Above: St John Street looking south towards the City. Notice how the street ‘bulges out’, a feature that is still to be see today.
It would a useful exercise to produce a map where the streets were shown in various colours. ‘They do that already’ you may well reply. Yes, they do that already, mainly to indicate one-way streets, major ‘A’ roads and possibly ‘B’ roads, also to show bus routes. Those maps are all very useful but this new ‘concept’ map would have streets coloured with bold colours if they were of historic interest and in pastel colours if they were just laid out for housing.
One street in London that would qualify for being shown in something like a bold red would be St John Street – once in the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury and now within the London Borough of Islington. If you look on a map, the street does not seem very important. If you travel to the City of London and walk through the great arch in Smithfield Meat Market, a jumble of awkwardly situated narrow streets are to be seen straight ahead, as you emerge on the northern side of the large building. The whole Meat Market building is within the boundary of the City of London but walking only a few yards further north you cross the boundary into the London Borough of Islington.
One of those narrow streets is St John Street and as you look at it you will not be struck by how important a street it has been. So, what is the street all about? Why is it so important? Last, but not least, is there anything today to indicate its important history?
It is an unfortunate fact – but an inevitable one – that, because the land in London is divided by City boundaries and borough boundaries, we tend to study parts of London in ‘blocks’. This is mainly because it makes it easier to understand London if we ‘break it down’ into small pieces of history. This is particularly the case with St John Street but the street needs to be looked at in its relation to the City but also to North London and beyond.
If we go back to the early days of the 19th century, the whole of the land around Smithfield was one large cattle market which had a history going back hundreds of years. Each year hundreds of thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and many other animals – including geese and chickens – were brought to Smithfield Market to be sold live. In a world of no refrigeration the animal had to be kept alive until it was required as meat on the table and then slaughtered at the last minute. All that changed in the mid-1900s when two things happened: (1) Refrigeration was invented and (2) railways started to be built. The two facts were not related to each other but they happened at almost the same time. As a result, animals were slaughtered and kept in vast refrigerators at Smithfield to be sold as ‘dead meat’ as the Victorians called it. Carcasses were quickly transported by rail from farms well outside London and stored at Smithfield Market before being sold.
Looking at the larger picture of roads across England, St John Street was at the southern end of the Great North Road. Those who travelled to London from the north would come down the Great North Road and finally reach Islington. From there it was a short journey down St John Street before reading Smithfield. St John Street was, in short, the ‘gateway to the City of London. from the north.
For those starting their travels from the City of London, St John Street was also the ‘gateway to the north’ from the City. In the days of stage coaches, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, coaches left inns in St John Street bound for northern destinations like Lincoln, York and even Scotland. When railways were built, it was considered too intrusive to London’s surrounding villages to bring the railway very close to the City of London and so termini were built further north of St John Street – typically Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross – beside the newly formed Euston Road.
Above: Sign of the Cross Keys on an old inn on the east side of St John Street.
The only evidence that St John Street was once lined with coaching inns is the photo of the old building that was once an inn with the inn sign still at the top of the building – the Cross Keys.
It will be seen, therefore, that circumstances overtook St John Street in the 19th century. When the cattle market closed at Smithfield, there was no need to bring endless droves of animals down the street, from distant locations, to be sold at the cattle market. Once railway termini were up and running at King’s Cross there were no passengers taking stage coaches from inns lining St John Street either. Today the street is a relatively quiet one. It is not a wide street anyway and is therefore no longer used as an arterial route into London – like Old Kent Road, Borough High Street or Whitechapel Road still are today.
Finally, why was it called ‘St John Street’ ? Is there a church of St John ? Yes, there is a church of St John nearby. The dedication of St John was applied to the monastic church of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem who had their headquarters in England based in this part of London. The ‘Knights Hospitaller’ as they were known – because they were famous for building hospitals to care for sick pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land – has a large religious house in Clerkenwell. Its southern gateway still stands at the end of the original pathway that led to their property which is known as St John’s Lane.
The Knights Hospitaller also had a fine Norman church on the site. Sadly that was destroyed by a bomb during the Second World War. The church was rebuilt later and now stands over the original Norman crypt that mercifully survived enemy action.
You will now see why we need this map of streets in bright colours to indicate when they have an important history. Nothing ‘shouts’ at you as you walk along St John Street today saying ‘this street is full of history’. It is all rather quiet, making you think that it has always been this way. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. For many centuries this was a major route between the City of London and the North of England.