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For today’s walk, I chose St John Street, Islington. The street is named after the Priory of St John that was sited hereabouts but more about that anon.
One of the things I like about London (and most old cities, in fact) is that you discover vestiges of a more elegant past squeezed in among the modern buildings. Here is a good example. It’s just a pity that in a less sensitive age the ground floor was vandalized to make the shop.
This shop also intrigues me because it wears part of its history on its sleeve, so to speak. These days, an unassuming notice in the window identifies the business as “M & T Meats” and Mr Bland and his unnamed successor are long gone. I think that it is such hints of past lives that gives history its resonance.
It seems strange to us today that when business people of the Victorian and Edwardian eras built shops and warehouses, they made their names—and often, even their prices—a permanent part of the fabric. Everything changes so fast these days that this practice has been abandoned, though survivors still remain, usually put to other uses.
For example, have you ever owned an Ingersoll watch? The American Ingersoll brothers founded a mail order company selling goods at one dollar at the end of the 19th century. When they added the one-dollar watch to their catalogue, the business really took off. Millions were sold and they humorously boasted that theirs was “The watch that made the dollar famous!”
The Ingersolls started making watches in the UK, selling them for 5 shillings (25p), the then sterling equivalent of the US dollar. Thus the brand became established here. You can still buy Ingersoll watches, both antiques and brand new, but the Ingersoll company is long gone. The factory proudly bears the name though it has been put to other uses.
I am hopeless at geography. I failed it comprehensively at O Level and never bothered with it again. That’s why I was genuinely surprised to look along St John Street and see St Paul’s Cathedral. Small world!
Off St John Street runs another famous thoroughfare, Clerkenwell Road, and in that road you will find this lovely shop.
This is where I took my father’s pocket watch to see if it could be repaired. It’s a family business and stands on a site that has accommodated watch and clock makers and repairers since time immemorial. You will find more information about this on their slightly chaotic Web site.
Here is another example of something I mentioned above: a fine old building—dated 1899, this one—squeezed between newer ones.
This is a pub called the White Bear, and judging by the number of floors, in must also have been a hotel. I wonder how many buildings put up in 1999 will still be standing in 2109? Not many, I would guess.
St John Street used to be a main thoroughfare for cattle on the way to market. The market in question, one of the oldest in London, was the city’s main one for meat. Here the cattle were bought and sold, slaughtered and butchered. Poultry, cheese and all sorts of foodstuffs were also sold there.
A vegetarian of course regards Smithfield and its sordid history of animal cruelty with horror. Its importance in the history of London, however, cannot be ignored.
Just off St John Street and connecting St John’s Lane with St John’s Square is St John’s Gate. According to a plaque within the gate, it was built in 1504 as the main gate of the Priory of the Knights of St John.
Today it is the headquarters and museum of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and its two charities, the St John Ambulance, whose uniformed members are a familiar sight at public events, and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.
I have not yet visited the museum and am leaving that for a rainy day! More information may be found here.
On the way home, I popped into Sekforde Street to take a look at this astonishing building. Once a savings bank, it is now an office block. Built in 1840, the Finsbury Bank for Savings was intended to be used by local tradesmen and workers and Charles Dickens is also reputed to have been a customer.
An amusing detail is that, large as the building is, its street number is 18-and-a-half, as you might be able to see from the brass plate pictured here. (Click to enlarge.)
My last picture is of the Queen Boadicea pub. I often pass this pub (I haven’t been inside so far) and think it is quite a handsome design, though I don’t know anything about its history. You may be able to see an effigy of the Queen herself in the form of a ship’s figurehead placed over the door. One of these days I’ll take a look at the interior.