turmoil in this country with three Prime Ministers in a single year, inflation and the resulting cost of living crisis. Can 2023 be any better?

Based on the experience of recent years, it would be rather foolish to try and predict what will happen during the coming year, so I thought that for the first post of 2023, I would go back 300 years and look at what would happen in London during 1723. What was life like for Londoners, what could we have expected to see on the streets, what were the key events?

Using newspapers published during 1723, I have compiled a month by month review of events in the city. We will find books with titles such as “The Fifteen Plagues of Coffee and Tea“, we will discover the “Atterbury Plot”, meet “a notorious Strumpet and Procuress about Town” and also “Swangy Peggy“, look at trade in the Port of London, disease, illnesses and medical treatment, crime and punishment, how you could be imprisoned for the wrong words, and the strange sights to be seen across the city’s streets.

King George I was the monarch, Robert Walpole was the Whig Prime Minister. The artist Sir Joshua Reynolds was born in 1723, as was the Scottish economist Adam Smith who would go on to write The Wealth of Nations.

Apart from actions against Pirates in the Caribbean, the country does not seem to have been at war.

The starting point for a review of 1723 – a London year, will be:

January 1723

On January the 1st “was preached the Anniversary Sermon to the Societies for Reformation of Manners at the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow, by the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Gloucester; at which were present, the Lord Mayor, Sir Francis Forbes, Alderman, and also the Bishops of Sarum, Litchfield and Coventry, Carlisle, Peterborough and Bristol, with upwards of twenty of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the County of Middlesex and Liberty of Westminster, and a considerable number of Reverend Clergy.”

Executions were a theme of the year. They were frequent, with Tyburn being one of the main sites, as described here: “Edmund Neal and William Pincher, who were condemned last Sessions for Robbing on the Highway, were executed at Tyburn.”

Such was the number of executions, that when there was a sessions period with no convictions it was considered news: “Tis remarkable that since the last Sessions, no Person has been committed to Newgate for the Highway, or any other Capital Crime, except a Woman for the Murder of her Bastard Child.”

One person sentenced to execution even had bets placed on whether the sentence would be carried out. We will come across this person a number of times during the year: “Several considerable wagers are again laid concerning Mr. Layer, some affirming that he will have a farther Respite, others, that sentence will be executed in him the 19th instant.”

The zoo at the Tower of London claimed a victim in January: “An Apprentice to Mr. Ushall, a Taylor in Bridges Street, Covent Garden, lies ill of some wounds he received from one of the Lyons in the Tower.”

Caroline of Ansbach was the Princess of Wales as she was married to the King’s son, the future George II. They lived in Leicester House, which was on the northern edge of what is now Leicester Square, which was mentioned in this report: “Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales expecting to be brought to Bed about the latter end of this Month or the Beginning of the next, all the Servants appointed to attend her Royal Highness at that juncture, are taken into Leicester House.”

The Princess of Wales gave birth to a daughter, Mary, who would go on to marry Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. The marriage would not be a good one due to the abuse Mary suffered from Frederick. They would separate and Mary would continue to live in Germany, then Denmark.

1723 was not a good year to be heard criticising the King: “This Day, Mr. Ogden was tryed at Hicks Hall for Cursing the King, which was plainly proved, but some of the Evidence deposed that he had been very much in Drink, and that he was esteemed a Person very well affected to His Majesty, and often drank his Health. The Jury, after a short delay, brought him in guilty.”

In an article a week later it was recorded that Mr. Ogden has been “fined £50 and 3 months imprisonment”.

February 1723

Another example of why it was not a good idea to say anything bad about the King and Queen, or mention the “Pretender” (James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, who claimed the throne for the Stuart line): “This Day, Mr. Cotton, was try’d at the King’s Bench for saying. ‘The Picture of the Pretender’s Wife, was the Picture of the Queen of England’; the Evidence against him was Mr. Pears, one of the King’s Messengers. The Jury brought in not Guilty.”

February 1723 saw the founding of one of the companies that would supply water to the growing city: “His Majesty has been please to order Letters Patents to be passed under the Great Seal of Great Britain, for incorporating the Governor and Company of Chelsea Water Works, pursuant to an Act of Parliament passed last Sessions, for supplying the City and Liberty of Westminster and Parts adjacent, with Water. And the said Undertakers are preparing Machines, and beginning to erect the said Works with all Diligence and Speed.”

A strange sight in one of London’s parks: “On Tuesday last a Soldier belonging to the Third regiment of Guards, was whipped in St. James’s Park and received 300 Lashes for acting as Assistant to a Bailiff, having his Regimental Clothes on. And on Friday he underwent the same Punishment again, and was afterwards drummed out of the Regiment.”

In 1723, convicts could be sentenced for transportation, and whilst Australia is normally assumed to be the destination, convicts could also be transported to the Americas, as this report demonstrates: “Yesterday Morning 40 Felons, convict were put on board a close Lighter at Black Fryers Stairs from Newgate, in order to be transported to Maryland.”

Sir Christopher Wren died in February 1723. Coverage of his death in newspapers at the time was rather brief: “Yesterday about Noon dy’d Sir Christopher Wren, aged about 92; he was formerly Surveyor General of the King’s Works; he built St. Paul’s Church, and all the Rest of the Churches since the great Conflagration.”

Newspaper’s in 1723 published lists of new books that had just been published, under the heading of “This Day is Published”. The list for one week in February 1723 has some rather strange titles and subjects:

The London Bawd, and the Character of a Common Whore; with her subtle and various intrigues to delude innocent youth into Hellish Snares. Written by one that hath been a Sufferer, and now makes this Publick for the Benefit of Youth that go up to London, or distant from their Friends, by way of Advice. Printed for the good of the Publick, and Sold by Booksellers of London and Westminster and by the Printers. Price Bound 8d.

The Ladies Golden Key: or a Companion for Men of Sense. Written by a Person of Quality. Price 3d.

The Parson and his Maid, a Tale. To which is added, Venus enraged, a Poem. Price two pence.

The Country’s Misfortune: Or the Cuckoldy Yeoman. With several delightful Poems to put away melancholy Thoughts of honest Men. Price Three Pence.

The Fifteen Plagues of Coffee and Tea, with a Female’s Satyr on Thin Bread and Butter. Written by a young Gentlewoman, who brought the Green Sickness upon her by Drinking those dull Liquors. Price Two Pence.”

Scientific and technical advances were being made, and put on display in London: “There is a new invention of a strange kind of Machine for Ploughing of Ground. The Work is performed by one Man, and without Horses; it is rekoned an extraordinary Piece of Ingenuity, and a great Number of Artists and Persons of Quality have been to see it. It is now at the Golden Ball at Hyde Park Corner.”

March 1723

To start the month of March, a report on one of the many strange sights to be seen in London in 1723 – “Last Monday Morning, one Brittain, a Widow in Milford Lane, was married to a Brewer’s servant at the Church of St. Clement Danes, who being advised, went to the Church Door without any other Apparel on besides her bare Smock, to the great Surprise and Sport of a numerous Crowd of Spectators. It seems, by this means, she thinks herself exempted from paying any debts contracted by her former Husband. At the Church Door her intended Spouse took her in his Arms, and carrying her to an Apothecary’s House over against the said Church, new clothed her completely; after which the Nuptials were solemnized.”

There was a rather public spirited Will, where: “One Mr. Rice, a Solicitor of Furnival’s Inn, who latterly died, has bequeathed £500 toward paying the National Debts. He owes it but a Mite; but he does it to set a good example”.

There was also another example of the horrific sentences handed out: “Last Saturday Night, the Session ended at the Old Baily, when the three following Malefactors received sentence of Death, viz. William Sommerfield and Willim Bourk for the Highway, and one Frost for stealing a Horse from the Post Boy belonging to the Post Master of Sevenoak. Two were burnt in the Hand, viz one for Manslaughter, and one for Felony, and several others were ordered for Transportation.”

The Justice Hall in the Old Baily as it would have appeared in 1723 (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Old Bailey in 1723

In the first months of 1723, there had been many newspaper reports regarding a Mr. Christopher Layer and Francis Atterbury, the Bishop of Rochester. Both men were being held in the Tower of London following a plot in 1722 which aimed to restore the House of Stuart with “the Old Pretender” James Francis Edward Stuart, who was exiled in Rome as King.

The plot appears to have been the main political story of 1723.

The plot was exposed and Layer and the Bishop of Rochester were both held in the Tower and questioned as to their involvement and coconspirators. The plot was named the Atterbury Plot after the Bishop of Rochester, however although he seems to have played the leading role in the plot, it was Layer who suffered more.

“Layer, at his Examination before the Lords of the Council, confessed that being in Discourse with Lord Orrery, that Lord Orrery said that nothing would relieve the Nation, but a Restoration; and that he would be glad he could contribute to bring it about; that it must be done by Foreign Forces.

Lord Orrery told him, the Regent might be brought to wink at anything, but was too perfidious, that he was not to be trusted, and that the French had made a Tool of the Pretender.

Layer confirmed to the Committee upon his Examination in the Tower, that Lord Orrery declared himself constantly of Opinion, that nothing could be done to any Purpose in the Pretender’s Favour, without Foreign Forces.

The Council took under Consideration a Report, and revealed a destructive and horrid Conspiracy had been formed and carried on by Persons of Figure and Distinction, and their Agents in Conjunction with Traitors abroad, for Invading the Kingdom, with Foreign Forces and raising a Rebellion at Home; for seizing the Tower and the City of London; for laying violent Hands on his Sacred Majesty and the Prince in order to subvert our happy Establishment, by placing a Popish Pretender upon the Throne.”

The report states that in his examination, Layer tried to prevaricate and suppress the truth and conceal the conspiracy, however the examination of those involved in the Atterbury Plot did find other possible conspirators, including one John Plunket, and Parliament had the following rather ominous vote: “It was ordered in a Division, 289 against 130, that a Bill be brought in to inflict certain Pains and Penalties on the said John Plunket.

We will find out what happened to Christopher Layer in a couple of months time.

April 1723

Given that the sentence of highway robbery was usually death, there is a surprising number of these crimes reported, for example “Last night between 8 and 9 a-Clock, a Hackney Coach returning to Town from Maidenhead, having a gentleman and two gentlewomen in it, was set upon a little beyond Tyburn by two Highwaymen, who robbed them of a considerable Sum of Money, two Gold Watches, and one Silver Watch.”

As well as highway robbery, in 1723 London was a very dangerous place where fatal accidents were a common occurrence, such as this tragic example “A sad Accident happened in Gray’s Inn Lane, where a Cart passing along, was stopped by some Gentlemen, who endeavoured to kiss a Woman that was in it with a Child; but in the Struggle, the Woman’s Arm was broke, and the Child falling from the Cart was run over and killed.”

In April 1723 there was an interesting example of fire fighting techniques in use at the time: “On Monday Morning, early, a Chimney at Leicester House was observed to be on Fire, and the Wind being very high, the Flames spread and threatened farther Mischief; so that the Prince got out of Bed, and ordered some of the Soldiers on Guard to be admitted in, to fire their Pieces up the Chimney; which they did accordingly, and within ten or a dozen Discharges, removed all Apprehensions of Danger, and his Highness gave them five Guineas.”

By the standards of today, the sights to be seen in London 300 years ago were often just bizarre and awful, such as this example from Hyde Park: “Yesterday, pursuant to his Sentence, the Deserter who was condemned by a late Court Martial, was shot in Hyde Park. He was conducted from the Parade to the Place of Execution by his whole Regiment (the Second of the Guards) with the Earl of Albermarle at the Head of them, and was at once made an End of, twelve Soldiers firing upon him together.”

Rumours of trouble on the international stage has always caused problems for the London Stock Exchange, and in April 1723 there was an example, when: “Last Thursday there was a Letter from Malaga, with pretended Advices that the Marquis de Lede was marching along the Coasts with some Spanish Troops as though they had formed a Design against Gibraltar. This Stockjobbing News had the Effect that the public Stocks fell considerably.”

May 1723

In May 1723, we find out what happened to Christopher Layer:

“Yesterday, about one a Clock, Christopher Layer was executed at Tyburn, pursuant to his sentence for High-treason. The Sheriffs having demanded him of the proper Officer of the Tower, he was delivered up accordingly; his Fetters being knocked off, he was carryed under a Guard of Warders and Soldiers through the little Guard-room, over the Draw-bridge to the wharf, from whence he walked to Iron Gate, near St Katherine’s, in the County of Middlesex, where he was received by the Sheriffs Officers, and carryed upon a Sledge drawn by 5 horses, to the place of Execution, where he was attended by the Rev. Mr. Hawkins and the Rev. Mr. Berryman, who assisted him in his Devotions.

The populace on this occasion was very numerous, many Scaffolds were erected in the Way, for the Advantage of the Spectators, some of which were broke down, by which Accident many were bruised. At the Place of Execution, he behaved himself with great Composure of Mind, and seemed very unshaken, frequently affecting a Smile, nor did he appear shock’d even in the Article of Death. He had in the Cart with him some Gentleman who were his friends, to one of whom he gave a paper, and another to the Under-Sheriff.

Silence being made among the People, in Expectation of his making some Speech to the Company, he in some measure disappointed them, only saying that he had left behind him in Writing, the true Principles of his Religion, that Religion in which he died and that he hoped no Body would publish any Thing injurious to his Fame, and Reputation after he was dead, and that the good people of England might expect, but expect in vain, to see happy and flourishing Days in Great-Britain, till the fortunate Hour was come, that they saw a certain Person was brought over into the Nation amongst us.

Afterwards his Head was severed from his body, and sent to Newgate to be prepared in order to be fixed up this day at Temple-Bar, but his quarters were delivered to his Friends, who put them in a Hearse, and brought them round about Kinsington to Mr. Purdy’s, an undertaker in Stanhope-street, Clare-Market, who had them sewed together, in order to be interred in Cambridgeshire. His whole Deportment, both in his Passage and at the Place of Execution, was manly and intrepid.”

A broadsheet from 1723 showing Christopher Layer and recording his life and character (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Christopher Layer

June 1723

In June 1723 “The Anniversary of the happy Restoration of King Charles II, and the Royal Family, was celebrated here with the usual Solemnity.”

In 1711 an Act of Parliament established the “Commission for Building Fify New Churches”. This was a response to the growing population of London, and how London was expanding to areas where there were no, or very few, churches to serve the population. The Commission never achieved the total number of fifty, but in 1723 progress was being made on a couple of the churches: “The Commissioners for Building the Fifty New Churches, met on Monday last at their Office in Palace Yard, and agreed to the Proposals from Plumbers, Joyners, &c. for finishing two more of them, viz. that of St. Mary Woolnoth in Lombard Street, and that in Hanover Square. And we hear that the £20,000 in the Treasury raised for building the said Churches is to be applied to finish these two, and the two others at Deptford and in the Strand”.

St. Mary Woolnoth was not really a new church, rather a rebuilding of an existing church. The church in Hanover Square is St. George’s. The church in Deptford is St. Paul’s and in the Strand is St. Mary-le-Strand.

Coffee seems to have been a popular drink in London in 1723, however: “Tis remarkable, that there is much more Coffee sold here in Town than the Quantity fairly imported.”

Also, in London in June 1723: “We hear that an Information has been given against one Larchin, a notorious Strumpet and Procuress about Town, for decoying several Servant Maids from their Masters, in order to become Prostitutes.”

Although Christopher Lavery was executed for treason for his part in the Atterbury Plot, Francis Atterbury, the Bishop of Rochester was given a more lenient sentence as he was banished from the country, and in June: “There’s Advice that on Friday morning last, the late Bishop of Rochester landed at Calais, and will set out in a few days to the Austrian Netherlands. The Opinion of some People is so hard against the Gentleman, as to think when he is in Foreign parts, will change his Religion, although he mentions in his speech before the Lords, that he had wrote and preached, from his infancy in Defence of Martin Luther, and declares with the strongest Asseveration, that he will burn at the Stake, rather than depart from any one material Point of Protestant Religion, as professed in the Church of England.”

On June 15th, the Bishop of Rochester’s possessions were sold, raising almost £5,000, which appears to have be retained by the State.

July 1723

Newspapers carried reports of the goods that were imported and exported through the London Docks. For the period of the 13th to the 25th of July, 56 ships arrived in the Port of London carry goods and the following tables lists the goods imported, and from where:

Goods imported into London in 1723

Interesting that the majority of London trade appears to have been with Europe, with Holland being a major source of imports into the country. I assume the ports to the west of the country such as Bristol and Liverpool dealt with trade to and from the Americas and the rest of the world.

I had intended to run through all these and list what many of these goods were, as some of the names are not obvious, however I ran out of time. Perhaps a subject for a future post to look at early 18th century imports and exports through the Port of London.

The Custom House in the City would have played a key part in ensuring the appropriate customs were paid on imported goods (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

The Custom House in 1723

August 1723

The “South Sea Bubble” was an event that took place in 1720 when the share price of the South Sea Company rocketed to very high levels before collapsing. This caused severe problems within London’s financial markets and caused a number of bankruptcies among the owners of shares in the company. An investigation into the collapse found that there was widespread fraud, and that many of the Directors of the company were involved in fraud. The Directors were sacked, and received heavy financial penalties, and in August 1723 it was reported that: “The several Appraisers employed by the Trustees of the Forfeited Estates of the late South-Sea-Directors, are now paid off; and we are assured that some of their Bills amounted to Five Hundred Pound each.”

However the South Sea Company was still trading, and would continue to do so for many years, as also in August 1723: “The South Sea Company’s Warehouses are at present full of our Woollen Manufacturers, to be sent on board their Assiento Ship, now fitting out at Blackwall.”

The mention of the South Sea Company’s warehouses being full of woollen products was not a one-off as woollen products were a considerable export from London. Tables in the papers of imports and exports also included a special table dedicated to woolen products, and between the 13th and 21st of August 1723, the following were exported from London:

Exported woolen goods

Whilst some of these products have recognizable names, I have no idea what many of them are, for example a Perpet or a Minikin Bay in the first two lines of exports. What is clear though is that a considerable volume of woollen products were being exported through the London docks in 1723.

The statue of Charles I, which still stands in Trafalgar Square, was, in August 1723: “The Pedestal on which stands the statue of King Charles the First on Horseback at Charing Cross is repairing and beautifying at the Expense of the Government, and will be defended for the future by a Wall, breast high, with Iron Rails upon it.”

Fallout from the Atterbury Plot was causing concern within the City of London due to the impact it had on the freedom of the individual with the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the ability of the Government to imprison the individual at will: “The detestable Conspiracy which occasions the present Suspension, having been discovered and signified to the City of London, about Five months since, and diverse imprisoned for a considerable time past, we cannot conceive it to be highly unreasonable to suppose that the danger of this plot, in the hands of a Faithful and Diligent Ministry, will continue for a Year or more yet to come; and that in to high a degree, as to require suspension of the Liberty of the Subject (for so we take it to be) during all that Time.

His Majesty having not visited his Dominions Abroad these two last years, will very probably leave the Kingdon the next Spring to that End, in which case, this Great Power of Suspecting and Imprisoning the Subject at Will, and detaining them in Prison till the 24tgh of October 1723; and for as much longer time, till they can after that take the benefit of Habeas Corpus (if they can still do it at all).

September 1723

London in 1723 was an unhealthy city. A considerable range of disease and illness stalked the densely populated streets, and death rates were high. The churchyards and crypts of the city’s churches were not pleasant places as they were frequently overcrowded with burials

Medical care was rudimentary at best, even for the wealthy, and for the poor was almost non-existent.

Childbirth was a dangerous time for women and babies, and the death rate for young children was very high.

The following table is the Bill of Mortality for the period from August 27th to September 10th, 1723 and shows the numbers and causes of death.

Bills of Mortality

Many of the causes of death are recognisable today, however there are many strange causes. I wrote a post examining Bills of Mortality and the meaning of many of these names in this post.

In the same period, there were the following casulties in addition to the above:

  • 3 – Drowned in the River Thames at St. Paul at Shadwell
  • 2 – Found dead at St. Margaret Westminster
  • 1 – Murdered at St. Olave in Southwark
  • 1 – Broken Leg
  • 6 – Overlaid

In the same period there were 735 Christenings, 1466 Burials, and the increase in burials over the previous period was 29.

October 1723

The military had a significant presence in London during 1723, probably due to the perceived threat of a Jacobite rebellion, and plots such as that by Atterbury, the Bishop of Rochester. It must have been common to see soldiers on the streets, and there are many reports of soldiers getting into fights. There was a large military encampment in Hyde Park, as reported: “Yesterday the Right Honourable Earl Cadogan was present in Hyde Park and saw the Grenadiers perform an exercise of throwing Grenades. the Cavalry there decamp next Monday, but the Infantry are to hut, and the Artillery is to remain with them.”

As well as Hyde Park, temporary quarters were required across the city, and in October the following was issued, which cannot have been very popular: “On Tuesday, a Warrant was sent to the High Constable of the City and Liberty of Westminster, requiring him to order his Petty Constables to make a Return of all the Inn-keepers in the said Liberty, for the Horse Guards to quarter in their Inns.”

London seems to have been a rather tense place to be if you were not seen to be loyal to the King and Government, for example: “A gentleman of the Temple being under Apprehensions of a Visit from some of his Majesty’s Messengers, borrowed a horse of a friend for the day, under pretence of going out one Afternoon to take the Air, but has not thought fit to return since. A Brother of his, who had not to much presence of Mind, is seized with his papers.”

The various plots against the King, whether real or not, the crime of speaking out against the King and similar crimes led to a number of people being imprisoned in the Tower for Treason, and investigations would include their family, so: “We hear that the Lady of Counsellor Leare, now Prisoner for High Treason in the Tower has been seized coming from France, being ignorant of the Fate of her Husband, and having about her several Letters of great Consequence.”, and;

“On Thursday morning last, the Right Honourable Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery, one of her late Majesty’s Privy Council and Knight of the most ancient Order of the Thistle, being brought to Town in Custody, from his Seat at Brittel in Buckinghamshire, was the same Evening examined before a Committee of Lords at the Council at the Cock Pit, and ordered to be confined in his own house, with a Guard of 30 soldiers; and last Night, being examined again, his Lordship was, between 10 and 11 o’Clock, committed to the Tower, under a Guard of Centinels.”

The Tower of London as it would have appeared in 1723 (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

The Tower of London in 1723

November 1723

The things you would see across the streets of London in 1723 are so very different to today, and there are plenty of examples in the newspapers of 1723, such as the following from November: “The Company of Surgeons having a Warrant for receiving the Body of one of the Malefactors that were executed on Wednesday last at Tyburn; the Mob happened to be appraised of it, and assembling together in a riotous manner, carried it off, and afterwards begged Money about the Streets, in order to give it, as they pretended, a decent Interment, but when they had finished their Collection, they flung the Body at Night over the Wall into the Savoy Church Yard. Next Day the Officers of the Parish sent to the Surgeons to know if they would have him, intending otherwise to bury him there.” This was one of three executions carried out at Tyburn on the same day.

In the early 18th century, travelers had problems with overcharging when they travelled along the river or the street, with Watermen and Coachmen using a number of tricks to overcharge. There were regulations to prevent this, and in November; “A Hackney Coachman was committed to Newgate by the Commissioners for Licensing Hackney Coaches and Chairs, till such time as he pays the Fine imposed on him for demanding more than his Fare.”

Medical care in 1723 was very basic, and many treatments were still in their infancy. Dropsy was the name given to the condition whereby excess fluid in the soft tissues of the body would cause swellings. The treatment in 1723 would be to “tap” the infected area where a metal tube was inserted into the body in an attempt to drain off the fluid. A process which could take several days, but was not that successful as shown by this report; “Last night died Sir Thomas Palmer, Bart. at his lodgings in Bow Street, Covent Garden, of the Dropsy, after he had been tapped the Day before for the same; he was member of Parliament for Rochester in Kent.”

Small Pox killed a large number of Londoners during the early 18th century, and prevention would have to wait until after 1796 when Edward Jenner discovered how to create and administer a Small Pox Vaccine. Prior to Jenner’s discovery, a method called “variolation” was used, where people who had not had the disease were exposed to material from smallpox sores from those infected. This method had limited success as this report tells: “We are informed, that the eldest son of Mr. A’Court, member of Parliament for Hatchbury, is dead of the inoculated Small Pox; but Miss Rolt, a young Lady of great Fortune, who was also inoculated is happily recovered, though with the utmost Hazard of her Life.”

Londoners were also frequently informed of the strange medical events taking place across the country. These reports probably had some grain of truth, but had been exaggerated many times, so for example, in November 1723, Londoners would read; “They write from Devizes in Wiltshire, that a Tradesman’s Wife of that place, after a Labour of 4 Days, was delivered of a Monster, which has one Body by two Breasts, an Head of an exorbitant size the Eyes distorted, two Teeth, a flat appearance of a Face in the Nape of a Neck four Arms, Hands, Legs and Feet, with 6 fingers and toes on each. But what is most remarkable is, that the side to which the Face pointed, was Male, the other Female; The Male had nails upon the fingers and Toes, which the Female had not.”

Londoners could also look up to the night sky in November 1723, and see “the Comet so much spoken of, was seen plainly on Monday Night last, notwithstanding it was the Opinion of the Persons skilled in Astronomy, it would have disappeared some Time ago.”

But be careful when looking up as you could fall victim to this type of crime; “A Woman of the Town who goes by the Name of Swangy Peggy, was last Tuesday Night committed to the Compter for picking a Gentleman’s Pocket of 50 Guineas.”

December 1723

A consequence of the Port of London being a key part of the city’s commercial activities were the many reports in newspapers covering shipping bound for London, and the frequent loss of a ship, so in December 1723 we find examples such as “The Phoenix, Captain Olding, bound from Petersburg to London was latterly lost near Yarmouth.” and: “The Fyfield, Captain Swinsen, bound from South Carolina to London was drove ashore on Wednesday last near Margate, and lost. The men were all saved, but Captain Swinsen , stepping into the boat, unfortunately fell into the sea, and was drowned.”

There were a number of charitable institutions across the wider London area that took in elderly people, however they usually had strict criteria covering who could benefit, so in December 1723, the Trustees of Sir John Morden’s College in Blackheath were “about to increase the Number of Pensioners on that Foundation: None but decayed Merchants who are 50 year of age, and Communicants in the Church of England are capable of being admitted.”

The Catholic threat to the monarchy was in the background throughout 1723. There was an expectation that Catholics would swear an oath of loyalty to the King and the country, however there were many ways to get around this, as this report explained: “We are informed that divers Papists and others, who had resolutely determined not to take the Oaths, have been personated in several of the Courts, by their Agents, who have Sworn, in the Name of the said Papists, &c recorded, as though they actually complied with the Terms of the late Act of Parliament.”

As today, foreign ambassadors were based in London, where they could interact with the Royal Court, Parliament, the City, Merchants and Financial institutions. Newspapers frequently recorded their activities and visits, and in December: “The Morocco Ambassador went to the Tower, where he was well received by the Officers, and shown the Curiosities and Rarities there, with which his Excellency was well pleased and gratified the inferior Officers that attended him.”

London continued to be a place of almost casual accident and death, such as “On Monday last, several Porters in handling a Hogshead of Tobacco on Shipboard at Wapping, unfortunately let go their Hold, and the Hogshead rolled down the stairs at waterside, into a boat, in which was a little boy, who was dashed to pieces, as was likewise the boat.” These stories are simply reported as fact, without any criticism of the conditions that enabled such an accident to happen, or a call for safety improvements.

Trials of those who supported the Jacobite cause, or who raised any actions against the King continued through the year, including in December, when the trial of the leaders of a riot in Cripplegate in July, came to the Old Bailey: “The evidence for the King deposed that on the evening of the 23rd of July, a great Mob armed with Clubs, Staves and other unlawful weapons, assembled at Cripplegate, and broke the windows of Mr. Jones, an Apothecary, and afterwards attacked the Crown Tavern and Coffee House, demolishing the windows and wounding several Persons who endeavoured to defend themselves at the House. They likewise deposed that though the Proclamation was read three Times, the Mob did not disperse, but continued in a Tumultuous Manner, crying No King George, No Hanover Proclamation, Down with the House.”

And that ends a brief run down of what life in London was like during 1723. A very different city to the one we experience today, although there are some themes which we can recognise, and the names of city locations provide a familiarity across the 300 year gap.

Whatever 2023 brings, I wish you a very Happy New Year.

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Boundary Markers in the City of London

I have written a few posts about the blue plaques that can be found across the City of London, and for today’s post I would like to illustrate another feature that can be found across the City’s streets.

Wards are still a part of the way the City of London is organised, and in previous centuries, the division of the City into Parishes was also a key feature, and the City Livery Company’s also owned various properties, as they still do.

There was a need to mark these boundaries and ownership of property. Boundaries also needed to be regularly reaffirmed to maintain the boundary, and this needed to be done in a way that was obvious to those who walked and lived in London’s streets, with a clear record, before the ready availability of detailed maps.

The way to do this was by physical markers on a building or street, to show a boundary, to show in what part of the City’s parishes or Wards buildings belonged, or who owned the building.

There must have been hundreds of these within the City, and even today there are very many to be found, with almost every City street having a marker of some type.

In this post, I would like to highlight a selection of the boundary and ownership markers that can still be seen across the City’s streets.

The first is on the City of London Magistrates Court on the corner of Queen Victoria Street and Walbrook. I have arrowed the marker which is low down on the building:

Walbrook Ward

Where there is a simple marker dated 1892 for the north-western boundary of Walbrook Ward:

Walbrook Ward

Many boundary markers have survived multiple rebuilding’s of a site, and can still be found on relatively recent buildings, such as the location arrowed in Cheapside:

Cheapside

On the left is a parish boundary marker from 1817 for St. M. M. This is for St Mary Magdalene which could be found on Milk Street. This was one of the many City churches destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but the parish boundary still survived.

Parish boundary markers

The boundary marker on the right is for the parish of All Hallows Bread Street, another church that is long gone, not in the Great Fire, but during the late 19th century when the City lost a number of churches due to declining numbers of parishioners.

There are another couple of plaques, the left plaque again for All Hallows, and the plaque on the right for St Mary-le-Bow (look closely to see how the right vertical of the letter M has been combined with the L):

Parish boundary markers

There are a number of boundary markers along King Street, including the pair shown in the following photo:

King Street

On the left is the marker for St Martin Pomeroy, which was in Ironmonger Lane, again another church lost during the Great Fire and not rebuilt:

Parish boundary markers

On the right is St Mary Colechurch, again lost during the Great Fire, but stood on the corner of Cheapside and Old Jewry. This is one of the older parish boundary markers in the City, dating from 1789.

Below are two boundary markers. On the left is St Mary-le-Bow and on the right, St Lawrence Jewry in Guildhall Yard. Both of these plaques date from the 20th century showing that they were still relevant, and being updated.

Parish boundary markers

Parishes had multiple boundary markers to show their boundaries with adjacent parishes, so another marker for St Martin Pomeroy:

Parish boundary markers

There are also markers recording the ownership of property, as on the side of the building in the following photo:

Grocers Company

Where on the left are the armorial bearings of the Grocers’ Company, and on the right those of the Goldsmiths:

Grocers Company

On the corner of Old Jewry and Frederick’s Place:

Old Jewry

There is a plaque with two dates, 1680 and 1775. I think this may be a parish boundary marker for St. Olave Jewry, a church that was demolished in 1888:

Parish boundary markers

I am not sure why there are two dates, and whether the plaque originally dates from 1680, and the 1775 date was added when the boundary of the parish was reviewed and confirmed.

In Princes Street, on the wall of the Bank of England:

Princes Street

There are multiple plaques, with top left, St Margaret Lothbury. Top right is St C.P. a plaque for the church of St Christopher which was on the site of the current day Bank of England. Bottom left is a second plaque for St Margaret Lothbury, 43 years after the plaque above.

Parish boundary markers

The plaques for St Margaret Lothbury are on the left as that was their side of the parish boundary, and the two dates show the years when the boundary was confirmed.

Plaques such as these now in the middle of a wall of a building show where the parish boundary would have been when the area was more subdivided into smaller streets and plots of land. Indeed Roque’s 1746 map of London shows Princes Street turning east at this point, into where the Bank now stands, and where the parish boundary would have run, as illustrated in the following map:

Parish boundary markers

In Lombard Street is another cluster of markers:

Lombard Street

Shown in detail below, on the left is a plaque of the Fishmongers Company, then is All Hallows, Lombard Street which was demolished in 1939, although the tower was moved to Twickenham, where it can still be seen (subject for a future blog post). Then there is a plaque of the Haberdashers Company, which must have been there to show property ownership of adjoining properties by the Fishmongers and Haberdashers. The plaque at lower right is showing the boundary of St Edmund, King and Martyr, a church which is still on Lombard Street:

Parish boundary markers

On the Marks and Spencer, at the entrance to Cannon Street station, are two plaques:

Cannon Street Station

On the left is the boundary marker of St Swithin, London Stone, a church that was badly damaged in 1949, and demolished in 1962. On the right is the boundary marker of another church lost during the Great Fire, the church of St Mary Bothaw, that stood on the site of Cannon Street station.

Parish boundary markers

Opposite Cannon Street Station is a plaque to St John the Baptist. Destroyed during the Great Fire, a church that originally stood on the banks of the Walbrook:

Parish boundary markers

Back on Cheapside, there is a small plaque on the first floor of a building:

Cheapside

The plaque has the arms of the Skinners Company:

Skinners Company

Markers showing ownership of property are often on the edge of a building, to show where the boundary is with the adjacent property, as shown in the photos above, and the photo below:

Haberdashers Company

Where there is a plaque showing the arms of the Haberdashers Company:

Haberdashers Company

On a wall in Great Trinity Lane are three plaques:

Great Trinity Lane

The plaque on the left includes the full name of the church, details the distance from the wall to where the boundary extends, and includes the names of the churchwardens in 1889.

Parish boundary markers

In the middle is St James, Garlickhythe. I cannot find the meaning of the H.T. plaque on the right. It does not have the “St.” prefix of a church, but not sure what else it could be.

In Carter Lane, on a building at the junction with St Andrews Hill:

St Andrews Hill

On the right is a plaque identifying the boundary of Farringdon Ward Within:

Parish boundary markers

And an FP plate on the left, which stands for Fire Plug. Apparently in the early days of the fire service, and when many underground water pipes were made out of wood, firemen would dig down to the water main and bore a small, circular hole in the pipe to obtain a supply of water to fight the fire.

When finished, they would put a wooden plug into the hole, and leave an FP plate on a nearby wall to alert future firefighters that a water main with a plug already existed.

That is just a small sample of the very many boundary markers and markers identifying property ownership, that can be found across the City of London. Considering how many must have been lost over the years, there must have been a considerable number, probably lasting to the early 20th century, identifying Ward boundaries, Parish boundaries and where the City Livery Company’s owned properties.

Of course, it is not just the City where these can be found, there are markers all over London.

As an example, the following view is looking towards Horse Guards, from Horse Guards Parade:

Horse Guards Parade

There is a central arch through the Horse Guards building, a route that has featured in recent royal events where processions will frequently pass through the arch, and a roof mounted camera follows processions through, however look to the roof of the arch as you walk through, and there are two parish boundary markers:

Parish boundary markers

On the right is St Margaret, Westminster, with the suffix of No. 6 which presumably means that this was the 6th marker in a series that marked the parish boundary.

I suspect the marker on the left refers to St Martin in the Fields, adjacent to Trafalgar Square.

These boundary markers are a fascinating reminder of the importance of the parishes and wards in the City of London, even how churches that were lost during the Great Fire in 1666, and not rebuilt, still have their parish boundaries marked on the streets.

Historic property ownership by the livery companies of the City can also be traced by the plaque on the walls of City buildings.

Once you notice them, you will find them on walls all across the City.

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London to Portsmouth Semaphore – Chatley Heath

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the route that the body of Eleanor of Castile took to reach London, and the crosses that were built to mark the route. For today’s post I am tracing another of the historic routes that link London with the rest of the country.

Back in the 18th century, the speed of communication was mainly dependent on how long it took a horse and rider to travel between the source and destination of a message. Routine mail would be carried by stage coach and urgent messages would travel via a horse and rider who could travel much faster, but would still be limited by the speed of the horse, conditions of the roads, weather need to change and rest horses etc.

In 1770, the average time taken between London and Portsmouth was around 17 hours, but with improvements to road surfaces and coach building, by around 1820 this had improved to 9 hours for the fastest coaches.

The very best horse and rider could cover the route in just under 5 hours.

It seems remarkable when today we can make an instantaneous mobile phone call from almost anywhere in the country to the other side of the world, that just two hundred years ago it would take a day to get a message and answer between London and Portsmouth.

Portsmouth was important as it was the site of a major naval dockyard, and with the frequent wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was need to devise a system which could rapidly send messages between the Admiralty in London, and the naval dockyards.

The Napoleonic Wars of the later 18th century resulted in the Admiralty building a telegraph system that copied a system already set up by the French. This used a method where signaling stations were based at high points along the route between London and Portsmouth. At each station, there was a wooden shed with a shutter frame built above. The frame held six shutters in two columns, and each shutter could be opened or closed to send a message to the next station along the route.

It was claimed that a message could be sent between London and Portsmouth in just under 8 minutes.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars the system was dismantled, with Napoleon being held on the Isle of Elba.

Not long after, Napoleon escaped and returned to France, and the state of war between England and France resumed. The Admiralty needed another, and more permanent line of communication between London and Portsmouth, rather than the temporary wooden sheds set up for the shutter system.

The Admiralty created a new signaling line comprised of stations using a semaphore system, where the positions of two moveable arms would signify a message to be sent along the chain.

The following print shows the Admiralty building in Whitehall. On the roof at the rear of the building, a tall post can be seen with two arms. This was the London end of the chain of stations between London and Portsmouth  (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

The Admiralty semaphore tower

Signaling stations were needed at high points on the route between London and Portsmouth. Each station was equipped with a post and signaling arms, and had an observer with a telescope to keep an eye on the adjacent stations in the chain for any message that needed to be sent onwards.

The following map shows the chain of stations from the Admiralty at top right down to the dockyard in Portsmouth at lower left  (© OpenStreetMap contributors):

London to Portsmouth semaphore route

The system was opened two hundred years ago, in 1822, and an article in Bell’s Weekly Messenger in September 1822 listed the stations as;

The Admiralty, Chelsea, Putney Heath, Kingston Hill, Cooper’s Hill, Chatley Hill, Pewley Hill, Bannicle Hill, Haste Hill, Holner Hill, Beacon Hill, Compton Down, Portsdown, Lumps Fort (Southsea) and Portsmouth naval dockyard.

In 1822 it was claimed that a message could be conveyed between the Admiralty in London to Portsmouth in one minute and a few seconds. This seems remarkable and must have been in ideal conditions, perfect visibility, and the staff at the stations were ready for the receipt and forwarding of a very short message. Reports of normal transmission times state that around 15 minutes was the time taken to send a message from one end of the chain to the other – still a remarkably short time.

There is one remaining, complete, semaphore tower on the line between London and Portsmouth, at Chatley Heath in Surrey. Indeed it is the only remaining complete semaphore tower in the country. It has recently been restored by the Landmark Trust who held an open day in the summer. so I went along to see this remaining example of two hundred year old communications technology that linked London with the south coast.

In the above map of the whole chain of stations, I have marked Chatley Heath with a red circle around the red dot.

The following map shows the exact location of the Chatley Heath semaphore tower, a very short distance from the M25 and slightly to the east of the A3  (© OpenStreetMap contributors):

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Chatley Heath is part of a wider area of 800 acres of commons and rare heathland that is managed by the Surrey Wildlife Trust. There are paths across the heath, some of which are signposted to show the route to the semaphore tower:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

The open day was on one of the hot days of summer, where the land was so dry following weeks with no rain, a big contrast as I type this, as it is cold, cloudy and there has been much rain over the last few weeks.

Following the path to the semaphore tower:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

The following photo shows the first glimpse of the semaphore arms at the very top of the tower, just showing above the tree line in the distance in the centre of the photo:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Finally reaching the Chatley Heath semaphore tower. The one remaining, fully restored tower, and the tallest on the line between the Admiralty in London, and Portsmouth.

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Each semaphore station was manned by a retired navy lieutenant and an observer, usually a retired sailor of the lieutenants choosing. The lieutenant would be in charge of the station, and the observer was responsible for using a telescope to keep an eye on adjacent stations to check for messages to be forwarded.

The very first officer at the Chatley Heath tower when it opened in 1822 was Lieutenant Edward Harris.

The Chatley Heath tower included accommodation with a small house built onto the base of the tower. The blocked up windows in the tower were probably done to save the cost of building and installing windows. The navy was exempt from window tax, so this would not have been the reason. The shape of the tower was also more cost effective than the complexity of building a circular tower.

The semaphore system used a code devised by Rear Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham.

It was Popham who created the code using flags, allowing messages to be sent between ships at sea, and it was his code that sent the message from Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar that “England expects that every man will do his duty”. He was involved in a number of naval actions, and assaults on enemy land forces across the world, but must have spent some time at home as his wife had at least ten children.

Popham’s semaphore code used two arms on a wooden post. Each arm could assume any position on either side of the post, so could be either horizontal, vertical, or at an angle of 45 degrees, pointing up or down the post.

This arrangement created enough positions using the two arms that every letter of the alphabet, along with the numbers 0 to 9, could all be transmitted.

The two arms and vertical post:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

From 1963 until 1988 the tower was left empty. It was vandalised and had suffered a major fire. It was restored in 1988 by Surrey County Council and then passed to the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

The age and very exposed position of the tower resulted in further, gradual deterioration, with water being a problem, getting into the tower around the base of the post, and around the windows.

The Landmark Trust then took on the tower and commenced a full restoration project in 2020. The Landmark Trust has restored and runs some remarkable buildings across the country, and following a restoration, they rent out the buildings for short stays, and this is now the future of the Chatley Heath semaphore tower.

The restoration including fitting out the tower so that it would include accommodation, so today, walking up the tower to the roof includes a walk through a number of rooms, which include a lounge:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Kitchen:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

And bedroom:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

There is a second bedroom (the tower now sleeps 4) and a bathroom.

In the kitchen, the restored mechanism used to control the position of the arms can be seen:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Once on the roof, it is easy to see why this was the chosen location for the station. It is one of the highest points in the local area at 59 meters above sea level, with the land dropping by 10 to 20 meters in the area surrounding the station.

This is the view looking towards London:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Zooming in from the roof of the tower, we can see the towers of London in the far distance, the Shard to the right is just over 31km from the Chatley Heath semaphore tower.

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

The semaphore post and arms seen from the top of the tower:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Operating the semaphore was not without its dangers. The Hampshire and Southampton County Newspaper reported on the 15th of August 1825 that: “During the thunder storm on Wednesday last, E. Oke, the signal man belonging to the semaphore in Portsmouth, was knocked down and remained insensible for several minutes. The semaphore was at work at the time, and the man had his hand on the wheel, which turns the arms to communicate intelligence to the next station. The whole apparatus is composed of metal, which, of course, attracted the lightning. The Lieutenant, who was standing close by, did not experience the slightest inconvenience, neither was any serious injury sustained by the man or the buildings”.

View looking towards the south, the next station at Pewley Hill was somewhere in the distance:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

Chatley Heath was to be the branching point for another chain of semaphore stations, which would have run all the way to Plymouth, however this chain was only completed a short distance after Winchester.

The London to Portsmouth semaphore system ran from 1822 until 1847 when it was made redundant by the coming of the railways and the electric telegraph. The London & South Western Railway connected London to the south coast at Southampton, Gosport and Portsmouth and the new electric telegraph was laid alongside the railway. This provided a far more reliable and cost effective means of sending messages between the Admiralty and the naval dockyard at Portsmouth.

The semaphore line was closed at the end of 1847, and the staff made redundant, which must have been a blow to them as the staff were usually at the end of their naval careers and other opportunities for employment would have been limited.

The views from the tops of the semaphore tower show what a high location this is relative to the surrounding land. As well as the towers of the city shown in an earlier photo, from the top of the tower we can just about see the arch over the Wembley stadium in the distance:

Chatley Heath semaphore tower

The location of the semaphore stations can often be found in local naming, with Telegraph Hill being used at a couple of the old station locations. there is a Telegraph pub in Putney named after the original shutter telegraph on Putney Heath. There are a number of Telegraph Roads and Telegraph Houses along the route.

The London to Portsmouth semaphore / telegraph route was one of many that were built during the early decades of the 19th century. The admiralty built a number of chains to enable communication with key dockyards.

There were also commercial telegraph chains set-up. One, by a Lieutenant Watson was created between Holyhead and Liverpool and reported the names of ships passing Holyhead on their way to the docks at Liverpool. This would enable ship owners to have advance information of when their ships would be arriving in port.

Lieutenant Watson devised his own code for the telegraph system. He may have also been responsible for creating another system from London to the coast. The following print shows Watson’s Telegraph, near Tooley Street  (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

Watsons Telegraph

This has a similar arrangement to the semaphore route between London and Portsmouth, however it uses two rather than one post, and it appears that one of the posts had two arms at the top. Presumably this arrangement was to allow more complex messages to be sent at a faster rate.

The Chatley Heath semaphore tower is a wonderful reminder of a time, only 200 years ago, when it took hours to send a message the distance from London to Portsmouth, and the technological change that started to speed up communication.

If you fancy a stay in an early 19th century semaphore tower, the page on the Landmark Trust site with information and booking is here.

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Police, Bandits, Marine Society and Coffee Houses

I have written a number of posts about the City of London blue plaques that can be seen along the street of the City, however there are also many more interesting plaques that tell an aspect of the City’s history, so starting with this post, I am expanding the scope of this occasional series.

I have also created a map which shows all the City plaques that I have so far covered, with links to the relevant post. The map can be found here.

City of London Police District – Princes Street

I am starting with what appears to be a remarkable survivor that can be seen just above the entrance to the Bank Underground Station on Princes Street:

City of London Police District

The plaque states that the street is deemed to be within the special limits of the Metropolitan Streets Act of 1867:

City of London Police District

The Special Limits were powers granted by the act to Police Commissioners, allowing them to set or amend regulations on vehicle traffic along the street, as well as what could be loaded and unloaded along the street, and which could have blocked footpaths. These regulations usually applied for the majority of the working day, and presumably were intended to avoid too much traffic or activities that could have slowed down both traffic and pedestrians.

For Special Limits to apply, the Police had to advertise the fact at the street, ten days before they came into force, so presumably the sign is one of these advertisements that the Special Limits of the Act would apply to Princes Street.

The Act dates from 1867, but I was interested in the date of the plaque.

For Special Limits to apply, the City of London Police would have needed the approval of a Secretary of State, and at the bottom of the plaque is the name of A. Akers Douglas, stating that he approved the request and that he was a Secretary of State.

This was Aretas Akers-Douglas, 1st Viscount Chilston, who was Home Secretary between 1902 and 1905.

To confirm this date, there is the name of Bower at the bottom of the plaque, and although this line of text is damaged, he is listed as a Commissioner of the City of London.

Bower refers to William Nott-Bower who was Commissioner of the City of London police from 1902 to 1925, so his first years in this role align with the time that Akers-Douglas was Home Secretary, so the plaque dates from between 1902 and 1905.

It is remarkable what this plaque has seen. The Imperial War Museum archive includes a photo of bomb damage at the Bank road junction on the 11th of January 1941 when a bomb crashed through the road and exploded in the booking hall of the underground station.

The photo is not one of those that are downloadable and able to be reused on non-commercial sites, so a link to the photo is here.

Look to the left edge of the photo, and on the wall of the Bank there appears to be a couple of signs, one at the correct place and size to be the sign we see today.

It is a remarkable survivor.

Captain Ralph Douglas Binney – Birchin Lane

The next plaque is in Birchin Lane, part of the network of narrow streets and alleys between Cornhill and Lombard Street. Roughly half way along the lane, close to the entrance to Bengal Court, there is a plaque on a side wall, to the right of the following photo:

Captain Binney

The plaque was given by the Royal Navy in memory of Captain Ralph Douglas Binney who died on the 8th of December 1944 from injuries received, when bravely and alone he confronted violent men raiding a jeweller’s shop in the lane:

Captain Binney

The event made the national newspapers, and the following is from the Daily Mirror on the 9th of December 1944:

“Captain Dragged To Death By Bandits’ Car: Horrified crowds saw an act of gangster callousness in the streets of London yesterday, as cold-blooded as anything known in the wild days of Chicago under prohibition.

They saw a 56 year old naval officer who had flung himself at a smash and grab bandits’ car dragged along to drop dying in the roadway half a mile further along.

They saw the car speed ruthlessly on as the officer, Captain Ralph Binney, caught in the chassis of the car, cried out for help. Captain Binney, chief staff officer to Admiral Naismith, leapt on to the running board of the car as it swept away at high speed from the shop of a jewellers in Birchin-lane, EC4.

The Captain called to the bandits to stop, but £3,500 of jewellery, looted from the shop window, and their own freedom was worth more than a human life to the robbers.

Driving on to King William-street, carrying the captain with them, the bandits disappeared towards London bridge.

Three hours later, in a quiet ward in Guy’s Hospital, the heroic captain murmured a dying farewell to his wife and his brother, Colonel Binney. His chief, Admiral Naismith hurried into the ward twenty minutes too late.

Last night the car was found abandoned in Tooley-street, SE. Police are anxious to contact anyone who, during the last few days, sold a new woodman’s axe, the weapon believed to have been used to smash the jewellers’ window.

Captain Binney had served thirty six years in the Navy. After six years in retirement he was put in charge of harbour defences at Gallipoli. On his return home in 1942 he was awarded the C.B.E.

Captain Binney leaves behind a widow and a daughter who is training as a nurse. His sub-lieutenant son was killed aboard H.M.S. Tyndale a year ago.”

There was a huge police hunt for those who had carried out the raid, and on the 12th of January, 1945 newspapers were reporting that “At Mansion House, London, today, Thomas James Jenkins (34), welder, of Rotherhithe, and Ronald Hedley, (26) labourer, were charged, with two men not in custody, with the murder of Capt. Binney, who, said counsel, was killed while doing his duty as a brave citizen.”

Ronald Hedley was convicted of the murder of Captain Binney and was sentenced to death, however this was later reprieved and he served 9 years in jail. Thomas Jenkins was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

It appears that there were three others involved in the raid, but I cannot find any reference to their being identified, caught or sentenced.

Following Binney’s death, his naval colleagues formed a trust that would award a medal to a recipient who had shown bravery in the support of law and order in the areas controlled by the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police.

The Binney award / medal appears to be an award that is still given, and is administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers, now covering the whole country, rather than the Metropolitan and City of London Police forces.

The next plaque is in Change Alley, which runs off from Birchin Lane:

Marine Society – Change Alley

Change Alley is a strange alley as there are multiple branches of the alley, including two separate branches between Cornhill and Lombard Street. In the core of this network of alleys is a blue plaque on the corner of a building:

Marine Society

The plaque records that it is on the site of the King’s Arms Tavern, where the first meeting of the Marine Society was held on the 25th of June, 1756:

Marine Society

1756 was the year of the start of the Seven Years’ War, which ran between 1756 and 1763, and could be called the first world war, as it involved England, Spain and France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Sweden. With conflict taking place in North America, across the Oceans and in the colonies occupied by the countries involved.

England was at war with the French, and the Marine Society was formed to provide additional naval resources to support the conflict. A newspaper report from the 2nd of July, 1756 reports on the founding purpose of the society:

“We hear the Marine Society lately formed by some eminent Merchants of this City, intend to open with the following noble Scheme. They purpose to fit out a Number of fine sailing Ships of War, and to send them to invest the Island of Minorca quite round, in order to prevent the French from sending to their Army any Reinforcements of Supplies; and at the same time to distress their Commerce in the Mediterranean. We wish there may be Time for the Execution of such a public spirited project.”

The primary aim of the Marine Society was to recruit boys and young men for the Navy. They would be recruited from the poor, orphans, the homeless. They would be clothed and fed, then sent from London to join ships at one of the Navy dockyards.

The following year, in 1757, the Marine Society were sending recruits to the Navy. The following newspaper report is a typical example of mid-18th century journalism, and describes the process and ceremony when the recruits left London:

“Last Wednesday 75 friendless Boys and 40 stout young Men, all Volunteers, were completely clothed by the Marine Society to go on board the Fleet, and at One o’clock the same Day they were drawn up on Constitution Hill, in order to express their Gratitude to his Majesty with three Cheers for his late Royal Bounty.

His Majesty’s Coach went very slow all along the Bank, and a Smile expressive of paternal Delight overspread his Royal Countenance; from thence they marched to the Admiralty who expressed great Pleasure at the Sight; from thence the Boys went to Lord Blakeney’s Head in Bow-street, Covent Garden, to dine on Roast Beef and Plumb Pudding; and Members of the Marine Society to the Crown and Anchor Tavern to Dinner, which consisted of one Course made up of Dishes truly English, namely, Roast Beef, Hams and Haunches of Mutton; after Dinner his Majesty’s Health, the Prince of Wales’s, &c. were drank, attended by the proper Salutes of Cannon; in the Evening they marched with the Men and Boys at their Head, to the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane, where the Comedy of the Suspicious Husband was performed for the Benefit of the Marine Society, to a most brilliant Audience.

The Men and Boys were on Thursday reviewed by the Marine Society, at the Royal Exchange, and marched off to Portsmouth.”

The term “friendless boys” refers to orphans. With the relatively high mortality rate among the poor of the City, it was not unusual for a child to loose both parents and be left on the streets. These children were one of the target recruiting areas for the Marine Society. How much they knew of what they were getting into, and whether they really were volunteers is questionable.

After the recruiting exercise covered in the above report, the King gave £1,000 “to be paid for the use of the Marine Society”.

The number of conflicts the country was involved in during the late 18th century required a continual supply of manpower for the Navy, and in 1790, the Marine Society “since the appearance of a Spanish war, have already clothed and fitted out for sea, 1672 men and boys, most of them poor wretches, a burden to the community”.

The last sentence again highlights the target area for recruits, and that they were considered a burden to the community. Their transfer to the Navy relieved that burden and put them into a role that society at the time considered worthwhile.

The Marine Society would evolve over the late 18th and 19th centuries. It was recognised that sending recruits to the Navy who had a degree of training was of more benefit, so the society started training, and in 1786 the Marine Society became the first organization in the world to have a dedicated training ship, moored in the Thames at Deptford, where recruits would be trained before being sent to the Navy and the Merchant fleet.

Training became a growing element of the Marine Society’s role. The Navy would grow their own recruiting and training operation, so the Marine Society expanded their brief to the Merchant Navy and seafarers in general.

Based in a rather nice red brick building in Lambeth, next to the railway into Waterloo, the Marine Society is still in operation today. In recent years it has merged with the Sea Cadets and is now a major training organisation for seafarers and the maritime community – all from that meeting in a tavern in Change Alley in 1756.

Change Alley is an interesting set of alleys to explore. Many of the buildings that face onto the alley are the backs of the buildings that face onto the main streets of the area, so they present a very different view. Of much cheaper construction, no ornamentation, and with exposed utilities, such as the following building with multiple pipes leading up to the sky:

Marine Society

Despite many of these buildings being hidden in the alley, some do have a degree of decoration relating to the company that occupied the building:

Marine Society

My next plaque was in the same alley:

Jonathan’s Coffee House – Change Alley

The following photo is in one of the legs of Change Alley, and to the right of the middle small tree, there is a blue plaque, down almost at ground level:

Jonathan's Coffee House

The plaque states that on the site stood Jonathan’s Coffee House between 1680 and 1778, the principal meeting place of the City’s stockbrokers:

Jonathan's Coffee House

Funds raised by the Crown and by Government had been in the form of arbitrary taxes and by the selling of the right to operate a monopoly, along with the raising of debts which were often not repaid.

As commercial activity expanded, and trade increased a more formal system was needed which ensured that the state could raise funds, and those lending these funds were assured that they would be repaid, with interest.

This led to the creation of “English Funds” which were basically the government debt which could be bought and sold. These funds would have a repayment date, and paid the owner of the funds interest. They therefore had a value.

Trading of these funds started in the Royal Exchange, and in 1698, many of those involved in the trading of these funds and securities started operating in Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley. The move was down to laws that were enacted to limit the numbers of brokers and to more regulate the market, as so many people had been tempted into the market based on “false rumours and reports were propagated to raise or depreciate the value of stocks. Mines of wealth were promised, stratagems of every kind were rife; some made fortunes, others were ruined”.

Many of the roles and terminology in play at Jonathan’s Coffee House are still in use today, although many did disappear as recently as the 1980s with the deregulation of the Stock Market during the “Big Bang”.

An 1828 description of Jonathan’s Coffee House also describes the meaning of many of the terms associated with stocks and share trading:

“In Change-alley was formerly a rendezvous of dealing in the funds, and the term Alley is still a cant phrase for the Stock Exchange, and hence a petty speculator in the funds is styled ‘a dabbler in the alley’. A stock-broker is one who buys and sells stocks for another; his commission is one-eighth per cent. A stock-jobber is one who buys and sells on his own account, buys in when low and endeavours to sell out at a profit.

A gambler in the funds is one who speculates to buy or sell at a future time for a present price, who may lose or gain according as the prices then fall or rise; this being illegal, no action for recovery of loss can be maintained. The buyers are styled ‘bears’ as they endeavour to trample down the prices; the sellers are named bulls, for a like reason as they attempt to toss them as high as possible. One who becomes bankrupt is termed a lame duck, and he is said to ‘waddle out of the alley’. Those who have thus waddled are not again admitted to the Stock Exchange”.

The following satirical print, dated the 2nd of May, 1763 shows Jonathan’s Coffee House, and the text below describes a visit by the Devil, who sees the characters in the coffee house, including the bull, the bear and the lame ducks, and old Nick cries that “there’s room for you all in the regions below”, and that “For sure ’tis a shame that such vile occupations, should suck the best blood from the best of all Nations” (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Jonathan's Coffee House

Jonathan’s Coffee House was destroyed in a fire that started on the 30th of March 1748 in Change Alley, in the premises of Mr Eldrige’s, a Peruke-maker (the long wigs worn by upper class men). Much of Change Alley, and some houses on Cornhill were destroyed, however Jonathan’s Coffee House was soon rebuilt, and trading continued.

Those engaged in trading at Jonathan’s Coffee House moved to a new location in Threadneedle Street in 1773, and papers on the 17th of July 1773 were reporting that at the new location: “Yesterday the brokers and others at New Jonathan’s came to a resolution, that instead of it being called New Jonathan’s, it should be named The Stock Exchange, which is to be wrote over the door. The brokers then collected sixpence each, and christened the House with punch.”

The Stock Exchange as it was now called began trading on more formal lines, and traders had to pay a fee to enter the trading room.

The Stock Exchange would continue trading within a physical place until the 1980s, when the deregulation of London’s financial markets resulted in the transition to screen based trading. The Stock Exchange moved from their Threadneedle Street location to offices in Paternoster Square in 2004 as a trading location was not needed, only offices for the administration, regulation and management of the Stock Exchange.

Following the change of debt being raised by the country, rather than the Crown imposing taxes or borrowing money, the national debt has always been a cause for concern.

The print below is a satirical print published in 1785 showing the Stock Exchange supporting the national debt in 1782, or what the print called the “English Balloon” (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Jonathan's Coffee House

In 1783, the National Debt stood at around £250 million. It had risen throughout the 18th century due to the many wars that the country was involved with. and which required considerable funding. Pitt the Younger who became Prime Minister in December 1783 put in place a number of changes to both clamp down on tax evasion (such as smuggling), and increasing taxes which resulted in the debt coming under control and confidence in the Pound being restored.

By comparison, the Office for National Statistics reports that the UK debt was £2,436.7 billion at the end of Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2022. Taxes are increasing and there was recently a brief loss of confidence in the Pound – something’s never really change. The “English Balloon” just gets much larger.

My final location is in Lombard Street, to the south of Change Alley, however my last comment on the alley is the origin of the name. It was originally called Exchange Alley as it was opposite the Royal Exchange. The name simply became abbreviated to Change Alley. Now leaving the alley to the south to find:

Lloyd’s Coffee House – Lombard Street

To the right of the main entrance to Sainsbury’s in the following photo is a blue plaque:

Lloyds Coffee House

Marking the site of Lloyd’s Coffee House:

Lloyds Coffee House

Very much like Jonathan’s Coffee House, Lloyd’s Coffee House was the original site for a City institution that is still running today.

Lloyd’s Coffee House was opened by an Edward Lloyd in February 1688. Initially in Tower Street, the Coffee House moved to the Lombard Street location indicated by the plaque in 1691.

Lloyd’s Coffee House became a meeting place for those involved in shipping and marine insurance.

The coffee house started publishing its own newspaper using the information gathered from customers, and the paper became an essential resource for those working in shipping related industries of the City.

An article / advertisement published on the 12th of June, 1758 explained why the paper had so much early information:

“This day is published number 140 of Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle. A paper of Military, Naval, Commercial and Literary Intelligence published every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening at Seven O’clock.

Lloyd’s Coffee House is known to be the centre of intelligence, from the most considerable trading parts of the world, and accounts of naval transactions are frequently received there even before they arrive at the First Offices of State. Many articles of intelligence have therefore appeared in this paper, the authenticity of which has been questioned by news writers in the common posts, who, unable to fathom how they were attainable at first have, after exploding them, adopted and inferred them in their Papers as new, many days after they appeared in this.

It is no wonder therefore that this paper has met with uncommon opposition, the most notorious falsehoods have been propagated to prejudice it, its connection with Lloyd’s Coffee House has been publicly denied, and the facts inferred in it have been efficiently discredited. Notwithstanding which the paper thrives. Truth, which will always manifest itself, has dispersed the clouds of falsehood, and the merit of the paper has rendered all detraction and opposition ineffectual.

Advertisements are taken in at Lloyd’s Coffee House in Lombard Street.”

I love that the colourful language of the article, defending its position as an early source of news, ends with a simple statement about where advertisements should be sent.

Edward Lloyd died on the 15th of February 1713, and his son-in-law William Newton took over. Newton had married Lloyd’s daughter Handy, who died in 1720.

After 1763, the reputation of the coffee house started to decline. It became a place of gambling and also stock jobbing (as took place at Jonathan’s Coffee House), and a New Lloyd’s Coffee House opened at 5 Pope’s Head Alley in 1769, although the Lombard Street coffee house continued in business, still a meeting place for those in the shipping and maritime insurance trades.

The Society for the Registry of Shipping was founded at Lloyd’s Coffee House in 1760, and in 1786 the society moved to new premised at number 4 Sun Court, Cornhill.

So from Lloyd’s Coffee House, two City institutions evolved:

  • what would become the Lloyds of London Insurance market were the activities that moved from Lloyd’s Coffee House to 5 Pope’s Head Alley and;
  • what would become Lloyd’s Register which is now in Fenchurch Street were the activities that moved from Lloyd’s Coffee House to 4 Sun Court.

Five very different plaques which highlight the varied history of the City of London, and which have had significant influence on the city we see today.

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Eleanor Crosses – The End of the Journey in London

The procession carrying Eleanor’s body now commenced the final part of the journey, which would take Eleanor’s coffin through the City of London, then west towards Westminster Abbey where she would be buried.

In the following map, three of the key places in London are highlighted with blue circles – Cheapside, Charing Cross and Westminster Abbey, however there were a number of other places which were involved with Eleanor’s funeral, which I will also cover (© OpenStreetMap contributors):

Journey of Eleanor of Castile from Harby to London

The map also shows the distance covered by the procession taking Eleanor’s body from the site of her death in the small village of Harby at the very top all the way to London. Each of the red circles indicates one of the overnight stopping points which I have covered in previous posts.

The procession left Waltham Abbey on Thursday the 14th of December 1290, headed to the location of the future Waltham Cross, where it turned south towards London.

The aim of the easterly diversion to Waltham Abbey may have been due to the importance of the Abbey, and it may also have been to allow an entry into the City from the east, as the procession entered the City of London through the gate at Bishopsgate.

Once in the City of London, the procession stayed in the east of the City, and headed to Holy Trinity Priory in the Minories, which I wrote about in an earlier post here and here.

Eleanor’s coffin rested in Holy Trinity Priory overnight, and the procession set off again the following day to head west. Passing along Cheapside, one of the main streets of the City, the procession headed to the Franciscan friary of Grey Friars, which I have touched on in this post.

After Grey Friars, Eleanor’s coffin was taken to the old St Paul’s Cathedral, where it probably stayed overnight as it would not head to Westminster until the following day.

An Eleanor Cross was built in Cheapside, possibly confirming that Eleanor stayed overnight in St Paul’s, also because the procession had passed along Cheapside, and also because Cheapside was a major City street, and it has been clear from finding the sites of the previous crosses that they were placed in prominent positions. Edward I wanted Eleanor remembered, so putting a cross in a prominent place would ensure that Eleanor was kept in the public memory for centuries to come.

There are no remains of the Cheapside cross today, however we do have a record of its location.

The so called Agas map of around 1561 (probably wrongly attributed to the surveyor Ralph Agas), shows the cross in Cheapside, circled in the following extract:

Eleanor Cross Cheapside

The cross was located just to the west of where Wood Street joins Cheapside, as can be seen in the followed detailed extract from the Agas map:

Eleanor Cross Cheapside

The Eleanor Cross is to the left, and Wood Street can be seen heading north from Cheapside. There appears to be another, much smaller cross just to the east, and Bow Church can be seen in the lower right of the map.

In the following photo, I am standing in the middle of Cheapside, looking west. The tree on the right is in Wood Street, so the Eleanor Cross would have stood in the middle of the road, just behind and to the right of where the person is crossing the road.

Eleanor Cross Cheapside

Just in Wood Street, and to the right of where the tree is located, was the church of St Peter, West Chepe, and in the book “London Churches Before The Great Fire” by Wilberforce Jenkins (1917), the old church was described:

“The ‘Church of St Peter, West Chepe, stood on the corner of Wood Street, Cheapside, and was not rebuilt after the Fire. The well-known tree in Cheapside marks the spot, and a small piece of the churchyard remains. It was sometimes called St Peter-at-Cross, being opposite the famous Cross which stood in the middle of the street, and was at one time an object of pride and veneration, and at a later period the object of execration and many riots, until pulled down and burnt by the mob. The date of the ancient church is uncertain, but there would appear to be a reference to it in 1231. In the ‘Liber Albus’, one Geoffrey Russel is mentioned as having been present when a certain Ralph Wryvefuntaines was stabbed in the churchyard of St Paul’s and being afraid of being accused, fled for sanctuary to the Church of St Peter.

Thomas Wood, goldsmith and sheriff, is credited with having, in 1491, restored or rebuilt the roof of the middle aisle, the structure being supported by figures of woodmen. Hence, so tradition says, came the name of the street, Wood Street.”

The “famous Cross” mentioned in the above extract in bold text, was the Cheapside Eleanor Cross.

The cross was a large structure and had been rebuilt in the late 15th century when it was decorated with religious iconography including images of the Pope and the Virgin. From the mid 16th century onwards, the cross was the subject of attack by puritans who objected to the religious symbols on the cross.

On the 2nd of May, 1643, the cross was demolished, an act which was illustrated in the following print produced by Wenceslaus Hollar in the same year  (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Eleanor Cross Cheapside

1643 was one of the early years of the English Civil War, and was a time when many of the Eleanor Crosses were destroyed. They were seen as being religiously symbolic and it was also the royal references which led to damage and destruction of the crosses.

The Cheapside Cross had been rebuilt and by the end of the 15th century appears to have been more a religious monument than the original design dedicated to Eleanor, The text that goes with the above print states that “Leaden Popes burnt in the place where it stood”, which must have been lead statues of the Pope which had been placed on the cross.

The lower part of the print shows the “Boocke of Sportes” being burnt where the cross stood on the 10th of May.

The Book of Sports was a controversial book originally published by James I in 1618. This was in response to the growing Puritan influence on the church, which tried to ban sports and pastimes on Sundays. Not a popular action given that Sunday was the only day off for much of the population. The Book of Sports was a declaration confirming the right of all persons to engage in ‘lawful recreation’ on Sundays after they had attended a church service.

The book was reissued by Charles I in 1633, and he ordered the document to be read in churches to make clear that people could continue with their normal recreations after service.

The growing Puritan influence brought about by the Civil War enabled the restrictions on Sunday recreations to be imposed, and the Book of Sports was often burnt as shown in the print.

On the assumption that Eleanor’s coffin stayed in St Paul’s Cathedral overnight, if not, it must have been a nearby religious establishment, the procession left on Saturday the 16th of December 1290, and headed to the Dominican Priory at Blackfriars, where a mass was held.

If you remember back to the first post in this series, Eleanor’s heart had been one of her organs removed in Lincoln, and the box containing the heart had travelled separately to London, where it was held at Blackfriars. We shall return here at the very end of the post.

Leaving Blackfriars, the procession then continued west to Westminster Abbey, passing through the village of Charing, the name of which appears to have come from the old English word for a bend in a river.

Charing was the site for the last of the Eleanor Crosses, built by the King’s Mason Richard Crundale between 1291 and 1293. Richard was helped by his son, and here is another example of how difficult it is to be sure of names and facts. The English Heritage references to the cross refer to his son Robert, however The London Encyclopedia by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, refers to his son as Roger. A minor detail, but I do find that unless you can find an original, primary resource, it is very difficult to be absolutely sure of facts.

The Charing Cross was apparently the most impressive of all the crosses, which would have made sense given the location of the cross.

It was taken down on the orders of Parliament in 1647, and the stones were allegedly used in various building works in Whitehall.

The site of the cross was where the statue of King Charles I stands today, on the edge of Trafalgar Square, seen slightly to the right of the following photo:

Eleanor Cross Charing Cross

The Agas map also shows the Charing Cross, and as can be seen in the following extract, it stood in a very prominent position. Much of the area was still undeveloped, however it stood in the centre of the junction of a major road to the north, east to the City and west to Westminster. Again so that Eleanor’s memory would be kept in the public memory for many centuries to come.

Eleanor Cross Charing Cross

Following the restoration of Charles II, one of the Regicides (those who had signed the death warrant of Charles I), was executed on the site of the Eleanor Cross. This was Colonel Thomas Harrison who was hung, drawn and quartered on the site of the cross.

A closer view of the statue of Charles I where the Eleanor Cross once stood:

Eleanor Cross Charing Cross

Just behind the statue is a plaque set into the ground which records that the site of the statue was the site of the Eleanor Cross.

Eleanor Cross Charing Cross

The plaque also states that mileages from London are traditionally measured from the site of the original Eleanor Cross, so another example of how the influence of Eleanor’s death can be found today.

As well as adding the word “Cross” to the original village name of “Charing”, Eleanor’s influence can also be seen outside the station of Charing Cross where a Victorian reproduction cross stands in front of the old station hotel:

Charing Cross

This reproduction Eleanor Cross was designed by Edward Barry and finished in 1865.

Edward Barry was building on a mid 19th century trend for crosses based on the surviving Eleanor Crosses. This trend was started by the architect George Gilbert Scott. He was working in Northampton in the 1830s and therefore may well have seen the Hardingstone cross.

He would go on to design a number of similar crosses, including the Martyrs Memorial in Oxford, which looks very much like an Eleanor Cross.

Charing Cross:

Charing Cross

The lower part of the cross displays the arms of England, Ponthieu and of Eleanor of Castile. Above are statues of Eleanor looking out from the cross:

Charing Cross

Reminders of the Eleanor Cross extend below as well as above ground at Charing Cross. If you use the Northern Line at the station, you will be greeted by murals running the length of the station platform:

Charing Cross Northern Line

These were created in 1979 by David Gentleman. He researched in detail how a mason would have built the crosses, and the murals run the length of the platform telling the story of the crosses from quarrying the stone, through to completion:

Charing Cross Northern Line

The man on the left is holding a pair of dividers which were used for measurement. In the middle, a stone mason is working on a statue of Eleanor:

Charing Cross Northern Line

Pulling a statue of Eleanor towards a cross, not sure what the two people are doing who appear to be fighting:

Charing Cross Northern Line

A statue of Eleanor arrives at the cross, ready to be installed:

Charing Cross Northern Line

Passing the future location of the cross at Charing, the procession with Eleanor’s body continued on to Westminster Abbey where it stayed overnight.

The funeral was held on Sunday the 17th of December 1290. The service was conducted by the Benedictine monks of the abbey, and Eleanor was buried in a temporary coffin in the abbey as with the suddenness and early age of her death, a fitting tomb for a Queen of England had not yet been prepared.

Westminster Abbey, much modified since Eleanor’s funeral in 1290:

Westminster Abbey

The history of Westminster Abbey deserves several blogs, so for today’s post, the main aim of my visit is to find Eleanor’s tomb rather than explore the history of the abbey.

The interior of the abbey:

Westminster Abbey

Stained glass:

Westminster Abbey

Eleanor’s tomb was built in the chapel of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey. I contacted the abbey to see if it was possible to take a photo of the tomb with the bronze effigy of Eleanor, however they do not allow photography within the chapel as it is the spiritual heart of the abbey.

You can see the tomb from outside the chapel, as the tombs in the chapel are arranged around the edge, so after following the route of Eleanor’s body from the small village of Harby where she died, through all the towns and villages where Edward I ordered a cross to be built in memory of Eleanor, I finally stood alongside the tomb where her body was placed:

Eleanor of Castile's tomb in Westminster Abbey

The tomb was built by Richard Crundale, who was also responsible for the Eleanor Cross at Charing. On the top of the tomb, the gilt bronze effigy of Eleanor, cast by goldsmith William Torel in 1291, is just visible.

On the side of the tomb are the arms which have also been found all along the journey from Harby. The arms of England, of Ponthieu (Eleanor’s mother and which Eleanor also inherited) and of Eleanor of Castile.

Nearby is the tomb of Eleanor’s husband, Edward I, who died almost 17 years later in July 1307:

Edward I tomb in Westminster Abbey

There is so much to discover at Westminster Abbey, but for now, a couple of highlights, including a door that is believed to date from 1050, so would have been from the time of Edward the Confessor:

The oldest door in England Westminster Abbey

The interior of the Chapter House, believed to have been built by Edward’s father, Henry III:

Westminster Abbey

Decorated seating for the monks around the outer wall of the Chapter House:

Westminster Abbey

The floor of the Chapter House is one of the finest medieval tile pavements in England, and contains the arms of Edward’s father, Henry III:

Westminster Abbey

Eleanor and Edward could well have walked on this tiled floor.

Nearby is the Pyx Chamber, one of the oldest parts of the abbey, dating from around 1070:

Westminster Abbey

The funeral of Eleanor at Westminster Abbey was not however the final act in the long funeral of Eleanor of Castile, there was one last act for Edward I to attend to, and that was the burial of Eleanor’s heart at the Dominican Priory at Blackfriars on Tuesday the 19th of December, 1290.

The priory at Blackfriars was well known to Edward and Eleanor as they had refounded the friary in the 1270s. The heart of their son Alfonso who had died in 1284 at the age of 10 had already been buried at Blackfriars, so Eleanor probably had been planning for her heart to be buried with that of her son.

Apart from the name, there is not much left of Blackfriars today. I did visit a place where the ceremony during the burial of her heart may have taken place, in a previous post on Carter Lane.

An alley by the name of Church Entry turns off from Carter Lane:

Blackfriars

There is a small garden on the western side of the alley:

Blackfriars

With a plaque that states that this plot of land is where the preaching nave of the church of the Great Dominican Priory of Blackfriars once stood, so standing in the garden you are in the general area of where the last acts in the funeral of Eleanor of Castile played out in 1290.

Blackfriars

Standing at Blackfriars marked the end of my journey from the village of Harby, all the way to London. A fascinating story of a fascinating woman.

There are two main books I have read to research the life of Eleanor of Castile. The first is Eleanor of Castile – The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill:

Sara Cockerill Eleanor of Castile The Shadow Queen

Eleanor of Castile – the Shadow Queen is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive book on the life of Eleanor, highly recommended.

Another book is The Eleanor Crosses by Decca Warrington:

Decca Warrington

This book is more focused on the life of the crosses, but also contains sections on the life of Eleanor. Recommended as a shorter introduction to Eleanor and the story of the crosses.

For Edward I, the book “A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain” by Marc Morris is an excellent read, and for a more academic study of Edward I, the book “Edward I” by Michael Prestwich and published by Yale University Press is an in depth read.

To research the journey and the posts, I also used some of the Victoria County History volumes for the appropriate counties (these can be found online), as well as various publications on the churches and abbeys on the route.

Edward I did remarry after Eleanor’s death. Nine years later in 1299 he married the 20 year old Margaret of France. Edward was 60.

Margaret and Edward had three children (Edward therefore had 19 children in total). The first two were boys. The third was a daughter born on the 4th of May 1306. This daughter was named Eleanor, and whilst this was a common name for women in royal families at the time, she must have been named Eleanor after Edward’s first wife who had died almost 16 years before.

Unfortunately, Eleanor did not live for too long, dying in 1311.

Edward I died in 1307 at the age of 68. Margaret of France was 26 when widowed, but never remarried. Edward I was followed by Eleanor’s eldest son, Edward II, who had a troubled reign, was forced to abdicate, and had a mysterious death in 1327.

Eleanor of Castile was a fascinating woman – one of those from history who would have been brilliant to meet.

Born into a Spanish royal family, highly educated, and with older brothers who were involved in military campaigns when Eleanor was growing up, and whilst her father was reclaiming much of Spain.

Edward was educated, although the English court did not tend to educate their children to the same level as Castile. Much of Edward’s childhood was also spent in Windsor Castle, and he was not so involved with military activity, beyond the basic training needed by a future king.

Edward was though successful when it came to military campaigns. His conquest of Wales led to the building of the string of Welsh castles such as Caernarfon and Harlech castles.

Edward was also brutal in his campaigns in Scotland, focusing brutally on those he thought were disloyal, to such an extent that he acquired the nickname of Hammer of the Scots.

How much of Edward’s success was due to Eleanor would be interesting to discover.

As usual, there is so much I have had to leave out from the format of a blog post (the books mentioned above are well worth a read), but thank you for accompanying me on this journey, alongside Eleanor of Castile.

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Eleanor Crosses – St Albans and Waltham Cross

We are getting closer to London in our journey following the route of the funeral procession of Eleanor of Castile. There are just two overnight stops remaining before the procession heads to the City of London and then Westminster Abbey. These stops are at St Albans and Waltham Cross, shown as blue dots in the following map (© OpenStreetMap contributors):

Route of Eleanor of Castile

Before stopping at St Albans, there is more to discover about the life of Eleanor of Castile.

The marriage of Eleanor and Edward was based on rival claims for the Duchy of Gascony, part of Aquitaine in southern France, which was part of the Angevin Empire and ruled over by English kings through the House of Plantagenet. The marriage settled these rival claims by uniting the English throne with that of Castile through the marriage.

Medieval royal marriages also had another key purpose – to produce an heir to the throne.

Having a son to take over the throne was a key concern for medieval kings. If there were no children from a royal marriage then on the death of a king there would be many competing claims from rival factions within the extended family. This would often result in conflict and confusion in the country until a new monarch was finally agreed.

Edward, being the eldest son of Henry III, therefore had an undisputed claim to the throne. The fact that he had also distinguished himself in many of the conflicts that his father had with the Barons and also on campaigns in Wales, along with Edward’s time on Crusade in the Middle East, also helped support his claim to the English Crown.

The fact that it was just under two years from Henry III’s death, to Edward’s return to England and his coronation shows that there was no competition for the crown.

In carrying out this expectation of a Queen, Eleanor had 16 children, the first, a stillborn girl, when she was at the ridiculously young age of 14.

Thankfully there then appears to have been a gap of 9 years before the first of her remaining 15 children would be born.

Her children are listed in the following table:

Eleanor of Castile's children

The table shows that from 1263 to 1284, Eleanor was in an almost permanent state of pregnancy. This was in addition to travelling with Edward on his various campaigns and royal visits, including his time on Crusade, when Eleanor was still giving birth as they travelled across Europe and the Middle East.

The table shows the very high early death rate among her children. Her last child, Edward, born in April 1284 would be the surviving son, who would become Edward II. All Eleanor’s other sons died at a relatively young age. The only other son that lived to any age was Alfonso who died at the age of 11. If he had of lived, England would have had a King Alfonso I rather than an Edward II.

Her children are part of one of the two main criticisms of Eleanor. She was said to be rather detached from her children, and would not hurry to be by their side, even when one was close to death.

The other criticism is in how she acquired an extensive holding of properties across the country. One of the methods used was that if a property owner was in debt, and could not pay, she would cancel the debt, and take the property.

It is obviously impossible to know the true character of someone from the 13th century, however, from my reading (sources in the final post), Eleanor comes across as an educated, strong woman, finding her own way to survive in the challenging environment surrounding a medieval queen.

Regarding her children, the fact that she was pregnant almost continuously for twenty years must have been a considerable burden, both mentally and physically. During this period, she was travelling with Edward at a time when travel was not that easy.

Children would not always have accompanied a King and Queen. Boys would have been kept at safer locations until they were of fighting age, girls would have been prepared for the royal marriage market of alliances between families and countries. Boys and girls would both have been given experience of life at Court when they were at an appropriate age.

Eleanor’s approach to her children may also have been a defence mechanism given the number that died so young.

Regarding her property holdings, which were extensive, these were encouraged by Edward. Usually a Queen would have outlived a King, and it appears that Edward encouraged Eleanor to have sufficient properties so that after his death, she would have been financially independent.

Again, it is impossible to really know a person at a distance of over 700 years, and who lived in a period of the country’s history that is so very different to today.

Back to the route that the procession followed, and after leaving Dunstable, the next overnight stop was at:

St Albans

St Albans would have been a logical destination for the procession carrying Eleanor’s body to London, due to the important religious monastery that was at the heart of the town.

This had been founded in around 793 by King Offa as a Benedictine monastery. The reason for the monastery goes back to the Roman period, and Britain’s first saint who would give his name to the town.

Alban was apparently a resident of the Roman city of Verulamium in the 3rd century. Verulamium was located not far from the centre of the current town. Alban gave shelter to a Christian priest who was fleeing from Roman persecution. Alban learned more about the Christian faith from the priest and decided to swap clothes, let the priest escape and to take his place.

The priest was later caught, however Alban would not renounce his new found faith, so he was given the same death sentence as the priest, taken outside the Roman city and beheaded.

The monastery and church was rebuilt after the Norman conquest, and is unusual in that it made use of the bricks from the old Roman city, for a large part of its construction, and this is still very evident today.

An Eleanor cross was built to mark Eleanor’s overnight stop at St Alban’s, however this was destroyed, parts remaining until 1703 when these were replaced by a new market cross, which has also since been taken down.

To find the site of the cross, we had to find the site of the clock tower, which was easy to find to the south of the town:

St Albans Clock Tower

There are two plaques on the tower. The first records that the tower is near the site of the Eleanor Cross:

St Albans Eleanor Cross

The second provides some detail on the clock tower:

St Albans Clock Tower

The clock tower is a scheduled ancient monument and is Grade I listed.

The clock tower appears to have been built due to a conflict between the abbot of St. Albans and the rest of the town. The clock tower allowed the town to sound their own hours, and the time of a curfew, independently of the abbot and the church.

The plaque makes two claims regarding French Row and the Fleur de Lys Inn. French Row is adjacent to the clock tower:

French Row

The plaque makes the claim that French troops (the Dauphin was the heir to the French throne) occupied French Row in 1216. This may be true, although I cannot find any firm confirmation. French troops did land in England in support of the Barons during their conflict with King John, and there was a French claim to the English crown at the time.

The second claim, that John, King of France was detained in the Fleur-de-Lys pub is repeated on a large sign on the front of the pub:

Fleur de Lys pub St Albans

The St Albans Architectural and Archaeological Society has researched this claim and can “find no primary evidence for the French king’s staying in or on the site of the Fleur”.

St Albans Cathedral is a very large building that hints at the importance of the site in past centuries.

St Albans Cathedral

The original monastery buildings occupied the land surrounding the church. The church, and one other building which we will find later, are all that have survived, and there is a large open space south of the church that runs down to the River Ver.

As with many of the other religious buildings we have met on this journey, the monastery was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1539 during the dissolution, and the monastery and church buildings were plundered for valuables and building materials.

The church was at risk, but was brought by the town of St Albans in 1551 to become a parish church, although it appears that the church was not maintained and rather neglected. Too large a church for a small market town to support.

The church became an Abbey in 1877, and then went through a period of expensive and insensitive Victorian restoration.

The west front of the Abbey today:

St Albans Cathedral

A view of the tower and upper part of some of the walls shows the use of brick in the construction of the abbey, much from the Roman town of Verulamium.

St Albans Cathedral

The interior of the abbey is much as you would expect of a medieval building, but has some unique decorative features:

St Albans Cathedral

Looking up towards the base of the tower:

St Albans Cathedral

There are features within the abbey that hint at the former size of the monastery. The following door once led to external monastic buildings and the Abbot would lead monks into the church through the doorway:

St Albans Cathedral

Graffiti which appears to date from 1668:

St Albans Cathedral

The nave of St. Albans Cathedral is the longest in the country at 85 metres:

St Albans Cathedral

On many of the columns along the side of the nave are medieval wall paintings, many of which date from the early 13th century:

St Albans Cathedral

So it is possible that many of these paintings were there when Eleanor’s coffin rested overnight in the cathedral.

St Albans Cathedral

Luckily these paintings survived the 19th century “restoration”, and serve to illustrate how decorated and colourful abbeys and churches were before the dissolution.

These highly decorated interiors suffered during the dissolution, then during the English Civil War, and again during 19th century, Victorian restoration. All these periods of change resulted in rather plain church interiors, often white washed walls, and very simple decoration at best.

St Albans Cathedral

The interior of the roof of the church was also decorated, and on the wall is a panel taken from the roof of the tower, that was decorated in the fifteenth century:

St Albans Cathedral

The Shrine of Saint Alban:

St Albans Cathedral

St Alban was buried on the site of the church, and a shrine was built in 1308, however this shrine was destroyed during the dissolution. Parts from the original shrine were used to build the new shrine in 1872 with additional work in 1993.

Relics of St Alban were lost during the dissolution.

The Abbey has a second shrine, this to St Amphibalus who was the Christian priest protected by St Alban. Again this is an 1872 rebuild of an earlier mediaeval shrine:

St Albans Cathedral

The High Altar:

St Albans Cathedral

The High Altar was considerably restored during the 19th century, including replacement of the statues that had originally stood in the niches across the Altar Screen.

Eleanor’s body would have spent the night in front of the High Altar, with a watch being kept over her coffin and prayers being said during the night.

Apart from the Abbey, the only other building that survived from the original monastery is the Great Gateway:

St Albans Gatehouse

The size of the Great Gateway, as well as the Abbey, helps us understand the overall size and construction of the original monastery, as it was when Eleanor stayed there in December 1290.

Leaving St. Albans, the procession headed to the last town prior to entering the City of London. This town would modify its name due to Eleanor’s visit and became:

Waltham Cross

The destination of the procession was Waltham Abbey, a short distance to the east of Waltham Cross. The church at Waltham Abbey was an important religious centre and was reputed to be the place where King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England was alleged to have been buried after his body was brought back to the church after the Battle of Hastings.

Waltham Abbey is to the east of St Albans, and the route south from St Albans would have been a shorter route into London, however by heading east, the procession would have been able to enter the City from the north east and therefore head through the City on the route to Westminster.

Edward I also had to leave the procession at St Albans and head directly to London, presumably to arrange the final details of the procession through the City, and the funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Waltham Cross is the site of one of the few remaining crosses, and it was built at a key cross roads where the procession would have passed from St Albans to Waltham Abbey, and then from Waltham Abbey back to pick up the road to the City

Today, the crossroads have disappeared, and the cross stands in the middle of a pedestrianised area:

Waltham Cross

The cross has the same standard design as the other surviving crosses, with the lower tier consisting of decoration and coats of arms, above are statues of Eleanor, and above a decorated section leading to a cross.

Waltham Cross

The arms of England and Ponthieu:

Waltham Cross

The cross looks to have been significantly restored. The stone of the lower section looks to be a slightly different colour to the upper sections, and is very clean. The arms and surrounding carvings show no sign of the type of erosion which would have occurred to stone over centuries.

The arms of England and Eleanor of Castile:

Waltham Cross

Eleanor looks out from the mid tier of the cross:

Waltham Cross

That the cross has been considerably restored, and how the area around the cross has changed, can be seen in early prints of the cross, for example the heavy state of decay in the following 18th century print  (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Waltham Cross

The cross in 1720  (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Waltham Cross

The cross in the early 19th century is shown in the following print. This illustrates that, as with the other surviving crosses, and probably with all the crosses that have been lost, they were placed in prominent positions where they could be seen by both locals, and those traveling along the roads of the country (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

Waltham Cross

A photo of the cross from 1864  (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Waltham Cross

Comparing the photo of the cross in 1864, and the previous prints of the cross, it would appear that significant restoration took place during the first half of the 19th century. The cross in 1864 (with a clean up) looks much the same as the cross we see today, although without the houses and the road.

As with Stamford, Waltham Cross retains an inn sign across what was the road:

Waltham Cross

This was for the Four Swans Hostelry, which was a coaching inn on the road through Waltham Cross. There was an inn sign hanging below the length of timber across the street, and on the sign was a claim that the inn dated from 1260, so if this claim was true, it would have been there when the procession carrying Eleanor’s body passed by on the way to Waltham Abbey.

Comparing the prints and 1864 photo of the cross shows a remarkable change in the area surrounding the cross. Once a cross roads, with an inn and houses, the cross now standards in the middle of a pedestrianised shopping centre:

Waltham Cross

On Thursday the 14th of December 1290, the procession left Waltham Abbey, passed through the crossroads that would later become Waltham Cross (the area in the above photo), and headed towards London, which will be the subject of the final post of this series.

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Eleanor Crosses – Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn and Dunstable

Having left Geddington in the last post, today’s post will visit the next four sites where the procession taking Eleanor of Castile’s body to Westminster Abbey stopped overnight. The stops are shown as blue dots in the following map and are at Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn and Dunstable (© OpenStreetMap contributors):

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

Leaving Geddington, the procession headed towards:

Hardingstone

Just south of Northampton, Google maps shows this as a distance of 22 miles, however they probably went through Kettering rather than taking the bypass, so the distance was around 20 miles.

Hardingstone has now been swallowed up in the suburbs of Northamption, but in 1290 it was a very small village, and the destination of the procession was Delapre Abbey, to the south of Northampton, and north-west of Hardingstone.

Delapre Abbey was founded around the year 1145. It was a Cluniac nunnery, which followed the Benedictine Cluny Abbey in France.

In 1290, the abbess was Margery de Wolaston, and she would have looked after Eleanor’s coffin and arranged for prayers to be said throughout the night. Being a nunnery, Edward would have been unable to stay, so he retired to Northampton Castle for the night.

A cross was built, not in the grounds of the nunnery, but on a high point alongside a road that ran along the western perimeter of the nunnery’s grounds.

That road today is the A508, with the name of London Road, implying that it was the main road leading out of Northampton in the direction of London.

Travelling along the A508, it was easy to spot the Eleanor Cross:

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

The Hardingstone cross is one of the few survivors, and although it has lost the very top of the cross, it is still an incredibly impressive monument, and is more substantial than the Geddington cross.

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

Possibly because of their care of Eleanor’s body, Edward I gave the abbess a grant of royal protection in 1294, although by 1300 the abbey’s standards seemed to have slipped as according to the Victoria County History edition for Northampton, “The bishop in 1300 issued a mandate to the archdeacon of Northampton to denounce Isabel de Clouville, Maud Rychemers, and Ermentrude de Newark, professed nuns of Delapré, who had discarded the habit of religion and notoriously lived a secular life, as apostate nuns, also to inquire as to who had aided them in their apostasy.”

The abbey was surrendered to the Crown in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries, and a few years later it was in private ownership where it would remain for the next few centuries.

Northampton Corporation purchased the building in 1946, and the building soon housed the County Records Office. It is now owned by the Friends of Delapré Abbey, and is open to visit.

In the 1897 revision of the Ordnance Survey, Delapre Abbey is shown, with Queen Eleanor’s Cross marked towards the lower left of the abbey grounds. The village of Hardingstone is lower right. Apart from the abbey grounds, today, much of this area of the map has been built over (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland“).

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

The following print shows the Eleanor Cross, when there was still a cross at the very top. The print is dated 1802 (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

The cross is missing in this photo from later in the 19th century (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

I crossed over the London Road to take a closer look.

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

There is a plinth on the grass which adds some confusion to the top of the cross as it states that “The design of the original top is unknown. the present broken shaft having been placed in position in 1840”. I am not sure how that works with the earlier print, and whether there was a cross on the top when the print was made, or whether this was some artistic license being used.

On the wall to the side of the cross, along the edge of the old grounds of Delapre Abbey, there is a set of stones:

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

The large stone on the left of the panel has some very faded text. Fortunently, the panel at the top has a copy of the text:

“In everlasting memory of conjugal love, the honourable assembly of judges of the County of Northampton resolved to restore this monument to Queen Eleanor when it had nearly fallen down by reason of age in that most auspicious year 1713 in which Anne, the Glory of Mighty Britain, the most powerful avenger of the oppressed, the arbitress of peace and war, after Germany had been set free, Belgium made more secure in her defences, the French overcome in more than ten battles by her own and by the arms of her allies, made an end of conquering and restored peace to Europe after she had given it freedom.”

Well that confirms that the cross was significantly repaired in 1713, followed by some major crawling to Queen Anne.

The panel also states that the three stones to the right are the original stones from around 1291 when the cross was built, removed from the cross during restoration in 1984. The stones were the bases for three of the statues of Eleanor.

The text from 1713 starts with “In everlasting memory of conjugal love“, and it is the love between Eleanor and Edward that has really defined their story.

Royal marriages were almost always marriages aimed at establishing relationships between different royal families, to cement alliances, to prevent war etc. They were very rarely for love, and although Eleanor and Edward’s marriage was arranged for them, and they were incredibly young at the time, they do appear to have been devoted to each other.

Very unusually for medieval Kings, Edward I appears to have been faithful to Eleanor. He did not have any mistresses which was considered normal practice at the time.

Eleanor travelled widely with Edward, including when in 1270 Edward left the country to join the French King Louis IX on Crusade.

The French King died of the plaque before Edward could join him, so Edward continued to Acre (in what is now Israel) to free the city from Islamic control.

Edward’s force was relatively small, so had very little success, and he had to agree a truce with the Baibars or Baybers – Egyptian rulers of much of the eastern Mediterranean.

During his time in the middle east, he narrowly survived a murder attempt, when he was stabbed by a dagger which was believed to be poisoned. The person who attempted to murder Edward was an Assassin, from an order or sect of Shia Islam that existed middle ages, and from where the term used to describe a hired or professional murderer has come from.

Edward and Eleanor left Acre for Sicily, and it was here that news finally reached them that Edward’s father, Henry III had died on the 16th of November 1272.

On the death of a king, what would frequently happen was a rush back to one of the main centers of Royal power, such as London or Winchester to claim the throne. This was a time when there were often many competing claimants for the throne, however Edward as the eldest son of Henry III, and because of the way he had supported his father during many previous rebellions, and his exploits on Crusade, was proclaimed King in his absence, and it would be just under two years before he finally arrived back in London and where he was crowned at Westminster Abbey in August 1274.

Eleanor has been with Edward during all this time away on Crusade, whilst in Sicily, and on the journey back

Returning to the Hardingstone Cross, and it has the same recurring features that are found on many other original or later monuments to Eleanor.

The arms of England, Eleanor of Castile and the arms of Ponthieu:

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

Whilst the Hardingstone cross is more substantial than the cross at Geddington, it follows the standard design of having a lower section with coats of arms, with above a section with statues of Eleanor. I assume due to the wearing of the stone, these statues are original, and they have been looking out from the cross for around 730 years:

Hardingstone Eleanor Cross

The Hardingstone cross is a remarkable survivor and an unusual sight for those travelling along the A508. A reminder of the area’s medieval history.

Leaving Hardingstone, the next stop is:

Stony Stratford

I have read some accounts that state that the stop at Stony Stratford was not the intended destination for the night, and that the procession had planned to continue on to Woburn. Stony Stratford is a short journey of around 14 miles from Hardingstone, much shorter than the typical 20 miles a day that the procession had been achieving.

As with some of the other places on the journey, Stony Stratford is the location of a crossing point over a river, the River Great Ouse, so it may be the crossing that dictated the route via the town, as well as the road that runs through the town.

There is no record as to where either Edward or Eleanor’s body stayed during the stop in Stony Stratford. A cross was built here between 1291 and 1293 by John of Battle, however it was destroyed during the English Civil War and there is nothing left of the cross today. There is a plaque on a building marking roughly where the cross was located, towards the northern end of the main street, so stopping in Stony Stratford, the plaque was my first destination, seen in the following photo on the white wall:

Eleanor Cross Stony Stratford

Details of the plaque:

Eleanor Cross Stony Stratford

Stony Stratford is a wonderful town, with a very long high street. I have not been here since the late 1970s when as a BT apprentice I was training at nearby Bletchley and the pubs of Stony Stratford were an attraction.

The view along Stony Stratford High Street:

Eleanor Cross Stony Stratford

Stony Stratford is one of those towns, like Grantham in the previous post, that is on a major, long distance road. Before being bypassed, the A5 ran through Stony Stratford.

The A5 runs from Marble Arch, through Shrewsbury, and on to the Holyhead ferry terminal in Anglesey. This latter part was an extension of the road in the early 19th century by Thomas Telford.

For this reason, Stony Stratford has a number of large hotels and inns which would have been coaching inns when stagecoaches passed through the town. One of these is the Cock Hotel:

Cock Hotel Stony Stratford

Another is the Bull Hotel:

The Bull Hotel Stony Stratford

Which has a plaque on the wall recording the age of the hotel and a link with the Grand Union Canal:

Grand Union Canal Stony Stratford

Stony Stratford also has some wonderful shops, including Odell & Co, the type of hardware store that has many of their products on view on the pavement outside:

Stony Stratford

The Old George, an old pub which has a secret that explains why the A5 runs through Stony Stratford:

The Old George Stony Stratford

A plaque on the side of the pub explains that the ground floor dates from 1609 and remains at the original Watling Street road level:

The Old George Stony Stratford

Watling Street is an incredibly old road, parts of which may predate the Roman period, but it was the Roman’s that established the road as a paved route from Dover, passing by Reculver, crossing the Thames in London, then heading up to Wroxeter. (I wrote about Reculver here, and Wroxeter here).

The area to the south west of Stony Stratford is now extremely built up, as this was the site where the new town of Milton Keynes was built. The street that was Watling Street, and then the A5 is now partly buried within the Milton Keynes development, however if we look at one of the old Bartholomew Contour maps of the country, we can see Watling Street as one of the easily identifiable, very straight, Roman roads.

In the following extract, Stony Stratford is just off the top left corner (it was just on the edge of a different map), and Watling Street can be seen running diagonally across the map from top left to bottom right:

Watling Street

The A5 / Watling Street was an important road for centuries, and is why Stony Stratford High Street is long and straight and is why the town has so many large inns and hotels.

There is another plaque on a building that was once a pub:

Rose and Crown Inn Stony Stratford

Where the plaque tells another Royal story that has touched Stony Stratford:

Rose and Crown Inn Stony Stratford

Stony Stratford is a wonderful, historic town, however the 21st century does roam the streets, in the form of Starship delivery robots, following their 2020 launch in Northampton, and expansion across towns in the area.

Starship Stony Stratford

Leaving Stony Stratford, the procession with Eleanor’s body continued south on the A5 / Watling Street, and then made a small detour to head to:

Woburn

The destination was Woburn Abbey, a Cistercian monastic establishment founded in 1145. The Eleanor Cross marking the overnight stay in Woburn has disappeared, and there is no record of its appearance or a confirmed location.

One place to visit in the town to find a reference to the cross is the old St. Mary’s church which is now run by the Woburn Heritage Centre Trust:

Woburn Eleanor Cross

Where there is a sign by the entrance that records Eleanor’s stop in Woburn, and that the cross could have been built in frount of the chapel that was originally on the site of the current church building:

Woburn Eleanor Cross

Woburn Abbey, where the body is believed to have stayed overnight, and which is the obvious location being a religious establishment, lasted until the mid-16th century, when it was taken by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries.

In 1290, Woburn Abbey was a Cistercian monastic establishment and had been founded in 1145.

Henry VIII gave the property and the surrounding lands to John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford, and the lands and house that was built following the demolition of the original abbey buildings, is still in the possession of the Russell family. A prime example of how many large land owners today, owe their holdings to being in favour with the monarch in previous centuries.

The Russell family have very many London connections, for example with the development of parts of Bloomsbury, and with locations such as Russell Square, named after the Russell family, which I wrote about here.

Woburn has a wonderful high street, mainly built of brick:

Woburn High Street

Many of the buildings in Woburn have a listing, and the building in the centre of the following photo with the Woburn China Shop is Grade II listed:

Woburn High Street

The majority of buildings to left and right of the following photo are also Grade II listed:

Woburn High Street

After leaving Woburn Abbey, the procession must have returned to the A5 / Watling Street and continued on the route to London for the next overnight stop at:

Dunstable

As with Stony Stratford, the original A5 / Watling Street ran through the town of Dunstable, and although now partly by-passed by the M1, the main street through Dunstable remains very busy.

There are no remains of the Eleanor Cross built in the town, however there is a plaque recording the approximate location. There is a large cross roads to the south of the town, and the following photo was taken from the south west corner of the cross roads, looking at the NatWest Bank on the opposite corner.

Dunstable Eleanor Cross

A plaque can just be seen in the above photo, to the left of the NatWest Building.

This plaque records that the cross roads was the site of an Eleanor Cross, built between 1291 and 1291 by John of Battle.

Dunstable Eleanor Cross

William Camden, the 16th / 17th century antiquarian, recorded the cross as being engraved with heraldic arms and statues of Eleanor, so as the cross was built by the same stone mason as earlier crosses, and based on William Camden’s description, it must have been very similar to the cross at Hardingstone.

The cross was destroyed during the Civil War by soldiers of Sir Thomas Fairfax, who was Lord General of the New Model Army.

The plaque records that Eleanor’s body rested in the Priory Church for the night of the 11th of December 1290.

Part of the Priory Church of Dunstable Priory still remains and it would have been in the following church where Eleanor’s body rested:

Dunstable Priory Church

The Priory Church looks incredibly impressive today, but it is only part of the original church (the nave), which in turn was part of the overall priory buildings and grounds.

Dunstable Priory had been founded in 1132 as an Augustinian monastic establishment. It really is remarkable how many religious properties there were across the country in the medieval period, however as with so many others, Dunstable Priory was taken by the Crown in the mid 16th century.

The priory then fell into decay, stones of the buildings were taken for other construction projects, and the remains of the Priory Church became a parish church.

Apart from the church, not much else of the Priory remains. One of the few examples being what is left of the Priory Gatehouse:

Dunstable Priory Church

The size, detail and quality of carving of what remains of the Priory Church gives an impression of what the overall Priory site must have looked like when Eleanor’s body was rested here overnight in frount of the high altar.

Dunstable Priory Church

The rear of the Priory Church is bricked up. This is where the church would have continued, and there are carved remains that show how the church was decorated. This figure could well have looked on as Eleanor was in the church:

Dunstable Priory Church

From Dunstable, there were only two more stops before reaching the City of London, and these stops will be covered in the next post, before an exploration of the London crosses, and Eleanor’s final resting place, in the final post of the series.

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Eleanor Crosses – Grantham, Stamford and Geddington

Having left Lincoln, following the route that the procession taking the body of Eleanor of Castile to Westminster Abbey, in today’s post, I am visiting Grantham, Stamford and Geddington, marked with blue circles in the following map, which shows the overall route:

Eleanor Cross route

In two of these places, the original cross was destroyed many years ago, however I also find the most complete example of an original Eleanor Cross.

I also find three interesting places, the site of some of my father’s photos, and what is believed to be the only living pub sign in the country.

The first stop is at:

Grantham

Grantham, roughly 25 miles to the south of Lincoln, was the first of the overnight stopping places on the journey to London.

There is no exact location of the cross that was built to mark the overnight stop, or where Eleanor’s body rested for the night. English Heritage states that the cross was in the widest part of the High Street, by St Peter’s Hill.

Eleanor’s body may have rested at the parish church of St Wulfram, or in the Grey Friars property where the Franciscans had recently settled. The Victoria County History of Lincoln, published in 1906 records that Edward I “gave these friars 12s. 8d. for two days’ pittance and 21s. for three days’ pittance”, so they must have been in favour and therefore they could have looked after the body.

The Eleanor Cross was destroyed during the Civil War in the 1640s, and there are no confirmed remains of the cross to be seen, however English Heritage state that some of the stones from the Eleanor Cross may have been used to repair / rebuild Grantham’s market cross, so this was the first destination on arriving in Grantham.

Grantham’s market cross seen from the main street running through the town:

Market Cross Grantham

My father visited Grantham on the 25th of July 1952, almost 70 years to the day of our visit. Grantham has been on the list for a visit so I can track down the location of his photos, and the project to follow the route of the 1290 procession also provided the opportunity for some then and now photos.

At the road junction from where I had photographed the market cross shown above, is the Angel Inn. A plaque on the wall by the Grantham Civic Society states that the gatehouse inn dates from the 15th century and that King Richard III received the Great Seal here in 1483, and that over the years other monarchs have also stayed in the inn.

A1 Grantham

Seventy years ago, my father took a photo of the same view:

A1 Grantham

The road that runs through Grantham, and is the road in front of the Angel Inn in the above two photos is now the B1124, however if you take a look at the direction sign in the photo, this was originally the A1, or the Great North Road – the main road to the north from London.

If I look at a London street atlas of the time, the A1 is shown starting at the junction of St Martin’s Le Grande and Cheapside, and Aldersgate Street is still marked as the A1. Detail of the 1952 direction sign:

A1 Grantham

Walking down to the market cross, and it is located in a large open space, which at one time held the town’s local market.

The cross is Grade II listed, and along with the surrounding space are classified as a scheduled ancient monument, and intriguingly the listing states that this does not cover the surrounding paving stones, but does cover the ground below due to the lack of development probably preserving ancient remains from the construction of the cross.

The cross is believed to be medieval in origin, but with later repairs and restorations, when some of the stone from the Eleanor Cross may have been used.

View of Grantham’s market cross:

Market Cross Grantham

On his 1952 visit to Grantham, my father also photographed the market cross, and the photo below shows roughly the same view as my 2022 photo above.

Market Cross Grantham

In 1952, the large building behind the cross was the Blue Lion Hotel. Today, the building appears to be a private house. The van to the left of the cross was Welbourns Ices and Snacks.

A minor detail of how things change, the cross on the top of the market cross appears to have turned by 90 degrees at some point over the last 70 years.

Another feature that my father photographed near the cross was a water conduit:

Conduit Grantham

A conduit is a building that contained a cistern, or holding tank for water, and allowed water to be taken via a form of tap on the building by the local population.

The conduit has its origins with the Grey Friars who purchased the land around a spring outside of Grantham and piped the water to their property.

In 1597 the water supply was extended by pipe to the conduit in the market place. The conduit and pipeline was constructed by the Corporation of Grantham.

The conduit has seen many repairs since it was built, in 1927 the roof was replaced, along with three of the distinctive pinnacles.

Conduit Grantham

The conduit today:

Conduit Grantham

View from the front of the conduit, with the date near the top, and the bowl below where water was drawn off from the conduit:

Conduit Grantham

Rear of the conduit in the corner of the market place with the cross in the background:

Conduit Grantham

Grantham has a number of interesting historical features, and there was a pub I wanted to find, so we went for a walk.

A brick building on the corner of the street down to the market cross has a plaque:

Grantham

The plaque records that a parcel of land was given to the “Commonality of Grantham” by Richard Curtis in 1494:

Grantham

An end of terrace house has a blue plaque that records that the early antiquarian Rev. Dr. William Stukeley lived in a house near the site of the plaque between 1726 and 1730:

William Stukeley Grantham

William Stukeley was the first to accurately record Stonehenge, and the stones at Avebury, and he also wrote a memoir of Grantham resident Isaac Newton.

Another of my father’s photos in Grantham was of a pub which was, and I believe still is, known as the only pub in the country with a living pub sign.

This is the Beehive in 1952:

Beehive pub Grantham

The Beehive has a beehive in the tree directly outside the front of the building. It was visible in my father’s photo above, however in my 2022 photo from the same side of the tree, it was covered with leaves:

Beehive pub Grantham

View from the other side of the tree:

Beehive pub Grantham

Not really visible in my 2022 photos, but there were bees flying within the branches of the tree.

The same view in 2022, where the beehive is just visible to the left of the tree:

Beehive pub Grantham

The sign was restored in 2017, and reads: “Stop traveler this wonderous sign explore and say when thou hast view’d it o’er and o’er now Grantham now has two rarities are thine a lofty steeple and a living sign”.

The Beehive pub sign:

Beehive pub Grantham

I have found various dates for the age of the pub. The restoration of the sign was by the Grantham Civic Society, and a newspaper article in the Grantham Journal states that the pub dates back to at least 1783 when the pub was drawn by John Claude Nattes, with the beehive being in existence at that time.

My father took the following photo of the pub in 1952:

Beehive pub Grantham

Visiting the sites photographed by my father has taught me that you cannot always believe what you see. The following photo shows the Beehive pub in 2022. in the above 1952 photo is appears to be only the smaller part on the left of the pub in 2022. In 1952 there was a building with a very different frontage to the right of the first ground floor window.

Beehive pub Grantham

I do not know if the building on the right of my father’s photo was part of the pub, but it appears to have been a very different building to the right half of the pub today.

A recent statue in Grantham has resulted in some rather mixed feelings – the statue of Margaret Thatcher, who was born in Grantham in 1925:

Margaret Thatcher Grantham

Soon after being unveiled, people started throwing eggs at it, and an enterprising individual started selling eggs in front of the statue. CCTV was installed and there was a prosecution. The statue was very egg free on the day of our visit.

Another statue is that of Isaac Newton:

Isaac newton Grantham

Newton was educated at the King’s School in Grantham, and today, as well as the statue, he has a shopping centre named after him:

Issac Newton Grantham

A blue plaque can be seen to the right of The George in the following photo. The plaque states that it is on the site of a house owned by Mr Clarke, the Apothacary, and that Isaac Newton lodged in the house whilst he was attending school in Grantham between 1655 and 1660.

The George Grantham

The George was built in 1789 as a coaching inn, servicing the considerable traffic that would have run through the town when the Great North Road / A1 ran through the town. It is now a shopping centre.

The next stop as the body of Eleanor was carried towards London would be further south along the old Great North Road, at:

Stamford

The Stamford Eleanor Cross was another of the those probably destroyed during the English Civil War, it seems to be the period most commonly referenced in a number of the books I have consulted.

The English Heritage page on the cross states that it is not known exactly when the cross was destroyed, although it was before the mid 18th century. The page also refers to William Stukeley recording the hexagonal steps of the cross, which is all that survived in 1745.

We have already seen a plaque to Stukeley in Grantham, which was his destination after he moved out of London. Whilst in Grantham he married, and found that his income was insufficient to support a family, and when he saw that the living of All Saints in Stamford was vacant and provided an income of £589 per annum, he used his contacts to secure the role, and moved the Stamford.

There is no confirmed location for either the original cross, or where Eleanor’s body was rested overnight whilst in Stamford.

In 2008. to commemorate the original Eleanor Cross, a representative spire was installed in Stamford’s Sheep Market:

Eleanor Cross Stamford

Part of the spire has a spiral of roses. These were the personal badge of Edward 1st.

Eleanor Cross Stamford

Another view of the spire in Stamford’s Sheep Market:

Eleanor Cross Stamford

Stamford is another very old town, and like Grantham, it was on the old Great North Road / A1, which now bypasses the town, and the high street is now pedestrianised which makes for a very pleasant environment:

Stamford

Stamford shows its age through the buildings that line the streets of the town. Many built of local stone, with the following house dating from 1655 according to the small plaque above the upper window:

Stamford

The vacuum store:

Stamford

Stamford is roughly 22 miles from Grantham, and this seems to be about the average distance travelled by the procession carrying Eleanor’s body in a day.

Eleanor died at the end of November, so the procession to London took place during the first weeks of December. These were weeks of short days and long nights. possibly cold and wet with poor road conditions so this must have been a difficult journey.

Nightly stops needed to be at a place where Eleanor’s body could be rested in a suitable place, and that there were appropriate lodgings for Edward I, and those who accompanied him on the journey to London.

The route also needed to avoid major obstacles such as rivers, and this is one of the reasons why Stamford was on the route, as in Stamford, the Great North Road crossed the River Welland, and still today, with the exception of the A1 by-pass of the town, the route over the Welland is the only crossing for some distance.

The following photo shows the bridge over the Welland on the approach into Stamford:

Stamford

View from the bridge to the west, where the River Welland splits into two before joining again in a couple of miles:

Stamford

Looking in the opposite direction, away from the town, along the old Great north Road:

The George Stamford

This stretch of the road is unique in retaining a wooden inn sign that stretches across the road. This is for the George Hotel which is on the right in the above photo.

The George is an old inn, again one of many coaching inns that were on the old Great North Road. The sign across the road, as well as the current view of the George dates from the 18th century.

The George Stamford

The George is certainly on the site of a centuries old inn, however the George’s claim that an ancient hostelry existed on the site in 947 is difficult to confirm. A hostelry could well have been next to a key river crossing on the main road from London to the north for many centuries.

A plaque on the hotel states “In medieval times when the house of the Holy Sepulcher stood on this site knights of Saint John of Jerusalem were entertained here. In the garden at the rear Crusaders in their black robes with white cross walked and talked. The gnarled mulberry tree dates from the time of James I. The main block of the hotel was erected in 1597 by Lord Burghley, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I. At least three kings and many other famous travelers have stayed here”.

Next to the George are a row of almshouses that have their origins back in the 12th century, when they formed part of the medieval hospital of St John the Baptist and St Thomas:

Stamford

For the next stop on the route to London, the procession left the Great North Road and headed across country to a small village, where I finally find a surviving Eleanor cross, at:

Geddington

The procession arrived at Geddington on the 6th of December 1290. Geddington is a small village, and the reason for choosing the village as a stop is that a royal hunting lodge was close by, just north of the church. The lodge had been built in 1129 and was used by royal hunting parties in the local forests, indeed Edward and Eleanor had stayed at the lodge in September of 1290.

Geddington has the best preserved of all the remaining Eleanor crosses, which is located in an open space at the centre of the village:

Geddington Eleanor cross

The cross has been repaired a number of times, and has been used for a rather gruesome, local custom. The book Old Crosses and Lynchgates by Aymer Vallance, published in 1933 reports that:

“Tradition says that a favourite sport of the place used to be squirrel-baiting. A sufficient number of wild squirrels having been caught for the purpose, would be turned loose in the village, where the crowds, surrounding them in a ring, with shouts and all manner of hideous noises, proceeded to hunt and beat the helpless victims to death. Sometimes the terrified little creatures would vainly seek refuge by running up the cross and trying to hide behind the pinnacles and tabernacle work. but their cruel tormentors ruthlessly dislodged them thence, pelting them with stones until they were driven forth and killed. The only marvel, in the circumstances, is that any part of the original stonework of the cross should have survived such reckless violence.”

Rather hard to believe that such a cruel activity took place in this quiet village space, however the past was a very different place.

The cross dominates the centre of the village. It is roughly 42 feet in height and can be seen from surrounding side streets, and from the raised graveyard of the nearby church:

Geddington Eleanor cross

English Heritage state that whilst Edward I stayed overnight in the hunting lodge, Eleanor’s body rested in the parish church of St Mary Magdalene:

Statues of Eleanor look out from half way up the cross:

Geddington Eleanor cross

On the body of the cross, we can see again the arms of Ponthieu and of Eleanor of Castile, along with the level of decoration on the cross:

Geddington Eleanor cross

Geddington has another treasure to find, a bridge that dates from around 1250, 40 years before the procession carrying Eleanor’s body passed through the village:

Geddington bridge

The Geddington bridge is over the River Ise and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument with a Grade II* listing. The Historic England listing states the bridge is “Circa 1250, with later repairs”, and some of those later repairs date from 1784 as there is a key stone in the middle arch with the date.

There was a wonderful little series of books published in 1932 by the Architectural Press titled Ancient Bridges, with each of the three books covering a different region. There is an entry covering the bridge in the volume for Mid and Eastern England:

“Three of its four arches are pointed in shape; but at least one of these appears to have been rebuilt, and the southern arch has been repaired with blue bricks. The cut-waters are immense, with correspondingly large recesses for foot-passengers, but these were neccessary as the parapets are less then 11 feet apart. The total span is 29 yards. A by-pass bridge has recently been built a short distance upstream of this ancient bridge.”

The bridge is too narrow for vehicles, and a ford is in the river alongside the bridge, where the water of the River Ise flows over a concrete base, allowing vehicles to cross. The large features projecting from the bridge are what were described as cut-waters in the above description.

Geddington bridge

The River Ise flowing away from the bridge on a summer’s day:

Geddington bridge

There is no way of knowing whether the procession carrying Eleanor’s body crossed the bridge. Geddington is today bypassed by the A4300, which crosses the River Ise over what must be the by-pass bridge mentioned in the 1932 book.

If the A4300 is not there, the bridge at Geddington is the only bridge over the river for a reasonable distance, so it is probably safe to assume that the procession did cross the bridge in 1290.

It would be interesting to know what the villagers of Geddington thought of the arrival of the procession with King Edward I, the body of Eleanor of Castile and the supporting party. Being December, they probably arrived after dark.

It must have been with a mix of fear and fascination that the villagers watched such a solemn procession arrive in their village, with the King of England, and the body of his dead Queen.

View from the bridge looking back to the cross in the centre of Geddington:

Geddington bridge

Geddington is a very different place to the location of the rest of the Eleanor crosses, and it has the Royal Hunting Lodge to thank for putting the village on the map with the superb 13th century cross.

The next post will continue the journey to Eleanor of Castile’s resting place at Westminster Cathedral.

alondoninheritance.com

Eleanor of Castile – A 13th Century Journey to London

I have always been fascinated by London’s place in the wider country. One aspect of this has been London as a destination for journeys over the centuries, which in the past has been driven by London’s role as a centre of royal, political, judicial, religious and commercial power. One such journey was in the 13th century, when the body of Queen Eleanor of Castile was brought from the place of her death near Lincoln, for burial in Westminster Abbey.

This was a long journey, and where the procession with Eleanor’s body stopped for the night, a cross would later be built to commemorate the journey, the Queen and provide a focal point for prayers for the Queen.

I have long wanted to follow the route, to find the remaining crosses, and the sites where they are missing, so this summer, we traveled the route, starting at Harby, the location of Eleanor’s death, through to Westminster Abbey.

Starting today, and with some additional posts during the coming week, join me on a trip across the country, from a small village in Nottinghamshire to a tomb in St Edward the Confessor’s chapel at Westminster Abbey, with the stopping points identified in the following map (© OpenStreetMap contributors):

Eleanor of Castile route of Eleanor crosses

The first red dot is at Harby, Nottinghamshire, then Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St. Albans, Waltham and then into Central London at Cheapside, Charing Cross and finally Westminster Abbey.

Today’s post covers the first two red dots, Harby and Lincoln.

Harby is a very small village, which although being very close to Lincoln, is on the edge of the county of Nottinghamshire. Harby is ringed on the left of the following map, showing a small village in a very rural location. Lincoln is the city on the right:

Eleanor of Castile

Arriving at the village of Harby, and the name sign at the entrance to the village includes a plaque to Queen Eleanor:

Eleanor of Castile

So who was Queen Eleanor of Castile, and how did she end up in the small village of Harby?

Eleanor of Castile was a remarkable woman.

Born in 1241 in Burgos, Spain, Eleanor was the daughter of Ferdinand III of Castile and Joan, Countess of Ponthieu.

Ferdinand III was responsible for the considerable expansion of Castile as he took back much of the south of what is now Spain that had been taken by the Almohad Caliphate, who had originally come from north Africa where they ruled extensive lands.

Ferdinand III took back the area then known as Al-Andalus, and the current name Andalusia is derived from the earlier Arabic name.

During Eleanor’s early life, her father Ferdinand was away for considerable periods of time, however he was responsible for ensuring his children’s education, and unusually for a royal daughter of the time, Eleanor was highly educated.

When not on military campaigns, Ferdinand and Joan would travel across Castile and Andalusia, and their children would often come with them along with the royal court. It is from her upbringing that Eleanor probably saw the role of a Queen as being expected to accompany the King and royal court on their travels, and she did travel with Edward I on his campaigns and journeys across his British kingdom, and abroad.

Ferdinand III died in Seville in 1252, and Eleanor’s half-brother, Alfonso X took over the Castilian crown.

As was standard in medieval royal families, children were often seen as important in establishing relationships through marriage with other royal families, with the settling and prevention of disputes, and to bring key European areas of land under the control of a royal family looking to expand their power.

This is what Eleanor would have been brought up to expect, and what did indeed end up happening, although unlike many royal marriages, Eleanor’s appeared to have been a very happy one, with Edward and Eleanor being devoted to each other.

The marriage that Alfonso arranged for Eleanor was based on rival claims for the Duchy of Gascony, part of Aquitaine in southern France, which was part of the Angevin Empire and ruled over by English kings through the House of Plantagenet. Europe at the time was a complex web of kingdoms and families, most of which also were part of a complex web of family relationships.

The marriage arranged by Alfonso X of Castile and Henry III of England resulted in the marriage of thirteen year old Eleanor with Henry’s son Edward, then aged fifteen and put together a relationship between the two royal families that would avoid a potential Castellan attack on Gascony.

They were married in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas in the city of Burgos, after which they spent a year in Gascony, with Eleanor then travelling to England, followed soon after by Edward. One wonders what a fourteen year old must have felt travelling to a new country, on her own, and without any supporting family members, although she must have had some members of Edward’s court with her.

The following image from an early fourteenth-century manuscript shows Edward and Eleanor, Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_I_and_Eleanor.jpg Attribution: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eleanor of Castile

I will cover more about Eleanor’s life as queen in the coming posts, but for now I will jump forward to the time of her death.

Prior to her death she had been in Gascony, and it seems she may have contracted a form of malaria whilst there. Following her return to England, along with Edward, she started a tour of the north with the intention of visiting many of the properties that Eleanor owned.

She was heading towards Lincoln, but became too unwell to continue travelling, and stopped at the house of Richard de Weston in the village of Harby, and it was here that she died on the 28th of November 1290.

Although an Eleanor Cross was not erected in Harby, as the place of her death, the village seemed the appropriate place to start if I was to follow her route back to Westminster Abbey.

Harby is a small village in the flat, agricultural lands to the west of Lincoln. Although very close to Lincoln, it is in the county of Nottinghamshire, not far from the border.

in the 2011 census, the village had a population of 336, and the village dates back to at least 1086, when Harby was mentioned in the Doomsday book. The Primary School in Harby is named after Queen Eleanor.

Very little has happened in Harby. Apart from the death of Eleanor of Castile, and more recently, the crash of an RAF Meteor jet into the centre of the village, killing the pilot, one person on the ground, injuring a number of others, and destroying some houses.

The site of the house of Richard de Weston is close to Harby church. The current church is not that old, having been built between 1874 and 1877. It has a rather impressive side tower and spire for a relatively small village church.

Eleanor of Castile Harby Church

Eleanor of Castile features prominently at the base of the tower:

Eleanor of Castile on Harby Church

The arms on the left are the three lions of the Royal Arms of England. It is interesting that the origins are these arms date back to the Plantagenet’s, a royal family who had their origins in Anjou, France.

The arms on either side of the statue are those of Eleanor of Castile (the arms of Leon and Castile). To the right are the arms of Ponthieu (Eleanor’s mother was Joan, Countess of Ponthieu and Eleanor became Countess of Ponthieu in her own right in 1279 following her mother’s death). We will see these arms many times on the journey to London.

Path and lamppost in Harby churchyard heading to the rear of the church:

Eleanor of Castile Harby Church

The moated house of Richard de Weston where Eleanor of Castile died is just to the west of Harby church, and the following view is to the west from the edge of the churchyard. An outline of the site is apparently still visible, believed to be the area surrounded by the small trees / bushes:

Eleanor of Castile Harby

In the hours following Eleanor’s death, Edward must have been at a complete loss. She had died at the age of 49, and should have expected a longer life despite the early mortality of the age. Her mother was still alive and Edward was probably expecting to spend more years with his wife. They had been married for 36 years.

Edward finally agreed to leave Harby, and a procession headed towards Lincoln, where the start of Eleanor’s last journey to London would begin, so Lincoln was my next stop.

The procession headed to St Katherine’s Priory which was to the south of Lincoln, just outside the City walls.

The priory was part of the Gilbertine Order, founded in the 12th century by a local Lincolnshire saint, St. Gilbert. On the arrival of the body of Eleanor, the monks had the task of removing many of the internal organs and then embalming the body of Eleanor, ready for the long journey to London. Her heart was placed in a box, and remaining internal organs in another box.

Eleanor’s coffin was then carried in procession up the steep hills through the centre of Lincoln that lead to Lincoln Cathedral.

We had stayed in Lincoln overnight, and getting up early had the benefit of walking the quiet streets of Lincoln up to the cathedral, before the shops and cafes opened, and lots of other people followed the same route.

The route from lower Lincoln up to the cathedral is via the High Street, the Strait, and then along the appropriately named Steep Hill.

Glimpses of the cathedral in the distance:

Steep Hill

Eleanor’s body was taken along these streets twice. Firstly from priory to the cathedral, then leaving the cathedral on the start of the journey to London.

Eleanor of Castile

Remarkably there is a house still standing that would have seen Eleanor’s body pass by. This is Jews House on the Strait:

Jews House

Jews House is believed to have been built between 1150 and 1160, so was already over 100 years old by the time of Eleanor’s death. Lincoln had a thriving Jewish community in the 11th and 12th centuries, and as Christians were not allowed to be moneylenders, Jews were known, and resented for holding this occupation.

1290, the same year as Eleanor’s death, was the year that the Jews were expelled from England, as Edward I had issued the Edict of Expulsion on the 18th of July 1290 requiring all Jews to be expelled from the country by All Saints Day (1st November).

This was the culmination of years of anti-Semitic attacks and persecution by both the population and the state.

Houses owned by the Jews were seized by the Crown at the time of expulsion, so Edward I may have been the owner of Jews House at the time of Eleanor’s death.

Continuing up Steep Hill, with Well Lane (and water pump) to the right:

Eleanor of Castile

Almost at the top:

Eleanor of Castile

There are two 12th century buildings on the streets leading up to Lincoln Cathedral. The first is Jews House, and the second is Norman House:

Norman House Lincoln

This house would also have seen Eleanor’s body pass. as it was built between 1170 and 1180, however the plaque on the wall to the right reveals some confusion between the two 12th century houses:

Norman House Lincoln

The plaque explains that Norman House is mistakenly known as “Aaron the Jew’s House”, and this confusion appears to extend to English Heritage, who have a photo of the building, but with the following text (see this link):

“This is probably the best known Norman house in England. It had a first-floor hall with shops below. It was built in 1170-80. It is particularly important as an example of 12th century domestic architecture. The house is also known as The Jew’s house. 900 years ago the Jews were able to work as money lenders and Christians were not. This led to discrimination and persecution. A period known as the Jewish Expulsion in 1290 resulted in violence against and murder of Jewish people including the female owner of the Jews House who was executed.”

Wikipedia’s entry on Aaron the Jew also states that Norman House “is sometimes associated with Aaron of Lincoln”.

I am going with the plaque on the house, as the other house I photographed earlier does have the name Jew’s House on a large name sign on the wall.

Further along the street is a much later house with another plaque:

T.E. Lawrence

The plaque records that the soldier and author T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) lived in the house in 1925. It is now Browns Restaurant and Pie Shop.

At the top of Steep Hill, and at the highest point in Lincoln is an open space, and at either side of this space are the two symbols of medieval power. The cathedral:

Lincoln Cathedral

And Lincoln Castle:

Lincoln Castle

Lincoln Castle was my first destination. An Eleanor cross had been built by Richard of Stowe in the vicinity of St Katherine’s Priory, however it had been destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century. The land and buildings of the priory were taken by the crown, and the site would later become the location of a Wesleyan chapel and then a parish church. The church closed in the 1970s and the building is now used as an events space.

Although what was the first Eleanor cross on the route to London had been destroyed in the 16th century, a small part has survived and can be seen in the grounds of Lincoln castle, and finding this was my aim in visiting the castle.

The surviving part of the Lincoln Eleanor cross, which has the folds of Eleanor’s dress visible:

Eleanor of Castile

A plaque on the ground confirms that this is part of the cross, and also confirms that her entrails, which were removed at St Katherine’s Priory, were entombed in Lincoln Cathedral:

Eleanor of Castile

The cathedral would be my next stop, however time for a look around the magnificent Lincoln Castle.

The castle dates back to 1068, when the Normans constructed a motte and bailey castle (earthen mound topped with wooden defensive walls). This would soon be replaced by a larger stone built castle.

This was an important location, on high ground, commanding the town of Lincoln, and with impressive views over the surrounding countryside. It was meant to be a statement that the Normans were now in charge, and to also act as a base from which to subdue the rebellious northern parts of the country.

The castle has been involved in many military actions during the medieval period, and came under siege a number of times. The last was during the English Civil War, when in 1644 the occupying Royalist force was under siege from Parliamentary forces, who eventually captured the castle.

The castle occupies a large space. Much of the central space is now open and covered in grass. There are a fine set of walls around the perimeter with a walkway along the top. There are a number of interesting artifacts scattered around.

One of these artifacts has a London connection.

The heathland to the south of Lincoln was considered a treacherous and dangerous place to be after dark, in the days before decent roads and street lighting.

In 1751 Sir Francis Dashwood commisioned what was a land based lighthouse to be built to provide some reassurance to travellers. Standing 92 feet tall, the lighthouse had a lantern at the top, which would be lit after dark.

The lantern was destroyed by a storm in 1808, and was replaced by a statue of King George III. The bust was made by the Coade stone company, run by Eleanor Coade, who was based in London.

As far as I know, Coade stone was only made in London, with the main factory being on the Southbank, just to the west of the Royal Festival Hall.

The lighthouse was reduced in size by about 40 feet during the early years of the Second World War. The flat land of Lincolnshire was the site for a number of RAF bases, and the height of the lighthouse was considered a risk to aircraft.

The bust of King George III was saved, and this Coade stone bust, probably made on the Southbank of the Thames in London, is now on display in Lincoln Castle:

Within Lincoln castle is a brick built, Victorian Prison. The view of the front of the prison:

Lincoln Castle Victorian Prison

And the more austere rear view of the prison:

Lincoln Castle Victorian Prison

The prison was in use between 1848 and 1878, and you could have been imprisioned here for all manner of crimes, from the most trivial all the way up to murder. The prison housed men, women and children and employed a seperation system which the Victorians believed would prevent prisoners becoming corrupted and further criminalised by contact with fellow prisoners.

The most remarkable example of this system which we can see today is in the chapel. Each seat for a prisoner was screened from the prisoners who would have sat either side, and from prisoners in the seats above and below. The system ensured that prisoners could attend a service with other prisoners, but without coming into contact with any of them.

Visiting the prison chapel, you can stand in the pulpit and survey the prisoners in their individual place:

Lincoln Castle Victorian Prison

It was rather weird walking into the chapel. You enter from the door at the top of the steps in the above photo, then walk down the steps. You can just see the tops of the heads of the prisoners – for one unsettling moment you are not sure whether or not they are real.

The walk along the top of the walls provides good views over the surrounding town and countryside, including across to the cathedral:

Eleanor of Castile

And down into the centre of the castle with the prison on the left and the Lincoln Crown Court building in the centre of the view:

Lincoln Castle

View along the walls:

Lincoln Castle

Courts have been held in the castle ever since it was first built. A castle was the seat of Royal power and was therefore the place where Royal justice would be dispensed.

The current building was completed in 1823 to a design by Sir Robert Smirke. Remarkably, this building in the centre of a castle is still a Crown Court. There have been a number of attempts to move the court out of the castle grounds, however the latest attempt was abandoned in 2020 when Her Majesty’s Courts Service claimed that a moved to new premises would not offer value for money, or any benefits to the public or court users.

Lincoln Crown Court, providing some hundreds of years of continuity of use within the castle grounds:

Lincoln Castle Crown Court

The Observatory Tower offers fine views over the surrounding countryside:

Lincoln Castle Observatory Tower

Including views down into the centre of Lincoln, which is why the Normans originally built the castle on this high point.

View from Lincoln Castle

After a visit to the castle, my next stop was the cathedral, to find Eleanor’s tomb:

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

The above photo is of the western front of the cathedral. Remarkably the two towers once had wooden spires adding considerable height, and from the 14th century, for two hundred years, Lincoln cathedral was the tallest building in the world. The top of the spires were about 10 feet taller than old St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The author A. F. Kendrick, who wrote a comprehensive description of the architecture and fabric of the cathedral in 1898 did not think much of this view of the cathedral:

“The West Front is massive and imposing, and possesses some features of considerable interest; beyond this, little can be said for it, as it is architecturally somewhat of a sham.

His view was that the west front was basically a large screen wall, that obscured the view of the rest of the cathedral, and whilst impressive, once you view it as a screen, you realise what the original architects could have achieved. I suspect this is looking at the building with a 19th century view, many hundreds of years after construction.

The origins of Lincoln Cathedral, as with the castle, date back to the Norman Conquest, after which William the Conqueror gave the land to a Benedictine monk by the name of Remegius. He had been a supporter of William during the conquest, and this was his reward, although he then had the task of constructing the cathedral.

Work started in 1071, and twenty years later the cathedral was consecrated.

Lincoln Cathedral

The cathedral suffered a fire and an earthquake in the 12th century, and then Hugh of Avalon (his birthplace in France) was appointed as Bishop of Lincoln in 1186.

He commenced a rebuilding project in 1192, and it is substantially this cathedral that we see today.

Eleanor of Castile

Lincoln cathedral is a magnificent building, but I wanted to see Eleanor’s tomb. Not where her body was laid to rest, rather where her entrails that had been removed at St Katherine’s Priory were buried. The monks at the priory also served in an adjacent hospital, and it is probably because of this that they had the skills needed to prepare and embalm Eleanor’s body.

And it was here that I had a problem with my camera. I dropped it a while ago, and dented the lens. Since then the anti-vibration and focus functions sometimes play up, particuarly in low light, and this happened when I photographed the tomb, resulting in a couple of unusable photos, one of which was Eleanor’s tomb.

A lesson in checking photos after taking, but thankfully I found a good photo on the Geograph site which allows reproduction under a Creative Commons License, so here, thanks to Richard Croft is a photo of Queen Eleanor’s tomb in Lincoln Cathedral:

Tomb of Eleanor of Castile

Queen Eleanor’s tomb cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Richard Croft – geograph.org.uk/p/241010

The tomb is rather impressive given that it contained only some of her organs. As with the church in Harby, the side of the tomb has the Royal arms of England on either side, the arms of Ponthieu and those of Queen Eleanor of Castile in the middle.

Following the interment of her organs, which presumably was accompanied by a religious service, Eleanor’s body was then taken out of the cathedral, and the long journey to London began.

The architecture and scale of Lincoln Cathedral is a fitting place for the first of her tombs.

Eleanor of Castile

The exterior of the cathedral is impressive enough, however internally the cathedral is magnificent, with some wonderful carved stone decoration:

Lincoln Cathedral

The cathedral treasury contains a collection of valuable objects. The majority of these have been assembled over the last few hundred years as many of the cathedral’s valuable artifacts including gold, silver and books were taken by the Crown during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. View through the entrance to the treasury:

Treasury

A number of the objects in the treasury have been found during archeological excavations in the cathedral, including a couple of silver chalice, one of each were recovered from two tombs of 13th century bishops of Lincoln who were buried in the cathedral.

View of the Choir, looking to the west:

Lincoln Cathedral

The following photo is looking towards the Father Willis Organ which stands proud above the choir screen

Lincoln Cathedral

The Chapter House at Lincoln Cathedral is one of the earliest of the polygonal chapter-houses in England. Construction was started in 1219, and employed a large central pillar as at the time architectural and building methods had not yet devised a method to support the whole roof from the side walls.

Chapter House

Surrounding the Chapter House are alcoves built into the lower part of the side wall, each one being a seat for use when meetings and other ceremonies were held in the room. One of which was the Parliament of 1301 which met in Lincoln.

Petitions were heard at the Lincoln Parliament for restoration of the city’s liberties which had been taken away in 1290 by Edward I due to issues with corruption and poor management within the city, that had caused a violent response within the city.

The internal roof of the Chapter House, which has been restored since being built in the early 13th century.

Chapter House

There was much more to see in both the Castle, the Cathedral and throughout Lincoln, however we had eleven more places to find where a cross had been erected to commemorate one of the places where the procession carrying Eleanor’s body stopped for the night, on their way to Westminster Abbey.

We left the cathedral and headed back down Steep Hill, following the assumed route of the procession as it left the cathedral back in 1290, although we had an early stop off at a Steep Hill cafe.

I will continue the journey in posts during the coming week, and also learn more about Eleanor of Castile, Edward I and England during the reign of Edward I.

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The Changing Face of Leicester Square

Leicester Square, along with Piccadilly Circus, are probably the best known locations in London’s west end. A hub of entertainment, hotels and the shops of global brands. Both major destinations for tourists, they are busy places during the day, and late into the night, however Leicester Square started off as a very different place. Part of London’s westward expansion, large houses, terrace houses and ornamental squares.

In the 16th century, this part of west London was all fields. Development of the square, and the source of its name, would come between 1632 and 1636 with the construction of Leicester House, on the northern side of where the square is located today, but at the time the house was built, it was surrounded by fields.

The house was built by Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester, so as with so many parts of London’s expansion over the last centuries, the square has taken its name from the original aristocratic owner of part of the land, and initial developer.

Formation of the square, and building of houses along the sides of the square came in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and by 1755 the square was developed as shown in the following map, where the square was then known as Leicester Fields, a name from when Leicester House was the only building in the area.

Leicester Fields

In the above map, Leicester House can be seen on the northern side of the square, with a large courtyard to the front of the house, and gardens to the rear. The fields surrounding Leicester House have been buried under the building of the early 18th century.

The following print from around 1720 shows the appearance of Leicester Square (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Leicester Square

Leicester House can be seen set back from the street on the northern side of the square, and the sides of the square have been developed with the standard terrace housing of early 18th century London.

The central square has been laid out with formal gardens of grass and trees, with paths, and a tree in the centre of the square. This would be replaced with a statue of George I in 1747.

A close-up look at Leicester House shows a horse and coach at the front of the house, along with small groups of people who appear to be holding poles of some type, or perhaps rifles. Large gates protect the house from the street, and there are gardens, stables and outbuildings to the rear:

Leicester House

Leicester House went through a number of different residents, and perhaps the most important was the Prince of Wales who would later become George ll. He had been thrown out of the royal apartments at St. James’s Palace following an argument with his father, King George I, and moved in at the end of 1717.

George I died on the 11th of June, 1727. The Prince of Wales was away from London, but returned quickly to his home at Leicester House, and he was proclaimed King at the gates to his house – the only time that a new King or Queen has been proclaimed in what is now Leicester Square.

The King stayed in Leicester House until the end of 1727, whilst St. James Palace was being prepared for him.

Leicester Square’s first experience as a place of exhibitions and entertainment seems to have been in 1774, when the naturalist Ashton Lever took over Leicester House and turned it into a museum, to house and display his large collection of natural history objects.

The collection remained at Leicester House until Lever’s death in 1788, when it was then moved to the Rotunda in Blackfriars Road.

Thomas Waring, who had worked for Ashton Lever remained at the house until 1791, and it is Waring that offers a clue as to what the people were doing in the early print of the house, where there are people holding what appear to be poles in the courtyard.

Waring was a founder member of the Toxophilite (Archery) Society, and meetings were held at Leicester House, so perhaps those standing in the courtyard were archers with their bows.

Leicester House was demolished around 1791 and 1792.

Following the demolition of Leicester House, the square would rapidly become a destination for entertainments. One major building specifically for this purpose was Wyld’s Great Globe, open between 1851 and 1862.

Constructed in the square by the mapmaker and former Member of Parliament. James Wyld, the purpose of the Great Globe was to show visitors the wonders that could be found across the world, with models, maps and lectures.

A view of the Great Globe, before galleries were constructed at ground level, linking the main entrances, is shown in the following print (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Wyld's Great Globe

Wyld’s Great Globe was very popular and had very many paying customers. An impression of the educational approach of the Great Globe can be had from the following article in the London Sun on the 6th of June, 1854:

“WYLD’S GREAT GLOBE – Throughout the whole of yesterday, Mr. Wyld’s intelligent lecturer was unceasingly engaged in enlightening such of the public as sought here rather instruction than amusement, upon geographical features of the ‘Great Globe’, devoting, of course, as everybody now does, his chief attention to those parts which are rendered peculiarly interesting by the war with Russia. A brief summary of the Ottoman empire was very appropriately introduced, and served to place in a very clear light the momentous question which is now at issue,

The late discoveries in the Artic Regions likewise came in for a good share of notice; and the dry study of the globe itself, and of the various maps on the subject, was relieved by an inspection of a small, but valuable, collection of dresses, boats, and implements of war, of inhabitants of those unhospitable climes, and of birds and beasts which are found there. These articles are contained in a small anteroom which by clever illusion, is made to resemble a tent with the faint light which is only seen at the North Pole. The juvenile part of the visitors seemed to take an especial delight in examining the different objects in this little chamber.”

Although initially very successful, Wyld’s Great Globe suffered from local competition, and had to look at other forms of entertainment, and started to put on variety shows alongside the educational exhibitions and lectures.

One of the local competitors of Wyld’s was Burford’s Panorama which was located just north of the square, between Leicester Square and Lisle Street.

An idea of the panoramas available can be had from the following advert in the Illustrated London News on the 7th of June, 1851:

“BURFORD’S HOLY CITY of JERUSALEM and FALLS of NIAGARA – Now open at BURFORD’S PANORAMA ROYAL. Leicester Square. the above astounding and interesting views, admission 1s to both views, in order to meet the present unprecedented season. The views of the LAKES of KILLARNEY and of LUCERNE are also now open. Admission, 1s to each circle, or 2s 6d to the three circles. Schools half price. Open from 10 till dusk.”

The following section view shows the interior of Burford’s Panorama, with the views being exhibited on the walls of the circular building (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

Burford's Panorama

Remarkably, the outline of Burford’s Panorama can still be seen today. On the 25th of March 1865, Father Charles Faure puchased the building that housed Burford’s Panorama. and the French architect, Louis Auguste Boileau transformed the building into a new church within an iron structure.

The new church opened in 1868 as Notre Dame de France, a French speaking church in London. The church has an entrance on Leicester Place, but it is only from above that we can see the circular form of the church, on the site of Burford’s Panorama.

Click this link to go to an aerial Google view where the outline of the Panorama can clearly be seen.

Another competitor to the Wylde’s Great Globe and Burford’s Panorama was the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art, also built in Leicester Square (© The Trustees of the British Museum):

Royal Panoptican of Science and Art

The Royal Panopticon of Science and Art opened on the 17th of March 1854, and held scientific and artistic displays and lectures. The Royal Panopticon was popular, often attracting up to 1,000 vistors a day, but did have problems from the day of opening. In their report after the opening, the owners wrote that:

“Since the opening of the institution, everything that had taken place out of doors militated against its success. First of all there was the war; next, the attractive novelty of Crystal Palace, and finally the cholera – all tending to keep the public from visiting the Panopticon, which, under all such disadvantages had nevertheless been successful to a degree greater than could have been anticipated by the council.”

I suspect the owners were being a bit optimistic in their report, as the Royal Panopticon only lasted two years, closing in 1856, when the building became the Alhambra Theatre of Variety, which can be seen in the following photo from 1896 as the large building with domes on the roof. This version of the Alhambra was of a slightly more simple design, having been a rebuild of the original building which was destroyed by fire in 1882.The brick building to the right is Archbishop Tenison’s Grammar School, highlighting the different types of institution that have made Leicester Square their home.

Leicester Square

The Alhambra Theatre of Variety seems to have offered a wide variety of entertainments. The following rather cryptic advert from the Westminster Gazette provides details of what was on offer during the evening of the 3rd of October, 1893:

“Alhambra Theatre of Varieties – Open 7:30 – At 8:40 the Grand Ballet, FIDELIA. And at 10.30 CHICAGO, Grais’s Marvelous Baboon and Donkey (first appearance in England), Thora, the Poluskis, R.H. Douglas, The Three Castles, the Agoust Family, and the TILLEY SISTERS &c.”

The Poluskis were the Poluski Brothers, Will and Sam who were born in Limehouse and Shadwell. There is a recording of their act in 1911 online here.

The Agoust family were a family of jugglers and there is a video of their act here.

The type of variety acts that the Alhambra specialised in started to decline in popularity after the First World War. During the 1920s, the cinema began to capture the imagination of those looking for a night out in London, and in 1936 the Alhambra was demolished, to be replaced with the Odeon Cinema, which can still be found on Leicester Square.

Another current cinema which followed a similar path is the Empire Cinema on the northern side of Leicester Square. Originally built as a variety theatre in 1884, the theatre started showing film in 1896, and over the following years started to offer a mix of live performance along with short films.

As with the Alhambra, variety theatre dropped in popularity during the 1920s, and in 1927 the majority of the Empire Theatre was demolished, and rebuilt as the Empire Cinema. The cinema has had a number of major upgrades over the years and it is still open as a cinema today.

The following photo from the 1920s shows the Empire on the left, on a damp night in Leicester Square.

Leicester Square at night

A view across the central square to the northern side of Leicester Square in the early years of the 20th century:

Leicester Square

That was a very quick run through of the history of Leicester Square. From the site of an aristicratic house surrounded by fields, to a typical London 18th century square surrounded by fine houses, which then became the site of 19th century entertainments, which have continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, with only really technology changes that have resulted in film replacing panoramas and variety theatre as the popular source of entertainment.

Time for a walk around the square. The view from the north-east corner:

Leicester Square

On the north-east corner of Leicester Square is Burger King, housed in a rather impressive building.

Burger King

The building was originally the Samuel Whitbread pub, opened in December 1958, and was Whitbread’s attempt at reviving London’s post war pub trade. Designed by architects TP Bennett & Son, with four distinct interior spaces by designers Richard Lonsdale-Hands Associates.

The pub was very much a 1950s design, and during the 1960s it started to seem dated, and did not have the benefit of being a traditional London pub to help.

Whitbread sold it to Forte in 1970, who renamed it as the Inncenta, however by the late 1970s, the pub, along with much of Leicester Square was becoming rather squalid, and suffered from lack of investment.

The building may change again, as the owners, Soho Estates are looking to redevelop the building to make it more of a “destination” site in Leicester Square.

View of the north-east corner of Leicester Square:

Leicester Square

The Empire Cinema on the north side of the square, showing how buildings on the square have continued to adapt, as the site now has an IMAX cinema as well as a casino.

Empire Leicester Square

The above photo was taken within the central square, and the following photo is looking towards the central statue.

Leicester Square

The gardens of Leicester Square are today rather basic. Surrounding trees with grass on the outer sides of the square. The square has been used for a number of commercial activities that take over the square. for example, in pre-Covid days, there was a Christmas Market across the square in the weeks before Christmas.

The square though does have a secret, as below the square is a key part of the West Ends electricity distribution infrastructure.

Leicester Square

Below the square is a large, multiple level, electricity substation. The substation basically takes high voltage feeds from the main distribution network, and “transforms” this high voltage down to the 240 volts that ends up in the sockets of local homes, businesses and shops.

Large devices called transformers perform this function, and earlier this year the third of three new transformers arrived at Leicester Square as part of an upgrade of the substation in order to support the increasing demand for electricity in the West End. The southern part of the square is still fenced off as part of this upgrade.

In the centre of square today, is a statue of William Shakespeare, with below an inscription that records that the square was purchased, laid out and decorated as a garden by Albert Grant, and conveyed by him to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1874:

Shakespear statue Leicester Square

The Graphic on the 4th of July 1874 provides some more details on how and why this happened, after the demolition of Wyld’s Great Globe:

“Bit by bit the rusty iron railings were filched away, while the statue of King George II on horseback became a butt of practical jokers. On one occasion (and at considerable expense) some systematic wags bedaubed it with whitewash, and finally the horse and rider parted company, the latter lying prone in the mud. The old proverb that when matters come to their worst they must perforce mend. Leicester Square had attained its nadir when Sir George Jessel decreed that the freeholders were bound to restore the Square to its original state of respectability.

The freeholders were preparing to appeal this decision, the Board of Works were about to apply to Parliament for powers to purchase the site, when Mr. Albert Grant, MP for Kidderminster, appeared on the scene, and has since acquired the freeholder property. Mr. Grant resolved to make a most generous and patriotic use of his purchase, by laying out this hitherto desolate area as an open ornamental place, provided with walks, lawns and parterres of flowers. The whole of the works have been designed and completed under the superintendence of Mr. Knowles, the well-known architect; and on Thursday last Mr. Grant handed over this munificent present to the Metropolitan Board of Works, as trustees for the people of London.”

The statue of William Shakespeare dates from the 1874 restoration of the square by Albert Grant. It was sculpted in marble by Giovanni Fontana, and is modeled on Peter Scheemaker’s monument in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Shakespeare is pointing to the phrase, “there is no darkness but ignorance” which comes from the play “Twelfth Night” 

View from the square towards the Odeon Cinema:

Odeon Leicester Square

Leicester Square today is a major tourist destination, and therefore attracts major international brands. One such being Lego, who have a queuing system outside their store. This helps manage the numbers inside, but also enhances the image if you can show large queues wanting to get inside your store.

Lego Leicester Square

The view towards Piccadilly, with the Swiss glockenspiel, which was originally on the Swiss Centre, which was demolished in 2008. I have some photos of that which I still need to find and scan.

Swiss Centre

A hotel, and large store for M&Ms was built on the site of the Swiss Centre:

M&Ms Leicester Square

A recent addition to Leicester Square is a Greggs. Not a global brand, and I do find the thought of a Greggs in Leicester Square, alongside the flagship stores of Lego and M&Ms, rather amusing.

Greegs Leicester Square

Around the square are various works of art that represent characters from films, including Gene Kelly in a scene from Singing in the Rain:

Leicester Square

The west side of the square with an All-Bar-One and a McDonalds. Just visible is a plaque between the two buildings.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Which records that the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds lived and died in a house on the site, as well as where numerous members of the aristocracy and society sat for Reynolds to have their portrait painted.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Reynolds was not the only artist who lived in Leicester Square. William Hogarth had his main home in the south-eastern corner of the square. This was his central London base, and his house in Chiswick was his country retreat.

The southern side of Leicester Square:

Odeon cinema

For many years there has been a theatre ticket centre on the southern side of the square, selling tickets for shows that evening, or the coming days.

Leicester Square ticket office

The hoardings on the right in the above photo are screening off the work site where upgrades are being made to the electricity substation below the square.

The eastern side of the square:

Capital Radio

The building on the right is the offices of Global Radio, the company that owns radio stations such as Capital Radio and LBC – the two original London commercial stations that have since morphed into national brands.

The TGI Fridays on the ground floor was once the Capital Radio Cafe, which, and speaking from experience, was a perfect venue for early teenage children’s birthday parties.

Between TGI Fridays and the Odeon cinema, is Leicester Square’s only pub, Wetherspoons The Moon Under Water:

Moon under Water pub

The pub dates from around 1992. Number 28 was one of the original Leicester Square houses that was demolished towards the end of the 19th century, and, following the mid 19th century approach to have exhibitions for entertainment, housed the Museum National of Mechanical Arts.

In the 1930s, number 28 was the site of the “400 Club” which was known as the club for the upper classes and aristocracy, with Princess Margaret becoming a regular client of the club in the 1950s. The Tatler would often have reports of who was to be seen at the 400 Club, and would include photos of men in Dinner Jackets and women in expensive jewelry.

That was a very quick tour of the history of Leicester Square. A square that started off as one of London’s typical residential squares, with fine houses and a central square, although with the unusual feature of Leicester House to the north.

A square that has quickly evolved into one of London’s centres of entertainment, starting with panoramas and scientific displays and lectures, which then became a home for variety theatre and then London’s hub for cinema, and which is where the majority of major films have their UK premier.

In the coming week, The Last Heist premiers at the Vue cinema in Leicester Square on Wednesday the 2nd of November, followed by Black Panther: Wakanda Forever at Cineworld on Thursday the 3rd.

However popular entertainment evolves in the future, I am sure that Leicester Square will play some part in being London’s West End hub.

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