By Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the April 2005 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
I gather that many of you enjoyed ‘A Walk in the City’ in the last journal although someone remarked that the tour was a little strenuous, especially after Christmas lunch! I have therefore devised a mini-tour for the couch potatoes amongst us, which has the unusual feature of being entirely stationary. The tour will therefore start and finish on the pavement outside the Lloyd’s Building in the City of London. This unusual building with its insides apparently on its outside has won countless awards, which proves how little I know about architecture.
Standing in Leadenhall Street with our back to Lloyd’s, we are facing due north. The dark skyscraper immediately in front of us is the Aviva Insurance building, of no interest to us other than as a reference point. However, to its right, leading away northwards is St Mary Axe, a street that takes its name from the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. Why the ‘Axe’? Well, according to legend, Ursula, the daughter of an English king, was on a pilgrimage with her numerous and virtuous handmaidens when they had the misfortune to meet Attila the Hun in a very bad temper. He and his followers set about the ladies with three axes, one of which was subsequently kept in the church as a holy relic. Church and axe have long since disappeared leaving just the curious street name.
The only church in St Mary Axe nowadays is St Andrew Undershaft which you can see on the corner of Leadenhall Street and is in the modern combined parish of St Helen Bishopsgate with St Andrew Undershaft and St Ethelburga Bishopsgate and St Martin Outwich and St Mary Axe. Thomas and Mathew, the sons of Robert and Judeth Sewell, were baptized here in the 1640s and Priscilla Sewell, daughter of Richard and Priscilla, was baptized here on 5 February 1787. Why ‘Undershaft’? Every year it was customary for an extremely tall maypole to be erected next to the church. For the rest of the year the pole or shaft was stored under the eaves of the houses in Shaft Alley until in 1549 the celebrations were denounced as heathen and the shaft was chopped into pieces and burned. Shaft Alley too has disappeared.
The very new office building next to the church is Fitzwilliam House, 10 St Mary Axe, and next to that is a quite remarkable building. Officially 30 St Mary Axe, it is known far and wide as the Gherkin, for the very obvious reason that it looks like one.
Until very recently the Baltic Exchange, where half the world’s shipping is bought and sold, had occupied the site known as 14-20 St Mary Axe. The elegant houses on the site, previously known as Jeffreys Square, had been cleared in the 1890s to make way for the prestigious new building completed in 1903. Unfortunately, the Baltic Exchange was severely damaged in 1992 by an IRA bomb and the business moved to another building further along St Mary Axe. What was left of the original building was dismantled and is currently stored in a barn in Kent, all the pieces boxed and labelled. Estate agents are inviting offers in the region of £750,000. Apparently, the interior plasterwork with its sea monsters and mermaids riding dolphins is intact and could be reassembled one day, by a very wealthy jigsaw enthusiast, perhaps.
In the 18th and early 19th century the street had many wealthy residents, including bankers, merchants and surgeons. For example, in 1791, Thomas Sole, merchant, lived at 2 St Mary Axe. In 1862, Sewell, Blaikie & Sewell, wine, spirit and brandy merchants and rectifying distillers had their premises at 11 St Mary Axe.
But it is the Solly family that figures most prominently. Isaac Solly, a wealthy merchant, appears in directories from 1783 onwards, described as company (director) of the Million Bank in 1791, commissioner of the Lieutenancy of the City of London in 1811 and director of Royal Exchange Assurance in 1817. His address on each occasion is given as 2 Jeffreys Square, St Mary Axe. From 1817 to 1827, Isaac Solly and Sons, merchants, are at 15 St Mary Axe, then in directories for 1839 and 1846 they appear at 5 Jeffreys Square, St Mary Axe.
It seems that the site of Isaac Solly’s town house is now under the famous Gherkin!
From our viewpoint outside Lloyd’s, if we look now to the left of the Aviva building we glimpse through the trees the top of a bell tower peering over the houses in Great St Helen’s. Were it not for the Aviva building in the way, we would see a medieval stone wall which is the south side of the church of St Helen Bishopsgate.
St Helen Bishopsgate
Once part of a nunnery, the church still has its two west entrance doors, one for the nuns and one for everyone else. The Baltic Exchange bomb of 1992 exploded just 60 yards from the east end of the church, lifting its roof and shattering its windows, but the church has since been fully restored. The following marriages took place there:
Thamar Saull married Edward Collyn, 1 March 1578
Hester, daughter of James Saule married Francis Langley, 17 January 1593
Anne Sewall married Charles Seller, 4 July 1625
Rebeccah Sewell married William Ley, 5 November 1792
William Sewell married Eliza Quinton, 6 July 1867
The original parish of St Helen’s consisted of little more than the houses in Great St Helen’s itself and a small part of Bishopsgate and at 9a Great St Helens in 1862 we would have found Isaac Solly, merchant, rubbing shoulders in a manner of speaking with the famous inhabitants of this tiny parish. For example, Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabethan merchant and founder of the Royal Exchange, was buried in the church on 15 December 1579, and in the Rate Assessment of 1597 for the parish of St Helen Bishopsgate is found the name of William Shakespeare – yes, the very same!
There is so much to see in the City, it is hard to know when to stop. For example, just around the corner from Great St Helen’s and therefore out of our sight is St Helen’s Place where Samuel Solly the surgeon of St Thomas’s Hospital was living in 1862. Samuel was the son of Isaac, born in 1805, most likely at the house in Jeffreys Square.
If we were to cross St Mary Axe and walk between Fitzwilliam House and the Gherkin we would be just a stone’s throw from Mitre Square. I could show you the spot where Jack the Ripper murdered his fifth victim on 30 September 1888. And from there it’s just a few steps to Aldgate. Abraham, Edward and William Saul each had butcher’s shops in Aldgate High Street, fortunately a generation before the Whitechapel murders, or they might have found themselves suspects! If slaughter is not to your taste we could stroll along Leadenhall Street where at No. 3 in 1862 we would have found Matthew Soul, a civil engineer, and at No. 121 Richard Sewell was a carver, gilder and frame maker in the 1780s.
We might walk along Lime Street, where the Museum of London is excavating a Roman forum, past the splendid Leadenhall Market, built in cast iron on land once owned by Dick Whittington, then on through the narrow lanes that eventually take us down to the River Thames. So much history all around us and yet, from almost anywhere in the City we will see on the skyline the unmistakable shape of Solly’s Gherkin.
Acknowledgements: The London Encyclopaedia, by Weinreb & Hibbert, Macmillan 1995
Lynne Burlingham, for background on the Solly family
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