The Garden Guide

Book: London and Its Environs, 1927
Chapter: 32 From Blackfriars Bridge To The Tower


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Below London Bridge Upper Thames St. is continued by LOWER THAMES STREET, a narrow and congested thoroughfare, redolent of fish from end to end. Chaucer is said to have lived in this street from 1379 to 1385, during part of which period he was Comptroller of the Petty Customs in the Port of London. Near the bridge, to the right, is the church of St. Magnus the Martyr, Earl of Orkney (12th century), rebuilt by Wren in 1676 (open 11.30-6, Monday 11.30-2). The Steeple, 185 feet high, with its lantern, cupola, and fleche, one of Wren's masterpieces, was not completed till 1705. The passage beneath the tower is part of an ancient footpath leading straight to Old London Bridge. Miles Coverdale, Bishop of Exeter (died 1569), author of the first complete English version of the Bible (1535), was rector of St. Magnus in 1563-66, and his remains were re-interred here in 1840, when St. Bartholomew by the Exchange was demolished. The church is adorned with fish at the harvest festival (last Sunday in September). A little farther on, on the same side, is Billingsgate Market, the chief fish-market of London. The present building, by Sir Horace Jones, was opened in 1877. Over the pediment is a figure of Britannia. The market takes its name from an old gate, supposed to be called after Belin, a legendary king of the Britons. Billingsgate Wharf, said to be the oldest on the river, has been used from very early times (perhaps from the 9th century) as a landing-place for fishing boats and other small vessels. Provisions of all sorts used to be sold here, but in 1699 Billingsgate was made a free market for fish exclusively; and it is still the chief centre of fish distribution although even before the War two-thirds of its supplies normally arrived by land (in 1923, 154,890 tons by land, 26,848 tons by water). The daily market, beginning at 5 a.m., presents a very animated and interesting scene. After the regular fishmongers are supplied, what remains is sold at lower prices to the costermongers, who retail a large proportion of the fish consumed in London. Billingsgate claims to be the only market in which every variety of fish is sold-'wet, dried, and shell.' Salmon, soles, mullet, and most white fish are sold by weight; oysters, smelts, and mackerel by number; and other fish by measure. In the basement are several large coppers for boiling shell-fish. The word 'Billingsgate' as a synonym for coarse language is an aspersion on the fish-porters that is alleged to have passed long since into the domain of pointless slander. Love Lane, a picturesque but very fishy little hill, diverging to the left opposite Billingsgate, leads to the church of St. Mary at Hill, built by Wren in 1672-77 and remodelled in 1848-49. The brick tower, quite unworthy of the church, dates from 1780. This church (Reverend Prehendarv Carlile) is now well known as the City church of the Church Army. The porch is fitted up as a luncheon-room for workers, and a cinematograph show is given at 1.15 p.m. Adjacent is the City Samaritan Office, a free club for the destitute. Edward Young, the poet, was married at St. Mary at Hill to Lady Elizabeth Lee on May 27th, 1731. Opposite Billingsgate, at the corner of St. Mary at Hill, stands the COAL EXCHANGE, an Italianesque edifice by Bunning (1849), with a tower 105 feet high. The chief feature of the interior is the circular hall, with a glass dome, three galleries, and frescoes by F. Sang, illustrating the formation and procuring of coal. The floor, a mosaic of 4000 pieces of wood, represents a mariner's compass. The sword in the City arms (beside the anchor in the centre) is said to be made of the wood of a mulberry-tree planted by Peter the Great in 1698. The remains of a Roman hypocaust, discovered when the foundations of the Exchange were dug, are shown on application. About 20 million tons of coal are annually dealt with in the Coal Exchange. Beyond Billingsgate, on the same (south) side of the street, is the Custom House, a large classical edifice, built by Laing in 1814-17 and partly rebuilt by Smirke. Its fine river facade (by Smirke), 488 feet long, is well seen from London Bridge. It is preceded by a wide quay, affording good views of the shipping in the river. In the Long Room (a name in use since the time of Queen Anne), which is 199 feet long and 66 feet wide, about 200 clerks may be seen at work.