In Search Of St Luke's: The Forgotten City Fringe

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By M@ Last edited 32 months ago
In Search Of St Luke's: The Forgotten City Fringe

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Clerkenwell, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Spitalfields... all well-known districts on the fringes of the City of London. But there is another, much less famous area butting up to the Square Mile.

St Luke's, EC1. If you've heard of the neighbourhood at all, it's probably because of the obelisk-steepled church, regularly used by London Symphony Orchestra. The wider area, and former parish of St Luke's extends from north of the Barbican to south of City Road — or NOBSOC, if you're a stupid, inept estate agent.

It has always been a residential area, today characterised by aged Peabody blocks and post-war housing. Yet it packs as much history as the more famous neighbourhoods to either side. Below, we explore just a small section of St Luke's, discovering Krays and cocks, fleas and Fox, hidden graves and wooden blocks.

Click the box in the top-left of the map to see the numbered features.

Non-conformist burials

Bunhill Fields (1) is perhaps the most famous feature of St Luke's. This non-conformist burial ground contains the graves of William Blake, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe — plus more squirrels than you could wedge into a hatchback. Blake's final resting place is regularly decorated with candles, flowers and bad poetry from well-wishers; and is that the remains of a spliff?

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The burial ground's name is thought to be a corruption of Bone Hill, a reference to the cartloads of bones from St Paul's, which were deposited here in the 16th century. The gentle slope of nearby Tabernacle Street (formerly Windmill Hill) is another candidate.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 13.27.36First human to fly

Just over the southern boundary wall are the centuries-old grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company (2). The space is remarkable for many reasons. For one, it was the scene of the first human flight in England. On 15 September 1784, Vincenzo Lunardi ascended into the London skies in a hydrogen balloon, accompanied by a bewildered cat and dog. He travelled 24 miles into Hertfordshire, dipping briefly mid-journey to let out his airsick cat.

The contemporary image to the right comes from the Reading Mercury on 27 September of that year, taken from the British Newspaper Archive.

Cocks and cobbles

Across Bunhill Row is the Artillery Arms (3), a fine, upstanding outpost of the Fuller's chain. It wasn’t always so stylish. In days of yore, when known as The Blue Anchor, the pub was a notorious venue for rat baiting. Proprietor Jemmy Shaw would buy 300-700 rats a week, caught from the fields around London, then pit them against a dog. This painting shows the magical scene.

Just north of the pub, you'll find the narrow Chequer Street (4). Look closely at your feet as you progress along this road. It contains one of the last, and largest stretches of wooden paving in London. In the first half of the 20th century, wooden roads were common, but prone to damage (and theft for firewood).

Wood block paving on Chequer Street.

Quaker burials

Bunhill Fields has a runty little twin. Just off Chequer Street sits a Quaker burial ground (5), which budded off the main cemetery in 1661. Its most famous inhabitant is George Fox, who founded the Society of Friends in the mid-17th century. Here he is:

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The neighbouring Meeting House is still used by Quakers to this day.

Kray capture

The two burial grounds are overlooked by Braithwaite House (6), a 20-storey former council block, where flats can sell for over half a million pounds. It was here, in 1968, that the Kray twins spent their final night of freedom. They were arrested in their mother's flat during a dawn raid, and spent the rest of their lives behind bars.

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Whitecross Street

Head along Banner Street. Just before the end of the road, glance back to see this mural (7) commemorating one of Blake's most famous poems.

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The adjacent Whitecross Street market has existed for over 150 years and is now a buzzing street food market. Our tip: turn up at noon, so you don't have to queue, get some grub, then grab a table in the Two Brewers pub (8), which lets you eat market food inside so long as you buy a drink.

An early theatre

The Two Brewers stands on a corner with Fortune Street, formerly known as Play House Yard. Both names give a clue to the history of this road, which once thronged with crowds attending the Fortune Playhouse (9). This early theatre was established in 1600 and lasted until Cromwell stomped all over it in 1642. Its founder, Edward Alleyn, used some of the profits to set up Dulwich College, and you'll find his name plastered all over that area to this day.

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The first four-minute mile?

The name of Roger Bannister is ineluctably conjured whenever the phrase 'four-minute mile' is uttered. Yet there is some evidence that he was not the first man to break the barrier. On 9 May 1770, a local costermonger named James Parrot set off from Charterhouse intent on achieving this feat. He rushed along Goswell Road, then east along Old Street (10) as far as St Leonard's church. Newspapers of the day suggest that Parrot ran the mile in under four minutes. As many have argued, accurate chronometers and yardsticks existed at the time, and the placing of wagers would have encouraged scrutiny. The claim is, however, impossible to verify.

Fonts and steeples

Finally, we cross Old Street into the grounds of St Luke's (11), the former church that gave its name to the wider parish. Only one significant grave stands in front of the church, and you might well have heard of the occupant. This is the final resting place of William Caslon, designer of the typeface that still bears his name.

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The church's unusual spire was the creation of Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was once topped by an oddly shaped weather vane said to resemble a flea. For this reason, the church acquired the nickname 'lousy St Luke's'.

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Before leaving, head around to the back of the church to see some seriously impressive subsidence.

Last Updated 25 March 2015

Lindsey Berthoud

There's a photo of the weathervane of St Luke's on the LSO website http://lso.co.uk/gallery-2#142...

Kate Balagtey

So in place of the parish church St Luke's - which was deconsecrated years ago, comes a new Church of England church plant - inspirelondon.org meeting at the Thistle Barbican on Sundays at 4pm

John Finn

Add Wesley's Chapel and Ironmonger Row baths to either end of your list, and you've taken the route of our Clerkenwell and Islington tour guide training walk. We've been letting visitors in on the St Luke's secret for a few years now.

Zoe G

So proud that the mosaic my class did is featured on here - even though it's hidden from the main drag of Whitecross Street. Thank you!

Alex Bell

As someone who works right in the middle of the area that's a great piece, however you omitted the real lost gem of St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics. A magnificent old building that sat where the Co-Op & Argos are now: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...