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How 17th century tourists got a taste for St Paul’s Cathedral

06 May 2022

The 1666 fire and the rebuilding of the cathedral gave visitors unusual access, says Margaret Willes — very unusual


A tourist at St Paul’s is gulled by two thieves: “How to stand at ease, or a lesson for the Volunteer Gazers”, coloured engraving, 1804

A tourist at St Paul’s is gulled by two thieves: “How to stand at ease, or a lesson for the Volunteer Gazers”, coloured engraving, 1804

IN NOVEMBER 1666, Samuel Pepys visited the cathedral ruins in the aftermath of the Great Fire. He went to the yard of the Convocation House, the former chapter house, to view the corpse of Robert Braybrooke, Bishop of London in the early 15th century.

He recorded how the body had fallen “in his tomb out of the great church into St Fayths this late Fire, and is here seen his Skeleton with the flesh on; but all tough and dry like a spongy dry leather or Touchwood all upon his bones. . . A great man in his time, and Lord Chancellor — and now exposed to be handled and derided by some, though admired for its duration by others. Many flocking to see it.”

Although a rather ghoulish example, this fits into the long tradition of tourism at St Paul’s. The Great Fire of 1666 provided all kinds of new opportunities for visiting St Paul’s. Disasters always attract onlookers, and the entry from Pepys’s diary shows that many flocked to see the tombs that had been rescued from the burnt-out cathedral and could be viewed in the Convocation House.

Pepys was a Fellow of the Royal Society, drawn by curiosity to see the remains of Bishop Braybrooke. Other fellows went even further in their curiosity, adhering to the tenets of the Society that emphasised practical experimentation.

John Aubrey noted in his biographical sketch of John Colet, Dean of St Paul’s at the beginning of the 16th century: “After the Conflagration (his Monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which was closed like the coffin of a Pye and was full of a Liquour which conserved the body. Mr. Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and ’twas of a kind of insipid tast, something of an Ironish tast.

“The Coffin was of Lead, and layd in the Wall about 2 foot ½ above the surface of the Floore. This was a strange rare way of conserving a Corps: perhaps it was a Pickle, as for Beefe, whose Saltness in so many years the Lead might sweeten and render insipid. The body flet, to the probe of a stick when they thrust into a chinke, like boyld Brawne.”

The men undertaking this extraordinary and potentially hazardous experiment were Edmund Wyld or Wild, and Ralph Greatorex. Wild was a wealthy amateur inventor and horticultural innovator who often assisted Robert Hooke with his experiments.

While Wild was a Fellow of the Royal Society, Greatorex was not, but attended many meetings, and introduced Pepys to Gresham College. Although a skilled scientific instrument maker, Greatorex was regarded, or perhaps regarded himself, as a craftsman rather than a scholar able to be invited to take up a fellowship.


THE eternal interest in building sites manifested itself, so that Christopher Wren was obliged to erect spiked fences, and later tall screens, to keep out the curious and the light-fingered. However, once St Paul’s Cathedral was revealed in all its Baroque glory, the crowds were encouraged to visit and to admire.

From the very moment that the dome was completed, visitors could pay a fee to climb up. The German bibliophile Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, arriving in the summer of 1710, found that previous visitors had already continued the practice of inscribing their names that had been such a feature of the steeple of the medieval cathedral.

He noted in his diary: “Right at the top of the tower we found countless names written in chalk or scratched on stone, so we had ours done also by our man.” Once back on the ground floor of the cathedral, he was thrilled by the magnificence of Wren’s work, but noted, “It is easier to make it out from the drawings and engravings that we bought than to describe it in words.”

Where exactly von Uffenbach obtained his prints and drawings is not recorded. There was a range for him to choose from, but their authenticity was often in doubt. Printmakers were thwarted by the fact that Wren was altering details as he proceeded with the building of the cathedral, and especially the form of the dome.

Thus, when in 1682 William Morgan produced a wall map of “London &c. Actually Survey’d”, he was obliged to apologise for his inaccurate representation of St Paul’s: “For so much as is built is taken from the work itself: the rest is added according to the best information we could get, hoping it may not be very unlike when finished.”

Recognising the demand for images, Wren in 1698 decided to produce his own, applying to William III for a licence, and obtaining the exclusive right of printing and publishing for 15 years. A proof of one of his prints is held in the Guildhall Library. It shows a section from the west to the east ends with the dome over the central crossing, with instructions to the engraver in the hand of Wren’s assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor.


THREE more approved engravings appeared in the early 18th century with the imprimatur “Ex Autographer Architecti”. These were the work of the French engraver Simon Gribelin, who had helped Wren with his drawings to work out the final details of the cathedral.

These official images, however, did not prevent other prints being produced. At the beginning of 1703, Thomas Bowles advertised for sale three engravings by William Emmet, with the claim that they had been “examined and revised by some of the best Architectors, and approved by other Ingenious Persons”.

His economy with the truth is shown by the fact that his “South Prospect” was a reversed copy of the authorised “North Prospect”. Custom nevertheless was good, for Emmet went on to produce more images under his own name. The commissioners of St Paul’s also officially engaged Robert Trevitt to produce five prints that showed the architecture, and one of the ceremonial thanksgiving following the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at Ramillies in 1706.

These various prints were offered for sale in shops in the churchyard, and in particular in the Great Picture Shop of Thomas Bowles, situated next door to the chapter house. This establishment may well have been the shop satirised in Ned Ward’s London Spy.

It was the dome of St Paul’s that proved the popular experience, with visitors climbing up to the Whispering Gallery to enjoy the acoustic effect, and on up to see the golden orb and cross. A young lawyer, Dudley Ryder, managed to gain entry to view the series of paintings of the life of St Paul within the dome, being executed by the artist James Thornhill.

As he noted in his diary, he visited St Paul’s on 28 August 1716, “to view the City from the top of it. It was a fine sight, but I had a great curiosity to see the inside of the scaffolding of the Dome.” The key-holder told him nobody ever went up there because Thornhill would not allow it, but nevertheless showed him the door.

A servant let him in, and he explained: “I had a great curiosity to see so extraordinary a piece of painting as that of the Dome of St Paul’s, and begged the favour of being allowed the liberty which he did not usually allow to anybody, because if it was people would come in so great crowds that they would interrupt him in his study and painting.”

Thornhill relented, thinking him an expert, and explained how the architecture was finished, and only the gilding and enriching still to be done. Ryder goes into detail in his diary about the paintings and columns, and explains that he had managed to be evasive about his expertise, giving the servant a shilling for letting him in.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, from Oberramstadt, near Darmstadt in Hanover, paid two visits to England, in 1770 and in 1774-75. His letters provide a vivid picture of London life of the time. In one, to his professor at Göttingen University, he declared:

“At seven o’clock on the morning of 6 October [1774] I climbed to the summit of St Paul’s Church and drank your health and that of your dearest wife. With my glass in my hand I called out the names of all my friends which occurred to me, on the pinnacle of the second place of worship in the world, above a dome 420 feet in circumference and raised 350 feet higher than the tallest house in immeasurable London, below me the Thames with its three bridges, of which the highest cost two million thalers, ships, human beings, coaches, and countless houses.”


This is an edited extract from In the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral: The churchyard that shaped London by Margaret Willes, published by Yale University Press at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50); 978-0-30024-983-5 (Books, 14 April).

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