Where it all began, The Parish of St. Bartholomew

Having decided to kick off my blogging campaign by celebrating the little Essex village where Julie and I live, I thought it might be good for my 2nd blog to go back to the place where I started life, have often returned to and is one of my special places in London – St Bartholomews Parish, Smithfield.

I was born in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, my Bartlett surname is said to be a diminutive of Bartholomew and it seems only appropriate to have taken my first breath in a building with this name. Also, my father worked as a salesman in the world famous Smithfield meat market just across the road.  As a youngster during school holidays I was lucky enough to go to work with my dad – Wag to his family but known as Charlie at the theatre of characters that was Smithfield market and he was a worthy cast player with his instant wit and tough character. I loved the smell of the place, the sounds, hustle bustle and colourful language although I seldom use it myself and neither did dad – well outside of the market that is.

I was fascinated by the rows of hanging carcasses and how they were swung round on their hooks and lifted on and off so easily despite the weight.  By  the obvious respect and sense of pride that the salesman, porters, bumereers and regular customers had for each other despite the wicked banter between them. Everyone it seemed had a ready comeback for every wisecrack hurled at them and it was all so funny to listen to. I was also lucky to be introduced to many of the young boxers who worked there – the early hours fitting in well with training schedules and there was presumably access to good meat to supplement their training diets. The work was hard but the number of old boys running around with their sack barrows, still moving heavy loads about and well past retirement age, was further evidence of the magnetism, fun and strength of character of the place. What I call proper London and  I will always be so proud to have been part of, through Charlie anyway.

               Main entrance into Smithfield Market     

It was here that the Wife Sale was popular in the early 19th century. This was a time when getting a divorce was nigh on impossible so some disgruntled hubbies brought along their wives to sell along with livestock and other items.  No eBay in those days.

                          The famous market clock.

This four faced clock was commissoned at a cost of £150 and fitted central to Grand Avenue in 1870 by clockmakers  Thwaites and Reed of Clerkenwell. It was illuminated eight years later but remained hand wound until being converted to electrical operation in 1968. That was the year I first went to Smithfield with my dad. I also got to see our Queen’s lovely old mum there, on walk about exchanging banter with ‘the boys’ who jostled for position to cheer and express their fondness for her in their own cheeky but fun ways. Great memories.

A little older and l would also have a wander around the parish and first discovered St. Bartholomew’s Church and it’s grounds in nearby Cloth Fair. This is where lovely Sir John Betjeman once lived. The building is suitably adorned with a blue plaque. It leads towards  St Bartholomew’s south gatehouse. The gorgeous timbered Tudor house above the gateway  remarkably escaped the great fire of London being protected by the adjoining high masonry walls of the Priory that existed at the time.

Poet Laureate – Sir John Betjeman once lived at this historical address in Cloth Fair

Digressing, Cloth Fair includes the oldest residential dwelling in London – No.s 41 & 42, now administered by Landmark Trust (look them up, they do great work in conservation), and one of them a former home of Sir John Betjeman. Cloth Fair was once the largest cloth market in Europe. Now home to Cloth Fair Chambers, where the main beam of that building had to be restored by resin injection after almost snapping from two centuries of bales of cloth being draped over it.


                         St Bartholomew’s Gateway

Bartholomew Gatehouse with surviving Tudor House above and a serious looking blogger cunningly employed to obscure roadwork cones through the arch. Such a perfectionist.


FFirst sight of the church of St. Bartholomew the Great when approaching Cloth Fair. 

In the seventies I would enjoy some of the old Farringdon area pubs and after a heavy night out would end up in the market pub – The Cock for a good breakfast and a few cups of tea before going on to work to complete the occasional all nighter. Mick’s Cafe in Fleet Street would have been the alternative destination to sober up and waste some time before heading back to work. Happy days.

Then I was blissfully unaware of the rich history of this vibrant area but now, as I discover just a little, it has just added to my love of the place so thought I would share some of the many interesting facts about this favourite spot. So here goes…


Rahere (110-1139)        


A Courtier of  King Henry I, Rahere  was described by William Shakespeare as a Court Jester and he is said to have been a bit of a rascal and pulled a few strokes to become a Canon of St Paul’s. He was a ‘favourite’ of the King’s wife Matilda. She must have had great importance in his life too because when  she died Rahere went on a pilgrimage to Rome to repent for his previous ways.

The story goes that Rahere fell seriously ill on his journey and prayed to God to make him well again vowing that should he survive then he would return to London and tend the poor and sick. During these prayers Rahere claims he had a vision that St. Bartholomew came to him and declared that he would indeed recover his health and that he should then return to London and build a Priory Hospital at Smoothfield ( as it was then known). Also that Rahere should dedicate it to St Bartholomew – one of Jesus twelve apostles, known in the Bible as Nathaniel but  in the Qur’an as Bartholomew.

Rahere kept his promise and gained permission from the King to build a hospital on the site it still occupies today and it was dedicated to Bartholomew. Rahere also commissioned a priory of Augustine Canons that incorporated the Priory church  – St. Bartholomew the Great. He lived to see the completion of both projects and became the first Prior of the Priory as well as Master of the Hospital. He was probably cared for in the hospital before he died. Rahere’s tomb and dedication remains in the Church.

St Bartholomew the Great is London’s oldest church completed in 1123. The Augustine monastery was dissolved in 1539. The monastic buildings were left largely intact and the Canons’ choir and Sanctuary were preserved for parish use. Under Queen Mary’s short rule a house of Dominican friars was established there before it reverted to being a Parish Church under Queen Elizabeth I.

Various parts of the building were damaged or destroyed through the centuries until the restoration began in the 19th century. St Bartholomew the Great is a thriving community church and it attracts those of no particular religious belief because of its historical mix of architecture – Norman and post Reformation and its sense of history.  It regularly features in TV and film productions – Shakespeare in Love; Robin Hood Prince of Thieves; The Boleyn Girl; Snow White and The Huntsman amongst them.  It also features a modern and stunning sculpture donated by Damien Hirst.

                                   Entrance via garden

                                  Frontage from Cloth Fair 

                        Worth a look round the back

.                      The tomb of Rahere

                     Serious damage to column just                                               adds to beauty of the interior

                   Unusual and stunning stone Oriel                                          window overlooks the Chancel

Sculpture of St Bartholomew by Damien Horst, generously donated to the church

                            Grab a coffee and chill out

That is what I am off to do now.

I had considered including  a full write up on Smithfield Market but this has already been done by my old schoolmate Geoff and I thoroughly recommend his own blog – London Shoes.  (and I wouldn’t want to step on his). London Shoes covers a fascinating range of topics about London and I do recommend it.

However, I could not resist including one interesting fact about the market – it used to provide a good field for jousting, public hangings and torture, to entertain the crowds. One notorious scot – William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered there. Nasty.

Next from me –  St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Till then….

One last thing, this blog is dedicated to Arsenal Wenger, who retired as Arsenal Manager today – Charlie’s beloved football team. We all have to go some time and pride and dignity works for me. God bless them both.








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