We were privileged to be taken on the first ever official tour of The Church House, Westminster, the headquarters of the Anglican church - temporal and spiritual, which sits proudly between Dean’s Yard and Great Smith Street.

We soon learned of a special link between us as when Church House acquired buildings on the Abbey side of Great Smith Street to build their new HQ, they demolished the public library and moved it to the other side of the road. This is the 1893 public library that was saved by a campaign group in 1985 which then became The Thorney Island Society.

Our host, Chris Palmer, chief executive of The Church House, gave us a fascinating tour of the building, starting on the outside, where Tufton Street meets Great College Street, he pointed out the equisite flintwork of the building.  Amongst the flints were notched stones from a pile of 14th century stones found in the Abbey ditch when the nearby gatehouse was excavated. Some stones also contained traces of fossils and builders’s personal trade marks.  I was lucky enough to also view in the basement almost immediately beneath the wall, remains of a pillar in situ believed to be part of the ancient gatehouse leading onto Thorney Island and dating back to the 14th century.  At first glance you would miss the intriguing images within the flint, a dove to represent the name of the builders and a partridge for a dignitary of that name, a cottage loaf, an eye, a wheel, an 'N' and there must be more !


Our visit took in the beautiful oak and marble (sourced from all over the UK) chapel to the large circular hall which has held over 600 people and survived a bomb during the Second World War so well that Churchill took it over as an alternative site for the House of Commons.  It was here that the first meeting of the United Nations took place after the war, the preliminary meetings prior to the Nuremburg War Trials and where numerous inquiries have been held including the Brixton Riots, the Kings Cross Fire and leaks of information from the Bank of England.  It now uses some of the most modern hi-tec audio-visual equipment for global and local conferences amit beautiful plaster icons on the walls representing Anglican communities around the world.

We are very grateful to Chris Palmer for this memorable visit.


 Visit to The Church House - August 2018

London historian Victor Keegan told the extraordinary story of how Old Pye Street, Westminster and its surrounds (seen here in Gustave Doré’s etching) - were so depraved that Dickens dubbed them The Devil’s Acre.  Following his own recent research, Victor compared old etchings and drawings to some of the buildings and streets we know so well. A fascinating snapshot of extreme poverty and the change that George Peabody and others contributed to the area.



Our visit to Westminster School proved so popular we had to split it into two. There was so much to see, such as the huge hall, known simply as 'School' which was once the monk’s dormitory and Headmaster Dr Busby's Library.  The highlight though was Ashburnham House, a building teeming with history. Once the London home of the Earls of Ashburnham, it was acquired by the school in 1882. 

You get a hint of its past as you go through the front door and see a picture of Elizabeth I, a patron of the school, on the wall. This is a copy but the original is in the Headmasters study – so pupils would have to commit serious misdemeanours to see it. These days Ashburnham houses activities like IT and mathematics but it once contained the unique Cotton Library built up by the redoubtable Sir Robert Cotton from books he rescued from monasteries after the Dissolution. Some were lost during a fire here in 1731 but three quarters were rescued and became the basis of today’s British Library. 

But the gem of the place is the small garden where you can still see the original wall of the monk’s refectory which has a strong claim to be the origin of Parliament because it was the site of some of the earliest meetings of what became the House of Commons. The lawn would have been the floor of the refectory. The building on the left, somewhat bizarrely houses several Fives courts of recent origin. We are most grateful to Elizabeth Wells, Archivist of the school for giving us a fascinating tour. 
The wall of the monastic refectory - the origin of Parliament

With thanks to the Purcell Club singers, prodominantly members of the Westminster Abbey Old Chorister's Association, for a wonderful evening of music and history.  We have already put our name down on the waiting list to go again in 4 years time ! 



Gathering in what was the old wash-house, adjacent to what were the Great Smith Street public baths, we were introduced to the building. Opened in 1995 and housing Westminster's parish, council, church, school and business records, some dating back to the 1450's, they are still accepting items of importance.  With the resurgence in interest, via the Find My Past website, visitors most popular searches are the records of Births, Marriages and Deaths, the Adoption Indexes, Electoral Registers and Censuses. Particular building searches are also popular although most of the original planning records did not survive the LCC clear-out, but Victorian surveyors added drainage details to plans and these can be viewed for thousands of properties.  They have some 7,000 digitised images which can be accessed via their online catalogue WestCat and cabinets full of microfiche and an extensive library.

We first visited the busy Conservation Studio, where work was underway cleaning old maps delicately with special rubbers, carefully removing crumbling mounts and remounting on handmade Japaneese acid-free paper.  The Studio and volunteers had just finished restoring what is the largest public collection of Victorian West End theatre programmes.

Then we were treated to a special selection of Thorney Island material in the Search Room.  Maps, watercolours, etchings, books, photographs and plans.  What a treat and we spent a good amount of time studying closely these fascinating items.  We finished our tour in the Strong Rooms and were shown the oldest item in the Archives, a Henry III Charter of 1256, granting "...the Abbey of Westminster a weekly market every Monday in Tothill, and an annual fair for 3 days...". 

Many thanks to the staff of the Archives for their time, enthusiasm, knowledge and this very special tour.

Letters Patent under the Great Seal of Henry III 1256

Millbank Street before Victoria Tower Gardens c1863

Faithhorne Map 1658

Bomb damage to Old Pye Street and St Matthew's Street 1940

Grant of Arms to the City of Westminster 1601

View of Millbank and Vauxhall Bridge from the Horseferry on the Lambeth shore

Tour of Westminster Archives - June 2018