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Priory Church of the Order of St John

A couple of months ago, I wrote about St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell which was once part of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. The priory occupied a large amount of land in Clerkenwell, and today I am exploring another part of the history of the area with a visit to the Priory Church of the Order of St John.

The Priory Church of the Order of St John visible when standing outside today is a post war building, but down in the crypt there is still evidence to be found of the original Norman and Medieval building, part of the church’s long and fascinating history, and some of the oldest in London.

The following map is from my earlier post on St John’s Gate showing the outline of the inner and outer precincts of the original priory. The solid blue rectangle is the location of the gate and I have added the location of the church, in the heart of the old inner precinct, by a blue, dashed rectangle.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

If you walk up from the location of St John’s Gate, cross Clerkenwell Road and stand in St John’s Square, you will find the Priory Church of the Order of St John, a rather fine brick building. The main body of the church is to the left, and the entrance to the Cloister Garden is through the large central entrance.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The current church is built on the site of the original 12th century priory church. The design of the 12th century church was based on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, in that it had a large round nave, leading back to a narrow raised chancel built over a crypt.

This design was used by both Hospitaller (the order which occupied the Clerkenwell priory) and Templar churches. We can get an idea of what the circular nave may have looked like by comparing with the London Temple church:

Priory Church of the Order of St JohnParts of the original circular nave were discovered in 1900, and today the outline of the nave is marked by granite setts which we can see in the photo below, in front of the church:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

As the Priory grew in wealth and influence, so did the church, and the church was quickly expanded, including rebuilding the circular nave as a more traditional rectangular nave.

Prior Thomas Docwra carried out some major restoration work on the church at the end of the 15th century, and the English antiquarian William Camden would describe the church as “increased to the size of a palace, and had a beautiful tower carried up to such a great height as to be a singular ornament of the City”.

A similar description of the church was recorded by Stowe who wrote: ‘a most curious peece of workemanshippe, graven, gilt, and inameled to the great beautifying of the Cittie, and passing all other that I have seene’

Docwra’s work on the church included the addition of his own private chapel on the south wall of the church.

It must have been an impressive sight, however the church would soon suffer the same fate of many other buildings connected with religious orders, when King Henry VIII seized the properties and dissolved the original Order of St John, including the Priory Church.

Various parts of the fabric of the church were taken to be used for buildings within the Royal Palace at Westminster, and in 1549 the nave and tower of the church were blown up by Lord Protector Somerset so the materials could be used for the construction of his house in the Strand (Lord Protector Somerset. or Edward Seymour, took the title of Lord Protector between 1547 and 1549 following the death of Henry VIII and whilst Henry’s son, King Edward VI, was still a child. As was typical with many ambitious members of the Tudor court, he would have a rapid fall from grace and was executed at Tower Hill in January 1552).

The remains of the church were then used for various purposes, storage, further demolition, and some locals used Docwra’s chapel as a place of worship, parts of the church were converted to a private house, and the chancel being rebuilt as a private chapel.

It was not until the early 18th century that the building became a formal church again. It was used as a meeting house by the Presbyterian preacher William Richardson, who would go on to be ordained as a Church of England minister. He then reopened the church as a Church of England building, which was a timely decision as during the early part of the 18th century, London’s rapid expansion created the need for additional churches to service a rapidly growing population.

Richardson proposed to the commission that had been set up to build fifty new churches across London, that they should acquire the church as a second parish church for Clerkenwell as the only other church (St James, just north of Clerkenwell Green) could not support the number of people then living in Clerkenwell.

Richardson’s proposal did not succeed and lawyer Simon Michell then purchased the church, and had better luck with the Commission as they agreed to purchase the church for the sum of £3,000. The building was consecrated as St John’s, Clerkenwell’s second parish church on the 27th December 1723.

Following building works between 1721 and 1723 carried out by Simon Michell, and further work between 1812 and 1813 by James Carr, the church took on the appearance of a more traditional London church, although with a small rectangular tower, rather than the larger tower and spire seen on many other London churches. The following print shows St John’s, Clerkenwell, in 1818  (©Trustees of the British Museum).

Priory Church of the Order of St John

St John’s would continue as the second parish church of Clerkenwell until 1931. The population of Clerkenwell had been in decline during the first decades of the 20th century. Industry was transforming from small workshops, to larger establishments requiring larger buildings which were replacing many of the 18th and early 19th century housing.

The modern Order of St John was formed during the later years of the 19th century in the original gatehouse of the Priory between the inner and outer precinct, known as St John’s Gate.

The modern Order provided a perfect solution for the future of the church, as the Order had been using the church for their religious services since the 1870s, and the Order had contributed to the maintenance and restoration work that took place towards the end of the 19th century.

In 1931 the parish of St John was returned to St James, and the church of St John was formerly handed over to the modern Order, thereby reuniting the gatehouse and church for the first time in almost 400 years within a modern Order of St John.

Use of the church by the Order in the form of the original parish church building would not last for long. During bombing raids on London in May 1941, the church was hit by incendiary bombs and the resulting fires destroyed the interior of the building along with the roof leaving only the outer shell of the building standing.

The following photo from 1946 shows a service taking place in the roofless church, the Order’s annual service on St John’s day with the Archbishop of Canterbury who had recently been enthroned as the Prelate of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Soon after the destruction of the church, the Order of St John had started planning for a rebuild, and as the original outer walls were intact the intention was to rebuild around the walls rather than a complete new church.

The first new design came from the Gothic architect J. Ninian Comper.

In his 80s, Comper was known for his extravagant and expensive designs, and his proposal for the new priory church was based on a recreation of an original Hospitaller church, with a large, ornate octagonal nave. The cost of the design was estimated at £200,000 – a considerable sum of money to be raised when so much else needed to be rebuilt in the city.

Comper’s age was also a concern and he tended to work on his own. When asked who in his office would take over his design if he died, his response was apparently “Did Michelangelo have an office?”.

Comper would go on to design the magnificent new window in St Stephen’s Porch at the south end of Westminster Hall. A magnificent 50 foot high, 28 foot wide ornate, stained glass window. The window is the main memorial to members and staff of both Houses of Parliament and replaces an earlier Pugin window that was destroyed by bombing in December 1940.

The architects Paul Paget and John Seely were called in to provide an alternative and much cheaper design for a rebuilt church. They had already been responsible for restoration of some historically significant houses in nearby Cloth Fair where they lived and had their office, and they both had the role of surveyor to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Their design was for a much more restrained building. Brick facing St John’s Square and a relatively plain rebuild of the church using the original outer walls.

The following drawing from 1955 shows their proposed design.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The church today looks almost identical to their original design, however if you look at the main body of the church on the left and the domed front of the church we can see that some decoration did not get built – probably to save money.

The interior of the church is relatively plain, with the white painted original walls and a black and white checkerboard floor.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

On the left of the church as we face the altar are the banners of the other priories of the Order of St John, in countries such as Canada, the USA and South Africa:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Whilst on the right are the banners of the current Knights and Dames of the Order:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

On one of the walls is a reminder of when the building was a parish church for Clerkenwell:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The plaque reads: “This wall was rebuilt at the sole expense of the inhabitants of Clerkenwell, Nov AD 1834. the Reverend William Elisha Law Faulkner, Rector”. The surnames of the churchwardens at the bottom right have been lost.

In a corner of the church is some of the original equipment used by the St John Ambulance which the new Order of St John set-up in 1877.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

If we want to see parts of the original 12th century Norman church of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem we need to descend to the crypt. The fact that the church was hit by incendiary bombs rather than high explosive meant that the crypt survived the war with minimal damage, and as we enter the crypt, we have the following view:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The stained glass at the end of the crypt gives the impression that this is above ground and that sunlight is behind the windows. In reality, artificial lighting is behind the stained glass.

As we look towards the altar, the first three arched sections are mid 12th century and the two furthest are slightly later dating from around 1170.

The white painted crypt today is a bright space, but during the crypt’s years as part of the parish church this would have been a very different place, with the crypt piled high with coffins.

The crypt was finally cleared in 1894 following the burials act of 1853 which outlawed the use of London’s crypts and churchyards for burials. Many coffins were removed to Brookwood Cemetery, however some were bricked up in the side vaults that line the central part of the crypt and older remains were discovered in 1903:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Just to the left of the crypt entrance is part of one of the original mid 12th century arches:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Although the crypt is today painted white, it originally may have been more colourful. P.H. Ditchfield writing about the church and crypt in 1914 in his book London Survivals states that “Traces of colour can still be seen on the arches and ribs”.

The Islington Antiquary Society visited the crypt in 1910 and were told two interesting stories about the crypt:

  • That when the crypt was used for burials, a sexton was working with body snatchers and on investigation, many of the coffins were found to be empty
  • That Fanny Parsons, also known as scratching Fanny, the young girl who convinced visitors that the sounds she created were caused by the Cock Lane ghost, had been buried in the crypt. An attempt had been made to find Fanny’s coffin, but it was believed that the name plate had been removed

The view along the crypt towards the entrance.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Along the side of the crypt are low stone benches running the length of the wall, implying that these may have been used for communal seating and during the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit in 1946, Knights of the Order were seated along these benches.

To the side of the crypt is a rather impressive effigy of a knight. Donated by a member of the Order in 1915, the effigy is believed to have come from Spain, and does portray a member of the original Order, with the Maltese Cross emblazoned across the knight’s chest.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The identity of the knight is not known for certain, however it is one of the most impressive alabaster figures in the country.

Towards the end of the crypt, there are two rooms on either side of the central crypt. The room on the left as you face the altar may have been used as a Treasury by the original Order. the room on the right is today the South Chapel:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Turn left as you face the altar and there is a morbid reminder of death:

Priory Church of the Order of St John

This is all that is left of the canopied marble monument to Prior Weston, the last prior of the original order at the time of the reformation.

The windows above show the four saints of the British Isles, with figures and shields representing former priors, including Prior Robert Hales. Again, the window is backlit by artificial light to give the impression of natural light.

The monument was erected in St James Church, in nearby Clerkenwell Close, but was pulled apart when the church was demolished for a rebuild. The effigy remained in the crypt of the new church, but was moved here in 1931.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The effigy is a momento mori, where the figure is portrayed almost as a hollow eyed, emaciated corpse. The intent was to remind people of the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures, and to focus their minds on the afterlife.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The following print from 1842 shows the effigy of Prior Weston in the vaults of St James Clerkenwell along with an effigy that may have been Lady Elizabeth Berkeley  (©Trustees of the British Museum).

Priory Church of the Order of St John

There is one more feature of the Priory Church of the Order of St John to explore. This is back outside and through the entrance and gates in the building to the right of the church, where we find the Cloister Garden.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The entrance to the garden is formed by the Docwra Memorial Gates.

Thomas Docwra was one of the 16th century Priors of the Order, when the fortunes of the priory were at their highest and substantial building work was being done around the Priory.

As an example of the centuries of continuity that you can often find in the city of London, the same Docwra family donated the money for the gates as part of the post-war creation of the gardens.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Following the post war restoration of the church, the garden was relatively plain, consisting of grass and a central fountain. A recent grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Wellcome Trust has supported a redesign of the garden and new planting.

Planting takes us back to the original Medieval Hospital of the Order of St John, as the planting consists of a range of herbs which would have been used in the treatment of patients for a range of complaints.

  • Rose petals – antiseptic qualities
  • Peppermint – helps relieve stomach aches
  • Lavender – used to treat burns, scratches and other minor skin ailments
  • Chamomile – used to reduce swelling and helps to heal wounds

Priory Church of the Order of St John

From the garden. we can see the south wall of the church and the mix of architectural features, brick and stonework that come from the centuries of different use of the building, many of which have left their mark in the walls.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Prior Docwra had his own memorial chapel in Jerusalem Court which originally ran along the garden, with the chapel up against the church. In the following extract from the 1894 OS map, up against the south wall of  the church are two buildings labelled Side Aisle. These were later buildings, one of which was reported to still contain evidence of Docwra’s chapel  (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Priory Church of the Order of St John

Jerusalem Court is shown running from St John’s Street on the right, then through a ground floor gap in the buildings (the box with an X), and alongside the buildings up against the church wall.

This section of Jerusalem Court is now part of the Cloister Garden, directly in front of the camera in the photo below.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The intention with the post-war development of the Cloister Garden, was to have a four sided cloister which would form a memorial for those of the St John Ambulance Association and Brigade who had lost their lives during the two world wars, but again money was short so the planned cloister and memorial was only built along the eastern end of the garden.

Priory Church of the Order of St John

The gardens form a tranquil and peaceful place, in what in more normal times is a very busy part of Clerkenwell, and whether it is the herbs we are surrounded by, or the medieval stone work of the southern wall of the church, the garden brings to the 21st century both the origins and the current work of the Order of St John.

The Priory Church of the Order of St John is a fascinating place. A tangible link with the original medieval Order, the present day Order and the crypt where part of one of the oldest buildings in London can be found.

Tours of the church will be available through the Museum of the Order of St John at St John’s Gate, and the Cloister Gardens are often open.

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Essex Road, Islington

One of the pleasures of London is a random walk through the city’s streets. I have found very few streets where there is not something of interest. Unusual buildings, hidden bits of history, the new and the old showing how the city’s long expansion and development has taken place, and continues. One such street is Essex Road, Islington, and for today’s post, join me for a walk along part of this busy north London street.

Essex Road starts at Islington Green, where it runs from the north east corner of the green up to Balls Pond Road. To keep the post a manageable size, I will only cover the southern section from Islington Green up to the New North Road.

This stretch of the road is shown in the following map, starting at the Start (S) at upper right, and finishing at the Finish (F) at lower left (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Essex Road is an old street, going back very many centuries. In 1746, the upper part of the street was called Newington Green Lane – because that is to where the street led, with the lower section called Lower Street, which continued on along the eastern edge of Islington Green. The Lower part of the name was because of the drop in height across Islington Green from Upper Street on the west, down to Lower Street on the east.

In 1746, the area was still rural. Fields surrounding the upper part of the street, with a number of large houses and inns lining the lower section. The New River crossed and ran under the street in a tunnel which continued further south to where the river emerged as it headed to New River Head.

London was fast approaching these Islington fields, and whilst Essex Road would continue as a main route from Islington Green, the large houses and fields would soon disappear under a dense network of new building that would leave the area unrecognisable by the end of the 19th century. The following map shows the area in 1894. Islington Green is the triangle of land at lower left, and Essex Road as it was now called, follows the same route, up from the north east corner of the green (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

I am starting at the junction of Essex Road and the New North Road (S) in the map at the start of the post, and walking south to Islington Green.

The New North Road is, as the name suggests, a new road, although new is relative. It was not on the map in 1746, but was constructed in the first couple of decades of the 19th century as a more direct route from Shoreditch to what is now Highbury Corner.

On the southwest corner of the junction is Essex Road station, opened in February 1904 by the Great Northern and City Railway, and is now part of the Great Northern rail network, with trains running to and from Moorgate in the City of London.

Essex Road

The station is unusual as it is the only underground station in London operated by a rail company. The original British Rail symbol can still be seen on the corner of the building:

Essex Road

On the opposite corner to the station is the old Three Brewers pub, now the Akari Japanese restaurant.

Essex Road

Most sources seem to date the pub to around 1830, however this may be the current building. The earliest reference I can find is to December 1808 when the Morning Advertiser carried an advert for a sale of general household furniture at a location near the Three Brewers, Islington. Pubs were often used as landmarks when describing a local location.

The view south along Essex Road near the station – a wide, busy street.

Essex Road

Heading south, we come to a rather ornate old cinema building. This is the old Carlton Cinema which opened on the 1st September, 1930.

Essex Road

The cinema really stands out due to its Egyptian façade which was the creation of Architect George Coles. The Egyptian theme was probably due to the discovery in 1922 of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The Carlton offered not just film, but also stage shows, and in February 1931 the residents of Islington could be entertained by Al Davison and his band.

The Carlton became the ABC in 1962, but closed as a cinema ten years later in August 1972, when it was then converted into a Mecca Bingo Club, which would run to 2007. It was then purchased by Resurrection Manifestations, who use the old building as a place of worship.

The view along the side road (River Place, which runs up to the old route of the New River), shows typical cinema construction of a very ornate front façade, with a simple and functional rear of the building.

Essex Road

The old Carlton Cinema is Grade II listed.

To the left of the cinema, an end of terrace building extends into the street, and on the side of the building is a part exposed sign.

Essex Road

The sign refers to the Eagle Dining Rooms. I found a couple of references to the dining rooms to confirm the full name in the Islington Gazette. On the 1st July 1902, there was an advert for:

“Wanted, a young girl for Stove Work; one used to the business. The Eagle Dining-rooms, 159 Essex Road, Islington”, and on the 13th June, 1910, under the advertisement section of the Islington Gazette, which had the remarkable title of “Servants and Girls Wanted”, there was;

“Respectable Girl Wanted, about 18, to Assist House and Kitchen; sleep out; closed Sunday. Eagle Dining Rooms, 159 Essex Road”.

Adverts mentioning the Eagle Dining Rooms in the Islington Gazette appear limited to between 1902 and 1910, so perhaps this gives an indication of the period of time that the establishment was in operation.

The following photo shows the opposite side of the street. Essex Road has a mix of architectural styles and building age. The photo shows some buildings (the smaller central terrace) that probably date back to the early years of the development of Essex Road, and where their original front gardens have been replaced with shops as the street developed and there was a growing population to serve.

Essex Road

The Green Man pub on the corner of Essex Road and Greenman Street.

Essex Road

Greenman Street was named Greenmans Lane in the 1828 C&J Greenwood map, so is probably an old lane.

The site of the Green Man pub was apparently the site of the first Congregationalist Chapel in Islington. The chapel was built in 1744, and grew during the following decades as the congregation expanded. The lease on the building expired in 1865 and the chapel moved to a new location in River Street.

In March 1866, there was a license application by a George E. Muddyman, and a Mr Sleigh opposed the application as there were already many licensed houses in the district. The license was granted as the Peabody Buildings just behind the pub (which are still there) had recently been completed and were now occupied by “700 or 800 persons” and the Superintendent of the Peabody buildings stated that “all the tenants had signed the petition in support”.

So the Green Man pub probably dates from 1866, the occupants of the Peabody buildings behind the pub must have made up the majority of the pubs initial customers, and it was built on the site of the first Congregationalist Chapel in Islington. The pub must have originally been larger, as if you look at the photo, the Domino’s take-away occupies the ground floor of a building with exactly the same architectural features as the pub.

Opposite the Green Man is the closed shop of Attenborough Jewellers, who have now moved to their original main branch in Bethnal Green Road (I have some 1980s photos of the Bethnal Green branch to re-visit).

Essex Road

The shop also operated as a pawnbroker. Note the door marked as the entrance to the Pledge Dept on the left.

Essex Road

And the traditional sign of a pawnbroker on the front of the building:

Essex Road

Continuing along Essex Road and we come to the South Library:

Essex Road

The foundation stone was laid in 1915 and the library opened in December 1916. A plaque inside the library states that it was presented by Andrew Carnegie, so it must have been one of the many libraries that Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy Scottish-American industrialist funded.

Essex Road

The coat of arms above the door of the library provides a quick history lesson on original land ownership in Islington. This version of the coat of arms was granted in 1901, and the four quarters of the shield are each part of the coat of arms of significant Islington landowners.

The Order of St John is at top left. George Colebrooke who owned the Manor of Highbury is at top right. Below that the arms of the landowners the Berners family and at bottom left is part of the coat of arms of Sir John Spencer who owned the Manor of Canonbury.

These arms were replaced in 1966 when the larger borough of Islington was formed, and the council probably thought that historical landowners did not reflect modern Islington, but it is good to see that the earlier coat of arms can still be found.

Opposite the library is this terrace of houses, which again reflect the diverse range of architectural styles, and the haphazard way that the buildings lining Essex Road have developed over the years.

Essex Road

The third building to the left is strange, The upper floors jut out without being in line with the adjacent building of the terrace. It would be interesting to understand the reasons behind this unusual design.

The small road to the right of the above terrace is Dibden Street, and in the entrance is a mural of Gandhi by graffiti artist Gnasher.

Essex Road

The text reads: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Further south at the junction with Cross Street is this collection of small shops with some interesting, concrete, architectural detail running along the top.

Essex Road

A short distance further along is the Alpaca pub:

Essex Road

The Alpaca is a very new name, dating from when the pub reopened in March 2020 – unfortunately probably the worst time for a new pub to open in recent years.

It was the New Rose, and originally the Half Moon.

The Half Moon dates from the early 19th century, and the first written record I can find of the pub dates from the 15th July 1824, when the London Sun recorded an inquest being held in the pub “on the body of Thomas Smith, aged 23, a Kentish town stage-coachman, whose death was occasioned in a pitched battle with a person of the name of Harry Bastie”. The inquest records how Thomas Smith’s brother described the battle, when he found him at:

“Copenhagen-house; he spoke to him, endeavouring to persuade him from fighting, saying that he was too fat, and had not an equal chance with the person he was going to fight, who was a good man, and had two ways of fighting: the deceased replied that unless he was to fight now that it had come to such a pitch, he would not be able to stand by his coach and get a single passenger.

A ring was formed, and his brother entered the ring first, and threw up his hat. The deceased was knocked down several times by his antagonist, who had the knack of tripping him up: witness was informed that the fight lasted two hours and fifteen minutes. During the fight the witness entered the ring and saw his brother lying on his back and was desirous of ending the fight, but the seconds interfered and turned him out of the ring.

He did not go to his brother until the fight was over, when his brother said ‘I’ll fight no more’. The deceased requested to sit down on witness’s knee, and he died soon after”.

The inquest was adjourned so the seconds could be found and interviewed. What the report does not record is the reason for the fight and why Thomas Smith would not be able to get a single passenger in his coach without going ahead with the fight.

The scene of the fight, Copenhagen-house is also in Islington, and I have written about the site in a previous post.

Opposite the Alpaca is another early terrace with on the side of the terrace facing Popham Street, another faded advertising sign.

Essex Road

The sign is advertising an American treatment which was advertised as a night cure of problems such as Catarrh and Influenza. The product went by the rather unusual name of X-Zalia, which probably sounded scientific during the first decades of the 20th century when it was sold.

Essex Road

A view of the same terrace from the opposite end, another good example of the mix of architectural styles of the early houses along Essex Road.

Essex Road

The tallest building on the right is Grade II listed as it dates from the early 18th century and was one of the buildings on the 1746 map. The building was once the home of John C. Aston & Sons, Wholesale Ironmongers and Builders Merchants and behind the house, running along the lane we can see in the photo was a long, two-storey range of warehouses. The shop facing onto the street was the shop for John C. Aston’s business. Today it is a very different shop providing hair extensions.

Across the road is a business that has been in operation for over 100 years. Established in  1918, W.G. Miller is the oldest family run funeral directors in Islington.

Essex Road

Further on is the Cumming Estate:

Essex Road

A rather functional block of flats, however they are named after two brothers who were responsible for much development around Islington and Pentonville. The brothers were John and Alexander Cumming who were one of the main developers of the Penton Estate in the late 18th century.

The brothers were Scottish and had built a reputation as watchmakers and businessmen. Alexander appears to have had royal and aristocratic patronage which probably explains their ability to fund their developments along Pentonville Road, centered around Cumming Street.

The housing block in Essex Road was developed by the London County Council and bears the typical coat of arms of the LCC, which can be found on many of their developments, although the one in Essex Road looks to be in a rather poor condition.

Essex Road

On the opposite side of Essex Road is Horse Yard. A narrow, cobbled alley that leads up to a yard, and which almost certainly was once the site of stables.

Essex Road

We now come to another pub, the Kings. When I was walking Essex Road, the pub was boarded up, which is always a very worrying sign with London pubs, however it was only for a change in ownership and the pub reopened at the end of 2020 – again not a good time to open a pub.

Essex Road

The pub was until recently called the King’s Head, and although the current building dates from the 19th century, this is an old pub and was probably one of the cluster of buildings on Lower Street in the 1746 map, as this stretch of Essex Road was then named.

The earliest reference I can find to the pub dates to the 22nd July 1758 when an article in the Oxford Journal reads:

“Sunday Morning early died Mr Cupit, master of the King’s Head in the Lower-Street, Islington. He went to bed on Saturday Night seemingly in good Health, and ordered his Wedding Sheets to be put on his Bed, saying, as they were his Wedding Sheets, perhaps they might be his Dying Sheets”.

An article that raises more questions than it answers.

And almost opposite the King’s Head is rather appropriately the Old Queen’s Heads (Essex Road really does have a lot of pubs).

Essex Road

The Old Queen’s Head is a lovely tiled 19th century pub, but like the King’s Head, a pub has been here for a long time. and the earliest reference I can find dates to the 24th February 1748, when the following incident was reported:

“On Sunday Evening, about Seven o’Clock, three Persons returning to Town, were attacked in that part of Frog Field that leads to the Queen’s Head in the Lower Street, Islington, by three Fellows, but Mr John Scott, Foreman to Mr Gregory, a Taylor, Old Broad-street, thinking to save what he had, ran from them, when immediately one of the Roques followed him with a drawn Hanger, and cut him down on the back Part of his Head, so as to let out his Brain; they then made their Escapes, leaving his two Companions, whom they had robbed, to take care of him”.

18th century newspapers were always graphic in their descriptions of violence. A Hanger is a small sword.

The Frog Field does not exist anymore, however the 1746 map at the top of the post shows Frog Lane and Frog Hall to the east of Lower Street. At the time the area was still rural and after dark, it was a dangerous place to be.

I like photographing shops and this is Natur House on the corner of Essex Road and Colebrooke Row.

Essex Road

And a final pub before we reach Islington Green – the Winchester on the corner of Essex Road and St Peter’s Street.

Essex Road

Originally the Market Tavern and the Carved Red Lion, this is the first of the many pubs on Essex Road that travelers heading north along the street would meet.

And we now reach Islington Green after a short walk along part of Essex Road. To keep the post a manageable size, I have missed out a number of buildings and have tried to show a sample of what can be found in just one London street.

Digging a bit deeper into the streets and buildings around us is what makes walking London so interesting.

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74 Miles from London

Before getting into this week’s post, can I thank readers for all the feedback on last week’s post, and the mystery building to the left of the National Theatre. This was identified as the curved riverside end of a multi-storey car park and some of the comments included links to photos which clearly show the overall building, and the end wall that was in my photo.

The building partly visible behind this structure was the London warehouse of HMSO and also the Cornwall Press print works. This building can still be found along Stamford Street, and is  now part of King’s College.

Again, my thanks for all the feedback.

Now for today’s post. I have always been interested in London’s relationship with the rest of the country. Frequently, this is seen as a negative. The north / south divide, London getting the majority of available infrastructure investment, higher wages in the city etc.

London’s central role in the country started many hundreds of years ago with the founding of the Roman City of London, located on a crossing point on the Thames, and where the new city was accessible from the sea.

Roads spread out from London, and the city became a cross roads for long distance travel. This was accentuated with the city becoming the centre for Royal and Political power, the Law and also a centre for trade and finance.

Look at a map of the country today, and the major roads that run the length and breadth of the country still start in London (A1 – London to Edinburgh, A2 – London to Dover, A3 – London to Portsmouth, A4 – London to Bath and Bristol, A5 – London to Holyhead).

Many of these major roads have been upgraded and follow new diversions, but their general routes have been the same for many hundreds of years. These A roads have now been mirrored by a similar network of Motorways.

The railway network follows a similar approach, with the main long distance routes running across the country to stations in London – (Waterloo, Liverpool Street, Euston, Paddington, St Pancras, Kings Cross etc.).

There are still tangible reminders to be found across the country’s roads that London has long been a destination for long distance routes, and in this post I will explore examples from around the counties close to London, starting with this 18th century milestone to be found in Southampton, indicating that it is 74 Miles from London.

Milestone

A number of these milestones can still be found in central London. There is a very fine example on the side of the Royal Geographical Society at the junction of Kensington Gore and Exhibition Road:

Milestone

This rather fine example, with pointing hands, dates from 1911, with Hyde Park Corner being the London point from where distances have been measured.

Milestone

To get really geeky, on the same wall as the above milestone, there is another marker that was used to measure the country. Loads of these can be found across London, and in the days before GPS they had an important role with accurately mapping and surveying the country.

This is a benchmark.

Milestone

It was used during the 1931 to 1934 re-levelling of Greater London, when the height of the city above the Newlyn reference point in Cornwall was measured. The flush bracket rather appropriately on the side of the Royal Geographical Society was on a survey line from Staines to the British Museum, and was levelled at a height of 67.8260 feet [20.6734 metres] above mean sea level at Newlyn.

This was how the Ordnance Survey were able to show all the contour height lines on their maps.

The above milestone measured the distance to Hyde Park Corner, and before there was any standard for where distances to London should be measured, routes usually used the first point at the boundary of the city that the route reached.

The Mayflower pub in Rotherhithe has a milestone set into the wall of the building.

Milestone

This example indicates a distance of 2 miles to London Bridge, which would have been the entry point to the City of London.

Milestone

The 1894 Ordnance Survey map shows the Mayflower milestone marked as M.S. to the front of the pub (P.H.) in the following map extract, and includes the distance to London Bridge.

Milestone

For centuries, London Bridge was the main crossing point from south of the River Thames into the City of London, and then to the northern routes which stretched out from the City, There is another fine example of a distance marker in Rochester, Kent where, on the front of this 1928 building above the word Furniture:

Milestone

Is this example, indicating a distance of 29 miles from London Bridge.

Milestone

Although the building dates from 1928, it replaced an earlier milestone or wall sign, as the OS map revision of 1896 shows a marker and distance of 29 miles at the same spot as the above building. This is circled red in the extract below (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Milestone

Milestones marked the long distance routes from London. Camberley in Surrey is on the road that now has the designation of the A30. This was originally the main London to Exeter road.

The following photo shows the A30 at the eastern boundary of Camberley. Traffic lights, road signs, a car dealers – all the signs of 21st century travel, but look to the lower left of the photo and an old stone can be seen.

Milestone

Indicating 29 miles to London. If you were a coach traveler from Exeter, bumping along poorly maintained roads for many hours, you would be counting down these milestones till you reached your destination.

Milestone

As well as London, the milestone indicates the next village, town, turnpike boundary etc. that would be found on the route. These are shown on the side of the milestone facing traffic heading in the destination of the name. So, for example, Bagshot is on the opposite side of the milestone to the town of Bagshot as if you were travelling to Bagshot you would see the name and distance as you were heading to the town.

Coach travelers passing the above milestone would have to tolerate a very tough journey. In 1790, the typical times for a journey from London to Exeter would be:

  • Leave London at 8pm
  • Arrive Bagshot at 11:55 pm
  • Arrive Salisbury at 7:15 am
  • Thirty minute stop in Salisbury for breakfast
  • Arrive Blandford at 10:45 am
  • Arrive Dorchester at 12:55 pm
  • Thirty minute stop in Dorchester for dinner
  • Arrive in Honiton at 6:40 pm
  • Arrive in Exeter at 8:50 pm

So if you were traveling the full journey from London to Exeter, you would have been on the coach for 24 hours, 50 minutes, covering a distance of 179 miles. We can now fly from London to Australia in the same time.

In the days before any form of electronic communication, these long distance routes supported mail coaches, and individual riders who were carrying important news and information to and from London.

A good example of this is commemorated by a plaque to be seen in Salisbury which commemorates the route taken by Lieutenant John Richards Lapenotiere in October 1805 when he brought the news of the Battle of Trafalgar, and the death of Nelson from Falmouth in Cornwall to London. A journey that took 37 hours to cover the 271 miles with 21 changes of horse.

Milestone

Although Camberley is not mentioned on the map, Hartford Bridge and Bagshot are listed. These are the two locations shown on the Camberley milestone, so Lieutenant Lapenotiere would have passed along the same road carrying the news to London.

Signs indicating distance took many forms. In Wroxton, Oxfordshire, there is an unusual example:

Milestone

This Guide Post dates from 1686 and is a marker on one of the routes from Wales and the west to London. Allegedly used by salt merchants, the route follows the A422 down to Wroxton where it breaks from the road and heads to the south of Banbury.

The top of the guide post was originally a sundial and around the middle of the post are carved hands pointing to the towns along the adjacent roads.

The guide post was restored in 1974 and still looks in good condition with the directions and carved hands clearly visible.

This would have been the route to travel between London and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Milestone

As well as milestones and guide posts, the first printed route maps were of the strip map form showing the full route of a road from source to destination. John Ogilby was one of the first to produce this type of map in the 17th century and the following is one of his maps showing the route from Chester to Holyhead, one map of a sequence showing the complete route from London to Holyhead (Attribution: John Ogilby (1600–1676), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Ogiby map includes the incremental distance in miles marked along the road, and milestones would have provided physical verification as the traveler passed along the road.

Many routes out of London still have lots of milestones tracking the distance from London.

This is the village of Ingatestone in Essex.

Milestone

Ingatestone was on the original London to Colchester road, and has now been bypassed by the dual carriageway of the A12. In the centre of the village is a Grade II listed milestone from when the road was a turnpike and carried traffic from London to north Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

Milestone

23 miles to London, 6 miles to Chelmsford and 5 miles in the direction of London to Brentwood.

Milestone

The passing coach trade was often a reason for the expansion of villages on major roads, as they needed Inns and horse changes to serve the coaches.

Today, if a house for sale is close to a train station with a good service to London, it will increase the value of the property, and estate agents will emphasise the fact in their advertising. This was exactly the same in 1822, when the following advert appeared in the Morning Post:

“Stock Lodge, near Ingatestone, Essex – To be Let, handsomely Furnished or Unfurnished, for a term of five or seven years. The above healthy and cheerful Villa Residence, erected within these five years, for the reception of a Family of respectability, in the pleasant village of Stock, 26 miles from London, six miles from Chelmsford, three miles from Ingatestone where numerous coaches pass daily”.

Although this was almost 200 years ago, proximity to a good transport network, with numerous coaches passing daily was just as important as it is today.

Coaches would depart London for Essex from multiple Inns. In 1804, the Spread Eagle Inn, Gracechurch Street, was advertising:

  • Chelmsford, Ingatestone and Brentwood Coach, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoon, two o’clock
  • Chelmsford, Ingatestone and Brentwood Post Coach every morning, half past seven o’clock

Today, the train has replaced the coach to carry commuters between Ingatestone and Liverpool Street station, and the eastern end of Crossrail terminates at Shenfield, one stop towards London from Ingatestone further improving connectivity for this part of Essex with London.

This stretch of the London to Colchester road still has many milestones in place. These were frequently installed at each mile point, and were often a mandatory requirement when the road was administered by a turnpike. A turnpike trust was responsible for the maintenance of a major road, and for collecting fees from those travelling along the road to fund the upkeep.

Heading out of Ingatestone towards Chelmsford is a milestone that has the original stone marker to the rear, with a later metal marker in front. We are now 24 miles from London.

Milestone

Then 25 miles from London.

Milestone

Heading from Ingatestone towards London and 21 miles:

Milestone

The coach route through Ingatestone went to Colchester, a town from where you could transfer to other coaches heading across north Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Many milestones extended their London connection on past Colchester. This was often the case where the end point was of some importance, and there would be frequent direct travel to London.

An example can be seen with the following milestone in the village of Bradfield in north Essex on the road to the sea port of Harwich.

Milestone

Harwich has long been an important port, serving northern Europe and also serving as a Royal Naval dockyard for periods, dependent on who the country was at war with at the time. A good coach service between Harwich and London would have been essential, and the milestones along the route between Colchester and Harwich provide a reminder.

The perils of travelling along these roads is clear from an inquest held in the Spread Eagle Inn in Ingatestone in 1828:

“Friday an Inquest was held at the Spread Eagle Inn, Ingatestone, on the body of a Yarmouth pilot, named Simkin, who was killed by the Telegraph coach, about nine o’clock on Wednesday night. The deceased was returning from London as an outside passenger on the above coach, and when at Ingatestone, the coachman, perceiving he was very much intoxicated, prevailed upon him to get inside; but this, it appears, was rather against the will of the deceased, who frequently expressed a wish to be ‘aloft’, and opening the door whilst the coach was proceeding at a brisk rate, he fell out, and the hind wheel passed over his thigh and across his body. He expired in a short time”.

There are still plenty of these milestones to be found across the country, however so many have been lost over the years. Road widening, vandalism, hit by passing vehicles, general lack of care, have gradually reduced their number.

They serve no purpose today. Travel these roads and a SatNav is probably guiding you to your destination, and telling you exactly how many miles you have to go, however they are an important link to when road travel was far more difficult than it is today, and coaches provided an important link between London and the rest of the country.

What has not changed is the importance of good travel connections, and looking at estate agent adverts for houses around Ingatestone and Stock today, they still list the benefit of frequent connections to London, but this time by train rather than by coach.

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The National Theatre – Denys Lasdun’s theatre on the Southbank

In 1979 I photographed the recently opened National Theatre on the Southbank:

National Theatre

In 2020 I photographed the same building again:

National Theatre

Before getting into the history of the building, the two photos highlight an issue I have with the Southbank – trees.

The trees along the Southbank illustrate a really difficult problem with landscaping public space. When walking along the Southbank, the trees add considerably to the environment. Providing shade, colour, breaking up and adding texture to an open space, as well as their environmental benefits.

However from an architectural perspective, I am not sure they are in the right place.

The National Theatre building has always been a rather controversial design. In 1988 the Prince of Wales described the theatre as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”, which is a rather good description.

Personally I really like the building. Close up, with the textured concrete, the external stairways and the diagonal columns that stretch out to support the lower cantilevered terrace. The building also looks good at night:

National Theatre

When the large glass windows to the lower floors, and the external stairways stand out well:

National Theatre

However it is only from a distance that the building can be really appreciated.

It was constructed on land next to the River Thames as part of the post war plan for cultural development of the Southbank, and it is from across the river that the overall design of the building can be fully seen.

Compare my two photos and standing on the north bank in 1979, we can see the complete façade of the building, the full width of the stacked terraces and the two rectangular concrete towers that rise above the building. In 2020 the trees obscure the majority of the tiered terraces.

The architect of the National Theatre building, Sir Denys Lasdun, probably designed the river facing façade expecting this view of the building to be seen from across the river, and the trees that have been planted along the Southbank obscure this view – as shown in my 2020 photo.

I am not against trees in a city environment. Far more are needed in London. They considerably improve the walking experience, they improve the environment, they cut down the wind tunnel effect produced by the clustering of tall buildings. I am just not sure that the trees along the Southbank are in the right place, in respect to the architecturally important buildings that line this part of the river.

We can see the same issue a short distance further west, where trees also obscure views of the Queen Elizabeth Hall complex to the left, and the Royal Festival Hall to the right.

National Theatre

The Royal Festival Hall also has a problem with the development around the Shell Centre tower, where the tower is the only remaining part of the original office complex. The earlier 9 storey office blocks surrounding the tower have been demolished, to be replaced by much taller blocks which dominate the view of the Royal Festival Hall from the east.

National Theatre

The National Theatre has a fascinating history.

Ideas for a National Theatre started in the mid 19th century, however first plans for a National Theatre would come fifty years later in 1903 when the actor and director Harvey Granville Barker published plans for a National Theatre.

Fund raising and campaigns continued through the first decades of the 20th century, however it would need the post war consensus that something good should come out of the war, along with the availability of space on a bomb damaged Southbank to turn almost one hundred years of ideas and campaigning into a physical building.

The 1943 County of London Plan proposed a radical development of the Southbank, with Government Offices, a Youth Centre, and in the centre, a Theatre.

National Theatre

The Festival of Britain went on to occupy the site and the Royal Festival Hall remained as the only permanent building from the festival. The Festival of Britain did not include a National Theatre.

In 1949 a National Theatre Bill committed £1M of central government funding towards the project, but the project would have to wait until 1961 when the London County Council committed to the rest of the funding for the theatre.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) appointed a panel of architectural experts to evaluate proposals for the building’s design, and after a shortened evaluation process, Denys Lasdun was appointed as the architect for the National Theatre.

Denys Lasdun’s career started in the 1930s, but was interrupted during the Second World War by a period in the Royal Engineers.

Restarting his career after the war, his early work included east London developments such as Sulkin House and Keeling House (see this detailed exploration of these two buildings on the Municipal Dreams site).

In the early 1960s his work included the Royal College of Physicians in Regent’s Park, and the University of East Anglia campus, which included rather novel pyramidal shaped student halls.

The initial plans for the National Theatre included not just the Theatre, but also an Opera House. Land was made available for these by the LCC, between County Hall and Hungerford Bridge. The land that had been occupied by the Dome of Discovery during the Festival of Britain.

Lasdun created a model of his proposed National Theatre and Opera House in the original location. I photographed a photo of the model from a magazine a number of years ago (hence the poor quality). In the model below, the National Theatre is on the right and the Opera House is on the left. The ghostly form of the Shell Centre tower hovers in the background. The site today is occupied by the Jubilee Gardens (see this post for the story of the gardens).

National Theatre

The two buildings almost mirror each other, and the designs are very similar to that of the National Theatre we see today, with terraces running along the length of the buildings and the large concrete towers above.

They almost look like two cruise ships in dock alongside the river.

Going back to my comments earlier on trees, Lasdun’s model includes trees along the river side of the buildings, so it must have been part of his original thinking, however I wonder if he considered the visual impact these would have after years of growth on the visibility of his design from across the river?

The designs for the two buildings were highly regarded, however late 1960s budgetary constraints scaled back the project to just the National Theatre, along with a location change to a site immediately to the east of Waterloo Bridge.

Construction began in 1969.

Work during the 1970s was relatively slow due to a number of strikes, shortage of workers and the 1973 oil crisis.  There were also funding problems, with the cost of the project going significantly over the initial budget. There had already been many design changes to address budgetary issues, for example, the terraces which run along the river facing side of the building were originally to have run around all sides of the buildings. Terraces on all but the river façade were dropped to save costs.

Additional funding was provided by the Arts Council and Government during the 1970s. In March 1975, Hugh Jenkins the Minister for the Arts made the following statement in Parliament in support of the National Theatre, in reply to a question “Our attitude to the arts has changed. We no longer take the view that only that which pays can and should be done. We now say that we must do it the best way it can be done. We must do it even if it is expensive because the theatre is as necessary to urban civilisation as an art gallery, a library, or a museum”.

As well as the National Theatre, the Government also had another costly project in view, the extension of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. With the planned move of the market to Nine Elms the Arts Council had already purchased the land, however Hugh Jenkins was not in a position to confirm any future plans or funding for the Royal Opera House.

Construction of the National Theatre was complicated not just with the building, but by the three theatres that were within the overall structure. These were planned to make use of the latest technological advances, which again caused delays and cost overruns.

The three theatres were:

  • The Olivier. Named after Laurence Olivier, the first artistic director of the theatre. Seating 1160 in two main stepped tiers, linked by intermediate tiers
  • The Lyttelton. Named after Oliver Lyttelton, the first chairman of the National Theatre. Seating 890 across two levels
  • The Cottesloe. Named after Lord Cottesloe, the Chaiman of the Southbank Theatre Board. Seating between 200 and 400, dependent on the layout of stage and seating. The name of this theatre has since changed to the Dorfman, after Lloyd Dorfman, who donated £10 million towards the National Theatre Future redevelopment.

Each theatre had its own machinery to move scenery and equipment across the theatre, elevators to raise up to the stage floor, lighting and lighting control systems, sound systems and stage management systems. The Olivier also had an 11.5 metre drum revolving stage as part of the theatre’s construction.

The aim was to make each theatre as flexible as possible so as to support a wide range of future productions.

Attention to detail was not limited to the technically advanced theatres. Although the concrete construction of the building could appear to be a simple and cheap construction method, in reality great care was taken with the shuttering into which the concrete was poured. The wood used was sawn Douglas Fir, with a six-inch module being used for most parts of the building. This gives the building the appearance of being constructed from the concrete equivalent of wooden planks.

The Queen officially opened the National Theatre on the 25th October 1976, and the three individual theatres gradually opened between 1976 and 1977 as they were completed.

In five years time, the National Theatre will be celebrating 50 years since being opened by the Queen. The theatre has been redeveloped and upgraded during the past decades and still continues to serve the purpose first proposed in the mid 19th century.

Sir Denys Lasdun was knighted in 1976. He would continue with his architectural practice, with projects including the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. He died in 2001.

I will leave the last word on the National Theatre to the architect Denys Lasdun who, when the theatre opened in 1976, said “Nothing takes priority over the atmosphere and the dramatic space created by the building. Although we’ve opened the theatre, it’s not the end but the beginning of something, from my point of view. The nature and the quality of something won’t be known for a couple of years; it depends on the directors and what they create within the new space”.

The building does indeed create an atmospheric and dramatic space.

Before closing the post, going back to the original 1979 photo, there is a mystery structure which I just cannot remember anything about. To the left of the National Theatre, on space which is now occupied by the IBM building, there is a strange, apparently circular structure which appears to spiral into or out of the ground.

I have enlarged this feature in the photo below:

National Theatre

Any suggestions would be most welcome.

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Billingsgate Excavation and London Docklands

Two apparently unconnected subjects for this week’s post. A Billingsgate excavation, and the London Docklands. What connects the two is that whilst sorting a box of papers this last week, I found leaflets handed out to visitors when it was possible to visit the archeological excavation in the old lorry park at Billingsgate Market, and the London Docklands Development Corporation Visitor Centre on the Isle of Dogs.

I had posted some photos of an excavation a few months ago, asking for help to confirm the location, and a number of readers suggested Billingsgate. I was really pleased to find the Billingsgate leaflet because it helped to confirm the location.

Billingsgate Excavation

Billingsgate fish market moved to a new location between the Isle of Dogs and Poplar in February 1982, and whilst the buildings of the fish market were to be retained, the adjacent lorry park was to be redeveloped with an office block. The lorry park was in a prime position between the River Thames and Lower Thames Street and offered a sizeable area for new offices.

Archeologically, the site of the lorry park was important. It had been built on the area of land that was once the shifting waterfront between land and river. The Thames has only relatively recently been channeled within concrete walls, many centuries ago, the river’s edge would have been marsh, inter-tidal land up to where the ground rises north of Lower Thames Street.

As the importance of the City as a trading port grew, the edge of the City expanded into the river, building quayside, docks and buildings from the Roman period onwards.

It was this advance of the waterfront that the excavation hoped to uncover below a tarmac lorry park.

In 1982, the Museum of London published a leaflet explaining the Billingsgate Excavations and it was this leaflet I found in a box of London guides and leaflets.

Billingsgate excavation

The leaflet was published during the early weeks of the excavation, and provided some background to the location and included a drawing showing the results from a previous nearby excavation at St Magnus House which had found evidence of the Thames waterfront as it expanded southwards from the Roman period to the 13th century. A continuation of this Roman to 13th century strata was expected to be found under the Billingsgate lorry park.

Billingsgate excavation

Long before the fish market, Billingsgate had been one of the three docks or harbours dating from the Saxon period, along with Queenhithe and Dowgate. These later two sites had been lost to archeological investigation due to development in the 1960s and early 1970s, so access to the Billingsgate lorry park was of considerable importance.

Preparation of the site began on the 20th January 1982 when the tarmac was removed, along with rubble found in the basements of the buildings beneath the tarmac. A cofferdam needed to be installed to shore up the sides of the site and prevent water entering the excavation at times of high tide. The waters of the Thames would still try and seep through the land the river had lost. The work to excavate the site began in March.

The leaflet explains the source of funding for the excavation, from the Corporation of the City of London, the Department of the Environment and from a number of private contributions. A reminder of the expense of such projects and the considerable challenges of raising funds for such important work, as when these sites have been lost, there will never again be a chance to explore the history of the site.

Billingsgate excavation

I had photographed the lorry park in 1980, when the market was still open. Rather a bland view when you consider what would be found below ground.

Billingsgate excavation

I took a number of photos of the excavations when I visited the site. When I originally scanned the negatives I was not sure of their location (I was not good at keeping records of the location of my photos), and I published a couple in a post a few months ago asking for help with the location. A number of readers suggested Billingsgate, and finding the leaflet helped jog my memory of visiting the site.

Billingsgate excavation

The Billingsgate excavation uncovered a significant amount of evidence of the waterfront as it developed, and the buildings that lined the river.

Excavation of the upper levels found evidence of the waterfront dating back to the 12th century, along with tenements that lined the river (extending into the Billingsgate lorry park from other tenements discovered during earlier excavations to the west). A small inlet from the river was also discovered under the lorry park.

The church of St Botolph Billingsgate was originally just north of the site, where Lower Thames Street is today, however part of the church did extend into the area of the lorry park, and evidence of the southern wall was found, along with two tiled floors from the church and a number of burials.

Numerous small finds were uncovered, including a rare 14th century buckle, a lead lion badge, which could have been a pilgrim’s badge and intact 17th century bottles.

A number of fabrics dating back to between the 12th and 14th centuries were found. These were made of undyed, natural fibres, the type that have been used for sacking, probably evidence of the transport of goods from ships at the inlet and Billingsgate waterfront.

The Billingsgate dock may have been used by larger ships that would have been used for cross channel trade. Documentary evidence from the 14th century implies that these ships were encouraged to use Billingsgate rather than navigate through London Bridge to Queenhithe.

If you look in the middle of the following photo, there appears to be a number of twigs and branches laid out to form a mat. This is wattle consolidation in front of the 12th century waterfront.

Billingsgate excavation

In the following photo, a three sided wooden long rectangular box like structure can be seen:

Billingsgate excavation

This is a wooden drain that dates to the 13th century, possibly around 1270. The drain extended for a length of 8.8 metres, parts also had the top covering, and the drain was in exceptionally good condition allowing the detail of construction to be examined.

The results of the Billingsgate and related excavations, were published in the 2018 book “London’s Waterfront 1100-1666: excavations in Thames Street, London, 1974-84” by John Schofield, Lyn Blackmore and Jacqui Pearce with Tony Dyson. The book is a detailed examination of London’s historic waterfront as it developed over the centuries.

The book is published by Archaeopress, and is available for download under Open Access. 

The book includes a photo of the same drain that was in my photo, and as Archaeopress appears to state that the book comes with a Creative Commons licence, I have copied the photo from the book below.

Billingsgate excavation

The drain is exactly the same as in my photo, so final confirmation that my photos were of the Billingsgate excavation.

The Billingsgate excavation was a significant dig during the early 1980s. I found some of my old copies of Popular Archeology from the time, and there are a number of articles by John Schofield providing updates on the work.

Billingsgate excavation

The following photo shows how far down the excavation had reached when I photographed the site, however it would continue downwards to reach the timbers of the Saxon and Roman waterfront, showing just how far below the current surface of the City that these remains are found.

Billingsgate excavation

The excavation was initially scheduled to end in November 1982, however agreement with the developer allowed work to continue into 1983.

Excavation finally worked down through the Saxon waterfront to the substantial timbers of the Roman waterfront.

The BBC history series Chronicle made a programme on the Billingsgate excavation and this can now be found here on YouTube.

As well as providing comprehensive coverage of the excavation, told by those working on the site, it also shows how this type of work was carried out in the early 1980s, and “because the dig has extra funding from sponsors, the Museum of London can invest in computers for the first time”. Very early use of computer technology to record a large excavation.

When work completed, a large number of finds were ready for further investigation. Wood from the various waterfronts had been removed, and sections of wood cut out to allow the age of the tree and when it was cut down to be investigated.

The BBC Chronicle programme shows the pressures of City archeology, the pressure to complete by a date driven by the developer, negotiations for extensions and how work is planned to retrieve as much as possible within a limited period of time.

Today, the site is under the building at the western end of the old Billingsgate Market building, at the far end of the following photo.

Billingsgate excavation

The following photo shows a very different view from roughly where I was standing to take the 1980 photo of the old lorry park.

Billingsgate excavation

Finding the leaflet on the dig, along with reading the book and watching the Chronicle episode brought back a load of memories from visiting the site almost 40 years ago. An advert in Popular Archaeology of July 1982 states that the site was open for visitors every day of the week except for Monday, and admission to the viewing platform cost 50p for adults and 25p for children.

Preserving timbers exposed to the air, when they have been buried in waterlogged soil for centuries is a considerable problem, however it would have been really good if some section of the old Roman and Saxon waterfront could have been preserved in situ. It would have provided a really good demonstration of how the present City has been built on the layered centuries of previous development, and as the City has risen in height, so the Thames has been pushed back into the the confined channel that the river runs in today.

Another of my finds whilst sorting through a box of London papers was a reminder of a very different visit.

London Docklands – The Exceptional Place

In the late 1980s / early 1990s, the redevelopment of the old docklands, around the Isle of Dogs and the Royal Docks further to the east was moving forward under the management of the London Docklands Development Corporation (the LDDC).

The LDDC opened a visitor centre at 3 Limeharbour on the Isle of Dogs, where a brochure on the London Docklands – The Exceptional Place was available:

Billingsgate excavation

The rear of the brochure, shows a train on the recently opened section of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR).

Billingsgate excavation

The brochure opens up to reveal a large map of the area, from the City of London in the west, to the edge of the Royal Docks in the east. Having a map is probably why I picked up and kept the brochure – anything with a map.

Billingsgate excavation

The focus of the map is on the transport links connecting the docklands to the City and the surrounding road network. Only recently this area of London had seemed a remote and derelict land and if the LDDC were to entice the investment needed, along with the businesses and people to relocate to the docklands, they had to demonstrate that travel was easy.

The map charts the growth of the Docklands Light Railway, and shows the extent of plans in 1990, along with some station changes to the DLR network we see today.

By 1990, the DLR extended from Tower Gateway in the City, to Stratford, and Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. The eastern route onwards from Poplar was shown as a dashed route to show that this section of the route was under construction.

Billingsgate excavation

The following section shows the north eastern tip of the isle of Dogs and Leamouth, with the River Lea / Bow Creek curving around an area of land that has now been redeveloped as City Island.

Billingsgate excavation

The red dashed line shows the 1990 expectations for the planned Jubilee line extension, where the line would continue from Canary Wharf, to a new station called Brunswick, then to Canning Town and on to Stratford.

As built, the Jubilee line extension took a different route, and headed across the river to North Greenwich from Canary Wharf, before heading back across the river to Canning Town. Brunswick station would never be built.

Comparing the planned to the built route of the DLR shows a similar loss of the name Brunswick for a station. In the 1990 plans, there was to be a Brunswick station on the DLR, however as built, this would be named East India. The following map marks the location of DLR stations today:

Billingsgate excavation

The route further east to Beckton shows the loss of a station. Connaught Station was planned between Prince Regent and Royal Albert stations, however when looking at the map, Connaught would have been so close to Royal Albert that it made little sense to build the station.

Billingsgate excavation

The yellow area in the above map is London City Airport, which had opened three years earlier in 1987. The map also shows the 1990 planned extension to the DLR, and the map below shows the line as built today.

Billingsgate excavation

The 1990 plan was for the line to run along the north of the Royal docks, however in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the line was further extended to Greenwich, Lewisham, City Airport and Woolwich.

The route south of the Royal Docks is shown on the 2020 map above, not on the 1990 map, and in the 1990 map, the line terminates at Island Gardens to the south of the Isle of Dogs, rather than crossing under the river and continuing on to Lewisham as it does today.

The map also identifies another element of transport infrastructure that has not been built  – the East London River Crossing is shown on the eastern edge of the map from Gallions Reach, heading under the river towards the A2.

Billingsgate excavation

Ideas for this tunnel keep resurfacing, however it is not on Transport for London’s list of new river crossings for London, and I suspect given current financial conditions, the Silvertown Tunnel will be the only new river crossing built for a very long time.

Two very different topics, the only apparent connection being the leaflet and brochure coming from a box of London papers. There is though another connection – they both tell of the development of London. With Billingsgate we can discover the growth of London’s waterfront from the Roman timbers found many feet below the current surface level, through the Saxon and Medieval to a lorry park that served the old fish market.

In the London Docklands, development continues to this day, and the brochure records some of this and shows how the 1990 plans developed to the transport network we see today.

It is interesting to speculate whether archeologists in 2000 years time will discover any remains of the DLR and what they will make of a 20th century transport system.

alondoninheritance.com

Blogs, Books and Population Statistics

After a strange and tragic year, a year in which so many have suffered loss of loved ones, financial loss and the day to day stress of living through a pandemic, I thought I would end 2020 with a rather different post. One that looks back on the blogs and books I have been reading during the past ten months, and looks at how previous population trends across London may change in the future.

Three very different subjects, but hopefully suited for the period between Christmas and the New Year, when the days lack their normal structure and blend into each other, made even worse with the restrictions of Tier 4, and when the change to a new year brings thoughts of the past and the future.

Blogs

I started writing the blog back in 2014 after attending a blog writing course run by the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life. I had been trying to summon the motivation, and a purpose for a project I had been thinking about for years, to track down the location of the sites my father had been photographing from 1946.

It seemed the structure and routine of a blog would provide the right motivation and purpose, although I did not expect to be still writing almost seven years later.

One of the blogs I have been reading for years is Diamond Geezer, who has been writing since 2002 and publishes daily. One of the topics Diamond Geezer occasionally touches on is the loss of many long form blogs, and whether this form of writing is a gradually disappearing format.

I hope not given that I probably started rather late using blogging as a medium, so I thought I would celebrate the diversity of blogs with a sample of those that I read regularly. I will also be adding what WordPress terms a Blogroll to the side bar of the blogs main page.

So starting with the blog that started me writing:

Spitalfields Life – A blog that probably needs no introduction from me. Written by the Gentle Author, a daily exploration of the people and places of east London, and indeed London as a whole. Spitalfields Life has become a campaigning blog, addressing some of the proposals that seem to want to change London without considering the history or future of the city, probably apart from a quick commercial return.

Diamond Geezer –  Another blog that posts daily, with the added benefit that you are never sure what the topic will be. Covering London, as well as visits to the rest of the country, analysis of data published about London’s transport network, anniversaries, street names etc.

What I envy about the Diamond Geezer blog is the ability of the author to craft a wonderful 50 words on a topic, where I would waffle through 500 words trying to say the same thing.

Bug Woman – Adventures in London – Mainly focused on the flora and fauna of London, Bug Woman shows another side of the city. The animals, plants, trees that are around us, but need that extra bit of attention to see and understand.

Bug Woman started with a weekly post, but for the last few months has been posting daily and provides a fascinating alternative view of the city.

Flickering Lamps – Although posts from this blog are not frequent, what the blog lacks in quantity is easily covered by the quality of the posts. A historical blog which brings to life some unique stories with in depth research and some wonderful writing and photography. A blog which demonstrates how much there is to be discovered across the streets of London, and further afield exploring the churches, graves and ruins to be found across the country.

Nature Girl, or “nature writing from a country warden” – I found this blog when I was researching a visit to the London Stone by Yantlet Creek on the Isle of Grain. The author is an Environmental Consultant in that wonderful area of Kent along the River Thames and inland to the River Medway. Although the blog is not about London, the proximity and influence of the Thames on north Kent has always fascinated me, and London looms as a potential threat to the area from expansion of the city, schemes such as the estuary airport, housing development, energy projects etc.

Nature Girl writes about the natural beauty of the area, and the importance of looking after such a special area of the country, not that far out from London.

Historic Southampton – Southampton is a city that like London was badly bombed in the last war, grew significantly because of the city’s access to the sea, and has a long and continuing history as a major port. The Historic Southampton blog explores the history of this fascinating city, and through some unique research and presentation of data, has mapped the location of Titanic crew members who lived or lodged in the city, and really brings home the impact of the disaster on the families in just one city.

The above is just a sample, there is so much creativity and research to be found across the blogging world, and hopefully the format will continue to gain an audience for many years to come.

London 2020 Reading

I have probably read more during 2020 than in any previous year. I have also tried to expand my London reading to explore recent history, and the London that I have experienced from the mid 1970s. The following books are a sample of my 2020 London reading (over the years, I have been offered books to review, I never except these. All books have been chosen and purchased by me, usually in a bricks and mortar book shop. It is very important to me to keep the blog free of any external, commercial or hidden influence):

London Made Us – Robert Elms

Robert Elms is a broadcaster on BBC Radio London, a writer and once a journalist with the New Musical Express (NME). The title London Made Us very much describes the contents of the book – a family history of London, growing up in London and how London has changed.

I will use the word evocative a number of times in the rest of the blog, and for London Made Us, the book is brilliantly evocative of London in the 1970s and 80s.

Elms supports Queens Park Rangers, who play at Loftus Road. I have a very different experience of Loftus Road, it was where I saw my first major stadium concert in 1975 when Yes were headlining – a memorable day which still seems as if it was only yesterday.

Blogs

Alpha City – Rowland Atkinson

One of the reasons that London has such a global presence is the attraction of the city to the super-rich of the world.

The attraction of London as an asset rich city, a place where wealth can be accumulated and preserved has an impact on all those who live and work in the city. This has influenced the buildings we see grow across the city, the ownership of the city’s land and buildings, on the type and price of housing across the city.

Alpha City helps explain why London is the London we see today, and what the impact of these trends will be on the future of London and in-equality in the city, and goes some way to explaining why the population density of Kensington & Chelsea has reduced so significantly (see later in this post).

Blogs

Soho. A Guide to Soho’s History, Architecture and People – Dan Cruickshank

This is a wonderful book on a unique area of London. The first half provides historical background, the initial development of the estates that would come to form Soho and some social history of the area.

The second half is titled The Walk and presents a detailed walk through Soho, street by street and frequently house by house. I read the first half at home, then took the book out and followed the walk.

Soho is at risk of the type of development that will gradually erase what makes Soho a defined area in the city with its own unique character. Books like Cruickshank’s will help prevent this, or will help provide a record of a unique place for the future.

Blogs

On The Marshes – Carol Donaldson

Carol Donaldson is the author of the Nature Girl blog mentioned above, and I purchased the book after reading the blog.

On The Marshes is a record of a journey across north Kent from Gravesend to Whistable whilst coming to terms with the break-up of a long-term relationship.

On the Marshes provides a wonderfully evocative view of the north Kent marshes and rivers, and covers aspects such as the plotland developments – plots purchased by individuals, frequently those escaping London, who built their own home and lived based on what they could find around them.

A good read to really understand this area, and then get out for some walking.

Blogs

Excellent Essex – Gillian Darley

Again, not a London book, but a book which tells the story of a county that borders, and has been influenced by London. A county that has lost many of its original south western towns, villages and lands into Greater London.

The Essex coast has been a holiday destination for Londoners (Southend and Clacton), where many Londoners moved after the war, to new towns such as Basildon, and a county that has a long relationship with the River Thames and North Sea.

The book’s sub-title is “In Praise Of England’s Most Misunderstood County” which is a good summary. Essex has long been the focus of jokes about Essex Girls, Brentwood was a lovely country town on the main A12 into London before TOWIE gave the town a different reputation.

Basildon was one of the key constituencies that signaled the swing to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979, and became known for “Mondeo Man”.

Although these are the aspects of Essex that are frequently in the media, there is far more to Essex. Travel to the north of the county and it is a very different place to the south and Excellent Essex takes the reader through the whole history and geography of the county of Essex.

Blogs

Some Fantastic Place – Chris Difford

Chris Difford was, along with Glenn Tilbrook, one of the original founders of the band Squeeze, and has been responsible for the majority of their lyrics.

Squeeze has long been one of my favourite bands and whenever I hear the opening of Take Me I’m Yours, I am transported back to driving around in my first car with their music playing on an Amstrad car cassette player.

Chris Difford grew up in Greenwich and his dad worked at the gas works on the Greenwich Peninsula. The book is an evocative story of growing up in Greenwich, and starting a band in Greenwich, Blackheath and Deptford. The book also touches on the London music industry, Bryan Ferry and Elvis Costello.

A brilliant read about growing up in south London, and a life in the music industry.

Blogs

Defying Gravity, Jordan’s Story

The book is about Pamela Rooke, or Jordan as she was known as the face of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop SEX at 430 King’s Road. later known as Seditionaries.

Jordan was there at the start of Punk in London, and if what punk was intended to be could be summarised by one single person, then it was probably Jordan.

Jordan played the part of Amyl Nitrate in Derek jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, a film that portrayed Jarman’s view of punk, and England in the years around the 1977 Royal Jubilee, when Queen Elizabeth I is transported to London to see the decline of the country in the late 1970s. The film is great for a bit of location spotting as it was filmed at many locations around London, including Shad Thames, where Jarman had a studio at Butler’s Wharf.

The book is a brilliant read and brings to life not only Jordan’s story, but also that unique time when punk, music and fashion converged, against the backdrop of a London about to go through a period of considerable change.

Blogs

Changes in London’s Population

This year there have been many stories in the media about people moving out of London. The growth in working from home enabled by the ability to work from anywhere with an Internet connection, with many companies seeming to accept that a high degree of home working will become normal in the future.

This has been a rapid acceleration of an existing trend and it will be interesting to see what impact it has on the need for office space, London housing and London’s population in the coming years.

Up until the start of the year, London gave all the impressions of a very busy city. Streets full of people, crowded underground trains where frequently standing was the only option, the West End teeming with people in the evenings, busy cafes, restaurants and pubs.

Lock downs have had a catastrophic impact on so many London businesses in the entertainment and service industries. Add to this the collapse of tourism, and London feels a very different place to this time last year.

Although up until the start of the year, London felt very crowded, in reality London’s population was only catching up to levels last seen at the start of the 1960s.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) publish some fascinating data, and I was recently browsing through some London population data (to pinch the words of Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder – the long winter nights must just fly by), and converting the data to graphs as I find it much easier to see trends using graphical presentation.

The following graph shows population numbers for inner (blue line) and outer (red line) London from 1961 to 2015.

Blogs

The graph shows that for inner London there was a fall in population of almost 1 million from 1961 (3.481 million) to 1983 (2.517 million), a fall of around 27%.

The fall across outer London was less dramatic, declining from 4.496 million to 4.202 million in 1988.

A number of factors contributed to such a significant decline across inner London, including:

  • slow rebuild of housing lost during the war
  • closure of industry, and the move of industry outside of inner London
  • slow down in trade on the Thames, containerisation and eventual closure of the inner docks
  • migration to new towns such as Harlow and Basildon

We can see the areas included in the ONS definition of inner London, as well as their individual population movements by graphing each individual area over time as shown in the following graph.

Inner London Population – 1961 to 2015

Blogs

The City of London should be at the bottom of each column, however the population of the City is so low compared to the rest of inner London that it is does not show based on the vertical population scale. The population of the City changed from 5,000 in 1961 to 8,760 in 2015, with a low of 4,000 for most of the 1960s.

Whilst many areas of inner London returned to a similar population in 2015 that they had in 1961, there are some variations.

The populations of Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea are still below their 1961 levels. Tower Hamlets and Newham are both above their 1961 levels.

One of the reasons that the population of the City is so low, as well as the City being mainly a business area, it is also the smallest of the areas classed as inner London. The following graph shows the area in square kilometers for each area of inner London.

Inner London – Size of each Borough in 2016

Blogs

By comparing the population with the area, we can see the population density of each area of inner London, as shown in the following graph which illustrates the number of people per square kilometer.

Inner London – Population Density in 2015

Blogs

In inner London in 2015, Islington was the most densely populated area, with Tower Hamlets not far behind.

Inner London – Changes in Population Density between 1961 and 2015

What is really interesting is to compare the change in population density for each area of inner London between 1961 and 2015, as shown in the following graph where the blue column represents people per square kilometer in 1961 and the brown column represents 2015.

Blogs

Islington, whilst being the most densely populated borough in 2015, was more densely populated in 1961.

The highest reduction is in Kensington & Chelsea, which in 1961 was the most densely populated borough, but this had reduced considerably by 2015. Possibly a result of housing policy in the borough, changes in multiple occupancy, housing treated as an investment rather than a home and often left empty etc.

The borough which has increased population density the most is Tower Hamlets. Possibly due to reconstruction after the war, land once occupied by industry and docks now occupied by housing, and that east London has long been the traditional initial destination for immigration into London.

Whilst the population of outer London reduced after 1961, it did to a much smaller degree than inner London, reflecting the different industrial and commercial mix in inner than outer London, as well as a gradual move of population from inner to outer London.

What is marked is the increase in the population of outer London, so that whilst inner London had recovered to 1961 levels by 2015, outer London has seen an increase of over 700,000.

The following graph shows the population changes in outer London from 1961 to 2015.

Outer London Population – 1961 to 2015

Blogs

As with inner London, the geographic size of the outer London boroughs varies considerably with Bromley being by far the largest. This does not mean that population size follows geographic size as Bromley has a similar population to the much smaller Ealing.

The following graph compare the size of each outer London borough (in square kilometers):

Outer London – Size of each Borough in 2016

Blogs

We can compare population density in the following graph, which charts the number of people per square kilometer for each borough.

Outer London – Population Density in 2015

Blogs

Compare the above two graphs. Bromley is by far the largest in land area, but the smaller when defined by population density. Brent has the highest population density with almost 7,500 people per square kilometer.

The following graph compares population density of the outer London boroughs in 1961 (blue column) with 2015 (brown column).

Blogs

Where a number of inner London boroughs population density has reduced from 1961 to 2015, all outer London boroughs have increased their population density, reflecting a migration of people from inner to outer London, and perhaps those moving to London preferring to live in the outer rather than the inner London boroughs.

The cost of housing will also drive this change with housing costing slightly less the further from the centre of the city (although still very expensive).

All the above ONS data is from 2015. Numbers have almost certainly increased since then, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years.

Will changes to working patterns influence where people want to live, and will the loss of jobs in the entertainment and service industries result in a long term contraction, or will coffee shops, restaurants, bars and shops return to their former numbers.

Will Brexit have any impact on the businesses that make London their base?

The themes of today’s post may be very different, but they are really about the same thing – exploring and recording how London changes, and the individual experiences of those who come into contact with the city. Whether that is through a long life in the city, having been part of a key period of London’s cultural life, or being part of the counties surrounding London. Individual experiences recorded in a blog or book, or the experience of large populations recorded in the ONS data.

Can I wish all readers a very happy New Year, and hopefully 2021 will turn out to be much better than 2020 and London returns to being the busy, dynamic and diverse city that makes it in my totally unbiased view, the best city in the world.

alondoninheritance.com

A Thames Dolphin at Rotherhithe

The title for this week’s post is a bit deceiving. The Thames dolphin in question is not one of the marine mammals, rather it is a structure in the river which is also called a dolphin.

The definitions for this type of dolphin include a pile, or a collection of piles in the river to which a boat can be moored, or a cluster of piles at the entrance to a dock, and it is this later definition which I suspect applies to the dolphin in my father’s photo at the entrance to the Surrey Lock and Basin in Rotherhithe – photographed in 1947:

Dolphin

The photo was taken from the Thames foreshore, adjacent to the air shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel, looking across to the Shadwell / Wapping side of the river.

The negative with the photo was in poor condition and took some processing to get to the copy you see above, which unfortunately still has the opposite bank of the river with a rather poor contrast and lack of detail to the buildings.

I could not get down to the foreshore to take a similar photo as the tide was not sufficiently out, so the angle of the 2020 photo is slightly different. The following photo shows that the dolphin can still be seen today, along with some landmarks visible in 1947 on the opposite side of the river.

Dolphin

The following extract is from the 1948 revision of the Ordinance Survey map. The lines converge on the approximate point where my father was standing to take the photo. A blue circle marks the location of the dolphin (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Dolphin

The green circle on the opposite side of the river is the position of the air shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel which can be seen in the 1947 photo. The centre red arrow shows the alignment of the airshaft in relation to the dolphin.

The arrow on the left points to the church spire that be seen in the 1947 photo. This is the spire of St Mary’s in Cable Street. The spire can also be seen in the 2020 photo, and I photographed the church when I was walking the area a few years ago.

Dolphin

The arrow on the right points to the buildings which can be seen to the right of the dolphin. These are the buildings and cranes of Charringtons Wharf, which were demolished some years ago to be replaced by the large block of flats on the site today. The cranes to the right of the tunnel air shaft in the 2020 photo mark one of the construction sites for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, or Super Sewer.

There is a prominent line of buildings running between the dolphin and the spire of the church. These were buildings along the northern edge of The Highway – buildings that have now been demolished.

The gap in the centre of the line of buildings is open space between The Highway and Glamis Place, with the ruins of a pub to the left.

The entrance to Shadwell Basin is also in the photo, but is hard to see due to the lack of contrast, and the lighting of the scene across the river. The entrance is also at an angle to the river so the northern side of the entrance looks like a continuation of the river wall.

I have marked these features on the original 1947 photo as shown below:

Dolphin

There is one feature in the 1947 photo that I could not locate, however the Britain from Above archive came to the rescue.

The following photo from 1946 shows the Wapping / Shadwell area. The tunnel air shaft is lower left and I have ringed the church. I have written the name of The Highway along the street and the row of buildings along the north side of the street can be seen.

Dolphin

From the church spire, look diagonally to the lower left and you will see a chimney. This is the chimney seen in the 1947 photo and is the feature I could not locate.

Comparing the photo and the OS maps, the chimney looks as if it may have been part of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children.

The following map shows the area today. The lower solid red circle is the point from where the photo was taken, and for reference, the upper red ring is the location of the church (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Dolphin

The entrance to the Surrey Basin can be seen to the right of the lower red circle and the entrance to Shadwell New Basin is on the opposite bank.

The following photo is looking slightly to the west. The air shaft of the tunnel is opposite, and it is strange to imagine the thousands of cars and lorries that are running daily, under the river between where I am standing and the air shaft opposite.

Dolphin

The dolphin has been repaired since the 1947 photo, but still retains the mooring bollard on top.

Across the river, there is a second church spire to the left, this is St Paul’s Shadwell. The white building on the extreme left is the Prospect of Whitby pub.

A close-up view of the air shaft on the north bank of the river. To the left of the air shaft are the Shadwell Dock Stairs, which I wrote about here.

Dolphin

The area behind the northern airshaft is the King Edward VII Memorial Park – a fascinating area which I wrote about here.

The following photo shows the Rotherhithe tunnel air shaft on the south bank of the river, mirroring the design of the structure on the opposite bank.

Dolphin

The location of these airshafts can be seen when travelling through the Rotherhithe tunnel. They are each located where the tunnel bends, and with the walls of the tunnel set back for the infrastructure leading up through the air shaft.

If you look along the river wall in the above photo, you will see steps descending down to the foreshore, which at the time I was there were still partly underwater.

I suspect this was the method my father used to get down to the foreshore to take the 1947 photo, as the steps are also shown on the 1948 Ordnance Survey map.

The entrance to the Shadwell New Basin on the opposite side of the river is almost impossible to see in the 1947 photo. The entrance is at an angle and is still not that obvious today. The following close-up photo shows the entrance to the basin.

Dolphin

The Prospect of Whitby on the northern bank of the river (I can only dream of having a beer there at the moment):

Dolphin

View looking west along the river with the dolphin:

Dolphin

The dolphin is just outside the entrance to the Surrey Lock, which was the western entrance to the Surrey Basin, and the large complex of docks that once occupied the peninsula. The following extract from the 1940 edition of Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of Greater London shows the considerable size of the docks. The entrance by the dolphin is on the left and labelled Surrey Docks.

Dolphin

The following photo shows more clearly the position of the dolphin and the entrance to the docks, which today have two posts marking the entrance.

Dolphin

The mooring bollard on the top of the dolphin implies that ships could have been moored on the dolphin, however I would have thought a ship moored in that position could have been an obstruction for ships coming in and out of the dock.

Dolphins at the entrance to docks were also used as a type of fender where the dolphin provided something for a ship to gently hit up against, and as an aid to align and position the ship.

At the entrance to a dock this may have helped a ship enter or exit the dock rather than drift further up or down stream.

Whatever the use of the dolphin, I assume it is now redundant as the docks have long since closed, with the majority disappearing under new building, and the entrance from the lock into Surrey Water closed off by Salter Road which runs across the old entrance into the basin.

The entrance does have an interesting base, which appears to be composed of metal plates.

Dolphin

I suspect the design is to reduce the amount of sediment that settles on the base of the lock. The angled plates which run along the centre will result in water draining to left and right as the tide goes out, and the higher flow of water along the edges that this causes reduces the amount of sediment left in the dock.

Facing out of the dock, towards the Thames, the tunnel air shaft is on the left, and a large pub, the Salt Quay, on the right:

Dolphin

Looking in from the river, along the Surrey Lock, and a rolling lift bridge can be seen, carrying Rotherhithe Street across the lock.

Dolphin

The bridge is a rolling lift bridge as it has a large counter weight at one end of the bridge, with a curved framework connecting the counter weight to the deck of the bridge.

Dolphin

When the bridge opens, the counter weight moves to the ground, rolling the deck of the bridge upwards. The following photo shows the bridge in action, with the deck fully raised to allow ships to move from the lock and into the docks.

Dolphin

The above view is looking south-west from the Thames. The chimneys in the background are at the Rotherhithe Gas Works which I covered a couple of weeks ago.

The docks were a prime target for bombing during the last war, and the original bridge was badly damaged in September 1940. Whilst it could continue to provide a road across the dock, it could not lift, so only barges were able to enter, not the usual sea going ships that would have normally entered the docks via this route.

The original bridge was built in 1858 as part of the development of the dock complex, but was finally replaced in 1952 when the new bridge was completed and opened by Viscount Waverley, the chairman of the Port of London Authority.

When the bridge was opened, it was reported that “the people of Bermondsey will again be able to observe the daily spectacle of sea-going ships on their way in and out of this dock entrance”.

The bridge also had a wider roadway than the original bridge, along with improved approaches to the bridge which would help with the substantial volume of road traffic along Rotherhithe Street.

The bridge cost £110,000 to construct, and the fine balance of bridge and counter-weight enabled the 720 tons of the bridge to be raised or lowered in three minutes, by just a 50 horse power electric motor.

Newspaper reports of the time stated that “incorporated in the main structure are 100 tons of cast-iron blocks from an old bridge across the river at Limehouse”. An intriguing statement that I have not had the time to research.

The bridge today sits quietly in an area that those who attended the 1952 opening would be hard pressed to recognise, the area having been significantly redeveloped after the closure of the docks.

Dolphin

The following photo is looking from the bridge, along the Surrey Dock towards where Salter Road now closes off the entrance to the basin. Salter Road being part of the development of the area after the closure of the docks.

Dolphin

The dolphin at the entrance to the Surrey Lock is a reminder of the sea going shipping that once was so common on this part of the river, and that would have either moored on the dolphin, or used it as an aid to enter or leave the dock.

The Surrey Commercial Docks to give the dock complex their full name is an area I have yet to explore. My father took more photos of the area, so hopefully some return visits in 2021.

alondoninheritance.com

Pickfords Wharf and the original Seven Dials Pillar

Pickfords Wharf and the original Seven Dials Pillar. A strange title for this week’s post about two subjects. The only relationship they have is one with London. The original Seven Dials pillar is a follow-up to my post on Seven Dials a couple of week’s ago, and Pickfords Wharf is the subject of the following photo that I took from London Bridge in 1979.

Pickfords Wharf

The same view of Pickfords Wharf from London Bridge, forty one years later, in 2020:

Pickfords Wharf

Much of the south bank of the river between London Bridge and Southwark Bridge is unrecognisable compared to the late 1970s. Some of the outer walls of some buildings have survived, but as can be seen with Pickfords Wharf, where they have, they have been subject to very substantial rebuild.

In my 1979 photo, there are two named buildings on the site. Pickfords Wharf and Cole & Carey.

Pickfords Wharf was originally Phoenix Wharf and comprised four warehouses that had been built and modified at different times over the life of the complex. The original riverside warehouse was built in 1864, however, as can be seen in the 1978 photo, the front of the building does have very different architectural styles, with the section to the right almost looking like an early example of facadism, where the ornate columns and facade have been retained on a modified building behind.

Some of the warehouses of Pickfords Wharf were on the other side of Clink Street to the rear of the building seen in the photo, and included parts of the walls of the original Winchester Palace.

Originally built by wharfingers (an owner or operator of a wharf) Fitch & Cozens, with the wharf being named Phoenix Wharf. The Pickfords name came in 1897 when Pickfords & Co purchased the site and renamed the wharf.

Although the wharf still carries the Pickfords name today, the company only owned the building for twenty four years as Hay’s Wharf Ltd. took over the site in 1921.

Pickfords Wharf was used for the storage of a wide variety of different products over the years. The 1954 edition of the Commercial Motor publication “London Wharves and Docks” has the following details for Pickfords Wharf:

  • Cargo dealt with: General canned goods, sugar
  • Cargo specially catered for: General
  • Maximum cranage: 60 cwt
  • Storage space: 400,000 cubic feet
  • Customs facilities: Sufferance and Warehousing privileges
  • Parking facilities: Yes
  • Nature of berth: Quay
  • Maximum length of ship accommodated: 150 feet
  • Depth at High Water: 17 feet

The building to the left of Pickfords Wharf with the Cole & Carey sign was St. Mary Overy’s Wharf. Originally built in 1882 for a George Doo, for use as a granary.

He would only use the building for eight years as in 1890, Cole & Carey, listed as general wharfingers would take over the building. It was purchased by the company behind Hay’s Wharf in 1948 to add to their adjacent Pickfords Wharf building.

Cole & Carey were still operating at the wharf when the 1954 edition of the Commercial Motor guide was published and the details for the wharf are recorded as:

  • Cargo dealt with: General canned goods, dried fruit
  • Cargo specially catered for: Canned goods
  • Maximum cranage: 25 cwt
  • Storage space: 380,000 cubic feet
  • Customs facilities: Sufferance and Warehousing privileges
  • Parking facilities: Yes
  • Nature of berth: Quay
  • Maximum length of ship accommodated: 60 feet
  • Depth at High Water: 17 feet

Cole & Carey had the benefit that their warehouse was alongside the river and also had a small inlet, St Mary Overy’s Dock alongside.

Both warehouses ceased to be used from the late 1960s, and they were left to slowly decay. There was a fire at the Cole & Carey building in 1979, not long before I took the photo, and the exposed metal frames of the roof, a result of the fire, can be seen.

The Cole & Carey building (St Mary Overy’s Wharf), and the core of Pickfords Wharf were demolished towards the end of 1983. Pickfords Wharf was substantially rebuilt to leave the building we see today, St Mary Overy’s Wharf was not rebuilt.

A wider view of the south bank of the river, east of Southwark Bridge, with Pickfords Wharf in the centre:

Pickfords Wharf

One of the 1950s editions of the Ordnance Survey map shows Pickfords Wharf with St Mary Overy’s Wharf alongside, with St Mary Overy’s Dock. Note the walkways constructed over Clink Street to the warehouses on the southern side of Clink Street which were part of the same warehouse complex (maps ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Pickfords Wharf

The 1894 edition of the Ordnance Survey Map shows the building with its original name of Phoenix Wharf. St Mary Overy’s Wharf is labelled as a Warehouse and is alongside, but is yet to be extended out, and to be integrated with the jetty running along the river facing side of both buildings.

Pickfords Wharf

In 1894, the inlet alongside the warehouse appears to have been named St Saviour’s Dock. I need to research further, however perhaps the name was changed to avoid confusion with the St Saviour’s Dock to the east of Tower Bridge in Bermondsey.

The inlet that was St Mary Overy’s Dock is still there, but is now semi-closed off from the river and the space is used as a dock for the Golden Hinde, the early 1970s replica of the ship that Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world between 1577 and 1580.

The masts of the ship can just be seen in the following photo:

Pickfords Wharf

The replica Golden Hinde had a remarkable couple of decades sailing, including a circumnavigation of the world and a number of crossings of the Atlantic.

The following photo is of the bow of the Golden Hind, the eastern side of Pickfords Wharf, and some of the new buildings, built to resemble warehouses.

Pickfords Wharf

This is a fascinating area that needs a more detailed post. Winchester Palace could be found here, and the short distance between London and Southwark Bridges form a key part of Southwark’s history.

That will be for a future post, as for today’s post I also wanted to follow-up on my post of a couple of week’s ago on Seven Dials, as I went to find the:

Original Seven Dials Pillar

A couple of week’s ago I wrote about Seven Dials, and the pillar that now stands at the junction of the seven streets. The current pillar is a recent replica, as the original had been removed around 1773 as it had become the focal point for so called undesirables and the Paving Commissioners ordered the removal of the pillar to prevent this nuisance.

The remains of the demolished pillar were stored at the home of the architect James Paine, at Sayes Court, Addlestone.

In 1822, the demolished pillar was re-erected at Weybridge, Surrey, and last week I was in the area so a short diversion took me to the place where the original, 1694, Seven Dials pillar can still be seen today:

Pickfords Wharf

The pillar stands appropriately on Monument Green, alongside the street that leads to Thames Street, which leads down to as you have probably guessed, the River Thames.

Pickfords Wharf

An information panel provides some history of the original location of the pillar (note the map of Seven Dials), and the reason for its relocation to a green in Weybridge, which was to commemorate local resident “Her Royal Highness The Most Excellent and Illustrious Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina Duchess of York” who lived in the parish for upwards of thirty years, and died on the 6th of August 1820.

Pickfords Wharf

Panels added to the base of the pillar also explain why the pillar was erected in Weybridge:

Pickfords Wharf

The Duchess of York came to be living in Weybridge as her marriage to Prince Frederick, Duke of York was not a long term success and there were no children which as is often the case with royal marriages, having children appears to have been the main reason for the marriage. They separated towards the end of the 1790s, and the Duchess moved to Oatlands in Weybridge, a house owned by the Duke of York.

Pickfords Wharf

Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina, Duchess of York and Albany  by A. Gabrielli, after Edward Francis Cunningham (Calze) stipple engraving, published 1792 NPG D8581 © National Portrait Gallery, London

One of the panels at the base of the pillar implies that she must have been charitable to the poor of the parish as “Ye poor suppress the mournful sigh, her spirit is with Christ on high”.

Pickfords Wharf

When plans were being developed for the renovation of Seven Dials in the 1980s, which included the return of a pillar at the junction of the seven streets, attempts were made to move the original pillar back from Weybridge, however the local council were against the move and refused to allow the pillar to leave.

Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina Duchess Of York, a Prussian Princess who married a British Prince, is buried in St James Church, Weybridge, and still commemorated 200 years after her death by a pillar that was originally erected in the late 17th century development of Seven Dials by Thomas Neale.

Pickfords Wharf and the original Seven Dials pillar – two very different subjects for today’s post, but share some similarities in that they have both survived an amount of demolition, and they are now serving very different purposes to those which were intended at the time of their creation.

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St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell – A Brief Introduction

Walk the side streets of Clerkenwell between Smithfield and Clerkenwell Road, and you will come across a rather ornate gate, standing over a narrow walkway between St John’s Lane and St John’s Square. This is St John’s Gate:

St John's Gate

The reason for the Gate’s existence in Clerkenwell goes back to the founding of a hospital in Jerusalem around the year 1080.

Jerusalem has long been a pilgrimage destination, and in the 11th century a number of Benedictine monks founded the Order of St John and established a hospital to care for the sick of all faiths, and for pilgrims after the long and arduous journey. The work of the Order within a hospital led to them being called Hospitallers. Threats from Muslim forces to retake Jerusalem resulted in the Hospitallers taking on a military role, along with the continuing provision of a hospital and care for the sick.

The Hospitallers expanded across Europe, and their presence in England starts in the early decades of the 12th century with some small grants of land, leading to the foundation of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1144 when 10 acres of land was granted to Jordan de Bricet in Clerkenwell.

From the construction of a church between 1144 and 1160, the Priory grew to become powerful and wealthy. The ten acres of land was divided into an Inner and Outer Precinct with important buildings such as the Priory Church, the Prior’s Hall and the Great Hall within the Inner Precinct. The Outer Precinct included the houses of the knights of the Order, tenements for servants and workers, gardens along with the buildings needed to maintain an almost self sufficient operation.

The priory flourished until the 16th century, when Henry VIII’s efforts to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn led to the king declaring himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the Crown took control of the buildings, lands and income of religious establishments across the country.

The Clerkenwell priory was taken by the Crown, some officials of the priory were allowed to retain their houses, others were sold or granted to favourites of the king, and the buildings and land of the priory began the process of being broken-up, sold, demolished and rebuilt, that has resulted in this area of Clerkenwell that we see today.

The outline of the priory site can still be seen in the pattern of streets bordering the area.

St John’s Street formed the eastern boundary, Turnmill Street the western boundary, with Cowcross Street in the south and Aylesbury Street / Clerkenwell Green forming the north boundary. I have marked these on the map extract below, including the division of the inner and outer precincts  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

St John's Gate

St John’s Lane formed the main approach to the inner precinct from the south, and the blue rectangle in the wall of the inner precinct is St John’s Gate.

There may have been some form of a gate at the southern entrance to St John’s Lane (shown by the lower blue rectangle). Research and excavations by the Museum of London Archaeology Service found mentions of tenements and possible evidence of a timber gatehouse (MoLAS Monograph 20 – Excavations at the priory of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem).

The River Fleet, roughly along the alignment of Farringdon Road was at the western boundary of the site, and St John’s Street which ran up to Islington and was one of the main northern routes out of the City of London formed the eastern boundary.

At the time of the founding of the priory, the area was still mainly countryside, marshy land, springs and streams. The priory almost certainly had its own water supply, with a small tributary of the River Fleet, the Little Torrent rising at the south west corner of the Inner Precinct and flowing through the Outer Precinct to the Fleet.

The original boundaries of the Priory stand out more in William Morgan’s 1682 Map of London which show the area before Clerkenwell Road cut through:

St John's Gate

St John’s Gate can be seen at the end of St John’s Lane, with the Inner Precinct of St John’s Priory above. This is the area that now forms St John’s Square. Just above the number 12 on the map, to the left of St John’s Lane can be seen one of the large houses and gardens that once lined the street leading up to the gate.

I wrote about Albion Place a few weeks ago. This street runs from St John’s Lane through what was the Outer Precinct.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries marked the end of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (apart from a very brief resurrection during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I between 1553 and 1558). The original Order continues to this day, headquartered in Rome.

From the 12th century, the original Order had been shifting through southern Europe as military success and loss forced a change. After the loss of Jerusalem, they moved to Acre, then through Cyprus, Rhodes, Malta and finally Rome.

The last prior of the Order in Clerkenwell was William Weston. He appears to have been in favour with Henry VIII for cooperating with the handover of the Clerkenwell priory and was awarded a significant pension of £1,000 a year, however apparently he died on the day that the priory was taken by the Crown.

Over the following centuries, the Gate was used for a number of different purposes.

After the dissolution, the Inner Precinct appears to have been occupied by the Crown’s Office of Tents and Revels, with the rooms of the Gate being occupied by Crown officers.

The building began an association with the printing trade in the 1670s when a printing press was established in the Gate. Matthew Poole wrote a significant commentary on the bible whilst living in the Gate in the late 1660s and 1670s.

Richard Hogarth, the father the artist, opened Hogarth’s Coffee House in the Gate at the start of the 18th century. His unique selling point for the coffee house was that it was a place for gentlemen to meet and converse in Latin. It continued as a coffee house through the 1720s, but under different ownership and later became part of a tavern – the Jerusalem Tavern.

By 1730, one Edward Cave was living at St John’s Gate and it was from here that he established the Gentleman’s Magazine.

The Gentleman’s Magazine used an image of the Gate on its title page, and Edward Cave went so far as to use the image of the gate on the side of his coach, rather than a coat of arms:

St John's Gate

Photograph by MichaelMaggs; original author “SYLVANUS URBAN, Gent”., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Johnson had a small room in the Gate during the publication of the magazine to which he was a contributor whilst also working on one of the best known early editions of the English Dictionary.

Cave died in 1754 and the Gentleman’s Magazine ended publication from St John’s Gate in 1781.

Throughout the rest of the 18th and first half of the 19th century, the Gate went through a number of different uses including being used for storage and providing space for a parish watch house.

By the 1840s, St John’s Gate was in a serious state of repair, and was considered a dangerous structure, and the new Metropolitan Buildings Act enabled an order to be served on the owners of the gate that it had to be either repaired or demolished.

An appeal was made for funds to restore the Gate, but this met with limited success. The City Press of March 16th 1861 reported that: “In 1851 the gate was threatened with total ruin. Repairs were essential to keep it standing. Mr W. Petit-Griffith proposed a subscription for its restoration. This unfortunately he failed to effect; yet with the aid of a few lovers of antiquity, he was able to strengthen the defective portion of the structure, and avert the ruin which seemed inevitable”.

During the mid 19th century, the history of the Gate seems to have attracted a number of societies who would use the large room directly above the arch. The St John’s Gate Debating Society met regularly at the Gate, although in newspaper reports of their meetings there seems to have been more “toasting” than debating. The Gate was also used by the imaginatively named “Friday Knights” as a meeting place – it does seem to have attracted a number of Victorian societies attempting to recreate a link with the medieval foundations of the Order.

The main change to the recent history of St John’s Gate was during the later part of the 19th century when it became the home for a modern version of the Order of St John.

The Victorian workplace was a highly dangerous place and accidents were common, with limited protection for workers and only extremely basic healthcare.

William Montagu, the 7th Duke of Manchester, Sir John Furley and Sir Edmund Lechmere identified a need for an organisation that would provide medical support for workers. They formed the modern Order of St John, and it was granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria to become a Royal Order of Chivalry.

Edmund Lechmere purchased St John’s Gate to be used as the headquarters of the new order, and an extensive series of renovations were carried out.

In 1877, the Order formed the St John Ambulance Organisation, who provided training and first aid equipment. This led to the founding of the St John Ambulance Brigade as a volunteer organisation, trained and equipped to provide medical support.

As well as restoring the main gate, the late 19th century restorations included the construction of a new building, in a similar style and joined to the gate, along the eastern edge of St John’s Lane.

In the following photo, the Gate is to the left, and the new extension to the Gate is visible, with a large door at ground level, sized to take ambulances of the St John Ambulance Brigade.

St John's Gate

Returning to the Gate, and there are a number of shields above the arch:

St John's Gate

These are, from left to right:

  • the arms of Henry VII who was the King at the time the Gate was built
  • the arms of Edward VII, the 1st Grand Prior of the modern order
  • the arms of Queen Victoria, the 1st sovereign head of the modern order
  • the arms of Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s son
  • the arms of Thomas Docwra who was responsible for the rebuild / construction of the Gate in 1504

Walking through the arch in the Gate, and there is a plaque on the wall which gives some additional detail on the history of St John’s Gate:

St John's Gate

The plaque refers to the original gatehouse being burnt down by Wat Tyler during the Peasants Revolt. There is now some doubt as to whether there was much destruction at the Priory during the Peasants Revolt, however the Prior at the time did come to a sticky end.

The Prior was Sir Robert Hale (also written as Hales), known as Hob the Robber for his collection of the Poll Tax through his role as Lord High Treasurer. The unfairness of the Poll Tax, where the tax was the same for any individual regardless of their ability to pay, provoked the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

Looking for Hale, the rebels camped on nearby Clerkenwell Green and possibly ransacked part of the priory. Hale had taken refuge in the Tower of London along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury. They were found in the tower by the rebels, carried out to Tower Hill and beheaded.

Walking through the arch, up to Clerkenwell Road and we can view St John’s Gate from the north:

St John's Gate

The Gate would have once presented a more imposing appearance with a taller archway.

Over the centuries, the road has been heightened by around three feet. Evidence for this can be seen in two doors on either side of the northern side of the gate (in the side towers so not visible in the above photo).

The doorway on the eastern side appears to be much smaller or part buried in the ground:

St John's Gate

The doorway on the opposite side is full height:

St John's Gate

The full height doorway was rebuilt in 1866 with the door on the opposite side left in its half buried position.

Photos and prints of St John’s Gate show how the Gate and surroundings, have changed over the years. The following photo is from the late 19th century publication “The Queen’s London” and shows the southern face of the Gate from St John’s Lane.

St John's Gate

Another photo of the Gate, dated 1885, and looking through towards Clerkenwell Road.

St John's Gate

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: p5369514

Underneath the name sign W.C. Gay are the words Wines and Spirits, indicating the type of business that occupied the Gate during the 19th century.

The south face of the Gate in 1829 (©Trustees of the British Museum):

St John's Gate

All these photos and prints show the archway through the Gate being open for traffic. Today, bollards prevent any traffic passing through, with the route being for pedestrians only. The gate was closed for traffic due to the narrow width and low height of the arch sides, as well as the potential for damage to the Gate from the vibrations caused by traffic passing through.

The following drawing dates from 1720, and again shows the south side of the Gate, facing St John’s Lane (©Trustees of the British Museum):

St John's Gate

The 1504 rebuild of the Gate by Thomas Docwra had included crenellations, or battlements along the top of the gate, however as shown in the drawing above, by 1720 these had been removed and a more traditional sloping roof had been installed, presumably to provide the room at the top of the Gate with additional height and roof space.

The sign above the arch reads “Old Jerusalem Tavern – R. Comberbatch”, from the days when a tavern occupied the Gate.

The following print is one of the earliest views of St John’s Gate. After Wenceslaus Hollar, the print is from the mid 17th century, and shows how impressive the Gate must have been before the construction of the buildings of St John’s Lane and Square which would later crowd around the gate.

St John's Gate

Credit: Gate of the Hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, London, surrounded by thatched domestic buildings. Engraving after W. Hollar. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The following print, also after Hollar and from the mid 17th century, show some of the surviving buildings of the Priory:St John's Gate

Credit: Hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, London. Engraving after W. Hollar. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The views are looking from the south east of the Gate and as well as the gate, show the (top right) remains of the western front of the chapel of the House of Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, and (lower illustration), the main House of Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem.

The print gives a very good impression of how impressive the buildings of the Priory must have been.

As mentioned earlier in the post, one of the activities that took place within the Gate was a coffee house, with Richard Hogarth being the first proprietor of such an establishment, and the following print shows a coffee-room in St John’s Gate:

St John's Gate

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PZ_FI_01_091

Although an early 16th century reconstruction, St John’s Gate is still a tangible link with the medieval priory that once occupied 10 acres of land in Clerkenwell. We can still follow the boundaries of the Priory in the streets of Clerkenwell and see where the inner and Outer Precincts were located.

St John’s Square is home to the Priory Church of the Order. A post war rebuild following wartime destruction of the earlier church, however below the church is a crypt with some evidence going back to the 12th century.

St John’s Gate is still home to the modern Order of St John, and the St John Ambulance Brigade which continue their work to this day, and, and during the current pandemic, the organisation has taken on its biggest mobilisation during peacetime.

There is a museum in St John’s Gate and tours are given of the building. Although closed at the moment, St John’s Gate is well worth a visit to discover an intriguing part of London’s history.

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Rotherhithe Gas Works and a soon to be lost Gas Holder

If you have a gas boiler or cooker, the chances are that the gas you use could come from the North Sea, Norway, or via ship carried liquefied natural gas from countries such as Qatar, Russia and Trinidad to the terminal on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary. When gas started to be used as an energy source in the 19th century, the production of gas was very local to consumers, and for this week’s post I am exploring one such production facility, the Rotherhithe Gas Works.

I have marked the location for today’s post by the red star in the following map  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors):

Rotherhithe Gas Works

That is not a bridge across the Thames at the point of the star, it is the way Openstreetmap shows the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

The reason for the post on the Rotherhithe Gas Works is because of a photo taken by my father in 1948. The following photo shows what is probably open space following the demolition of bomb damaged houses, with in the background, parts of two large gas holders.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

I wanted to find the location of the photograph. I knew from my father’s notes that the location was Rotherhithe, but not from where the photo had been taken. The two gas holders were obvious clues, however the area is very different today, so I started off with the 1950 edition of the Ordnance Survey map of the area.

I have copied the photo below, added the map extract and marked up key points shown in both photo and map, and the approximate location where my father was standing to take the photo. I needed to rotate the map to get a similar orientation to the photo, so north is at the bottom and south at the top of the map.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The red oval marks a semidetached pair of houses. To the left of these houses, there appears to be a tall wooden fence, and next to the fence, a terrace of older houses (you may need to click on the photo and enlarge to see the details of these clearly). These are the terrace houses shown by the green oval on the map.

In the background are the two large gas holders. The one on the right appears to be a larger circumference than the holder on the left, which matches both photo and map. Part of the gas holder on the left is obscured by a large building, again the same in both photo and map.

Extending the alignment of these features back, and they converge at a point on a street which again aligns with the photo as part of a street is in the lower right corner.

Rotating the map back to the correct orientation, and the street is Neston Street, marked below with the red star. The terrace of houses on the right of the street ends in a blank space on the map which corresponds with the 1948 photo (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Rotherhithe Gas Works

So it should be simple to find the location today? Not very, as the area has changed so much. In the 1950 map above, All the large buildings between the round gas holders and the River Thames at top left, were part of the Rotherhithe Gas Works. To the left, there was some housing, along with other industrial buildings, and the area had also suffered bomb damage.

The Rotherhithe Gas Works closed in 1959, and over the last few decades, the area has been considerably redeveloped with new housing now covering all the original site of the gas works (with one exception). Roads have changed, and Neston Street has disappeared.

Marking Neston Street on today’s map of the area (red line) allows the location of the 1948 photo to be identified (red star),

Rotherhithe Gas Works

I needed to visit the site to see the area today, and to find one of the two remaining elements of the Rotherhithe Gas Works infrastructure, one that may not be around for too much longer.

I walked along Rotherhithe Street from the west, and walked up Canon Beck Road (to the left of the red line), a road that appears on both today’s and the 1950 map.

Just over half way along Canon Beck Road is a short entrance road to a residential square, Clifton Place. This is shown in the photo below:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Neston Street would have run, left to right along the front and over part of the houses at the far end of the photo. To take the 1948 photo, my father was probably standing somewhere around the green and blue bins to the left of the photo.

Looming in the back of the above photo is one of the two remaining parts of the Rotherhithe Gas Works – the gas holder also seen to the left of the 1948 photo.

As well as visiting the site of my father’s photo, the gas holder was the second reason for wanting to visit, as it may well be soon disappearing as a local landmark, and a reminder of the industrial history of this part of Rotherhithe.

I walked up to Brunel Road. The terrace of houses along Brunel Road are not part of the redevelopment of the last few decades, they are much earlier. The gas holder can be seen in the background.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Walking along Brunel Road up to the location of the gas holder, to find the one remaining holder from the gas works, sitting in the space that was also once occupied by the second gas holder in the 1948 photo.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The remaining gas holder may not be here for long. Plans have been submitted for a complete redevelopment of the site which includes the land occupied by the gas holder, and the surrounding land.

The work will involve the demolition of the gas holder, and the infill of the tank below the gas holder, and the tanks below ground of the gas holders that have already been demolished.

Considerable work will involve removing contamination of the land and the move of operational gas piping and controls that still occupy the site.

The current plans appear to cover the construction of:

  • 40 dwellings for social rent
  • 39 dwellings for discount market rent
  • 198 private dwellings

The plans include the intention “To celebrate the character of the site and its industrial heritage”, which as far as I can see runs to “Balconies and stairways take reference from the industrial metal work” and “Pitched roofs reference the storage sheds associated with the Surrey Water Docks” along with the use of the colour red to accentuate certain features to recall the colour of the existing gas holder.

There is a web site for the proposed development, which includes presentations on the proposed work. It can be found under the name of the development Rotherhithe Holder Station.

A view of the gas holder and the surrounding land which is in-scope of the proposed development:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The history of the Rotherhithe Gas Works is complex, and tells the story of the consolidation of the local gas companies throughout the 19th century and nationalisation in the 20th century.

Using a number of resources (which I will list at the end of the post), I have attempted to put together a graphical history of the Rotherhithe Gas Works, their ownership, and mergers with other gas companies. Be aware that there are various conflicting dates for some events, and also definition of a date, for example when a gas works became operational, the incorporation of a company by Act of Parliament etc.

Any corrections would be appreciated.

The following graphic shows how the Rotherhithe Gas Works (starting at left and highlighted by the red dotted line) integrated with London’s gas companies through to closure in 1959.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The first gas works in Rotherhithe seem to have commenced construction by Stephen Hutching in around 1849, with the works becoming part of the Surrey Consumers Gas Company, a company incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1854.

In the mid 19th century there were many concerns about the quality of the gas provided to consumers and the cost, with companies having a monopoly within their local supply area. An 1849 article in The Era titled “Gas Monopolists In A Fever”  talks about the need for gas companies who can supply gas “free from sulphureted hydrogen, acid and ammonia” and the extortionate price charged with upwards of 15 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet, where independent calculations estimate that gas can be produced using modern methods for 2 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet.

The Surrey Consumers Gas Company merged with the South Metropolitan Gas Company in 1879, which brought together two gas companies serving south and south east London.

In 1881, the South Metropolitan purchased a large area of land on the Greenwich Peninsula and started the construction of the gas works which would go on to be one of London’s major gas producing centres for many years.

The South Metropolitan Gas Company would continue to integrate other, smaller companies, including the Phoenix Gas Company based in Bankside in 1880, the Consumers Gas Company in Woolwich and the Equitable Gas Company in Pimlico, both in 1885.

Probably because of the growth of sites such as the Greenwich Peninsula and Rotherhithe, the South Metropolitan closed and sold off sites at Woolwich and Bankside.

Reading newspaper references to London’s gas companies throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, there are very many references to the monopoly position of these private companies, the cost of gas and frequently the quality of the gas, and pollution from the gas producing works.

In January 1860 the Surrey Consumers Gas Company were at Southwark Police court being charged by the Bermondsey vestry under the Nuisance Removal Act “for that they, in the manufacture of gas on their premises at Rotherhithe, did, on or about the 16th inst. cause an intolerable nuisance to exist as to be dangerous and injurious to the inhabitants of the parish of Bermondsey”.

The issue in January 1860 seems to have been a considerable amount of ammonia in the gas supply which had not been removed by the purifiers at the Rotherhithe gas works, and was causing a very bad smell, and health problems to those in Bermondsey who consumed the gas.

In 1875 at the half yearly meeting of the Surrey Consumers Gas Company, the news reports stated that the meeting “must have been attended with considerable interest by the fortunate individuals who hold shares therein. They have been too long accustomed to their unfailing profit of 10 per cent per annum. The balance sheet was as good as had ever been issued by the company”.

Consumer groups were frequently formed and south London’s vestries were often complaining about the costs and quality of gas, and there were many arguments that such companies should be publicly rather than privately owned.

London’s gas consumers would have to wait until 1949 for this to happen, when the countries gas companies were nationalised by the post war Labour government and the South Metropolitan Gas Company along with other London gas companies were merged into local gas boards under public ownership.

Ownership of gas provision came full circle when the nationalised gas board was privatised in 1986 as British Gas, and since then many of the arguments about the cost of gas are very similar to those in 19th century newspapers.

The production of gas was a very dirty business. Coal was heated in a furnace, which produced a range of gases including hydrogen and carbon monoxide. These gases were passed through a condenser where solids and liquids such as tar would be removed, before passing through a purifier where impurities such as sulpher and ammonia would be removed.

The gas was then fed to the gas holders ready for distribution at pressure to gas consumers.

An impression of the interior of the Rotherhithe Gas Works can be had from the following artwork dated 1918, with women working in the “retort” area (retorts are the furnaces where coal was heated to produce gas).

Rotherhithe Gas Works


 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/105

Work at the Rotherhithe gas works was dangerous and there are newspaper accounts of accidents within the works. For example, when one of the gas holders was being built in 1890, a labourer named Barnes, aged 23, working for the contractors Clacton & Son of Leeds, died after falling twenty feet to the base of the holder.

Workers at the gas works had the Rotherhithe Gas Works Institute, and in October 1894, five crews from the institute raced on the Thames from the coal jetty at the gas works to Deptford Creek.

Discovery of North Sea gas in the 1960s resulted in the replacement of so called Town Gas from gas works such as that at Rotherhithe, by gas piped from below the North Sea. Although Rotherhithe has already closed in 1959, the majority of coal based gas works in the country had closed by the 1980s.

The lone gas holder at Rotherhithe now stands as an isolated reminder of this period of south London industrial history.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The gas holder stands next to the remains of another of the areas lost industries. This is the Surrey Basin, one of the few reminders of the large area of docks that once occupied this area of Rotherhithe. The towers of the Isle of Dogs are in the background.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The following photo is from Salter Road, a road that did not exist when the Rotherhithe gas works were in operation. The space in front of the camera, and the space occupied by the houses behind the trees was the space covered by the buildings of the gas works, which fed gas to the gas holders which are to the left of where I was standing to take the photo.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Crossing Salter Road and looking back at the gas holder, which now supports mobile phone antennae’s at the very top.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The following map from 1895 shows three gas holders with the main buildings of the Rotherhithe Gas Works to their north. There were a total of four gas holders over the life of the gas works (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’).

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Of the three shown in the map above, one was destroyed by war time bombing. I suspect that this was the smaller holder between the two outer holders, as it is not shown in the 1950 map, or in my father’s photo. The larger of the two gasholders was demolished at the same time as the rest of Rotherhithe gas works in the 1960s and 70s, leaving only the holder that remains today.

Apart from the gas holder, there is part of the site wall remaining alongside the Surrey Basin. Another part of the gas works infrastructure that we can see today is shown in the above map. If you look at the very top centre of the map there is a pier extending into the River Thames.

This was the pier used by ships bringing coal to the gas works, and looking at the map, you can see the conveyor system that carried coal from the pier, over Rotherhithe Street, to the retorts where the coal would be heated to produce gas.

The Rotherhithe Gas Works pier remains today. The view looking west:

Rotherhithe Gas Works

Looking east along the river with the gas works pier, and the round air shaft building for the Rotherhithe Tunnel behind the pier on the right.

Rotherhithe Gas Works

The Rotherhithe Tunnel was built under part of the site of the gas works, and during Parliamentary inquiries into the tunnel, the South Metropolitan Gas Company objected to the construction of the tunnel. Mr. George Livesey, chairman of the gas company stated in his evidence that “the proposed tunnel would pass under a corner of the works of the gas company where they had important buildings, retort houses, coalhouses, and so forth. These structures were of considerable weight, and the foundations were thoroughly sound. If there was any disturbance to the foundations – which were taken down to the gravel – it would put the retort house out of use, and if that happened in winter time it would be a very serious matter.

Pumping operations such as would have to be carried out by the County Council in constructing their tunnel might be a source of serious damage to the company’s works. The gas tanks were set into deep excavations full of water, and if this water and the sand in the foundations were interfered with the results would be that the tanks would leak”

it appears that the company had suffered damage to their operations on the Greenwich Peninsula when the Blackwall tunnel had been built, and they had not received any compensation for this damage, and they wanted a clause in the bill for the Rotherhithe tunnel to ensure they received compensation for any damage to the Rotherhithe works.

The statement about the gas tanks being set into deep excavations, full of water explains why the site today is a complex site to prepare for new building. The tank below ground of the existing gas holder is still in place, as is the tank of the demolished gas holder which was simply capped at the time. These tanks will need to be drained of polluted water and sludge and the hole refilled ready for building above.

I am not sure what the current state of the proposals for the site development are, I suspect that COVID has delayed the process.

Whilst there is an obvious need for more housing across London, it is a shame that another part of London’s industrial history will be disappearing.

This post has covered the history of the gas companies and the Rotherhithe gas works at a very superficial level, this is the problem with a weekly blog, I can only cover topics to a limited level.

The National Archives have a brief summary of the history of each gas company. Use the search box on their site to search for a company. The Early London Gas Industry site by Mary Mills is a fantastic resource covering the gas industry in London.

Although the area has changed significantly since 1948, I am pleased to have found the location of another of my father’s photos. Rotherhithe and Bermondsey is an area I will be returning to in the future.

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