SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: In the week of Croydon’s first Mayoral elections, DAVID MORGAN has delved into the Minster archives to find records of the Lord Mayor of London buried there nearly 350 years ago
High office, and where someone was buried, was very much a matter of “who you know…” in the 17th Century during the reign of Charles II.
Sir Joseph Sheldon is the only Lord Mayor of London to have been buried in Croydon Minster, where he was laid to rest because he happened to be the nephew of an Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, whose own Croydon tomb still attracts much interest today.
Sir Joseph had his year as Lord Mayor in 1675-1676, and had an official portrait painted by the Dutch artist Gerard Soest in 1677. Sir Joseph’s tomb was among the many destroyed in the 1867 fire and was never reconstructed.
Soest’s portrait was completed just four years before Sheldon’s death, at the age of 51, in 1681. Hanging in the hall of the Worshipful Company of Drapers, one commentator described the painting as making Sheldon look “fleshy-faced, smooth and courteous”. Certainly, his features look assured and privileged, as he stares out from the canvas wearing his livery robes and chains of office.
Sheldon’s life was punctuated by hugely significant and traumatic events.
He was 19 when King Charles I was executed. One of Sheldon’s treasured possessions, “his picture of King Charles the First hanging in my withdrawing room” was bequeathed to his sister Ellen in his will.
Sheldon, from a Royalist family, lived through Cromwell’s Commonwealth and must have been greatly relieved to have Charles II restored to the throne in 1660.
Sheldon also lived in London at the time of the plague and the Great Fire of 1666.
Another Londoner, Samuel Pepys, the great diarist, provided information about Sheldon and those in positions of power in the capital.
When the Great Fire broke out in Pudding Lane it was to the Lord Mayor that people looked for help, and leadership. But, to use a modern phrase, the guy was about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
Pepys described Thomas Bloodworth, the Lord Mayor in 1666, thus: “People do all the world over cry out at the simplicity of My Lord Mayor in general; and more particularly in this business of the fire, laying it all on him.”
Previously, Pepys had described Bloodworth, “I find him a mean man of understanding and despatch of any business.”
However, just at the time that the flames of the Great Fire were being extinguished, Bloodworth appointed Sheldon as Alderman for Bishopsgate ward and gave him the status of Sheriff. Bloodworth’s term of office came to an end in October 1666, the same month that a knighthood was conferred upon Sheldon. Sir Joseph’s star was definitely in the ascendancy.
Sheldon was initially a member the Tallow Chandler Livery Company – the candle makers. Prior to him translating to the Drapers Company, Sheldon had presented a barge, grandly decorated and sumptuously adorned to the Chandlers, and generously agreed to pay for the wainscotting of the Chandlers’ Hall Parlour in December 1672.
Lining a wall with wooden panelling was an expensive undertaking and another member of the company, William Symes, a joiner by trade, agreed to carry out the task at “11 shillings a yard run”.
These benefactions were made in anticipation that Sheldon would receive the nomination for Lord Mayor.
He moved to the Drapers’ Company in 1675 and spent much of his later career dealing in cloth, very successfully. Some 29 years after he began as an apprentice in 1647 to Roger Price the Younger, a Liveryman and Alderman of Walbrook ward, Sheldon became Master of the Drapers’ Company and Lord Mayor.
He was one of the most influential people in the capital. He moved in the most elite circles and was a prominent supporter of the new king. He lived in a Christopher Wren-designed house, close to St Paul’s Cathedral, with the Drapers, Company paying for redecorations that cost £60 – close to £5,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation.
Sheldon was one of the Lord Mayors who supported the project to create a permanent memorial to the Great Fire of London. The Monument, the London landmark we know today on Pudding Lane, designed by Wren, carries Sheldon’s name on the east side tablet among a list of Lord Mayors who saw the project through to its conclusion, beginning in 1671 and finishing in 1678.
Just as is the case today, back in the 17th Century it was the custom to have a lavish pageant to celebrate the appointment of a new Lord Mayor – the Lord Mayor’s Show. Sheldon’s inauguration was entitled “The Triumphs of London”.
The first part was Triumph speaking whilst seated on an imperial throne. The second revealed a chariot in which the goddess Minerva was seated to complete her lines. The third was a mountain, royally adorned, with princely shepherds, with Pan giving a speech. The final part was a forest “properly accommodated with herbage, trees, bushes, birds and flowers and filled with several sorts of common Cotswold Shepherds and Salisbury Plain shepherdesses in their frolics”. This section was concluded with a specially written song sung by the whole company.
Many details about Sheldon’s life are revealed in his will. He bequeathed £100 to the White Regiment of the Artillery Company of London, of which he was the Colonel, to help “build a new armoury”. His kinsman Thomas Smythe was left £10 to buy a mourning ring and he was to receive the two maps which hung in the gallery at Sheldon’s home.
To his sister Katherine, he left “the best suite hanging in my wardrobe” and for her husband, The Bishop of Rochester, three paintings of clergymen.
The will shows just how wealthy Sheldon had become. Margaret, his second wife, daughters Elizabeth and Ann and his brother Daniel were left significant sums of money and property. The £5,000 left to Ann would be worth almost £600,000 today. His brother Daniel, of Ham, in Surrey, was the main executor.
One property which he owned, named The Drum, in Drury Lane was left to the Governors of St Bartholomew’s “for the benefit of the hospital”.
A more modest acknowledgement to others less fortunate than himself was the bequest of “Twenty pounds of lawful English money to the Churchwardens of St Gregory in London for the relief of the poor”.
Nowhere in his will did he direct that he should be buried in Croydon, next to his uncle. Was it a family decision after his death? The local parish of St Gregory had lost their church building, standing right next to the old St Paul’s Cathedral, in the Great Fire. Surely, a deceased Lord Mayor of London could have been buried in any of the grand city churches? Family ties proved decisive though, so Sir Joseph was buried in Croydon. Indeed, both the Archbishop’s brothers Daniel and Roger together with one of Daniel’s daughters, Judith, were interred here too.
With his portrait still hanging in the Drapers’ Hall and his name on the side of The Monument, Sir Joseph’s name lives on today. And in case you have a nagging feeling you have come across the name Sheldon in another context, there’s a square outside Paddington Station called Sheldon Square, named after him. In 1678, he had rebuilt St Mary’s church on Paddington Green, though this has long been demolished.
Was he a good Lord Mayor? He wasn’t a bad one and he helped many people in his lifetime because of his gifts. If Croydon’s new Mayor is eventually memorialised as fondly and grandly as Sheldon was in his time, then they will have done fine service to their town, as he did to his city.
Previously by David Morgan:
- Restoration royal connections of Minster’s marble mausoleum
- Victorian doctor’s Australian journey that ended tragically
- Barrister and benefactor who helped educate thousands
- How Clara Russell was the Parish Church’s musical pioneer
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
- To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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We can’t have Sheldon for Croydon Mayor – shame David Morgan isn’t on the ballot paper 🙂