With Mlle Chic Fille setting off on her travels life has in many way come full circle.
I too set off wide eyed and overwhelmed with excitement as an 18 year old, off to start uni in the big metropolis.
The family connection with central London was stronger than we thought at the time. We knew my paternal great grandmother was a cockney but nothing more about that side of the family – it was rather a mystery. However with the wonders of modern day research, I was recently able to trace back my father’s grandmother’s maternal line (with me so far?) and discovered that my great great great grandparents, John James Powell and Elizabeth Mott, were married on 28th May 1826 in St Botolph’s Church Aldgate. After trawling through old census records and the like I found that the aforesaid John James was a trunk maker by trade and that the family moved from the eastern end of the City of London, via the parish of St James Westminster before finally settling in Paddington Street Marylebone. This research was subsequently corroborated by a distant cousin, (which would have saved me hours of online research but it was fun playing family detective).
What intrigued me was how so many members of the family were involved in the dressmaking and trunk making trades. Later some of them were more elegantly described as portmanteau makers. I love the idea of portmanteaus – a posh word for a piece of luggage that was usually used for carrying clothes (presumably a little smaller than a trunk) and used by the leisured classes on their travels. With my own love of fashion and travel it seemed rather appropriate that I should be a descendent of such a family line. I even discovered that the Powell’s youngest son, Joseph, (who I think was my 3rd great uncle), owned a house in Gower Street, Central London, which is where University College London, (of which I am an alumna), is situated. How interesting that I should have been drawn here to study many decades later (and no I don’t believe that property is still in the family well certainly not our branch of the family)!
And so it was that I persuaded Monsieur Le Chic to come with me on my search to locate St Botolph’s Aldgate during our flying trip to London last year. Since it was a glorious spring day we decided to walk from the Mall (near our accommodation) up to the eastern end of the city.
The walk took us from St James Park and the Mall via Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden and along the Strand. We paused to have a quick look at the beautiful church of St Clement Danes, rebuilt from 1680 to 1682 by Sir Christopher Wren and re-consecrated on 19 October 1958 as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force. We went up Fleet Street, where newspaper offices have long since made way for shops and other offices still interspersed with quaint old traditional pubs. Finally by the time we got to St Paul’s Cathedral we were getting a little tired (we had had rather a late night catching up with old uni friends in Covent Garden the night before so did have a reasonable excuse).
Just as we were starting to doubt the map we caught sight of a signpost pointing the way to St Botolph’s Aldersgate (spot the deliberate mistake?). I vaguely thought it sounded a bit different from my research notes, (which I hadn’t brought with me). It turned out to be rather a nondescript 19th century church built only a few years before my great great great grandparents married. The church was closed and did not look very inviting but there was a beautiful little park next door – a peaceful oasis from the office blocks which towered nearby.
After a pleasant interlude we set off in search of dinner and thought no more about it until I decided to do a bit more online research back at our hotel. I discovered to my dismay that the actual church I should have been looking for was St Botolph’s Aldgate – well it does sound rather similar to St Botolph’s Aldersgate! How curious I thought – St Botolph is not a very common name! I discovered that there were no less than four churches dedicated to St Botolph in medieval London. According to the website of St Botolph Without Bishopsgate, St Botolph was a young Saxon noble who was born in East Anglia, educated at a Benedictine Monastery in France and then founded a monastery back in his native land. He died in 680 AD and his work was carried on by other monks but when the monastery was overrun by the Danish Viking invaders in 870 AD, his relics were retrieved and brought to London for safekeeping at Westminster Abbey, passing through the four City gates of Aldersgate, Aldgate, Billingsgate and Bishopsgate. The churches at the sites of these gates were named after him. Apart from Billingsgate, destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and never rebuilt, they all survive in one form or another today. St Botolph became known as the patron saint of wayfarers and travellers. I had always thought St Christopher was the patron saint of travellers but now I had found out that St Botolph was too!
Fast forward a year and I was finally able to complete my thwarted mission of the previous year and visit St Botolph’s Without Aldgate to give it its official name. This time Monsieur le Chic couldn’t be there but I took my 81 year dad along with me for the day trip up to London – after all it was his family history too! The church is literally right by Aldgate Tube Station, dwarfed by large office blocks and surrounded by modern shops – a beautiful historical building in the heart of the City Of London (the present church dates from 1744 and since 1950 has been a designated Grade 1 listed building). Moreover it was open, welcoming and heated (it was rather a brisk spring day this time).
It was quite surreal walking up the aisle and imagining what it would have been like on the day my 3 times great grandparents were married there nearly 200 years ago. I wondered what had brought them to this part of the world. Elizabeth was 18 and from all the records I could find her family were farmers in Odiham Hampshire. What was she doing in the Big Smoke? Her husband John James was 26, no doubt working for one of the many tradesmen who had businesses in the area, (St Botolph’s Aldgate was known as a church where artisans and merchants mingled; a meeting point of the very rich and the very poor). Later in the late nineteenth century, it became infamous in the times of Jack the Ripper, as the Church Of The Prostitutes but I’m sure it was more salubrious in my great great great grandparents day! Alas I can’t get John James’s family history back any further so one day when I have a little more time, I’ll have to spend a day going through the parish records at the London Metropolitan Archives to see what I can unearth.
Even if you have no family connection with London a walk through the streets of the City is absolutely fascinating – there are surprises around every corner and it’s well worth going off the tourist trail to explore the side streets and uncover ghosts of the past!
Copyright © 2014 Rosemary Thomas Le Chic En Rose. All rights reserved