Have you ever followed a beadle into a medieval cellar? Tour guide Ian McDowell takes a look inside, and beneath, Tallow Chandlers Hall near Cannon Street.
Richard Kennell is so immaculate he could have stepped out of a 1950s public information film. He holds the ancient title of Beadle to the Tallow Chandlers Company. Beadles? Kennels? Please. Have some respect. He’s heard it all before.
Having cut his teeth as a wine steward at a different livery company, and worked his way up from the cellar — bottle by bottle, as it were — Richard is the perfect guide for a tour of a medieval basement. He’s been there and got the low-hanging-central-heating-pipes-fuse-boxes-and-trip-hazards t-shirt.
A miraculous survival
But why, I hear you cry, did I want to visit the cellars of the Tallow Chandlers Company in the first place? Is it just a Londonist thing? Or do we all want to have a goggle at an old cellar, given the opportunity?
These cellars, on Dowgate Hill, near Cannon Street, are more special than most. They contain the remains of a merchant’s house from around 1300. The Tallow Chandlers built their hall on top, completed in 1476. That was lost in the Great Fire of 1666, but replaced within six years. This is the Hall we see today.
Its survival is nothing short of a miracle. On the night of 31 December 1940, an advance party of Heinkel HE111s peppered the area with incendiaries at a rate of 300 per minute. Some very brave fire watchers with buckets and stirrup pumps dealt with the incendiaries. But then came the 500lb high explosive bombs. One landed on this building. It crashed through the ceiling and lay there, intact; a dud bomb. Tallow Chandlers Hall had won the lottery.
Like a ship... or a Crunchy bar
But back to the cellar. As we descend, Richard tells me the jolly tale of a 17h century Beadle’s wife who was sadly killed when she fell through a lavatory at the back of the Hall into the sewer that ran underneath. I’ll never look at a water closet in the same way again.
Below is a low-ceilinged space. Great beams extend from one side of the cellar to the other. They resemble ship's timbers, and are clearly very, very old. I'm reminded of a Crunchy bar with the chocolate sucked off. There’s also some nice medieval-looking wall, which unfortunately has been so whitewashed it resembles a Hollywood remake of an Asian film.
There is a rumble, which I presume is the Cannon Street trains. These vibrations can be felt often throughout the building, both up and down.
The cellar is used for storage today, and there are lots of venerable looking pictures and documents scattered about. The smell is of new wood and fresh paint, but underneath that there's an undertow of the musky, smoky dampness that always marks out genuinely ancient sites and buildings.
What is a tallow chandler, anyway?
Medieval England was a 'Name of the Rose' world of monks and knights, with London among the most romantic-looking cities in Europe; a network of wharves, half-timbered cottages, stone palaces, and spiky little churches, surrounded by a many-gated wall.
But more importantly, London was also the economic engine of the country, full of ships coming and going, and hardworking merchants, busily generating wealth for the hipsters of the royal court at Westminster to blithely piddle away. What’s changed, I hear you ask?
The livery companies were their agents on the ground, charged with controlling trade in essentials of life such as saddles, swords, wine and, of course, candles. The latter commodity was controlled by two companies: the Wax Chandlers and Tallow Chandlers.
Candles were the mobile phones of the Middle Ages. Everybody needed them, everybody wanted them. Without them, people tended to fall over things in the night, which was not a good idea in a world without antibiotics. Cornering the mass market in a mass product like this was a medieval no-brainer. Posh people bought small numbers of posh candles made of beeswax, but poorer people bought vast numbers of candles made of animal fat, or tallow.
Most houses were lit by these fragile, flickering, short-lived, dumpy, orange-brown things. Richard showed me one. It smelt like an oven that hasn’t been cleaned for a very long time. The Tallow Chandlers were the clever chaps who, with the kind assistance of King Edward IV, came to control production and distribution of this whiffy but affordable gear.
And what of the Beadle?
Beadles in the English Middle Ages were taken on by parishes and companies to make sure nothing untoward occurred. They wore big hats, and carried big sticks. In our quieter world, they’re more Front of House.
Most livery companies have a Beadle. Many are ex-army, and could still get all medieval on your proverbial should the need arise. Richard, having risen not in enforcement, but in wine, is a more discreet and gentle presence altogether.
The young Richard was amazed by how 'old school' the City was when he first arrived in the early 1980s. He was recruited by a military man who could slice a lemon with the creases in his trousers. 'The Colonel' fixed him a gin and tonic at 11 o’clock in the morning. It was love at first sip, and Richard has been in the bosom of the City ever since. His own trousers have acquired slicing powers of their own.
A wonky, wonderful hall
We head back upstairs to admire the company's centrepiece. The Great Hall has been very slowly sinking by the starboard bow for hundreds of years, perhaps because it's held up by the medieval cellar. The topsy-turvy space adds a quirkiness sadly missing from more contemporary structures. Do you really want your wedding to take place at perfect right angles? No? Good.
The best thing about the Great Hall is the former screen, made of leather, once used to close off parts of the hall. The painted panels of the screen have now become a permanent feature of the doorway into the hall, and amazing they certainly are — probably the best bit of kit I’ve seen in a Livery Hall, and my favourite thing at Tallow Chandlers by a country mile. They are 18th century, and look Neapolitan to me, but that’s just a guess. Exquisite.
These screens would almost certainly have been used to shield gentlemen and guests from the vulgar gaze while availing themselves of the Company piss pots. Perhaps the leather finish is to provide a wipe-clean properties.
We had to ask the ghost question
It’s not just the Great Hall that looks attractively wonky. The pictures look a bit wonky too. Richard is a detail man. He quickly squares them. I ask him if he suspects unseen hands, moving things about? No, it’s just the vibration from the Cannon Street trains.
But some people, he admits, do say Tallow Chandlers has a ghost. They spot a White Lady on the stairs. Richard dismisses this story with a cool wave of his manicured hand. But when I press him against the wall in a kindly, journalistic way, he admits that when staying alone after late-running events he has heard doors closing all by themselves in other parts of the building.
So that was my adventure. I had thought the word 'Chandler' — which once swung on every high street, and was painted on every shipyard wall — had been consigned to museum-land, to heritage and whimsy. But no, not here, not at the living, breathing building and community that is Tallow Chandlers Hall. May it stand here for an aeon. And may its immaculate Beadle live through many more nights of self-closing doors to right many another wonky picture.
With thanks to Brigadier David Homer, Clerk to the Tallow Chandlers’ Company, for granting access.