The greatest wonder of the internet is how it has brought long-lost books back to life. Far from displacing the printed word, the web in fact makes more of it accessible. Old St Paul’s Cathedral by Canon William Denham is one long-lost wonder which anyone can find and enjoy via the Gutenberg Project.
The frontispiece of the book is a lovely illustration of Old St Paul’s, complete with spire, with Three Cranes Wharf in the foreground.
Old St Paul’s stood for nearly 600 years (1087 – 1666) and was the most famous victim of the Great Fire of London. It was falling into disrepair in the decades before the fire and it is a little-known fact that Sir Christopher Wren had been commissioned to supervise renovations before the fire. the wooden scaffolding built to facilitate repairs helped seal the Cathedral’s fate.
The spire was destroyed by lightning in 1561, which is why illustrations of the Great Fire show St Paul’s in its rather truncated form.
Denham’s book in its physical form is well worth seeking out. The original was an outsized hardback with dozens of illustrations by Wenceslaus Hollar, who surveyed St Paul’s in 1658. Packed with long-lost detail, the book lifts the lid on the life of what, along with the Crystal Palace and Ranelagh Gardens is one London’s greatest lost buildings. Here’s one snippet:
At one of these Whitsun festivals (it was in 1327) another procession was held, no doubt to the delight of many spectators. A roguish baker had a hole made in his table with a door to it, which could be opened and shut at pleasure. When his customers brought dough to be baked he had a confederate under the table who craftily withdrew great pieces. He and some other roguish bakers were tried at the Guildhall, and ordered to be set in the pillory, in Cheapside, with lumps of dough round their necks, and there to remain till vespers at St. Paul’s were ended.