Blackfriars, City of London

A historic religious and theatrical site located at the eastern end of Victoria Embankment, now dominated by a railway terminus and gyratory traffic system

Xmas 2014 - Unilever Blackfriars

The Black Fri­ars (or Domini­cans) were so called because they wore long black man­tles over their white robes. In 1224 the fri­ars estab­lished a pri­o­ry on the east side of Shoe Lane and then moved across the Riv­er Fleet to what is now the east side of New Bridge Street in 1278. The Domini­can order found­ed more than 50 pri­or­ies but this was prob­a­bly the most impor­tant and it was a venue for ear­ly par­lia­men­tary con­claves.

The order in Eng­land was dis­solved by Hen­ry VIII in 1538. Unlike some oth­er reli­gious build­ings, the pri­o­ry did not sur­vive to serve a dif­fer­ent pur­pose. It had been reduced to a pile of rub­ble when the actor James Burbage acquired much of the site to build the Black­fri­ars The­atre in 1596. William Shake­speare was involved in the enter­prise and in March 1613 he paid £140 for a prop­er­ty near­by, in what is now Ire­land Yard. The build­ing was the for­mer pri­o­ry gate­house, to which he made improve­ments, accord­ing to a legal doc­u­ment of 1615. How­ev­er, by that date he seems to have been spend­ing much of his time back in Strat­ford, where he died the fol­low­ing year.

The Black­fri­ars The­atre closed in the Civ­il War and was demol­ished in 1655. Play­house Yard marks its site.

Black­fri­ars Bridge was built in 1769, using funds gen­er­at­ed from rents on the hous­es and shops of Lon­don Bridge. Struc­tur­al prob­lems caused by water scour­ing neces­si­tat­ed its replace­ment exact­ly a cen­tu­ry lat­er.

Blackfriars station seen in June 2017

In 1864 the Lon­don, Chatham and Dover Rail­way Com­pa­ny opened Black­fri­ars sta­tion on Ludgate Hill. The sta­tion moved to its present site by the riv­er in 1886. Sub­se­quent exten­sions and alter­ations pro­gres­sive­ly com­pound­ed its sta­tus as the ugli­est rail­way ter­mi­nus in Lon­don until its ren­o­va­tion in 2009-12, which intro­duced main­line plat­forms that stretch the full width of the Thames, an impos­ing, glass-front­ed tick­et hall at the cor­ner of Queen Vic­to­ria Street and New Bridge Street and an addi­tion­al entrance on the south side of the riv­er.

Shwon in the pho­to­graph at the top of this arti­cle, Unilever House was built in 1930–2 on the site of DeKey­ser’s Roy­al Hotel (1874), which had been tak­en over by Lever Broth­ers in 1921. Unilever is con­tin­u­ing to use the build­ing as its British base although the com­pa­ny decid­ed in March 2018 to sim­pli­fy its struc­ture into a sin­gle legal enti­ty incor­po­rat­ed in the Nether­lands and head­quar­tered in Rot­ter­dam.

Inside the Black­fri­ar

Across Queen Vic­to­ria Street from the sta­tion, the Black­fri­ar (or Black Fri­ar) is the finest Arts and Crafts pub in Lon­don. It began its exis­tence in 1875 as a fair­ly ordi­nary estab­lish­ment, dis­tin­guished only by its wedge shape, but was remod­elled in sev­er­al stages dur­ing the ear­ly years of the 20th cen­tu­ry by the archi­tect Her­bert Fuller-Clark and a group of artist-crafts­men, of whom the most sig­nif­i­cant was the sculp­tor Hen­ry Poole.

There are delight­ful dec­o­ra­tive touch­es out­side the pub but it’s the inte­ri­or that tru­ly astounds, with monk­ish motifs, mosaics and cop­per reliefs abound­ing amidst the mir­rors and mul­ti-coloured mar­ble.

East of Black­fri­ars sta­tion a bombed-out ware­house was con­vert­ed into the Mer­maid The­atre in the late 1950s but has pri­mar­i­ly been used as a con­fer­ence and events venue in recent years.

Hidden London: The Vase, June 2018

South of the riv­er, One Black­fri­ars (detail shown above) is a 50-storey mixed-use devel­op­ment also known as the Vase. Its shape was appar­ent­ly inspired by the (much more bul­bous) Lanset­ti II vase cre­at­ed by Timo Sarpane­va, now in New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, as well as by the sculp­tures of Con­stan­tin Brân­cuși and Hen­ry Moore. The site was for­mer­ly occu­pied by the head­quar­ters of Sains­bury’s, which relo­cat­ed to Hol­born Cir­cus in 2000.

Early on 18 June 1982 the body of Italian financier Roberto Calvi was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge, his pockets stuffed with bricks and stones. Calvi, dubbed ‘God’s banker’ because of his ties to the Vatican’s bank, IOR, had been seeking help for his failing Banco Ambrosiano after escaping house arrest in Rome. Italian prosecutors charged five individuals with Calvi’s murder in 2005. All were subsequently acquitted.

Postal district: EC4
Station: Southeastern, Thameslink, Circle and District lines (zone 1)
Riverboat pier: Blackfriars Millennium