Bishops, wormwood, and Dirty Dick

bishopsgate cropThe next in our series of London’s gates is Bishopsgate, which gives its name to a street that is one of the longest in the City of London. The gate itself, according to John Stow, was named for Bishop Erkenwald, who became Bishop of London in 675.

The site of the former gate is marked by a stone bishop’s mitre, where Bishopsgate meets Wormwood Street and Camomile Street, two streets that  are exactly what they sound.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the old London Wall and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Two of the wild flowers that grew here were camomile and wormwood.

Wormwood, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Dirty DicksOne of the streets that intersects Bishopsgate is Leadenhall Street, the location of a warehouse owned by of Richard (or Nathaniel) Bentley. Bentley, once known as the ‘beau of Leadenhall Street’ as he was well-dressed and a frequent visitor at court, later became known as Dirty Dick. A famous London pub – Dirty Dick’s, which stands just off Leadenhall Street in Catherine Wheel Alley – takes its name from the warehouse.

Bentley’s change in hygiene is said to have come about when the girl to whom he was betrothed died the day before their marriage; he may have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens when he penned the character of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations.


Keats, wormwood, gates and health springs

This day in London history: on 18 December, 1795, the poet John Keats (who was born on 31 October) was baptized in the church of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate. The church is mentioned as early as 1212, when it was called Sancti Botolfi Extra Bishopesgate, though worship on the site dates back to Roman times. Edward Alleyn was also baptized here, as was an infant son of Ben Jonson.

Bishopsgate takes its name from the ‘Bishop’s Gate’, an entrance to the city for the Bishops of London, and probably named for St Erkenwald, Bishop of London in the 7th century.There were seven original ‘gates’ as part of London Wall: Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, Moorgate, and Newgate.

The churchyard adjoining the buildings runs along Wormwood Street, also part of the route of the original London Wall. At one time the land here was kept free of houses, and the land along the line of the old London Wall was allowed to grow wild. One of the wild flowers that grew here was wormwood; this herb, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Although Keats went to medical school in London, his heart was that of a poet, and he finally abandoned the studies that would enable him to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He moved to Hampstead (where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also lived) and lodged initially in Well Walk.

Well Walk takes its name from the medicinal waters of Hampstead, which was once the health centre of London: in the 18th century it was still very much a rural area and waters from the Chalybeate Springs, for the wealthy Londoners, were every bit as good as those in Bath. The springs are still there, no longer potable, however, and covered over. Legend has it that the springs arose on the spot where a monk, who was carrying a bottle of the Virgin Mary’s tears, tripped and spilled his precious cargo.

Wren, Newton, and the Chelsea Pensioners

This day in London history: on 28 November 1660 the Royal Society was founded. A group of twelve men met at Gresham College in Bishopsgate after a lecture by Christopher Wren, then the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found “a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning”.

The following year, the name The Royal Society first appeared in print when Fellows of the Society put forward a petition to King Charles II for a royal grant of incorporation; this, the First Charter, was granted. This Charter did not provide for all the privileges the Fellows desired, and a Second Charter was granted in 1663. In this Charter, the King declared himself to be the Founder and Patron of the Society.

However, before sufficient funds for building could be raised, Charles changed his mind and repurchased the land to provide an infirmary for soldiers. This was the Royal Hospital, built by Wren, and now home to the Chelsea Pensioners.

The Society's first home
The Society’s first home

The Society was given accommodation in Gresham College but meetings were sporadic in the early days, interrupted by events such as the Plague and the Great Fire. In 1669 Charles II granted Chelsea College and its surrounding lands to the Society so that it could have a permanent home.

For many years, there was a rumour that Nell Gwynn had beseeched Charles to build the hospital after she heard had been moved by the story of an injured soldier. Once the hospital had been built, old soldiers there would toast Nell as their benefactress. Romantic as it sounds, it seems unlikely that there is any truth to Nell’s involvement in the hospital.

It was not until 1710 that the Society had a home in Crane Court. Sir Isaac Newton was by now the President of the Society. His Principia Mathematica, in which he presents his ‘laws of gravity’, was published by the Royal Society. Another 18th-century Fellow was Benjamin Franklin; in 1753 the Society awarded him its Copley Medal for his work with electricity; in 1756 he was elected as a Fellow of the Society.