54 – 55 Cornhill, EC3V
Cornhill is at the heart of the City of London’s financial centre, although many of today’s masters of the universe are now rusticated to Canary Wharf. Be that as it may, the street is still full of hustle and bustle, pedestrians grimly looking at their mobile devices as they move from one location to another, rarely ever taking any notice of their surroundings. A shame really because they miss a site of real antiquity and an unusual and long-lasting form of revenge.
Cornhill, as I have remarked before, is one of the two hills that dominated the City of London – the other being Ludgate Hill – before the contours of the land were masked by building development, some of it tasteful, most of the more modern incarnations, at least in my opinion, ghastly. Atop of Ludgate Hill was St Paul’s Cathedral and at the apex of Cornhill was St Peter’s Church.
There are claims that St Peter’s on Cornhill was the earliest place of Christian worship in Britain. Whilst this claim is hotly disputed, the church stood on the remains of an earlier Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Diana. Nonetheless, the church has a long pedigree and, inevitably, one of its incarnations was badly damaged during the Great Fire of 1666. Although the building was patched up by the parish, it was completely rebuilt between 1677 and 1684 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren at a cost of £5,647. It was 10 feet shorter than the original, having nobly given up the space to allow the widening of Gracechurch Street.
Today the church is squeezed in by shops and offices, the eastern frontage looking on to Gracechurch Street being the most impressive of its exterior sides with its five arched windows. The tower is made of brick with a small spire with a weather vane in the shape of the keys of St Peter. Unusually for a Wren church there is a screen dividing off the nave from the chancel, erected at the insistence of the William Beveridge who was rector at the time of rebuilding. The churchyard receives a name check in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.
The battle for space between the church and the neighbouring buildings gave rise to one of the more unusual features to be found in Cornhill – its devils. In the late 19th century the vicar, upon perusing plans for the development of new premises adjacent to the church, found that the new building would intrude fractionally into the church’s land. He kicked up an unholy stink and the architect was forced to redraw the plans at cost.
However, the architect got the last laugh. He added three terracotta devils to the building facing Cornhill from the south. One of the devils is in the act of spitting, one sticks up its finger in an act of rage and all three are strategically positioned to be observed by and greet the congregation as they enter and leave the church. It is said that one of the devils was based on the vicar who raised the objections.
If you are ever in Cornhill, lift your eyes from your mobile device and see if you can spot the Devils of Cornhill, a salutary warning of the perils of upsetting an architect!