A fascinating walk along London's City Road
The City Road runs south-east from The Angel at Islington to Old Street roundabout, and then more or less south to Finsbury Square.
My interest in this busy road began when I noticed a Victorian building with an elaborate red stone façade, which reminded me of a similar edifice in Russell Square, the Russell Hotel. The building on City Road is just north of the Old Street Roundabout, and bears the words ‘Leysian Mission’ above its main entrance.
The City Road forms part of an inner ‘ring road’. It was built in 1761 to connect the City to Pentonville Road, effectively a road that bypassed the busy centre of London. A 1781 map in the British Library shows that the part of City Road, north of what is now the Roundabout, ran through open countryside until it reached Old Street. The part of the modern City Road that heads southwards from Old Street was more built-up, and was then called ‘Royal Row’. Several things marked near Royal Row on the 1781 map are relevant to what I will describe later. To the west of the Row, there is a large open space marked on this map as ‘Artillery Ground’, and immediately north of it there is a ‘Burial Ground’. A short distance to the west of the Burial Ground, there is a small rectangle marked as ‘Quakers Gr.” Opposite the Burial Ground, but east of it across Royal Row, there was an empty triangular plot, and immediately east of that there was a largish plot labelled ‘Foundery’.
I will now guide the reader northwards from what used to be the Artillery Ground to the Leysian Mission and then further north along City Road.
Today, a mock Tudor castle stands on the northeast corner of Artillery Ground with its façade on City Road. This incongruous structure is Finsbury Barracks. It was completed in 1857 to the designs of the architect Joseph Jennings. It was built for Honourable Artillery Company, incorporated by King Henry VIII in 1537, and is thus one of the world’s oldest military organizations. It is only a few decades ‘younger’ than the Pope’s Swiss Guards, and is the oldest regiment in the British Army. Apart from military duties, the Company provides the Honourable Artillery Company Detachment of Special Constabulary, which is a police force attached to the City of London Police. The Special Constabulary assists in maintaining law and order in the City of London (as opposed to Greater London).
The burial ground to the immediate north of the Finsbury Barracks is now known as ‘Bunhill Fields’, but in the mid-18th century it was also known as ‘Tindal’s Burying Ground’. The name Bunhill is said to derive from ‘Bone Hill’, which the area was given since it was used for burials as early as during the Saxon period. Another likely explanation of the name Bone Hill is that when the St Paul’s charnel house was demolished in 1549, many thousands of bones from it were dumped in the Bunhill district. These bones were piled up and covered to produce a raised portion of land – a hill! During the Great Plague of 1665, corpses were buried in this area, but it was never consecrated by the Church of England. When Mr Tindal took over the lease for what is now Bunhill Fields in the 17th century, he permitted burials of non-conformists, that is Protestants who practised their religion outside of the Church of England. Anyone, who could afford Mr Tindal’s fees, could be buried in his graveyard. Non-conformists continued to be buried at Bunhill Fields until 1854, when it was deemed to have been completely filled up.
Today, Bunhill Fields is open to the public. Most of the graves are enclosed in grassy areas planted with flowers and surrounded by railings. Wide paved footpaths pass between the enclosures, and are much used by city workers hurrying from A to B. The place is very picturesque with many trees and a rich variety of weather-beaten gravestones, many of whom bear inscriptions that are becoming hard to read. Here and there, benches are available for the weary, and to the north of the gravestones there is a large grassy area. This venerable cemetery is overlooked in one corner by the castle-like Finsbury Barracks, and in many other directions the skyline is dominated by construction cranes and new buildings. The exception is to the east, where all that you can see between the passing traffic on the busy City road is a complex of old buildings that I will describe soon.
Bunhill Fields is the final resting place of many well-known people as well as those whom time has forgotten. Amongst the ‘celebrities’ interred at Bunhill is the author of “Pilgrims Progress” John Bunyan (1628-1688). His monument is not enclosed, and is close to that of another author, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), whose monument is also not behind railings.
Close to both of these authors, and also unenclosed, is a stone commemoration the poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827).
These three graves are easy to spot whereas those of, for example, Thomas Bayes (mathematician and clergyman) and Susanna Wesley (mother of Charles and John Wesley) are difficult to spot even though a map in the cemetery gives approximate locations for them.
Close to Blake’s memorial, but behind railings, there is a black gravestone commemorating John Wheatly who died in 1823, aged 84 years. This well-preserved gravestone has a circular bas-relief showing allegorical representations of the transience of life. According to one source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1396515):
“The monument is an upright slate slab with a shaped top. At the top is an inset roundel containing various funereal emblems carved in relief: a naked human figure bearing a scroll marked ‘Ashes to Ashes’ contemplates a flaming urn marked ‘Dust to Dust’ and a skull marked ‘Mortality’. He stands atop a globe bearing a text from Shakespeare's Tempest: ‘The great Globe itself - shall dissolve, &c. &c.’ On the left is a snuffed-out candle, and at the base a crucifix and an anchor, representing faith and hope respectively.”
The visitor should look out for this fine work of funerary art.
It is hard to miss the huge unenclosed memorial to Dame Mary Page, wife of Sir Gregory Page. She died aged 56 in 1728, so one side of the memorials proclaims. The other side of the memorial has the following written on it:
“In 67 months she was tap’d 66 times. Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining her case or ever fearing the operation”.
According to one source (http://londonist.com/london/history/london-s-oddest-graves-dame-mary-page), Lady Page, a well-respected philanthropist) suffered from a form of ‘dropsy’ (or soft tissue oedema), which caused accumulation of fluid to build up in the space around her lungs. The above-mentioned source suggests that the 29 pints (13 litres) of water ‘tap’d’ on each occasion seems to be rather an exaggerated amount. Whatever the actual amount, it cannot have been pleasant for the poor lady. Recently, I suffered from a pathological accumulation of only 1 litre of superfluous fluid, and that was bad enough!
Lady Page lies in the western half of the cemetery. Further west, about one block away from Bunhill Fields, there is what remains of another graveyard, that used by the Quakers. The Quakers - a sect of Christian ‘dissenters’ - were founded as the ‘Society of Friends’ by George Fox (1624-1691), who travelled around Britain preaching. Being ‘non-conformists’, the Quakers could not be buried in the usual graveyards where conforming Protestants were interred. In 1661, the Quakers bought a plot of land to use as a burial ground. This was four years before the establishment of the burial ground for non-conformists at nearby Bunhill Fields.
Quakers Garden contains what little remains of the Quakers’ first cemetery. An 1871 Ordnance Survey map marked it as being ‘disused’. It is now a park equipped with a fine children's playground. A monument, recently placed, commemorates the Garden’s original purpose. And, near to the western edge of the plot, there is an old carved stone with some historical information about the Quakers’ use of the area. Near that, there is a marker which has been placed close to where George Fox was buried. These monuments are in the shadow of a small disused building that used to be the caretaker’s house for a larger complex of Quaker buildings, the Bunhill Memorial Buildings, which contained rooms for committee meetings, refreshments, etc. It is now used as a Quakers’ meeting house. The peaceful Quakers Garden is a pleasant place to sit and relax.
Looking across the City Road from the eastern gates of Bunhill Fields, one sees a rectangular open space surrounded on three sides by old buildings. A statue of John Wesley (1703-1791) with his right hand outstretched welcomes the visitor to the paved yard behind him. He stands in front of an elegant chapel and between his former home to his left, and some administrative buildings labelled ‘Leysian Mission’ to his right. The courtyard and the buildings surrounding it form what might best be described as a ‘Wesleyan enclave’.
I entered a door to the left of the front of the chapel, and immediately noticed the smell of burning. A man of oriental appearance wearing a smart suit welcomed me, and told me that if I had come to see the museum, that would not be possible because there had been a fire the day before in the chapel’s crypt, where the museum is located. He led me across the courtyard to the rear entrance of Wesley’s house, where he introduced me to a lady who was willing to show me around the chapel.
My guide took me inside the chapel, apologising that the electric supply to it had been disrupted by the fire. It was light enough to see the chapel in all its glory. The chapel is rectangular with a horseshoe shaped gallery that is supported by beautiful mottled pinkish-red pillars made from Italian stone. An article on the Chapel’s website (http://www.wesleyschapel.org.uk/history.htm) says of these pillars:
“In 1891 the Chapel was transformed to commemorate the centenary of Wesley’s death. Marble pillars were donated from Methodist Churches around the world to replace the original pillars made from wooden ships’ masts donated by George III. New pews were also added and the stained glass was installed around this period.”
The finely decorated ceiling rests on the four walls of the chapel without any transverse supports, making it one of the largest ‘unsupported’ ceilings of the era, the late 18th century. Designed by George Dance the Younger in the Georgian style, it was opened in 1778. There is a lot that could be written about this chapel, but I will only mention some of the things that attracted me.
The oak pews that are newer than the chapel itself have a curious feature. Each row of pews has at its end a drawer-like mechanism that slides out to produce a folding seat which can be used to provide extra seating. A stucco frieze runs around the base of the gallery. This consists of many identical circular designs (roundels) that, at first glance, appear to depict a dove swooping downwards with something in its beak. Closer examination reveals that the circles surrounding the doves are depictions of snakes with their tails in their mouths. The symbolism of these roundels that were designed by John Wesley relates to contrasting war and peace. Light floods into the chapel through large windows spaced at regular intervals around the walls of the gallery.
The simple wooden communion rail surrounding the high altar is relatively modern. It was donated by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was married in this chapel in 1951. I believe that her children were baptised there as well. Enclosed by this rail and immediately behind the Cross, stands a centrally placed wooden pulpit with a short helical staircase. A carved marble (or alabaster) font stands close to the main altar. Inside the basin of the font there is a square grey coloured carved stone. This came from the West Indies, and relates to the Wesleyans’ (i.e. Methodists’) interest in the abolition of slavery.
A door near the font leads from the chapel to the ‘Foundery Room’. Its name is a commemoration of the first Wesleyan chapel that was built in this area in the grounds of a former foundry close to where the present chapel now stands.
The Foundery, an ordnance workshop, was opened in 1684, but was closed following an explosion in 1716. In 1739, John Wesley acquired the site and built his first London chapel there. It was used until the present chapel was built. Wesley’s mother, who is buried in Bunhill Fields, died in the old chapel in 1742. The present ‘Foundery Room’ contains not only John Wesley’s own organ but also some of the wooden pews that were once used in the original chapel on the foundry site.
It is worth entering the peaceful small garden/graveyard behind the chapel. Here you can see another monument to John Wesley. This one stands above his grave, upon which there is a short carved elegantly worded eulogy. I was told that at lunchtime many local workers sit in this garden eating their sandwiches.
My guide was very keen that I should visit the toilets attached to the main chapel. And, I could see why. The ‘gents’ toilet is one of London’s very few perfectly preserved, still functioning, Victorian lavatories. The urinals, the washbasins, the toilet cubicles, and the china fittings, are all original. Many of the china fittings including the flush chains and the toilet bowls bear the trademark of Thomas Crapper & Company (founded 1861 see: http://www.thomas-crapper.com/The-History-of-Thomas-Crapper.html). After using the facilities, I spent some time photographing them. When I returned to my guide, she hoped that I had not been unwell as I had taken so much time in the toilets. I assured her that it was fascination rather than illness that had delayed me.
After seeing the chapel, I was taken back to John Wesley’s former home, and put in the care of another lady, who guided me expertly around it. Before continuing, I will try to summarise, as briefly as possible – and over-simplistically (because I am no expert on comparative religion), why John Wesley has become so well-known. He founded Wesleyan Methodism. In his “Dictionary” of 1755, Samuel Johnson defined a Methodist as:
“… one of a new kind of puritan lately arisen, so called from their profession to live by rules and in constant method”
A great preacher and leader of men, John Wesley attracted large numbers of people to his ways of worshipping God, and while so doing promoted the interests of those less privileged members of society. A great missionary and evangelical movement, Methodism attracted followers from all social classes, but especially brought its message to criminals and the labouring classes, and, also, to the black slaves, who later adopted its practises for use in their own churches. An article published by the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/subdivisions/methodist_1.shtml) summarises the beliefs of Methodists as follows:
“Methodists stand within the Protestant tradition of the worldwide Christian Church. Their core beliefs reflect orthodox Christianity. Methodist teaching is sometimes summed up in four particular ideas known as the four ‘alls’:
All need to be saved - the doctrine of original sin. All can be saved - Universal Salvation. All can know they are saved – Assurance. All can be saved completely - Christian perfection.”
The above seems to suggest that the Methodists are prepared to embrace everyone regardless of their imperfections and beliefs. The Methodists are non-conformists because they do not conform to the rules and traditions of the Church of England.
John Wesley’s home, which fronts on City Road, is a tall, narrow, typical 18th century town house. Its construction was commissioned by Wesley, and he moved into it in October 1779. The house, which is filled with contemporary fittings and furniture – some of it Wesley’s own, provides a good idea of what a remarkable man he was in addition to being a significant religious leader. I will give you a few examples of what I mean.
In a room on the first floor, there is a fine portrait of John Wesley above a fireplace flanked by two glass-fronted cupboards. These cupboards, which look as if they could have been designed in the 20th century, were designed by Wesley himself. Another room contains Wesley’s ‘jockey’ chair (which can be used either sitting normally on it or by straddling one’s legs around the chair’s slender backrest) with an attached reading stand. This room also contained a hand-cranked machine for generating static electricity. The electricity generated with this was used in order to try to cure a variety of medical disorders. Wesley was interested in medical matters, and published at least one book, “Primitive Physick, or An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases”. It was published first anonymously in 1747, and then under his own name in 1760.
Wesley was used to spending almost 9 months of the year on horseback, travelling from place to place preaching. To compensate for the relative lack of exercise during the remaining months when he was not on horseback, he used an early form of exercise machine. It was a seat on springs, which could be forced to move up and down with some effort as the user exerted his muscles to effect this. The Wesley House has been fortunate enough to have been donated a genuine example of the very same machine that Wesley used.
Wesley’s bedroom is on the second floor. A small room that leads off it contains the small desk that used to hold Wesley’s Bible and prayer books. Every morning at 5 am when he was in London, Wesley woke, and then prayed at this desk for some time before commencing the rest of the day’s activities. The small room has its own fire place, and above it a cupboard that was used as an airing cupboard.
During the tour around his house, the guide told me much about John’s family. His brother Charles (1707-1788) was a Methodist and a noted musician and writer of at least 6,000 hymns, amongst which “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is particularly well-known. Charles’s son Samuel (1766-1837) was a contemporary of Mozart and, like him, a child musical prodigy. A brilliant composer, Samuel’s moral conduct was definitely inferior to that of his father and uncle John. Eventually, to his family’s dismay, Samuel became a Roman Catholic.
I hope that I have managed to give something of the flavour of visiting Wesley’s Chapel and home, and that this will encourage you to pay a visit to this interesting Methodist enclave.
Leonard Street that runs east of City Road just north of the Wesleyan enclave contains an elegant building with an interesting triangular pediment above its main entrance. The pediment contains carvings of old-fashioned scientific equipment and also piles of books marked “Wheatstone, Rankine, Faraday, Newton, and Liebig”. I could find no identifying marks on the building, but on examination of a detailed map published in 1897 I noticed that there was a ‘technical college’ marked where this building now stands.
This was the former Finsbury Technical College, which was opened in1893 and was the first college of its kind in the UK. Its purpose was to be a ‘model trade school for the instruction of artisans and other persons preparing for intermediate posts in industrial works’ (see: http://www.herberthistory.co.uk/cgi-bin/sitewise.pl?act=det&p=849).
North of this, City Road is interrupted by the Old Street Roundabout. In the middle of this there are two metal arcs (or semi-circles) that support 4 electronic advertising screens. Various entrances to Old Street Underground Station surround the roundabout. All of them lead to a huge subterranean shopping centre, which was built in the 1960s near the site of an ancient well, St Agnes’s Well. The shopping centre is named after this well.
Having traversed the roundabout by a series of pedestrian crossings or by utilising the underground passageways, we arrive at the continuation of City Road, on whose west side stands the building that first aroused my interest in City Road, the former Leysian Mission building, now known as ‘Imperial Hall’.
The Leysian Mission was founded in 1886 by people who had attended the Leys School in Cambridge. This school, which catered for the sons of lay Methodists, was itself founded in 1875. The name derives from the fact that the school was built on the grounds of Leys Estate in Cambridge. The crest above the main entrance of the City Road building bears the Latin words ‘In Fide Fiducia’ (In Faith, Trust), which is the motto of the Leys School in Cambridge. The object of the Mission organization was to promote the welfare of the poorer people in the UK. In the era before the advent of the ‘welfare state’ it offered health services, legal assistance, sporting activities, and entertainment, to the deprived sectors of British society. To house these services, the Wesleyan Methodists set up about one hundred halls around the country. Imperial Hall on City Road was one of these.
Between 1900 and 1904, the Imperial Hall was constructed according to plans drawn up by the architects Bradshaw and Gass of Bolton. Their firm Bradshaw, Gass, & Hope, which has designed many grand public buildings, was founded in 1862, and is still in business today. According to one source (https://www.imperialhall.co.uk/), the Imperial Hall contained the:
“…Great Queen Victoria Hall, which seated nearly 2,000 people, boasted a magnificent organ as well as a stunning stained glass windows by W. J. Pearce of Manchester, heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement.”
In its heyday, the social centre was much-used. In 1907, about 5000 men, women, and, children made use of the Imperial Hall’s facilities every Sunday. There were over 1100 members of this branch of the Mission, and by 1912 the Mission had over 100 officers, who visited 3500 homes a week throughout the year. After the end of the First World War, this branch of the Mission helped many ex-servicemen who were returning home. During the Second World War, Imperial Hall was damaged by aerial bombing, but later restored.
By the late 1980s, the state funded welfare system was rendering the Leysian Mission’s objects redundant. The Mission building closed in 1989. Today, the interior of Imperial Hall no longer resembles its original form, but the glorious façade remains unchanged. The great hall has been removed, and the building contains sixty-three privately owned residential apartments, which vary in size from one to three bedrooms. These are not flats that would be affordable by the kind of people that the Mission was set up to assist.
Another 19th century building close to this former Methodist inspired welfare centre bears the words “The Alexandra Trust Dining Rooms”. This philanthropic institution was built in 1898 by Sir Thomas Lipton (1848-1931), who had made his fortune in the tea business. This building contained a restaurant which:
“… offered very cheap meals to the poor working classes. Six boilers could heat 500 gallons of hot soup and a three-course meal cost 4.5d (2p) in 1898. Some 100 waitresses could serve up to 12,000 meals a day.” (Source: http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/)
The Alexandra provided some of the cheapest wholesome meals in the city. Today, the building houses the ‘Z Hotel Shoreditch’, a member of the Z Hotels chain.
Across the road from it, there is a wedge-shaped skyscraper, a very much sharper and newer version of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. The converging walls of this new building meet to form a razor-sharp edge where Provost Street meets City Road.
This 18-storey building is called ‘M by Montcalm’ and was designed by the architectural practice of Squire and Partners. It opened in 2015.
Continuing north along City Road (on the same side as the former Alexandra Trust Dining Rooms), we reach the older part of Moorfields Eye Hospital. Founded in 1805 as an eye and ear hospital, it moved from its original site on the Moorfields (an open space upon which Finsbury Circus now stands) to its present one in 1899.
There is an eye-shaped clock above the main entrance of the red brick building.
An ugly white tile-clad extension to the north of this building bears the name ‘King George V Extension’. This was opened in May 1935. The hospital is a world-famous centre of excellence.
A few yards north-east of the eye hospital, there stands a 19th century building labelled ‘Eagle Dwellings’. It has shops at ground level and flats above it. Once, the music hall artiste Lily Morris (1882-1952) lived in one of the flats, in number 16 according to the 1891 Census (see: http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=173499.0). Nowadays, Eagle Dwellings provides ‘supported accommodation’ under the auspices of a housing trust.
Across the road from Eagle Dwellings and further north-west along the City Road, there is, currently, a ‘drive-thru’ McDonalds eatery on the corner of Wharf Road. Beyond McDonalds, on Wharf Road that leads to the Regent’s Canal, there is a former furniture factory that now contains a branch of the Victoria Miro art gallery. Ms Victora Miro first opened a gallery in Cork Street in 1985, and then this larger branch in 2000, which was further expanded in 2006. One of the features that I like about this place is its garden that makes use of water from the Wenlock Basin (an inlet from the Regent’s Canal), which runs parallel to Shepherdess Walk (see below). On a recent visit, we hoped to see the exhibition by South Korean artist Do Ho Suh. When we arrived at the gallery, we say a very long queue of people waiting to enter the exhibition, and when we learnt that we would have to wait outside in the cold for at least an hour, we abandoned the idea.
Returning southeast along City Road, we arrive at my final attraction. Set back from the road but almost opposite Eagle Dwellings on Shepherdess Walk, we find ‘The Eagle’ pub. Shepherdess Walk is shown on a 1745 map of Shoreditch, but was then an unnamed pathway to Islington. Then, as today, this thoroughfare led from where the City Road now runs to the Regent’s Canal. A map drawn in 1799 shows the presence of the “The Shepherd and Shepherdess Inn” roughly where the Eagle stands today, but Shepherdess Walk was then named ‘Shepherd and Shepherdess Walk’. At that time, it lay in countryside beyond the urban development of London. By 1827, there were properties along the road, and by 1863, there were buildings along it (see: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-414-1/dissemination/pdf/aocarcha1-142605_1.pdf).
I have not yet entered The Eagle, but mention it because it has achieved fame by being included in a well-known rhyming verse. The present pub was built in 1901to replace an earlier tavern and music hall that was built in about 1821. An informative source (http://hackneybuildings.org/items/show/19668) relates:
“The former tavern had a pavilion in its grounds known as the Grecian Saloon, which was rebuilt as a proper theatre in 1841. It was also the place where Marie Lloyd the music hall singer made her first public performance in 1885.”
What attracted me to The Eagle is a large board attached to its west facing wall, on which the following words may be read:
“Up and down the City Road
In and out the Eagle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop! Goes the weasel”
This verse, which I have was taught as a child, is the third of a longer children’s rhyme, which begins:
“Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Half a pound of treacle. That’s the way the money goes, Pop! goes the weasel.”
The verse that refers to the The Eagle pub may relate to the fact that many of its customers used to be leather workers, and one meaning of ‘weasel’ is a tool used in spinning and weaving. It makes a popping sound as it works. ‘pop’ was also a slang word for ‘pawn’. Maybe, the verse refers to leather workers pawning their weasels in order to afford drinks. Also, ‘weasel’ is part of the Cockney rhyming slang for ‘coat’: ‘weasel and stoat’.
On this note, let me end my walk along City Road: from Wesley to the Weasel.