Book 4, Ch. 1: General view of the City of Westminster

Pages 695-697

A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark. Originally published by R Baldwin, London, 1773.

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In this section

Book IV. A Survey of the City and Liberties of Westminster.

CHAP. I. General view, historical particulars, and civil government, of the city of Westminster.

As this city had its origin from the abbey or minster dedicated to St. Peter, founded on Thorney island (fn. 1), a swampy piece of ground surrounded by water, which was situated westward from the city of London; so it derived its name from this relative situation of the monastery, and was called Westmonasterium, Westminster. It long continued an insignificant, mean, unhealthy place, remarkable for nothing but the abbey, which was very unfavourably placed in a marshy spot, surrounded on one side by the Thames, and on the others by what was called Longditch. This was a branch of the river which began near the east end of where Manchester court is now built; from whence, crossing King-street, it ran down the street still called Longditch, and passing Tothill-street, a little west of the Gatehouse, continued its course along the south wall of the abbey garden to the Thames; where there is now a common sewer built over it. In process of time a few houses collected round the monastery, which at length became a town: and this was the origin of the present city of Westminster.

For many ages Westminster continued a distinct town from London; and the Strand was a road to pass from the one to the other along the river side, as its name implies. By an ordinance of king Edward III. in 1353, certain duties were imposed on wool, leather (fn. 2), and other commodities, carried either by land or water to the staple of Westminster, for repairing the highway leading from Temple Bar to the gate of the abbey at Westminster; the road, by the frequent passing of carts and horses, being then so deep and miry as to be dangerous both to men and carriages. It was added, that, as the proprietors of houses near and leading to that staple, had, by means of the said staple, greatly raised their rents, the way before the houses should be paved at their charge; and that part of the said way, where no houses were, should be paved a-new out of those duties: that the remainder of those duties should be applied toward erecting a bridge near the royal palace of Westminster, for the conveniency of the said staple (fn. 3). By this bridge in all probability no more was meant than a raised landing place carried out into the river on piles, like that at present at New Palace yard, and which was called Westminster bridge before the stone bridge across the river existed.

By having a large monastery, a royal palace, and by having been made a staple for wool and other commodities; Westminster became at length a place of some consideration: but it was from Henry VIII. that this town received the greatest honours. On the dissolution of the monastery he converted it into a bishopric in the year 1541, with a dean and twelve prebendaries; and assigned the whole county of Middlesex, Fulham excepted, for the diocese. By this distinction, Westminster became a city; for though lawyers are not agreed in the precise definition of what constitutes a city, yet according to Sir Edward Coke, and Cowel, a town corporate that hath a bishop and a cathedral church is a city (fn. 4). It did not indeed long enjoy this pretension to the name of a city; for it never had but one bishop, Thomas Thirlby, who being translated to the see of Norwich in 1550 by Edward VI. the new bishopric was dissolved; but Westminster is nevertheless still considered as a city, and is so stiled in our statutes. It had long been the seat of the royal palace; the high court of parliament, and the courts of law were held there: most of our kings had been crowned and had their sepulchres in the abbey church; and the antient palace having been almost destroyed by fire, Henry VIII. had here his palace of Whitehall, which he purchased in 1530, of cardinal Wolsey. He also built the palace of St. James, after the suppression of an hospital which stood there dedicated to the same saint; and inclosed a fine spot of ground between the two palaces, which he converted into a park for the accommodation of both. This was no sooner finished than he erected the elegant gate near the Banqueting-house, which has been but lately taken down; and added a magnificent gallery for the royal family to sit in to view the justs and tournaments in the Tilt yard: contiguous to Whitehall gate he erected a tennis court, cock-pit, and places for playing at bowls.

The city of Westminster, properly so called, consists but of two parishes, St. Margaret's and St. John's the Evangelist; but the liberties contain seven parishes, which are as follow: St. Martin's in the Fields, St. James's, St. Anne's, St. Paul's Covent Garden, St. Mary's le Strand, St. Clement's Danes, and St. George's Hanover-square: to which must be added the precinct of the Savoy. Each of the above parishes is of so great an extent, considering the number of houses they contain, that it would be impossible for all the inhabitants to attend divine worship in one church at the same time; there are therefore many chapels of ease for the convenience of those who could not be so well accommodated in their parish churches,


When the bishopric was dissolved, the government of Westminster fell under the dean and chapter of St. Peter's in civil as well as ecclesiastical affairs; whose jurisdiction extends over the city and liberties of Westminster, the precinct of St. Martin's-le-Grand in London, and some towns in Essex; all which are exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop of London and of the archbishop of Canterbury. But the management of the civil power has been, ever since the reformation, in lay hands, elected from time to time, and confirmed by the dean and chapter.

The principal of those magistrates is the high-steward, who is usually some principal nobleman chosen by the dean and chapter; at whose election the dean sits as high-steward. The next magistrate is the deputy-steward, chosen or appointed by the high-steward, and confirmed by the dean and chapter. This officer is in the nature of a sheriff; for he keeps the court-leet with the other magistrates, and is chairman at the quarter-sessions. The high bailiff, who is the next in rank, is nominated by the dean, and confirmed by the high steward. He likewise holds his office for life, and has the chief management in the election of members of parliament for Westminster, and all the other bailiffs are subordinate to him. He summons juries, and in the court-leet sits next to the deputy steward. To him all fines, forfeitures, and strays belong, which render his place very beneficial; but it is commonly executed by a deputy well versed in the laws. There are also sixteen burgesses and their assistants, whose office in all respects resembles that of the aldermens deputies of the city of London, each having a proper division under his jurisdiction: out of these are elected two head burgesses, one for the city; and the other for the liberties; who take place in the court-leet next to the high bailiff. Beside these there is a high constable who is chosen by the court-leet, and has the superintendance over the other constables.

There are no other courts held in Westminster, but the leet, the sessions, and the court of conscience for the recovery of small debts; the inhabitants have no exclusive corporation privileges; nor are there any trading companies within the jurisdiction: the two members who represent them in parliament are therefore chosen by the householders at large like a common country borough.


  • 1. Vid Book I. p. 12, 14.
  • 2. Westminster was made a staple for these and other articles by the statute 27 Edw. III. st. 2. c. 1.
  • 3. Anderson's Hist. of Comm. vol. I. p. 184.
  • 4. Jacob in voce.