St Mary Axe: what's in a (street) name?
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
The City of London's blend of old and new is a defining feature. Ancient Roman origins, highly recognisable modern buildings. And strange street names.
A short street in the eastern part of the City of London, named St Mary Axe, illustrates this well.
A walk down the street's length of around 300 metres, less than a fifth of a mile, reveals that almost all of its historic buildings have disappeared.
Instead, you see office buildings of glass, steel, polished granite and concrete lining the street on both sides. They house financial institutions and insurance companies, punctuated by sandwich shops and bars for the office workers who come into the City during the day and empty it at night.
But look more closely and the ghosts of the past walk with you.
At its northern end, St Mary Axe starts at a very modern-looking street called Houndsditch. It is so named because it was once a ditch just outside the walls of the City, probably dating back to Roman times, where they used to throw dead dogs and rubbish of all kinds - a reminder that people used to live as well as work in the City.
Standing at the junction of Houndsditch and St Mary Axe is one of the City's newer 'statement buildings'. Officially known as 70 St Mary Axe, but dubbed 'The Can of Ham' due to its distinctive shape, it was completed in 2019 by architects Foggo Associates.
Walking south, you soon pass the Baltic Exchange on your left, a City institution important to maritime commerce, with roots going back to 1744. Its functions include setting prices for sea freight and settling freight futures; and buying, selling and chartering freighter ships. It is now owned by Singapore Index.
The Baltic Exchange now occupies a building dating from 1922 (one of the street's older structures), but until 1992 it was a little further along St Mary Axe in a purpose-built 1903 building.
The lobby of the current Exchange has some references to its predecessor home, including a fountain with a nymph sculpture created by E Whitney Smith in 1907 - said to be modelled on the Daughter of the Chairman of the organisation at the time - and a painting of the old trading floor (the building is not open to the public, but ask politely and the receptionist may let you look at the lobby area).
On 10 April 1992, the IRA detonated a bomb outside the previous Baltic Exchange building. It caused three deaths and 91 injuries and destroyed much of the building. The three people who lost their lives were a 49-year old Baltic Exchange attendant, a 29 year old passer-by and 15-year-old girl, who was waiting in a car in St Mary Axe.
The damage was too extensive to preserve and restore the listed building, in spite of initial hopes, and so eventually it was taken down.
Parts of its stained-glass dome structure were salvaged and are on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The neoclassical stone façade of the building is now in Tallinn, in the Baltic state Estonia, where a local entrepreneur plans to rebuild them.
Where the old Baltic Exchange once stood on St Mary Axe, the City of London Corporation wanted a new, signature building as a symbol of the City's resilience and renewal after the terrorist atrocity.
And so there arose the building we know as the Gherkin, a 180 metre (591 ft) skyscraper of 41 floors, officially known as 30 St Mary Axe (previously the Swiss Re Building).
Designed by Norman Foster, one of Britain's most famous architects, it opened in 2004 and immediately became one of London's most recognisable buildings. In spite of its curvature, the only curved piece of glass used in its construction is right on the top.
When the Gherkin opened in 2004, it was the second tallest building in the City of London after Tower 42, but there are now four newer buildings in the City that are taller than both (and the Shard in Southwark, the tallest in all of London). Its profile remains visually distinctive, but its place on the London skyline has been usurped.
In the spacious plaza that was created surrounding the Gherkin, a plaque records the names of the three people killed by the 1992 bomb.
The girl who died in the bombing is not the only teenage girl commemorated in the plaza.
There is also the grave of an unknown teenage girl of Roman London, buried in the late 4th century and discovered in 1995 during excavations prior to the construction of the Gherkin.
After some years in the Museum of London her skeleton was re-interred in 2007, very close to her original burial spot. A special ceremony combined a church service at St Botolph's Aldgate with Roman funeral music and rites.
At the southern end of St Mary Axe is the church of St Andrew Undershaft, the only truly old building still standing on the street. Originally a Norman Church, the current building dates from 1532, in the reign of Henry VIII.
In medieval times, locals used to erect a very tall Maypole close to the church every spring. The shaft of the Maypole was taller than the church tower, hence the name St Andrew 'Undershaft'.
Dancing around a Maypole is a very old tradition, in celebration of Spring and new birth. The pole outside St Andrew's church was last erected in 1517, when student riots put a stop to it (there was a riot against foreigners, an event known as Evil May Day). The disused pole itself was destroyed by a Puritan mob in 1547.
Today St Andrew Undershaft is part of the parish of the nearby St Helen's Bishopsgate, which uses St Andrew for various study groups. Although not generally open to the public, those who use the church for study have been known to allow visitors if polite requests are made.
Inside is a memorial to John Stow, a man I consider to be the spiritual grandfather of City Guides. In 1598, he published his celebrated Survey of London, which documented the City in great detail and is still an important reference for students of London history.
The sculpture on John Stow's memorial depicts him writing, with a real feather quill that is replaced every five years by the Lord Mayor in the kind of ceremony at which the City of London excels.
Across the other side of St Mary Axe from the church looms another landmark City building, known as the Cheesegrater. Located at 122 Leadenhall Street, it was designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 2014.
The unusual wedge shape of the model shown to the City of London Corporation's chief planning officer prompted him to tell the architect that he could imagine his wife using it to grate parmesan.
Standing against a wall in the plaza underneath the Cheesegrater's front entrance is a replica Maypole. It is shorter than the tower of St Andrew Undershaft, but is a colourful nod to history.
Perhaps the most curious thing about St Mary Axe is its name. The church for which the street is named was demolished in the 1560s in the reign of Elizabeth I and its parish was merged with St Andrew's.
The full name of the demolished church was 'St Mary, St Ursula and The 11,000 Virgins'.
St Mary is a reference to the mother of Christ, while St Ursula is a little more obscure.
The story goes that Ursula was a 4th or 5th century princess from southwest England. She sailed to join her husband to be, Conan Meriadoc, the pagan governor of Armorica in north west France. En route she decided to take a pan European pilgrimage, visiting Rome and enlisting the Pope to join her and the 11,000 handmaidens that accompanied her.
On the way back to Britain and approaching Cologne, Ursula and her companions were captured by the Huns, who were then besieging the city. Every single one of the 11,000 virgins was beheaded, while Ursula was shot with an arrow by the leader of the Huns - according to some versions of the story by Attila the Hun himself.
A 1514 manuscript claims that one of axes used by the Huns to execute the virgins, considered a holy relic, was kept in the original church of St Mary Axe. Whatever the truth of the story, this gave rise to the church's peculiar name.
Its name lives on in this short City of London street and its interesting collection of buildings.
Alas, the church of St Andrew Undershaft, the Baltic Exchange and the Gherkin are not generally open to the public. St Mary Axe is not a museum, but a modern, working street. But look carefully, and the past will open itself to you.