London Puzzles No.3: The Church Of Surprises


What’s this all about, then? A boat sticking out of a wall? That’s the first puzzle you encounter on entering St Magnus the Martyr.

It’s just another research day in London. I was heading to a specific London location to see something few people bother checking out. Who, I wonder, is still interested in the city’s history?

‘London is like a railway junction; it has no true life of its own,’ says Lucia in EF Benson’s eponymous books. ‘There is no delicacy, no appreciation of fine shades. Individualism has no existence there; everyone gabbles together.’  Nobody gabbles here. The area is overlooked and loved only by those who know it.

I found what I was seeking – I was alone inside the church except for the vicar, who was nodding off over a book. St Magnus the Martyr isn’t just hard to find – it’s hard to reach. The arterial passage of Lower Thames Street cuts across its path, hiding it in plain sight. But here you’ll find an almost perfect example of a church from the Middle Ages, long before pews became popular, when churches were still rowdily filled with food stalls and arguing tradespeople. The church was at the centre of the community and was therefore overrun with people, especially as it was on the thoroughfare of London Bridge.

It’s the home of the last remaining cleric in the Church of England to use the title Cardinal. Second puzzle; why is it the guild church of plumbers and fishmongers? The answer lies with its neighbour just up the road, the former Billingsgate Fish Market, with Britannia on its roof. The church was founded in 1116, but why St Magnus? The pious martyr was executed on the Isle of Egilsay in the Orkneys, and was attached to Danish heritage, and thence the Viking Age, which is why he is now portrayed with a massive bit of artistic licence as a Viking.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting, although the history of the church is insanely complex, and even its Wikipedia page is a demandingly long read. The church’s bells were forged in the Whitechapel Foundry (now under threat of closure – indeed, it may already have gone) and were consecrated before installation.

Then in the narthex there’s this odd-looking thing. London’s first fire engine, made of wood and extremely ineffective-looking. I can’t imagine it was of much use in the Great Fire, but at least it could get down the narrow streets.

The Romans had built the first bridge across the Thames, London Bridge, and the original stone church was at its head. So to get onto the bridge you had to pass St Magnus. Eventually London Bridge had tall houses on either side, and even a castle at the centre. Outside St Magnus there’s still a section of the original Roman bridge that stood there (AD75), strapped to a wall. Nobody ever notices it.

And inside, there’s one more delight to discover. Inside St Magnus is a large model of the old London Bridge that is clearly old but doesn’t even warrant a mention in the church’s history. Somewhere on the model, I’m told, is one figure in modern dress – this is the man who built it. It’s as precarious and delicate as the bridge itself.



20 comments on “London Puzzles No.3: The Church Of Surprises”

  1. John Howard says:

    Wow….. Just that really.
    I know that you keep telling us that London is full of this but it’s great when it is put in front of us for our delectation. ( Lazy.? Moi.? Recien Jubilado.! )

  2. Rachel Green says:

    That’s seriously awesome.

  3. SimonB says:

    The church has been on my visit list for a while due to the model, but you’ve just pushed it several places higher!

  4. Brian Evans says:

    This is fascinating, right down to the London Bridge model.

    I have been wondering lately if a play could be written about the gang – putting the PCU on stage. This sort of church could be the set and it could have mysterious and ghostly Goings On solved by them.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve just read the history of the church on St. Magnus’ website and there was a mention of the model (in the minister’s greeting?) I hope people don’t expect to see the bells as they are in that photo and the one in the slide show on the home page ’cause they’re up in the tower now a’course.
    That fire engine looks like ones I’ve seen on tv. The horizontal slats are part of the pumping mechanism, a frame of them on each side so about 4 men could stand on each side and pump alternately with the 4 on the other side. Not a huge power but considerably better than bucket brigades.
    The owner of the bakery in Pudding Lane is buried in this church and very forgiving of them it was, I think.

  6. Ken says:

    Wow!mWe spent a couple of days last week very close to here at the Tower Hotel And should really have included this on the itinerary. We’re only a short distance away in Essex though, so next trip …

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Oh splendid, like the axe St Magnus has since he was supposed to have been killed by an axe blow.

    Of course I looked up London bridge, which almost fell down when Jupiter hit it. It’s kept up by a medieval trust, Bridge House Estates (not an exciting name for sure), which sold the new London Bridge to the US, there was a lovely documentary on BBC4 a while back about the New bridge (the Rennie one not the current box girder one.) On an odd note a narwhal tusk was used to repel the terrorist in November on the bridge and one of the men who restrained him was a convicted murderer out on licence, as they say truth is stranger than fiction.


  8. Helen Martin says:

    We saw pictures of that most unusual use of a narwhal tusk but no one ever explained why it was so near at hand. That whole incident was really strange.

  9. Linda Evans says:

    A. Maz. Ing.

  10. Ken says:

    Helen Martin, the terrible events on London Bridge started in Fishmonger’s Hall where there are all sorts of objects related to marine life. The hero who grabbed it to use as a weapon was working in the kitchen

  11. snowy says:

    For those keen to play ‘spot-the-rozzer’, but prevented by distance:

    [It’s near the bottom of the page.]

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    I think there’s an old London statute that states no-one should ever be more than a rod, pole or perch from a narwhal tusk in case of insurrection. Its like the Americans being allowed to bear firearms in case of poisonous gas attacks etc. Better safe than sorry as my old gran used to say.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Follow the links and you can spend a wonderful day. The walk through Bridge Ward is fascinating with lots of photos. I think I can now skip the 311 steps to the top of the Monument. I wonder if the parishioners still do the beating of the parish bounds to check that those markers are in the proper place.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – the upper part of the Monument never interested me much, other than it was originally intended to form the tube of a giant refracting telescope, rather like the much later one of Lord Rosse, in Ireland. Whatever, it was not used, although underneath the Monument, is a chamber used, I believe, by the very singular Robert Hooke, as a laboratory. Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton were deadly rivals for most of their working lives. There are no known authenticated portraits of Hooke – he died before Newton, who, it is said, saw to it that pictures of his ‘best enemy’ were ‘lost’. Pemanently, to erase him from memory. I mean, two notoriously bad tempered old men, of brilliant intellects, at loggerheads – the outcome was going to be bad for one of them.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    I mention Lord Rosse in Ireland – his huge telescope worked beautifully – I think that he was the first person to see the Crab Nebula properly, and also to view, and illustrate the ‘Whirlpool Nebula’ (actually two colliding galaxies). His telescope was abandoned for years, but has recently been brought back to working condition.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Really, Ian? I had never heard of Lord Rosse’s telescope, although I shall speak to the husband and no doubt be given an extensive talk on it. As for Hooke and Newton, my gracious, what an example of enduring animosity. Are we sure about the tube and that room?

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Well, the whole telescope/hidden lab story appears to be true. The husband’s comment being that if you let scientists design a monument they will inevitably turn it into something multi-purpose.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I think that I first read about Hooke’s laboratory, which was also used by Sir Christopher Wren, by the way, in a 1930’s ‘Part Work’ , owned by my Grandmother, entitled ‘Everybody’s Enquire Within’. Utterly, utterly fascinating, and I devoured both volumes that she owned. I’m sure that’s where I first heard this fascinating nugget. I definitely know that it’s where I first heard of the Victorian time capsule (far more exciting phrase than ‘A tin box’) underneath Cleopatra’s Needle. Again, a fascinating object, but I was always more interested in the shrapnel damage inflicted on it by a Zeppelin raid in WW1 than the Egyptian artefact itself.

  19. Jan says:

    Ian I thought the central portion of the “Monunents” column had always housed the telescope because the upper part of that vase @ the top section the bit which is decorated with golden flames does hinge back it is apparently or it was till relatively recently movable.
    I think what stopped the use of this contraption was the light pollution of the City. It’s was always a bit of a duff spot to house a telescope.

    Funnily enough there’s a “Well” telescope a sunken in the ground type telescope housed I think in a purpose built rather than pre-existing well shaft at Greenwich observatory not far at all from the Meridian. Again never that much of a winner!

    It’s weird old thing Cleopatra ‘s needle. This whole idea of these Egyptian artefacts being placed in Paris, New York and London plus a few select stately homes dotted around various countries is a gift for conspiracy tgeorists. The story of Cleopatra’s needles journey is amazing, just getting the thing here!

  20. Ian Luck says:

    The story of Egyptian artefacts being moved is a fascinating and murky tale. If you are interested, a good starting point is Signor Belzoni, strongman. A BBC TV programme some years ago, was based on his life, and he was played, rather excellently, by Matthew Kelly.

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