Yesterday’s trip to town started at St Sepulchre without Newgate, my “new experience of the day”. It is diagonally opposite the Old Bailey, the former site of Newgate Prison, on the junction of Newgate Street and Old Bailey. It’s celebrated in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons with the line: When will you pay me? say the Bells of Old Bailey.
St Sepulchre is one of the larger of our City churches, originally being in a well-populated parish outside the wall (“without Newgate”). In common with many of the others, it bears the scars of time. Although founded in the 12th Century and dedicated to St Edmund, the oldest parts of the extant building, namely the tower, the porch and the outer walls, date from the mid-16th century. Following severe damage in the Great Fire, the parishioners, too impatient to wait for Wren to get around to them, were able to engage one of his leading stonemasons to restore the church very quickly in 1670.
The Execution Bell
My main interest in the church is its relationship with Newgate Prison down the centuries, in particular with regard to condemned prisoners. These unfortunates, on the day of their execution, were literally carted from Newgate to Tyburn. On these particular days, and on no other, the bells of St Sepulcre were rung. From 1605 there began a macabre ritual whereby at midnight on the eve of execution, a man would go to the prison via a tunnel that ran underneath the street, stand outside the cell of the condemned, ring a handbell and recite a grisly rhyme:
All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all and pray: the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls
The Lord above have mercy on your soul.
As if the prisoners were not suitably traumatised already! Today the bell is displayed in a glass case in the church.
St Sepulchre is also the regimental church of the Royal Fusiliers, whose monument in High Holborn I referred to last week. The south aisle is dominated by their chapel, standards and battle honours. Some of their better known recruits, for all the wrong reasons, were the Kray twins, who did their national service with the regiment. Ronnie and Reggie ended up in the Tower for going AWOL!
In addition to all of this, from the mid-20th Century, St Sepulchre became known as the Musician’s Church and their are stained glass windows commemorating John Ireland, Sir Henry Wood and Dame Nellie Melba. The church frequently hosts recitals.
One last thing. In the middle of the south aisle, there is a stained glass window dedicated to Captain John Smith, early American pioneer of Pocahontas fame. He was a parishioner and is buried somewhere in the church, the exact location lost due to the Great Fire.
I cannot recommend too highly a visit to this fascinating church.
I nipped across the road to the Viaduct Tavern pub, wafted my London Historians card, and requested that the barmaid accompany me to the cells in the basement. Many sources claim that these cells were from Newgate prison. This is not possible. Far more likely that they were from Giltspur Street Compter, previously covered here. I took a few pictures, and took my leave.
Quick tube to Leicester Square and a stroll down Whitehall through driving rain past the Cenotaph to the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster. “Doing my bit” for Armistice Day. The builders’ hoardings that recently obscured the statues of World War II top brass field marshalls Montgomery, Alanbrook and Slim are now gone.
Dark now. Back up Whitehall to Covent Garden. I had an hour to kill, which I spent in Stanfords. Very dangerous. Managed to escape having spent just £27.50, could have been worse. London street map from 1891; two area maps (Charing Cross area, 1871 ; St Paul’s area map, 1873); Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday.
Northern Line to Warren Street and a short walk to UCL. Dark now. Nearly get killed crossing Tottenham Court Road when a gust of wind blows away my M&S tweed cap. Straight into a large puddle. Typical.
On to the UCL campus for the Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture by Professor Amanda Vickery. The topic was What did eighteenth-century men want? Professor Vickery told us how the modern image of bachelorhood as being a carefree, manly lifestyle – indeed, something to be admired among the Loaded generation – is quite the opposite of that during the 18th Century. Older bachelors were portrayed in art and literature as being physically poor specimens and social misfits. Failures in life. This was sharply in contrast to the manly head of the marital household: hard-working, worthy, virile, deserving. Professor Vickery illustrated all of this with very amusing slides and diary entries by seemingly rather naive young men, desperately wooing any eligible young ladies who socially crossed their bows.
Professor Vickery has presented history programmes on Radio 4 recently and her forthcoming series, At Home with the Georgians, airs in the very near future on BBC2. Look out for it.