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The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Two

Ludgate Hill, EC4M

Besides Cornhill, the other hill that dominated the City of London was Ludgate Hill, the highest point of which, just north of St Paul’s, stands at fifty-eight feet above sea level. With all the tall buildings in the area it is hard to imagine the original topography and today the road which bears its name runs from the cathedral in the east to the junction with Farringdon Street from the north and New Bridge Street from the south. When it continues its journey westwards it becomes Fleet Street. It was one of the principal thoroughfares into the old city from Ludgate, one of the City’s seven gates. The gate, along with its gaol, was demolished in 1780.

The area was transformed beyond recognition in the late 1860s when the rabbit warren of alleyways was swept away to make room for a railway station to serve the London, Chatham and Dover Railway between Water Lane and New Bridge Street. A railway viaduct was constructed to span the hill, a change that was not universally approved. “Of all the eyesores of modern London, surely the most hideous is the Ludgate Hill Viaduct— that enormous flat iron that lies across the chest of Ludgate Hill like a bar of metal on the breast of a wretch in a torture-chamber… The railway bridge lies flat across the street, only eighteen feet above the roadway, and is a miracle of clumsy and stubborn ugliness, entirely spoiling the approach to one of the finest buildings in London,” wrote one contemporary. The viaduct remained a feature of the London scenery until 1990, although the station shut its doors for the last time in 1923.

Fleet Street is associated with the newspaper industry in London but the observant will note a blue plaque at the foot of Ludgate Hill which proclaims “In a house near this site was published in 1702 The Daily Courant first London daily newspaper.” It was produced by Elizabeth Mallet and consisted of one sheet with news on the front and adverts on the back. Mallet would only print foreign news stories and eschewed editorial comment, reckoning that her readership had “sense enough to make reflections for themselves,” an editorial policy I would welcome many an organ to adopt today. The paper lasted until 1735 when it was incorporated into the Daily Gazetteer.

Located on the north side of Ludgate was to be found between at least the 15th century and 1873 an inn which over the centuries  went by many a name including Savage’s Inn, The Bell Savage and the Bell on the Hoop. Amongst its more famous guests was Thomas Wyatt who stayed there when he found the gate shut to his rebels who were protesting against Queen Mary and in 1616 Pocahontas and her retinue took up residence in the pub.

From 1575 the Bell Savage became one of four inns in London allowed to perform plays and balconies surrounding the inner court served as the circle and rooms in the tavern as boxes. Other entertainments offered included exhibitions of fencing, bear-baiting and William Bankes and his trick horse Marocco. Although burnt down in the Great Fire it was rebuilt and in 1684 was advertising a new attraction – a “Rhynoceros, lately brought from the East Indies”, the first to be seen in the country. It must have attracted quite a crowd of the curious to pay a “small fee” for the privilege.

The pub was quite extensive, boasting 40 rooms and stabling for 100 horses. But the railway boom did for the coaching trade and the pub became very dilapidated. Attempts were made to refurbish it in the 1850s, although these plans went awry when John Cassell’s printing presses occupied part of the building, the thunder and vibration of the machinery disturbing the guests. The pub, alas, was demolished to make way for the viaduct.