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Having had to visit St Bartholomew’s Hospital on the edge of the City of London most weekdays over the past weeks my first instinct was to take a different route each time. Novelty, new interest each day, try a new cafe for lunch. This is a good way to notice one’s surroundings, not taking them for granted.

There are limits to this though. After a while the mind and body rebelled. It was so much easier to go the same way each time, not to have to think, work it out, make choices. Just get there and back. The weather didn’t help to start with, and it is easy to forget the difference this makes to a walk – whether to linger, stop on corners, look up above street level, in windows, venture along side streets. rain and cold encourage tunnel vision. I settled on Farringdon Underground Station, along Cowcross Street and through Smithfield Grand Avenue to Smithfield itself, then into the hospital, a distance of only about 500 metres.

Finding out more, following up particular buildings, researching the history all give extra impetus to looking. Barts is the oldest hospital in London, founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1123, so it has a certain appeal. With the adjacent Priory church, St Bartholomew the Great being the oldest church in London, and in an historic corner of the city next to Smithfield off Farringdon Road, following the line of the now buried River Fleet, this is prime psychogeographic territory.


A further mental and physical adjustment coinciding with better weather brought a renewed interest in seeing all there was to see, rethinking, absorbing the particular character of the area, the oddities, the unusual as well as the commonplace. As with many locations now it has its own memorialising in process. Plaques, signs, inscriptions, story boards leave little to the chance discovery.

Smithfield itself, originally ‘Smoothfield‘, an informal market for cattle (hence nearby Cowcross Street) and other livestock in the medieval period, was also the site from 1123 until the 1850’s of the notorious Bartholomew Fair.

Bartholomew Fair

Bartholomew Fair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was originally a trade fair for cloth and the Hand and Shears was the pub of the drapers and tailors in the lane now called Cloth Fair (John Betjeman lived here for a time). They marched from there the night before the Fair carrying their shears to do a skit on the official opening of the Fair by the Lord Mayor. The Fair became a mass of booths and sideshows with all sorts of entertainments, increasingly supposedly rowdy and debauched.  The livestock market was eventually moved to Islington in 1855 but a meat market was built by Horace Jones in the 1860’s modelled on Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Although often threatened it has survived so far, the only wholesale market not to have been moved out of the centre of London. The Western end is currently the subject of controversial redevelopment plans.

As a large open space near the city Smithfield had a history of uses such as for fighting duels and (before the move to Tyburn) public executions, including witches and heretics, putting down of rebellions such as the Peasants’ Revolt – Wat Tyler was killed here in 1381, as well as the Scottish patriot William Wallace in 1305. The location for executions, which included burning and drawing and quartering, was called The Elms, presumably from real trees originally existing there and was near St Bartholomew’s Church. Walter Thornbury writes in his 1872 ‘Old and New London

“In March 1849, during excavations for a new sewer, and at a depth of three feet below the surface, immediately opposite the entrance to the church… the workmen laid open a mass of unhewn stones, blackened as if by fire, and covered with ashes and human bones, charred and partially consumed. This was believed to have been the spot generally used for the Smithfield burnings.”

Bodies are a common occurence in the layers of history of the area with plague victims found recently in nearby Charterhouse Square as part of the Crossrail excavations for new transport links.

I could have gone to the church to see the rather more appealing handing out of the Butterworth Dole on Good Friday, an annual charity established for poor widows, nowadays in the form of Hot Cross Buns given to children. As it was a day off from hospital visits I missed it.

The Hospital itself has seen many changes of course, with a major rebuilding programme underway at present. Ian Nairn called it ‘one of London’s peculiar places, whose character needs to be safeguarded as jealously as though it were the Temple or St James’s Park’.  The main entrance of 1702 is by Wren’s mason Edward Strong, with a statue of Henry VIII above the arch. Some of the blocks built by James Gibbs in the mid 18th century survive around the central courtyard one with William Hogarth paintings on the main staircase (he was a governor of the hospital, and born nearby). There is a museum too, run by volunteers and it does still maintain its quirky character in parts. Perhaps luckily not in its medical facilities though, which are admirably modern.

Hogarth's "Christ at the Pool of Bethesda...

Hogarth’s “Christ at the Pool of Bethesda” mural (Photo credit: Wikipedia)