Above: Looking north along Gracechurch Street from the southern end.
The history of Gracechurch Street is actually related to the construction of a bridge across the Thames by the Romans, to connect Londinium (on the north bank) with the southern shore. It is believed that a wooden bridge was built crossing the Thames soon after the Romans established their township which they called Londinium. The Roman thoroughfare running north from the bridge was on the line of today’s Fish Street Hill and Gracechurch Street. In Norman times the first stone bridge on the same site as the original Roman one – constructed between 1176 and 1209. In the 1820s a new London Bridge was built just west of the Norman one which meant that the southern end of Gracechurch Street had to be modified to meet King Willian Street which ran north from the new bridge.
It is likely that a Roman roadway was established by about AD 50 on the line of today’s Fish Street Hill and Gracechurch Street. The name ‘Gracechurch Street’ came about in medieval times because there was a herb and hay (or grass) market held in the street. On the south side of the junction with Fenchurch Street was a parish church called St Benet which became known as ‘St Benet, Gracechurch Street’ – to differentiate it from other ‘St Benet’ churches in the City. From being called ‘Grass church Street’ the name was gradually corrupted to ‘Gracechurch Street’. According to Harben, in his ‘Dictionary of London’, a version of the name was in use by 1284.
Sadly the church of St Benet was demolished in 1868 and only a City Plaque marks the original site today. Gracechurch Street has little to commend it from the historical point of view. At pavement level, the street is mainly lined with shops which occupy the ground floor premises of much larger office blocks.
The Crosse Keys pub stands on the site of a once-famous coaching inn with the same name. The equally famous coaching inn called the Spread Eagle, which stood on the opposite side of the road, is also long-since demolished. In Talbot Court, near the southern end of Gracechurch Street, is an attractive pub called the Ship. To the north of the Fenchurch Street junction is Ship Tavern Passage which, curiously, has a small Victorian pub called the Swan, with an actual address of 77-80 Gracechurch Street. Presumably, Ship Tavern Passage was named after a pub called the ‘Ship Tavern’ but that is not certain.
The most interesting feature of the street today is the large Victorian structure of Leadenhall Market which stands at the northern end of Gracechurch Street, at the junction with Leadenhall Street. The old covered market actually has four entrances and is the subject of a separate article.
After nearly 2,000 years of history, today’s Gracechurch Street has little historic evidence to show for its long and colourful past. As a principal route through the City – from old London Bridge to Bishopsgate (Gate) – it has seen its fair share of traffic throughout the centuries. Along with Bishopsgate (Street), Gracechurch Street once had many inns serving the needs of travellers in medieval times. Those inns adapted in the 18th century to provide destinations for the new form of ‘rapid transport’ called stagecoaches. From the 1830s onwards, coaching inns went into steep decline with the advent of railways. Today, Gracechurch Street is known for its many offices, being at the centre of the financial district in the City