Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cheape - Guildhall, and Windows into Cities Past

The main road running through the City of London, from Newgate in the west to Aldgate in the east, having passed through the Ward of Farringdon Within, and skirted the northern edges of Bread Street Ward and Cordwainer Street Ward, enters the Ward of Cheape (or Cheap, the latter being the preferred modern spelling).

The Wards of the City of London in 1870 (Image is in the Public Domain).

One might expect the names of the streets that run from north to south - Ironmongers' Lane, Wood Street, Honey Lane, Milk Street - to tell their own fairly obvious stories, and, probably, in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, this was the case. By the time that John Stow was writing his Survey of London, in 1598, however, these demarcations of trade had largely broken down. He knows of the ironmongers of Ironmongers' Lane only from written records and, even in his childhood, his parents sent him to fetch milk, not from Milk Street, but from the Franciscan nunnery beyond Aldgate. At the point where Cheapside becomes Poultry, he writes of poulterers as a distant memory, and rather encounters, in Cheape Ward, grocers, apothecaries, pepperers, haberdashers and upholsterers.

Cheape Ward, from an 18th Century copy of Stow's Survey of London (image is in the Public Domain).

Ward boundaries in the city change from time to time, and only a small part of London's Guildhall is now in Cheap Ward. In Stow's time, however, it was wholly so, and it was the pulsing heart of city life, functioning as a seat of civic governance, a court of law, and a place where the representatives of the various City Livery Companies came together to consider matters of common concern.

The interior of Guildhall today. Photo: David Iliff (License CC-BY-SA 3.0).

It is, in fact, one of the very few Medieval buildings in the City to have survived the Great Fire of 1666. The first written reference to a guildhall was in 1128, and the current building was constructed between 1411 and 1440. The crypt may date to the late 13th Century. The current Grand Entrance, in "Hindoostani Gothic," was added by Charles Dance in 1788.

The crypt of London's Guildhall. Photo: The Wub (licensed under CCA).

In the days before mass-media (which extended well into the 19th Century), Guildhall Yard was London's most important gathering place. Whenever news reached London of an important national or international event, it was to the yard that the tradesmen and apprentices flocked, to hear the news delivered by the Lord Mayor, accompanied by whatever dignitaries could be enticed to join him with the promise of a good lunch and a generous glass of port.

Guildhall Yard in 1805: the buildings to the left and right were destroyed during a bombing raid in the Second World War (image is in the Public Domain).

Beneath the modern streets of Cheap Ward, however, and even beneath Guildhall Yard itself, lie clues to earlier incarnations of the city we call London. A printer's apprentice, listening to a speech by the Lord Mayor, can hardly have known that he was standing in the centre of Londinium's Roman amphitheatre, where gladiators faced one another in battles for life and death. It was only in 2000 that excavations by Museum of London archaeologists revealed its remains, its circuit now marked out on the paving slabs of Guildhall Yard, and its eastern entrance preserved in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.

The remains of London's Roman amphitheatre. Photo: Philafrenzy (licensed under CCA).

Guildhall Yard today, the black line at bottom right marking the curve of the Roman arena. Photo: Elisa Rolle (licensed under CCA).

The streets to the south of Guildhall became, after 1066, the focus for London's Jewish community, until the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, following a wave of anti-Semitic riots (London's Jewish community was only officially re-established during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell). In Milk Street, on a site that had been home to the wealthy Jewish Crespin family, archaeologists uncovered a 13th Century mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, now reconstructed at London's Jewish Museum in Camden.

The persecution of English Jews, from the 13th Century Rochester Chronicle (British Library). The badges worn by the Jews were enforced upon them by an edict of Pope Innocent III in 1215 (image is in the Public Domain).

Returning to the main east-west street through the city, which is, by this point in our journey, Poultry, we have, perhaps for the first time, a clear sense of being at the low point between the two hills on which London is built: Ludgate Hill behind us to the west and Cornhill ahead of us to the east. We have little sense of the natural watercourse running beneath our feet, the Walbrook Stream, or indeed of the artificial watercourse that carried sweeter water from the headwaters of the River Tyburn to the "Great Conduit" which served Londoners from the 1240s until the time of the Great Fire in 1666.

No. 1, Poultry. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).

A post-modern office block, No.1 Poultry, and which incorporates Bank Underground Station, now stands where Medieval Londoners queued for fresh water (brewers were frequently accused of taking more than their fair share, but the alternative of brewing ale from the brackish and fetid waters of the Thames would probably have had far worse consequences). During its construction, Museum of London archaeologists found the remains of one of London's lost churches, the tiny Saint Benet Sherehog, as well as several Roman houses.

Discarded behind the houses, and preserved only thanks to the waters of the Walbrook stream, was found a Roman letter, written on a thin sliver of wood, which gives us a fleeting glimpse into the life of one of Londinium's inhabitants. It is the deed of sale of a Gaulish slave-girl named Fortunata, sold for the equivalent of two years' salary for a legionary. Fortunata was probably literate (illiterate slaves were cheaper) but, whatever her background, she was now at the very bottom of the heap, the slave of a slave of a slave. Her age is not given, but she must have been young (she is described as a puella, which can mean either "virgin" or "girl," but the latter reading is to be preferred, since slaves enjoyed no legal protection from rape). She will be the protagonist of my next novel.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I have been fascinated by the London wards whilst writing my WIP set circa 1515 - 25. This is a great post. Thank you, Mark.

  2. A fascinating post, but another illusion shattered. I'd always assumed the trades and the street names stayed together until more recent history.

  3. Thanks, Carol & April! The Livery Companies tried hard to keep the connection between specific trades & specific streets, but they were up against market forces. Property within the city has always been relatively expensive, and nobody in possession of a freehold wanted to be sitting on an empty shop: if they could find a cordwainer or a baker etc. to occupy it, they would do so; if not, they would rent it to someone else. The regulated trades within the city always had to compete, additionally, with unregulated traders who set up their stalls beyond its boundaries: you bought from them at your own risk, but their wares were always cheaper.