Lombard Street (City of London) 1290-1490

The first London goldsmiths were Jewish. They also acted as bankers and moneylenders, but medieval attitudes to usury were critical. In 1275, Edward I issued the ‘statutus de Judeismo’ banning Jews from lending money at interest. It was one of many repressive measures which culminated in the expulsion of the impoverished Jews from the country in 1290, at which time they may have numbered as many as 16,000 souls. 

It would take over 350 years before they were allowed to return to Britain. Their powerful position as moneylenders to the English Crown was taken over by Italians with Lombard Street as its financial centre. The area was originally a piece of land granted by Edward I to goldsmiths and merchants from Lombardy and is mentioned by name in a Charter of Edward II in 1319. Economically sophisticated and socially self-contained, the Italian merchant elite regarded itself as the financial aristocracy within the larger London stranger community. Many commercial terms such as debtor, creditor, cash, bank, or bankrupt were directly derived from the Italian. In Das Kapital Karl Marx specifically refers to Lombard Street in reference to credit and money-lending. 

The first Italian settlers were members of the Corsini dynasty, a Florentine dynasty who made their fortune in the fourteenth century as politicians and traders. They lost political power with the emergence of the Medici family, but continued to flourish economically. Filippo and Bartolomeo Corsini increased the wealth of the family thanks to their network of banking offices around Europe, connected with a fast private postal service. They accumulated fabulous wealth in a relatively short time in London – so much so, that Italians in London at the time were referred to as ‘Caursinis’. With the emergence of the Hanseatic trade, the pre-eminence of the Italians was challenged by merchants from the Low Countries and Northern Germany. During the last decade of the fifteenth century as many as eighty Hanseatic merchants were resident in London, mostly quartered in Dowgate Ward, better known as the Steelyard. Lombard Street however retained its reputation as being at the heart of London’s financial centre.

Soper’s Lane (City of London) 1280-1313

Merchant Thomas Romeyn may have been of Flemish descent. He made a remarkable career in London’s governing mercantile class. He became a citizen before 1280, was elected sheriff in 1290, alderman in 1294, and mayor in 1309. In 1285, Edward I had forced London authorities to admit aliens of good repute to its citizenship. In the early 1280s, Romeyn first appears in the records as a citizen purchasing a shop in the pepperers’ trading quarter of Soper’s Lane, Cheapside. He sold spices, cloth and furs to members of the nobility. He also invested in property. In 1292 he was one of London’s top taxpayers. In the previous year he served as sheriff with another pepperer, William Layer. Their election as aldermen during that decade symbolised the socio-economic advancement of the pepperers, which had been achieved through their co-operation with Italian and Provençal traders who imported their goods and gave them credit. 

The Guild of Pepperers was formed in 1180. Pepperers subsequently became wholesale merchants dealing en gros (hence the word ‘grocer’) and in 1428 were incorporated as the Worshipful Company of Grocers. However, some sections of the London population resented the success of immigrants and, as the economy slumped in the later 1290s, the aldermen had to deal with violent protests and riots. Romeyn and his wife, Julia or Juliana, suffered from one such attack in their house in 1298. As Mayor of London in 1309/10, Romeyn skilfully balanced the grievances of the local population against the interests of the alien merchants in the city. He died in March 1313.

Three Cranes Lane (City of London) 1170-1554 : France, French, Public Houses, Wine

The Three Cranes in Thames Street was a famous tavern as early as the reign of James I. John Stow explains the curious name in the following manner. The Vintry was that part of the Thames bank where the merchants of Bordeaux ‘craned their wines out of lighters and other vessels, and there landed and made sale of them’. That had not always been the case. They had been preceded by cooks who are specifically recorded in Fritz-Stephen’s (clerk to Thomas à Beckett) Description of London of 1170. Here he describes in great detail the cookshops on the banks of the River Thames which he thought the acme off civilization: ‘at any time of day or night, any number could be fed to suit all palates and all purses’. 

Later in the thirteenth century the banks of the River Thames were taken over by the wine vaults of the vintners and the cookshops moved to Eastcheap and Bread Street. John Stow also adds that Three Cranes Lane was so called not only of a sign of three cranes at a tavern door, but rather of ‘three strong cranes of timber placed on the Vintry wharf by the Thames side, to crane up wines there’. Earlier it would seem that only one crane had to suffice for the needs of those French wine merchants of Bordeaux. The tavern was originally simply known as the Crane. Two references, dated respectively 1552 and 1554, speak of the sign in the singular. Twenty years later, however, the one had become three. Brits loved their Bordeaux.

Westminster Abbey (Westminster) 800-1066 Danish, Denmark, Religion, Vikings

From 800 onwards a series of Danish assaults on English coastlines started to take place. In the second half of the century Danish raiders first began to settle in England. On Wednesday 10 April 1661 Samuel Pepys made a note in his Diary of a visit to the Cathedral of Rochester. There he observed ‘the great door of the church, which, they say, was covered with the skins of the Danes’. The legend of the Danes skin is an old one, and applies to several churches in the South East. Usually the story goes that a Danish pirate tried to sack the church and was caught. An outraged mob then turned on the Dane. They skinned him and nailed the skin to the church door as a warning to anyone with the temerity to consider such crime.

John Dart, in his History of the Abbey Church of St Peter’s, Westminster (1723) describes a chamber once known as the Chapel of Henry VIII, and used as a ‘revestry’ (the chamber where vestments were kept). This chamber, Dart writes, ‘is inclosed with three doors, the inner cancellated, the middle, which is very thick, lined with skins like parchment, and driven full of nails. These … were some skins of the Danes, tann’d and given here as a memorial of our delivery from them’. The door was examined by John Quekett of the Hunterian Museum and founder of the Royal Microscopical Society who confirmed in 1849 that in each of the cases the skin was human. The Viking Age came to an end in 1066.

Coleman Street (City of London) 190AD-225AD : Architecture, Public Works, Romans 

Coleman Street is a one-way road that runs from Gresham Street to London Wall. Part of the original Roman London city wall was found between Coleman Street and Basinghall Street in 1957. It was constructed by the Romans as part of an extensive programme of public works between approximately AD 190 and AD 225. It served to form the basis of the protection of the town far into the medieval period, and was also a key factor in determining the shape and development of both Roman and medieval London. 

The uniformity of design and construction of the wall suggests that it was planned as a single project. It enclosed the whole of the landward side of the town from Tower Hill to Blackfriars. It was laid out in straight sections, linking the major routes into London, and gateways were constructed at the points of entry at Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Newgate and Ludgate. The defensive nature of much of the Wall’s circuit was strengthened by an external ditch. Internally, it was strengthened by a bank of earth.

Watling Road (City of London) 54BC-410 Romans

Watling Street is the name given to an ancient trackway in England and Wales that was later paved by the Romans from London to Dover. A section of Watling Street still exists in the City of London. Modern chroniclers have attributed the origins of London to the Romans. Julius Caesar had passed through during his invasion of 54 BC, but it was the invasion of AD 43 that signaled the arrival of the Romans as a permanency. London was either occupied or founded by Aulus Plautius, the first governor of Britain. 

In 60/1 AD the so-called Battle of Watling Street took place between an alliance of indigenous Brythonic tribes and the Romans. Though severely outnumbered, the Romans held their ground and gained victory which secured Roman rule in Britain, a period that lasted until 410. The precise location of the battle is not known, but most historians place it on the Roman Road, now known as Watling Street, between London and Wroxeter in Shropshire. There remain abundant traces of Roman London, an era in which Britain was an integral part of Europe. In its glory days, Roman London may have numbered some 25,000 inhabitants. With the departure of the Romans, London’s civilisation crumbled quickly. It was not until the arrival of a new wave of immigrants after the Norman Conquest that London resumed and recovered its early development.

London Cries and Immigrant Eyes : Bow Street (Covent Garden)

Pictures of street hawkers, with their trade shouts and slogans recorded in captions of poetry or prose, are known as ‘Cries’. They first appeared in Paris around 1500. This early creation of an urban iconography included socially marginal people, such as vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, and others. Fifty years later, these images were established as a stylistic category across Europe. The ‘Cries of London’ is one of the oldest genres in English art. The first ensembles appeared at the beginning of the 1600s. What was the original appeal of the genre?

Around 1570, nearly fifteen per cent of London’s population consisted of vagrants. The dissolution of the monasteries and the disbanding of the armies returning from recent wars contributed to the multiplication of the homeless. For many, life was lived in the street. Men, women and children competed with each other to pull through, trying to sell whatever they could lay their hands on. The ‘Cries’ are an expression of this tumultuous London. They survive in art and music. The idea of writing musical pieces based on – or actually quoting – street cries was not unusual in the Renaissance. One of the first examples of such an attempt was Clément Janequin’s Cris de Paris (1528). Most pieces of this genre however were written in Elizabethan England when it became (briefly) a fashion to incorporate the cries of street traders into consort works for viol and singers. Oxford-born, but Cambridge-educated Orlando Gibbons (he sang in the Choir of King’s College between 1596 and 1598 and took his degree of Bachelor of Music here) was the leading English composer of his generation, holding positions as organist of the Royal Chapel, as keyboard player at the court of Charles I, and finally as organist at Westminster Abbey. He is known for his substantial oeuvre of sacred choral music, but his evocative Cries of London (composed in the early seventeenth century) is one of the most remarkable consort songs of the period. 

The end of the Interregnum brought about an explosion of energy in the capital. Soon after the Restoration the buzzing London streets were mirrored in prints and drawings. This renewed passion for the pictorial arts resulted in the production of a large number of Cries that started in the 1670s and lasted well into the nineteenth century. The calamity of the Great Fire had robbed the city of hundreds of its shops and half of its public markets. Large numbers of hawkers flocked to the capital to supply the population with food, practical services, news and various other demands. They made themselves heard. London was noisier than ever. The vendor’s cries in addition to all the other urban noises – from ballad singers to barrel organs – brought a cacophony of music to the street. Many of the more melodic phrases were subsequently incorporated into larger musical works (Handel used street cries in one of the movements of his 1738 opera Xerxes). Pictorially, the London Cries survive in three formats: as broadsheet panels of engravings, as ensembles of individual prints, and as illustrated books. It is remarkable that an immigrant artist – with the sharp eye of an outsider – grasped this vital aspect of London street life in greater detail and vivacity than any of his native contemporaries or predecessors.

Around 1660 Hague-born artist Marcellus Laroon, son of the French Huguenot portrait and landscape painter Marcel Lauron, moved from the Netherlands to Britain. After a rich marriage to Elizabeth Keene, a builder’s daughter of Little Sutton near Chiswick, the couple settled at no. 4 Bow Street, Covent Garden. This area was the capital’s hedonistic heart, attracting actors, acrobats, musicians, writers, poets, pimps, whores, and criminals. Its main establishments were the Shakespeare’s Head tavern and the Bedford Coffee House where at some time or another Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Foote, Tobias Smollett or Henry Fielding would enjoy a drink or two and meet fellow artists. Covent Garden was an inspiration to them, an incubator of creativity. Laroon quickly gained a reputation for his drawings of entertainers and street traders. He was able to observe his subjects closely as they passed his house on their way to London’s busy fruit and vegetable market. The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life was originally published in 1687 by Pierce Tempest, and reprinted by him in 1688, 1689 and 1709. The seventy-four plates depict the cries and costumes (a grammar of costume that today is of considerable value to social historians) of the street vendors of London. Below the frame, the words of the hawker’s cry appears in English, French, and Italian. The publisher was acutely aware of the commercial value of these prints. 

Laroon’s ensemble of prints is far more sophisticated than any of its precursors and would forever change the way in which street merchants were pictured in British art. The early depictions of hawkers were type characters; they represented their trade and nothing more than that. Laroon’s London vendors by contrast are individuals, a class of people with their own energy, sparkle and mannerisms. He showed his persona exactly as he had seen them (including their deformities), simpletons, charlatans, religious fanatics, industrious workers, drunken drifters, shameless women, etc. Many of the figures depict actual persons who were known to the locals. The peddlers in The Cryes of London are observed without sentimentality, none of them are idealized or caricatured. The final edition from the original copperplates was printed in 1821. They inspired numerous inferior copies, children’s books, and a set of figurines by Johann Joachim Kändler, the most important modeller of Meissen’s porcelain manufacturers.

Plate nine of The Cryes of the City of London is that of a female eel-monger (‘Buy my Dish of great Eeles’ – in fact, six of the seventy-four vendors represented in the ensemble are fishmongers mirroring the prominence of seafood in the capital’s diet). It shows a vigorous young woman carrying her merchandise of wet fish on her head. London fishwives had the reputation of devil-may-care women. They were known as ‘the wives of Billingsgate’ or otherwise as ‘fish-fags’. They smoked pipes of tobacco, took snuff, drank gin, and were known for their colourful language. A 1736 dictionary defines a ‘Billingsgate’ as a scolding, impudent slut. Billingsgate is remembered in a number of sayings: that’s Billingsgate (vulgar and coarse); to talk Billingsgate (to slang or to scold); you are no better than a Billingsgate fish-fag (ill-mannered). These fishwives lived a precarious life as their income was highly unreliable. They had every reason to shriek. Their trade shifted from fish vendor to orange girl on one day, or from domestic work to whore on another, depending on the (mis)fortunes of the moment. The original concept of Cries as a genre was a first attempt to create an urban dictionary. It took the eyes (and ears) of an immigrant to fully appreciate the multi-coloured tapestry of London society.

Johann Joachim Kändler’s porcelain figure group of ‘The London Beggar’ (Meissen – from Laroon’s Cries of London), ca. 1754.