Above: The historic ward boundaries of the City of London (as defined before alterations in 1994 and also in 2003). Note that each ward boundary beside the Thames extends into the centre of the river.
A quick look at the old ward boundaries in the City of London (shown above) reveals that they are a fairly wacky bunch. This article seeks to give some background into how the wards came about. It is not intended to present the wards of the City as a series of maps. Most of those maps are copyright and can easily be found on the Website of the City of London if you would like to see them. What we will explore here is how the wards of the City and also the boundary of the City of London came into existence in the first place. We also need to gain some insight into defining the City in terms of its ward boundaries.
Wards are not only found in the City of London. All the London Boroughs are divided into wards with democratically elected councillors. In the City of London, things are slightly different because each of the wards also has an elected Alderman. The City of London is divided into 25 wards. Each ward elects one Alderman and two or more Common Councilmen (collectively referred to as Members, equivalent to councillors), dependent on its population.
The earliest wards in the City seem to have been named after the Alderman who presided over them. For example, in 1279 the Ward of Aldgate was called the ‘Ward of John de Northampton’. A City ward being named after an actual person clearly proved to be impractical because every time the ward appointed a new Alderman, the name of the ward also had to be changed. This led to some wards being named after well-known geographical features – for example, the Ward of Adgate was named after one the gates in the old Roman Wall; the Ward of Queenhithe was named after the dock; similarly with Billingsgate which was named after its dock; Broad Street Ward took its name the main street running through it; similarly with Bread Street; and Castle Baynard Ward took its name from the ancient Norman castle.
A few examples will be given to show what kind of dates we are talking about. The Ward of Aldgate was first mentioned in 1130; Portsoken was first mentioned in 1180 as the ‘Ward of Port’; the Ward of Cripplegate was first mentioned by that name in 1285; the earliest mention of Cheap Ward by that name was in 1125; the earliest mention of Bishopsgate Ward by that name was 1285 although in 1130 it had been called ‘Warda Edwardi Parole’. These examples illustrate that the names of many of the wards go back to the days of the Normans. Remarkably, the City was organised into a ward structure in early times. It could be that the ward boundaries had already been established before 1066 – and all that! The simple answer is that we just do not know for certain. There are no known early documents which can provide an answer to the obvious question – ‘When were all the boundaries drawn up and by whom?’.
The other problem is that there were no meaningful maps at such early times. The earliest maps of the City of London date from the mid-16th century and they do not show any boundaries of wards or, indeed, a boundary line for the City of London. Apart from the ward boundaries that do not touch the boundary of the City, the boundaries that do form part of the City boundary would have been altered every time the City boundary was changed. These alterations were relatively minor and hardly affected those ward boundaries over the centuries.
So, how did the ward boundaries come about? In the main, a ward boundary enclosed a parish or a collection of parishes. Many parish boundaries were often of greater antiquity than the wards. That is not really an answer to the question because it leads to asking how the parish boundaries came about. To try to understand these detailed ward and parish boundaries, we will consider the case of two fictitious neighbours living side-by-side in the City. We will call then Fred and Charlie. Whatever the date may have been, there must have come a time when a ward-official or a church-official decided to ‘mark the territory’. It was usually done by driving a wooden post into the ground at the point where a boundary line changed direction – for example, it may have turned through 90 degrees. With time passing, the post would have rotted and a new post would have been inserted.
Those in authority became quite canny about installing a new post because, if the boundary line affected land owned by Fred and Charlie, Fred would say to the official ‘I am sure that post was further to the east’ so that Fred gained more land. Similarly, Charlie would then get involved and claim that the post was further to the west. Very often, the person who installed the original post dug the hole deeper than was necessary and buried a stone under the base of the post. When the post eventually fell over or rotted away, the new official installing the new post would dig into the old hole left by the post and find if a stone had been buried below it. It was a simple way of keeping markers on the same spot.
Above: A small sample of the 1960s Ordnance Survey map for Birchin Lane in the City of London. The yellow arrows show the many turning points of part of a ward boundary.
If we could delve into how the original boundary lines were defined, we might well find that the line between two parishes was decided by drawing the line around the tiny properties of the residents. Take, for example, the very small piece of the Ordnance Survey map shown above. It shows a few buildings on the east side of Birchin Lane, which is a small side street running between Cornhill and Lombard Street. Look carefully at the ward boundary. Arrows in yellow have been added to clarify the many turns of the line. It is more than likely that the right-angle bends went around Fred and Charlie’s garden at some early date, now ‘lost in the mists of time’. Each right-angle turn was duly recorded by adding a boundary post which became the parish boundary and/or the ward boundary maybe even before early maps were drawn.
With time, those minor details in the boundary line were duly recorded on early ward or parish maps and eventually were recorded with even greater precision on the Ordnance Survey map. We shall never know how those details came about or what they actually represent but it is more than likely that Fred and Charlie had something to do with it centuries ago! If that interpretation is correct and the lines once ran around small pieces of land owned by private individuals, there is a certain charm to those minor details when viewed ‘up close’ as on the enlarged map shown above.
Even if we do not know how the ward boundaries came into being, they were known to John Stow when he wrote the ‘Survey of London’ which was last published in 1603. Those same boundary lines were known to Ogilby and Morgan who produced his famous large-scale map of the City of London after the Great Fire of London (1666). They were also known to John Strype whose ward maps are one of the best-known records of the City wards, published in 1720.
In the 20th century, Ordnance Survey maps (like the detail shown above) were still being drawn by hand. Skilled draughtsmen who were responsible for drawing the entire map and thousands of additional large sheets covering the whole of the British Isles. Today we find that cumbersome process to be almost unbelievable. We have become so used to looking at the output from the computer-aided design that we have almost forgotten that in the 1960s you could walk into Stanfords – the map shop in Covent Garden – and buy large sheets with all the detail shown above that had been entirely hand-drawn. Such sheets can no longer be purchased. The routine now is to walk into the shop, tell the assistant the map coordinates of the location for which you want the map. The next step is for the assistant to operate a sophisticated printer, driven on-line from the main computer at the Ordnance Survey headquarters. About a minute later, hey presto! You have your own computer-generated map which is entirely up-to-date – correct at the moment the map was printed.
So, what do we learn from these thoughts on the origins of the wards? It is clear that, whatever the reason for the detailed boundary lines, they have an incredible pedigree going back to well before Elizabethan times and, more likely, dating from the days of the Normans, possibly even the Saxons. These maps have one thing in common, the early ones have all been used by the famous historians of London throughout the centuries and have finally been encoded into all the versions of the Ordnance Survey – dating from the very first one which was published in 1862. All these historians have worked from the same ward boundaries in the City of London and also been familiar with the historic boundary of the City of London – where it touches other administrations, like Westminster, Stepney and Hackney.
These ward boundaries have been of great value because they enclosed parishes without division – that is to say that one City parish always lay entirely within the ward boundary without straddling the border into another ward. In passing it should be pointed out that this Website always adheres to the historic ward boundaries for the simple reason that any history book on the City over the last 400 years has also worked to the same principles.
We now encounter a serious problem. In 2003, the City fathers decided that the ward boundaries should be ‘modernised’. To any administrator, if a boundary line crosses a street (instead of running along the middle of it) or passes through a building at an odd angle (instead of either enclosing or excluding it) that seems to present a problem. All ward boundaries were, therefore, redrawn to make the lines conform to a rigid set of very simple rules without any consideration for the fact that they might have been in use by others for many centuries. The result is a neat set of new ward maps which appeared in 2003. To an administrator, they are presumably sheer bliss – because they drew them. To any historian, they are worse than useless because they do not relate in any way to the wards in a historic context that was built up over many centuries.
Finally, what would Fred and Charlie make of all this change? As they might well say ‘Nobody cares about us any more’. You cannot but agree with that sentiment! At least you have been made familiar with the case for working with the original ward maps. These old maps are essential if you are going to understand the history of the City of London. The City always claims to be proud of its history. In the matter of working with the wards, all the ‘history bit’ seems to have been cast aside in the interest of easy administration – possibly making it simpler to repair the roads or keep track of the Corporation lamp-posts and important details like that.
One of the other reasons for changing the ward boundaries is related to the number of residents living within the City. Even before Victorian times, the population of the City was declining as more and more land was taken up by large warehouses and factories being erected within the square mile. This decline accelerated in the 20th century as the trend for larger and larger offices gained momentum. The end of the 20th century then saw a swing back to an increasing population in the City which is continuing at the time of writing. Ward boundaries have sometimes been changed to modify or ‘even out’ the voting populations of the City wards to take account of these trends. While this might be seen as a valid reason for altering the boundaries of the wards, it is not one that Stow and historians in earlier centuries would recognise. Such measures have never been taken before the 1990s in the City itself.
Not only have boundaries been moved so that the shape of each ward no longer relates to how the original parishes were laid out but the boundary of the City of London has been altered in some places by a considerable amount. This is particularly true on the northern boundary of the City and along its east-facing boundary. In the east, the City boundary relates to a common line with part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. A good example of the problems of boundary change can be found on the eastern boundary of the City. At one time there was a religious house called the Abbey of St Clare – whose site gave us street names like Minories and St Clare Street. There were boundary changes in 1994 which were not entirely driven by the administration of the City of London. Borough boundary changes are taking place across England all the time and sometimes they also affect the City’s boundaries. From at least the days when John Stow walked around the City until the 1990s, the position of the medieval abbey site was shown on maps as being outside the City boundary – in the Parish of Stepney, in the County of Middlesex. In 1900, this land became the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney and, in 1965, it became the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Although administration of the land changed over the centuries, the abbey site was always clearly outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. Due to boundary changes in 1994, the site of the abbey now lies within the Ward of Portsoken which means, of course, that the history of the Abbey of St Clare is now part of the City. What would John Stow and John Strype make of that piece of information?
Hopefully, the reader can now start to appreciate some of the problems faced by today’s historians of Inner London as they try to write modern histories in the 21st century of land both inside and close to the City of London. What was quite a complicated story – as readers of this Website will already realise – is now becoming even more difficult to unravel due to the modern ward boundaries.