Monday, 13 August 2012

Fallen comrades: Caroline of Brunswick's life and death in Hammersmith

Hammersmith, with its riverside factories and wharves, was badly bombed during the Second World War - but that's a story for another blog post.  Amongst the postwar concrete of the immediate area around Hammersmith tube station, a few older buildings and facades remain: a Georgian building that now houses a Chinese restaurant, rows of 19th Century villas leading down towards the river, and the splendid Gothic church of St Paul, built from a distinctive pinkish stone.

St Paul's Church, Hammersmith
Today St Paul's also has a modern extension, and is surrounded by a pleasant green space full of blossom trees, a magnet for workers from nearby shops and offices during their lunch breaks.  As with so many green spaces in built up areas of London, this piece of land was once a burial ground - indeed, archaeologists uncovered many burials during the construction of the church's extension in 2009-10.  Only a small number of gravestones remain, clustered by the church's tower, tucked away in a corner of the churchyard.

The grave of Richard Honey and George Francis

One of these gravestones - pictured above - is protected by English Heritage, not because the men whose grave it marked were rich or illustrious but because of how they died, and how their friends and colleagues chose to commemorate their deaths. Richard Honey and George Francis were ordinary working men who met an untimely end when trouble flared at the funeral of George IV's estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, on 14th August 1821.

Caroline Amelia Elisabeth of Brunswick was a German princess, a first cousin of George IV (her mother had been the sister of George III).  She became engaged to the future George IV in 1794.  George was already secretly married to Maria Fitzherbert, though this match was not legal as George had not sought the permission of his father the King to marry, as set out in the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.  This Act had come into existence to prevent members of the Royal Family from marrying anyone deemed unsuitable after George III's brother married a commoner, Anne Horton, in 1771.

George III refused to give financial help to his debt-ridden, wayward heir unless he got married.  Caroline of Brunswick was considered a suitable match and she and George were engaged despite having never met.  Concerns about Caroline's suitability were first raised when the diplomat Lord Malmesbury went over to Brunswick to bring Caroline over to England for the wedding.  Malmesbury expressed reservations about Caroline's lack of tact and poor personal hygiene.  Nevertheless, Caroline made the journey over to England, arriving in Greenwich on 5th April 1795.

The marriage between Caroline and George was a disaster from the start.  Both parties were immediately repelled by the other.  George, upon seeing Caroline for the first time, simply called for a glass of brandy.  He was extremely drunk during the wedding ceremony.  It was rumoured that Caroline had been suggested as a possible bride by George's mistress at the time, Lady Jersey, in the hope an unappealing wife would ensure that George continued his relationship with his mistress.

Caroline gave birth to a girl, Princess Charlotte Augusta, on 7th January 1796, nine months after the wedding.  By this time, rumours were already circulating about the poor state of the royal marriage and in April 1796 the couple formally separated.  Princess Charlotte did not live with her mother, but Caroline visited her often.  Caroline also brought a number of other children into her household.  One of these children, a little boy called William Austin, was alleged to be Caroline's illegitimate son.  This claim led to Caroline being subjected to investigations over her fidelity, during which time she was unable to see her daughter.  The accusations of infidelity were not able to be proved, but Caroline became increasingly isolated socially and left England for mainland Europe in 1814.

George IV when he was Prince of Wales.  When Caroline first met him, she remarked that he was a great deal fatter than she'd been led to believe.
Caroline settled in Italy, where a man called Bartolomeo Pergami was hired as her servant.  Pergami rose to become the head of Caroline's household, and before long scurrilous rumours about Caroline's relationship with him began to spread back in England.  In 1817, Princess Charlotte tragically died in childbirth at the age of 21.  George declined to inform Caroline of their daughter's death, and Caroline only heard the news by chance from a passing courier.

By this time, George was keen to divorce Caroline, something which could only be done if one of the parties admitted or was found guilty of adultery.  After the death of George III in 1820, Caroline returned to England to assert her rights as Queen, and it was then that George intensified his efforts to legally end their marriage.

What followed was an infamous, highly publicised trial that sought to prove Caroline guilty of adultery with Pergami.  However, what George and his government had not considered was Caroline's popularity with the general public.  George was deeply unpopular - he was seen as an incompetent drunk - whereas Caroline was viewed as the wronged wife.  Many petitions, altogether collecting around a million signatures, were collected supporting Caroline's cause.  The Bill of Pains and Penalities, which sought to remove all of Caroline's priveliges and titles as George's wife, was defeated in the House of Lords.

Caroline at her trial

During the trial, Caroline had brought her household to Hammersmith, to Brandenburgh House, a grand residence that had recently been vacated by the Margravine of Anspach.  Caroline quickly became popular with local residents, and it is said that when the Bill of Pains and Penalties was defeated, "the Hammersmith tradesmen who served her illuminated their houses, and the populace shouted and made bonfires in front of Brandenburgh House. After her acquittal, the poor queen publicly returned thanks for that issue in Hammersmith Church, and more deputations came to Brandenburgh House to congratulate her on her triumph." (source)

Media coverage of the trial was huge, and hugely sensational.  The Radical politican William Cobbett took up Caroline's cause.  A biography of Cobbett states that "from the moment of Caroline's arrival in England, [Cobbett] constituted himself her champion." (G.D.H. Cole - The Life of William Cobbett, p.166)  Cobbett and his Radical colleagues were able to utilise the popular press in support of Caroline's cause, with papers and news sheets being printed in large numbers and distributed far and wide.

"The story, according to Cobbett, reached “every cottage in the Kingdom”. It arrived there via a news-chain. At the top of the chain were the newspapers, which sold only a few thousand because the stamp duty kept their price at 7d (though the Times doubled its sales to 20,000 during the queen's trial by supporting her with more enthusiasm than its rivals). Those papers were lent out by libraries, read out in taverns and rented by the hour" (source)

This was a watershed moment for politics - for the first time, masses of ordinary people were engaged with a political matter and due to the pressures of public opinion, the Bill was defeated and the support of the public led to Caroline emerging victorious against her unpopular husband.
Brandenburgh House (right), the Hammersmith home of Queen Caroline (picture source)
Sadly, Caroline did not long survive the defeat of the Bill of Pains and Penalties.  Three weeks after George IV's ostentatious coronation, at which Caroline had been noisily refused entry to the ceremony, Caroline died.  She had fallen ill soon after the coronation, dying either of cancer or an intestinal obstruction on 7th August 1821.  She was 53 years old.

Caroline's funeral posed a problem for George and his government.  Caroline's will had instructed that she be buried in her native Brunswick, and it was feared that the procession of her coffin from Brandenburgh House through London to the port of Harwich would draw unruly crowds.  An attempt was made to divert the cortege's route outside of London, but angry crowds gathered to block routes out of the city, forcing the procession through the middle of the city.  The chaos that ensued led to troops firing on the crowds, and two men - Richard Honey and George Francis - were killed.

The Manchester Guardian (18th August 1821) reported that:

"It became necessary [for the Guards] to force a way for the procession through whatever impediments might present themselves. The people were equally bent on turning the procession, and forcing it into the route of the city. Here a contest arose, and here, we deeply regret to say, blood was shed!

Some stones and mud were thrown at the military, and a magistrate being present, the soldiers were sanctioned in firing their pistols and carbines at the unarmed crowd. Screams of terror were heard in every direction. The number of shots fired was not less than forty or fifty. So completely did the soldiery appear at this period to have lost the good temper and forbearance they previously evinced, that they fired shots in the direction in which the procession was moving."

The two men who lost their lives were ordinary working men.  Here the story might have ended, with the men disappearing into a common grave and eventually being forgotten.  However, the dead men's friends and colleagues raised money to provide the large headstone which still survives today.  The stirring, daring inscription reads:

Here lie interred the mortal remains of
Richard Honey, Carpenter,
aged 36 years, and of
George Francis, Bricklayer, aged 43 years,
who were slain on the 14th August, 1821, while attending the 
funeral of Caroline, of Brunswick,
Queen of England
The details of that melancholy event
Belong to the history of the country
In which they will be recorded
Together with the public opinion
Decidedly expressed relative to the
Disgraceful transactions
Of that disastrous day
Deeply impressed with their fate
Unmerited and unavenged
Their respective trades interred them
At their general expence [sic]
On the 24th of the same month
to their memory.

Richard Honey left one female orphan.
George Francis left a widow and three young children.

Victims like these have fallen in every age
Stretch of pow'r or party's cruel rage
Until even handed justice comes at last
To amend the future and avenge the past
Their friends and fellow-men lament their doom
Protect their orphans, and erect their tomb.

Although organised labour as we would recognise it today was then in its infancy - in the early 1820s trade unions were officially illegal - the inscription on this large tombstone, paid for by the donations of ordinary working people, shows the solidarity between Caroline's working class supporters and their determination that their fallen comrades would not be forgotten.

The inquest into the deaths recorded a verdict of "wilful murder against a life guardsman unknown" for Francis and manslaughter for Honey, who unlike Francis did not die at the scene but succumbed a few hours later to his injuries.  The fact that no individual was ever named or prosecuted for the deaths was picked up upon by commentators at the time, as the cartoon below shows.

A caricature by George Cruikshank (source)

Brandenbugh House is long gone, demolished not long after Caroline's death, but Hammersmith has not forgotten her. Queen Caroline Street runs close to St Paul's church where the two shot men lie at rest, even though their surroundings are completely changed from that of the little riverside churchyard they were orignally buried in.  Their grave is well worth a visit to see the inscription, a moving example of solidarity amongst the working classes.

For a more detailed account of Caroline's scandalous trial and its political fallout, I recommend the entertaining book "Rebel Queen" by Jane Robins.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Skulls, astrologers and the sands of time: a Georgian graveyard in South West London

One of the best things about living in London is the great potential for discovering wonderful places completely by accident. In this instance, I was required to go to Mortlake to pick up a parcel from the sorting office that had been too big to fit through my letterbox.  Whilst walking up Mortlake High Street my eye was caught by some worn old gravestones peeping out through bushes and shrubs.

This graveyard belongs to the Anglican church of St Mary the Virgin, pictured below.

The St Mary's we see today was built in 1543, replacing an earlier church that had been situated nearby.  Only the tower survives from the 16th Century, and major alterations were made to the church in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  The church interior, pictured below, dates from the early 20th Century.

Some of these memorials look as though they were once situated inside the church, before it was renovated in the early 20th Century.
The churchyard, however, mostly contains gravestones from the Georgian period, from about 1715, with the most recent graves dating from the early Victorian period.  The Burials Act of 1851 closed London's ancient churchyards and from then onwards the residents of Mortlake had to be buried elsewhere.

A number of my previous blog posts have focused on 19th Century graveyards, and the funerary symbolism used in this period, much of which invoked Roman urns, clasped hands, broken pillars and extinguished torches.  Many of these symbols had their origins in the Classical period.  Earlier gravestones, however, use different images and probably the most distinctive of these is the skull, or death's head, an obvious signifier of death.  Some more examples of death head symbolism on gravestones can be found here.

The monument pictured above also depicts what appears to be a book, which may signify knowledge, or perhaps the Bible. 

Time waits for no man

The gravestone pictured above shows another symbol of mortality - the hourglass.

So why are the symbols on 18th Century graves so different to those on Victorian graves?  In the Victorian period death became a money-spinning industry, with grand memorials, specially laid out cemeteries and ostentatious funeral processions becoming popular amongst the moneyed.  Death was dressed up and became an event - look at the way that black mourning clothes and black-edged writing paper became important and very visual parts of mourning.  At the same time, the symbols used to represent death became more distant - no more scary signifiers of mortality such as skulls, bones or ominous signs of time passing.  This in part reflected differing fashions and tastes in the Victorian period, with grand Gothic and Classical images becoming common in the new burial grounds that opened after inner city churchyards were shut.

The poor, of course, continued to be buried in common graves with no memorial or perhaps a small, simple stone.  Dotted around old graveyards are little headstones adorned only with a set of initials and dates of birth and death.  The graves of non-conformist believers have also traditionally been more austere.

The earliest known tombstone in the graveyard at St Mary's is that of the astrologer John Partridge.  Partridge was born in East Sheen, not far from Mortlake, and after initially starting a career as a shoemaker he studied in Holland and became an astrologer, having learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  He wished to see the Arabic influences astrology - which had become widespread in Europe during the Renaissance - removed and sought a return to Ptolemy's principles of astrology.

Although Partridge wrote a number of books of his own, he is best known through the words of his enemies.  A committed Whig and sceptical of the Church, Partridge was known to predict the deaths of those whose opinions on religion and politics he disagreed with.  This made him unpopular, and his astrology was suspected of being quackery.  In 1708 this came to the attention of Jonathan Swift, the Irish cleric best known for writing Gulliver's Travels, and writing under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff Swift mockingly predicted that Partridge would die on 29th March 1708.  On this date, he wrote another letter claiming that Partridge had died.  Partridge, very much alive, angrily refuted the claims but continued to be ridiculed, with Swift commenting that "they were sure no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this."  Swift even penned a eulogy for Partridge:

Here five foot deep lyes on his back
A cobbler, starmonger, and quack…
Who to the stars in pure good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you customers that use
His pills, his almanacks or shoes.

Partridge died in 1714 or 1715, and little is known about his final years.  He is buried in the tomb pictured below, very close to the church building.

The picture below shows close-up of the cherubs on Partridge's tomb.  A skull is also visible at the bottom of the plaque - it is quite worn and covered in lichen, and its most distinctive features are the eye sockets and nasal cavity.  The large and relatively ornate nature of Partridge's tomb suggests that he either died quite wealthy, or had friends who were able to pay for a grand memorial.

St Mary's also has a connection with the more famous John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician and magician who had a home in Mortlake close to St Mary's.  During Dee's time the boundaries between mathematics, science and magic were blurred, and - as this was the time before the frenzied witch hunts of the 17th Century - Dee enjoyed the patronage of a number of eminent Elizabethans, and even acted as advisor to Queen Elizabeth herself.   Dee travelled widely during his lifetime and kept his extensive library at his Mortlake home, a library which at the time was reckoned to be one of the greatest in the world.

John Dee

A history on the church's own website claims that Dee was buried in St Mary's after his death in 1608 or early 1609.  Dee died in poverty and relative obscurity, as James I's regime was unfriendly towards magic, and unfortunately no parish records of his death and burial survive, and there is no known gravestone.

If you look behind this tall monument, a low tomb to the right lies over a former Prime Minister.  (The reason why there isn't a proper picture of this tomb is because I read the little map in the churchyard wrong and took a picture of a different tomb close to that of the former PM.)  Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, was a Tory MP for Devizes and became Prime Minister in 1801 after William Pitt the Younger resigned.  By all accounts Addington was not an effective Prime Minister and he was ousted in 1804.  He did, however, live to the grand old age of 86, dying at the comfortable White Lodge in Richmond.

Probably the most distinctive feature of the churchyard is the picturesque archway in the middle.  This archway was originally part of the structure of the church, but was removed during rebuilding work in the 19th century and rebuilt in the churchyard, allegedly at the insistence of a parishoner.

Part of the churchyard is fenced off and designated as a "wild area", allowing plants and habitats for birds and insects to flourish. The whole churchyards is beautifully cared for by the Friends of Mortlake Churchyard, who have lovingly restored the graveyard after it became derelict.  More details about the Friends can be found under the "Churchyard" section of St Mary's website.

There is also a labyrinth on the side of the churchyard closes to Mortlake High Street.  The labyrinth, simply laid out with natural materials, is intended to be a space for quiet reflection.

The labyrinth consists of winding paths laid out around the gravestones

Finally, a little mystery.  I came across the following stone in the middle of the churchyard but couldn't find any information about it.  I have no idea of its date - it could possibly even be modern - but has anyone got any ideas of what it might symbolise?  My best guess is a green man, or perhaps a stone from the church building before it was restored.

Who am I?

A few more pictures...

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Pye Corner: Flames, poltergeists and bodysnatchers

Pye Corner, the site where the Great Fire of London famously came to an end in 1666, has a long and grisly history of which the Great Fire is only one chapter.  Accounts of the Great Fire tell us that the Fire began at a bakery in Pudding Lane and ended three days later (having consumed 13,000 houses and 87 churches) at Pye Corner.  Christopher Wren’s towering Monument to the Great Fire of London is close to Pudding Lane, but where is Pye Corner?

Pudding Lane still exists on London's streetplans today, but Pye Corner is harder to find
Pye Corner (occasionally referred to as “Pie Corner” in records) lies just outside London’s ancient city walls, and today is on the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, close to St Bartholomew’s Hospital – today, however, the name Pye Corner has passed out of use.  It is possible that Pye Corner is situated over the western Roman cemetery (Roman burials always took place outside the city walls) but archaeologists digging on a site in Giltspur Street last year found no Roman burials, instead finding a hitherto unknown part of St Sepulchre without Newgate’s burial ground, with burials dating from the 12th and 13th centuries.

St Sepulchre without Newgate, Holborn Viaduct
The Great Fire of 1666 was not the first large conflagration in this part of town.  Medieval London consisted mainly of buildings with wooden frames, and the risk of large, fast spreading fires was a very real one.  On Pentecost 1135 (some records say 1133), a fire burnt a large section of London.  Information about this fire is scarce but its extent is said to have been from London Bridge in the east to St Clement Danes, Westminster, in the west.  St Sepulchre without Newgate, close to Pye Corner, is first recorded in the years after this fire and from that one can speculate that the church was founded as part of the rebuilding of the city after the devastating fire.

Whether Pye Corner was known by that name in the 12th Century is unknown.  Like many place names in London, the name “Pye Corner” probably comes from the name of a pub – the Maypie, or Magpie (reference).  In the medieval period few ordinary people could read and write so this pub would have been indicated by a sign or small statue depicting a magpie.

As the Great Fire tore through London in September 1666, buildings were torn down or destroyed with gunpowder to create fire breaks in an attempt to stop the fire spreading further.  The fire had broken out on Sunday 2nd September and by Wednesday 5th September it finally burnt out at Pye Corner after the strong winds that had been fanning the flames had dropped and many firebreaks had had been created by demolishing buildings.

Contemporary map showing the extent of the Great Fire. Burnt areas are shown in white. Pye Corner indicated by a red dot. Click for full-size image.

At the time of the Great Fire, anti-Catholic sentiment was widespread and many people sought to blame the fire on a “popish plot”.  Scapegoats were sought and a French man, Robert Hubert (sometimes described as having had learning difficulties), was executed for starting the fire, despite reports that he had not arrived in London until two days after the fire had started.  Christopher Wren’s Monument near Pudding Lane even included a bold inscription stating that the fire was started by “the treachery and malice of the Popish faction”.  This section of the inscription was removed in the 1830s, when attitudes towards Catholicism had changed significantly.

The Monument.
The memorial to the fire installed at Pye Corner, on the other hand, was far removed from the grandeur and (now removed) sectarianism of the Monument.  A statue of a cherub or young boy, around two feet tall, was attached to the wall of the building on Pye Corner.  Exactly when the statue was put up is unclear – this image from the Museum of London dates from 1791. Rather than blaming Catholics for the fire, the inscription on the cherub reads “This boy is in Memory Put up for the late Fire of London, Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony, 1666”.  It is likely that this conclusion was reached because of the sites where the fire began and ended – Pudding Lane and Pye Corner.  (Pudding Lane, incidentally, was not named after any tasty foodstuffs but for the “puddings” of entrails and other waste from butchered animals that fell off the carts that went down the lane on their way to dispose of the remains.)

The Golden Boy of Pye Corner
The cherub was built into the front of a pub on Pye Corner, the Fortune of War – which has a notorious history of its own.  Its proximity to Bart’s Hospital meant that it was an ideal base for resurrectionists – better known as bodysnatchers.  In the 18th and early 19th centuries there was a shortage of cadavers available for dissection by medics and large sums of money could change hands for fresh corpses, many of which were illicitly dug up by bodysnatchers as soon after burial as possible (although there are also cases of people being murdered - sometimes to order - and their corpses being sold for dissection).  People feared the theft of their loved ones' bodies so much that families would pay guards to watch over graves until the body was too decomposed to be of interest to bodysnatchers, and at St Sepulchre's church close to Pye Corner a Watchhouse was built to deter bodysnatchers.  The role of the Fortune of War pub in this grisly business was to provide a place where bodies could be brought in and assessed for suitability by medics from the nearby hospital

Watch house at St Sepulchre
The rather amusingly named Cock Lane is one of the two streets that meet at Pye Corner - its name is thought to originate from the old popular sport of cockfighting, a cruel sport where the birds were trained to fight each other to the death.  The street was also home to the only legalised brothels north of the Thames.  However, Cock Lane is most famous for an incident in the early 1760s when a haunting was reported at one of the houses on the street.

19th Century engraving of the site of the "Cock Lane Ghost" (source)
The first reports of paranormal activity began when a couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes, who were living as man and wife (William had previously been married to Fanny's sister Elizabeth, who had died in childbirth, and laws at the time prevented him legally marrying his dead wife's sister) lodged at the house, having previously lived in Norfolk.  The man who offered the couple lodgings was Richard Parsons, a clerk at nearby St Sepulchre's church.  Kent loaned Parsons (who was known by local people to be a drunk) 12 guineas, despite the fact that his previous landlord in London had refused to repay money he owed Kent after learning that he was not married to Fanny.

Fanny became pregnant and Parsons' eldest daughter Elizabeth, aged around 11, was enlisted to stay with her when William was away.  They began to report hearing scratching and tapping noises in the room they were sleeping in.  However, in the weeks before Fanny was due to give birth, she and William moved out of the Parsons' house due to a dispute over the money Parsons owed William, and into lodgings nearby.  Fanny was taken ill and died of smallpox.  She apparently had taken care to ensure that William - rather than her family, who had disowned her after she began a relationship with William - received all of her money in her will.

William sued Richard Parsons in January 1762 for the money that Parsons still owed him.  Around this time, reports of mysterious goings-on at the Parsons' house resumed.  Rumours started to go around that the house was being haunted by Fanny's ghost, and the girl Elizabeth, who had looked after Fanny during her pregnancy, was particularly affected by the disturbances.  It was reported that Fanny's ghost had returned because she had not died of smallpox but due to foul play, and that William Kent was responsible for her death.  The rumours quickly spread around London and became a major topic of conversation and speculation amongst all social classes, with Kent widely suspected as a murderer.

A number of respectable figures, including clergymen, visited the Parsons' home to attend seances at the house.  The ghost was said to communicate with the girl Elizabeth by knocking - for example, the ghost would reply to a question with one knock meaning "yes" and two knocks meaning "no".  Crowds of people soon began to gather on Cock Lane and Mr Parsons charged people to visit his house to witness the haunting for themselves.

However, not everyone was convinced that the case was genuine.  A committee, one member of which was Samuel Johnson, was assembled to investigate the alleged haunting.  The hoax was finally revealed when the "ghost" claimed that, to prove it was genuine, it would knock on the coffin of the deceased Fanny Lynes at a particular time.  The committee duly visited the vault at St John's, Clerkenwell, where Fanny had been laid to rest, and no knocking noise was forthcoming from her coffin.  The ghost was denounced as a fraud.

English Credulity, or the Invisible Ghost in Cock Lane, satirical picture from February 1762 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

It was discovered that Elizabeth had been hiding a small piece of wood about her person to create the scratching and knocking noises, and although she was later cleared of any wrongdoing - being deemed an unwitting accomplice - her father was jailed for two years, as well as being sentenced to three days in the pillory.  It was deemed that he had set up the hoax to discredit William Kent, the man he owed money to.  His wife and a servant were also given prison terms after being found guilty of involvement in the scam.  The case became known as "Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane."

Cock Lane today, seen from Pye Corner.
Today, it's not clear whereabouts on Cock Lane the Scratching Fanny hoax took place.  The street is now lined with modern buildings, with a few at the Snow Hill end of the street dating from no earlier than the Victorian period.

Although the story of Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane is not widely known today (it did, however, get some press coverage last month for its 250th anniversary), the name of Cock Lane remains notably amusing.  Last year, the cast of the TV comedy The Inbetweeners visited Cock Lane on the final stop of their "Rude Road Trip" for Comic Relief.

Cast of TV's The Inbetweeners at Cock Lane (part of the Golden Boy also pictured) (Source)

If it wasn't for the Golden Boy being retained on subsequent buildings on Pye Corner after the Fortune of War pub was demolished in 1910, it's possible that Pye Corner could have been forgotten altogether today, as the name itself has passed out of use and is not shown on maps.  As it is, the site tends not to fall under the tourist radar unless it's included in a guided walk, or stumbled upon by chance whilst visiting other landmarks in the area such as the memorial to William Wallace at Smithfield.  The Golden Boy is a far more low key memorial to the Great Fire of London than its Pudding Lane counterpart, the Monument, but as the area also has connections with bodysnatchers and ghost hoaxers, for those interested in some of the darker aspects of London's history the site is still well worth a visit.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Cripplegate: destruction and rebirth

It's quite easy to get lost in the maze of highwalks in London's Barbican Estate, and to some it may be disorientating to discover a medieval church in the middle of the Barbican's brutalist sprawl.  St Giles without Cripplegate is a rare survivor of the Great Fire - even if it didn't fare too well during the Blitz - and its name is one of the last remaining references to this ancient corner of the Square Mile.

The church's slightly curious name - similar to many other church names in the City - refers to its site.  Any church with the word "without" in its name was situated outside the old city walls, in the case of St Giles outside the Cripplegate.  Other examples include St Sepulchre without Newgate, St Botolph without Bishopsgate and the long gone St Ewan within Newgate.  Although St Giles is a patron saint of beggars and cripples, the origins of the name "Cripplegate" may lie in the Saxon word "crepel", meaning a covered passage.   Indeed, old documents sometimes use the spelling "Crepelgate".

Cripplegate in c.1650.  Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Cripplegate was one of Roman London's six gates - the others were Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate (Moorgate was a 15th century addition).  The Cripplegate initially led into a fort - or "barbican" that served as an extra defence on the northern boundary of the City, but became another of the city's gates when the barbican was demolished.  The 1650 image shown above indicates that there were a number of rooms in the gate's structure and at different times the gate was used as a prison and as private dwellings.  The Cripplegate itself was demolished in 1760, with its materials sold off for £91, a rather large sum at the time.  Like many of the old city's ancient gates and toll bars, the Cripplegate was removed to widen the road and ease traffic congestion.  The area of town that the gate had been in retained the name Cripplegate, and to this day the electoral ward for the area is still bears this name.

During the Second World War, the Cripplegate area was particularly badly bombed.  By 1951 only 48 people were registered as living within the Cripplegate ward, so widespread was the damage.


The above picture looks south over either Moorgate or, more likely, Aldersgate (now renamed Barbican) tube station towards St Paul's, showing the vast extent of devastation in this part of London.

In the top left hand corner of this second, haunting photograph of a devastatated Cripplegate, one can see the tower of St Giles' church.  St Giles without Cripplegate was built in the late fourteenth century, although there had been a church on the site since the Saxon period, and even before the Second World War the church had had its fair share of misfortunes.  Fires in 1545 and 1897 badly damaged the church, but in 1940 the church was repeatedly hit by German bombs and completely gutted, with only its outer walls and tower remaining.

The first wave of bomb damage to St Giles. Source.
In amongst the wreckage from the first hit on the church is a stone pedestal, with a fallen statue alongside it.  This statue was a monument to John Milton, most famous for the epic poem Paradise Lost and who was buried in St Giles without Cripplegate after his death in 1674.

The fallen monument to Milton. Source.
The statue was rescued and returned to the church after its restoration.  After the war, St Giles was a lone building surrounded by huge areas of bombsite.  Although many of its treasures had been lost in the Blitz, the restored church was furnished with items from St Luke's Church, Old Street, which had been rendered unsafe and abandoned in the 1960s due to subsidence.

This picture of St Giles shows how the church has been rebuilt over the years - by the time of its battering in the Blitz it had already undergone significant structural changes and repairs.  The roof area, for example, is noticeably modern but is in keeping with the building's Perpendicular Gothic style.

Around St Giles, plans were being drawn up for an enormous new housing estate.  A large estate, the Golden Lane Estate, had been built in the area immediately north of Cripplegate in the 1950s and in 1965 work began on the estate now known as the Barbican.

The Barbican Estate is built in the Brutalist architectural style, which was popular in the postwar era and was known for its use of concrete - the term "brutalist" comes from the French béton brut meaning "raw concrete".  This use of concrete was the downfall of a number of large housing developments from this period as the concrete used was not of sufficient quality and subsequently, many estates have had to be demolished due to structures becoming unsafe.  This was not the case with the Barbican, which utilised a high grade concrete which has not deteriorated over time.  The estate was awarded Grade II listed status in 2001 due to its ambitious scale and innovative design - its buildings were connected by highwalks (the "streets in the sky" so often utilised in postwar architecture, with varying success) and the estate also contained many green spaces, including two large lakes.  Today the estate remains a popular residential area, with properties changing hands for very high prices.

The Barbican conists of a number of mid-rise blocks and three very tall towers  - Shakespeare, Cromwell and Lauderdale - which were, until the Pan Peninsula complex was built at Canary Wharf, the tallest residential buildings in London.  The estate is also home to the Barbican Centre, a major arts venue, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the City of London School for Girls and the Museum of London.

Despite being almost fifty years old in places, the Barbican still feels like a very futuristic place.  Many examples of "streets in the sky" or brutalist housing estates were failures, either down to poor building materials or ill-thought out design that led to the estates becoming hotbeds for crime and neglect.  The Barbican is an unusual example of a scheme that can be seen to have been a success - although its success has come at the cost of considerable gentrification, it could be argued.

In amongst all this retro-futuristic concrete, St Giles without Cripplegate remains.  Alongside it are some structures even more ancient than the old church - the remains of part of London's Roman Wall and its medieval additions.

The above photograph, looking from Wallside over to the City of London School for Girls, shows the 13th century bastion tower that was added to the fortifications on London's wall.

Several different types of stone and building styles can be seen in the wall, showing how the wall was repaired and strengthened over the years.  Several large sections of the old city wall survive in the Cripplegate area - many were exposed by the destruction of the Blitz and today are preserved.

Finally, this blog wouldn't be complete without a gravestone or two - here, some of the old tombstones from St Giles' churchyard have been set into the walls of one of the Barbican's lakes.

Whether or not Brutalist architecture is your cup of tea - it remains one of the most divisive architectural styles of modern times - the Barbican is well worth a visit, even though it is quite easy to get lost on the highwalks.  It is easily accessible from the Museum of London, or from the footbridge from the exit of Barbican tube station.  Although little remains of the old Cripplegate area, the surviving ancient church and wall fragments give the estate a sense of what was there before the German bombs fell.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...