"Whytecryse street, a good Place, pritty well built and inhabited."
- John Stow, "A Survey of London" (1598)
The story of Whitecross Street begins with the boggy marsh that surrounded what is presently the Moorgate area of London. Whitecross Street loosely follows the path of an ancient water course that fed the great fen. Being outside of the traditional walls of London, it remained undeveloped until at least the 9th century, although the land surrounding it would have been used for farming and leisure until that time. Notably, there has been found evidence of a Roman military camp in the nearby area, from which the Barbican itself takes its name.
Regardless, as the original route of the street began almost from the mouth of the old ‘Crepelgate’ it is possible that a path to the nearby village of Giseldene (now Islington) would have run indistinctly along it.
After 1000ad records show that a stone arch had been constructed next to the waterway, and soon after a white stone cross was erected beside it. And thus the street was christened with the name that it still holds to the present day. John Stow’s Elizabethan classic, A Survey of London tells us that in medieval times the street is known as Whyte Cryse Strete.
By the time of Tudor London, the city had broken free of the bondage imposed on it by the walls surrounding it. Whitecross St, formerly a relatively peaceful pathway between two fields became a casual market place for merchants unable to sell within the bounds of the City due to the guild laws. Provisions for people entering the city and leaving it were exchanged here. I find it interesting that Whitecross Street Market was doing business on this location before there was even technically a street.
The rural land around the street was originally used as a kind of allotment or garden for various Londoners at this time, but the need for the city to grow and consume its surroundings swallowed up this green land, and in a matter of decades the city expanded greatly, leaving Whitecross Street just another place in a vast metropolis.
In the early 15th century King Henry V selected Whitecross Street to be used as the location for a House of the Brotherhood of St. Giles. This was an almshouse, a place where those unable to work for reasons varying from age, disability to simple lack of jobs were able to live subsisting on charitable donations. They were often dank and vermin-ridden, with beds consisting of maybe a pile of straw on a pallet, but as the alternative was a ‘night on the stones’, it was the only choice. Sleeping rough in London is dangerous in the modern day, but in medieval London it would have been pretty much a death sentence for the old and infirm.
There are a few pin pricks of light in the darkness though. This street became home to one of London’s earliest and most important Elizabethan theatres, the Fortune. The street also hosted a free dissenters library for Protestant ministers in the 17th Century, and on a more salubrious note, was famed for its many gin houses in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In December 1940, the area was bombed violently in the Blitz. The residents of Whitecross Street would have awoken in horror to find that most of the street had been flattened.
The blitz destroyed much of the old ward of Cripplegate, it is said that from the artillery grounds nearby you could have an unobstructed view all the way to St. Pauls. Following the destruction, the street was rebuilt, gaining many of the houses and buildings that we recognise today.
The southern end of the street became swallowed up by the new Barbican Estate, and would later become shorter still. From the late fifties onwards the street assumed the makeup it has in the modern day.
Continued in Part 3