Tag Archives: J.G. Birch

Limehouse Through Five Centuries

This is quite a wonderful and curious little history of Limehouse written by J.G. Birch, rector of St Anne’s Limehouse (one of my favourite Hawksmoor churches), in 1935. It is written part for the love of curious fact and part to takes issue with how Limehouse has been described by others — Burke’s titillating and orientalist descriptions in Limehouse Nights, or Walter Besant’s ‘sweeping assertion concerning the whole riverside population of East London: “thieves all–to a man.”‘ I just finished Besant’s East End, and it is indeed infuriating.

The Thames from Limehouse Bridge

This on the other hand, while no modern or definitive history by any stretch, is still full of details (perhaps too many details of great men and their exploits) and tantalising glimpses to be followed up perhaps. Like this one, about a brief uprising:

In 1697 there were some stormy times on the Limehouse quaysides, and news was brought to the Admiralty that “the mob in Limehouse intended to rise to demand the seamen’s pay.” History does not record how far Lord Lucas was successful in dealing with the situation and so we can only wonder what Mr John Coltman of Three Colt Street, who imported currants from France in the Zante frigate, thought about it all and what strenuous work Mr. Robert Hamlington, the constable, was called upon to do (25).

I rather fancy having a look for this dagger, and l rather hope it is one of the objects that have just come on display at the National Maritime Museum as a special exhibit of Trinity House:

In 1632 William Geere left the Dagger House, to pay £5 among the poorest merchant seamen’s widows annually on Michaelmas Day, and those who are curious about the tragic story which gave the house in Three Colt Street (since rebuilt) the name and sign it still bears, the Dagger House, must be content to know that there is a tradition that one brother killed another (presumably ancestors of the Geeres) in the house which formerly stood there, and to know that the dagger which used to hang outside it is still preserved at Trinity House on Tower Hill (29-30).

I love this look at transport, almost more for the knowledge that Commercial Road was so busy in 1935 — the level of traffic it bears today feels entirely modern and is truly terrible, I don’t know if it is comforting to think of it just the same almost one hundred years ago.

We find that the hamlet was linked to the city of London, not as now by Commercial Road (which was only completed in 1810). but by the famous Ratcliff Highway, and where now roars the ceaseless traffic from Dockland to the City along Commercial Road (and perhaps no thoroughfare in the world bears a heavier stream) then ran Rose Lane! (51-52)

Sad to think it once was full of roses.

This is a splendid quote from Christopher Wren, damning the practices of churches in which they rented seating — there have been some improvements, there is no doubt:

A church should not be so filled with pews but that the poor may have room to stand and sit in the alleys, for to them equally is the Gospel preached. It were to be wished that there were to be no pews but benches, but there is no stemming the tide of profit and the advantage of pewkeepers, especially since by pews in the chapel of ease the minister is chiefly supported. (58-59)

And I quite love this author, who condemns these old practices and wrestles with his church and its design — though I am not sure I agree with this entirely.

…and yet not from the very first has Limehouse Church really been felt to be, as it should be, the church of the poorest of its parishioners as truly as of the more wealthy residents. Possibly the great flight of seventeen stone steps to the church door has contributed towards disappointing the hopes of Christopher Wren and proved something of a stumbling-block to less prosperous parishioners. The indifferently clad like a less conspicuous approach. (59)

He rounds this off with nice note at the end on changes in Limehouse — namely his relief at the end of the old tradition that the Rector drive to to the church in a carriage and pair, even though the rectory stood only a couple hundred yards away

‘We think this strange Victorian custom certainly did not survive the 1880s. “Rectors,” said an old pew-opener, bewailing the degenerate days of 1887– “Rectors are more of a working class nowadays.” What an unintentional compliment! (152)

There is, as you would imagine, a good history of the church, yet sadly none of the fascinating speculation on Hawksmoor and all of his occult leanings. The foundation stone for St Anne’s was laid in 1712 and completed in 1724. Apparently there is a legend that because Hawksmoor was building St Anne’s Limehouse at the same time as St George’s-in-the-east and Spitalfields, and St George’s Bloomsbury that the drawings for the latter and for Limehouse were mixed up.

St Anne's Limehouse

There is sadly, nothing at all about the pyramid. I had forgotten that there was a fire — sad, but these old prints are quite wonderful.

Burning of St Anne's, Limehouse

There is a mention of Dickens of course, writing Our Mutual Friend, setting Rogue Riderhood near Limehouse Hole (just a memory even then), drinking at the Grapes which still stands and was the model for the ‘The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters’, though the Harbour Master’s house was pulled down in 1923.

Harbor Master's House, Limehouse

But my favourite things of all, the best things I’ve read in a very long time, are these excerpts from the master of the workhouse’s diaries:

October 7th, 1833Two of our boys, the younger Brown and Mafflin, refused to work this morning, because I did not let them out yesterday, and now they are on the top of the dead house, and will not come down. Mafflin could not have got there without assistance as he had got the log on.

October 22nd, 1833The boy Mafflin having done no work yesterday had no supper, and directly after, about half a dozen of the boys mounted upon the slates, and began singing as loud as they could, as if in bravado. Being dark I could not tell who they were, except that Stiles and Mafflin were the leaders.

October 28th, 1833 — Stiles and Mafflin were keeping up a fine game, on the roofs, all yesterday morning. In the afternoon not being able to bear it any longer I caught Mafflin, gave him a rope’s end, and locked him up; the other was afterwards more quiet.

November 7th.– Mafflin and Blackburn went away over the wall again yesterday; theyw ere on the roof of the Laundry in the evening during prayer time, but I have not seen them since. (106)

Mafflin has all of my respect and admiration, and I shall raise a toast to him the next time I am able.

Near the end is this extraordinary picture of the area from this time, when the church was the tallest thing for miles. Now it is dwarfed by buildings that have been developed all around it, you catch glimpses of it here and there. How different this whole place must have felt… (this wouldn’t scan properly for some reason, so a picture with my shadow was the best I could do)

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