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City of Westminster

Source: New Picture of London, Printed for Samuel Leigh, 18, Strand; by W. Clowes, Northumberland Court. 1819

The city and liberties of WESTMINSTER constitute an important portion of the metropolis. That which was once called Thorney, (because, according to Stowe, " it was a place overgrown with thorns and environed with waters,") is now the seat of government; the residence of royalty, nobility, and gentry, and the centre of fashion. But in our times it is so united with London, that in appearance they form one city, and in ordinary speech they are mentioned only as one: for many ages it was a place entirely distinct from London, and the distance between them was considerable. The Strand was the road which formed the communication between the two towns, and Westminster was then open on either side to the Thames and the fields. It appears that in 1385 this road was paved as far as the Savoy; and many years after, Sir Robert Cecil, having built a house at Ivy Bridge, caused the pavement to be extended thither, and many of the houses of the nobility were erected in the Strand. That there was a bridge ever the Thames at Westminster in 994 is certain; but it is doubtful whether there was one before that period. Edward the Confessor founded a royal palace here, which was considerably improved with the addition of famed Westminster hall; but details respecting these buildings will be found under the heads set apart for descriptions of them. The existence of Westminster is derived from the foundation of the Abbey. In 1257, Henry III. granted to the abbot and convent of Westminster a market and fair, and hence maybe traced the origin of "the city and liberties" of Westminster. In 1352 Westminster was, by act of parliament, constituted one of the ten towns in England where the staple or market for wool, &c., should be perpetually held. At the general suppression of religious houses by Henry VIII., Westminster was converted into a bishopric, with a dean and twelve prebendaries; but the only bishop was Thomas Thirlby. It was suppressed in 1550, on his translation to Norwich; and Westminster retains the title of city by courtesy. Before it became a city, it had many years been the seat of the royal palace, the high court of parliament, and of our law tribunals; most of our sovereigns were crowned and have their sepulchres in the abbey. The ancient palace having been almost destroyed by fire, Henry VIII. had here his palace of Whitehall, which he purchased of Cardinal Wolsey. From this period, Henry VIII. having built St. James's palace, a tennis-court and cock-pit, and formed the park and places for bowling, the buildings in Westminster began to extend in all directions.

It derived great benefit from the mode of NEW PAVING the metropolis, which commenced about 1763. Parliament street, Charing cross, Cockspur street, and Pall mall had then good Edinburgh-stones laid down for the carriage ways, with purbeck pavements and moorstone curbs: St. James's street, and various others in the vicinity were also new paved about the same period; and this improvement was soon progressively extended through most parts of the metropolis. Before this the streets were extremely inconvenient to passengers; the stones, mostly Guernsey pebbles, being round or nubbly, the kennels in the middle of the streets, and no level footway, as at present, for pedestrians. Although this change commenced only about half a century back, there is now scarcely to be found, even in the humblest neighbourhoods, a street paved after the old and unpleasant fashion.

The extravagant use of enormous SIGNS had also become a great evil. They hung across the streets, or over the footways, and, together with their posts and iron scroll-works, impeded the circulation of the air as well as the progress of the passenger. Early in the last century, the inhabitant traders are described as having large and grotesque signs; they were gilded and carved in a style at once fine and absurd :—golden periwigs, gilt hair, half-moons, razors, blacks' heads with gilt hair, gold sugar-loaves, and golden Westphalian hams were repeated without mercy, from the Borough to Clerkenwell, and from Whitechapel to the Haymarket in Westminster: they were entirely removed with those improvements which commenced about the beginning of the present reign.

The CITY of Westminster is comprised in the two parishes of St. Margaret and St. John, which are now united; and the LIBERTIES consist of seven parishes,—St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, St. James's, St. Ann's, St. Clement Danes, St. Mary-le-Strand, St. George's, Hanover square, and St. Paul's, Covent garden, with the precinct of the Savoy.

ST. MARTIN'S-LE-GRAND, which is situated within the limits of the city of London, is a portion of the liberties of Westminster. Anciently it was a site of a college, consisting of a dean and priests; and Henry VII. conveyed to the abbot of the abbey church of Westminster, the advowson of the deanery, &c., of St. Martin's-le-Grand. In the thirty-second year of Henry VIII., that monarch granted it to the new see of Westminster, and two years afterwards to the dean and chapter. When Edward VI. dissolved the bishopric of Westminster, he conveyed St. Martin's-le-Grand, with the jurisdiction, to the bishop of London; but an act of parliament restored it to the dean and chapter, as the abbot and convent had enjoyed it, who are now in full possession of it. The church was taken down soon after the year 1548, and the place covered with buildings. Some curious remains of vaults belonging to the ancient college or monastery, were discovered in the progress of the excavations made for the building of the new post-office. The inhabitant-householders, strange as it may seem, have the right of voting for the members of Westminster; and the attempt to deprive them, at the recent general election, of this privilege, under the authority of acts of parliament, for building the new post-office, was over-ruled.

Westminster returns two members to parliament, and the election takes place in Covent-garden market, in front of St. Paul's church.

Its GOVERNMENT, until the reformation, was arbitrary, under the abbot and monks. It was afterwards under that of the bishop and the dean and chapter: it was next settled by 27 Elizabeth, 1585, fixing the civil government in the hands of the laity, though the dean is empowered to nominate the chief officers. The authority extends to the precinct of St. Martin's-le-Grand, and to some towns of Essex, which are exempted from the jurisdiction of the bishop of London and the archbishop of Canterbury.

The principal magistrate is the high steward, who is usually a nobleman. It is at present filled by Lord Sidmouth, the secretary of state for the home department. This officer is chosen by the dean and chapter. His post is similar to that of chancellor of an university, and is generally held for life. On his death, or resignation, a chapter is called for the election of another, in which the dean sits as high steward till the election is concluded.

The next great officer is the high bailiff, who is chosen by the high steward, but, notwithstanding such choice, a considerable sum is required to be paid for the place. He also holds his office for life, and has the chief management of the election of members of parliament for Westminster; and all the other bailiffs are subordinate to him. He summons juries, and in the court-leets sits next to the deputy-steward. To him all fines and forfeitures belong, which render the situation very profitable.

There are, also, sixteen burgesses and their assistants whose functions in all respects resemble those of the aldermen's deputies of the city of London, each having his proper ward under his jurisdiction: and from these are elected two head burgesses; one for the city, and the other for the liberties, who is the court leet rank next to the head bailiff. There is also a high constable, who is chosen by the court leet, and has all the other constables under his direction.

The government of Westminster has but a slight resemblance to that of a great and opulent city. It is much more like that of a country borough. Its parliamentary representatives, however, are chosen by the householders; and this extensive enjoyment of the elective franchise, together with the circumstance of Westminster being the seat of the court, rendered for many years the elections for this city events memorable, chiefly on account of disgraceful riots, in which life itself was set at no value. But such terrific scenes are now more rare. This city has no power of making freemen, It has no trading companies, and no courts except those of the leet, the sessions, and a court of requests lately erected; but it will be recollected that in reality Westminster is no longer a " city."

Besides the above officers, there are in Westminster fifty-two inquest men, twelve surveyors of the highways, fifty-five constables, thirty-one beadles, two hundred and thirty-six watchmen, and eighty scavengers.

Source: Leigh's New Picture of London. Printed for Samuel Leigh, 18, Strand;
by W. Clowes, Northumberland Court. 1819