10 Historic Gems in Fleet Street Quarter
Fleet Street is one of London’s most historic thoroughfares and the surrounding streets are packed with stories, surprises and historic gems.
For that reason it seemed an obvious choice to start my public walking tours back in 2015 and it remains one of the most popular Look Up London walks.
For this post I’m working with Fleet Street Quarter and have put together a list of my favourite 10 historic gems that you can look out for when you’re next in the area.
1. Buried River Fleet
Fleet Street takes its name from one of London’s ‘lost’ subterranean rivers. The Fleet rises at two locations in Hampstead and flows south through the City before emptying into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
Even in the early 1700s there were complaints about its smell and the fact Londoners used it as a dumping ground – especially the butchers of Smithfield Market who would throw their rotting meat and offcuts into the slow-moving stream.
Today its almost entirely covered, however there’s one point near Fleet Street where you can catch a glimpse of it!
Look down through the grate at the corner of Saffron Hill and Greville Street and you’ll clearly see the water beneath you. It’s a tributary of main Fleet River which flows through a huge sewer pipe under nearby Farringdon Road.
2. St Dunstan-in-the-West
Named after the 10th Century Saint Dunstan, the first church on this site is thought to have been built here between 988-1070AD.
The current building dates from the 1830s, designed by John Shaw but it’s well worth going inside because of the surprise in store…
Enter the small door and you’re met with a beautiful octagonal space and video blue ceiling covered in stars.
Most of the interior is 19th century but in the side chapels there are historic gems like the 17th century organ and the iconostasis, a Romanian Orthodox alter screen c.1860s which was brought here from Bucharest in 1966.
3. Dr Johnson’s House
One of London’s best niche museums, Dr Johnson’s House can be found a 17 Gough Square, a quiet enclave off Fleet Street.
From 1748-1759 Johnson worked here on A Dictionary of the English Language, a project that was finally published in 1755 after 9 years of work.
It wasn’t the first English dictionary, but was the first to truly celebrate the English language and provide references in literature for words as well as Johnson’s own eclectic and witty definitions.
For over 170 years it was seen as the most important and thorough dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1884.
Inside the museum – housed in Johnson’s surviving late 17thC home – you’ll find a copy of his dictionary and with the original features and sensitive restoration, it feels very much as though Johnson might be just in the next room. Find out more about visiting here.
4. Maughan Library
On Chancery Lane, look up and you’ll feel as thought you’ve wandered onto a film set. This fairytale-like building is the former public record office, built in the 19th century.
It was made in two parts. The earlier section was designed by Sir James Pennethorne in the 1850s ( above, viewed from Fetter Lane) and the rest is by Sir John Taylor in the 1890s (below, seen from Chancery Lane).
It was purpose built to house important documents and as such had one of – if not the – first ‘fire-proof’ interior construction. This consists of wrought iron shelving and cast iron girders.
Since 1998 it’s been part it’s part of Kings College London and contains the spectacular, circular Reading Room.
Although the majority is 19th century, the history of the site goes back to 1232. It stands on the site of a residence and chapel for Jews that had converted to Christianity. However, in 1290 when King Edward I ordered the expulsion of all Jews in England the site came under the control of Master of the Rolls – a position that exists today as a Senior Judge under the Lord Chief Justice.
Image Credit: Leaflet | © Maptiler and OpenStreetMap contributors – Tudor Map c.1520 from www.layersoflondon.org
Within the Maughan Library and now known as the Weston Room can be found the Rolls Chapel, rebuilt in the early 1600s by Inigo Jones and after multiple alterations finally demolished in 1895. However some interior elements survived; the stained glass, mosaic floor and monuments as well as an 13th century archway which can be seen on the garden frontage of the Chancery Lane wing.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons CC by SA.2.0
5. Hen and Chicken Court
There are many alleys off Fleet Street but the narrowest is Hen and Chicken Court. It really is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it situation.
It’s a dead end, leading to a private home connected to the Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West but it’s also the supposed location of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Sweeney Todd.
Todd first appears in a London Penny Dreadful (serialised, printed stories) in 1840s and there’s no evidence that such a figure actually existed. In the story he murders over 100 would-be customers, chopping them up and turning them into meat pies sold at Mrs Lovett’s shop.
The court is mentioned as far back as the 16th century and might be a reference to a nearby pub, but in any case it’s an atmospheric spot to seek out off Fleet Street.
6. St Bride’s Church Crypt Museum
Another ancient church on Fleet Street, the current St Bride’s was reconstructed following bomb damage during WWII.
However, descend down into the free crypt museum and you step back through time, seeing evidence of the Medieval church as well as an incredibly well preserved section of Roman pavement dating to around 180AD.
7. Former Daily Express Building
Love it or hate it, the modernist design of 120-129 Fleet Street received grade II* status in the ‘70s so it’s not going anywhere.
Constructed between 1930-32 and designed by Herbert O. Ellis and W.L. Clarke, it features striking black vitrolite panels interspersed with chromium strips. Strictly speaking it’s in a Streamline Moderne style, part of the Art Deco movement with a focus on horizontal lines, curves and a smooth, industrial finish.
However, many people don’t realise that the former Daily Express building – note the red EXPRESS written vertically either side of the entrance – is hiding an absolute gem in plain sight.
Peek behind the greying curtains and you’ll catch a glimpse of one of London’s finest 1930s interiors. It’s the work of Robert Atkinson alongside the sculptor Eric Aumonier who created two relief panels depicting Britain and Empire.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons CC by SA.2.0
8. Magpie Alley Tiles
Fleet Street’s connection with printing began with Wykyn de Worde establishing a print shop here in the 15th Century and if you venture down Magpie Alley, the whole of Fleet Street’s history with printing is laid out before you!
Told through illustrations and historic photographs, it traces the story from Wynkyn to the mid 1900s.
9. Whitefriars Crypt
Just after Magpie Alley, make sure you peer over the wall of Ashentree Court to see the remains of Whitefriars Crypt.
The Whitefriars – members of the Carmelite Prioy that settled here in 1253 – were a Christian monastic order named after their white cloaks and the ruins seen today date from the 14th century.
It’s only a small section of the crypt, but the whole complex was once a thriving community that stretch from Fleet Street down to the Thames.
Image Credit: Leaflet | © Maptiler and OpenStreetMap contributors – Tudor Map c.1520 and modern day London from www.layersoflondon.org
10. Cutlers’ Hall
Along Warwick Lane off Newgate Street is a fantastic terracotta facade. It belongs to the Worshipful Company of Cutlers’ one of the City’s Livery Companies, trade guilds that grouped together to regulate prices, quality and who could enter the trade.
The cutlers had a monopoly on selling and manufacturing anything with a cutting edge and though the trade was around from Roman times they received a Royal Charter in 1416.
This is the site of the hall, their headquarters and an events space, which dates from 1884. Although like many City buildings there were earlier versions on the same site, one from the 1630s and one from the 1720s.
From the outside you can admire the wonderful frieze by Benjamin Creswick which charts the process of the Cutlers’ craft; forging, hammering, grinding and handle production. You can read more about the Cutlers’ Hall here.
I hope you enjoyed these snippets of the rich history of Fleet Street. What other historic gems have you stumbled across in the area?
This blog post is a paid partnership with Fleet Street Quarter and you can find out more about them and their work here.
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The shelving in the Maughan Library remind me of the stacks in the London Library, St James’s. The latter were constructed sometime during the 1890s I believe.
Hi Geraldine, yes you’re right they are similar. You can see my post from a tour of the London Library here; https://lookup.london/inside-london-library/ the library was founded in the 1840s but the shelving may be a little later.
Nice to see the old Express building. It reminded me of my Fleet Street days when the “inmates” called it the Black Lubyanka. It may be an art deco gem but those working in it couldn’t stand the place.
Tony de Boeck
Hi Katie, Really enjoying your posts! I recall that at some time in the 70’s or 80’s hearing about the Dean of St Brides, with its wedding cake style spire, offering to sign certificates which pictured the spire for couples getting married to “autheticate” their own style wedding cake! Not totally sure about my facts but I’m sure that you’ll know or will know someone who does know.