London’s Women Convicts – a Single to Sydney

Today’s ‘London tales’ post tells how an old trade card found on Ebay led to the story of two women convicts transported to Australia, and contrasts the severity of their punishment with the leniency of that meted out to the subject of my book, ‘The Boss of Bethnal Green’.


An old trade card on Ebay

This story begins with an old trade card I bought on Ebay. Undated, it was issued by ‘John Garton, Hosier, of 97 Cheapside, the Corner of Lawrence Lane’. When the card arrived in the post, I was immediately attracted to its clean typography and the feel of the indented letters, revealing the force with which they were punched into the stiff card, more than 200 years ago. The description, too, is rather lovely, with its proclamation of ‘real Welch Flannels of a curiously fine Texture’. What gobbets of London’s past will it reveal?


Cheapside is one of London’s most ancient highways, occupying the important east-west route from the Bank of England to St Paul’s Cathedral and dominated by Wren’s glorious St Mary-le-Bow. ‘Cheapside’ means ‘by the side of the market place’, and even into Victorian times it was described as ‘the busiest thoroughfare in the world’. For centuries it was known for the clothing trade, with its silk mercers, drapers, haberdashers and hosiers. It is still dominated by clothing retailers, and the Worshipful Company of Mercers has its livery hall on Ironmonger Lane just a few yards away.

St Mary-le-Bow in the 18th century.

St Mary-le-Bow today, as seen from 97 Cheapside

John Lydgate’s 15th century London Lykpenny describes a visit to Cheapside:

Then to the Chepe I began me drawne,

Where mutch people I saw for to stande,

One ofred me velvet, sylke, and lawne,

An other, he taketh me by the hande,

‘Here is Parys threde, the fynest in the lande’;

I never was used to such thyngs indede,

And wantyng mony, I myght not spede.

Cheapside’s dependence on the cloth trades continued. In 1731 Jonathan Swift was calling his friend John Gay, author of The Beggars Opera, ‘as arrant a cockney as any hosier in Cheapside’. By 1794, of approximately 120 shops on the street, some 65 were engaged in drapery or related trades. Among them was John Garton’s, which lay on the north side of the street on the corner of Lawrence Lane, almost directly across the road from St Mary-le-Bow. We have a clear picture of the situation and style of Garton’s shop, as it features in both William Horwood’s map of London (1792-6) and in Tallis’s Street View of 1847.

97 Cheapside, from William Horwood’s map of London 1792-6.

97 Cheapside, from Tallis’s Street View 1847

Stealing Stockings

Thanks to the Old Bailey Online, we can bring John Garton and his little shop to life. On 2nd August 1798, around four-thirty in the afternoon, Garton was upstairs in his storeroom. His shopman was minding the store, and his assistant, Robert White, was at work making stockings on a knitting frame when two teenage girls entered and engaged the shopman in conversation about the price of stockings and gloves. The elder girl, Sarah Lawrence, then asked to examine some flannel and drew the shopman into the light of the window to see it better. Looking up from his frame, White saw the other girl, Mary Smith, grab a handful of silk stockings from the counter and stuff them under her bonnet.

The dutiful White leapt up from his frame and accosted Smith, removing her hat and revealing the stolen goods. The local constable was called and both Lawrence and Smith were arrested. Realising the consequences for the girls, John Garton took pity on them, suggesting to the constable that they be let off with a caution, but the officer insisted on pressing charges and taking the girls away. It transpired that Lawrence was 18 and Smith just 16. The girls were taken to the Poultry Compter, a small nearby prison known for its appalling conditions, and were tried at the Old Bailey six weeks later. Garton and White reported the facts as they had occurred. Despite producing character witnesses, and Lawrence protesting she was Smith’s innocent dupe, both girls were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.

A Single Ticket to Sydney

Transportation to America had ceased following the U.S Declaration of Independence in 1776. British prisons had subsequently become dangerously overcrowded and as a result the government began to transport prisoners to the new colonies in Australia from 1788. Over the next decade, as the colony in Sydney, New South Wales, developed, the imbalance of male to female convicts began to strain the sustainability of the settlement and the decision was made to send occasional all-female shipments.

While waiting for transportation, Lawrence and Smith were almost certainly kept in Newgate Prison. According to William Eden Hooper’s 1935 History of Newgate and the Old Bailey, conditions for the female prisoners were dreadful:

The tried and untried, young girls and abandoned women, were herded together…their babies and children with them… Nearly all the women were heavily ironed…In the two wards and one yard, built to hold about sixty women, there were, in 1817, about three hundred women and children crowded – the former the very scum of the earth; filthy in their habits and disgusting in their persons. 

Eventually after a year a shipment of female convicts to Sydney was arranged on the Speedy, a 300-ton whaler. Sarah Lawrence, now 19, was one of 53 women selected for the journey. (It seems Mary Smith’s sentence was commuted and she avoided transportation*). The women were herded into carts and driven to Portsmouth at the threat of a whipping if they didn’t comply. According to Hooper:

Previous to embarkation for transport, these poor creatures, mad with their griefs and drink, used to riot and smash everything on which they could lay their hands, so that these were lashed behind their backs, and in that condition they were dragged or driven in open vehicles to the waterside amidst the jeers of the populace. 

Aboard the Speedy

The Speedy embarked on 20th November 1799 in convoy with 150 other ships. A journey to the other side of the world was dangerous enough, but with Britain at war with France, this was a perilous journey in the extreme. Luckily for our story, the Speedy had some other passengers, aboard for quite a different reason. As a result, we have some brilliant glimpses of the adventures experienced by Sarah Lawrence and her fellow convicts as they travelled to meet their punishment half a world from London.

The incoming Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, was returning to Australia with his wife Anna after recuperating from illness in England. But within two days of setting sail, the sickly King went down with a cold and rheumatism. Anna King, made of sterner stuff and presumably bored stiff, spent the five-month voyage keeping a diary, redolent of a Patrick O’Brian novel, that paints a fascinating picture of shipboard life with 22 rough sailors, 8 other passengers and 50 convict women while her pathetic and gouty husband, intermittently bedridden, complained variously of pains in his head, stomach, knees, elbow, hip, hands and feet.


Anna Josepha King

A fortnight out of Portsmouth, Mrs King awakes to discover the Speedy has lost its convoy in the night and is alone on its journey. From that point, every sail on the horizon is a potential enemy ship that can sink or capture them. But the redoubtable Anna King soldiers on with her task, recording the minutiae of life despite storms which break her cabin windows, sever the mizzen mast and leave the convicts swilling in water ‘liked drowned rats’. One tempest carries away railings, water casks, a boat crane and, to the Governor’s dismay, ‘Mr King’s tin bath’. On another occasion Anna herself identifies a fire in the hold which luckily is extinguished before it can destroy the ship.

Scotch Fiddle

Anna King is an interested observer of the convict women, noting the illnesses they suffer, notably ‘the Scotch fiddle’ (scabies) and heavy seasickness, and for a time has to stand in for the temporarily insane ship’s doctor. On Christmas day, ‘the ladies’ are reported as ‘all very happy’ and are allowed to dance on deck for a couple of hours. Perhaps predictably, this results in a convict being caught in flagrante with one of the cabin boys. The punishment for this is for both parties to be forcibly held under the water pump – following which the woman throws herself overboard in desperation, but luckily is rescued before she can drown, and is returned to her senses by the application of an emetic consisting of three teaspoons of black pepper in a glass of red wine – ‘a most powerful medicine’, as Mrs King records.

The diary highlights the perils of illness and disease aboard ship and the vagaries of food supplies. Mrs King makes much of the deaths of sheep, pigs and chickens. She suffers a peculiar adventure of her own, when one lunchtime she raises a glass of port to her lips just as a fat and clumsy goose falls straight through the skylight above and onto her head ‘with one foot in my glass – away went porter, glass and all’.  During the voyage two of the convicts, a child and another passenger die from a variety of illnesses or from falling overboard in rough weather. One, a Mrs Butler, becomes insane for several days before dying off Trinidad and the convict women claim to be tormented by her ghost for days afterwards.

After all these adventures, the Speedy arrived in Sydney on 13th April 1800. What happened to the convict women after they arrived in Australia? Later shipments were taken to the infamous ‘Female Factory’, a workhouse-cum-prison in Parramatta on the edge of the colony, but in these early years it seems most women became servants to the officers or other settlers. At this point, Sarah Lawrence disappears from history and I have been unable to learn whether she survived her sentence, or if she ever returned to London at the end of it.


The convict settlement in Sydney, c.1800.


A pair of convicts in Australia, c.1800.

As I contemplate the enormity of Sarah’s seven year stretch at the world’s end, just for stealing four pairs of stockings, I can only contrast it with the leniency of the sentence passed 20 years later on the ‘Godfather’ of Regency London, Joseph Merceron, the subject of my book  The Boss of Bethnal GreenConvicted for stealing £1,000 (no small amount in those days) from the poor of Bethnal Green, and for the corrupt licensing as a magistrate of public houses that he owned and ran as gin palaces and brothels, Merceron received just a two-year sentence which he spent in relative comfort in a London prison. Cases against him for a large number of other offences never reached court. It really did not pay to be poor in Georgian London.


* An earlier version of this post was published on the Spitalfields Life blog on 2nd November 2016. When I wrote it, I had been unable to find any trace of Mary Smith after her trial and wrote that I assumed she had died in Newgate. Within a few hours of posting, the team from the Old Bailey Online contacted me to say they had found the Criminal Register entries for both Sarah Lawrence and Mary Smith!


Criminal Register entry for Mary Smith (click to see larger version of image)

The registers tell us that Mary was 5 feet 2 inches tall, born in Whitechapel, with dark complexion and that she was transferred out of Newgate in September 1800 – to where, we do not know. Sarah Lawrence was just four feet ten inches tall, born in the City of London and of fair complexion. Many thanks to Sharon Howard of the Old Bailey Online & London Lives projects at the University of Sheffield for supplying this information.

Five Cockney Poets

(clockwise from top left): Milton, Pope, Hood, Keats, Gray

Was it something in the water? Wandering around the City of London’s Square Mile I have been surprised to learn that five of England’s greatest poets were born here, within a few hundred yards of each other, in a concentration of poetic genius I would hazard is not surpassed anywhere else in the world.

The lives of the five: John Milton, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, John Keats and Thomas Hood, occupied a key period of about 250 years of London’s history from 1600 to 1850. Their poetic styles were very different, and none of them, except perhaps Hood, is remembered particularly as a London writer, but I thought it would be interesting to find out what they had to say about their home city. 

John Milton 

John Milton (source: Wikipedia)

In 1608, John Milton was born an unquestioned Cockney, in Bread Street just three houses south of Cheapside and the bells of St Mary-le-Bow. 


 He lived there for three decades and, with a few brief exceptions, spent nearly all of his life in or very near London.  His fame in his own lifetime was such that he became a tourist magnet: 

Foreigners came much to see him, and much admired him, and offer’d to him great perfermets to come over to them; and the only inducement of severall foreingers that came over into England, was chiefly to see Oliver Protector, and Mr. John Milton; and would see the hous and chamber wher he was borne. 

Because Milton’s popular reputation is so heavily geared to Paradise Lost and other biblical poems he is not usually thought of as a London writer. But it is possible to find references here and there. In an early letter to a friend, Milton extols the beauty of London women:  

Surrender, you maidens of Greece and of Troy and of Rome…The first prize goes to the British girls. Be content, foreign woman, to take second place! And you, London, a city built by Trojan settlers, a city whose towery head can be seen for miles, you are more than fortunate for you enclose within your walls whatever beauty is to be found in all this pendant world. 

…and, later in the same work:

Sometimes the city promenades provided me with entertainment, sometimes the countryside near the outlying houses. A crowd of girls, with faces just like goddesses, go to and fro along the walks, resplendently beautiful… Heedless, I let my eyes meet theirs: I was unable to keep my eyes in check. Then, by chance, I caught sight of one girl who was far more beautiful than all the rest: that radiance was the beginning of my downfall.  

Later in his career, in Areopagitica, Milton presents London, which then had the most active publishing industry in the world, as the city of ideas: 

Behold now this vast City; a City of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice in defense of beleaguer’d Truth, then there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and idea’s, wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. 

Alexander Pope 

Alexander Pope (source: Wikipedia)

14 years after Milton’s death, in 1688 Alexander Pope was born in a house in Plough Court, off Lombard Street.



Pope’s birthplace in Plough Court


Pope was less polite about London’s women than Milton had been: 

A Farewell to London in the year 1715

DEAR, damn’d, distracting town, farewell!

Thy fools no more I’ll tease:  

This year in peace, ye Critics, dwell, 

Ye Harlots, sleep at ease! 

Thomas Gray


Thomas Gray (source : Wikipedia)


In 1716, when Pope had recently completed The Rape of the Lock, Thomas Gray was born, just yards away from Pope’s birthplace in a house on Cornhill. 


Gray, who settled as an academic in Cambridge after leaving Eton, wrote little about London. But his works, published in 1807, connect him closely with the next poet on my list. Gray’s publisher was the firm of Vernor, Hood & Sharpe of 31, Poultry whose managing partner, Thomas Hood, was the father of the poet, born there in 1799. 

1807 edition of Gray’s works, published by Hood’s father



Thomas Hood 

Thomas Hood (source: Wikipedia)

 Thomas Hood was a prolific London writer, whose works touch on many subjects topical to Londoners of his day. He wrote of bodysnatchers, the ‘resurrection men’ who would disinter corpses to sell to trainee surgeons:

Don’t go to weep upon my grave 

And think that there I be. 

They haven’t left an atom there 

Of my anatomie. 

Hood also wrote famously of London’s dismal Autumn weather:

No sun – no moon! 

No morn – no noon – 

No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day. 

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease, 

No comfortable feel in any member – 

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, 

No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds  


He wrote of working Londoners’ poverty in the slums: 

With fingers weary and worn, 

With eyelids heavy and red,

A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,

Plying her needle and thread– 

Stitch! stitch! stitch! 

In poverty, hunger, and dirt, 

And still with a voice of dolorous pitch 

She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

“Work! work! work!

While the cock is crowing aloof!

And work—work—work,

Till the stars shine through the roof!

It’s Oh! to be a slave

Along with the barbarous Turk,

Where woman has never a soul to save,

If this is Christian work!”

Finally, Hood’s Sonnet to Vauxhall is a lovely comedy upon the impact of a Victorian fireworks display:

The cold transparent ham is on my fork – 

It hardly rains – and hark the bell! – ding-dingle –  

Away! Three thousand feet at gravel work, 

Mocking a Vauxhall shower! – Married and Single 

Crush – rush; – Soak’d Silks with wet white Satin mingle. 

Hengler! Madame! round whom all bright sparks lurk 

Calls audibly on Mr. and Mrs. Pringle 

To study the Sublime, &c.- (vide Burke)

All Noses are upturn’d!  Whish-ish! On high 

The rocket rushes – trails – just steals in sight 

Then droops and melts in bubbles of blue light 

And Darkness reigns – Then balls flare up and die 

Wheels whiz – smack crackers – serpents twist – and then 

Back to the cold transparent ham again!


John Keats  

John Keats (source: Wikipedia)



By coincidence John Keats, born in Moorgate in 1795, also wrote a Sonnet about Vauxhall but encountered fireworks of an altogether more sensual kind: 

Sonnet. To A Lady Seen For A Few Moments At Vauxhall 

Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb, 

Long hours have to and fro let creep the sand, 

Since I was tangled in thy beauty’s web, 

And snared by the ungloving of thine hand. 

And yet I never look on midnight sky, 

But I behold thine eyes’ well memory’d light; 

I cannot look upon the rose’s dye, 

But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight. 

I cannot look on any budding flower, 

But my fond ear, in fancy at thy lips 

And hearkening for a love-sound, doth devour 

Its sweets in the wrong sense: — Thou dost eclipse 

Every delight with sweet remembering,

And grief unto my darling joys dost bring.

Of course, there are a great many poets who have written about London, but I haven’t been able to find any others who were definitively born in the City of London itself. If you know of any, or of other unusual concentrations of poetic birthplaces, please do let me know!

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!