Victorian London - Districts - Streets - Cheapside

see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London - click here

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Cheapside. — Cheapside remains now what it was five centuries ago, the greatest thoroughfare in the City of London. Other localities have had their day, have risen, become fashionable, and have sunk into obscurity and neglect, but Cheapside has maintained its place, and may boast of being the busiest thoroughfare in the world, with the sole exception perhaps of London-bridge. Here the two great arteries of Oxford-street and Holborn and of the Strand and Fleet-street from the west, and of Bishopsgate and Leadenhall from the east, together with a mighty stream of traffic from Moorgate on the north and King William-street on the south, are all united, and the great flow of traffic is constantly blocked and arrested by the cross tide setting its from Southwark-bridge up Queen-street. Much as we should marvel to see the shops of our ancestors, open in front (as they are still in such localities as the New Cut and in the poorer parts of London, with the apprentices standing at the doors, keeping up a fire of chaff with each other, varied by the cry of "What do you lack? what do you lack?" our progenitors would be equally astonished to see Cheapside as it is. In its importance as a place of trade it has decayed. The great wholesale houses are in Cannon-street, or in the narrow lanes—they can hardly be called streets—which run -right and left from Cheapside, and the bright displays made by the Flemish merchants, the great traders of Genoa, and the cunning artificers of Milan, are gone. Milliners and mantua-makers, and the shops of those who sell female apparel, are conspicuous by their absence. Cheapside is almost monopolised by men's shops: hosiers and shirtmakers, tailors and tobacconists, and above all by jewellers. There are few of the bracelets and -brooches which make such a show in the windows of West-end jewellers; watches, albert chains, signet rings, and scarf pins have the places of honour; but the City man, after a successful speculation, would have no difficulty in finding ladies' watches and jewellery to take home as a present to his wife or daughters. Sir John Bennett stands at the head of the watchmakers of Cheapside, and his clock, with movable figures which strike the chimes and hours, is one of the sights of the place. Bow Church, with its projecting clock looking up and down the street, is one of the few relics of the Cheapside of the past.
Until lately the Poultry contained many houses of considerable antiquity, but it was at last felt that the narrow gut of this lane was an intolerable nuisance in the face of the enormously increasing traffic, and the whole of the northern side of Cheapside, from King-street to the corner of Princes-street,has now been thrown back, to the immense convenience of traffic, and to the advantage of Cheapside in general by the open view now given of the Royal Exchange and adjoining buildings. From Cheapside, King-street leads up to the Guildhall, around which centre the traditions of the municipality of the City of London, a body which has from the earliest times been distinguished for its independence and its fearlessness. Cheapside is always crowded, always a wonder to strangers and foreigners, but the best time to see it is either at 9 am., when the great tide of traffic is flowing into the City, or between 5 and 7 p.m., when the offices and warehouses are closing, and the tens of thousands of business men are off again to their homes. The stranger will be particularly struck with the absence of women from the moving crowd in Cheapside1 and indeed generally in the City. In the evening the proportion is larger than it is during the day, for the hands from the great bonnet and mantle warehouses are then pouring out but at other times there is scarcely a woman to be seen to every hundred men. Strangers, and especially ladies, walking in the City should be very careful in keeping their proper side of the footway, for if they get out of the stream they are not unlikely to find themselves very disagreeably jostled.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Cheapside, with Bow Church, looking West

Cheapside, with Bow Church, looking West - photograph


St. Mary-le-Bow is one of Wren's masterpieces but it is hardly seen to advantage in crowded Cheapside. An earlier church on the same site was borne by stone arches, and this fact is commemorated by the name of the present structure, erected in 1671, after the Great Fire, at a cost of nearly £8,000. The superb tower is 235 feet high; and, according to tradition, only those born within the sound of Bow bells are properly called "cockneys." On the north side of Cheapside is the Mercers' Hall, a reminder that this street, one of the oldest in London, although now almost entirely modernised, was once specially associated with mercers. Cheapside is one of the busiest streets, and blocks of traffic occur in it with irritating frequency.