To most people these days, the name Blackfriars probably means the railway and underground station, but the history of this small area in the south-west corner of the City of London has a history that goes back much further.
As far as I’m aware, there are no official boundaries to define the area that we know as Blackfriars today, but I have seen a map that suggests it stretches from Fleet Street/Ludgate Hill to the River Thames, and from the Mansion House/Garrick Hill to Temple Avenue/Bouverie Street. That may be the modern interpretation of Blackfriars, but it would have been different when the Dominican Friars founded their priory here back in 1278.
For the uninitiated, and that includes me, the word ‘Friar’ is an anglicized version of the French word Frère meaning brother, and it shouldn’t come as any great surprise to learn that these Dominican Blackfriars were distinguished from the Carmelite Whitefriars and Franciscan Greyfriars by the colour of the cloaks that they wore.
The Blackfriars are a Catholic order founded by St Dominic in Toulouse in 1215, and in 1223 they established a priory in Holborn before moving to their new site between the Thames and Ludgate Hill.
Edward I gave them permission to build this new priory near to where the River Fleet entered the Thames. He also allowed them to re-build the city wall around it, and from a humble house and church it expanded to include a refectory, cloisters, a hall, library, stables and garden: In fact, it didn’t only become an ecclesiastical home for the friars, but also an important centre for state affairs with Parliament meetings and state visits from foreign dignitaries.
It was here in 1529 that the divorce hearing between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon ultimately led to Henry’s fallout with Rome and the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 – Blackfriars Priory being one of the victims.
What Henry VIII didn’t destroy, the Great Fire of London did, and unfortunately there’s nothing left to see of the old priory.
The City of London produces its own ceramic plaques in a similar way that English Heritage does for places of interest outside of the city boundaries, and there’s one at 7 Ludgate Broadway marking the location.
In 1632, after the dissolution and before the fire, the Society of Apothecaries Livery company acquired the monastery’s guesthouse and established their base here. Although it was a casualty of the Great Fire it was re-built in 1672 and can still be found in Black Friars Lane. It’s not generally available for the public to visit but there’s nothing to stop you walking into the courtyard to take a look from the outside.
At the bottom of Black Friars Lane (and just the other side of the railway bridge), is somewhere that will not only allow you to take the weight off your feet, but is also somewhere to visit in its own right – The Blackfriar pub.
Built in 1875 and designed by architect H Fuller Clark and artist Henry Poole, you’ll find wooden sculptures of friars adorning the marble walls around the bar, making it feel more like the priory itself rather than a pub.
By the early 1960s the pub, like the other buildings around it, was earmarked for demolition, but thanks to campaigners such as Sir John Betjeman it was saved and left with its free-standing triangular shape on the corner of Queen Victoria Street and New Bridge Street: It is one of the few remaining art nouveau pubs left in London and should be visited if you get half a chance.
Opposite the Blackfriar, on the corner of New Bridge Street and the Victoria Embankment, is a large building which I think is also worthy of a mention – Unilever House. I’ve always liked this Art Deco building for some reason, and it seems I’m not the only one because I see that it’s been Grade II listed. Built for Lever Brothers, the soap manufacturing company, between 1929 and 1933 it’s on the site that was once the location for Bridewell Palace, yet another home for Henry VIII. Across the road from Unilever House are the Blackfriar road and rail bridges.
The first road bridge opened in 1769 as a toll bridge near to where the River Fleet discharged into the Thames.
The Fleet, which gives its name to Fleet St, the former famous thoroughfare of the newspaper industry, is London’s largest subterranean river, and still flows into the Thames under the northern end of the bridge.
This first bridge was replaced by the current one which was opened a hundred years later in 1869 by Queen Victoria.
Joseph Cubitt was the man responsible for the design of the current bridge (and the original adjacent rail bridge), and includes some interesting features such as stone carvings on the piers by John Birnie Philip.
You can just make out that these pillars include carvings of freshwater birds on the upstream side of the bridge and seabirds on the downstream side.
The river has always acted as a natural boundary between North and South London and travelling across Blackfriars Bridge from the City of London to Southwark isn’t the same as most other bridges because you are still in the City of London until you reach the other side. This is because the City of London Corporation (through its Bridge House Estates Charitable Trust) owns and maintains the whole of the bridge.
This is all completely useless information of course, and it doesn’t make one iota of difference to anybody, except to serve as a reminder that as soon as you think you’ve got London sussed, you find out that you haven’t.
The first railway bridge opened in 1864 with a station called St Paul’s, but the bridge itself wasn’t man enough to handle the amount of traffic, and so another (and current) one replaced it in 1886.
The remains of the columns supporting the previous bridge can clearly be seen, and on the Southwark end there’s also a handsome Grade II listed insignia for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, who had the franchise for crossing the river from Kent to St Paul’s when the first bridge opened.
The replacement bridge was called St Paul’s Railway Bridge but changed its name in 1937 when St Paul’s station became known as Blackfriars.
Between 2009 and 2012 major improvements were made to both the bridge and the station in conjunction with the Thameslink programme, a service which links counties to the north of London with those to the south.
The bridge’s new design includes platforms that stretch right across the river covered by solar panels, which will not only protect passengers from the elements, but also produce up to half of the station’s electricity needs. It also meant that another ticket hall could be introduced at Bankside allowing passengers access from the south side of the river as well.