London On The Ground
Magnus, the Monument and me
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
A beautiful City church by the great Sir Christopher Wren, with an archway through its tower, obscured by modern buildings and isolated by a dual carriageway. The magnificent Monument to one of London's greatest disasters, standing in a small side street opposite a minor tube station.
These two contradictions inspired me to become a City of London Guide.
St Magnus the Martyr is on Lower Thames Street in the City of London. The current church, by Sir Christopher Wren, was built between 1671 and 1684. The steeple was added in 1705 and is possibly the work of Wren's apprentice Nicholas Hawksmoor (who became a major architect in his own right).
Little more than 100ft from London Bridge, this Wren gem is all but hidden by surrounding buildings and separated from the City by the dual carriageway eyesore of Lower Thames Street.
Yet, for centuries, St Magnus the Martyr marked the main entrance into the City from the south.
Old London Bridge was the only crossing over the Thames in central London until the first Westminster Bridge was built in 1750 (not counting Putney Bridge in 1729). For travellers crossing London Bridge from Southwark, St Magnus the Martyr was the first building on their right (to the east) as they reached the north end of the bridge and entered the City.
The City of London Corporation - the Square Mile's local authority - responded to the opening of Westminster Bridge by removing all the shops and houses that had lined London Bridge.
With projecting upper floors, these buildings had reduced the bridge's roadway to a narrow, tunnel-like passage. Carts, carriages, pedestrians and animals all competed for space and it could take as much as an hour to complete the crossing. The competing bridge in Westminster deprived City businesses of significant passing trade, and so London Bridge was modified to improve the flow.
However, there was a problem with the church.
The tower of St Magnus had stood in line with the houses on the eastern (downstream) side of the bridge, with the carriageway passing to the tower's west. When the houses were removed, the roadway was widened and pavements for pedestrians were built. Pedestrians heading north over the bridge on its eastern pavement had to step into the roadway to detour around the church tower to enter the City.
The solution was to open up the ground floor of the church tower. The archway through the tower was created in 1763, forming an entrance into the City for pedestrians coming from Southwark. As they passed through the archway and up Fish Street Hill, the first thing they saw was the Monument to the Great Fire of 1666.
For centuries, Fish Street Hill had been the main road into London leading off the bridge. It was also the location of St Margaret's, the first church destroyed by the Fire but not rebuilt (St Magnus was the second church consumed by the Fire).
The Monument stands on the site of St Margaret's and its height, 202ft (62m), marks its distance from Thomas Farriner's bakery in nearby Pudding Lane where the fire started in the early hours of 2 September 1666.
St Magnus the Martyr, the Monument and Fish Street Hill retained their prominence until Old London Bridge was replaced by a new bridge 100ft (30m) upstream in 1831. At least the Monument is still clearly visible from many sides. St Magnus retains its dignity in spite of its disrespectful treatment.
A few years ago, walking down Fish Street Hill with my elder daughter, I told her this story of the fall from prominence to relative obscurity. Her engagement with it enthused me to find and tell more of the hidden stories of the City of London.