The Panyer Boy of St Paul’s | What is the story behind this 17th century relic?
Just a few feet from an entrance to St Paul’s tube station stands an old relic of London.
Aside from St Paul’s Cathedral, there isn’t much left in the City of London from the 16th and 17th century. Wars, fires and redevelopment have dramatically changed the architecture and even road layouts of the original Square Mile. With large-scale buildings being completely wiped from existence over the years, it’s impressive when a small piece of London’s heritage manages to survive.
The Panyer Boy is an ancient plaque in Panyer Alley, near the entrance to St Paul’s tube station. It depicts a naked child – likely a baker boy – sitting on a bread basket. Underneath the cherubic boy, are the words: “When ye have sought the City Round. Yet still this is the highest ground. August 27th 1688.” The quote is by English historian John Stow (1524/5-1605) and dates from 1598 – nearly a century earlier than the date below on the plaque. “This is the higher ground” refers to the long-held belief that Ludgate Hill was the highest hill in the City of London, however it’s actually Cornhill, which currently stands at 58ft (17.7metres) above sea level.
Despite the date stamp of the late 17th century, the mystery of the origins and original location of the Panyer Boy still continues. This stone effigy has been remounted from building to building as the surrounding environment has changed around him. Panyer Alley has existed for centuries and takes its name from ‘pannier’ – the basket or box from which the young baker boys would sell bread. Pannier is an Old English term deriving from the old French word ‘panier’. Some historians have speculated Panyer Alley was named after The Panyer inn, which stood nearby on Paternoster Row until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The carving of the child has somewhat eroded over time, making it even harder to work out what’s actually going on in the carving. Is the child holding a bunch of grapes or a loaf of bread? Stow certainly believed he was holding the fruit as he wrote in his Survey of London: “…a boy fitting upon it, with a bunch of grapes as it seems to be, held between his naked foot and hand, perhaps of Plenty…” This part of the City of London was known for its bakers, with nearby Bread Street the location of the capital’s bread market from Medieval times.
Despite buildings coming and going, the Panyer Boy always stayed in the vicinity of the alley on some structure or another. Here’s a 1800 sketch of the plaque from the London Metropolitan Archives. By the 19th century, it was mounted on a warehouse in Panyer Alley, which was demolished in the early 20th century to make way for Farrow’s Bank. The bank’s owner, Thomas Farrow (1862-1934) was a huge fan of the boy and had it placed into the wall of his establishment, protected behind glass. It later became the bank’s mascot, but didn’t prove too lucky as the bank went bust in 1920 and Farrow was jailed for fraud the following year.
Farrow’s bank was soon demolished to make way for the new entrance to St Paul’s tube station so the Panyer Boy was taken for safe-keeping by the Vintner’s Company. It was eventually restored to Panyer Alley in 1939, before swiftly being removed again during World War II. Finally, it returned in 1964, when the boy was situated on a new building by steps leading up to Paternoster Square. The building was rebuilt in the 1990s when the Square was redeveloped and the steps removed.
- Panyer Alley, City of London, EC4M. Nearest station: St Paul’s.
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