SHAMUS IN LONDON | Farringdon, Snow Hill

Updated: Nov 12

Newman's Office | Thornburgh Building on the North Side of Snow Hill.

"I was renting an office in the Thornburgh Building that year, a stucco-fronted block near the top of Snow Hill. It was about the one building on the rise that had a good war. Plenty of its neighbors hadn’t come through so well. Barely a hundred feet downhill a police station had taken a direct hit." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 3]

Snow Hill Police Station was built by Sydney Perks in 1926 | North side of Snow Hill

"Beyond it on both sides, the street was level rubble. Where the curve of the hill dropped into Farringdon, buildings still billowed under tarpaulin as if they had plague inside." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 3]

Corner of Snow Hill and Holborn Viaduct.| Before & after intensive luftwaffe bombings on the night of 10-11 May 1941.

"Uphill, on the crest of the rise, the blast of a near miss had taken out the stained glass of St. Sepulchre, and its mystery along with the glass. Next to it, all the Thornburgh had to show were the pickaxe scars of bomb splinters in a rash across its face. Its windows had been fixed, and the luck of it was, it never had any mystery to lose." [Shamus Dust, Chapter 3]

St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate, stands just outside the now-demolished old City wall, opposite the the Old Bailey. Saxon in origin, rebuilt in the 15th century and again after the Great Fire of London in 1666, then given a couple of serious make-overs in the 18th & 19th centuries.

WWII bombing spared the fabric but took out the windows. And the bells? “When will you pay me? Say the Bells of Old Bailey." This old cockney rhyme links the bells of St. Sepulchre with the debtors prison housed on the site of the Old Bailey. The bells survived Goering's bombs as did the executioner's handbell, rung between the 17th and 19th centuries outside the condemned man's cell in Newgate Prison the night before his execution.

Snow Hill | Horwood map, 1799

Next to the church, at the top of Snow Hill was the very ancient and, for it's day, very large Saracen's Head or Sersyns Head mentioned 1522 in an account of the preparations for the reception of the Emperor Charles V as having 30 beds and stalls for four horses. This must surely have been the only time London housed a ruler of an empire - leastways till Victoria arrived on the scene. Alas no Guest Satisfaction cards survive, so whether the Holy Roman Emperor enjoyed his stay we don't know. But once Henry VIII made the break from Rome and gave Charles's Aunt Katherine the royal heave-ho, he never felt the urge to return. Or was it just the weather?

Saracen's Head | Watercolor by James Lawson c1890

It was at the Saracen's Head that Nicholas Nickleby and his uncle waited met the Yorkshire schoolmaster Squeers, of Dotheboys Hall. In 1868, barley thirty years after Great Expectations was published, the inn was demolished to make way for the approach road to the new Holborn Viaduct.

Demolition of the Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill, 1868 | Note the tower of St Sepulchre in the background.

Did you know?

  • Inside St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate, there's a glass cabinet containing a bell that was traditionally rung 12 times outside the condemned cell in Newgate Prison - a short step across the road - at midnight on the night before the prisoner's execution right up until the 19th century.

  • Sir Henry Wood, conductor and founder of The London Proms was buried here in 1944.

  • Captain John Smith was buried here too in 1631. He's mentioned by Stow, in his "Survey," as "Some time Governor of Virginia and Admiral of New England." Not much of a mention! But in one of the windows made available by the London Blitz, Smith is now commemorated by a stained glass window installed in 1968.

Captain Smith Window | St Sepulchre-without-Newgate | Francis Skeat |1968

Photo Credits:

  1. The two images of the corner of Snow Hill come from the Wellcome: Library:

Information about St Sepulchre, Snow Hill and the 'Sarcen's Head Inn' can be found in "British History OnLine."

Janet Roger is the author of SHAMUS DUST : HARD WINTER, COLD WAR, COOL MURDER - available for purchase on Amazon UK and Amazon US

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