Panyer Boy

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Simple stone, complex theorising

The Panyer Boy, Panyer Alley, St Paul’s

The Pany­er Boy

Every informed source agrees that the bas-relief mount­ed on a wall in Pany­er Alley is a cher­ished heir­loom of the City of Lon­don. But there the con­cord ceas­es. The scale and scope of the dis­putes regard­ing the prove­nance and chronol­o­gy of this sim­ple stone tablet bear wit­ness to the fog of uncer­tain­ty enshroud­ing much of London’s his­to­ry before the bet­ter-doc­u­ment­ed 18th cen­tu­ry.

First, why is Pany­er Alley so called? Writ­ing in the late 16th cen­tu­ry, John Stow claimed that it took its name from a sign depict­ing a baker’s boy sit­ting on his bread bas­ket. Was this the same effi­gy that exists today or an ear­li­er ver­sion of it? Either way, oth­ers have been sure that the alley was named after The Pany­er, an inn that stood around the cor­ner in Pater­nos­ter Row. Its last incar­na­tion is said to have burned down in the Great Fire of Lon­don in 1666.

Was the present-day Pany­er Boy cre­at­ed as a sign for that tav­ern? Per­haps, if the sculp­ture pre-dates the inscrip­tion beneath it. Was it intend­ed as “an emblem of plen­ty”, as some have pro­posed? Was this the site of an ear­ly medieval corn mar­ket or did the stone com­mem­o­rate the boys who once sold bread from bas­kets in this alley? John Stow thought the boy recalled the pres­ence of a bread mar­ket in near­by St Martin’s le Grand.

What does the stone depict? Most author­i­ties have been in no doubt that the boy is sit­ting on a bread pan­nier but oth­ers have sup­posed it to be a fruit bas­ket or a wool­sack, while one com­men­ta­tor felt that it “resem­bles more a coil of rope.” Some experts have pro­posed that the illus­trat­ed infant is a young Bac­chus, the god of wine and asso­ci­at­ed fun, and the sug­gest­ed link with The Pany­er may bear this out. What is he doing with his out­stretched hands? The stone is now so erod­ed that it’s impos­si­ble to tell. Old engrav­ings show more detail but still don’t resolve the mat­ter. One expla­na­tion so took the pop­u­lar fan­cy that for a while the stone was known local­ly as “the Pick-my-toe”. More seri­ous observers have claimed that the boy is either tak­ing a loaf from the bas­ket or press­ing a bunch of grapes between his hands and one foot. Is he in the process of eat­ing that “very ques­tion­able bunch of grapes”, as the not­ed Lon­don aca­d­e­m­ic John Cam­den Hot­ten moot­ed?

Has the stone ever been mount­ed at the high­est point in the City, as its inscrip­tion avers? Most experts think not, but it’s hard to be sure because cen­turies of con­struc­tion, demo­li­tion and recon­struc­tion in the City have pro­gres­sive­ly raised the height of many road­ways. With­out mechan­i­cal assis­tance it was eas­i­er in the past sim­ply to build on top of crushed rub­ble rather than remove it. Dis­cov­er­ies of Roman remains indi­cate that ground lev­els in many parts of the City were once at least ten feet low­er than they are today, and more than twen­ty feet in some places.

Mea­sure­ments tak­en in the 19th cen­tu­ry demon­strat­ed that Pany­er Alley at that time fell one foot short of being the City’s high­est point. The true acco­lade went to the site of the Stan­dard, in Corn­hill, to which London’s first ‘arti­fi­cial forcer’ brought water from the Thames in 1582, and the point from which dis­tances from Lon­don used to be mea­sured. But near­by St Peter upon Corn­hill may for­mer­ly have occu­pied London’s sum­mit, which would explain why this ancient church stands where it does.*

Whether or not the ground beneath the Pany­er Boy has moved, the stone cer­tain­ly has: it has been remount­ed – not in the same spot – each time its host build­ing has been replaced over the cen­turies. For many years it sat at ground lev­el, let into a wall between two hous­es. When one of those hous­es was pulled down in Novem­ber 1892 and rebuilt a few months lat­er, news­pa­pers report­ed that “a rich Amer­i­can” had tried to bribe one of the work­men to let him have the Pany­er Boy. The work­man alert­ed the author­i­ties and a police guard was placed on the stone until it was firm­ly re-embed­ded.

Hidden London: Panyer Boy

The Panyer Boy, Panyer Alley, mounted on the wall adjacent to Caffè Nero, near the corner of Newgate Street
Nearest station: St Paul’s (Central line)
NearbyCornhill Devils and the Golden Boy of Pye Corner
* Nowadays, the highest point in the City of London is the junction of Chancery Lane and High Holborn, right on the City’s border with the London Borough of Camden. This point is 22 metres (just over 72 feet) above sea level. This is so much higher than Cornhill’s 17.7 metres (58 feet) that Hidden London suspects it has been the highest point for a long time but wasn’t included in earlier rankings because a) it lay well outside the City walls and b) it was merely a point on a slope that rises still higher to its north-west (outside the City) – rather than a prestigious little summit.