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John Stow and his Survey of London

The merry old man. That was the way this extraordinary character was described by many. I think it only fair and fitting that he gets a mention here in the City of London section as he devoted his life to compiling records of the Square Mile and is still used as a reference by many people hunting for the secrets of a London long gone. He put his life at risk by collecting many documents at a time when religion and politics caused the authorities to suspect any type of odd or eccentric behaviour.
He spent almost his entire life and all of his money delving into the history, and walking the streets, of the City of London. He wrote a great deal on the subject, his most famous work was ‘A Survay of London’, first published in 1598 and a revised edition in 1603. Below is a very brief history of the man who’s lifetime passion was the streets and history of the square mile.

John Stow. Historian 1525 -1605

It was only just a year before Stow's death that the king bestowed him with this ‘honour’.
Almost his entire life and all of his assets spent gathering information to produce some of the most valuable insights into life in England, especially London, and he was rewarded with a license to beg. I dare say he did get a few sums of money made available to him by some of his patrons during his life, but it still was not a great deal to show for his sacrifices.The Survey of London was his last work, published in 1598 and a revised edition in 1603, the year that ended the Elizabethan era.

At the start of the 17th. century as Stow’s work and life were both nearing their end the population of England was around four million. An eighth of these lived in London. 250,000 people may not be a lot by today’s standards but it was massive in the square mile of the time, and Stow gave glimpses of what life was really like. Some humorous, some sad, but all interesting to the hobbyist historian.

John Stow - Licensed to beg

A very brief history of Stow

John Stow was born in Saint Michael's parish, Cornhill when Henry VIII was on the throne of England. He also lived through the reigns of Edward VI, Elizabeth I and part of James I. It is believed that he spent his childhood living in what is now Throgmorton Street somewhere near the site of the old Stock Exchange building near Threadneedle Street.
He came from a line of tailors, and for a time took up the trade himself. After completing his apprenticeship in 1549 he worked until he was about forty, doing his research on London in his spare time. He then decided to give up the tailoring business and concentrate on his historical projects full time. He had been spending all his spare time engrossed in his information gathering, and at 36 he published ‘A Summarie of English Chronicles’. He published another ten of these up until 1604. From the time he gave up tailoring all his money was used to finance his research and writings.

It was sometimes extremely dangerous, as being a catholic put him in a precarious position when suspicions were raised about his wanderings and his collections of ancient documents

I have used his work for research on this web-site  at times, mainly for geographical reasons. On occasion I have had to make a guess at certain place names from the old English he used, but in the main they are straightforward. One instance of this as an example would be what he calls the Grass Church, called so because it was near the grass market. This leads us to find that the street where the Grass Church stood was known as Grass church street, which was corrupted over the years to the  Gracechurch Street we know today. It is amazing how the names get changed over the years.

On his death, in 1605 he was buried at St. Andrew Undershaft where there is a large memorial to him inside. He sits at his desk holding a quill. Every three years there is a ceremony where the Lord Mayor changes the quill.

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