A New Quill For Old John Stow
Let me confess, I am a biro writer. I get through so many pens at such a rate that there really is no alternative. Yet in the case of my illustrious predecessor, John Stow, one the earliest historians of London, a quill is his preferred writing instrument and, every five years, a replacement is delivered upon a satin cushion to his monument in St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London.
This week it was time was for a new quill, so Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined the excited crowds to witness the Lord Mayor of London put it into the hand of John Stow at a ceremony honouring the work of this celebrated antiquarian.
John Stow was a tailor born in 1525, who struggled to keep himself while writing, yet successfully undertook his epic Survey of London between 1560 and 1598, describing the streets, buildings, history, culture and people of his City. In Stow’s lifetime the population of the London quadrupled, going from 50,000 to 200,000, and he saw the churches ransacked of their medieval monuments and brasses with the names of the dead erased. As a parishioner of St Andrew Undershaft, he witnessed the great maypole taller than the tower – and from which the church takes its name – torn down and discarded as an idol.
In the Survey of London, John Stow recorded more than fifteen hundred names of Londoners who would otherwise have been condemned to oblivion, rescuing their identities in perpetuity while omitting the names of those did the damage, that they might be forgotten. Through his writing, Stow sought to preserve the memory of the world that he saw passing away and, in doing so, he created the most complete record we have of medieval and renaissance London.
John Stow’s monument was placed upon the wall in the corner of the church by his widow after his death in 1605, just six years after the publication of the great Survey by which we remember him and, thankfully, his memorial has avoided the fate of the medieval brasses and tombs which caused Stow such grief in his lifetime.
Thus, today and for eternity, John Stow sits snug in his marble cubicle in a quiet corner of St Andrew Undershaft, lost in thought, with a large book open in front of him on his desk and two other small volumes conveniently placed upon brackets on either side, for ease of reference. Old Stow writes in silence and no-one knows what he is working on. But now he has a new quill to keep him going for another few years and, after four centuries, we hope that he might complete another volume of his Survey one day – because the pace of change has not abated in London.
John Stow (1525-1605)
St Andrew Undershaft
Verger, Tom Wright, carries the quill
Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf, with the Master of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, John Price, and Vicar of St Andrew Undershaft, William Taylor
St Andrew Undershaft takes its name from a great maypole that once stood here, taller than the tower
John Stow with his new quill
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien