Corners Of London: Blackfriars



When I visit my new publishers, Quercus, at Blackfriars, I find myself in a massively changed landscape, partly because after decades of dithering the road layout has finally been settled, and partly because of the huge tube/train station foyer that now stands opposite the old Blackfriar pub.

Blackfriars was named after the black habits worn by Dominican friars who were once on the site. The historic Art Nouveau Grade II  pub that now stands there was built in 1875 and was designed by architect H. Fuller-Clark and artist Henry Poole, both committed to the free-thinking of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Jolly friars appear everywhere in the pub in sculptures, mosaics and reliefs. Like so many other felicitous buildings in London, the pub was saved from demolition by a campaign led by Sir John Betjeman.

All that remains of the infamous Bridewell prison just around its corner is a carved head of Edward VI. The boundary wall once ran along the front of St Bride’s vicarage, so every year the vicar had to pay a guinea to the governors for permission to walk over his own doorstep.

a8207ba19a5ee09ea3fcb4c40aab3a97--city-of-london-old-londonRunning underneath Blackfriars, the Fleet River can still be seen at low tide – actually I haven’t checked this in a couple of years, but it enters the Thames under the bridge. There’s also supposed to be an old cornerstone from Ludgate knocking around, left there after the gate was torn down in 1760 and sold for £146, and also a model lighthouse which I’ve never been able to find.

The charming Bridewell theatre seems to be back, with a full roster of productions once more. I once saw an immersive production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ there, where you could hear the bells of St Brides and sounds of Fleet Street incorporated into the production. In 1891, St Bride Foundation was established to provide a social, cultural and recreational centre for Fleet Street and its print and publishing trade. It still houses an unparalleled library of print, media, communications and design, believed to be the largest in the world.


The odd red pillars of the ‘ghost station’ of Blackfriars form part of the original railway bridge built across the Thames in 1864, when the London Chatham Dover Railway was extended across the Thames to what was then St Paul’s Station. Presumably they survive because it was to no-one’s advantage to pull them out! There was a boxing ring here, too – all that remains of it is – of course – a pub commemorating the site, The Ring.


Opposite the Blackfriar stands the curved colonnade of Unilever House. I’m certain there used to be statues in all of the alcoves when I was younger, but after its spruce-up many of them mysteriously vanished. One of the corners here was the last remaining ‘old’ part of the City, and although its buildings were tumbledown, they were very atmospheric. It will be interesting to see what happens to the nearby Smithfield area as the Museum of London gets ready to move in there.

13 comments on “Corners Of London: Blackfriars”

  1. Jan says:

    Morning Chris.

    You know the mosaic pictures in that pub that depict the jolly friars fishing (and larking about) well it is the River Fleet they are fishing in not the Thames but the Fleet river itself before it became a city sewer.

    It’s lovely little place that pub.

    Blackfriars bridge and it’s environs both N + S of the Thames is a funny old spot. Robert Calvis murder just close to the South bank under one of of the Blackfriars arches a place of importance to Friedman’s for some reason I think. Ends up being investigated by the City as a suicide. Investigated many Yeats later.

    Queen Victoria heckled in what in truth seems to have been a low grade riot when she was opening the railway bridge and part of the station in the late 19C.

    Not strictly Blackfriars but close enough to deserve a sneaky mention if you look just East of the bridge onto the South bank that was where the “Dark satanic mills” Blake wrote about were situated. Over the years it’s become common currency that these mills were up north and a product of the industrial revolution. No they were on the South bank not that far from the Pool of London where the raw materials for their work were brought into the capital.

  2. Jan says:

    Sorry predictive text error Freemasons not Friedman’s
    Should be reinvestigated many years later (not by the City that 2nd investigation.)

  3. Steveb says:

    Never knew that about the dark satanic mills Jan, very interesting

  4. David Ronaldson says:

    Yep the River Fleet still spews virtually unnoticed into the Thames; always doff a real or virtual cap when I pass the spot…

  5. davem says:

    I’ve always thought that the old pub looked wonderful, a perfect quirky building for London.

    Moving tangentially, I enjoyed the Black Friars in Neil Gaiman’s book Neverwhere, moving around in ‘London Below’.

    Incidentally, in case anyone is interested, I have heard he is currently writing a sequel, The Seven Sisters.

    Apologies Chris for promoting another author’s work 🙂

  6. admin says:

    No, go for it Dave…I’ve never read Mr Gaiman but he seems a nice chap so I should pout him on the list. Did try a bit of ‘American Gods’ but it shot past my brain (it was late).

  7. Kevin says:

    Now that I think about it, ‘Neverwhere’ is like an inverted version of ‘Roofworld’ – with a slightly supernatural slant. It’s been quite a while since I read either – I probably ought to rectify that.

  8. Vivienne says:

    The Dominicans, the Black Friars was also the order from which the Inquisition people were drawn. I wondered if Calvi’s murderers chose that bridge to show that Calvi was a traitor/heretic. He had been handling the Vatican money and embezzling it I believe.

    I also think there were more statues on my the Unilever building. Went there a couple of years ago on an Open House visit and was really disappointed that now it’s just a facade. I was hoping for stunning 1930s decor.

  9. snowy says:

    The statues that were on the “top shelf” were created by Nicholas Monro. Buried somewhere in an old comment is a link to a frankly rather small picture of them.

    Where was it?….

    *wanders off into the archive*



    *bounds back with a really rather too smug look*

    It was a couple of years ago, the link, er… to the link is visible if you hover over my name. Those of a bold or reckless disposition* can click it if they wish.

    [*It will only take you to another page on this blog.]

  10. Ken Mann says:

    One of the other priories in the area was Crutched Friars. I sometimes wonder what the bridge would have looked like if it had been built just a little further east.

  11. Jan says:

    Could blather on for pages + pages about the Friaries. In fact am full of a cold and if I can get the strength together over the weekend might bore you silly with just that.

    Can’t do much else. Feeling sorry for myself.

    Just leave you with this tidbit Mr. F. The Bridewell prison was built on the site of the Tower of Montifiquet. Monty being one of William the Conqueror’s favoured men. The tower was sited on this particular spot because it had a secure water supply the St Brides (or earth goddess Bridgets )well. Of course the well made the site ideal for building a prison a few centuries later. Be interesting to know what is there now. If a site is useful at one point in history it remains so. We’ve been over this before.

    Bridget was obviously important in this locality St Brides Fleet street just a short distance NW + is sited by a well which is still visible nearby. (Near that wine bar round at the back just by the massive tree) incidentally it’s on a ley. Valleys of the Bride are not uncommon theres a Bride valley E of Bridport. Perhaps the valley in this part of the city (and you can see the land dips down to form a valley – think of Holborn viaduct) was originally a Bride valley a sacred area leading down toward a confluence of rivers. If you believe in psychogeography that’s why the friaries would be built here. Didn’t stay sacred though far from it. But that’s another story.

    The Fleet up towards your way and up into Kentish Town was known as the River of Wells and the wells obviously still persist further down into the River valley. I wonder if the Clerkswell at Clerkenwell is part of same water course. Must be.

    I sent u some info about Wells before I think. Theres enough of topic there to use in a B+ M. Pretty sure there is. When you start looking at it it’s an intricate interesting topic one of the old bindings that formed London’s development.

  12. Jan says:

    Just to make things a bit clearer the Montifiquet tower was part of the Bridewell Palace which over time lost its royal status first becoming part prison and later becoming totally used as a prison. Now the site is occupied by Unilever house. Maybe I ought to leave the Friaries alone till the cold medications worn off a bit will only get hopelessly confused

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy is quite right, of course. We did discuss the statues on Unilever House before, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it again. It’s like swotting for an exam, go over and over until it’s burned into the brain. Making sure that what you’re burning in is correct, of course.
    I’ve discovered that arthritis can explode pain through a joint, so as I can’t really walk I’ll just sit here and let Jan tell me all about friaries.

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