L ND N

 Monday, January 01, 2001

Oranges and Lemons - January 2004

Oranges and lemons
  say the bells of St Clements
You owe me five farthings
  say the bells of St Martins
When will you pay me?
  say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich
  say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be?
  say the bells of Stepney
I do not know
  says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
  Here comes a chopper to chop off your head


Oranges and Lemons

The nursery rhyme "Oranges and lemons" has been sung by children in London for hundreds of years, probably since the 17th century. Several London churches are mentioned in the rhyme, and the original tune mimicked the peals of their bells. There have been many different versions of the rhyme over the years, including different words and a number of different churches, but the most common version features just six. I've been out and about in the City and the East End tracking down these six churches and some of the background to the rhyme, and now I'm ready to report back. Here goes - chop chop.



In medieval times, before the advent of industry and traffic noise, the sound of London's church bells would have carried long distances, calling the population to prayer or warning them of curfew. Many of the famous bells mentioned in the rhyme Oranges and Lemons were struck at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain's oldest surviving manufacturing company dating back to 1420. The foundry is a small brick-built workshop on the busy Whitechapel Road, responsible for the production of both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell. The foundry was fortunate not to be bombed during the Second World War, although St Mary's Church nextdoor (the 'white chapel' after which the area was named) took a direct hit and was destroyed. You can still visit the foundry and tour the workshops, and they have a quaint little shop too.

...say the bells of St Clements

Two churches in London claim to be the St Clements named in the nursery rhyme. St Clement's church in Eastcheap is generally thought to be the correct one, not least because the second church in the rhyme is only 100 yards away. There's been a church on this site in the City since the 11th century, originally named after the patron saint of seamen. It's not far from here down to the Thames, and the river was even closer in days gone by. Legend has it that merchants used to unload citrus fruits at the nearby wharves and that the bells of St Clements rang out whenever a new shipment was delivered.

St Clement's is a small church down a very narrow lane close to Monument station, crammed into an unfeasibly tiny gap between office buildings. It's one of 52 City churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. I was expecting something rather more impressive, but the building is disappointingly plain and seriously overshadowed. There's a claustrophic courtyard round the back complete with a handful of well-tended gravestones, but not much else. The church has only one service a week, on a Wednesday not a Sunday, which sounds odd until you realise that most of the City is a ghost town at the weekend.

The other church with a claim to be the St Clements in the nursery rhyme is the much larger (and much more impressive) St Clement Danes, one mile to the west in the Strand. This is an even older church, established in the 10th century and reputedly frequented by William the Conqueror. St Clement Danes later became the only Wren-built church outside the City of London, but was mostly destroyed during the Blitz. The church was then rebuilt yet again, dedicated to the Royal Air Force in 1958, and now sits on a giant traffic island close to Aldwych.

St Clement Danes may not actually be the church featured in the rhyme but its carillion bells still play out the familiar tune four times a day. Also every year, somewhere around Easter, the church holds an 'Oranges and Lemons' service in which fruit is handed out to local schoolchildren. And, mistaken or not, it's an old engraving of St Clement Danes church in the book 1984 that brings Winston Smith's long-buried memories of London past back to life.

"The half-remembered rhyme kept running through Winston's head. It was curious, but when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten... yet so far as he could remember he had never in real life heard church bells ringing."

You owe me five farthings

Quick history lesson for those under the age of 35 or living outside the UK: There didn't used to be 100 pence in a pound. Before 1971 there were 240 pennies in a pound, 12 pennies in a shilling, and maths lessons were a lot more difficult. Then there was the small change, which wasn't all small - the silver sixpence, the chunky brass threepenny bit with twelve sides and the giant copper penny with a picture of Britannia on the reverse. And then, worth less but by no means worthless, the halfpenny and (go back far enough) the quarter penny too, commonly known as the farthing. Here's a picture of the full set. And I remember all of them, just, except the farthing.

Quick history lesson number two: Farthings were first minted in the 13th century, originally in silver, although in very small quantities because even then they cost more to make than they were worth. Later copper was used, then tin, and finally bronze. In the time of Samuel Pepys one farthing was worth roughly the same as a 10p coin would be today (you can compare monetary values since 1264 here). From the reign of George VI onwards this tiny coin depicted Britain's tiniest bird - the wren - right up until the farthing left circulation in 1960. Quarter of a penny just wasn't worth anything any more.

Quick history lesson number three: Five farthings made a penny farthing, one very big coin and one very small one. Two wheels on a bicycle, one very big and one very small, also made a penny farthing. In the late 19th century these were a popular means of transport, more comfortable than the old boneshakers but still very difficult to ride. The big wheel could be anything up to 60 inches in diameter, and if you leant too far over whilst riding you could take a nasty tumble. Nevertheless, these ridiculous-looking bicycles could reach a top speed of about 20mph.

...say the bells of St Martins

Not St Martin-in-the-Fields, which is that huge Baroque church overlooking the eastern side of Trafalgar Square. No, the church in the nursery rhyme is St Martin Orgar, another tiny church in the City of London, just down the hill from Starbucks and round the corner from Monument station. Except that this particular church has all but vanished. Just a tower remains, now occupied by a firm of solicitors, next to a surprisingly large overgrown garden that used to be the nave. St Martin's is one of London's abandoned churches.

Pudding Lane is only a couple of streets away, so it's not surprising that this church was burnt to the ground in 1666. There were 111 churches in the City before the Great Fire, 80 of which were destroyed. St Martins was one of the unlucky 28 not to get rebuilt, being rather too close to St Clements over the road, and so the two parishes were combined. A group of Huguenots (that's old French Protestants to you and me) took over what was left of St Martins, did it up a bit and held services there until 1820. The tower was converted to become St Clements rectory in 1851, at which time St Martin's old bell was rehung in a new clock projecting out over the street. It's all a bit lost and folorn now, but I bet redevelopment of the site would net any property developer considerably more than five farthings.

When will you pay me?

The 'Old Lady' in the photograph is the Bank of England, sited close to the first two churches mentioned in the Oranges and Lemons rhyme. The bank was established in 1694, moving to its current site in Threadneedle Street in 1734. The present building is an austere fortress, as you might expect, with sheer windowless walls at ground level and just a couple of enormous wooden doors leading inside. There are no cashpoints, no big adverts for mortgages, and no long queues of punters standing around waiting and looking miserable every lunchtime. It's not that sort of bank, you see.

The Bank of England prints millions of banknotes each year, just out of town in Essex. Each of these banknotes is, essentially, a worthless scrap of paper, apart from the inscription "I promise to pay the bearer on demand..." which gives the note its value. This promise used to be backed up by gold reserves, so that for every banknote issued there was an equivalent amount of gold in the vaults. Not any more though, not since 1931, and now the Bank merely issues notional money. However, we're all still entitled to pop down and demand that they exchange our notes for the equivalent value in gold bullion, should we so wish. Current rates indicate that a £10 note would be exchanged for just under 1g of gold, £160 for 1cm³ and the average UK house for 20kg. Admittedly it would be difficult to buy our weekly groceries by paying with a gold ingot, but the principle is sound. Just so long as we don't all turn up at the Bank of England at the same time to ask for our money back, because it isn't all there. See you all down there tomorrow at noon then?

...say the bells of Old Bailey

Except that the Old Bailey is a court building, not a church, and has no bells. The church referred to in the nursery rhyme is the one just across the road, the oddly-named St Sepulchre without Newgate (don't worry, it's a Crusades thing). You wouldn't guess from looking but this is the largest parish church in the City of London, described by Sir John Betjeman as "high, wide and handsome", and the tower contains a peal of twelve bells. Henry Wood, founder of the Promenade concerts, learnt to play the organ here and his ashes now lie in the Musicians' Chapel. The church is also the last resting place of Captain John Smith, unpaid star of the Disney cartoon Pocohontas, and one-time Governor of Virginia.

A glass case inside the church contains the handbell which used to be rung to wake condemned prisoners at Newgate Prison on execution mornings. This prison held those awaiting trial at the neighbouring Old Bailey, which has been London's most important criminal court since medieval times. In 1834 the court's jurisdiction spread to cover the most serious cases from the whole of the South East, including Oscar Wilde's infamous sodomy trial. One hundred years ago Newgate Prison and the old Old Bailey were demolished to make way for the current Central Criminal Court, judging the fate of evildoers including Dr Crippen, the Kray twins and Jeffrey Archer.

An absolutely brilliant website charts the history of the Old Bailey, including full details of all the trials there between 1714 and 1799. For example, 250 years ago this month there were 62 trials, mostly for theft, with many of the convicted subsequently transported to America. I wonder if any of your forefathers appear in the records.

When I grow rich

The City of London must be the richest square mile on the planet. There's the Stock Exchange (home to thousands of sharp-suited gamblers), Lloyd's of London (home to thousands of sharp-suited gamblers), various non-high-street banks (ditto) and hordes of other esteemed financial institutions. Get the right job here and, providing you can stand the pace, you could soon be very rich indeed. Like the girl living in the room next to mine in my last year at university. She got a job in the City and, 18 months ago, received a £1.4 million payout through the courts because her company dared to insult her with a piddling £25000 bonus. Most Londoners would be thankful for a £25000 salary. There again, her male colleagues were getting bonuses of up to £650,000, so I can see her point. Different world, the City.

London may have wealth, but it's also a ridiculously expensive place to live. An average wage goes nowhere, unless you're willing to flatshare the best years of your life in a tumbledown apartment on the outskirts of some godforsaken borough. If you own property you're laughing - if you don't you're doomed. 40 years ago my parents bought a tiny terraced house in Watford (2 up, 2 down, outside toilet) for the princely sum of £3000. They've since climbed the property ladder far enough to reach a detached house in Norfolk, but that's 100 miles from town and the market in London has moved on. This month that old house in Watford is up for sale at 100 times the price my parents paid for it, and they could never afford to move back, not even to the bottom of the heap.

If the City were a nation state, it would be amongst the top 20 richest nation states in the world (just ahead of Belgium). However, London is also home to 13 of the poorest 20 local authorities in the UK. When those City workers go home at night, back to their overpriced terraced houses, an underclass of invisible workers move in from rundown council estates and clean for peanuts. Sure there's plenty of money to be made in the City but, it appears, there's not enough to share.

They say the streets of London are paved with gold. They're wrong. The streets of London are paved with cardboard boxes, inhabited by provincial dreamers lured to the capital to seek a fortune that isn't here. That's rich.

... say the bells of Shoreditch

1st century: The Romans build Ermine Street from London to Lincoln, passing through what will one day be Shoreditch.
12th century: The area is still mostly fields. St Leonard's church is founded.
16th century: A prosperous village. Richard Burbage opens "The Theatre" in Shoreditch (because performing has been banned inside the City). One of the actors in his company is a young William Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet is first performed here.
17th century: Burbage is buried in St Leonard's, known as "the actors' church".
18th century: St Leonard's church is rebuilt (see photo). The spire is an imitation of Wren's steeple on St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside.
19th century: Shoreditch descends into poverty, crime and prostitution.
1900: A huge area of slums to the east of the High Street is reborn as the magnificent Boundary Estate.
1940s: The area is heavily bombed in the Blitz, and later heavily redeveloped.
1990s: Artists move into Shoreditch seeking cheap studio space. The White Cube gallery opens in Hoxton Square, trendy bars, clubs and restaurants follow, and Shoreditch is suddenly the hip arty place to be and to be seen.
21st century. It's all a bit passé now, darling.

When will that be?

2004: Election for London Mayor
2005: DLR extension to City Airport
2006: Wembley Stadium reopens; M25 widened near Heathrow; Tour de France (maybe)
2007: Channel Tunnel Rail Link; East London Transit (Ilford to Dagenham)
2008: Heathrow Terminal 5; London Bridge Tower (217m); DLR extension to Woolwich; Greenwich Waterfront Transit (Greenwich to Abbey Wood)
2009: East London Line extension
2010: Thames Gateway Bridge (Beckton to Thamesmead)
2011: West London Tram scheme (Uxbridge to Shepherds Bush); Cross River Transit (Camden & Kings Cross to Brixton & Peckham)
2012: Crossrail (optimistic view); London Olympics (maybe)
2013: Crossrail (pessimistic view)
2014: nothing planned
2015: Third runway at Heathrow (earliest date)
2016: London's population reaches 8 million
(Most dates subject to delay, cancellation or repeated postponement)

...say the bells of Stepney

This is St Dunstan's church, Stepney, one of of only a handful of medieval buildings remaining in the East End of London. Looks gorgeous doesn't it, and it is. An ancient church set on a village green at the heart of its community - this photo could have been taken in deepest Suffolk. Except what you can't see in the picture are the faceless council estates all around, and you can't smell the pigs grunting on the city farm over the road. Somehow this church has survived a millennium of change, while the surrounding neighbourhood has risen and fallen. Especially fallen, lately.

There can't be many churches in the UK named after the saint who built them, but St Dunstan built this one in 952, just before he was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Stepney was the seat of the Bishop of London during medieval times, being the richest village to the east of the City at the time. By the 16th century this was a popular rural retreat for London's wealthy, but also increasingly attractive to ordinary people seeking work at the local docks. Stepney trebled in population in just 40 years as London expanded to the East. Some fine 17th century houses still exist on Stepney Green, an unfeasibly quiet thoroughfare close to the church, but prosperity in the area was soon replaced by poverty. The Blitz helped clear away the worst of the slums, but nothing very inspiring was built in their place. Stepney today is a mere shadow of its former self - poor, bland and forgotten. Only the church hints that it was ever otherwise.

I do not know

1) Where is the 'Golf Sale'?
"I actually got offered a job doing that for five quid an hour. I was desperate but still turned it down."
"Near Argyll Street/ Carnaby Street."
"It's like a TARDIS. It moves."


2) Why doesn't the tube run throughout the night at weekends?
"Because the post-clubbing cleaning bill would bankrupt Transport for London."
"Because it's bad enough being mugged, raped and stabbed during the day."
"Because that would mean cutting back on the buses - and that is just simply not on: our current Mayor *loves* buses."
"To give North London something to moan endlessly about, and to ensure part-time drinkers are safely home by 1.30am."
"Because, to quote a driver moaning at a bloke on the platform a few years ago: "[they]'re not here for your convenience, you know!"."
"I understand their "maintenance" excuse on the deep tubes, but there's really no reason the Met and District couldn't go on all night."


3) Where is the true centre of London?
"Charing Cross. It has to be - a black cab driver told me so - and he must be right - because he has "the knowledge". He must be "the one"."
"Surely although Charing Cross may be the mid-point of London (from a driver's point of view) that's not the same as the "true centre"."
"London's notable for not really having a centre, or having several. Trafalgar Square-Westminster-Charing Cross has a shout as an area, so does the City."
"I'd go for London Bridge, because it really was the centre for so long: it was the only link between north (the City) and south (Southwark)."
"As for the 'town centre' type of centre, well, there isn't one. Or, conversely, there are lots."
"Surely the point at which you find the centre of London would be underneath Centrepoint Tower?"


4) Has anyone ever seen a Pearly King (or Queen)?
"Nope, 'cept on the TV, of course."
"I only ever saw them on a Saturday monrning TV show in early eighties called Swap Shop."
"Um, I think I may have done once or twice when I was a kid. At big events, you understand. Not just walking down the street or anything."
"Yes. Sure I have! And leprechauns and fairies too!"
"Lots of them go to the Lord Mayor's Show, which we were taken to lots as a kid."


5) Why doesn't London have a (paid-for) local morning newspaper?"
"It does! It's called the Evening Standard! (On sale every morning!)."
"The Standard hits the streets at 9.30am, that's bad enough."
"If you ask anyone outside of London, they'll tell you we have several."
"Why pay for it when the Metro's free?"
"Would someone in Hendon really care about local news from Lewisham, and vice versa?"


6) From where is the best view in London?
"It would have to be from the top of one of North London's hills. Especially on Hampstead Heath."
"In my experience: Alexandra Palace in N.London - or some hill in Southeast london near Blackheath. Or else the top floor of the NatWest tower (now called Tower 42). I've also always wanted to check out the view from that really high footbridge over the Archway Road sometime - could be nice from there too."
"The Point, Greenwich (a little bit of Blackheath which juts out over Greenwich). Runners-up: Greenwich Park, Alexandra Park, Primrose Hill, Parliament Hill, Nunhead rail station."
"On an eastbound small plane flight from London City airport."
"Definitely from Richmond Hill, with the Thames curling sinuously next to the (unproductive, just there to be pretty) cows in Petersham Meadows."
"Richmond Hill over Petersham Meadows, Richmond Park towards the BT Tower, Primrose Hill, Nunhead Station, the Wheel, the top of the pagoda in Kew Gardens (but I don't think you can get up there any more). And probably loads more."
"The opening credits of EastEnders."
"I'll go with the London Eye - particularly at night. I also liked the top floor of Canary Wharf. I like the view of St Pauls from the Tate Modern. And I bet, if I had seen it, that the view from the revolving restuarant in the Post Office Tower was fantastic."
"From the top deck of a Routemaster bus. Something you can't do on the 94 any more, as of about three hours ago."


...says the great bell at Bow

To be a true Cockney you have to be born within the sound of Bow Bells. And, despite what most people think, Bow Bells aren't in Bow. They are in fact the bells of the church of St. Mary-Le-Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. Recent research has suggested that, given the right atmospheric conditions and an absence of traffic noise, the sound of St. Mary-Le-Bow's bells could have been heard up to five miles away, even out as far as Bow itself. But no longer. Presumably there were a lot more genuine Cockneys around hundreds of years ago than there are now.

Back in the 14th century the bells of St Mary-le-Bow rang out a curfew across central London at 9 o'clock to warn the locals that it was time for bed. These are the bells that Dick Whittington heard in 1392 that made him 'turn again' (he was real, by the way). The bells were (you won't be surprised to hear) amongst the many destroyed in the Great Fire, but were also (you will be surprised to hear) silenced for two years in 1856 by an eccentric local woman who believed that the noise of their clanging might otherwise kill her. The BBC used the peal of Bow Bells at the start of every one of their broadcasts to occupied Europe during World War II, but that didn't stop the bells being destroyed yet again in the Blitz of 1941. A new peal of 12 bells was installed in 1956, each inscribed with a verse from a psalm, and the initial letters of those 12 psalms spell out the name 'D WHITTINGTON'. Ahhh, sweet.

As for the church, it's yet another of Sir Christopher Wren's, and one of his very finest. The classical steeple is topped by a golden ball on which sits a nine foot dragon, turning with the wind. The arched crypt dates from Norman times and is occupied in part now by a renowned vegetarian café. The church adjoins narrow cobbled alleyways to the south, but hideous seventies offices to east and west. And those bells they still ring out - every quarter hour, for the Lord Mayor's Show, and for four-hour peals several times a year.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed

[Oranges and Lemons trivia: The City of London is divided into 25 wards for electoral and ceremonial purposes (map here). Both St Clements and St Martins lie inside the tiny ward of Candlewick (old map here, new map here, number of residents on the electoral roll - two). The ward is named after Candlewick Street, now much better known as Cannon Street.]

It's hard to imagine modern life without electric light. Flick a switch or walk out onto the street nowadays and the sun never sets. Go back just 200 years, however, and London was still lit only by candles and oil lamps. Richer folk lit their homes with candles made from beeswax or whale oil, whilst poorer folk had to make do with smelly, smoky tallow candles made from animal fat. In 1807 Pall Mall became the first street in the capital to be lit by gas, spreading to 213 streets by 1823, but indoors candlesticks and candelabra still ruled. In 1859 the Houses of Parliament were lit by gas for the first time and only then did gas lighting start to become fashionable inside the homes of London's wealthy. Electric light arrived on the streets in 1878, starting on Holborn Viaduct, but its use was not widespread indoors until after the First World War.

Today, London belches light out into the night sky. Street lamps, spotlights, illuminations, adverts, security lighting and three million houses, all contribute to the most severe light pollution in the UK, beaming light upwards where it isn't needed. This satellite photo (hi-res version here) taken from the International Space Station shows London lit up like a giant, luminous amoeba, with a dazzling central nucleus. The night sky over the capital has a dull orange glow and only a few of the brightest stars are ever visible - in fact the only star some London children will ever have seen is the Sun. And it's getting worse across the rest of the country too (check your region here) where sight of the Milky Way has become merely a distant memory. Join the campaign for better-designed street lighting and darker skies here. Maybe there was a lot to be said for candle-power after all.

Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

Just to the northwest of Marble Arch, where the Edgware Road meets the end of Oxford Street, stands a cobbled triangular traffic island. It's all barriered off, and pretty difficult to reach without getting yourself mown down by passing vehicles. Nobody gives it a second look, but for centuries this was the site of the most watched entertainment in town. This is Tyburn, for six centuries home to London's public executions.

The River Tyburn ran (indeed still runs, somewhere underground) from Hampstead to the Thames, and the first public hangings took place from tree branches along its banks. In 1220 the first gallows was built, and in 1571 the infamous Tyburn Tree was constructed. This was a huge wooden tripod, 18 feet high with crossbeams 9 feet long. Prisoners suffered a slow agonising death from asphyxiation, which gave the waiting crowds a real spectacle to watch. If you liked that sort of thing, which tens of thousands of did.

Condemned prisoners started their last day at Newgate Prison, two miles away from Tyburn, just outside the old city walls. At noon they set off on a horse-drawn cart through the prison gates, with the bells of neighbouring St Sepulchre's church ringing out to mourn their passing. That's the bells of Old Bailey from the nursery rhyme - you knew there'd be a connection eventually. The procession stopped outside the church, where the prisoners received a nosegay of flowers, and stopped at a tavern or two later along the route so they could enjoy a final pint of ale. The phrase 'on the wagon' is reputed to derive from these pub stops - when the prisoners climbed back on the cart they would definitely never drink again.

Huge crowds lined Holborn and what-would-be Oxford Street, cheering and jeering the condemned. You can read more about the journey here, or perhaps relive most of the experience on board a modern number 8 bus. At Tyburn itself a grandstand was built and there was a real festival atmosphere - for all but a few present, that is. The prisoners' last speeches were drowned by the roar of the mob, then they were finally blindfolded and strung up. The cart beneath the prisoners was pulled away, and they were left to die. This could take nearly an hour. The crowd listened for their screams, and watched for the tell tale dribble of urine dripping from one leg that meant death had finally arrived.

The last public hanging at Tyburn took place in 1783, Executions then moved to a site immediately outside Newgate Prison, where crowd control was easier, with the last public hanging in the UK held here as late as 1868. The closure of Tyburn finally allowed respectable London to grow rapidly to the northwest. A convent (with flash webpage) was founded close by the site of the old gallows, and a small group of snooker-playing nuns still pray for the souls of the dead. Most Londoners may drive past Tyburn without noticing, but the capital's punishment has not been forgotten by everyone.

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