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Hidden History of London

London's Hidden History

Whose face is on the back of the new five pound note? No don't look - it's Elizabeth Fry. Who's she? Well, Elizabeth was born in 1780 and had eleven children; as if that alone was not a claim to fame she was also a leading Quaker prison reformer. She transformed the lives of countless thousands of prisoners, convicts and homeless people. Her ideas on criminal justice are still practised today. Elizabeth lived in St Mildreds Court right outside Bank station.

Her brother Samuel Gurney, also a prison reformer, lived in Stratford. So if the Docklands Light Railway had been around in the 1700s Elizabeth could have visited Samuel in under 30 minutes, changing at Poplar!

A short walk from the Bank along Gresham Street you will find the Guildhall, for more than 800 years the seat of the City's administration and headquarters of the Corporation of London. Once the site of such famous trials as Archbishop Cranmer in 1553 and Lady Jane Grey in 1556.

Architecturally the building no longer reflects the majestic glory it once did as it was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz in 1940. But the Great Hall has been grandly restored and not to be missed are the two awesome wooden statues of the giants Gog and Magog, the tutelary spirits of London, though sadly not the originals.

Gog and Magog, the traditional guardians of the City dating back to pre-Christian days, represent the legendary conflict between the ancient Britons and the Trojan invaders led by Brutus. This struggle resulted in the founding of New Troy which is where London now stands.

The Giants have been carried in the annual Lord Mayors show since the reign of Henry V. The originals carved by Richard Saunders in 1708 took the place of much older wickerwork figures, which used to be carried in City pageants, "to make the people wonder". The people of London are still wondering!

The Saunders statues were destroyed in The Blitz but have been faithfully replaced with a pair carved in limewood by David Evans in 1954. They stand 9 feet 3 inches tall - Gogs did not work in metric. The phoenix on Magog's shield symbolises renewal after fire. Worth the detour.

Now cut through King Street and aim for the church of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside. One of the first buildings re-erected by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire it stands on a site of a Norman Church. Clever those Norman's - it was known as Norman wisdom! You will be impressed by the graceful white steeple set upon a granite obelisk tower which soars over 235 feet. Wren did not work in metric either!

This church is the best-known sight and sound landmark in the City with its steeple crowned by a huge golden dragon weathercock and of course the bells, the bells! Being born in the sound of Bow Bells makes you a true Cockney but it was also these bells that Dick Whittington (he's behind you!) heard saying to him as he sat on the Highgate milestone:

"Turn again Whittington
Thrice Lord Mayor of London"

Obeying their summons in 1420, he became the most famous Mayor of London - sorry Ken!

Around the corner in Bread Street John Milton, the poet, was born. Try to find his crumbling plaque on the church wall. But more intriguing standing in the small churchyard is a statue of Captain John Smith (1580-1631), a cordwainer before a captain. What's a cordwainer? A leather worker. In the 16th century this was where shoes and boots were made. Anyway where were we? oh yes, Captain Smith, he rose to become Governor of Virginia and Admiral of New England.

We have our second cross-reference, see the monument at Virginia Quay, by East India station, erected to celebrate the first settlers to depart for the New World. Take the DLR from Bank and you will be in East India via Beckton line, 15 minutes max!

Down Bow Lane past St Mary Aldemary, unusually a venture into the Perpendicular style by Wren. C'mon keep up! On into Queen Victoria Street and do not forget to stop at the best-preserved Roman Temple remains in the City, the Temple of Mithras. Only the foundations to be seen - so on to our next stop, St Stephen Walbrook built between 1672 and 1679.

Make time to spend in this magnificent Wren parish church and the Lord Mayor's official place of worship. Some say this is Sir Christopher's finest architectural design after St Paul's Cathedral, please see for yourself.

Marvel at a church of great space and light but built on what is really a very small site. Wren created the effect by building sixteen Corinthian columns supporting a central cupola. The interior is a mix of the old and the new - the wood fittings by Grinling Gibbons sit alongside the central altar carved from one piece of of stone by Henry Moore, our finest twentieth century sculpturer.

But the hidden gem is the original Samaritan's black Bakelite telephone - the number was MAN 9000 (now 08457 909090), which is proudly displayed in a glass case. Dr Chad Varah, the rector, founded the Samaritans at St Stephen Walbrook on November 1, 1953 with his secretary, Vivian, and himself taking turns to answer this very phone! Samaritan befriending has saved thousand of lives in Britain and in 1974 Chad founded Befrienders International - the organisation now has over 20,000 volunteers in over 200 branches. Respect!

South towards the Thames and turn into Cannon Street. Eyes peeled or you will miss this. Set into the wall of 111 Cannon Street, the offices of The Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation is the historic but forgotten "London Stone", a solid block of oolite limestone. See it, impressed?

It probably dates - no one actually knows - from Roman times and one story suggests that it could have been a stone from an altar built by Brutus of Troy, the founder of London - echoes of Gogs! Alternatively it might have been a milestone as it was once set in the ground on the other side of the road to where it now stands. We do know that in 1742 it was moved across the road and built into a wall of the now demolished St Swithin's church.

William Blake, poet and painter, thought it marked the place of Druid executions, whose victims were heard to "groan aloud on the London Stone". Sounds a bit like the sound commuters make as they leave Bank station on the way to work!

Up King William Street and before disappearing down Bank station take a moment to study the Victorian statue of James Henry Greathead 1844-1896, sited outside the main entrance to the Royal Exchange. He was Chief Engineer of the City and South London Railway and the inventor of the travelling shield. What? This invention made it possible to cut the deep tunnels for the underground train system.

Up Cornhill, past the 1799 hand fire pump erected by the Bank of England and the East India Company on the site of an ancient well "built thereon by Henry Willis Mayor of London 1282", London's second most famous Mayor! Behind the Royal Exchange you will find a courtyard of fascinating statues.

Paul Julius Reuter, 1816-1899, founder of the World News Organisation, is there so are two charming Victorian drinking fountains but you must seek out the statue of George Peabody, an American banker, 1795-1869. Have you heard of the Peabody Buildings? Still standing after all these years!

George was a great philanthropist in the company of other reformers at the time such as Charles Dickens and Lord Shaftsbury. Peabody helped Abraham Lincoln get the support of Great Britain during the American Civil War even though the English aristocracy mainly supported the Confederacy.

But a little known fact is that he financed an expedition to search for Sir John Franklin, lost in the Artic trying to find the North West Passage. Please remember the name Bellot, Why? Wait until we get to Greenwich to find out, only twenty five minutes from the Bank on DLR's fast and frequent service.

Peabody, born in Danver Massachusetts, is revered for donating hundreds of thousands of pounds to build affordable housing for London's poor working class. George, we need you again!

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