John Stow’s Survey of London

In 1598 a very old man decided to write a history of his changing city, a snapshot of a city that was going through enormous transformation, and he wanted to capture the city he knew as a younger man for posterity.  The man was called John Stow, and the city was London, and the Survey that he wrote provides historians with much of what they know about life in the late 15th century.

John Stow himself was born about 1525 in Cornhill in the City of London and was a tailor by trade, though he began writing about history in 1561.  He saw the task of capturing a changing England almost as a mission:  “I, seeing the confuse order of our late English Chronicles and the ignorant handling of ancient affairs, leaving mine own peculiar gains, consecrated myself to the search of our famous antiquities.”

At the beginning of the 16th century London was a small city of about 50,000 people, though throughout that century it would transition into a modern and diverse city.  It had quadrupled by the end of the century.  The city was much more cosmopolitan than we imagine, with a population of black people large enough to be considered “too many” by some.  In one parish alone, “St. Botolph’s outside Aldgate,” there are French and Dutch immigrants, a Persian, several Indian, and one “East Indian” (Bengal).  And in this small parish, by the latter part of the 16th century, there are 25 black people, mostly servants.

Stow, born before there was any Church of England, when the English church followed the Pope’s rulings, and when King Henry was still the Defender of the Faith, saw a huge amount of change in his long life.  He saw his city turn from a medieval backwater town in Europe that was still reeling from the dynastic Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, to becoming a major city with a navy that defeated the mighty Spanish Armada.  

And he chronicles his city in such detail that we can picture it completely.  The entirety of the 1603 edition is freely available online, and in reading it we get a complete biography of London starting with an overview of the city, then the geography including the rivers (he laments that one creek – Walbrook – is now covered over by streets and its path runs underground so no one really is aware of it any longer).  He also adds in his own personal commentary.  In the same chapter on the creeks and rivers of London, he has a section entitled:  Fleete dike promised to be clensed; the money collected, and the Citizens deceiued in which he talks about an event in 1589 when the Council allotted a thousand marks to be collected and draw upon the springs from the Hampstead Heath to bring fresh water to “all places of want.”  But the money was spent and apparently the experiment failed, and now things were worse than ever before.

Before discussing each of the wards, Stow gives background information on customs and pastimes of Londoners.  We learn that the chief activities are plays, ball play, cock fighting, shooting, leaping, dancing, wrestling, fighting of boars, baiting bears and bulls, and “exercises of warlike feats on horseback with disarmed lances.”  We learn that after dinner all youths go into the fields to play ball, even scholars of each school.  The old and wealthy men of the city come out to watch the young men playing, and every Friday in Lent a fresh company of young men comes into the field on horseback and the best horseman conducts the rest.   Then the Citizen’s sons, and other young men march with disarmed lances and the practice feats of war.  He then describes what the activity looks like, and how you win or lose.  It’s so clear that I can clearly imagine Finsbury Fields bright and bustling with these games.

Stow then goes through each ward and the suburbs, including Southwark and Westminster, discussing the notable homes in each, who lived where, the history of who had owned the homes, and what the streets were like.  He talks about the gallery of Whitehall, the tennis courts, and parks.  Each ward is thoroughly dissected, its history, customs and activities discussed.

But there is often the air of, “I’m an old man and my city is changing and I don’t always like it” with him.  In the early section on rivers and brooks, he laments how in the past there were so many fresh brooks and waters in the suburbs, which are now decayed.

If you live in London, or you love London, you should really read this book to get a picture of the vibrancy of the city almost five hundred years ago.   You can read it here: