This secluded statue presides over a hidden City zone of poets and printers, mystics and mobs.
This handsome chap is Youth, by British sculptor and academic Wilfred Dudeney (1911-96). The work was commissioned in 1955 for its current location, Pemberton House, in Gunpowder Square, once HQ to the Starmer/Westminster Group of regional newspapers; and now that the newspaper industry no longer dominates the area, a block of flats.
The relief carved into Pemberton House by Dudeney indicates the original purpose of the building.
A better-known work of Dudeney’s, Three Printers (1954-7), once stood in nearby New Street Square, but was removed to its current setting in the Goldsmiths’ Company Garden off Gresham Street, near Guildhall.
The sculpture had been languishing in a scrapyard in Watford, until it was discovered by the journalist Christopher Wilson and reunited with the Goldsmiths, former freeholders of New Street Square, who gave the statue its new home in a tranquil sunken garden.
A clever feature of the work is the inclusion of Dudeney’s signature on the composing stick in the printer’s hand.
Although he was president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors from 1971 to 1975, Dudeney’s work is not widely known. Apart from these two London works, his most famous sculpture is Derby’s Boy and Ram.
The former street pattern of the area just North of Fleet Street – and the dominance of the print industry – can be seen from this map of 1954.
Pemberton House was still to be built, and Gunpowder Square (just east of Gough Square) didn’t exist.
New Street Square has since been comprehensively rebuilt with a shopping and office complex, while Gunpowder Square is a relatively new space.
A plaque informs us it was opened on ‘29 November 1989 by Sir Hugh Bidwell GBE, Lord Mayor of London’. There is no explanation for its name, despite the incongruous siting of a cannon from the reign of George III. But it’s a stone’s throw away from the long-vanished Gunpowder Alley. And it’s likely that the Square’s name originates from that.
Gunpowder Alley suffered severe wartime damage, and was eventually cleared to make way for Hill House, home to the very good Shoe Lane Library. The Alley’s evocative name has certainly spawned origin theories, none of which can be wholly substantiated.
It is possible that gunpowder was stored in this small tributary off Shoe Lane. What is less proven is that the gunpowder was used in anti-Catholic demonstrations in nearby Fleet Street. These were common in the populous City at the time of the Popish Plot, and often followed a similar format to the one depicted below:
An effigy of the Pope was carried through the streets, with the Devil whispering in his ear, followed by a procession of protestors dressed as Catholic clergy and notables. There were bawdy ‘sermons’, papal ‘indulgences’ handed out, and the effigy – filled with gunpowder for extra impact – was torched on a bonfire. This was usually followed by cheering, drinking, and random brawling, until the satisfied crowd dispersed.
Gunpowder Alley was also a residential address, and one remarkable occupant was Rhys ‘Arise’ Evans. Evans deserves to be better known than he is. A self-proclaimed prophet, visionary and magician, born in Wales in 1607, he eventually found his way to London.
After being thrown out of Enfield (for obscure reasons), Evans settled in Gunpowder Alley, where he practised astrology and prophecy, and a considerable amount of drinking.
Arise Evans was briefly tutor to the Parliamentarian astrologer William Lilly, but the two parted ways when Lilly discovered that Arise was making up forecasts to please his clients (and pay his drinking debts).
Evans himself was a fervent Royalist, who took his love of monarchy to extremes during the Restoration. On hearing that Charles II had reinstated touching for the King’s Evil, he stretched the entry criteria by presenting his ‘fungous nose’ and pressing the King’s hand onto it. Charles was not best pleased by all accounts, but Evans’s nose improved immeasurably, to his great rejoicing.
Another supposed resident was the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, said to have died in poverty in a lodging in Gunpowder Alley, after squandering his wealth in support of the lost Royalist cause.
This is a highly spurious tale. While there is evidence to support his failing fortunes from family records, the claims of a tragic death in ragged clothing seem to have been circulated by his erstwhile friend, the historian Anthony à Wood. 2Athenae Oxonienses (London, 1692), Vol. ii, p. 147.
Lovelace was imprisoned twice during the Interregnum, and his best-known poem reflects on that experience:
Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.‘To Althea, from Prison’. 3.Richard Lovelace, Selected Poems ed. Gerald Hammond (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987).
Lovelace died somewhere in the City in 1657, and is buried in the nearby churchyard of St Bride’s, Fleet Street. But you won’t easily find his memorial there. The church was destroyed in the Fire of London, a few years after Lovelace’s burial.
The heat had been so intense that it effaced many of the headstones, and the handful that survived were used as foundation slabs for the new building work, or placed in the churchyard. A few remain outside – perhaps one commemorates Lovelace?
The alleys and byways around Gunpowder Square are filled with history. Dr Johnson’s House (also a museum) lies on Gough Square:
The celebrated statue of his beloved cat, Hodge, looks towards it:
And the well-preserved Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, rebuilt after the Great Fire, is rich in political and literary associations.
And beyond the well-known landmarks, there are clues to other, fascinating stories:
The throwback name to a notorious alley:
The lost grave of a half-remembered poet?
The noble artwork representing a long-gone local trade.
Gunpowder Square EC4A 3DG, is approached on foot either N of Fleet Street through Wine Office Court or W of Shoe Lane, also through Wine Office Court, or through Little New Street. Nearest transport: Buses – Fleet Street (Shoe Lane, Stop H, Ludgate Circus, Stop E). Tube – Chancery Lane (Central). St Bride’s is reached through Salisbury Court, just S of Fleet Street near Wine Office Court. Goldsmiths’ Company Garden is sited on the former Churchyard of St John Zachary (lost to the Great Fire), Gresham Street, near Guildhall. Transport: Buses – Cheapside (St Paul’s Station, Stops SP/SY). Tube – St Paul’s Station (Central). Photos by me.