Fishwives and Firestarters: a load of old Billingsgate

(A City of London Steeplechase, part 2)

This is my second ‘City of London Steeplechase’, a series of virtual guided walks that take in all 100 or so of the City of London’s churches, past and present, one Ward at a time. Having begun with the Tower Ward, moving clockwise to the west along the Thames our next stop is Billingsgate Ward.

Billingsgate is a small, broadly rectangular plot of land situated between London Bridge and the Tower of London. It comprises four ancient lanes (Pudding Lane, Botolph Lane, Lovat Lane and St. Mary-at-Hill) that run northwards in parallel up a up a steep slope from the Thames as far as Eastcheap. The lanes are bisected by a number of smaller lanes and alleys running east-west, forming a rough grid pattern as shown in the maps below, from Strype’s edition of Stow’s Survey of London in 1720 and John Rocque’s map of 1746. The ward originally had five parish churches, all of which were destroyed or at least seriously damaged in the Great Fire. Three were rebuilt by Wren and two, St Margaret Pattens and St Mary-at-Hill, survive today among the City’s finest.

Billingsgate Ward from Strype, 1720


Billingsgate Ward from Rocque, 1746

Our walk begins at Monument Underground station. Leaving the station into Fish Street Hill, turn left up the hill and immediately right along Eastcheap and then right again into Pudding Lane.

As every schoolchild knows, Pudding Lane is where the Great Fire of London was started, shortly after midnight on Sunday, 2 September 1666. The exact site of the start of the fire is down at the bottom of the lane, and we’ll visit it later on in our walk. Our first destination, however, is the site of St George, Botolph Lane, one of the 15 or so Wren churches that have disappeared from London’s skyline. There is very little sign of St George’s now – not even a blue plaque – but if you look carefully as you walk down Pudding Lane to St.George’s Lane you should see an iron parish boundary marker set low down on a wall on the left hand side.

St George Botolph Lane boundary mark, Pudding Lane

Turn left into St.George’s Lane. An unprepossessing view, lined with ugly office blocks, compares poorly with what one would have seen until 1904 when St.George’s was demolished.

View east down St George’s Lane, 2015


View east down St George’s Lane before 1904


Doorway of St George Botolph Lane, St George’s Lane, shortly before demolition in 1904

At the end of St George’s Lane, cross over Botolph Lane and continue through the narrow passageway into Botolph Alley.

Half way down Botolph Alley look up on the left hand side for another parish boundary mark for St. George Botolph Lane. Notice how close you are to the tower of St Mary-at-Hill in front of you at the end of the alley – a great demonstration of how small the City’s medieval parishes were!

Parish boundary mark for St George Botolph Lane in Botolph Alley


View east along Botolph Alley to St Mary-at-Hill church (note parish boundary mark bottom left)

St Mary-at-Hill is one of the City’s lesser-known beauties. Probably originally built in the C12th, it was severely damaged but not destroyed in the Great Fire and Wren’s rebuilding made use of much of the previous structure including the north and south walls. The church escaped serious damage in the Blitz but sadly much of its fine internal furniture was damaged in a major fire in 1988 and remains in storage.

Enter through the west door from Lovat Lane and take a look round the vestibule. On your left high on the wall is a monument to one Isaac Millner – this is a relic from St George Botolph Lane, rescued when that church was demolished.

Vestibule of St Mary-at-Hill (monument from St George Botolph Lane)

Below it is a real gem: a large carved stone tablet known as a ‘Resurrection Panel’ depicting the Last Judgement. It is believed to date from the 1670s and is one of four known such works in London.

Resurrection Panel in St Mary-at-Hill vestibule


Resurrection Panel in St Mary-at-Hill (detail)

The scene is from Revelation 20.13: The sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and Hell gave up the dead which were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. At the top, Christ stands triumphant with his banner, trampling Satan, while angels appear from the clouds blowing trumpets to awaken the dead. Below, coffins spew out their awakened dead. St Michael helps up one figure and guides him towards Heaven to the left and away from the gaping jaws of Hell to the right.

Note also in the vestibule some attractive wooden panelling, dated 1672 with the carved names of the churchwardens of the time.

Panellling in St Mary-at-Hill vestibule (1672)

Inside the church all is surprisingly bare apart from the beautiful domed ceiling and the organ. This is a reflection of the 1988 fire (see below); thankfully the splendid 1848 organ, considered to be one of London’s finest, has been restored to its former glory.

St Mary-at-Hill after the fire of 1988


The dome of St Mary-at-Hill


St Mary-at-Hill, east end and dome


St Mary-at-Hill, organ

Leave the church and turn right up Lovat Lane. On this narrow cobbled hill, it is easy to forget that you are in the middle of the City.

St Mary-at-Hill from Lovat Lane


Gaudi-esque windows on Lovat Lane


Old anchor sign on Lovat Lane


Old sign on Lovat Lane


Corner of Lovat Lane and Eastcheap

At the top of Lovat Lane, cross Eastcheap and turn to look back. No.16 Eastcheap, occupying the block between Botolph Lane and Lovat Lane, is the site of another disappeared church, that of St Andrew Hubbard. This church, which was destroyed in the Great Fire, has left even fewer traces than St.George Botolph. A blue plaque that adorned the site has gone, and the only signs I know of are two parish boundary markers in nearby Philpot Lane and Talbot Court.

16 Eastcheap, site of St Andrew Hubbard


Parish boundary mark for St Andrew Hubbard

Now continue eastwards along the north side of Eastcheap until you reach the next turning on the left where you will find the church of St Margaret Pattens, with its pretty little paved courtyard faced with some attractive old shop buildings.

St Margaret Pattens is first recorded as early as 1067 as a small wooden building, which was replaced in stone in the early medieval period and rebuilt again in 1538. Destroyed in the Great Fire, the church was rebuilt by Wren and completed, with its lead-covered timber spire (the only such Wren structure remaining in London) in 1702.

St Margaret Pattens with Walkie-Talkie


Round windows, St Margaret Pattens


Doorcase, St Margaret Pattens


Old shop premises, Eastcheap

Beautiful on the outside, the interior is also well worth a long look. In the vestibule is a small museum to the worshipful companies of pattenmakers and basketmakers. Among the glories inside the church are a particularly fine set  of Royal Arms (Charles II); a rare pair of canopied churchwardens’ pews (one for the church of St Gabriel Fenchurch destroyed in the Great Fire and subsumed into St Margaret’s parish); and a couple of fine sword rests. Set in the floor is a tablet to Gordon Huelin (1919-1997), former Guild Vicar of St Margarets and author of ‘Vanished Churches of the City of London‘, one of my main sources for this series of posts!

Organ and Royal Arms, St Margaret Pattens


Royal Arms, St Margaret Pattens (detail of lion)


Royal Arms, St Margaret Pattens (detail of unicorn)


Monument, St Margaret Pattens


Sword Rest, St Margaret Pattens


Exquisite carving, St Margaret Pattens


Stained Glass (Pattenmakers’ Company), St Margaret Pattens


Stained Glass (Basketmakers’ Company), St Margaret Pattens


Stine tablet to Gordon Huelin, St Margaret Pattens


Gordon Huelin


Vanished Churches of the City of London

Re-cross Eastcheap and head down St Mary-at-Hill, pausing to admire the view both down the hill, with the Shard dominant, and back up the hill to St Margaret’s. Passing down on the right you will come to the east end of St Mary’s with its lovely protruding clock, at which point you may struggle to reconcile that west and east faces are indeed of the same church, with the classical and stuccoed east end in sharp contrast to the brick tower and west face. Note also the lead rainwater pipes and the doorcase with skull & crossbones motif.

View of the Shard down St Mary-at-Hill


View of St Margaret Pattens past the St Mary-at-Hill clock


St Mary-at-Hill, clock


St Mary-at-Hill, east front


Skull & bones doorcase, St Mary-at-Hill


Skull & bones doorcase, St Mary-at-Hill (detail)


The Walkie-Talkie and St Mary-at-Hill

It is worth a brief diversion down the alleyway leading to the tiny churchyard with its pile of broken gravestones and the Victorian sign announcing the closure of the ground to further burials.

Churchyard of St Mary-at-Hill


Sign on north wall of St Mary-at-Hill


North porch of St Mary-at-Hill

Towards the bottom of the hill on the right you will see an attractive Georgian building. This is Watermens’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Watermen and the only surviving Georgian livery hall in London.

Watermens’ Hall, St Mary-at-Hill


Watermens’ Hall


A Thames Waterman , wearing Doggett’s Coat & Badge

At the bottom of the hill, you will find yourself at the end of Monument Street looking up to the Monument on your right and with the former Billingsgate Market, with its distinctive Britannia statue on the roof, facing you across the busy traffic of Lower Thames Street. On this corner to your left was another wonder of London architecture that is sadly no longer with us: the old Coal Exchange. Built in 1849 in cast iron, one of the first buildings so structured, it was later described as ‘the prime city monument of the early Victorian period’ and ‘a landmark in the history of early iron construction’. Despite protests, it was demolished in 1962 to enable the widening of Lower Thames Street. Cast iron dragons which were mounted on the parapet above the entrance were preserved and were erected as boundary marks in Temple Gardens on Victoria Embankment.

Old Billingsgate, with Shard behind


Billingsgate, early morning


Britannia statue on roof of Old Billingsgate


Model for former Coal Exchange

If time permits it is worth a detour here across Lower Thames Street to explore the riverside frontage of the former Billingsgate fish market. This is the site of an ancient watergate of the City: the name Billingsgate is first recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ (c.1136) as the work of one Belinus, an Iron Age king in c.400BC:

In the town of Trinovantum [London] Belinus caused to be constructed a gateway of extraordinary workmanship, which in his time the citizens called Billingsgate, from his own name. … Finally, when his last day dawned and carried him away from this life, his body was cremated and the ash enclosed in a golden urn. This urn the citizens placed with extraordinary skill on the very top of the tower in Trinovantum which I have described.

Writing in 1603, Stow described Billingsgate as a busy waterside community with the quaysides thronged with all shapes and sizes of boats unloading fish, salt, oranges, onions, corn, sea coal and ale, ‘for service of the Citie, and the parts of this Realme adjoyning’. The quay had had rights to charge ships for docking since the reign of Edward III and a permanent fish market was established in 1699.

The present buildings were designed by Horace Jones in 1875 and sensitively renovated by Richard Rogers following the fish market’s relocation to Canary Wharf in 1982. It is now an entertainment and business venue, with no trace left of the chaos and noise of lorries and barrows packed with fish that were the hallmark of this area for centuries. During this time Billingsgate became synonymous for profanity and offensive language, together with the raucous street cries of the fish sellers. Writing in 1861 Henry Mayhew described the scene:

The wooden barn-looking square where the fish is sold, is soon after six o’clock crowded with shiny cord jackets and greasy caps. Everybody comes to Billingsgate in his worst clothes, and no-one knows the length of time a coat can be worn until they have been to a fish sale…over the hum of voices is heard the shouts of the salesmen who…stand on their tables, roaring out their prices…all are bawling together…till the place is a perfect Babel of competition. “Ha-a-ansome cod! best in the market! All alive! alive! alive O!” “Ye-o-o! Ye-o-o! here’s your fine Yarmouth bloaters!” …and much more.

Former Billingsgate market, south view.


Former Billingsgate market, dolphin weathervanes


Dolphin weathervane, old Billingsgate


Billingsgate porters at work looking up St Mary-at-Hill

When you have tired of Billingsgate, cross back over Lower Thames Street and head back up Monument Street towards the Monument. Stop to admire the view back up Lovat Lane:

The view back up Lovat Lane from Monument Street

At the corner of Botolph Lane on the right you will see some iron gates barring entry to what looks like a tiny garden, bearing a sign ‘One Tree Park’ (there are two!). This miserable-looking piece of ground is the only visible remnant of our last parish church for today: part of the burial ground of St Botolph Billingsgate. There were four City churches dedicated to St Botolph, a C7th English abbot who is a patron saint of travellers. These churches were sited at main entrances to the City at the four main compass points: St Botolph Aldgate to the east, St Botolph Bishopsgate to the north, St Botolph Aldersgate to the west and St Botolph Billingsgate to the south. Of the church itself there are no visible remains, though various elements have been found during archaeological excavations around the Billingsgate site.

One Tree Park

Patterned wall of St Botolph Billingsgate, uncovered during excavations at Billingsgate Lorry Park

Continue up Monument Street and turn right up Pudding Lane to return to Monument tube. As you round the corner past Faryners House, try not to miss the small and rather scruffy sign that marks the site of Thomas Faryner’s bakery where the Great Fire began.

Faryners House, Monument Street


Sign on Faryners House marking the start of the Great Fire of London in 1666

As the Museum of London puts it:

At 1am on Sunday 2 September Thomas and his family were woken by smoke. The household escaped through a window to the roof of a neighbour and raised the alarm. Thomas later said that as he had left he could see that the fire had not started near his oven. He also insisted he had extinguished the fire before going to bed and that no window or door had been open so a draught could not have re-lit the fires. He did admit that some wood had been left next to the ovens so it would be dry in the morning. Amazingly he seems to have escaped blame and returned to baking after the fire. It is now accepted that a spark or ember from his oven was probably responsible.

The rest, as they say, is history.

That completes our second City of London steeplechase!

If you have enjoyed this, I have compiled a separate Storify page here with links to relevant videos, articles and blog posts by other writers that bring further life to this part of the City of London. These include several clips on Billingsgate Market, with old footage of the market porters, some pieces about Billingsgate profanity, and (by way of contrast!) a lovely choral interlude filmed in St Mary-at-Hill. Hope you like it!

7 thoughts on “Fishwives and Firestarters: a load of old Billingsgate

  1. Fantastic article. Thank you. Have you visited the site of the Roman baths underneath the old Coal exchange building in Lower Thames St? Not open to the public except open house weekend or by arrangement with Museum of London. Well worth it.

  2. Can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d started the Great Fire of London or some other equivalent catastrophe. My husband has told me off for leaving my electric blanket on and I have burned the occasional thing by accident on the hotplate but I can’t even imagine starting that fire.
    We have just had actor Johnny Depp bring two American dogs into Australia by-passing quarantine, which could spark an equivalent or great environmental disaster. I am “not amused” with Mr Depp at the moment!!

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