London – Round About Cheapside

Fleet Street have points of resemblance, for they are both narrow highways to the City, crowded and bustling and full of history, but Fleet Street, in spite of its literary associations, has not much attraction. Something of the mud of the old Fleet Ditch still seems to cling about it, some taint of disreputable Alsatia in Whitefriars, once the haven of roystering thieves and cut-throats, very different from the hive of grandiose newspaper offices that it is now.

But in Cheapside it is easy to call up memories of noisy apprentices and busy trafficking. Here is the home of the true Cockney, born within the sound of those bells of Bow Church that still chime as cheerfully as when Dick Whittington heard them from Highgate Hill, or when they summoned dilatory citizens to bed at nine o’clock. The very name evokes the idea of buying and selling, even if one does not know that the old word “chepe “means a market. It was once the shopping centre of the City of London, and the names of the streets branching off on either side, Bread Street, Milk Street, Honey Lane and the rest, are the names of the various commodities that were sold there. Friday Street was so called from the fish to be bought there on a Friday. Round about, in Ironmonger Lane, Bucklersbury, and most of the streets on the northern side, busy artisans worked at their trades, and if we think it a noisy thoroughfare nowadays, what must it have been when it was paved with cobblestones and thronged all day long with an endless stream of horsemen, carts and coaches, vociferating porters, citizens cheerful or quarrelling as the case might be, sellers calling their goods on either hand, and the bells of innumerable churches, priories and religious houses clanging incessantly to prayer. Always there was something going on in Chepe-a tournament to see, with stands set up at the side of Bow Church, or pageants, cavalcades and processions passing by. The London youth of those days had a diverting life. Read what Chaucer says of the prentice in Edward Ill.’s reign:

At every bridale would he sing and hoppe; He loved bet the taverne than the shoppe For when ther eny riding was in Chepe Out of the shoppe thider wold he lepe, And til that he had all the sight ysein, And danced wel, he wold not come agen.

We have most of us read in our history books of the “beau geste “of Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III., in saving the lives of the burghers of Calais; this seems to have been a habit that started early with her. In 1330, just after the birth of the Black Prince, a tournament was held in Cheapside to celebrate the event, and a fine wooden tower erected to accommodate the young queen and her ladies. No sooner had they mounted than it collapsed. There was much screaming and a scene of terrible confusion, from which they all emerged, however, more frightened than hurt. The king was so enraged that he ordered the instant execution of the careless workmen, but Philippa, who might well have been even more annoyed, at once flung herself on her knees and pleaded for their pardon until the king forgave them.

But “Safety first “was a motto with King Edward, he wanted no more wooden scaffoldings. A stone platform was built, just in front of the old church of St. Mary-le-Bow (making it extremely dark on the street side), from which he and his court could view the tournaments with minds at peace; for centuries this was the regular royal stand, whenever there was a procession or other fine doings in the City. Look at Bow Church, that glory of Cheapside, the work of Sir Christopher Wren, and, in the stone gallery running round the graceful steeple, you will see how, ever mindful of tradition, he commemorated this fact when he built his new tower to flank the pavement adjoining the site of the old grand-stand.

When I last went into Bow Church I chatted with the lady who was engaged in scrubbing the floor, and she told me the curious fact that in this English church in an English city, with its memories stretching through the ages (for it is built on the site of a much older one and you may still see the fine old Norman crypt), the Russians in London were then assembling, Sunday by Sunday, for a service in their own ritual, St. Mary’s congregation amiably going to another church near by. The City Churches that were missed so sorely, after the Great Fire, by the merchants, tradesmen, shopkeepers, apprentices, with their families, maids and servants, who lived all round about them and dutifully worshipped there, now stand empty and neglected. Here and there, as in the tiny fourteenth-century church of St. Ethelburga’s in Bishopsgate Street, the magnet of eloquent wisdom and sincerity draws men and women from all over London to worship, so that the seats are never empty, but in the majority of the City churches, a perfunctory service connotes a perfunctory congregation of caretakers and their wives, inhabitants of a quarter that is only populated in the working week-day hours. The best time to see any of the City churches is at the lunch hour, when they are sure to be open. In many of them short musical services are then held. I know few odder sensations than to walk in the City on a Sunday morning and hear all the sweet bells of the fifty-odd churches calling to prayer in the silence of the solitary streets. Practical people would pull the half of them down and devote the money from the sale of their sites to other much-needed religious purposes. But, even if these little churches no longer serve their original object, they are still shrines of the past, each one with some special memory, some special charm, and typical all together of a great phase of English architecture.

There is little of this past now actually left in busy Cheapside, except No. 37, of which I shall speak presently, two tiny houses at the corner of Wood Street, the handsome seventeenth-century facade (restored, of course) of the Mercers’ Chapel at the corner of Ironmonger Lane at the Lower Bank end, and No. 73 opposite, that was built by Wren for Sir William Turner who was Lord Mayor in 1668. It is still known as the Old Mansion House.

Probably it was his own house and he went on living in it till his death. Where, then, did the lord mayors stay officially during their term of office from that time till the present Mansion House was built in 1739? I am indebted to Mr. Leopold Wagner for supplying the answer by showing me the way to one of the most fascinating spots in the City. This third old Mansion House still exists, but in a corner so obscure, so tucked away, that I have passed within a stone’s throw of it a dozen times and never had the least suspicion of its existence.

It is at No. 5, Bow Lane, hard by Bow Church in a narrow passage, with a sign directing you, if you are fortunate enough to see it, to Williamson’s Hotel. Follow the passage and you will find yourself remote from the world, with the quaintest old creeper-clad Restoration house imaginable surrounding three sides of the courtyard. Yet this quiet spot was once the hub of civic life,-there is a stone let into the charming little octagonal-shaped parlour (now called the reading room) that is supposed to mark the very centre of the City. Here for a few years the lord mayors after Sir William Turner dwelt in state, and here came William III. and Mary to dine, and give, as a memento of their visit, the handsome iron gates, now much corroded and covered with thick green paint, through which you seek the entrance.

Later on, in the early seventeen hundreds, the original Williamson started his hotel. It would have been described as “high-class residential,”had they known those terms, for in those days, when country squires and their families came up to town, they found the City as convenient a centre as anywhere. The forty bedrooms, the long salon, now a bar, where you may see, still hanging on the wall where it has been for centuries, an ancient map of London Bridge,-the pleasant rambling up-and-down passages, with their deep embrasures and window – seats, the low – ceilinged coffee – room with its only bell-pull marked “Boots,”and elegant little parlour where now no ladies ever sit,-all speak of a past of consequence.

But nowadays, apart from the birds of passage who pass a night in the huge station caravanserais, does anyone put up in the City? Only a few “commercials,”such as I saw lunching at Williamson’s, on the very excellent “ordinary “of lamb, green peas, new potatoes, cauliflower, cherry tart and cheese, winding up with coffee, liqueur and a fat cigar, over which they discuss the latest prices, and the latest sporting news. Williamson’s, in fact, does not cope with modern notions-“Take it or leave it”is their motto. The allinvading business girl has not yet dared to put her nose in here-she would probably create a revolution if she did. But if you want to get right back into the atmosphere of Dickens, in a place where electric bells, smart waitresses, music; flappers and foolish ideas of the value of time are not, conscript a friend and take a meal at the Old Mansion House.

Coming out into Bow Lane, on the right, at the opposite corner where Watling Street crosses it, you will find the Old Watling Restaurant, one of the first houses built in London after the Great Fire: a very delightful example of its kind, with its dormer windows and heavybeamed ceilings.

In Cheapside, at No. 37 at the corner of Friday Street, where Messrs. Meakers carry on a business appropriate enough to the shop that tradition assigns to John Gilpin, is another house that claims, on the insufficient evidence of an undated cutting from the Builder, to have been standing even before the Fire.

Everything goes to refute this story. The very beautiful staircase dates from the Restoration period, the brickwork is similar to that of other buildings erected at this time, but, more than this, it is quite certain that the house stands on the site of the older ‘° Nag’s Head,”a tavern with an overhanging timbered structure, that may be seen in a print of Cheapside showing the procession to welcome Marie de Medici when she came in 1638 to visit her daughter Henrietta Maria. The sign on the frontage now is no Nag’s Head, but a Chained Swan, once the heraldic badge of King Henry IV., but debased, like so many other noble devices, to become the sign of a hostelry. Innkeepers were fond of calling their houses after the swan, for this poor bird has always had an undeserved reputation for being fond of strong drink; on the other hand, it holds a special place in English history, for when Edward HL, jousting at Canterbury in 1349, put on his shield the device of a white swan with the motto:

Hay, hay, the wythe Swan, By Gode’s Soule I am thy man,

this was the very first time that the English tongue was used at Court since the Conquest, and the White Swan made fashionable a language that has since spread all over the world.

At the sign of the “Chained Swan “is certainly the most interesting house in Cheapside. Quite probably it was really the first to be erected in the City after the Fire, as it is a fourstoried house of some importance.

Cross the road to Wood Street, and, if you look through the railings at the back of the two diminutive shops that are shadowed by the great and famous plane-tree, you will see that they are built of the same red brick as No. 37 and bear a tablet with this inscription:

Erected at ye sole Cost and Charges of ye Parish of St. Peter’s Cheape Ao. Dni. 1687.


The owners of these little houses are forbidden by their leases to add a second story, so the tree remains, bringing a breath of the country to City dwellers, reminding them of Wordsworth’s thrush, whose habit of continuous singing used to amaze my childhood:

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears Hangs a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years.

In Wood Street lived Launcelot Young, that master glazier of peculiar tastes who, finding the head of James IV., the King of Scots who was slain at Flodden Field, among a lot of old rubbish in the lumber room of the Duke of Suffolk’s place at Sheen, took it home with him and kept it till it lost its novelty.

When I said that there is little to remind one of the past in Cheapside, I forgot the churches that crop up round every corner. They have a wealth of memories clustering about them, and the moment you dive into the narrow courts and passages off the beaten track, you will lose the sense of modernity. In the dark, queer little lanes, most of them with a public-house tucked away in some obscure corner, may be found the London of Dickens’ day, if of no earlier. And what romance in the odd names-Gutter Lane, by Wood Street, named after Gutheran the Dane, who lived here before the time of the Conqueror; Huggin Lane that unites them farther up, called after one Hugan or Hugh; Addle Street, where King Adel the Saxon had a mansion; Love Lane of dissolute memory.