Historical introduction: Holywell Cross

Pages 29-31

Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1922.

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Holywell Cross.

At the northern end of Shoreditch High Street, before the Reformation, stood a cross, called Holywell Cross. The earliest reference to the structure that has been found is dated 1288, when Bruning atte Cruch (at-the-Cross) of Haliwell, tiler, granted 1¾ acres of land in "Shoresdich" to William of Ewell, canon of St. Paul's. (fn. 1) The next reference is a century later, and occurs in a dispute in 10 Ric. II. (1386–7) between the prioress of Holywell and Thomas Mewe, groom of the Royal Chamber. (fn. 2) It appears that the King had granted to Mewe the cross called "Haliwell Croice," which included a small shop. On this the prioress protested, and it was found, by inquisition, that the site of the cross was within the metes and bounds of the ancient foundation of the priory. The prioress further urged that since the erection of the cross and shop the proceeds therefrom had been allocated to the office of sacrist in the priory, for the finding of bread, wine and torches for the celebration of mass. On the other hand, Mewe contended that the cross and shop were on the public highway.

Stow, writing at the close of the 16th century, says that between the north corner of the field bounding the west side of the High Street and the church "sometime stood a Crosse, now a Smithes Forge, dividing three wayes." (fn. 3) The structure (or a later one on the same site) is shown in Rocque's Map (1746), where it is entitled "the watch house."

On 15th January, 1750–1, the inhabitants in Vestry directed "that, provided the house in the middle of the road near the church, where Mr. John Baxter now liveth, be demolished and laid waste, Dr. Astry, (fn. 4) the present lord of the manor, be paid forty shillings per annum, for ever." (fn. 5) Nothing seems to have materialised, and on 19th March, 1766–7, a meeting was held to consider the question of taking down the "roundabout house," opposite the church, and it was agreed to petition the bishop of London for his consent to pulling it down, subject to satisfaction being made to the prebendary of Hoxton. This, apparently, was more effectual, and in 1767 an Act of Parliament (8 Geo. III., c. 33) was obtained (fn. 6) under the powers of which the building was purchased and demolished. It is described as "all that messuage or tenement . . . heretofore in occupation of Isaac Baxter, deceased, and then of Davis, scituate at Church End . . . . within the manor and prebend of Hogsdon, on the east side of the King's highway towards the west part, upon the King's highway from Shoreditch to Hackney towards the east and south parts, to the highway leading from Old Street to Hackney on the north, containing in length south to north 25 feet, and in breadth east to west 13 feet 6 inches consisting of a cellar, shop and a chamber over the shop, formerly known by the name of the Smith's Forge." (fn. 7)


  • 1. MSS. of Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's, A., 14, No. 1693.
  • 2. Placita in Cancellaria, 13/20.
  • 3. Survey of London (Kingsford's edn.), II., p. 74. Ellis's statement (History of Shoreditch, p. 82) that the cross was known as the Smith before the Reformation is based upon an inexplicable misreading in the deposition of Thos. Haddon (see p. 94).
  • 4. Frank Astry, S.T.P., was prebendary of Hoxton 1718 to 1766.
  • 5. Ware's Account of Charities of Shoreditch, p. 68.
  • 6. The Act states that "the passage of the said high street is greatly obstructed by a certain house belonging to the prebend of Hoxton precinct, and let or leased to Richard Rose, a carpenter, standing upon a small detached piece of ground at the north-east corner of the said high street, near the church."
  • 7. Indenture, dated 22nd August, 1768, between Richard Rose, John Underwood and the Commissioners under the Act. (Midd. Reg. Memls., 1768, V., 438.)