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Bowyers' Hall City Walk, 18 May 2015

24 Bowyers and their guests gathered at St Nicholas Cole Abbey on the fine Monday evening of May 18th for a City Walk led by our Renter Warden, Tony Kench. The church had recently been renovated as 'The Wren Café' and as home to a mid-week church ministry associated with St Helen's Bishopsgate.

After the party had enjoyed a welcoming coffee and bun kindly provided by The Wren, Tony began by recounting the association between St Nicholas Cole Abbey and the Bowyers going back nearly 400 years. The Company's most generous benefactor, James Wood, was married at St Nicholas in 1590, and in 1629 was buried here, in the parson's choir. at the East end of the Communion Table. In his will he left to the Bowyers his estate at Isley Walton in Leicestershire and four properties in London, at Cow Cross, Chick Lane, Old Fish Street (by the door of St Nicholas) and "The Sign of the Cock" in Fetter Lane.

The properties are long gone, but we regard James Wood's benefaction as one of the most significant events in the history of the Company, not only for the income it provided at a time when the longbow trade was in terminal decline, but also for the charitable focus and direction it gave us. It is debatable whether, had it not been for James Wood and his bequest, the Company could have survived into modern times.

Tony explained that the church known to Wood had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1678, only to be gutted during the Blitz in 1941. The church was still in ruins when it appeared in the 1951 Ealing Comedy 'The Lavender Hill Mob' as the backdrop to the gold bullion heist. In 1903 the Bowyers had installed in the altar step a brass memorial plate to the memory of James Wood, and had re-laid it as part of the restoration of the church in 1962.

The Bowyers continued to hold meetings in the Vestry at St Nicholas until as recently as 1978, when the church was let to the Free Church of Scotland and the Company found a new home at St Botolph without Bishopsgate.

To round off, Tony proposed a toast to the Pious Memory of James Wood, drunk in silence as is the Company's tradition. The toast on this occasion was drunk in sherry, the drink that Sir Francis Drake brought back from his sack of the Spanish fleet at Cadiz in 1587.

The party was then briefly addressed by the Rev'd Chris Fishlock, the priest-in-charge of St Nick's. He described the new role of the building and explained the symbolism of the three stained glass East windows, designed by Keith New, depicting St Nicholas Cole Abbey at the centre of four rivers denoting the four gospels and the church at the centre of the world.

As a prelude to our visit, the James Wood Memorial Plaque had been cleaned and polished, and our Master, the Rev'd John Hayton presented a cheque to the church in appreciation of this work, and expressed the sentiment that the Bowyers would continue to be associated with St Nicholas for many more years to come.

The party then moved off for the Bowyers' Hall City Walk, first taking in St Peter's Hill, mentioned in Strype's Survey as the home of the Bowyers in the years immediately prior to the Great Fire of 1666. We proceeded to Bowyer Row on Ludgate Hill, home to the trade during its 14th Century heyday; and then to Monkwell Square by London Wall where, from careful study of contemporary maps and details of leases only very recently uncovered in the records of the Salter's Company, Tony was able to identify and point out the modern locations of where the Bowyers' Hall buildings had stood as described in Stow's 1598 Survey of London and in Salters' leases until 1651.

The tour finished on the Barbican High Walk overlooking Milton Street, formerly known as Grub Street, which was where bows, arrows and bowstrings were sold in the 16th Century, conveniently for the archery practice grounds on Finsbury Fields, where the 'Finsbury Marks' were located for the archers to aim at. The evening finished in convivial company over a pub supper at the Globe in Moorgate.

Many thanks are due to Tony Kench for a fascinating talk about James Wood and the site of Bowyers' Hall. A great deal of new evidence came to light in researching the talk and it is hoped that one day it should be possible to apply for the placing of a blue plaque in Monkwell Square to record that 'On or near this site stood Bowyers' Hall'.

Tony's text for the Bowyers' Hall City Walk, with maps and illustrations, can be seen and downloaded on the Bowyers' website at www.bowyers.com/downloads/Bowyers_City_Walk.pdf

Simon Leach

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