St Martin-in-the-Fields

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

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Walter Thornbury, 'St Martin-in-the-Fields', in Old and New London: Volume 3( London, 1878), British History Online [accessed 13 July 2024].

Walter Thornbury, 'St Martin-in-the-Fields', in Old and New London: Volume 3( London, 1878), British History Online, accessed July 13, 2024,

Walter Thornbury. "St Martin-in-the-Fields". Old and New London: Volume 3. (London, 1878), , British History Online. Web. 13 July 2024.

In this section



"Why, how now, Babell, whither wilt thou build?
I see old Holbourne, Charing Crosse, the Strand,
Are going to St. Giles's-in-the-Field."—Tom Freeman's Epigrams (1614).

St. Martin's-in-the-Fields in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries—The Church built by Henry VIII.—The Church rebuilt—Description of the Edifice—Burial of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey—Notabilities interred in the Churchyard—The Parish Rate-books—Curious Stories about St. Martin's Church—The Royal Society of Literature—Anthropological Institute—National Society for aiding the Sick and Wounded in War—Archbishop Tenison's Library and School—An Ancient Chapel or Oratory—Historic and Artistic Associations of St. Martin's Lane.

If we could throw ourselves mentally back three centuries, and could take a view of the district lying between St. James's Palace and the villages of Charing and St. Giles's, as it appeared about the year 1560, we should see little more than an open tract of fields. At that time there were only three, or, at the most, four houses towards the eastern end of Pall Mall, and a little further a small church, which has long since disappeared. Still nearer to the Palace, about the centre of what is now St. James's Square, was a well, enclosed in four low walls. The Hay Market and Hedge Lane, as late as the reign of Charles II., were literally lanes, fringed on either side with hedges; and all to the north was open country. In the ancient plans of London the Hay Market is quite clear of buildings, and Windmill Street derived its name, when first built, from a windmill standing in a field on its west side, with a small rural stable in the rear of it.

The parish of St. Martin was originally taken out of that of St. Margaret's; and yet so rapid was its growth, that in 1786 it had come to be "one of the most populous within the bills of mortality," being estimated to contain more than 5,000 houses, although the parishes of St. Paul's, Covent Garden; St. Anne's, Soho; St. James's, Piccadilly; and St. George's, Hanover Square, had all been in turn carved out of it.

THE FIRST ROYAL ACADEMY; ABOUT 1740. (See page 147.)

In very early times it is said that a chapel dedicated to St. Martin was erected near Charing Cross, "for the convenience of the officers of Westminster Abbey and Palace, on their way to Covent Garden;" and this, no doubt, was the original "St. Martin's-in-the-Fields." But this is only a tradition. More trustworthy is the statement that St. Martin's was built by order and at the cost of Henry VIII., who disliked to see the funerals of his liege subjects passing through or past Whitehall, much as Louis XIV. of France resolved to build the Château at Versailles because he could not help seeing the towers of St. Denis from the terrace at Saint-Germain.

The church is so called after the chivalrous Hungarian, St. Martin, who was Bishop of Tours in the fourth century, and in whose honour it is dedicated. It received its surname, "in the fields," like its sister church of St. Giles, from its situation outside the City proper, when it was first taken into the bills of mortality, in order to distinguish it from other churches eastwards under the same dedication.

That there was a church on or near this spot as far back as the times of our Norman kings is shown by a dispute, in the year 1222, between William, Abbot of Westminster, and Eustace, Bishop of London, in which the former claimed for it exemption from the bishop's authority—a claim which was decided by the Archbishop of Canterbury in favour of the abbot. This would appear to confirm the tradition that originally it was a chapel for the use of the monks of Westminster, when they visited the convent whose garden abutted on it to the east. Be this, however, as it may, the endowments of St. Martin's Chapel fell, along with the monks to whom it belonged, under the ruthless paw of Henry VIII., who is said, as already remarked, to have erected in its stead a small parochial church. In 1607 this church was enlarged, at the cost of Prince Henry, son of King James I.


While the Strand was inhabited by the highest titled families, it is no matter of wonder that St. Martin's-in-the-Fields should have been a somewhat fashionable parish in the early Georgian era. In 1721 the church was pulled down, and the present edifice was erected in its place. It was built by Gibbs, the architect of the Radcliffe Library at Oxford, and cost nearly £60,000. George I. took a great interest in the building of the church, and is said to have been so delighted at its completion that he gave £100 to be distributed among the workmen employed on it, and £1,500 more to purchase an organ. The organ, however, was long ago replaced by another.

The portico, of lofty Corinthian columns, is much admired, as, indeed, is the entire west front, to which an ascent is gained up a long flight of steps. In the pediment are seen the royal arms in bas-relief, beneath which is a Latin inscription relating to the foundation of the church. The steeple is stately and elegant, and very lofty, and in the tower is an excellent peal of twelve bells.

"The church of St. Martin," says Mr. Gwynn, "is esteemed one of the best in this city, though far from being so fine as it is usually represented to be. The absurd rustication of the windows, and the heavy sills and trusses under them, are unpardonable blemishes, and very improperly introduced into this composition of the Corinthian order, as it takes away the delicacy which should be preserved in this kind of building. The steeple itself is good, but it is so constructed that it seems to stand upon the roof of the church, there being no appearance of its continuation from the foundation, and consequently it seems to want support; an error of which Gibbs is not alone guilty, but which is very elegantly and judiciously avoided in the turrets in front of St. Paul's; indeed, the spire of the steeple of St. Martin's Church being formed by internal sweeps, makes the angles too acute, which always produces an ill effect. Upon the whole, St. Martin's Church is composed on a grand style of one order, and the portico is truly noble."

Mr. Malton says, "We have in the exterior of this church an excellent example of Roman architecture in its highest style of improvement, without the tawdry and meretricious ornaments with which the Romans frequently disfigured their sacred edifices. It is also the most successful attempt to unite the light and picturesque beauty of the modern steeple to the sober grandeur and square solidity of the Grecian temple. The insulated columns in the recesses at the extremity of the flanks of this church are striking and bold, and once had the merit of novelty, though it is now, by frequent imitation, become less remarkable."

Vast vaults extend from the portico to the east end of the structure, which are light and dry, and contain great numbers of bodies, deposited within separate apartments, and on the floor of the open space. These vaults, however, have for many years been closed up, interments being no longer permitted. The roof of the church is supported by eight pillars, and also by four pilasters and entablatures, which support the ceilings over the aisles. The vaulting of the nave is elaborately ornamented with stucco-work, and the sacrarium commences with a semi-circle and terminates in a recess. The interior decorations are very fine. Mr. Gibbs, the architect, in speaking of the elliptical ceiling, says he found by experience that it is "much better for the voice than the semi-circular, though not so beautiful. It is divided into panels, enriched with fret-work by Signors Artari and Bagutti, the best fret-workers that ever came to England." Slender Corinthian columns, raised on high pedestals, rising to the front of the galleries, serve to support both them and the roof, which, on the sides, rests upon them in a very ornamental arch-work. The east end is richly adorned with fret-work and gilding; and over the altar is a large Venetian window, filled with stained glass.

An allusion to the worshippers in the new church occurs in the "London Spy," published in 1725. "The inhabitants are now supplied with a decent tabernacle, which can produce as handsome a show of white hands, diamond rings, pretty snuff-boxes, and gilt prayer-books, as any cathedral whatever. Here the fair penitents pray in their patches, sue for pardon in their paint, and see their heaven in man." St. Martin's was the royal parish, and in its registers were recorded the births of the princes and princesses born in Westminster, previous to the formation of St. James's parish.

In the vestry-room, on the south-east side of the church, is an admirably-executed model of St. Martin's Church. The vestry walls are adorned with portraits of most of the vicars since the year 1670, many of whom attained high distinction in the Church. There are also half-length portraits of George I., and of Mr. Gibbs, the architect, and one of the unfortunate Sir Edmundbury Godfrey. In one of the windows is a painting of St. Martin dividing his mantle with a beggar, in illustration of the ancient legend.

In the churchyard, which is now covered with flat stones, was buried, "with great solemnity," after having lain in state at Bridewell Hospital for two days, the body of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey. "The pall was supported by eight knights, all justices of the peace; and in the procession were all the city aldermen, together with seventy-two clergymen, in full canonicals, who walked in couples before the body, and a great multitude followed after." The clergyman who preached the sermon on the occasion was supported on either side by a brother divine. A tablet to the memory of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey was erected in the east cloister of Westminster Abbey.

The story of the murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey has been often told; but as it belongs specially to the spot which we are now visiting, it shall be told here once more, in the words of Pennant:—"The infamous witnesses against his supposed murderers declared that he was waylaid, and inveigled into the palace under pretence of keeping the peace between two servants who were fighting in the yard: that he was there strangled, his neck broke, and his own sword run through his body; that he was kept four days before they ventured to remove him; at length his corpse was first carried in a sedan-chair to Soho, and then on a horse to Primrose Hill, between Kilburn and Hampstead. There it certainly was found, transfixed with the sword, and his money in his pocket, and his rings on his fingers. The murder, therefore, was not by robbers, but the effect of private revenge. But it is not probable that it was committed within these walls; for the assassins would never have hazarded a discovery by carrying the corpse three miles, when they could have so safely disposed of it into the Thames. The abandoned characters of the evidences, Prance and Bedloe, (the former of whom had been treated with most horrid cruelties to compel him to confess what he declared he never was guilty of), together with the absurd and irreconcilable testimony they gave on the trial, has made unprejudiced times to doubt the whole. That he was murdered there is no doubt; he had been an active magistrate, and had made many enemies. The marks of strangling round his throat, and his broken neck, evince the impossibility of his having put an end to his own existence, as some have insinuated. But the innocence of the three poor convicts would not avail, the torrent of prejudice prevailing against them; and they were executed, denying the facts in the moment of death. One was a Protestant, the other two Roman Catholics, and belonging to the Chapel; so probably were fixed on by the instigators of the accusation in order to involve the queen in the uncharitable suspicion."

This tragedy became at the time the subject of several medals. On one is the bust of Sir Edmundbury and two hands strangling him; on the reverse the Pope giving his benediction to a man strangling another on the ground. On a second, with the same bust, is the representation of the carrying the magistrate on horseback to Primrose Hill. A third makes him walking with his broken neck, and sword buried in his body; and on the reverse St. Denis with his head in his hand, with this inscription:—
"Godfrey walks up-hill after he was dead;
Denis walks down-hill carrying his head."

The churchyard contains also the bones of the notorious highwayman, Jack Sheppard. Here, too, lies buried the once famous sculptor, Roubilliac; also the witty, but somewhat licentious, dramatist, Farquhar, author of the Beau's Stratagem. Here likewise lies John Hunter, the distinguished anatomist, of whom we have spoken in our account of the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons; as also does the illustrious philosopher, Robert Boyle. Here, too, were buried Sir Theodore Mayerne, Court physician, and the friend of Vandyke; and also Nell Gwynne, whose funeral sermon was preached by Dr. Tenison, incumbent of the parish, and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury.

The flat pavement on the southern side of the church, facing the "Golden Cross," is called "the Watermen's Burying-ground," from the number of old Thames watermen who were brought thither to their last long rest from Hungerford, York, and Whitehall Stairs.

The rate-books of this parish, which (says Mr. Cunningham) are arranged sheet by sheet, after the manner of a Post Office directory, contain the name of every householder in the parish, from the levying of the first poor-law rate, in the reign of Elizabeth, down to the present time, and the church registers are admirably kept. The rate-books help us to identify the dwellings of very many distinguished persons in the last century.

A curious story about this church is told by Evelyn in his "Diary," under date Good Friday, 1687. "Dr. Tenison preached at St. Martin's. … During the service a man came into neere the middle of the church with his sword drawne, with severall others in that posture: in this jealous time it put the congregation into greate confusion; but it appeared to be one who fled for sanctuary, being pursued by bayliffs."

Mr. Malcolm records an event of a somewhat similar nature which occured in this church on the 10th of September, 1729. During evening prayers a gentleman abruptly entered, and fired two pistols at the Rev. Mr. Taylor, who was repeating the service; one of the bullets grazed the surplice, but the other entered the body of Mr. Williams, farrier, of Bedfordbury, who was sitting in a pew near the minister. The congregation fled in alarm from the church, but a sturdy carman resolutely proceeded to secure the offender, which he could not effect without a severe encounter, and much bruising him, particularly on the head. On his examination it was found that this man, named Roger Campaznol, was the son of the Governor of Brest, in France; that having been cheated by his landlord, a Huguenot, resident near the Seven Dials, of £138, his mind became deranged, so that he was unable to distinguish the victim of his revenge. After his committal to Newgate he made two or three attempts to commit suicide.

In St. Martin's Place, near the church, are the offices of the Royal Society of Literature, and of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The Royal Society of Literature was instituted in 1820, and received the royal charter in 1826. It originated in an accidental conversation between Dr. Burgess—afterwards Bishop of St. David's and of Salisbury—and an eminent personage connected with the royal household, in October, 1820, respecting the various institutions which adorn the British nation. It was agreed that a society seemed to be wanting for the encouragement and promotion of general literature; and that if a society somewhat resembling the French Academy of Belles Lettres could be established it might be productive of great advantage to the cause of knowledge. The suggestion was communicated to Sir Benjamin Bloomfield, and by him was mentioned to the king, to whom he had been private secretary during the regency. His Majesty having expressed his approbation, a general outline of the institution was, by command, submitted to the royal perusal. The Bishop of St. David's was shortly afterwards summoned to Carlton House for the purpose of devising the best mode of giving effect to the undertaking, and was entrusted with a full commission to arrange the plan of the society. He accordingly invited a few of his personal friends to assist him, and for some time they had frequent conferences on the subject. Their first meeting took place on the 10th of November, and the title proposed for the Society was "Royal Society of Literature for the Encouragement of Indigent Merit, and the Promotion of General Literature;" but at a subsequent meeting the objectionable words in this title were expunged, and the title then stood "Royal Society for the Encouragement of Literature." In order to give signs of public life in the Society, a part of the proposed plan was immediately acted on—namely, the offer of prizes for the following subjects:—

1. For the King's Premium, one hundred guineas: "On the age, writings, and genius of Homer; and on the state of religion, society, learning, and the arts during that period. Collected from the writings of Homer."

2. For the Society's Premium, fifty guineas: "Dartmoor; a poem."

3. For the Society's Premium, twenty-five guineas: "On the History of the Greek Language, and the present language of Greece, especially in the Ionian Islands; and on the difference between ancient and modern Greek." This premium was subsequently increased to fifty guineas, and another of the like sum was proposed for the best poem on "The Fall of Constantinople in the Fifteenth Century."

The first prize awarded by the Society was for the second premium, for which five candidates appeared. Their productions were referred to a sub-committee, who adjudged the prize to the writer of the poem bearing the motto "Come, bright Improvement," which was found to be written by Felicia Hemans.

Among the first members of the Society were the king, two of the royal dukes, several of the bishops, and many other distinguished persons. In its early stages the Society met with some opposition in different quarters; but by the middle of the year 1823, the constitution and regulations were completed and submitted to the king, and were finally approved of under the royal signmanual. Stability and importance were given to the Society by a royal charter granted in the sixth year of George IV. in these terms:—"To our right trusty and well-beloved Thomas, by Divine permission Bishop of Salisbury, (fn. 1) and others of our loving subjects who have, under our royal patronage, formed themselves into a Society for the advancement of literature, by the publication of unedited remains of ancient literature, and of such works as may be of great intrinsic value, but not of that popular character which usually claims the attention of publishers; by the promotion of discoveries in literature; by endeavouring to fix the standard, as far as practicable, and to preserve the purity of the English language, by the critical improvement of English lexicography; by the reading at public meetings of interesting papers on history, philosophy, poetry, philology, and the arts, and the publication of such of those papers as shall be approved of; by the assigning of honorary rewards to works of great literary merit, and to important discoveries in literature; and by establishing a correspondence with learned men in foreign countries for the purpose of literary inquiry and information."

In 1826 George IV. made a grant to the Society of the Crown land opposite St. Martin's Church, and the leading and official members voluntarily subscribed £4,300 as a building-fund, with which they erected their present place of meeting. In 1828 the Society adopted the publications of the Egyptian Society, and has since contributed some important researches on the antiquities of Egypt. For rewarding literary men the royal founder enabled the Society to act with princely liberality, by placing at its disposal 1,100 guineas a year, "to be bestowed on the Associates for life, to be elected by the officers and council, each to receive 100 guineas per annum; and the remaining 100 guineas to be expended on two gold medals, to be bestowed annually upon individuals whose literary merits entitled them to the honour."

In connection with the above gift of 1,100 guineas by the king, Mr. Harford, in his "Life of Dr. Burgess, Bishop of Salisbury" (1840), relates the following anecdote:—"It is a curious fact, which his majesty, George IV., himself mentioned with a smile to the present Dean of Salisbury (Dr. Pearson) that the Bishop, from a misconception of his meaning, at their first interview, committed the king as an annual subscriber of £1,000—a sum which he had intended only as a donation to the Society at its outset, while his annual subscription was to have been limited to £100. As, however, his lordship, in his zeal, had immediately proclaimed the king's munificence, and Fame, through the medium of the press, had almost as quickly trumpeted it with her hundred tongues throughout the country, there was no retreat; and the king not only cheerfully acquiesced, but amused himself with the incident." On the death of George IV., in 1830, this gratifying bequest ceased.

A valuable library has been formed, and greatly enriched by the lexicographical and antiquarian publications presented by Mr. Todd, and by papers read at meetings, and furnished by many of the most eminent writers of the age. Several quarto volumes have been issued.

Admission to the Royal Society of Literature is obtained by a certificate, signed by three members, and an election by ballot. Ordinary members pay three guineas on admission, and two guineas annually, or compound by a payment of twenty guineas. At the meetings of this Society papers are read by learned men, English and foreigners. The Society, however, incurred considerable ridiculc by having admitted a certain M. Cosprons, a few years since, to read a paper, as a French savant, under the assumed title of "M. le Duc de Rousillon." The mistake was soon found out, and the "illustrious" soi-disant duke was never asked to read a second paper.

The Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, whose rooms are in the same building as the above Society, was established in 1863, for the purpose of promoting the study of anthropology in a strictly scientific manner. The annual subscription is two guineas, and a life-membership twenty guineas. There is a small but interesting museum, and the publications of the Society are presented to the members. Sir John Lubbock, Bart., is President of this Society.

In St. Martin's Place are likewise the offices of the Friend of the Clergy Corporation, an institution, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, "for allowing pensions, not exceeding £40 per annum, to the widows and orphan unmarried daughters of clergymen of the Established Church, and for affording temporary assistance to necessitous clergymen and their families."

St. Martin's Place is worthy of note as having been, during the Franco-Prussian War, the headquarters of the National Society for Aiding the Sick and Wounded, which was founded at a meeting of the English Langue of the Order of St. John held here in July, 1870. During the year and a half of that terrible struggle this Society sent abroad to Germany and France, in nearly equal proportions, money and stores—such as lint, bandages, wine, and surgical appliances—to the value of about half a million, earning thereby the hearty thanks of both the belligerent nations. After the termination of the European struggle the Society resolved not to disband itself, but to continue en permanence, so as to be ready for action in case of the outbreak of another war. Its offices, however, are transferred to Craven Street, Strand.

In Castle Street, at the back of the National Gallery, a library was founded by Dr. Tenison—afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury—in the year 1685, for the use of his school, over which it was placed. In 1697, the doctor, who was then vicar of St. Martin's, gave £1,000 towards a fund for the maintenance of his school, and afterwards, by the consent of Dr. Patrick, Bishop of Ely, another sum of £500 which had been left to them jointly, in trust, to be disposed of in charitable uses; these two sums, together with the leasehold messuages, for the term of forty years, he vested in trustees, for the support of his school and library. Out of the profits of these investments the librarian and masters have an annual salary for teaching thirty boys, sons of the inhabitants of St. Martin's parish.

This institution was at first situated in Castle Street, at the back of the Mews, which, as we have already shown, afterwards gave place to the National Gallery. Here it stood down to the year 1872, when it was removed and re-opened in Leicester Square.

WEST VIEW OF THE OLD CHURCH OF ST. MARTIN'S-IN-THE-FIELDS; PULLED DOWN IN 1721. (From a Print published by J. T. Smith in 1808.)

The original design of the founder was to supply the clergy and studious persons of Westminster with a place of retirement and study. "He told me," says Evelyn ("Diary," Feb. 15, 1684), "there were thirty or forty young men in orders in his parish, either governors to young gentlemen, or chaplains to noblemen, who, being reproved by him on occasion for frequenting taverns or coffeehouses, told him they would study or employ their time better if they had books. This put the pious Doctor on this design." On the 23rd Evelyn again writes, "Afterwards I went with Sir Christopher Wren to Dr. Tenison, when we made the drawing and estimate of the expense of the library to be began the next spring near the Mews."

The library is not by any means confined to theological subjects, but comprises works of general literature. Amongst the 5,000 volumes of the ordinary staple from which libraries were formed a century and a half ago, are some MSS. of great interest. The library contains a beautiful Sarum Missal of the thirteenth century, and a magnificently illuminated Psalter of a little earlier period. But the gems of the collection, perhaps, are the "Psychomachia of Prudentius," and the "Versarium of Fortunatus," both apparently of the tenth century.

By a series of misfortunes this institution, it appears, had been reduced, of late years, to the last stage of decay. Its slender endowment was almost entirely lost in the South Sea Bubble, and its resources failed altogether on the expiration of a lease, the remainder of which has been taken by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests for the improvement of Charing Cross. There were in the end no means of providing salaries for the officers or for any of the expenses incidental to the maintenance of a library, and the fate of an institution which ought to be interesting to all lovers of literature came to be regarded with apprehension and anxiety.


For many years the trustees permitted a society of subscribing members to hold its meetings, to play at chess, and read newspapers in the readingroom; and thus a sort of club or mechanics' institute came to hold its meetings in Archbishop Tenison's Library, and a list of lectures was posted outside the door. A portion even of the shelves of the old library had been appropriated to the books of the new society; and if clergymen and "studious persons," more especially intended by the founder, had resorted to Tenison's Library for purposes of study, they would soon have given up the attempt in despair. A late eminent bookseller bore the following testimony as to the state of the original library a few years previous to its removal, in 1872, to its new quarters:—"The books and manuscripts in the library are many of them of great curiosity, rarity, and value, but have suffered injury from dust and neglect; were they properly cleaned and repaired, and the room made comfortable to readers, it would, in my opinion, be much frequented, and accessions be made to the library in the way of books presented." The original intention of the founder having thus been withheld, the interest of the parishioners and others in this library gradually decreased, and it at length became scarcely at all frequented on its own account. The place had altogether a forlorn and miserable appearance; its volumes buried in dust and exposed to the vicissitudes of heat and damp, so that one would be painfully reminded of the day when, under the auspices of the three illustrious men mentioned above, the building was planned, and of the goodly show which Strype tells us the books with their "gilt backs" made in his time.

The Rev. P. Hale, the librarian, some time ago issued a "Plea for Archbishop Tenison's Library," in which he remarked:—"It seems to be a moral law that every institution, in spite of the care and munificence of its founder, should fall short of his aim, in order to give room for the vigilance and charity of his successor."

Attention to the subject having been thus awakened, those most deeply interested in the preservation of the library soon began to exert themselves; a new building was erected in Leicester Square, and in 1872 the institution was removed thither, where it is hoped a new and more prosperous career is in store for the Tenison Library.

On the west side of St. Martin's Lane, near Long Acre, is Aldridge's Horse Repository—a middle-class "Tattersall's"—established in 1753, where about 240 horses are sold weekly.

In Castle Street, Upper St. Martin's Lane, nearly opposite Aldridge's Horse Repository, is the "Artizan's Institute for Promoting General and Technical Knowledge." This institute was established in October, 1874, for the purpose of assisting skilled workmen to pursue the study of history, political economy, moral philosophy, literature, science and art (including mathematics, physiology, chemistry, drawing, &c.), and foreign languages; also for enabling apprentices and others to complete their technical education, with a special view to the manipulative department of their various trades. Lectures, classes, discussions, reading and conversation meetings, and a library, are the means employed. The chief object of the institute is to provide interesting and useful mental occupation for the members every night of the week, in the shape of solid instruction, rational and elevating recreation, or stimulating interchange of ideas.

Newton tells us, in his "London in the Olden Time," that nearly at the end of the Strand a country lane, without habitations, ran northwards between the fields up to St. Giles's hospital. "A small chapel or oratory," he adds, "we know not of what antiquity, stood in the thirteenth century by the east side of this lane in the fields, about a hundred yards from the highway of the Strand." He considers it probable that this chapel was saved by the monks of St. Peter's Abbey, to whom the land about the neighbourhood belonged, and who "bestowed their benedictions on, and collected halfpennies from the pilgrims and travellers passing to and from the north country and the City of Westminster."

This country road, which first obtained the name of St. Martin's Lane about the reign of Charles I., was bounded on the eastern side by the wall of the Convent Garden, and opened into the "Cock and Pie Fields," so called from a house of that name where cakes and ale were sold.

At the bottom of St. Martin's Lane was a nest or rookery of narrow lanes and streets, which rejoiced in slang names, such as "Porridge Island," "The Bermudas," and the "Straits of the Strand." The names in course of time became classical, being constantly imported into the comedies of the time by Ben Jonson and other authors. From the allusions to them which occur, it is clear that they were occupied by a low lot of inhabitants, who indulged in gin, ale, and fighting. Porridge Island, especially, was filled with second-rate cook-shops. In the World, of November 29th, 1753, we find an allusion to "a fine gentleman whose lodgings no one is acquainted with," as having his dinner "served up under cover of a pewter-plate from the cook-shops in Porridge Island." The greater part of this rookery was swept away about the year 1830, but a considerable portion of the low courts remain about Bedfordbury.

Many of the houses in St. Martin's Lane have historic and artistic associations, which carry us back to the days of George II. and the early part of the reign of George III. Thus, for instance, Mr. Peter Cunningham informs us that "in a great room on the west side, nearly opposite old 'Slaughter's,' N. Home, the painter, exhibited in 1775 his celebrated 'Conjurer,' intended as a satire on the way in which Sir Joshua Reynolds composed his pictures; and in Cecil Court, in the following year, was born Abraham Raimbach, the engraver."

Smith, too, tells us in his "Nollekens," that the house No. 96, on the west side, " has a large staircase, curiously painted, of figures viewing a procession, which was executed for the famous Dr. Misaubin, about the year 1732, by a painter named Clermont, a Frenchman. Behind the house there is a large room, the inside of which is given by Hogarth in his 'Rake's Progress,' where he has introduced portraits of the doctor and his Irish wife."

St. Martin's Lane, if we except a few houses on the eastern side, at the end near to St. Martin's Church, was built between the years 1610 and 1615. Up to that time it was apparently a really green country lane, known as West Church Lane, with scarcely a single cottage all the way up to St. Giles's. A little before that date we read that Sir Hugh Platt, the most scientific horticulturist of his age, had a garden in St. Martin's Lane. Among its most distinguished inhabitants in its early days were Sir John Suckling, the poet, Sir Kenelm Digby, and D. Mytens, the painter. Here, too, lived at one time the celebrated Earl of Shaftesbury, Dr. (afterwards Archbishop) Thomas Tenison, whilst he was the Vicar of St. Martin's, and the Whig poet Ambrose Philips. In this street, too, nearly opposite where now are May's Buildings, lived Sir Joshua Reynolds when he first came as a young man to London; and Sir James Thornhill, who established at the back of his house the artists' school, out of which it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Royal Academy took its beginning. Fuseli and Roubilliac, too, in their day had studies here; and those artists who did not actually live in the lane, used to frequent it of an evening, repairing as visitors to "Slaughter's Coffee-house," their accustomed haunt. Here Hogarth was a constant visitor, stepping round from his quarters hard by in Leicester Square; and many of the larger houses, if they have not been tenanted by artists, have been the haunts and homes of extensive picture-dealers.

Allan Cunningham tells us that Roubilliac's first studio was in Peter's Court in this lane, a favourite haunt of artists; "the room," he adds, "has been since pulled down and rebuilt, and its site is now occupied as a meeting-house by the Society of Friends." Roubilliac afterwards removed to a larger studio on the western side of the street, where he died in 1762.

"At the south-west corner of this lane," writes Stow, "there was one house wherein sometimes were distraught and lunatic people; of what antiquity founded, or by whom, I have not heard; neither of its suppression. But it is said that some time a king of England, not liking such a kind of people to remain so near his palace, caused them to be removed further off to Bethlehem, without Bishopsgate; and to that hospital the said house by Charing Cross doth yet remain." The upper part of St. Martin's Lane was originally termed the Terrace, implying probably that it consisted of a number of larger and more imposing edifices built at one time.

Ben Jonson was born in Hartshorn Lane, near Northumberland House, Charing Cross. We learn this from Fuller, who says, "Though I cannot, with all my industrious inquiry, find him in his cradle, yet I can fetch him from his long coats. When a little child he lived in Hartshorn Lane, Charing Cross, when his mother married a bricklayer for her second husband. He was first bred in a private school in St. Martin's Court, then in Westminster School."

Such was St. Martin's Lane in the olden days, before it had become the resort of loose characters, among whom, in the words of Ben Jonson, "the quarrelling lesson was read, and the seconds were bottled ale and tobacco." For, to speak the truth, St. Martin's parish would seem to have been remarkable for tipplers. At all events, that trustworthy authority, the "London Spy," hints that "the malt duty is nowhere better promoted than in this part of the town."

It is to be feared that the narrow gorge by which to the present day exit is made from St. Martin's Lane into Trafalgar Square, is a standing proof that two hundred years ago the "commissioners for reforming the buildings, ways, and streets, and for regulating the hackney coaches in London," did not do their duty quite as efficiently as our present Metropolitan Board of Works. At all events, John Evelyn tells us, in his "Diary," under date May 25th, 1662, that he and his brother commissioners went from Scotland Yard to the neighbourhood of St. Martin's Church, in order "to view how St. Martin's Lane might be made more passable into the Strand." We fear that, although more than two centuries have passed away since that time, the work has yet to be satisfactorily achieved.


  • 1. He had recently been translated to this see from St. David's.