If you want to gain a vivid view of Tudor London, a London that was mostly lost due to the Great Fire of London, then you need to familiarise yourself with John Stow’s ‘Survey of London’.
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
Hazel Baker: Joining me in the studio today is City of London tour guide Ian McDiarmid. So today we are going to be talking about something that is rather important, but a little bit maybe underestimated.
This is Survey of London by John Stow and anybody looking at any of London’s history is bound to have come across this at some point or another, but today we’re going to be discussing the importance of the Survey itself and also getting to know John Stow. Is that the plan?
Ian McDiarmid: That is the plan. I reckon that this is about the most quoted book on London, but I was a little bit apprehensive saying that in case you thought I was a bit out of touch with modern life.
Hazel Baker: I don’t think so. I mean, I haven’t read every book about London, but he’s always there.
Ian McDiarmid: He does get mentioned a lot and hence his importance for us.
Hazel Baker: For those listeners who haven’t the foggiest about what we’re going on about what is it a survey of?
Ian McDiarmid: Well, it was written in 1598 and then it’s republished in an expanded form in 1603. It is a Chorographical survey of London. Chorographical means that it is map-like, and this is partly why it’s so important because he does a very detailed map like a Survey of London. And this would be a great source at any time for any city. But of course it has particular importance because the London that he was writing about would be largely destroyed in the great fire of 1666, and then further damage was caused by Victorian town development and bombing in the Second World War. We’ve got this great record and the structure of it is very, very logical. So he begins with the origins of London. He then goes on to describe the common parts of London. So he describes the rivers, beginning with the Thames, he goes onto the wells, the walls, the gates and then he has a little bit on the customs of London, the great men of London and what they’ve done. And then you get onto the core of the book, which is a description of London’s wards. Now there were 26 wards in the time of John Stow and the wards are the lay, i.e. non-religious equivalent of the parishes. So London’s divided into parishes and it’s divided into wards and the wards are the administrative units. They’re the bits of London that are responsible for taxation administration and governance. So the wards have their own administration. They have their own assemblies called ward motes, and they select members who sit on the common council, which is the big council responsible for all of London, and each ward selects an alderman.
Hazel Baker: Why is A Survey of London so important?
Ian McDiarmid: Well, to give a couple of examples of this, of his descriptions, there are so many in the book, but just two that spring to mind: one is his description of Bridge House, which was on the South bank of the Thames and was a big warehouse for the repair of London bridge. So all these materials were stored there and they also had ovens to help in case of times of scarcity. And it’s that kind of detail that is just so interesting about the book.
And another good example is the Precinct of St. Paul’s cathedral. Now the precinct is the largest in London, and we’ve got this great description from Stow of all the things that were occurring there.
So he describes a couple of towers. There’s a parish church. There are chapels in there. There’s the dean’s house. And he provides a rather fascinating description of the bishop’s palace, because he says that the bishop’s palace, which is also in, within this precinct, he describes it as the finest palace in London.
And then he says that when Richard the Second and his wife come to stay in the city, this is the natural place to put them up. And he also describes the brewhouse and the bakehouse for the people attached to the cathedral, just to the South of it. So it’s a really detailed description of life in London before the Great Fire.
Hazel Baker: And of course, this is a time way before photography. So looking at that detail, that’s something that you can’t get in the agar map, isn’t it or the pictures that we have of the time?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes, that’s right. That’s quite significant because what Stow is doing is roughly contemporary with a great expansion in map-making and map-making relies on the use of geometry to be able to map things accurately. And it’s in the 1570s that we get the Saxton maps of the English counties. So people are being able to visualize a space in a new way. And Stow’s book is in many ways putting down in words this new way of looking at space.
Hazel Baker: So, could it be considered as being a guidebook?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes, it is because it is a guide around the city, because as I said, he takes you through ward by ward and he gives you very great detail at the beginning of each chapter, which is basically him walking you through in print the boundaries of the ward. And another thing that he does is that when he mentions a big church he’ll list all the monuments in it. It is a fantastic source for anybody wanting to go into this and actually find what was physically there.
Hazel Baker: We might as well get into John Stow himself. So who was he?
Ian McDiarmid: Well, we can give his dates – he’s 1525 to 1605. Now you normally give somebody dates and it’s just kind of a rather bland fact about them, but this is so important for John Stow for two reasons.
One, you can tell from those dates that he was an old man, when he died. He was 80 and I’m talking in the 16th century. If once you got past the childhood diseases in your teenage years, you were well set in terms of life expectancy, you could expect to live to your fifties.
But to go, go beyond that, to be 80, when, when you die is quite remarkable, and this is important because he’s looking back onto the past and he’s writing about the past. He’s writing about a rapidly vanishing past. And it’s also important because he lived through some very tumultuous years. So he lives through the break with Rome under Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. He lives through the radical implementation of Protestantism under Henry’s son, Edward VI, he lives through the restoration of Catholicism under Mary, and then the pendulum swings back under Elizabeth to Protestantism.
It’s a period of great change and it’s very interesting that he has this long life living through all of this and seeking to record a lot of it. And what was his profession? Well, that’s quite a good question. His father was a tallow Chandler and then he is a merchant tailor.
So he was apprenticed as a tailor and he’s made free. He’s made him a full member of the company later on and he pursues this career. We don’t have a great deal of detail, but he gives up the tailoring at the age of about 40 and to pursue his, what we would call academic interests, but we don’t have a great deal of biographical detail on them.
And we don’t have a great deal of information on how he actually made his money. The indications are that he was always a bit short of money. He didn’t own a horse. He went pretty much everywhere on foot, but it could well be that some people’s views of him, of living in real poverty have been exaggerated at the very end of his life.
He gets a license from King James I to beg. And some people thought this is evidence of him being reduced to absolute penury. But on the other hand, it’s the kind of thing John Stow would like to collect as a document. So I’m not sure about that. And we know that he had a pension from the Merchant Tailors at this stage.
He does get payments for, for his books and his widow is able to put up quite a nice monument to him. And his monument is quite well-known. It’s in St. Andrew’s Undershaft, which isn’t always very easy to get into, but inside there, there’s this fine terracotta bust of him. And this bust is quite well known because there’s a ceremony every two years whereby the Merchant Tailors as they are now, replace the pen in his hand.
Hazel Baker: So what else can you tell us about John Stow?
Ian McDiarmid: He produced an edition of Chaucer in 1561 and he publishes a Summary of. English Chronicles in the 1570s. And this book is enormously popular so far as we can tell by its publishing history.
It went through seven additions and several abridgments and then he expanded that into his Chronicles of 1580. And then the Chronicles itself is rewritten and gets reissued as his Annals, which was published in 1592.
Hazel Baker: And what were his influences?
Ian McDiarmid: Well, you mentioned two of them the first being map-making.
So we were saying that the Survey is a bit like map-making done in print. We’ve also mentioned the Chronicles because he very much maintains the tradition of the chronicle, that you can feel the influence of it in the Survey which is full of lists and done in a rather traditional way. Another important influence on him is antiquarianism. This gets going in the 16th century. It is an interest in documents and monuments and establishing the importance of a historical object or document and establishing its veracity.
And one of the most early things that Stow does is he’s associated with the circle of Matthew Parker. Parker is Archbishop of Canterbury and he’s very interested in the medieval past because this fits in with his idea of Protestantism of the reformed English church having its roots in the middle ages.
So he’s very interested in reading Medieval manuscripts to try and back up this view. And he employs Stow as a collector and an editor of manuscripts. Also there is the beginnings of a movement within English antiquarianism to write an antiquarian survey of the whole of England and Wales.
The beginning of this project is associated with John Leland, who doesn’t get very far with it. He suffered some kind of mental collapse, but other people pick up the gauntlet of doing this. And the first bit that actually makes its way into print is a Perambulation of Kent by William Lambarde, which comes out in the 1570s. If you go to Greenwich and come out of the station opposite you is a college called Queen Elizabeth college, which is made up of alms houses. Those are the rebuilt houses from the college that Lambarde founded in the late sixteenth century.
There are others as well. A man named Norton comes into print with a book called Speculum Britanniae, and he manages to write about Middlesex and Hertfordshire. And the idea with both Norden and Lambarde is they’re going to go on and write about hopefully all of the counties, but they stop.
Lambarde stops after one county and Norton stops after two. There is also a very influential book – William Camden’s Britannia, which was published in 1586. And this very much fits into the antiquarian tradition, but Camden is primarily interested in Britain as a province of the Roman empire. So all of these things are impacting Stow. I said earlier that it is a chorographical work so that it is written as though it was a map, but he stitches onto the top of this, this map- like structure, a lot of historical information. And it is that historical information, which I think makes it an interesting read for us.
Hazel Baker: And he’s got quite an interesting writing style.
Ian McDiarmid: Yes. So I’ve mentioned that he does rather go in for lists and he does rather go in for giving you the ward boundaries, but the real interest, I think for people reading it today, is the vivid detail that he will give.
And perhaps I could give a couple of examples of this to get a flavour of the book. One, which I find always sticks in my mind is a story when he is writing about the Walbrook which is one of the tributaries of the Thames that has disappeared. The modern street Walbrook, which runs North to South, marks out the Eastern bank of the river. It then pursued a course down what is now Dowgate Hill, and then Cousin Lane and into the Thames. To help people to locate themselves, Dowgate Hill and Cousin Lane run down the side of Cannon Street station. Now, one thing that strikes me walking around London, is quite how hilly it is. And you really get a sense of that if you walk if you walk up Dowgate Hill.
Stow provides a good description of what was there in his time with the upper Walbrook – that bit down to the end of the modern street Walbrook – covered over with paving. From there on down it was open. And he describes an eighteen-year old trying to leap over the Walbrook at the top of Dowgate Hill where it became open. He loses his footing and he’s carried away by the current and men try to rescue him by putting staves into the water, but they’re unable to, and he’s finally found bashed against a cartwheel, which I think was probably serving as part of the watergate down the bottom.
Now this is a dramatic story, and is obviously an unhappy one, but what it shows us, which is so important is how strong and how rapidly flowing the Walbrook was at the time. So at the end of the 16th century after centuries of encroachment, and the Walbrook being silted up, it’s still sufficiently strong to carry a young man away in Stow’s time. Listen to our Roman London Walbrook River podcast.
And then I think the thing that stands in my mind the most, my favourite part of the book really, is his story about Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was given two messages, that’s properties within Austin Friars, and he built himself a house there. And. Stow describes how one day people who were living a little bit away from this found that their garden boundaries had been moved. Cromwell’s men go in and they just extend his garden by 22 feet. And one of the gardens affected is that of John Stow’s father. And not only does John Stow’s father find a great big wall built 22 foot into his garden, but they’ve also removed his summer house. Stow goes on to relate the fact that his father still had to pay the same rent for the property. And he ended with some rather nice comments along the lines of ‘I think that great men do sometimes forget themselves’. So, yeah, so he’s very good at these vivid details.
And I think one other thing about this is that you get a picture of one thing that Stow very much regrets, which is the defacement of the monuments. And this has led a lot of people to suspect that he might have been a crypto Catholic, and indeed he gets into trouble with the church authorities who make a search of his study. This at the time that Grinal, later archbishop of Canterbury is the bishop of London. And he’s a noted Puritan. He’s committed to reform. And he sends his chaplains round and they search Stow’s house and they find what they describe as Romish material. And it’s a bit of an open question really: Stow has this material simply because he’s an antiquarian and he’s interested in collecting all kinds of material, or is he actually sympathetic to the old religion that’s now being persecuted?
Hazel Baker: You said that he really started writing when he was 40 years old. So maybe he was feeling that he needed to preserve what he could see was rapidly disappearing by writing it down.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. I think there’s a large element of that. And we can also talk about the things that Stow likes about London. In addition to the old monuments, he’s very much in favour of collective responsibility. He very much admires people who do things for the collective good. So towards the beginning of A Survey he has this list of Londoners who have made great benefactions to the city, including Whittington, who is stupendously wealthy.
And also in his will which left a lot of money for the benefit of London. And one thing that he’s very keen on mentioning throughout the work, are the conduits. These are the lead pipes that brought what they called sweet water or what we call fresh water into London.
So these pipes carried water from the wells in Clerkenwell from the North of London, but also from the West, quite a long distance. And you can imagine that in constructing these pipes there’s enormous and expense, and then also in making the heads of the conduits where people could draw water.
And he goes into great detail where wherever he comes across conduit, he goes into great detail about its construction and the people who paid for it . Following on from this, he’s very critical of things that are going wrong in London. So he doesn’t like it when ditches are filled in. These are no longer being maintained. For example, Houndsditch is being built over at his time. He doesn’t like the fact that the open fields are being built on around London. And so London is changing before him and he doesn’t deal with this directly, but obviously we can say that London is undergoing huge population growth at this time.
And this is expressed in a lot of this building, for example, one of the things he bemoans is that it’s the loss of the fields in Whitechapel to housing so that Londoners can no longer walk over them.
One of the things that he’s very proud of is London’s origins. At the beginning of the book, he goes into the origins of London, and he’s a bit dubious about this because this relies on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description and he rather distances himself from it. He sort of leaves it hanging whether this is actually true or not. But according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, London is founded by Brutus who is a descendant of the Trojans. And this makes a parallel between London and Rome. Stow also quotes quite extensively from Fitzstephen who is a 12th century writer in London.
And one of the things that Stow quotes a couple of times is Fitzstephen saying that the aldermen who are the senior people in each of the London wards are the equivalent of the Roman Senate. So this is a huge piece of civic pride.
Hazel Baker: Normally when I’m reading a survey of London I look specifically at a certain place and a particular point in time, but you actually, you read it from beginning to end, didn’t you?
Ian McDiarmid: Yes. And I find it very interesting. I mean, I think you have to be very motivated and very interested in London’s history. But one thing I didn’t mention is that he does all of London. I got up saying that he does the wards. He then goes on to do the suburbs of London. So it’s a complete description of London at time, including Westminster.
Hazel Baker: Fantastic. Well, thanks Ian for sharing that with us.