Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Wards of Old London: Tower Street - Enterprise and Executions

We have completed our journey along the main road leading through the City of London from west to east; and this journey has taken us through the wards of Farringdon WithinBread StreetCordwainer StreetCheapeWalbrookCornhillBishopsgate WithinLime Street and Aldgate. A visitor to London can make this particular journey today, as in the past, without once catching sight of the city's most important landscape feature, the one, indeed, to which it owes its existence, the River Thames.

If we follow in the footsteps of Geoffrey Chaucer on his daily walk from home to work, however, we will be going south from Aldgate into what he would have known as Tower Street Ward (it is now simply "Tower Ward"), and we will soon find ourselves on the "Legal Quays," where Chaucer, and many generations of his successors as excise-men, inspected the cargoes of foreign ships arriving at the Port of London. Over the following weeks, we will follow the river from the Tower of London in the east to the Fleet River in the west. Confusingly, neither the Tower of London nor Tower Bridge are actually within Tower Ward (or, indeed, within the City), the former having been controlled by the Crown, rather than the City authorities, for almost a thousand years.

"Imports from France," by Louis Peter Boitard, 1757, showing the "Legal Quays" in action (image is in the Public Domain).

London's "Docklands," as we understand them, extending for more than eleven miles to the east of the Tower, are a feature of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century expansion of London as a port. In their place, in Medieval and Early Modern times, were shipyards, and a great many illegal quays, where excise-men fought a constant battle against smugglers and pirates.

Prior to the building of the Victorian docks, legal shipping was handled almost exclusively within the Pool of London, between London Bridge and the Tower. Port officials must have plied up and down the river in small manoeuvrable craft, requiring ships' captains to wait their turn in the approaches, much as air-traffic controllers currently keep aircraft "stacked" over southern England before giving permission to land at Heathrow.

One early maritime visitor to London was a Greek, Michael of Rhodes. In 1401, he travelled from the island of his birth to Venice, enrolling as a humble oarsman in the Navy of the Republic. During a career spanning several decades, he served on both military and trading galleys, working his way up to the rank of Comito (one level below the captain, who was typically also the owner of the ship, and thus an office to which Michael could not aspire). Each year, in March or early April, four trading galleys would set sail from Venice, two of them bound for Flanders and two for England. They brought with them wine and cheese from the Mediterranean, and silks bought in the markets of Alexandria and Beirut. They returned in the autumn, with cargoes of Cornish tin and English woollen cloth, arriving back in Venice around Christmas-time.

One of the Venetian "Flanders Galleys," from Michael of Rhodes's account of his voyages (an English translation, by Alan M. Stahl, exists, but is expensive - I shall have more to say about this in a later post, when I have had the chance to examine a library copy in greater detail). Image is in the Public Domain.

Michael made the voyage to London three times, in 1406, 1438 and 1443, and John Stow, writing in 1598, records the former residences of "galley-men" (probably permanent representatives of the Venetian, but also Genoese, shipping companies) in Mincheon Lane, close to "Galley Quay."

Tower Street Ward in 1755 (image is in the Public Domain).

Maritime trade in the Port of London almost doubled between 1750 and 1796, with 11,964 vessels arriving in 1795 (an average of 33 per day). Not all were from as far afield as the Mediterranean: in fact, around a third were colliers, bringing coal to London from ports along the north-east coast of England. the "Pool" was becoming increasingly crowded, and engineers vied with one another to develop schemes for an ambitious expansion of the docks to the east.

The Pool of London, W. Parrott, 1841 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Port of London in 1837, by James Elmes (image is in the Public Domain), showing the newly constructed docks cutting across the northern end of the Isle of Dogs.

Within sight of the river, Tower Hill was known for reasons that had little to do with trade. Like the Tower itself, it was formally outside the jurisdiction of the City's Lord Mayor and his officials, but unlike the Tower (which most Londoners tried very hard to stay out of), it was an area to which the public had free access. It was here that they gathered to witness the public execution of supposed traitors, including Sir Thomas More, George Boleyn, Sir Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas Wyatt.

The execution of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685 (image is in the Public Domain). An illegitimate son of Charles II, Monmouth was executed following a failed rebellion against his uncle, James II.

The bodies of the executed were, in most cases, taken, at least temporarily, to the Church of All- Hallows-by-the-Tower. This is one of London's most interesting churches: almost destroyed during the Blitz, it was also from the spire of this church that Samuel Pepys witnessed the Great Fire of 1666, commenting on "the saddest sight of desolation." Ironically, it was the later destruction in the second World War that led to the discovery of some of the church's most fascinating features.

All Hallows-by-the-Tower in 1955, showing the damage done during the Blitz. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).
The interior of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, which witnessed the baptism of William Penn, and the marriage of John Quincy Adams. Photo: Diliff (licensed under CCA).
Saxon arch, dating to c 680 AD, inside the church of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower. Photo: Ivory (image is in the Public Domain).

Established in 675 AD, Londoners must have prayed at All Hallows in the terrifying winter of 1066, as they awaited the arrival of the Conqueror, unsure whether he would sack or spare the city. The crypt, however, now home to a small museum, contains a relic of an earlier phase of London life - the tessellated floor of a Roman family house of the late Second Century AD.

Roman pavement in the crypt of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower. Photo Christine Matthews (licensed under CCA).

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. Your posts are terrific, Mark. I can never read enough about London's history, especially its oldest architecture. I've never known about All-Hallows-by-the-Tower before. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Petrea! All Hallows is well worth a visit if you are in London. The museum in the crypt is small, but has some fascinating objects.

    2. London is always on my agenda, not so often in my purse. I've been there only once but I swear it's not the last time. Thanks to you, All-Hallows-by-the-Tower is on my list of things to see.