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.
The ward is named after Basinghall, the mansion house of the Bassing (or Basing) family, who were prominent in the City beginning in the 13th century. King Henry III granted Adam de Basing “certain houses in Aldermanbury and in Milk-street; the advowson (or right to appoint) the clergy of the church at Bassings hall; with other liberties and privileges”. John Leake’s 1667 map of the City of London refers to the ward as “Basinghall ward“.
This was once a very small ward bounded on the east and south, by Coleman street ward on the north by Cripplegate ward and on the west by Cripplegate and Cheap wards, however due to boundary changes over the centuries and more recently in 2003 it is now much larger and for the purpose of this post, I’m going to focus on the earlier smaller ward. It has one main street today known as Basinghall Street, which back in medieval times was called Basinghawe.
Bassishaw ward was the home for many important buildings. The Blackwell Hall was a large stone building that was the private residence of the De Bankwell family who had built the hall in the early 1200s. In 1395 under the direction of the then Lord Mayor Richard Whittington the hall was purchased by the City corporation and turned into the venue for a large cloth market. The market was established to allow people from outside the City and foreigners to buy and sell cloth, a practice that was heavily controlled by the City’s guilds involved in cloth manufacture. It was rebuilt in 1588 and again after the Great Fire, and demolished along with the adjoining chapel in 1820.
The Coopers Hall started out as a house called The Swan once owned by a John Baker who bequeathed the property and surrounding land to the Coopers guild in 1522. Twenty five years later the property became too small to comfortably conduct the guild’s business, so a new purpose built hall was constructed in an adjoining yard in 1547. The guild’s timing could not have been worse, because even before the building was completed an Act of Parliament decreed that all property bequeathed “for superstitious uses” was to be confiscated by the Crown. However, the act was passed because the Crown needed to raise funds as it was short of cash, so in 1550 all the City Companies recovered their confiscated estates by payment of a large sum of money. The Coopers’ share was £19 and this was raised by appealing to the members. The new hall lasted until the 5th September, 1666 when it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Luckily for the Coopers all of their Plate and company records had been removed the day before due to a refurbishment and stored in the house of Mr. Morris, the Upper Warden. The hall went through two further restorations on the same site until December 1940 when it fell victim to enemy bombing raids and it wasn’t until 1958 that the Coopers moved into their present home of Devonshire Square, after spending nearly twenty years holding their meetings in the halls of other Livery Companies.
The ward was also home to the Girdler, Weavers and Mason’s companies and possessed only one church, St. Michael Bassishaw dedicated to St. Michael the archangel. Destroyed in 1666 it was rebuilt and survived until 1900 when it was demolished.
I always like to find some instances of everyday life within the ward I’m writing about, but in this instance the ward seems to have been a relatively quiet one, perhaps due to it’s small size, however I did come across two occurrences. The first dates from 1315, when an old man known as Thomas of Malmesbury was brutally murdered in his own home. It appears that one of his tenants, John of Bakewell had recently died and shortly after the death his son, also called John visited the house to take his fathers possessions. It appears that the son had no claim on these and Thomas would not give him access to the room. A argument breaks out and Thomas leaves the house to visit the chapel next to the Blackwell Hall. The son follows him and knocks him down, stabbing him in the neck and the stomach from which he instantly dies. The son evades capture but the records show that he was arrested on another charge two years later.
The second dates from the 18th century and revolves around a vote rigging scandal during the election of the Lord Mayor. In 1772 the election of the Lord Mayor centered around two candidates, James Townsend, Alderman of the Bishopsgate ward and leader of the Whig party (an approximation of todays Liberals) in London, and his one time friend and now bitter enemy and rival John Wilkes, the Tory Sherriff of London. Following a bitterly fought campaign Wilkes topped the ballot, but due to malpractice by some officials Townsend was elected Mayor. Things came to a head during the Lord Mayor’s procession on the 9th November 1772, when Townsend left the Guildhall, part of which was in the Bassishaw ward. By the time of his return for a ball to be held in his honour a sizeable crowd had gathered around the area of Blackwell Hall from where the Guildhall could be accessed. As the afternoon went by the crowd grew larger and more vociferous in their protests against the vote rigging and the election of a supporter of the then unpopular (with the common man) Whig party. The upper classes that arrived to attend the Ball had to run the gauntlet of the angry mob and scuffles led to fights and swords were drawn, ladies had their bags stolen and their ball gowns cut to ribbons and in some cases they were accosted and their hair cut off. One of the wards Sheriffs gave the following testimony regarding the crowds behaviour, “I had afterwards a very large stone flung upon my foot, which made me limp for several days, but after they had wantonly entertained themselves this way, we found showers of glass come upon us; which, by enquiry, we found to be the glass lamps they had broke. After this entertainment was over, we found showers of oil come upon us.” Townsend, by then safely cocooned within the hall seems to have been slow to react, but eventually called for the Artillery Company to attend. Even so it looks as if it took until the early hours of the following morning to quell the riot and make the rioters disperse. Even though the vote rigging seemed to be common knowledge Townsend saw out the tenure of his Mayoral position, although his coat of arms was taken down from his local church in Bishopsgate. He was elected to parliament the year after the riot and seems to have been a very sharp political operator. This bad press usually obscures another fact about Townsend, that he was the first Black Lord Mayor as well as the first Black Member of Parliament.