Hogenberg 1572 detail

Steelyard (Stilliards) operating in 1572, marked on the Hogenberg panorama.

It was once the stronghold of the most powerful foreign presence in the heart of medieval London, but the Steelyard (anciently Stiliards) is now buried and forgotten under Cannon Street Station.  Its name is an Anglicisation of Stapelhof – possibly from the Latin ‘stabile emporium’, a place where prices were fixed for certain goods, or the Low German ‘stapel’, meaning warehouse or stage. And it is with merchants and guildsmen of Hamburg, Cologne and other northern European ports – the Hanseatic League – that the walled dock-cum-stronghold was associated for hundreds of years. The Hansa presence in the City of London was noted from the time of Ethelred in 967 and in 1260 Henry III announced:

“we have granted to these Merchants of Almain [Germany] who have a house in our City of London, which is commonly called Guilda Aula Theutonicorum [German Guildhall] that we will maintain them all and every one and preserve them through our whole Kingdom, in all their Liberties and free Customs, which they have used in our Times and in the Times of our Progenitors.”

In return for their privileges the influential foreign merchants maintained the City’s Bishopsgate and would summon a third of the men required to defend it when necessary. The King’s crane-balance for weighing the tonnage of goods arriving in London’s port was based here before moving to Cornhill. It must have been a familiar waterfront landmark for Londoners.


The Steelyard wharf and stairs detailed in Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1647 panorama. Cockneys NB: Bow Church in the background.

In 1598 John Stow described the stern public face the League presented to Thames Street as “large, built of stone, with three arched gates towards the street, the middlemost whereof is far bigger than the others and is seldom opened; the other two bemured [walled] up; the same is now called the old hall.”

The Hansa influence on London’s arrival centre stage in world trade was immeasurable. According to Stow they imported “wheat, rye and other grain” plus “cables, ropes, masts, pitch, tar flax, hemp, linen cloth, wainscots, wax, steel and other profitable merchandises.” Centuries before Vorsprung durch Technik, Hanseatic attention to detail and quality was legendary – from pottery and simple brass thimbles and pins to the pewter for which the City was renowned. German imports were often the ones to own, and Londoners knew it.

The Hanseatic League globalised trade and introduced the towns they occupied to new territories. Distinctive coin-like jettons used by the Hansa for accounts and lead seal hallmarks for wool were unearthed during Museum of London Archaeology excavations at the Steelyard in 1989. The same items are found right across free-trade Europe, from Scandinavia to the south. Yet time and geography would prove the Steelyard’s downfall. Upstream from the growing blockage of London Bridge, the wharf was crucially the wrong side for access to the ocean and the world’s ships.

The Steelyard was still a notable landmark in 1746 when Rocque was engraving away.

The Steelyard was still a notable landmark in 1746 when Rocque was engraving away.

Of the 24 Legal Quays described in 1559, just three were above the bridge, including the Steelyard. In 1552 during the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, the Hansa’s economic stranglehold on the City had been broken, encouraged by a challenge from indigenous ‘Merchant Adventurers’. Edward’s half-sister Elizabeth I would go a step further in 1597/8 (when Stow was writing), commanding the Stilliard merchants to quit the city for good – think the Chinese taking back Hong Kong.

The League still owned the premises, which were initially rented to Her Majesty’s Navy for storage. Since 1853, though, virtually every trace of the once mighty Steelyard has been hidden under Cannon Street Station and its railway bridge. The footprint of this economic powerhouse can still be made out and (almost) paced, however.

A plan of the Stalhof or Steelyard in London. It's still possible to walk all the ancient perimeters except the Thames. The crane is item no 3.

A plan of the Steelyard. It is still possible to walk  the ancient perimeters except the Thames. The crane is item no 3.

In Samuel Pepys’ time Dowgate Stairs, one of hundreds of river taxi drop-offs, led from the shore up what is now a skaters’ hangout, Cousins Lane, to Dowgate Hill alongside the Walbrook river.

The diarist was drawn to the Steelyard by its trendy ‘Rhenish winehouse’ (no.8 on the plan) and, from a boat on the river, he watched the Great Fire’s flames lick its walls.

Today The Banker public house offers fine ales and wonderful views over the water where the Steelyard once weighed the world. The next north-south thoroughfare along towards London Bridge, Allhallows Lane, marks what would have been the eastern edge of the Hanseatic presence. The two lanes are connected on the north by Thames Street, just as in the old days.

Steelyard Passage signIn 2007 there was a fun Thames Path proposal to link the two lanes on the south via a walkway hanging over the river outside the pub which was grumpily canned on safety grounds. Instead, the pedestrian is diverted under Cannon Street bridge through Steelyard Passage. Here meandering floor lights dimly resemble the course of the Thames, while wall-mounted speakers project clanking and hubbub, suggestive of the old workers and wharves of the middle ages.

Lighting the route of the Thames – Steelyard Passage.

Lighting the route of the Thames – Steelyard Passage.

As hard as the City Corporation has tried, Steelyard Passage requires immense imagination to summon that fourteenth century heyday. The modern metropolis’s trains rumble and grind overhead, throwing in the odd curious howl of steel on steel, like a ferrous Hound of the Baskervilles.

From the outside wall of the Banker a long vertical outfall pipe, a few feet in diameter, pokes out roughly where the Steelyard Stairs would have been. Through it spews the famous River Walbrook, once the span of several trading barges, now reduced hurling its fluid into the Thames like some some hungover raver.

The enfeebled Walbrook presents a contrast to the mesmerising power of the tidal Old Father, for which there is no finer vantage point than a window seat in the Banker, as the river shoots round the pillars of Cannon Street Bridge.

Oh ye, once mighty Walbrook…

Oh ye, once mighty Walbrook…

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The Banker can be found here:

Read about the archaeology of the Steelyard area here:

Learn more about the Hansa in London here:

The ‘Affair of the Three Cranes,’ 1640

John Glanvill (1586-61), Speaker and King's Serjeant

‘Here’s a Health to the confusion and destruction of my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury’

Roughly where the Sarastro restaurant’s vivid flower baskets brighten up a corner of Drury Lane and Kemble Street is the site of a forgotten
London hostelry.

Here, in the mid c17th, were the premises of the Three Cranes, namesake of the far more noteworthy hostelry in Vintry so beloved of Ben Johnson and Samuel Pepys.

Theatreland’s Three Cranes was shorter-lived and less celebrated, but it did scandalise its way into the State Papers Domestic in 1640. If that year wasn’t Charles I’s first choice as ‘annus horribilis,’ it would certainly make it to boot camp.

Two years before standards were raised in the Civil War, he was despised and strapless, and forced to recall Parliament for the first time in 11 years in order to pass laws to raise cash. There were two Parliaments that year: the Short and the Long. My ancestor, Tavistock-born senior judge John Glanvill, was MP for Bristol and Speaker during the Short Parliament.

He was a pragmatist who had vehemently opposed Charles’s excessive tax-raising but was equally distrustful of the Puritans and their objectives. As Speaker – and the King’s Serjeant, a key legal adviser – he walked a political tightrope while England quarrelled its way towards death and destruction.

What he may not have needed at that juncture was for his tearaway son, John the younger, to stir the political ferment further for him. Yet that is exactly what young John did, and the scene of his misdemeanour was the Three Cranes, not far from the Chancery Lane residence of the Glanvills.

Young John was 21 and studying law at nearby Lincoln’s Inn – his father’s alma mater. He was out drinking with fellow trainees at the inn on 3 July 1640 when a row broke out with several ‘mechanicks’ in the employ of the influential Earl of Northumberland. The incident led to injury, theft, dampness, and a hearing at Whitehall in front of the king and his council.

Events are detailed in a surviving account of the inquiry a fortnight later. The king and his advisers were told how John and his pals had imbibed plenty of sweet Canary wine, then intimidated, fought and finally ‘pumped’ (ie half-drowned under a water pump) the Earl’s retainers. John himself was heard outrageously to raise a toast against ‘my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury’ – the controversial and hated Archbishop William Laud.

With England on the brink, Laud and Northumberland were not people to cross. The Earl – Sir Francis Windenbank, MP for Oxford University, King’s councillor, Roman Catholic sympathiser and conspirator – had Charles’s ear (and possibly even both).

Archbishop of Canterbury Laud was a friend and confidant of ‘the subtle whirly Windebank’ and Charles Stuart, and behind several anti-Puritan purges. Clearly Glanvill senior would have been desperate to avoid being dragged into a political scandal at such a time.

Serjeant Glanvill’s son was in dynamic company. Among his group were Winston Churchill (father of the first Duke of Marlborough, ancestor of the cigar-smoking World War II hero), Robert Warcup (called to the bar five years later, elected MP for Southwark under Cromwell in 1654), and an unnamed ‘tall blacke man’, also from Lincoln’s Inn.

Several of those involved gave evidence. Interpretation of events, all too familiar to today’s pub-goers, centred around the spilling of a drink and who did what in the melee that ensued.

Northumberland’s ‘picture-drawer’, Stephen Hosier, claimed that his friend John Skelton had reacted angrily to a glass of wine thrown over his head by one of the legal trainees at a nearby table. When a second glass of liquor ‘lighted upon’ his colleague William Rochester Hosier said he demanded an apology, at which ‘two or three of them fell upon’ and beat him.

He then alleged that, thus subdued, he was helpless as Glanvill ordered a bottle of Canary and, filling a glass, raised the controversial toast: ‘Here’s a Health to the confusion and destruction of my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury’, which went round.

Hosier and his pals felt compelled to join in the anti-Canterbury toast, ‘for, if they had refused it, they verily beleeve they would have knockt them down with the wine potts, or done them some other mischief’.

Most of Northumberland’s men sloped off, but Hosier claimed he was grabbed again, robbed him of his cloak and handed it to the vintner’s wife, relived of its contents, including a £300 bill.

The trainee lawyers took him out into the street to a nearby water pump and forced under the water stream, to perform the toast again. The black man was said to have cried that had the Earl himself been there they would have pumped him too.

Then they all ‘fell on [Hosier] and beat him, soe as he never was since he was borne, for which he hath kept his bed divers days since, and is yet very sore.’

The physical aggression was one scandal; the public denigration of the king’s allies and the head of the church quite another, especially for Glanvill’s father.

The young men of Lincoln’s Inn offered eloquent defence, deflecting all charges. The second glass had been thrown as a result of Skelton using ‘unseemely language’ and holding a pot to Churchill’s face. The cloak was not stolen or plundered.

Yes, they fell upon Hosier to begin with as a result of his group’s aggression, but had no idea that he was the Earl of Northumberland’s man. The water pumping and beating were nothing to do with them.

Then to the awkward issue of abusing the Archbishop:

‘As to the healthe charg’d to be dranke by mee,’ attested Glanvill junior, ‘I doe and shall deny forever. If trewe, I doe acknowledge that to have soe farre forgot myself as yet I could expect any remition for soe great an offence, having herde my father seriously accknoweledge his Grace’s extraordinary favors to him.’

The deference shown may have worked. The inquiry accepted most of the Lincoln’s Inn version, reprimanded the trainees, but discharged them. Presumably the outcome was a great relief to the King’s Serjeant.

However, soon after war broke out in 1642, Glanvill senior would be imprisoned at the Tower of London as a follower of the king.

Son John was not too damaged by the incident. He was called to the bar in 1647 and attained fame and wealth as a lawyer, marrying well and dying, aged 70, in 1688.

Further reading: State Papers, Domestic, Charles I, vol. 460, no. 24; ‘The Black Books of Lincoln’s Inn’ (1897),

Standard, Read All About It

Medieval London was a filthy place. A visitor in the c13th would have found its three main rivers, the Thames, Fleet and Walbrook, clogged with animal entrails and human waste. The centre of streets would have been liberally sprinkled with ordure, and rakers, paid to clean cess-pits of houses with no running water, would have offloaded their spoil either at the watery meadows at Moorfields or in the same rivers.

As population and trade expanded, the need for fresh water increased, and overworked rivers – even backed up by private wells – could not supply the answer. The first of several projects to pipe fresh water into the heart of London began in 1237 during the mayoralty of Andrew Buckerel, a Pepperer and Alderman of Cripplegate. The City community seemingly lacked the finance for large engineering schemes, with individuals or interest groups footing the bill, perhaps for reasons other than pure altruism.

The founding of the first outlet, or conduit, on Cheapside was noted in 1245 – ‘fundamentum conductii’ – when in return for special access to the London markets, merchants of Picardie in France (possibly wine merchants) donated £100 to the citizenry of London for the purpose of conducting water from Tyburn (or Tybourne) to a conduit in the City. (Conduit, by the way, referred to the construction at the end rather than the pipe itself.)

This privately-sponsored work was completed by 1261, when an old property on the south side of Cheapside is described, for the first time, as ‘opposite the conduit.’

Apparently popular and successful, the system’s design was the model for several later schemes. Though scant documentation survives, archaeology provides a clearer picture.

Excavations by the Museum of London next to Bond Street tube station’s subway have found a large, stone-lined tank, part of the Tyburn water system. (Evidence suggests that this cistern later had to be replenished by fresh water piped from a spring at Oxleas field, next to Bayswater brook. The City of London acquired the right to do so from the Abbot of Westminster in 1440.)

This Bond Street tank had no bottom, just natural gravel, leading archaeologists to presume that the tank was filled naturally by bubbling up from below.

The collected water was siphoned into sections of 90mm diameter lead pipe, encased in clay. From there it began its journey to the City down South Molton Street, whose unusual 45 degree angle marks the downhill course of the underground pipes, past modern Conduit Street to Piccadilly, behind St James’s church (adjacent, appropriately, to Swallow Street).

The subterranean pipes continued to the site of the royal mews at modern Trafalgar Square, where they turned sharply, conveniently, to pass by the luxurious homes of the Strand. Continuing along Fleet Street the pipes entered the city around Ludgate.

At the end of the pipe, a large stone and wooden structure containing a cistern was raised, with a fountain and taps to draw from. The first of these, the Great Conduit, was built at Poultry, at the eastern end of London’s busiest retail street, Cheapside. This was, according to Stow, of ‘Survey of London’ (1598) fame, ‘a long and low stone building with battlements on the top, enclosing a large leaden cistern, the water of which issued from a cock into a square stone bason at the eastern end.’

The pipe was opened again to add the Little Conduit at the other end of Cheapside, next to the old Folkmoot, outside St Paul’s cathedral. (It’s been suggested that the Bishop of London may even have paid for the project to bring clean water to the doorstep of his seat, the cathedral.)

Late c16th engraving showing the Standard on Cheapside

The Little Conduit is first mentioned in 1276: ‘On Friday, the morrow of Saints Fabianus and Sebastianus [20 January 1276], in the sixth year of the reign of King Edward, son of King Henry, Gregory de Rokesle, Chamberlain of London, and John Adrien and Walter le Engleys, Sheriffs of the same city, were given to understand that one William le Pannere, pelterer, was lying dead in the market of West Chepe, near the Conduit in the Ward of Chepe.’

At some time a standard (essentially something that stands up, somewhat grandly) was also erected near St Mary-le-Bone church. Originally built of wood, in 1443 licence was given to pull down ‘le Standard in Chepe, where divers xecutions of the law have been made hitherto, which is now of wood, weak and old, wherein is a conduit, and to set up a new standard of stone with a conduit therein.’ (By the way, I suppose I could have chosen The Cheapside Conduit as the name for this blog, but the newspaper pun would not have worked quite so well.)

Further water towers followed at Fleet Street (rebuilt around 1438/9 – ‘the newe cunduyt in Fletstrete begonnen to make,’ according to the ‘Chronicle of London’), and elsewhere. Mayor of London Sir William Eastfield brought water from springs at Highbury to north of Cheapside, at St Giles Cripplegate, and from Tyburn again to a conduit constructed near St Mary Aldermanbury church. This was completed posthumously, in accordance with his will.

Visible traces of these projects remain only in street names. Yet it’s still evocative to follow the course of that first water pipe from modern Bond Street to Poultry. In fact, the sight of the island churches in the middle of Strand, St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes, give an idea of how the conduits – wonderful examples of c13th civil engineering – might have looked on Cheapside.

In a future blog I’ll look at how the conduits swiftly became notable City landmarks.

Rick Glanvill