ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL
Directly west of Cubitts Cheapside stands St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its glorious dome erupting towards the heavens. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren following the destruction of the original cathedral in 1666 during the Great Fire of London, this is one of the most grandiose buildings across the London skyline. At its core St. Paul’s is a functional church performing all the regular services you’d expect to find in any ordinary parish. However, as one of the nations most premier cathedrals, it wields a greater significance due to its importance in state-sponsored celebrations, ceremonies, and memorials.
Within St. Paul’s you’ll find the tombs of historical figures like Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Both have been memorialised as British war heroes and, at the time of their deaths in the nineteenth century, received spectacular state funerals and powerful memorials within the cathedral. Designed as a place where people could walk around freely and socialise, the church’s attitude shifted with their increased involvement in pompous state ceremonies during the nineteenth century and began to restrict access of who was free to congregate.
Today, St. Paul’s has returned to a public place with countless people attending open services and tourists exploring its history. The memorials to Nelson and Wellington largely fail to reflect modern London and the liturgical life of the cathedral. Our reaction to these figures now is more commonly less of admiration but of increased subtlety, recognising their conflicting histories and the shift in focus on the characters we choose to publicly celebrate.
A short walk away from St. Paul’s on King Edward Street rests Postman’s Park. A unique place in the City of London not only as one of its largest open spaces, but for the uncommon memorial situated within the park. Conceived by George Frederic Watts in 1887 is the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice; a wooden veranda featuring ceramic plaques honouring everyday acts of heroism. Visitors will see the names of civilians with a description of who they were and the acts of heroism that cost them their lives.
One reads, ‘Alfred Smith, Police Constable, Who was killed in an air raid while saving the lives of women and girls, June 13, 1917’.
Alfred was caught in the first daylight raid of the First World War covering a shift for a friend near Islington. As the bombs fell he barricaded the doors of a factory to prevent the women working there from fleeing into the streets where the assault was taking place. In the process he prevented himself from finding shelter and ultimately perished.
Another says, ‘Alice Ayres, Daughter of a bricklayer's labourer, Who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in Union Street Borough at the cost of her own young life, April 24, 1885’.
Caught in a fire above her brothers-in-law’s paint shop, Alice threw a feather bed to the street and dropped her three nieces in the building with her down to safety. Widely reported, press outlets across the country depicted Ayers as a maid who faithfully served her master instead of a family member trying to save her loved ones, creating a narrative of honourable servitude in the process.
Both Ayers' and Smith’s plaques portray a sense of duty and self-sacrifice, something Watts was keen on implying through a sort of didactic education. Inspiring people to live their lives in a way that reflected these heroes, the memorial acts as a form of moral guidance. Highly unique, this form of remembrance reconsiders what it means to be a ‘hero’ and its dedication to everyday people makes it something visitors want to associate with and can feel connected to.
Built by the Romans around 200 AD with further additions up through the medieval and modern period, the London Wall served as a fortress around the city of Londinium. Roughly 2 miles long in total, it covered an area from the Tower of London, around the city to Blackfriars, incorporating a pre-existing fortress in Cripplegate.
You can find a large section of the old London Wall situated on Noble Street. These remnants were discovered following the destruction of a textile factory during the Blitz, giving archaeologists the opportunity to excavate the site. Sitting far below street level, the wall is made up of a conglomerate of original Roman stone at its base with medieval and modern additions towards the top.
To the north, we can see further remains adjacent to the Barber Surgeons’ Hall that have since been incorporated into a garden. Finally, behind St. Giles-without-Cripplegate on the south side of the Barbican, visitors can see another large section of the London Wall featuring a large turret towards the right. Situated along the water, this portion of the wall recreates the moat that once existed outside of the original wall as a further deterrent to attackers.
Throughout the City of London there are many relics of the wall still intact. Mostly discovered following the extensive shelling of the region during the Second World War, the London Wall reflects the work of Roman, medieval, and modern citizens building on those who came before, showcasing how much the City has changed since its early beginnings. Helping to give London its historical identity and character, today the wall sits among many of the City’s modern developments as a highly visual reminder of the expansive history of London.
Arguably the heart of the City of London, the magnificent Guildhall stands proudly at its centre, full of gothic grandeur. This building has served as the ceremonial and administrative headquarters of the City of London’s governing body since at least the 15th century. The oldest parts of this site dating back around 2000 years having been built on the site of a Roman amphitheatre. Its ruins can be visited beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery.
Demonstrating the power of the City’s merchants who controlled trade, the current Guildhall building was constructed in 1440 at a time when the Lord Mayor of London rivalled the monarchy for power and prestige. Many of these livery companies still operate today supporting their respective trades and perform ceremonial roles. In modern times, the City’s economic power has shifted more towards financial and legal services rather than traditional merchant services.
Holding royal and state events for over 600 years, its role as a ceremonial venue continues to cement the development of community and identity within the City. Home to its governing body, the traditions that take place here are both a novelty as well as a powerful tool to reinforce exclusivity and power among those who hold it. Its enduring historical legacy fortifies much of the distinct character of the Square Mile.
Back in view of Cubitts Cheapside, we stand at our final location, St. Mary-le-Bow, one of fifty-two churches Sir Christopher Wren resurrected following the Great Fire of London. Known for its Bow Bells, this church has a special significance in London folklore as the guiding sound for the City’s most famous Lord Mayor, Dick Whittington, to return to London. The bells ring has also been used as an a loose form of criteria in determining a person's identity. Since as far back as the 17th century, those born within the bell's earshot have been dubbed as 'cockneys', an identity unique to London with its community adopting a distinct accent which has been iconised in the likes of Michael Caine, Ray Winstone, and Del Boy.
Finishing our tour here seems appropriate when thinking about how the City’s historical landscape shapes the identity and memory of the area. Much of the City of London’s landscape has changed dramatically, having been destroyed either by the Great Fire or during the Blitz. What has kept its character alive are these stories and traditions that survive beyond the many physical landmarks. As the Square Mile’s newest resident, Cubitts Cheapside sees itself as a small part of that local history which builds the City’s great character.