A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Twenty Four


Garlick Hill – EC4V

Running directly south from Mansion House tube station towards the river Thames and bordered top and bottom by Cannon Street and Upper Thames Street is to be found Garlick Hill. As its name suggests it is an area that is closely associated with the trade in and importation of garlic from France.

Given the continual animosity between England and France through the centuries it seems strange that the English, notoriously unadventurous in their gastronomic tastes, would give the smelly onion-like vegetable house room. But so limited was the choice of condiments then and so dire was the need to spice up or mask the quality of the meat before the diner that even something French was gratefully received.  It was also valued for its medicinal properties.

Perhaps what made stooping so low as to accept garlic bearable was that it was imported to England along with vino. Indeed, Garlic Hill has a strong and long association with the Vintners, one of the major and influential Livery Companies in the old city. Garlic Hill, administratively, was situated in the city ward of Vintry.

The street was probably originally called Garlickhythe as evidenced by the name of the church on the street – more of which anon. Hythe was an old Saxon word denoting a landing-place. Garlic (and let’s not forget the wine) would be landed by the river bank and taken to the top of the street where there would be a market, probably on the site where St James Garlickhythe, known as Wren’s lantern because of its profusion of windows stands today.

There was probably a church on the site from Saxon times although the first documented reference to a church there, ecclesiam Sancti Jacobi, dates back to the 12th century. It was a stopping off point for pilgrims on their journey to Santiago di Compostela and they would have had their pilgrim’s passports or credencial stamped with the impression of a scallop shell.

In the 14th century the church was rebuilt, funded in part by Richard de Rothing, a Lord Mayor of London and a leading Vintner, and it became associated with a number of the City’s Guilds. The church was the unusual beneficiary of the Reformation – the rood screen from the neighbouring St Martin Vintry was made into pews for St James’. In 1535 Henry VIII required the maintenance of a weekly register of all births, deaths and marriages. The register at St James’ is the oldest surviving, its first entry being the baptism of one Edward Butler on 18th November 1535.

Destroyed in the Great Fire, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild the church. The foundation stone was laid in 1676 and it was reopened in 1682, although the tower was not completed until 1717. Although plain from the outside, it is considered to be one of Wren’s finest. Other than St Paul’s the 40 foot ceiling was the highest in London. The ornate spire is well worth a look, resembling the tiers of a wedding cake.

In 1839 an unusual and gruesome discovery was made by workmen whilst closing up the old vaults – the almost perfectly and naturally mummified body. Inevitably, the corpse was nicknamed Jimmy Garlick. Carbon-dating in 2004 determined that Jimmy was fairly old when he died, sometime between 1641 and 1801 and was suffering from osteo-arthritis and bad teeth.

Finally, Garlick Hill is the home of the Leathersellers, founded in 1444, continuing the link between this street, which is now a bit of a backwater, and the great Guilds of London.


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