Monuments and Dust

Monuments and Dust

London Times: 21 Apr 1851

Antique Buildings in London.

Considering the immense number of educated foreigners we are likely to have upon us in a very few days, and the splendid buildings, the antiquities, the galleries, and the treasures of art they leave behind them in their own capitals, we should have thought than an ordinary Englishman would feel very sensitive, not to say sore, at the comparative nakedness of his own land. On one point in particular we scarcely know what excuse we are to give our visitors, who have heard so much about our venerable constitution. The metropolis is most deplorably off for antiquities. We have Westminster Abbey and Hall, to be sure, at one end of London, and the Tower at the other; but at these solitary relics we have had within our time tremendous conflagrations. We would recommend our younger readers to get up the great fire of London, as it will have to stand instead of a good deal of sightseeing. It will not, however, account for everything. It did not cross Londonbridge, and within these few years we have suffered the magnificent nave of St. Saviour's to fall down, and have replaced it with what is to all intents and purposes a modern church. About a century since the famous palace of the Bishops of ELY was pulled down, and its chapel, with a neglected exterior and a modernized interior, is now a Welch church. There is one other ancient place of worship within the bounds of the city, and that has now for three centuries been a Dutch church, to which, perhaps, it owes its escape from churchwardens and contractors. St. Catherine's Church and Almshouse disappeared before the spade of the excavator about 30 years since, and some interesting antiquities were thereby scattered to the winds. The Temple Church happily survives. There are parts of the Charterhouse scarcely one bit altered since JAMES I. rested there from the fatigues of his journey from Edinburgh, and held his first court. A bit or two of old London Wall still survives, though some profanely pious people tried a few years back to get the site of the largest piece for a church. London-stone is not quite chipped away. in The Times has its share of antiquities. Our office stands upon the foundations of Blackfriars, where for centuries PLANTAGENETS, YORKISTS, LANCASTRIANS, and TUDORS held court. We have reason to believe that just about where we sit was heard that famous cause for annulling the marriage of CATHERINE which led to the English Reformation. Under these foundations others older still are now open to view. First we have under us the Norman wall of the city, before it was extended westward to give more room to Blackfriars; and under that presents itself the unmistakable material and composition of the old roman wall. But, besides such underground antiquities, what is there in the whole area of this huge metropolis? There are names, indeed, but where are the things? Savoy is vox et praeterca nihil. St. Paul's Cross, and Charing Cross, and King's Cross, are abstractions. St. John's Gate is incorporated into a public-house. A soi-doisant palace of HENRY VIII. in Fleet-street is converted into hair-cutting rooms. Temple-bar is a nuisance. Except Northumberland-house, the mansions of the nobility that once lined the Strand have left nothing but names to the streets. North and south of London, the boroughs of Marylebone, Finsbury, the Tower Hamlets, and Southwark, are deserts, as far as antiquities are concerned; while the ARCHBISHOP and his palace are all that Lambeth has now to show.

The moral of all this is, that we ought to make the best of what we have. This will be done to a considerable extent. The benchers of the Temple will entertain their brethren of the toga from Paris in their own ancient halls. The scrapers and cleaners are at work in Westminster Hall and elsewhere. If the old Norman chapel and other rooms in the White Tower, used, some as a powder-magazine, others as a depository for records, could be shown, it would be more, perhaps, than we are to expect from F. M. the Constable. A spirit of opposition, however, has displayed itself in another quarter where it is less excusable. The Corporation of London did not drive the French out of Spain, or win the battle of Waterloo, nor has it done any great deed of valour or strategy, that we are aware of; so we are not disposed to spare its foibles. On Thursday Mr. BENNOCH, a well-known member of the Common Council, in pursuance of a notice, moved that proper measures be taken to promote the comfort and enjoyment of persons visiting the city of London, especially as regards their admission to places of public interest. The terms in which he expressed his motion included in its range various bodies not under the control of the corporation; but there was, as he explained, a good deal that the corporation itself and the city companies could do, if they pleased. In several of the ancient halls there were paintings, he said, which, although unknown to the public even by name, would bear comparison with those in the highest estimation, and he instanced the pictures which decorated the walls of Paper Stainers'-hall, and of Barber Surgeons'-hall. He further wished, he said, to get the magnificent crypt of Guildhall open to the foreigners who might visit the city. He had been informed by Mr. BUNNING, the city architect, that it was of the best style, the workmanship being equal, if not superior, to that exhibited by any European city. Mr. BENNOCH's proposition might or might not be practicable to its utmost extent. He only proposed inquiry in order to see what could be done, and then pointed out at least one object which the corporation could do just what they pleased with -- viz., the crypt of their own Guildhall; but, after a shower of mud from Mr. ANDERTON and Mr. H. L. TAYLOR, the proposition was negatived by an overwhelming majority. The corporation of London, itself the oldest relic of barbarism in this country, is resolved to keep up the ancient stigma against Britannos hospitibus feros, and send foreigners to the river and the docks if they want to see something.

The cloven foot, however, was allowed to peep out; -- the cloven foot literal as well as metaphorical. No sooner had Mr. BENNOCH made his motion than it was absorbed into the Smithfield-market question. The affections of the city being disappointed in that tender quarter, it is now at war with all the world, and insults foreigners because it is offended with Government. Like Miss SQUEERS, it wishes it was dead, -- it wishes all the world was dead. If the quarter million of intelligent foreigners that are coming were so many sheep and oxen, they would be perfectly welcome to the city of London; or, if the crypt of Guildhall was a slaughter-house, it would be shown with alacrity. Being, however, nothing more than very nearly the only bit of old London's magnificence that escaped the great fire, and having escaped the mutilation which the superstructure has met with at the hands of restorers, it is to remain as inaccessible as the forbidden chamber in Bluebeard. We have repeatedly made the attempt to see that crypt ourselves, and have hitherto been as successful as Mr. BENNOCH has been in his motion. Why it is so inscrutable a mystery we cannot divine. The Court of Common Council is not so important a body as to tempt a GUY FAWKES; nor have we ever heard of any more peaceful purpose that the substructure of Guildhall has been put to. Then, why cannot it be opened at once? If the corporation is too poor to afford the exhibition gratis, let it be shown for a shilling, the proceeds to go towards the banquet on Lord Mayor's Day. We are aware than an ancient crypt is not a very available curiosity. It cannot be melted down, like gold coins, nor broken up like tesselated pavements; nor can it be presented to friends in the country, as we hear has been the fate of certain other city antiquities. A stone crypt, happily, is a fixture, and not worth breaking up. We still live in hope of seeing it some day; but we certainly think that some such evidence is necessary to prove to foreigners that London really is the ancient city it pretends to be.