The Gates of Hell? | St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway

On the narrow Flitcroft Street, amidst the Crossrail development of Tottenham Court Road, look up and you can see the St Giles-in-the-Field gateway.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

On closer inspection it’s a fairly horrifying sight, a mix of writhing bodies bursting from graves.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London
St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

We’ll come back to the details, but first…

History of St Giles-in-the-Fields

The Church of St Giles-in-the-Fields has an ancient history.

It begins with a leper hospital, founded in the early 1100s by Queen Matilda, which included a chapel. As the name suggests, this was once in a very rural setting and the little religious enclave can be seen surrounded by fields on the Agas map from the 16th century.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

Image Credit: Leaflet | © Maptiler and OpenStreetMap contributors

The hospital and church was dissolved during the reformation and the chapel was rebuilt in the 1600s and then again in 1731-3 by Henry Flitcoft which still stands today.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway

Standing outside the West side of the church is a gateway built in 1800 by WIlliam Leverton.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

It’s a lych gate, a traditional roofed gateway into a churchyard that can act as a bit of shelter for a coffin before a burial. Already that’s somewhat sinister, but as we take a closer look the details are pretty alarming.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

This is actually a cast of a much earlier original oak panel. This is kept safe inside the church and was  apparently carved by someone called Love in 1687.

It depicts the Resurrection, Jesus standing in the centre while angels trumpet judgement day and bodies clamber out of the graves to await their fate.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

Traditionally the left side shows people ascending to heaven (at the right hand of God),

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

while the right side is reserved for people entering eternal damnation.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

Although this couple doesn’t seem to bothered by the fiery gates that enclose them.

St Giles-in-the-Fields Gateway | Look Up London

Gruesome History at St Giles

If we look to the surrounding area of St Giles, there are some fairly gruesome bits of history.

Firstly, executions. St Giles was conveniently enroute for those on their final journey to Tyburn Tree, the execution site by today’s Marble Arch.

A tradition started whereby criminals might take a final drink, ‘for the road’ (some say the origins of that expression but I’m forever sceptical!) and were offered a bowl of ale.

A reminder of this is supposedly why you could once find street names like Bowl Yard nearby, as seen on the William Morgan map from 1682 below. Today the nearby Angel pub makes the claim that it once gave the condemned their final draught (there’s been a pub here since the 18th century at least but the current Sam Smiths pub is 19th century).

Image Credit: Leaflet | © Maptiler and OpenStreetMap contributors

Actual executions did occasionally take place in St Giles too, most notably some of the conspirators of the Babington plot to assassination Queen Elizabeth I.

Image Credit: Public Domain / Possible depiction of Anthony Babington

Into the 18th and 19th centuries, as London’s population swelled dramatically St Giles was known for its squalid, overcrowded living conditions that were called rookeries.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Thanks to high crime rates and the spread of infectious diseases, these neighbourhoods could be deadly. But another surprising event proved fatal for the rookery inhabitants; The Great Beer Flood of 1814.

The huge Meux & Co’s Horse Shoe Brewery was established 1764, the site of the Dominion Theatre by Tottenham Court Road today.

On 17 October one of the massive vats (almost 7m tall) of burst, fermenting porter rushing out at such a pressure that it caused another vat and other large barrels to also burst.

Image Credit: Public Domain. The Horseshoe Brewery c.1800

A tidal wave (some reports say 15ft high!) of beer flooded into the streets and the basement cellars of the rookeries, unfortunately trapping some inhabitants. The death toll varies but 8 people were named at the Coroner’s Inquest held in the St Giles Parish Workhouse.

So, not the cheeriest of posts, but hopefully something to have a look up at for next time you’re by Tottenham Court Road!

Get the latest London secrets to your email
See the city from a new angle, discovering little things you miss everyday and get the latest news about upcoming tours.
Once a week. No spam, just inspiration.
Your details will never be shared with any 3rd parties

More London Inspiration

  • St Mary Moorfields | Look Up London

    City Churches | St Mary Moorfields

    Having visited most of them, I thought it would be a fun long-term project to write about every City Church. There are 43 within the Square Mile (give or take a couple, depending on which you include) and in this post we’re visiting the only......

  • Fulham Road Jewish Cemetery | Look Up London

    The Hidden Jewish Cemetery on Fulham Road

    Recently I’ve been spending a bit of time researching private walks in Kensington and Chelsea. As such, one of the wonderful little historic gems I’ve stumbled across is the hidden Jewish Cemetery on Fulham Road. While taking a picture of Sokol Books (more on that......

  • Whitehall Historic House | Look Up London

    Whitehall Historic House | Cheam’s 500 year old house

    In Sutton you can find an amazing historic gem, a surviving house – built c.1500 – that’s now a brilliant local history museum. Here’s why you should visit Whitehall Historic House… Under an hour from Waterloo Station, Whitehall Historic sits in Cheam, a village dating......

  • Hole in the Wall, Kensington | Look Up London

    The Odd History Behind The Hole in the Wall in Kensington 

    While planning a bespoke private tour in the back streets of Kensington I noticed an odd marking on google maps; “The Hole in the Wall”. When I saw it in person it’s rather more substantial than a hole and a little plaque gives a hint......

  • History Behind The Eastcheap Camels on Peek House

    Have you ever noticed the Eastcheap camels on Peek House? Looking up along Eastcheap provides plenty of interesting things to spot. From the juxtaposition of old (St Margaret Patterns) and the new Walkie Talkie, to one of London’s most intriguing (and tiny!) sculptures But the......

  • Oldest Map of London | Look Up London

    Visit The Oldest Map of London

    Until 26 October 2022 The London Metropolitan Archives have a free exhibition of epic London maps. As if that wasn’t enough to pique my interest, they have on display the oldest surviving map of London. This is Civitas Londonium, a print dating from c.1633 but......

No Comments

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.