Another glimpse of hidden London

MANY visitors to London’s Central Criminal Court never see the statue of Lady Justice straddling the distinctive dome of the Old Bailey.

Yet this is the statue used to illustrate countless news reports of the great criminal trials which have taken place here across the years.

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There’s been a court here since the 16th century, attached for much of its history to the adjoining Newgate prison, and it has witnessed hundreds of thousands of trials, including some of the most notorious and newsworthy.

Back in the 19th century, hangings were a public spectacle in the street outside and the condemned would be led along Dead Man’s Walk between the prison and the court to be met by riotous crowds pelting them with rotten fruit and vegetables.

Those crowds have long gone, but high on the dome above the court stands that bronze statue of Lady Justice, executed by the British sculptor F W Pomeroy, erected in 1906 and holding a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left.

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It’s an iconic image that harks back to her origins as Iustitia, the Roman goddess of justice introduced by Emperor Augustus and subsequently a figure which every Roman emperor wanted to be associated with.

Though formally called a goddess with her own temple and cult shrine in Rome, it appears she was viewed more as a symbolic personification rather than as an actual deity with religious significance.

Today, she gazes down on streets steeped in history, although so much of this part of London was destroyed in the war and buried by modern monstrosities that you have to look hard to find those hidden traces of the city’s past.

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One such establishment is the Viaduct Tavern, a Victorian gin palace built to celebrate the opening of the Holborn Viaduct and with numerous claims over the years that its cellars incorporate old prison cells from Newgate Prison.

The Fuller’s pub is certainly in the right location for that – and it is also likely the pub stands on land which was the original site of a debtors’ prison which operated until 1853.

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Across the road and down a side street  and you find yourself in front of Cutlers’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, one of the most ancient of the City of London livery companies.

It its first Royal Charter from Henry V in 1416 and, as was the case with the other trade guilds of the day, its function was to protect the interests of its members, to attend to their welfare, and to ensure that high standards of quality were maintained.

Their business was producing and trading in knives, swords, and other implements with a cutting edge. Over time the emphasis shifted from implements of war to cutlery and other domestic wares such as razors and scissors.

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A ‘House of the Cutlers’ mentioned in 1285 is the earliest recorded regular meeting place of the Cutlers, but the current building (the fifth such hall) dates from 1888 and survived a great fire bomb raid on December 29th 1940 which left only St Paul’s Cathedral and Cutlers’ Hall standing virtually unscathed amongst the devastation.

Back up Newgate Street and in the Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden you can find a much more recent tribute to the city’s past, commemorating Christ’s Hospital School’s 350-year presence in the City of London from 1552 until 1902, when the school moved to Horsham in West Sussex.

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The bronze sculpture by Andrew Brown was selected following an open competition run by The City of London Corporation.

From here, it’s but a short walk to Fleet Street and the first of many hostelries to have resonated with the exchanges of generations of journalists. The Punch Tavern is a Grade II listed refurbished 19th century gin palace once known as the Crown and Sugar Loaf.

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It is said to have been renamed in the 1840s in homage to the regular drinkers from the nearby Punch magazine, a weekly magazine of humour and satire which was at its most influential at that time, when it helped to coin the term ‘cartoon’ in its modern sense as a humorous illustration.

After the 1940s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, closing in 1992. It was revived in 1996, but closed again in 2002.

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Almost next door is another Fleet Street pub with a proud history, the Old Bell Tavern. Now part of the Nicholson’s chain, The Old Bell Tavern has been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years.

The claim is that it was built by Sir Christopher Wren to house his masons as they rebuilt St Bride’s Church after the Great Fire of London. Certainly it is still sought out by journalists returning for services at the church, with its centuries-old connections with the printing industry.

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Down in the crypt, the church chronicles 2,000 years of its history, which began with the Romans some six centuries before the name of St Bride, daughter of an Irish prince,  emerged from legend to become associated forever with the site.

By the time the Great Fire of 1666 left the church in ruins, a succession of churches had existed on the site for a millennium. It took nine years for St Bride’s to re-appear from the ashes under the direction of Christopher Wren, and for the next two centuries his unmistakeable wedding-cake steeple cast a long shadow over the rise of the British newspaper industry.

In 1940, St Bride’s fell victim once again to flames as German incendiary bombs reduced Wren’s architectural jewel to a roofless shell. This time 17 years elapsed before rebuilding was completed.

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Generations of newspapermen and women have prayed here and feel a special affinity for the place. Many have been married here – while others have come to honour dead colleagues, whose pictures stand on a side altar beside flickering candles.

After exploring the long history of the “journalists’ church”, it’s probably time for another convivial Fleet Street pint, perhaps this time in The Tipperary, which can claim to be the “original” Irish pub outside Ireland.

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On a site which was once an island between the River Thames and River Fleet, a dribble of which is said to still run under the pub, The Boar’s Head was built in 1605 and, being made of stone and brick rather than wood, survived the Great Fire.

In around 1700 the S G Mooney & Son Brewery chain of Dublin purchased the pub and fitted it out in traditional Irish style. It became the first outside Ireland to have bottled Guinness and later draft, and was renamed in 1918 by the printers who came back from the Great War in honour of the song “It’s a long way”.

Greene King bought the pub in the 1960s and refitted the interior to the style of Mooney’s days, recapturing the original character of the 1700s.

Emboldened by an authentic pint of Guinness, there might just be time to pop across the road and visit another venerable Fleet Street watering hole which did not fare so well in the Great Fire.

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Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of a number of London pubs to have been rebuilt shortly after the fire, although there was a pub here from 1538 and the establishment is chiefly known for its literary associations and lack of natural lighting, which lends a gloomy charm to its many little side rooms, bars and passages.

Hidden down a narrow alleyway and decorated with wood panelling from at least the 19th century, the pub boasts plaques showing famous people who were regulars, and who may have ranged from Dickens and Chesterton to Samuel Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Talking of Dr Johnson, there may be time to look in on the charming nearby 300-year-old townhouse where the writer and wit lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language.

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Today, the hidden gem is open to the public with a collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and a wealth of original features. But if you are pressed for time, there’s one famous local character you must look in on before saying a fond farewell to Fleet Street – Dr Johnson’s beloved cat, Hodge.

Hodge is remembered by a bronze statue unveiled in Gough Square in 1997 showing the cat sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary.

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Sculptor Jon Bickley made Hodge about shoulder height for the average adult – just about right for putting an arm around. Most of the information on Hodge comes from Boswell’s account:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.

I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”.

 

 

 

 

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