Above: Looking along almost the entire length of Cannon Street from near the eastern end. In the foreground is the dip in the street where the River Walbrook once flowed above ground. In the distance is part of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The history of Cannon Street is quite unusual. It is nothing to do with machines of war and, in fact, it is not even known where its present name came from. All that is known is that today’s name has been in use for about 300 years.
Understanding the Street Plan
If you do not know the City streets well, it might be an idea to have a good look a street map, choosing to view a ‘chunk’ of the map around Cannon Street – extending north from the Thames to the site of the Mansion House. You will immediately notice that Cannon Street runs almost E-W, being parallel to and north of Upper Thames Street. All the little lanes run off Cannon Street at right-angles. We also need to consider two other streets – King William Street and Queen Victoria Street. Relative to the grid plan we have been looking at, these two streets run at a diagonal to Cannon Street. In medieval times the two streets did not exist and the grid pattern was in a purer form. King William Street was ‘cut across’ the street pattern as a through-route from the Bank of England intersection to a new London Bridge. The street was named after William IV who opened the new bridge in 1831. Similarly, Queen Victoria Street was laid out to lead SW from the Bank of England intersection, with work commencing in 1861, during the reign of Queen Victoria.
If you have never thought about it before, understanding the medieval street plan around Cannon Street is important. The alignment of the streets and lanes are due in part to the Romans – Cannon Street, for example, is certainly on the line of a Roman thoroughfare in Londinium. In later times, when Alfred the Great drove the Danes from the Saxon settlement, in AD 886, it is generally believed that the lines of the lanes we have today were established soon afterwards – particularly the lanes that extend from Cannon Street to the Thames. Notice, too, the others that run north from Cannon Street – like Abchurch Lane, Nicholas Lane and Clement’s Lane – which have each been affected by the later formation of King William Street.
Cannon Street through the Ages
From what has been said, Cannon Street can trace its alignment back to Roman times when the Governor’s House – a palatial mansion with its own swimming pool – stood on land now occupied by Cannon Street Station. Some of the Roman remains are still in existence – but not open for public access – deep down in the foundations of the station. The street called Walbrook is a turning off Cannon Street. Its line is very close to the ancient course of the River Walbrook which was an open stream in Roman times with the Temple of Mithras standing on its eastern bank.
The establishment of a Saxon settlement within the City – in AD 886 – was almost certainly responsible for the laying out of today’s street pattern. From those times right down to the Tudor and Stuart periods, the layout of London around Cannon Street changed very little. It should be mentioned that Cannon Street did not extend further west than the junction with Walbrook until the western extension was constructed during 1853-54. This saw the street extended to join with St Paul’s Churchyard.
Now that we clear about the ancient street plan around Cannon Street, we can start to think about the function of this part of the City. On the southern side of Cannon Street, the lanes ran down to the riverfront where commodities were being unloaded from small ships and barges. The area must have resembled a ‘mini-port’. Whereas today Cannon Street is lined with large office blocks, this was very much the working part of the City where goods were imported, stored in nearby warehouses and used by guild workers to produce other products for sale in the City markets.
It is now time to start explaining the name of the street. According to Harben, in his ‘Dictionary of London’, the earliest mention found in records was as ‘Candelwrichstrete’ in 1180-87. It was the street in which candle-making took place. In a world where the only form of light on dark evenings was candlelight and the light from oil-lamps, candles were made in large numbers. Churches also used candles but they could afford the best – candles made from beeswax. Poorer folk bought tallow candles, made from animal fat, which burned poorly. Such candles were also rather sticky to the touch. As it happens the Tallowchandlers’ Hall is very near Cannon Street, standing in Dowgate Hill. The street name gradually corrupted to ‘Candlewick Street’ which probably lasted until Tudor times. Cannon Street was also famous for its cloth so late as the time of Henry VI (the 1450s) and was at one time the centre of the cloth trade, as well as furs and skins used to make clothing.
From Tudor times the street was known as ‘Canning Street’ but there is no explanation as to why that spelling came about. Samuel Pepys, in his diary written between 1660 and 1669, also called the street by this name. From ‘Canning Street’ it is only a short step to ‘Cannon Street’ but, once again, nobody knows why the present-day name arose. Anyway, Cannon Street it is.
Other Places of Interest
In medieval times, there was a parish church in Cannon Street, called St Swithin. It stood on the north side of the street with the Salters’ Hall just to the north. The church was destroyed in the bombing during the Second World War and not rebuilt. Opposite the church, in the middle of the roadway, was London Stone. This famous piece of stone was a meeting point for medieval Londoners but its origins are actually unknown. The stone was eventually removed to the north side of Cannon Street and mounted in a place of safety in a niche of St Swithin’s church. It now has a separate stone mounting for it to be seen by the public.
The lanes around Cannon Street mostly derive their names from a church that stood in each one. Examples are – St Martin Orgar in Martin Lane; St Lawrence Pountney once stood in Laurence Pountney Lane (yes, there are two different spellings, one for the church and another for the lane); St Swithin in St Swithin’s Lane; St Mary Abchurch in Abchurch Lane; St Nicholas in Nicholas Lane; and St Clement in Clement’s Lane. Before the Great Fire of London, there was no shortage of churches in the vicinity.
The site of Cannon Street Station occupies land beside the Thames where the Hanse merchants had their enclave. They traded all over Northern Europe and also into Russia. The Hanseatic League was founded in 1358 and the site in London was the ‘headquarters’ in England. Trade for the Hanse merchants declined in the 19th century and, once they had vacated their site in the City, Cannon Street Station was built, opening in 1866.
Cannon Street Today
The street is now lined by large overbearing office blocks. Above the Cannon Street Station are large offices known as Cannon Place, designed by Foggo Associates. Almost opposite, on the north side of Cannon Street and running along much of Walbrook is the rather menacing office block called The Walbrook, designed by Foster and Partners. On the west side of Walbrook is another enormous office block, also designed by Foster and Partners known as the Bloomberg Building – the London headquarters of the international company that delivers business and markets news, data, analysis, and video to the world.