Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Wards of Old London: Bishopsgate Within - The Crossroads of England

The main road running through the City of London from west to east passes from Cornhill Ward into the Ward of Bishopsgate Within. As a visitor from the west, passing along this road, one soon finds oneself, quite literally, at the crossroads of England. We shall be continuing eastwards into Leadenhall Street, but, before we do so, let us pause to take our bearings. We are at a junction of four roads, all of them originally Roman, but each of which bears a Medieval or Early Modern name.

Behind us, to the west, lie Cornhill, Poultry, Cheapside and, beyond Newgate, Watling Street, leading towards Saint Alban's, Wroxeter and, ultimately, Wales. The road to the south, Gracechurch Street, is also part of Watling Street, leading across London Bridge to Canterbury and Richborough: a Welsh pilgrim heading for Canterbury would have turned right at this point. On our left, the road leading north is Bishopsgate, which, beyond the city limits, becomes Ermine Street, stretching out towards Lincoln, York and Scotland.

Bishopsgate, looking north from the intersection with Leadenhall Street, with Tower 42 in the centre. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).

These are the roads along which, for more than a thousand years, the great and the good moved around the country on horseback, and the poor on foot. Ermine Street is the road along which my own great-grandfather walked from Beverley in Yorkshire, determined to learn a trade in London (he apprenticed himself to a Jewish tailor), rather than enter domestic service, as his parents had intended. My days as a motorist are behind me but, whenever I could, I much preferred to avoid the motorways and follow these roads instead, recognising that they were, in Jim Crace's memorable phrase, "drenched in narrative."

Bishopsgate itself (it used to be Bishopsgate Street) is the northern half of the main road running through London from south to north. At its northern end was Bishopsgate itself, one of the original Medieval (and, before that, Roman) gateways to the city.

Bishopsgate, as depicted by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). This is the gate through which James I and his party made their triumphal entry into London, following the death of Elizabeth I (image is in the Public Domain).

Before the coming of the railways in the Nineteenth Century, and the construction of Liverpool Street Station, Bishopsgate was home to at least eight coaching inns, places where travellers recently arrived in the city could find board and lodging. They were places, also, where people from all corners of the land might come together to exchange news, information and gossip (in the Fifteenth Century, these might have included Lancastrian and Yorkist spies; in the Eighteenth Century, Jacobite agents; in any age, they might have included criminals on the run, keen to drop their accents and blend in with the local population, to leave their past behind them in a distant town or village).

The White Hart, one of Bishopsgate's coaching inns, by John Charles Maggs (c1885), British Postal Museum and Archive (image is in the Public Domain). 

The rich and powerful, however, far from distancing themselves from this hubbub, frequently chose to live in the midst of it; their servants doubtless frequenting the coaching inns, their ears always alert to whatever unguarded comments might be let slip under the influence of fatigue and strong drink. Sir Paul Pindar, a city merchant who also served as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under James I, built his home in Bishopsgate. It later became an inn itself, but was dismantled when Liverpool Street Station was built, its facade now preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The facade of Sir Paul Pindar's house, originally in Bishopsgate, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo: K.B. Thompson (licensed under CCA).

Crosby Hall (moved to Chelsea in 1910) was built in 1466 by a wealthy wool merchant, Sir John Crosby, and was, at various times, home to the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), Sir Thomas More and Sir Walter Raleigh. William Shakespeare set a scene in his Richard III in Crosby Hall, a building he will have known well, since he lived locally in the 1590s, and was a parishioner at nearby St Helen's Church.

Crosby Hall, c1885 (image is in the Public Domain).

Crosby Hall, c 1884 (image is in the Public Domain).
Saint Helen's Church, Bishopsgate, dates to the Thirteenth Century, and was originally part of a priory for Benedictine nuns. Prior to the Reformation, it had a partition dividing two parallel naves, one serving the nuns, the other the parishioners. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).
Rich and poor really do seem to have lived side by side in Bishopsgate, for John Stow records the existence of almshouses, provided by the Worshipful Companies of Skinners and Leathersellers, of which no trace remains today. It is ironic that, in one of the few City wards to have been largely spared by the Great Fire of 1666, so little of the historical fabric survives today.

Liverpool Street Station in the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century (image is in the Public Domain). 

Liverpool Street Station now dominates the area, so perhaps Bishopsgate is still a meeting place of sorts, but much was destroyed when it was built. Now, as the Crossrail project turns the whole of London into one giant crossroads of England, however, archaeologists are unearthing more of the mysteries that have, for centuries, been hidden beneath its streets.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. So atmospheric and informative. Thanks for a wonderful post.

  2. Replies
    1. Wards are units of civil administration, parishes are ecclesiastical. There are many fewer parishes in the City now than there once were (because fewer people live in there; and fewer of those that do go to church; and, thankfully, nobody buries dead bodies in the City any more). John Stow records four parishes in this ward in the 16th Century (St Helen's, St Mary Axe, St Martin's Outwich & St Ethelburga's), but only St Helen's is still functioning.

  3. London is a city of great atmosphere! Is Crosby Hall still there? I ask because it's mentioned in Daughter Of Time and the young American researcher is delighted to hear that he can still visit a place where Richard III lived. But that was written a long time ago.

    1. It's not still in Bishopsgate, but it does still exist - the London County Council moved it to Chelsea in 1910. I've never been inside - I don't think it's open to the public on a regular basis, but we have an annual festival of architecture in London when such buildings do open their doors (and are often very crowded).