Little slices of London's history

From Ha Ha Road to Bunhill Row via Bow Street

Stowe House and gardens. Photo courtesy of The National Trust

During the course of my follow-up research for the recent post about Ha Ha Road and the creator of the ha ha , Charles Bridgeman, I learned a few interesting facts. First, Bridgeman created the ha ha for the gardens at Stowe, formerly part of Stowe School and now owned by the National Trust.

According to the National Trust, the deer park and farmland surrounding the Stowe estate created issues in keeping animals out of the gardens. Bridgeman created England’s first ha ha as a sunken wall designed to keep the livestock out. It meant views would not be disrupted whereas the use of a hedge, fence or wall would be a visible barrier on the horizon.

On a personal note, this was particularly interesting because my late father-in-law, Dudley Steynor, was one of the first pupils at Stowe School, along with Sir Nicholas Winton, with whom he spent at least one school holiday. Dudley’s family created a website with many of his memories and here are some of Dudley’s words on the school:

“In 1923 I became a pupil at Stowe at the beginning of its life as a Public School. Unlike established Public Schools all the pupils were 13/14 years old. In many ways it seemed more like a grown up Preparatory School. There were a few older boys, prefects imported from Lancing together with J F Roxburgh, our new Headmaster, who had been the Sixth Form master there. They had graded us as best they could into the various Forms, and I was placed in Remove B. David Niven was one of us and I remember him as an extrovert, very pleasant and with a gift for amusing everyone with his quick sketches of events going on outside the classroom windows, where there was always a lot of building taking place.”

Back to Bridgeman: I learned, from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, that only one individual portrait of Bridgeman survives (attributed to William Hogarth, and in the Vancouver Art Gallery). He is also represented in the second plate of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ by Hogarth, in which he is tempting the rake to waste his substance on gardening.

That is also of particular personal interest, as last year I was lucky enough to visit the Sir John Soane museum in London and see Hogarth: Place and Progress, an exhibition that united all of the paintings and engravings in Hogarth’s series for the first time. I wrote two posts on Hogarth-related streets: one general one, and one featuring hanging streets. I have planned more posts, which I hope will follow in due course provided the companion book for the exhibition, on which I was relying for research, was not lost in our flood.

All of which is nothing in itself to do with London street names, I realise, so on the basis that my late father-in-law was a pianist let’s move on to Bow Street, where the first Theatre Royal at Covent Garden was built in 1732. One of the theatre’s artistic highlights is the fact that the first playing of a piano in a public theatre took place here.

The street, which was built in 1637, derived its name from the fact that it looked like a bent bow, unlike Bow Lane, which name has nothing to do with its shape. The lane takes its name from the church of St Mary-le-Bow, originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches, shaped like bows, upon which it was built.

St Mary-le-Bow was a church of great prominence because it possessed the principal curfew bell, rung at 9pm each day from at least 1363. The sound of the bells is considered to mark the area in which true Cockneys are born. In the legends surrounding the real Richard Whittington, who was Lord Mayor of London four times, the boy Dick Whittington was an unhappy apprentice running away from his master. He got as far, in some versions, as Bunhill Fields, and heard the bells seemingly saying to him “Turn again Dick Whittington”. He returned to the City of London, where he went on to find his fortune and became the Lord Mayor of London four times.

Bunhill Fields, which lies just outside the former walls of the City of London, is nothing to do with buns. It is, more disgustingly, from the nearby fields of the same name, originally Bone Hill Fields. The fields took their name from a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’’ dumped their loads there. The name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, including bones.

Bunhill Fields with the Defoe memorial in the background. Photograph: Fin Fahey

In the 17th century it was intended as a burial ground for victims of the 1665 plague; it was never used for that purpose, nor was it ever consecrated, leading it to become a popular burial ground with the non-conformists. Following the Burial Act of 1852, allowing such places to be closed when they became full, the last burial that took place there was in 1854 when a 15-year-old girl was laid to rest.

Among the bones of 120,000 people who were interred in Bunhill Fields were John Bunyan, William Blake, and Susanna Wesley, mother of Methodist founders John and Charles. Following his death as a pauper, Daniel Defoe was buried without ceremony and with his name spelled wrong. He was registered in death as ‘Mr Dubowe, Cripplegate”. There is a memorial, erected in 1870, to mark Defoe’s resting place; the money was obtained from a collection taken up by local schoolchildren. 

John Milton had a house in Bunhill Row from 1662 until his death in 1674.

5 responses to “From Ha Ha Road to Bunhill Row via Bow Street”

  1. Whittington didn’t actually travel that far before deciding to turn back, did he? He could have been back before they had noticed he was gone. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I’ve also seen theories that he got to Holloway and even Hampstead, which would make for a huge Cockney catchment area! 😀

      1. I always thought it was Highgate Hill when I was young. The Whittington Hospital in Archway is supposedly named for where he ‘turned again’ near that spot. 🙂

      2. Highgate, Pete, you are absolutely right. A slip of the keypad (and the brain). Still a big catchment area!

  2. I worked in Bunhill Row for a while and loved exploring the area in my lunch breaks, before the college I worked for amalgamated its many satellites into larger premises, as all the London FE colleges have done. More cost-effective, no doubt, but not so… local.

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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