Charles Flower’s Old London Churches

St Helen, Bishopsgate by Charles Flower, c.1904

I came across the above picture of the church St Helen, Bishopsgate on an old postcard recently. It caught my eye because I pass through this scene almost every day and find it a rare haven of tranquillity amongst the bustle of the City traffic.

The picture forms part of a set of six postcards featuring Old London Churches, produced by the great postcard publishers Raphael Tuck & Co in 1904 and all painted by the same artist, Charles Flower. This was the golden age of the picture postcard and hundreds of thousands of Tuck’s cards were manufactured and sent every year.

Charles Flower in his early twenties

Charles Flower

Charles Edwin Flower (1871-1951) was one of Tuck’s most prolific artists and contributed around 300 paintings over a long career. He travelled widely, with the scenes he captured covering the USA, Canada, Germany and Argentina as well as the breadth of the UK. The ubiquity of Tuck’s postcards must have made Flower’s work some of the most recognised of the early 20th century. Despite this, we know relatively little of him beyond that, prior to working for Tuck, he was employed as an artist by the pioneering archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers to illustrate a catalogue of the vast number of finds from excavations on Pitt Rivers’ Wiltshire estate. I’ll say more about Flower in a future post.

Having tracked down all six postcards in the set, I was delighted to see that all six churches are still with us today. This is quite something, given that two (All Hallows-by-the-Tower and St Olave, Hart Street) were almost destroyed during the Blitz and a further two (St Helen’s and St Ethelburga, Bishopsgate) were blown up by IRA bombs in the early1990s. So I thought it would be good to recreate Charles Flower’s images as they appear today. All six views are plainly recognisable. The most noticeable change to the churches is the new and very different steeple added to All Hallows-by-the-Tower on its rebuilding after the second world war. Comparing old and new images also highlights the photo-bombing of these views by the City’s ever-growing plague of office towers.

St Helen, Bishopsgate as it is today

St Ethelburga, Bishopsgate by Charles Flower, c.1904

St Ethelburga, Bishopsgate as it is today.

All Hallows-by-the-Tower, by Charles Flower c.1904

All Hallows-by-the-Tower as it is today

St Olave, Hart Street by Charles Flower c.1904

St Olave, Hart Street as it is today

St Bartholomew-the-Great by Charles Flower c.1904

St Bartholomew-the-Great as it is today

St Magnus-the-Martyr by Charles Flower c.1904

St Magnus-the-Martyr as it is today

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this post, you might like these other pieces on the City of London’s churches:

Poppies and Pepys and Ghastly Grim

Fishwives and Firestarters: a Load of Old Billingsgate

Magnus, the Monument and Mice Eating Cheese

City of London Churches – Digital Sketches

Knives to Grind!

I was sitting quietly at home last weekend when I heard an unusual sound. A man’s voice, quite far away, in a plaintive, sing-song cry. Two rising notes, A, C. A few seconds later it came again, nearer and louder, slightly different words this time but the same two notes.

By this time, I had worked out what it was. An itinerant knife grinder was making his way up my street and every 15 seconds or so he would announce his calling in the ancient way, alternating several stock phrases but always to the same two-note call: “Knives-to-Grind”, “Grind-ing”, “Sharpening-Knives”, “Sharpe-ning”. It was rather beautiful, but haunting. Listen for yourself (it is quite faint to begin with but gets louder after c.30 secs) :

‘Knives to Grind!’

The Knife Grinder has been a presence on London’s streets for hundreds of years, and his cry certainly pre-dates the Civil War. The first pictorial reference I can find, of a grinder with his treadle-operated grindstone, is from 1655, in the splendidly illustrated The Cryes of London with their Severall Notes:

Detail of Knife Grinder from ‘The Cryes of London, with their Severall Notes… (1655) (image courtesy British Museum)

Here are several other later images,

Knives or Cisers to Grind, by Marcellus Laroon, 1688


The Enraged Musician, by William Hogarth 1741

Detail of Knife Grinder from Hogarth’s ‘The Enraged Musician’ 1741

Knives, Scissors and Razors to Grind, by Francis Wheatley, c.1792 (courtesy Bishopsgate Library)

Knives to Grind, by William Marshall Craig 1801

Knives or Scissers to Grind, by Thomas Rowlandson, c.1804

Knives to Grind, by Andrew Tuer 1876 (courtesy Spitalfields Life)

The Knife Grinder

The rich grind the poor, is a saying of old

The merchant, the tradesman, we need not be told

Whether Pagan, Mahometan, Christian you be

There are grinders of all sorts, of ev’ry degree

Master Grinders enough at the helm you may find

Tho’ I’m but a journeyman – Knives to Grind!

(The Myrtle & Vine, or Complete Vocal Library (Vol. II). C. H Wilson, 1803)

If you would like to learn more about the Cries of London, there are many fascinating posts at the Spitalfields Life blog, where you can also obtain The Gentle Author’s Cries of London book on the subject.

The Gentle Author’s Cries of London

Sir Francis Burdett and the Middlesex Elections of 1802-4

In the first decade of the 19th century, Radical politician Sir Francis Burdett played the leading role in a pair of hotly contested and violent parliamentary elections for the county of Middlesex. The events highlighted an ideological gulf – between an appallingly corrupt establishment and an increasingly educated but disenfranchised working class. The great journalist William Cobbett described the resulting riotous events as a battle ‘between the magistrates and the thieves’.

Radicals and Spies

During the early 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, radical societies sprang up across England. Their members agitated for universal suffrage and, in more extreme cases, a revolution of their own. In the London suburbs an increasingly paranoid government backed the astonishingly corrupt Middlesex magistrates to suppress these societies.

The London Corresponding Society (‘LCS’) was foremost among the radical groups. Established in 1792, the LCS attracted over 2,000 members in six months, fed by ideas propagated by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. When war broke out against France in 1793, the Home Office set up an extensive spy network, focussed on high risk areas such as London’s East End.

The Middlesex magistrates, chaired by William Mainwaring, a banker and Tory MP, recruited and controlled the spies. In doing so, Mainwaring encouraged the corrupt antics of his fellow justices including Joseph Merceron, the infamous ‘Boss of Bethnal Green’.

William Mainwaring MP

In 1794, as a result of information received from an East End spy, several prominent LCS radicals, including politician John Horne Tooke, were tried for treason. Weaknesses in the government’s case, however, led to their acquittal.

Over the next couple of years, trade disruption, a severe winter and successive poor harvests resulted in increasing food prices, heightening tensions and civil unrest. Eventually, sparks flew. In the autumn of 1795, a stone-throwing mob shattered King George III’s carriage windows as he travelled to open Parliament. In response, Prime Minister William Pitt launched his own ‘reign of terror’. He introduced laws forbidding public assembly or the publication of ‘seditious writings’. Pitt applied these ‘Gagging Acts’ with increasing severity, while the Home Office spies busied themselves in infiltrating the Radical societies.


In the spring of 1797, several dozen sailors and Radical activists were arrested after mutinies at the naval bases at Spithead and The Nore. Home Secretary the Duke of Portland ordered the men to be imprisoned. They were held without trial at London’s Coldbath Fields Prison, under the somewhat unwilling supervision of Mainwaring, Merceron and their cronies.

The magistrates ignored and even encouraged the abuse these prisoners suffered at the hands of the prison governor, Thomas Aris. But some well-connected prisoners, including the former army officer Colonel Edward Despard, complained to the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett.

Sir Francis Burdett

Burdett was a fifth generation baronet and scion of an ancient Midlands Tory political family. In his early 20s he had married into the spectacular wealth of the Coutts banking dynasty and become the willing protégé of John Horne Tooke.

He was also very close to the Irish revolutionary politician Arthur O’Connor,. This relationship almost resulted in Burdett’s arrest for treason, when O’Connor was caught conniving with the French earlier in 1798. But Burdett remained an MP, with a growing reputation for opposing injustice whenever he encountered it.

Sir Francis Burdett

When Burdett revealed the prisoners’ treatment in Parliament, it led to a national scandal that rocked the Pitt government and severely damaged the credibility of the Middlesex magistrates. The scandal peaked in 1800 when Burdett exposed the case of 13-year-old Mary Rich, a rape victim imprisoned for a month on bread and water pending her testimony at her rapist’s trial.

Sir Francis Burdett visits Coldbath Fields (‘Citizens Visiting the Bastille’ by James Gillray)

The English Bastille

Burdett’s accounts of his visits to the prison, which he repeatedly likened to the Paris Bastille, led an embattled and embarrassed Duke of Portland to ban him from all prisons in England. This led Burdett almost to the point of withdrawing from politics altogether. But in 1802 there came an opportunity for revenge.

When the exhausted Pitt stood down as Prime Minster in 1801, his successor Addington made a temporary peace with France and called a general election. Horne Tooke and his allies saw their chance and persuaded Burdett, backed by all his family wealth, to stand against William Mainwaring in the Middlesex constituency.

Parliamentary elections before the 19th century reform acts were very different to today’s. In each of the 40 county constituencies, two seats were allocated via a franchise typically based on a property qualification worth £2 per year. Seats were rarely contested but occasionally elections produced bitter battles that lasted for days.The large, shifting and radicalised Middlesex electorate had given rise to some of the fiercest contests. In 1768, the ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ election had lasted a week. Now, 34 years later in a battle that took twice as long to resolve, the cry was “Burdett and No Bastille”.

‘Burdett, and no Bastille’

The election was played out at hustings in Brentford. Burdett journeyed there daily from his home in Piccadilly, accompanied by a drunken crowd led by a band and a gang of butchers’ boys banging marrowbones and meat cleavers, the traditional instruments of street processions.

The second day of the election was July 14th, Bastille Day. Burdett made the most of it, his speeches accusing Mainwaring and his magistrate friends of cruelty, torture and murder. A pattern emerged as Burdett, trailing Mainwaring by several hundred votes but refusing to concede, was acclaimed by drunken crowds back to London who pelted Mainwaring’s coach with stones and dirt.

The contest continued like this for a fortnight until, on the penultimate day, a mysterious block of votes from the shareholders of a factory all went to Burdett – not a single one polled for Mainwaring. It was enough to win the seat for Burdett. He was carried back to London in a triumphal procession of 300 carriages waving his purple campaign colours. ,

A protracted dispute arose over the validity of the mysterious block vote that had swung the election.  In the summer of 1804, Parliament ruled Burdett’s election invalid and called a by-election.  Mainwaring was declared ineligible to stand as a result of his excessive ‘treating’ of electors. The Middlesex magistrates now persuaded Mainwaring’s son George to stand in his place against Burdett.

The 1804 election

The 1804 election was almost an exact re-run of the 1802 campaign. Each evening, Burdett reminded the cheering crowd of Mainwaring’s links to corruption and Coldbath Fields. In turn, Mainwaring was drowned out as he denounced Burdett’s friendship with the traitor Despard, executed for treason the previous year.

The race was neck and neck. At the close, three sets of poll books called the result differently. True to form, Burdett repeated his triumphal procession to London but two days later the sheriffs called the result for Mainwaring and it was Burdett’s turn to protest in vain.

Middlesex Election, 1804 by James Gillray


George Mainwaring and his father, together with Joseph Merceron and their corrupt associates, went on to dominate the local government of Middlesex for a further decade until their frauds caught up with them.

Sir Francis Burdett, still sponsored by Horne Tooke, turned his attention to the more radical seat of Westminster following the death of Charles James Fox in 1806, retaining it until after the Reform Act of 1832. By this time, however, his firebrand politics had matured into something more like the mild Toryism of his ancestors.

Julian Woodford’s biography of Joseph Merceron, The Boss of Bethnal Green, is available from Spitalfields Life Books, Amazon or other online booksellers.

An earlier version of this post was published in the London Historians members’ newsletter in December 2016.