The City of London is divided into 25 wards. These wards are a survival of the medieval governmental system that allowed very small areas to exist as self-governing units within the wider city. The wards appear to have taken shape by the early 11th century, before the Norman conquest of England. Their administrative, judicial and militia purposes made them equivalent to hundreds in the shires. The primary purpose of wards that had a gate on the city wall appears to be the defence of that gate, as this would have been the weakest points in the fortifications.
Bishopsgate was one of the eastern gates in London’s former defensive wall. The gate gave its name to the Bishopsgate Ward of the City of London. The ward is traditionally divided into Bishopsgate Within, inside the line of the wall, and Bishopsgate Without beyond it. Bishopsgate Without is described as part of London’s East End.
The ancient boundaries of the City Wards were reviewed in 1994 and 2013, so that the Wards no longer correspond very closely to their historic extents. Bishopsgate Without gained a significant part of Shoreditch from the London Borough of Hackney, while nearly all of Bishopsgate Within was transferred to other Wards.
The gate was first built in the Roman era, probably at the time the wall was first built. The road though the gate, Ermine Street, known at this point as Bishopsgate, was in place long before the wall and the gate were built. The gate is thought to be named after Earconwald, a 7th century Bishop of London..
One of the Ward’s ancient churches, St Ethelburga-the-Virgin within Bishopsgate, is dedicated to Eorconwald’s sister, St Ethelburga of Barking, the first Abbess of Barking Abbey. In 1471, during the Wars of the Roses, the House of Lancaster under the command of Thomas Neville (Thomas the Bastard) attacked the City and bombarded Bishopsgate and nearby Aldgate. Bishopsgate was badly damaged, but ultimately the attack was repulsed. The Ward not having enough money for the re-building turned to a group of Hansa (North German) Merchants to foot the bill in return for trading privileges within the City.
St Botolph’s Without Bishopsgate
Bishopsgate Without, the area outside of the defensive wall, was predominately the burial ground for this part of Roman London (Londinium). The law prohibited the burial of corpses within the wall, so the area outside was the nearest place to dispose of the bodies. It is probably due to the later consecration of the ground for burial purposes that the parish church, St Botolph’s Without is situated so close the the line of the wall and the gate itself.
In the 13th century just outside the wall, now beneath the south east corner of Liverpool Street station was founded the Priory of the New Order of our Lady of Bethlehem, which over the centuries transformed into the notorious mental institution later to become known as Bedlam.
Bishopsgate without was also synonymous with several coaching inns that ran services into Essex. The White Hart Inn, was claimed to be the oldest, it has a date of 1480 displayed across its medieval façade in historic images, but is probably older than that date. Although rebuilt in 1829 following the creation of Liverpool Street, White Hart Court partially survives and is a reminder of the Inn’s galleried courtyard and the dense network of alleys which previously existed on the west side of Bishopsgate.
White Hart 1810
White Hart post 1829
The majority of inns were designated for goods carriers, and one such was known as the Catherine Wheel. It appears to have existed from the late 1600s until 1911 when it was demolished. At that time it was the only remaining galleried coaching inn left in London. I pondered over the derivation of the name. St Catherine is commemorated in most christian religions and is probably Catherine of Alexandra who was martyred in the 4th century by being put to death on a spiked whee. It seemed an odd choice of name, however given it’s proximity to St Botholph’s church it’s not beyond credibility, that is until I read an entry by the 16th century chronicler John Stow which alluded to the “Cat and Wheel” and taking this further on the basis of how the London dialect gets corrupted it’s not fanciful to see this as the Cart and Wheel. Unfortunately I’ve struggled to find an image of the inn, even though it was demolished in the 20th century. The only indication of where it stood is the remnants of the alley that ran beside it.
Through the 16th century, wealthy citizens developed properties on land outside the City walls, acquired from St Mary Spital, Holywell Priory, Charterhouse or Holy Trinity Aldgate. The area became a popular suburb enjoyed by Elizabethans for recreation and entertainment within easy reach of the City’s heart. One such was the merchant and Ambassador to James I, Paul Pindar who built a grand house on the west side of Bishopsgate, again around the area of Liverpool Street station today. The Venetian Ambassador lodged at Sir Paul Pindar’s House in the early 17th century, he described Bishopsgate Without as “…an airy and fashionable area…a little too much in the country“. The area and Pindar’s house escaped the ravages of the Great Fire in 1666.
In the early 18th century, the area retained the character of a garden suburb, with the mansions of wealthy citizens on lands near the gate and Moorfields, with areas to the north and Shoreditch packed with artisans, traders, Huguenot refugees and immigrants from the country. In the 1800s, wealthy Londoners began to drift west to fashionable new housing developments such as those in Soho and Covent Garden with a majority of their land being sold off to developers and a myriad of courts and residential streets took the place of large houses and formal gardens.
The 19th century saw the decline of the area as a fashionable residential district with increased commercial activity.The character of Bishopsgate was that of a busy high street with a mixture of shops, trades, coffee houses and inns, such as Dirty Dick’s Public House which has stood on the site since 1745.
The most significant change to the area in terms of form and scale was the building of railway termini at Liverpool Street and Broad Street on the western side of Bishopsgate which opened in 1874.Ten acres of property were cleared and up to fifteen medieval lanes disappeared under the development. In common with the majority of Victorian stations, a hotel was built at Liverpool Street. The Great Eastern Hotel, which opened in1884.
Liverpool Street Station
The Great Eastern Hotel
The hotel was the height of opulence when first built containing 267 rooms and has two hidden Masonic Temples within the building.
During the Second World War bomb damage in Bishopsgate was relatively light with the most damage done on the eastern side of Bishopsgate very close to where the gate once stood and damaged the nearby church of St Ethelburga-the-Virgin within Bishopsgate. The church was rebuilt in 1953 as were the surrounding buildings, but this would not be the last time that the area would dramatically change.
On Saturday 24 April 1993, the South Armagh Brigade of the IRA detonated a bomb in a tipper truck loaded with almost a ton of fertiliser, parked right outside St Ethelburga’s. The bomb exploded at 10.30, sending a huge column of smoke above the City. A photographer, Edward Henty was killed, and about 40 people were injured. Damage to the surrounding commercial buildings, including the NatWest tower then Europe’s tallest building was massive and 500 tonnes of broken glass were eventually removed.
Bishopsgate today is a strange mix of buildings, the High Street feel of the 1800s has long gone and many surviving pre 20th century buildings are dwarfed by the large office blocks that have sprung up since the 1993 bombing. Although there is a local community the area does feel very transient, the road itself has no reason to make you linger on your journey northward and the hordes of commuters that (pre Covid) swarm in and out of Liverpool Street station seem to care little for their surroundings, personally I find it quite a sterile and bleak area.