A Walk in the City
By Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the December 2004 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
For visitors to London who wish to avoid the usual tourist destinations there are a number of guided walks available. Each has its own theme, enabling us to walk in the footsteps of the famous, from William Shakespeare to Jack the Ripper.
Until now, no one has devised a walk with the Sole Society in mind so please join me as we take a leisurely stroll around just a small part of our historic capital.
I thought Bank underground station on the Central Line would be a good place for us to meet. We begin our walk by leaving the station by exit 2 and walking along Princes Street with the Bank of England on our right. Across the road a plaque on the wall of the NatWest Bank marks the site of the General Letter Office from 1653 to 1666 in what was then Post House Yard. The first postmarks in the world were struck here in 1661. The London Dock Company had its office in Princes Street in 1817 when Isaac Solly was a director. The London Docks at Wapping, just east of the Tower of London, had opened in 1805 and survived until 1968.
We turn right along Lothbury, still with the Bank on our right. Across the road is the church of St Margaret Lothbury, built by Sir Christopher Wren between 1686-90 to replace the previous building lost in 1666. It contains much ornate woodwork collected from other Wren churches since demolished. Benjamin, Abigail and Joseph, the children of Benjamin and Abigail Solley were baptized here in the old church in the early 1660s and Martha and Edward Christopher, the children of Edward and Jane Sauill were baptized in the current building in 1758 and 1760 respectively. Some small shops stood against the south side of the church but were removed in 1771.
Continuing along we pass the Throgmorton Restaurant and the ornate sign announcing J Lyons & Co Ltd. Almost at the end of the street we come to the Drapers’ Company Hall on our left. Here once stood the residence of Thomas Cromwell, first minister of Henry VIII. Cromwell was executed for treason and heresy in 1540 and his head put on a spike on London Bridge. A few more steps and at 25 Throgmorton Street in 1846 we would find the office of Isaac Sewell, senior partner of Amory, Sewell & Moores, solicitors. I wonder if he would have approved of the non-smoking pub that now occupies the ground floor.
Turning around we retrace our steps along Throgmorton Street then turn left down Bartholomew Lane, passing the Bank of England museum. I hear the museum is well worth a visit but we will have to come back on a weekday as it is closed at weekends and bank holidays. The church of St Christopher le Stocks was demolished in 1781 to allow the Bank to be enlarged. Its churchyard was preserved within the walls of the Bank and by special permission one further burial took place there. In 1798 the body of a bank clerk, William Jenkins, who was 6 feet 7 inches tall, was interred in what must be the most secure grave in the kingdom in order to keep it safe from body snatchers, who had been offered 200 guineas to steal the corpse for medical research. At the end of the lane, until its demolition in 1841, stood the ancient church of St Bartholomew by the Exchange, from which the lane takes its name.
Turn left along Threadneedle Street and cross the road to an open space with a statue of the American philanthropist George Peabody (1795-1869). The Wren church of St Benet Fink once stood here but was demolished when the current Royal Exchange was built. An earlier church, originally paid for by a citizen by the name of Fink, had been destroyed in 1666. Here were buried Thomas Saul in 1628 and Edward Saul in 1642.
If you are starting to wonder why Sir Christopher Wren’s name keeps coming up it is because Wren got the job of designing and building replacements for the churches burnt down in the Great Fire of London. Nearly 90 churches were destroyed in all but the authorities took the opportunity of merging some parishes, so in an early example of ‘downsizing’ they were replaced by just 50 new ones.
We walk a little further and turn into Finch Lane which takes its name from a 13th century resident, also named Fink. James Watt the engineer was apprenticed in Finch Lane in 1755 and Cardinal Newman was born here in 1801. At 8 Finch Lane in 1862 were the businesses of Sewell & Neck and Sewell Brothers & Company, merchants.
At the end of Finch Lane we turn left and walk along Cornhill until we see the somewhat unprepossessing front of the church of St Peter upon Cornhill, looking rather like the entrance to a derelict picture palace. Crossing the road we give in to temptation and explore St Peter’s Alley. It leads to a small churchyard and a much more pleasing view of the church which dates from 1681. Charles Dickens writes of the churchyard in Our Mutual Friend, although the gravestones have since been removed and the area is now a perfect place to sit and eat our sandwich lunch. Inside the church is an organ once played by Mendelssohn. We see also the soldier depicted in stained glass, reminding us that this is the church of the Royal Tank Regiment. Eleanor, the daughter of John Sawell was baptized at St Peter upon Cornhill in February 1650. Connoway Saul was buried in St Peter’s in 1653. A helpful notice in the churchyard tells us that the old church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and the current building was designed by Wren, but we had guessed that already.
We make our way back to Cornhill where just a few yards further on we find the front door of the church of St Michael, yet another church rebuilt after 1666. The five children of Edward Saule were baptized at the old St Michael, Cornhill between 1600 and 1609 and John Sewell, who died aged 68 in 1802, is buried in the current St Michael’s. A stroll down St Michael’s Alley reveals a small garden behind the church and some interesting buildings on the way, including the site of London’s first coffee house in 1652 and the 18th-century public house, the George and Vulture, mentioned by Dickens in Pickwick Papers.
Returning once again to Cornhill we see on the wall of 39 Cornhill a plaque marking the site of the house where the poet Thomas Gray was born in 1716.
Between 1811 and 1817, Samuel Solly was a director of the Union Fire Office in Cornhill. A generation earlier, between 1783 and 1791, John Sewell had been a bookseller at 32 Cornhill. We cross the road here for a closer look at an iron pump erected in 1799 on the site of an ancient well. It is also said also to mark the site of a house of correction or prison called the Tun. It stood here between 1283 and 1401 and was used in the main to incarcerate ‘street walkers and lewd women’. Stocks and a pillory replaced it and in 1703 Daniel Defoe, who had a shop in nearby Freeman’s Court, was made to spend a day in the pillory for writing an inflammatory pamphlet.
We are now standing by the Royal Exchange. This is the third to be built on the site and was opened by Queen Victoria in 1844. The previous two buildings were both destroyed by fire, the first in the Great Fire of 1666 and the second in 1838 when it was so cold that the water to fight the fire froze in the pipes. Once the head office of the Royal Exchange Assurance Office of which Isaac Solly was a director between 1811 and 1827, the building also served as the headquarters of the Russia Company of which both Isaac and Thomas Solly were directors in 1817. The equestrian bronze figure of the Duke of Wellington was made from captured French guns and it is said the Duke stood on the steps of the Exchange to watch its unveiling in 1844.
Nearby, standing in the middle of the road, is a statue of James Greathead, chief engineer of the City and South London Railway whose invention of the travelling shield made possible the cutting of the tunnels of London’s tube system.
We cross to the corner of Cornhill and Lombard Street where Thomas Guy, the founder of Guy’s Hospital, once had a bookshop. We start to walk along Lombard Street, the banking centre of the City since the Lombard merchants from northern Italy settled here in the 12th century. Lloyds Bank in Lombard Street claims the first indoors use of electric light in 1887. It is impossible not to notice the many hanging signs, which were once used to identify the various businesses here. Above the entrance to 68 Lombard Street hangs a golden grasshopper, emblem of Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange.
We cross the street to the corner of Lombard Street and Abchurch Lane. Here from 1691 to 1785 stood Lloyd’s Coffee House, where in the 1690s shipping merchants and underwriters began meeting, so founding the modern insurance industry.
We walk a little further then turn down Nicholas Lane where in 1862, 26 Nicholas Lane was the address of J Sewell, civil engineer. The lane leads through to King William Street. Sewell & Wholey, wholesale grocers, were at 1 King William Street in 1839. By 1846 the company had become Sewell and Nash and were at 40 King William Street. No trace remains so we turn right along King William Street to Abchurch Lane, cut in two by the building of King William Street in the 1830s.
At 20 Abchurch Lane in 1827, Hollis Solly & Co were wine and beer merchants.
We cross King William Street to Sherborne Lane where in 1781 you would have found the premises of Henry Sowley, merchant. We pass the church of St Mary Abchurch as we step into Abchurch Lane and then to Cannon Street.
We turn right and at 111 Cannon Street, between St Swithin’s Lane and Salter’s Hall Court we find the London Stone set into the wall of the OCBC Bank. The first recorded mention of the stone was in 1198 and it is now thought to have been part of the Roman Governor’s palace, which stood where Canon Street railway station now stands.
Further along Canon Street we come to Walbrook, which takes its name from one of the City’s ‘lost’ rivers. Once ten feet wide and flowing swiftly to the Thames, it was the main source of water for the first Roman settlement and still exists some thirty feet below street level. Excavation on its east bank in 1954 revealed the ruins of a Roman temple to Mithras, which are now displayed in front of Temple Court in nearby Queen Victoria Street.
Charles Brodie Sewell, surgeon, was at 27 Walbrook in 1846. On the right hand side is the church of St Stephen Walbrook, where its rector, the Reverend Chad Varah, established the Samaritans in 1953. Built by Wren between 1672 and 1679, the church looks nothing special from the outside but its interior is regarded by many as Wren’s ‘other masterpiece’. George Sowell, the son of Jay and Elizabeth was baptized here in May 1716, and Ann Sooley married Thomas Burston here in June 1724. Jeffrey Saul, who died aged 63 in 1764, is buried here.
Now would be a good time for us to nip round the corner into Queen Victoria Street and take a look at that Roman temple. Dating from the 3rd century it was rediscovered during the construction of nearby Bucklersbury House.
Returning to Walbrook, we walk to the top of the street, passing an original blue police telephone box, sadly no longer operational. Continuing along the front of the Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor, and where the Stocks Market (nothing to do with stocks and shares) stood from 1282 to 1737, we see facing us between Lombard Street and King William Street the church of St Mary Woolnoth.
In an earlier building on this site Gabriel Sewell was buried in 1619, and in November 1697 Sarah Soule married John Bartholomew. However, by the time Edward Lloyd, owner of Lloyd’s Coffee House was buried in 1712, the old church was falling into disrepair. Often called the Lord Mayor’s church, the building we see today was built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1719 and 1727. Thomas Sewell, who died in 1759, was buried here. John Newton, the reformed slaver who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, was the incumbent here from 1780 until his death in 1807. In May 1853 it saw the wedding of Samuel Sewells to Jane Holyfield.
Incidentally, those laid to rest in peace in the crypt of St Mary Woolnoth were removed to make way for structural supports and lift shafts when the Bank tube station was built underneath the church in 1897. Something to think about as we descend to the platform to wait for the train home!
Acknowledgements: London’s Churches, by Elizabeth & Wayland Young, Grafton 1984
The London Encyclopaedia, by Weinreb & Hibbert, Macmillan 1995
FOOTNOTE to ‘A Walk in the City’
I was initially disappointed that so few of the original buildings associated with our forebears had survived. On reflection of course it is hardly surprising given the scale of destruction suffered by the City of London during the Blitz and the relentless march of modernisation and development during every decade since. The one saving grace is that by and large, when the buildings are demolished and replaced, the original street plan remains. Even today there are still streets in the city where new shops follow the old building line, medieval or even Roman, and the road itself remains as first designed, just wide enough for two carts to pass.
Following the Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren produced a radical regeneration scheme based on straight lines intersecting at regular intervals. He was forced to scrap it because the people insisted on returning to their narrow lanes and winding alleys.
Our ancestors would be amazed at the colossal glass and concrete structures but would recognize the streets. They would be able to find their way around the city as they always did, for instance, knowing that the quickest way to get from Lombard Street to Cornhill was through St Michael’s Alley past the George and Vulture and the old church. With a little imagination it is still possible to feel we are walking in their footsteps.
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