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London pride | Celebrating the capital’s women of World War II for VE Day 75

Discover the stories of the London women of the Second World War

This May marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Moving the Bank Holiday from the usual Monday to Friday 8 May 2020, we will commemorate the end of World War II. Today, there aren’t many alive who remember the war, so it’s important to keep the stories of heroism and sacrifice alive so we’re always reminded to never get in another conflict like this again.

While it was predominantly men on the battlefield and leading the government during the war, women paid vitally important roles in WWII, both on the home front and abroad.

To mark VE Day, let’s look back at some of London’s women who made great contributions to the war effort.

  • Dame Doris Winifred Beale, DBE, RRC & Bar (1889-1971)

Born in Forest Hill, south London, Dame Doris grew up to become a military nurse. During the war, she served as Matron-in-Chief of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service from 1941-1944. She was made a Dame in the 1944 Birthday Honours. She is also believed to have died in her home district of Forest Hill at 84 London Road.

  • Faith Bennett (1903-1969)

Born Margaret Ellen Riddick in East Dulwich, south London, she went on to have contrasting careers in acting and flying. While acting under the name Faith Bennett in the 1930s, she also took flying lessons, earning licenses in both the US and UK. After divorcing her husband Charles Alfred Sewlyn Bennett, she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1941. She was assigned to the No. 5 Ferry Pilot Pool (F.P.P.), but two days later sustained ‘slight injuries’ after she made a crash landing due to bad weather and engine trouble. She was assigned to the Training Ferry Pool and remained with the ATA until July 1945.

  • Captain Hannah Billig, MBE GM (1901-1987)

Born to Russian refugee parents in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, Hannah Billig won a scholarship to read medicine at the University of London in the early 1920s. After qualifying as a doctor, she set up a small clinic near Cable Street in 1927, later moving round the corner to 198 Cable Street in 1935 (where a blue plaque commemorates her today). During the Blitz, she was the chief doctor for the air raid shelters in Wapping, tending to the sick and wounded in incredibly challenging conditions. She was awarded the George Medal for a particularly courageous act in March 1941. Billig broke her ankle when a bomb blasted her out of a Wapping shelter, where she had been attending to those inside. She bandaged her own ankle, rescued those trapped in the rubble and provided medical care to them, earning the nickname ‘The Angel of Cable Street’. In 1942, she went to Calcutta, India, with the Indian Army Medical Corps. She received an MBE in 1945 for her efforts during the war. Following VE Day, she resumed her practice on Cable Street and later retired to Israel.

  • Lady Ursula Isabel d’Abo [née Manners, formerly Marreco] (1916-2017)

Born into wealth in London, Lady Ursula joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment during World War II. She started out cleaning railway carriages, before working as a nurse at Battersea General Hospital, and later St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park. She managed to survive uninjured when her mother’s house in Mayfair was bombed. After leaving London, she started working at an ammunitions factory in Grantham, overseeing 2,000 women. The war years are just a small piece of her fascinating life, which is detailed in her autobiography The Girl with the Widow’s Peak: The Memoirs.

  • Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)

Missouri, USA-born Gellhorn was a pioneer as a female war correspondent, whose coverage of WWII and the Spanish Civil War was well respected. She spent her latter years living at 72 Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, where she is commemorated with a blue plaque. Read the rest of this entry

Discovering the World War II shelter-turned-memorial at Stockwell

The history of the colourful pillbox memorial on a Stockwell traffic island.

Stockwell War Shelter © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Stockwell deep-level shelter has been turned into a war memorial

Around the country, many a traffic island is home to a war memorial. However, one particular south London island has a rather more colourful tribute to the war dead in an unusual format. In fact, this memorial started life as an important space to shelter Londoners from the Nazi bombs during World War II.

At the junction of Clapham Road and South Lambeth Road, just moments from Stockwell tube station, is the Stockwell War Memorial. The memorial is in two parts – the oldest of the two is dedicated to the fallen of World War I, while the more recent one was built during the World War II.

Stockwell War Shelter © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Poppies cover the pillbox entrance shaft

In the early part of the Second World War, some civilians and government officials were concerned the available shelters weren’t quite robust enough to withstand the bombing. Time was of the essence so a plan to build deep-level shelters underneath existing tube stations was deemed the speediest and most cost-effective option. Originally 10 shelters were planned, but in the end only eight were constructed. Building began in 1941, and by 1942 they were complete. The shelters were mostly located by Northern line stations, including Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common, Camden Town, Belsize Park, Goodge Street and Clapham South, with another near the Central line station Chancery Lane.

The Stockwell deep-level shelter is located below Stockwell station and features two parallel tunnels, measuring 16ft in diameter and split horizontally with upper and lower levels. The shelters were accessed by two, pillbox-shaped entrance shafts – one being the war memorial on Stockwell’s traffic island, and the other on Studley Road. The tunnels would have fit hundreds of beds to accommodate Londoners overnight, while there were further spaces for toilets, medical assistance and ventilation. The Stockwell shelter was completed in September 1942, but was initially used by the government until it opened to the public in 1944. With the war finishing a year later, it fortunately didn’t get much use. After V-day, the Stockwell shelter was briefly used to house military personnel.

For decades, the shelter remained an ugly eyesore on the South Lambeth Road. However, Brian Barnes and Myra Harris turned it into a war memorial in 1999. Brainstorming with schoolchildren at nearby Stockwell Park School, the images were inspired by local history. Among the famous faces pictured include actor Sir Roger Moore – who grew up in Stockwell – and artist Vincent Van Gogh, who briefly lived in nearby Hackford Road during 1873-74. It also depicts the MV Empire Windrush ship, which brought Caribbean emigrants to Britain, with many settling in Brixton and the surrounding areas. Some new arrivals ending up sleeping in a makeshift hostel in the Clapham South deep-level shelter until they found more long-term accommodation.

The mural was expanded in June 2001 with the addition of war hero and special agent Violette Szabo (1921-1945), who spent her teen years living in Stockwell. The top of the mural features a quote from Robert Laurence Binyon’s (1869-1943) poem ‘For the Fallen’, originally published in September 1914.

  • The Stockwell War Memorial can be found on the roundabout at the junction of South Lambeth Road and Clapham Road, Stockwell, SW8 1UG. Nearest station: Stockwell.

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To see photos inside the Clapham South deep-level war shelter and more history, click here.

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Where Light Falls: A spectacular sound and light show on St Paul’s Cathedral

Jewel Tower | A Medieval survivor of the Palace Of Westminster

The history of the 14th century tower opposite the Houses of Parliament.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The Jewel Tower is a small remainder of London’s Medieval history

When it comes to London’s royal palaces, most of them tend to be rather young, with the oldest parts of Buckingham Palace dating back to 1703 and Clarence House, a few years shy of its 200th anniversary. However, long before the monarch resided at Buck House, the King or Queen had a home in the huge Palace Of Westminster. Today, the title belongs to the Houses of Parliament, the seat of our Government.

Jewel Tower door © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The fireproof door contains the year 1621 and the mark of James I

Most of the Medieval Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a huge fire in the 1800s, to be rebuilt as the iconic masterpiece, which remains today. However, two buildings managed to survive, the 11th century Westminster Hall, and the 14th century Jewel Tower. Now owned by English Heritage, the diminutive Jewel Tower is open to the public. Recently, I paid a visit to this small, but interesting piece of Medieval London. It’s a small space with the exhibition taking about an hour to see.

The Jewel Tower was built around 1365-6 at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster to house the treasures of King Edward III (1312-1377). The Tower stood at the end of the garden and was protected by a moat to the south and west of the building. It was built under the direction of master mason Henry Yevele (1320-1400) and master carpenter Hugh Herland (1330-1411) on land which had been appropriated from Westminster Abbey, to the chagrin of the monks. The keeper would have worked on the ground or first floor, logging the King’s treasures coming in and going out of the Tower. The most valuable goods were kept on the second floor.

Jewel Tower stairs © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The spiral staircase

For 150 years, the Tower was used to house the subsequent Kings’ treasures until a fire at the palace in 1512. The building then became home to less valuable items, such as clothing, bed linen, furniture and royal children’s toys, according to an inventory in 1547. In 1600, the building was repurposed for the Government, rather than royals, when it became a parliamentary office. A three-storey timber extension was added to the side of the Tower as a house for the Clerk of the Parliament. The ground floor of the Jewel Tower became the kitchen and scullery, while the first floor was used as a repository for various parliament documents. In 1621, the building was renovated to become more secure to protect the important documents. On the first floor, a brick vault was added with a metal door featuring the year inscribed on the exterior and the cipher of King James I (1566-1625). That very door still exists today and can be seen on your visit.

By the 18th century, the Tower was apparently a bit of a state so work was taken to renovate and improve it. Larger windows and a new chimney were added, while the building was made more fireproof to protect the documents inside. Throughout the century, the Tower was gradually hidden by the buildings popping up around it. By 1827, the House of Lords’ records had been moved out of the Tower because it was too small and it was known as part of Old Palace Yard, with the name Jewel Tower dropping out of use.  Read the rest of this entry

Shopping in style – Part 4 | Edwardian chic at the Piccadilly Arcade

The history of an Edwardian shopping arcade.

Piccadilly Arcade © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Piccadilly Arcade opened in 1910

Decades before the likes of Westfield and Brent Cross came to London, those who wanted to shop in comfort headed to one of the capital’s arcades. Like the mega malls of today, these arcades featured numerous shops under one roof, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the weather. However, as well laid out as these modern fashion meccas are, they just can’t compare to the historic and upmarket designs of the late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods. As part of Metro Girl’s series on the five historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, Part 4 will be focusing on the Edwardian of the quintet – the Piccadilly Arcade.

Arcade Piccadilly © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The façade of the Piccadilly Arcade on its namesake street

At the dawn of the 20th century, the St James area was a hangout for the capital’s gentry and royals with a host of gentlemen’s shops and businesses catering for the upper classes. St James’s Palace was in the area, as well as prestigious members’ clubs, such as The Athenaeum and The Carlton Club. Swiss hotelier César Ritz (1850-1918) had opened his ground-breaking Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly in 1906. Following the death of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and the ascension of King Edward VII (1841-1910), the country was changing, with styles of fashion and architecture evolving into less gloomy and simpler designs.

When it came to London’s shopping arcades, by the early 20th century, it had been a while since any new ones had been built. The Royal Opera and Burlington Arcades were over eight decades old at this point, while the Lowther Arcade was demolished in 1904 after standing on The Strand for over 70 years. In 1909, work started on a new shopping mecca – the Piccadilly Arcade. The Edwardian arcade linked Piccadilly and Jermyn Street – famous as London’s retail destination for well-dressed gentlemen. Architect George Thrale Jell of Waterloo Place was brought in to design it. Throughout his career, Jell was a popular architect for retailers, having designed several stores in Oxford Street, including the Hanan-Gingell shoe shop in 1908 (now home to branches of Fossil watches and Sunglasses Hut), flats in Bury Street and converted the Georgian building, 138 Park Lane into offices and flats in the late 1920s.

Piccadilly Arcade © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2016

Piccadilly Arcade is home to tailors, shirtmakers, shoe shops, jewellers, hairdressers, womenswear, pharmacy and mustard and vinegar makers

The arcade was constructed by builders Messrs. Leslie and Co. of Kensington Square in 1910. The ground-floor arcade featured 28 shops, while the remaining upper floors were used as offices and chambers. The façade of the building is made of Portland stone and features four columns supporting a architrave with the words ‘Piccadilly Arcade’. Above, a wide wrought iron balcony spans the five windows of the 2nd floor, with further storeys of windows and smaller balconies above. The fifth floor features another wide balcony, while dormer windows stand out on the 6th floor slated roof. The upper storeys were converted into the Felix Hotel in 1915, but is now called Empire House and is mostly offices.

Among the first businesses to open in the arcade were the shirtmakers Budd, who are still trading today over a century later. Harold Budd established his shirt shop at No.4 in 1910, which was set over three floors. Meanwhile, tailors Hawes & Curtis, founded by Ralph Hawes and George Frederick Curtis, opened their first store at No.24 in February 1913. Over one hundred years later, they now have over 20 stores in the UK.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

A statue of Regency dandy Beau Brummell

The Piccadilly Arcade traded in peace for 20 years before World War II brought death and destruction to the streets of London. At 3.10am on 17 April 1941, the Jermyn Street end of the building was severely damaged by a 2,200lb parachute bomb. Twenty three people were killed, including the 1930s singer Al Bowlly (1898-1941), who lived on the corner of Jermyn Street. The Dunhill store on the corner of Jermyn Street took a direct hit, while Fortnum & Mason and the Cavendish Hotel were also damaged. Budd’s shop at No.4 in the arcade was burnt down so Harold Budd swiftly purchased the remaining leases on the only two intact stores in the arcade; 1A and 3, where Budd remains trading today. The Piccadilly Arcade was gradually restored, with work finishing in 1957.

Today, the Piccadilly Arcade is home to tailors, shirtmakers, shoe shops, jewellers, hairdressers, womenswear, pharmacy and mustard and vinegar makers. Meanwhile, those who enter or exit through the Arcade’s south entrance of Jermyn Street will be greeted by Irena Sedlecká’s sculpture of Beau Brummell (1778-1840), a Regency dandy who was famous for his dress sense.

  • Piccadilly Arcade, Piccadilly or Jermyn Street, St. James’s, SW1Y 6NH. Nearest station: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus. For more information, visit the Piccadilly Arcade website.

‘Shopping In Style’ is a series of blog posts on the history of London’s oldest shopping arcades. Read Part 1 on the Burlington Arcade here, Part 2 on the Royal Opera Arcade here, Part 3 on the Royal Arcade here, Part 5 on the Prince Arcade, click here or Part 6 on the Lowther Arcade here.


For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

To discover more retail history of London’s shopping arcades and department stores, click here.

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Going underground | Exploring the Clapham South deep-level shelter with Hidden London

The history of the World War II shelter underneath Clapham South tube station.

Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter is rarely open to the public

Last month, I was fortunate enough to have a peek of one of London’s secret subterranean treasures. As part of their Hidden London series, the London Transport Museum were running tours to visit the Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter, one of the only purpose-built World War II shelters that is still accessible to the public, albeit rarely.

Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The sub-shelters at Clapham South were named alphabetically A-P after senior British naval officers

Following the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent Blitz, many Londoners were using tube stations as shelters from the Nazi bombing. However, many civilians were concerned the stations weren’t adequate protection, which was confirmed in October 1940 when a bomb hit the road above the north end of Balham underground station. Water from the burst sewers above and earth filled the southbound tunnel, killing 66 people who were sheltering there at the time. Three months later, a further 111 civilians were killed when a bomb hit Bank station.

The same month of the Balham disaster, the Government started making plans to build deep-level shelter accommodation for 100,000 people. Having lots of experience of building underground, it made sense for the Government to enlist London Transport to co-ordinate the project within the swiftest time possible. With Londoners frequently dying in bomb attacks by the Nazis, time was of the essence. It was decided it would be easiest and quickest to create shelters below existing tube stations, specifically the Northern and Central lines. Originally the plan was for 10 shelters to be built, however ones at St Paul’s and Oval were abandoned during construction due to concerns over being too close to the Cathedral and unsatisfactory ground quality respectively.

Construction – by hand – began on the tunnels in 1941, with final eight complete in 1942. Situated 30 metres (just under 100 foot) below ground level, the tunnels were built from either end using two vertical shafts. When they were complete, each shelter consisted of two parallel tunnels around 400 metres long divided into upper and lower floors. The tunnels at Clapham South were divided further into 16 sub-shelters with each named alphabetically after a senior British naval officer. The sub-shelters at Clapham South were named Anson, Beatty, Collingwood, Drake, Evans, Freemantle, Grenville, Hardy, Inglefield, Jelicoe, Kepple, Ley, Madden, Nelson, Oldam and Party. Each sub-shelter featured triple-tier bunk beds and some wider bunks for mothers with young children, bringing the total number of bunks to 7,952.

Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

The existing triple-tied bunks (right) and wider bunks (left) for mothers and young children in one of the sub-shelters

By the time the shelters were ready for action so to speak, the Nazi bombing campaign on Britain had eased off. The Government ended up letting the American military use half of the Goodge Street shelter. By June 1944, Hitler’s armies had set their sights on destroying London again – albeit this time with V-1 flying bombs, followed by V-2 later that year. Finally, the shelters could be used for the purpose they were intended for.

Read the rest of this entry

The one tube you CAN drink on! Head underground for post-war frolics at Cahoots

© Cahoots

Grab a seat and hold tight! A vintage tube carriage has been recreated in Cahoots

I’m always on a lookout for a bar with a difference and unlike the other themed drinking establishments in the capital, Soho‘s newest nightspot celebrates one of my favourite things – London itself. Playing up to the building’s history as a former World War II shelter, Cahoots is an underground basement bar which takes guests back in time to the 1940s. Located in Soho, Cahoots has been styled as an abandoned underground station in post-war London, where those in the know come to party.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

Cheers! We enjoyed gin-infused cocktails, such as the Vera Lynn, served in a green female-shaped mug

I was lucky enough to be invited to the bar’s launch party recently as the premise really excited me. My blogging name is Metro Girl… the bar is underground themed.. surely it’s got to be a match made in heaven? The bar’s entrance is subtle from the street, but once entering and heading down the wooden escalator-style steps (which prompted flashbacks to riding the tube as a child in the ’80s) we were greeted by a doorman (who in character and in a rather spiffing accent, old chum), told us the station was ‘closed’. We played up to it and said ‘we had an appointment’ and were shown the way in. The interior of the bar is pretty amazing – along with a recreated tube carriage (where we subsequently ended up sitting in most of the night), there were vintage-style signs from both the London Underground and the post-war years. Sandbags, bunting, and waiters dressed in vintage clothing furthering the vibe. We parked ourselves in the carriage with our drinks resting on an old suitcase which doubled as a table. The theme continued through to the toilets, with 1940s street sound effects adding to the atmosphere.

The cocktail menu is extensive and unique, with influences from popular drinks from the 1940s, as well as unusual ingredients such as tea leaves, beetroot and Oxo cubes. Cocktails are served in a variety of vessels, such as tin cans, Thermos flasks and milk bottles, ranging from £7-£9. I tried quite a few cocktails, but my favourite was a ‘Vera Lynn’, a fruity gin concontion which came served in a lovely green china version of the wartime dame in her heyday. There’s also an impressive sharing cocktail for groups, the Tanqueray No.10 Station Clock, where you dish out your booze from a giant hollow clock.

As well as the interiors and cocktails, there is also great entertainment with swing bands and dancers performing on many evenings. We were encouraged to try a bit of dancing, but I politely declined over fears of making a fool of myself, but some fellow guests were game and did a good job. The music was a mix of jazz, swing and lindy-hop, so you really feel like you’ve stepped in a time machine. Although this may seem like an immersive experience, we enjoyed ourselves so much I could see Cahoots becoming a regular drinking den for me and my pals. For those looking for something a bit different for a night out, I can highly recommend Cahoots. As long as you’re looking for adventure and are open to embracing the strong theme, head underground. Just don’t tell everyone…

  • Cahoots, 13 Kingly Court, Soho, W1B 5PW. Nearest tube [apart from Cahoots obviously… ;-)]: Oxford Circus. For more information, visit the Cahoots website.

© Cahoots

Don’t tell everyone! The entrance to Cahoots feels like a real-life tube station


 For more of Metro Girl’s bar and restaurant reviews, click here.

To read about Metro Girl’s visit to the disused tube station Aldwych, click here.

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St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street | Where the tiered wedding cake began

The traditional wedding cake we know today was inspired by one of the City of London’s churches

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

The name St Bride’s for a church off Fleet Street could not be more apt, because it plays an important role in today’s wedding culture. While the name of St Bride comes from St Bridgit or St Bride of Kildare – a druidic slave and daughter of an Irish prince, who was born in 453. She gave away so many of her father’s possessions, he eventually allowed her to follow her religious calling. St Bridgit is marked by a feast day, when it is customary to donate to the poor and a cake is baked for her travels.

The current St Bride’s was built by architect Sir Christopher Wren (1633-1723) in 1672, one of the first he designed as the City of London was rebuilt following the Great Fire Of London. It is thought to be the seventh church to stand on the site since the 6th century, with the Great Fire potentially destroying one dating back to the 15th century. The previous church was where the famous diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was baptised in 1633 and was mentioned in his diary entries concerning the great fire. Although the main church was open for worship from 1674, the tower and steeple weren’t complete until 1703.

The steeple, consisting of four tiers, each diminishing in size the higher they are, was originally 234ft high, but lost 8ft in 1764 due to a lightning strike. After St Paul’s Cathedral, St Bride’s was Wren’s tallest church and was prominent on the London’s then-skyline.

St Brides Cake 5050 © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012 and Ashley Jane Cakes

St Bride’s steeple is said to have inspired the design for the modern wedding cake (right photo – © Ashley Jane Cakes)

 

St Bride’s as seen from Ludgate Hill

At weddings, it is commonplace to expect a tiered cake as the centrepiece of the reception, with everyone grabbing their cameras or smartphones to capture the iconic cutting of the cake by the bride and groom. Dessert at weddings were originally a stack of cakes, then a bride’s pie, before the bride and groom had their own separate cakes. Just like the traditional colour of a bride’s wedding dress, the white icing was meant to symbolise purity.

Who invented the tiered wedding cake?

The church was designed by Sir Christopher Wren

However, it was pastry chef William Rich (1755-1812), who lived on Ludgate Hill in late 18th century London, who is said to be responsible for the tiered wedding cake we know today. Living a stone’s throw from St Bride’s on Fleet Street, he found inspiration for making a cake for his own marriage to Susannah Prichard (1758-1810) in 1776 by looking at the tiered steeple. Despite rumours Susannah was the daughter of his boss, William was actually apprenticed to a baker named William Stiles for years, while Susannah’s father was a peruke maker (wigmaker) named Davis Prichard from nearby Cheapside. Following the couple’s wedding, they continued to live on Ludgate Hill and had 12 children together, many of them being baptised in St Bride’s. By the time of William’s death in Stockwell, south London in 1811, he had built up quite a bit of wealth and was listed as a venison dealer and cook. The couple were buried at St Bride’s Church, followed by their son Henry Thomas Rich in 1828.

Amazingly, the steeple survived World War II, despite the actual church being fire bombed by the Luftwaffe on 29 December 1940 (see a photo of the bomb damage). By now, the church had been embraced by the journalists and editors of Fleet Street, who financially contributed to the church’s rebuilding in the Fifties, with the building being Grade I listed by Historic England in 1950. Despite the damage, the bombing did uncover the 6th century foundations of an earlier Saxon church on the site, which can be visited on tours.

  • St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, EC4Y 8AU. Nearest stations: Blackfriars or City Thameslink. St Bride’s Church is open for worship and visits. Please check their website for more information.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Still dominating the skyline: The view of St Bride’s from Ludgate Hill on a
stunning September evening


For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.

Many thanks to the talented proprietor of Ashley Jane Cakes – a caterer located in Lancs – for allowing me to use a photograph of one of her wedding cake designs.

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Christ Church Greyfriars: A little bit of nature amidst the concrete jungle of the City

The history behind the ruined 17th century church in the City of London.

Greyfriars Christ Church City of London © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Wooden frames stand where the Corinthian columns once held up the roof of Christ Church Greyfriars

Greyfriars Christ Church City of London © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Wren’s tower and steeple of Christ Church Greyfriars

The City of London was ravaged by bombs during World War II, with many iconic buildings and churches damaged or destroyed by the Nazis.  Many of the churches created by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) after the City was rebuilt following the Great Fire Of London in 1666 were again smouldering on the sites of their medieval predecessors.

Today, the City is a mish-mash of old and new, with what would have been some of the tallest buildings at the turn of the 20th century, now dwarfed by the likes of the Tower 42 and the Gherkin. Ruins of ancient buildings were cleared up or built over to create the metropolis of concrete and glass which dominates the City today.

However, just a stone’s throw away from St Paul’s tube station is a rare lasting monument to the damage of World War II. The ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars, now incorporating a rose garden, lie on the junction of King Edward Street and Newgate Street.

The site was originally a Franciscan monastery in the Middle Ages, with the name Greyfriars referring to the grey habits worn by the monks. Built in 1225, the friary stood for over 300 years. Throughout the centuries, several religious buildings were on site, with a Medieval church being built in the early 14th century. Amongst the notables buried in the church included King Edward I‘s (1239-1307) second wife Marguerite of France (1279-1318) and Edward II’s (1284-1327) widow Isabella of France (1295-1358).

Greyfriars Christ Church City of London © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

The ruins provide a spot of history and nature in the middle of modernity and traffic

Christ Church Greyfriars

A 19th century sketch of the church before it was bombed
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Following the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII (1491-1547), the church was handed over to the Christ’s Hospital School, with pupils using it as their primary place of worship. However, like most of the City, the medieval church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666 and Wren was put in charge of the capital’s rebirth. Over the next few decades, Wren oversaw the building of 50 churches in the area, The Monument, and of course, his pièce de résistance, St Paul’s Cathedral. Wren’s team ended up using some of the Medieval church foundations to save time and money.

Wren’s Christ Church was completed in 1687 and comprised of a tower and steeple, with parishioners entering the nave from the west, which was smaller than the original medieval church. The stone walls included large windows letting in lots of light, with Corinthian columns separating the space into naves and aisles. The four corners of the roof featured carved pineapples, which were a symbol of welcome. As well as the pews on the ground, the building included two galleries for pupils (one of which being a young Samuel Taylor Coleridge) from nearby Christ’s Hospital School.

However, on 29 December 1940, a German firebomb crashed through the roof and nave. Amazingly, Wren’s tower and the four main walls remained standing (see a photo of the bomb-damaged interior here). On the same night, Wren’s St Bride’s Church at Fleet Street was also bombed, again the steeple amazingly survived. However, with Britain bankrupted by the war, the decision was taken not to rebuild Greyfriars, although the ruins were designated Grade I listed. The East Wall was demolished in 1962 to allow the widening of King Edward Street, with only the North Wall standing today.

Greyfriars site sign © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

A blue plaque marking the site of the monastery

While the Tower has now been converted into private residences, the site of the actual church is now a rose garden, providing a bit of nature to city workers, although with busy Newgate alongside, not necessarily peace and quiet. Rose beds have been placed where the pews once were, while the ghosts of the Corinthian columns are represented by wooden frames.

Alternatively, if you walk further north along King Edward Street, on the right is an entrance to Postman’s Park, another little sanctuary in the City.

  • Christ Church Greyfriars Rose Garden, junction of Newgate Street and King Edward Street, City of London, EC1. Nearest station: St Paul’s.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Although all four walls survived the Blitz, the north wall is the only one which remains


For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…

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