Hidden History in a Cornhill Doorway
Cornhill, running alongside the Royal Exchange, is one of London’s historic thoroughfares. But often the history is hard to spot.
The name Cornhill, as you may have guessed, comes from an ancient corn market. We know it’s pretty old because John Stow mentions a market has been there since “time out of mind” in 1598.
It’s probably a street that Roman Londoners would’ve trudged up, hard to imagine now, but thankfully there’s a great bit of history hiding in plain sight. Look out for number 32, and this over-hanging sign.
Passed unnoticed by most City Workers, these wooden doors were carved by Walter Gilbert in 1939.
He was commissioned to create them by Cornhill Insurance Group and they commemorate eight chapters of the local history.
Left Hand Side
The top panel shows a seated King Lucius granting a charter to two architects. According to an ancient tablet – recorded multiple times in historical sources including John Stow – Lucius founded a church called St Peter Cornhill near here in 179AD! St Peter Cornhill still exists, but it’s a later church designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London.
The panel below remembers that the Bishop of London had the only oven in The City here, charging his tenants for use of it. On the left the priest takes a sneering look at the number of loaves the women to the right hold.
Next, on a fashion theme the top panel celebrates a 1604 shop for fine men’s apparel; Birchin Lane, Cornhill. I particularly like the admiring way the centre figure looks into his tiny mirror.
The bottom panel is a scene from Garraway’s Coffeeshop, one of the many which lined these alleyways in the 18th century. Garraway’s was a place which auctioned new commodities brought in via the London Docks and was often full of stockbrokers – kicked out of the nearby Royal Exchange for rowdy behaviour. Read more about coffeeshops here.
Right Hand Side
The panel below reads “Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, did penance walking barefoot to St Michael’s Church from Queen Hithe, 1441” and we see the downtrodden-looking Eleanor clutching her hip. She’s surrounded by clerics after being convicted of the crime of sorcery.
The next panel boasts that in the 14th century Cornhill was the only market allowed to be held after noon. The bent-double stallholder doesn’t seem to happy about this as she serves apples to two customers though.
Below is a scene from Pope’s Head Tavern – remembered in nearby Pope’s Head Alley – which was founded in 1750. The array of of glasses and bottles of wine are reference to the fact the Vintners’ Company (wine makers) did a roaring trade here – and still do!
The last panel – possibly my favourite – shows a scene of 19th century female empowerment.
Two of the Brontë sisters; Charlotte and Anne, have travelled down to London in order to meet their publishers Smith Elder & Co face-to-face. This was necessary because the (male) publishers couldn’t believe that the sisters were women, they’d been writing under male pseudonyms previously. The man shown is a portrait of William Thackeray who publsihed The Cornhill Magazine with the same company. In the scene he appears to play the part of the confused editor.
Explore More of The City
Walk the hidden alleyways of the Square Mile, meeting the heroes, villains and martyrs of London. Who really holds the power in The City? And what do they have to sacrifice to get it? Today we strive for a work/life balance but on this walk we’ll be treading the steps of those who – literally – died for their work. By revealing sights usually ignored by busy Londoners you’ll look up to encounter religious fanatics, eccentric entrepreneurs, secret authors and even a viscous vulture.
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