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The skulls over the gate of St Olave's Hart Street.


By Richard Jones

St Olave's, Hart Street possesses one of the most macabre entrances in the City of London; nay, it possesses one of the most macabre entrances in the whole of England. If you can show me one to equal it in the macabre stakes, I's love to see it!

The arched gate dates from 1658 - at least that is the year emblazoned upon it - and it is adorned with three skulls, the hollow eyes of which look outwards, watching the comings and goings of the City folk who pass back and forth beneath them, many of them blissfully oblivious to the gruesome trio that gaze down upon them, fixing them with their deathly stares.

If, perchance, they do happen to glance upward, passersby will also notice two crossed-bones nestling at the centre of the trio; raising their gaze a little higher, they will also observe several ferocious spikes protruding from the curved top of the arch above the skulls.

These were, reputedly, added in the early 19th century to prevent the bodysnatchers from getting into the churchyard and exhuming the remains of the newly dead who had been laid to rest in the churchyard beyond.

The whole thing is chilling but, nonetheless, fascinating, in a gruesome sort of way.

The gate of St Olave's showing the skulls and the spikes.


One person who, most certainly, did take notice of the glorious memento mori that surmount the gate was Charles Dickens who makes mention of them in an essay entitled The City of The Absent in The Uncommercial Traveller.

This is what he wrote about the churchyard:-

"One of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim; touching what men in general call it, I have no information.

It lies at the heart of the City, and the Blackwall Railway shrieks at it daily.

It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device.

Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears.

Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me in Saint Ghastly Grim, and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight.

"Why not?" I said, in self-excuse. "I have been to see the Colosseum by the light of the moon; is it worse to go to see Saint Ghastly Grim by the light of the lightning?"

I repaired to the Saint in a hackney cab, and found the skulls most effective, having the air of a public execution, and seeming, as the lightning flashed, to wink and grin with the pain of the spikes.

Having no other person to whom to impart my satisfaction, I communicated it to the driver. So far from being responsive, he surveyed me - he was naturally a bottled-nosed, red-faced man - with a blanched countenance.

And as he drove me back, he ever and again glanced in over his shoulder through the little front window of his carriage, as mistrusting that I was a fare originally from a grave in the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim, who might have flitted home again without paying."