Above: Looking rather dusty, this City Ward marker is behind a large metal grill on the north side of Cloak Lane. It was presumably placed there in 1892.
The City of London not only contains a ‘treasure trove’ of buildings and unusual objects but it also has many anachronistic markers on the walls of both old and new structures. Firstly, there are many parish markers – once used to indicate exactly where the boundary of a parish was. Secondly, there are property marks – often on buildings that are owned by the wealthy Companies (that started as guilds) like the Mercers and the Goldsmiths. They often place metal property marks, usually in the form of the company’s coat of arms, at the corners of building they still own. Thirdly, and rarer still, are ward markers – once used, like parish markers, to indicate the boundary of a City Ward. The City still has a policy of placing at least one or two modern ward plaques, oval in shape and enamelled, around the City and they are renewed from time to time.
The older ward markers, probably placed in position in Georgian or Victorian times, are usually made of cast-iron and today they are extremely rare. There are probably not more than a dozen still in their original position around the City of London. We will be considering one particular marker in this article.
The Victorians were responsible for what today would be regarded as considerable architectural vandalism. If they wanted to lay out a new road in the City they were not averse to demolishing even a Wren church if it happened to be in the way. The City also had to endure the building of ‘cut and cover’ underground lines. These were constructed by digging an enormous trench, deep enough for a train to run at a sub-surface level, and then build offices or roads on top of the trench causing it to become a sort of tunnel. Some ‘cut and cover’ routes required the removal of ancient graveyards because the trench was far deeper than any coffin buried in a City churchyard.
One particular example was that of the little churchyard of St John the Baptist, Walbrook. The church had been destroyed in the Great Fire (1666) and not rebuilt but the churchyard remained and was still there in the 19th century. Its site was on the north side of Cloak Lane, near the junction with Dowgate Hill. That site lay on the proposed route for the District Line of the underground railway and the churchyard was duly removed. If you walk along Cloak Lane today, from the Dowgate Hill end, you will see an ornamental grill on the north side of the lane. If you stand beside it, you will hear the rumble of underground trains as they travel on the lines below your feet because there is a ventilation shaft for the railway. There is a piece of Victorian stonework to be seen, explaining that the churchyard was removed when the line was built.
If it is a sunny day, you can look through the iron grill and there is sufficient daylight see a Victorian plaque which is a City Ward marker relating to the Ward of Walbrook. As has been mentioned, ward markers of this type are very rare and very few are now still in their original position. Presumably, this marker was on the side of the little churchyard wall or on a building nearby. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that the marker is still in existence. Of course, it is in a very safe place and it is very unlikely to be removed. Nobody can reach it because of the grill beside the pavement and because the site is now a ventilator for the underground. It will remain in position for as long as the underground railway continues in use.
If you are wondering why a large railway so near the ground surface requires a ventilator, it should be explained that, when the trains first ran on the tracks, in December 1868, the trains were hauled by steam engines. Pedestrians walking along Cloak Lane probably saw plumes of smoke from the engines billowing through the grill when trains passed by underneath. Thankfully, underground trains are now all electrically powered.