Butcher's Row: The church of St Clement Danes

Pages 10-15

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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In this section



Temple Bar and Johnson—Butcher's Row—The "Straits"—Shenstone—The Gunpowder Plotters—The Old Fish Shop—"Bulk Shops" and their Occupants—Churchyard and Church of St. Clement Danes—Johnson's Pew in the Church—Great Men Buried at St. Clement's—The Registers—Two Noteworthy Entries.

"By Temple Bar I lean again,
Haunted by many a famous face,
With oddest pictures in my brain,
Jumbling together time and place.
The night drops down, the moonlight fades
Along the filmy City sky:
With draggled hose and broken blades
The Mohawks come with shriek and cry;
And in the light the dim street clothing
I see with loathing
Two hideous rebels' heads that rot on high."
London Poems.

If you and I, dear fellow traveller, could imagine ourselves our own great-grandfathers; could we, in fact, transport ourselves a century back, and, emerging together from the busy thoroughfare of Fleet Street, pass through the narrow, frowning gateway of Temple Bar, we might perchance meet the ungainly form of Dr. Johnson, rolling up the Strand, arm in arm with Boswell, to "take a walk down Fleet Street."

But should no such good luck befall us as an encounter with the great lexicographer, at least one striking object would meet our eyes, as we looked straight before us, towards the Church of St. Clement's, namely, the stocks, a spectacle of wholesome awe to evil-doers in general, and to unruly City apprentices in particular. Beyond these, we should find the lower portion of St. Clement's suffering eclipse, from a range of dull and rather squalid-looking buildings known as Butcher's Row, from having formerly served as shambles. These houses, which were almost entirely built of wood, and were several storeys in height, interfered greatly with traffic, the passage on either side of them being scarcely wide enough in any part to allow vehicles to pass each other. The Row was removed early in the present century through the worthy Alderman Pickett, after whom Pickett Street was named.

Mr. John Timbs describes the houses in Butcher's Row as having been mostly built in Queen Elizabeth's time, and constructed of wood and plaster, with overhanging eaves. "They were," he writes, "wretched fabrics, the receptacles of filth in every corner, the bane of old London, and a sort of nestling-place for the plague and fevers. The ceilings were low, with large unwrought beams, and lighted by small casement windows. The cant name for the place among coachmen in the days of the Spectator was the 'Pass,' or the 'Straits of St. Clement's.'"

In one of these uninviting edifices, however, as we learn from the date of some of his letters, William Shenstone, the poet, resided, on the rare occasions of tearing himself away from his "beloved Leasowes" for a stay in London. In another was born, in 1787, Dr. Andrew Reed, the benevolent founder of Reedham, the Asylum for Fatherless Children at Clapton, and the Idiot Asylum, at Earlswood. His father was a watchmaker in the Row.

Hereabouts, too, according to the confession of Thomas Winter, was concocted the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. He says, "So we met behind St. Clement's, Mr. Catesby, Mr. Percy, Mr. Wright, Mr. Guy Fawkes, and myself, and having, upon a primer, given each other the oath of secrecy, in a chamber where no other body was, we went after into the next room and heard Mass, and received the blessed Sacrament upon the same."

In a view of London and Westminster, drawn by A. Van der Wyngarde (A.D. 1543), now in the Bodleian Library, at Oxford, the Bars at the junction of Fleet Street and the Strand are flanked on the north by a row of quaint old houses, which were probably erected for the benefit of such traders as were not qualified to carry on their business in the City, and may possibly have been of the reign of Henry VIII.

"These," says Mr. J. Wykeham Archer, in his "Vestiges of Old London," "appear to have preceded the buildings of Butcher's Row, which, with Middle Row, extended from Temple Bar to St. Mary-le-Strand, the houses on the south side of Holywell Street forming their western extremity." The old house with its bulk-shop, which adjoined Temple Bar, and which had remained a surviving vestige of the sweeping measures of Alderman Pickett in the beginning of the century, stood in its original condition down to 1846, when it was modernised by the removal of the heavy pents which surmounted its ground-floor. The house bore on its front a notice to the effect that it was "established in the reign of Henry VIII.," and was occupied by "Short and Son, late Creed, Fishmongers." An engraving of it, in one of its last stages, will be found in the above-mentioned work of Mr. Archer, who explains the term "bulk-shop" as a word of Flemish origin, signifying a stall before a shop, and also associated with the idea of strength or substance. Thus deprived of its pents, it became finally the bookshop of Messrs. Reeves and Turner. The house was a mere timber frame, filled up with lath and plaster, and the whole of it seemed to hang together by adhesion rather than by any stability of construction.

It will be remembered that Shakespeare speaks of misery making men acquainted with "strange bedfellows." It is probable that in these words he is alluding to his experiences, where he must often have seen the heavy canopies of these parts projecting over the pathways, with their wood or leaden coverings turned up at the edge like some oldfashioned beaver, the ends being sunk a little so as to let the rain pass off. "The bulk-shops," writes Mr. J. W. Archer, "besides their connection with the thrift of olden time, have associations which invest them with a degree of poetic interest, arising from the practice of erratic and destitute authors appropriating their ledges for the purpose of a dormitory, in common with other homeless wanderers and belated roysterers. … The gifted but wayward poet, Savage, is said to have frequently had recourse to such shelter during his moody night wanderings; and Nat Lee, as we know, expired upon a 'bulk' in Clare Market, when overcome by wine in returning from an orgie at the 'Bear and Harrow,' in Butcher's Row, to his lodgings in Duke Street. In a pleasanter vein it is related of an inferior bard, Derrick, that, being discovered by Floyd, another poor author in each sense of the term, on one of these ledges, and being suddenly awakened, he started up, exclaiming, 'My dear Floyd, I am sorry to see you in this destitute state; will you go home with me to my lodging?'"

Close to Butcher's Row, at the date to which we refer, we should have come upon a stone cross, or rather its remains, for Strype, in his edition of "Stow's London," in 1755, speaks of it as "now headless," a decapitation which it probably owed to an effort of Puritan zeal in the days of the Great Rebellion. It is probable that at the time of the demolition of Butcher's Row all vestiges of the mutilated cross were swept away.

In Malcolm's "Anecdotes of London," published early in the present century, he says, "A stranger who had visited London in 1790 would, on his return in 1804, be astonished to find a spacious area (with the church nearly in the centre) on the site of Butcher's Row, and some other passages, undeserving of the name of streets, which were composed of those wretched fabrics overhanging their foundations—the bane of ancient London—where the plague, with all its attendant horrors, frowned destruction on the miserable inhabitants, reserving its forces for the attacks of each returning summer."

Passing on, we reach the churchyard of St. Clement Danes, so called, as antiquaries affirm, "because Harold, a Danish king, and other Danes, were buried there." One story commonly told is to the effect that to avenge an insult to his own mother, Hardicanute ordered his half-brother's body to be torn out of its grave and thrown into the Thames, and that, being cast ashore, a fisherman took it up and gave it decent burial in this place, which was consecrated to receive it. Another account states that in the reign of Ethelred, the Danes having pillaged the fair abbey of Chertsey, were here met on their return, and slain by the Londoners. And there is yet a third version, which is told by Lord Burleigh (who lived in this parish), on the authority of Fleetwood, the antiquary, to the effect that when the Danes were driven out of England, a few were left behind, being married to English women; and that these were ordered by the king to dwell "between the Isle of Thorney, which is now called Westminster, and Caer Lud, now Ludgate, and that there they built a church.

In "A Survey of St. Clement Danes," made in 1732, we are told, "The old church was built 730 years ago, and between 1608 and 1633 the repairs cost £1,586."

The body of the old church was taken down in 1680, and the present fabric was built in 1682 by Edward Pearce, under the direction of Sir C. Wren, who superintended the work gratuitously, as recorded on a marble slab in the north aisle. The present tower and steeple were added in 1719, and underwent extensive repairs and restorations in 1839. The tower contains a peal of ten bells, of a particularly musical sound, cast in 1693. The clock strikes the hours twice; "the hour being first struck on a large bell, and then repeated on a smaller one, so that when the first has been miscounted, the second may be more correctly observed." (Thomson's "Time and Timekeepers.") Besides the clock, there is a set of chimes which play the "Old Hundredth" Psalm. The bells also chime the tunes of "Hanover," and the "Lass o' Gowrie," at nine, twelve, and five o'clock, daily; indeed, the chimes of St. Clement's Church may still be heard as Falstaff describes having heard them with Justice Shallow.


The present Church of St. Clement Danes stands a little to the south of the ancient church or chapel of St. Clement, which had existed from the Conquest till long after the Reformation, occupying a part of what then was a rather large churchyard. It probably covers, as nearly as possible, the grave of Harold Harefoot, the mound over which was levelled by order of his vindictive and besotted brother. The church has always kept a marked position among those of the metropolis; and as it stands at once close to the City boundaries and on the high road to Westminster, all public processions, from the days of the Plantagenets to those of Victoria, have passed the building. When the Princess Alexandra of Denmark passed by it, on the 10th of March, 1863, the address presented to her by the parishioners on that occasion must have suggested to her mind a pleasing contrast to the traditionary feuds of eight hundred years ago between the country she had left and that to which she had come.


The present structure, like its predecessor, is dedicated to St. Clement, the patron saint of feltworkers, and also of sailors; and the symbolic anchor of St. Clement is still to be seen on nearly all the public buildings in the parish. The church is built of a white stone, both beautiful and durable; the architecture is of the Corinthian order. Fronting the Strand was formerly a spacious circular portico, supported by Ionic pillars. The interior of the edifice is commodious and handsome of its kind, and the roof inside is "camerated," and highly ornamented. The pulpit and altar are richly carved in the Tuscan style, and the top of the communion-table is of ancient and valuable marble, supposed to have belonged to the old church. The organ is one of Father Smith's. The lofty tower and steeple, 116 feet high, which were added to the church in 1719, exhibit in succession Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite tiers of architecture.

In the north gallery of this church there is a pew which is more revered and respected than the "squire's pew" in many a country parish church. Men of all parties and creeds cordially agree in this feeling. The lover of old times and old principles reveres the spot, and the admirer of what is new respects it while criticising the man who has made it famous and historical. Nearly a century has passed away since the death of Dr. Samuel Johnson, but in spite of all the changes that have since passed over the world, there still stands here the simple memorial of his former presence as a worshipper within these walls. A plain plate of brass, fixed to the back of the pew, reminds us that here the great essayist and lexicographer used to kneel in worship. "Westminster Abbey can show his grave, and St. Paul's his monument; but here is preserved the memory of the sacred place where the rugged but sensitive man used for many a long year to ask for strength and grace." It has been remarked that "Boswell shows us Johnson in his chambers, in the club, and in the streets; but his own confessions enable us to understand him at church." And the remark is true. While listening to him on a Saturday night, at the "Mitre," or the "Turk's Head," we mark his rude and even fierce replies, his vehement prejudices, and domineering and despotic intellect, we should scarcely deem him a man of deep religious feelings. But when the bells of St. Clement's were heard next morning in the Inner Temple Lane, the porter regularly opened the gates to let out the well-known scholastic, large-wigged "Mr." Johnson. The man knew that, in spite of his wig, he was not a member of the Temple; but some notion of his rising fame had reached even the porters, and his rough generosity had won their respect. On by the posts of Fleet Street, touching each as he goes along, rolls rather than walks, "Mr. Johnson, the dictionary-maker." He seems more solemn than usual, and the sound of the church bells deepens his passiveness into melancholy. How is this? one who did not know the man might ask. Who was more merry than he last night at the "Mitre?" how ready were his quotations! how apt his illustrations! how overpowering his arguments! He seems quite another man to-day. No, he is just the same man, but in another mood. He enters the church as though anxious to avoid notice, and shows that with him, at least, the service is a reality. He tells us that he strove, like many another brave and good man, honestly to solve the great problem, "how to purify and fortify his soul, and hold real communion with the Highest," and that he did this in St. Clement's Church. That pew in the north gallery, as the brass plate tells us, was the actual scene and arena of this struggle. Here he sat after his good resolution to go to church every Sunday, and to read the Scriptures; and hither he repaired in the last year of his life, at the age of seventy-five, to return thanks to God for his recovery from an illness of a hundred-and-twentynine days. The following is the inscription to which reference is made above:—

"In this pew and beside this pillar, for many years attended divine service the celebrated Dr. Samuel Johnson, the philosopher, the poet, the great lexicographer, the profound moralist, and chief writer of his time. Born 1709, died 1784. In the remembrance and honour of noble faculties, nobly employed, some inhabitants of the parish of St. Clement Danes have placed this slight memorial, A.D. 1851."

The parish is so well endowed with charities that the paupers of other neighbourhoods used to flock into it at the commencement of winter, for the sake of all they could get, and the vestry were obliged to limit their gifts to those who had resided for the space of a year.

There were almshouses for poor women in the upper and lower churchyard, at the time of the parish survey in 1732. "In the upper churchyard are six almshouses, with six rooms, and twelve poor women in each house, who are allowed 2s. per week; and in the lower churchyard are five rooms for poor women, each of whom has 2s. 6d. per week; they have also coals at Christmas, if they can make interest to get them."

The vaults beneath the church were crowded to excess. On the receipt of an Order in Council for closing them in 1858, the coffins were all placed together in one part of the vault and hermetically sealed, the whole being enclosed with a strong brick wall. Mr. Diprose tells us that towards the close of the last century, "the vaults were discovered to be on fire, and continued burning for some days, many bodies being consumed."

In the church lie buried some few individuals whose names the world would not wish to forget; among others, Thomas Rymer, who compiled the "Fœdera," and the dramatic poets, Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Otway, and Bishop Berkeley, the philosopher, and friend of Pope, who attributed to him "every virtue under heaven." Sir John Roe, who died in Ben Jonson's arms, of the plague, 1606; Dr. Kitchener, and the Oxberrys, father and son, are also buried here. Among other monuments are those of Hippocrates de Otthen, who was physician to the Emperor of Germany, and was sent over to England at the request of Queen Elizabeth, in whose service, and in that of the Earl of Leicester, he was long employed, and of John Arundel, Bishop of Exeter, who died in 1503.

In this church was solemnised, just two centuries ago, that marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor with Miss Davies, the wealthy heiress of Ebury Manor, which brought into the family of the Duke of Westminster their property in Pimlico and Belgravia.

The registers of St. Clement's commence with the year 1558, and are kept in far better order than in most parishes. They record the deaths of some hundreds of parishioners in 1665, the year of the Great Plague, which made great havoc in the close streets near Temple Bar, and also in Milford Lane.


One of the earliest entries of baptism is as follows:—"June 6, 1563, Master Robert Cicill, the sonne of ye L. highe Threasurer of England." Some nineteen years afterwards, the subject of this entry earned "honorable mention" for the gracious courtesy and politeness of his manners towards his inferiors.

The neighbourhood of St. Clement Danes Church appears to have borne anything but a good reputation so far back as three centuries ago, by reason of "the unthrifts of the Inns of Chancery," who made so much disturbance in the streets by night that the inhabitants, we read, were fain to keep watches for the sake of mutual protection. Thus,"in 1582," says honest John Stow, "the Recorder himself, with six more of the honest inhabitants, stood by St. Clement's Church to see the lanthorn hung out, and to observe if he could meet with any of these outrageous dealers. About seven of the clock at night they saw young Mr. Robert Cecil, the Lord Treasurer's son, who was afterwards Secretary of State to the Queen, pass by the church. As he passed, he gave them a civil salute, at which they said, 'Lo! you may see how a nobleman's son can use himself and how he putteth off his cap to poor men; our Lord bless him.' This passage," adds Stow, "the Recorder wrote in a letter to his father, adding, 'Your lordship hath cause to thank God for so virtuous a child.'" We may draw an obvious inference from the story of Mr. Robert Cecil's conduct in this instance as to the usual habits of the fast young noblemen of Elizabeth's time.