Thorney Tales

 
If you chanced to visit James Palmer at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street in the early 17th century you may have found him asleep in the steeple. This was not because he was eccentric but because as vicars go he was very frugal - and Thorney Island was the beneficiary of this.
 
The Revd James Palmer was born in 1585 and baptised in St Margaret’s Church where he is also buried. At the north end of the church there is a rather blackened memorial to him as a priest and philanthropist, praising him as “a most pious & charitable man”.  His priesthood was mainly spent at St Bride’s but he gave regular sermons on Thorney Island including to both houses of Parliament. 
His philanthropy is still remembered today by Palmer Street which runs from Victoria Street by the side of the Albert pub to Caxton Street - close to the almshouses he established for 12 elderly men and women and the school for 20 pupils (boys). They occupied the land between today’s Palmer Street and Christchurch Gardens (currently in the course of reconstruction). The school, known as the Blackcoat school - not to be confused with the Bluecoat, Greencoat or Browncoat schools - was one of the founding parents of today's Westminster City School. (For more on the history of local schools, please see articles in our Newsletters Autumn/Winter 2018 and Spring/Summer 2019)
 
To ensure the survival of his endowment, the Revd Palmer established an extraordinary venture called Palmer’s Village nearby (roughly between Victoria Street and Howick Place - see map) which has been described as a recreation of Merrie England complete with pub, village green, blacksmith and even a maypole. It was all the more remarkable for being encroached on one side by the squalid deprivation of what came to be known as the Devil’s Acre (between Christchurch Gardens and the Abbey) and on the other by the swamps of Tothill Fields. Palmer’s Village lasted until Victoria Street blasted its way through in the mid 19th century. 
 
James Palmer’s almshouses eventually merged with others including one set up by Emery Hill (who also has a thoroughfare named after him, Emery Hill Street). Both charities were incorporated in Westminster Almshouses which can be seen on the corner of Rochester Row and Emery Hill Street. Looking some way up the wall, you will see memorials to them both.  A fitting reminder of how the philanthropy of a bygone age is still producing benefits today.