Why Blackfriars is called Blackfriars and the pre-railway history of the area.
Blackfriars is an area by the southern fringes of the City of London, familiar to many City workers. Now dominated by office blocks, the district used to be a hub for religion and entertainment. Until the early 13th century, the area was home to Norman fortresses Mountfiquet Castle and the original Baynard’s Castle. Mountfiquet was likely named after the Baron of Mountfichet (of the Stansted Mountfichets in Essex), while Baynard’s was built by Ralph Baynard (a sheriff of Essex). Both castles were demolished by King John (1166-1216) in 1213 after their then-residents Robert Montfichet and Robert Fitzwalter took part in the barons’ revolt against the monarchy the previous year.
The name Blackfriars dates back to the 13th century when Dominican Friars established a priory on the site. The Friars first came to the capital in 1221 and established their first London monastery on the outskirts of the City near Lincoln’s Inn at Holborn. However, in 1276 they obtained permission from King Edward I (1239-1307) to move to the area we now know as Blackfriars. The King approved the levelling of the remains of Mountfiquet and Baynard Castle and the demolishing and rebuilding of the Roman City walls to incorporate their priory in 1282. The plot covered around 8 acres and incorporated the main church, a tower and five chapels (the Virgin chapel, a Lady chapel, St John the Baptist chapel, a pardon chapel and the Chapel of St Ann). The name Blackfriars started being used around 1317 to describe the Friars, who were recognised by their black cappas. The City also included Grey Friars (Franciscan), Austin Friars, Crutched Friars, White Friars (Carmelites), and the Holy Trinity and St Helens Priory priories. In 1322, the Blackfriars was the scene of tragedy when a large number of impoverished Londoners were crushed to death in a rush to beg for food and money at the gates.
The story of how a Tudor façade stayed hidden until World War I.
Thanks to the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, there aren’t many buildings left in the City of London dating back to before the mid 17th century. However, thanks to a stroke of luck – namely a Georgian Londoner who cared little for Tudor architecture – one historic piece of London dating back to the 13th and 16th century still survives today.
Situated on West Smithfield, a stone’s thrown from the historic St Bart’s Hospital, is the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Sandwiched between a French restaurant and a red brick Georgian-style structure, the narrow gatehouse comprises of a 13th century arch, topped by a two-storey, 16th century Tudor building. The name St Bartholomew’s comes from the nearby church St Bartholomew-The-Great, which was formerly an Augustinian Priory, founded by Rahere (d.1134) in 1123 (Rahere is buried in the church). When King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a lot of St Bartholomew’s was demolished in 1539, including the nave, although the Norman crossing and choir still remain today. The original Priory church measured a whopping 300 feet by 86 feet.
Also surviving is part of the west doorway into the southern aisle of the church, an archway dating back to the 13th century. Following the dissolution, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich (1496/7-1567) bought the church and surrounding land in 1546/47, sub-dividing it for housing. In 1595, a Tudor, timber-framed building was added by William or Philip Scudamore. The simple, narrow structure features two-storeys with a small attic above. Under the first floor window is a coat of arms. In between the two windows on the second floor is a statue of St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles, who the Priory and adjoining hospital were named after.
Miraculously, the gatehouse managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 due to the protection of the priory walls. The fire actually ended just a three-minute walk away on Giltspur Street and is commemorated by the Golden Boy of Pye Corner. At some point in the 18th century, whoever owned the gatehouse didn’t care much for its ‘old-fashioned’, Tudor façade so it was given a Georgian makeover and was used as a shop for two centuries. (Check out a London Metropolitan Archive of the building in 1912, with the Georgian façade covering the Tudor building).
Finally, in 1916, it was the destructive act of war that ended up uncovering the building’s original design. A nearby German Zeppelin bomb raid caused damage to the Georgian shop front, revealing the Tudor origins underneath and exposing more of the 13th century stonework from the original nave. Following the end of World War I, it was fully restored by 1932 and is now Grade-II listed. If you walk through the arch and turn right to see the doorway leading into the building, you will see ‘1240’ and ‘1932’ inscribed in the stonework – commemorating the year of the arch’s construction and restoration. The interior of the building includes bolection panelling from around 1700, with original panelling dating back to 1595 in the attic. When the building was restored in the 1930s, it was dedicated the memory of architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), his brother Edward Alfred Webb (former churchwarden of St Bart’s) and Frederick L Dove, ‘who worked together on the restoration of the fabric of the church for over forty years’. A plaque to mark their work and the Webbs’ coat of arms has been erected within the gate.
Today, the gatehouse is a private building, but served as the rectory for the church for many years. Between 1948 and 1979, the then-rector’s wife Phyllis Wallbank MBE (1918-2020) set up and ran the Gatehouse School, an independent Montessori school. Obviously due to the size, the building couldn’t educate too many students and it eventually moved to a larger site in Bethnal Green, east London, in the 1970s. Today, the surviving church of St Bartholomew-The-Great is the oldest Parish church in London.
- St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, West Smithfield, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest stations: Barbican or Farringdon. The Gatehouse is not open to the public, but can be admired from the outside. For more information about St Bartholomew-The-Great church, visit their official website.
Read more about the history of Smithfield
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Find out about the huge monument in the forecourt of Charing Cross station.
Charing Cross lends its name to one of London’s busiest overland stations, seeing over 37 million people passing through every year. However, a majority of those who pass through Charing Cross probably have no idea what the station is named after. In the forecourt of the 19th century station stands a Victorian replica of the Eleanor Cross, of which the original stood on the edge of the hamlet of Charing from the 13th century.
After years of passing by the Eleanor Cross and admiring the ornate carvings, I decided to find out the history behind it. I had long heard of Charing Cross as being referred to as the centre of London and was interested to find out how this came about with the area being located west of the original City of London.
The original Eleanor Cross was erected on the junction of Whitehall with Trafalgar Square – where the statue of Charles I on a horse stands today. The cross was commissioned by King Edward I (1239-1307) in the 13th century as a memorial to his wife Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290). The Charing Cross was one of 12 erected to mark the nightly resting places her body stopped on its way from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey. The Cross was placed where the hamlet of Charing – believed to have come from the Anglo-Saxon word for bend – ‘cierring’ (referring to the nearby bend in the River Thames) met the Royal Mews of the Palace of Whitehall. Out of all 12 Eleanor Crosses, the one at Charing was the most expensive and was created by senior royal mason Richard of Crundale and sculptor Alexander of Abingdon.
For over 350 years, the Eleanor Cross stood at the top of Whitehall until the Civil War. In 1647 it was destroyed on the orders of Parliament, and nearly 30 years later, replaced by the equestrian statue of Charles I during the restoration. Since the late 19th century, Charing Cross has been seen as the centre of London and it’s from this point of Charles’s statue where distances from the capital are measured.
With the Industrial Revolution transforming the city, the name Charing Cross was to be used again to name the railway station being built on the site of the Hungerford Market – which had been there since the late 16th century. In the forecourt of the station and its adjoining Charing Cross Hotel, it was decided by the South Eastern Railway company that the Eleanor Cross should rise again.
Architect Edward Middleton Barry (1830-1880), who had also designed the hotel and the Royal Opera House, designed the reconstruction. Built by Thomas Earp of Lambeth with Portland stone, Mansfield stone and Aberdeen granite, it was a much more elaborate and ornate design than the original. Standing at 70 feet (21 metres) high, it consists of three stages on an octagonal plan, topped by a spire and cross. The first stage features shields copied from the other Eleanor Crosses and bear the arms of England, Castile, Leon and Ponthieu. The next level features likenesses of Eleanor of Castile. It was finished in 1865 – a year after Charing Cross station opened.
Over the decades, the Eleanor Cross started to suffer a bit from the weather and general ageing. After being designated a Grade II listed monument in 1970, it was put on the English Heritage At Risk Register in 2008. During its restoration in 2009-2010, over 100 missing ornamental features were recreated, with existing ones being re-attached or secured. Let’s hope this Victorian piece of architecture survives as long the original Eleanor Cross, if not longer.
To read about the history of nearby Great Scotland Yard, click here
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