ABC of City of London Wards

This is the second post about the wards that make up the the City of London. You can find the post about Aldersgate HERE

The City of London is divided into 25 wards. These wards are a survival of the medieval governmental system that allowed very small areas to exist as self-governing units within the wider city. The wards appear to have taken shape by the early 11th century, before the Norman conquest of England. Their administrative, judicial and militia purposes made them equivalent to hundreds in the shires. The primary purpose of wards that had a gate on the city wall, appears to be the defence of that gate, as this would have been the weakest points in the fortifications.


Aldgate Ward (Highlighted)

Aldgate was another of the gates in the former defensive wall around the City of London.

It gives its name to Aldgate High Street, the first stretch of the A11 road, known as Gread Road in Roman times, which included the site of the former gate. The meaning of the name “Aldgate” is unclear. It is first recorded in 1052 as Æst geat (East Gate) but had become Alegate by 1108. Writing in the 16th century, John Stow derived the name from “Old Gate” (Aeld Gate).

The gateway that gives the ward its name was probably built with two circular towers and stood at the corner of the modern Duke’s Place, on the east side of the City. It was rebuilt in the early 1100s, again in 1215, and reconstructed completely in 1607. Like London’s other gates, Aldgate was fortified with portcullises in 1377 due to concerns about potential attacks by the French. The gate was finally removed in 1761. While he was a customs official, in the 1370s Geoffrey Chaucer occupied apartments above the gate,where he wrote some of his poems. The City of London’s aldermen came up with the idea of renting out the space over the City gates earlier in the 1300s. Much sought after due to their location, the rooms were rough hewn and not at all comfortable, design for military occupancy.

Apart from Aldgate High Street, the two other main roads are Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street. Fenchurch Street station is a main line station serving East London and Essex. Opened in 1841 it was the first station to be opened within the City of London and is thought to stand on the site of a Roman fortification erected in the aftermath of Bodica’s devastating attack on the city of Londinium in 60 AD.

St Andrew Undershaft

Pre 1666 there were three churches in the ward. St Katherine Coleman, St Katherine Cree and St Andrew Undershaft. St Katherine Coleman was an old church even in 1666, John Stow writing in 1565 says that the church had subsided so much you had to go down seven steps to get to the front door. It was located on the south side of Fenchurch Street, it narrowly escaped destruction during the Great Fire, but was rebuilt in the eighteenth century. The church closed in November 1926 and was demolished soon afterwards. St Katherine Cree was founded around 1280. It was rebuilt in 1628 and escaped the ravages of the fire and came through the Blitz relatively unscathed and still stands today. The original St Andrew’s dates from around the 1140s, but the building you can see today dates from 1532. It sits on St Mary’s Axe just next to the Gherkin. The name “Undershaft” comes from the shaft of the Maypole that was set up each year opposite the church.

Aldgate, like many other wards was a hard place to make a living and records of the 1300s show that it could also be a violent place. Sometimes it was those nearest to you that could prove most of a threat. In 1326 a Fishmonger William Mysone was involved in what we would term as a “domestic” with his mistress Isabella Heyron. Back then the City imposed a strict curfew, 9pm in summer, and 8pm in winter. People would come inside, put out their fires and stay off the streets. Anyone out after curfew was up assumed to be up to no good, and could be arrested. After the curfew bell had been rung an argument started between the couple and neighbours reported hearing raised voices. The tone of the argument increased and there were reports of breaking pottery. Suddenly the door burst open and the couple tumbled out into the street and blows were exchanged. Isabella brandishing a large “Trenchour” knife (similar to a large steak knife) plunged it into Williams breast. The man collapsed to the ground and Isabella ran off into the night. William died of his injuries two days later and Isabella was never seen again. As normal in medieval cases such as this, the possessions of the accused were seized by the court and sold off, although it’s unclear who pocketed the money. Isabella’s possessions ran to a small brass pot for cooking, woollen bed clothes and a small wooden chest with “trifling contents”.

Aldgate Pump

Aldgate ward has a number of landmarks within its boundaries. The most famous is Aldgate pump which sits at the confluence of Aldgate, Fenchurch and Leadenhall streets. The origins can be traced back to the reign of King John in the early 1200s. The well was fed by one of London’s many underground streams and the water was praised for being “bright, sparkling, and cool, and of an agreeable taste”. However as london grew and the number of burial grounds outside the City increased the water took on a less efficacious quality as decaying organic matter from adjoining graveyards, and the leaching of calcium from the bones of the dead tainted the water. Several hundred people died during what became known as the Aldgate Pump Epidemic due to drinking the contaminated water.

The pump has a spout representing a wolf head, as the area is supposed to be where the last wolf was shot in the City of London. Although inside the line of the City walls, the pump is taken as the starting point for the East End and the term “East of Aldgate pump” was used to differentiate between the East End and the City. It also has other cultural references. As Cockney Rhyming Slang; “Aldgate Pump“, or just “Aldgate” for short, rhymes with “get (or take) the. hump”, i.e. to be annoyed. A “draft on Aldgate Pump” refers to a harmful, worthless or fraudulent financial transaction, such as a bouncing cheque. The pun is on a draught (or draft) of water and a draft of money.

A short distance from the pump is the street known as Bevis Marks. The street name has been recorded as Bewesmarkes (1407), Bevys Marke (1450), Bevesmarkes (1513), Bevers-market (1630), and Beavis Markes (1677), prior to Bevis Marks (since 1720). It is believed the name to derive from the Abbots of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, but frustratingly there’s no explanation that I can find about how that translates to todays name. The street is the site of Bevis Marks Synagogue which was built in 1701 and is the oldest Synagogue in the UK.

As mentioned earlier Aldgate contains the iconic Gherkin building, its formal name is 30 St Mary Axe. The building opened in 2004 has 41 floors and is 180 metres (591 ft) tall. The building stands on the former sites of the Baltic Exchange and Chamber of Shipping, both were severely damaged in 1992 in the Baltic Exchange bombing when an explosive device was placed in St Mary Axe by the Provisional IRA killing three people. The site was cleared for reconstructed in 1995, and during an archeological investigation by Museum of London Archaeology, made the discovery of the remains of young Roman girl. Investigations concluded that she died over 1,600 years ago, between 350 – 400 AD, towards the end of the Roman occupation.

It’s a nice connection between the old Roman and the modern 21st Century London.

Published by endean0

Hi, I'm Steve, a London tour guide and owner of A London Miscellany Tours, a guided walking tour company who specialise in small number tours of the greatest city in the world!

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