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.
On closer inspection it’s a fairly horrifying sight, a mix of writhing bodies bursting from graves.
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.
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
Standing outside the West side of the church is a gateway built in 1800 by WIlliam Leverton.
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.
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.
Traditionally the left side shows people ascending to heaven (at the right hand of God),
while the right side is reserved for people entering eternal damnation.
Although this couple doesn’t seem to bothered by the fiery gates that enclose them.
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).
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!