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Hidden London: The Panyer Boy in Panyer Alley

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

London is the type of city where you find the most unusual objects in the strangest places. This is most certainly the case with The Panyer Boy in Panyer Alley.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Next to St Paul’s underground station and on the wall next to a Caffe Nero coffee shop is a stone plaque of a boy sitting on a basket with written underneath ‘When you have sought the city round, Yet still this is the highest ground. August 27, 1688.’

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The plaque has been the source of mystery for centuries and has been moved to various locations in Panyer Alley as buildings have been pulled down and replaced.

Panyer Alley is located near St Paul’s Cathedral and was first mentioned in the 15th century. One of London’s early historians, John Stow in his Survey of London published in 1598 mentions the location.

At the west end of this parish church is a small passage for people on foot through the same church; and west from the said church, some distance, is another passage out of Pater Noster row, and is called, of such a sign, Panyar alley, which cometh out into the north over against St. Martin’s lane.

We do not what sign that Stow is alluding too but other sources suggest that Panyer Alley got its name from a dwelling house with outbuildings and land called the “Panyer,” or” the Panyer on the hoope”. Some have suggested this might be an Inn or tavern.

We do know that Samuel Pepys frequented the Alley in 1666 when he was looking for some stationary services.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

13th April 1666

Thence called upon an old woman in Pannier Ally to agree for ruling of some paper for me and she will do it pretty cheap.

Monday 16 April 1666

Then I left them to come to me at supper anon, and myself out by coach to the old woman in Pannier Alley for my ruled papers, and they are done.

This was before the Great Fire of London in September 1666 which destroyed St Paul’s and large parts of the City of London. It is possible that in the rebuilding work after the fire that the plaque was attached to a new building with the boast of this being the highest spot.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

John Strype updating Stow’s Survey of London in 1720 noticed something new in Panyer Alley.

When you have sought the City round,
Yet still this is the highest Ground.
August 26. 1688.

This is writ upon a Stone raised, about the middle of this Panier Alley; having the Figure of a Panier, with a Boy sitting upon it, with a Bunch of Grapes, as it seems to be, held between his naked Foot and Hand: in token, perhaps, of Plenty.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

This is one of the first mention of the Panyer Boy and provides some idea of its location. The mystery of Panyer Boy has led to a number of theories. Many people have made the connection with the name of the alley and the basket the boy seems to be sitting on. Pannier derives from the Old French panier, meaning ‘bread basket’.

Stow mentions that nearby Bread Street has long been associated with bakers.

Then is Bread street itself, so called of bread in old time there sold; for it appeareth by records, that in the year 1302, which was the 30th of Edward I., the bakers of London were bound to sell no bread in their shops or houses, but in the market, and that they should have four hallmotes in the year, at four several terms, to determine of enormities belonging to the said company. (John Stow, Survey of London).

A newspaper report of 1893 mentions that some people had their eye on the Panyer Boy.

A wealthy American is said to have offered a workman £50 to procure for him the Panyer Stone in Panyer Alley, Newgate-street, which for two centuries has marked the highest point of the City of London. The workman, who was engaged in pulling down the old warehouse in which the stone is fixed, informed the city authorities, and now a guard is placed upon the relic.

The real mystery is how the plaque has survived over 330 years of political turmoil, bombing and buildings being pulled down and redeveloped. It has certainly led a charmed life and although ignored by thousands as they pass by, for some Londoners it is part of the fascination of the capital.

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