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John Stow’s Survey of London

Much of what we know today, both of medieval and Elizabethan London owes a great deal to the tireless efforts of John Stow (1525 - 1603), the city's self-appointed surveyor and chronicler. A tailor by profession, Stow devoted every spare hour and penny to researching the history of the nation in general, and its capital in particular. The fruits of his labours are found in his many chronicle histories of England and in the enduring Survey of London (1598; expanded edition 1603). The Survey traverses London and its suburbs methodically, street by street, describing churches and alehouses alike. The wards of the city of London greatly interested Stow and his history concentrated on these areas of ‘olde time broken into diverse partes’.

Since Norman times or perhaps earlier, the City of London has been divided into wards, or administrative areas, each with annually elected Common Councillors and a lifetime Aldermann. In the past, they were responsible for the watch (policing), sanitation and upkeep of the ward although today the role is largely nominal but each ward can hold its own court (a wardmote).

There are twenty-five wards, each with curious boundaries and different shapes and sizes. The reason for this has been lost in time but it is likely that they were originally territories owned by city barons and hereditary proprietors.

When Strype produced his illustrated editions of Stow, he wanted them mapped. These first appeared in 1720 and over time artists embellished them with pictures of buildings, cartouches and other decorations. Among the most attractive were those drawn by Benjamin Cole, who updated them in 1755 for William Maitland’s History of London,  producing seventeen ward maps. 

Here are a few pieces from the collection:

Cheape Ward

Cheape (meaning market) stretches west to east from Milk Street and Hony Lane to the Grocers Hall and St. Mildred’s Poultry church; and north to south from Guildhall to Cheapside. Stow observes its inhabitants are mainly Grocers, Apothecaries and Ironmongers. 

In pride of place at the top of New Kings Street lies Guild Hall. Built in c.1411 in an era when the Lord Mayor of London rivalled the monarch for influence and prestige, Guild Hall was where he and the ruling merchant class held court and fine-tuned the laws and trading regulations that helped create London’s wealth.

The Grocer’s Hall is another clearly represented institution marked on the map. Starting from just a few stalls around 1345, the Company of Grocers became one of the twelve great livery companies of the City of London.

Stow’s description of Cheape Ward notes a number of religious and historically interesting buildings, many hugely affected by the reformation. The Parish of St Mildred for example, ‘founded by one named Ionirunnes a Citizen of London, in the raigne of Edward the third’, was suppressed by Henry VIII during the reformation and turned into a warehouse of shops with lodgings over them.


The Tower Liberty 

The Tower of London is to this day one of the most iconic buildings in British History. Stow honours this castle and fortress with a complete chronological text of its history.  

‘in a fayre Register booke containing the acts of the Bishops of Rochester, set downe by Edmond de Hadenham, that William the first, surnamed Conquerour, builded the Tower of London, to wit, the great white and square Tower there, about the yeare of Christ 1078.’

The White Tower which gives the entire castle its name was built by William the Conqueror in 1078.

As can be seen in this map, the Tower is a complex of several buildings set within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat.  There were several phases of expansion, mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. From this point the general layout is established  despite later activity on the site. In the late 15th century the castle was the prison of the Princes in the Tower. Under the Tudors,  the Tower became used less as a royal residence and, despite attempts to refortify and repair the castle, its defences became dated.

The Tower of London has played a prominent role in English history. Controlling it had become key to controlling the rest of the country. Yet not only a power house the Tower has served variously as an armoury, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels.

‘This tower is a Citadell, to defend or commaund the Citie: a royall place for assemblies, and treaties. A Prison of estate, for the most daungerous offenders: the onely place of coynage for all England at this time: the armorie for warlike prouision: the Treasurie of the ornaments and Jewels of the crowne, and generall conseruer of the most Recordes of the kings Courts of iustice at Westminster.’

Today the Tower of London is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. It is cared for by the charity Historic Royal Palaces and is protected as a World Heritage Site.


Billingsgate Ward and Bridge Ward

Billingsgate Ward stretches east from Dowgate Ward to Tower Ward in the West, and South from Southwark to the top of Churchgate Street. Bridge Ward lies within Billingsgate, covering mainly London Bridge.

The great focus of these wards, the Billingsgate port, just West of London Bridge is described by Stow:

‘Belinsgate whereof the whole warde taketh name, the which (leauing out of the fable thereof, faigning it to be builded by King Beline a Briton, long before the incarnation of Christ) is at this present a large Watergate, Port or Harbrough for shippes and boats, commonly arriuing there with fish, both fresh and salt, shell fishes, salt, Orenges, Onions, and other fruits and rootes, wheate, Rie, and graine of diuers sorts for seruice of the Citie, and the parts of this Realme adioyning.’

For centuries this was the most important fish market on the riverside, providing an offloading bay for fruit, vegetable, grain, wheat and rye, as far up the river as it was possible for a ship to go. London Bridge rested on nineteen very wide arches acting, in effect, as a cut off point and a partial dam. At this time it was the only crossing from the South of the river into the city and functioned as an eighth medieval gate into the city.

Unlike the London Bridge we see today, Stow’s was encrusted with shops and houses that ran along its entire length:

‘all the Bridge is replenished on both the sides with large, fayre and beautifull buildinges, inhabitants for the most part rich marchantes, and other wealthy Citizens, Mercers and Haberdashers.’

These buildings attracted the public which intern caused huge problems with congestion, at peak times it could take up to four hours to cross the bridge. To escape this, people would pay to cross on small ferry boats with controlled rates, these were very much the taxi cabs of the river. Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831 and replaced with one of more modern design.

The monument by Christopher Wren was put up between 1671 and 1677 in commemoration of the Great Fire. This was before Stow’s time and is a feature that has been added by Cole. Just to the East of Monument is the infamous Pudding Lane, the site of the small baker’s shop in which the blaze on the night of the 1st September 1666 eventually led to the destruction of four fifths of the City of London[1].




[1] Davies, Andrew, The Map of London: From 1746 to Present, B. T. Batsford Ltd, London 1987.