15 London Doors With History Behind Them
Ah the humble London door. Whether it’s a colour-pop front door of an expensive Kensington townhouse or a dilapidated one in Shoreditch, they always seem to hint they’ve got some more to tell you.
So, being a nosy Londoner, I’ve been on the hunt for the ones with the best history behind them. Not just beautiful doors you understand, ones with an actual story to tell…
1. The Oldest in England
Along the atmospheric cloisters of Westminster Abbey, you’ll find a shadowy door next to the Chapter House.
Next to it is a helpful sign indicating this is the oldest door in England!
The story attached to the door is that back in 1303 there was a robbery in the Abbey’s treasury. On learning – shock horror – it was an inside job by the monks, Edward III flayed the guilty men and used their skin to cover the door. As you do.
Recently the door underwent dendrochronological (tree age dating) tests and they proved the door dated to 1043. Even more surprisingly they also found traces of skin.
You’ll probably be relieved to know it wasn’t human skin, just plain old animal hide. There’s further good news for English Heritage members who can show their cards at the Dean’s Yard entrance and get into the Chapter House for free, with no need to pay the Abbey entrance fees! More info here.
2. The Most Iconic
You can’t really write about London doors and not mention 10 Downing Street.
It’s been the Prime Minister’s official residence since 1735 when Sir Robert Walpole was gifted the townhouse by George II and became First Lord of the Treasury. It’s also a lot bigger on the inside and the Government’s website allows you to have a 360 tour here!
It’s also – understandably – not the easiest location to photograph. But if you’re looking for a selfie. You could try the ‘fake’ 10 Downing Street a 15 minute walk away! Find out more here.
3. The Most Instagrammed
The surviving 18th century streets in Spitalfields are a delight to wander through. But one door that always catches the eye of passersby is this one;
Both were home to 17th century French Huguenots, who arrived in Spitalfields fleeing religious persecution. They mostly galvanised the area’s silk weaving trade before dispersing throughout London over the centuries but number Eleven and a Half still has an creative connection.
It’s home to an art dealership (called Eleven and a Half) who specialise in artists from West Cornwall.
4. The One Searching For The Truth
Along Southwark Street, look up to spot this phrase.
In a world currently swimming in fake news it seems like something more suitable for a protect banner, but it is in fact the entrance to the Kirkaldy Testing Museum.
Built in 1874, the ‘Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works’ did just that; conducted various tests and experiments to determine particular materials’ strength. Today the museum aims to preserve David Kirkaldy’s machine and explain his role in developing the idea of ‘quality control’. It’s a niche but fascinating little place, open every first Sunday of the month. Find out more here.
5. The First of their kind
These jazzy doors can’t be found on the street, but inside a museum, The Museum of London specifically.
They’re the doors of Selfridge’s lift from 1928, the most glamorous London department store in the 1920s under the helm of Harry Gordon Selfridge. The lifts were operated by glamorous, uniformed women and then after the WWII by war veterans, Mr Selfridge always being a man who could spin a good PR story.
6. The Ones Into Another World
No. 18 Folgate Street should be on every Londoners’ must-visit list.
The Spitalfields townhouse was renovated by an enthusiastic American Dennis Severs in 1979 and is now a kind of time warp into 18th and 19th century London. Have a good look inside from my previous post here.
7. The Slimmest in London
No. This isn’t the giraffe den at London Zoo.
This peculiarly thin door in St Giles is part of Elms Lesters Painting Rooms. Established in 1904 with a bespoke tall door enabling them to manoeuvre their large painted backdrops out of the studio and to various West End theatres. Still going strong today, they’re an independent, family run gallery which has managed to list the building, meaning we can enjoy it for years to come!
8. The One with a very curious Sign
Recently I stumbled upon what I can confidently say is London’s weirdest museum.
You can read more about the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, based in (of course!) Hackney, here. But we’re on the topic of doors and it was this sign that caught my attention;
You may recall that there’s an identical plaque on Meard Street, Soho on the former home of the eccentric artist Sebastian Horseley. As it turns out, Viktor Wynd and Horseley were right old chums and the musuem behind these doors contains a shrine to him (as you do).
The plaque has actually been removed in the last few weeks as the house has been renovated so whether this is a copy or the actual one that’s been moved I’m not sure…
9. The One You Never Want To See
Another historic door to look out for in the Museum of London is one you’ll be thankful you never had to enter…
The rebuilt Newgate Prison stood on the site of the current Old Bailey from 1672 until it was set ablaze again by the Gordon Rioters in 1780. Behind doors like these were kept criminals from murderers to debtors and the notorious conditions made it an unpleasant stay for all.
This heavy iron clad oak door was taken from the site when the prison was demolished in 1902. Another macabre relic you can find close to the former site is inside St Sepulchre Church; a box containing the bell rung before executions.
10. The Ones covered in History
Bank is pretty busy, especially 9-5, so it doesn’t surprise me that these doors hardly get a look-in.
The wooden doors themselves are not particularly historic, only dating from the late 1930s. However, they’re (literally) covered in history, with each of the 8 panels telling a part of Cornhill’s past. So from book deals to penitent Duchesses, there are stories to be told. Read more from my previous blog here.
11. The ‘Mind your head’ One
In the middle of Clerkenwell stands a gateway that dates back to 1504 but the order of St John (a religious community of knights) dates back to the 12th century.
You can visit the great little museum, but for now we’re concerned with the doors, and specifically their size.
See that far smaller one on the left hand side, the one that’s bricked up. When I went on a tour recently they said it’s not tiny because the people back then were far shorter, it’s purely a marker of the older part of the building and the street level rising around it. In any case it’s a fun thing to point out as you walk through the area.
12. The One Left behind
In the midst of Parliament Square there’s a lot going on in the heart of Westminster. So it’s very easy to miss this odd doorway with railings either side.
But back in the 17th century – the site of the street that’s now ironically Little Sanctuary – was Westminster Bridewell, a prison and workhouse. In 1834 the prison was demolished and resurrected on the site of Westminster Cathedral today, but not all of it.
Since 1969 it has been incorporated into the back of what’s now The Supreme Court. But the door today is purely a reminder of the past, not leading anywhere…
13. The Pair that aren’t there
Strolling down Leinster Gardens in Paddington and you have to look closely to spot anything out of the ordinary. But look closer and you’ll notice there’s something a little fake about numbers 23 and 24.
Built in 1868 the lack of a letter box is the giveaway; they’re nothing but fakes! You have to head around the back to reveal the full truth.
When the cut-and-cover railway was under construction they erected these facades to appease the local residents, hiding the steam and stifling the noise. Today there are still trains running along the tracks and they double up as a curio for geeky Londoners!
14. The Literary One
Our final door was occupied by one of the most famous literary figures of all time. 48 Doughty Street was the home of Charles Dickens at the beginning of his rise to fame from 1837-9 and was where he wrote some of his most famous works including Oliver Twist.
Thankfully you can actually have a snoop around, soaking up the Victorian atmosphere because it’s home to the Charles Dickens Museum! Find out more about visiting here.
Did I miss your favourite London door? Let me know!
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