Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Wards of Old London: Coleman Street - Tragedies Forgotten and Remembered

Following the course of the northern wall of the Roman and Medieval city in an easterly direction, a visitor to London passes from Bassishaw Ward into Coleman Street Ward. It originally consisted, like Bassishaw, of a single street - Coleman Street - running from north to south (in this case connecting Gresham Street to Moorgate), together with side-streets to the east and west. Moorgate itself may originally have been a postern (an unobtrusive gate intended to allow for escape or counter-attack in the event of a siege), but became a true gate in the Fifteenth Century. Coleman Street Ward today extends to the north of the long-since demolished walls, to include Finsbury Square, laid out in 1812, and a public park since the early Twentieth Century.

Lying between two branches of the Wallbrook Stream, archaeological evidence suggests that this was an industrial quarter in Roman times, with tanneries, glass and metal-working. It has sometimes been claimed that Coleman Street owes its name to the presence, in Medieval times, of charcoal-burners, but the Elizabethan chronicler, John Stow, says nothing about this (he does mention the "loathsome noise" made by metal-workers), and has an altogether more straightforward explanation, referring to a certain Robert Coleman, who "may be supposed the first builder or owner of Coleman Street," and whose son, Reginald, was buried in Saint Margaret's Church in 1483. Charcoal production, presenting a very considerable fire-risk, is unlikely to have been permitted within the city.

The Medieval Jewry of London extended across parts of several wards to the north of Gresham Street, but its centre seems to have been here, as Stow relates:

"On the south side of this street [Lothburie], amongst the founders [bronze-casters], by some fair houses and large for merchants, namely, one that of old time was the Jews' synagogue, which was defaced by the citizens of London, after that they had slain seven hundred Jews, and spoiled the residue of their goods, in the year 1262, the 47th of Henry III. And not long after, in the year 1291, King Edward I banished the remnant of the Jews out of England ..."

The persecution of English Jews, from the 13th Century Rochester Chronicle, British Library - Cotton Nero D.II, Folio 183v (image is in the Public Domain).

Seven years previously, two hundred and two Jews had been brought forcibly from Lincoln to Westminster, where eighteen of them were hanged, accused of crucifying a Christian boy named Hugh, a blood-libel that was far from unique at the time. Of the subsequent expulsion of the Jews under Edward I, Stow remarks that:

"The number of Jews then expulsed were fifteen thousand and sixty persons. The king made a mighty mass of money of their houses, which he sold, and yet the Commons of England had granted and gave him a fifteenth of all their goods to banish them. And thus much for the Jews."

"Aaron, son of the Devil," - doodle from the margins of an English court transcript. Image: Griska (Public Domain).

The history of anti-Semitism in Medieval Britain and Europe is closely tied up with that of the crusades. There is little evidence of it before the launch of the First Crusade in 1095. Many of the priests who whipped up support for the crusades seem to have inveighed against all non-Christians, making no distinction between Muslims and Jews, just as today's Islamic hate-preachers attack Jews, Christians and secular Humanists alike. The future Edward I had himself taken part in the Eighth and Ninth Crusades (1270-1272) during his father's reign, sailing from England with around a thousand men, including 225 knights. Most Londoners, however, were tradesmen with families to support: crusading in the Mediterranean was not an option for them, and the slaughter of their own Jewish neighbours offered an all-too convenient alternative.

Nothing of London's Medieval synagogue survives today. Edward I granted it to an order of Mendicant friars, and, by Stow's time, it had become a private house. If it was still standing in 1666, it will have been destroyed in the Great Fire. To gain any idea of what it may have looked like, we must look beyond British shores, to the Czech Republic and Hungary.

The Medieval synagogue of Prague. Built in around 1270, this may be the World's oldest synagogue in continuous use. Photo: Paljan 84 (licensed under CCA).
The interior of Prague's Medieval synagogue. The workmanship suggests that it was probably built by the same stonemasons who built the city's Christian churches. Photo: Peco (licensed under GNU).
The Medieval synagogue of Sopron, Hungary. Photo: Zyance (licensed under GNU).
Torah scrolls in the Medieval synagogue of Sopron. Photo: Emmanuel Dyan (licensed under CCA).
The Medieval synagogue of Budapest. The building dates to 1364. The graffiti, however, are 17th Century, and relate to a period in which Hungarian Jews were subject to persecution. The inscription associated with the bow and arrow is from the Prayer of Hannah, in the book of Samuel: "The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength." That associated with the Star of David reads "The Lord shall bless you, and hold you." Photo: Budapest History Museum (licensed under CCA). 

Coleman Street Ward today includes Moorgate tube station, opened by the Metropolitan Railway in 1865. A disastrous crash occurred in 1975, in which forty-three people were killed and seventy-four were seriously injured. All of us who travel on the London Underground today do so more safely as a result of the new automated braking system introduced in the wake of this disaster. There are three memorial plaques to the victims of this dreadful accident: one on the platform, one on the outside wall of the station, and one in nearby Finsbury Square. There is no memorial for the seven hundred Jews butchered by their fellow Londoners on Coleman Street, and in the alleys leading off from it. Perhaps now is the time to put that right?  

The memorial on the platform of the Moorgate Underground Station. Photo: Andy Mabbett (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. I am really enjoying this series.

  2. Fascinating stuff. I remember Moorgate...