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WHAT BETTER WAY to tour London than visiting its historic churches in song. Let’s sing an earlier version, though I suspect you’ll find parts of it familiar.

Here’s our tour schedule, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, interspersed with tidbits gleaned from Baedeker’s London and its Environs, 1905, as well as from my Internet sleuthing in somewhat more recent times, namely the present.

The Bells of London Town.
Gay go up, and gay go down,
To ring the bells of London town.

Bull’s eyes and targets,
Say the bells of St. Margaret’s.

“On the W. side of Westminster. Hall, and to the N. of the Abbey,” Baedeker’s notes, “stands St. Margaret’s Church, which, down to 1858, used to be attended by the House of Commons in state on four days in the year, as then prescribed in the Prayer Book.”

Brickbats and tiles,
Say the bells of St. Gile’s.

Baedeker’s: “St. Giles, Cripplegate, was built at the end of the 14th century, and much injured by a fire in 1545.… This church contains the tomb of John Milton (d. 1674), who wrote ‘Paradise Lost’ in a house in this parish (comp. above), now pulled down…”

St. Gile’s is known as the Poet’s Church. Image by Prioryman.

Halfpence and farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

On Trafalgar Square’s northeast corner, Baedeker’s notes, “is the church of St. Martin in the Fields, with a noble Grecian portico, erected in 1721–26 by Gibbs, on the site of an earlier church.” Classical music lovers know it from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the orchestra founded by violinist Neville Marriner in 1958. The initial chamber group was known for performing sans conductor, a role that Marriner assumed in 1970.

St.-Martin-in-the-Fields. Image by Robert Cutts.

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

There are two St. Clement’s, the one of song in Eastcheap; the other, St. Clement Danes, in Westminster. Baedeker’s writes, “In St. Clement’s Lane, to the left, is St. Clement’s Church (open 12–3), built by Wren in 1686….” Indeed, there’s been a St. Clement’s on the site possibly since 1067 and well-documented since the 13th century. Baedeker’s refers to the one built after the 1666 Great Fire of London.

St. Clement’s Eastcheap. Image by Steve Cadman.

Pancakes and fritters,
Say the bells of St. Peter’s.

Baedeker’s tells us about three London St. Peter’s, in Cornhill, Clerkenwell, and Eaton Square.

Of the Cornhill church, Baedeker’s notes, “Farther on is St. Peter’s Church, which, according to an ancient tablet preserved in the vestry, was originally founded in 179 A.D. by ‘Lucius, the first Christian king of this land, then called Britaine.’ ”

Of the Clerkenwell church: “A little to the N., at the corner of St. John Street and Ashby Street, is the Martyrs’ Memorial Church (St. Peters), a fantastic French Gothic edifice erected about 1879, with statues of the Smithfield Protestant martyrs.”

Of the one on Eaton Square: “St. Peter’s is a favorite church for fashionable marriages.”

My money is on St. Peter’s Cornhill. What about yours?

Two sticks and an apple,
Say the bells at Whitechapel.

According to Wikipedia, the verse’s Whitechapel refers to St. Mary’s, Whitechapel, aka St. Mary Matfelon. Alas, neither is listed among Baedeker’s 11 St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s Church, Whitechapel, a third church on the site consecrated in 1877; it was devastated by fire in 1880 and repaired. This one was heavily damaged in the Blitz in 1944; it was finally demolished in 1952.

There is a good story concerning St. Mary’s, Whitechapel, dating back to 1713 and scandalous ecclesiastical art: The artist James Fellowes was commissioned to paint an altarpiece of the Last Supper with local personages depicted as various of its images. Among them was English bishop and antiquarian Dean White Kennett as Judas. According to Wikipedia, “Crowds flocked to see the altarpiece, among them Mrs. Kennett, who recognized her husband with indignant astonishment. Kennett took proceedings to court …, and on 26 April 1714 obtained an order for its removal.”

I searched Baedeker’s without success for mention of these principals.

Pokers and tongs,
Say the bells at St. John’s.

Neither Baedeker’s nor modern sources identify the song’s precise St. John’s. My money is on St. John the Evangelist, the one in Smith Square, not the one on Notting Hill.

Baedeker’s writes, “In Smith Square, a little to the W., rises the large church of St. John the Evangelist, built in 1721–28, with four heavy corner-towers, erected, it is said, to produce the uniform subsidence of the marshy site.”

Now a concert hall, the church had the nickname “Queen Anne’s Footstool.” When asked by its architect what features Her Majesty sought, she is said to have kicked over her footstool and said, ‘Like that!’ ”

We’re not quite halfway through our tour, but it’s difficult to top Queen Anne’s architectural commentary. Tomorrow in Part 2, maids will wear aprons, you’ll owe me money, and we both had best look out for the chopper. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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