Vic Keegan: Bishopsgate, the lost White Hart and the birthplace of Bedlam

Vic Keegan: Bishopsgate, the lost White Hart and the birthplace of Bedlam

Eight hundred years ago, Sir Simon FitzMary, a City of London alderman and former sheriff, lived in a large mansion on the site where today the branch of Metro Bank at 117-121 Bishopsgate, pictured above, can be found. He also owned land nearby. FitzMary’s experiences as a Holy Land crusader nurtured in him a reverence for the Virgin Mary and Star of Bethlehem. He decided to donate that nearby land to enable the founding there in 1247 by the Bishop-elect of Bethlehem of a religious institution called the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem. The priory began providing medical care to sick paupers. It soon became known as Bethlehem Hospital, a name abbreviated to “Bethlem” and then to “Bedlam”.

The hospital that gave a new word to the English language was situated where today’s Liverpool Street station is and, in specialising in mental health care, was the first of its kind. It remained the only one for several hundred years. It began acquiring its dreadful reputation from the early 1600s, when people started being allowed to pay to walk through it and watch the antics of “lunatics” as they were called. By 1676, the hospital had been moved a few hundred yards away to Moorgate and a monumental new building designed  by Robert Hooke in what is now Finsbury Circus. In 1815 it moved again, this time to Southwark, and in 1930 to Croydon, after it which it was absorbed into the National Health Service.

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The site of FitzMary’s mansion was not in private residential use for all that long after the hospital was founded. From at least 1377 that part of Bishopsgate was mainly filled by a fascinating pub called the White Hart. In one form or another it was there until it closed in 2015 and would have qualified as one of the oldest pubs in London. The engraving of it above, by John Thomas Smith, shows the building bearing the date 1420, presumably the time of one of its reconstructions. Later engravings include the date 1480 showcased on the front of the pub.

The White Hart appears to have evolved after FitzMary’s mansion became a destination for pilgrims. Some of the first licences to sell what were then called sweet wines were issued there in 1365, and so the house became an inn. By the 17th and 18th centuries it was at the height of its prosperity. In 1930, Charles Goss, librarian of the Bishopsgate Institute from 1897 until his retirement in 1941, produced a history of the pub. He described it as “the general meeting place of literary men of the neighbourhood and the rendezvous of politicians and traders, and even noblemen visited it”. Goss also called it, “the busy man’s recreation, the melancholy man’s sanctuary and the stranger’s welcome”. Not a bad definition of a pub.

Much of the growth of Bishopsgate during this period was due to the influx of foreigners. Goss says that in 1635 there were 873 people from overseas living in the “Bishops-gate” parish. Most of them were weavers, who formed a colony in neighbouring Spitalfields, swelled some 50 years later when Huguenots – French protestants – fled to London following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The White Hart has been replaced by a nine-storey office block built by Lord Alan Sugar’s Amstrop and has the Metro Bank at its base. Planning permission was granted for “redevelopment behind partially retained facades”. What is left of the facade is rather bland, but the kind of architrave running the width of the building above the Metro Bank sign – visible in my photo – serves as a thin tombstone for the lost pub. with its help it is still possible, with a bit of imagination, to conjure up memories of yesterday. We should perhaps be thankful that amid the frenetic development of the City some tangible link remains to one of its most fascinating places.

This is the seventeenth article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London kindly supported by EC BID, which serves that area. All the previous articles are here. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: Culture, EC BID supported series

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