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Last Updated: Monday, 10 May, 2004, 06:25 GMT 07:25 UK
Streets of London: Tower Street
By Ian Youngs
BBC News Online

During the 17th Century Tower Street - a typical if not famous London address - was a place of drama and destruction.

All Hallows church and the Tower of London are the only two reminders of the street's past
All Hallows Church is a reminder of the street's past
Like much of the city, this road - now renamed Great Tower Street - suffered its share of devastation at the time of fires, plague and Civil War.

Yet it was also a vibrant hub of trade, with merchants and officials doing business in houses, taverns and coffee shops.

Leading to the Tower of London, Tower Street was at the heart of London's maritime community, close to the Thames, the Navy Office, Custom House and wharves.

The street was lined with the fine houses of traders and professionals who often ran businesses from their homes, while smaller working class dwellings stood on alleys behind the road.

In 2004, there are still some residences on the road. At 625,000 for a two-bed flat, it still attracts merchants, traders and other city gents.

We know on one Monday night in January 1649, Tower Street resident Robert Porter, a ship chandler, was storing 27 barrels of gunpowder in his house to be loaded on to a ship the following day.

Also on the street, a group of "gentlemen, merchants, tradesmen... of very good quality" were indulging in a parish feast in the Rose Tavern, while at about 8pm that night, a Mr Dunne, staying with his mother-in-law was getting ready for bed.

One half of what used to be Tower Street is now a pedestrian area leading to the Tower itself

But a sudden and disastrous fire caused the gunpowder to explode, destroying dozens of houses and killing 67 people.

Of the Rose customers 16 perished, including, according to one report, the landlady who was found sitting upright at the bar.

Mr Dunne was hurled into the nearby churchyard and died.

Houses belonging to a shoemaker and two merchants were also "utterly defaced", one contemporary account says.

Legend has it that the force of the blast threw a baby girl from a house to the top of the church tower, where she was found alive and well the next day.

The losses were deemed to be the "greatest that hath happened in London this many years".

The disaster was described as the "great fire". Little did people know what was to come 17 years later.

Diarist Samuel Pepys lived round the corner in Seething Lane in the 1660s.

A knot of tourist cafes and shops is now clustered underneath what used to be All Hallows churchyard
Tourist cafes and shops are clustered under the former churchyard
He was a regular at the Dolphin Tavern, where he would take in a morning draught or a "very merry" dinner of oysters, lobster, beef or smoked herrings. It was a place where business mixed with pleasure.

It was also on Tower Street that in 1666, Pepys saw the Great Fire of London advance and finally be extinguished.

After the fire had raged unchecked for more than two days, Pepys saw it burning along Tower Street, where the possessions of one resident, Mr Howell, were "flung all along Tower Street in the kennels [gutters], and people working therewith from one end to the other; the fire coming on in that narrow street, on both sides, with infinite fury".

That night, the blaze was still burning on the street "with extraordinary vehemence".

But it was finally stopped when military engineers blew up houses at the end of the road, creating a firebreak and saving the Tower itself.

All Hallows Church, which still stands on Tower Street, largely survived - although a dial was burnt - and Pepys climbed its steeple to see "the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oil cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning".

"I became afraid to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it," he wrote.

A new glass and steel complex, Tower Place, has opened at the eastern end of what was Tower Street
A new complex, Tower Place, has opened on what was Tower Street
About 13,200 houses were destroyed, but the city and the street recovered.

By 1688, ships' captains, owners and merchants would gather at Mr Lloyd's coffee house on Tower Street to get reliable shipping news and marine insurance.

Lloyd's of London moved three years later, but this insurance institution was born.

Today, the tower of All Hallows and the Tower of London are the only features Lloyd or Pepys would recognise, and the renamed street has been split in two.

One half is an average city road, while the other is pedestrianised with an ultra-modern glass development, Tower Place, on one side, and a cluster of crowded tourist cafes and gift shops on the other.

Streets of London: Smithfield
04 May 04  |  London


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