The neighbourhood of the Tower: Introduction

Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'The neighbourhood of the Tower: Introduction', in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) pp. 95-100. British History Online [accessed 25 May 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "The neighbourhood of the Tower: Introduction", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 95-100. British History Online, accessed May 25, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "The neighbourhood of the Tower: Introduction", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 95-100. British History Online. Web. 25 May 2024,

In this section



Tower Hill—Some of its Ghastly Associations—A Great Whig Downfall—Perambulating the "Bounds" of the Tower Liberties—Famous Residents on Tower Hill—Lady Raleigh—William Penn—Otway and the Story of his Death—Felton's Knife—Old Houses—Spenser—Great Tower Street and Peter the Great—Bakers' Hall—Thomson the Poet—A Strange Corruption of a Name—Seething Lane—The Old Navy Office.

Of Tower Hill, that historical and blood-stained ground to the north-west of the Tower, old Stow says:—"Tower Hill, sometime a large plot of ground, now greatly straitened by encroachments (unlawfully made and suffered) for gardens and houses. Upon this hill is always readily prepared, at the charges of the City, a large scaffold and gallows of timber, for the execution of such traitors or transgressors as are delivered out of the Tower, or otherwise, to the Sheriffs of London, by writ, there to be executed."

Hatton, in 1708 (Queen Anne) mentions Tower Hill as "a spacious place extending round the west and north parts of the Tower, where there are many good new buildings, mostly inhabited by gentry and merchants." The tide of fashion and wealth had not yet set in strongly westward. An old plan of the Tower in 1563 shows us the posts of the scaffold for state criminals, a good deal north of Tower Street and a little northward of Legge Mount, the great north-west corner of the Tower fortifications. In the reign of Edward IV. the scaffold was erected at the charge of the king's officers, and many controversies arose at various times, about the respective boundaries, between the City and the Lieutenant of the Tower.

On the Tower Hill scaffold perished nearly all the prisoners whose wrongs and sorrows and crimes we have glanced at in a previous chapter; the great Sir Thomas More, the wise servant of a corrupt king; the unhappy old Countess of Salisbury, who was chopped down here as she ran bleeding round the scaffold; Bishop Fisher, a staunch adherent to the old faith; that great subverter of the monks, Cromwell, Earl of Essex; and the poet Earl of Surrey—all victims of the same bad monarch.

Then in the reigns of Edward VI. and Mary, in ghastly procession after the masked headsman, paced Lord Seymour; in due course followed the brother who put him to death, the proud Protector Somerset; then that poor weak young noble, Lady Jane Grey's husband, Lord Guildford Dudley; and Sir Thomas Wyat, the rash objector to a Spanish marriage.

The victims of Charles's folly followed in due time—the dark and arrogant Strafford, who came like a crowned conqueror to his death; then his sworn ally, the narrow-browed, fanatical Laud. The Restoration Cavaliers took their vengeance next, and to Tower Hill passed those true patriots, Stafford, insisting on his innocence to the very last, and Algernon Sydney. The unlucky Duke of Monmouth was the next to lay his misguided head on the block.

Blood ceased to flow on Tower Hill after this execution till the Pretender's fruitless rebellions of 1715 and 1745 brought Derwentwater, "the pride of the North," Kilmarnock, Balmerino, and wily old Lovat to the same ghastly bourne. In 1746 Mr. Radcliffe (Lord Derwentwater's brother) was executed here. He had been a prisoner in the Tower for his share in the rebellion of 1715, but succeeded in escaping. He was identified by the barber, who thirty-one years before had shaved him when in prison.

Chamberlain Clarke, who died in 1831, aged ninety-two (a worthy old City authority, who has been mentioned by us in a previous chapter), well remembered (says Mr. Timbs), as a child, seeing the executioner's axe flash in the sunshine as it fell upon the neck of Mr. Radcliffe. At the last execution which took place on Tower Hill, that of Lord Lovat, April 9, 1747, a scaffolding, built near Barking Alley, fell, with nearly 1,000 persons on it, and twelve of them were killed. Lovat, in spite of his awful situation, seemed to enjoy the downfall of so many Whigs.

There is a passage in Henry VIII.—a play considered by many persons to be not Shakespeare's writing at all, and by some others only partly his work—that has much puzzled those wise persons, the commentators. The author of the play, which is certainly not quite in the best Shakespearian manner, makes a door-porter say, talking of a mob, "These are the youths that thunder at a play-house and fight for bitten apples: that no audience but the tribulation of Tower Hill or the limbs of Limehouse are able to endure." This passage seems to imply that there were low theatres in Shakespeare's time near Tower Hill and Limehouse, or did he refer to the crowd at a Tower Hill execution, and to the mob of sailors at the second locality?

LORD LOVAT. (From Hogarth's Portrait.)

A curious old custom is still perpetuated in this neighbourhood. The "bounds" of the Tower Liberties are perambulated triennially, when, after service in the church of St. Peter, a procession is formed upon the parade, including a headsman bearing the axe of execution; a painter, to mark the bounds; yeomen, warders, with halberds; the Deputy Lieutenant and other officers of the Tower, &c. The boundary-stations are painted with a red "broad arrow" upon a white ground, while the chaplain of St. Peter's repeats, "Cursed be he who removeth his neighbour's landmark." Another old custom of lighting a bonfire on Tower Hill, on the 5th of November, was suppressed in the year 1854.

The traditions of Tower Hill, apart from the crimson block and the glittering axe, are few, but what there are, are interesting. Poor suffering Lady Raleigh, when driven from the side of her imprisoned husband, as James began to drive him faster towards death, lodged on Tower Hill with her son who had been born in the Tower.

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was born on Tower Hill, October 14, 1644. The house of his father, the Admiral, was "on the east side, within a court adjoining to London Wall." Penn, in one of his works, states that "the Lord first appeared to him about the twelfth year of his age, and that between that and the fifteenth the Lord visited him and gave him divine impressions of himself." It was when he was at school at Chigwell, in Essex, that one day, alone in his chamber, he was suddenly "surprised with an inward comfort, and surrounded by a visible external glory, that convinced the youth's excited imagination that he had obtained the seal of immortality. He had, however, already been deeply impressed by the preaching of a Quaker. In old age this good and wise man fell into difficultied, and acually had to mortgage the province of Pennsylvania for £6,600. He died at Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire, in 1718.

AN OLD HOUSE ON LITTLE TOWER HILL. (From a Drawing by Smith made in 1792.)

That tender-hearted poet, Thomas Otway, the friend of Shadwell—whose poverty and wretchedness Rochester cruelly sneered at in his "Session of the Poets," and whose nature and pathos Dryden praised, though somewhat reluctantly—died, as it is generally thought, of starvation, at the "Bull" public-house on Tower Hill. He was only thirtyfour when he died. The stories of his untimely death differ. Dr. Johnson's version is that, being naked and in a rage of hunger, he went to a neighbouring coffee-house, and asked a gentleman for a shilling. The gentleman generously gave the starving poet a guinea, on which Otway rushed into the nearest baker's, bought a roll, and, eating with ravenous haste, was choked with the first mouthful. But Spence was told by Dennis, the well-known critic, and the great enemy of Pope, that an intimate friend of Otway's, being shot by an assassin, who escaped to Dover, en route for France, Otway pursued him. In the excitement he drank cold water, and brought on a fever, which carried him off. Goldsmith, in the "Bee," tells a story of Otway having about him when he died a copy of a tragedy which he had sold to Bentley the bookseller for a mere trifle. It was never recovered, but in 1719 a spurious forgery of it appeared.

It was at a cutler's shop on Tower Hill that Felton, that grim fanatic, who believed himself an instrument of Heaven, bought the broad, sharp, tenpenny hunting-knife with which he gave the heavy and sure blow at Portsmouth, that ended the ambition and plots of the first Duke of Buckingham, the mischievous favourite of Charles I.

That admirable antiquarian artist, Smith, has engraved a view of a curious old house on Tower Hill, enriched with medallions evidently of the time of Henry VIII. (probably terra cotta), like those, says Peter Cunningham, at old Whitehall and Hampton Court. It was not unusual, when coins were found upon a particular spot whereon a house was to be erected, to cause such coins to be represented in plaster on the house. A reproduction of this engraving will be found on the previous page.

In Postern Row, the site of the old postern gate at the south-eastern end of the City wall, used, says Timbs, to be the old rendezvous for enlisting soldiers and sailors, and for arranging the iniquitous press-gangs to scour Wapping and Ratcliff Highway. The shops here are hung with waterproof coats, sou'-westers, and other articles of dress; and the windows are full of revolvers, quadrants, compasses, ship's biscuits, &c., to attract sailors.

At the south-west corner of Tower Hill is Tower Docks, where luckless Sir Walter Raleigh, in disguise, after his escape from the Tower in 1618, took boat for Tilbury. That most poetical of all our poets, Edmund Spenser, was born near Tower Hill, in 1552. Very little is known of his parentage, but though poor, it must have been respectable, as he was sent at sixteen to Pembroke College, Cambridge, as a humble student or sizar. He dedicated one of his early poems to Sir Philip Sidney, that star of Elizabethan knighthood, and began his career by going to Ireland (a country whose wild people he often sketches in his "Fairy Queen"), as secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, the viceroy. He is said to have there commenced his "Fairy Queen," urged on by Sir Walter Raleigh. He seems to have spent about seventeen years in that Patmos, and returned to London poor and heart-broken, having had his castle burnt down, and his infant child destroyed in the fire. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, at the expense of the Earl of Essex. The poems of Spenser furnished many suggestions to Shakespeare, who probably derived from them the story of King Lear, and some of the most beautiful of his heroine's names. Spenser himself drew his inspiration from the Italian poets.

The second Duke of Buckingham used often to visit in disguise, in his days of political intrigue, a poor astrologer, who drew horoscopes, near Tower Hill. Science was then making great advances, thanks to the inductive system introduced by Bacon; but even Newton practised alchemy, and witches were still burnt to death.

The parishes and liberties now called the Tower Hamlets, and since 1832 returning two members to the House of Commons, included Hackney, Norton Folgate, Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Whitechapel, East Smithfield, St. Katherine's, Wapping, Ratcliff, Shadwell, Limehouse, Poplar, Blackwall, Bromley, Old Ford, Mile End, Bethnal Green, &c. An alteration was effected by the Reform Bill of 1867, when Hackney was made a separate electoral district, returning two members to Parliament.

Great Tower Street has not many traditions to boast of, though sailors and Tower warders have haunted it for centuries. Its two main antiquarian heroes are the Earl of Rochester and that noble savage, Peter the Great. One of this mad earl's maddest freaks brought him to Tower Street. While in disgrace at court, we believe for his bitter satire on Charles II., called the "History of the Insipids," he robed and bearded himself as an Italian quack or mountebank physician, and under the name of Alexander Bendo, set up at a goldsmith's house, next door to the "Black Swan," in Tower Street, where he advertised that he was sure to be seen "from three of the clock in the afternoon till eight at night." His biographer, Bishop Burnet, mentions this; and it is said that the earl surprised his patients by the knowledge of court secrets he displayed.

The second story of Great Tower Street relates to the true founder of the Russian Empire. This extraordinary man, whose strong shoulder helped his country out of the slough of ignorance and obscurity, was born in 1672, and visited Holland in 1698, to learn the art of shipbuilding, having resolved to establish a Russian navy. Having worked among the Dutch as a common labourer, he finally came to England for four months, to visit our dockyards and perfect himself in ship-building. While in England he lived alternately in Buckingham Street, Strand (bottom house on the left-hand side), and Evelyn's house at Deptford. After a hard day's work with adze and saw, the young Czar, who drank like a boatswain, used to resort to a public-house in Great Tower Street, and smoke and drink ale and brandy, almost enough to float the vessel he had been helping to construct. "The landlord," says Barrow, Peter's biographer, "had the Czar of Muscovy's head painted and put up for his sign, which continued till the year 1808, when a person of the name of Waxel took a fancy to the old sign, and offered the then occupier of the house to paint him a new one for it. A copy was accordingly made from the original, which maintains its station to the present day as the sign of the 'Czar of Muscovy.' The house has since been rebuilt, and the sign removed, but the name remains. Peter was recalled from his pitchpots and adzes by the news of an insurrection in Russia, headed by his sister. A year after, he declared war on that 'madman of the North,' Charles XII. of Sweden."

Bakers' Hall hides itself with humility in Harp Lane, Great Tower Street. The "neat, plain building," as Mr. Peter Cunningham calls it, repaired by Mr. James Elmes, the author of the "Life of Wren," was (says Stow) some time the dwelling-house of Alderman Chichley, Chamberlain of London, who was descended from the celebrated Chichley, Archbishop of Canterbury, ambassador from Henry IV. to the Pope. He accompanied Henry V. to the French war. His life was spent in a two-handed warfare—against the Pope and against the Wickliffites. This generous prelate improved Canterbury Cathedral and Lambeth Palace, and founded All Souls' College at Oxford. The London bakers were originally divided into "white" and "brown" bakers. The chief supply of bread (says Strype) came from Stratford-le-Bow. By a somewhat tyrannical edict of the City, the Stratford loaves were required to be heavier in weight than the London loaves.

In the uncongenial atmosphere of Little Tower Street, that fat, lazy, and good-natured poet, James Thomson, wrote his fine poem of "Summer," published in 1727. In a letter to Aaron Hill, dated May 24, 1726, he says, "I go on Saturday next to reside at Mr. Watts's academy, in Little Tower Street, in quality of tutor to a young gentleman there." Thomson was the son of a Roxburghshire clergyman, and was educated for the Church—a profession which, however, he never entered. He came to London in 1725, and published his "Winter," a poem whose broadly-painted landscapes remind us of those of Wilson and contemporaneous painters, just as Byron's poems remind us of Turner. In 1730 Thomson went abroad, as travelling tutor with the son of Lord Chancellor Talbot. There was no return to dingy Little Tower Street for the epicurean poet, who soon after obtained some Government sinecures, among others the post of Surveyor-General to the Leeward Islands, and became patronised by the Prince of Wales. Thomson's poem of the "Seasons" did much to foster our national love of Nature, but the poet's chef-d'œuvre is, after all, his "Castle of Indolence," a poem full of the poet's idiosyncrasy.

One of the strangest corruptions of the names of London streets occurs in the Tower precincts. A place once called "Hangman's Gains," as if built with the fees of some Tower executioner, should really have been "Ham and Guienne," for here (says Strype) poor refugees from "Hammes and Guynes" were allowed to lodge in Queen Mary's reign, after Calais and its vicinity had been recovered from our strong grip by the French.

Seething Lane, Tower Street, running northward to Crutched Friars, was originally (says Stow) called Sidon Lane, and in his time there were fair and large houses there. The old chronicler of London mentions among the distinguished residents the wily Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's principal secretary. This great counter-plotter against the Jesuits in Spain died April 5, 1590, and the next night, at ten o'clock, was quietly buried in Paul's Church. Walsingham's name occurs perpetually in Elizabethan annals, and no one by darker or more secret means fought better for Elizabeth against the dangerous artifices of Mary Queen of Scots, whose ways were dark indeed.

The garrulous, gallant, and inimitable Pepys was living in this lane, to be near his work at the Navy Office adjoining, the very year the Great Fire broke out. He describes putting his head out of window at the first alarm, and going quietly to sleep again, on the 6th of September, about two of the morning, when his handsome wife called him up and told him of new cries of fire, it being come to Barking Church (Allhallows, Barking), "which is at the bottom of our lane." In Strype's time Seething Lane had become "a place of no great account," but there were still merchants living there.

The old Navy Office in Seething or Sidon Lane had the chief entrance in Crutched Friars, and the smaller one in the lane. It stood (says Cunningham) on the site of a chapel and college attached to the church of Allhallows, Barking, which had been suppressed and pulled down in the year 1548 (Edward VI.). The consecrated ground remained a garden-plot during the troubles of Edward's reign, the rebellions of Mary's reign, and the glorious days of Elizabeth, till at length Sir William Winter, surveyor of Elizabeth's ships, built on it a great timber and brick storehouse for merchants' goods, which grew into a Navy Office. Cunningham found among the Audit Office enrolments an entry that in July, 1788, the purchase money of the old Navy Office, £11,500, was handed over to Sir William Chambers, the architect of the Government offices in the new Somerset House.