Before I start on this blog post, I just want to extend my condolences, and best wishes to the people of France after the recent atrocities in Paris.

Nous sommes unis, nous sommes Paris.


I recently went on a walk lead by David Charnick  ( called Death and the City.  David is a registered City of London tour guide, so I knew that this was going to be a good one, full of blood and gore – it was about some gruesome deaths that had some relationship with the City: deaths that occurred in the City or bodies buried here.

I’m not going to try to replicate David’s tour in this post.  For a start, I couldn’t do it justice, and for a second, I really think, if you can, that you you would enjoy going on these tours.  There is nothing like being there in person, you meet some nice people and get a bit of exercise as well as learning a lot.

We started our tour at St Paul’s underground station, right in the heart of the City.  We were a small but select bunch, which I always prefer (although I understand that it’s better for the tour guide to have a bigger crew!)

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Our first stop was Chris Church Greyfriars, close to St Paul’s.  The original Gothic church was established as part of the monastery in the thirteenth century. It was largely destroyed by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Wren at a cost of £11,778 9s. shillings 7¼d, some of which was raised by the local parishioners.  I believe this was one of Wren’s more expensive rebuilds even though it was smaller than the original church. It went on to become a parish church after the Reformation.  Sadly, not much remains.  The church was subject to severe bomb damage during the Blitz in World War II and was never rebuilt.  The remains are open to the public as garden space, but there are a number of notable people buried in the grounds.

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For me, the most notable of all is Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur, but the Mad Maid of Kent aka Elizabeth Barton and, amongst others, the star of this part of the tour Agnes Hungerford, alleged murderess, are also buried there.  The Mad Maid of Kent was a Catholic nun who was executed because she prophesied that if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn he would die soon after.  She was executed at Tyburn and buried here but her head was put on a spike on London Bridge, apparently the only woman in history to whom that happened.

Next stop, St Paul’s Churchyard.  Nowadays, this is a largely a fairly large paved area but back in the day it was a bit more of a meeting place.  Regular readers will know that I wrote about Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters a couple of weeks ago.  What I didn’t say then was that four of his colleagues, instead of being executed at Tyburn, the usual execution ground, Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Thomas Bates were all hanged, drawn and quartered in here.  I’m not sure why, it was unusual, I suppose it was about making an example of them.

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We moved on from here to the Old Bailey, which stands on the site where Newgate Prison once stood.  The clue is in the title here – Newgate was one of the old City gates, and the original gaol was situated within the gatehouse, presumably to stop the miscreants from entering the City.  The first prison was built here in 1188 under instruction from Henry II.  It underwent a couple of renovations and was then destroyed in the Great Fire.  It will come as no surprise for you to learn that it was enlarged when it was rebuilt.

Newgate Prison was a pretty grim place all round.  As a cost saving exercise, when it had been rebuilt, the authorities started to hold the executions here, rather than going to the expense of transporting the prisoners to Tyburn. (Nothing changes, does it?)  The cells were small and let in very little light; and there was none of this single or two to a cell business, it was cram as many as you could in.  No doubt there were rats and other things that seem to like dark, dank places that I’d really rather not think about…

In the early nineteenth century, the social reformer, Elizabeth Fry, became interested in the conditions there, particularly because of the female prisoners and their children.  In those days, unless the woman had someone who could look after her bairns for her, they went with her to prison.  They didn’t have social services and fostering.  Imagine that: your Mum goes to prison so you do too.  Grim.  Very grim.  Elizabeth’s pleas did not fall on stoney ground.  Improvements were made, but I still rather think it wouldn’t have passed muster in today’s world.

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From here we moved onto Cock Lane for the tale of the Cock Lane Ghost.  The alleged haunting took place at 33 Cock Lane, which is now a very plain looking red brick building, so instead of taking photographs of that, I took the photo above instead: John Royle was the inventor of the world’s first self-pouring teapot in 1886.

Back in mediaeval times, Cock Lane was known as Cokkes Lane, probably because it was full of legal brothels (running a brothel did not become illegal until the Disorderly Houses Act became law in 1751).  Number 25 Cock Lane is said to be the place where the author John Bunyan died in 1688.

Next we moved on a little further to Hosier Lane.  There is nothing particularly remarkable to look at here, but it was interesting in that David told us about the dissections carried out her on behalf of the Royal College of Surgeons.  They rented a house here because rising rents had forced them to move from two other addresses.

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Further along is Smithfield, just by St Bartholomew’s Hospital.  There is a big plaque on the outside of the hospital that marks the site of the execution of William Wallace (aka Mel Gibson.)  The real Wallace was a Scottish knight who was one of the leaders in the Scottish War of Independence.  Amongst others, he defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.  Although he escaped, he was later defeated at the Battle of Falkirk.  He managed to evade capture until 5 August 1305, when he was turned over the English by another Scottish Knight.  He was taken to London, tried for treason and found guilty.  He was taken from Westminster to the Tower.  He was stripped naked and was tied to a horse and dragged through the City to Smithfield, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Smithfield Market was on the way to our next stop, the largest wholesale meat market in the UK.  It’s possible to take a tour of the market, starting at 7am, so you need to be up early!  I have a contact there is anyone is interested in getting really good meat.

Next stop, Charterhouse Square, site of a Carthusian monastery, built near a 14th century plague pit, the largest mass grave from the Black Death.  The Charterhouse itself was dissolved as a monastery in 1537 and some time later was transformed into a mansion house.  Later still, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, was imprisoned here.  He’d been trying to marry Mary, Queen of Scots.  Later, after his release, he was involved in the Ridolfi plot, an attempt to assassinate Elizabeth I and have Mary take the throne. Elizabeth obviously got fed up with his nonsense because he was executed for treason in 1572.

So that is my whistle-stop tour of the Death and the City.

You can also find David’s tours at Footprints of London


© Susan Shirley 2015


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