Stow, John and his ‘Survay of London’

Above: Part of the title page of Stow’s book.

John Stow, English historian and tailor, (1525–1605) was an interesting man and he lived at an interesting time in the history of England. He lived in the Aldgate (eastern) end of the City. Both his father and grandfather had been tallow chandlers and had supplied the lamp-oil and candles to the church of St Michael, Cornhill, in which they were both buried.

Born in 1525, the reigning monarch was Henry VIII. Stow then lived through the reigns of Edward VI (1547 onwards), Mary I (1553 onwards), Elizabeth I (1558 onwards) and finally James I (1603 onwards). As we all know, they were troubled times which included the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in 1536 when Stow was only 11 years old). Stow’s interest in history meant that he consulted many books and records relating to the City of London and particularly to the churches. Asking so many questions, some authorities asked why he wanted to know about such matters, suspecting him of pursuing darker matters than just pure history.

John Stow became a tailor and he was admitted to the Merchant Taylors’ Company in 1574. In 1578 Stow became a pensioner, receiving £4 per annum. He gave up his business to devote himself to his antiquarian labours without interruption. He had a good friend called William Lambarde, who had studied law at Lincoln’s Inn. The Lambarde family home was the Manor of Westcombe, in Greenwich, demolished in 1725. In 1570 Lambarde completed his ‘Perambulation of Kent’, the first English county history ever published. It is believed that this book gave Stow the idea for his book about the City.

Stow’s ’Survay of London’ is written in the form of a description of buildings as you walk around each ward. Today, the text might seem rather uninteresting but, if you know the City streets, their layout has changed so little since Stow’s time that you can imagine yourself walking with him around the streets and alleys that he describes. His book was published in 1598 and he lived long enough to produce an improved edition which was republished in 1603. Stow’s book is still in print today. What is important about it is that he had access to documents that were to be destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666). His book, therefore, contains information that we cannot access today which means it is of great importance to modern scholars of the City and places around it.

Stow was described as ‘tall, lean of body and face; a pleasant and cheerful countenance; sight and memory very good even up to his death; very sober, mild and courteous; could not ride a horse, so he usually went on foot’. He died on 6 April 1605 of ‘stone cholic’. He had lived through five reigns, with all the change in religious climate that had brought about.

He had spent so much time writing his book that, when he died, his wife decided to have a stone effigy designed showing him sitting at his desk, still writing with a quill in his hand. A hole was made in the hand so that a real quill could be inserted. Stow was buried in the church of St Andrew Undershaft and the monument is in one corner of the building.

If you are thinking of reading Stow’s book, the most useful version was published in 1905 by a man called Kingsford. His edition of the ‘Survay of London’ was published in two volumes, with an introduction and copious notes.


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4 Responses to Stow, John and his ‘Survay of London’

  1. Andrew says:

    John Stow’s svrvey reminds me of Phyllis Pearsall who also walked the city, some 3,000 miles, and created the similarly famous A to Z maps of London which she published in 1936 and sold through WHSmith’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. By the standards of any time or place Stow was a dedicated and remarkable historian. Of course after the Dissolution, London became the pre-eminent focus of intellectual activity, publishing and printing. Similarities to today’s focus. The city has always been such a rational, sustainable environment. Ever since Horace, we in the West have had an unreasonable sentimental attachment to the bucolic. And as you say, so much was lost during the Fire. I particularly enjoyed your description of his physical and emotional character. There must have been many of those long lived and mentally and physically lean characters around, always walking.


  2. Yes, Stow was a great character. Thank you for your comments.


  3. clavdivs26 says:

    Thank you, Adrian. This was a marvellous, insightful read. I’m off finding images of some of the locations and monuments you described. ie. Stow’s monument


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